by David Shieh
The rain began just as Bobby stepped onto the gravel drive. The clouds had hung sodden and swollen at the valley’s rim all day, so when it finally fell, it was almost a relief. The bottoms filled with the electric crackle of a spring storm. Bobby stood watching it for a moment, then turned to his boots. Five hundred acres, and the weight of it seemed to cling to the soles. He knocked off what clods he could, then stabbed a Pall Mall between his lips. Lot of good cleaning his boots would do. The John Deere 450 was stuck to its axles and the earthenwork levee around him creaked and groaned with the weight of the muddy river behind it.
They’d sat Bobby’s granddaddy at the table this morning. Two and half more feet comin’ and four inches left on the levee. Everyone’s headin’ for higher ground.
Bobby caught the conversation by accident, in for coffee, up the last two nights trying to push the levees higher. His granddaddy stared at Bobby and finally said, “You leave the 450 runnin’, Bobby? You know the cylinder’s pukin’ hydraulic and we got none to replace it. Either shut if off or keep it runnin’.”
Bobby didn’t ask granddaddy which he preferred. He didn’t bother telling him about the ruts he was leaving, or that he’d been running the dozer all morning with the rear differential locked in. Granddaddy knew. He wasn’t a fool.
Now it was done. The dozer was stuck, four feet deep, tracks slimed with river muck. Bobby lingered at the door, the boozy exhale of rain a momentary respite for the storm to come. Then he heard the mermaid call his name.
Granddaddy had her as long as Bobby could remember, snagged on a trotline run from a lightning struck sycamore on the Mississippi. Carp guts, granddaddy always said, carp guts and a week old hot dog. She was kept in a circular pool made from the white oak boards of an old silo. Bobby had helped granddaddy drill till they hit the water table. Fifteen damn feet through hardpan to find water.
She’d spoken to Bobby maybe a dozen times that he could remember, so Bobby stepped off the doorstep and walked around to the shed. There was a single window inside. What little light splashed on the slab floor was the color of ash. The mermaid was looking out the window. She had muddy brown hair and a scaled tail the dull drabness of smallmouth, only silver when the sun caught it right. Only silver when they breached. Her eyes always recalled the color of the sky. Today they were an emptied slate grey. Bobby lit another Pall Mall.
“Water’s comin’,” the mermaid whispered, a certainty, as if she could feel the rough fingers of river scrabbling at the cage of levees.
“Yeah,” Bobby said. Long drag.
She seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then said quietly, “Let me go.”
So there it was. In the open finally.
The dozen or so times they talked, it was always about granddaddy. Where he was. How he was doin’. If the corn was in, how tall it’d gotten, if they were gettin’ along alright, if granddaddy had lost that cough he had. It perplexed Bobby. If it’d been him, and he knew something about being caged himself, he’d have clawed granddaddy’s eyes out. It was the vocalization of something that festered in the pit of Bobby’s soul. Nobody was that forgiving. She might be a mermaid, but she weren’t no angel.
There ain’t a damn thing ready to go, Bobby wanted to say. The water was going to breach the levee and the gooseneck was unhitched and backed up under the pole barn, for God’s sake. There was a hundred thousand dollars of equipment just sittin’ in the shop, in the field. Like they were still gettin’ ready to harvest. Like the corn and bean weren’t about to sit underneath the Mississippi for a few months, fatten up the blue and channel cat. Sure it was everything they got saved to put it in, sure glyphosate went up, diesel went up, corn went down, they were barely goin’ to scrape even, he got that, but when you got four inches and the river’s set to rise a few feet, well Bobby was never that good at math, granddad, but Bobby wasn’t that stupid neither.
You ain’t goin’ to turn back the river with a dozer.
But here’s the kicker, Bobby almost said. Not a damn thing ready to go, granddaddy ready to let them all drown for these rotten five hundred acres, but in the back of granddaddy’s 98 Dodge Ram 4×4 there was a kid’s swimming pool, blown up and ratcheted down. Ready to carry that mermaid to higher ground.
You got to let me go, Bobby almost said.
So Bobby smiled at the mermaid. It wasn’t a mean smile, though, just a grim one. And then the sirens began. They rattled the bones of the valley with the lonely, hungry sound of a red tailed hawk. A wind picked up, slammed against the shed so that the boards groaned. Whatever Bobby would have said was lost as the back door of the house shotgunned open and granddaddy’s voice yelled, “Bobby, goddammit!”
They caught eyes as he turned to go. For a moment, he thought she understood. Her eyes weren’t the color of the sky, Bobby realized. They were the color of the river, a reflection trapped in restless, wild currents.
Granddaddy sighted Bobby ducking out of the shed, pitching the butt of the Pall Mall into the weeds. The wind pinched the ashes in its rough hands, heat gone in the snap of a finger. The rain was coming down now. Granddaddy’s flannel shirt, open at the collar, was soaked already. “The hell you talkin’ to her for?” granddaddy demanded. “Where’s the goddamn dozer?”
“Stuck,” Bobby said. “Reckon even the river ain’t going to pull her out.”
“The hell it is,” granddaddy said. “You just ain’t learned to run the damn thing.”
They stared at each other for a moment. Finally granddaddy said, “Go unhook the disc from the 4900 and we’ll pull her out.” He stepped back into the house. Bobby heard the jangle of keys, his mother’s soft voice, and then granddaddy’s boots splashed onto the gravel as he started toward the levees. The line they drew around the five hundred acres was faint, wavering indistinct in the storm. Already the chat was leaching from the road, snaking into the rain peppered fields. Bobby stood watching granddaddy for a moment. Another hard gust of wind and granddaddy vanished.
“Mom,” Bobby called as he stepped inside.
He was leaving tracks on the hardwood floor, but to hell with that now.
“Bobby,” his mom said. She sounded breathless. Bobby knew she’d been crying. The news, a constant chatter in the living room, seemed more urgent. They were evacuating Winfield. But that wasn’t it. No, she had it finally figured. Knew it the way only a woman could, with that ability to understand what was lost before it was gone. Bobby didn’t understand it. These things would make him the man he would be, but he would never know their rough hands on his soul, the holes they would leave in his heart.
But he spoke the words she never would. “We’re leavin’, mom.”
She almost said it anyway, the “no” perfectly formed on her lips, but then she looked at him, looked hard, and she might have been thirty for a moment, brown haired and reckless, looking at Bobby’s dad, proposal dying on his lips, knowing this woman had weighed every insignificant damn thing he was in less than a heartbeat and was going to forgive him all of it.
“Okay Bobby,” she said.
Bobby reached under the kitchen counter, came up with a coffee can of bills. He’d grabbed the keys to his pickup when he glanced at his mother. She’d pulled the wedding picture of her and Bobby’s dad from a drawer. Bobby had seen it maybe a half dozen times in his life. Granddaddy never let it sit out. “He’s got to know what his daddy looks like,” she’d say.
“Be better if he never knew.”
He worked in town, Bobby had always heard, behind the counter of the MFA. Knew cows better than anyone else in the county. Bobby had met him once. Granddaddy always made them drive twenty miles up 79 to Clarksville to get their supplies. An entire lifetime spent driving up and down highway 79 just so Bobby wouldn’t have to see his dad.
“He’s good for nothing,” granddaddy would say, five a.m., shook out of bed onto a highway barely brushed with dawn, the chickens out of feed, no antibiotics for the cows. “It ain’t goin’ to do you no good to be talkin’ to him. Not if you want to be somebody.”
It wasn’t anger that Bobby suddenly felt. But he looked at his mom with a half remembered smile flitting on the corner of her lips, at the picture of the father he never saw, at the house patched together with drywall mud and ten penny nails that hid punched holes and shattered windows, that swept broken bottles and bleeding knuckles out with the trash. Bobby spilled the keys onto the countertop. “Pull the truck around, mom,” Bobby said. “You grab what you need and we’ll get going. I’ll be right back.”
“Bobby?” He heard his mom call as he pushed outside.
The storm slammed into him as soon as he got the door open. It slapped the screen door against the siding with the crack of split wood. Bobby slipped off the last step of the porch, wet oak boards as slick as ice, and came down in the gravel spitting water. He shook bits of crushed stone from his palm and started for the mermaid’s shed.
He found it more by memory than sight. She looked up startled when he stepped inside, drenched, fishing in his pockets for a Pall Mall. The lighter clicked twice before he spat the wet cigarette on the floor. She watched him and her eyes were filled with storm, the raging wildness a crimson contrast to her pale cheekbones and matted hair. For a moment, Bobby forgot she could even speak.
“C’mon,” he finally said.
“Bobby,” she began, with a familiarity that made him mad. She’d known him all his life, seen him grow up. Maybe she always knew he was going to be the one that let her go.
“Don’t start.” Bobby grabbed her, a rough gesture, a bale of hay, a fifty pound bag of feed.
He’d never touched her before and for a moment he nearly dropped her. Her skin was cold, a hungry cold that lapped the heat from his hands. The sort of hungriness that struck the surface of the water and dragged what once was living into the darkest corners of the river. Her scales sliced at his fingers. She wrapped her arms around his neck to steady the both of them and said, “I’m sorry Bobby.”
“Yeah.” Bobby set his teeth and stepped into the storm.
He knew the shortest route to the levee by heart. These five hundred acres and Bobby’s boots had seen every inch. Here the disc sheared a couple bolts, here an old mulberry tree that took two days to grub out. Here where shattered bedrock from the last glacial push sat high enough you had to raise the plow.
Bobby knew this ground and hated every step.
Then his boot sank up to the ankle in water where there should have been land. Bobby knew it for what it was. The river hadn’t crested the levee. There was still dry ground before him. It had undercut it– a sand boil. The news had been talking about boils for the last few weeks, had shown the collapse of other levees up and down the Mississippi. With all the pressure on the levee, the water pushes at muskrat holes, rotten roots, anything it can find, a caged animal, until something yields. Sometimes it manages to punch a channel underneath the levee and surface behind it, retching sand and water, finally free. The levee, undercut, would be done in minutes.
The farm was going under.
Bobby pulled his foot out, found dry ground, and took another step toward the levees. Sand had filled his boot. Every sucking step felt like he was slopping through molasses. He considered dropping the mermaid. In an hour, all this ground would be underwater. But he wanted to toss her off the levee, to finish what the flood started. To finish what granddaddy never could.
He took another step and even in the tidal roar of rain, he heard the unmistakable sound of a hammer drawn back on granddaddy’s .30-30.
Granddaddy was breathing hard, mouth set, an angry welt like the river in drought. The rifle was braced against his shoulder, safety off and pointed at Bobby.
“What the hell are you doin’?” Granddaddy’s voice was knife sharp, the storm almost holding its breath to hear him speak.
“I’m lettin’ her go,” Bobby spat. He’d looked down a rifle before, when he’d crossed the windrow at the edge of their property to chase a talkative tom he’d called all morning. But if that cold rush of terror ran through his blood this time, he could not feel it.
“The hell you are boy.”
There it was again. Boy. What granddaddy had always called Bobby. Like when Bobby rolled the 4900 on a berm when he was twelve, never mind that the gear stick had stuck his abdomen and he spat blood in the hospital till they figured out it was his liver. Or when he’d dropped out his Dodge one Saturday night to take aim at a fleeing doe and punched a hole in the siding with the ricochet. This was granddaddy’s land, never mind that Bobby had sweated and bled and fought over every inch of it for all his life. It was granddaddy’s land and granddaddy’s mermaid, and he was just renting it. When he was gone, when Bobby had finally broken or the land had broken him, granddaddy would just turn over the earth and set another row of corn, another row of bean. And the land and the mermaid would forget him, forget that for twenty-two years, thirty years, forty, fifty, it had been Bobby’s hand, Bobby’s blood that had watered these crops and dragged them out of the rotten coffin of earth in the bottomlands of the Mississippi river.
Well that wasn’t happening this time.
They’d damn well better remember who it was that set them free.
Bobby turned his back and took a few more steps. He’d lost dry ground now, boots dragging in a half inch of water. It would be a long walk out, Bobby thought, and then the rifle butt struck him on the back of his head. He dropped to his knee, gritted his teeth, about to stand when the rifle butt hit him a second time. This time he fell and dropped her, silver bucking as she slipped from numb fingers.
He turned to fight, found the world spinning uncertain beneath him, and set down on a knee, panting. The storm receded in his vision until all Bobby could hear was his ragged breathing and his heart trying to tear its way through his rib cage. “I’m going to fight you every damn step of the way, granddad, so you best do what needs done.”
Even Bobby was surprised at the vehemence in those words. He hadn’t walked out to the river to die, but here it was spoken. The tattered shadow of the levee just a fistful of yards from them, and he had trapped them both. Bobby stood now.
Granddaddy had gotten old. Bobby could see a tremble in the rifle where once the aim was sure, could hear breathing, a sandpaper rasp. He could see where one leg had dragged, pant leg stained to the knee with mud. Granddaddy had gotten old and Bobby had never noticed, never once doubted those hands as they tore apart an engine, as they hooked a chain to a high centered truck, as they milled the oak logs that built their home. As uncertain as granddaddy’s body had become, his eyes were still sixteen—sure, righteous, unbending. Bobby took a step forward.
“Enough,” the mermaid said.
She lay where she had fallen, hands clenched in leaching bottom mud to keep herself upright, eyes filled with the promise of lightning in the horizon. She was heartbreakingly beautiful.
“Let it go, Abraham,” the mermaid said. Bobby had rarely heard anyone call granddaddy by his first name. “I don’t know what came over me. Let’s go back. Perhaps it’s this storm that’s driven us all mad. Let Bobby go.”
“Let it go,” granddaddy repeated. For a moment, the fingers white knuckled on the rifle stock, and then the strength was gone and the barrel sagged. Bobby watched as the years came crashing into granddaddy’s eyes.
And just like that the forces that had brought them together were broken. The rain became wet, the rising river became urgently cold, the storm, rumbling across the valley, promised to shatter much more than five hundred acres, many more lives than theirs. Suddenly they were just two inconsequential men again, one with a rifle, one ready to die for a mermaid that seemed to waver in the uncertain grey light, an apparition, perhaps, a shared hallucination.
Granddaddy let the rifle splash into the water. A faint shadow blotted the water for a half second, and then it was lost. Bobby nearly jumped when granddaddy grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Go on,” granddaddy said. “Get your mom and whatever you can grab and head for higher ground. There’s a coffee can under the sink with all the cash.”
Then he added, softly, and they both knew it for the lie it was, “I’ll be right behind you.”
Bobby was about to speak, but granddaddy simply tightened his hand on Bobby’s shoulder for half a breath, a gesture Bobby would carry to his grave, and then with a strength that surprised Bobby, granddaddy shoved him forward. Bobby stumbled, caught himself, almost walked back, but he could already see the shivering silhouette of the mermaid, her hands outstretched as granddaddy stooped to pick her up. Bobby waited for just a moment more and watched as granddaddy turned, not toward the farm, but toward the levee.
It would be a long walk back. Foley County EMS had stuck an engine in the front drive, Bobby’s mother frantic. She allowed herself a single question about granddaddy, a hopeful question that knew the answer before it was asked. She would not cry though, not until they managed to scramble onto waterslick highway 79, toward the school, toward higher ground, clutching the coffee can of money and a photograph.
Two months later, when the Mississippi withdrew from the floodplain and laid bare the earth, longnose gar and catfish trapped and rotting in the streets, the September sun beating down on a foot of mud that still seemed to keep the consistency of water, granddaddy’s rifle would be found in the second story of a home in Old Monroe. The John Deere would be found buried to the engine block a mile downstream on the Illinois side of the river. A search would be called for two Winfield teens who drove around a road closed sign into a low water crossing, tires lifted off concrete and swept into the flood. One would be found still in the vehicle a quarter mile downstream, the other several days later hooked in the tangle of a shattered cottonwood tree. Bobby would find the kid pool from the back of granddaddy’s truck in September. It would be snagged up in the limbs of the stubborn old bur oak tree that stood and always would stand at the edge of the property, leaves wilted and a little brown, but alive from months under water.
They never would find granddaddy.
David Shieh currently resides in St. Louis, Missouri, works in forestry, and has a fascination with the influence place has over who we are. He has a forthcoming story in Structo.