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always a river song

there was a river once and always and a seamless hum from it unheard.  you could feel it at night when there was nothing else, if you listened, and with your eyes closed almost shut a troublesome coo would, thru the screen window in my room and run rough shot thru my tiny sleep.  it’s song was slow and deep like all old river songs i suppose and sung across the fat belly of the earth and into my chest like some instinct.  and like a river it rivered and rose and rolled down the plains like an animal, its eyes always on me and creeping under the ripe ground like a dirty secret, something we could only guess at, a cancer at our bones.  the river seemed a part of us then and always, our blood and everything and finally everywhere until we were just part of it and dying into an ocean’s forgiveness, the salt of our brief beginnings and ends.

the river was two feet below the mark on the bridge that said ‘54, what was three feet three days before.  the brown boot men at the branford’s general store talked about the ‘54 flood like it had a life and lived like an old tree, always and every rain ‘round this time every year.  and the old men who remembered it never spoke of it out of age or a respect of knowing or maybe just plain fear.  there was still six inches of snow that wasn’t melted like marrow to blood and heavy rains today and forecasts for rain all week.  the old men wore their worn canvas shirts over their coat hanger bones and their rain slicker aches and the deep life lines that time makes and looked at the sky and the river from the bridge and said nothing more, nothing that their folded faces couldn’t or could.  even the new men knew and whispered between their teeth and their smokes and dropped fingered butts on the front stairs and rubbed them out with their brown boots.  it didn’t look good, a choir of rain on the corregated steel barn roof.

the creek stopped on what once was a thursday and would forever after be the day the creek stopped.  the snow was gone, but the ground was full and mud and still partly frozen and the rain made little lakes in the unplanted fields.  the river broke and broke its rope and covered the 30 and the chicago – saint paul pacific’s rails at its sides  sometime in the night when no one was watching except the sheriff who was always watching.  the men folk were called out to try and put the spit back in the dike that quit, the dikes they’d been building up for days with every available dozer, tractor and back hoe.  the dikes their fathers built after ‘54 and always prayed that they’d hold.  my grandfather just shook his head and went out to the barn and fed the pigs and waited with the black birds on the wires.

by the next morning the river had bled into midtown junction, a town by a small town’s measure, the stop sign to the north where the 30 and the 80 meet and six buildings and four with windows and all of them with doors.   my father had been at the river’s edge all night shoring up our good faith and folded hands that the river wouldn’t claim kellogg and kill the town it gave life too, but who’s to say which hogs go to slaughter, but the farmer who lives them, that’s what my father would say, what his father said.  and that father, my grandfather, sat a chair on the front porch and felt for the river with his thick eyes and asked my father where the water line was on the bridge when he finally came home, the night still on his jacket.  my father coughed that it was just below the ‘54 flood line and almost coughed again and went in the house in his breath and the rain around him.  and my grandfather almost smiled and grinned anyway.

my mother and brother were moving the furniture upstairs when i woke up.  “no school today” my brother’s voice pounded thru the wall from the stairs like he was hanging a picture with a framing hammer.  it was still dark, the morning sun’s psalm somewhere behind the rain and its shrill redemption.  i brought the lamps and the national geographics and the kitchen table chairs one stair at a time and whatever my skin arms could carry.  i was seven and wire and too young to be tough or to be anything but tough.  the bedrooms were filled with the downstairs and it all seemed christmas eve exciting as we watched the water come calling across the north 40 acres like a rung bell’s ring and quiet as the in between from the upstairs’ windows in the house.  my grandfather told us from the bottom of the stairs to bring the pigs round the sides of the house and we did.  he said to open the fence and that they’d find the high ground themselves, that they had a certain earth knowing behind the dull of their shiny black eyes and knew.  and he told my father to bring the truck and my mother’s car up next to the house as well.  the few egg chickens we had stood standing on the hood and scratched at their dumb red reflections for luck and a place to lay.

my grandfather built our house in ‘54 in the long days of june and july after the river washed the first house away, the rainiest spring on record they say, the summer my father was born.  my grandfather said it was the best harvest they ever had, that the dirt was reborn like a christ off his cross and baptized new and he was old, my grandfather, and always was and had his own know of the earth, that’s what my father would whisper at night in my ear and pull the blanket to my chin.  i asked him like my father asked him, what he knew and he told me he said, “you can know yourself if your old and live right and you can just believe in god and hope not to find him out too soon, but there ain’t no knowing rivers”.  and he told me with all his wind, that the water was the blood of the earth and that everything lives and breathes, even rivers and stops and starts again.  and he said not to worry and he gave me a butterscotch hard candy, he always had them in his pocket like a bright idea and had one himself and sat back in his chair on the porch, the kitchen chair he always sat in, the only piece of furniture that wasn’t upstairs.

the river would rise over the faded red line of paint on the bridge that said ‘54 sometime saturday, no one knew exactly when, not even the sheriff, and push the dikes back into the fields from where they came.  the streets of kellogg would turn to mud veins and stain everything in its way with the brown blood of the river for four days.  the water would swallow most every farm and farm house we knew, but ours, the river just twenty feet of the back kitchen door.  it finally drifted away like a stray hungry dog sometime wednesday morning well after breakfast, the scraps long gone.  and my grandfather went out in the fields in the mud in his galoshes and listened for the river with his chest and the world all around him, a spun top.  and the sky stopped and broke blue again and the river found its roots and slowly died back to its destiny and a great lake.  

he came back to the porch in his old way and handed me a butterscotch from his pocket and spoke to me and maybe god. “highest spot in the county” he said without a smile, “the pigs found it in ‘54, the only livin’ things left.  best place for a house and a barn, god willin’ and the worst dirt for planting.  growin’s for the young and this dirt right here and me is old.  best to just rest here”.  and he looked out at the fields and put his ear out for the river and breathed “work close to your heart boy and know the price for this rich earth, there ain’t no knowing rivers, but you can know yourself and listen when your talked to”.

(published The Big Muddy, volume 4.2)

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