Caleb J. Ross - March/April 2009
THE WORD WILL DIE TOO
My mother believed in god. When the hurricane came, she prayed. I ran. Maybe god saved her; her faith is strong. But so were those new currents.
The waters pull me back within hours. I had trudged miles up Glidden Street in the burgeoning river for higher ground, fighting debris the entire way, only to fall back to my mother's flooded home. I called her name between chocking fits, but received no report.
I live for a week upon her roof until the water subsides enough that I can trek and search with minimal struggle. I haven't eaten much, so these legs of mine can't do with more than a few inches of mud.
Inside my mother's house, I find no food. The new river had claimed every crumb. Even my mother's canned jams and nuts, made of the very trees now absent from her back yard, rode away with the current. Or maybe my mother took them with her, wherever she is. But she didn't take her bible, the only well of sustenance she has ever claimed to need. I even placed it in her hands before I left. Imminent death has a way of forcing people to make tough decisions. I grab the wet book and leave my mother's house. The bloated pages strain my knees and push me further underground. Someone will want these pages, though.
The waters have clear-cut the horizon, shorn of power lines, forestry, early century homes and office buildings. I can see everything now that there is nothing to see. Glidden Street is a shallow bank stuck against a new Eleventh Street Bay. Third Avenue holds a brackish bog above the Southtown mines. I can smell the salt from here. Occasional breezes push the salt away for full breaths, letting in the sharp taste of escaped paint thinner and bleeding automotive oil now blanketing the water. As the sun dies, the surface glows in toxic rainbows.
All she had was religion. I had a job, a few friends, a good enough family, and maybe I still do; it's too early to give a future over to a newborn ocean. But my mother hung onto omniscience with a sadistic grip. "Jesus gonna be here," she said. "He's gonna be here soon." I won't be, mom, and I handed her the bible, worn and die-cut by her own rigid fingerprints. Why'd she leave it?
The Glidden Street River veins into alleyway estuaries at the intersection of Seventh and Vine. With the sun hiding, a small fire reflecting off the oiled water beacons. Roger, from the Glidden Market, hovers over a Sterno fire in front of his store. He's wearing a nice suit, though a little soggy, but it's a better effort than my mud swathed jeans and logoed t-shirt.
"Roger, anything you can spare?"
"We aren't so hungry yet that we can just give away food. You've still got a store tab to pay."
I check the condition of his store. Glass hangs from the window frames in delicate stalactites. Inside, shipwrecked boxes and bags buoy in the aisles, little left that's edible. Evidence of early scavengers narrates the empty shelves and Roger's bruised face. "It's been about a week for me."
"Can't do it." He hones in on the heat.
Even if I wanted to beat this man, my arms wouldn't cooperate; humidity strains these hands. I offer the bible. The only thing I have that may be of any value to anyone.
"I don't need something as complicated as god in my life. Give me a bible and I'd pawn it for a blanket. Though no one would be stupid enough to let go of a blanket."
"But once this is all cleaned up, you'll need god then. They call it The Word, right?"
"Fuck the word." I know what he means. In the eye of tragedy, a fat gut is the only poetry. The only prose that matters is that written on Sterno heaters. Roger pulls from the heat, checks a small group of heads breeching the dusk horizon. "Damn vultures coming again."
But when Sterno fuel dies, any paper will do for heat. "Once the pages dry, it will make a good fire."
"Look around. Will anything ever be dry again?"
"It took my mom."
"It took my entire family." The vultures advance. "Let me see it." I hand him the book. "If you put up a fight against these fucks coming down the road there, I'll see what I can offer you. And I get the book."
Fight? I couldn't swat a fly in my condition. "Sounds good."
We await their approach. With the sun down, we have only the halo of Sterno light to warn us. Roger inspects the bible. Its pages are shellacked in mud; its leather cover has swelled with moisture to the appearance of living skin. A few cracking branches stir our nerves, but but only for a few deep breaths. All energy must be saved for fight. Roger keeps one eye to the darkness around us and holds the bible out to me. "See here," he says, "where these pages are torn through like someone shoved a stick right through? There's plastic or glass shards buried in there. I can't burn that."
I take the bible from his shaking hand. I bring the book close to the flame and strain in the harsh light to see the shards. Fingernails. My mother didn't give it up easily. "I'll just pry them out," I say and start digging where my mother stopped.
"Where'd the vultures go?" Roger says, panning the surrounding black.
Ambient hysteria hasn't calmed since the rains and winds started. Every distant cry bleeds into so many others until stewed with the wind, the clacking branches, the moans of decomposing organs, all of it a single nightmare score. "I might stand a chance if you'd front me some food now."
"Drop the book, then," and I do, to receive a spoonful of something from a tin can. The Word settles into its muddy grave.