“I don’t know what to do.” Martha said to Jan.
“Well, you have to go back. That much you know already. Doesn’t a lot depend on how Randall reacts?” Jan’s eyebrows were lowered attentively, studiously.
“I told him I’d be back on Monday. If I’m not, they’ll start looking in the backyard for a newly dug grave. Everybody knows we’ve been fighting.”
Martha’s husband Randall got elected sheriff of their small town near Lexington, Kentucky, back in November. He’d been strutting around like a rooster ever since. When he brought his new sense of authority home, Martha objected. It was now July and ever since Independence Day, Martha had been thinking about freedom. She left Randall a note saying she was going to see her sister in Virginia but went to see Jan in Asheville instead.
Martha thought a moment, sipped her tea, and said, “What worries me is, voters expect men to appear outwardly strong. Randall plays that part in public. I told him he can’t do that in private, but the power is going to his head.”
Jan spoke carefully, “A strong man would let you be a strong woman, it wouldn’t bother him.”
Martha was taller than Jan, but as they sat at the kitchen table sipping tea, they were eye to eye and heart to heart. Martha and Jan had been roommates for two years at a girls’ school they both attended. When they had styled their hair and clothing together, people had asked if they were sisters. They had been writing letters back and forth to each other ever since.
It was raining outside, harder than either of them had ever seen. The windows were all shut because the gale was blowing water sideways. Martha willed her shoulders to relax and leaned back with a deep sigh. “I’ll not put up with his arrogance. I told him I’m not his servant.”
Martha went on, “He said ‘You’re my wife and you’ll do as I say’. I said, ‘I’ll not be submissive and compliant. I’ll not walk in town like deputy Smith’s wife, hiding her bruises. If you think a strong man has to have a weak wife, you’ll be finding another one soon.’”
“How’d you get married to that man?” Jan asked.
“He’s good looking, and he puts up a good front. He was alright with me ruling the roost while the children were at home, and he was just a policeman. I don’t know. He’s changing with the new job, or I am. I just can’t live with that kind of hardening heart.”
“He doesn’t know what a good thing he’s got.”
“He thinks he’s henpecked. He’s afraid that’s what they say about him at work. The henpecked sheriff.”
“Rando Rooster,” Jan chimed brightly. “Cawwwrroo”
They both laughed heartily at the reference. A classmate at their school had circulated a hilarious cartoon strip called “Rando Rooster.” The girl who drew the comic was expelled for lewd material that harpooned the opposite sex.
“That makes me Henrietta Hen,” Martha laughed again. “Do you remember the one…”
It was Saturday night, and the rain was coming down in waves. Jan called it a “walking rain.” The weather couldn’t have been worse. When Martha had arrived on Thursday it had already been raining for a week, but the storm had let up enough for them to greet each other with hugs and happy tears. Then another storm followed the first with torrents of water coming down so thick you had to have gills to breathe.
Martha and Jan stayed inside, talking about old days, friends and lovers, and sipping tea, sometimes with rum in it. They played cards in the dining room. They sang in the kitchen while making their favorite desserts. They got tired of being closed in after three days of rain, so when the storm finally stopped early Sunday morning, they went outside.
They visited the neighbors, the Richards family. Daryll and Anna had two boys and a girl. They were careful, religious people. Martha loved the children right away. She thought of her own childhood in Arkansas where she was raised with bible readings every night. She had moved back to the family home place in Georgia when the Arkansas river had flooded their house.
She watched the French Broad River rising with some dread, knowing that heavy rains often meant floods. Sometimes it took a day for the water to come down, depending on how far away it had fallen. The Arkansas river had done that. She alerted the Richards and her friend Jan. “Has the river ever come this high?”
“No, never!” they chimed.
As on every Sunday morning, the Richards were preparing to leave for church. They were grateful for the break in the weather. Daryll and Anna and their kids had breakfast already and had prepared a basket of cornbread to share after the service. Their kitchen stove was banked and cooling.
Martha and Jan went down to the river’s edge to judge the flood. There was considerable debris coming down and the water was brown with mud. The river was already over its banks by five feet or more and rising. As they stood there, the water’s edge got closer to them, so they retreated. They stopped and looked again, but the water was approaching them almost as fast as they stepped back.
“Oh, my lord, look at that,” Martha looked at Jan whose hand was covering her open mouth. “This is coming up a real flood.” They looked from the swift water to Jan’s house and back. There was more debris in the river than before, looking like a lumberyard had been swept up with loose boards jumbling downriver in the torrent.
“I’ve seen this before, in Arkansas,” Martha said. “Your house could be underwater in an hour,” she said. “What do you have that’s valuable? Let’s go gather it up now just in case.” The water lapped at their feet if they stopped walking away from it.
They were at Jan’s house in minutes. The rising water was not far behind them. Martha held a basket open while Jan threw things into it. Papers, money, some necklaces, and rings. Martha grabbed her own bag while Jan stuffed a change of clothes into a pillowcase. Jan’s cat Tyco skittered behind the sofa when water started trickling in the front door. Jan dropped her sack of clothing and shouted, “Tyco come here,” then jerked the sofa away from the wall. Tyco ran for the kitchen, but Jan grabbed Tyco with a swift hand and held him between her breasts with Tyco’s feet forward, waving and squirming.
Martha picked up her bag, the basket, and the sack Jan had dropped and urged, “Come on, let’s get up the hill. Hurry!” Together they carried what they had gathered, wading knee deep off the porch into river water that surged around their legs, their dress hems dragging in water until they got higher up the road.
Tyco struggled when Jan held him too tightly, so she held him even more tightly, telling him it would be alright, they just had to get to a safer place. Jan and Martha continued uphill away from the flood that was still rising. When they got to an area that seemed high enough, Jan relaxed her grip and Tyco launched himself free, running under a neighbor’s front porch.
They looked over to the Richards, who had not come out of their house. She could see them looking out the second-floor window. Jan called to Tyco, but the cat had his own ideas and seemed to know the place he was crouched in. Jan stayed near Tyco and Martha stayed with Jan.
Their other neighbors edged up to the same spot, joining all who were escaping the flood. They stood in a line back from the water’s edge, ready to back up further if it approached them. They watched their houses fill with water gradually up to the roof line. The Richards left their second floor by climbing out a window onto the roof of their porch. They crab-walked around the roof to the highest level where they thought they would be safe enough.
Tyco was under a porch, so Jan and Martha stood on the wet grass nearby and watched as Jan’s house trembled in the heavy current pushing on it. A whole tree floated to the house and the branches lodged against one corner. The tree swung around in the current and hit the other corner of the house with the heavy trunk and root. Suddenly the foundation yielded, and the entire house was free to go with the current. The back of the house went down first, tilting the front door above water. Martha and Jan watched in disbelief as the whole house jerked and floated slowly downriver.
Jan started to cry and moan. Martha held her for comfort and counted the seconds. The people of the community were no better, watching their property and possessions washing away by this act of nature. Their neighbors, where Tyco had taken refuge, asked Martha and Jan onto the porch to sit.
From their safe place, Martha and Jan watched the Richards, who were troubled enough on the roof, but whose whole house was now shaking under them. Their kitchen fires were extinguished by the flood. Steam rose up from the chimney. The chimney itself was very stout and solid, so they all climbed onto it. Jan’s floating house crashed into the Richards house. In slow motion, the two houses resisted the water pressure and then gave in with a tearing sound as both houses grappled with the current. The Richards’ house seemed to separate from the chimney.
Martha, Jan, and all their neighbors watched in horror as the slowly rotating houses broke free. The chimney teetered with the Richards family clinging to it. The houses spun away and the chimney leaned a little and caught itself, but then the upper half broke off and somersaulted top-down into the water. The family was thrown into the water and were then battered with bricks The base of the chimney came down on top of them all.
“No!” cried Jan. Her neighbors all called the same. “No, no! It can’t be so!” they cried. For long minutes Martha and Jan sat stunned and breathing heavily, watching the river as it coursed over their lives and fortunes without the least sentiment. The Richards house lodged in a tree a hundred yards downstream. “If they had stayed on the roof they would’ve been safe,” the neighbors said. Jan’s house warped against a rock and came apart, sweeping downstream with the other debris.
More houses, trees, and trash floated past them. Stunned, the other neighbors slowly sorted out where they would go, looking to stay with family or friends who would take them in and give shelter for the night. One by one, again and again they consoled each other and shook their heads at the tragedy. Grateful, at least, for their lives, not knowing what else to do.
Jan called her cat who wouldn’t come out from under the neighbor’s porch. The neighbors looked at each other. The husband offered, “We have an extra bed, with Susy away at school.”
The wife said, “You’d have to share a bed. Of course, you can stay with us tonight.”
Jan started to cry again, but Martha saw relief and gratitude on top of the sorrow in her tears.
Martha watched the kindness. She said, “I need to get back home tomorrow. I’ll go uptown and stay at Flora’s boarding house and catch the train in the morning.”
They all looked at each other, then across the river where the train tracks were now covered in raging water. “I don’t think the trains will be running in the morning,” Jan said, wiping her eyes.
Martha realized the tracks all ran alongside the water. “Oh, no!” she cried. “I’ve got to get back.”. The depot itself was next to the river. It would be flooded and washed out. Her ticket was useless.
This is a work of fiction.
Photograph by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS; courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce.
Further reading – https://climate.ncsu.edu/blog/2015/07/nc-extremes-flood-of-1916-wiped-out-railways-records/