by Jay Lankau
Settled between low country and dense woodland, a considerable and lonely distance from society, the Miller’s farm is just one of many that is frequently subjected to the whimsy of Mississippi’s weather.
In the rainy seasons, the twists of the rivers fill to bursting. The surrounding land is powerless to resist those waters; all it can do is submit until the rain subsides and the overflowing banks call the river back to its borders. For most of these occasions, Jed Miller and his wife, soft-spoken Clementine, loose their cattle, chickens, and horses to search for higher ground while they wait in the confines of that old, white house. But in particularly relentless floods, like the one from that summer, the couple was to evacuate into civilization.
That day, the weather was fast approaching, and with it, the promise of unavoidable danger. Jed was packed to head into the nearest town for a boat, which he would bring back to his wife so that the two of them could leave the farm. The trip there and back was one Jed had made before, and always took about two or three long, quiet days.
Jed stood on the porch lacing his boots with calloused hands. He was a wide, tall man with dark hair and a curly beard that hid the hard set of his jaw, the straight line of his mouth. Clementine hesitated in the doorway. The heat from outside poured in like a wave thick with the taste of hay and the sound of flies buzzing. Outside, everything was dying yellow and brown.
“Be careful,” she said to him. “Come back soon.”
He stood up and turned near her. She saw his arms come up and flinched away.
“Just a hug, hon,” he said in a voice so low it could have been a whisper.
Clementine let him wrap his arms around her - she had no other choice.
Inside, she watched through the window as his shape disappeared into the trees. Then, it was only her, and the empty house, and the farm animals. That night, she settled into the quiet sound of the crickets and the frogs, as though the darkness might cradle her in bed.
The storm moved much quicker than Jed and Clementine had anticipated. By the next morning, the wide Mississippi sky was an unbroken sheet of gray. Clementine sat on the porch, breathing in the sharp smell of the coming rain. All afternoon long, the crows swarmed from treetop to treetop in dark swaths. The cacophony of it was enough to send a chill through her body. She wasn’t the only one made restless by the hot, wet air; the cows in the flat, brown farmland rattled their bells while the horses tossed their manes and slapped flies from their twitching hides with their tails.
Clementine pulled up clusters of flowers from the front yard and planted them into wooden boxes, hoping that maybe if she brought them inside, she might save them from their own fragile nature. The barn cat was her only companion, an unruly black thing that chased mice in the field while Clementine sweat. That night, she found the carcass of a mouse on the porch and kicked it into the grass.
It was early the next morning that the storm woke her. She mistook the first clap of thunder for the sound of the front door slamming shut and bolted upright with the fear that maybe Jed had returned. She wandered the floors while the winds shook the floor, realizing that no, the farm and the house were still as abandoned as they had been.
Before long, the power went out, forcing Clementine to walk through the house like a ghost, lighting candles. In the darkness, whenever the lightning flashed, it illuminated her pale skin, and the bruises, blooming like petunias across her arms.
All day long, the gates in the pastures rattled, slamming open and shut, open and shut. By now, the chickens had moved to the top of the barn in anticipation of the floods, and similarly, the cows and horses sheltered beneath the trees.
Clementine stood alone in the dim light of the kitchen with the wind howling and the gate creaking, and slammed the sharp edge of her knife down against the carrot on the cutting board. Chop. Chop. Chop. While the stew gurgled on the stovetop, she swore she could hear the cat yowling in the other room, or the bells of the cattle off in the distance, or the deep, barking voice of her husband.
Another day of rain, and the low plains of the farmland began to hold the water atop the soil. Clementine knew it would only be a matter of time before the river would swell wide enough to swallow the fields up.
If nothing else, she wanted the horses to be safe. This urge to set them free took root in her heart, and, seized by it, she put on her waders, tied up her hair, and stepped out into the weather.
The water in the field was murky brown and rippled with the rainfall, up to her knees. It gushed and sloshed about as she pulled herself through it, her feet struggling to find proper footing in an earth that continuously gave way. Things kept crunching underneath her, sticks or leaves or maybe the bones of drowned things. She tugged at the gate to the field and had to pull with all her strength to fight the weight of the water, until finally, it opened. The horses, hovering nearby, waded through and became smaller the further they traveled, away from the water and the farm, and towards a place where Clementine could not follow.
Instead, she returned to the house, soaked to the bone, dried off the best she could, and cleaned and sharpened the kitchen knives she had used to prepare dinner the night before. What would happen to her once the flood subsided? She would return to the house. They would salvage the animals, the vegetables, and call for the horses. But what difference was there for her? That old house, white as bone, and the fields, hot as anything. Flood or no flood, this was her grave.
The next morning, Clementine sat humming in the kitchen while the water rose around the house. Outside in the rain, Jed was cloaked in a poncho, steering the boat over the water towards home.
When, at long last, the flood was gone and the heat dried out the farm, the townspeople did not find Clementine Miller, or the missing boat. They found only the black cat catching field mice, and the empty farm, and the body.
About the Author
Jay Lankau is a writer and narrative designer who strives to bring authenticity and diversity to fiction and video game writing. He graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a B.F.A in writing and enjoys Pierrots, Regency fashion, and pretty wine labels.