Too Much of Water
by Sonia Hamer
When the first flood comes, it takes only a day for the bayou to burst its banks. The girl stands outside with her mother, whose knuckles clutch white against the porch rail, and watches the rising water as their neighbors shuffle past, stumping towards the shelter of their waiting house perched primly on a hill. Though the girl and her mother have long lived beside this bayou—longer than the girl has been, in fact, but her mother’s stories remember for her, telling of a different land, one dryer and much colder—neither has ever witnessed a storm like this. Maybe, the girl wonders, the bayou remembers. Maybe it could tell them what to do, if they only asked. But such a thing is not possible, her mother tells her. A bayou can’t remember. As she speaks, she sets her eyes down below them, towards the swelling water that darts past like an animal, all muscles and sleek fur, thick cords that ripple smoothly beneath muddy skin.
Together, inside the house, the neighbors huddle and they worry. They had forgotten the possibility of the bayou’s sudden sting. The girl watches as her mother calms them, offers cakes and tea to her guests as they pace, nervous, flinching at the windmoan and the rain. The girl wants to slide her arms around her mother, for she knows that beneath the woman’s calm there is also dread. She wants to tell her, with the motion, that should she fail to hide her fear, it would be ok. I will protect you, comfort you, the girl wants her arms to say, just as you have protected me. But the girl knows such gestures would prove useless; her mother would only stop and smile, then push her arms away. Besides, other ways exist, to give protection. Like keeping silent, when the red-faced neighbor sits down beside her. When his fingers brush against her inner thigh once, twice, then decide to stay. Embarrassment and something else sweep through the girl when he does this; the same shame-filled twinges she felt when, during a game of tag, the neighbor-boy pulled down her pants and ran away. Shock-shame then, shock-shame now. But no one else is paying attention. The girl has watched her mother closely, and knows that if other people haven’t noticed, the best response to most problems is to ignore them. Avert your eyes, and they will wither, they will disappear. This move turns out to be the right one; soon the man removes his hand and moves along.
When the flood recedes, the neighbors find that the storm has not been kind to them. Many of their homes lie squat and sodden. The sound of rain goes chased by wails. The bayou, banks heaped with waste and muddy scar tissue, slips along impassive, swollen and impregnated with what was lost.
Months go by. Many leave. Others, the red-faced man among them, shake their heads and then rebuild. The new houses they place on stilts. On the day the neighbor-man calls to the girl, his house is only a mud-spackled skeleton, a spindly, fragile frame. He calls to her as she picks her way along the bayou. At first, she pretends not to hear him; she does not like him, and besides, she and the bayou are in the middle of a game. An intrepid explorer, she picks her way along this silt-smelling border, a boundary between two kingdoms that have too long played at war. Each side finds itself beyond exhaustion, but neither will surrender for fear of the other’s wrath. Power begets violence, after all; the girl knows this, for just a few days ago she trapped a frog between her hands and crushed it with a rock. So easy, she realized, to hurt those that can’t hurt back. The flood of red was unexpected. Shocked by the permanence of her impulse, the girl dropped the rock and began to cry. She tried to scoop up the spreading guts and put them back. When she found that she could not, she buried them, hands red and brown and shaking, then spread clover blossoms on the grave. The whole time, she murmured—softly praying, as if ceremony could damage, take away.
From within his skeleton, the red-faced man calls again. The girl’s mother has told her many times that she must not be rude, that she must help all those who have lost so much. Reluctantly, the girl goes. “I need you to hold something,” he says. The thing he has her hold is hot, hard-but-also-soft. It’s touch against her palm reminds her of the delicate skin on a pony’s ear, only warmer, and touching it makes her feel sick, like when the sun is strong and water far away. “This is our secret,” the red-faced man says. “You wouldn’t want to tell a secret.” When he tells her she can go, the girl walks down to the bayou and dips her hand in the water, hoping the slow current will wash the thing away.
The second flood comes a year after the first. Again, the girl watches as the neighbors fill her mother’s house. One old woman suggests that the flooding is abnormal. She has lived here all her life, she says, and never seen such rain. Her hair shines white and shimmers with translucence, a giddy pearl pressed light by age. The woman and her words are quickly silenced. Such things are not easily believed. That night, the red-faced man finds the patch of floor where the girl is sleeping. Though they are surrounded by the quiet forms of many others, he presses the hard-soft thing against her and she shivers. “This will hurt,” he whispers, “but I don’t want you to scream.”
He is not lying, the girl realizes. It does hurt. It hurts so much she thinks she might be dying. Panic freezes her; she does not scream. As it happens, she disappears. Confusion becomes fear becomes terror. The pain and horror swallow her, grow in her until she cannot move because she is not there. If those around her notice what is happening, they do nothing. Just like her, they lie still and count the endless seconds, waiting for the end.
Once again, the floods recede. Once again, the people wail. Those houses not destroyed before are beyond ruined. Those ones rebuilt are again washed away. The girl’s mother’s house, perched so primly on a hill, is the only place untouched by this year’s flooding. When the girl at last steps through the door, dull and aching, she hardly knows the world that water left behind.
The girl tries to tell her mother about the red-faced man, but all too soon, she finds, the words have run away. Her brain is a generous one, and quickly splits itself to keep truth confined. Silence huddles close and then surrounds her. Sentences, half-finished, are brushed aside. Where she to speak, the girl wonders, would her mother believe her? Often, her mother acts as if one’s pain is best denied. Though she doesn’t have the words to understand this, the girl decides that this is mercy and tries to send her pain away. Tries to send it down the bayou to go floating through the world.
More years pass; more floods come. Each year, a new storm, stronger than the last, sends the placid bayou spilling hungry from its banks. Each year, fewer pick up and rebuild. They move on, they move off, the red-faced man among them. As they leave, the air grows hotter, the soil warmer. More plants wither, pass away. In the midst of all this loss the girl grows older, passes from girl to woman as the world decays. With each passing year, forgetting becomes a little harder. She scrapes and scrapes herself away until she shines. “What happened to you?” her mother sometimes says. “I miss you.”
“I miss me, too,” comes her reply.
One day, this woman finds herself staring at the bayou. When it isn’t flooding, it’s grown smaller, drier; a muddy trickle where once there was a placid, muddy plain. She’s staring at the bayou and feeling panicked, like she’s drowning though she knows she’s safe and dry. The woman knows, now, that this silence cannot keep much longer. It’s a soft, decaying thing, full of grief and rot. But words alone, she fears, cannot break the silence. She’s staring at the bayou down below her. The bayou, the land around her, stares right back. What could be worse? it asks, it’s voice a reedy murmur. Look at me, for that’s exactly what has passed. The woman-girl, girl-woman, shudders once and begins to cry, big tears that course unbidden down their tracks. She cries and thinks and cries until well past nightfall, until the moon has risen far and the mosquitos buzz around her in a solid, greedy mass. Then she dries her aching face and turns her back on the faded bayou, the thirsty trees and the dead-dry grass. She returns to her mother’s house perched primly on a hill. She goes into her mother’s room, looks down at the bright fan of her hair—once dark, now moon-pale silver—spread soft over her face. And then, still silent, she stands there and she watches as the stray strands flutter, moved by nighttime breathing’s give and take.
About the Author
Sonia Hamer is a writer from Houston, Texas.