For Mama El
BLACKWATER: I THE FLOOD is an original publication of Avon Books. This work has never before appeared in book form.
A division of
The Hearst Corporation
New York, New York 10019
Copyright ? 1983 by Michael McDowell Published by arrangement with the author Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 82-90483 ISBN: 0-380-81489-7
All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U. S. Copyright Law. For information address The Otte Company, 9 Goden Street, Belmont, Massachusetts 02178
First Avon Printing, January, 1983
AVON TRADEMARK REG. U. S. PAT. OFF. AND IN OTHER COUNTRIES, MARCA REGISTRADA,
HECHO EN U. S. A.
Printed in the U. S. A.
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The maenad loves—and furiously defends herself against love's importunity. She loves— and kills. From the
depths of sex, from the dark, primeval past of the battles of the sexes arise this splitting and bifurcating of the female soul, wherein woman first finds the wholeness and primal integrity of her feminine consciousness. So tragedy is born of the female essence's assertion of itself as a dyad. —VYACHESLAV IVANOV, "The
Essence of Tragedy" (tr. Laurence Senelick)
I will spunge out the sweetness of my heart, And suck up horror; Love, woman's thoughts,
And leave their bodies rotting in my mind, Hoping their worms will sting; not man outside,
Yet will I out of hate engender much: I'll be the father of a world of ghosts And get the grave with carcase.
THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES, "Love's Arrow Poisoned"
Perdido, Alabama, does indeed exist, and in the place I have put it. Yet it does not now, nor ever did possess the buildings, geography, or population I ascribe to it. The Perdido and Blackwater rivers, moreover, have no junction at all. Yet the landscapes and persons I describe, I venture to say, are not wholly imaginary.
pop. 1,200 SITE OF LEVEE WA
1. OSCAR & ELINOR CASKEY'S HOME
2. MARY-LOVE CASKEY'S HOME
3. JAMES CASKEY'S HOME
4. DeBORDENAVES HOME
5. TURK S HOME
TO GULF OF MEXICO
At dawn on Easter Sunday morning, 1919, the cloudless sky over Perdido, Alabama, was a pale translucent pink not reflected in the black waters that for the past week had entirely flooded the town. The sun, immense and reddish-orange, had risen just above the pine forest on the far side of what had been Baptist Bottom. This was the low-lying area of Perdido where all the emancipated blacks had huddled in 1865, and where their children and grandchildren huddled still. Now it was only a murky swirl of planks and tree limbs and bloated dead animals. Of downtown Perdido no more was to be seen than the town hall, with its four-faced tower clock, and the second floor of the Osceola Hotel. Only memory might tell where the courses of the Perdido and Blackwater rivers had lain scarcely a week before. All twelve hundred inhabitants of Perdido had fled to higher ground. The town rotted beneath a wide sheet of stinking, still black water, which only now was beginning to recede. The pediments and gables and chimneys of houses that had not been broken up
and washed away jutted up through the black shining surface of the flood, stone and brick and wooden emblems of distress. But no assistance came to their silent summonses, and driftwood and unidentifiable detritus and scraps of clothing and household furnishings swept against them and were caught and formed reeking nests around those upraised fingers.
Black water lapped lazily against the brick walls of the town hall and the Osceola Hotel. The water was otherwise silent and unmoving. People who have never lived through a flood may imagine that fish swim in and out of the broken windows of submerged houses, but they don't. In the first place, the windows don't break, for no matter how well constructed a house may have been, the water rises through the floorboards,
and the windowless pantry is flooded to the same depth as the front porch. And beyond that, the fish keep to the old riverbeds, just as if they hadn't twenty or thirty feet more of new freedom above that. Floodwater is foul, and filled with foul things, and catfish and bream, though they don't like the unaccustomed darkness, swim in confused circles around their old rocks and their old weeds and their familiar bridge pilings.
Someone standing in the little square room directly beneath the town hall clocks, and peering out the narrow vertical window that looked west, might have seen approaching across that flat black unreflecting surface of still rank water, as out of what remained of the night, a solitary rowboat with two men in it. Yet no one was in that room beneath the clocks, and the dust on the marble floor, and the birds' nests among the rafters, and the gentle whirr of the last bit of machinery that hadn't quite yet run down, remained undisturbed. There was no one to wind the clocks, for who had remained in Perdido when the waters had risen so high? The solitary rowboat plied its stately, solemn course unobserved. It came slowly from the direction of the millowners'
fine houses that lay beneath the muddy waters of the Perdido River to the northwest. The boat, which was painted green—for some reason, all such boats in Perdido were painted green—was paddled by a black man
about thirty years old. Sitting before him in the prow was a white man, only a few years younger.
Neither had spoken for some time. Each had stared about in wonder at the spectacle of Perdido— where they
had been born and where they had been raised—submerged beneath eighteen feet of foul water. What Easter
but that first in Jerusalem had dawned so bleakly, or stirred less hope in the breasts of those who had witnessed the rising of that morning's sun?
"Bray," said the white man at last, "row up toward the town hall."
"Mr. Oscar," protested the black man, "we don't know what's in them rooms."
The water had risen to the bottom of the second-floor windows.
"I want to see what's in the rooms, Bray. Go on over."
The black man reluctantly turned the boat in the direction of the town hall, and gave a hard, smooth impetus to the paddle. They sailed close. The boat actually bumped against the marble balustrade of the second-floor balcony.
"You not going in!" cried Bray, when Oscar Gas-key reached out and grasped one of the thick balusters.
Oscar shook his head. The baluster was covered with the slime of the flood. He attempted to wipe it off on his trousers, but succeeded only in transferring some of the stink.
"Nearer that window."
Bray maneuvered the boat to the first window to the right of the balcony.
The sun hadn't got around to that side of the build-
ing yet, and the office—that of the town registrar— was dim. The water lay in a shallow black pool over most
of the floor. Chairs and tables were scattered about, and a number of file cabinets had been toppled. Others, whose thickly packed contents had become sodden with floodwater, had burst open under the pressure of expansion. Thick rotting sheaves of official county and town documents lay scattered everywhere. A rejected application for voting privileges in the 1872 election lay on the windowsill, and Oscar could even make out the name on it.
"What you see, Mr. Oscar?"
"Not much. I see damage. I see trouble ahead when the water goes down."
"This whole town's gone have trouble when the water go down. So let's don't look in no more windows, Mr. Oscar. Don't know what we gone see."
"What could we see?" Oscar turned around and looked at the black man. Bray had worked for the Caskeys since he was eight years old. He had been hired as a playmate to Oscar, then only four; had graduated into an errand boy, and then to the Gas-keys' principal gardener. His common-law wife, Ivey Sapp, was the Caskey cook.
Bray Sugarwhite continued to paddle the little green boat down the middle of Palafox Street. Oscar Caskey gazed to the right and the left, and attempted to recollect whether the barbershop had a triangular pediment with a carved wooden ball atop it, or whether that ornament belonged to Berta Hamilton's dress shop. The Osceola Hotel loomed up on the right, fifty yards farther on. Its hanging sign had been dislodged sometime on Friday, and probably by this time, was knocking upside of a shrimp boat five miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We not gone look in any more windows, are we, Mr. Oscar?" said Bray apprehensively as they got nearer the hotel. Oscar in the prow was peering this way and that around the sides of that building.
"Bray, I thought I saw something move in one of those windows."
"That the sun," said Bray quickly. "That the sun on them dirty windows."
"It wasn't a reflection," said Oscar Caskey. "You do like I tell you, and you paddle up to that corner window."
"I'm not gone do it."
"Bray, you are gone do it," said Oscar Caskey, not even turning around, "so don't bother telling me you're not. Just go up to that corner window."
"I'm not gone look in no more windows," said Bray, not completely under his breath. Then aloud, as he was changing course and paddling nearer the second floor of the hotel, he said, "Pro'bly rats in there. When the water 'gin to rise in Baptist Bottom, I see the rats come up out of their holes, and they run along the top of the fences. Rats know where it's dry. Ever'body get out of Perdido last Wednesday, it was. So not nothing in that hotel but them smart rats."
The boat bumped against the eastern facade of the brick hotel. The sun reflected a blinding red against the glass panes. Oscar peered through the window nearest him.
All the furniture inside the small hotel room— the bed, the dresser, the chifforobe, the washstand, and the hat
rack—were jumbled together in the middle of the floor as if thrown together at the center of a maelstrom that had sunk into the first story. All of it was covered with mud. The carpet, muddy and stiff and black, was bunched together in the corner against the door. In the dimness Oscar could not make out the high-water mark on the dark wallpaper.
The carpet trembled, and Oscar saw two large rats rush from a fold of the rug toward the hill of furniture in the center of the room. Oscar jerked his gaze from the window.
"Rats?" asked Bray. "See! I tell you, Mr. Oscar,
nothing in this hotel but rats. Don't need to be looking through no more windows."
Oscar Caskey didn't answer Bray, but he stood up, and, grasping the frame of the tattered awning of the next window, he pulled the boat toward the corner of the hotel.
"Bray," said Oscar Caskey, "this is the window where I saw something move. I saw something pass in front of this window, and it wasn't any rat 'cause rats aren't five feet high."
"Rats been feeding on the flood," said Bray, though what he meant to suggest Oscar wasn't certain.
Oscar leaned forward in the boat, grasping the concrete casement of the window with both hands. He peered through the dirty panes.
The corner room appeared to have been untouched by the floodwaters. The bed, quietly made, stood where it ought, against the long corridor wall, and the rug was squarely arranged beneath it. The chif-forobe and the dresser and the washstand were in their places. Nothing had fallen to the floor and broken. However, where the sun, shining through the eastern window, illuminated a large patch of the carpet, Oscar saw that it was sopping wet—so that he was forced to conclude that the water had risen through the floorboards.
But why the furniture in this room should have remained so placidly in place while everything in the adjoining chamber had been broken apart and tossed together and—as a last indignity—sheeted in black mud,
Oscar could not puzzle out.
"Bray," he said, "I don't know what to make of it."
"Don't you try to make nothing of it," replied Bray. "And I don't know what you talking about anyway, Mr. Oscar."
"Nothing's disturbed in this room. The floor's just wet."
Oscar had turned to speak these last words to
Bray, who shook his head and again indicated his wish to be well away from this half-submerged building. He was afraid Oscar would want to circle the hotel and look in every last window.
Oscar turned back in order to push off from the concrete casement. He glanced in the window, and then fell back into the boat with a small strangled cry of alarm.
In that room, which five seconds before had been patently unoccupied, he had seen a woman. She sat quietly on the edge of the bed with her back to the window.
Bray, not waiting for an explanation for Oscar's evident fright—and wanting none—immediately began to
paddle off away from the hotel.
"Bray! Go back! Row back!" cried Oscar when he had recovered his voice.
"No, Mr. Oscar, I ain't gone."
"Bray, I'm telling you..."
Bray reluctantly paddled back. Oscar was reaching for the casement when the window shot up in its frame.
Bray stiffened with his paddle in the water. The boat rammed against the brick wall, and the black man and the white man rocked backward and forward with the shock.
"I have waited and waited," said the young woman standing in the open window.
She was tall, thin, pale, erect, and handsome. Her hair was a kind of muddy red, thick, and wound in a loose coil. She wore a black skirt and a white blouse. There was a rectangular gold-and-jet brooch at her throat.
"Who are you?" said Oscar in wonder.
"I mean," said Oscar, "why are you here?"
"In the hotel?"
"I was caught by the flood. I couldn't get away."
"Ever'body got out of the hotel," said Bray. "They got out or they took 'em out. Last Wednesday."
'They forgot me," said Elinor. "I was asleep. They forgot I was here. I didn't hear them call."
"Town hall bell rang for two hours," said Bray sullenly.
"Are you all right?" asked Oscar. "How long have you been here?"
"As he says, since Wednesday. Four days. I've been sleeping most of the time. Not much else to do when there's a flood. Have you got anything in that boat I can have?"
"To eat?" Oscar asked.
"Got nothing," said Bray shortly.
"There's nothing," said Oscar. "I'm sorry, we should have brought something."
"Why?" asked Elinor. "You didn't expect to find anybody still in the hotel, did you?"
"Surely did not!" said Bray in a tone of voice which suggested that the surprise had in fact been not com-pletely agreeable.
"Hush!" cried Oscar, annoyed by Bray's rudeness, and wondering at it, too. "Are you all right?" he repeated. "What did you do when the water was high?"
"Nothing," replied Elinor. "I sat on the edge of the bed and waited for somebody to come and get me."
"When I first looked in the window, you weren't there. There wasn't anybody in the room."
"I was there," said Elinor. "You just couldn't see me through the window right. There must have been a reflection on the glass. I was just sitting there. I didn't hear you at first."
There was silence a moment. Bray looked at Elinor Dammert with deep mistrust. Oscar bowed his head and tried to puzzle out what to do.
"Is there room for me in that boat?" asked Elinor after a bit.
"Of course!" cried Oscar. "We'll take you away. You must be starved."
"Pull the boat around," said Elinor to Bray, "right under the window, and I'll climb out."
Bray did so. Holding on to the awning with one hand, Oscar stood and gave Elinor his other. She lifted her skirt and stepped gracefully out of the hotel window into the boat. Quite at her ease, and giving no indication of the terror she must have felt at being for four days the only occupant of a town that was almost completely submerged, Elinor Dammert squeezed herself in the boat between Oscar Caskey and Bray Sugarwhite.
"Miss Elinor, my name is Oscar Caskey, and this is Bray. Bray works for us."
"How do you do, Bray?" said Elinor, turning to him with a smile.
"Fine, ma'am," said Bray in a tone and with a frown that contradicted his words.
"We'll get you to high ground," said Oscar.
"Is there room for my things?" said Elinor, as the black man pushed his paddle against the bricks of the Osceola Hotel.
"No," replied Oscar regretfully, "we are pretty tight in here now. I tell you what, though—soon as Bray gets
us to dry land, he can come back here and pick 'em up."
"I cain't go inside that place!" Bray protested.
"Bray, you are gone do it!" said Oscar. "You realize what Miss Elinor has just been through for four days? When you and me and Mama and Sister were high and dry? And eating breakfast, dinner, and a little supper and complaining just because we brought two packs of cards away with us instead of four? You realize what Miss Elinor must have been thinking about, all alone in that hotel, with the water rising?"
"Bray," said Elinor Dammert, "I have just two little bags and I put 'em right beside the window on the floor. All you have to do is reach in."
* * *
Bray paddled in silence, headed back the way he and Oscar had come. He stared at the back of the young woman who had had no business at all being found where she was found.
Oscar, in the front of the boat, wanted very much to find something to say to Miss Elinor Dammert, but could think of nothing at all—certainly no remark came to mind that would justify his turning right around in the boat and awkwardly speaking to her over his shoulder. Lucidly, as he thought it, the carcass of a large raccoon suddenly bobbed to the surface of the oily black water when they had just passed the town hall, and Oscar explained that pigs, attempting to swim through the floodwater, had slashed their own throats with their forefeet. It was an undetermined point whether they all had drowned or bled to death. Miss Elinor smiled and nodded and said nothing. Oscar said nothing further, and did not turn around again until Bray was paddling past Oscar's own house. "That's where I live," said Oscar, pointing out the second story of the submerged Cas-key mansion. Miss Elinor nodded and smiled, and said that it looked like a very big and very pretty house and she wished she could see it sometime when it wasn't underwater. Oscar heartily concurred in that wish; Bray did not. Only a few minutes later Bray ran the boat up between two large exposed roots of a vast live oak that marked the town line to the northwest. Oscar stood out of the boat, balancing on one of the roots, and then helped Elinor on to dry land. Elinor turned to Bray. "Thank you," she said. "I really do 'predate you going back. Those two bags are all I've got, Bray, and I've got to have them or I've got nothing. I put 'em both right inside the window, and all you have to do is reach inside." Then she and Oscar set out together for the Zion Grace Church, which was on high ground a mile
away, where the first families of Perdido had taken refuge.
A quarter of an hour later, Bray had maneuvered the little boat back against the side of the Osceola Hotel. The water, in even so short a time, had dropped several inches. He sat for several moments just staring at that blank open window, wondering how he would ever get the courage up to stick his arm inside and retrieve the bags. "Hungry!" he cried aloud to himself. "What'd that white woman eat?!" The sound of his own voice strengthened him—even though it had defined a portion of that unpleasant mystery he felt surrounded Elinor Dammert—and he turned the boat so that he could lean his shoulder against the brick wall of the hotel. Holding on to the concrete casement with one hand, he reached his other arm quickly into the room. His hand closed around the handle of a suitcase. He jerked it out of the window and into the boat. He took a deep breath, and thrust his arm in once more.
His hand closed around... nothing.
He jerked it out again. He stared at the sun a moment through squinting eyes, cocked his ear and heard nothing but the scraping of the boat against the orange bricks of the hotel, thrust his hand in again and moved it all about beneath the window inside the room. No second case was there.
Now there was nothing for it but actually to look into the hotel room—to put his head into the blank opening
and stare around, looking for Miss Elinor's second bag.
With an unpleasant consciousness that he was the only person in all Perdido at that moment, Bray sat down again in the boat and considered the matter. He might, if he peered into the window, see the case within reach. That, definitely, was the most hopeful possibility, for then he could bring it out almost as simply as he had brought out the other. He might,
however, see the case out of his reach. This would necessitate climbing through the window. He would not do that—but that would be all right, because he could always report to Mr. Oscar that he could not get out of the boat because he had been unable to tether it.
Bray stood up in the boat and steadied himself by grasping the awning. He looked in the window, but could not see the second case at all. It simply wasn't there.
Without thinking, he leaned inside the window and peered all along the outer wall. His fear had been subsumed by curiosity.
"Lord have mercy," he murmured. "Mr. Oscar," he said to himself, rehearsing the speech that would procure pardon for his failure to bring back both bags, "I look all over that room, and it just not there. Would have gone but not no place to tie the boat to, I—"
But there was—a little tongue of painted metal around which the cord of the Venetian blind had been wound. Bray cursed his own eyes for picking that out. He knew he couldn't lie to Mr. Oscar, no matter what his fear now, and still cursing his eyes and his inability to tell Mr. Oscar anything but gospel truth, he tied the slender mooring rope of the boat around that tongue of painted metal. When the boat was tethered to the window he
carefully raised one foot onto the casement, and in a single slow bound found himself inside the hotel room.
The carpet was sopping wet. Foul floodwater was squeezed from beneath his boots. The morning sunlight poured into the room through the window in the eastern wall. Bray approached the bed where Mr. Oscar had seen Miss Elinor sitting. Experimentally, he pressed a finger against the spread. It too was sopping—and
coated with a black grime. Though he had pressed lightly, foul water formed a dank pool
around that finger. "It wasn't there," said Bray aloud, still rehearsing the conversation he would have with Mr. Oscar. Why didn't you look under the bed? demanded Mr. Oscar in Bray's voice.
Bray leaned down. Black grimy water dripped from the fringe of the spread all around. Beneath the bed was a grimy black pool of stinking water. "Lord my Lord! Where'd that white woman sleep?" cried Bray in a whisper. He turned around quickly. No suitcase. He went to the chifforobe and opened it. Nothing was in it but an inch of water in each of the drawers on the left-hand side. There wasn't a closet in the room or anywhere else for the case to have been hidden—even supposing Miss Elinor had wanted to keep him from
finding it, and Miss Elinor had particularly wanted him to fetch it. "Lord, Mr. Oscar! Somebody come and done stole it!"
Bray was already headed back to the window, but Mr. Oscar, in Bray's voice, demanded now, Well, Bray, why didn't you look out in the hall?
" 'Cause," whispered Bray, "that old room was bad enough..."
The hallway door was closed, but there was a key in the lock. Bray moved over to the door and tried the handle. The door was locked, so he turned the key. The key itself was grimy and black. Bray pulled the door open.
He looked down the long uncarpeted hallway. There was no case. He saw nothing. He paused a moment, waiting for Mr. Oscar's voice to demand that he go farther. But no voice came. Bray breathed relief, and eased the door closed. He returned to the window and climbed carefully out into the boat. It was while he untied the tethering rope slowly, savoring the notion of his having come through this unpleasant adventure safely, that Bray noticed what he had not seen before: the sunlight shining through the window now illuminated the high-water mark
on the dark-papered walls. It was two feet higher than the head of Elinor Dammert's carefully made bed. If the water had risen so high as that, how had the woman survived?
The Ladies of Perdido
The Zion Grace Baptist Church was situated on the Old Federal Road about a mile and a half outside Perdido. Its congregation was Hard-Shell, so the church was about the most uncomfortable sort of structure imaginable: a single whitewashed room with a vaulted ceiling that trapped the heat in the summer and the cold in February; that housed boisterous crickets in winter and flying cockroaches in July. It was an old building, raised on brick pilings some years before the Civil War, and beneath it, in the dark sand, lived sometimes polecats and sometimes rattlesnakes.
The members of the Perdido Hard-Shell congregation were known for three things: their benches, which were very hard; their sermons, which were very long; and their minister, a tiny woman with black hair and a shrill laugh, called Annie Bell Driver. Sometimes people put up with the backless benches and the three-hour sermons simply for the
novelty of hearing a woman stand at the front of the church, behind a pulpit, and speak of sin, damnation, and the wrath of God. Annie Bell had an insignificant husband, three insignificant sons, and a girl called Ruthie who was going to grow up to be just like her.
When the waters of the rivers began to rise, Annie Bell Driver threw open the doors of the Zion Grace Church to house any who might be driven from their homes. As it happened, the first to be driven from their homes on that side of town were the three richest families of Perdido—the Caskeys, the Turks, and the
DeBordenaves. These three families owned the three sawmills and lumberyards in town, and lumber comprised the whole of Perdido's industry.
So, as the waters of the muddy red Perdido rose over their back lawns, the three rich families of Perdido got wagons and mules from their mills and backed them up to the front porches of their fine houses and filled them with trunks and barrels and crates of food and clothing and valuables. What couldn't be taken away was carried to the tops of the houses. Only the heaviest furniture was allowed to remain on the lower floors, as it
was thought that these pieces would survive high water.
The wagons were covered with tarpaulin and driven up through the forest to the church. The families followed in their automobiles and the servants came on foot. Despite the tarpaulins, despite the canvas covering on the automobiles, despite the umbrellas and the newspapers that the servants held atop their heads, despite even the thick canopy of the pine forest itself, everyone and everything arrived soaked with rainwater.
The benches had been moved out of the way and mattresses were brought in and laid out over the floor of the church. The white women got one corner, the black servants got another, the children a third, and the fourth was reserved for the preparation of
food. This refuge was an expediency only for the women and children—all the men stayed in town,
preserving what they could at the sawmills, helping the merchants raise their wares from the lower shelves to the upper, removing the infirm and persuading the recalcitrant to move to higher ground. When the town was finally abandoned to the waters, the Caskey, Turk, and DeBordenave men and male servants slept in the Driver house, a hundred yards up the road from the church. The children looked on all this business rather as an adventure; the servants looked on it as greater and less pleasant work than they were used to; the rich wives, mothers, and daughters of the millowners said nothing of difficulty and inconvenience, did not mourn their homes and their belongings, smiled for the children and the servants and themselves, and made quite a pet of little Ruthie Driver. The Zion Grace Church had been their home five days.
On Easter Sunday morning, Mary-Love Caskey and her daughter, Sister, sat with Annie Bell Driver in the corner of the church. They were the only ones awake in the large room. Caroline DeBordenave and Manda Turk lay closest to them on adjoining mattresses; they were turned toward each other and snoring lightly. The servants lay with their children in the far corner, now and then stirring, or crying out softly at a dream of high water or water moccasins, or raising a head and looking blearily about for a moment before falling asleep again.
"Stand outside the door," said Mary-Love quietly to Sister, "and see if you see Bray and your brother coming up the road."
Sister rose obediently. She was thin and angular, like her widowed mother. Her hair was the usual Caskey hair: fine and strong, but of no particular color, and therefore undistinguished. She was only twenty-seven, but every woman in Perdido—white
or black, rich or poor—knew that Sister Caskey would never marry or leave home.
The wagons with all the Caskey, Turk, and DeBordenave goods had been drawn up before the church and were guarded day and night by one or another of the servants with a loaded shotgun. The DeBordenaves' driver sat sleeping now on the buck-board of the wagon nearest the road, and Sister walked quietly so as not to disturb him. She peered down the wagon track through the pine forest in the direction of Perdido. The sun was just rising over the tall pines and shined in her eyes, but the light in the forest was still dim and green and morning-misty. She craned her head this way and that. The driver stirred on the buckboard, and said, "That you, Miz Caskey?"
"Have you seen Bray and my brother?"
"Haven't seen 'em, Miz Caskey."
"Go on back to sleep then. It's Easter morning."
"The Lord is risen!" the driver cried softly, and lowered his head to his chest.
Sister Caskey shaded her eyes from the watery morning sun that was the color of cheap country butter. A man and a woman stepped through a veil of mist in the forest and paused in the wagon track.
"Where'd your girl go?" asked Annie Bell Driver.
"Well," said Mary-Love, craning her head, "I told her to walk outside and see if she could see Oscar and Bray. They went into town to see what the damage was. I didn't want them to, Miz Driver. I didn't want them in a rowboat. Oscar since he was little was always trailing his fingers in the water, not thinking about it. There's nothing in the water but water moccasins and leeches, I know it for a fact, so I told Bray to watch out for him. But Bray doesn't pay any attention," Mary Love finished with a rueful sigh.
Sister appeared in the doorway.
"You see them, Sister?" demanded Mary-Love.
"I see Oscar," said Sister with hesitation.
"Is Bray with him?" asked Mary-Love.
"I didn't see Bray."
"I want to speak to Oscar," said Mary-Love, rising.
"Mama," said Sister. "Oscar's got somebody with him."
"Who is it?"
"It's a lady."
"What lady?" Mary-Love Caskey went to the open door of the church and peered out. She saw her son, a hundred feet away in the track-road, standing talking with a woman who was thinner and more angular than Mary-Love herself.
"Who is it, Mama? She's got red hair."
"Sister, I don't know."
Annie Bell Driver stood behind Mary-Love and Sister. "Is she from Perdido?" the preacher asked.
"No!" cried Mary-Love definitely. "Nobody in Perdido has hair that color!"
From the live oak where Bray Sugarwhite deposited Oscar Caskey and the rescued Elinor Dammert a wagon track ran through the pine forest. It went past the Zion Grace Church and the Driver house, crossed the Old Federal Road, and ended three miles farther on in a sugarcane camp run by a black family called Sapp.
Oscar Caskey was the first gentleman of Perdido; even in a town so small, that distinction goes for something. He was first gentleman not only by right of birth—being the acknowledged heir of the Cas-keys—but also by
his appearance and his natural bearing. He was tall and angular, like all the Caa-keys, but his movements were looser and more graceful than those of either his sister or his mother. His features were fine and mobile, his speech was careful and elegantly facetious. There was a brightness in his blue eyes, and he seemed always to be suppressing a smile. He had a courtly kind of manner that
did not alter according to whom he spoke—he was as courteous to Bray's common-law wife as he was to the
rich manufacturer from Boston who had come to inspect the Caskey lumberyard.
On Easter morning, as Oscar and Elinor walked along, the sun behind them shone through the top branches of the pines. Steam rose out of the dew on the underlying carpet of pine needles, and billowed around them. Great sheets of water, still and steaming, lay now and then in slight depressions on either side of the track where the water table had risen above the level of the ground.
"That's not river water, that's groundwater," Oscar pointed out. "You could get down on your hands and knees like a dog and lap it." He stiffened suddenly, with the fear that this had perhaps been an impolite suggestion. To cover up the possible awkwardness, he turned to Miss Elinor and asked, "What did you drink in the Osceola? I believe, Miss Elinor, that it's just not possible to drink floodwater without dying on the spot."
"I didn't have anything to drink at all," replied Elinor. She didn't seem to care that she mystified him.
"Miss Elinor, you went thirsty for four days?"
"I don't go thirsty," said Elinor, smiling. "But I do go hungry." She rubbed her stomach as if to soothe rumblings there, though Oscar had heard none and Miss Elinor certainly did not give the appearance of having gone four days without food. They continued some yards in silence.
"Why were you here?" Oscar asked politely.
"In Perdido? I came for work."
"And what is it you do?"
"I'm a teacher."
"My uncle is on the board," said Oscar eagerly. "Maybe he can get you a job. Why did you come to Perdido? Perdido is out of the way. Perdido is at the
end of the earth. Who comes to Perdido except to write me a check for lumber?"
"I guess the flood brought me," Elinor laughed.
"Have you experienced a flood before this?"
"Lots," she replied. "Lots and lots..."
Oscar Caskey sighed. Elinor Dammert was, in some obscure manner, laughing at him. He reflected that she would fit in well in Perdido, if indeed his uncle did find her a job at the school. In Perdido all the women made fun of all the men. Those Yankee drummers coming in and staying at the Osceola talked to the men who ran the mills, and shopped in the stores where the men of Perdido stood behind the counters, and had their hair cut—by a man— while they talked to the men who loafed about the barbershop all morning and afternoon long, but they never once suspected that it was really the women who ran Perdido. Oscar wondered if that were the case in other towns of Alabama. It might, he thought suddenly and terribly, be true everywhere. But men, when they got together, never talked about their powerlessness, nor was it written about in the paper, nor did senators make speeches about it on the floor of Congress—and yet, as he walked
beside her through the damp pine forest, Oscar Caskey suspected that if Elinor Dammert was representative of the women of other places (for she must have come from somewhere), then it was likely that men were powerless in towns other than Perdido as well.
"Where are you from?" he asked, a question which followed naturally in the train of his thought.
"You're not Yankee!" he exclaimed. Elinor's accent didn't grate like a Northerner's, certainly, for it had Southern rhythms and its vowels were sufficiently liquid for Oscar's ear. But there was something strange about it nonetheless, as though Elinor were more accustomed to some other language—not English at all. He
had a sudden mental picture, as
strong as it was improbable, of Elinor lying on the bed in the Osceola, listening to the voices of men in the rooms all up and down the hallway, imitating their patterns and storing their vocabularies.
"North Alabama, I mean," she said.
"What town? Do I know it?"
"I do not know it."
"Did you go to school?"
"Huntingdon. And I have a certificate to teach. It's in my bag that Bray's getting. I hope he won't let anything happen to my bags. I've got all my credentials in one of'em." She spoke her concern a little absently—not as
if she really cared what happened to the bags, but as if she had suddenly remembered that she ought to care.
"Bray is a colored gentleman with a large bump of responsibility," said Oscar, touching his forehead as if to point out where that bump might have raised itself upon Bray's head. "As a younger man, he was apt to shirk his duties, but I beat him over the head with a two-by-four, raised a welt in the proper place, and he's never failed me since." As he spoke these words Oscar suddenly decided, in another part of his brain, that he might charitably and conveniently attribute all Miss Elinor's mysteriousness to mental confusion brought on by four days spent alone in a flooded hotel. "But I still don't understand why you came to Perdido," he persisted.
A veil of mist blew away before them and they were suddenly within sight of the church. His sister stood on the front steps, evidently watching out for him.
"Because," said Elinor with a smile, "I heard there was something here for me."
Oscar introduced Elinor Dammert to his mother, his sister, and to the female preacher of the Zion Grace Church.
"No sunrise service this year," said Annie Bell Driver. "There's too much trouble in the town. If people can sleep knowing their houses and their chattels are underwater, I say let 'em sleep."
"Miss Elinor came to Perdido looking for a job in the school for next fall," said Oscar, "and she got caught in the Osceola when the water started to rise. Bray and I just now found her."
"Where are your clothes? Where are your things, Miss Elinor?" cried Sister in sympathetic alarm.
"You must have lost everything," said Mary-Love, staring at Elinor's hair. "Floodwater takes everything. I'm surprised you got away with your life."
"I've got nothing at all," said Elinor with a smile that was neither brave resignation nor studied indifference, but a smile that seemed to mock credence.
"Where were you coming from?" asked Annie Bell Driver. One of the children, a colored one, had awakened inside the church and now peered sleepily out the front door.
"I graduated from Huntingdon," said Elinor Dammert. "I came to teach in the school here."
"The schoolhouse is underwater," said Oscar with a sad shaking of his head. "A school of bream have the run of it."
"I saw two desks floating down Palafox Street," said Sister Caskey.
"Only thing the teachers saved was their grade books," said Mary-Love.
"Have you got anything to eat?" asked Elinor. "I've been sitting on the side of a bed in the Osceola Hotel for four days watching the water rise. I had one tin of salmon and a box of crackers and I am fainting on my feet."
"Carry Miss Elinor inside!" cried Annie Bell Driver.
Sister took Elinor's hand and led her up to the steps of the church. "Bray got some tins out of Mr. Henderson's store after it was already underwater,"
said Sister. "The labels were all washed off so we don't know what's in 'em till we open 'em. Sometimes we