First Part of a Braided EssayPosted: July 15, 2010
She steps where the Ohio River meets its bank, and the water rolls in and curls around her feet. The river is so clear here she can see the bottom. It’s just a short skip down a cinder path from her house—big, wooden, built long before the Civil War. Monks on a nearby hill told Pop it was a station on the Underground Railroad. Slaves were hidden and fed in its basement, then sent north to safety, following the course of the river. Soldiers used the house, too, during the war and left behind caps, rusted guns, and blood stains splattered everywhere. It must have been a hospital where the wounded were taken and limbs amputated. The house faces the river instead of the road, and was once an inn for weary travelers headed west by flatboat to settle the Missouri Territory.
She is alone here today. A stray dog shows up, sidles up to her, follows her around, eyeing every step she takes. She’s a skinny child and must appear as one who needs looking out for. She kicks up water and runs where the river laps in, and he is right there with her, play-bowing, hopping this way and that, running circles around her. Barking like he’s talking. She’s glad for the company.
The river is her playground, where she swims with her sisters, rides in her brother’s rowboat, and splashes in circles around Pop who floats and sleeps at the same time without ever going under. She and her sisters once made a mudslide on the riverbank, threw water on it to make it slippery, and then slid down it into the river. Once, she and a sister sneaked onto a towboat and barge stopped nearby and stole two brown paper sacks of chocolate marshmallow cookies. They jumped into the river to escape after they were spotted, and the cookies spilled and floated to the surface of the water, bobbing and moving out on ripples away from them.
This is two years before the 1933 flood comes spilling over its banks and fills her house halfway to the second floor where they move all the furniture except the piano which is hoisted between floors. It is six years before the big flood that takes the house with it down the river in a rage.
She steps on a sharp rock, and it pierces the tender sole of her foot. Ouch, she screeches, then lifts her foot, clutches it in her hand, cries. She reaches down and picks up the rock, holds it in the other hand and mumbles something to it, then hurls it onto the muddy bank. She jigs over there on one foot, sits down and cries, still holding her foot, red with blood gushing out and streaking across her wet skin.
The dog comes over to her, sits down beside her, licks her wound. He whimpers. Then he walks into the water, picks up a rock, brings it to her and puts it down on the dirt next to her. She is still crying, squeezing her foot and rubbing it. He goes back into the river and one at a time he picks up rocks, carries them out of the water where she plays, and places them in a pile beside her.
She stands and heads home up the cinder path past the cherry tree, past the carriage house, past the garden of cabbage and corn and Irish potatoes, walking on the heel of her hurt foot, and the dog follows her all the way.
“Can I keep him?” she asks Mom.
Mom lets her keep him for a month and then gives him away to a man across the river.