2017 Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing Honorable Mention

 

Corinne, in Floodtime

by Bethany Reid

 

Corinne struggled for breath as if under water, so tangled in the bedclothes that she was unable to kick her way to the surface. She gasped and opened her eyes and then lay still, afraid she’d disturbed Bobby’s sleep. He needed his sleep. He had to get up for work so early. Rain drummed against the window panes.

     Then, she heard a crash, below, in the kitchen, and she pushed herself up on her elbows and looked around. Bobby wasn’t in the bed. It was still dark out, though it had to be morning—Bobby’s habits were ironclad. Rain pelted against the windows.

     She got out of bed and shrugged into her chenille bathrobe, tying it up high, above her belly, and she walked down the narrow stair, one hand tracing the tendrils of the wallpaper’s pattern. In the kitchen she found Bobby on his hands and knees, cleaning eggs off the floor, the fry pan upside down on the floor beside him.

     “My good dishcloth,” she said.

     “Then you do it.” He rose to his feet.

     “Sit down,” she said, taking the cloth from him and picking up the fry pan. “I’ll scramble you some eggs.”

     He sat down heavily in one of the kitchen chairs. “Bobby Jr. wake you up?”

     “Bobby Sr.,” she said. “Why didn’t you wake me in the first place?”

     “Thought you needed your sleep. They say pregnant women do.”

     He knew that Corinne did not sleep much, and she knew that he knew. “I like to get up with you,” she said. “It’s the only company I have all day.”

    Bobby didn’t respond to this. Corinne rinsed off the pan and put it on the burner. She broke two eggs into the pan, then dropped two slices of bread into the toaster. “I’m sorry there’s no sausage or bacon for you. Maybe I’ll get into town somehow and buy some today.” She looked out the window. Gray morning light was now sifting through the clouds and rain and she saw for the first time that the yard was filled with water. She narrowed her eyes and looked beyond the yard, toward the road where the ground was higher. Bobby’s Ford pickup sat at the top of the driveway. He must have known last night that the water was rising. Why else had he parked there?

     “You don’t need to go out in all this weather,” Bobby said. “You just stay put.”

     “I don’t like the idea of being stuck here. If this water gets much higher—”

     “It won’t,” Bobby said. “And you aren’t stuck anywhere. Just seven months knocked up. You don’t need to go traipsing around.”

     She was eight months along, and she felt huge and billowing as the storm outside. She buttered his toast and spooned the eggs onto a plate. When she set the plate in front of him, he held up his hands, empty, and she walked across the kitchen for silverware.

     They’d been over this ground before. Corinne had quit her job at the café in Harris when they were still dating because Bobby didn’t like her waiting on other men. She’d worked at Rocknell’s Greenhouses for a while after they got married, but had to quit that, too. Bobby didn’t want her taking orders from Rocknell, even if he was eighty years old.

      Corinne leaned against the counter and watched Bobby eat.

     “Anyways,” he said. “The water won’t come any higher than this. I talked to Swede and he said it’s never come this high before.” He shoveled in the last bite of egg and mopped his plate with a slice of toast.

     Corinne turned and looked out the window again. “It’s awful high,” she said.

     “You watch.” He scooted his chair back and stood. “It’ll start going down now. Nowhere for it to go anyhow except down river.”

     “Maybe you should stay home.”

     “What? Call in wet?”

     “Well, you could drop me somewhere.”

     “Are you going to have a baby or turn into a baby?”

     The basement furnace was swamped, so Bobby brought in an armload of wood and set a fire in the stove in the living room. Corinne cleared his plate and put it in the sink with the fry pan. She went into the little bathroom off the laundry room and peed. When she came out, Bobby was on the porch, pulling on his fishing boots. She watched him silently for a moment, then said, “But what if it does go higher?”

     “Call my mom,” Bobby said. “She’ll come racing out here to rescue you, calling me an asshole of a husband. Yeah. You do that.”

    Corinne said nothing, though the image of her mother-in-law, saying asshole, amused her. She wasn’t paying attention when Bobby stepped toward her, grabbing her into his big arms and hugging her hard.

     “It’ll be okay,” he said, and let her go. “You know I wouldn’t let nothing happen to you.”

     “I know,” Corinne said.

     He waded across the yard in his high boots and up the driveway to his pickup. As he opened the door he turned and waved, grandly, like a parade marshal on TV. Corinne stood on the porch, waving back.

     When she was a kid, she had always had a pair of boots, black boots with a red stripe around the top. She and her brothers all had them, bought at Sears or Monkey Wards. As she outgrew one pair, she moved up to another size. The same row of black, red striped boots on the back porch, always, just magically a little bigger every year. She wore her boots when she helped clean the calf barns or to play in the mud puddles in the driveway. She hadn’t had call to wear boots since Daddy died and she and Mom moved into town—the boys all grown up, or mostly so. Anyway, this water was as high as Bobby’s knees, so her little boots wouldn’t have done her any good.

     She wanted to believe Bobby, to believe that the water wouldn’t come any higher, but she picked up the rag rug from the porch floor anyway and slung it over the porch rail. She picked up the cat’s dish and set it on the woodpile, then thought, Won’t the wood float? She moved the dish to the porch rail, too. She hadn’t seen the cat in two days, not since the rain started in so hard.

     The cat was a big black and white tom, a handsome boy even if he did have to live under the woodpile. He was also the source of the one real argument she and Bobby had ever had. She wanted him to be an indoor cat. Bobby said animals belonged outside. Her mom had always thought the same way. Still, Corinne hoped the cat had found someplace dry to hide out. Somebody’s barn or attic.

     While she stood thinking about the cat, water rocked against the top step and then spilled over. With a little squeal, Corinne stepped away from it. She opened the kitchen door and stepped inside, shutting the door behind her and peering out the window to see a thin stream of water trickle from across the porch.

     She made herself a slice of toast and ate it with strawberry jam, then drank a glass of milk. She didn’t like milk, but everyone said it was good for the baby. She did up the breakfast dishes, and started moving things from the bottom cupboards onto the counter top. She took out the waffle iron they’d been given as a wedding gift and set it beside the toaster and can opener. They looked like robots standing in a row, waiting for orders. She pulled out the flour and sugar bins and set them on the countertop, too. She started to pick up the basket of potatoes that she kept in one corner, but thought, A little water won’t hurt, and left them be. She opened the cupboard under the sink and took out the garbage and detergent and put them on the kitchen table. The bottle of detergent wore a funny little paisley apron, one of those homey crafts Bobby’s mother was always up to.

     She moved her canning—tomatoes and beans and pickles and pears and applesauce—from the shelf in the pantry cupboard to the top of the dryer and washing machine. She started to move the empty mason jars, but decided that was too much. Wouldn’t Bobby just be annoyed beyond belief when he had to help her put them all back tonight? Maybe the water would go down before he left work, and she’d have it all put away before he knew.

     The lights flickered and then went out.

     In the kitchen, Corinne picked up the telephone and found it as dead as the lights. She placed it back in its cradle and she put a hand on her belly, feeling a wave of she wasn’t sure what—a creeping terror that left her feeling numb. The baby had been quiet all morning, like she knew something was wrong, and Corinne’s heart, too, had slowed, swamped like the furnace with the rising waters.

     She hadn’t wanted to live so far from town. They didn’t have a car, not right now, only Bobby’s pickup. She felt stranded out here all by herself. She felt stranded on a good day.

     She stepped onto the porch to grab a few more chunks of firewood for the stove. The front walk with its low gate and the scrappy little flowerbeds had disappeared, marked only by eddies in the water as it swirled over them. Probably if she waded across the yard and up to the road, someone would come by and find her. Not in her robe and slippers. Wouldn’t Bobby have a fit if she were picked up dressed in her night clothes? What were you thinking? he’d say. Oh, yeah. Not thinking.      Then the water ran across the porch in a solid sheet, soaking her slippers before she had a chance to step back.

     Corinne went back inside, kicking off her slippers and closing the door behind her. In the living room she picked up the magazine rack with Bobby’s Popular Mechanics and Hunting and Fishing, and her Good Housekeeping and set it on the hassock. She picked up the Christmas cactus her aunt Arliss had given them and put it on a chair. She thought about moving the television, which was their prize possession, though reception out here was pretty snowy. But the TV was on a stand. It would be fine, and she didn’t think she should try to lift it by herself. If the water did get into the house, what would it do? Swirl around and ruin the carpets? It surely wouldn’t come high enough to wreck the TV. She unplugged it anyway and coiled the cord across the top.

     She thought she heard something and looked at the stove, then heard it again. Not the fire, which was nearly out. A sound like a baby’s cry. She stepped into the kitchen doorway to see brown water snaking across the linoleum and toward the living room. She walked across the kitchen to the porch door and opened it and the cat leapt inside.

     Behind the cat, brown water surged across the linoleum. Corinne tried to close the porch door and found that she couldn’t.

     The cat had leapt onto the kitchen table and Corinne picked it up and held it against her. She felt a little stronger then and went to the living room. She put the cat down, and it crept halfway up the stair and sat there primly, licking his paws.

     Although she hadn’t wanted to move out here, it wasn’t the house itself that she’d protested. She liked this house, liked the way it looked from the road, hunkered down under its dormered windows, painted red, surrounded by holly and fir trees. It sat below the road, nestled in the elbow of where Madder Creek ran into the river. The day they moved in they’d seen three Trumpeter Swans land on the widest part of the creek—her brother Rafe who was helping them move had seen them and called Corinne over. He’d slung an arm over her shoulders and pointed. “You know what Dad would say.”

     “Magic loot.” As if seeing a big bird were as good as a gold coin to slip into your pocket.

     When they were little—once upon a time—her dad used to read to them. All four of them together, Corinne and Todd on his lap, Rafe and Danny perched on the arms of the overstuffed chair. They had an illustrated book of folk tales and Corinne’s favorite one was about a little girl whose older brothers were magically transformed into swans. It was her task to rescue them. She tried to follow to where they nested, but twice she lost them. The third time she followed them, she plucked a feather from one swan’s tail and she was able to keep up with the swans until they landed inside the walls of a dark castle. She had to befriend a frightening toad, open a door with a magic key. She had to be brave. And she was. She rescued them, all except the one whose feather she had plucked. Was it as if he had died?      He had to remain a swan, which didn’t seem such a sad thing to Corinne.

     She thought of the swans that she and Rafe had seen. They were large, elegant birds, with their long white necks and ebony beaks. When Bobby arrived, they told him and he laughed and said too bad his guns weren’t here yet. They could eat a swan.

     The swampy land behind the house had worried Corinne. Would this be a good place to raise a family? But Bobby had all kinds of ideas for improvements. He said he would fill in the swamp, and harvest the bigger trees, and their kids would have a great time playing in the creek.

     The cat meowed loudly. Corinne didn’t like to go against Bobby, though letting a desperate cat into the house didn’t seem like such a sin.

     “Who wears the pants in the family?” her mother-in-law would have said.

     What she remembered most about her childhood was how, wearing her too-big boots, she trailed after her father as he did his chores. He had a way of asking her what she thought about things and then making her feel—listened to. “What do you think, Sis?” he would ask, lifting an eyebrow, and it would be only something small, like which calf they should keep and which sell, or whether it was a good idea to move a rhododendron from one spot to another or leave it be.

     She’d tip her head, then tell him, “This one,” or “It would look nice by the fence.” And he would tip his head and look at what she was looking at, just that gravely. Then he’d say, “I believe you are right.”

     He had died of a heart attack when Corinne was fifteen. He had been at work—he was a logger, like most everyone, out in the woods that day and not near any help for it. There had been no warning and Corinne never got to say goodbye.      Sometimes she missed him so much she could make herself sob. Not when anyone might catch her. Her brothers were grown when he died, except for Todd and he graduated high school that year. Her mother met Richard and they married and moved into Richard’s house in Harris. And that was that. It was all right. Corinne herself had started dating Bobby, and he lived in town. He graduated high school and got a job at the mill. The next year she graduated and they got married and Mom and Richard moved to Arizona.

     Bobby wore the pants in the family, but his decisions were always made with Corinne’s needs in mind—she knew they were. If he could be gruff, if he was bossy, wasn’t she drawn inside the circle of all he protected?

     “Oh, you’re always right, Bobby. Always right,” his mother said to him once, adding, “Poor Corinne.”

     Later Bobby had looked at Corinne in utter puzzlement. “And what’s wrong with being right?” he said. “How can she fault me for that?”

     “My dad used to say, ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat,’” she told him.

     “Yeah. But there’s only one right way,” Bobby said.

      She loved Bobby, she really, really did. Of course she did. Oh, sometimes she got mad at him. She supposed every wife did that. But when he took her in his arms, especially at night, in bed, she knew that she loved him. She’d stood up in front of the Methodist minister and practically the whole town of Harris and every living person she was related to, and every living person Bobby was related to, and promised to love, honor, and obey him. And she did. It’s what you did when you were married. Of course she loved him.

     She got to her feet, awkwardly and abruptly, only to discover that the shag carpet was wet through. Water squished between her toes, and a moment later her toes squished through the water. Then the water surged higher, and swirled around her ankles. It was ice cold and Corinne felt awake in that way she was sometimes awake in dreams, looking on and not understanding anything that was happening.

     The sunburst clock high on the wall, the one that ran on batteries, said it was going on ten o’clock, though Corinne found it hard to believe that three hours had passed since Bobby had left for work. She felt the baby stir, and she put a hand on her belly as if to soothe it. The clock ticked and she sat, thinking, or trying to. She slogged through the kitchen and used the bathroom again. When she left the bathroom the water seemed even higher. She stood in the living room a moment, looking at her wedding picture hanging on the wall. Should she carry anything upstairs? What should she take, if she couldn’t take all of it?

     She walked up the stairs, the cat on her heels. Bobby said he’d build a handrail before the baby came, but he hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Corinne dragged her hand along the narrow stair walls and remembered being a little girl in the farmhouse where only the children’s bedrooms were upstairs and she and her brothers used to brace their hands and feet against the stairwell walls and walk up and down all the way from top to bottom and back again. Their mother said they weren’t monkeys and to stop it. Their dad only laughed and said it was the sort of thing kids ought to do.

     She had once been a skinny little girl with wiry, muscled limbs and tough, yellow calluses on her hands. A girl her brothers were proud of. This self, herself now, swollen and waddling, who was she? Upstairs, she went into her bedroom and lay down on the bed, curled around her big belly. The cat jumped up beside her and though she knew he probably had fleas and Bobby would be mad, Corinne let him stay. She stroked his back and scratched under his chin. He purred loudly, and he made Corinne smile. She curled around both the cat and her pregnant belly and closed her eyes.

     When she opened her eyes, it was midday. The cat was sitting in the bedroom door, watching her expectantly. The rain was less, and the day brighter than it had been.

     When Swede had showed them the house, Corinne had looked out these same windows and turned to the men and interrupted them. “I thought there were dormer windows.”

     “Oh,” Swede said. “Upstairs. There’s a big attic room. Not much head space, but you can store stuff up there.”

     “Can we see?” Corinne asked.

     Swede led them out to the landing by the stair and pointed up at a trapdoor with a brass ring looped into it. Bobby, who was almost a foot taller than Swede, reached up and tugged on the ring and a set of steps fell down.

     She hadn’t known what to expect—maybe an unfinished space like in the old farmhouse, insulation and planks rather than a floor. Instead, it was a finished room with cabinets and a built-in desk. The floor was painted wood, black and shiny as if it were polished. Most surprising of all was a skylight in the ceiling.

     “Goddamn,” Bobby said behind her. The ceiling was low even in the center of the room and he had to duck to stand up. It slanted steeply on both sides, with the dormers breaking the line of the roof and looking out over the front yard and the road.

     “What the hell?” Bobby said.

     Swede huffed his way up the stairs, too. “My last renter,” he said. “She put that in.”

     “This could be a nursery,” Corinne said. “We could put the crib right here under the skylight.”

     “Right beside the buckets to catch the leaks,” said Bobby. “I’ve never known a skylight that didn’t leak.”

     “Well, it wasn’t my foolishness,” Swede said. “And you ain’t seen the other bedrooms. There’s one right across the hall from you, down there.”

     The men trooped back downstairs and Corinne followed them. It wasn’t until their neighbor, Mrs. Roselli, came to visit that they found out what the skylight was really for.

     “She was an artist,” Mrs. Roselli had explained. “She said she had to paint when she had the light, and you know it’s not that much light around here to waste.”

     Bobby had scoffed at this, but he indulged Corinne again and took her up to the attic room to look with Mrs. Roselli.

     “She called it an atelier,” Mrs. Roselli said. “I made her write it down for me so I would remember. That’s a French word.” Mrs. Roselli went into all the details, as if she were the artist, brilliant simply for having been in the previous tenant’s confidence.

      When she had gone on her way, Bobby said, “You stay away from her. She’s crazy.”

      Looking out the bedroom window, Corinne could see smoke from Mrs. Roselli’s chimney, lifting above the treeline. She wondered if the older woman were all right. Her house stood higher than this one, but who knew, when the world had apparently turned all to water? Corinne peered out at the road, or where the road had been. Logs had jammed up, marking where the bridge was submerged. She went to the head of the stairs and saw that water had filled the first story and looked to be climbing to the second..

     The summer she was eight—seven or eight—the whole family had gone camping at Spirit Lake. Her older brothers had taken a little boat out, rowing around aimlessly. Corinne couldn’t swim and so she wasn’t allowed to go with them. Her father tried to teach her, holding her skinny body in his arms and laughing because she splashed so much.

     “She’ll never learn that way,” her mother said. “You know the only way to teach her.”

      “She doesn’t like to put her face underwater,” her father said. “I don’t see how to teach her.”

      “You know how,” her mother said. “Just the way the boys learned.”

      And then her mild father had done something that so surprised Corinne she could scarcely believe it even now. He had carried her over his shoulder, out the long, weathered dock where the boys tied their boat, and he had thrown her into the lake.

      She had gone down and down, feeling betrayed beyond all understanding.

     She remembered looking up at the water’s surface and seeing how the sun stretched across it. Her feet touched the muddy bottom of the lake and there were green fronds like tall grass all around her. She felt as though she could stay right there. She could stay under the lake forever and punish her father—punish her mother whose fault this surely was—and never return to the surface. But she heard voices and the sun was like someone’s palms as they leaned over a table and urged her up. And so she kicked her feet, just like her dad had tried to tell her earlier. And she came up, gasping for air, amazed.

     A moment later her father had leapt into the water, but by then it was too late. Corinne could swim. She didn’t need him to rescue her.

     She dragged a chair to the landing and climbed up on it and reached up to the trap door, pulling it down effortlessly—Bobby had always made it look harder than that, like it required brute strength. She stepped from the chair onto the third step and climbed into the attic. It was flooded with light and she saw with satisfaction that the skylight had not leaked one drop.  Boxes and furniture her mother had left with them when she moved to Arizona with Richard, a couple stacks of old school books: everything was bone dry.

     Corinne went back down the stairs to the bedroom, clucking at the cat to get him to follow, though he wouldn’t. She took off her robe and her pajamas. She started to pull on one of her dresses, but then she spied a pair of bib overalls that Bobby never wore. She had to roll up the cuffs, but the bib hooked perfectly over her belly. The baby was now awake, doing somersaults, or so it felt.

     “I think it’s a girl,” she had told Bobby early in the pregnancy.

     “If you think it’s a girl, then it is surely a boy,” Bobby had said.

     She hooked the metal clasps over the buttons and then, picking up a pillow and quilt from the bed, climbed the stairs again.  She made a nest in one corner, under the slant of the roof where it looked snug and safe. But, lying down, she didn’t feel safe. The cat had followed her, but he had his back arched, as though threatened. Corinne sat up and curled her arms around her knees. The baby kicked and stretched. Corinne got up and peered through the dormer windows. She could have crawled through them as a kid, but they were too narrow for her. She rubbed her belly. Especially now they were too narrow.

     The light had begun to slant. It was afternoon. As she stood under the skylight, she felt the house groan. The water wouldn’t come higher, how could it? But when she looked out the windows again it wasn’t so much like a lake surrounding the house, as it was like a river. The tops of the fir trees were bent against it. The house shuddered, as if it were alive, a living creature, as if it would step from its foundation and swim away.

      She looked at the cat. “What do you suppose Bobby would do?” she asked it. The cat looked back knowingly.

 She thought about her dad, how he would say, “What do you think, Sis?”

      There was a pole lamp standing beside some boxes and Corinne went to it. It was heavy, but not too heavy for her to lift. The shade was yellowed and old, with a kind of tulip-y design. She turned the lamp over and felt of the metal base, then she lifted the base up and swung it at the skylight. She gave it a feeble, glancing blow at first, then squared herself and swung harder. Glass showered around her, into her hair and down her overalls. She swung the lamp again, knocking out all the glass that she could. The cat had leapt as soon as the glass broke, scattering to a far corner, crouching and hissing. But Corinne kept at it until she had made a smooth edge along the lowest side. Her arms ached and she was puffing with exhaustion by the time she finished.

     She walked back down to the landing to find the water half a foot high or more on the second story. Thinking of the cat, she waded into the bedroom and pulled a pillowcase off one of the pillows. It was embroidered—one of a set, another wedding gift. She stuffed the case in her pocket, then picked up the chair and carried it up to the attic. She set a box on the chair’s seat, then a smaller box on top of that. She coaxed the cat back out of its corner and picked it up. She climbed up the chair and stood on the top box and shoved the cat onto the roof. He tried to leap back in and she blocked his way. “Stay,” she said.

     Corinne stood with her head and shoulders poking out above the roof. She pushed her arms out and tried to hoist herself up. When she couldn’t, she climbed down and got one more box to stack on the chair. When the baby kicked she tried to imagine herself kicking from the bottom of the lake. She twisted to her side and edged up by inches until she was on the roof. She crouched on the rooftop, then half stood. The baby gave another fluttery little kick, and Corinne stood all the way up, straightening slowly, though she wasn’t afraid of falling. Fear didn’t seem to have much of a point, not anymore.

     Across the way, toward where the bridge should be, two men in a small motorboat skipped along the surface of the water, and she waved at them and shouted. She didn’t think they could hear her, but one of the men looked around, then the other, and the boat swung toward her. She didn’t think she knew them, but they were older than Bobby, maybe the age her father would have been. Corinne stood watching them and pictured what she would have to do. Put the cat into the pillowcase and toss it down to them. Make her way to the edge of the roof and drop down into the water. Let the men pull her into the boat. The baby would be all right. She would be all right, too.

     Corinne had never learned to love water. She still didn’t like getting her face wet. But she knew that she would do this. She hadn’t moved yet toward the edge of the roof, but she was ready to move. She could already feel herself leaping, the shock of hitting the cold water. She could already imagine kicking her way to the surface.

 

 

Bethany Reid’s most recent book of poetry is Sparrow, which won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize. Her poems have been published many times in CALYX Journal, but this is the first of her stories to find a place here. Bethany blogs at www.bethanyareid.com and lives in Edmonds, WA, with her husband and daughters.

 

 

 

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