BILL CHENG has won critical acclaim for his debut novel, ‘Southern Cross The Dog’, and particularly for his ability to evoke a time and a place – the first half of the 20th century in the swamplands of the South. Here he conjures the Great Flood of 1927 that devastated Mississippi
Ellis stood on his porch, listening to the rain against the overhang. It spilled through the slats, the floorboards, his feet. An uneasy feeling had rousted him out of his sleep and now he could see it on the road: a soft orb of lantern light coming toward him. He lifted up his rifle and trained it. Droplets splashed and beaded on the long barrel. He could hear the hollow of the chamber tinkling. The light paused at the gate, then slowly made its way up the path to the porch.
Ho there!, he called out. Come any closer and I’ll pay you with lead.
Ellis leaned his cheek against the sight. The man slid the lantern hood and let a ray cast across his face. It was Ellis’s partner, Skinny. The rain had matted his hair against his forehead. Ellis eased off his grip.
Damn it, Skinny. Haven’t you any sense coming around this hour?
Give me harbor.
Ellis leaned his gun against the wall and took Skinny’s hand as he came up on the porch. Skinny shivered in his oilskin coat. He hung his lantern by the window and looked at the leaks spilling through the roof.
I just come from Wilkin’s farm, he said. Talking with Dave Eaton’s boy. Said he saw dynamiters coming through Mayersville.
Dynamiters, Ellis said.
He scratched the rough hairs on his neck and tried take the measure of his friend.
They actually going to do it.
Me and Eaton are going around, telling everyone what we know.
The two men stood and listened to the rain. It was filling up the countryside, and if there were dynamiters, it meant that the levee at Mayersville wouldn’t hold much longer. They’d blast it to ease the pressure but the force would bust every tributary south-river of Mayersville. Issaquena County and every township along the lowlands would be buried under a swell of rain and angry river.
How long you reckon? Ellis asked.
Skinny took off his hat and squeezed the wet out. He shook his head.
Not long, I don’t think. I’m off tonight. I ain’t taking no chances. Going out to Winona—my boy’s family is out there.
I ain’t got nobody in no Winona.
Skinny sucked something out of his teeth. He fit his hat back on his head and took his lantern from its hook.
You can’t stay here, Skinny said. He looked out back toward the night. I’m just telling you ’cause I known you a long ways back and I know your people’s been through hard times.
Ellis looked back at the house.
Skinny, he said.
It’s just a place, Ellis. Wood and nails. A house ain’t like a person.
You got to look after yours.
Ellis put his lips together into a knot and nodded slow.
IN THE RAIN THE MEN CROWDED THE RIVER EDGE. They’d worked through the night, sandbags at their shoulders, the numbness set heavy in their chests and arms. They sunk waist deep into the soft mud, hefting their bodies forward and up. When the lantern went, they stopped in their places and listened to each other breathe. Rain flickered white in the darkness. Somewhere beyond them was the river. It groaned and roiled, eating the banks, crisping against the rocks. After a moment, someone cut the wet from the wick and relit the lantern.
The men shifted under a cake of rain and mud and sweat. Come dawn a wound of light bellied through the clouds. In the light, they could see what they couldn’t before. Piece by piece, the embankment was falling away into the current, their sandbags shooting up downriver.
There was a pop, and a jet of gray water gushed through the embankment. Shouts rose up and a wave of men raced toward the break. They shored it up with their bodies, crying more men, more men. The air cracked and the ground trembled. The water ripped through them like paper, sending them into the air, into the mud. The river burst forward and the levee crumbled under it, tearing through the camp, through forest, rising up in a great yellow wall, driving close, fast, screaming like a train, its roar sucking up the sky, a voice crowning open like the Almighty, through Fitler and Cary and Nitta Yuma, acre by acre, through cornfields and cotton rows; through plantation houses and dogtrots, wood and brick and mortar, through the depots and churches and rail yards, through forest and valley, snapping boulders through the air. Houses rose up, bobbed, then smashed together like eggshells. Homes bled out their insides—bureaus, bathtubs, drawers, gramophones—before folding into themselves. The people scrambled up on their roofs, up trees, clinging to one another. The water blew them from their perches, swept them into the drift, smashed them against the debris. They bubbled up swollen and drowned, rag-dolling in the current, moving deeper and deeper inland, toward Issaquena.
WHEN THE FLOODWATERS CAME, ELLIS LAY SPRAWLED IN HIS CHAIR, SMOTHERED DOWN IN SLEEP. In his dream he could hear his boy call for him—Daddy, Daddy—up through the depths, his voice crashing, warm at first then a jolt of panic. Each call came brighter, sharper—Daddy, please Daddy—hoisting him up through miles of dreaming. His eyes opened into the bright noise of the world. The floorboards were dark and swollen at his feet. Water bubbled up through the planks. Daddy. Wake up, Daddy, he heard, and he saw Little Robert beside him tugging hard on his flannel shirt.
I’m awake, Ellis said, his voice hoarse. He rose unsteadily to his feet. They watched a rocking chair slide on its legs. The water was climbing. The boy threw himself around his father’s waist and out of habit Ellis touched the back of the boy’s neck.
Go get your mama, he said.
Ellis wrapped up what food he could in newspaper and crammed their clothes into carpetbags and satchels. Quick now, he called to his son. Robert was waiting with his mother, holding her hand. She was dressed in her powder-blue church dress with a straw sun hat fit over her head.
Ellis moved toward her.
Etta, he began, but then he heard the house crack under his feet. Come on, let’s go.
He unlatched the front door and the water sluiced through, soaking his lower half. Ellis grunted, pushed through the doorway, and out onto the porch.
Beyond the steps, the floodwaters prickled moodily over the surrounding country. The dogwoods were stunted, their fluffed heads bowed over the water. Toward town, houses had broken free from their foundations and were bobbing in place.
He turned and the boy’s eyes started to glass. He sent Robert inside for a rope and made a yoke around his waist, tying one end to his wife and the other to his son.
Stay close together, he told them.
Ellis went in first. He lowered himself slowly off the porch, into the rush of water. He bit down on his yell and tried to shake the ice from his head. A piano floated by and he swung to the side and let it pass. He balanced his bundle on his head and looked up at his wife and son.
Just like a bath. That’s all it is, he said.
He motioned for Robert to come down next. Then Etta. Her dress flowered up around her, and she held her hat down against her head. Oh, she said. They shivered and hugged themselves, the slack of the rope floating up between them.
They waded against the current toward the telegraph poles in the distance, to Rolling Fork. Every now and then Ellis would cry out left, left, right, right and he could feel the tug against his waist, the knot biting into his hip as they dodged the flotsam. Pebbles churned in the yellow soup, hitting his legs and ribs and stomach.
Midday, the rain stopped and the sun broke through into the clean sky. The waters washed against them in thick moody rolls. Around them, people lay on their roofs, blankets spread out under them. The air buzzed with their crying. One man called out to them in a high ragged voice. Ellis watched him over his shoulder, jumping up and down and swinging his arms.
Boy! You there!
Robert looked over.
Don’t pay him no attention, Ellis said.
Hey! Where you going?
There was a crack and a crown of water splashed up some feet away from Robert.
I’m talking to you!
Another crack, and Robert winced. He kept his head down and they trudged forward.
Extracted from Southern Cross The Dog by Bill Cheng (Picador). © Bill Cheng 2013.
Bill Cheng has received a BA in Creative Writing from Baruch College and is a graduate of Hunter College’s MFA programme. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he currently lives in Brooklyn.