How the River Breaks Your Heart
Longlisted for The Raymond Carver Short Story Prize 2015
It was the heat they said. Too much of it was liable to send folks crazy. Too much and the river shrank and the prairie turned to dust. So it was that summer. It was too hot to move. Mussels popped like firecrackers in the White River mud and drylanders cast a jealous eye on the houseboats moored in the shade of the Creek.
If it hadn’t been for the heat Abe Coker might not have dozed off that morning. He might have fixed his eyes on the river, he might have seen the paddle wheeler as it rounded the Bluff, swinging out to avoid the sandbar grown thick with drought. He might have jerked hard on the rope, and his brother Buck, who was after netting a haul of mussels way down below the river’s surface, might have been saved.
Grace Maddox was two days short of nineteen and three weeks short of being Buck’s wife when he drowned and her future got sucked down with him into the brown river mud. She was just done putting out fresh water for the hens in their coop on the bank when she saw her mother Ida and her brother Harper walking towards her. She could tell by the way her mother clutched her apron and the way Harper hung his head and trailed behind her that it was trouble. She guessed it was Buck. Mussel catching was a dangerous occupation. She’d gone to watch once – only once, because she couldn’t reckon with the way he disappeared when he lowered the weight of the can over his head. It had no eyes and the breathing hose was flimsy as a quilt feather. Going down underwater was near enough to getting your head blown off, he said, until you got used to it that was. But no part of Grace could ever imagine getting used to it.
After they told her, she was blind as Buck in his mussel catcher’s helmet, blind as Harper was deaf. Blind to the sunlight through the cottonwoods and the grass, blind to the glint in the snapping turtle’s eye, and the smoke from the bush fires. The world carried on without her. When her skin burned in the fierce sun, she paid it no mind. She went about her chores, fetching water from the spring, setting the trotlines with Harper, washing the decks, hoeing the ground, silently, like a shadow in the river mist. So that even Elmer Glass eyeing her from his boat across the river, as he had a fondness for doing, leaning back in his chair, shotgun resting on his knee and his one-eyed dog at his feet, did not disturb her.
Elmer Glass was an outlaw, people said. Done some bad things and come to hide on the river. Hallie Carter didn’t credit it. Hallie lived in the boat adjacent to Grace with her husband Lee and their children who Lee beat at least once a week just because he could.
Elmer wasn’t all bad, Halle said. He was nothing but a miner come on hard times. Everyone knew how river folk liked to talk and were prone to exaggeration. He’d been a different man, she said, before his wife Carlotta got to wondering what life would be like on dry land. It was five years since Carlotta had gone. And who could blame her what with the mosquitos and the mildew and the way the icicles hung indoors in winter? He was soft on that dog, soft on most all critters, Hallie said. Couldn’t help being soft on Grace too what with her being such a beauty and all.
To Grace, Emler Glass was a hungry bob cat waiting to pounce. Hallie’s Lee too, for that matter, Not that she told Hallie, but ever since Grace’s father had died from a weak heart Lee had been ogling her. Always out on the deck trying to catch her when she was taking a bath in the Creek. Buck had been going to take her away from all of that. Far enough so she wouldn’t see Lee, so she wouldn’t hear Elmer barking at her like a brown-mudcat from across the water, and she wouldn’t be reminded of all the times he’d exacted his price from her.
Like the first time. Winter. The hardest time and the water fast freezing, a homeless wind ranging across the prairie and down river. Harper was sick and couldn’t trap or hunt and Buck was away with the loggers when Elmer Glass called across to Grace.
He dangled a full stringer of catfish and bream. ‘Caught a whole mess of fish today. Come over and get these Missy. People gotta eat don’t they? That Ma and brother of yours be mighty hungry I reckon, and you sure as need some flesh on those bones. I’ll leave ’em here.’ He hung the stringer from a deck post and went inside.
Grace rowed across, tied the boat to the stage plank and stepped up onto Elmer’s deck. As she reached to untie the stringer the door opened, Elmer leaned into its frame. Grace dropped her arm to her side. The dog circled round her and sniffed at her feet.
‘There now, that didn’t take so long. Got me a nice fire roaring if you care to step inside Missy, and a pot of coffee on the stove. You can sit awhile, can’t you?’
‘I need to get back and fry these up. Harper’s sick. We’re grateful though, Ma says to tell you an’all.’ She reached up for the stringer.
Elmer’s hand reached out and clamped down over hers. ‘Whoa, not so fast Missy. I reckon that kinda gratitude needs some kinda expression now, don’t you? I think a man deserves a proper thank you. Just a little kiss maybe. A kiss for a stringer of fish, some folks’d say cheap at the price.’ He leaned towards her, she smelled his hog breath and the smoke in his hair and the fish on his cold skin but she let him kiss her all the same.
Buck had been the one. The one to take her away from it. They wouldn’t stay on the river long, Buck said. Just as soon as they had the money they’d buy up a plot near Charles, build a house. There were opportunities on the land. The worst was over. They’d been saving hard, Buck’s wages, plus the money Grace made from minding animals and milking, and then the River Tears, the pearls Buck found in the mussels. Pearls could fetch a good price. Grace had sewn a cotton bag with a drawstring to keep them in.
‘Best sell them,’ she told Ida putting the bag of pearls in her lap. ‘They ain’t no good to me now Buck’s gone, and we’ll be needing a new roof before winter. We can sell the dress too, buy new chickens and a coat for Harper.’
She’d made the dress with Ida’s help, bought the cotton lawn from the store in Charles, edged it with French lace that Ida got from somewhere, although she would never say where. Just that she’d been saving up and if a mother couldn’t see her own daughter right then what was the world coming to.
Ida took the dress, folded it in lining paper, tied it with ribbon and put it in the box drawer under her bed, where she dried the herbs and the wild honeysuckle. ‘We ain’t selling no dress,’ she said. ‘One day, one time you can’t see now, you just might be needing it. It ain’t for sale.’
The dress was kept and the pearls were sold. Grace did not argue, she had other things on her mind. Word was that Abe Coker, Buck’s brother, had taken it hard, so hard he was drinking and threatening to do himself harm. She took the rowboat and went visiting. It was the first time she’d seen Abe since Buck’s funeral. There was no consoling him. She tried; she told him to get away from the river before it broke his heart too, gave him some dollars from the sale of the pearls, said it’s what Buck would have wanted and no way would Buck have blamed Abe for what happened that morning. She said it even though in her heart she felt different.
Water lay still and scummy, thick with flies. With each passing week, the river shrank. It was forbidden to walk barefoot in the grass for fear of snakes and everyone was praying for rain except Grace who didn’t much care whether it rained or burned.
Grace was hanging a line of washing along the front of the boat with her back to the river when Elmer Glass started up. It was getting to be every day now, as if there was no need to hold back. ‘You sure is looking hot and bothered this morning Missy, why don’t you come over here. I got me a whole bucket of ice for cooling down.’ He laughed and hawked and spat tobacco onto the deck. ‘Hear that young brother of Buck’s, Abe Coker gone and thrown himself off the Bluff. Least that’s what folks at the ice house are saying. Only place he could find water deep enough.’
Her blood ran cold. Elmer’s eyes bored a sinkhole in her back.
‘Ain’t that a pity now, both of them gone to meet their maker. You ain’t got nobody, honey, and that belly of yours all swollen up. Time you started being nice to your uncle Elmer.’
If only she could go inside and get Eugene’s gun and blast Elmer Glass right out of the water. Put a stop to him for good. She thought about Abe. She guessed it was true. That was the river for you.
Hallie came out onto her deck; Elmer slunk inside. ‘You alright, Grace?’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Hallie. ‘He don’t mean it, you know. Want to come over and drink some coffee?’
‘Be alright, you see to the children,’ said Grace. ‘Heard them crying last night.’
Hallie sighed, shook her head. ‘I’m gonna leave him, just as soon as I can,’ she said. ‘He’s a pure bastard with that belt and no denying. At least you won’t have no man beating your child.’ She said nodding at Grace’s stomach.
Grace put her hands on her belly. She was waiting to feel the child kick. Ida said it would be anytime soon. Sweat seeped through her cotton dress and she wondered how long she could last in the heat.
It was Harper who wanted to go to the Brush Arbour on Sunday. He said it with his hands. Ida said he was right, that’s what Sundays were for. ‘Besides,’ she said to Grace, ‘it’ll do you good, take your mind off things. Can’t go forgetting the Lord just because it feels like he’s forsaken you. It don’t work like that.’
They joined the trail of Sunday folk swatting flies, shoes covered in yellow dust as they made their way along the riverbank to hear Preacher Inman preach under the Arbour. It was a mile or so, no more, in a cottonwood clearing, all woven in with vines, branches and leaves to create the shade. Under the canopy you could breathe out and let your skin grow cool as a catfish. Grace sank down onto one of the long wooden benches. It was where she and Buck would have been married, where the child would be baptised.
Harper ran up front to Preacher Inman and crouched on the low stool next to the wooden lectern. The preacher let him sit there and take the Book from him and then hand it back when he needed to read from it. Harper took the Book like he was lifting a nest of pintails out of the plum blossom.
After the preaching and the hymn singing, Grace told Ida she was making her way back. She wasn’t hungry. She didn’t want a fish fry. She didn’t want to hear the music or dance under the Arbour as it grew dark and the lanterns swayed. She didn’t want to be reminded of how she got with Buck on just such a night two summers ago.
Grace sat out and watched the quiet river. It was a relief. For once there was no Elmer Glass and no sound from Hallie’s or anybody round about, just the gentle plop of fish in the water. The sun had gone down and the fierce heat was draining from the day. She went indoors and fetched a wrap of towel and a cake of lye soap. She walked downstream out of sight of the boats, took off her dress and waded into the river. She floated a while, swam a little, then soaped herself clean.
She heard it just as she stepped out of the water; a low moaning, like an animal in pain, coming from up stream. She stepped out of the river, dried herself and hurried back along the riverbank. The nearer she got the more she knew for sure the moaning and the crying was coming from their boat. The voice was Harper’s.
The boat rocked as she leapt up the stage plank and pushed open the door. Harper was on the chair by the stove clutching himself and Ida stood beside him helpless.
‘What is it? What’s happened?’
‘Harper got himself into some trouble,’ said Ida holding up her hands as if to say stop there, ‘but he’s alright. He’s gonna be alright, ain’t you Harper?’ She nudged him.
Harper nodded. He stopped moaning but he was crying still. It was inside, Grace could see him crying inside.
‘What kinda trouble?’ She stepped forward.
‘You may as well know he took a beating. I was talking to Hallie and he was playing with the children, then they ran off somewhere and Lee went looking. Lee had his belt off in his hand and when Harper saw him coming, well, he kicked him right there in the shins. To stop him, stop him taking the belt to the young uns…’ She paused and looked at Harper who was watching her mouth. ‘So he took the belt to Harper instead.’
‘This right, Harper?’ Grace signed.
‘Let me see.’
Harper took to whimpering as Ida slowly lifted his blood stained shirt. His back was a mess of welts and weeping.
‘Jesus. Jesus Christ. How can a man do that? Here,’ she knelt down and took Harper’s hands in hers. He lifted his head, his eyes watched her. ‘I’m sorry Harper,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry.’
They lay him face down on his bed and washed his back, gently as they could. Ida put a powder made from goldenseal and willow on the wounds and gave him a sleeping draught.
When Harper was asleep, Grace told Ida to go to bed.
‘Don’t you go doing something stupid,Grace. Something you’re gonna regret. Leave it.’
Grace went to the cupboard by the pump and reached inside for Eugene’s hunting gun. ‘Go to bed, Ida.’
There was no moon. Grace sat down in the darkness to wait. She knew chances were Lee Carter would be out for a last smoke before bed. Across the river she saw the shadows of Elmer Glass and his one-eyed dog watching and she prayed for once, just this once, he wouldn’t call out.
When the door of the boat opened and Lee stepped out onto the deck, Grace stood up. Before he had time to spark a cigarette, she took aim and shot him. A wood duck flew up from the water as Lee dropped to the floor. Grace shot him a second time while he lay slumped on the planks, then went back inside.
Some said it was the heat. Others said a man like Lee Carter had got what was coming to him. River justice, that’s what it was. The drylanders said different, they said the time had come to be done with river justice. Time the river folk got the justice of the De Wit courtroom, same as they did, never mind that Hallie Carter was not after pressing charges and had gone west to live with an aunt who never cared for the river. It was time they said, that the river folk be subject to the rule of law. Folks could not go on taking the law into their own hands, that’s what the deputation told Sheriff Hogan Jnr. It was time to act, they said.
Grace heard the motor die in the river, felt the swell of the boat’s wake slap against the deck and heard Sheriff Hogan’s slow, sorry, boots creaking up the stage plank. She told Ida and Harper to stay sat where they were, then she got up and opened the door. Sheriff Hogan took off his hat as he stepped onto the deck. Across the river, the one-eyed dog barked and Elmer Glass hauled himself up from his chair.
‘Hey, there Sheriff,’ Elmer called across the river. Sheriff Hogan turned. ‘Reckon you got yourself on the wrong side of the river this morning, don’t you? That is if you’re after catching Lee Carter’s killer, which I presume you are. Reckon you’re in the wrong place.’
‘You reckon so?’ The Sheriff called back.
‘That’s right. I reckon so,’ called Elmer. He held up his hunting gun. ‘You know how it is Sheriff, a man can get mighty sick of hearing the children crying night after night from the belt.’
‘That so?’ said the Sheriff.
Elmer nodded. ‘Indeed. Now, you go on inside Missy. Ya’ hear me,’ he shouted. ‘Ain’t no call for you to be out here, go in with your Ma and the boy.’ Grace hesitated. ‘Go on now,’ Elmer repeated.
She turned and went back into the boat closing the door behind her.
Elmer put his gun down. ‘Get those silver bracelets ready Sheriff, I’m coming over. Hot damn, bet you never had such an obliging felon Sheriff, did’ya now?’ Elmer stepped forward a pace, rested his hand on the one-eyed dog’s head then walked down the stage plank and into his canoe.
Grace heard the motor start up. She listened to it take off, fade, and eventually die away down river. She came out onto the deck and sat alone. Ida and Harper let her be. She sat until dusk when the mosquitos swarmed and the birds grew silent.
When the stars came tumbling out, the one-eyed dog started up his howling and didn’t stop. The howl ran across the water. It ricocheted off the Bluff and out over the prairie. It echoed down the White River, through the state of Arkansas, way down to the Mississippi, to the delta and far out to sea.
Grace Maddox got up, walked down the stage plank, lowered herself into Elmer Glass’s canoe and began to paddle downstream. She paddled through the dark water, while the world slept and the dog howled. She paddled until moonflowers waned and eagles rose with the sun. Until the howling died away. Until it all faded to nothing.