The Ghosts are Dancing
by Rosanne Griffeth
The rain ended on the mountain. Joel reckoned they had seen the worst of the damage. He knew, as soon as the water receded, the sky would blacken with the smoke of burning livestock corpses. Weeks would pass before he could plough the muddy silt left in the fields.
Joel dressed with his boys watching, their eyes big but sure in their safety.
“You two take care of your Mommy, hear?”
They nodded and looked toward their mother.
“Joel, I wish I could talk some sense into you. You have no idea what’s going on down that mountain,” Trudy said, but handed him his oilcloth duster.
“Well,” Joel said, “I reckon I’ll know when I get there.”
“Go on with you, then. Go get your sister. The two of you never could see much sense between you. Won’t listen to nobody, the pair of you.” Trudy set her mouth in a straight thin line.
Joel slogged through the water to the knoll where his livestock huddled, with two halters and a pair of long-leads.
His gray draft mules stood with hind hooves cocked and hipbones jutting. Their long ears drooped in an effort to keep their ears dry. Of all the animals clustered there, the hardy mules were nonplussed by the storm.
“Pete! Repeat!” Joel hollered. They turned their heads and looked at him with hooded eyes. Joel haltered the two mules, talking low and steady. He clipped on their leads and pulled himself up on Repeat.
“Whoo, Mule!” he said, and started the journey down the mountain, keeping to the high spots. The mules balked fording the swollen creeks but Joel held them steady. The journey twisted five miles through hollers and gaps down the old Raven’s Creek Road.
Joel rode in the needle sharp wind toward Lurlene and her babies, determined to bring his twin home. In his bones, he felt ill at ease.
The sun peeked through the clouds in the clearing sky. Trees whipped the air and little white caps erupted on standing water. White clouds with muddy bottoms chased across the sky like collies after sheep.
Lurlene dressed herself and the children. Lacie whined, hungry and cranky, so Lurlene stuffed a binky in her mouth as a make-do, and they left the house.
The water rushed past at a furious pace but Lurlene knew it couldn’t be more than two feet deep. She looked to the high ground where a crowd had gathered. Someone waved at her.
She waved back and hollered to them, “Help! We got to get out of here!”
She knew someone yelled back and signaled to her but the roar of the water washed the voice away. The house made a sickening groan and shifted on its foundation. Lurlene yelped and hugged her babies tighter.
“Help!” she called again to the villagers gathered across the water. They waved and the house shuddered once more. Lurlene didn’t see any choice but to make her way to them. The cottage threatened to slip its foundation and if they stayed there, they would be swept to their deaths.
She knelt down beside Bridey and grasped her thin arms. She stroked the long black hair she had not had time to braid.
“Listen here, Baby,” Lurlene raised her voice above the crashing rapids, “we are going to cross here and get over where everyone is. You hear?”
Bridey looked with frightened eyes at the stretch of water and nodded.
“I need you to hold onto my hand and not let go. Okay?” Lurlene said.
“’Kay.” Bridey's whisper floated away in the wind.
On the far bank, Lurlene saw her neighbors waving. She thought they were waving her onward.
Lurlene grasped Bridey’s hand in a vise-like grip, hitched Lacie high on her hip, and stepped off the porch. Bridey trailed behind her as they left the creaking, shifting house and walked into the flood.
Joel approached the village at a jarring trot on Repeat with Pete trailing behind him.
A crowd clustered on the banks of the Pigeon, looking across the water. The river had retraced its vicious path through the middle of the village. Some shopkeepers piled sandbags in front of their doors, while others stood back, watching the flood devour their livelihood.
Joel heard people yelling, “Go back! Go back! We’re getting a boat! Go back! We’ll come get you!”
He scanned the fast moving water and saw his sister trying to navigate the channel with his nieces. His hands clenched and he cursed. Dropping Pete’s lead, he spurred Repeat into the flood. The big mule lunged, leaning into the current. He had to reach Lurlene before she waded into the swiftest part of the floodtide. She stumbled to her knees and Joel dug into Repeat’s flanks again.
The crowd on the bank shouted to Lurlene, “Go back!” their voices vanishing into the thunder of wind and water.
Repeat thrashed in fits and lunges through the floodtide.
“Stay put, Lurlene—Stay put!” he hollered into the stinging wind.
Lurlene staggered to her feet, and Lacie, now soaked, began screaming. Lurlene’s face lit up when she saw Joel coming for them on the familiar farm mule. Bridey held on, her fingers white like bone.
The people on the bank saw it first. Then Joel saw it and screamed to Lurlene, “Move!”
Bridey turned into the current and she saw it too. An enormous log tore through the shallows like a giant arrow. Bridey screamed a high-pitched scream that started high and loud then faded to a squeak.
Joel whipped Repeat forward, but the big mule couldn’t make it in time. Lurlene saw it last and tried to pull Bridey from the path of the hurtling log.
A shaft of light pierced the clouds, illuminating the tableau. Joel stretched his hand out, reaching for Lurlene and the children. Some of the people on the bank hid faces in hands. Some turned away. Lacie’s cupid bow mouth distorted into a soundless scream and her head tilted back against her mother’s shoulder. Lurlene’s eyes told a story of the beginnings of a descent into madness. And Bridey stood frozen, watching the juggernaut of a log bear down on them. For a moment, the screams drowned out the sound of the river.
The end was swift, sure and inevitable. The log hit between Lurlene and Bridey, sweeping Bridey away. Lurlene loosed an anguished cry of rage and pain as Bridey tumbled and bobbed like a doll in the water. At one moment, her head rose above the foam and she raised her eyes to her mother. Lurlene cried out to her, but Bridey said nothing. Those eyes, her beloved’s eyes, found Lurlene’s. Bridey begged for salvation in silence, until the water closed over her head and she saw no more.
Lacie howled in outrage as her mother squeezed the breath out of her. Lurlene would have collapsed to her knees in the foaming, turgid stream had Joel not grabbed her in time. His strong farmer’s arms grabbed little Lacie and threw his hysterical sister over the withers of Repeat. He brought them to shore. He brought them to safety. He rescued all but one.
They found little Bridey the next day, wedged under a pick-up truck that had tumbled down the river from God knows where. She was curled up like a baby and her long black hair fanned about her like a wave of shine. She hadn’t traveled far from home, but her soul had crossed a greater distance.
Months later, Lurlene returned there. The little white house stood there still, rocked back solid on its foundation. The wind blew softer than it had that day. She saw the river with hollow eyes and thin chapped lips. Lurlene looked older, her face a roadmap for the sorrows of Appalachia. Her housedress hung on her frame, like the skin on a dying hound.
Lurlene dreamed of Bridey and smelled her scent, like cookies and Play-Doh wafting through her mind’s night. She looked so real and soft and alive as she danced and played, laughing and lisping. Lurlene thought she might see something of her baby girl on the riverbank--some remnant of her spirit lingering there. Mayhap, she thought to see a flash of shiny black hair or the glint of bright blue eyes.
But all Lurlene saw were the piles of trees, broken, bleached and gnarled. They lay strewn about the river like the bones of disaster. Like her own bones, sharp and pale, piercing her sadness. She turned her face into the soft wind and felt it divert her tears.
Her brother, her twin, stood behind her gripping her shoulders. She turned and buried her face in his chest, breathing in his scent. It was the scent they shared--the scent of home. It smelled of everything she had and everything she had lost. Lurlene shuddered as she breathed in the scent of her life--her family.
It was in that one moment, Lurlene understood, that the ghosts were dancing.