Authors: Brian Francis Slattery
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
HE WAS ON THE
river with Reverend Bauxite when the dream descended upon him, of the mountains and hills melting into the sky. The wrinkles of the land smoothed and rose, the air thickened and fell to meet it, until everything was gray, dull yet luminous, as if there was a sun behind it, though he knew there was no sun there. The whisper of the atmosphere through his ears, the reverberations of the earth, the last echoes of voices all came together in a fading thrum, the final sigh before silence. It lasted no more than a minute, but the image, the sound, would not leave him. Downstream, the ruins of the Market Street Bridge were a tangle of twisted iron, shards of bony concrete jutting from the water. If the bridge goes down, you’ll know we tried, Aline had said. Ten pounds of plastic explosive tied around her chest with a purple scarf. Upstream, the spindles of other bridges, the dark hills sliding into the water, the water itself a field of slate, the same color as the sky, promising storms. He looked down into the current, leaned over and let it wrap around his knuckles. The river was a rope, pulling him through the last hills, the submerged towns and factories, the stunted fields lined with sparse trees, all softened by rain. The leaning house where he was raised. The dead in the driveway. His sister in the window with a rifle, eyes closed and listening, as though she could hear it all. The cries and rumbles of the ruins of the coastal cities, the heads of the buildings on fire while the seawater surged around their knees. The roads snapping between the stony fingers of the shifting hills. The last houses groaning as the roots of the trees pulled them off their foundations, then rushed over the roofs and chimneys, pushing the walls down. Everyone, all of us, trying to speak at once. We are here. We are all here. Even after everything, we are all still here.
Aaron, my baby boy. I never should have let you go.
Sunny Jim’s oar slackened in the Susquehanna’s current. Reverend Bauxite, in the yellow boat with him, thought to say something, but did not. He could tell by the angle of Sunny Jim’s shoulders, his wrists. Something had visited him, Aline for sure. They were so close to where she left them. Reverend Bauxite was on the opposite shore when it happened, saw the snake of fire slither along the bridge. A chain of bombs, a tail of oily flames. When the wind drew the flames away, the bridge was gone. Too much like a magic trick. Aline was in the other hand. Under the hat. She was behind Sunny Jim the whole time, one step away. She was under the water, hugging the bottom of the boat. Putting words in Sunny Jim’s ear, talking to him as I am talking to you now.
Greasy smoke rose on the shore in front of them, over the blasted trees, the sandbags keeping the river back. There was commotion there, figures coming to frantic life in front of the small brick buildings. A new plume of fire, a gas can going up. The low thud of its ignition reached them a second later. There was no other sound until they reached the land and Sunny Jim leapt over the sandbags as Reverend Bauxite churned the water with his oar, fixing the yellow boat in the current. Then they could hear the wailing and shouting, the cries of agitated animals. A voice through a bullhorn. Reverend Bauxite stood and stepped to shore. They brought the boat over together.
“Just then, on the river,” Reverend Bauxite said. “What did you see?” But Sunny Jim was already moving beyond him. The line to Aline, the line to Aaron, pulling him in opposed directions. These cords that God makes, Reverend Bauxite thought, we stand holding one end while they run taut into the darkness. We are connected, to what, we do not know. But if we put the frayed ends up to our ears, we can hear voices.
On the frontage road next to the river, a bomb had made a truck bloom into a metal lily, the sides peeled back and out. Tires melted into asphalt. Things on fire around it. A few old, dark trees, bright with flame. The wooden poles and tarps from vegetable stands, charred and ashen. The vegetables themselves. Twenty-seven corpses, four of them horses, three children. A line of cars, flames painting them gray. The occupying army’s outpost was blackened, but not enough to take the graffito off the side: T
HERE’S NO PLACE LIKE
PA. A mustachioed captain tried to restore order with the bullhorn. Calm down, everyone, please calm down. But they would not be calmed, for their families were dead. The front of the war had come to Harrisburg and stayed for months, a malevolent hurricane, beyond what they thought nature would ever allow, before it moved on. They had survived all of that, thought after it ended that they would be safe. Thought that once they had lived to see it go, they would keep on living.
Sunny Jim and Reverend Bauxite found a crate of food, unwatched, unmolested enough to eat. Picked it up, heads down. Tried not to draw the soldiers’ attention. But the grief around them was too much. Reverend Bauxite approached the families, bowed over the bodies, covered them with cloth. Closed his eyes, uttered words of general benediction. Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. He did not know what the grieving believed, did not wish to send the dead where they did not want to go. But he believed that his deity was generous, would be a guide. A dim flame in dark woods. He bowed his head again as the faces of the families turned skyward, listening for news, for the last thoughts in the heads of the dead, set free and swirling around them like leaves. They never really go. They are always here. With me. And now with you.
THEY SET THE CRATE
in the belly of the boat, pointed the bow south, and floated on the thick current, under the broken arches of the bridges. Passed City Island, the flooded marina. The stadium overgrown with trees and split by shells. The baseball field now a cratered forest. Depressions filled with water from the rain, the river pushing out of the ground, flooding the roots of monumental maples. The whole place, the whole city, going under, for too much at last had been asked of it.
Reverend Bauxite looked away, then forced himself to look back. Smacked his lips and pulled a pipe from his jacket. Packed it with bits of dried apple, scraps of tobacco. He had not lit it in fifteen months. He missed the smoke, but the smell and taste of it were still there, a tang in his mouth. The feel of the bone against his teeth and tongue, and he was in his rectory again, years ago. The stained brick, the stone stairs. The dusty scent in the hallway, a hint of impending mildew. He could never figure out where it came from. In his office, blue carpeting, white linen curtains for the bay window. He was leaning against his desk, his fingers following the deep scratches in the top. Talia sat in a faded pink wingback chair, legs crossed, examining her nails. Speaking to him in a singsong voice, a lilt of minor thirds. Reverend, she said, your parishioners, myself included, think you should do more services around Lent. She was in the third row on the aisle every Sunday, fixed her eyes on him from the first word of his sermon to the last, closed her eyes when she sang. Always looked at him as if she already knew a truth that would take him years to discover.
The war was so distant from him then. Reports of small calamities from people moving north on the river. There’s been some blood down there, they’d say. A couple towns burned in Georgia, North Carolina. Outside the rectory, they were celebrating the end of the monsoon. Boys beating on boxes and trash cans. Sixteen of the people in the choir singing and clapping their hands. A small mob in the street, shaking and shuffling, just glad for the sun. The church rising behind them, straight and serene. The light falling all over the city, taking the water away. It rose in columns of steam, as if Harrisburg was on fire, but when the mist dispersed, the city was still whole. That day, it was possible to imagine it always would be. For the city was weathered and sparking, a place of chipped houses on narrow streets, and you could read on its face what it had seen. During the Civil War, it saw soldiers and munitions heading south on the trains, corpses heading north, while young men trained for more slaughter in a camp on the edge of town, parading with bayonets before rows of white tents, as if they thought the war would be orderly. During the Cold War, it got a small dose of what everyone else was so afraid of. Not an explosion, but a meltdown, emptying the streets and houses, the people thinking about giving up on the place. But they didn’t, not yet. Once, before Reverend Bauxite was born, even before the rivers rose and the trees came to swallow everything, when the last factories were not quite dead and the capital was still the capital, Pennsylvania still Pennsylvania, old men in wool jackets smoked in the bars of hotels with wrought-iron porches. On a sunny summer evening the streets teemed with people. A handsome couple rode in a red convertible with whitewall tires, a cooler of beer hanging open in the backseat. On a night of torrential rain, a slack teenager with long oily hair served Middle Eastern food to three out-of-towners, who could not keep a straight face at the things he said. Is the food any good? Because I’ve never eaten here. Here—bringing some fruit on a platter at the end of the meal—he told me to give these to you. The out-of-towners talked about him for years afterward, wrote it down in their diaries, and it fixed the city in their minds. Kept it alive for as long as they were, and after they were gone. Had the Confederate army come to Harrisburg instead of Gettysburg, had Three Mile Island been worse, Harrisburg might have died sooner, and I would not be able to tell you anything about it. It is gone now, and my memory of it, from before the war, before everything else, is all I have. If I had known when I was there that it would be gone so soon—if I had known all that was coming—I would have tried harder to remember more. To write it down then, instead of now, when I have forgotten so much.
They drifted past the islands off Steelton, under the broken span of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Rounded the bend in the river near the blasted runway of the airport, Sunny Jim steering in the back. The destruction all seemed remote from them. Reverend Bauxite was always seeing it, the world without the war. Had to believe it would end, for all things passed, did they not, save one? On the land were burnt houses, the remains of firefights. Women kneeling in the street before a relative, bleeding away. Scorched trees, black vines, hanging over the current on the shore. Dogs in the leafy darkness at night. And in the river, fish hovered, water striders rode the surface. Herons stalked the shallows. As if the war had never begun.
Reverend Bauxite had seen it even the night Aline left. All along the Harrisburg shore, human screams and the roar of explosions. The end of the world for them, an end in fire. But all around him, mayflies rose in the air, trout leapt to catch them before their flight. He waded into the water, lifted his arms, and the flow of the Susquehanna whispered around his calves. It flowed as the bridge fell into it. Flowed as it put the fires out. We put our dead into it, our dead and mountains of slag, and still it flowed, Reverend Bauxite thought. We dug tunnels beneath it and it broke its way in, filled them, and flowed. It could wash away anything in time, without hurry or judgment, as it did before we ever saw it, as it would when we could not see anymore. But he was not consoled.