The Bottoms contained an assortment of blacks, Irish, drunks, and whores along with other undesirables. There were children, skinny legged, sad eyed, always hungry children. The river wrapped around the narrow spit of land in the shape of a V, crossed on one side by Matthew’s bridge, a half rotten wooden bridge, and on the other by a set of marshy pathways. Some of the people there were good but it was not a good place to live. When times got better they expected to move on to ground that didn’t flood every time it rained. In the meantime they kept their few valuables high and the food higher, and hoped for a dry summer.
At Christmas time the good ladies of the many church auxiliaries would come out with baskets of food and toys for the children. On these obligatory gift giving trips they called that side of town the Creek, as if the fifteen feet wide river was just a trickle of water and the people there Creek people as if they were some tribe of mismatched Indians. The Creek people tolerated this, since smiling and agreeing meant a heavy Christmas ham while reminding the fine Christian Ladies of their prejudices brought nothing.
There were signs that summer, little ways the animals changed, that told anyone who was looking that there would be a storm, a bad one. Just how bad no one could say for sure but everyone agreed that something should be done about Matthew’s bridge. No one did anything, of course. It was July, and hot, and not nearly close enough to Christmas for the ladies to care about the Creek people but they all agreed just the same. It was the depression and money was scare enough for the decent people of the town, let alone for the Creek people. So when the storm came and the rain pounded the earth, everyone knew that if they went to the Creek Matthew’s bridge might be nothing but a pile of sticks drifting on the water. They knew, and yet they dawdled. They put on rain boots, they checked the skies hoping for signs that it would clear, and finally they went out.
As if by some mystic shared knowledge all the cars stopped twenty feet from where Matthew’s bridge had been. That put them a good ten feet away from the edge of the river, the one they had mockingly called a creek all these years. No one would call it a creek now. It surged with brown foamy water, overflowing its banks, chewing up trees as if they were nothing. The bridge was gone. There would be no easy way to help the Creek people.
And those people needed help. They lined the other side of the river, children crying, mothers looking on in mute appeal. Even the drunks sobered up at the sight of that river rising. Water already lapped at their feet on the undesirable side of the river and they all knew that if they didn’t get to higher ground soon there would be no getting away from the hungry river.
The town fathers, good white men all, consulted each other. The good ladies smiled, and shouted promises. But there was no way any of them would get into that river. Not now, when half a tree floated by, the trunk a mess of spikes. They needed boats, they all agreed, and the boats were back at home. The rain opened up then, coming down harder, faster, when everyone on both sides of the river hoped it would stop.
But it didn’t. The men from town herded their families back into cars, and the ladies’ promises changed. They’d be back, with boats! Soon. Stay away from the edge children. We’ll be back as quick as we can. But at home the boats were tied up tight, brought inside from the storm. Lightening crashed and the men debated if it was safe for them to carry the boats, safe to drive so close to the river. Anyone who would normally argue for the Creek people instead bit their lip, looked at the storm, and shivered. The rain kept coming.
Under the pounding of the rain a new sound, a low wailing. The Creek people were drowning. A child first, or maybe a father, trying to do something to stop the inevitable water. Wailing followed by screams, shouts for help. Oh please, God someone help us. And the good people of the town stayed inside and pretended not to hear.
Were they safe then, those good people? Were they following good sense and not drowning in the cause of helping someone else? Self preservation or calloused indifference? Was there any difference between the two? Not on that night.
And not on this one either. Almost a hundred years later, a storm harder and faster than anything anyone can remember. A different town now, with no Creek. The undesirables in public housing, cinderblocks of neglect. Out by the river those decedents of good people who once were deaf look out at the sky the way their forefathers did, with a sense of foreboding. Because it is a town without a Creek but not without Creek people, and they are coming, coming up out of the river in the middle of the storm. Hollow eyed children with wet slick skin, mothers bent on vengeance. Coming for the people that promised to come back but never did. Coming for their due. As the rain pounds down and lightening crashes, the Creek people rise.