Granny Dee, breast cancer. Tisha, lung cancer. Uncle Rick, stomach cancer. Old Mr. Harlan, bone cancer. So many others. Well over half of those who stayed when the government bought up land near Harlan Holler to build I-49. Young folks tended to say it was the highway’s fault, carcinogens poured out into our lungs and tainting our groundwater. But the old timers had reached a consensus about it, and it didn’t have to do with carcinogens. They all thought the cancer was God’s wrath sent to punish those who’d sold their land and allowed the state of Arkansas to break the mountains. They’d gather in small groups on front porches, shelling peas and spitting chaw into the flowerbeds, saying, “And every single one of us deserve it.” Until one by one they died too, their deaths littering a decade, another thing the highway seemed to bring us. Tombstones and no one left to shell the peas. I counted them all on my fingers, ticking off every death until those fingers ran out.
It didn’t even really start as a plan. It was more a half-formed idea. A nameless something fluttering at the back of my mind like a moth in heavy bedroom curtains. But then the rains came and the flutter grew into a steady pulse. The pulse into a stream. The stream into a flood. Until I was just sitting in the living room in the early morning, before dawn, counting graves, and I could hear Mark’s heavy breathing from our bedroom mingling with the splash of the rivulets of water pouring off our roof, and I decided to do it. I stood up from my chair and started to move until I wasn’t thinking about it anymore. Because it was not a thought. It was becoming action. A simple, clear action, and the only one I thought myself capable of performing. I could not stay there and do the thing that had been asked of me, so I’d do this thing instead. Easy as pie, I thought. Just put on your shoes and drive. It is hard now not to think of myself as a coward.
It was near the first of November and it had been unseasonably warm, so when the cold moved in the threat of tornadoes hung heavy in the air. The tornadoes never came. Instead, there were six solid days of steady downpour. On the morning of the seventh day, just before sunrise, I rose from my sleepless watch in the living room chair and slipped on my shoes. I closed the storm door carefully, remembering when Mark used to tease our nieces and nephews about how it sounded like a gunshot when that heavy door slammed.
“My God! Joanne, we’re under attack!” he feigned surprise and looked around, bright blue eyes wide. “Oh, it’s just a little girl. How are ya, little Kyla Oakley?” he’d say, ruffling the wild hair above her freckled cheeks.
I drove the slow mile down to the train trestle that crossed Lee Creek, to the little low water bridge underneath. The kids these days all call it “the grotto,” but we always called it the train bridge. In the summer, the little pool that forms there is a swimming hole with a rocky beach and a sand bar that the kids stand on. In the spring it’s treacherous. The water coming down out of the Boston Mountains washes out the bridge completely, leaves a current too strong for anyone to swim. So many teenagers have drowned here that I can’t remember how many anymore. Is it twelve now, if you count the Grainger boy? A baker’s dozen maybe?
Still, every spring, as soon as the Bradford Pears bloom and the daffodils pop their little faces up from the earth, more bright young farm boys and strong mountain girls come here to die. They come thinking it’s warm enough and safe, a spot where their parents took them as babies. Nature, to them, exists in its individual parts, and then the creek swells in the space of minutes, and they don’t think anything anymore. At least that’s how I’ve always understood the phenomenon; teenagers understanding only half a picture of the way things are and dying for it. But how many dead children were there again? I grew up with their mothers, I should remember.
There are tally marks ticking off the number, joining the “Dedham sucks” and “Monrow rules” graffiti. Above the marks is a crudely painted, misspelled header declaring in all caps: “GRATTO DEATH TOLE.” The tally marks are high up under the train bridge, and it was too dark for me to count them that morning. I laughed out loud then, my first real laugh in what felt like months, thinking that this will be my life’s last unanswered question: How many deaths is it now? “Harlan Holler 4 ever.”
It turns out dying in a flood is not as easy as the local news makes it seem. Sure, the car flooded with water. I climbed out the window, grateful to still be spry at my age, and sat on top of it as the creek moved it further downstream, past Reverend Harrow’s cows all huddled up under a copse about fifty yards away. When the car stopped, hung up on a tree past the next bridge, I prepared myself for death and jumped off the car into the water. I was swept under by the current, but I swam to shore just the same. I laughed to myself, gasping on that creek bank, that at fifty-seven I’d done what all those teenagers had failed to do. I’d saved myself.
The cold was unpleasant and I thought I might die of hypothermia after all, but I found myself on my own property a few minutes later and walked the back acreage up to the house. I stripped off my clothes in the mudroom, put on the red silk robe Mark bought me two Christmases ago, and wrapped myself in an electric blanket in the living room by the woodstove I’d left burning not an hour before. When I felt sufficiently warm, I crawled into bed with my husband.
“Joanne, why is your hair wet?”
“You’re cold, too. Cold and wet.”
I sighed deeply, “I drove my car into the middle of the train bridge.”
“You gone stupid?”
“I intended to die. Today seemed a good day for it.”
“I’m the only one dying today, Jo.”
I nodded, my chin on his shoulder.
Mark turned onto his back and threw his thin arm around me.
“What’s it like?” I whispered into his bony chest.
“All of it.”
“There doesn’t seem to be a tunnel or anything. Mostly it just hurts like hell.”
“Do you feel peace?”
“What’s that like?” I hate to make him talk this much, I know he’s got pleurisy from being down so long, but I want to know. I need to know.
“The pain? There’s no way to describe the pain.”
“Try. This is our last early morning conversation before your pancreas eats you up. I want it to be memorable.”
“It swallows me. It’s like a darkness. And then…it’s kind of like a person,” He is struggling through the drugs and bad lungs. “Yes, that’s right. It’s like a person.”
“Yes. It’s like living with another person in my body. Every day that person takes another bite of me. I can’t bite back. I used to think I was fighting it, but…I think maybe I never was. What time is it?”
“Six forty two,” I say, glancing across his chest to the clock on the wall. The clock his mama gave us when we got married.
“Can you make my breakfast now?”
“Are you sure?” The question is a double one, I punch the sure hard so he knows it, and though we’ve fought this out a thousand times, I know what he means when he nods.
I held my husband’s face and looked at him. I could almost see it there, the Pain Person who was eating him up. It lived just above his gaunt cheekbones, in the hollows around his eyes. It used to be that when I looked hard at his face what I saw was our future, the totality of a life spent fighting and loving and striving and growing. But the future no longer played out in my mind, and past this particular day, there were no images to tide me over until the future would come. There were only blank spaces where his face should be.
I left the bedroom and quietly made my way to the kitchen. I crushed up a whole bottle of morphine and folded it into the small batch of batter, poured out two silver dollar pancakes in my grandmother’s cast iron pan.
I counted the deaths again as he ate. Burying them all in forkfuls.