Every so often, I will be adding photos from my daily life and talk about how it made me think of a story or maybe how it is one of countless things that make me think of life in the strange south. I do this if only for no other reason then I think that the South is an untapped treasure trove of bizarre people, places and events. As I can’t find too many tolerable stories that use the south this way, I guess I’ll just have to write my own. 😉
So let’s get back to the picture above. The other day I was walking by the Arkansas river when I saw my little friend above (he’s the small squiggle at the bottom). This snake looked to be about 5 to 6 feet in length and from a distance a friend and I thought it may be a Cottonmouth, there are only a few water snakes here in Arkansas. Anyways, this snake in the water got me to thinking about a story my father had told me about my mammy, his mother, and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
For the lay people, the flood of 1927 was catastrophic for the people of 10 states, the hardest hit of which was Arkansas with about 14% of its land under water. That flood has been thought of as the most destructive flood in the history of the United States. Randy Newman even wrote a song, “Louisiana 1927,” about it. The Mississippi river swelled to 60 miles in diameter in some places, it flooded about 27,000 square miles, and killed 246 people in 7 different states. My grandmother was 7 at the time and the following is a story inspired by what happened to her in the flood.
Up north the rain had fallen and fallen. There seemed to be no end to the water. The river crested the banks of its northern neighbors about a week ago. There was nothing new about that. It’s when the water pushes over the southern shores that people start to worry. The land of the delta, flat and pregnant with rich silt, was the primary resource of those poor ones that decided to live there. And now the river threatened everything. A river that for countless years before was the vein that supplied a muddy, wet life to the land, now loomed wider and wider. A provider turned usurper.
Helen sat quietly on the thin carpeted floor of a small two bedroom house in Eros, Louisiana. Her fine, light brown hair was pulled back into a short ponytail. The cloth doll, Lottie, she held had a white porcelain face with delicate blue eyes and a pink mouth that had been carefully painted on. That smooth white face was her favorite part of Lottie. On summer nights she would press the small, cool face against her cheek and wait for it to lose its heat, then she would pull it away from her face and study the small blue eyes that stared unblinkingly back. She would try to keep her eyes wide open, without blinking, as she waited for any sign of life. Helen fervently believed that her doll was alive and just never moved when other people around. She wanted Lottie to talk to her so badly. When her eyes would grow dry, she would pull the doll close and feel the cool porcelain against her face again.
“The river is coming,” A business-like voice came from the wooden radio that was pushed against the wall.
Her daddy would stop it, Helen thought without worry while she rubbed the soft black dress her doll wore between her fingers. Claude, Helen’s father, was the high sheriff of Eros and for the last 4 days he had driven all around the Jackson parish in an attempt to prepare the people for the coming waters. He had driven his model T from Hog Hair to Salem Guyton to Bug Tussle organizing hands to fortify the levees.
Eros was a small town in north Louisiana. It was a sawmill boom town that had sprung up in the vast pine forest of the south that stretched from east Texas all the way to Virginia. To understand how this stretch of Pine Barrens had come to be named after the Greek god of love and desire, one would have to turn their eyes skyward. The bright jet of the Eros asteroid inspired a richly dressed woman in a large two-story house who in turned told her equally dressed husband, the owner of the sawmill owner. And so the town was named. The fire of 1926 had burnt the giant sawmill to the ground, leaving many residents without a job. The sawmill held no sway now and the town was on the decline. This mass exodus of people was a blessing and a curse to Claude. There were fewer people he had to worry about protecting but finding able hands to pack sand bags on the levees was proving to be an onerous task.
“Helen time for bed,” her mother, Ollie, leaned against the door frame, her simple house dress was wrinkled from house chores.
“Daddy isn’t back yet,” Helen whined back.
“Bed,” her mother said in a voice that left no room for questions.
Helen shuffled back to her room, and her mother followed close behind. Small arms were raised. A child’s day dress fell quietly to the floor, while a soft cotton nightgown rustled over the small head. Helen’s older sister Anne was already tucked into the single bed that took up half of the room. A faint smell of rubbing alcohol came to Helen’s nose. Her sister had rubbed the stuff on her arms, neck, and legs to cool off from the day’s heat. The cotton sheets were cool as Helen slipped into the bed. Ollie’s hair tickled Helen’s cheek as she leaned in and kissed her goodnight. The door shut quietly and Helen was left to fall asleep. Her eyes strained to stay open as she stared at Lottie’s face, but slowly sleep pulled them shut.
“Girls wake up,” It was their daddy. He strode into the room and pulled the blanket off the sleeping pair. “Come on Anne, Helen. We got to get on top of the roof.”
“Ok daddy,” Anne said quietly, her voice softened by sleep.
“Wha-” Helen asked sleepily as she rubbed her eyes.
Claude swept Helen up into his arms and carried her outside of the house. Anne’s bare feet slapped the floor as she followed closely. Helen held Lottie unconsciously in her right hand. It was still night outside and the stars were dark, clouded over by rain clouds that came from the east. Helen’s mother stood looking down at the three from the roof. She stooped and held out her hands to her husband. Claude easily lifted Helen’s small frame up and Ollie pulled her onto the roof. Anne was next. Then Claude climbed his own way up the clapboard side of the house and onto the roof. A streak of lightning etched across the sky and rain threatened. Ollie sat down carefully on the slant of the rough roof and motioned for her daughters to come near. Anne and Helen huddled next to their mother while they stared out into the dark. A levee didn’t hold. They knew the waters would come. They fearfully stared out into the darkness looking for the waters to come rushing towards them. Fear can be a strange bed fellow and make eyes heavier than a person can remember, and so the two girls’ vigilant watch slowly became slumber against their mother’s side.
Ollie was leaned back against the roof. She could have sworn that she had only shut her eyes for a moment but hours passed by. Helen was curled in a ball against her side, while Anne had draped half her body over Ollie. Claude squatted nearby keeping out a watchful eye. It was in this lull that Helen was awoken by a small touch at her ankle. She shook her ankle absentmindedly and felt the touch again. Helen’s foot twitched against her mother’s leg waking up Ollie who looked down at Helen’s foot and screamed.
The brown, silt-filled water had come. Water swilled at the roof’s edge. The surrounding oak trees and neighbor’s houses were shortened to half their height in the water. Other families crowded on top of their houses looking at the invading river that surrounded them. Helen’s small family was not the only things trying to escape the waters. A dozen dark brown snakes treaded the water, their heads raised up onto the roof. A smaller snake with black bands had already made it up onto the roof and entangled around Helen’s feet. The family panicked. Helen started flinging her arms around in fear. Ollie pulled her daughter away from the snake, while she scrambled higher up the roof. Claude rushed over and stomped his boots against the onslaught of snakes. He kicked the small snake that had been on his daughter into the water. Helen buried her head into her mother’s side while she cried.
Then Anne said quietly, as if to herself, “Oh Lottie!”
The name caused Helen to grow suddenly quiet and peer around her mother. Past her flailing father, she could see the white face of her doll in the swilling waters. Without a thought, Helen ran towards her doll. She pulled away from Ollie’s arms so suddenly that Ollie didn’t have a chance to hold her back. Helen took one leap. Two. And just as she tried to jump for Lottie, her father’s strong arms snatched her up.
Helen screamed. Her face was beat red as she reached her arms out over her father’s shoulders toward the doll. Lottie sank slowly in the snake infested water. The motion of the swimming tails rocked Lottie back and forth. Just as the water had completely soaked the cloth body and Lottie sank beneath the water, Helen could have sworn that she saw a painted blue eye wink at her.