My legs make wobbly reflections, rose-beige of skin and dark green of water commingled into a nameless hue I study. Minnows—crappies or suckers—brush my calves, turn in abrupt unison, like a flock of frightened birds, and then dart away. My bare feet hug sandy bottom, my toes curling like talons. A bass jumps, arching its gymnast's back, and slams down with a clap, then echo. I hold my inner tube at my side, right arm slung through it, its valve a protruding, bent finger poking my swimsuit, a curve the size of a child's smile the only wet part.
Waves churn up froth, airy like sweet cream being whipped, that floats to shore, gets tangled in cattail stalks, froth and cattail heads a deep, even sorrowful, brown. All the while, a weak, but steady current urges me toward some promise disrobing downstream. I am nearly up to my knees in this river.
I am Riparian connoisseur, an expert on rivers who's survived two—not one—two floods. So I know that water out of its banks levels itself like poured pancake batter, that it has the power of explosives, that it's mercurial and restless, that it cannot be coaxed. It's like a human, in that way ...though it's not human at all. It's impartial and independent.
The first I experienced was in 1969 when the Souris River flooded 40 days and 40 nights—no kidding—in Minot, North Dakota, where I grew up. "The Mouse that Roared" was a catch-phrase media used to describe it, a too-clever congregation of words that got said so much people only heard sounds and syllables, and forgot meaning.
In spring of 1969, I was in first grade on south hill at Washington Elementary School, a sturdy, maroon-brick building with a rock-work retaining wall along its playground's west edge. With the turmoil of a teachers' strike and a flood in Minot's valley, we students had to go to school two consecutive Saturdays which I spent with a red-haired substitute and three blonde rodent whiskers that grew from a mole on her chin. She stood in poorly for our Miss Johnson, a sweet teacher with a long blonde bob who wore knee-highs with her skirts and shimmering orange lipstick. But she had abandoned us; she was off striking with other teachers, pumping a picket sign up and down like a drum major with a baton.
Everyone talked about the flood kicking snakes out of their usual haunts, that they might show up in sewer systems, tracing waste's path back into our houses. So I lived in fear of them bubbling up in our toilets. Before I sat down going to the bathroom, I pictured myself inadvertently becoming a snake charmer, conjuring up some serpent who dances to staccato music of urine hitting water and porcelain, its tongue poking in and out rapidly, a vibrato. When I sat, I could barely relax, my thighs and calves tight in case I needed to get away quickly.
Minot city engineers built a dike that could double as a road in emergencies along most of Broadway, a main south-north thoroughfare dotted with businesses. My family couldn't head straight north from our house on south hill, practically a direct shot along Broadway, to pick up my brother at the airport when he came home on leave from the Navy. Instead, we had to swing beyond the North Dakota State Fairgrounds, the eastern marker for the edge of town, go north on roads I never knew existed and drive west to the airport from behind, an ambush...only peaceful.
In 1997, we—my husband Mark and I—were living across from Central Park in Grand Forks in what is really river bed. We had a 1912 house we'd just paid off and remodeled top to bottom. We did electrical work, plumbing work, gas line rerouting, hardwood floor refinishing. Mark rented a floor sander after a contractor bailed out on us, and I used a detail sander on floor around radiator pipes. The Red River, after busting Lincoln Park dams, blazing down Belmont Road and bolting along Fourth Avenue, imploded our foundation, leaving our house to teeter on a shaky half-wall of concrete, something like when a magician puts a person in a box, sections it off with knives or sheets of metals, and then separates body parts from one another... a head floats without its torso. After the flood, the city condemned our house and strung a yellow banner across the front door to keep people out like it was some crime scene.
In late spring in 1969 Minot, I went with my dad to check on a house that belonged to a woman who spent most of the flood at my grandmother's on south hill. Basements were still full of water even though most of the Souris had retreated. We went inside, stood at the top of the stairs and looked down at a basement where a sooty swill, like cigarettes stewing in a toilet, covered the fifth step and broke against the fourth's nosing, its wooden beach.
My husband and I were fortunate. The Red River only reached our main floor ceiling fan, spun it in dirty circles, and missed our second floor by a few steps. Because of my memories of Minot 1969, we had hauled most of our belongings to our upstairs where they were safe. Still water did carry our new stove, and other things we didn't have a chance to move, north on its destructive shoulders bound for Winnipeg hell-for-leather.
The 1997 April Friday when dikes caved and water went everywhere, my husband Mark and I sandbagged across a street from our house with area volunteers, some of whom had been bussed in. We were trying to protect a sanitary sewer that jutted out into flooded river, a promontory we hoped to edge with sandbags. We stood in a line going up a dike, passing sandbags to one another, the first in line taking one from a palette, passing it on so workers could volley it with their hands up to the top. The final worker in line handed it to one of the men standing around the sanitary sewer and he added it wherever there was an open spot for it. In this way, a wall of sandbags was built, course by course. Our neighborhood leader, then a high school teacher, stood in his life jacket at the tip, his foot the barrier, a hapless George Washington crossing a turgid Delaware.
Salvation Army trucks, like a host of Santa Clauses, visited neighborhoods and left workers sandwiches and chips on berms beneath silver maples. Late that afternoon one stopped near us and left us our supper on our lawn. I saw many of the workers dip their hands into the cold Red River before they sat down to eat on dikes where they'd worked, flood their background.
Not long after we got back to sandbagging, water rose from a storm sewer, like a clogged toilet backing up and, at the same time, rushed down into our neighborhood along Fourth Avenue. That's when my strength just left me, like its bottom had dropped out, like it had been siphoned out of me. I began dropping bags pitched to me as well as a few I caught and tried to send up our line. My husband was at the top, waiting, and noticed three or four bags at my feet, in a slipshod half-circle. So he came to me, took my dirty, wind-burned hand, helped me over those bags and led me across a street to our car.
We turned off Third Street and started up Fourth Avenue out of our neighborhood against water that got deeper as we got to higher ground and that slammed the grill of our car as my husband kept his foot hard on the gas pedal, trying to project his will to keep going deep into its engine. When water got up to the bumper, our car didn't seem to have enough power to push against it or else the clutch was starting to slip or we weren't getting any traction and were beginning to float. I looked for porches or balconies to climb in case we stalled.
We passed Reeve's Drive when a Hum-Vee turned onto Fourth Avenue and pushed a wave over the front of our car; I was certain we would stall. But our car kept going, my husband's toes curled and pushing the gas pedal into the floor like he could bore a hole into it right through to wet pavement. We drove west past Belmont School, past a bike rider headed the wrong direction I yelled to, further west past a pale-brick United Lutheran Church until we reached dry pavement somewhere near stoplights at Cherry Street, a five- hundred-year flood beginning behind us, capturing whatever didn't escape.
Floods change you. After my second, a spring spectacle of water that evacuated a whole town and an accompanying fire that destroyed a number of downtown Grand Forks buildings, I know one thing for certain: it won't be either fire or ice that destroys the world like Robert Frost wrote in a poem; it will be both, the two conspiring—first a great melt then water leveling itself everywhere.
But I've said enough, maybe too much about floods and eschatologies, as if the two were the same. They're not.
It's this river I'm in that I study while I wait for my husband who'll soon come down from our cabin with sunscreen so we can douse ourselves with UV protection and his inner tube so we can float to where power line poles intersect river, our exit spot. These poles, strung together with cable, divide our property, a defiant march of middle fingers to that spot where we get out of water and carry our inner tubes back, electrons colliding on ropy trails overhead.
The more I study my legs and their reflections, the more they look like ghosts, rippling ghosts or perhaps spectral calls of Narcissus. I suspect an ill - a spirit, maybe - growing between my husband and me. He never mentions the 1997 flood, an event that should divide our lives together into a discrete before and an after, like our wedding day. So it feels like this past we've shared we haven't really lived but have separately read in a book. And you'd think there would be some evidence of flood on our bodies—a scar ...a mark, but we are so ghastly clean, it's as if we were never touched by it. How can this be?
I am not drawn to him nor am I repulsed by him because of this. He is like river or trees or air or any other part of the world. Though indifference is too harsh for what I feel, I find the idea soothing, as compelling as my leg's reflections, ovals of me in dark water.
"Got them," Mark says and smiles, his inner tube a doughnut he carries in his left hand, bouncing with his stride. He's got a pink bottle of sunscreen in his right hand, cap popped up, dispenser hole not quite as small as a urethral opening. He bounds down a path toward me, like some carefree fraternity kid, trees and birds admiring him, rustlings and songs standing in for applause.
We are finally ready to inner tube down Pine River—as clear as I wish God or my last dream were—spring-fed, sand purifying it with the ease and finesse of a priest sanctifying the liquidy salvation of a baptismal font, turning the profane sacred, the best transubstantiation there is, really.
We should make love later, our bodies squeaky wet from damp swimsuits we'll hang on a line we've suspended between two oaks and river which keeps going on no matter what we do. That's how we'll swell again, rise out of our banks and level out across our land, a sovereignty we've consecrated where our bodies are a national holiday, a day off.
After all, being married is like founding a country with another person ....your own small, sequestered Liechtenstein, with its own customs, dress, food, government, history, language. Mark enters this river with his inner tube and wades past me up to his swimsuit. He turns. What he repeats as he comes to me, "Got them," is "I'm ready to go; I really do have all I need and so do you" in Warnerish, what we speak with one another, words no one else quite understands.
Nancy Devine teaches high school English in Grand Forks, North Dakota where she lives. She co-directs the Red River Valley Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project. Her poetry, short fiction and poetry have appeared in online and print journals.