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Essays

Flood and Fire

by E.M. Conrad
“I left West Virginia because I couldn’t imagine moving on from my grief when it had become a part of the surrounding landscape. I would have found it impossible to do so if every street corner, every hill and patch of road and piece of sidewalk bore witness to death and injustice and dehumanization.”

The picture above is of a place on my farm, the piece of inherited land I own in West Virginia. I grew up there. As a kid, this spot on the creek always felt like a temple to me, with huge 6-foot cement blocks partially buried under the earth, intertwined with tree roots and plants and covered in moss — a tiny Ta Prohm. I’d sit on the opposite bank and watch the resident black snake sun herself on the blocks. I found a nest of her babies once, picked one of the little intertwined black strands up, later regretted that I didn’t keep it as a pet. The specialness of this place, the sense of something sacred, existed even before I learned the reason for the cement blocks embedded in the bank.

The creek that twines across my property is docile, a foot or two in depth in most places. In the summer, parts of it dry up entirely. But once or twice a year, in the spring, a heavy rain swells it into a hungry, mud-brown flood that covers most of the property within a matter of hours, taking days to subside. It’s almost Biblical, watching this barely-there stream consume a twenty-foot floodplain and reach fingers towards the farmhouse porch before disappearing again, the lilies and daffodils on its banks a little muddy but no worse for wear. If you’re at the house when it happens, you can’t leave; if you’re away, you can’t return. The gravel road that leads in and out is intertwined with the creek, running beside and over it.

At some point in the nebulous past, a man whose name I don’t know attempted to drive through the floodwaters next to my farm. I don’t blame him for making the attempt. Flooded roads are a fact of life in rural West Virginia in the spring. Most people who live there trust their knowledge of the area’s streams and floodplains to accurately gauge how deep the water is at any one point in time, make calculated risks. Almost all of the time, they guess correctly. But maybe once every ten years, someone attempts to drive onto a road that simply doesn’t exist anymore, into a six-foot drop directly into the heart of the flood. When that happens, in a flooded forest valley the ambulances can’t reach and where the medical helicopters can’t land, you die. That’s exactly what happened at my little temple on the banks, the cement blocks a foundation for the dirt and gravel of the rebuilt road.

My only biological sibling was another one of the people who made a once-in-twenty-years wrong estimate, the post-midnight darkness obscuring the result of that day’s rains. She didn’t know. She couldn’t have known. It had been fine when she left for work that day. I was an atheist even at sixteen, but after her death I imagined an old god with a terrible appetite lurking in the cement temple blocks, coiling up with the six-foot black snake, crawling out once a decade to claim another life. To be clear, this is not the place where she died; that was a different section of the only road in and out. One of the many reasons I left West Virginia is because I couldn’t imagine moving on from my grief when I had to drive past that spot every time I left the house, once when I left and again when I came back.

These two deaths — my loss and the death of that anonymous stranger at some unknown point before — aren’t the only ones embedded into the landscape. History lingers on in rural places in ways that it doesn’t in Houston, even as the precise names and dates fade into obscurity. Near my grandparents’ home, the road crests over a hill in a way that momentarily obscures your vision. As a teenager learning to drive, my father told me that this place had an unofficial name, that the polite version was African-American Hill. My mother’s side of the family was less euphemistic. A man had been lynched there; I heard rumors that older residents of the area could still point out the exact tree. His name and his alleged crime had been lost to time, but his guilt or lack thereof was never really the point, then or now.

I left West Virginia because I couldn’t imagine moving on from my grief when it had become a part of the surrounding landscape. I would have found it impossible to do so if every street corner, every hill and patch of road and piece of sidewalk bore witness to death and injustice and dehumanization. I don’t blame anyone for feeling rage and grief when their oppression is carved into the landscape, the earth heavy with history and re-bloodied on a daily basis. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to burn it all down, all the way to the bedrock. I can’t recommend it, because even the bedrock of our society isn’t a clean slate. But I don’t blame anyone for trying.


About the Writer: E. M. Conrad is a Houstonian who cooks, teaches undergraduate-level writing, and spends a lot of time with their two dogs.

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