Before The Flood
The bumblebee drunkenly bounces upon the nectar-laden bud. Seen from a distance, it’s setae, the stiff bristles keeping the bumbleebee attached to the tapering flower-stalk, form a fuzzy pile of aposematic hairs, like late-afternoon stubble. These aposematic hairs, warning colorations in bands of gold and black, keep the boy at bay.
The boy doesn’t know why so simple a thing, so lazily licking out its proboscis, two long, hairy tongues atop its head, should scare him. It is unnaturally enlarged, from the size of a raisin to an orange. The hallucination is justification. But the boy is drawn to the round, bristled body, the fleckless wings of the thing, subtly teetering in the wind like a drunken lookout aloft a crow’s-nest.
Straddling the stem, the bee rolls around it as a beer-swollen simpleton, hugging the last, empty brew-barrel. Its defense mechanism is passive, as if the heat of day has subdued its only charge.
The boy’s pointer finger edges closer and closer to its ocelli, its outer brain. His dual eyes watch the insect’s listless compound eye, an almond, an oval jewel of amber, with a white bead near the bottom, not even slightly startled. The bee’s knees buckle as the boy’s finger approaches. The bee is apprehensive, alarmed by the boy's cautious investigation. Then contact. Mystery, of two beings in the silent communication of touch. One wayward motion can end momentary tranquility.
He feels stirring fur scrape his soft skin and retract. The boy senses the bee is slumbering, hence only subconsciously aware of what ailment the boy might bring. But it is only one boy, and not a very dangerous one at that, who strokes its semi-transparent thorax again, so sleek and glossy.
Uly, Mama calls. Ulysses. Ulysses Johnson.
Yeah. He turns.
Where you at boy?
Here ain’t no place.
Ulysses peeps out of a hedge circlet, enclosing springy grass-shoots and the tendrils of flowers, overlapping layers of vegetation, latticed vines forming a fauna-blanket that breathes, stretching skyward. What a brainier plant would call photosynthesis, is a dinner of daylight. Plants eat the sunshine. They need no herald. Nor do Bees need triangular dining bells to know when to eat, unlike scruffy-headed Ulysses.
D’you hear me ringin this bell, boy?
Those that don’t come to lunch don’t get any.
I’m comin. He dives down to the earth again.
You come quick fore it gets any colder.
Yes mayam he shouts, searching stems for the bumblebee aloft the steaming soil, black as tar.
His eyes flash back to the bee on the intricate flora bed, but the bee is gone. It rambles onwards, with bumbling wings that hum heartily in the breeze, carrying nectar in a pollen sack on the rear, lustrous patch of its hind-leg, for its family, way out where the colors of plants call it homewards.
He treads hedge-groves towards the house. The land opens unto a flat field, with waves of silt, hand-plowed troughs, and clayey peaks. He pummels the ground under-heel, compacting the sedimentation, flinging fresh soil from the parallel agricultural lines; of sweet potato, cabbage, okra, regl’ar potato, green beans, turnips. Stakes in the ground connected by thin strings hold the taller stalks, that swirl unto dry leaves that breathe, like the boy breathes. He is at eye-level with them, shielded momentarily from the sun by grey, jagged, rain-laden clouds, like ragged beetles.
What you doin with all that dirt, Mama aks. Ulysses’ barefeet are splattered with dried mud and deadened grasses.
He was waiting for the rain to wash him clean, but now Mama will soap his ears, and soon, sop up his tears.
I was just diggin, Uly says.
Stood in the doorway, he scrubs his heels on the itchy mat. The tough threads tear at the tinder skin of his soles, making miniscule lashes, crosshatches of blood brimming in rivulets whence he dashed over the hard soil and gaunt rock. He checks his soles, besmattered in soot from Fall's-burning.
I’se jus in the garden, he adds.
Mama spoons some turnips onto Papa’s plate. Won’t have our son dirtyin up our nice dinin things. Will we now Pa?
Pa’s back faces the door. He reads an old paper. News he’s read ten times or more. Maybe today, text will change. Maybe today, rain will come. The forecast is always the same. He folds it into something approximating its original, untouched, pristine square-ness, then uses it as a lap-napkin. No we won’t, he responds, twisting his neck, eyeing Ulysses waggishly, grinning even as he accentuated an authoritarian tonality. And what were ya diggin fer Uly boy.
Dirt, mostly. Ulysses knows the combined looks on Mama and Papa’s faces allows a rebuttal, of discrete sarcasm, which he can get away with, for whatever it's rhetorical worth is to him.
Papa turns back to his plate.
You ain’t comin in my house lookin like that Mama says.
Ulysses flicks flecks of hardened dirt off his toenails and judges himself cleaned. He takes a step inside.
What’d I just say?
You says, I ain’t comin in your house lookin like this.
Ulysses’ foot halts in mid-air, then meets the arch of his other foot, like the military formality of standing at attention. To be judged. Inspected. Criticized. And commanded. Mama is the judge of this marital court, and as such, decides whether to court-martial Uly for any offenses.
Mama slaps some sweet potatoes on Papa’s plate and tells Ulysses to stand right there. She goes to the sink, tosses in the wooden spoon, pumps the faucet twice to a creaking short spew of water that seems to shake the poor pipe, and dabs a washcloth under the water, approaching Ulysses on a war-path to wash flith from his feet at all cost. The cost of cleaning him is egregious, if not monetary. Mama knows it. But she bends anyway, and ungainly, because her body is frail. Her bones rustle against one another like two sheets of sandpaper, as she wettens his feet; first pressing the cloth between his toe-webbing; then she cups his heel in one hand and washes his sole with the other, spreading water around diligently, and sparingly.
That tickles, Ulysses says, to a big guffaw, from Papa.
He squirms. Stop. Stop. Ma. Please. He giggles.
I ain’t stoppin. Not till these little piggies is clean fer market. Mama is her lovelier self when she tidies up Ulysses, falling into feet-purification, ritualistically. He always dirties his soles and hands.
There, she says.
She pats his back to usher him inside and sit at the table, Proper, she reminds him, and keep them elbows off. Papa pretends everything is fine, even though foresight reminds him that, up the road, this lunch has already ended.
Sam should be home soon, Mama says, spooning sweet potatoes onto Ulysses’ new plate. Ulysses is sat across from Papa now, looking at his heavy eyelid, the dropping one with the sagging, sack-like scar, and a bald head in rolls of skin from the fires last Fall.
Hope only he heard that bell. Papa’s jaw is prognathic, jut out.
I told ya William, Mama reprimands, taking her seat in front of an empty, plastic placemat, crisp, dead sunflowers on it.
Told me what?
I ain’t gonna be so frightened as to not do what I want to. And, I ain’t gonna tell ya twice to be nice.
Me niether, Uly interjects, not entirely sure what they mean, or what they have to worry about, but, he feels Mama's resilience to fright, and Papa's optimism that despite this, things will be all right.
Sam’s a smart boy, Mama says. He’s a full head of hair, that boy. Then again, so does our Uly, an' we see how smart he is.
Smart aleck maybe, Papa replies, smiling across the table. Unlike Papa, his boys have escaped the fires of Fall, thus far; thus, having full heads of hair.
There’s a silence shared between the family. Papa begins to prod his potatoes and then considers something coming through the front door on the wind. A wordless whistle come. He turns an ear to it. That ain’t what I’m worried about Mama, he says, ears alerted to the sound. I’m worried Sammy ain’t the only smart one, or least not the smartesest.
Ulysses looks past Pa at a silhouette in the sun traipsing from beyond the fields, past the hedges he holed up in earlier. It is Sam, his hands high above his strawhat.
Speakin of, Papa says prophetically.
Heyall, Uly says, there’s Sammy now.
Where. Mama turns to look out the open front door.
By the burn, Ulysses says.
Past their pasture is a lightning-scourged spot, a black bowl in the ground, once hot with burned flesh and hair, from last Fall’s firestorms. Where Sam walks, ashes float forth in decadent dance. Sam's not so much by the burn, as he is in it.
Why’se he walkin that away. Mama means Sam’s limp. He hobbles, hands wobbling above him.
Now Papa turns, slowly, stretching an arm over the chair’s back. His newspaper napkin falls to the floor. Hon, he says, go get me my gun. His eye tracks Sam, swaggering over the burnt sward towards the circular hedges, encircling a lush area where wilder things and ideas find unfound growth.
What fer. It’s just Sammy.
It ain’t just Sam.
Papa’s right, Uly agrees, cuz he ain't got nothing on him, getting out of his seat to fetch his father’s gun from the closet in the hall. Mama restrains him calmly with one hand, and rises from her seat.
Don’t go gettin all worked up boys. Lemme go.
You don’t go to that door Momma. Mind me now, Papa says, knowing she’ll do whatever she sees fit to do.
Customarily, with a disobedient slight, Mama walks towards the front door and begins to wave at Sammy, her eldest son. Papa tells her to get back inside. Mama, now come on inside, come on.
Quit yer worryin Will Clarence, she says, then shouts Sam! Sammy. Sammy Johnson. Yer just in time fer our big lunch.
Through the front door, beneath Mama’s waving hands, Ulysses sees the end of a rifle, sliding past the door jamb.
The rifle-eye prods Mama’s lean gut.
Listen to yer man and get back in the house mayam, a man says sternly. The rifle jabs at her revealed ribs.
Mama doesn’t say anything. She backsteps as the rifle swings straight. A small man in a racoon-hat, shirtless, with tattered jeans and wooden boards strapped as sandals by rotted rope to his feet, is at the trigger-end of the rifle. He has half-a-mustache, and no eyebrows or hair, just like Papa. He heralds others from the corner of his mouth, Okay fellas, come on. Ain’t nobodies but these three. He's been burnt, and burnt bad. His left side is scorched skin, sagging, and smelly.
Ulysses watches the man lead Mama into their house, backing himself into the corner of the kitchen. Out the front door he sees two men jog up behind his brother Sam. One has a hand-gun, the other a machete held at Sam’s neck. They verbally shove Sam forward through hedges, and overfield. He stumbles, but the men do not catch him. They wait on him to stagger up, then the man with the machete places the sharp tip to Sam’s temple and guides him forward.
Papa hasn’t risen from his seat.
Mama is two feet away, with her hands above her head in the same way as when she waved at Sam from the frontdoor.
The man moves Mama into the kitchen, a few feet from Papa and Ulysses, stuck flat, and speechless in their seats.
Now, says the man, peeking around the corner of the door for his comrades, we ain’t murd’rers, not yet we ain’t. And we won’t want to be, ‘less you make us.
Sam walks in front of the two men, through the troughs of soil, then turns. He reaches for a stake in the ground.
What, shouts the small man inside, not looking to see.
What, he repeats. Say what yer gonna say Hank.
Ulysses sees Sam plummet to earth like a crumpled scarecrow, before he hears the resounding shot.
A flock of blackbirds scatters formlessly overfield.
Awh shit, says the small man, relinquishing his gaze on the family. Idiots.
Papa rises from his chair and pushes Mama aside, whilst the small man named Eugene is trying to keep the rifle aimed on them and one eye aimed on the scene outside. Papa knocks the rifle into their cabinetry, as Ulysses jumps from his chair. But Mama says Stay right there, jumping towards the sink, sinking to the floor.
Papa has Eugene by the burnt nape, but Eugene has his hand on the butt of his rifle. Ulysses leans on the chair, standing there, cheering Papa. The men fall to the floor. The rifle-eye is up in the air. Papa pounds Eugene's head into the floorboards, thrice times. Eugene shoots. The sound deafens them as dust and splintered ceiling trickle down into a thick haze. Papa manages to pry the rifle from Eugene’s hands and toss it to the table, where it skids to Ulysses’ little, spotless feet.
The air is tinctured, with the taste of gritty sawdust.
Papa shouts Shoot son, as he knees Eugene in the groin. But Ulysses can’t hear. He can only watch the movement of mouths and melee. Eugene twists out of their interlocked bodies, and breaks into a crawl for the front door. He kicks back like a mule, bloodying Papa's spout-nose.
Ulysses fumbles under the table for that gun.
Then, two men are on the front porch. The man with the machete is the first, and he flings himself forward, swinging out at the hand gripping Eugene’s leg. He hacks at the hand, which begins to spray sanguine onto tattered jeans. Papa reels back, his hand lopsided, he holds it with his other, rocking back and forth on the ground, screaming a stream of slurs that remain inaudible. The last stroke from the machete cleaves Eugene’s leg and remains lodged in the femur bone. Eugene, on his back, paws helplessly for his foot. Blood percolates in wide patches across crude patch-work.
Sound returns with a harsh ringing. The curses meld together. Blood spurts from Papa’s hand in a geyser. The dining bell outside is knelled. That, everyone can hear.
The second man, formerly obscured by the first wielding the machete, comes into view, as the first man falls to the floor, trying to figure out whether the machete should be plucked out, but he’s too scared to try it.
You idiot. God. You got my fucking leg, screams Eugene.
Then the air clears. The haze dissapears and the ringing sound is totally stripped away to the soft afternoon. Sunlight leaks through the blanketed dustlines, swimming gently across Ulysses’ sight. A tall man appears, gun outstretched into the house.
Drop dat fuckin gun boy.
Ulysses aims and pulls the trigger. The trigger won’t click as it did. Ulysses’ eyes dart everywhere.
I said drop that damn gun or I blow yer brains across that nice white dinin tablecloth.
Papa is squirming back towards Mama, who holds his head, and nestles him into her lap. Her apron is now soaked. Papa wraps the wound with his workshirt, liquid pouring out with a pulse.
Eugene clutches his leg as the machete-man's fingers tremble towards his weapon, saying it’ll be all right Eugene, y’ain’t gonna die.
You god-damned idiot.
Put the gun down boy.
The gunman steps over the bodies of his comrades and counts to four. One. Two. Three. Four.
Ulysses drops the gun, which clatters on the wooden floor-boards. He puts his hands in the air, just like Sammy.
You fuckin idiot, Eugene screams.
Quit yer hollerin Eugene, the gunman hollers. He is big and bald. One eye is half-shut with some bubbling mustard stain at his tearduct, but the other is keen as an eagle’s. His nose is black as volcanic stone, and has no nostrils, his mouth masked by a white bandana. He wears a striped shirt, that goes down to his sockless ankles, oddly, as if he’s wearing a gown tailored in prison.
Now. All we’re wantin’s wata.
Why’d you shoot my brother, Ulysses asks, why.
Where’s y’all’s wata tank, the man asks again, one eye roving over the room.
It’s outside, Mama says, a tricklet of water running from her eye, down her nose, to her mouth, salty and unsatisfying. The tear burns her flushed cheeks, flowing to Papa’s forehead. His eyes close. Passed out from the shock of pain. Mama’s face is emotionless, stoic, save for a tear.
We’re gonna be big boys now boy. Okay. Gonna be men. Gotta. You just get on up outta that there chair and start showin me where y’all keep yer wata tank. We take it, ‘n we go. Plain as day.
Liar! The words feel false to Ulysses’ lips. The world is tempered with silence, outside. Not a bird can be heard singing sweetly into the noonday breeze. Sam’s body sits between the rows of sweet potatoes and turnips, relinquishing life unto loamy ground to grow anew if the fire’s can be quelled.
Why should we trust you. Thieves, murd'rers, rovers, scavengers.
Scavengers. Yeah. I like that. Well... Whether you show me or not, I’ll find it. Thing is, he says, pointing the gun to unconscious Papa, if you don’t make my findin easier... well, that’s that is what.
Mama tells him it’s behind the house, grinding her teeth into calcified chalk. Papa turns white in her pale, wire-thin arms. Her eyes are at the edges of night. Just take all what we got. Cuz what we got ain’t a lot. Her voice is restrained, and her breathing is choked by disbelief. Sammy, she murmurs, Sammy was gonna make it better, my smart Sammy.
Ulysses chimes in, lying, the water's poisoned. Only the plants can drink it.
All we need is a trickle, he says, just a tiny trickle for the trail.
Shoot these bastards, shrieks Eugene. They got naught but beans and bugs.
Eugene. Why. That wouldn’t be any polite. Formality does dictate I keep to my word. I've assured this fine family no harm would come to them if they told us what we want to know. Now, would you have me forsake my word. Because otherwise, what good’s it? He pauses, patiently awaiting a rebuttal from one of the men on the floor.
So Hanky, leave Mr. Eugene for a sec, and go find that tank. Let's make good on our promises.
Hank inspects Eugene’s wound, then the family, then turns to face the large man he calls Larry. Larry.
Yeah Hank, Larry says irritatedly, like talking to a child that must be explained every unimportant detail. His voice softens from the intimidating tone, now staring at his comrades. What is it Hank?
Hank is Eugene’s brother, but the resemblance isn’t apparent. Hank still has a small tuft of hair on the top of his skull, and isn’t so small as Eugene, though portly and pathetic. If he's been burnt, it's only on his back. He wears suspenders over a sweat-stained shirt, and jeans with muggy hems. He has shoes, which is special, considering none of the other humans, in the room, do.
Is Eugene gonna die?
Eugene moans fuck. You fuckin bastard.
He gonna die anyway we don’t get wata.
It looks bad.
Hank, go get yer brother wata and we’ll worry it later.
Hank leaves as Larry levels the gun on Ulysses and Mama. They hear Hank shout from outside, it ain’t here Lair.
Keep lookin, Larry shouts, putting his voice towards the kitchen window.
It ain't here.
Yes Hank, he says, his patience tested, mustard-eye welling up with vexation.
Smellin that Larry?
Smell what Hank?
Rain. I smellin rain. I felt a fuckin rain-drop Larry!
It ain’t gonna rain, Larry says dejectedly. Never does. The gun dangles at his side, as a toy he's become tired of, but too fearful to let go of, lest someone else take up it's appealing diversions.
Papa wakes up. He whispers, It will, as if his newspaper promised new news, ten years hence .
Rain plinks upon the front porch.
Eugene wails of The Fallin Fires.
Hush up now, Eugene. Please. Ain't no fire. Ain't no water.
But then the rain begins to come in gurgles down the roof.
Y’all'll be damned drowned in it, Ulysses says, and when he says it, he sounds more like his older brother Sam, than ever before. Ain't no boat gonna save y'all. He laughs, wiggling his clean feet.