The winter of ’37 was the worst folks living in the boot heel had ever seen. Most days brought an ominous mix of rain, snow, and sleet. On Friday, February 24, rain skated down in silvered sheets, painting watery tails on the tall windows of the one-room schoolhouse where Martha Blalock had taught for 20 years.
She eyed the class, making certain all her children were properly seated, hands folded on their desks. She ran a tight ship, yet the students loved her.
“Mrs. Blalock?” Gloria Hendry twisted the end of one braid, the color of butter-and-sugar corn.
Martha pushed her new plastic glasses up her nose. She’d self-prescribed by trying on various pairs at the department store up in Caruthersville, saving the expense of a $3 visit to the eye doctor. Everything still seemed slightly out of focus. “Yes, dear, what is it?” she asked.
“We’re s’posed to go to church after school,” Gloria said, “and I don’t like this rain.”
Other heads bobbed up and down: Hollins Carter, Betty James, Ronald Hinote, more.
“All of you going to the church then?” Martha asked.
“What on earth for?” A flush warmed her cheeks. Heaven forbid the children think she didn’t want them going to church. She’d been a loyal member of the New Madrid Baptist Church since childhood and felt suddenly ashamed she’d let a nuisance like the weather keep her from services the past week.
Gloria waved her hand in the air. “For the Good News Club,” she burst out.
“The Good News Club?” Martha repeated. She looked beyond Gloria’s head, toward the colorful pictures of Bible stories torn from old issues of the Concordia lining the back wall. There was Jesus the Shepherd Carrying a Lamb, Peter Denying His Savior, and Our Savior Beginning His Suffering. Martha had bought the leaflets when her son, Gene, was 3 and shown them to him so often the pages were worn almost translucent. Looking at them now reminded her of those long-ago days when Gene was a little boy, and she and Carl so blessedly young themselves.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ronny Fulton said. “We’re s’posed to go to church now every Wednesday. Mrs. Blix will be mad if we aren’t there.”
Martha’s ears pounded, and her vision clouded even more. Reverend Prescott must have announced this new club on Sunday, in her absence. “Mrs. Zula Blix?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” Ronny wrapped a leather strap around his books and threw it over his shoulder. When Martha didn’t reprimand him, the room grew noisy as the other children also gathered up their pencils, books, and canvas lunch totes.
“I will drive those of you going to the church myself,” Martha said, raising her voice over a drumbeat of thunder.
Somehow, all eight children fit into the Ford woody wagon, and they made their way through bucketing rain to the church. She drove at a snail’s pace on the dirt roads, ever mindful of how quickly accidents can happen.
“You will not believe who they asked to teach my students Bible stories after school,” Martha said that night as she lay in bed with Carl. Without waiting for an answer, she said, “Zula Blix.”
Carl cleared his throat and then wrapped his hairy arms around her. “Now, Martha,” he began.
“You know what that family is like. Not a one of them should be teaching this town’s children the Word of the Lord. ’Specially not Zula.” Martha sighed loudly.
She had already decided to speak to Reverend Prescott about replacing Zula Blix as head of whatever this new child evangelism program was as soon as possible. It would take some doing, maybe even airing of dirty laundry about the Blix family’s long history of flouting at least three of the Lord’s Ten Commandments, but it had to be done. The children of New Madrid deserved no less.
“Why, she’s not even from Missouri!” Martha’s bad eye had started twitching, and she turned to face her husband. “Carl,” she whispered loudly. “I can’t stand to see Zula contaminating the minds of my children.”
Carl looked uncomfortable but patted her shoulder. He had reassured her multiple times that there had never been a spit of anything between him and Zula after her rich husband died last year. But Martha had seen the widow flirt with every man in the congregation of the New Madrid Baptist Church, on both sides of the aisle.
The church rose high on a hill inside the oxbow curve of the Mississippi River, right on the state line at a landing called Compromise. New Madrid County, Missouri, sat on one side, and Fulton County, Kentucky, on the other. Half the pews were in one state and half in the other, enabling the families to walk up the aisle on their side of the church and attend services without stepping into the other state. Come Sundays, folks would file in, lean their guns against the wall, and sit down in the pews on their side of the church. Everyone would kneel for prayer except a man who stood guard at the end of each aisle in case any member on the opposite side decided to start trouble. No one had for ages, but the guns were still kept at the ready. Families from the two counties had been feuding since the Civil War, when a flag officer from Fulton County turned traitor and helped a Union gunboat attack Island Number 10.
Martha Blalock’s kin lived in New Madrid County. Zula Blix and her folks lived in Fulton County. But even beyond the historic feud, Martha had harbored an extra helping of hate toward Zula and her kin. To her husband and to her cousin Beulah, Martha badmouthed Zula something awful. Still, no matter how much Carl and Beulah agreed that, yes, Zula came from a suspiciously wealthy, drinking, firearm-toting Kentucky family, and her oldest boy, Ralph, had caused a heap of trouble, Martha’s insides still sometimes ached whenever she thought of that woman.
Next to her in bed, Carl groaned. But Martha wasn’t done. “I’ll start making phone calls in the morning. Get the ladies from church on my side before I approach the Reverend. I’ll have them for coffee.”
“You hate having folks here,” he said, expertly reaching through the moonlit dark to touch the lid of her right eye, closing it because that sometimes stopped the twitch.
She looked toward the cane stick she’d propped against the wall, wondering if she should get up now and thumb through her cookbook for a recipe. “Zula’s always having folks over for fancy teas. Even folks from our side of the river. If you can imagine! So I’ve got to make it clear mighty fast that I’d do a much better job getting the Lord’s Word into the ears of our children before it’s too late.”
Carl patted her bony shoulder. “Time for shut-eye, Martha May.”
She turned away from him, careful not to put any weight on her bad hip. At least her eye had stopped its spasms. They’d been worse this week, and Martha feared it might be the new glasses.
He spoke softly over her shoulder, “You’d be a fine teacher at the church.”
Carl got weather reports and most of his news from the ham radio he’d built last year from a kit offered by the Wholesale Radio Company. He and Martha had sat in ladderback chairs next to each other, listening to President Roosevelt on the day of his second inauguration just last week. Martha liked picturing this important scene taking place, and she liked the excitement in the announcer’s voice as he described the abnormally terrible weather there in Washington. A half inch of rain drenched the floor of the president’s open car! This winter was definitely the wettest and coldest Martha had ever lived through, and yesterday a radio operator had reported the rising river had nearly reached the door of the Piggly Wiggly over in Paycock.
Rain still fell the day after Martha decided to oust Zula Blix from the Good News Club. As soon as she’d fed Carl breakfast, she lifted the mouthpiece on the wall phone and called her cousin Beulah.
“I want to invite some ladies over for coffee. So we can discuss Zula Blix.”
“Hush!” Beulah shouted. Her dog Oleo stopped barking in the background. Then, more directly to Martha, “What’s she done now?”
Martha cleared her throat. “Seems the Reverend started a Good News Club the one week I wasn’t at church. And put Zula in charge.” She paused. “We have to get rid of that she-devil.”
“You know I don’t like Miss High-and-Mighty any more than you do.”
“I just think things might get dirty between Zula and me. I don’t plan to hold back.” The words were spitting out of her too quickly. “Good News indeed! I bet she’ll let the boys in that club run outside ’stead of memorizing Bible verses like they ought to!”
Martha reached for her clutch purse on the counter and rummaged through it, looking for her memo book with the hollyhocks cover. She’d remembered she needed to add lard to her grocery list. Her boy Gene was due home for a short leave Monday, and he’d want lemon meringue pie. She found her handkerchief, the picture of Jesus on gold foil, and finally the memo book. She took a deep breath to calm herself. “You go to prayer meeting Tuesday night?” she asked.
“Mmm-hhhm,” Beulah said. “Zula was there in all her finery. Fancy plaid rain slicker, matching hat and umbrella. I swear that woman ought to spend more time on living the Word of the Lord than on her wardrobe.”
“Amen,” Martha sighed.
“I’m glad our boys got through their religious education long a’fore she was in charge,” Beulah said.
Both Gene and Beulah’s boy, Willie, had been so sweet with their thick blond curls. They’d spent hours together down at the Landing, fishing, jumping off the pier in their dungarees, bare-chested and tan. Unfortunately, Gene and Willie had also taken a liking to Zula Blix’s boy Ralph. Martha tried to put an end to it, but somehow the boys kept in touch and she knew that even now as young men they still went into town to shoot a game of pool whenever Gene was home on leave. Ralph Blix had been the fool who suggested they all jump off the pier at low tide that long-ago summer, but neither Gene nor cousin Willie held a grudge, a fact Martha could not wrap her head around. These days, Gene always insisted on taking Willie along whenever he went into town, pushing his cousin in his wheelchair, sometimes standing on the back riding down the short hill at the top of Main Street, both boys, now grown men, whooping and hollering like they was 10. In Gene’s last letter home, he’d already said he planned to take Willie out to find some pretty girls. And he’d reminded his mother to make his favorite foods, including that lemon meringue pie.
Beulah coughed. “You go down to see the river yesterday?” she asked, bringing Martha back to their call.
“Nope. Didn’t step outside.” Martha tucked the memo pad with her grocery list back into her purse. Gene would be home for a week this time. She’d have to tell him to steer clear of Ralph Blix. Just until this issue with the Good News Club was resolved. She couldn’t have her own kin act disloyal.
Oleo barked again in the background. “Hush, you mutt!” Beulah said without a trace of anger.
Martha pictured her cousin bending over to soothe the old dog. “What about the river?”
“It’s bad, worst I’ve ever seen it,” Beulah said. “Heard the levee over at Clear Creek went out.”
“I swear I don’t remember a January this bad.” Martha ran her finger around the mouthpiece of the phone. “Remember when we were kids, Grandpa told us the river ran backwards one year?”
“Sure do. During the earthquakes. In ’11 or ’12. He claimed his boat went upstream for nearly a mile. Never knew whether to believe him or not.”
Martha sighed. It had been so much easier when she and Beulah were girls. She wasn’t sure she liked being a grown-up much, all the responsibility that now fell on her shoulders to make sure the world ran the way she wanted it to run.
“Amen,” she said again for no reason, then, “I gotta finish my grocery list, Beulah. Though Heaven knows when I’ll get out to fill it. Talk tomorrow.”
But the next morning, phone lines were down in New Madrid. Scores of trees had fallen into the river, and temperatures had dropped 25 degrees overnight. Outside, sleet came down hard. Some of it stuck to the windowpanes, freezing on contact.
By Friday, water came up to the edge of their yard. Carl went out to move their two cows to a small barn up on higher ground. He’d had to lead the animals carefully over the ice around the flooded areas.
Electricity was out, but Carl’s ham radio still worked. The news was nonstop now, the voices on the ham radio increasingly frantic as Martha and Carl sat listening after dinner. At dusk, the door swung open, and their son blew in with a gust of icy wind. Gene, taller than his father now, was bundled in a hooded black rubber raincoat. Bits of ice clung to his dark blond beard.
“You’re comin’ with me,” he said. “Everybody’s meeting up at the church.”
“I’m not leaving this radio, son,” Carl said, standing with a smile. “Your mother and I’ll be fine long as we stay indoors. Come give your old Pa a hug, then pull up a chair.”
Martha had stood quickly, too, her heart beating fast at the sight of her beautiful boy. Hobbling quickly without her cane, she leaned into him for a hug and wouldn’t let go.
“Ma! I’m all wet! You’re soaked now,” Gene said and held her away from him, smiling at the sight of her water-stained dress.
Carl brought her the cane, which she took without breaking eye contact with Gene. “Get out of those wet clothes,” she said quietly. “I’ll get dinner ready.”
“Nope,” Gene said. She hardly recognized her son’s voice, that of a man now. “You have to come with me. Fella’s got a radio set up at church.” He grabbed coats and hats from hooks near the door. “You’ve got food, Ma?”
His eyes had caught sight of the pie Martha had baked that afternoon. He strode in quickly, dipped his finger into the browned meringue the way he had as a boy. His eyes sparkled when he turned to grin at her in that old way of his.
But his face grew serious quickly, the way it had when he told her how Willie’s pup Blackie had swum around in circles that day they all jumped off the pier and Willie didn’t come up when they expected him to. “That dog was trying to tell me something. I wouldn’t have known Willie was hurt if the pup hadn’t done that.” It was Gene who’d dived down and dragged his unconscious cousin back to shore. The thought of the lifelong damage Ralph Blix had caused her family made Martha shudder.
“Let’s pack this up,” Gene said. “I’ve got folks waitin’ in the wagon outside.”
Martha hobbled into the kitchen and covered the Pyrex pie plate with its ruby red lid, then let Gene help her into her coat. Carl kept asking questions, but Gene wouldn’t answer, and Martha just followed her two men silently to the door and out into the dark night.
It was sleeting so hard she could barely make out the open-bed wagon sitting there. Gene helped her into a seat on the side and put the pie plate on her lap. She grasped it hard with both hands as she sat crunched between two fellows talking about a young woman with a newborn baby who’d been found frozen on the roof of a house just across the county line. Martha’s eye started twitching like mad.
“Roosevelt’s sending in the WPA as well as the Coast Guard,” one of the men said.
She looked down at the ruby red lid on her lap, slick with sleet, and bent protectively to cover it. When lightning flashed, she caught a glimpse of the land covered in splotches of water, houses abandoned with no lights showing through their windows, farm tools and what she realized with a start must be small, dead livestock littering the fields.
The scene at the church was also grim, the sanctuary packed with refugees from the flood. Ronnie Hinote’s mother was wrapping a blanket around her wildly shivering son while another woman sat with one baby on her lap and two little ones at her feet, all of them crying. They must have been from Fulton County because they didn’t go to Martha’s school.
Gloria sat with her parents in a back corner, fiddling as always with her braids, and another young boy Martha didn’t recognize held a rag to his forehead; when he removed it, it was soaked in blood. For the first time she could remember, the church wasn’t cut in half down the middle of the center aisle. The pews had been pushed back willy-nilly.
Martha grimaced when she looked up at the garish Jesus recently installed behind the altar. His eyes bulged like he had gout. The monstrous gift had been donated by the Blix family. Martha’s eye was spasming uncontrollably.
Gene and Carl stood on either side of her. She needed them to stay close. But Gene motioned his Pa to walk with him toward the back, where a group of men huddled. She could hear the familiar static from someone’s radio but couldn’t make out any words.
“Wait,” she said. “Don’t leave me.”
Carl turned and raised his hand in that usually reassuring way of his, meaning “Calm down now, I’ve got this.” But it didn’t help this time, and still holding her pie plate in one hand and the cane in the other, she took a step back to brace herself against the paneled wall and get her bearings.
Reverend Alfred Prescott stood by an urn of coffee set up near the pulpit, arms akimbo. She couldn’t stand the man: overly attentive, sprinkling too many over-the-top adjectives into his speech and sermons. And yet she went regularly, reminding herself that the real wisdom of the Lord came from inside.
She looked around the room lit only by candles and kerosene lamps that cast both light and shadows. A long table had been pushed against the far wall and covered with plates of sandwiches and cakes, even a sliced ham. And there was Zula Blix, in some silly emerald green suit, standing at the end of the table, telling people where to put their contributions.
Martha took three deep breaths and then, still holding her cane and the pie, made her way carefully to the other end of the table, where she put the plate down in front of the ham. When the lid was lifted, most of the meringue still stood in stiff glossy peaks.
A carefully manicured index finger, painted in tangerine polish, appeared and pushed Martha’s Pyrex dish back behind the ham.
“Desserts are kept in the back,” whoever belonged to the finger said dismissively. Then Martha caught sight of the small hand’s middle finger, with its large pearl and onyx ring.
“Zula Blix, take your hands off my pie!” she shouted, louder than she’d intended. Reverend Prescott looked toward the two women, eyebrows raised, but Zula waved to him reassuringly, as if to say “Nothing I can’t handle.”
Martha pinched her lips together.
“How are you, Martha?” Zula’s voice oozed fake interest. “Isn’t this an awful night?” She gave one more tap with that orange-polished nail, sliding the pie another quarter inch toward the wall. “Ralph’s already been out helping to find those left behind, the elderly and infirm and such.” She nodded toward Willie in the back. Gene was bent over, whispering into his cousin’s ear, both hands on the arms of the wheelchair. “Your boy going to get out there too, or is the rain comin’ down too hard now?”
Martha wanted to punch her. But Beulah appeared suddenly at her elbow. “Come on, Martha, let’s go back to the menfolk.”
Martha put both hands on the knob of her walking stick to hide their shaking. Zula Blix had no right to such holier-than-thou talk.
But her cousin was right. Now wasn’t the time to take on Zula. Far from it. When she looked up to give Zula one last evil eye, the woman had wandered back to her side of the church.
Just then, the Reverend yelled, “We’ve got another one!”
Martha turned to see two men rush through the door she’d come through minutes earlier. They carried a body between them.
“Oh my Lord!” Beulah cried out.
Martha refused to give in to tears but felt far too shaky to make her way back to her husband and son. “Get Carl up here,” she whispered. “And Gene, Beulah. Please. I fear I’m going to faint.”
Beulah grabbed a chair from the end of the food table and slid it behind Martha, nearly pushing her down into it.
A third man, tall and barrel-chested, burst into the sanctuary. Martha recognized his Coast Guard coat, double-breasted brown with a sheepskin storm collar. “We need 10 men,” the man shouted. “Twenty if you’ve got ’em. We’re heading out to the levee to pile more sandbags.”
Gene shot up from where he’d been half-kneeling in front of the radio and hurried toward the man, squeezing his arm in familiar greeting. From across the room, pale-faced Ralph Blix joined them, though Zula had grabbed his elbow to try to keep him with her.
A dozen men now circled the newcomer.
“How we going to get there?” Martha heard Gene ask, his voice so much deeper now than when he’d sung in this very room in the Sunday school choir so many years ago. Even then, the choir had divided straight down the middle — Fulton County children on one side, New Madrid County on the other.
“We’ve got a barge we’ll take over. Big one.” The man was panting. “Lots of cutters out there already. Patrol boats, you name it. But we need more manpower.”
Martha turned to look for Carl and found him still back near the radio. She was thankful he was too old to go out with these young men and thankful that he knew it. Ronnie Hinote was staring at her. The poor boy looked so scared. She leaned her head back on the chair, squeezed her eyes shut so he wouldn’t know that she was scared too.
Then before she knew it, Gene and Ralph and the tall stranger and other young men had disappeared. The church felt suddenly empty, as though all the life and energy had been sucked out of it. Carl was walking toward her, eyes locked on hers. Martha tightened her grip on her cane and bit her lip to keep from crying out to her son to come back.
Those left behind — the women and children and old and infirm, like Beulah’s boy Willie — stayed all night in the sanctuary while the rain pounded on the tin roof. Beyond the darkened windows the rain slashed in angled sheets. Wind howled down the chimney, an invisible intruder intent on chilling their bones. All Martha could think about was her sweet boy, out there in all that bitter freeze and blackness and all that water. She realized too late that in the rush of leaving home she’d left her purse. No Jesus on gold tinfoil to hold between her fingers. So she forced herself to look up at the ugly painted crucifix behind the altar, the one with its garish paint and wide-open eyes on Jesus, praying hard and silent and deep.
The news didn’t reach them till the next afternoon.
They’d finished all the ham and sandwiches and cookies and cakes. On the long table, Martha’s ruby red pie plate was empty except for a lolling dollop of meringue.
Reverend Prescott was leading them in singing “Peace in the Valley,” his alto booming loud over the half-empty room. Across the way, Zula Blix stood in a cluster of Fulton County women. Amazing, Martha thought, how they’d managed to be well-dressed even in the middle of the storm.
When the tall man in the double-breasted jacket once again appeared in the doorway, the singing abruptly stopped.
He stood in the open doorway, crossing his arms over his chest. Martha looked over at Carl, snoozing in a chair beside her, and reached for his hand.
“The barge overturned,” the man said quietly. “Sometime during the night. A hundred and twenty men are dead or missing. Rescue efforts are under way.”
He’d brought lists with him, he continued, waving sheets of white paper in front of him. Names of the men still missing. Men whose bodies had been recovered. Men who were safe and being cared for.
When no one spoke, the man let the hand holding the lists fall to his side, then walked slowly over to the table. Someone stood to push aside empty platters, including the pie plate, and the man laid three long sheets of paper down on the table.
“Reverend?” someone asked. It was an old man Martha didn’t recognize from the other side of the church, dressed in worn overalls, with a tobacco stain dripping from one corner of his mouth. Those damn Fulton County ne’er-do-wells, she thought. That man probably hated my Daddy, and my Daddy hated him.
The Reverend ignored him, pushing his way to the table, spreading his arms as though sharing a feast.
“The names you are looking for are here,” he said in that stage-y voice Martha hated. As though it were any of his doing, she thought bitterly. When the people in the room realized no further explanation of this horrible tragedy would be forthcoming, those who could rushed to the table, pushing the Reverend and the tall man aside.
Carl’s hand escaped hers, and he hurried over to the table along with the others. But when Martha rose from her chair, she hobbled directly toward the door where the man in the storm collar had stood. She knew Beulah would come after her, but she had to get to the river, because that’s where Gene had set out for, and she had to find her boy.
Outside, the sky still gray, spotted with dark clouds. Her cane sank into the wet ground as she made her way forward as quickly as she could. Her shoes were soon muddied, but she kept on, stepping down the stone-lined path, down the long hill.
When she reached the riverbank, the muddy water rushed by faster than she could have imagined. She closed her bad eye, not even giving it a chance to start its crazy dance. Her glasses had fogged, but she could see two half-drowned houses with water up to a foot or two below their eaves, their chimneys stained dark with water. There were the tops of two gnarled trees, leafless, their branches looking like an old lady’s — like her own — arthritic fingers. Roiling clouds arched above them, black, blacker the higher you looked.
She wondered what it would feel like to step into the river rushing past her. Just three steps forward. Then lift a foot over the low row of sandbags. Lift the other foot, using the cane for balance. Then, once the hem of her skirt was soaked, and she could feel the way the water grabbed at her ankles and skirt and the way she wanted to sit down in it, she could unclench her hand from the cane. It would float past her downstream, buffeted and rocked. There was only so much support one could count on.
She remembered her grandfather’s tale. She tried to picture the river running backward and time with it, bringing her Gene back to her, or even bringing back the boy he’d been, the young woman she’d been before Jesus had gouty eyes and women flirted with her husband, before things got so complicated she couldn’t figure out who were the good guys and who were the bad.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Beulah. “Come on now, cousin Martha, let’s get you back inside.”
Back in the church, Martha saw that the tall man in the Coast Guard jacket now sat near the pulpit. Someone had wrapped him in brown wool blankets. A cup of coffee sat steaming beside him.
Martha moved toward Carl, who still stood in the crowd at the long table, bent over the list to the far right, his finger scrolling down the long rows of names. She’d been so foolish to not go to an eye doctor; she couldn’t see well at all with these cheap things. “Which list is that?” she asked when she came up behind him, heart pounding. He didn’t answer.
She stood hip-to-hip with him now, holding her breath as he moved his finger down more names. She took her new glasses off, wiped them, and glanced across the way where she saw, as though at a long distance that had suddenly shortened, Zula Blix, standing across the way in her fine emerald suit. Martha didn’t know if she’d had a chance to read the list to find Ralph’s name or not. Or what their sons’ fates might be. But she caught Zula’s eye squarely, nodding curtly in recognition of all they both had to lose.