Ellen Urbani’s Landfall is a work of historical fiction set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Ellen is also the author of the memoir When I Was Elena, a Book Sense Notable selection documenting her life in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. She has a bachelor’s degree from The University of Alabama and a master’s degree from Marylhurst University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and numerous anthologies, and has been widely excerpted. She’s reviewed books for The Oregonian, served as a federal disaster/trauma specialist, and has lectured nationally on this topic. Her work has been profiled in the Oscar-qualified short documentary film Paint Me a Future. A Southern expat now residing in Oregon, her pets will always be dawgs and her truest allegiance will always reside with the Crimson Tide. Learn more about Ellen on her website
Forest Avenue Press
© Ellen Urbani 2015
Excerpted from Chapter VI
“Stop, please! Equalize with the city! Draw this water down!”
Inside Cilla’s jewelry box, safely centered on the back of a chifforobe floating face-down in the pool that had once been Maya’s attic, nestled a snapshot of Rosy with her foot bound in gauze. It documented one of Cilla’s maternal triumphs: pulling a nail out of her five-year-old daughter’s foot with her teeth.
For as long as Cilla could remember, the bottom stairboard leading up to their front porch had been loose. It shifted with each footfall and made a gentle crkkn, as if to imply the house were welcoming home its occupants after a long day of separation. She’d liked the sound; it spoke of homecoming and rest-to-come, until the day Rosy caught the corner in her haste to halt the ice-cream truck, split the board in half, splintered the edge, and somehow landed standing in the grass with a nail driven straight up through the bottom of her left foot.
From inside, Cilla heard the crash. She waited for Rosy’s squeal of shock or a cry that might mean she’d suffered a scrape or, at worst, a deep cut. But no: a mewling moan spilled from her child, unlike anything she’d ever heard, and it sent her charging, terrified, toward the porch.
For a moment, seeing Rosy standing upright on the lawn, relief flooded her. But then she followed her daughter’s gaze and saw the nail sprouting two inches through the top of her foot.
Cilla had the forethought to get exact change for the bus and Rosy’s favorite toy and a juice box before rushing from the house with her child held tightly against her chest, wrapped in a blanket. She moved quickly, but without panicking, and kept Rosy soothed by singing softly into her ear during the four-and-a-half-mile bus ride to Charity Hospital downtown.
She never once put Rosy down, even during the second hour when she rechecked with the ER clerk to be sure they were still in the queue. She continued rocking and crooning to Rosy until the third hour when her voice tired and she despaired that they’d ever be seen. In the fourth hour, their care preempted by gang members and drug pushers and all manner of hoodlums who left bloody wheel marks in their wake, she decided her daughter didn’t belong in such a place anyway. No one in that whole hospital—not the doctors with their fancy degrees or the nurses with their experience and know-how—cared about her child as much as she did.
Rosy had been such a good little thing, too. Exactly the kind of child you’d think someone should care about. She hadn’t fussed or cried, just settled into Cilla’s arms uncomplaining, waiting out the ordeal. Had the good manners not even to bleed, the nail staunching the flow. So when she turned her face to her mother’s and muttered her first words in five hours, “I wanna go home,” Cilla decided to oblige her. She walked up to the clerk’s desk, gathered a wad of tissue, lifted Rosy’s foot from the blanket, clenched her teeth around the nail head, and yanked. Then she spit the nail onto the waiting room floor and stormed out the automatic doors that parted before her. Hard to say if anybody even noticed. Back home, she filled the hole with a poultice, wrapped the wound in bandages that she changed twice daily, kept it peroxided and clean, cadged a tetanus shot and a penicillin prescription off one of the physicians she cleaned house for, and had Rosy toddling around again in just over two days.
Despite the fact that she couldn’t always control her own demons, Cilla trusted herself to keep her head and save the day during other people’s crises.
She waded the short length of Maya’s attic slowly now, running her hands over the roof boards, pausing here and there to rap her knuckles against the wood, listening for a hollow reply. She stopped and balanced on a reinforced joist, waist-deep in water.
“Here, what?” Rosy asked.
“Here’s where I aim to bust out,” she said. “Sounds less solid in this spot, like maybe it’s more rotted out over here. Best chance to break through.”
“How’re we gonna do that?”
Cilla swept one arm in a wide arc in front of her, indicating the rising water. “How’re we not gonna do that?”
Maya and Rosy could see Cilla moving, shadow-like, some fifteen feet away from them, but the darkness prevented them from accurately interpreting her motions. The two windows, at either end of the attic, were by now halfway blacked out by the rising water, and the cloud-laden skies outside sifted little illumination through the glass. Twenty-seven hours into their confinement, their eyes had adjusted as much as possible to the lack of light, but if someone had said it was ten o’clock they couldn’t have accurately guessed whether it was a.m. or p.m.
Cilla continued navigating by touch. She punched at the roof boards with the heel of her hand; they failed to yield. “Our only way out is up, so by God, we going up. I done got us through too much in this lifetime to watch my daughter drown in … in … in this cesspool trying to pass for a house!” She lowered her voice, conspiratorially: “Cuz y’all know this only half storm water we in right now. Other half’s pee from all the folks done pissed they pants when they saw that wall-a-water barreling down on us!” She laughed at herself and winked at Maya and Rosy huddled together on the chifforobe, another lost gesture. “I might done gone and lost everything else, but long as I got breath in me, I aim to hang onto my sense of humor,” she insisted.
“Well ain’t this a fine mess?” Maya piped up, breaking the silence she’d kept since the chifforobe started floating, which likely occurred sometime early the previous evening.
The first day divided itself neatly into two distinct sections: before the chifforobe started floating, and after. Early on in the ordeal—as the three sat on the trunk for hours after ascending the ladder and slamming shut the hatch—there’d been an otherworldliness to their plight. They actually played word games, actively ignoring the rising water. Rosy had started it. Noticing the water starting to seep through the attic floorboards, suffering the horror of having left Cilla’s lithium behind, noting that defenestration might be their only way out of the attic, sensing the onslaught of hunger and thirst, Rosy realized she could panic, pray, or practice patience. She opted for the last, preferring to believe that if they could somehow keep their wits, if they could treat the day like any other fraught by weather too threatening to venture out in, it might all turn out to be just that normal. Why not? So she turned to Maya, sitting beside her, and said: “Butterfly McQueen.”
“Marian Anderson,” Maya replied good-naturedly, using the first letter of McQueen’s last name as the first letter of the first name of the next famous person.
Cilla quickly chimed in with “Alvin Ailey,” a double-letter name, which sent the play back in the direction from which it came. Maya then pulled a coup by turning it back on Cilla, reversing the turns again with “Arthur Ashe.”
Cilla: “Armstrong Williams!”
Rosy: “Whitney Houston!”
Maya, less swift than the other two, thought a moment. “Hurricane Carter!” she exclaimed, and they all laughed. Nervously.
The hurricane reference threw Cilla off, and she said “Kirk Franklin!” which Rosy had to remind her began with a K, not a C, so she switched her response to Coretta Scott King.
“Kirk Franklin!” Rosy yelled, and they laughed again, this time with real pleasure.
Cilla hummed a Kirk Franklin tune while they played, hours on end. Played until they ran out of famous black folk. Played until they ran out of famous white folk. Played while their stomachs rumbled and until they had to pull their feet up and wrap their arms around their knees to keep out the chill and the wet. Played until Cilla said, “Rosy girl, gimme a hand,” and they tipped the chifforobe forward to crash face-down with a tremendous splash, drowning out Maya’s furious cries that it belonged to her grandmother!, it was an antique!, it was the only thing she had left from that side of the family!
“Look round here, Maya,” Cilla said as she squatted and relieved herself in the murky water that, by then, covered the floor to a depth of about two feet. “None of us got nothing left from nobody no more.”
With that, Maya stopped speaking. Not a word, not even when she slipped while clambering onto the flat back of the chifforobe, sinking her right leg up to the thigh through the flimsy ceiling boards into the space that had once been her bedroom below. Not so much as a whimper when they pulled her out, bleeding, and nested together dead-center on the piece of furniture that had housed her grandmother’s wedding quilt and her mother’s communion dress, the bedclothes Maya had been born on and the blanket she swaddled the infant Rosy in. Once a week, for the sixty-plus years it had resided in her bedroom, Maya had dusted the piece she now huddled on. More than 3,100 times, her hands had caressed the wood with a dry rag, not a wet one; wet is not good for wood, it must be kept dry.
The chifforobe bobbed in the floodwaters.
The attic was supposed to have been a safe place for it and the things interred inside. Maya had coaxed Cilla and Rosy and Silas into hoisting it upstairs a few years back, relieved to have it out of public view. No more putting out a hand to stop a distracted man from slamming it shut too hard after fumbling for a spare blanket, no more needing to step between it and a child careening toward its well-preserved finish with a bike or a marble or a loosely swung bat. In the attic it would be hidden and her valuables would be secure even if some thief broke in, which could easily happen, what with the way the young people on that crack cocaine nowadays ransacked neighbors’ houses and took everything within eyesight to swap out for more drugs.
Below them, in the belly of the chifforobe, her tarnishing silver tinkled as the water lapped at it, bumping the forks and the knives up against the just-shattered china—those plates and saucers her grandmother had put aside a nickel a week to buy, piece by piece, over the course of twenty-two years. Now all was lost, and it paralyzed her. She kept thinking how it would be different were she young: there would be restorative years ahead. But not so when all that is lost is all one will ever have time to collect.
Haunted by the sound of tinkling that punctuated Maya’s sorrow and by the sounds of others’ losses that came to them in isolated bursts of screams or wails or bumps beyond their walls, they waited. Silently. Waited without sleeping; too unsettled for sleep. Waited to see if the heirloom would float beneath the weight of all three of them, listening for creaks that might presage their demise, terrified that if they closed their eyes they might never awaken should the chifforobe sink beneath the waters that would not cease rising.
* * *
Twenty-seven hours after they sealed themselves in the attic, somewhere in the area of ten o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, August 30, the silence and the waiting broke when Cilla jumped off the floating furniture into water that broached her waist, and crept hand-over-hand into the darkness, to divine a way out of their tomb.
Her splash roused them all from their morbid stupor.
“Well ain’t this a fine mess?” Maya asked, breaking her silence of the day before.
From the darkness, Cilla’s voice answered lightly, “Well, if this ain’t the mess, it’ll sure as hell do till the mess gets here.”
Rosy held her tongue. She’d been holding her tongue since the episode in the kitchen on Sunday. No time for personal recriminations. Didn’t much matter now how it got to this; “I told you so” wouldn’t reverse their circumstances. Were she to point out that everyone from herself to the president had predicted the possibility of this “mess” beginning a few days back, when their participation in the “mess,” or at least this degree of “mess,” could have been mitigated, it would have been a bit like Noah leaning off the edge of the ark and shouting down to the drowning townsfolk, “Did y’all notice it’s raining?” Valid but cocky. Earned, but cruel.
Instead, she ignored the banter, recognizing with each thud of the heel of Cilla’s hand on the rafters that it would take more than a punch from a bare fist to get them through to the roof. “How’re we gonna bust through?” she asked.
Cilla didn’t answer; just kept punching. In the face of her recalcitrance, Rosy ventured that perhaps Cilla could use her sneaker like a boxing glove, at least add some padding. When finally Cilla spoke up she admitted it would take the boxer himself to break through the roof boards. They wondered next about breaking the ornamental facing off the chifforobe to use as a battering ram, or balancing back-to-back and kicking through the roof, or, failing that, smashing through the upper glass pane of the window and diving out, hoping for a nearby piece of flotsam to cling to. But none of them could swim; they would most likely drown trying. It was a last resort.
Intrigued by their creative musings, Maya listened for a bit before suggesting, “Why don’t y’all just chop through the roof with the ax?”
Unable to see each other clearly in the darkness, Cilla and Rosy nonetheless managed to coordinate their responses. “What ax?”
“The ax in the trunk,” Maya said.
“What trunk?” Rosy asked.
“The one we done sat on all morning,” Maya answered.
Incredulous, Rosy actually giggled. Cilla remained silent. Stunned.
“There’s an ax in the trunk?” Rosy confirmed.
“Course there is,” Maya said, indignant.
“Maya, whatcha mean ‘Course there is’? What in the world is an old woman like you doing with an ax in a trunk in her attic?”
“Been up here since ’65.”
“And you use it for …”
“Nothing. Still got the tag on it. Ain’t never needed it!”
“So why’d you buy an ax you’ve never used?” Rosy asked. “String of ax murders, or something, back in ’65? You figured you’d beat them at their own game should they come climbing in through your window?”
“No, Smarty Pants. I got it cuz they said to.”
“They said to …” Rosy let the sentence trail off, a question.
“They said to after Billion-Dollar Betsy. Levees breached, flooded a buncha folks out. I done told you, I had me some water in my kitchen. Last time water ever got into this house!” This she said straightforwardly, as if she hadn’t noticed that she made this pronouncement while floating on an upended piece of furniture in her attic. “After that hurricane, they said every soul oughta keep an ax in they attic. And I’m nothing if not obedient.”
Oblivious as Maya might have been, the irony did not escape Rosy. “Were you obedient, you’d be high and dry in Texas by now,” she mumbled.
“Well, okay then. I be prudent.”
Cilla finally spoke: “And you didn’t mention this before cuz …” Like Rosy, she left the obvious unstated, letting the silence become the question.
Maya exploded: “I wasn’t gonna have nobody chopping at my house for the fun of it!”
“Well, that makes sense to me,” Cilla murmured into the darkness. “Cuz I don’t know about all y’all, but I’m having myself a fucking ball over here.”