Heritage

by Agnieszka Stachura

Your grandpa floated down Main Street in his wingback chair, floated right past the traffic light still blinking caution, in the twelve feet of water that took over when the levee broke. Water that crept in like a coyote or dingo, a living noose around weakened prey. The town was helpless, with its graceful stores and homes anchored firm and proud in foundations laid in stone by broad-shouldered men in this heartland town on the banks of the greatest river in the world.

You save what you can while there’s still time. You listen to Mama’s instructions, you follow her lead, what to set aside, what to take, what to abandon as sacrifice to the swelling water. Albums, china, scrapbooks go to the attic, high as you can go, pull down the stairs and climb up into the hot, still space, hear the house thrumming beneath you, water babbling secrets in the basement, thrusting eagerly into each dark corner, the tinkle and smash of Mama’s jars of jellies and preserves. You hear it from up under the eaves with your great grandmother’s quilts. The sideboard and the kitchen tables go on casters, up a few inches from the wooden floor like a lady pulling up her skirts, charming and useless against a river that starts pouring through the screen door like water through a sieve. You’re supposed to leave the windows open, invite the water in, give it a way back out.

You do what you’re told. You pray and you hope and you choose. But what photos of what distant ancestors do you put up on a high shelf, wrap snug in plastic, tuck under a shirt, pressed tight against sweaty flesh, these forefathers who settled here in hope and ignorance, bequeathing to their progeny a doomed inheritance? And what do you do when the levee breaks, after they said it would not, after they said it would hold? What do you do when the wild-eyed teenager in the soaked army jacket comes to the doorway of your flooding home, water streaming from the bill of his cap like a curtain, and tells you that it’s time to leave, now, offering no explanation and no apology? Who’s to blame for this? Who’s to blame for a levee crested and breached, for a town ruined, for antimacassars tumbling in turgid water, draped over branches and stop signs, for towels and televisions and children’s artwork strewn like garbage, knocking gently against deadfalls like teenagers restless on a street corner?

What do you do when you’re standing there with your arms full of quilts that your mama says you can’t take, they’re too bulky, too fragile, too much a liability if they get wet, sodden, as though filled with grief, the weight of grief and loss? What do you do when your grandfather, who lived through locust and hail, went to war and sent his sons, played hard and fair, what do you do when he says simply, “No,” standing next to you in the parlor, water up to his ankles? What do you say when you see him that night on the scratchy TV set up in the center of a Red Cross shelter teeming with sweat and despair, hot and crowded and unstaffed, your family heritage reduced to a damp blanket on a square of gymnasium floor? What do you say when you see him there on the evening news, floating down Main Street in a wingback chair, and the commentator on national TV says something heartbreaking and ridiculous about the resilience of the human spirit.

 

Agnieskza Stachura is a graduate student in the Liberal Studies program at Duke University. Her work has appeared most recently in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Hint Fiction, Damselfly Press, and The Sun. She was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s very short fiction award in January 2011.

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