River Bottom – flash fiction by Misty Urban

leaves by Giles Lambert

She sat on the deep wooden porch in the chair her grandfather had made, and she rocked. The evening clouds, dark in their underbellies, clumped and hurried toward the line of beech trees lining the creek. The insects hummed and the birds chittered and the frogs croaked nervously, and once in a while the big garrulous ga-THUMP of the bullfrog belched through the other noise.

From the bedroom inside the house she heard the same sporadic hacking, the guttural expulsion and then the dry wretched scratching for air. Behind it was the rattle she’d heard before, when the grandfather who’d shaped this chair had lain, years ago, in that very bed, choking up lungs tarred black by a life in the coal mines. When she heard that rattle, she came out on the porch to wait.

No one worked in the coal mines anymore; now they blew up mountains and scraped the top flat as an angel cake, pushed the blasted rubble and the twisted roots of the great oaks and spruces into the valleys, suffocating rivers, towns, a whole way of life. Fast, maybe. But not clean. Death never was.

Some time ago, before the belly of the sun had reached the far blue hill, he’d stopped calling her name, ceased the faint, desperate cackle for “Ell – Ell—Ell.” Soon it would all cease, all of it. The spitting up of his saliva and the stomach lining poisoned by lead, nicotine, the many strange compounds with their haunting names that he had breathed by choice and by lack of choice all his life. The querulous “Nell! Get in here, you good-for-nothin!” The curses, the hand flat and hot against her ass or the back of her head, or pointed, as it had once or twice, toward the shotgun leaning behind the door. The hands that had been so eager and fumbling in their cold meaty softness on her wedding night, when she was bought and unwrapped like a slab of meat. All the times that heavy imprint had come with a “Dammit, it’s for your own good!” or “Why you make me do these things?” or “Wipe that look off your face, or you’ll get it agin.” You could hardly blame a man for doing what he’d seen other men do all his life, for doing what he was driven to do. But you could hardly blame a woman, could you, if the bruises went deep and lodged there, waiting.

She wasn’t unchristian; she’d left a glass of water by the bed. He couldn’t reach it. It wouldn’t help. Tomorrow she would look on a new sunrise, a new land, the land that had belonged to her family for a hundred years and would now belong only to her, the fields, the creek bottom, the ancient trees that had not yet been gutted by disease or rot or bulldozers dowsing for coal. She listened to the dry scratching voice and the way it blended with the frogs, like a chorus of nature, no sentient thought behind it but the desperate wish to survive. She listened the bullfrog bellow and stop. She rocked. In a little while the faint, damp, muddy river smell would come drifting up on the fog.

Misty Urban’s work has appeared in Karawane, Talking River, New Letters, Indiana Review, and Quarterly West, among other places. Her short story collection A LESSON IN MANNERS won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. I teach writing and coordinate the Writing Center at Muscatine Community College in Muscatine, IA. Visit the author online at MistyUrban.net.

Image courtesy of Giles Lambert

Also published on Medium.

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