Eddie Lester, on the wagon bench next to his grandpa, watched the river frantically climb. The swirling, foaming current shoved sticks and chaff and sycamore tree boughs past them. Boughs that looked like sea monsters darting their long snaky necks in and out of the waves. Green swells and darker brown undertows reached out, inches away from pulling them down.
Breathing in the wet smells of the morning’s storm, Eddie thought Grandpa was talking to him. But he meant Plugnut, the sorrel gelding hitched to the wagon.
Plugnut whinnied, but Eddie tried to take Grandpa’s advice too, tried to steady his nerves.
Together, they looked at the sky.
“Storm’s done. Sun’ll be out soon.”
It wasn’t the storm that spooked him, passing through as it did with rain and wind and thunder that had snapped him awake that morning like an electric switch.
Storms blew in, but they always blew out.
Storms weren’t anything permanent.
“They say you can never step into the same river twice,” said Grandpa. “You ever heard that one?”
Eddie shook his head.
He didn’t want to look at the river anymore.
He didn’t want to think about it.
He’d lived his whole life here on the banks of the Moreau. He’d seen it spiteful enough to flood Grandpa’s corn.
Angry enough to uproot trees.
He’d never seen it go completely mad.
Yesterday, a solid oak bridge spanned the water, from the spot where they waited to Cedar Grove, across the way.
Today, the bridge was gone, vanished, the space ahead filled only with the triumphant rushing and roaring of water.
In a world where things could change, the bridge had been unchanging.
In a life of ups and downs, the bridge was straight and true.
Now, it was splinters…tumbling downstream.
Grandpa simply said, “We’ll have to go around.”
When he moved the wagon back, sent Plugnut along a parallel path, then away from the river at an angle, Eddie breathed a sigh of relief.
The clouds were parting when they crossed the hill at Parker’s Mill.
“Knew a girl once, a long time ago,” said Grandpa. “A long time before grandma. She was the kind of girl who called you chicken, you didn’t do certain things with her.”
Eddie saw Mrs. Parker in her long apron, outside tossing a forkful of hay to her cows. A couple of broken maple tree branches sprawled across her lawn. He waved, but she didn’t see him.
“This girl met me one night at a dance. Asked if I wanted to take a ride in her dad’s wagon. A wagon a lot like this one.”
Eddie pretended to listen, but he was more interested in seeing the storm damage. It looked like the Johnson farm had lost a barn roof.
“I wasn’t about to be called no chicken. So we went for a ride under the stars, this hell-cat and me,” said Grandpa. “She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.”
When Grandpa stopped talking, Eddie turned to look at him.
Grandpa’s face was folded with age, and spackled with a random growth of whiskers. The puffy gray eyes looked down on him. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Eddie?”
“I suppose,” said Eddie, not understanding at all. He turned back to the torn landscape around them.
Eddie supposed they were lucky at their little house, Grandpa and Grandma and him. The potato cellar flooded a bit, and they’d lost some limbs off trees, but nothing like the damage out here in the open country.
Who could have imagined they’d be better off so close to the river?
“So…I saw this girl a month or so later, again at a dance.”
“What was her name?” said Eddie, just to prove he was paying attention.
The Johnson’s barn was a complete disaster. In memory, it stood two stories high, painted red with a peaked shingle roof. Now, it was an open husk, like a bursting shell had gone off inside, and the smell of moldy hay and horse manure filled the air.
“This girl you’re talking about.”
Grandpa started again. “So, I see this girl at a polka dance. She comes out from behind this big accordion player and tells me she’s late.”
Several men were already cleaning up debris around the barn.
Eddie waved. This time, somebody saw him and waved back.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about, ‘late’. So I say, ‘Am I late for the dance?’ She meant a different kind of ‘late’. Thelma meant she was late for her monthly. She asked me what I was going to do about it.”
The road curved down away from the Johnsons’ and, looking across the river valley, Eddie could easily see the path of the storm.
Layers of torn sod, trees bent and pitched at a variety of odd angles. It was all quite exciting.
Grandpa turned back toward the river, toward the crossing at Jewel’s Ford, and Eddie’s stomach fluttered.
“Right then and there, I told Thelma I didn’t want to see her again. But that was a lie. I did want to see her again. But, I also knew she was the kind of girl would lie to boys just to get ’em into trouble.” Grandpa shook his head and whistled at Plugnut as they rolled along down the hill. Through a line of trees, Eddie could see the river, could smell the brine and raw dirt.
“I spent every day of my life wanting to see Thelma again. Wondering what happened to her.”
“What if Jewel’s Ford is washed out too?” said Eddie.
“It won’t be,” said Grandpa.
Eddie took his word for it. Grandpa had lived here a long time. He’d seen storms come and go.
“Is this the worst storm you’ve ever seen?” Eddie asked.
Grandpa nodded. “It could be, at that,” he said. “I suppose we were due.”
But somehow, Eddie didn’t think they were talking about the same thing.
At Jewel’s Ford, the water lapped at the underside of the iron bridge, and big piles of wood and garbage clung to the railings where the current kept stashing it.
Plugnut stepped onto the oak planks and the bridge shuddered.
“Your grandma never heard that story. Not until this morning.”
Eddie didn’t like the way the river looked. He didn’t like the way the bridge creaked and groaned.
Neither did Plugnut.
“Maybe just wait until tomorrow to go to town?” said Eddie.
“Can’t wait any more,” said Grandpa.
Eddie was surprised when he handed over the reins and stood up.
“Where are you going?”
“S’pect this is far enough. No need for you to wait.”
“You can turn around, take the wagon back home.”
Eddie blinked his eyes and watched Grandpa climb to the ground.
Across the bridge, on the opposite bank, another wagon waited.
A strange woman sat on the bench.
“Don’t you worry about me, son,” said Grandpa. “The clouds are going away. The sun’ll be out soon.”
Eddie watched Grandpa walk across the bridge, then his pace quickened to a trot.
He watched him climb into the other wagon.
At the last moment, Eddie waved his hand, tried to call out.
But the other wagon was already gone.
After a while, Eddie took Plugnut back the way they came.
At the Johnson place, he stopped to help pick up after the storm.