Brian Francis Slattery in the Mill River

A Dim Flame in Dark Woods

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg. Please enjoy this excerpt from Brian Francis Slattery’s Lost Everything (2012).

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He was on the river with Reverend Bauxite when the dream descended upon him, of the mountains and hills melting into the sky. The wrinkles of the land smoothed and rose, the air thickened and fell to meet it, until everything was gray, dull yet luminous, as if there was a sun behind it, though he knew there was no sun there. The whisper of the atmosphere through his ears, the reverberations of the earth, the last echoes of voices all came together in a fading thrum, the final sigh before silence. It lasted no more than a minute, but the image, the sound, would not leave him. Downstream, the ruins of the Market Street Bridge were a tangle of twisted iron, shards of bony concrete jutting from the water. If the bridge goes down, you’ll know we tried, Aline had said. Ten pounds of plastic explosive tied around her chest with a purple scarf. Upstream, the spindles of other bridges, the dark hills sliding into the water, the water itself a field of slate, the same color as the sky, promising storms. He looked down into the current, leaned over and let it wrap around his knuckles. The river was a rope, pulling him through the last hills, the submerged towns and factories, the stunted fields lined with sparse trees, all softened by rain. The leaning house where he was raised. The dead in the driveway. His sister in the window with a rifle, eyes closed and listening, as though she could hear it all. The cries and rumbles of the ruins of the coastal cities, the heads of the buildings on fire while the seawater surged around their knees. The roads snapping between the stony fingers of the shifting hills. The last houses groaning as the roots of the trees pulled them off their foundations, then rushed over the roofs and chimneys, pulling the walls down. Everyone, all of us, trying to speak at once. We are here. We are all here. Even after everything, we are all still here.

Aaron, my baby boy. I never should have let you go.

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Sunny Jim’s oar slackened in the Susquehanna’s current. Reverend Bauxite, in the yellow boat with him, thought to say something, but did not. He could tell by the angle of Sunny Jim’s shoulders, his wrists. Something had visited him, Aline for sure. They were so close to where she left them. Reverend Bauxite was on the opposite shore when it happened, saw the snake of fire slither along the bridge. A chain of bombs, a tail of oily flames. When the wind drew the flames away, the bridge was gone. Too much like a magic trick. Aline was in the other hand. Under the hat. She was behind Sunny Jim the whole time, one step away. She was under the water, hugging the bottom of the boat. Putting words in Sunny Jim’s ear, talking to him as I am talking to you now.

Greasy smoke rose on the shore in front of them, over the blasted trees, the sandbags keeping the river back. There was commotion there, figures coming to frantic life in front of the small brick buildings. A new plume of fire, a gas can going up. The low thud of its ignition reached them a second later. There was no other sound until they reached the land and Sunny Jim leapt over the sandbags as Reverend Bauxite churned the water with his oar, fixing the yellow boat in the current. Then they could hear the wailing and shouting, the cries of agitated animals. A voice through a bullhorn. Reverend Bauxite stood and stepped to shore. They brought the boat over together.

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“Just then, on the river,” Reverend Bauxite said. “What did you see?” But Sunny Jim was already moving beyond him. The line to Aline, the line to Aaron, pulling him in opposed directions. These cords that God makes, Reverend Bauxite thought, we stand holding one end while they run taut into the darkness. We are connected, to what, we do not know. But if we put the frayed ends up to our ears, we can hear voices.

On the frontage road next to the river, a bomb had made a truck bloom into a metal lily, the sides peeled back and out. Tires melted into asphalt. Things on fire around it. A few old, dark trees, bright with flame. The wooden poles and tarps from vegetable stands, charred and ashen. The vegetables themselves. Twenty-seven corpses, four of them horses, three children. A line of cars, flames painting them gray. The occupying army’s outpost was blackened, but not enough to take the graffito off the side: THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HARRISBURG, PA. A mustachioed captain tried to restore order with the bullhorn. Calm down, everyone, please calm down. But they would not be calmed, for their families were dead. The front of the war had come to Harrisburg and stayed for months, a malevolent hurricane, beyond what they thought nature would ever allow, before it moved on. They had survived all of that, thought after it ended that they would be safe. Thought that once they had lived to see it go, they would keep on living.

Sunny Jim and Reverend Bauxite found a crate of food, unwatched, unmolested enough to eat. Picked it up, heads down. Tried not to draw the soldiers’ attention. But the grief around them was too much. Reverend Bauxite approached the families, bowed over their bodies, covered them with cloth. Closed his eyes, uttered words of general benediction. Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. He did not know what the grieving believed, did not wish to send the dead where they did not want to go. But he believed that his deity was generous, would be a guide. A dim flame in dark woods. He bowed his head again as the faces of the families turned skyward, listened for news, for the last thoughts in the heads of the dead, set free and swirling around them like leaves. They never really go. They are always here. With me. And now with you.

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Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery
Where to buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million

Image, photographed by Dan Mims, depicts Brian Francis Slattery in the Mill River, where a fish is nibbling his toes.

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