Maria Zoccola is a queer Southern writer with deep roots in the Mississippi Delta. She has writing degrees from Emory University and Falmouth University. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, The Massachusetts Review, Colorado Review, Spillway, Southern Indiana Review, Fence, Lake Effect, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
We Hold Our Treasures, We Bury Them
When the Mississippi River starts hauling itself up its own banks like kudzu reaching for the sun, Traci leaves off napping to the sound of the endless rain slapping the windshield and takes action. She slithers over the center console and into the heart of her nest, a fabulous collection packed floor to ceiling from the minivan's trunk to the back bench to the bucket seats and beyond, which includes, among other valuables: cans of soup and three black sneakers, bicycle tires, a rusted bird cage, a sewing machine, a four-piece cast-iron cookware set, spoons and two whisks, an unstrung compound bow, a cordless drill (still in box), a rubber-banded bunch of number-two pencils, an umbrella with a polished wooden handle, a clear umbrella, an umbrella with ruffles on its spines, earmuffs, a red alarm clock, eleven scented candles (various scents), and a doorjamb in the shape of a seahorse. It has been two months since the nest has included a cell phone. She finds what she's looking for wedged behind the toddler's booster still strapped to the right bucket seat: an inflatable kiddie pool, orange and pink, curled in its original cardboard box in a thousand intestinal folds. Traci clambers back into the driver's seat, unspools the thing, and starts blowing.
She's been living in the minivan since November, mostly downtown, mostly at Tom Lee Park. She likes watching the teenagers trudge along the riverbank and hurl rocks into the water, likes the dogs and the joggers and especially the families, the fathers who punt soccer balls across the grass and the babies who chase them with outstretched arms and stumbling feet, shrieking like small and endangered birds. No families out today, of course, not with the rain and the river rising like a deadly soufflé. The parking lot is empty, just her van and old Mrs. Chung’s Prius down at the end, which has been weathering storms since long before Traci moved in. She hasn’t seen Mrs. Chung make her usual scuttling runs for cigarettes from the trunk for some time, and thinks she must have read the signs and gone to stay with her brother until the weather peters out, or perhaps at the rescue shelter on Poplar, but the shelter is no place for the proud.
A cop car rolls by just as the first tendrils of water creep out from the soggy grass to touch the van’s tires. Traci has pushed the little gummy plug into the pool’s airhole to take an oxygen break; already she feels lightheaded and dizzy, though the thing doesn’t even have enough of her breath inside to find its shape yet. The officer knocks on Traci’s window with the back of his knuckles. She cracks the door, and the smell of the river rushes in, leaf-rot and sludge, layers of muddy decay all stirred up and swirling.
“Ma’am, you gotta clear out,” the cop says. He’s wearing his cop face, all shut down and serious. It’s a wonderful face, much better than the face other folks wear when they talk to her, mostly saying things like hello how are you today and then please don’t talk to my child. “The mayor’s shut down the riverfront. It’s not safe.”
Traci has to take four deep breaths before she can say anything. “I’m just about ready to head home,” she says.
The cop peers past her into the depths of the minivan, and for a moment his cop face becomes the face other people wear. “Uh huh,” he says, and smacks the hood of the van twice before walking away, slap-slap, like he’s hurrying up a pony.
Traci slams the door shut against the smell of the water and gets back to blowing, with the added entertainment of watching through the windshield as the cop peers into Mrs. Chung’s Honda and raps on the window, then jiggles the door handle while calling out in a loud cop voice. By the time the ambulance and fire truck show up, the kiddie pool has gotten too big for the inside of the van, so Traci has relocated to the top of the hood, the pool rolled out in front of her, hanging over the grill like a giant tongue. She sits cross-legged on the cool slick metal in the middle of the downpour, huffing her lungs into the vinyl and feeling each raindrop like a thumbprint on her itching scalp, on her windbreaker, on her knees. Her cheeks are getting sore from all the puffing.
The flood is scraping the van’s undercarriage when the ambulance pulls out, tires throwing up great curls of water and red lights reaching out into the marrow of the rain, catching and refracting, making Riverside Drive glow. They don’t flip on the siren. Traci’s not sure what that means. The fire truck leaves next, but the cop car turns around and noses through the slopping water until it’s next to her again. The cop rolls down his window.
“You gotta be gone in twenty minutes, lady,” he says. “I’m followin them to Methodist to file the report, but if you’re still here when I get back, that’s a three-hundred-dollar ticket, and I ain’t foolin.”
“I’m gone,” Traci says. “Promise.” Her lips feel like taffy.
The light starts to fade just as Traci caps the airhole on the pool for the last time. It’s a magnificent piece of work, ten feet long and two feet deep, long air pockets zipped off from each other by heavy-duty stitching to keep the whole thing springy. Traci has a puffing headache and wants to lie down, but the river is up past the wheel wells now, and the carpeting in the van is getting soaked.
She hoists the pool up on the van’s roof and anchors it down with her pile of soup cans, but then she faces the near-impossible task of transferring her nest from van to vinyl bathtub. Not everything will fit, and she has weight to consider as well, not to mention sharp corners that would ruin her hard work. The pool came with two little patches for sealing up leaks, but Traci thinks the manufacturers might not have had her situation in mind during their design process.
What can go? Not the birdcage. Not the pair of fat little lawn gnomes with their pointy shovels. Yes for the bicycle tires and the garbage sack of clothing, yes for the sewing machine and alarm clock, the whisks, the cordless drill still in its box. Yes for the toddler’s booster seat, which Traci unstraps with wet hands, kneeling in water and listening to a low and enormous noise, still far-off, like the trains she used to watch as a girl glide over the Ridgeway overpass: inexorable momentum, boxcars shouldering the very air to one side.
The pool is reasonably comfortable. She settles down inside her migrated nest and wraps her arms around the booster seat. The wall of water hits soon after.
Like a blow from a fist, the flash flood is only awful after the fact. The pool holds up like a champ, vinyl sides rolling with the angry water and turning aside the boiling debris, sticks and plastic, globby green weed, four feet of mean-faced alligator gar, dead and bobbing along downriver with the rest of the Mississippi’s guts. Traci and her pool skate across the face of the brown water, spinning in the occasional quick circle but always coming true, away from the drowned and tumbled van, away from the parking lot, down the length of Tom Lee Park and into the road, over and up, rising up, higher up, up the bluff to where the mansions loom over the river, million-dollar views all the way to Arkansas. The river rises even to these, supposedly built high away from any flooding, and as Traci is rushed past in her kiddie pool, she snakes out a hand and catches hold of a wrought-iron fencepost and reels herself in.
The gate has come loose and hangs open, buffeted by the flood, and Traci steers her pool hand over hand through the portal and into the small yard, a sloping grassy hill cut through by concrete steps. The pool grounds itself atop a cluster of azaleas, and Traci has one last burst before her strength gives out to drag everything up the hill and onto the back porch. She huddles against the cold dark bricks of the house with the booster seat in her arms and watches the day’s last light drain to black, and then the sky is the same as the earth, rushing and enormous, everything studded with the wavering light of the stars. The blow catches up with her; the flood becomes awful.
When the first news chopper roars overhead, Traci picks herself up and tries knocking on the back door. There’s no answer. The house is dark, no lamps in the windows, no porch lights out front when she walks around to check. She squints down the sidewalk at the other mansions in the line, but they’re dark, too. Probably the evacuation order sent all the occupants hustling out to the Peabody or their relatives’ guest rooms. Traci finds a key under the back mat and lets herself in.
The inside has been left in a hurry. There are dishes in the sink, bits of this and that abandoned on the counters and tables, a newspaper shaken out across a footstool, open to the sports page. Traci wanders from room to room, touching linen drapes, knit throws, the spines of antique books. Oversized abstract paintings crowd the walls. Traci helps herself to bags of spiced nuts from the pantry and clumps up the stairs, booster seat under one arm, past the master bedroom with its wide gracious balcony, opening doors to a study, the guest room, and, at the end of the hall, a room with a little plastic racecar bed and teddy-bear wallpaper. Traci has to slam that door shut in a hurry, but ten minutes later she’s back, easing inside, sinking down in the middle of the scattered Hot Wheels and action figures and model dinosaurs until her eyeballs are itching and her skin feels like it wants to come off in long string-cheese strips. Then she has to leave again.
The master bath has a walk-in shower with hot water that smells fresh and tastes clean and feels better than the trickling spout at the rescue shelter, or the rental stall at the Love’s outside of town. The woman of the house has plenty of clean clothes in the bureau. Back downstairs, the pantry has food enough for ten floods, and right there in the kitchen, sitting in its cradle on top of a stack of cookbooks, is a cordless phone. Traci grabs it up and dials, but the number rings and rings and when she redials it rings and rings and when she redials it rings and rings and when she redials she wants to rip up her guts and sew shut her eyes and pull off her fingernails and she can’t be inside anymore with the phone and the Hot Wheels and so she stumbles out the back door to find the water lapping all the way up the grassy hill and spilling over the porch and she puts her hands on her knees and breathes breathes breathes.
The back porch is no good, so she takes hold of the vinyl side of the pool in both hands and wedges the thing through the back door, nest and all. She leaves muddy wet drag marks in her path as she heaves through the kitchen and sitting room and up the wide front stairs, inch by inch, muscles straining, soup cans and bits of nest falling out the back to bang down the stairs and crack against the tile. She needs three breaks along the way, but eventually she gets the pool down the upstairs hall and through the master bedroom and out onto the balcony, and there in the rain and wind and far-off sirens and choppers and the endless agonized shout of rushing water, Traci curls up in her nest and goes to sleep.
In the morning the river has come into the house.
Traci wades through water shin-deep as she visits the pantry, shuffling along the spongy rugs and slick hardwoods, her bare feet learning a strange new topography. She finds a wicker basket of lifestyle magazines and upends them into the wet, watches Martha Stewart and Joanna Gaines slip under the filmy surface and descend, stirred by the faint current. The basket she fills up with food to bring upstairs, as well as an eggbeater, a stack of muffin liners, six lightbulbs, some plastic lemons, and a small ornamental foo dog. She arranges all of these things in her nest, and then how easy it is to pick up the hand lotion on the nightstand, and all the balled socks in the bureau, and the cold and glittering contents of the mahogany jewelry box, rings and bangles and opalescent strands of pearls, and tuck them all into the bare spots in the pool. Traci opens the walk-in closet, and after that there’s no turning back.
Cowboy boots and sunhats. An iron. Hand luggage, evening gowns, a three-piece suit. In the master bath, hairbrushes and perfume and rolls of toilet paper. Monogrammed towels. Curling irons and a heavy floor scale. An elegant marble statue of a naked lady. The study has file folders and ballpoint pens, staplers, a paper-fed calculator that makes churring clicks when she taps the buttons. She flits from room to room. Wall clocks and pillows in the shape of dachshunds, a photo book on Florida. A bird figurine. Two bird figurines. A whole cabinet of bird figurines. Cotton balls. Wrapped-up peppermints in a silver dish. A wrung-out tube of toothpaste, a sleek thin computer monitor and a clunky old thick one with a cracked face, a Mardi Gras mask with purple feathers, twelve tennis balls, a clip-on reading light, a poetry collection of the Romantics, an orchid with no flowers. Downstairs is even better, although the water is at her knees, warm as blood and full of silt and loose hair: a fire-screen shaped like a peacock, a set of souvenir spoons, an oil painting of crazy crosshatched lines. Fridge magnets from Paris and Big Sur. A cookie tin with recipes inside, and another with yellowing receipts. Drain cleaner and a coffeemaker and some foam packing peanuts. The piano bench. The hat-stand. All the couch cushions.
She rescues the house phone on her final trip back up the stairs, and sits with it outside the closed door to the bedroom at the end of the hall. There’s no answer when she dials the number, and instead of redialing she cracks open the bedroom door three inches wide and sneaks her hand inside to grab hold of one heavy little Hot Wheels car, a yellow Porsche with a wheel missing, and this she takes back to the balcony to place gently and carefully at the nucleus of her improved nest, which rises from the sagging kiddie pool like an army bunker, fierce and hulking and full of very good things. Traci wriggles inside through the hole beneath the piano bench and leans over the tip-top edge to watch the water below, thick and swirling, brown as coffee and twice as bitter. The river stretches out, a great angry beast, current coursing like something unstoppable, something that built and built, raindrop by raindrop, sticks and roots and leaves, Legos and sippy cups, missed appointments and hours in the waiting room, dinners on trays, whole entire weeks spent silent and huddled under sweat-stained sheets; built and built and built until everyone drowned. Out in the distance, the bridge is holding firm on its slender piers, while above it all a raw gray sky hangs low and lowering.
No one answers when she calls.
On the next day, Traci adds the dining room chairs to her nest, all six of them, hauled up the stairs one at a time. The thigh-deep water wants to follow her up. The afternoon brings the waterlogged ottoman and spindly antique writing desk, and the next morning she nearly throws out her back trying to drag up the china cabinet. It’s too heavy, in the end, so she leaves it in the chest-deep water and hauls up its contents instead, lovely shining plates and pitchers, teacups with thin gold leaf. She wedges her finds wherever there’s space, filling up the nest’s hollows and crannies piece by piece, but the day after that the water is too high to venture downstairs at all, filling the bottom floor rug to ceiling, the stairs ending abruptly in a shining wet darkness desperate to keep climbing. Traci doesn’t mind at all, because she’s discovered the pull-down stairs to the attic, and is carefully lowering a full-size decorative suit of armor into the hall. She pulls the armor into the nest with her arms wrapped around its waist, but the sharp points on the heels catch hard against the straining vinyl of the kiddie pool with a rip and a hiss and a sudden pathetic deflation that ultimately has no effect on the nest itself, so large and finely woven, so sturdy, towering so high that Traci can’t see over the top to the river at all.
Inside the nest is comforting darkness, soft with couch cushions, slick with rain. Traci curls on her side and listens to the wind, muffled and far-off. She picks up the phone again, again, again. Its battery is dying, but the cord for its cradle won’t reach from the nest to the outlet. Again, again. Again. And then:
“How is he?” Traci whispers.
Silence. Traci pushes a collection of scarves deeper into pockets of her nest. She rearranges soup cans. She repositions the Mardi Gras mask. She pulls out the Big Sur refrigerator magnet and bites down on the plastic with her back molars, harder and harder, waiting for the crack, the split, the pieces to break off sharp on her tongue. “Safe,” Nathan says. “Healthy. Happy. Stop calling.”
“Let me talk to him,” she says.
“Stop calling,” Nathan says. Muffled and far-off, a small voice says, “Daddy, can’t find shoes,” and Nathan hangs up.
Traci bites down, and there’s the crack.
She uncurls herself from the belly of the nest and climbs its high safe walls until she can peer down into the river below, the wide and rushing water that has climbed all the way up the rise, up the porch, up the walls. Its surface slips by just under the lip of the balcony floor, cold and stinking of something unnatural, oil or chemicals, something that’s ruptured far upstream and been delivered in the course of its run to here, to this moment, this balcony, this bite of air. Traci crushes the cordless phone in the grip of her fingers until her knuckles hurt, and then watches it slip from her hand into the flood, there and gone, swept away. Her tongue finds a pearl of blood in her gum. She’s snapped a tooth.
By dawn there’s nothing else in the house light enough to drag into the nest. The walls of the house are bare, and the beds, and the immense oak desks. The cabinets are stripped clean. The attic is empty. The nest is a force unto itself, a palace, a citadel, its walls so thick that when the water comes up over the balcony, it takes two full hours to penetrate the nest’s inner core, and even then only at a trickle, an inconsequential annoyance, on par with the rain that hasn’t once stopped falling, weeks and weeks of relentless downpour building up more than one upriver pocket of trapped water, just waiting to be shaken loose again, and as the cloudbank lightens from black to gray, the right sunken tree shifts left and the wrong wedge of branches shifts right and gallon by gallon, once again, the water breaks.
The wave is like an angel stooped low, arrowing down from upstream, spreading her arms wide, her wings wider, scooping up ground and air and sky in one clean pass. She hits the Hernando de Soto Bridge and throws up fountaining spray, knocks trucks down into the wet with the force of herself, and then she’s free and surging onwards, down past Tom Lee Park and along the canals of Riverside Drive and Tennessee Street, swallowing phone lines, snatching trampolines and deckchairs and ragged mouthfuls of houses, chimneys and rooftops, screen porches, gulping them down and opening her mouth for more. She flings herself at the balcony on which the nest is rooted and throws out her vast hand, scooping up the nest like a thimble, an acorn cap, with Traci at the center as a single downy wisp. They’re drawn out into the heart of the flood, nest and woman both, racing along the waterway, ridges of cloud whipping by overhead.
Traci climbs the wall of the nest to feel the wind in her face. The world behind her is matchsticks. In front of her is the shaken-out sheet of a new kind of highway, miles eaten up in long scudding strides. The nest skates the surface, safe as anything, whole, unshaken, and when Traci opens her eyes wide enough she can see the children chasing her on the banks, waving their arms and laughing.
“ I started with the final image. The rest flowed in like water. The Mississippi River has always loomed large in my creative life; sometimes I think that everything I write has a little bit of mud inside it. ”