Hard Ground

by Brian Postelle

I’m tired of the smell of mud. The dull, thick deepness of it. It is at the same time humid and chalky. It is a base layer. It doesn’t overpower the smell of the clothes in the dryer or Ohia cooking onions, but it is patient and persistent enough to undercut all of those things. It is always there. Even after pulling the rugs and bleaching the concrete slab three times the smell lingers. Every boot track on the car’s floor mats. Every shirtsleeve accidentally rubbed red. Even my skin, tanned and stained, carries a reminder of it. Out at the barn, you can’t touch anything, pick up a hose or bucket, without the slip of a thin layer of the stuff, and I’ve had to throw away two pairs of boots, caked and ruined.

I’m tired of the smell of mud. I’m tired of the constant granules and grit dried into my scalp and the black hardened crescents under my nails. I’m tired of the knee-wrenching slog to get from the front door to the road. I’m tired of the mired moonscape stripped of features and left flat and shining in moonlight by shoe-sucking mud.

And I’m tired of being afraid of the rain.

We are always looking up. Doesn’t matter if we are pulling apart snarls of driftwood and rope spiraled and braided up in high piles against the fenceposts or hauling another wheelbarrow of mud out of the stables; if there is even a scrim of cloud cover now, we worry about the sky. We’ve seen what four hours of bad rain can do and too much of our imagination is taken up by the prospect of it happening again. That, or picturing what it must have been like for the horses when the creek jumped its banks and carved up the farm. We are driven to distraction by it. Little Cleary said “asshole” the other day and it didn’t even warrant a conversation. Intentionally or not, we have rearranged our anxieties.

Here is how she said it: “Travis is a asshole if he don’t come back.” And the only thing that made me flinch was she didn’t get the indefinite article right. And she said “don’t” just like Ohia would say it, so I know she’s just repeating words she heard.

Travis didn’t leave as soon as the bridge was clear, but he sure didn’t stick around too long after. He said he had some work down in Greenville and it couldn’t wait.

“We’re gonna need some money after all this,” he said. And he’s right. But we also need to dig out and get the horses back in the stables and get the power pole back up so we can get off the generator and there’s about a thousand things that need doing just so we feel like our feet are on hard ground again.

I’m crying every morning. Ohia is praying, and she never did that before, but I’m crying. I’ll go around the corner so I can do it by myself and not let her and Cleary see. But I have to shake off the hopelessness somehow or I’m not going to be able to pick up the shovel again, not even one more time.

Cleary calls me from a few stalls over. “Aunt Rachael come look!” I get a few more shovels into the barrow before she calls again.

“Hey girl, give me a second,” I say. “I’m coming.”

I find her in Shaker’s stall. His name is burned in a cursive line on a board, hanging crooked from a nail.

Cleary is standing against the planks of the wall and reaching up above her head and smiling with her eyes huge. She is twisted at her middle, causing the elastic waistband on her britches to show. Her head is tipped so her hair, cut straight across her forehead and to her shoulders on the side, flops across her chin, and her wrist extends a few inches past the purple sleeve of her shirt. But even on her tiptoes, she still can’t reach the high-water line, a solid mark of dust, mud, hay flecks, and horsehair. She hops and slaps at it and smiles. “Look how high it is!” She’s done this same thing about a hundred times since we got back into the barn, either for me or for Ohia, and she’s trying to get us to smile again.

So I do. I smile at her and say “Wow! You almost got there that time, girl!” but I’m thinking about Shaker and that line on the wall and how he must have had to hold his chin up and his body steady to keep his nose above the surface. About how a few stalls down, Ribbons, who is smaller, had to swim or tread or thrash to stay above the water before it receded. There are still slashes of mud splattered in the high corners of his stall and to me they look like wild marks of desperation.

I shut my eyes and breathe deeply trying to push away that horror. It’s too much. Even with all the horses okay now, and not one lost in the water, I can’t let myself imagine that picture for too long. I get to where I can hear the hoofs banging against the wood, everything under water except their heads and their shivering soaking withers and their round eyes darting, looking for us and us not there and I can’t breathe anymore and want to leap out into the aisle where I can see the light and open air from both ends of the barn.

But I don’t do that this time. Instead, I reach out my hand to Cleary and tell her to come along and help me. There isn’t much for her to do, but I like her near me when I’m working.

I want to call Travis but I don’t want to call Travis. If he’s down in Greenville and working, well then he’s doing what he needs to. But goddamn I could use him here. At least I think I could. Maybe we’re all better off with him in Greenville. The night we led the horses in the dark one by one through the mud and across the broken bridge to load up in the Colonel’s trailer, Travis was so shitfaced he almost slipped straight through breaks in the boards three times. “That’s a leg breaker there!” he’d shouted as he pulled himself back to his feet. “Keep them horses away from there!”

I’m not much convinced it was the rain that sent Travis away. The wreckage was more like a final whistle from an outbound train. I don’t know which way he and I were heading, but it seemed like every day there was less to say about much of anything except the farm chores. And I’m sure me letting Ohia and Cleary move in didn’t cool any embers he might have been holding on to.

“So your sister. She gonna help around here?” he asked back then. “Or just sit in the sun like she does out in Arizona?” I told him not to be mean, not to me or to them and he said sorry and wandered around the back of the barn to work on the tractor. And I don’t think he meant to be nasty, but he spent a lot of nights those last few months out there alone and always smelled like pure liquor when he came to bed.

Ohia keeps finding his old bottles, strewn out across the yard behind the house with the rest of our belongings. She’ll be pulling tangles of fencing intertwined with chunks of Styrofoam and trash and yank out an empty fifth, the label still crisp so she knows it came from the house and not someone’s old trash pile upstream. She’ll usually announce to me the brand and give her opinion of its qualities: “Turkey 101. Whoooo that stuff burns but does the job you know?” Or, “Southern Comfort? Eeyuck. Haven’t drank that since I was fifteen and threw up out my nose. Can’t even smell it without getting sick.”

I worry she’s going to find a bottle with liquor still in it, but she said to stop being such a worrywart. “If I want a drink, there’s an ABC right up the road,” she said, winking at me. “Proximity ain’t the problem, honey.”

On Wednesday, the Colonel came out, rattling the bridge in his dually, checking on the progress. I told him we’d be able to come get the horses from him real soon, but he brushed it off with a shrug. “The horses are fine,” he said. “It ain’t skin off our noses to keep them. I just wanted to see how y’all are doing.” I told him that the stables were coming along, and we’d almost got enough stalls cleared to bring the horses back, but I could see his eye drifting over the pastures covered in river rock, and the snarls of debris where there used to be a fence line and him knowing that it’s more than stalls that horses need.

People who come down to the farm get these shocked expressions when they get a look at what happened. That doesn’t happen to me or Ohia or Cleary anymore. Seeing the look on the Colonel’s face is kind of like time travel. “I’m gonna send some of the boys down to help y’all get all this clear.” He said it quietly but factually, talking out over the ruined pastures rather than at me.

And sure enough, on Thursday, more trucks came, and a crew spent the day and the next day chain sawing and hauling and pushing everything into big piles to burn later.

The sandwich place up the road brought down a bunch of subs and laid them out on folding tables so they looked like one long sandwich which made Cleary crack up in giggles all through lunch. Then they cleaned up and left, and I don’t know who paid them, but we waved them goodbye.

In the night, the three of us sit on the porch. Ohia switches off the generator so we can look at the blackness and listen to the quiet and hold our memories up to the emptiness in comparison. We’ll have the horses back soon. I know we will. But for now, the farm seems erased. It was wiped away like a smudge on a window. Gone in time for sunset. Those up to the east or even a little up the hill could be forgiven for never even knowing it happened, for not knowing what four hours of rain can do.

We were all off the farm that afternoon. The horses were inside, dry and eating hay, and we were going to be back to let them out in the evening. Ohia took the Ford into town to pick Cleary up from school, and I was going to meet Travis at his work to pick up the van at the tire place, but he called to say he was laid up at a friend’s garage. So I had to go get him there, and he didn’t like it one bit that I was mad he couldn’t drive.

So, none of us were on the farm when it started really raining. And none of us were there when the riverbank holding up the Norfolk Southern tracks collapsed across Hominy Creek and turned it, roiling and running brown, straight into our valley.

By the time we got back to the farm, it was sixteen acres of rushing water. We couldn’t get across the bridge. We couldn’t even see the bridge. We just had to wait. And watch. Wait and watch and scream for the horses.

I shiver again, on the porch in the dark. Cleary is humming something sweet, and Ohia is resting her head on me. Tomorrow we’ll be digging out again. And we’ll get the well pump back. And the power pole. And we’ll haul the river rocks out of the pasture and burn the burn piles. And Travis will come back from Greenville. Or not.

And we’ll get the horses back. Sometimes I don’t know how. Most times in fact.

“There’s hard ground down there. We just need to keep at it till we get to it,” Ohia says, and I guess it’s not too difficult to read my thoughts these days. And I know she’s right.

A warm breeze comes down the mountain and across our flattened pastures. It stirs Cleary’s hair and carries a whiff of chestnut and honeysuckle. And the lights of houses up on the ridgetop shine amber, flickering in and out of the trees and mingling with stars in a clear night sky, and sometimes in the dark it’s hard to tell which of them is farther away.

Brian Postelle is a writer living in Asheville, North Carolina. He enjoys fishing, playing music, and generally getting lost wandering around in the woods.