Thump, thump. I edged back as the trickle of water slipped beneath the door. This trickle was joined by another and, like a group of black snakes, the water slithered forward, pushing us further into the small house.
“Daddy, what’s that sound?” she asked.
I was still surprised by her keen sense of hearing. What could I tell her?
She grasped onto the back of my baggy worn jeans as I guided her towards the stairs.
“Daddy,” she had asked, in the summer, before the rains had come. “What does love look like?” We had been walking in the meadow behind our house, hidden from the afternoon sun by a canopy of sycamore leaves above.
At four, she was at that age when why’s and wonderment seemed without end. These bright questions unnerved me. They made me feel dim, inept even. I thought of the first time I’d told her mother I loved her. I remember how my nerves had been frayed, the sleeve of my grey shirt dark with sweat as I tried to wipe away the beads that multiplied along my brow. The oven fan rattled and I stared at blobs of Bolognese sauce that bubbled like a tar pit and noticed how the boiling water had turned a milky white, the spaghetti coagulating into one huge ball. Any pretension of cool I might have given off initially had dissipated when the fire alarm began to scream and a blanket of thick smoke unfolded itself neatly from the oven. “Shit,” I muttered and laughed nervously as I tried to direct this smoke through the kitchen window with a small dish cloth. Finally, I placed the plate of spaghetti in front of her, completed with a side of blackened garlic bread. “We can just order something,” I told her.
“Nonsense, it looks great!” She cut through the clump of spaghetti with her fork and knife and scooped it up eagerly.
Later, she reached across the table, wiped a speck of red sauce from the corner of my mouth, letting her finger linger. The scented candles I’d placed on the table—originally for romance, now to mask the smell of burnt garlic bread—flickered. The kitchen became even smaller. We leaned towards each other, crouching into our chairs like we were being squished into our own snow globe world. I was unafraid to be turned upside down although I knew I was falling. “I think I love you, Emily,” I whispered and watched as the smile lines beside her mouth grew long. I was momentarily astounded. I hadn’t planned on telling her this but as the words hovered above us in our snow globe world, I began to feel the rhythm of my heart slow, the expansion and shallow deflation of my lungs as my breathing became steady and sure. I felt the strong desire to reach out, run the back of one of my large paws against one of her cheeks but I lost my train of thought when I looked into the oasis of her jade coloured eyes. “I don’t just think I love you Emily, I know it!”
It was cheesy, overly sappy. However, as I looked down at my daughter that day, before the rains had washed away our meadow, had washed away our world, an uneasiness welled up. How could I thread together this story to describe love to a four year old? What other questions would she ask me in the future? “Um…” I cursed myself. Why hadn’t I paid more attention in English, especially the metaphors and similes, alliteration and lyrics, to make the profane sacred using mere words. As she got older, she would expect more of me and my descriptions.
“I can’t really tell you what love looks like,” I began. “I guess…it’s more like a feeling you get.”
“Hmmn.” She placed her hands on her hips in feigned frustration. I bent down and grazed my finger along the side of her face, the way I’d done to put her to sleep when she was a baby. I looped a finger in one of her curls, the blondness lit up by the glimpse of sun squeaking through the leaves overhead.
“I don’t know how to describe love to you, except that every-time I look at you, that’s what I feel.” I placed her small hand over my broad chest. “Do you feel that?”
“That’s my heart. Every-time I look at you, my heart beats a little quicker, ba-boom-ba-boom.”
She giggled. I put her hand on my stomach: “Love also makes your stomach feel kinda funny. It’s like you don’t know if you’ve eaten, or if you’re full, it can make you feel lighter.”
“Daddy,” she said, trying to contain another giggling fit. “You don’t very feel light.”
I laughed, grateful my description was enough. I promised myself I would read more to provide her with more than a simple black and white view of the world.
Thump. More of the sandbags gave way and the water poured in. “What’s happening?” she asked again. Carefully, I placed her on the foot of the stairs and hurried to the kitchen for the last of the supplies. “Just wait there!” I called back over my shoulder. I flipped open the cupboards: a single box of trail bars and a bag of dried apricots were all that remained. Stuffing these into my knapsack, the water seeped over my rain boots. “Shit!” The cold water pierced my ankles like needles.
“Where are you, Daddy?”
“Here.” I sloshed back to her. I led her up the stairs, trying to remain calm.
As we reached the top of the staircase, I pulled a long string and a step ladder slid down.
“C’mon honey,” I said, hoisting her up. “There’s ten steps, each is about a foot apart, and here, there are handrails on either side. Here’s the left one. Yup you got it. Good. And here’s the right one.”
“Daddy, what’s happening? I’m scared!”
Me too. “I’ll be right behind you, don’t worry.”
She began her ascent up the ladder so I took a moment and glanced down the staircase. The beige carpeted stairs were darkening with each passing second like mercury rising in a thermometer. How is this possible? How is there this much water? I let the knapsack drop, watched it tumble down the stairs only to float a brief moment before it was sucked under by the coursing water which climbed towards us.
When she reached the top step, I hurried after her, pulling the ladder up after me. The attic door banged shut and I thought of Emily. She should be here with us. The Bible Thumpers. They were to blame. They had given up with the very first drop of rain. And when the rain increased, they had thumped their bibles harder—a testament to their belief the end was nigh for the sinners of this world.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Emily and I were brash, young newlyweds. The world was there for our taking and we had escaped the cacophony of big city living only to find that living in nature had its own loudness. I’d grown up in the country, but the isolation was proving too much for her. I brought her to the local watering hole in town where the floor and tables were sticky, the music obnoxiously loud. Upon sitting down, a fist fight broke out at the far end of the bar and I knew we’d never return. Next, I tried bringing her to my new coworkers house for a meet and greet BBQ. However, stories of hunting trophies followed by plates with hulking slabs of pink fatty meat had almost made her sick. I became desperate and so, despite any religious inclinations, I suggested the church: “Could be a good place to meet others.” She’d jumped at the idea.
We had been welcomed by the congregation and the enthused Reverend Baldwin—their leader, whose deep voice belied his tall, thin frame. His hands felt sweaty as he wrapped them round my hands like a politician. Almost instantly, we settled into a routine of Sunday service followed by brunch with fellow church members. For her sake, I’d looked past the singing, the dramatic hallelujahs, and the overly enthusiastic sermons of the Reverend whose chin would be covered in spit as he launched into diatribes of just about movies, television, plays, opera, music, and even books. “You know the only book I read?” He’d asked the congregation one Sunday. “What Reverend?” The congregation hollered back. “The only book a person of this earth needs. The Bible!” I almost laughed out loud, had to hide my snicker in the collar of my shirt. However, when I’d looked over at Emily, it was as if the dull that had set in had been suddenly chipped away, and her jade eyes gleamed from the light spewing forth from the Reverend and his flock of sheep. I swallowed my pride. Who was I to question it? I didn’t care, as long as she was happy.
This pleasant routine had continued until just after Marie was born: “Oh really! If there is a God, then why would he let this happen? Explain that, huh!” I’d challenged Emily in our kitchen while Marie, barely a week old, lay asleep in the next room. Emily wouldn’t answer me. She blessed herself and exited the room leaving me to myself and my surging rage. My fists were clenched so hard that my fingers began to ache and the skin of my lip broke as I chewed over my thoughts. The front door banged shut as Emily left causing Marie to stir. As I walked towards my baby daughter, I realized it was the first time I had been alone with her and as I approached, the cloud of angry thoughts began to clear.
Increasingly, I opted to spend Sunday afternoons on walks with Marie. On those times when we did go to church as a family, I took more notice of the Reverend and the messages of his sermons. I observed the clergy, how they nodded with each spiel, whispering in unison their Amens and Hallelujahs.
I remember accompanying Emily to Church the Sunday after the first week of rain. Standing in the back pew, Emily and Marie on either side of me, I noted the egg-shell painted walls had taken on a darker shade from the clouds outside. The Reverend Baldwin stood, as always, at his pulpit. His robe, despite the lack of light outside, still appeared bright and moved as if it were a separate entity yet followed the Reverend’s movements closely as he moved rhythmically side to side. His knuckles were white as he clenched the sides of the pulpit. His eyes—cobalt and splayed wide—scanned the clergy as if confirming we were giving him our full and undivided attention. His voice soared, bounding off the arched ceiling and curved walls, spilling over with conviction and growing louder as he explained the reasons for the rain: “It is God’s punishment! His wrath for the wicked! But do not fret, do not worry, for those pure of mind and spirit,” he surveyed us once again, waved his arms over us. “You, yes you,” he pointed, “The deserved, the humble, the meek, the true servants of God. You will go on to the paradise of Heaven!”
“Bullshit!” I wanted to scream and looked to the clergy for support. Instead, I found people with their hands outstretched, some with their eyes closed, heads swaying back and forth as if listening to some music I couldn’t hear. “Emily.” I nudged her but she didn’t hear me. She was holding her breath, her face lit up the same way the first time I told her I loved her.
I stared at the Reverend who had his arms raised towards the cross behind him, his head bent backwards.
Everyone—except me—completely transfixed in admiration.
“Daddy, where are you?”
“I’m here, Marie.” I secured the attic door, closing us off for a moment from the rising water.
Taking her hand, I led her towards a circular window in the corner. Glancing out, I surveyed the wrath. The water was only a foot below the window. Everything gone.
“What do you see, Daddy?”
Where did it go? I didn’t know what to tell her. The sun was hidden somewhere above those clouds and intermittent flashes of lightning. It had acquiesced itself to the rain which had continually lashed its fury on us now for over a month. The sun, it seemed, had given up on us.
I pulled her close. There wasn’t much time now. Her other senses were much better than mine. Surely she could hear the water lapping against the attic door, the surge of water roaring past outside, threatening to rip our house from its foundations and take us at any moment.
I couldn’t stop her shivering. Was it from the cold or fear, I wondered. I had to tell her something.
“Honey,” I said, my voice cracking. “Do you remember our afternoon walks in the meadow? The warm feeling from the sun?”
“Yes,” she whispered, nestling closer against me.
“Well the sun is out now. It’s so bright and all those dark clouds are gone. The birds, they’re whistling to each other, drawing lines and circles in the sky with their wings. And the leaves that we used to play in, do you remember?
“They’re dancing in the wind, rustling as they are lifted up and up! Everything is so beautiful.”
“What else, Daddy?”
“Well, Sammy from next door, he’s barking at nothing as usual.”
I bit my lip, forcing back a tear but the lie felt right. I drew two circles around her eyes, and she clasped onto my fingers like she had once done as a baby.
“The raccoons,” I said, “they’re following their mommy raccoon who is leading them up the same tree your tire swing is tied to.”
“But where’s Mommy?”
The last time I saw Emily, she stood with her arms crossed over her chest while the Reverend stood beside her, his hand on her shoulder and a large pious smile painted on his face.
“Are you crazy? Come with me!” I pleaded with her. “We have to get to higher ground!”
“No,” she’d said, her blonde curly locks waving side to side in refusal.
“Think about Marie! Don’t listen to him. Please. He’s crazy.”
I ran to her, grabbed her by her arm, trying to lead her away but she pulled away from my grasp and then the Reverend’s flock were on me. They shoved me along the aisle and threw me into the water which had already breached the bottom of the church steps. I jumped back up but only got to see her jade eyes one final time before she looked away and the doors were slammed shut. I pounded and kicked, screamed until my throat was raw and the heel of my fist turned red but their chanting from within drowned me out.
The water gurgled as it seeped through the edges of the attic door and spilled over onto the floorboards.
I held her tight as the water slithered towards us.
Picking her up, I stared into her eyes: clouded blue, they swiveled left to right, just as they always swiveled, searching for a light she would never see. “We’ll meet Mommy soon,” I said, hoping this wasn’t a lie.
A Graduate of Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio, Cormac O’Reilly is an Irish/Canadian author who has previously been published in Emerge 14. He is currently working on a collection of short stories that explore the human condition. He lives in Vancouver, Canada with his partner, Lani.