In June 2008 the Midwest saw the worst rains in years. In parts of Sauk County, Wisconsin, people canoed down their streets. Installed on glass windows in the communities affected most, Flood is a fictional story told in four parts about deluges big and small. This piece was written for the Wormfarm Institute’s Fermentation Fest Farm/Art DTour and was installed by the author in the towns of Reedsburg (I), Loganville (II), Rock Springs (III), and North Freedom (IV).
photo credits: Luke Saunders
Just like in the Bible, recent memory is divided into two eras: antediluvian and after the flood. Cedar Rapids, New Orleans, Lake Delton, up and down the Mississippi. You don’t grow up in these parts without being able to rattle off the dates like unlucky Powerball numbers: 1965, 1993, 2008. Talk to anyone long enough and they’ll tell you about their flood. Surreal they’ll say, which is the word we use when we don’t want to think about it any more than we have to. When we can do nothing but think about it. Everyone has a story. My neighbors like to tell one about the KFC in the city still serving food after the utilities went down. “We can’t sell you any drinks, and the bathrooms are closed. No running water.” Then how were they keeping things sanitized in the kitchen? Los empleados deben lavarse las manos antes de volver a trabajar. “Look, do you want a bucket or not?”
June 9-11, 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey tells us we had eight inches of rainfall over two days. Eight inches doesn’t seem like much until you imagine the whole world growing by eight inches overnight. Eight inches up on the bluffs, eight inches in the gully. Eight inches on my Grandma Rapunzel’s sweet corn patch, eight inches on the electric fence that keeps the deer out of the crop. Eight inches on the heads of the animals at Circus World and eight inches down at their feet. Take into account gravity and fluid dynamics, and eight inches of rain becomes a 28.73-foot-deep river. Our village of Rock Springs hit rock bottom and kept filling up. On the radio Flo Rida’s debut “Low” slipped out of the upper third of the American Top 40 for the first time all year.
It rained and it rained and it rained. The Department of Natural Resources had come through a while back and explained to folks where the 500-year flood mark would be. But this wasn’t a 500-year flood. Maybe the 500-year flood is still coming, maybe the gods got their disasters out of order, because what came down on us was more like the 1,000-year flood or the 2,000-year. All I know is that, for our village, a 500-year flood will be the Firefighters Benefit Pancake Breakfast after what we went through.
I say we, but I wasn’t around. My siblings, cousins and I were already up in our towers, miserable but dry. Once a Rapunzel, always a Rapunzel. But, that’s another story.
Last week, I was driving back home to Sauk County after a long, exhausting trip and I stopped at a grill for something to eat. It was late to be serving food and the first four places I tried had already closed up their kitchens. When I finally found that Mike’s Brewpub still had a few hand-packed burgers warming under the hood, I was starving. My eyes hurt, and when I closed them all I could see were the skreek-skreek of the wipers. Today’s spitting clouds were nothing like that weekend seven years ago when the gods hocked us one big, viscous loogie, but the precipitation must have started some thought-rivers rising, because I had barely tucked my feet under my stool when the bartender asked where I had been the second week of June, 2008. I told him enough—apple orchard, brown water, mildewing library books—which was all he needed to tell me his story.
Saturday. Everyone’s story begins on Saturday when the sky and the land switched. The land became an ocean while the sky turned green. The tornadoes came, half a dozen of them spreading out across the state, the big-city family out on vacation, no respect for the locals, a trail of debris wherever they went.
“It was my birthday. You believe that? My birthday.” My bartender grabbed a bottle of ketchup from down the bar and set it in front of me. He had a gap between his front teeth and a philtrum piercing that fit into it when he closed his lips. “You ever lifted a sandbag? Worst thing in the world. Like hauling bodies. You don’t think you can lift anymore, but what choice you got? I was standing in the IGA parking lot, water already halfway up my shins. Happy birthday, huh? Funny part—can you guess the funniest? People kept thinking I was in charge. Do I look like a leader?” He opened his arms to me for affirmation. His T-shirt had a hole in the armpit and a discontinued Miller Lite logo on the front. He told me how folks he knew from the grill kept asking him where they could help. Neighbors too. Even the National Guardsmen who had mobilized from Minnesota. With the recollection of each misguided volunteer, his shoulders straightened a little more. “Do I have a sign on my back? How about you talk to the people by the truck with the clipboards?”
Then, he said, the little girl arrived. She didn’t ask him how she could help. He didn’t even know she was there. Ten years old, water well past her knees, she watched my bartender hefting 100-pound sacks of dirt like the Seattle fishmongers she’d seen on her family’s spring break trip. She didn’t ask for special instructions. She was about to start middle school in the fall. In middle school they didn’t hold your hand anymore. She saw what needed to be done and she did it. She slipped into the line to the left of my server. She held out her arms and braced her legs.
The white sack connected just below her collarbone, and she went under in a blur of orange tank top and a long, blonde braid. Under the surface she flailed, churning up brown, contaminated water into her mouth, her eyes. She managed to get an arm free, but there was nothing except air to grab onto. The bag held her down.
Here my bartender paused his story, arms held out mid-sandbag toss. He reversed his mime, lifted the weight off the drowning child.
“I thought her dad was gonna shoot me, he looked so mad. But not at me. He was mad at her. I told you to stay out of the way! I almost killed a kid. On my birthday.” He guffawed. “Worst day of my life.”
“Did your house get flooded too?” I asked.
“Oh, nah. We were fine.”
Growing up in Iowa, the land of no-thousand lakes, my mother made oceans out of hayfields. They were vast and populated: the dark purple of alfalfa blossoms, the acid-wash pink of sweet clover. One cool spring, yellow mustard sprang up like water lilies, their proffered bouquets waving above the peaks and troughs of the undulating greenery. Red-winged blackbirds skimmed the lakes of my mother’s childhood. Meadowlarks, barn swallows. The honeybees were much more common then. If she waded into the murky shallows, her legs came out stippled in leeching ticks. She scratched at a swimmer’s itch of chigger bites. She liked to listen to the hush-hush of the wind kicking up the green waves. She’d heard the algal blooms had been really bad that year.
Like most bodies of water, my mother’s had a boat. It belonged to her father, a nervous man who built it after reading a story in the paper about a Clinton family washed out of their own yard by the Mississippi River. Grandfather couldn’t swim and knew nothing about boats, but in the loft of the cattle barn he planed a tiller and nailed a hull with the gravity of a man preparing for enlistment. He had lost his older brother to the Belgian trenches. The man had drowned in the muck, accidentally trampled by his own division.
When folks get afraid, some build bunkers. Some build towers and hide the children. Some build boats.
For a whole year he worked on that vessel, sometimes sanding by headlamp after wringing out every ounce of daylight he could tending to the fields and the animals. Late one spring before the June rains, my teenaged mother helped him lower the completed boat from the loft to the cattle manure below. A faint line of mud oozed in through a crack in the bottom, but my young mother held her tongue. From the barn the family carried it out to a hillcrest in the hayfield. The neighbors asked what use a boat was sitting right-side up for the heavens to pour into, but my grandfather just shrugged. Can’t be surprised if you got a boat, was all he said.
When he mowed the alfalfa, my grandfather cut a wide swath around the vessel. For over a decade it sat untouched and unneeded, a normal amount of rain falling from a normal looking sky, the water draining out of the hull’s widening cracks without pause. Goldenrod grew up around it. Buttonweed and Queen Anne’s lace. Canadian thistles spread until the rowboat was almost unreachable through the prickers except by one small opening. After dinner chores but before she took care of the horses, my mother would escape out to the boat on the hill. The thicket of brambles protecting her on all sides, she’d cross her arms over her potato-paunch of a stomach, close her eyes and pretend she was a freckled Sleeping Beauty in cotton shorts. She breathed in the damp smell of rotting wood and waited for a prince to ride up on his hay cart and sweep her away.
Why do you think she married a Rapunzel?
My grandfather’s flood never arrived. In the terrain of field tiling and plowed-under marshes, liquid and land had strict boundaries. The flood, when it came, was a flood of corn. A flood of beans. Combines larger than their house. Like most floods, it displaced whole families. Towns never rebuilt. My mother’s parents sold their cropland. The boat was too rotten to be moved. My mother packed her car for Wisconsin.
Floods always have a trigger: On April 6, 1917, America entered the Great War against Germany. Great Grandma and Great Grandpa Rapunzel sat in Rock Springs’ German Baptist church listening to a sermon in the only language they knew. Floods take time to build momentum: four months after the first boys were sent overseas, a mob from Baraboo stormed the Rapunzel house and seized the portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm that hung over the mantel. The Kaiser looked twenty years younger in the chromolithograph my great-grandparents had carried with tender patriotism across the ocean, across hundred of miles of a foreign-speaking land to this small house between the hills. He is decorated, handsome, his mustache a coiffed smile over unsmiling lips. His hairline is already receding. The men from Baraboo burned the print in the fireplace. They burned the chicken coop too for good measure. For a week the farm smelled like charred Thanksgiving.
Down in Iowa, long before my mother was born, Governor Harding signed the Babel Proclamation, making it illegal for German to be spoken in public, so my mother’s grandparents clammed up and stopped going into town. In Milwaukee, where Schmidts and Wagners and Mullers and Schneiders were the majority, whole orchestras were silenced, schools renamed. Then V-Day. Paper poppies pinned on lapels. The waters receded. Damages assessed. What German culture hadn’t been wiped out was left with a thick coating of sludge. It took decades and another war to scrub the high water mark away.
Before she died, Great-Grandma showed me where the chicken coop once stood. I used to buy fabric for dresses from one of those men, she told me.
Twenty-five years later, during another world war, German prisoners were sent to Sauk County and put to work in the canning factory alongside the village wives. Great-Grandpa went out into the yard to meet a work crew assigned to haul in vegetables from the Rapunzel farm. He gave them their day’s instructions in his newly learned English, then waited for their guard to translate. When the interpreter messed up, he pretended he didn’t notice, just as he pretended not to overhear what the soldiers said about his daughters who walked past to milk the cows. They were young men. He had once said the same sort of things.
They talked among themselves of homesickness. Now in his fifties, it had been over thirty years since he had seen his mother country, but Great-Grandpa could think of little else. Wo bist du aufgewachsen? he wanted to ask them. Where did you grow up? Did you ever meet any Rapunzels? But he was afraid to speak German outside of the bedroom, the only place where he and his wife still whispered in their native tongue.
The men worked quickly and were gone in a few days.
By the time I was born in the scratched-up lion-footed bathtub that sat in the corner of our cramped kitchen, the Rapunzel family already had seven children. My father’s older brothers had more than a baker’s dozen themselves. It seems everywhere in this county you find us Rapunzels. We don’t have the same local celebrity as Samuel and Dencey’s kids, but if you ask around, you’ll see. Our aunt educated us from home, enough kids for a four-room schoolhouse. When our mother drove to Baraboo to buy bulging, family-sized dispensers of shampoo, we thought nothing of it. We didn’t realize that families came any other way.
You know our story. Or rather, you know one of them.
The witch didn’t hide just one Rapunzel. She hid many away. Castles were only common around the Dells and turrets had been replaced by silos, silos by silage bags, but if you looked closely on the edges of woods, halfway up the quartzite hills, you’d see our elevated prisons: a nailed up platform here, a raised metal chair there. I was one of the lucky ones: four wood-planked walls and a slanted roof, a window on each side, the smell of tobacco and last fall’s beer. A father and son had left a pile of Old Milwaukee cans and a cardboard box of hunting ammo in the corner.
It wasn’t trespassing. No one was using the deer blinds during the spring, the witch told us. She was taking advantage of excess capacity. She was frugal like that, our kidnapper. You had to be frugal to keep thirty young Rapunzels, women and men, in captivity. She conjured up a CSA share drop-off with one of the local families: a dozen boxes of unmarketable produce each week. Not many farmers will deliver organic vegetables right to your hunting stand, but she convinced one. She was good at persuasion, made waves in the village council. She persuaded my siblings and my cousins to come away with her. She persuaded me.
That was in May. In June the rains came. Then came Lake Delton. Lakes aren’t supposed to come or go anywhere. Didn’t stop this one, though. You’ve heard this all before, I’m sure. Our stories are bloated, water-logged, too heavy to carry by ourselves. They leak everywhere, on everyone. Offer her a ride home from school and my little sister Karin will tell you how she would have caught pneumonia if she hadn’t been magicked away while carrying an umbrella on the path to her friend’s house. Her tower was only a couple of planks nailed to the side of a tree, but she was only five at the time so it fit her much better than it would have one of the rest of us.
You see those quartzite bluffs? They brought us the miners back in the 1800s. Now they bring us water. We didn’t settle on the name Rock Springs for nothing. Seems like every time I drive past the tap up by Ableman’s Gorge, someone is filling up one of those blue Culligan containers or an old milk jug. Water almost tastes sweet. But it didn’t in June, not that year, when the bluffs held in the Baraboo River and Narrows Creek like an over-protective mother. Rain transfigured into a brown and foamy ocean. After they got wet, sandbags were considered hazardous waste and had to be buried. “Compromised” the FEMA people called it. Compromised water. If our village ever gets to name the colors of a new crayon box, “Compromised” will be right there between tan and black.
From my dry vantage, perched in a deer blind above a feral apple orchard, the whole world disappeared in compromise. We don’t compromise with kidnappers. I’d heard my father’s voice during a press conference on the radio. So the witch sent the rain. Everything concedes to a flood. A flood makes demands and the demands are met. The flood is our jury, our judge. All rise. The water rose faster. You know the numbers, but there were the places that weren’t on the USGS map, places that got swallowed up entirely, places where we Rapunzels sat above it all, helpless and safe. We were the lucky ones.
Maybe the witch didn’t send the rains, but it’s easier to think of it like that.
Being the eldest, my cousin Macy always got the best of our brood. New dresses rather than hand-me-downs, a teal twenty-one-speed bike, her own bedroom with a window over the front door. She also got the most chores, the most responsibility watching the rest of us kids. When the witch hid Macy away, she didn’t stick her in a deer stand on the edge of a wood like the rest of us. She put her up in a single bedroom above the old bank in the center of the village. The apartment had once headquartered the old telephone company’s switchboard and had windows on three sides from which you could monitor the entire town. The operator, who hadn’t been too busy in a village like ours, had spent her days staring out those windows at the goings-on below. Back when Grandma and Grandpa Rapunzel were growing up, if you wanted to know where your husband was or who your kids were playing with, you picked up the phone and asked the operator.
It had been years since we’d had a telephone switchboard, but when the waters came, the witch brought my cousin an old tan phone with a spiral cord and then left again without a word, magicking the door shut behind her. Macy couldn’t have left if she tried. But she could still be useful. She plugged in the phone and the calls began coming in. She was traffic cop, 911 and central command. She fielded SOSs from the old women with bad knees stranded on their second floors. She called out the window the address to a man in an Old Town canoe who ferried the elderly to safety. People called Macy to ask if she had seen their husbands, their children. They asked her what news she had from the DNR. She told them everything she knew, which wasn’t much.
While Macy oversaw the townspeople, the witch had another task for me. She arrived in a DUKW summoned from some garage in the Dells now underwater. Ride the war famous amphibious invasion craft as the boys did on Normandy and Tarawa! The vehicle’s registration number lapped in and out of view as she puttered toward me. The propeller churned up the stench of wet manure, human sewage and rotting crops. It was the first time I had seen the witch since the rains had started. She had dark circles under her eyes and her cheeks were colorless in the eerie under-light that bounced off the water.
“Can you lift?” she asked me, her voice dry as Grandma Rapunzel’s sauerteig bread. The witch passed me first one then two boxes of books, said there were plenty more to come. Rock Springs Public Library, I read on the manila pocket stuck to the inside cover and pictured the L-shaped room in the basement of the community center. The friends of the library had toted as much as they could to the upper floor, but the damp had already seeped into the pages. I opened the box: the complete works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Series and A Field Guide To Wisconsin Birds. A pulpy smell dribbled out of their covers and mixed with the reek of the agitated water. An invasive carp jumped over the waterlogged branches of an apple tree peeking out of the swirling deluge. “Got anything on fish?” I called down to the witch. I supposed all fish were invasive species in an underwater orchard. “Or some DVDs?”
The witch waved her callused hand at me, levered the Duck’s accelerator and motored off. I unpacked the rest of the box. Steinbeck, mostly. I thumbed through The Grapes of Wrath for the rest of the afternoon while I waited for the witch to return with another load, but the story of dust and drought made me thirsty so I threw it back with the rest. Whether from dearth or excess, eventually water cows us all.
Molly Rideout is a writer and social practice artist based in Grinnell, Iowa. Previous publications have included Front Porch Journal, Bluestem, Marathon Literary Review, and the windows of four Iowa public libraries. Her fiction and essays surround themes of the Midwest as does her day job as the director of the artist organization, Grin City Collective. Read her work at www.mollyrideout.com.