IT HAD BEEN RAINING FOR weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land. It rained now, a straight rain, not the diagonal, attacking rain, and it seemed that the last of the gusts had moved on sometime during the night and he wanted to get out. Had to get out of the house, away from the wobbling light of the kerosene lamp, away from the worn deck of cards, away from the paperbacks, away from the radio that hardly ever picked up a signal anymore, away from her voice that he heard in his sleep and heard through the storms and heard whispering from all corners of the short brick house. It rained hard and the early, early morning was black but he had to get out.
He stood from the cot and stretched his arms over his head and felt his way across the room in the faint lamplight. He slept in the front room of the house. The same room of the house where he cooked and read and changed clothes and did everything but relieve himself, which he did outside next to where two pines had fallen in a cross. He wore long johns and a sweatshirt and he put on jeans and a flannel shirt over them. When he was dressed, he walked into the kitchen and took a bottle of water from a cooler that sat where the refrigerator used to be and he drank half in one take and then put the bottle back into the cooler. He picked up a flashlight from the kitchen counter and he walked back into the front room and went to a closet in the corner. He shined the light first on the .22 rifle and then on the sawed-off double-barrel shotgun and he chose the shotgun. On the floor was a box of shells and he opened it up and there were only two left and he loaded them.
He turned and looked at the dog, curled up on a filthy towel in the corner of the kitchen.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I ain’t even asking you.”
The rubber boots were next to the cot and he pulled them on, picked up a sock hat and the heavy-duty raincoat from the floor and put them on, and then he walked to the front door, opened it, and was greeted by the roar of the rain. The cool air rushed on him and the anxiety of the walls inside disappeared into the wet, dark night. He stepped out under the porch and then went around the side of the house, hundreds of tap tap taps on his hood and water to his ankles and the flashlight pointed out in front, the silver streaks racing across the yellow beam.
Around the back of the house, Habana whinnied. He opened the door to what had once been a family room and was barely able to avoid the horse as she raced out into the back field. She ran small circles, Cohen holding the light on her and her steps high in the moist land and her neck and head shaking off the rain but her own anxiety being set free in the downpour. He let her be and he stepped inside and took the saddle from the ceramic-tiled floor and once she had run it out, he whistled and she came over to him and he saddled her.
With the sawed-off shotgun under his arm, he led the horse down the sloppy driveway to the sloppy road and they rode half a mile west. He rode Habana carefully in the storm, the single beam out before them, but he knew the route. They moved around trees that had fallen years ago and trees that had fallen months ago and trees that had fallen weeks ago. Back off the road, abandoned houses sat quietly, lined by barbed-wire fences brought down by the fallen trees or the wild ivy or both. After an hour or more, they came to the fence row that at one time had been cleared all the way to the sand in order to lay pipe or cable or something that was supposed to help lift them from their knees but that had been abandoned like everything else.
The rain came stronger as he turned the horse south and they splashed through the brush and mud. There had once stood an electrical pole every hundred yards but only half of them remained upright and the lines that linked them together had been rolled up onto giant spools and taken away. Habana buckled several times in softer spots but fought on and in a few miles they came to the clearing and there was only ocean in front of them and beach to the east and to the west. He shined the light down on her front legs and they were thick with mud and he told her she did good and he stroked the side of her wet neck. They stood still in the rain and it washed them clean.
He turned off the light. Blended with the sound of the storm was the sound of the wash against the shore, the tumble of the whitecaps. A cold wind blew in off the water and he pushed the hood from his head and felt the wind and rain on his face and leaned his head back and felt it around his neck and ears and it was in those moments that he could feel her still there. Still there when there was only the dark and the sounds of what she had loved. He closed his eyes and let the rain soak into him and she was there at the edge of the water, the salty foam rushing around her ankles and her hair across her face and her shoulders red from the sun. He let himself fall back and he lay stretched across the horse, his arms flailing to the sides, the barrel of the shotgun pointing down toward the wet sand and the flashlight dangling from his fingertips. The rhythm of the waves and the crash of the rain and the solitude and the big black world around him and it was in these moments that he felt her there.
“Elisa,” he said.
He sat back up in the saddle and pulled on his hood. He looked out across the dark ocean and listened and he thought that he heard her. Always thought he heard her no matter how hard the wind blew or how hard the rain fell.
He listened, tried to feel her in the push of the waves.
Thunder roared out across the Gulf and then far off to the west a string of lightning turned the black to gray for an instant. And the rain came on. Twice what it had been when they left the house. Habana reared her head and snorted the water from her nostrils. The ocean pushed high across what was left of the beach and the thunder bellowed again and Cohen raised the shotgun and fired out into the Gulf as if this world around him were something that could be held at bay by the threat of a bright orange blast. Habana reared with the sound of the shotgun and Cohen dropped the flashlight and got hold of her mane and she leaped forward a little but then steadied. He patted her. Talked to her. Told her, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
When she was still, he got down and felt around for the flashlight, and then he mounted again. He turned the flashlight on, then off, and he turned Habana and they started back.
“It’s getting worse,” he said to Habana, but the words were lost under it all.
COHEN STOOD AT THE KITCHEN window with a cup of coffee. The dog, a shaggy black-and-white shepherd-looking thing, stood beside him and chewed beef jerky. Cohen stared at the pile of lumber, switching the coffee cup from hand to hand, trying to bring himself into the day. The morning was a heavy gray and the rain had eased some. Maybe enough for Charlie, he thought. The pile of two-by-fours and two-by-sixes was so wet that he figured he could pick one up and simply fold it end over end. The grass and weeds grew high around the lumber as it had been sitting there for years. He sipped the coffee, looked away from the lumber pile and over to the concrete slab that stretched out from the back of the house. The last frame he had built, months ago, was in a splintered mess in the back field. Almost got to the last wall before another one came and lifted and carried it away. Twice he had gotten two walls done. Twice more he had gotten to the third. He had never gotten to the fourth before it was destroyed.
It wasn’t going to be a big room. She won’t need a big one for a while, Elisa said. Then you can build us a big house with rooms like concert halls. With whose money, he had wanted to know. She shrugged and said we’ll worry about that then. So it was going to be an average room, built onto an average house, protected by the same blond brick as the rest of the low-ceilinged ranch-style house. An average room for what they expected to be a much more than average little girl. Her place to sleep, and play, and grow. Four years ago the foundation had been poured, before it was impossible to pour a foundation, before it was impossible to imagine such things as building a room onto your house.
Now all it did was rain. Before the storm. During the storm. After the storm. Difficult to tell when one hurricane ended and the next one began.
He sipped the coffee and then lit a cigarette.
Goshdamn wood will never dry out, he thought. And he had thought and thought of ways to frame a room with wet wood, onto a wet slab, that would stand against hurricane-force winds, but he hadn’t made it there yet. Unless God changed His laws, he wasn’t going to ever get there. He scratched at his beard. Drank the last of the coffee. Watched out the window and smoked the cigarette. Then he decided to go and see if Charlie was around.
He climbed on a chair in the kitchen and moved away a water-stained ceiling tile, reached his hand up into the hole, and took down a cigar box. He opened the box and there was a stack of cash and he took out four hundred-dollar bills and he folded and stuck them in the front pocket of his jeans. After he put the box away and set the ceiling tile back in place, he picked up the radio from the kitchen counter, turned it on, and listened with his ear close to the speaker, the distant voice of a man overrun by clouds of static. He turned it off, and then he walked over to the cot and picked up the raincoat and sock hat and put them on and then he walked over to the closet. He chose the sawed-off shotgun over the .22, kicked at the empty box of shotgun shells, and then made sure the one and only shell was still in the chamber. The dog crossed the room and stood at his side and followed him to the door but stopped there.
“I’ll leave the door open for you,” Cohen said and the dog looked up at him, out at the rain, then went back inside.
He went out to the Jeep and sat down behind the wheel and set the shotgun on the passenger seat. He had drilled holes in the floorboard to keep the water from puddling, and an overflowing rain gauge was tied to the roll bar. The Jeep cranked and then he drove across the front yard toward the muddy gravel road, leaving tire tracks in the earth.
At the end of the road, he turned onto the two-lane highway that connected him to the busted interstate running parallel to the water. The sky was a lighter gray to the west, but far off in the southeast was a gathering of pillow-like clouds. He turned onto the highway and drove along with cold rain against him. At a lower stretch of road, he slowed because of the water and drove on with his eyes far ahead to where the road showed itself again and he aimed for the higher ground, hoping he would remain on the asphalt that he couldn’t see beneath the muddy water. He made it through the water and then after several miles he came to a crossroads with an old gas station where he used to buy boiled peanuts from an old man who sat on the tailgate of his truck in the parking lot. Past the crossroads he came to a small community and he slowed and looked at the remaining houses and stores lining the highway, wondered if there were people somewhere back in there, back in the faceless gray buildings that seemed to be disappearing, as if they were slowly flaking away and sinking into the earth. Even so, he felt like somebody was watching him. Always felt like somebody was watching him when he made his way through one of these ghost towns.
There was a beautiful sadness to it all that he couldn’t explain. It was a sentiment he had tried to ignore, but it had seeped into him and remained, some kind of grave nostalgia for the catastrophes and the way of life that once had been. As a boy he had ridden with his father, and his father would point out the buildings and houses he had framed. Seemed like he had worked on the entire coastline. Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Moss Point. Didn’t matter where they were, what road they were on, his father was always pointing and saying put that one up. Put that one up. Worked on that one there. Put that one up. And Cohen sensed the pride in his father’s voice. Felt his own pride in his old man and his rough hands and what he did with them. His father seemed magical. During the day erecting houses and buildings along the coast and in the evenings feeding cows and bush-hogging the place and in the night sitting in his chair and sipping a drink and walking outside to smoke and talking to Cohen like he was a little man and not a little boy and Cohen wanting to be like him. He had always believed that one day he would ride around with his own children and then grandchildren and he would point out of the window and say put that one up. Did that one over there. Put that one up. And he had been like his father. He had put some of them up. But there were no children to show them to, and even if there were, what he had put up was now down and all he could say was that’s where one used to be. Put one up over there that’s gone. Used to be one right over there. Whenever he went out in the Jeep, he looked around at the concrete foundations, at the splintered remains, at the heaps of debris, at the places where his work once stood, and there was sadness, and despair, and awe. And he wondered what his father would say if he had lived to see his work stripped bare. He wondered how his father would feel now to have his work gone. Simply not there. Removed by the wind and the rain. Removed with violence. Removed without prejudice.
As if it had never been.
It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.
Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees. The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline. Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.
Cohen is one who stayed. Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land. Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.
But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter. On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.
Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.
Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.
Michael Farris Smith on the inspiration for RIVERS: A NOVEL
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Reading Group Guide
Devastating storms have pummeled the already eroded coastline of the American Southeast and the federal government has drawn a boundary, known as the Line, declaring everything below it uninhabitable. This is the setting for Rivers, a land of lawlessness and desperation, where no one has electricity or resources and no one and nothing is safe from looters, vandals, and violent storms that surge without warning, destroying everything in their path. Having lost his wife and unborn child during a mandatory evacuation, Cohen has decided to stay behind, rebuilding his house over and over again as an altar to his deceased family. On his way back from buying supplies one day, Cohen picks up two teenage hitchhikers, a boy and a Creole girl, who attack and nearly kill him, stealing his Jeep , all his supplies and the last precious mementoes he had of his wife and child. His will to survive becomes bound to finding and punishing his attackers, who are themselves prisoners in a commune run by a nefarious preacher with dangerous and twisted plans. He is now faced with see more