The recent flooding of our quaint and romantic Main Street in Ellicott City, reminded me of a short story I wrote forty years ago in Romania. I presented Part 1 of the story on July 15. This is Part 2.
The level of water in the river started to rise. The soldiers placed level indicators by the bridges and established watch points. The vertical clearance was substantial and it was hard to imagine that the water would rise enough to overflow the embankments. Every hour, the watchmen were recording the height of the river. A car driven by an officer transported a team of experts from bridge to bridge. The measurements were entered into a chart and read on the radio.
Classes were suspended. I was at home with my mother listening to the news when Dad showed up unexpectedly. “Let’s go bring you grandma,” he suggested.
We got in the car. There were many people at the bridge and the soldiers, who had just finished placing sandbags along the river, were now sitting on the curb resting. A uniformed policeman directed the traffic and diverted all buses to a larger bridge. Dad slowed down, but the policeman waved us through. “Nobody stops,” he told us. “What happened?” my father asked. The policeman didn’t answer.
When we got on the bridge and I saw the water, I realized that the level had risen dramatically. The river was a strong current, covered in foam.
Later, when we all sat down for dinner, Grandma kept silent and seemed focused on her food. On the way over she had been agitated and had kept on complaining we were abducting her from her home. When we had reached her neighborhood on the outskirts, people there were rushing around in a panic. Looking at them from the car, I had the feeling of suddenly comprehending their looming danger in a deeper way.
As dinner ended and the room got stuffy, I got up to open the door to the balcony.
“Please, keep the doors closed,” said my mother.
I went to my room and pulled open the window. It was hot outside as well and it smelled of rot. I looked at the poplars and listened to the swish of the leaves.
Our neighbor who lived on the lower floor rang the doorbell. “The cellar is flooded,” he said. In his hands he carried two buckets and a shovel.
We ran down the steps. The basement consisted of a few dimly lit and unfinished rooms. The water that covered the floor shone under the electric light bulbs.
“Turn off the light,” Father said. “It could short.”
The neighbor ran back upstairs and returned with a flashlight. Then he stepped into the ankle-deep water. “We need to get rid of it,” he hollered. “And we have to determine where it’s coming from.”
“It’s coming from everywhere,” I said, realizing I sounded ominous.
We started filling buckets and emptying them through a small window into the backyard. It didn’t take us long to see that our work had no results. In fact, the level was going up.
“The underground table is saturated and the water is seeping through the walls,” I said.
“Are you sure?” our neighbor asked wiping the sweat off his forehead, and looking at me as if he had finally understood. “Then why work like slaves?” He threw away his bucket and walked to the door.
I followed and we gathered in the yard. There was no wind whatsoever and the rustling of leaves had ceased. The heat was oppressive. Father suggested we go to the river.
The three of us left on foot. We didn’t talk much. My clothes were stained by dirty water and mud. The sun was setting.
At the river, as far as we could see, the riverbanks had become promenades. We were surprised by the size of the crowd. People behaved as if awaiting a show. The surface of the swollen river was now almost level with the street, yet nobody seemed concerned. People were hollering at each other, stood around in groups, laughed and relaxed under the trees. Children marched like soldiers up and down. Near the monument, an old man on a folding chair had fallen asleep. And yet, everyone maintained a certain order. There was no car traffic. Soldiers were lined along the riverside. To see the water one had to stand on tiptoes, or climb onto something, since the soldiers wouldn’t allow anybody to approach the river. To get a better view we went to the bridge. An officer stood at each end. They allowed only a small number of pedestrians to cross at one time. When our turn came the officer ordered, “Don’t stop and don’t lean over the side.”
We could now see clearly the brown stream, small waves lapping at the underside of the bridge. Here and there, the tips of the young trees now submerged on the steep river banks rose above the water. I was sure I could reach the surface with my hand, if I leaned over. Upstream a float was anchored to the shore. A soldier with a long pole stood on it, fishing out anything that came floating down the river. “So that it doesn’t accumulate at the bridge and clog up the flow,” said my dad.
“It’s amazing how the water has risen,” I exclaimed.
Our neighbor shook his head. Once across, we went towards the float. The crowd got excited seeing a tree trunk drifting down the river. A second soldier came running with a rope that he threw it to the man on the float who tied it around his waist and threw the end of the rope back. Then he went to the edge of the float that started to bob and leaned on one side. The crowd grew silent. When the trunk got close, the soldier tried to hook it with the pole. Careful, leaning out as much as the rope allowed him to, he managed to pull the trunk closer and direct it towards the shore. Other soldiers came to offer a hand. One of them tripped on a sandbag and slid on the muddy slope, falling waist-deep in the water. Somebody screamed. The soldier turned on his stomach and managed to smile. Slowly, holding on to the ground with his hands, he moved one leg out of the water, and then the second one. In the meantime, the trunk passed the float, bounced off the shore and floated towards the bridge. The soldier who had fallen in the river ran after it. The people in the street moved in the same direction.
Eventually, the soldiers pulled the tree trunk out of the water and lifted it over the sandbags.
“There’s Madam Munteanu’s son,” I told Dad, seeing a familiar face among the soldiers.
“How do you feel on duty, Son?” my father asked him.
“OK, I guess.” He looked at the river and adjusted his cap. “At least my mother saw me today and calmed down a little.”
“What happens if the water overflows?” I asked.
He looked around one more time, touched his cap and took another step towards us. “It won’t,” he whispered. “The people at the dam are controlling it. If the volume gets to be too much, they’ve been instructed to divert a part of the water to the old river course.”
“That means they’ll flood the poorest suburbs,” I said.
Madam Munteanu’s son looked down. “Maybe,” he said. “But the downtown would be saved. Let’s hope it won’t get to that. That’s why we are here, to clear debris and ensure that the water can flow through.”
That evening the water continued to rise and then the bridge cracked diagonally across. Rubble from the stone parapet fell into the water. Ten minutes later the mayor’s helicopter flew in the direction of the dam. Soon the levels receded. The soldiers watched the river until dawn. The next day the newspapers printed long articles about the flooding. They said the water had superficially affected a few downtown areas and flooded a few basements. They praised the heroic effort of the young soldiers as well as the entire population in their fight with almighty Mother Nature. I looked for news about the periphery of the city, like where my grandmother lived and where the flooding had to have been devastating, but didn’t find any.
For a long time Grandma couldn’t go home, and slept in our family room on a convertible sofa.
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