After the Rain
by William J. Watkins, Jr.
The sadness of the trek was lost in its commonality. Mister McJunkin and his little wagon made the march six days a week in the spring and summer, the Sabbath always accepted, and two or three days a week in the fall and winter. In the mornings, the wagon contained his blueish-gray ceramic water jug and various tools. In the evenings, there was usually added assorted fruits and vegetables—some of which he gave away to neighbors and the rest which he consumed or canned.
The garden spot was no more than 50 yards from his cottage’s front door. From the porch, with the fragrant Confederate jasmine twining up the hand rails by the steps, he could see the top of the trellis on which the blackberries and raspberries grew. In good years, during late July and early August, he could harvest two gallons of the blackberries each week. Raspberries were more difficult, providing him with enough to eat but little to preserve or share.
A stranger might wonder why the old man insisted on the strenuous hike up the hill to the power lines and then down the power company’s right of way to the garden. His route was the most indirect anyone could design. Neighbors knew it had not always been this way.
When Mister Marchant had been alive, the old man had gone straight down to the patch from the cottage. Mister Marchant often joined him in the cool of the evening by the creek side where they watched the water skeeters and occasionally blasted a water moccasin with an old 12 gauge shotgun. All that changed with Mister Marchant’s passing and the sale of the Marchant property to the Ogdens.
Mister McJunkin always knew that the garden spot was not contiguous with his own land and never gave a thought about walking over the small swath of ground running from the creek up the hillside. At the point he used to cross, the swath was no more than three feet wide. But with the arrival of the Ogdens, it might as well have been a canyon of Hell with plumes of fire, poison gas, and demonic sentinels forbidding passage.
He should have known there would be trouble after he greeted his new neighbors and they refused the basket of fresh vegetables and canned jams that he brought them. That had been on a hot summer day, but the chill on their porch was palpable.
The next day, and without any notice, the no trespassing signs went up. He offered to purchase the swath outright; however, the Ogdens wouldn’t even entertain an offer. He had his land and they had theirs. He was told to stay off of theirs.
The Ogdens were representative of a new generation that had moved into the community: the commuters. The Chauga Valley had undergone tremendous change just since Mister McJunkin retired from the mill fifteen years ago. What had once been horse country turned into a retirement enclave, and now experienced an influx of younger people buying the old folks’ properties and commuting into Slaterville for work.
The Ogdens ran a bar and grill in town. She waited tables and he cooked. When they left for work in the afternoons, their daughter Lillie would often find her way to the garden and play. Mrs. Ogden’s mother was supposed to watch the girl, but paid more attention to the soap operas than her granddaughter. Mister McJunkin never objected to the child’s presence and did his best to ignore the progeny of his nemesis. So long as she stayed away from the areas under cultivation he did not scold her. But if she negligently stepped on one of his vines, Mister McJunkin shooed her away with the vigor typically reserved for a flock of cowbirds. Lillie did not pay him much attention and seemed oblivious to her father’s feud with the old man.
It was in the spring after the first year the Ogdens moved in that he began to see the marks on Lillie. The milky, white skin on her arms often showed dark splotches that eerily resembled an adult’s grip. He originally attributed the bruises to the rambunctiousness of childhood, but the marks seemed to be a constant.
Unable to ignore the obvious and weary of his efforts to be impolite, he finally addressed the matter with the child one afternoon. “Lillie, what happened to your right arm? Looks like you got quite a place there.”
Lillie did not answer. She continued to play in the marigolds that formed a barrier between his tomatoes and pole beans. Her gaze was fixed on the bumble bees hopping from flower to flower.
He knelt down beside her and the wetness of the ground penetrated his overalls at the knee. “Bees love that nectar,” he said letting his mouth naturally turn upwards in a smile. “The Good Lord made them to sip the juice and spread pollen for my blueberries and blackberries. Now tell me what happened to your arm.”
“The wagon hit me when he was crossing Daddy’s property. It was right in front of the sign.” She looked up at Mister McJunkin, eyes wide, and then turned away. His smile disintegrated. It was apparent to both of them that the rehearsed response was intended for a different audience. She jumped up and ran for home.
The visit from the sheriff’s deputy a week later should not have surprised him, but it did. Lillie had repeated the story at school. The young deputy read him his rights from a card—just like on TV—and then asked questions about his relationship with the child. The old man felt like a fool admitting that he had seen the marks on the child, but had done nothing. The deputy, a boy hardly out of high school, wrote down every word he said and just nodded at Mister McJunkins’ protestations that he would never hurt a child. He was not taken into custody, but was told to stay away from Lillie while the investigation proceeded.
He did not go down to the garden as much after his meeting with the law. It was still a small community and word traveled fast. The teachers surely talked at school about the girl’s injuries and he was confident that the neighbors saw the marked police car in his driveway.
This time of exile was abetted by the unusually wet spring. It had rained off and on for days. From his porch, Mister McJunkin could see a small stretch of the creek bordering the garden spot. It was running at a good rate. The rainfall, in combination with the development in the area, often caused the creek to escape its banks during periods of heavy precipitation.
After a spell of cabin fever and a pause in the rain, he made his way to the garden to see how things were holding up. He figured the trip would do him good. While inspecting his raised beds and terraces, Mister McJunkin heard the high pitched shriek of a child. With his garden hoe in hand, he ran toward the creek. At the edge of the property line, he slid to a stop and almost fell on the wet grass. His head ducked as if he was dodging the sword of a guardian demon. For a moment he hesitated until he heard another cry above the rush of the water. Summoning his strength, he stepped across the swath and went all out toward the creek. Upon reaching the edge, he saw Lillie clinging to a kudzu vine on the bank. Just below her he saw Mister Ogden lying face down. His torso was out of the water and the bank above was freshly disturbed from where he had tried to pull himself up.
Reaching with the hoe, the old man directed Lille to grab the working end of it so he could pull her up. “Lillie, I can’t reach to the vine, grab onto this and I’ll lift you out.”
The child closed her eyes, and with a lunge, grasped the end of the tool. As soon as he felt her latch on, he gripped the old wooden handle and pulled. Walking his hands down the handle, one over the other, he yanked Lillie out of the creek. Once on higher ground, the child crawled about three feet and said, in between sobs, “Daddy got bit by a snake. It came out of the brush pile when he was trying to fish my toy off a snag.”
Taking the hoe, Mister McJunkin reached down and called for Mister Ogden to take hold. The younger man slightly raised his head in acknowledgement of the call, but his extremities did not move. At that moment, the old man realized that with one push of the hoe, Mister Ogden would slide down and be swept away in the current. He glanced back and saw Lillie with her head on her forearms. She could not see him. No one else was around. That meant that he and Mister Ogden, for that moment, were the only inhabitants of the planet.
In his arms he felt the weight of the wagon from pulling it up the hill day after day. As he gripped the hoe’s handle, he thought about the allegations of child abuse. How many of his neighbors now regarded him as a pariah and instructed their grandchildren to steer clear of the garden spot?
A judgement, a settling of accounts, was in order. The body, once found, would show evidence of the snake bite. The natural conclusion would be that the venom had overtaken him and spread throughout his system as he tried to save his daughter. Lillie would hopefully confirm Mister McJunkin’s efforts at helping her and the sad shape her father was in before the creek bank gave way. The death would not be questioned.
A surge of water rolled down from the higher part of the creek to where Mister Ogden lay. The full force of the wave hit the bank just a yard to his left. The bank absorbed the impact and caused the crest of the wave to roll upward and splash on Mister Ogden’s face. This roused the man as his hands again dug into the creek bank and pulled.
Seeing the movement, Mister McJunkin instinctively lowered the hoe and felt a tug as if he had a fish on the line. He pulled. His hands tried to walk down the hoe as he had done with the girl, but the weight on the end was too much. Suddenly, he felt his strength double. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Mrs. Ogden, her steely blue eyes showed determination and her teeth were clenched. With this extra power, he was able to ease his hands down the shaft and dig his feet into the sodden ground. As they pulled together, Mister McJunkin felt a weight rolling off his shoulders—much akin to the feeling he had as a young soldier when dropping a rucksack after an all-day march.
Mister Ogden’s head finally rose above the creek bank much like a legume breaking through the soil in spring. He turned loose of the hoe and grabbed the trunk of a small poplar tree to pull himself the rest of the way up. His beard was caked with red clay and his eyes bulged. The pupils of his eyes were contracted so that they were no longer circular, but appeared as a vertical slit.
Just as Mister McJunkin began to lean over and offer the man a hand, he felt an impact in the small of his back. A scorching heat ran up his spine as he tumbled headlong into the creek. His forehead met squarely with a submerged log and sent his consciousness into a state of disequilibrium. Convulsing followed as he coughed and gagged on the muddy water.
He surfaced—for the last time—and saw the Ogdens standing on the bank as if posing for a photograph. Mrs. Ogden insouciantly leaned against the handle of the hoe. In the background, Mister McJunkin saw what he supposed were the ghoulish form of the sentinels dancing upon the swath of ground that at one time had been his entrance to an earthly paradise.