Today, I’m posting a light-hearted, almost fantastical story about a family that gets stuck up a tree during a flood. It’s written polyphonically, jumping around to different characters’ points of view. It’s my favorite way to write because I love to hear various perspectives and I don’t think any one character should hold the final truth—but it’s more difficult to pull off this technique in a short story than in a novel.
In 2012, this story gained me one of the four interview slots for a writing/teaching fellowship at the St. Albans School in Washington, DC—then it was rejected by over seventy literary magazines. I hope you enjoy!
Nathan had never seen the backyard creek flow this fast. He imagined himself inner-tubing down it, floating away from his family. Nathan had just asked Tim if he needed a drill to fix the basement door. Tim gave him his “are you crazy” look, so Nathan was pouting at the kitchen table. Olivia was doing a jigsaw puzzle. Let’s play I spy, he told his half sister. I spy something brown. The floor? she guessed. The puppy in my puzzle? The water? The board in that tree? Yeah, Nathan said. You got it. He’d put a board in an apple tree across the creek. He planned to make a fort there. He hoped the tree wouldn’t be washed away. Water already covered its base. They had an oak tree that would work, too, but it was right by the house. The point of a fort was to hide. But the oak might not last this flood either. It looked sturdy, but who knew. Your turn, Olivia, he said. Pick something. A house, she screeched. A toolshed floated down the creek, one side out, the other submerged. Mom, he yelled. Come look at this.
Mommy, mommy, Olivia yelled. She took her doll Maggie with her to get Mommy. Mommy was putting a picture on the bathroom wall. The hammer’s pound, pound shook the floor. Water in the yard, Olivia said, house in the creek. What? Mommy said. Let me see. Take Maggie, follow Mommy’s vanilla smell. Tim, Tim, Mommy yelled. Five big stomps and Daddy was up from the basement. Nathan slid down the hallway on his socks. He looked at Mommy, not at her. Always at Mommy, never at her. What is it, Starla? Daddy asked. Mommy, Daddy, and Nathan pressed their faces against the window. Olivia pressed Maggie’s face against the window, too. Let’s get out of here, Daddy said and yanked Olivia off the ground. One of Maggie’s shoes fell off. Olivia wailed. Not now, Daddy said. Olivia cried louder. Daddy opened the front door, and water poured over his shoes. Olivia stopped crying. Her body rose and fell with Daddy’s chest. He stepped outside. Their red car was floating. Water up to Nathan’s knees. Let’s get on the roof, Nathan said. No, Daddy said. The oak, Mommy said. Daddy waded out. He’d held Olivia in the ocean like this and they’d jumped over waves together but he was laughing then. Mommy held Nathan’s hand and for once he didn’t pull away. Olivia held Daddy tighter. If they fell in the water, they’d float away; she and Maggie couldn’t swim. Daddy set her on the tree’s lowest limb, helped up Nathan and Mommy, and pulled up himself. Nathan climbed farther up the tree and for once Mommy didn’t tell him to stop. Maggie’s hair was wet and the doll was hungry. Olivia grabbed leaves, crinkled them, and fed them to her. Maggie spit them out. Mommy, Olivia asked. Do you have food?
The air was so foggy Starla felt like she was choking on it. Olivia, tucked between her legs, peeled a banana; Tim, on a branch beside them, crunched at an apple; and Nathan made spit wads with bread and, after showing them to her, ate them. Nothing phased that kid. Starla wasn’t hungry; that or her throat was so clogged she couldn’t talk let alone eat. Like she was about to cry but she couldn’t do that either. They all sat on branches too close, not talking—almost like family suppers indoors. Starla had grabbed a loaf of bread and a few bananas and apples. They’d have to ration the food. She dropped Olivia’s peel into the still-rising creek and watched it float into fog. At night she and Tim would sit in lawn chairs while the fog grasped at the corners of their land and swirled around their feet and filled the spaces between them. They’d make love more delightfully on these days, the fog making them feel in their own little world. But today fog didn’t hold its usual comfort nor did the coming darkness excite her. This perpetual spring wetness in the air, from which the house shielded them, sunk into her skin, and she shivered. Some branches were large enough for Olivia and Nathan to sleep on, and she wanted them to sleep, but was also afraid they’d fall off. All afternoon her kids had bickered: about which branch was more comfortable, about when they’d be rescued, about whether or not their friends up the creek had lost their house yet. An hour ago, she’d told them they were in danger and couldn’t they be quiet. Starla felt bad she’d lost her temper—Tim handled their chaos better than she did—but they had kept quiet until minutes ago when Nathan, between spit-wad making, screeched like a crow or seagull. He only knew how to make those two birdcalls, and she couldn’t tell them apart. She and Tim had exchanged their first smiles of the day. They hadn’t talked much all afternoon, maybe, she thought, because they were both thinking the same thing: because of the flooding they had cancelled school that day and probably would tomorrow, too, so no one would miss her secretarial work or the kids in the classroom, and Tim didn’t have to report to the restaurant until the day after tomorrow, Wednesday afternoon, so they wouldn’t miss him until then and even then wouldn’t suspect they’d been flooded, that their shallow creek could flood like a river. She hoped someone would see their house float by. Tim reached out, squeezed her hand, and released it. Or maybe, she thought, Tim still held against her what she’d said that morning, when she’d wanted him to show Nathan how to use a handsaw and said Tim wasn’t treating Nathan like a son. I do my best, Tim had said. But he’s not my son. These words had hurt her. It was almost dark and she pulled Olivia to her, the girl whimpering.
It was almost as dark as underground caves. Put a hand in front of your face, a cave guide had told Tim as a boy, and he had, and hadn’t been able to see his hand. Here, if he stared long enough, he could see his hand, but after growing up in the city with lights night and day he had always hated and even feared this country darkness. At least it had stopped raining. He heard Starla’s uneven breathing. She wasn’t sleeping either. If he had something useful to say to her, he’d say it, but he didn’t have any solutions and was embarrassed, even while he knew another man wouldn’t have any solutions, either. Tim dropped his foot down and hit Nathan’s arm. The boy said nothing so he must be asleep. Safe, in a crevice. An hour ago, when he’d done the same thing, Nathan had told him to watch where he put his feet and Starla had told Nathan to watch his mouth. Tim didn’t think Nathan too disrespectful. The kid was trying to figure him out, like Tim had tried to figure out the two men his mom had brought into his own childhood house. He thought it about time the kid started to trust him—he’d lived with them a year—but his patience hadn’t run out. The tree branch sagged under his weight. At dawn, he’d find another branch, one that could hold his big body indefinitely. He shouldn’t search around in this dark and wet and wind. As the light had faded, he’d worried the kids would slip and be tossed around in this churning current. In the morning, if the water had receded, Tim might swim for help. Tonight it seemed like the water was still rising, nearing where they sat. But in this blackness who could tell? Maybe the water wasn’t getting higher, maybe the darkness amplified the noise. He wrestled off his coat and lowered it down and over to Starla. She took it without protest, a bad sign. You OK? he asked. Cold, she said. It’ll warm up in the morning, he said. Maybe, she said. He could never get a lie or half-truth by her. This strengthened their relationship, but it grated on him, too. Sometimes he needed optimism more than realism. Any ideas? she asked. No, he said, and then, to curb his shame, I could swim somewhere. Don’t talk nonsense, she said. You’d drown. There was silence, and he sought out his hand again. As long as he could see his hand. Tim? she asked. Yeah? he said. You could float on a log I guess, she said. And where am I supposed to get a log? he asked. Or a branch, she said. You could pull one off the tree. With what? he asked. Who’s talking nonsense now? He meant it as a joke but through her silence felt tension. I’ll think of something, he said. Sure, she said. A mist had begun again. He hoped Starla’s head was tucked underneath his coat.
“Where are all the birds during floods?” Olivia asked as she nibbled her second slice of bread. Mommy wouldn’t let her eat when she woke up and said she couldn’t eat again until dark. “So don’t gobble it down,” Mommy had said. When Olivia had woken up, she’d decided she wanted to sit alone, like Nathan, on her own branch. She’d climbed above Daddy and found a bird’s nest.
“They fly around in the air and wait for the water to recede,” Tim said. As good of an explanation as any, he thought.
Olivia, looking for birds, scanned the gray sky.
“I don’t think Daddy knows that for sure,” Starla said.
“Sounds right to me,” Nathan said. Sometimes Olivia asked stupid questions and Tim gave stupid answers but this one seemed OK. He’d rolled up his banana in a slice of bread and was eating it like a hot dog. Tim, he noticed, had moved to a different branch, closer to the tree trunk and farther away from him, Olivia, and Mom. Nathan liked him better farther away. He was on thick branch that could hold his weight for a couple days. Well, Tim wasn’t an idiot, Nathan would give him that. He could whip up some good meals, too. Better than anything Mom made. This morning, Nathan wished he could eat Tim’s blueberry waffles or banana pancakes.
“You wanna make us some good food if we ever get out of here?” Nathan asked Tim.
“That’s the first time you’ve asked Tim to make you food,” said Starla.
“And probably the last,” Nathan said as he shimmied up the tree to check out the bird’s nest. Why did Mom get so excited over nothing?
“Sure,” Tim said. “What’re you thinking?” Nathan didn’t respond. Dammit, Starla, Tim thought. Any encouragement and the boy would retreat into sullenness. “I say you guys come to the restaurant and order whatever you want.”
“Even the daily special?” Nathan asked.
“Even the daily special,” Tim said and looked at Starla for confirmation. She was staring into the brown swirling creek—river now, really, thinking about but not looking at him. She knew he disapproved of her interference. It pleased him she knew him well yet made him push her away, too. “What should the special be for tomorrow, Starla?” Tim asked.
“You shouldn’t think about that until we’re out of this tree,” Starla said. Typical Tim, to plan ahead and forget practicalities of the current situation. The water had reached the lowest branches. “The water’s still rising.”
Olivia started crying. She couldn’t see the knot in the tree trunk that Daddy had pointed out yesterday. The creek would soon be as high as the branches and then rise to the bird’s nest and then reach her. She climbed higher.
“Olivia, where are you going?” Starla asked.
“You scared her,” Tim said.
“I scared her?” Starla opened her hand to the water. “This had nothing to do with it?”
“We don’t have to focus on it,” Tim said.
“That’s a little hard, don’t you think?”
Tim pulled back a branch, and they both looked out. They’d seen another house first thing in the morning, half-submerged, a hanging plant smashed against a red front door. They’d seen too many other things, too: cars, a baby carriage, a swing set, various books. Tim had thought of his cookbooks, probably torn by the current.
An empty green canoe floated by, the river too fast and dangerous, Starla thought, for either of them to swim to it. “That’s the Fisher’s canoe, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Could be,” Tim said.
“I found an egg,” Nathan yelled. “It’s really small.”
Tim dropped the branch, blocking the view. “Bring it down,” he said. “I might be able to tell you what type it is.”
“I want to stay here,” Nathan said. “I’ll describe it to you.”
“Tim told you to come down—” Starla began but stopped when Tim shook his head at her.
“OK,” Tim said. “Describe it to me.”
“Half the size of a grocery-store egg,” Nathan said. “Cream-colored, maybe. Kind of dirty. Wait, I’ll wipe it off.” He stepped on his knees up to a higher, wet branch, leaned over the nest, reached his hand toward the egg, and slipped. His chest hit one branch, his butt hit another, then he was falling, and flailed his arms, trying to grasp anything. He landed on a dry, thick branch across from Tim. They stared at each another. Nathan rubbed his bruised arms. His whole body shook. Tim put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You OK?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Nathan said, shrugging away.
Because she could see the sky, Olivia thought she’d reached the top of the tree. And there were some blue spots. Maybe the storm was over. If it rained again, she hoped it would rain meatballs, like in that story Mommy read her. Or blueberry pancakes. Please God, she prayed. Next time make it rain blueberry pancakes.
It was misting again that evening. When Olivia said she was thirsty, Starla told her to open her mouth. Nathan swore they could drink the creek water but Starla said no, firmly. Who knew what filth was in there.
They all sat on different limbs and on different levels now: Tim closest to the water, Starla farther up, Nathan in the middle, and Olivia as high to the top as Starla would allow. Starla was guilty they weren’t all huddled together but she felt some relief in their separation, too. At school Olivia would pretend she had to pee so she could visit her in the school office and at home she was her shadow. Whenever Nathan sensed that she and Tim were on good terms, he tried to intrude, either with his body or his voice.
At dusk they came to Starla and she distributed out the last of the food. The children then climbed up high together while she and Tim stayed closer to the base. Olivia whined she was still hungry. Nathan gave her a piece of his bread, either out of kindness or to shut her up, Starla didn’t know but was pleased. She caught Tim’s eye and they both smiled.
“The water hasn’t risen since this afternoon,” he said. “Even when it started raining again.”
She nodded. “Hasn’t fallen either, right?”
“Not yet,” he said. “But will soon. The creek isn’t flowing as fast. Did you notice?”
No, she hadn’t noticed. Because she hadn’t slept last night, she’d rested in Nathan’s sleep spot most of the afternoon. Tim had watched her—her square forehead and round, pink cheeks; her shoulders tense, even in sleep. When she woke, she was peaceful and groggy.
“Our bed frame’s gone, that’s for sure,” he said. They’d saved up for that frame, unlike most of their furniture that they’d bought secondhand.
“We can get another one.”
“Yeah, we can.” He’d tricked her into talking about the future. “But we shouldn’t talk about that until we’re out of here.”
“You brought it up,” she said, indignant, then laughed when she saw him grinning. Maybe talking about a future, a realistic but good future, made the present more livable, gave them something to look forward to. She put her elbow on a branch and rested her chin in her palm and tried to look beyond the creek, beyond this flood, but it was difficult because again the evening fog was rising.
Above them Nathan told Olivia that she should taste the sap. He wanted to gauge her reaction before he tasted it himself. “It tastes like maple syrup,” he told her. Olivia had wanted maple syrup all day. She stuck her tongue against the tree. “Gross,” she said. “No it doesn’t.” Nathan decided to taste it anyway. A little sour, a little sticky. Not too bad. And here’s the family who survived the flood by eating sap from an oak, he thought, making up a news story.
Olivia scrunched her face as she watched her brother. She yanked her doll out of the crevice where she’d stuffed her and examined her face. Dirty. Knotted hair, too. Maggie looked bad with one shoe on, one shoe off. Olivia pulled off the remaining shoe and tossed it down the tree. It bounced off a couple branches, like Nathan had done earlier, landed in the creek with a small plop, and disappeared. Good thing Nathan hadn’t fallen all the way to the water.
“What’s going on up there?” Daddy asked.
“I threw Maggie’s shoe,” Olivia said. Who needed shoes? She took off her own two shoes and threw them down. They made larger plops.
“What is it this time?” Mommy asked.
“My shoes,” Olivia said.
“What?” Mommy used her upset-voice.
“Who needs shoes?” Olivia said. She knew she wouldn’t get in trouble when Daddy laughed.
“She has a point there,” he said.
Starla sighed. They’d be lucky if Olivia had clothes on by the time they got out of here. Last summer she’d undress herself and her dolls and run naked around the house.
Tim had never watched Starla from this angle before—she was at a forty-five degrees above him—and he liked it. He decided that if the water had receded just a bit by morning he’d float down the river on a branch, as Starla had suggested. If he sat on a medium-size branch all night, his weight would crack it enough that he could pull it off in the morning. While he planned, fog swirled around Starla’s feet and her body, then they both disappeared from one another and listened to Olivia and Nathan’s murmuring.
Sometime in the early morning, the water began to recede. Tim drowsily sensed the shift and dozed off and on for the first time in two days. At dawn, Nathan, from his perch high above, spotted a crack in Tim’s branch. “Tim,” he yelled. “Your branch is breaking.” Tim woke up, slid onto an adjacent branch, then immediately twisted the cracked branch back and forth, trying to work it off. After he unattached it, he laid it at a ninety-degree angle across two attached branches.
“What’re you doing?” Olivia asked. She squinted against the morning sun’s glare and climbed toward Tim.
“Gonna use this as a floating device,” Tim said. “I’m taking your idea, Starla, and getting out of here. Going to find help.” He twisted a few twigs off the branch and threw them toward the water.
“That thing would sink under your weight,” Starla said. “It’s a good idea, but—”
“I’ll ride it,” Nathan said. He was above them, holding his weight up with his hands, swinging his body back and forth between two limbs.
“No way.” Starla smiled up at him. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“No,” she said. “I’ll ride it if anyone does.”
“I don’t think so,” Tim said. His hands tightened around the branch.
“Didn’t you tell me once that I should take more risks?” Starla asked.
“I didn’t mean like this,” Tim said.
“What did you mean then?” she asked.
Tim banged the branch up and down against the limbs. Twigs and leaves flew off. “Look how much it’s gone down,” Tim said. “In a few hours I bet I can wade across.”
“Why did you want to ride for help, then?” Starla asked. She kept tying and untying the plastic bread loaf bag.
“OK, Starla,” Tim said. “Go, if you think that’s best.”
“I should go,” said Nathan, dropping his body between them.
“I’ll tell you what,” Starla said, pointing the empty plastic bag at them. “We’ll wait three hours. If the water hasn’t receded enough for you to wade across, Tim, then I’ll go.”
“We’ll see,” Tim said.
“None of us have watches,” Nathan said.
“Watch the sun,” Tim said.
“You watch the sun,” Nathan said as he turned to face Tim. “I hope you go blind.”
“Nathan,” Starla began. He was already up the tree, out of her sightline.
For a moment Tim wanted to smack the boy, but he forced himself to relax. All of them were exhausted.
Olivia asked Starla to hold her.
“Not now, honey,” Starla said.
She unconsciously handed her daughter the bread bag, then went to sit below them in the tree’s deepest crevice. Tim cleaned twigs off his branch and Nathan launched sticks into the creek from above. The sticks didn’t submerge for a long time, and sometimes Nathan watched them, still floating, disappear around the creek bend. Olivia climbed above Nathan’s head and picked off leaves and crushed them and sprinkled them into her bread bag. She added twigs and, pretending the concoction was trail mix, fed it to her doll. “She’s hungry,” Olivia told Nathan.
He pulled off small twigs near him, and stuffed them in the doll’s face.
“Stop,” Olivia said, jerking Maggie away. “She doesn’t want that food.”
“It’s twigs, like yours,” Nathan said. He reached around Olivia and pushed them at the doll’s mouth again. Olivia turned away, wobbled on the branch, and dropped Maggie. The doll bounced off two branches and plopped in the water. Nathan dropped his twigs. Both children watched her float away. Olivia let out a delayed scream. Tim and Starla’s faces tilted upward.
“Maggie,” Nathan said. “She’s gone.”
“You dropped her,” Olivia yelled.
“You dropped her,” Nathan said. “I wasn’t holding her.”
Olivia clutched the branch in front of her and lifted her face. “Maggie,” she wailed. “Maggie!”
“It’s OK, honey,” Starla said. She pulled herself through the branches toward her daughter, halting near Tim to caress her daughter’s shoeless foot. “We’re all still here.”
“Not Maggie,” Olivia said, whining. “Not Maggie.”
Nathan glared at the tears-turned-dirt on Olivia’s face. He’d lost his mitt in this flood. Maggie was just a stupid doll. He scraped at some sap with his dirty fingernails, then picked up the egg he’d found yesterday morning. “I’m going to eat this,” he told Olivia.
She looked over. They both touched the egg.
“A baby bird’s in there,” Olivia said.
“Maybe,” Nathan said.
He climbed down holding the egg. Olivia followed him, sniffling. Sunlight, dancing around the tree, tinted some leaves a darker green. Tim rested against the trunk, the large branch across his lap. As Nathan asked him about the egg, Starla leaned over to look.
Tim weighed the egg in his hand. It was less than half the size of his palm. “It’s probably still a yoke,” he said. “Let’s crack it open.”
Starla scrunched her face.
“Crack it into my hand,” Nathan told Tim.
The yoke was dark orange. Nathan held out his cupped hands toward Olivia. “Taste it,” he said. She stuck her tongue out and back quickly. Tim and Starla stuck their fingers in, then licked them. Nathan raised his hands to his mouth and poured in the rest of the liquid. They all savored the taste in their mouths.
Tim lowered his body to the lowest limb. He stuck his big branch in the water until it touched the creek bottom and raised it up to Starla who measured the water depth against Nathan’s height.
“Up to his nose,” she said.
“We’ll be able to wade out soon,” Tim said. “Let’s wait until we can go together.”
Starla descended into the crevice, Olivia following, and tucked Tim’s coat around her daughter. Olivia closed her eyes and murmured her doll’s name. Tim held one side of the broken branch, Nathan the other, and they both pulled off bark in silence. The creek clattered and leaves rustled. They were all imagining how they would wade to safety, and they turned their heads in unison when a bird chirped on the opposite shore.
Thanks for reading! Next time, I’ll discuss working as a freelance copy editor in the publishing industry. I hope you’re staying safe and well out there.