After the storm we stood to our ankles in muddy water, and I thought there were fish mouthing at the skin stretched over the bones of my ankles, but they were just dead leaves floating past, tickling my feet like the minnows in Lake Michigan.
After the storm my feet sank in the mud, and for weeks I could feel it caked between my toes, even after I used the grimy scrub brush to scrape the dried mud away. We were so muddy we looked like the little brown fish that climbs out of the river to scale trees; we were so muddy that for days we peeled squares of earth imprinted with the faint patterns of fabric and hair off our bodies. We brushed off the papery dead leaves that had wrapped around our ankles.
After the storm we sat on the roof, breathing in the stench of rotting plants and meat, thick and cloying like a hot summer day. When the sun came, drying the muddy water from our feet, the stench was worse. We watched the bodies of cows float by, swollen from days of deadness. Before, we learned about the gases that build up in corpses, puffing the skins up like balloons, the stomach distending so far you’d think the world could fit into that dead belly.
After the storm we were thankful that our house didn’t wash away. At least we had a roof to live on until the water went down, we thought as we watched our neighbors paddle by in a rusty metal canoe, the babymtucked into the sharp nose. At least we were alive, and had thought to bring some food with us when the kitchen began filling with water.
After the storm began we curled in the living room chairs, listening to the pounding rain shaking the siding and shingles loose. We sat at the windows, watching the water trickle and pour over the edges of the gutters, hitting the ground with a roar like a waterfall. The water spilled off theroads, filling the ditches until everything was swirling water and streaky rain.
After the storm stopped raging, we climbed onto the roof and sat cross-legged to watch the world go by, feeling like Noah and his family; there was nobody else, not anywhere we could see. My littlest sister took a spoon and began to eat straight from the jar of peanut butter, even though we told her not to waste our food so early on. Why we’d brought peanut butter but nothing to go with it, I’ll never know.
After the storm we threw a can of beans to our neighbors in the canoe. The man dropped it, splashing water into the canoe, onto the baby, but he leaned over the side and scrabbled under the surface, trying to find it. It sank, and his wife screamed at him to stop it, he was going to drown them all. The baby cried, and my littlest sister started crying too. All I could think was that when the water dried up, the ground would be covered with dead things and fragments of trees, and amid all the clutter and rubble there would be our can of beans.
After the storm, the water slowly drained from the streets and houses, but we stayed on the roof. The water went down, and we saw my littlest sister’s pink bicycle on the lower branches of a tree, the spokes of the back tire impaled on a short stick, the chain tangled around the frame. She cried, and we watched as the gentle, foul-smelling wind swayed the once-white tassels on the handlebars. The sparkling paint peeled off in long stripes like the mud we peeled from our bodies. The metal was rusting, dark red and brown, and the free wheel spun in the breeze, creaking.
After the storm, the sky settled. The rain stopped and the wind blew soft gusts of stench into our lungs. The clouds rose in great billowing arcs, expanding to fill the sky like giant gray mountains, like the mountains we read about in storybooks when we were still young enough for bedtime stories. We pretended we were in a fairytale then; we pretended the clouds were mountains; we pretended we were princes and princesses trapped in a castle surrounded by a deep moat.
After the storm we began planning what color to paint the kitchen when the water went down. Before, we sat at the dining table picking at the faded wallpaper our grandmother had put up half a century before the storm, and we worried at the fraying edges until the dusty glue crumbled to the floor and the wallpaper flaked off on our jam-sticky fingers. The shreds of floral paper on the floor were exactly the same shade and shape as the shreds of leaves that papered the sides of our house after the storm.