Agnes Flood, 1972: When the Dike Broke
Tara Laskowski

If we were better people, we could compare it to a Greek tragedy or spout off an ancient biblical reference. If we were better people, we could tell you in romantic terms how the cracking of the dike sounded when it split, how it felt, for a moment, like an ocean breeze in our hair as the water swayed, preparing for its departure. How what flashed through our minds, like a coin being tossed in the air, were all the times we'd driven over the bridges and dipped our toes in the lapping shore and cast a line and glimpsed the moon's reflection rippling over the river's surface.

A pause. A giant sigh before the deep rumble. Then a roar so terrible your heart couldn't take it.

There, there, how did we know we were holding back such a powerful force so close to our hearts? There, right there. We have been so close for so very long. Dumped our waste in her depths when we hoped no one was watching. Built houses at her side, buried the dead on her shores, trusted, foolishly, that our meager barriers would keep her contained. We were children trying to add marbles to a bag made from tissues.

And now she has come and we are surprised.

She found the cemetery first, and that is what we will remember. Those are the stories we will tell our children, our grandchildren. How the graves popped like teeth from the ground—2,000 of them, they will say later. How they opened, crumpled, some carried on in one last surprising journey by a river no mythology books have ever mentioned.

The skulls and the hands were the easiest to detach. We will find them in our basements, in our sheds, in our backyards near where the metal swing used to sit under the elm tree. We will talk of ghosts, scare ourselves in campfire huddles with stories of Union soldiers staggering past our windows searching for their jawbones. Some of the bodies float miles to other townships, separated from their coffins, their clothing, their wigs. Here, see a necklace.

Some of our boys pierce the bodies with their bows and arrows, giggle at the dull wet thud upon contact. Others protect the coffins, stand guard until the police come. Shhh, we say, but don't look too closely. Shh, we say to the dead, and hope they don't answer.

Tara Laskowski's debut full-length collection of stories, BYSTANDERS, will be out next year. She's the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

Read more of her work in the archive.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of LIta Velijovic.

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