Jessica Freeman
Portrait of Fear, Days Before the Great Flood of '93
And what was I so afraid of in Foley, Missouri?
Maybe, the heavy pulse of owl breath that clung to wind like desire, the birthing cries and screams of possums in corn fields behind me that crept electric and painted the body of a stuttering morning. My father’s Vietnam buddies who sat at the vinyl kitchen table, craggy faces broken and weathered as they played pinochle, and patted my ass and hips when I walked by, their cigarette ash coating sloped kitchen floor. Or, our house. Lurching on stilts in summer’s steamy wind, as I braced myself against trembling walls. The jonboat, screech of metal galling against rock and rotting wood post beneath our raised house. A dead deer, killed off-season, swinging from rafters below, ticks piling on her back as she bled out into dirt and tackle boxes nesting in gravel. Death was a promise here, lurking behind urgent summers beauty. It was a wild horse, hard gaiting in circles next to the levee behind us. Hovering in the burnt-out rusted car beside us. Death, the stray bullet shells fired from my cousin’s guns as they aimlessly shot at rabbits, squirrels. More blood running with their roaring laughter, leeching across wet road. It lived in the conversations we had about tourists who fell from same limestone cliffs we hiked all summer. Their bodies sliding down grey scarps, sinking into oiled river water, where it seemed nothing we said could stop them from breaching into the garred fish water. That summer, before the floods came, water rose and ate its own foul turbid currents. It sucked on the sweat-soaked ear of town at the bait shop as we talked about flood stage, gullies cresting and fattening in the stained smell of old water. It flashed on my warm feet and ankles when I went frog gigging at night. We got used to the gulped feeling, longing to be left out to dry, wondering about the source. Where did this water come from? It couldn’t just be the rain licking its tongue, slaughtering an already full creek belly. Impossible, that the thrum of poison skulking against our skin, filling the bathtub base, was not more than a surge of storm picking up sand and rock downstream. At night, roiling in the distance across the wet track of Hwy. 70, their tunes muffled and aging, I heard the train whistles. A pierced sound, a barbed bouquet punctuating the ranks of the river.

Jessica Freeman has been published in Tinderbox, River Bluff Review, UCity Review, Flood Stage: an Anthology, and others. She has poems forthcoming in Mississippi Review and Liminal Women, and is a former winner of the Joanne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Prize, and a Slattery Arts Award.