The Sun Has Not Gone Down Yet
by Tom Darin Liskey
The summer I turned five, it rained so much that it seemed like God was wringing every ounce of wetness out of the universe and dumping it on the delta. It got so bad that my father couldn’t go out into the fields to tend to the cotton. We had lashing rains for three weeks straight until the weather broke and the sun finally came out.
Daddy went to check the fields to see if he could salvage something because he said a late growing season was better than nothing. But when he returned with his face drawn and haggard he told momma and Uncle Claude, who lived with us at the time, that all the cotton plants had drowned.
My mother tried to say something encouraging, but daddy just shook his head and went back out to the porch. He stood there for the longest time, just staring at the standing pools of water in the cotton fields.
That summer it rained so hard wasn’t just hard on daddy. My mother’s Foursquare Gospel faith was stretched to its limits, I believe. The little garden she kept at the back of the shack was flooded and we couldn’t go into town to buy anything. Money was already tight and the merchants weren’t extending credit because of the rains.
By the time the last storm broke all we had was some fatback, a few pounds of cornmeal and a whittled down hambone. My mother had scrapped away all the meat she could from the bone and tossed it in for soup when there wasn’t anything left.
After the rains stopped, we had sun for two days, but it wasn’t plentiful enough to dry out the fields. I tried to play outside, but the humidity was so dense you could have slacked your thirst by just gulping air. I had to stay close to the house because the rains had driven the snakes to higher ground.
My father tried to keep busy around the farm, repairing what he could. It was probably a good thing he did because the sky gashed open and the rains came just as quick as they had stopped.
With the storms roiling the heavens again, my father and Uncle Claude sat brooding in the corner of our little home watching the rain-drenched kindling sputter and fume in the fireplace.
Uncle Claude had come back from France near crippled after a German shell landed close to him in the Meuse-Argonne. He couldn’t do much on the farm because of his back, but he did help momma around the house with me. Momma’s other brother, John Wesley, had gone to France too, but by the time the rains came, he was out logging in Georgia.
The constant rain made uncle Claude’s bones hurt, so he sat close to the fire bundled up in a quilt like a man dazed by fever as he watched the tiny flames nibble around the wet wood.
There was some talk between my father and Uncle Claude about the rains and if the flooding was really the end of times. Daddy was convinced that Gabriel was licking his lips in the heavens ready to blow the horn of rapture and judgement.
But my uncle was the most churched among the two. He argued the world would end in fire in the second destruction, and not in drowning, though there was no denying that the sky poured down like the days of Noah.
That evening when the rains returned, a black wall of water rolled across the delta blotting out the moonlight and stars. The only thing we could see were the faraway lightning flashes. They flickered like candle flames sputtering in tallow.
When the storm grew worse, we heard trees snapping out beyond the fields. Daddy made us crawl under some mattresses in case the roof caved in. The winds blew hard against the walls of the shack and I could feel the floorboards heaving slowly beneath me, like the house was breathing.
Just before dawn the wind ripped into the barn. We could tell the animals were loose by the way the wind carried the milk cow’s bellowing and the mule’s braying.
Momma begged daddy not to go out to tether the animals, but he said we needed the cow for milk and the mule for plowing. Daddy tied his hat on with a scarf and went outside. Uncle Claude talked soft words to me to keep my mind off all the ruckus. He told me a story that night about a boy who climbed a magic tree high above the clouds to steal a giant’s gold while my mother prayed out loud for daddy.
It took daddy some time to shelter the animals in a safe place. When he came back inside, he was wet as a shipwrecked sailor. Momma hugged him and cried, and so did I. His hands and clothes were cold as ice.
In the whirling darkness outside the heaving walls, the rain spit against the shack like blasts of buckshot. A section of the roof splintered and flew away. Rain poured in and we all huddled together to the corner of the house. Daddy lay over us with his outstretched arms. It was dark all around and there was no light, but I could hear my mother praying.
Coils of cold rainwater dripped off John Wesley’s clothes as he waited for the logging crew bossman to come out of the back room for their morning briefing. The building where he stood was designed so that it could be dismantled and transported to the next logging camp. It was brand new and still smelled of resin and sawdust.
Someone was yelling just outside. John Wesley walked over to the window. A truck was stuck in the mud. The driver was on his knees putting logs under the back tires. The man was cursing the rain and Henry Ford with equal vigor.
The man climbed back in the cabin and started the engine. The truck’s motor groaned when the driver put it into gear. The rig jerked and appeared to lurch forward slightly before it slipped back into the muddy rut bogging it down.
One of the men stacking wood in the mobile sawmill across the road saw the stuck truck. He tapped two other workers on their backs. They threw a piece of tarp over the saw-cut lumber they had been stacking and made their way through the slanting rain to the rig. They got behind the truck and pushed. The driver gassed the engine and tried to change gears, but the back wheels of the vehicle merely spurted a wide arc of muck.
From the corner of the office the ticker-tape started tapping out. The bossman had ordered the men to string telegraph wire along uncut trees so that he could keep up with company headquarters back east.
The man must have heard the machine sputter to life because he came out of the back room that was big enough for only an army cot. John Wesley slid his hat off and greeted him with a nod.
The bossman’s clothes were unkempt and he smelled of whisky and coal oil smoke. He rubbed his face. The bossman, like the rest of the camp, had been working around the clock to make up for the time lost because of the rain.
“Mr. Frank it is getting rough out there,” he said. “We had two more accidents yesterday.”
The man walked to the high desk in the middle of the room. A map of the forest lay on the desktop next to empty coffee cups and saucer-plates with chewed up cigar stubs and bread crumbs. The bossman looked at the map like he was searching for something lost in the cartographer’s ink. He didn’t respond to John Wesley’s comment.
John Wesley cleared his throat.
“I think the boys need a break until this weather clears up some,” he said.
“We still got trees to clear,” the logging boss said. He didn’t lift his eyes from the map.
John Wesley turned to the raindrop speckled window. The men outside were still rocking and heaving the truck with all their brawn. Stovepipe-smoke rose and dissipated in the wet winds from a long row of tents where the men slept in shifts.
“Yes, sir, but it’s getting to the point that we can’t get the trees out through the washed out roads,” he said. “It’s so bad the mules are skittish ….”
“Then send some boys out to get us some oxen,” the bossman said.
The ticker-tape machine spit out more paper. John Wesley eyed the ticker, thinking that the little machine was about the only thing that kept on working without breaking down in the rain.
The bossman walked over and snipped off a small ribbon. He mouthed some stock prices, crumpled the paper and tossed it on the floor.
John Wesley pointed with his hat and spoke again.
“Mr. Frank, you can just look at the sky …”
The foreman’s face tightened.
“You saying I can’t read this weather? Damn you boy. When I put you in charge of my best crew, I reckoned you were the right man for the job. Now you’re telling the men can’t work because of some rain?”
The man clamped his jaws shut and shook his head when the ticker-tape machine tapped out another trail of stock prices. The foreman didn’t even go over to see the paper this time, but his tone softened.
“You have to understand this son, if even one of the crews stop the cutting, everything here would lock up. We’ll start losing business. People need wood and we need to cut it. This country is growing, lad. We need wood for schools, for churches, for houses, hell, we even need it for coffins. That’s why we are out here in this godforsaken pine-belt. You understand that, I know you do. We can’t have grown men sitting in tents playing cards and sipping whisky like they are on vacation while the rest in the country is growing.”
John Wesley rolled his hat with his fingers, looking at the floor where the raindrops left patterns on the wood. It was no use to argue the point more. He didn’t like sending them out in this kind of weather but he knew the crews in the forest needed work. John Wesley understood the men’s jobs depended on him.
The wireless was talking about washed out farms from the river country where many of the men came from. If the loggers went home, there would be no work for these men because there would be no harvest. John Wesley slipped his hat on and turned to leave. He placed his hand on the metal door knob.
The bossman dug a cigar end out of the ashes of a saucer and lit it with a match.
“Son,” he said. “You were in France, right? A corporal, if I remember right. The way I heard it, you led a squad against a
German machine gun. You got the business done on that day. Now get it done today.”
John Wesley nodded without turning to the man.
“Yes sir, that is correct,” he said. Then John Wesley turned back to face the foreman. “I ought to tell you, though, we lost a lot of men that day. We’ll do our best to get the trees in. The weather is God’s business.”
Outside the office, the muck-covered men were still pushing the flatbed. John Wesley jumped down into the muddy roadway and threw his shoulder into the business of freeing up the vehicle.
My eyes opened. The rain had stopped and it was light.
After we lost part of the roof, everything became a blur. All I could remember was how I squeezed my eyes shut tight with the rain and wind howling around us like mad dogs snapping at our little huddle.
My father rose and started moving around the storm-damaged shack. Besides the roof, part of the western wall was gone. All that remained was the chimney.
The quilt and mattress we had pulled over us were drenched with cold rainwater and the floor was carpeted with tree limbs.
Uncle Claude was close by. I heard him moan when he raised up. My mother had hidden what little food we had left in oil cloth. She had kept it under her throughout the night. She found a skillet in the rubble and went to the wet hearth.
“Let’s get a fire going for breakfast,” she said, kicking the limbs on the floor. “We certainly got enough kindling.”
Daddy laughed at that, and so did my uncle, but I saw tears in both men’s eyes.
The men were slipping on the pine-needle covered mud as they pulled the fallen trees across the soggy forest floor to the flatbed truck parked on the last unwashed road for loading. The weather was turning rough again and John Wesley told his crew to take a break.
He lifted his eyes skywards and cursed. A cut-down tree was hanging trapped in the limbs of a smaller pine. If he didn’t get it untangled, he knew the wind could send it tumbling in the wrong direction. If that happened, one of the crew were likely to get killed.
He asked one of the boys, a bucktoothed youth from Arkansas, to get him a saw, some rope, logging spurs and a harness. The boy ran splashing through the rain pools for the gear. John Wesley looked at the hung up pine again. The treetops surrounding the pine swayed and swirled in the wind.
“I need two of you men to spot me, and the rest to head back to camp,” he yelled out.
When the boy returned with the equipment, John Wesley sat on a stump to strap on the spikes when he heard a deep groaning above him. He raised his eyes. The tree was bending in the wind. Then it snapped. It was as loud as a canon shot. John Wesley didn’t have time to run out of the path of the entangled tree when it broke free and swept towards him as swift as a weaver’s shuttle.
The next day daddy said we needed to get to town.
It was Sunday and the circuit preacher, an old Kentucky-born Holiness pastor who still wore a black frock coat and wide-brim hat, was due to arrive for church service.
Uncle Claude stood in the doorway of the shack and said he was staying home. He said his bones couldn’t take the trip. That was probably for the best because the road to town was just about washed out anyway.
Daddy put me and momma on the mule and led us to town, but no one spoke. The sudden brightness of the morning revealed the ruin and rank of rotting crops all around us. We had to pinch our noses shut near the river lands where dead milk cows bobbed in the flooded meadows.
We turned at a bend in the road and we finally saw the wild river. It had burst its banks and was moving fast, carrying uprooted trees, wood planks and roof shingles. Daddy clucked his teeth and told the mule to pick up the pace.
John Wesley awoke with a jolt. The fever behind his eyes burned. He looked over to his left. He was in a truck with the boy from Arkansas. The skinny kid was wrenching the steering wheel of the rig as it fishtailed in the rain. He was trying to keep the speeding truck on the muddy road. The rig jerked, throwing John Wesley against the metal door. He should have felt pain, but did not.
The boy from Arkansas looked apologetic and blushed as he talked, but John Wesley couldn’t understand what he was saying. He closed his eyes, but when he opened them again, the boy was pulling the truck over to the side of the road. The boy parked and gave John Wesley some water with a little whiskey, slipping some rolled up bits of bread into his mouth. He tried to thank the boy from Arkansas, but he could barely move his mouth to speak the words. He closed his eyes and opened them again. They were traveling west now. He could tell by how the sun moved across the sky.
There was not much to our little town. Just a schoolhouse, post office, feed and dry goods store and bank where farmers did business.
When we arrived, a lot of the townsfolk were milling around the streets, blurry eyed and dazed. They looked like survivors from a shipwreck washed up on the beach of a deserted island.
Daddy stopped the mule in front of a farm equipment dealership. He stared at the lot where a tornado had tossed the new trucks and tractors around like a child’s toys. He shook his head. He could have never afforded to buy a motor tractor there, but it was still sad to see so much destruction, he said.
We moved on. The church was in the middle of town. My father tied the mule to a hitching-post and lifted me off the animal. Then he helped momma get down. A big oak had fallen through the church roof, but the doors were wide-open. People were going inside without the bell being rung.
Daddy went to one of the deacons standing in front. He was the town banker. I’d always seen him in an ironed suit and tie with a crisp straw boater on his head. But he looked worn out that day. His white shirt was gray with sweat. Daddy asked if the preacher had made it into town. The deacon nodded glumly.
We walked inside the cool, dark building. The great oak tree had fallen through the roof just over the pulpit. It looked like the entire back of the church was ruined. The preacher was up front. He was bent down at the altar praying.
To be honest, I was always scared of the man. He had a booming voice and he was always admonishing us kids. Momma called him a brimstone preacher and said he liked to step on people’s toes in church, and that made him rude in my book. He ended his prayers and stood up, raising his arms and shaking the bible in his hand. He turned to people milling around the pews.
“Let us pray all together,” he said, but the man sounded tired.
The foot shuffling ceased and I could hear the pews creak as people sat down. I don’t remember what the preacher said to God or to the congregation. Instead of having my head bowed in reverence and thanksgiving for being alive after the storm, I was looking up at the roof where the tree limbs spilled into the church. A gentle breeze made the limbs tremble and there were dimples of light playing on the green leaves. It was beautiful watching that rich green flicker in shafts of lights after seeing so much mud.
When the preacher stopped praying, I looked at the man. His cheeks were wet. That booming voice that put such a fright in me suddenly sounded shaky.
“Some of us have to rebuild our shattered homes … some of us will have to replant our crops and pray for a better season next year … and some of us in this town have dead to bury,” he said.
Then he put the bible down on the altar and raised his hands, opening them to show us his wide, rough palms. He lifted his face to the shattered roof.
“Lord, take these hands. Yes, Lord, make these hands your tools.”
Momma noticed some people turning their heads toward the back of the church. The floor creaked with the unsure footsteps of a scrawny red headed boy in muddy boots. He had a hat in his hand. It looked to big for his head.
“I’m sorry to be bothering you folks, but I have a man, my boss from over in Georgia, who says y’all are his people. I come here hoping that someone in church could help me find his family.”
The preacher lowered his hands and moved down the aisle with an eyebrow raised. When he spoke, the words were gentle.
“Tell me son, who are you talking about?”
“Mr. J.W. Rutledge,” the boy said
My mother jumped up.
“John Wesley?” she asked.
The boy lowered his head. He nodded to her.
“A tree fell on him while we were working. I have him in the truck outside.”
Momma ran out of the church. My father grabbed my hand and we followed her. My uncle John Wesley was wrapped up in a blanket in the front-seat of the mud covered logging truck. He was pale and feverish-looking. The boy had followed outside and was talking to daddy now.
“I’m sorry sir, but he has been saying stuff I don’t understand. Been talking that way all day. I tried to get here sooner, but them roads over to here were something fierce. Still standing water everywhere.”
“Thank you for your consideration, son.”
The boy shook his head.
“Mr. J.W. asked me to bring him here. He said he didn’t want die without his kin.” His face flushed red with embarrassment.“Those were his words,” the boy said. “I mean I didn’t mean to say he is going to ….”
Some men from church came out. They went to the truck and opened the door. My uncle’s face was damp like gray clay. The preacher shook his head. He could see John Wesley was dying.
Momma asked the men to take him inside the church. Some people made a pallet with their coats and they laid John Wesley down. Momma got on her knees next to him and put his head in her lap. She bent down low and whispered in his ears. We couldn’t hear what she said.
Uncle John Wesley didn’t open his eyes or anything, but I saw his lips twitter when momma ran her fingers through his hair. They were that way for about an hour as the preacher led the others out of the church for prayer and some hymn singing.
They tried to make me go outside with the others, but I wouldn’t budge from the church. I wanted to stay with momma and daddy and my uncle. So I sat there quietly listening to momma hum low to the music outside. After a while, John Wesley let out a long breath and his body relaxed. My mother leaned over and kissed his forehead and pulled the blanket tight around him, like she was afraid he would get too cold once the sun went down.
Tom Darin Liskey spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Crime Factory, Driftwood Press, Mount Island, The Burnside Writers Collective, Sassafras Literary Magazine, Hirschworth and Biostories, among others. His photographs have been published in Roadside Fiction, Iron Gall Press, Blue Hour Magazine and Midwestern Gothic. He lives in Texas.