by Ron Van Sweringen
The old clapboard farmhouse stood two stories high, with a wide porch wrapped around both sides. Weathered grey in the afternoon sunlight, it was the color of a wild mushroom growing on the forest floor.
A mountain loomed above it, in distant colors of lavender and gold. Several huge oak trees surrounding the house were ready to release their October leaves. John and Susan Beck, a middle-aged couple, lived in the house.
John Beck, a farmer, and his wife Susan worked the land and shared the changing seasons. A time to sow and a time to reap, the cycle of birth and rebirth for most living things, but not for all.
Children never filled the silent house. The sounds of young laughter and running feet in the hallway or the squeals of delight at bath time were never heard.
An emptiness lingered inside of Susan Beck, where the seeds of life should have flourished. A need remained unfilled, year after year, until the seasons of growing life were nearing an end.
John Beck felt his wife’s sadness, and although he prided himself on being a strong man, was weak and powerless before it. He did his best to comfort and protect Susan, as the large oaks in the front yard did their best to shade and protect the old farmhouse.
One evening at twilight, after the dinner dishes were washed, Susan Beck was relaxing on the porch swing. It was chilly and John had gone into the house to get her a sweater.
Susan had been on the porch for a short time when an odd feeling came over her, a strange sensation of being watched. The song of a lovely bird began, sounding quite near.
“Good evening,” a soft voice spoke. “I hope my singing didn’t startle you.”
“Who’s there?” Susan called out. “Where are you?”
“My name is Aratreea and I’m right here, in the large oak tree at the end of the porch.”
“Of course you are,” Susan replied smiling. “Then why can’t I see you?”
“Perhaps I’m up too high,” came the reply. “I’ll hop down a few branches.”
Susan was astounded by what happened next. After some rustling of the tree’s golden leaves, the most exquisite creature she had ever seen appeared, a large bird whose feathers glowed and shimmered with every color of the rainbow.
“Oh!” Susan said in amazement. “You’re so beautiful, you take my breath away!”
Just then John Beck opened the screen door and noticed the peculiar look on Susan’s face as she pointed behind him and whispered, “Look, John.”
“My God!” John gasped, catching sight of the bird.
“Good evening,” the bird said again. “My name is Aratreea and I’ve already introduced myself to your wife.”
John Beck took Susan’s hand and sat down beside her, unable to look away from the apparition. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Surely not around here.”
“No,”Aratreea replied. “I’m from a faraway place. It has taken a long time to journey here.”
“Why would you want to come here?” Susan asked, puzzled. “If you are an example of your world, it must be more beautiful than this.”
“It was, a long time ago,” came the reply. “But now it is dying, just as I am dying, poisoned by greed, disease and neglect.”
Susan stood up and walked closer to the shimmering creature. The dark eyes, though very large and beautiful, were clearly sad.
“Have you come here to die then?” Susan asked, bringing her hand up to her mouth, as though regretting the question.
There was a moment’s silence as Aratreea contemplated an answer. “I am the last of my kind. I have come here to find a special place to bear the egg I carry inside of me. I am hoping to find a compassionate heart, with unconditional love to share. Only then will my legacy survive.”
John went to his wife’s side and put his arm around her shoulder. “I am sorry you are dying,” he said softly to the stranger. “I wish that we could help you in some way.”
“We can!” Susan exclaimed, turning to face her husband. “We can care for the egg!”
John Beck looked surprised for a moment and was about to disagree with his wife’s suggestion, until he saw the longing in her eyes.
“I want to do this, John,” she said softly, putting her trembling hand in his.
* * *
Several months passed. Deep winter snows melted and the early spring planting was completed. In late summer the crops were nearing harvest. It had been a good season. The months of farm work and caring for the egg made time pass quickly for Susan Beck.
Her favorite hour was after dinner, sitting beside the fire with John. The egg had grown so large now that it rested in a straw-filled basket at her feet.
John Beck was grateful for the change in his wife, for the joy in her face and the bubbling laughter that had first attracted him, years ago. He often wondered where the strange bird came from and what its true purpose was? But most of all, he was grateful.
* * *
The alarm went off at five-thirty in the morning. John Beck, from force of habit, reached over with closed eyes and pushed the alarm’s off button. He fell back on the bed, wishing he did not have to get up.
Susan, accustomed to the early morning routine, was already up and on her way downstairs. Fifteen minutes later with the smell of fresh coffee in the air, John felt better.
When he came downstairs, John surveyed the soggy mess outside through the kitchen window. Rain and more rain. “Three days of this is enough,” he thought to himself as he turned on the radio.
The announcer added to John’s gloom, between lively Blue Grass recordings. “More rain today, very heavy at times, with the possibility of flash flooding along the Potomac River and its tributaries. All residents of low-lying areas should be alerted to possible evacuation routes if necessary.”
The old farmhouse sat less than a mile from the river, on some of the richest bottom land in the county. The great flood of 1938 had brought water up to its first floor, the only time in its hundred-year history.
It was seven o’clock when they finished breakfast and John Beck kissed Susan goodbye. It was a two-hour drive to the courthouse in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and he was not looking forward to it, especially on a day like this.
“As soon as I sign the papers, I’m coming back,” John said to her. “I should be home early this afternoon, unless I run into trouble.”
* * *
A cloudy mist hung over the mountain as the gray rain continued. The headlights of John’s truck slowly picked their way along a winding road, away from the farmhouse.
Susan watched the truck’s headlights until they reached the highway and disappeared, then she turned away from the kitchen window. She was uncomfortable. Susan never felt secure when John was away from the farm. In her mind, she thought about the rain-slicked mountain roads and the terrible possibility of a tractor-trailer coming around a curve too fast.
An hour after John left, the rain increased to a downpour. Occasional flashes of lightning split the sky, followed by loud rolling thunder. Susan could not see the front yard from her window, much less the planted fields beyond. She knelt at the foot of the bed, placing her hand on the large egg resting safely in its basket.
The shell of the egg was smooth and slightly warm as she ran her hands over it. Suddenly she felt it shudder, once and then again, harder the second time. Her heart pounded as she tried to remember what Aratreea had told her. Susan lifted the egg onto the bed and lying very near it, listened to the pounding rain on the roof.
Ten miles up river from the Beck farmhouse, at the Miller Falls dam and reservoir, the situation was critical. An undetected fissure had ruptured in the aging structure. What started as a trickle, in a matter of minutes grew to a raging torrent, tearing chunks of concrete away from the dam.
An alarm sounded when the breach was discovered. The mournful siren echoed over the mountain and valley, causing panic. If the dam collapsed, every structure along the river for twenty miles was in danger of being swept away by a forty-foot wall of water.
Warnings were constantly broadcast on radio and television. John Beck heard the emergency signal at eight forty seven a.m. His pick-up truck was nearing Tuckerville Virginia, an hour and a half from home. At first, John thought it was a test of the radio station equipment, but the urgency in the announcer’s voice convinced him it was not a test. He felt sick to his stomach.
A crack appeared in the center of the egg’s shell and Susan Beck stared at it intently. She put clean bath towels on the bed and a pan of hot water on the nightstand. Her hands trembled when she touched the egg. Something inside was continuing the struggled to free itself.
A moment later, the phone rang and she fumbled to reach it. “Susan!” It was John’s voice.
“Oh, John,” she interrupted, “I have something to tell.... “
“Never mind,” came the almost hysterical reply from her husband. “Get out of the house now!” he ordered. “Take the path up to McConnell’s cabin and keep climbing, the dam is going to go”...... then the line went dead as Susan stared at the phone.
The unthinkable happened at nine thirty that morning. The Miller Falls dam gave way, sending a wall of water cascading down the valley. A terrifying roar echoed into the grey sky as the boiling torrent destroyed everything in its path.
Several police cars, their red lights blinking, were pulled across the highway. An officer in a yellow slicker waved John over to the side of the road.
“Can’t get any closer,” the officer informed John. “The bridge is washed out.”
“I need to get to Sharpsburg,” John replied, wiping the splashing rain drops out of his eyes. “My wife is there alone.”
“You have to go back to 86 and then over to Catonsville to cross the river above the dam,” the officer answered, signaling another car to turn around, “It’s about thirty miles.”
The highway was an endless torture for John. Screaming emergency rescue vehicles raced in both directions. Cars were pulled off of the road for miles and helicopters passed low overhead. The thirty-mile drive to Sharpsburg and the trip back took almost three hours. It ended with another police roadblock, on the highway, two miles from John’s house.
John Beck pulled his pick-up off of the road and continued on foot. The mud along the road was deep and he slipped several times. All he could think of was Susan trying to climb the steep path up to McConnell’s cabin, and how difficult, if not impossible it would be for her.
John had gone less than a mile when he heard the hissing roar of the river. Further on, he came to a break in the trees and saw the raging brown water as he had never seen it before. A cold feeling of panic and shock swept over him. John realized that nothing in its path could have survived the onslaught.
A firm hand on his shoulder brought John back to reality. Two state police troopers stood beside him.
“Sorry sir,” the nearest one said. “You have to go back up to the road block area. It’s unstable down here.”
“My house is a little further,” John pleaded. “My wife, I have to find her.”
“I’m sorry sir,” the trooper replied with sympathy. “It’s my understanding that nothing is left above water down there. Now please come back with us.”
A woman wearing a blue rain hat, standing in front of a muddy station wagon, was offering hot coffee to the rescue personnel. She offered a cup to John as he stood bewildered in the rain, among a line of fire trucks and police cars.
“Here, you look like you could use this,” she said, handing him the hot coffee. She was a mountain woman, John could tell by her accent. “Your house near here?” she asked, offering him a sandwich
“Yes,” he replied, refusing the sandwich, “on Sherwin Road, about two miles further down.”
Suddenly John heard his name being called out. He turned quickly to see his neighbor, Ed McConnell, limping toward him.
“My God, it’s good to see you,” the injured man said to John, half crying.
“Where is Susan?” John demanded, grabbing him by the shoulders
“I haven’t seen her,” McConnell replied sadly.
“I told her to go up to your cabin, I told her to climb,” John mumbled , tears in his eyes.
John Beck slumped against a parked ambulance, his head down and sobs coming heavy now. The woman from the station wagon put her hand on his arm. “Is it your wife?” she asked softly.
John nodded slowly, unable to speak.
“Don’t give up, honey,” she said. “They’re still bringing folks out. Why, they just brought out a woman and her newborn, right over there in that ambulance. Pretty little thing, named after a bird, I hear tell.”
Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen