Where the River Begins

The call came after Poppy left for work that morning, so she missed it. It was in her voice mail when she came home. Poppy hadn’t given up her land line because that was the number her father knew and called. She listened to the message before starting dinner for the kids.

The message was brief and from a stranger. “Ms. Washington, this is Sheriff Patterson from Gallatin County. Would you please call. It’s about your father.”

It’s about her father. Petey. She knew her father as Petey. Everyone called him Petey. Even her children. It’s what Petey wanted to be called.

Poppy called Petey. It rang. No answer. She knew the Sheriff wouldn’t be calling if Petey could answer his phone.

Poppy called the number the Sheriff left. He had gone home for the day but the woman who answered the phone said she would track him down and have him call back. Poppy hung up the phone.

“Who was that?” Poppy turned to the voice of her son who had just walked in the back door after basketball practice.

“It was a call about Petey.”

“What about Petey?”

“I don’t know, Honey. I have to wait for them to call me back.” Poppy tried to control the anxiety in her voice.

Petey Whitaker lived on an isolated piece of land that had been in his family for generations. Everyday he walked the hills and hollows following Eagle Creek as it wandered through his land across his cousin’s land down to where it joined the stream that fed the river. Eagle Creek was where the river began high in the hills. When he was a boy, he ran with his cousins and jumped across the creek from stone to stone, falling in more than once and returning home wet, scraped and hungry.

Boys weren’t jumping across Eagle Creek anymore.

Petey’s daughter, Poppy, had moved to Chicago and was raising her family there. Chicago was too much for Petey. Too far and too noisy. Petey needed peace. The things he had seen and done in Vietnam had ruined him for anything other than quiet in his woods of Southern Illinois.

Poppy and her boys came down to visit him for a week every summer and sometimes for Easter or Thanksgiving or other odd holiday. Then they would walk the woods together and when they were young, the boys would jump the stones in their river shoes like their mother did. River walking, Poppy called it.

Poppy’s boys were older now and the visits fewer and farther between.

But Poppy called him every Sunday and Petey told her a little about the week past. The land was changing, he said. It was being taken away. The creek was filling itself dry with blasted sludge and rock, he said. Everyone is leaving, he said.

There’s a man who goes from farm to farm, homestead to homestead, the company representative, buying up the land. The company representative met you with a smile and left you with a check in your hand and a hole in your soul. He was a collector of souls as he toured the county gathering deeds to family holdings.

“Sure,” said Jack Peabody, the company representative. “You can move your cabin. There’s a guy who will number each log and take it down. He’ll move it to wherever you want to go and put it right back up again. Just exactly the same.”

Petey Whitaker did not want to leave his land. There was no place else on earth for his cabin that was “just exactly the same.” Petey was the last man standing on Eagle Creek. Everyone else had sold their land and it was being blasted away to get at the coal underneath. Surrounding his property, the blasting started when the sun came up. It tore at his ears, shook the ground and shattered his fragile nerves until the sun went down. Petey couldn’t breathe until the sun went down and the blasting stopped. Then he couldn’t see the stars through the lingering dust.

Poppy waited for the phone to ring. When it did, she was right there to pick it up. She listened as the Sheriff told her that Petey was dead. He had killed himself with his Army service revolver.

Poppy knew the gun. A Colt .45 caliber M1911, slim and powerful with short recoil. When she was growing up, it was kept unloaded and secured in a green foot locker at the end of Petey’s bed. The gun was an American classic, originally designed by John Browning, made by Remington and issued by the US Army from 1911 to 1985. It was used by Petey Whittaker a lot in 1970 and once yesterday.

Poppy knew the gun because she had one like it. Just exactly the same. And she knew how to use it.

Poppy left for Eagle Creek the next morning.

After the funeral, Poppy stood in the cabin and looked at the life Petey left. The boys had gone back to Chicago with their father.

This cabin was not where she grew up, but it was where Petey grew up. The floorboards were worn beneath the simple furniture. She looked at the dark stain on the floor near the sink. She tried to look out the window in the kitchen but it was crusted with grime on the outside. The window was framed by curtains her mother had made for Petey when he moved back to the cabin.

Poppy grew up in the big house her grandparents built on the hilltop on other side of the creek. She lived there with her mother until Petey came back from overseas. Then she lived there with Petey. The big house was gone now, the hilltop was gone. The people were gone, few as there were, there are none at Eagle Creek now. All memory has been blasted away. Except this cabin.

The knock at the open door startled Poppy. She looked up to see a big man standing in the door frame, nearly filling it. His crisp white shirt looked blue in the dusk.

“Sorry for your loss, Ms. Washington,” he said. His hands were in the pockets of his jacket.

“You’re the company man.”

“Yes ma’am, Jack Peabody. You can call me Jack.”

Poppy waited. She did not invite him in. Instead, she picked up her coat and purse and walked to the door. Mr. Peabody stepped back to let her out. She turned to close and lock the door to the cabin.

“Ms. Washington, I’d like to talk to you about your daddy’s land before you leave out for Chicago.”

Poppy looked up at him. “Mr. Peabody, will you show me where the works are right now?” She asked.

“Well, sure I will,” he said, a little surprised but pleased. “Let’s take a little walk.”

Poppy and Mr. Peabody walked into the woods that embraced the cabin, down the path that Poppy knew well. Mr. Peabody talked while they carefully picked their way over moss covered tree roots and rocks jutting through a carpet of fallen leaves. He explained that to get at the coal the overburden had to be removed. Overburden. The trees, the soil, the land.

They crossed Eagle Creek dry-shod. There was no longer even a trickle of moisture running through it. They walked out of the forest and came to the edge of the pit.

Coal pit after mountain top removal.

Coal pit after mountain top removal.

Mr. Peabody was still talking, “We’ll make it better than it ever was. We’ll add eight feet of clay then a few inches of topsoil.” His arm swept the horizon as if the vast gray pit were a tropical oasis. “We’ll level it off over there. It’ll be a golf course by one of the country’s best course designers. It’ll bring the rich folk down from Chicago to play golf. This county will . . .”

“Mr. Peabody?” Poppy interrupted him.

“Call me Jack,” he said as he turned to face Poppy and looked into the barrel of the Colt .45 pistol she had aimed at his face.

“Wait, what?” He put his hands out as if to stop what was coming.

Poppy took a step forward. The company man took a step backward.

“A golf course?” Poppy flicked her wrist, the gun moved across the expanse of the pit then quickly back to point again at the company man.

She took a step forward. He took a step back. The edge of the pit started to crumble beneath him. Then it gave way beneath his weight.
Poppy watched him fall. Watched his head crack on a boulder and body flap like a rag doll when it hit the ground. No movement.

Quiet at sunset.

Poppy turned to leave.

The bulldozers will find him in the morning. Then they’ll haul him away.

This piece of flash fiction was inspired by:

Chuck Wendig’s Friday Flash Fiction Challenge over at www.terribleminds.com. The random elements I included in this story are an antique gun and a distant outpost.

Reckoning at Eagle Creek, The Secret Legacy of Coal In the Heartland, by Jeff Biggers.

Where the River Begins, by Thomas Locker. A children’s book with exquisite illustrations.

John Prine’s songs Sam Stone and Paradise.

8 thoughts on “Where the River Begins

  1. Alison Towle Moore

    You conjured Petey and his daughter well. I believed her when she pulled the gun on Peabody. If you have never read River of Earth by James Still, you would really love it. Set in Appalachia, it follows one family’s experience as they go from independence to wage labor at the mines… with all of the consequences. The prose there is also quite spare, like yours. Nice job, Kathryn.

  2. Dot

    Nice. I like the characters, they seem relatable. It was the best I read so far from the flash fiction’s:) rock on Kathryn

    1. Kathryn Post author

      I took some license with the definitions of antique gun and distant outpost. They became old-style gun and remote location. But Chuck’s rules are pretty flexible, more like guidelines really. Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *