24
Mar
09

Erosion, Religion and Lambchops

“What we want to know,” Walt said, “is whether, in your professional opinion, more soil or anything else is likely to come down and foul the water supply.”
Nick shrugged. “All your water comes from this river. Correct?”
“Yeah. I told the Council I think we’re fine but hey you’re the college guy. I just live here.” Walt jingled the keys in his pocket and the two men walked toward a storybook-perfect, ivy-fronted cottage. Dark purple Alyssum gave modesty to leggy heirloom roses. A dainty breeze whispered among the rose leaves then moved up to the blooms seeking gossip and spreading a scent like Grandma’s talc. Purple-faced pansies edged the path up to and around the east and west sides of the building. Anticipating a princess singing with blue birds or a septet of miners to greet him in the back garden, Nick was even more surprised to instead see and hear…nothing. No fairy tale creatures. No heirloom roses. No pansies. No ground.
“Great cats!” Nick said. At Walt’s gesture, he moved slowly forward. “I can see where someone reinforced the portion of the foundation still on solid ground but the rest of this is astounding.”
Walt walked to the edge of the drop-off and Nick joined him. “Well?” Walt said.
Nick reached down, pinched a bit of soil between his fingers, rolled it around in his mouth, spat, and rubbed his hands on his pants legs. Past the precariously hanging cottage, he saw the river chuckling over gently rounded rocks. “Before I give you my answer,” Nick said, “I’ve got a question or two for you.”
“What happened.”
“In a word, yes. Here is soil loss that is not the result of a normal slowly occurring erosion process. This was fast, strong, and extremely localized. It had to be and it couldn’t be that river.”
“Actually, it could be and it was.”
“How? Like you said I’m the college guy. I’ve been on lots of jobs and I’ve never seen anything like this. This did not occur naturally.”
“Um, no. To be real honest it happened supernaturally.”
Nick ran his tongue over his teeth and spat again. “Look, you called me out here to tell you if anything’s going to happen to the river. Part of how I figure out if something’s going to happen again is to figure out what happened in the first place. Well, this beats the heck out of me. So if you want an answer, you’re going to have to tell me what happened. I mean, first off who lives here. Except for this back part it looks like Snow White.”
Walt jingled his keys. “He was a priest.”
“A Catholic priest?”
“Uh, no.”
“Okay. He was a not Catholic priest and?”
“He was supposed to train young women in some rituals. But not like Catechism.”
“Are you telling me some girl’s father got upset at the priest and did this? Because I don’t see how he could.”
“It wasn’t someone’s father. I told you before. When you said it wasn’t a natural event. And you were right. It was supernatural or paranormal or whatever you want to call it.”
“And you know that how?”
“Because I was here in the town when it happened. I live here. I grew up here. I know everybody. The man who lived here.”
“The priest?”
“Yes. So I’m telling you again this wasn’t an act of God and it wasn’t someone’s father.”
“It was?”
Walt breathed in, looked at the dirt, the pansies, the front of the house where his truck stood, breathed out. He rubbed his upper arms with opposite hands, breathed in and out again. He tasted his morning coffee on his breath and wished he had more. “It was a warning,” he said.
“What?”
“It was a warning. The river spirit did it as a warning.”
“A warning to whom?”
“You believe it was a warning?”
“A warning to whom?”
“To whoever did the training. After the priest. It was already too late to do him any good so it was meant for whoever did the job after him.”
“What do you mean ‘too late’ for him?”
“Because he’d already fallen in love with her. He’d already married her maybe. Probably not then but it didn’t really matter because as soon as he fell in love with her it was over. She was never going to be any good after that. She should have come to him earlier, when she was younger. But she was sick so she wouldn’t have been okay. Then she got well but she was too old. Not too old but dangerous. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“Wait a minute. Are you talking about human sacrifice?”
“In a word, yes.”
“And this priest was supposed to kill a girl and he didn’t do it and the river spirit destroyed the bank that supported half his house?”
“No. He wasn’t supposed to kill her,” Walt said. He licked a bit of maple bar glaze from his bottom lip. “But he wasn’t supposed to fall in love with her either because she could never get married. She was going to be married to the river. See?”
Nick looked up at a pine bough and whistled through his teeth. “But she wasn’t going to die?”
“Well, yes eventually.”
“But you just said-“
“Look,” Walt said, “have you ever read the Bible?”
“Yeah, it says ‘Thou shalt not kill’.”
“No. After that. In Judges. After Joshua and before Ruth. The story of when there weren’t any kings and the man dedicates his daughter to God and people always interpret it that he killed her? But he didn’t.”
“No?”
“No. He said she’d never marry or have a child because what he intended was for her to be married to God. She’d take care of sacred places and tidy up. This is the same thing.”
“Only it’s the river?”
“Only it’s the river. Except this girl was too old and that made her dangerous. Instead of being married to the river she ended up being married to the priest.”
“Married?”
“Or something. It doesn’t matter. As soon as he fell in love with her, it was over. She was never going to be happy married to the river. They drank coffee. He smiled at her. They ate lamb chops and mint jelly and tiny potatoes. They read. And duty and honor and tradition are not going to win out over coffee and mint jelly and smiling and potatoes.”
“So the river threatened him.”
“No. Once she was lost, she was lost. This wasn’t about getting back someone who didn’t want to be married to the river. As I said, this was a warning to whoever took on the job after the priest.” Walt shrugged. “Well?”
“Alright,” Nick said. “Yes and no.”
“Yes and no.”
“No, if you can figure out how to get a backhoe up and down this bank and someone comes in and puts up a retaining wall and some cantilevers for the part of the house that’s already hanging over then you won’t have to worry about more soil or parts of the house coming down and landing in the river and fouling the water supply.”
“And the yes?”
“Yes, you do have to worry about this happening again. Because we’re not talking about just soil and water and walls here. We’re also talking about the human element. Which is hard to engineer for.”
“Ideas?”
“Of course. Huckleberry pie would get us talking.”
Walt pulled out his keys, tossed and caught them, started walking back along the pansy-edged path. Nick picked up a rock, rolled it in his palms, and looked down the sheer at the river. Whistling again through his teeth, he put the rock in his pocket, turned, and followed Walt back to the trucks.

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