The Prophet of Mt. Mitchell
“It’s not what they called maggid, a voice. It’s not even a yearning. It’s a sense of loss, and of wanting what’s ahead or behind but not where we are.”
THE RAISING COMPANY was out of Morehead City. Smithson & Sons. They’d long been the most reputable house raising company in the region. We all went with them. The whole neighborhood. My husband and I kept watching a YouTube video of a house down on the Gulf side of Florida that slipped off while being raised, and broke to pieces.
But we were going ahead with it. I mean it wasn’t our house it was our beach house, so we had a little less at stake than the permanent residents. Hurricane seasons being what hurricane seasons were now, and with rain predicted for August this year, we bit. Everyone had called already so ours was sure to be a wait. Between email and phone calls I was taking almost every free second at work to set it up.
“You don’t even have to come down here,” Smithson’s son, Riley, said. The company was out of Morehead City, but Riley’s cell phone had a 917 area code. “There was black mold in there from last time. You’ll need to pull all the drywall out and retile and re-subfloor. It’ll be a year or two until you get back in there anyway.”
“Year,” I said. “Or two.”
“Most likely two.”
“Nine one seven,” I said.
“Yeah,” Riley said. “We moved down from New York to take over the company. I commute, but Roger, my brother, he’s down here full time. Lot of money to be made these days, raising houses.”
For the first time since we took possession of the place I felt a tinge of sadness. When you have a thing you can find a way to feel contempt for it, but when it’s suddenly wrested from you you miss it from the center of your chest. Like if you had a cat that wouldn’t stop spraying in the house, but then it lapped up some antifreeze.
“How bad is it down there anyway?” I asked. We hadn’t been to the Outer Banks house in six months because of the mold.
“Well it’s not Noah’s flood,” Riley said. “But it’s not not like it.”
“Two years,” I said.
“Maybe three. Or one hopefully. We’ll be in touch.”
THE ENTIRE FAMILY flew down to New Berne for the raising. FEMA took care of more than three-quarters of the cost so we went with the whole deal—house lifted eight feet in the air, steel rebar and concrete footings all around. Enclosed outdoor shower, all the bracings and trappings. Six other houses on the block were eight feet in the air already. It was a river neighborhood now suddenly in the air above the river.
“Why don’t you take Gill and Arthur down to the beach while they get started,” my husband, Nathan, said. “Gill could fly the dove.” Gill had named this drone of his “the dove” when he first got it, to make sure people understood it was the peace not the war kind. Guess that was a dividend on sending a sweet little Jewish boy to Quaker school.
“Don’t take those boys anywhere!” Roger said. “They’ll want to watch.”
Roger sounded just like his brother sounded on the phone. We were in the thin crabgrass and thick North Carolina heat but he wore a sport coat and jeans. He walked over to the huge orange box he and his men had set up in front of the house.
He explained that this was the universal jacking system. Hydraulic jacks would be placed at the corners and edges of the house, eight of them, and they’d crank the house up six inches at a time until it was eight feet in the air. Every foot or so he and his guys would stack wood to keep the house in the air until the footings could be dug. It got loud enough we had to cover our ears.
So I followed the boys down to the beach, tracking them when they got too far ahead by the drone circling the water over the Neuse River. Now we were so close to the ocean it was brackish, so swimming left a faint salt taste in your mouth. Art had gotten the bottoms of his pants all wet and Gill was so covered in sand it filled his pockets. When we got back to the house it was already three feet in the air. I found myself praying it wouldn’t fall off its jacks.
“High high high Mommy!” Arthur said. He’d only just started talking but still I had to hold him against my breast so he wouldn’t scramble toward the site.
“What’s that they’re putting underneath it?” Gill asked. At eight he was a quiet kid, thoughtful and inquisitive, where only four years ago he’d been a wild child, all grab-it-smash-it, kick-thing-rip-thing-run. I told him I honestly didn’t know. So we asked Roger.
“Oh, you got the full package like I said when we set it up,” he said. He was pointing at four huge white pods, each one almost the length of the house. They looked like kayaks without the hole to sit in. “Pontoons. If water ever came that high again, the house could kind of buoy on them. Shit—I mean shoot—they’re so buoyant they could float this whole house to Cuba.”
“Is that really necessary?” Nathan said. “It would be virtually impossible for the water to come even half that height.”
“Oh man if people only paid for necessary these days, I think I’d be back at my job at Goldman Sachs. These days it’s a quick weekend in Turks and Caicos for me, the way people spend.”
SO THE HOUSE WAS RAISED and the drywall replaced and we were looking at tile catalogues and weekend browsing ABC Carpet like it was our job and while it took more than three years, when we finally got to use it again it was like a new place. We spent summers up in Truro and down in Stone Harbor for the years in between. I didn’t feel for them what I’d felt for coastal Carolina. Maybe it was being in love for so long, coming to that point in a marriage where you honestly do just want what your husband wants as much as he wants it. Maybe it was putting the energy in with Smithson & Sons to raise the thing. There was a tugging at my chest like nothing I’d ever felt when we weren’t down there, like the feeling of needing a cigarette when you’re quitting, the way a burning man might crave kerosene. While we were on the Cape I’d watch as the Atlantic uttered its waves. Rather than the peace I expected, I felt out of place. And nauseated. It was a kind of nausea that didn’t feel like it would be solved by vomiting, exactly, a nausea absent teleology. Just an overwhelming sense of being overwhelmed. I was thinking about the Neuse.
So two Junes later we set up for the longest vacation we’d ever taken. One whole month down in North Carolina, in Minnesott, in our newly raised house. On our way down we stopped at Sam’s Club to pantry up.
“You honestly think we need six of those huge things of paper towels?” Nathan said. I just looked at him while Art pulled a huge box of kitty litter down off the shelf. It hit the floor with a thud. Gill was old enough now to tell his little brother to stop. “What do you think we’re going to do with 30 boxes of Cheerios?”
The first couple of days down there were the most heavenly we’d ever had, but I couldn’t sit still. Relaxing into a vacation has always been a struggle. Gill had his Harry Potters, his micro GoPro camera latched to the dove, and he spent his afternoons down by the glassy creek on the land side of the house. I was still picking out towels and curtains. The place really did look like it was at sea now. When the Goldbergs came for the long weekend, Sheila got seasick just looking out the windows, like the thing was afloat. It had taken Dramamine to keep her there. Someone reported an alligator up in the canal at Dawson Creek so we were all on the lookout. One afternoon after a light misty rain the boys came running in—they’d spotted a perfectly formed rainbow out across the fields in the front of the house. It stayed visible for almost an hour.
“Jesus, more kielbasa,” Nathan said the next time I got back from a trip to Sam’s Club. “How much goddamn money have you spent at that place?” I told him I didn’t know but that we were going to need it.
“We’re going to need it,” I said. Again. Under my breath, but audible. I’d put a second fridge at the back of the enclosed outdoor shower, so it’s not like we didn’t have room.
The rains started at the end of June and they didn’t let up. The boys did what they could. Battleship, kids’ Scrabble, Chutes and Ladders for Art. Gill was only allowed two hours of screen time a day, but by the sixth day of rain we allowed him an extra hour. When we didn’t it was all kick-him-pull-him-tickle-into-kick-him between the two boys, who, sweet as they were, were boys after all. By the 13th day of rain the news was starting to call the storms rain bombs—water sat in the tobacco fields down at the end of SR 115 and there was no sign of letup. Water lapped at the bulkhead where there was beach when I first came down there with Nathan.
“It’s looking fucking biblical out there,” he said at the end of the third week of rain. “These kids need to get out of the house.” So we took them to see some Marvel sequel over in New Berne. It almost looked like the water in the Neuse was threatening to come up to the huge concrete bridges on the way into town. Which wasn’t possible, water that high. But there it was.
“Maybe we should just get in the car and head back to Ft. Greene,” Nathan said. “There’s that new water play area in Prospect Park the boys love.”
“We planned a month down here,” I said. “After three years of renovation of your family house.”
“We did,” Nathan said. “You’re right.”
“I’m gonna drop by Sam’s Club while you guys are in the theater,” I said.
Nathan looked at me like I was losing my mind.
AT ONE TIME IN MY LIFE someone would say prophet and I’d hear profit. Someone would say prophet and I’d hear crazy, or something out of a cartoon. At best a metaphor. Or hooey. It used to be a word I’d use to describe how smart the guys at 538 were, or what I thought of my favorite short story writer. “Oh wow she’s a prophet.” I’d picture a guy like one of Smithson’s workmen from the house-raising, but situated somewhere in Times Square, and without all the cursing. Or maybe with it.
Now I hear prophet on my own, in my head, and I hear Gill crying out for more Pokémon cards, more power for his iPad. I hear Art whining like the boy never once whined before—for Fig Newtons, for Pirate’s Booty, for just one fresh egg, scrambled. I see him knock over a pile of carefully stacked PowerBar boxes and I feel my skin prickle. I see Nathan every morning with the same t-shirt he was wearing the day before and the day before that. I picture just looking at Facebook one time, one YouTube video of something—a cooking show, a clip from The Daily Show, Fox News for Christ’s sake—anything. Just to see another human who is not my husband or sons.
I hear something else too. It’s not what they called maggid, a voice. It’s not even a yearning. It’s a sense of loss, and of wanting what’s ahead or behind but not where we are, accompanied by nausea. But a problem not born of illness requires no medicine.
BY THE TIME we could’ve gotten out we couldn’t get out. The sixth day of rain bombs and we heard on the radio that 64 West was washed out. Zeke came by to tell us that he heard a friend tried to get up to 95 but it was completely flooded at the Virginia border, impassable. State police were turning cars away at the border. Flights were canceled for a fourth straight day, not just out of New Berne but out of RDU, too. Not that we could’ve even gotten to RDU with 64 washed out.
“Honestly the safest thing will be just to sit tight,” Nathan said. “This rain can’t go on forever.”
I remember reading in a history class back in college that after the Blitz in 1940, after so many of the buildings were bombed out, people stayed away from London entirely. It wasn’t safe. It was years before they came back. When they did, do you know what they found—the botanists, the ornithologists? Seven hundred new plant species. Thirty new species of birds that had never been spotted in London before. A dozen new species of rodents.
THE RAIN JUST WENT ON FOREVER. And forever. At least that’s how it felt. At the end of the sixth week it broached the bulkhead.
The next day it filled the yard and didn’t recede.
By the next week we stopped seeing the neighbors entirely. The skies were the green color skies take on just before a tornado, all the time. Inside our house Gill played Pokémon again and Art played with his dinosaurs and Nathan had stopped shaving. Sometimes Gill flew the drone around the living room until we told him to stop. We negotiated the paths we’d created between boxes of granola bars and toilet paper.
“Fuck this and fuck that,” Nathan said. He didn’t even look at the boys when he said it.
We were all asleep when the waters hit. You could feel the house lurch from the river side first. It was dark outside save for the reflection of stars in the river, which wasn’t properly to be called a river anymore. It was a sea. The. It was the sea. I looked out the side windows to where you could see the waters rising up around Stan and Patsy’s place next door. They were back in Raleigh. We were alone.
“This is happening,” Nathan said. “It’s fucking happening. We have no choice. Let’s do it.” So he and I went to each corner of the house and pulled up the removable tile. There was a handle like the latch on the inner door in a commercial airplane. I pulled mine and heard a sucking sound and I was thrown back onto the couch. Hard. I got up and looked. That corner was freed from its piling. Nathan had already hit all three of his. The place lurched left and then right and then right was left. We were floating.
When you see swells from above or from afar they look uniform but out there in the Minnesott house they were big and they were fierce and if they broke against a window you thought the windows might crack until you remembered Smithson had installed the same kind of glass they used in the presidential limo.
“You could shoot an AK at those things and at worst they’d splinter.”
They did not splinter.
BY THE MIDDLE OF AUGUST, Nathan had grown obsessed with the old maps we kept in the junk drawer. He pulled them out from under half-complete decks of playing cards, screw drivers, masking tape. There were maps spread out on bulk boxes of Frosted Mini-Wheats, of Kleenex and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. He was teaching Gill how to read them. In the past the sweet boy might have cared, but now he just seemed tired and scared. Quiet. Both his and his brother’s bottoms had gotten so you could smell them from like ten feet. We were all itchy in every way.
“You’d think that the Intracoastal Waterway would be pulling us east or pushing us north,” Nathan said. He had the kind of beard now that our college friend James had called a Get the Fuck Off My Porch beard. Only we had no porch, and no one to threaten off it. “But every time I track it with my compass it appears we’re headed west. West west west. Why? Why west?”
“Why would you think I would know?” I said.
“Why is there a year’s worth of big-box store food in this house?” he said.
“Because I bought it.”
I USED TO HEAR PROPHET and I heard, say, a beard like Nathan’s. I heard God-fearing, intuitive, nutso. Maybe those weren’t so far off. But when we hit October it was getting cold, and I had no predictions. Every Monday we’d come to Gill, who was taking more and more time alone in his room, to see if his drone had turned anything up.
“Do you think, mother and father, that I would keep from you that I had found land? Had found fish? That my drone had failed to return? It sees nothing but ocean. Just like you.”
Outside the rain pounded on his windows, sprayed and slapped, but they held.
On Halloween the rains stopped pounding and for a moment it seemed we might all be doing better. The sun came out. The water continued to roil but there was the sun. We took turns climbing to the roof on the ladder we used to clean the gutters, to get some vitamin D. It was cold and the boys got sunburns on their pasty cheeks after so many months indoors but it was something.
Still, the water didn’t subside. A few days of sun and things got worse after, somehow, rather than better, the sun outside and us still afloat.
We ran out of Pirate’s Booty and Twizzlers on the same day.
BY MID-NOVEMBER it seemed we might not make it. Not that we wouldn’t make it in terms of provisions. We had everything we needed to get all the way to the next summer. But Art had started eating the Pokémon cards we were putting up on the fridge. Gill started picking his nose and eating it right out in the living room. We just turned our heads. Or Nathan picked and ate, too, out of boredom and hunger and solidarity. Nathan started asking me questions without even thinking about the fact that the boys were within earshot—“Could any of the dogs have made it? Zeke? What does fucking New York look like?” Then Art bit Gill and Gill, sweet Quaker-educated boy he’d always been, smacked his brother on top of his head with his blank useless iPad and Nathan smacked the both of them like I’d never seen. Gill went back to his room and I suspected he might never come out. I did the only thing I could to make myself feel any better at all. I walked to the back door and, wobbling with the whims of the waves, dumped a full garbage can into the swirling water and slammed the door shut. We stopped for a minute and watched the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese boxes, the crumpled Kleenex and PowerBar wrappers, as they floated out atop the peaks and valleys of wave. There was something beautiful about it, and awful, the way angels are beautiful and awful. Not that I knew anything of angels.
Gill started screaming from his room ten minutes later—swung the door open and came into the living room with the controller for his drone in his hands. I’m not even sure we knew he was still flying that thing.
“Look at this,” Gill said. “Look.” And we could all see it there on the controller screen. Sticking up out of waves and water that looked just like all the waves and water we’d seen for months, it was undeniable: it was gray and brown and hard and fixed and unmoving.
SO LISTEN CLOSE—now’s the part where I could recite the details of what happened next. How we found land and how that land was the top of Mt. Mitchell, the tallest peak on the East Coast, and how slowly it grew as the waters began to subside. How we found the lookout station I’d been to a thousand times as a kid hiking up from Asheville. How our beach house had suddenly become our mountain house, and how’s that for providence. How we lived and for how long, if we found others and how many. How new plants grew that hadn’t grown before and what it sounded like the first time we heard birds again. I could explain how much it sucks not to have electrical power, to have a shower or laundry or a brand new bar of soap because even after stocking up at Sam’s Club like I was the only woman on Earth aware that the world was going to end, we still ended up with a lot more food than hygienic products.
How much we missed shampoo. Q-tips. Oh, Q-tips.
As for me, I’ve discovered I’m a goddamn prophet. When I hear prophet what I should hear is, well, me. And by the time we made it to that land, by the time we’d cracked our bowels on the apples and berries growing up there at 5,000 feet, and had enjoyed the solid land feeling of solid land for the first time in months, the strangest thing happened. What we wanted was to return to the water. Not to get into it. Just stand by its side. Breathe it in. Every morning when the sun woke us, we’d trek on down to the shoreline, skip rocks and look out across that impossible sea, so slowly subsiding before us.
The things I could tell you, mostly, you could already guess. The ocean smell before the flood and the ocean smell after the flood was just the same. Like ocean. But from water we are born and to the water we return and hear oh heavens, hear the word of the Lord when I tell you this: The dirge of all that water hath covered over you. You and you and you and you. I will see the flesh of each and every one of you soon enough.
Daniel Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West and a two-time recipient of the National Jewish Book Award. He is Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College. His second novel, Boomer1, is out in paperback from Picador.