He folded and laid The Commercial Appeal on the corner of his desk. It had been delivered by the mail rider yesterday just like every other day except Sunday, but he was just now finishing it. Pale morning light filtered in through the windows, but he still needed the kerosene lamp. He gestured at the paper.
“Says here the levee broke near Greenville.”
“Yessir, that’s what we heard in Greenwood,” Grady answered.
Morris Bailey, sitting beside Grady nodded. He and Grady had gotten in late last night but he still had an unusual look on his face, like he had seen something so stunning, so unbelievable that he could not comprehend it.
“Were y’all able to get all the supplies we needed?”
“Yessir. The trains are still running. We got everything unloaded and stored in the Commissary last night,” Grady replied.
He nodded approval. “How about the tractor parts? Wade have what we needed?”
“Yessir, that too,” Morris Bailey said. “I’ll start on that today. Should have the Farmall running soon.”
He did not respond but stared out the window at the slough between their house and his parents’. Water surged over the footbridge he had built in 1919. He thought he knew everything a cotton farmer could face, knew that high water was not uncommon in the Delta, but nothing had prepared him for water like this. Nobody else for that matter.
The ground was sodden. It seemed like it had rained all winter. He had squeezed in as much planting as he could at the first opportunity. The ground had barely been dry enough. Then on Good Friday, the heavens and opened up and the rain had been heavier than any he had ever seen. Or even heard about.
“Don’t know that we’ll be able to use it much. Fields are just too wet as it is,” he said. He was still staring out the window at the gray sky and watery light.
“News in Greenwood was that with the way the River is pouring through that break at Mound Landing, practically the entire southern half of the Delta. Bolivar, Washington, Sunflower, Humphreys, Issaquena, and Yazoo Counties. Sharkey, are likely to be under water soon,” Grady said.
All three of them turned to look at the large map of Mississippi that hung on the wall of his office. Cities, towns, highways, and railroads were marked on it. And counties in faintly shaded colors. He stared at the counties Grady had ticked off one by one. Nearly half of the entire Delta. He did the math in his head and let out a low whistle.
“Why, if just those counties are covered, that’ll be close to 2 million acres, nearly 3,000 square miles under water.”
“Good God Almighty,” Grady said under his breath.
He nodded. “Yes, He is Almighty. Our efforts to control the River…,” He paused, “seem puny in comparison. The River made the Delta what it is, put all this deep topsoil here for use, and it seems to want to keep doing just that.”
He tried to imagine that much water, but his mind pushed back at the thought. It was simply too much. He turned back to look at his sons. “What were things like in Greenwood?” Henry asked.
“Well,” said Grady. “The riverbanks are piled with sandbags, but the water is coming over in places. I expect the north part of town between the Tallahatchie and the Yazoo may flood, probably part of Downtown too. The water is right up to the bottom of that new bridge, the Keesler.”
Greenwood between the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers, 1927
Keesler Bridge, Greenwood, 1927
All three of them had read the newspapers and listened to the radio. They knew it was bad. It had been bad upriver, and it would be bad here, maybe the worst ever. Morris Bailey still had that strange look on his face.
“Father, the Yazoo is actually flowing backwards, upriver. And as bad as it is in the Delta, its worse in Louisiana. Arkansas is hard hit too. What will people do?” his son asked.
So like his mother, Henry thought, worried about the people.
“I don’t know, Son,” he sighed. “Lose their crops for sure and maybe all they own. Might lose their places too. Your Uncle George and his family barely got out in time. Every scrap of cotton they had planted washed away.”
“Think he’ll lose his place?” Grady asked.
“Doubt it. I imagine he’s prepared for one bad crop. We’ll help him if we can.” He tried not to sound as concerned as he was.
“What should we do?” Morris Bailey asked.
“Try to get our crop in. We’re not likely to see that kind of water here. At least I pray not.”
“I suppose with all the lost crops, cotton prices will be up,” Grady noted.
“Suppose so. One man’s loss, as the saying goes.”
He stared out the window again at the overcast sky. There was no threat of imminent rain. It was simply a uniform, featureless gray layer of clouds. He lifted his cup and took a sip of coffee. It was tepid, but he didn’t care.
“Surely do wish this overcast would blow over. A little sunshine would be good. Lift our spirits and maybe start drying up this standing water,” he said.
“Guess we’re lucky being far enough away from Cassidy Bayou,” Grady said. “Water’s up to the bridge in Sumner and folks on the east side are flooded out.”
“All those people. Where will they stay? What will they eat?” Morris Bailey said.
“From what I hear and read, Herbert Hoover seems to be visiting all up and down the river. The government’s working to set up relief stations and such,” he said.
“Why him, I wonder,” Grady said. “He’s in the Cabinet, right?”
“He is,’ Henry answered. “Commerce Secretary. Seems to know what he’s doing though. More than Coolidge, anyway. The big question, is who’s going to pay for it all.”
Grady snorted and stared out the window.
“A letter got through from Sadie while y’all were away. Greenville’s mostly under water, but she’s safe at the hospital. Even the student nurses are helping tend to folks. She said reports were that the River was as much as 60 miles wide down in Louisiana.”
Both of his sons’ eyes went wide.
“Hard to imagine isn’t it? That much water. It rains in Montana and floods in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana,” Grady finally said.
“I certainly is,” he replied. “I don’t suppose anybody’s ever had to face anything quite this bad. All that water just has to soak in, run off, or evaporate. Cain’t much more soak in or we’ll be back to swamp, and it’s a long way down to the Gulf of Mexico. It’ll take time.”
“Too much time for a lot of folks,” Grady added.
He nodded, resigned to what he could not change but determined to do what he could, take care of his own and whoever else he could help, get a crop in. Someway. Somehow. Still, part of him wanted to roar in rage at the injustice, rail at God Himself for this disaster, but he knew that was senseless. Besides, he might question God and His plans, but he could never blame God. Not the way his life had been blessed. He shook his head to clear his mind.
“Tell you what, Boys. I want one of you to take the truck and head down towards Onward. You’re bound to run into George and his family. Help then any way you can and bring them here.”
Morris Bailey chimed up first. “I’d like to do that, Father,” he said.
“Very well, Son,” he said not surprised at all. Having something special to do might be just the thing. “Fill up the truck and a couple of cans. Gasoline may be hard to come by. Leave this morning. Tractor repair can wait.”
“Guess we better get to it,” Grady said and swatted his brother on the shoulder as they both rose to leave.
He watched the two of them as they walked down the hallway, settling hats on their heads and talking, the easy give and take of brothers, Morris Bailey asking Grady to help him gas up the truck and Grady agreeing. It had been the same with him and his brothers, particularly Swint, that special comradery you had with flesh and blood, someone you had known your entire life. He winced at that thought of Swint. He had been dead now, what, 13 years? Had it really been that long.
He turned to stare out the window. The sky looked sullen, the rising sun a diffuse smear of light in the overcast, but he saw none of it. Instead his mind wandered over other fields in other days, days long gone, just like Swint was gone. Long gone. And now this new undreamed-of threat to all he and Minnie, and now the children, had built and accomplished. He did not hear Minnie enter the room behind him.