Lit/South Awards 2022
Fiction Judge

Ron Rash

The Belt

The rain announced itself timidly, a few soft taps on the tin roof. Soon the rain fell steadily. Since it was July, Jubal waited for rumbles of thunder, the dark sky darkening more as lightning stabbed the ridges. Then rain would gallop down, pounding the tin before the sun herded the storm into Tennessee. But this was more like November rain, the kind that lingered days. Night came and the rain continued. As Jubal settled into the shuck mattress to sleep, it hit the roof not like hooves but a drummer boy’s quickstep. When he awoke the next morning, the sound overhead was the same martial cadence, so he was not surprised that he’d dreamed again of the war, of the moments after his horse buckled and he’d been thrown. As Jubal rose from the bed, the aches of eight decades awakened too. His bones always hurt more in wet weather so before dressing he rubbed liniment on his back and shoulders. He looked out the window at the rain, the rivulets coursing down the ridge. As he pressed the brass buckle into the belt holes, he felt the familiar indention the minié ball had made.

Jubal went into the kitchen and unhinged the range’s iron door, struck a match to the wood and newspaper he’d tindered the night before. He set the coffeepot on the iron eye. The house was chilly, so for the first time in two months he made a hearth fire, stood in front of it hands out until the coffeepot heated. He filled bis cup and stepped onto the front porch and stared across the pasture at the French Broad. Water usually clear enough to see the river’s bottom was now brown as his coffee. The sandbars had disappeared, but the big boulder midstream broke the onrushing water like a ship’s hull. No flood had ever submerged this rock.

When Jubal saw the buggy coming up the muddy lane, he remembered it was Saturday. Rob, his grandson, was bringing the boy to stay with him while Rob and his wife, Lizzie, went to Marshall. Rob pulled up beside the porch and Lizzie and the child got out, Lizzie holding an umbrella over their heads as they came up the steps. Rob pulled the brake and brought the canvas tote sack onto the porch.

“Clear most all week and now it comes a-pouring,” Lizzie said, shaking her head.

“It’s surely over the banks down in the bottomland,” Rob said, as the three of them stared at the river. “They’s likely crops being washed away.”

“You sure you ought to go?” Jubal asked.

“I checked and the bridge is fine,” Rob said.

“For now,” Jubal cautioned, “but if it don’t clear by afternoon it may not be.”

“The eggs and butter won’t keep till next market day,” Lizzie said, “and you know we got need of cash money.”

“I know that,” Jubal said. “I just want you all to be careful.”

“If that bridge looks chancy on the way back,” Rob said, “we’ll stay with Lizzie’s folks.”

“If it comes to that, would you mind keeping the boy till morning?” Lizzie asked.

“Of course not,” Jubal said, taking the child into his arms and nuzzling him with his beard. “Me and him will be fine, won’t we, partner?”

The child giggled and clung tighter around Jubal’s neck.

“We best get on,” Lizzie said, bussing the boy on the cheek. “You be sweet and maybe we’ll bring you back a play-pretty.”

“Rub that lucky buckle of yours,” Rob said as he released the brake. “Maybe it’ll settle this weather down.” Rob jerked the reins and the wagon went down the pike toward the bridge. Jubal shifted the child to one arm.

“Let’s get you out of this nasty weather,” he said, giving a last look at the river. The boulder was still visible, but less of it showed.

Once inside, Jubal set the boy and the sack on the daven¬port. He went to the back porch and brought the box filled with the whirligigs and animals he’d carved for the child. He set the toys between the davenport and the hearth.

“There you are, Jubal,” he told his namesake, and seated the boy on the floor. He poured himself another cup of coffee and watched the child play. A lucky man, he’d often said of himself, and worn the source of that luck every day since the afternoon it saved his life. He had never meant it as a provocation, but in the first years after the war the buckle’s etched eagle, wings and talons extended, had caused hard stares, at times words, and once a fistfight.

Now only a handful of veterans remained. There was another war, bigger than any before, and despite what President Wilson said the country was edging into it. Jubal feared that Rob, his only grandson, might be called up. He almost expected it. Lucky as Jubal had been, little good fortune had found its way to those around him. Pure luck, his comrades called it as they’d marveled at the buckle and its indention. After Chickamauga, some touched the buckle before battle, but it seemed the luck was indeed pure, unable to be diluted and spread to others, then or afterward. Jubal’s wife and son and daughter were all shadowed by stones now. Rob, his only grandchild, had found little luck in his life. He’d married well, but he and Lizzie had encountered a passel of troubles. Their barn had burned three Octobers ago, a year’s worth of curing tobacco lost, but before that two miscarriages had sent Lizzie into a dark place.

But luck had come with this child playing before him. Despite his being born a month too soon and puny, the boy not only survived but quickly grew hale and hearty. Jubal had never asked, but he’d always wondered if Rob and Lizzie thought naming the child after him would help the boy survive. The Franklin clock chimed, another hour passing with no sign of the rain easing. He went to the window, but the glass was too streaked to see much. The child got up, gained his balance, toddled over to Jubal, and raised his arms to be lifted.

“Getting hungry, are you?” Jubal said, picking up the boy.

He felt the hippin. It was dry so he set the child down and opened the sack. He got the nursing bottle, put on his coat and hat, and went out the back door to the springhouse. By the time he got back, the hat and coat were soaked. The child suckled the rubber tip until nothing was left, then put his head on Jubal’s chest and closed his eyes. Jubal walked to the back room and laid the boy on the bed. He poured another cup of coffee and went onto the front porch. The boulder was only a foot or so above the water. The pike and the lower pasture had vanished except for the barbed-wire fence. He thought of Rob and Lizzie and hoped they had the good sense to stay in Marshall. Even if the bridge held, the pike could be washed out.

Jubal realized he had not eaten, so went to the larder and got the cornbread. To crumble it into a glass of buttermilk would be all the better, but the hat and coat he’d set by the hearth weren’t ready for another trip to the springhouse. He slathered the bread with blackberry jam and ate it before swallowing the last of the coffee. Jubal checked on the child and went back onto the porch. The boulder was gone. Where it had been, the water appeared smooth, almost calm, that illusion holding until driftwood and trees swept past, then a chicken coop and a flatboat that slowly twirled as if searching for the river it had once known.

The fence was gone now and so was most of the pasture. The cow and its calf huddled in the upper comer. More things once alive sped by—chickens and dogs, livestock, then a body. It swept past so quickly Jubal could do nothing but stare. Holding an old field jacket over his head, he crossed the soaked ground. He opened the latch-gate and herded the cow and calf out. Back on the porch, Jubal saw what was more a portent than the one body. A barn lay on its side, drifting down the valley like an overturned ark.

He had built this house himself. Jubal knew it was solid, but what held it to the earth were flat creek rocks and four locust beams. No one lived close by except Rob and Lizzie, and their house was closer to the river than this one, so the only shelter was here. He went to the back room and sat beside the child. “You been lucky once,” Jubal told the boy softly. As if evoking a talisman for the both of them, Jubal thought again of Chickamauga, that moment in the cavalry skirmish when his horse buckled and hurled him to the ground. He had rolled onto his back just as the enemy cavalryman slowed his mount and leaned toward Jubal, the pistol’s muzzle only feet away. Jubal did not hear the shot but saw the flash and then smoke from the charge. The man rode on as Jubal waited for the pain, and what would surely relieve it. He’d placed an open palm beneath his shirt and slid it slowly down his stomach, then under the belt and trousers. No blood or torn flesh. Some sort of misfire, he’d concluded, rising to his feet. The battle had moved on, leaving dead men and horses scattered around him. Only then had Jubal looked for a tear in his jacket, saw instead the indention where the minié ball had struck the brass buckle.

Jubal listened for a few moments and noticed a change in the rain’s cadence. He placed a hand on the boy’s hair and stroked it. The child shifted a bit, but his eyes did not open. Jubal stepped out on the porch and found the rain was indeed slackening. To the east, the sky had begun pal-ing. But too late. The pasture was under the river now. Jubal watched a rattlesnake attempt to swim across the current, fail to make the porch steps only yards away. A hog pen swept by, the hog itself roiling behind it. It’s got to crest soon, he told himself, but the water had reached the first step and begun seeping under the house. Crying came from the back room, so Jubal went inside and lifted the child into his arms, felt the hippin.

“Best keep it that way, boy,” Jubal told the child. “It might be the onliest thing dry on you soon.”

They went to the front porch. The rain had almost stopped but water continued thickening around the steps. Soon it would be all the way under the house. Jubal went back inside and changed his shoes for boots. He got the child out of his gown and into his rompers, wrapped him in the blanket, and went to the back porch. There was nowhere to go except up the ridge, but after he’d gained a few yards of ground Jubal slipped, turning onto his side to protect the child. He slid almost to the back steps before stopping. For a moment he lay there, breathing hard as the child squalled in his arms. Something had twisted or torn in his knee, so first he kneeled, then slowly got to his feet. The brown floodwater reached all the way to the ridge now, and Jubal knew they wouldn’t survive another slide, so he sloshed through the water to where mountain laurel grew. He did not try to stand but got on his knees, holding the child in one arm as he worked his way upward. One plant pulled free of the earth, but he caught hold of another before they started to slide.

When there was no more laurel, he stopped. Jubal’s heart banged so hard against his chest the ribs felt like a rickety fence about to shatter. If it’s lasted eighty-one years it can last a few more minutes, he told himself, and tried to figure out what to do next. He patted the child through the blanket. A few yards above them was a stand of tulip poplars. Though their branches were too high to grasp, a trunk to grab hold of might be enough to keep them alive.

Jubal did not look back because he did not need to. He could hear the water rising behind them. The child was silent now, as if he too listened. Then came a loud rending as the house pulled free of its moorings. Jubal’s heart continued to hammer and his knee burned. Between the poplars and the laurel was a scrub oak. He stabbed his free hand deep into the soggy ground and pulled closer. Only then did he see what coiled around it. This snake wasn’t as large as the one he’d watched earlier from the front porch, but it had the same triangular head and blunt tail.

“I just want to share it with you a minute,” Jubal said softly. “Then me and this chap will be on our way.”

Jubal slowly grasped the sapling inches above the snake, but as he pulled himself closer his hand slipped downward, pressed the snake’s cold scales. Its muscles tensed and then contracted tighter around the trunk. The rattle buzzed twice, ceased. Neither of them moved until Jubal felt the water rising onto his boots. “Git on, now,’’ he told the snake, and pressed his hand slowly but firmly on its body. The snake gave a brief rattle, then unspooled and slithered past them into the water. Jubal pulled himself even with the scrub oak. He was so tired, so old. The river whispered for him to surrender. Everything else has, the water said. Jubal pushed ahead and reached his free arm around the closest poplar. He looked up at the branches, the nearest thirty feet above him. Even if he could have gone on, there was nothing farther up the ridge to hold on to. Beyond the branches was only a too-late clearing sky. He looked back. All he could see was water.

Jubal touched the buckle.

“Be lucky one more time,” he told it.

They found him late the next morning. The sun was out and something flashed from within a stand of poplars. Some kind of signal, the two men in the flatboat thought, and lifted their oars and made their way across the drowned farm. At first they thought it an apparition caused by fatigue, because the child seemed to be hovering above the water. Then they saw the belt around the tree trunk, heard a soft whimpering, and they marveled at a child held aloft and alive in the grasp of an eagle.