Title: Creek Don’t Rise
Genre: gen, brotherfeels w/broody Sam, meditative casefic
Warnings/Spoilers: pre-Bunker S8
Summary: a terrible flood, a magic ring, and a pair of doomed lovers (and that’s just the Winchesters):
There are things that water can’t wash away.
Notes: Written for the sammybigbang. Thank you to my excellent partner-in-poetry laughablelament,for helpful, helpful reading and encouragement. Thanks very much to the mods!
Art: Ghost-cool, local-feeling art by salmondine, who is fantastic; I didn’t know what kind of images went with this story until she made them.
At five o clock on a Friday the wall of water broke from the lake, crashed over town and took with it two-thousand souls, more, left bodies identifiable only by birthmark, by approximate age, by shoe, by jewel (paste earrings, pendants, here and there rings, here and there engraved ‘til death do us part.)
The storm gathered itself over Kansas, barreled east over the plains and hills, dumped its wrathwater in the Allegheny and rolled, sated, towards the sea.
“Johnstown Flood. May 31, 1889. At the time the worst loss of civilian life in American history,” is what Sam reads, taps index-prints on the table by his brother’s half-full glass.
Floodplain ought to be clean by now but it’s weird, their kind, because young lovers are drowning on the three rivers, because the bridges quiver at night, because their hunt-hairs whip up and crackle, because they need, they need—
(The highway, hearts other than these.)
Texas was potassium salts, dry lawns, heat-clipped burrograss. Purgatory was the pure copper-waft of the viscera vine, glycerol-fangblood evergreen.
Pennsylvania is hills, fields, farms and fields and gray-molared graveyards, faint coal dust, more graveyards, cider, barn stars, pretzels, crusts.
“Hungry,” Dean mutters from behind the wheel.
“That a question?”
Nope. The road sends up pitch, distillates, or seems to; the fields redden and Sam’s throat lumps up at the thought of cherry, good old American pie.
People are dying again, and there have been signs.
“Pennsylvania’s weird,” Dean says, from the faux star-quilt at the Ephrath Motel, “I mean, normal-weird, weirder-than-people-think weird.”
“Centralia,” Sam says, “Columbia County, pretty much a ghost town. Mine fire’s been burning underground there for more than fifty years.”
“So hell and high water,” Dean says, lets Sam rattle off floods; molasses in Boston,1919; Pittsburgh, 1936; Katrina; broken bodies, crush injuries, swamped lungs, disease.
“Landmark lawsuits,” Sam says, “Johnstown too. But why --”
“Why’re the rivers suddenly pickin’ out lovebirds to deep-six?”
Sam’s hand lands on the screen and stops, skims, slips for second under the surface.
“Ephraim King and Adaline Hoffman. Sounds like they were… like the Abelard and Heloise of Cambria County or something; he was Amish, she was a Baptist preacher’s daughter. Drowned in the flood.”
“Doomed lovers, separation, letters, faith, tragedy. It’s not an exact--”
“Vengeful-spirit cocktail,” Dean says, “right there.”
Sam takes a sip of soft minerally tap, takes in the young woman, old image, tintype; glosses lists of the Johnstown dead, their rooftops and horses, their houses, shoes, all their lost things.
“You boys,” the Pastor Clarence Cassel says, up at the Waters of Hope Baptist, “might fool the law, but you aren’t fooling me. I know what you’re here for.”
“What’s that,” Dean says.
“The ghost,” says Clarence, “Lord willing.” His hands work the buttons, nervy, pat at his pockets. A fly buzzes in the sanctuary.
“How do you--” Sam says, twitches at the wings.
“There’ve been signs.”
“And four funerals.”
“Two couples swept off the banks by freak floods, yes. And some of my congregation have been seeing things.”
“What kind of things?” Dean says.
“Up at the Haynes Street, a bearded man, dressed plain. Pools of cold air, like footprints. You know I believe there’s no disappointment in heaven, that our sorrows are washed away in the light of His presence, but--”
Sam watches Dean’s game face slip, slip back up quick.
“This isn’t my first earthbound spirit. This is shadowed ground, this floodplain.”
“What can you tell us,” Sam says, “about Ephraim and Adaline?”
Clarence’s eyes shift, to the plain hard wood where his flock lights of a Sunday.
“Adaline was one of ours, a bright young scholar; her father Daniel built this church. Ephraim had left the Lancaster County Amish, came west excommunicated after he saw her traveling through with her father.”
“They started writing letters. Adaline was seventeen. Ephraim left his family, left the whole community, came out here excommunicated. The story goes she was pregnant soon after. They were leaving, against Daniel’s objection, going somewhere west, to start a new life. But the Flood came, and they never got a chance.”
“They both drowned?”
“That’s the story I know.”
Clarence tugs at his shirt. He’s older than first glance, hollow in the facebones.
“Ephraim was buried in the flood-graves, by the river; there was no-one to claim him. Adaline couldn’t be identified for certain, but her father took her anyway, buried her with his own over in Ohio; he never came back, and my grandfather took over his flock.”
The fly and the windows: the light sifts salty, and creek trickles in Sam’s ears.
“Is there something else?”
“Ephraim gave Adaline a ring he found in the Conemaugh. It was described on a list of property washed up in the flood.”
“This ring, supposedly,” the Rev. Clarence says, dips into his shirtpocket and holds it out, a glimmering thing. “Found it in my father’s safe-deposit box after he passed, three weeks ago; it hadn’t been unlocked in years. His father found it after the flood, or so he wrote. And I --”
The ring’s heavy, rose- gold, chatoyant stone banded and singing with color, carved faces that switch, shift, with the angle and the light: angel-devil-man; man-devil-angel. It’s difficult to look away.
Sam puts his hand out, and Clarence presses it to his palm.
“I didn’t know what to do with it. Didn’t know what it might--you know, gentlemen, the world’s full of bloodsuckers and speculators, and the devil everywhere you look.”
“Yeah,” Dean says, “we know.”
“I don’t believe,” the Rev. Clarence says, “that material things--”
Sam catches Dean’s eye, churchlight, where he’s washed in watercolors he might never, unascended from hell-adjacent, have seen again.
“You think that ring woke something up.”
Sam watches the faces change, flickers of silica- film, ghost enstoned.
“And you think we can put it back to sleep.”
The Rev. Clarence Cassel nods in his sanctuary, casts an eye up, and up.
“You hungry?” Dean asks, and his eyes read stay.
“I’m alright,” Sam says. Dean parks her shining in the lot of the Ephrata, eats; Sam drinks, just water, slips off to read; streets, tracks; Johnstown, legacy of steel and barbed wire, is brick, yellow and soot-red, mine-gray, white houses set in the cup of the Alleghenies, along the gray rivers.
Downtown there are photographs.
Adeline’s eyes are dark. Something luna-moth about her, strange, home in dusk, drawn to filament, that kind of thing; something bookish too, brows above Irish crochet. Her mouth has sorrow on it. Her fingers are fine. Of Ephraim there’s no image, but Sam can see him, somehow, bearded, past twenty, standing in the fields he hadn’t yet shed; plain, loose-shirted, wide-stanced; uprooted and carried past.
The letters are fragments in the archives of the Historical Society, where a neat-spined, grey-lensed seventysomething (called Ruth, she says) looks at him, asks if he’s searching for his people.
“We all come from somewhere, sweetheart. Need to know that to know where you’re going.”
“Just research,” he says, lets her guide him to binders, a laddered shelf. Walnut Street brickshines outside, close by the Flood Museum. He sits, hitches up his jacket, listens to the dead speak flotsam.
Don’t think, Adaline, that I wouldn’t leave my father’s house
I knew nothing of the world~
One mind, I have never met
a mind like yours.
All I have of worldly things-
If we should be
I would find you.
There are deposits, landforms.
Texas was a shepherd, four-legged, a woman with steady stitches and war in her dreams, who was warm enough night and day, who knew a haunting when she saw it. Purgatory was pure, Dean says; it was death and necks; it was home.
At the Ephrata, the room simmers with his restless, what Sam’s ebbed back to.
“This a salt and burn, or what?” Dean says, looks wary at the ring gleaming on the table.
“Think it’s cursed?” Dean says.
“Hungry?” Dean says.
Sam takes a sip from one of his brother’s bottles, palms the ring up careful, slow.
“I’m going down to the Stonycreek, see if I can call Ephraim, reason with him.”
“Since when do we reason with vengeful spirits?” Dean’s eyes’ve got something cupped, a drop of known bullshit, a little lake of unknown.
“This is a…non-violent vengeful, um. Supposed to be, anyway. I think maybe--”
“You can talk him down?”
Dean gives up a little shrug, saltshaken.
“Flood-graves are about a mile up from the Haynes Street Bridge. You reason; I’ll burn.”
Their eyes meet over the two-part gospel; sing it, sing it: let us dead the dead, again.
The ring blinks in Sam’s hand.
There were new headlines, the Johnstown Examiner: Freak Floods Recall the Great Storm; four obituaries, florists, inked-on grief, weather-bewildered blinks; investigation, outrage.
She was so young; they had their whole lives~
The artificial lake broke, the South Fork taken~
There were footprints, cold at the bridgeworks.
There was nothing; there was the memory; there were stories, in the space where the dam used to be.
The ground under Sam’s feet squishes, twists familiar: tragedy. A silt-scent. A croak, maybe (Audubon, nycticorax nycticorax, with the dark crown) ablink on the floodwall.
Two drowned couples, six shaken bridges, one bank of the Stonycreek, grass and asphalt, floodwall, one Amish ghost, ectoplasmic moon—
The ring mooncatches in Sam’s palm, the waters of the river shiver; Ephraim’s breath, from somewhere, is cold as February.
One breath and Sam can nearly see them both, bent together, Adaline high-necked, violet-watered, brown hair’d and eye’d, laughing, Ephraim serious and never-having-thought, plotting on the bank their escape from fathers, from sermons, from dinners, from Sunday-destinies. I knew nothing of the world--
Another breath and Sam meets misery-shy eyes locked on his hand, sees soaked dress-hems, shoes, tumbled jewels; there are shouts, two drowned couples and two-thousand souls, more before them.
“Adaline,” is what Ephraim says, and then, quiet, ticked with glottal stops.
“I didn’t intend this to happen.”
His beard’s tufted with riverfoam. His form flickers surface through. His features show shame in the marsh-fire.
“Ephraim.” Air; Sam’s hair, a channeling.
“Who are you?”
(He might say his name because it seems right, in reason--so much more ridiculous, Winchester, in its Anglo-Saxon, than the plain patronymics of these Pennsylvania Dutch.)
“Bloodshed,” Ephraim says, dropped eyehollows, lick of light, “is abomination.”
Though I left to live among the English.
The river rumbles, remembers.
“You’re angry, and you don’t—“
Ephraim’s shoulders go to bones. Sam puts out his hands.
“You remember how you died?”
Ephraim doesn’t answer. There’s a gathering. The river begins to moan. Then he says:
“By Daniel’s hand. I slept a long time.”
“You were murdered? Before the flood?”
There’s a crack then, a snap and a roar, and a slap of water breaks the bank.
“We were going to be alone, without family. It would have been enough.”
“You and Adeline,” Sam says, “would it.”
“You must know.”
“No,” Sam says, “or I mean…not in the same way as you.”
(Were there time, he might tell a ghost a ghost story: All of our romances are gone. Washed out of us. Dean won’t paint a soul-map of Purgatory, let the sun shine it dry; Sam won’t give it up, his crushed ventricles, his soggy litany of cannot-be.)
There’s just us.
There’s just the river licking the bank, muddy carp-breath and iron; the angry thrum of the bridge.
“You were murdered,” Sam said, and holds out the ring. “And heaven wasn’t where you expected it to be.”
“Adaline,” Ephraim moans, and he’ll say no more.
“She’s in Ohio.”
Angel-devil-man, man-devil-angel, winking under the --
desperate crack of a distant dam.
The ghost Ephraim, shunned and field-tender, torrent-baptized, drifts in a little, moves as if he might nip, or kiss Sam on the cheek, or by the corner of his mouth, and not a thing occurs, and ghost-breath trumps memory, and fingers cold-graze Sam’s lifeline, leave no trace.
Ephraim’s form goes vaportrail over the rise; the banks shrink back. The Stonycreek swells up over wisps, lifts and licks and comes on crashing down to the Conemaugh.
Then the water takes them both.
What they said to each other: don’t look for me.
What the reverends of Johnstown said: here are the names of the dead.
What the ring said: now
What the storm said: now.
I’ll meet you at the river. My dearest.
For the things that can’t be swept away.
A hand cups Sam’s jaw. Slaps his cheek.
“Come on,” someone (Dean) says, “rise and shine.”
He coughs, spits out a clot of rivermud.
“There you go,” Dean says, “lord freaking willing.”
“You sound like country,” Sam mutters, “radio.” Coughs again.
Dean snort-laughs, lays the hands on light.
“No, uh.” He rolls on his side and vomits river while Dean taps his back, steady while he chokes up more.
The earth trapped under his ribcage is dry, air acrid with haunt.
“Ephraim, he … Daniel killed him.”
“Got that,” Dean says,” bones are burnt, all of them.”
Sam’s fingers, mud-crusted , still curled round the ring. Dean catches it, latches on.
“It ain’t cursed.”
“He should have taken it with him.”
“Maybe ghost-boy got to travel light.”
“The ring just woke him up. It wasn’t … not the object so much as Adeline that he was bound to, or the hope, you know--”
He coughs and Dean shushes him.
Dean manhandles him to the car, drives them high and dry to the Ephrath, where he holds himself up under hot spray and gets into bed still cold, not trembling, just wondering, still, three ring-faces switching on the bedside stand: angel-devil-man. Man-devil-angel. What kind of life did they, Ephraim and Adaline, think they’d have, all alone; light out west with a house to build, family to build, lands to tend if the creek don’t rise; they believed in it, they had faith in the water of home; they had faith.
It swept them away.
Sam’s still coughing in the morning and Dean raises an eyebrow, offers to get the coffee, asks if he’s feeling alright or if he’s gonna hork up the entire of the Stonycreek again.
“I’m OK,” he says, lets Dean plant a hand, sits up imagining his mouth ringed with bloody frackage, silt-streaked ectoplasm.
“Think you got a fever?”
“Let’s just get breakfast, get going.”
“Yeah, OK.” Dean says. His expression bisects itself, tributary, as it will.
There’s joe and some kind of fritter on the table, and they sit, eat silent, slip out to heavier skies.
Are you searching for your people, called-Ruth asked, looked at Sam silver and sure.
The ring’s heavy in his pocket.
Wrong to take, wrong to leave, wrong to destroy.
Dean, Sam thinks he might say, all the choices I had were well--
wrong, more or less.
At the Waters of Hope Baptist, steeple slick with rain, Clarence says: take it back where it belongs, bury it where it belongs, Clarence in his church stained by (a murderer’s hand, he might say), the infinite sadness of the drowned.
“In the flood-graves, third row from the back,” Clarence says.
(Worlds full of bloodsuckers and speculators, he said , I didn’t know what to do. You boys must know.
Well, yeah, said Dean.)
There’s an in-between, Sam wants to say, where brothers go, where bloodsuckers go when they die, and a yeah, a heaven and a hell, and angels that aren’t like yours and there’s disappointment, a fucking lot of it, and no light in His presence, because He’s not really present, not now anyway; you don’t know, do you, what demons smell like, how they feel when they burst, smoking, from the broken dam of a person—you don’ t know, and maybe, if we have our way, you never will.
They’re out in the country. Or no, not quite, but might as well be.
They’ve left the guns, blades, the sodium-and-flare, to stand looking at the graves, at the family names, blanks. (Wiped out, whole rafts of dead, the whole countryside singing with it, and yet.)
Sam cups the ring in the late-morning weather, watches the stone wink dull, angel-devil-man, angel-devil-man.
Like it’s possessed, but it isn’t; it isn’t cursed, it just contains. Like any other thing with history, memory, intent; its creek-soaked past, its forging and finger-oils, a mystery. Dean takes it, sets it on Ephraim’s dug-up and burnt grave, brushes the dirt over.
He tried,Sam thinks, for what he wanted; he tried. Rays slip over stones and humus-wind earths hair and that’s it, isn’t it, the country binding them to it again; this is what you save, or don’t; this is what you do and don’t speak about; this is it, this what you believe, brother; this is what you are.
There’s just us.
“Stop,” Sam says, “stop.”
“I think the river wants it back. The ring.”
What, you’re the river-whisperer now, is what Dean’s brows say.
“Well, it can’t have it.”
Pennsylvania is weird. Hex signs. Tree of life, distelfink, tulip. Road signs about memory books. Barn stars.
“Nope,” Dean says, when Sam tries to drive, keeps flicking his eyes from the blackbird-wired roads to the horizon, to Sam’s profile, like he’s going to go off with the red slashes on those wings, fall down again in the next rainshower, go to ground.
In a diner miles to the east (east then north to Centralia, hell on earth, to peer into a crack-lipped pit of man’s devising, because they can’t not), Sam’s hands settle on a tea mug, tap the table by his brother’s plate.
“Shoofly pie’s not as bad as it sounds,” Dean says. His grin’s sticky, his hands snowflaked with topping. He pushes the bird-painted melamine over. “Try it.”
Sam’s slipped free of kitchen counters, a backed-up sink full of greeny citrus, outwelling of water onto cheap motel flooring; heating, plumbing, septic tanks, all he’ll never own to clean; blinks, smiles wan at his brother in rainy Pennsylvania on a Wednesday afternoon in the post-post-not-apocalypse, time all glassy and a-tremble, hellgates awaiting, ghosts in love; picks up a fork.
Four new graves in the Johnstown cemeteries, church bells rung soft as current. Rivers iron-peaceful in rain. A baptism set for Sunday at Waters of Hope Baptist; after that, in the afternoon, a wedding.
In the cemetery with the Johnstown dead, returned to the lost things: angel-devil-man, a buried blinking in the ground, as if to be dowsed out, a beacon.
The storm came up over Kansas, rolled east, drowned the Allegheny, broke up over the sea. Little flames, remembrance, burn where water once was.
Tongues aren’t spoken in this country, not ever.
There aren’t many angels to call. Just weather and the hand of an absent god, flat horizon, farms, fields, now hills, now the darkening and a rise, the drop again into a rich river valley, graves and reticence old as peat, lignite; floods and fire.
Shadows on the hills. Shade Gap, Newtown, Tuscarora; you give up what you give up and you roll right on.
Blink against the window. Baby. Rainsplash. Brain-flotsam:
Resolve is a seven-letter word. Trust has fewer. Love, faith, grace, what of it. You can’t wash away words with…what, actions; you can’t keep to the same traces, beds, expect to arrive anywhere different.
“Hmm,” Sam mumbles, “is that an answer.”
“Sure Sammy, sure.”
A hand across the seat, his jacket tugged at, something light tossed over.
Dean flips on the radio and gets gospel, sounds like, actually lets it flicker in, fade out.
Were you there—
In the tomb--
On the cross--
When we go--
to the city that is built—
At the river.
Is that an answer.
Sure, Sammy, sure it is.
Windshield, drops pattering. Fluvial.
They’ll just keep driving, like they always do, carry it all, let themselves seldom without resistance be carried.
“Get some sleep.”
--’ til the water washes us clean.
Notes: I've taken a few liberties with the geography, infrastructure, and history of Johnstown, but the flood happened just like this: Johnstown Flood