Sunday Snippet – Historical Fiction

Today’s bit is from a confused collection of text that I have been working on for a long time. It was intended to be a piece of historical fiction – a form I love to read but have never really had luck writing.

I think I’m going to give up the historical aspects of this story and move it into the present day. That means I can remove everything from the past and tell it as a complete lie. Trying to do proper research and insure historically accurate details and language was more time than I wanted to waste and more energy than I wanted to expend.

The following is the end of what I used to mess with and it will have to go. But I thought I’d let you take a read before I send it up to that great delete key in the sky.


“Up, Up!” For the second time in the last day, someone was shaking me and shouting into my face. “We must go now!” It was my father. He was in such an agitated state I almost didn’t recognize him.

It took me a minute to get my bearings, to remember and start to understand why I was in bed yet still dressed. The clock showed it to be late afternoon. My face ached terribly and I gingerly touched my mouth and cheek, feeling the dried blood, which stained my shirt with an irregular dark streak. Father ignored my awful appearance, threw an old overcoat around my shoulders and dragged me out the front door.

The Beauregards and the Carrolltons were waiting there, on horseback. Carson held the reins of two more steeds, one for me, one for my father. Before we could mount, my father grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and shoved his face inches from mine. His usually deep and reserved eyes were swollen and bulged out, his cheeks red as beets, his hair, once carefully groomed, now dirty and wild. With a disturbed cracking and rising voice that I wouldn’t have believed could have come from that cultivated and meticulous man he screamed into my face.

“Listen! Listen to me. No matter what happens, no matter what they say or what questions they ask… remember, nothing could have been done! It was God’s will… an act of God alone!” “Do you understand.”

He said the last three words not like a question but as a statement of fact. With that I was grabbed roughly and pulled onto a horse and immediately the group rode off along the road. The rain had let up; only a light misting remained of the violent storm. Everyone was silent as we moved along behind the row of cottages. I couldn’t look out at the lake, it was screened from view by the buildings and landscaping, plus I had to pay attention as the horse worked his way through the deeply rutted road, maneuvering around the many small ponds of standing water. Before long we emerged before the bridge over the spillway but instead of crossing it to the dam the others were turning onto the rough path that led away into the woods. I followed.

They all halted and turned, staring out over the lake. I halted my horse and turned also. I’ll never forget the chill that struck all the way to my very core — the horrible sight that my eyes saw from that road.

The lake was gone. The view was so shocking and unexpected it took several seconds for my mind to comprehend what I was looking at.

Above the old waterline, everything was as it always was; the cottages lined up, the big lodge house, smoke still curling up against the light rain from its cluster of chimneys. The boardwalks still ran along the edge, extending out to the fishing and boat docks, which still stood in place. The hills still ran up and away, covered with the green growth of spring, the blue mountain mists still licked down the hollows to the old waterline.

Below this line, however, everything was horribly, horribly wrong. The lake was replaced with an enormous black wound in the earth. To look down, down into the gaping maw of mud, to see small rivulets of filthy water still running down the impossibly steep sides was to stare into the very depths of hell. I couldn’t stand it. I turned my head away and looked over at the dam itself and saw that it too, had simply ceased to exist. The huge earthen wall was represented now by two small, steep hillocks at each end of an immense chasm. The dam had been neatly sliced away entire by the unimaginable force of the water confined behind it.

Instinctively, I looked back at our own cottage. The dock still stood, except now it was perched high in the air, on stilted legs above an obscene slick, barren hillside. My sailboat hung from its mooring line at the bow, dangling in mid air, swinging in the breeze. Something else moved down there, and I had to look closely to make out the Italian workmen, wading down into the mud. They were grabbing the stranded fish, the bass flopping around helpless, and stuffing them into canvas bags.

For one second I felt sorry for myself. Our wonderful cottage, my beautiful boat, the summers all ruined. That instant of self-pity was drowned by a clear voice that welled up from somewhere deep within me, a voice of awful clarity in the confusion. That voice simply asked, “Where did the water go?”

The lake had been several miles long and up to seventy feet deep. Millions and millions of tons of water had rushed out in what must have been little more than minutes, carrying with it the untold tons more of earth and rock that made up the dam itself. I shuddered when I thought of the power of that giant wave, of how it would grow in deadly fury as it rushed down the mountainside, picking up trees, rocks, roadway… any thing that stood in its inexorable path.

I thought of the narrow canyon that carried the stream down off the mountain, the very valley that I had fought my way up the day before. There was nothing along that way to halt or even slow down the wave; it would actually focus the power, help it to build up upon itself.

Finally, I thought of the city of Johnstown far below. It was already flooded, waterlogged, completely at the mercy of the disaster that fell from the mountains above. The remains of the lake would descend upon the town like a falling mountain, a moving mountain of water and debris, a flying, boiling unstoppable wave of violent death.

Finally, I thought of Maggie in her little shack, perched right there on the bank by the water. Right where the Conemaugh River opened up into the doomed helpless hopeless city.

I let out a cry, a shriek like that of a pitiful useless animal and began to shake uncontrollably. An icy coldness held me in a merciless grip. I couldn’t move. My father saw my state and, still muttering “Act of God, nobody’s fault, Act of God” grabbed the reins of my horse and led us all away into the woods along the rough path.

9 responses to “Sunday Snippet – Historical Fiction

  1. I was really drawn in by the ” names, horses, language, and tone.” Okay, the names threw me slightly in the beginning, but only slightly. I’d like to read more with or without reworking it to present day.

  2. I agree with Elizabeth… I was really drawn in by the “names, horses, language, and tone,” and would also have gladly read more. Actually, especially the horses. They have that right mix of tone in and of themselves… wild strength, power, instinctual reaction, emotion. Just sayin. ;^)

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