Flood of Memories – A West Virginia Short Story
Pendleton County, October 1989
The first shafts of the rising sun pierced through gaps in the rocky ridge to the east. Ethan sat on the wobbly, slightly tilted steps of his house trailer. His bare toes dug into the dirt for balance as he nursed a mug of steaming black coffee on an unseasonably warm October morning.
Sounds of Saturday morning cartoons mixed with laughter, barely muted through the trailer’s thin walls. Eight-year-old Emma, and brother Raymond, just a year younger, had only Ethan as a parent for the last four years.
Ethan takes in the view of Germany Valley far below the mountaintop his trailer occupies. His gaze sweeps up to the undulating pine-clad ridge on the valley’s far side. With a bit of searching and a little imagination, he makes out the form of a woman lying on her back – Sleeping Woman Rock, as the locals know it.
Ethan studies her feminine form through a swirl of cigarette smoke. He ponders long, occasionally flicking ashes onto the ground just beyond his bare feet.
Ethan thinks of a woman made not of stone but warm flesh. Avoiding painful memories, he tries to avert these thoughts.
The pain once conjured up, will not release its grip on Ethan. The children’s mother and Ethan’s lovely young wife, Emily, had died in the big flood of 1985.
True to her nature, she was swept away while trying to release her neighbor’s dogs. They were out of town and asked Emily to feed their dogs.
Most were in single kennels spread out over an acre or so. She managed to save three of them, who ran for high ground. The fast-rising water swept over Emily and the remainder of the dogs; within seconds, they all disappeared.
Ethan wasn’t there to help Emily; he and the kids were on their way home from visiting his parents in Morgantown. He remembers the three of them singing in the truck, having fun and laughing, oblivious to Emily’s fate.
One of the dogs, Sam, a German Shepherd, was inside the trailer with the kids. He never takes his eyes off the children and whines pitifully when they are out of sight.
You can’t help but think that the dog was repaying a debt of gratitude to Emily in some way that we don’t understand. Ethan would have flatly dismissed this idea as magical thinking.
In the summer after the flood, kayakers found what remained of the children’s mother on a small island in the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River.
Ethan and the kids, followed closely by Sam, took some of Emily’s ashes up to the North Peak of Seneca Rocks and released her to the winds.
Emily loved diving from the big slab of Tuscarora Sandstone into the swimming hole at the foot of the escarpment. She and Ethan had spent many summer afternoons there.
Remarkably, the gray cloud of ash defied the wind and drifted as a unit down to the foot of the cliff, settling onto the clear spring-fed pool.
Emma, visibly moved by what she had just witnessed, maintained that her mother had something to do with the strange trajectory of the ashes. Ray silently shook his head in agreement with his sister.
Ethan didn’t openly disagree with his kids, but he wasn’t sure he could believe such nonsense. He had seen too much needless suffering to entertain that kind of speculation.
He looked again at the Sleeping Woman Rock and thought of another woman and felt the bite of anguish again.
He had met Anh, an attorney working at the American Embassy in Saigon. Ethan was a Marine stationed there for the two years leading up to the Fall of Saigon in April of 1975.
The position at the embassy was a welcome break from his involvement in North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive, where Ethan served as a Marine Advisor.
Besides having a razor-sharp wit that amused Ethan, Anh introduced him to the “real” Vietnamese cuisine – the street food. They quickly became friends.
They would slip away from their embassy office nearly every afternoon to get steaming bowls of Pho, eating the savory beef noodle soup on park benches. Sometimes they would bring the delicious Vietnamese sub called Banh Mi back to the office to eat at their desks.
Anh had taken Ethan by the hand and showed him there was a better way to eat than just the hamburgers and pizza served at the embassy cafeteria. For that and her generous nature, he would always be grateful.
When it was clear that the Viet Cong and the People’s Army would soon occupy all of Saigon, Anh’s mother showed up at his office. Usually, a quiet woman of few words, using an embassy translator, she pleaded with Ethan to arrange for Anh to be evacuated.
They both realized that if she stayed in the country, Anh, an employee of the American Embassy and friendly to what the Viet Cong would view as the enemy, would be imprisoned or worse.
Ethan did not have official authority to make such an arrangement. Although, he had a buddy who was a helicopter pilot assigned to the embassy. Anh, however, did not want to leave her family, and she steadfastly refused to go.
For two days, Ethan pleaded and coaxed her to take this opportunity while it was available. He insisted that she could get her family out later. Worn down by Ethan and her mother, Anh eventually agreed to depart.
She managed to get on one of the last choppers off the Embassy rooftop. He learned later that Anh had insisted that the other women, children and elders board before her.
Ethan got the word two days later that she was one of the last ones on board the over-crowded chopper. Anh lost her grip and fell out somewhere over the South China Sea.
If only he had listened to the wishes of that brave and kind soul, she might still be alive. Instead, he insisted that Anh leave her country, and she reluctantly complied.
April 12, 2015
The 67-year-old man often returns to the cabin he built, replacing his crumbling trailer. West Virginia is where Ethan feels most at home.
Ethan followed Emma to Michigan after she graduated from veterinary school and set up a practice in the Upper Peninsula. He enjoyed the fishing but sorely missed West Virginia.
Ray followed in his dad’s footsteps and started a career with the U.S. Marines, serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. A lieutenant colonel at Quantico now, he often meets up with his father in West Virginia to hunt and fish.
Usually, Ethan travels to the cabin for solitary weekends to visit old friends in Pendleton County and “get his bearings and take stock,” as he likes to say. That means he enjoys sitting on the deck that replaced the old rickety trailer steps and taking the view across Germany Valley.
Going to the cabin never gets old, he tells his children. But they both knew that he always returns with a palpable sadness. They could only guess what his demons might be.
A lifetime of smoking finally caught up with Ethan a few years back. He lost one lung, and doctors recently found a spot on the other.
Time has become far more precious of late. Ethan has found himself returning to his cabin more often, trying to get some perspective.
He would never admit it, at least out loud, but he has been searching for forgiveness for most of his life. Redemption, something quite different from forgiveness, arrived only a few months ago.
Ethan carried monstrous guilt that he felt he could never share with anyone. He had assumed responsibility for the deaths of two women he deeply cared for; one a young attorney in Vietnam and the other, his dear wife and mother of his children.
All he could see or understand was his guilt, preferring to ignore the circumstances surrounding the deaths.
Then one day, a car pulled into the driveway of Emma’s rural Michigan home. Emma said, “Dad, there are two Asian women out there.”
Ethan put down his newspaper and walked out to the driveway. The younger of the two women stepped out of the car and asked Ethan in perfect English, “Are you Lieutenant Ethan?”
Stunned, but after a few moments of silence, Ethan replied, “Yes ma’am, I am, or at least I was, back in Vietnam, that is.” The smartly dressed young woman said, “My name is Nguyen Phuong and my mother would very much like to speak with you.”
A few minutes later, the four of them were sitting around the dining room table drinking coffee and talking. The older woman was Anh’s sister, and Phuong said she was speaking on behalf of Anh’s deceased mother.
Nguyen Phuong translated as Emma and Ethan listened intently.
Anh’s sister paused to gather her thoughts. She said that she and her mother often spoke about Lieutenant Ethan and wondered what had become of him after the fall of Saigon and Anh’s death.
They knew from Anh that he was a good man and cared about her. They also acknowledged that because Anh worked for the Americans, she would be in great danger if she stayed.
Anh’s sister took Ethan’s hand and looked deeply into his sad eyes, and said in her native language, “Ban khong dang trach, hay tin toi.”
Phuong stood up, walked directly to Ethan, put her hands firmly on his shoulders, and said, “My mother says that you are not to blame. You must believe her, please. She came a long way to tell you this. You, sir, have done nothing to be forgiven for.”
Two weeks later
Ethan sensed that this would be his final visit to his cabin in West Virginia. Not an uncommon thing for those whose time is drawing to an end. He wanted to sit on his deck and look across the valley one more time.
This time when Ethan studied the Sleeping Woman Rock, his heart was much lighter, and he felt tremendous relief. He didn’t sit there long, though, as there was something he wanted to do, even though it was contrary to his beliefs.
With considerable effort, Ethan hiked to the summit of the North Peak of Seneca Rocks. In his hands were Emily’s remaining ashes. He noted that the wind was coming up the west face of the sheer cliff, lightly buffeting his windbreaker.
He released Emily’s ashes into the wind expecting them to blow back in his face. He looked on in childlike wonderment as the ashes coalesced right in front of him and made their way directly to the swimming hole below.
Ethan looked out from his perch on the summit ridge of Seneca Rocks and shouted out into the cloudless blue sky, “I am Ethan Sumner, and I have been a fool. There is more to our world than I ever imagined.”
Ethan then turned and walked down the trail for the final time.
He was now ready.