Ralph Emery Barhydt
September 21, 2023
Caroline went down to the river to pray. The river was raging, roaring, rushing as she had never seen it. “Dear God, please come to our aid. Calm the river, restore it. Please make it gentle and helpful again. Please Lord, this is too much and I am afraid that it is going to get worse.”
Hurricane Albert was just sitting off the North Carolina coast. It was a category five storm and ferocious. It was a strange hurricane as it had made land fall in Northern Florida and Southern South Carolina, then drifted back out into the Atlantic heading north and settling very close to the coast of North Carolina. Weather experts remarked excitedly about how unusual this was.
The Cape Fear river was a powerful river fueled by two tributaries, the Haw River and Deep River that came together near Moncure, North Carolina. Caroline had grown up in Moncure which was no more than a village, and her family had lived in North Carolina for two centuries. She now lived, with her husband and four children, in the family home just southeast of Moncure and about a hundred yards from the Cape Fear river. At one time the Cape Fear River supported inland commercial navigation with three locks operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Her father had been a Colonel in the Army and had served in the COE as commander of the Cape Fear River Hydrologic Engineering Center. She loved the river deeply and had profound knowledge of it.
Caroline had seen the river flood many times, but the flooding had never quite reached their house. The grounds from the river bank to their house were quite steep and served to keep the house safe. However, she knew that this flooding was going to be something like they had never seen before. She was also very worried about the three dams and locks that had served the river for so long supporting the navigation of commercial traffic.
When she reached the river, she got down on her knees and prayed, she was filled with terror. The rain and the wind caused by Hurricane Albert was so very powerful. Burbling and bouncing, the river seemed angry and resentful. “Why is this happening to me?” It seemed to say and Caroline thought she could hear it. “Dear river, what can I do to help?”
The spirit of the river swelled up and a mermaid appeared (Moncure was near what had once been Mermaid Point, source of many legends from the Revolutionary War),
“What can you do? You are a tiny, useless human. What can you do? Can you move the hurricane? Can you stop the dams from bursting? Can you do anything? No, I didn’t think so.” The mermaid’s mood clearly matched the mood of the torrential waters. The river never liked to flood as it did not like to cause damage and deaths to the humans. It actually liked the humans who came to fish and swim and play. It loved all the different kinds of boats that floated around and it thought that the dams and locks were great playthings. It tried with great effort not to overflow its banks, although sometimes it couldn’t be helped. Over the years humans came to understand its range of flooding and kept houses and buildings a respectful distance away.
“Oh no,” thought Caroline. “The river has risen more that a foot since I arrived. This is way too fast.” Then the mermaid spoke again, or at least, communicated with Caroline. “There is something you can do. Oddly, you can communicate with me. I do not want this disaster any more that you do. Of all the humans I have encountered for hundreds of years, your father was not just the only human I could communicate with but the best human being on the planet. Well, at least the very best human that I had observed. The fact that we, you and me, are communicating tells me a lot about you.”
“Perhaps you could communicate with the hurricane,” she continued. “It has a spirit and soul. It is disturbing the lives of many, many creatures besides human beings. I think you should drive to the coast and try to persuade it to move away. It will be dangerous. This is a very powerful storm and if you can’t communicate with it you may die. You may die if you can communicate with it. Storms like this one are unique and unpredictable and they tend not to have much compassion. Destruction is what lights them up. Do your understand what I am saying, what I am asking?”
Caroline was trembling. She was communicating with a river mermaid or the spirit of the river. Well, that is what it felt like and she could not imagine where those words came from or how they got in her head.
“Don’t think about it. You will never ever understand it. Just accept it,” said the mermaid. Caroline wasn’t sure where those thoughts came from, but she felt comforted. Her path was clear, dangerous, and immediate. When she ran into her house to get her car keys, she found her husband Daniel sitting somewhat stupefied on the wingback chair in their living room. He looked stunned and frightened. “Caroline, I am in shock. I heard all that but I couldn’t make myself heard. Tell me true, did the river just talk to you? Did the river tell you to go talk to the hurricane? I don’t know whether I want that to be true or not.”
“Daniel, if you heard that or whatever you might call perceiving it, there must be a reason. I am very scared but I need to go to the coast. Will you come with me? Will you drive me?”
“Caroline, Caroline, I love you so much. I could never let you go by yourself. I heard the river say how dangerous this is. I will do everything I can to protect you, to help. Let’s get going now. Brian, front and center.”
“What’s up dad?” Asked the 16 year old boy.
“Brian, I have about 30 seconds to lay this on you. Your mom and I are going to the coast on sort of a mission. You must look after Shirley, Jimmy, and Alice. Do not respond. You are a fine young man.”
Daniel and Caroline and Brian had a hugging moment, then Mom and Dad grabbed rain gear and headed to their SUV. It was actually a large vehicle, a Hummer that they felt relatively safe in. They jumped in. “We’ll take 133 staying close to the river, then run out to Bald Head Island. If we can get there. Buckle up,” shouted Daniel. Off they went.
They stayed close to river for half the journey. There were no communications with the river and they turned inland about half way to the coast. That kept them on the edge of the storm until they reached Southport. Things got gnarly. There were overturned cars in the road, trees and logs and even a house’s rooftop. The Hummer was able to get around these things and to run over a few of them. The wind in Southport was ferocious, the sounds of breaking trees, tumbling cars and collapsing buildings was almost unbearable. Fear was creeping up the bodies of both Caroline and Daniel. But. They found that the bridge to cross the Intercoastal to Bald Head Island was still functional. They took it.
Daniel drove to the Old Baldy lighthouse. They jumped out of the Hummer into 90 mph winds. The door to the lighthouse which had been locked for years was blown open. While running inside they could hear a strange whistling sound from the top of the structure. Up the stairs which had formerly been covered with cobwebs and debris. The wind before them had taken all that and it felt like the wind was pushing them, encouraging them up the stairs. When the reached the top they could see the enormous, powerful waves that were breaking toward Cape Fear, a small town and even Southport, a slightly larger town. These waves were bigger and scarier than any they had ever seen.
“Caroline, Daniel,”something said, sort of. “Nice of you to drop by. This stupid, old man river told me to expect you. He said something about ‘moving on.’ Can you see how much fun I am having? Did you have a look at all the destruction I have amassed in such a short time? Why on sea would I want to move on? Cape Fear is such a good name for me and my power. What could you say to change my mind? I like it here—in Fear.”
Daniel was thunderstruck and speechless, but Caroline felt a surge of hope and inspiration. “Oh mighty hurricane Albert..”
“Please don’t call me Albert. That is some goofy name you humans decided to call me. I do have a name but you would never understand it. Maybe, if you have to call me something, just address me as ‘Growl.’ I like that.”
“And don’t call me ‘dear.’”
“Growl, please listen..”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
“Growl, we did not come here to argue with you. We came here, risked our lives, to beg you. We have nothing to offer, nothing to give. You are so powerful you take anything you want. Lives of your own ocean creatures, human lives, lives of animals locked on land, buildings, trees, houses, whatever you want. But you are part of the ocean and we humans love and worship the…
“Hah hah, humans worship the ocean? That’s rich. You seem hellbent on destroying the ocean and the planet. Why are you trying to feed me that lie?’
“It’s not a lie, Growl. No, it’s not. My guess is that you can see into our souls, Daniel and me. You can see that we love life, we love the planet and we try to live our lives in a way that enriches and protects the earth and all its resources. You can also look across our country and find millions of people like us. But I know you can find people who don’t respect the earth, don’t respect the desert, don’t respect the mountains or the rivers and don’t respect the ocean. We know that, Growl. Both Daniel and I live our lives devoted to changing that. Ask the river. We know that hurricanes don’t have much, if any compassion. But you have a soul, we are talking to it, and all souls have some compassion. We need your compassion. We need for you to drift northeast away from land. Please sit a ways off Cape Hatteras. You have destroyed a lot and we hope that it’s been enough for you. If not, take our lives. Daniel and I offer our lives in exchange for your compassion.”
Hah hah hah. Caroline, I own your lives. I can take both of you in a second. What good is your life to me? However, I would take your souls. Can you give me, will you give me those?
“No, Growl, neither of us can give you our souls. We just can’t and even if we could, we would not do that. Our souls, like the soul of the earth or your soul are too sacred, too precious. I know that you can take our lives capriciously, but I have offered them to you as an exchange for a little compassion from you. Please, please go away.”
“Caroline, you are an impressive being. This world needs more like you and taking you, and Daniel, away from it is a bad idea. I agree. I am setting course for east of Cape Hatteras. When my powers dissipate in a few days, my soul returns to the ocean and I wait for my next turn. I will become Nancy, or William, or Tina, whatever and I will create havoc and destruction. I feel privileged to have met you and I will remember you both. Maybe not Daniel so much but as speechless and afraid as he is I see that you love him and he has heart. So, back to the river. There is a mermaid there who risked her very existence to convince you to risk your very existence. Take care of her and the river. Goodbye, Caroline.”