Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay?
I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking,
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.
—John Prine, “Paradise”
When we woke to the ash falling we knew it was over. No phone calls were made, nobody had to guess where anyone else was. One by one, the grownups stepped outside into the pale morning, chins tilted up toward the sky, hands held out with their palms facing upward as if awaiting gifts from Jesus himself. All around them the gray ash swirled, catching sometimes in their hair and against their clothes, drifting and fluttering like snow.
School was canceled that day because all the grownups—at least the ones who were left—were meeting up to see what to do about the Tennessee Valley Authority. None of us kids knew much about what the Tennessee Valley Authority was, but we knew it was a big company that had something to do with coal and was trying to buy everybody out. They’d bought out a lot of families already: the Buchanans, Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard, the Moores and their children. None of us had been all that close with the Moore kids, which was why we hadn’t thought about the company very much so far. As far as we were concerned, a company named after Tennessee could only have so much to do in Kentucky anyway, and the whole thing—the steady house-by-house takeover of land, the fumes from TVA machinery that now hung in the air—would blow over by the time the next winter rolled around.
“Maybe we shouldn’t go today.” Rose said it quietly, on the floor in the narrow closet next to the kitchen, while we were getting on our shoes.
I looked at her. Rose was older than me—twelve—practically a teenager, and she was plain-looking in a way that made her seem older. Brown hair parted neatly down the middle, brushed but frizzy. She was wearing a violet turtleneck and watching me with her dark eyes, in a way that seemed knowing and that I didn’t entirely understand. “Why not?” I whispered, because she had whispered.
“That ash. It’s from the plant down the road, everyone saw it.”
“We still have to go,” I said, and she relented.
So we got our bikes out of the garage, met Maggie and Joseph Gilmore at their house on the way out of town, then took the dirt road out of Paradise that dead-ended at the Green River. Bike wheels whirring under us, flicking up dust. Maggie, the youngest of us at seven, had her curly pigtails flipped back over her shoulders, stray vanilla-blonde locks whipping around, coming undone as we gathered speed. The sky stewed overhead, thick and milky, but the ash fell away more and more as we got farther from town.
“Maggie,” Rose said, “why are you wearing that coat?”
We biked in pairs, us boys up front and Maggie and Rose a few yards behind us, but everyone could still hear one another. Maggie’s coat was thick and woolen, I had recognized it from winter, and the hood was pulled up over her head. It was May.
“So the ash won’t burn my skin.”
“Who told you it’d burn your skin?”
“My mom.” A pause. “Didn’t it burn your skin?”
“Did you feel it at all?”
“Yeah,” said Rose, “but it didn’t burn. I think all the heat had gone away by the time I touched it.”
“Well, what did it feel like?”
Rose considered the question for a moment. “Dead skin,” she said finally. “Like flakes of dead skin.”
“Eww,” Maggie shouted. She was younger than Rose and a girl, so she was grossed out by this sort of thing.
When we got to the river, we left our bikes in the usual place, behind some thick bushes in the grass not far from the road. Maggie shrugged off the giant coat and draped it carefully over her bike to keep it from getting in the mud. The water was stiller than usual today, moving in occasional small shudders against the banks. Golden-green like heaven, like the shimmering copper mounds at the bottom of a fountain, ridged with moss. This place was where you could get to the river most easily, but of course it went on for miles and miles, Joseph said probably four or five hundred miles at least, from our town toward the Rochester Dam and Mammoth Cave and eventually all the way up north to the Ohio. The river slipped away from Paradise here and into the deep uncertain woods where Muhlenberg County faded into forest. These were woods that we four combed afternoon after afternoon, or day after day on the weekends, and had been combing for several straight months now, ever since the day Michael Harris had gone missing.
Michael Harris was our Tom Sawyer in every sense of the word. He wore a bright red bandana, tied around his left wrist when it wasn’t on his head, and he was the best of all of us at finding things to catch from the river during the summertime. Bullfrogs, every once in a while, and crawdads. None of the rest of us could find a crawdad to save our life. Joseph said he’d found one once, but he didn’t show anybody and nobody had seen him catch it, and Joseph’s word is about as good as salt anyway. Joseph looked for river creatures the same way the rest of us did, bent down on both knees in the cold muddy grass, hands swiping around under the shallow water at the river’s edge, scooping up handfuls of roly-polies and silt to drain through our fingers moments later. Not Michael Harris. Michael would jump straight in, splashing anyone who had been unlucky enough to be standing close by. He’d plunge down into the deep murky parts of the river, stay down so long we’d sometimes start to worry—Rose guessed he stayed down extra long just to scare us—and then he’d burst up again with another great splash, dark hair sopping wet and stuck to his forehead, green eyes gleaming and mouth spread wide open in a grin that dripped with river, a fat red crawdad twitching and feeling around in one fist.
The grownups all loved Michael, too. He was nice to the teacher at school, brought her fresh Jonathan apples from the tree in his yard. He knew how to be funny in a way that grownups liked, which was different from funny in the way that kids like, although he was good at that too. If any of the rest of us had gone missing, me or Rose or Maggie or somebody, people still would have minded, but I don’t think it would have torn everybody up the same way it did when Michael went.
“We oughta go far today,” Joseph said with an air of decision as we headed down the narrow riverside path that led into the woods. We walked single-file, Joseph and then me and then Rose and then Maggie, like a regular band of expeditioners. Joseph was wearing a tank top faded with orange stripes, and under the straps of his backpack in front of me I could see his bony shoulders, squared with determination.
“Farther than we went this weekend?” asked Maggie.
“A lot farther.”
“In case we don’t have much time later,” said Rose.
“Well, we’ll come back tomorrow,” said Maggie. “And the next day.”
We picked our way through the weeds and over logs, eyes still trained to the ground, since we walked down this part of the path every day and we didn’t need to be looking around just yet. None of us were quite sure how much Maggie knew—about the ash, about the tainted air and the coal company—or how much we ought to tell her.
I personally was thinking about me and Rose’s parents on that morning, the morning the ash first fell. The looks on my mother and father’s faces, dumbstruck—from sleepiness or from astonishment, I couldn’t have been sure. They had only just awakened, had scarcely gotten dressed, and then maybe while still half-waking they had seen the gray stuff flitting against their windows, gathering like dust on their porch. Our porch. Our neighbors outside already, wandering lost in their own town, reaching with deadened arms up toward a metal-gray sky. Rose and I knew what the ash was because our parents had been talking about it for months by then, maybe years, about the power plant going up down the road from us. It’ll poison the air, they said. It’ll poison every one of us. But we wouldn’t leave, because our parents had been born in Paradise and our parents’ parents before them and their parents before them. Our whole family was buried in this town at the Adrie Hill Cemetery, and someday, we fancied, we would be too, no matter how much money any company ever offered us.
It was a wonder the Gilmores hadn’t left yet. Maggie had been sick as a baby, and now Mrs. Gilmore fretted over her like a nurse over a cancer patient. If anyone was going to be bought out to leave Paradise for cleaner air in a foreign city, it was the Gilmores for sure.
“We’ll come back here every day,” said Joseph confidently, ducking under a log that had fallen across the path. “Every day as long as we live, until we find Michael.” He had been saying things along these lines since January, likely more for his own benefit than for anyone else’s.
“It’s summer now,” Rose pointed out, “so that should make it easier.” Her voice was toneless, as though she could barely even hear what she was saying.
“It’s not summer yet,” I said automatically. “Not ’til school’s out.”
“It’s practically out. It feels like summer. We’ve only got a little bit left,” Rose said, which was true. Only a little bit of school left and then we were out, free from any obligations, free to spend our days at the Green River for as long as we wanted and to eat watermelons and catch crawdads and sleep over at each other’s houses. Just one long golden stretch of summer to make up for our schoolwork, for Michael and for the Tennessee Valley Authority, for all of the winter that we’d been going through lately. Joseph and I had plans to explore the power plant together as soon as we got a chance, hopefully with Michael, although we weren’t about to tell the girls that.
“Anyway,” Rose said, “what I meant is that it’s warmer than it was.”
This was true. Michael had disappeared right after New Year’s, when a lot of the river was still frozen over. The search parties from town, made up of all our fathers and mothers, had given up near the end of January, beginning of February, which was when the four of us had taken over. Trudging through snow and treading carefully on the icy stretches in February, then crunching over melting slush in early March. Thick boots and mittens and scarves to hide our necks. Breath materializing in front of us, taunting Michael’s ghost, almost. We’re breathing, Michael. Are you?
It took us until almost lunchtime to reach the part of the river we didn’t know as well. Where the tangles of weeds and underbrush took on unknown shapes, where we came upon foreign forbidden flowers and plants, where the trees were alien and their dark branches bent oddly, all strange and sinister. At least it seemed that way to us. It had taken us a while to work up to this part of the river, since we were so in-depth about everything—we could spend a whole day or two just at one spot, venturing further and further away from the water and into the trees, the four of us spreading out in each of the cardinal directions, bushwhacking sometimes as far as a mile.
We couldn’t keep walking any later than one or two in the afternoon, or else we wouldn’t be out of the woods until after dark. Joseph was the one with the watch. He stopped us at what he figured was a good spot, we all more or less agreed, and we dumped our backpacks in a pile in the grassy clearing next to the rushing water.
It was a rule among us that we ate lunch before we started looking, to refuel after the walk. We found places to rest—fallen logs and the knotted bases of trees, dry patches of grass—and sat in a loose circle facing one another, digging apples and aluminum-foil-wrapped sandwiches out of our backpacks.
“I hope we find him before summer,” said Joseph as he unwrapped his sandwich, peanut butter smeared in the creases of the crumpled aluminum. “Or at least before July. It wouldn’t be any fun to keep coming out here when it gets really hot out.”
“Plus it wouldn’t be any fun to have summer without him,” said Maggie.
“That too,” Joseph agreed. His mouth was full from chewing. He swallowed after a moment and then his mouth broke into a peanut-buttery grin. “Watch us find him—” He stopped, licked the brown stuff away from his teeth. “Watch us be out looking for him one day, and he just jumps up out of the water with a crawdad in his hand. Just splashes up out of the water, like, Hey look, guys, look how long I stayed under!”
We had all memorized this mental image, partly I guess from having seen it in person so many times, but mostly from all of the time we had spent over the last few months picturing it. Michael, drenched, clutching the clawing creature in his hand. Usually we’d all smile whenever somebody mentioned it, but today no one really responded.
“No one could hold their breath that long,” said Rose.
“If anyone could,” said Maggie with obvious reverence, “it’d be Michael.” Maggie was in love with Michael, had been for years, got all doe-eyed and faint whenever he was around. Every time she got sick, he’d drop by the Gilmores’ and kiss her on the cheek, leave her apples and flowers, cards.
“If anyone could, it’d be Michael,” Joseph mocked her, tilting his head back, clasping his hands together and rolling his eyes as if in a dream.
Maggie shoved him. “Don’t be mean.”
“You shouldn’t be so obvious,” Joseph told her. “He’s never gonna like you like that if he knows you like him like that.”
“That’s not how it works,” said Maggie.
“You’re right, Maggie, it’s not,” said Rose, talking to Maggie but looking at Joseph. “That’s just how boys think it works.”
“Oh yeah?” said Joseph. There was a little peanut butter just under his lower lip. He looked like he was trying not to smile.
“Yeah. Boys think they’ve gotta be mean to you or not talk to you, and that’s how to get your attention. But all it’s really doing is making them look like a bunch of babies.”
“Not all boys are like that,” I said.
“Not Michael,” added Maggie.
“No,” Rose agreed, “not Michael. He—he’s better,” she said, and then she looked quickly down into her lap as if to avoid making eye contact with any of us. She had been about to say was, I could tell—had been about to say He was better, but she’d been frightened, or maybe she had wanted to spare us.
We watched Joseph, waiting. He reached up and wiped the streak of peanut butter from his chin. “Yeah,” he said then, finally. “Yeah.”
We sat without talking for a few minutes. I could hear everybody chewing their food, and the river moving past and the trees shifting occasionally in the breeze. The air smelled rotten — not as bad as it smelled in town, but close — and I thought about the crawdads and wondered whether the water here tasted bad to them.
After a minute or so, I made eye contact with Rose. She had been staring into space looking blank, dejected, and only just then did I realize how much she, barely the oldest of all of us, resembled our parents. It wasn’t even in how tall she had gotten or anything like that—it was in the look on her face, so very much like the looks I had seen on my mother’s face and my father’s that morning, as they stood in the ash falling under the white sky. Rose looked away as soon as she saw me watching her. That was when I really knew that to Rose, Joseph and I were just like Maggie, young and hopeful, kidding ourselves. Rose already knew what our parents knew about Michael, about the power plant. At that moment I thought I knew it too, and it made me angry. Let’s just leave, then, I wanted to say. If all of this is such a lost cause, then let’s give up. We all saw the ash. If we’re not going to see the search through, if we’re not going to see our own land through, our own town, then let’s not stick around at all, not another single day.
I had seen those stricken looks on my parents’ and on all of our parents’ faces only once before, the night Michael Harris disappeared back in January. We had just gotten through celebrating the new year, and Michael had gone back alone to the Green River to look for his gloves, which he’d left there and forgotten earlier in the day. By the dead of night he still hadn’t returned, and one by one flashlights had flickered on like lanterns across town as we headed out of our houses to convene in the streets of Paradise. We walked to the river together as a crowd, a community, our beams of light arcing into still clusters of trees and casting blindly at patches of grass off the side of the road. Michael! Michael, are you out there? My family and the Gilmores, Mr. and Mrs. Harris, the Taylors, the Austells. The Buchanans, who were still standing their ground at that point and wouldn’t be bought out until April. It was cold out and nobody felt like crying yet, we were just moving, out of the town and toward the river like ghosts, eyes wide open, insides numb, frozen.
Some of us must have known that very night that the boy would never be recovered, that he would be left behind with Paradise and the Green River forever just like the Adrie Hill Cemetery, while the rest of our houses and buildings were all torn down that year or the next to make room for the plant. The air that we breathed was no good, it could not be sustained any longer. The Pritchards already knew this, and the Moores. Within a year, the Gilmores too would move east to Virginia, Rose’s and my family over to North Carolina. Most of us would never visit here again, knowing all too well what we would find—our landmarks buried under fat metal pipes and fenced facilities, the foul stench of machinery. By the time the ash fell, a strange feeling combined with the actions of the Tennessee Valley Authority had already splintered us, but on that January night Michael went missing we all moved together as a group, many of us even holding hands, the whole town staggered, venturing together toward the river and the pitch-black forest for as far as we could make it until dawn.
Laura Dzubay is a junior studying English and creative writing at the University of Michigan. Her work has previously appeared in Bad Pony, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others, and last year she received a Hopwood Underclassmen Fiction Award. You can find her on Twitter @lauradzu.