Miss Elizabeth Bryan
Victim #71: Age about seventeen. Of Germantown, Philadelphia. Brown dress.
Bracelet, seven strands and locket with initials, “E.M.B.”
How wildly the scene outside my coach window
transformed as the Day Express swept
into Conemaugh Valley—rough Allegheny greens
descended to rain-guttered foothills.
A world utterly awash.
The steady beat—drumming of God’s awesome fingers—
atop the wooden coach those five long hours
on the tracks while we awaited word: advance
My dear companion, Miss Paulson, lost
in her novel, even drifting off time to time;
perhaps the wedding’s gaiety of only a day before
suffused her dreams while this tireless storm,
this foreboding, filled my outlook.
But for some misshapen notion of comfort,
I might have survived! I turned back
for my overshoes in those seconds, I might have
leapt from the car
ascended to higher ground, arm in arm with my friend.
What a story we would have recounted
down the years: how the wave simply lifted the train
off the tracks, tossed it into the swirl as easily
as one would pick up a cup, drop it in dishwater.
And how we cleared the great churn in the very nick of time.
This very night I might have settled
in my armchair—a book, a lively fire, children abed,
shoes kicked off by the hassock, embers
in their late-day chatter, and feeling nothing
A Pool of Tears
“I wish I hadn’t cried so much!’ said Alice, as she swam about, trying to find her way out. ‘I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears!'” ―Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Victim # 194: Female. Age 10 years. Blue cambric dress. Woolen skirt. Woolen stockings.
Button shoes. Dark hair.
Only a very small wrong, I thought, unraveling
the bobbins in mother’s sewing basket, but the threads
were pretty spread across the floor, and in all this
awful rain the colors so cheerful.
After my scolding I must have cried myself to sleep
and now wade down the stairs, hungry for a snack
but wonder if I may be still in my bed, only dreaming
that water is filling my shoes, rising to my knees,
soaking my skirts with each step down into the parlor.
But I must be awake for the water is so cold and mucky,
and I’m shivering, calling for mother. Has she floated
away; surely, she would not leave without me!
I’m swept into the parlor where all sorts of odd things
float about―a stew pot and pictures and chairs, and now
down the hallway the upright comes thumping a water-
logged tune, followed by the bench spilling sheet music.
Oh, it’s all too dreadful! It seems my tears have flooded
the house and now the water is rising clear to my chin.
I must keep treading, but my arms are so tired.
Here’s a chair leg I’ll hold on to until father comes home.
But how will he ever get in? And now a swell
has carried me through to the pantry
where rhubarb and oranges go bobbing; maybe
our house has tumbled into the sea.
If I could just reach the biscuit tin, I might grow bigger
and see my feet again. Look! There’s the shore and a dodo,
holding out my thimble in his strange bird hand, and
beside him Mother with her sewing basket, beckoning.
The Errant Husband
Victim #185: Male. Age forty-five. Weight 180. Height 5 feet 10 inches.
White bunch of keys. $1.13 loose. White bone-handled knife.
I shouldn’t have left you
home by yourself―water
in the street
our kitchen window; the gas light
Darling, so little
money, and end
of the month―rent, the gas bill,
our anniversary. You must
understand; third turn, an extra
shift, and you still dreaming. If only
the mill would send us―
every last man― back home, and I,
God! in my unnerved state, stopped
by the saloon; just one
whiskey to steady
me; just the one. Then
there was old Hooper, outside calling
Help me get this horse hitched!
That horse suddenly a-swirl in
the flooded street, jack-knifing Hoop’s
buggy; all a-frenzy. Caught
beneath those buggy wheels it
had nothing to do
with the drink―all the wreckage
in the water knocked me
under, and now
your measured footfall
near this shoddy casket. . . that you some-
how survived and now
come lookin’ for me in this God-
forsaken place, a school house
defiled, and children
coffined here, too.
In spite of
my folly; you come: beyond
in this nether state.
Pass me by now,
dear Anna, for
they could not loosen
from my face; you’ll never
know the last word on my lips
was your name.
I Washed into the World
I washed into the world on the sodden mattress
that floated my pregnant mother
into the second story window of Alma Hall.
In the pitch blackness of that shivering night
I am told the contractions came on full-force.
Her screams of pain likely drowned out
by the shouts and sobs of two hundred some
terrified and injured in that same room; by the wind’s
sharp howl, the incessant crash and splinter
of buildings, bodies, God-knows-what outside.
Standing here now in front of Alma Hall, I gaze up
to the second-floor watermark, the elliptical arches
like raised eyebrows, and conjure some primal memory
of being delivered from one floating world
into another by a doctor with three broken ribs
while eighteen feet of water sloshed at the sill.
I am told that the Presbyterian Church steeple
split the wave in two, sending the wall of water
to either side of the hall, sparing all but one
of those sheltered inside.
Over the years I have pieced together
what I’ve been told about the night of my birth
when a flood leveled the city of Johnstown.
A patchwork of story and surmise.
On my 50th birthday I’ve returned to see the lanterns
lit along the stone bridge, to visit the ground
where my ancestral home folded into itself
like an envelope
I have come to visit the plot of the unknown drowned
at Grandview Cemetery, and run my hand along the arc
of every blank stone.
Barbara Sabol’s fourth poetry collection, Imagine a Town, was awarded the 2019 Poetry Manuscript Prize from Sheila-Na-Gig Editions. Her poetry has appeared widely in journals; most recently Evening Street Review, The Copperfield Review, One Art, and Mezzo Cammin, as well as in numerous anthologies. Her awards include an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She facilitates poetry workshops through Lit Cleveland. Barbara lives in Akron, OH with her husband and wonder dogs.
Watermark poetry project: These poems are part of a manuscript themed on the Johnstown (PA) flood of 1889, titled Watermark. The collection is a historical narrative comprised of persona poems of figures from that period, including unidentified flood victims whose imagined voices and stories are drawn from the Morgue Book of 1889.
Barbara Sabol at The Copperfield Review
Johnstown Flood Museum History
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