Please note that I can adjust my prose style for a particular genre, and the following is not intended to represent my full range of styles or the number of genres I consider. For nonfiction, the level of complexity can be adjusted depending on client preference.
The indifferent gray clouds had rolled away twelve hours earlier, leaving a blinding, blue, unreachable sky in their place. I paddled slowly through the toxic soup, dipping the splintered oar soundlessly so as not to create even the smallest splash if possible. Oil, gasoline, and a thousand chemicals normally kept under kitchen sinks created rainbow slicks on the floodwaters, horrible impressionist paintings lumped together on a canvas a hundred miles wide. Katrina was gone now, but she had marched through Louisiana like a scorned woman, kicking in doors and uprooting trees with her high-pitched, demonic howls.
The steep pitch of roofs was evident everywhere, the homes they covered submerged in the smooth, new lake. The V-shaped gables jutted above the water like small black army tents. Most were uninhabited, but a few arms waved lethargically from broken attic windows. Occasionally, a man or woman could be seen sitting on the apex of a roof, balanced precariously as the sun beat mercilessly on the gritty tar and fiberglass shingles.
I kept my small wooden fishing boat, able to hold two more people, away from any signs of human life. There were hundreds of stranded individuals, some clinging tenaciously to weeping willow branches, attempting to stay a few feet above the waters of Lake Ponchartrain, waters that had filled the gaudy, drunk, forsaken Crescent City as soon as the weathered, decaying levees had been breached. But who would be saved and who would die from weakness, starvation, or dehydration? I'd already seen a small pleasure boat attacked by a desperate family that had jumped from a third-story window of a suburban apartment building. The six family members had ruthlessly thrown the three occupants of the boat overboard, swamping the craft in the process. Flailing arms created wavelets as curses broke a silence palpable as the death that hung over the inundated city.
I drew my conclusion early on: salvation would be an arbitrary matter, and only God, assuming he still watched over the urban hell before me, would be able to judge whether my actions were righteous or cruel. It was that simple.
My boat bumped into a corpse as I backed away from a row of homes where a dozen people, having chopped through roofs with axes to escape their windowless attics, urgently waved shirts to attract my attention. The old black woman in the water had been dead at least thirty-six hours judging from the bloated condition of the corpse. Her belly had already split open, her eyes rolled back in their sockets, lifeless white orbs staring at the sky. I pushed the body away and then twisted the paddle between the palms of my hands, as if starting a campfire, in order to shake the maggots from the broadest part of the wood.
I was moving into Chalmette – the ninth ward – where Katrina had slammed houses and businesses until they stood at a forty-five degree angle, like a stadium crowd leaning to see if the fullback has made it over the goal line. Some structures were crushed altogether-billboards, fences, street signs, and tool sheds. Ahead, the roots of an oak stuck out like a claw, the two-hundred-year-old tree having been plucked from the sod and dropped on its side like a feeble giant.
I paddled around it, and that's when I saw the head of the waif: a little red-haired girl, no more than seven. Her dirty face protruded from the top of a chimney. She said nothing, only stared as my skiff quietly glided up to the bricks that constituted her temporary home.
"Climb in," I said.
She stared at me blankly, saying nothing.
"Are you alone?"
She remained silent, which was just as good. I instinctively knew the answer to my question. Answers were everywhere, written in rubble and debris and nine feet of water. Of course she was alone.
"Get in the boat," I instructed as I stood, my arms extended. "You'll be safe."
The orphan didn't move, so I gently lifted her from the chimney and placed her on the narrow rectangular seat behind mine. She clutched a stuffed, waterlogged animal that could have been a teddy bear, a monkey, or a dragon. It, too, had died.
"We're going someplace safe," I told her.
One hundred yards farther on, I saw an old black man sitting cross-legged on a wooden palette that had obviously drifted through the doors of a warehouse. He played a cheap Stella guitar, and his gravelly voice sang of a woman who had left him for a rich man in New York City.
"Need a ride?" I asked, not intending to be glib. He was free to join the girl or float along and play the blues, for which he was more than qualified.
"I suspect I might," he said. "Not much of an audience left."
"No," I said. "Not much."
He handed me his guitar and carefully climbed into the boat, sitting next to the girl.
Overhead, a Coast Guard helicopter sped northward, its plump orange and white body plainly visible in the midday sun. I knew it was headed for a rescue station up ahead, though its distance might be two miles or a hundred.
I paddled faster, passing more than a dozen people pleading for me to stop and offer them transportation. A dog barked as he swam toward the boat. The black man pulled him over the edge, where he shook his wet fir, sending a spray of foul water over my adopted crew. He wouldn't threaten our survival. A metal urn flew over my head and landed in the water ten feet to starboard, commentary from someone I was forced to pass up.
Three hours later, the gray water grew shallow as I saw a hundred men and women planted on high ground, little fence posts forming an irregular line of survival. The black man continued to sing his down-and-out blues as we approached a section of levee that had somehow withstood the twenty-foot tidal surge. A woman in an orange life vest – unmistakably Coast Guard – helped the girl and the old man from the boat. The dog jumped out and ran down the levee, disappearing in the odd assortment of survivors, their faces as blank and unfeeling as the girl's.
Gently, I backed the skiff away from the levee.
"Don't do it, mister!" the woman in the orange vest warned me. "It's not safe out there!"
No, it wasn't safe, but life hadn't had anything to do with safety since the cyclonic white clouds had swirled across the Gulf of Mexico two days earlier. In less than a minute, I was twenty-five yards from the levee. The woman had turned away, uninterested in the actions of a fool like me.
Strains from the black man's cheap guitar floated over the water while the little girl raised her hand and waved goodbye, her arm as limp as the appendages of her stuffed animal.
It was morning of the first day, and God had breathed over the abyss. Dry land had yet to completely take form, and salvation was years in the future. A new testament between the Creator and his people could not be imagined as I once again threaded my way through cypress trees and people waiting to be born.©2005 William Hammett