After the Flood the Captain of the Hamadryas Discovers a Madonna

by Traci Brimhall

He pulled everything he could save out of the water—canoes snarled in tree roots, bruised mangoes, cans of chilies, crates and crates of plantains splitting from their tough yellowed skins—before he found her upside down in a kapok tree, robed in mud and fish bones, a woman’s floral underwear wrapped around her feet.

He wiped the dirt from between her lips with a callused thumb and felt what he dreaded—a godawful abundance of wonder. Town after town, he towed the mother of God, but no one would take her. One town said it lost a Christ with paint flaking from his face. Another said they lost cattle to the river. Another, a child. He offered the blooming peony panties to every shaking head.

For weeks, he rowed through storm and sunstroke, promised her, To God, the glory. To God, the power. To you the vain devotion of a penitent thief. But she remained unclaimed. Macaws landed on her shoulders and sang whale songs. When he cupped her smaller breast and listened, he heard bells tolling his own name. Morphos cloaked her at dusk, mated on her back or slipped their proboscises, deep and tenderly, beneath her blistered paint for the sweetness seeping from her warped hips.

One night as he passed a boat where men laughed as they threw rotting fish at caimans, her peeling cheeks smoothed, her splinters lay back into the wood, her belly rounded against the robe, the child inside turning as it dreamed its own heartbeat. Then, he saw. Then, he sorrowed. Then, the shameless, mortal awe as he cried, For thine is the kingdom, and rolled up his sleeves to deliver her.

Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (WW Norton 2012) and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press 2010). She is also winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and the Barnard Women Poets Prize. “After the Flood, the Captain...” is her first published story.