Little Washington

by Annie Vitalsey

On a Friday, they told us we had no more water.

We watched footage on the news of a twelve-inch water main burst, caught on camera in the center of Little Washington. We watched millions of gallons erupt through the pavement, churning with the dirt, with the muck, flowing frothy like malted milk into the clogged gutters, and then dips in the road, poorly situated yards, basements. Our flower beds flooded to soup, our playgrounds to swamps. When we woke to hardwood floors bloated with runoff, sopping carpets, and moist shadows creeping up our walls, we turned on our televisions and they told us, “This is a crisis.”

What water there was left in our tanks after the break was unusable. An over saturation of fluoride, they said. Poison.


I woke in the darkness and my husband was not in bed. I listened at first for his bathroom noises. For the clink of metal on tile, for the rush of the sink, but they did not come.

I got out of bed, my bare feet on the carpet. Softly, I went downstairs, one hand along the wall to steady myself.

I found David in the La-Z-Boy with his back to me. His laptop was open, and on it was a bare-breasted woman moving up and down. In the light of the laptop screen, I saw David was playing with himself, the La-Z-Boy gently wiggling with his motions.

I was not angry with him. Part of me wanted to say something. Part of me wanted to go to him. Part of me wanted to touch him and be with him, but I did not. I could not figure out how to start.

Back in bed, I didn’t want to, but I fell asleep before he returned, and he woke me in the morning with a kiss on the forehead. It was like nothing had happened at all.

“Come see,” said David, “Some bastard at the water treatment plant is about to be out of a job.”


There were two Christs in Little Washington. Most of us considered it blasphemy, but they were only ever kind to us, so we let them keep on. Each considered himself the One True Savior, the Son of God, the Lamb to be Slain. But their real names were Marcelo and Jerome.

Every day, I watched them walk by our house, talking passionately to each other, listening earnestly.

While each Christ believed he was the One True Only, and the other was in error, the two were inseparable. Each allowed the other to speak his mind out of love, out of the vow each had taken to love the sinner, to break bread with the lowest of the low. In this way, they indulged each other, they spun each other’s fantasies up and out. Each believed he could save the other if he just loved him enough.

They prayed, they did the Lord’s bidding, they stalked around Little Washington like they were on the brink of crucifixion.

They played music on the sidewalks, Marcelo with his grubby mandolin, Jerome with his horn. Together, they stood out there in the sun or rain, the heat of summer or the winter freeze. Their sound was thin, but heartfelt. They danced together in the leaves of autumn. They rejoiced in the gravity of their own bodies.

When the water main burst, and the whole town was threatened with thirst or poison, the Christs were the first to start handing out bottles of water.

We watched them appear on our local news channel telling us, “Don’t worry. We’re doing our best to make sure the good people of Little Washington stay hydrated.”


Little Washington, North Carolina was situated in Beaufort County on the banks of the Pamlico River. In summer, the air sat thick on our skin, and the river lapped high along the banks from rain. Originally founded as Forks Of The Tar, the name was changed during the Revolutionary War. It had been destroyed twice since the founding, first by siege, then by accident.

Back then, this land was one of the pirate Blackbeard’s favorite hideouts, his preferred plundering grounds, his home. Blackbeard died here too, just miles from our town, shot and killed in a sea battle with Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who sailed away from here with Blackbeard’s severed head hung on the bow of his ship. Sometimes, I would look out to Grandpap Island and wonder how many nights Blackbeard could have hidden out there, sleeping in the mud.

It was said that in the old graveyard on Rosemary Street, there was a woman buried in a barrel of rum. She washed up on the banks of the Pamlico, sealed inside, and when the men opened the barrel, they found her long yellow hair like seaweed and her glutted, blue flesh. Some of the men wanted to take her out, to check if she was a mermaid, but most were God-fearing and demanded her to be sealed back up and laid to rest as they found her. She probably was not a mermaid, but to this day we’ll never know for sure.

I have lived in Little Washington all my life. I went to Washington High School. I grew up in Washington Baptist. My husband was a Little Washington Eagle Scout, he had taken some classes at Washington Tech. He was thinking about a career as a welder, but paying our mortgage pouring drinks at Washington Backwater, a bar with paintings done by the sheriff—semi-nudes of women he knew or imagined. Soft flesh swathed in silk, lying back like Greek goddesses.

David and I met and married in this town. This was where we would grow old and one day be buried, one day devolve into whispers of mystery, just like Blackbeard, just like the lady in the barrel.


I was a twenty-two year old woman who had married a nice boy when I was too young to know better. I got pregnant two months before our wedding, but I still fit into my dress on our day. I thought we had gotten away with it.

When my water broke those months later, it felt like a knuckle cracking inside me. With each contraction, more came gushing out, it soaked my skirt, the bed, the floor. I was spilling over, overflowing. I could not be emptied.

When my daughter came, she was cold and blue, cord wrapped around her like a sea snake, squeezing too tightly.

We named her Eula-Mae before we buried her, silty earth covering her tiny box.

“Premarital sex is the root of evil,” they had told us at church.

I wondered if this was punishment. I wondered if this was how the sins of the parents spun out into the next generation. I wondered what was coincidence, and what was evidence of something worse.

When they took her away from us in that hospital room, David and I stared wide-eyed and blank at the cold, white wall. We thought of her floating blue in my womb, my body grown to choke the life out of her. Who she was, what sort of a daughter she would have been, we’d never know for sure.

For the next year, until the water ran thick with toxins, I would not let David touch me.


In the night, my husband pleasured himself to the exploits of a blonde and dirty water seeped into our house.

By the morning, they had set up a row of port-a-johns at the end of our street, and I watched the neighbors scamper down to use them.

A few years ago, the two Christs moved in together, in a little yellow house on Cotton Street to save money on rent.

In the night, my husband pleasured himself to the exploits of a blonde and I was not angry about it.

Downstairs, we worked to sop the water from our carpet and I wondered if he was thinking about her.

It was rumored that Blackbeard had fourteen wives and countless mistresses in our state alone. If any of us could trace our ancestry back that far, we might find ourselves part of his lineage, pirate blood coursing through our veins.

In the night, my husband pleasured himself to the exploits of a blonde and I was afraid I was curious.

We used every towel, every washcloth in our house to blot the floors. We opened our windows and let the heavy summer air inside.

At the fire station, the Christs gave out bottled water. “For drinking and hygiene only,” they said. “Don’t water your lawns.” All businesses were closed for the day. School was cancelled.

In the night, my husband pleasured himself to the exploits of a blonde and I wanted to know which pleasures were okay and which were enough to condemn you.

I was two months pregnant at our wedding. I was twenty years old.

On the morning of, before my hair was done, while my dress was still hanging in the window, my mother pulled me aside and said, “Sex is God’s greatest gift to us.” She took me by the shoulders and looked me in the face and said, “Audrey—listen to me—God designed the penis with the woman in mind. It is the perfect throne for a queen.”

My mother would not break eye contact.

“Don’t worry, Audrey. You’re going to love it.”


Immediately, our neighboring counties started donating their own water, but it wasn’t enough to cover what we had lost. Most of it went to the hospital, to the ones who could not get it on their own. A daily bath was a luxury, they told us on the news. Think of how things used to be. Simpler times, they said.

In the fridge, we had milk, apple juice, and beer. I was wondering what to do about breakfast. No water for our coffee. Nothing to rinse our fruit with. No way to do the dishes I had let pile up the night before.

We felt stranded in our own home.

“Let me drive over to Pitt County,” said David. “I’ll pick us something up.”


Looking at the Christs, you would not think they were Christs. You would not even think they were friends. Marcelo was stocky and balding, soft skin crinkled around his eyes. Jerome was younger, skinny and tall with an eyebrow piercing and teeth yellow with chew. They each would say their looks didn’t matter, or rather they mattered very much, because we were all made in the image of God.


While David was out, I opened his laptop. I wanted to find that woman, see her for myself, to know for sure. But his search history was empty.

I tried to remember what I had seen: a woman, blonde and naked. She could have been anyone. Where did my husband find her? How did he know where to look? That woman could have been anyone. She could have been me.

I pictured myself as the woman, bare and oiled skin like porcelain, mouth like raspberry jam. I was blonde, too. I was not unattractive. I took off my shirt and looked at myself in the mirror. My belly loose. My blue panties. I wanted to be lusted after.

I laid down on the bed. The blankets were cool against my back. I could be beautiful like the woman. I could pull men into me and sap them to bone. I could juice them dry like lemon slices, leaving them helpless in my wake like beached whales. I could use them, and they would fill me up and up with life, with adoration.

I thought I might like it.

How long must you wait to be absolved of the worst of yourself?


In Little Washington, they told the young people stories of wayward teenagers. Teenagers who drove out into the woods to make out got caught in forest fires and burnt to a crisp. Teenagers who laid together on blankets at the beach were attacked by animals. Teenagers who snuck away in the night disappeared and were never found again. Sinful teenagers turned up dead, floating in the waters of the sound. Their bodies sunk under the sand dunes, the saw grass and the cattails fed on their flesh.

Bad behavior had disastrous results. This we took as truth.


In high school, David’s voice was still high like a woman’s but he was sweet looking. He had good skin. He was not striking in any way, but holding hands at youth group still gave me a thrill.

I read the books my mother gave me about saving your virtue. About not letting boys into your room or showing them your underwear. About how precious it would be to have your first kiss over an altar. I went to church camps every summer with David, and we vibrated with others late into the night, confessing our sins, our doubts to the hum of crickets. We whispered prayers into each other’s ears, felt them deep in our bellies.

And we made it, David and I, until our senior year of high school. Until after a prayer meeting, when David put his hand on the small of my back and asked if he could just look at me.

And I told him I would leave my bedroom window unlocked. And when he came, after my parents went to bed, I took off my clothes for him and told myself it wasn’t really a sin, because we weren’t doing anything. And then he asked to lay down with me, and I let him. And I told myself this was still okay. And when he kissed me, and pulled me on top of him, I stopped thinking about what was sin and what was not.

When he left my room that night, I wondered about the microscopic bits of his DNA still floating inside me, evidence of our sin, of our love.

After that we came together in David’s bed and in mine, in the back seats of cars, once—on a blanket by the banks of the Pamlico River under the cover of night. Somehow, for us, we felt the rules didn’t apply. They didn’t feel real anymore.


On the news, they did a segment on fluoride poisoning.

“It will at least be another twenty-four hours, people,” they said.

Under the serious faces of the news anchors, a man and a woman, big block letters flashed STATE OF EMERGENCY.

Fluoride poisoning, they told us, involved a rapid and catastrophic chain of events, leading to painful and sudden death.

It began at the core of you, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps. You might think it’s just food poisoning, the way it starts—something more harmless. Something the body can get over in a night.

“Do not let this fool you,” they said.

Then, you should prepare for a torrent: tears, mucous, and saliva expelled rapidly from the eyes, nose, mouth. Then the spasms begin, an inability to swallow, careless twitching of the arms and legs. Blood pressure lessens, the pulse grows weak.

Finally, before you lose consciousness, before death, you might hang for moments in a state of extreme disorientation. You might feel you are floating above yourself. You might feel your soul fall away. You might hear music or voices telling you things you should not believe. You might feel heat, or cold, or numbness. You might have visions of trees, or animals, or large objects in places where they don’t belong. You might see Christ come down out of an open sky. He might hatch out of your husband’s head like an egg. He might reach out and poke you in the nose and say, “Boop!”

“This can all happen to you in a matter of hours,” they told us on the news, “Don’t be stupid.”


When David came home with groceries, I was still in bed in my underwear, thinking of the blonde woman. He laid down on the bed next to me, and put his hand on my belly.

“Can I?” he asked me.

I wanted him to, but I turned away.

Our daughter would have been eighteen months already if she had lived. She would have been talking and walking. She would have been blonde, too.

I walked to the closet and put on a shirt.

“Can we eat something?” I asked my husband.


It was known that Marcelo did not always consider himself to be Christ. There was a time when he was just another man from Little Washington who worked at the toothbrush factory. He had lush, dark hair and a mustache that drove females wild. He even had a sweetheart for a time named Blythe. Everyone thought they would marry. There was a picture of Marcelo, a polaroid tacked to the wall of a restaurant called Bandito’s. Marcelo, young and handsome, grinning into a giant burrito.

He only started believing himself to be Christ later. After enough time had passed for him to get a retirement plan at the toothbrush factory and a promotion to stapling the bristles. Enough time for him to break Blythe’s heart and leave her too old and too sad to start over.

It came to him in a vision, he said, as he stood on the banks of the Pamlico.  God came down and told him outright who he really was. Blessed, chosen, sent from heaven to save the world.

“You think I wanted to take that on?” said Marcelo, “Does that sound like a walk in the park to you? But when God tells you something, you listen.”

His first act as Christ: jumping into the dirty, churning river waters, emerging new-baptized, cold and wet.

When Marcelo came out of that water, he felt the ancient legacy in his bones. He basked in his own sinlessness. He felt capable of miracles.

Jerome, on the other hand, came to town as Christ already, a trail of brown sludge behind him from the chew. He skulked around for a few weeks, sleeping under a tarp in the woods, waking early to pray on his knees, crunching dry pine needles beneath him.

And then when he was buying a coke at the grocery and the cashier asked him what he was up to in town, he answered her quietly, “You might not believe this, but you are face-to-face right now with Jesus Christ.”

After that, we just had to introduce them. We thought it would only take one conversation for them both to snap out of it.


David and I sat together on the couch, holding hands and watching television, disgruntled citizens interviewed on their front lawns about the crisis.

“We’re paying for this! The taxpayer!” said a man in a John Deere hat, “They should have safeties!”

David sat focused on the screen, his mouth tight with concentration. I wanted to tell him. I wanted to open something up.

“I saw you watching porn last night,” I said, and the words felt heavy.

David did not look at me. He deflated. He did not speak right away. The ceiling fan hummed above us.

“I’m so sorry,” he said still staring at the wall, head shaking.

Out the window, I saw the Christs walking home. They gestured wildly with their hands. Jerome lept up, reaching his hands to the sky. Marcelo began to skip.

“I’m not mad,” I said, “That woman could have been anyone. She could have been me.”


Once, I watched a television program about mythic and blasphemous things. I learned about devils and wolf men and creatures with their heads twisted backwards. I learned about she-demons who would suck the soul out of a man when she slept with him. I learned about vaginas with teeth. There was part of me that would have liked to know what that was like. There was part of me that would have liked to walk around like that. Knowing that. No one would expect it.

Once, when I was heavily pregnant, I met the Christs on the road. “Bless you, Mama,” they said, and when they looked at me, it felt like they were seeing down to my deepest and tenderest and most hidden parts. Perhaps they knew that she would not want me. That I was not good enough. Or maybe, that my daughter would only be the incriminating evidence of the worst of myself.


When I learned I was pregnant, alone in my bathroom with the little stick, I thought of the legend we have about the girl who fell to her death. It was told that there was once a young and beautiful girl who worked as a maid at the Washington Waterfront Hotel. She found herself in a forbidden romance with a Union soldier at the beginning of the Civil War. They took up together for several nights in one of the rooms. But after he left to join the fight, she threw herself out of a third-floor window. The autopsy showed she was pregnant. It was not known if she killed herself from a broken heart, or out of the shame of being an unwed mother. Even now, citizens of Little Washington spoke of a pale figure sometimes seen in a third-floor window on moonless nights.

As I looked down at my own stick with the little plus sign, and I wondered if she hadn’t intended on killing herself at all, but only wanted to kill the thing inside her. She wanted to erase her mistake. The third floor was not that high. She just landed on her head was all.

When I told David I was pregnant, his ears flushed bright red and he said, “What? Oh boy. Oh boy!” He kissed each of my fingers and told me I was going to be a wonderful mother. He pressed a hot red ear to my stomach and said, “Hello?”

David did not bring up how we were still two months from being married. The next day, he went out and got a second job at Washington Backwater. We started looking to buy a house. I felt so grateful to him.

He called me Mama when no one was listening. We were happy. It felt like a beautiful secret, for a time.


Perhaps, this whole town was for loonies. Not just the Christs, but all of us.

They said dehydration manifested in dozens of ways. It could feel like a cold, making your throat scratch, making you sneeze. It could lock up your joints, it could make you vomit. It might cause your skin to lose its shape, its pliancy. It could turn you numb, it could make you tingle. If you cry, you may not have tears. You could feel tired. You could feel dizzy. You could feel a happiness beyond words.

When David and I were seventeen years old, together in my bed, he kissed the bottom of my heel. I didn’t think it was possible to be happier. On our wedding night, we did not have sex because we were so exhausted. David, champagne drunk, fell asleep in his tux. I dry-heaved into the toilet in my white satin corset. Still, I fell asleep in the crook of David’s elbow and in the morning felt joy.

I was learning that loving someone did not come all at once. It was a choice you made, and kept making.


On the news they interviewed the health director, a short woman with fluorescent eye shadow and a red pants suit.

“This is the perfect storm for a utilities professional,” she said.

Once, on the boardwalk along the Pamlico river at dusk, I watched Marcelo brush Jerome’s long hair away from his face. It was a tender gesture, one of great love. The setting sun reflected orange across the deep water and lit them up. Jerome smiled back at Marcelo, like he had been touched by the spirit.


And what if I did like it?

What if I took my husband to our bedroom and unbuckled his jeans? What if I fucked him, thinking of that woman and feeling magnetic in my own skin? What if my own blonde hair spread across our pillows like seaweed? What if David pulled himself on top of me without shame? What if we held each other so tightly I could feel a heartbeat in my legs and I couldn’t be sure if it was his blood pumping or mine? What if everything they told us was a story? What if everything was a lie?

I pulled David close to me on the couch.

“Is this okay?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

We fucked on the couch, on the soggy carpet in our living room. We breathed deeply and flooded each other with life.


In the water line, young man in a pair of camo shorts scolded the Christs.

“We have come,” the Christs were saying, “So the good people of Little Washington shall not thirst.”

“You are not Christs!” shouted the young man, “You are crazy!”

But the Christs just stared at him blankly, sacrificially, like he was the crazy one.


“I should rinse off,” I told David, and he brought me a gallon jug of water.

I stood in our shower as he poured it over my head. The water felt freezing against my skin and I shivered. I soaped my face, under my arms, between my legs.

When I finished, I poured the rest over David and he pulled me close to him. We stood there together, naked and trembling in the empty bathtub.


It took another thirty-six hours for them to treat the water, cleansing it of the toxins that could have done us in.

I used to think it would be so easy to die. A quick glug of poison, a swift dive out the window, a blow in the night from a stranger. But the body is resilient. The body will fight. I had thought life to be so fragile, but I was learning to feel its strength.

David and I met and married in Little Washington. This was where we would grow old and one day die and be buried next to our daughter. One day we would devolve into whispers of mystery, just like Blackbeard or the lady in the barrel, just like the pregnant woman in the window, just like the Christs and the teenagers and the vicious, mythical women. Only far in the future, when our ancestors spoke of us, I wanted them to remember us for how we lived. Not about how joy came to us so easily, but how we went after it.

Annie Vitalsey is an MFA candidate in fiction at Arizona State University. Her stories have appeared in Bennington ReviewMenacing HedgeBird’s ThumbWatershed Review, and elsewhere. Originally from North Carolina, Annie now resides in Mesa, Arizona.