Black-Eyed Susans

My father built the three houses I lived in growing up but it’s the first one that flashes through my mind when I hear the word “tornado.”  I return to the small concrete bunker smelling of sawdust. I hear the cackling radio and see my mother’s tears in the dim light as the baby cries and my brother feigns bravery.

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House in Michigan

I was six when it happened; running barefoot through nearby farms, stealing pea pods and prying them open for the sweet goodies inside. When I was a child I only went inside when called.  Or when hungry or scared.

It came on a sweaty afternoon in late spring, a time when black-eyed Susans, with their cheery faces and lop-eared petals, grew thick and wild IMG_0313everywhere in central Michigan  and you could pick as many as you wanted which is what I was doing when I heard my neighbor’s rabbits squealing and ran over to to see why. They had all sorts of animals trapped in small, wire cages just outside their barn.

“What’s wrong?”  I asked, freeing the rabbits.  They had black and white spots and were so fat they could barely hop. The neighbor spied me from her window seat and ran outside screaming. “Your mother’s going to whip you good!”

I started to run but stopped to let her dog off his heavy chain.  He was my friend and something wicked was coming.  An ogre perhaps, or maybe a cyclops.  A massive, one-eyed, child-eating cyclops with blood-stained teeth and a laugh that turned blood to ice.  I had to free as many animals as I could so they could run away.

Our house was built into a hill, not a particularly steep hill but one with enough slope to ski down in the winter when there was snow. Beyond our yard was Thorny Woods, a swath of birches filled with blackberry vines so bewitched they towered over me.

I arrived home to find my mother standing at the back door with the baby in her arms screaming my name. Overhead grey clouds drooped like the udders of deranged milk cows. “Get down to the bunker,” she ordered.  The radio was on full blast, filling the house with the frantic cackling of a thousand crazy witches.

“I can’t!”  I pleaded.

“Take your brother and get down there.  Now!”

To get to the bunker you had to go across the garage, through a hole in the floor and down a ladder in the dark.  I couldn’t go through the garage because of the horror.  She shoved me towards the stairs as she grabbed the portable radio with her one free hand.  “For crying out loud! They’re only animals!”

I grabbed my brother’s chubby hand and started to cry, each step down the stairs worse than the one before until I reached the bottom.  The lights flickered. I tried not to look but blood was everywhere, pooling in lakes all over the concrete  from my father’s latest kills, the rabbits, the deer, the pheasants, now hanging on meathooks, their sad eyes watching me.

Mother ran through the blood to open the trap door, disappearing into the hole as my brother broke free of my grasp and ran after her. He slipped and fell into the stain, then rose and with a sob followed her into the hole.

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Mother re-emerged seconds later, picked me up savagely and carried me across the pools of blood.  I can still see her bloody footprints.

Once in the bunker she tried to read a book in the dim light from the camp stove but we couldn’t hear the words over the sound of the monster raging above.  Her lips moved that was it.  The baby cried, my brother cried and finally my mother cried.

Finally it was quiet. We all stopped crying for a second.  Maybe it was over I thought, but I was wrong.  Soon the winds began again, this time preceded by a terrible sucking sound.

tornado

The toilet exploded, water shooting up to the ceiling, followed by a rumbling in the earth as it threatened to rip apart beneath us. We were all screaming.  The banshees, the baby, my brother, mother and me.

Then, again, quiet. Anyone who’s been through a disaster knows that in the aftermath a strange calm fills the air. We moved like zombies into the daylight.  Slowly other zombies emerged. With the exception of broken windows, my father’s first house was spared.  However, the house next door looked like a pile of pick-up sticks.   I heard they rebuilt but by then father had tired of the corporate world and we were gone.

Tornado aftermath

Aftermath of a tornado, Monson MA

Red Flag Day

Today is hot and windy.  The air is full of flying locusts, or maybe they’re just dead leaves, I can’t tell and won’t go outside to find out.  Every couple of minutes I check the internet, hoping that the forecast will change, that a storm system will move down from the north and drench us but the news is grim.  At least four more days of Red Flags.

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View on a hot, smoky day

Red Flags are dangerous though quiet days.  Weed whackers, chain saws, and power tools of any sort are prohibited thus an eerie quiet prevails in the bedroom communities, broken only by an occasional car.  I worry about the pile of dead branches my neighbor is breeding so close to our property but in his untended Spanish-style abode I have heard he breeds other, more sinister things than piles of dead branches so I’ll just worry.

I can remember years when the rain fell constantly from November to June.  April showers did not bring flowers but more showers.  Of course those years I had small children and thus the constant rain meant canceled soccer practices and girl scout outings, forcing us to stay inside and wish for sun.

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I’m waiting for a friend to arrive.  She may have forgotten. She does that sometimes.  I may be waiting a long time for nothing.

She is moving, this friend.  Leaving hot, dusty California, long-time pals, hairdressers, doctors, special restaurants and bookstores to find new ones in the Colorado mountains where there may still be snow.IMG_0237 I don’t know what I will say to her.  It would be different if the move were not necessitated by money and health concerns but it’s a Red Flag day and I’m not feeling very wise so I plan to pop in a movie, one about stepping out of your comfort zone, taking a chance and finding new friends and purpose in life.  I hope it helps.