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.

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 everywhere 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.


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.

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

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