“The Sandman” by Joni Tobin
Big Jim and The Boys are no longer here. After the tornado wiped out the town, Big Jim packed up and left, drove down the road with The Boys following, south toward Texas. He sold his land to Walmart and went, and we all stood in the road and watched them go, waving like I imagine people on a deserted island would wave to the first group to get rescued.
Boom-Boom is also gone, and the Mist sisters, and Cheese Wilson. Same with Sheriff Barnham and the Lincoln Continental he customized when the county elected him 27 years ago, and the Cowboy, who always dressed like it was 1885, and Wolfman with his neckbeard that the women at Curl Up and Dye tried to get him to shave when he came in once a year for a haircut. Curl Up and Dye is gone too, and the Foodliner and The General Store, where you could buy postcards of the old railroad depot and the Ace Comb factory, neither of which are there anymore either.
What the tornado didn’t take, the silent days after did. Ace Comb had shut down long before the tornado came, but we had always secretly harbored the hope that Klein Tools or Smith & Wesson or even Tyson Foods would buy the building. Most of us still have plastic combs from the Ace plant in our back pockets, and can remember when the plant spit steam and smoke and the whistle blew quitting time like it was 1955. But the tornado and the subsequent aftershocks of fierce winds damaged the rotting plant enough that we knew, looking at the broken windows and the caved-in roof and the missing bricks, that the last whistle had blown and all words to be spoken were of destruction instead of renewal, and it wasn’t long before what was left of the city council had it condemned and torn down.
Wolfman was one of the first to leave, though we can still hear the remnants of his pack howling through the silver nights down by the lake. The wolves are not really wolves, and they belonged to Wolfman’s father, but the name stuck on him. Wolfman’s father ordered them from the back of a newspaper, part Alaskan husky and part timber wolf. For years he bred them and sold them to people from Fort Smith and Little Rock and Tulsa who didn’t know any better. Just before he died, he walked out to the kennel and opened the kennel doors, and for close to twenty years they have circled our town, howling at the stars and eating anything that breathes and generally scaring the shit out of everyone. We had hoped the tornado would have been the end of them, so that at least one good thing would have come out of it, but in the days following, when we were first turning in circles to see what was left of our lives, we could hear them circling, creeping ever closer, following the old patterns of instinct and survival.
Sherry Winslow is gone, with her pink Mary Kay station wagon and drinking problem, west toward California, her crumpled fenders winking in the last sunlight. Same with Chelsea Kelly and Whittaker Nails and Afran Asibado, who tried to teach the kids soccer but grew frustrated when he couldn’t get them to stop tackling one another. Afran was our vet, and he once took it upon himself to track down the wolves and put an end to them. But even with his knowledge of animals he failed, and we took that failure to heart. The more melodramatic among us decided his failure was a metaphor for our lives, that even the best and brightest among us failed here or that danger still circled the land around us and kept us pinned in place, despite the number of people we had watched driving off.
What we still have here is moisture from the Gulf, and the storms that boil up out of the west. We still have the lake my great-grandfather dredged out of the earth in 1923. We still have his old Indian motorcycle, his storm cellar, and his love of the land in which he was born, though we no longer have the house in which he was born. Sticks and Stones are still here, the brothers who look enough alike to fool people into thinking they are twins. The real twins are here too, Allison and Annabelle, with their long blond hair and blue eyes and sad way of looking at the world, even though they are only ten and should not have had to suffer so much sadness so early in life. Their parents were killed in the storm. They sit so still people lean in close to see if they are breathing. Mostly they stay with Heather, who is not from here and only staying as long as it takes to convince me to leave with her. They watch her with their wide eyes, not moving. She has told them about human statues in the parks of big cities, and they have decided this is something they wish to do — to hold so still that time moves on around them, to become statues themselves. They stand in awkward poses for hours, and do not answer when we call them.
What else is here: Kathy Flanagan and her parrots, Heckle and Jeckle, African grays that say, “Beer me!” and “Diarrhea plop plop!” and “We like it from behind!” Kathy Flanagan is Christian, and she is embarrassed when the birds say these things. Rumor has it her nephews Sticks and Stones, in a marathon session while Kathy was gone to see Billy Graham in Tulsa, ruined the birds, but Kathy is too kindhearted to put them out, although she did chase them around with a broom the first time one of her birds said “blow job.”
C.V. is also here, and Bill Smith and his wife, Sunny, who has taken up the job of teaching the children since the elementary school was also wiped out by the storm. Besides the twins, Allison and Annabelle, there are perhaps a dozen children. They run wild over the grounds. They swim in the lake even this late in the year, except for the twins, who stand eye-deep in the murky water and do not move. Sunny stands at the edge of the lake and reminds them to breathe. In the long afternoon the children’s voices echo to the far hills and back, reminding us what it was like to be young.
Grist Harris and his brother Stamp are still here, and Randy and Sandy Smith-Lloyd, but we are a remnant of what we once were, perhaps 30 people out of a thousand. Our houses are gone, ripped apart by the storm. We camp at the edge of my property, by the edge of the lake, by the ruins of my great-great-grandfather’s house. It sits in a pile where the wind tore it down, and every day I pick through the ruins. So far I have found the stones of the hearth and most of the window frames and the front door. The hearthstones I am resurrecting, and some days Heather helps me drag out salvageable wood. She tilts her head to the side and asks if I am planning on rebuilding the house. We lean against the reconstructed hearth. I know she wants me to leave the ruins of the house and go with her, and when I tell her I don’t know, she narrows her eyes like she doesn’t believe me.
I have also found most of the stairs that led to the second floor, the horseshoe that hung above the door, and the Civil War cannon my great-great-grandfather saved from postwar melting that is too heavy to be moved by any storm. Sometimes the twins stand to either side of it, or pose in the act of firing it. If you watch them carefully, they move, but only imperceptibly. They are like shadows moving in the late afternoon, or the slow passage of time. Like all of us, they are simply waiting.
The lawyers from Walmart are also here, trying to buy what is left of our land. They are led by a man named Bennett Hale-Coe. He is six and a half feet tall but speaks so softly you have to lean in close to hear him. During the day we hide from the lawyers, afraid we might decide the big checks they carry are worth more to us than living in the same place all our lives. At night we build fires under the endless circling of the stars. Our faces in shadow are hopeful and terrified, and we are forced to look into our souls. The question we always ask is: why are we still here? The lawyers would pay us well, and we could start over somewhere else. Already we have received letters from the Sheriff, who lives in Kansas City now, and from Big Jim and Boom-Boom in places with exotic names like Mammoth Springs, Colorado, and Apple Valley, Utah. The smell of roasting meat draws the wolves in close and we can hear them snarling in the darkness. Our tents beside the ruins of the old house are colorful. We call ourselves gypsies. When I slide inside Heather at night, I am sure the others hear us, but this is the South, and people are polite about that kind of thing. We are cavemen, living on the edge of the lake, hoping the storms do not come again.
When the big storm came, we hid underground. My great-grandfather, a man as unpredictable as the spring storms here in Tornado Alley, dug the cellar himself after the first car he’d ever seen dropped out of a clear blue sky onto his front lawn in 1923. (He never found the owner. The car sat where it had fallen until 1936, when another storm picked it up and carried it off.) He rented a backhoe from town and cut out the guts of a small hill just north of the old house. Then he framed it and poured the concrete, and, when everything had hardened, rebuilt the hill on top of the cellar. There is a heavy door in the face of the hill and two air ducts on top so air circulates down below.
Inside, the cellar is huge. Perhaps my great-grandfather had some premonition when he was building it, or perhaps he just wanted to be comfortable. We only used it when the storms were very bad. The walls are three feet thick and reinforced with steel. During most storms we sat on the porch, rocking and watching the lightning fire the underbellies of the clouds. Only if, in the flashes of lightning, we saw funnel clouds spinning out over the hills and heard the distant roar of the tornado that sounded like freight trains or rusted sirens, would my grandfather carry me to the cellar, where all night I would hear the storm speaking to me beneath the earth. When I woke in the morning the world would be glistening with raindrops, the sky so blue it hurt to look at it. Everything would smell fresh and clean and sometimes I thought the world was made anew with each storm.
On the night of the big storm we had a party. The cellar is large enough for forty or fifty people, and it was packed so tight we could hardly move around each other. Big Jim and The Boys were there, tuning their instruments in the far corner. Boom-Boom was there, and Wolfman and Kathy Flanagan and her parrots, who occasionally shouted, “Shut your ass!” or “My butt itches!” In the afternoon, when reports of the storm first started circulating on the radio, I stocked up on beer and liquor and some old wine bottles I found in the cellar, and when people started arriving as the storm neared, they brought sandwiches and Cokes and bags of ice.
All afternoon the leaves had been hanging listlessly from the trees and the day had been as still as Allison and Annabelle get when they are playing statue. The late afternoon light looked yellow, and the air stuck to your skin, and we knew what was boiling up on the plains of Oklahoma. When night fell, lightning lit up the sky like daylight, and the night seemed darker after each strike. We could hear the wind moaning above us, and we knew it was going to be a bad one, but it is our nature here, those of us who have lived with the storms all our lives, to look on the bright side of things.
So we listened to Big Jim and The Boys and toasted one another with old wine. A few of us slipped something even stronger into our drinks and ignored the rising wind, only occasionally peering out the door to see what was gathering.
It was close to midnight when the tornado hit. We could hear hail on the air ducts, and the distant sound of thunder. The rain fell sideways. Most of us were pretty drunk by then. The children had fallen asleep and Big Jim and The Boys were resting their fingers. The sound started so low you could barely hear it, then gained strength and force as it spun itself into existence. The lights flickered and went out, and in the candlelight our faces were big and scared.
I think we all knew the house was going. We could hear the nails singing and the wood stretching, even above the howl of the wind. We could hear the windows popping and the shingles ripping off. We knew, when it all collapsed in a giant roar that seemed more than just twisted nails and wood broken under pressure, that it would not be easily fixed. And we all knew mine was only the first house that would go. In the cellar people were crying and patting me on the back, and something broke in me that felt like the way the house ripping apart had sounded.
It was still sprinkling when the tornado moved off to the east and we came out, but the wind had died and the night sky above us was bright. We could see the path the tornado took through the trees. We could see the distant lights of town. The tornado siren was wailing into the night. The house was splinters. The roof was intact, but it lay atop a mass of kindling. The debris was all over the yard. One window, unbroken, had fallen just outside the storm cellar, and I could see my face reflected in it. Someone said, “God, Allen, I am so sorry,” and we all stood at the edge of the ruins for a moment before people drove home to see what had happened to their own houses.
Before it died in the tornado, the old house sat in the middle of three hundred acres of western Arkansas. There is a small creek running into a big pond, what we euphemistically call a lake. My great-grandfather, in 1923, with a team of horses and hired hands, dredged the sides of the creek and threw the soil and rocks up into a dam. When the lake filled in, it was long and slim and tapering to a point, like a gravy boat or a magic lamp.
The house was Greek Revival. A half-dozen columns guarded the front porch. The hearth was big enough to stand inside, and the white pine floors gleamed of tung oil. At some point, before the Great Depression ruined so many things, there was a badminton court, a swimming pool, and a guesthouse. Walking down the drive, the house presented itself as an old Southern plantation, though there were no slave quarters, and no fields of cotton. What we have here is scrub brush my grandfather spent most of his life trying to contain, and wolves that aren’t wolves. After my grandfather died, the house passed to me. My father never wanted the place. He thought everything here was trying to be something else, from a Southern plantation that never produced anything, to wolves that weren’t really wolves. His job was to buy and sell land, not hold onto it. He hated the storms, hated the rising wind, the smell of ozone when lightning strikes. What he didn’t know was how those things could get inside you, become part of you. He thought I was mad for wanting to stay there. I thought he was mad for wanting to leave. So the divide here was not so much familial as geographical, an epic tale of land inheritance and disappointed fathers. It was understood I would watch over the house and stay out of trouble. I suspect the only reason my father didn’t try to sell the house is that he thought no one would buy it. No one would pay what it is worth, and it is worth nothing to someone not from here.
He must have seen us on the news after the storm — we made the national — but it was three days before he could get anyone on the phone. When he couldn’t raise anyone at the house he called Kathy Flanagan, then C.V., then Bill and Sunny, and finally got the new sheriff. His house was one of a handful that hadn’t been destroyed. I followed him into what was left of the town on the Indian. Debris was everywhere: trees ripped out of the ground, houses lifted and dropped in other places, cars dented by fallen trees or telephone poles. People stood in the ruins of their houses. They moved like ghosts. The sound of chainsaws and beeping trucks rattled off the hills. In places, power lines still spit sparks.
My father sounded farther away than Florida. “A man named Bennett called me,” he said.
“He’s a lawyer.”
“I know he’s a lawyer. He wants to buy your grandfather’s land.”
“He wants to build a shipping plant. The town will be gone.”
“From what I’ve seen, the town is gone.”
I could picture my father somewhere in Florida, gripping the phone and looking out the window but not seeing anything. “I won’t sell.”
“It’s not your decision.”
“I’m fine, by the way,” I said. “I wasn’t hurt in the tornado.”
My father drew a long breath. “The house is gone. Come down here. We’ll go into real estate together. There’s nothing left for you there.”
Later that night, the dark shadows of people passing back and forth before the fires, I sat on the front steps with the house destroyed behind me and watched them. The twins were pretending to be statues of lions to either side of me, like the destroyed house was a library or museum or other great repository of knowledge, something that needed to be remembered.
Heather is not one of us. The day after the storm tore everything away she crossed my land wearing a backpack and khaki shorts she had bought from a catalogue. Her legs were the color of cinnamon. I was sitting beside the old house, wondering how to begin again, and didn’t hear her.
“Must have been a wild party,” she said. She stood behind me, head cocked to one side. Her eyes seemed too big then, and sometimes, at night in our tent, they still do. Her hair was cut to her shoulders, a mousy brown that seemed drab under the gray clouds. When I stood, she came up to my chin, though it seemed she was taller, that I was looking up at her.
“It was a storm,” I said. The house had been built in 1887. It was the oldest thing I knew, except perhaps how to breathe, a thing I had to remind myself to do after the storm, to keep drawing in breath.
“Well, of course it was,” she said. I got the feeling she wanted to roll her eyes but had to remind herself she wasn’t 14 any longer. She was perhaps 25, a year or two younger than me. I knew, looking at her expensive but crumpled clothes, that she had family somewhere who wired her money whenever she asked for it, who pleaded for her to come home and settle down. I knew she was backpacking across the U.S., and by this time next year would be in Europe doing the same thing, before she finally decided on an occupation like the Peace Corps that would bring her little money and royally piss her father off.
“Was this yours?”
“Something like that,” I said. I didn’t tell her the house had been left to me when my grandfather died and my parents moved to Florida, and that at night the old house whispered stories of its long past. I didn’t tell her I had a trust fund too, but instead of seeing the world was trying to understand one small part of it.
“I need a place to stay,” she said, shrugging off her backpack. “I’ll pay you.”
She began pulling her tent out of her backpack without waiting for an answer. Even now some of the people here find it funny that she has a better house than the rest of us. Later that night, after she had set up her tent and tried and failed to sleep, she joined me by the fire. Slowly at first, then gaining speed, she told me her story: she was hiking through all 50 states. She had started in California, gone down through Arizona and into New Mexico, then into Texas and Oklahoma and now here. She told me that Arizona was hot, and New Mexico hard to breathe in. She said Texas was big, and Oklahoma long. I could tell she was seeing them again in her head, but I couldn’t see anything beyond the ruins of the house. None of the others were here then. The wolves called on the far side of the lake. I kept waiting for her to ask me about the house and what I was going to do, but she just sat on one of the logs I had dragged near the fire and leaned back and looked at the stars. When she finally went to bed, she paused at her tent flap.
“There’s room in here as long as you stay on your side of the tent,” she said, and when I woke in the morning her hand lay on my chest and her breath on my neck was warm.
After Heather, other people started coming. The tornado had destroyed most of the town, and I suppose people didn’t know where else to go. Kathy Flanagan came first, bringing Heckle and Jeckle and Sticks and Stones. We stood at the edge of the lake, at the edge of the ruins, and put up her tent while the birds said, “Douchebag!” and “We like boobs!” Their shrill voices echoed over the lake. Late November, and it was cold already. Two days before it had been in the 70s, and muggy, and the cold air from up north had sent the tornadoes spinning through Oklahoma and into Arkansas. Now it was seasonably cold, and the lake was as gray as the clouds.
By the time we finished Kathy’s tent, C.V. was here, and Bill Smith and his wife, Sunny, who, as the closest relatives, were keeping the twins in the aftermath of the storm. Already the twins had gone quiet, and as the evening wore on and more people arrived, they got quieter still. Heather told them stories of the places she had seen, and the tents went up in the background. Some of the people had already sold their land and were only staying the night. Big Jim and The Boys drove out to say goodbye, and we all stood and watched them go down the road. Boom-Boom went next, and then the Sheriff, and then Wolfman, who cocked his head to the side as if listening for one last howl of the wolves running wild.
No one will say this, but everyone knows why they left. It is hard to live here. I have always known, wandering through the old house at night with the wind rising under the eaves, why some people disappeared and never came back. Our cars are dented from hailstorms. Our shingles need replacing every few years. Our trees are blown over and limbs fall on our houses. After every storm we walk slowly through our yards, surveying the damage. The sound of chainsaws rattles up and down the hills. Our weather vanes are torn away. Our barns cave in. Our lives are as worn and ragged as the houses we live in, as windswept as the landscape we see every morning and every night. Where we live, our houses get broken more often than our hearts, with the same regularity as the seasons.
By the end of the week, everyone was gone who was going to go, and everyone was here who was going to stay. Except Heather, of course — I still don’t know about her. It is December now, and the weather is still cold and the lawyers are still here and we still live in tents, although our tents have taken on a permanence I wouldn’t have thought possible. Kathy Flanagan put a sign outside her tent that said, “Home is where the heart is,” and a little basket for her mail. Heather, thinking herself funny, hung a sign over the ruins that said, “Bless this mess.” C.V. carved out wooden signs that he hung in the worn paths between the tents. The signs say Kansas City and Tulsa and Dallas, Little Rock and Memphis and New Orleans. They give the number of miles to each city, and the number of hours’ drive it would take to get there, and the signs make us feel happy and tired at the same time.
During the day we dig through the ruins of our houses, and each night bring back to the tents what we have saved: sofas and oil paintings and chessboards, silverware and the good china and bottles of bourbon. We have worn paths between the tents, and all our tents have baskets for mailboxes. We have potted plants beside welcome mats outside our tent flaps. In the morning we nod to one another and build up the fires to cook, and at night we boil cans of green beans or black-eyed peas in the fire. The wolves’ eyes float around our little village in the darkness. The twins stand as still as stone, so still the wind moves around them.
The lawyers come every day. They have bought over half the land the township owned. We are the holdouts, and they think we are simply trying to get more money. They create elaborate schemes to get us to sell, but we don’t listen. They want to build a huge shipping plant. We are central to Kansas City and Tulsa and Dallas, to Little Rock and Memphis and New Orleans, they tell us, and this makes us proud to be in such an important location, and sad that we didn’t know where we lived was so great before it was all gone.
Bennett Hale-Coe is not at all what you would expect from a man trying to buy out your land so his company can build a shipping plant. His minions, at various times, have tried blustering, cajoling, whining, threatening, and gift-giving, but Bennett Hale-Coe does none of these things. He drives out in his Chevy pickup and stands looking around at the tents and the lake and the remains of my ancestral home until one of us comes over to him. He nods his head, and we shake hands, quickly and fiercely. His hands are always dry and I admire this in him. The first time he was here, not long after the storm had torn everything down, he explained who he was and what he wanted in that soft voice, but now he just sits staring at the remains of the old house or looking deep into the fire if his visit carries on past nightfall.
“It’s nice out here,” he says. “I could really get used to it.”
After a while he hands me a slip of paper with a new offer written on it, then stands up and leaves. I wait until he is gone before I throw the paper in the fire and watch the edges curl black.
When they are not pretending to be statues, the twins are making flower necklaces to lay on their parents’ graves. They remind us what a blessing and a curse it is to be alive. They do not play with the other children. They play near them. When the children are playing hide-and-seek, the twins are the base. They do not move, even when the children sprint hard for them with the person who is it on their heels. They are so pale they seem to be disappearing, and Kathy Flanagan and Sunny Smith are worried about their complexions. They seem bloodless at times, as if they really are turning into the statues they imitate, white-veined marble or alabaster. They are scared of clouds. Wind makes them go as still as death, though we get the idea that it is something they cannot control and not a game any longer.
In mid-December Kathy Flanagan begins stringing Christmas lights between the tents. She and Sunny Smith and the twins go caroling from tent to tent. We cut cedars in the woods and bring them to our village and string lights on them. The diesel generators hum all night like the ghosts of people that have gone.
Bennett Hale-Coe brings a gift basket with wine and cheeses and summer sausages and fancy mustard. When he leaves he hands me a piece of paper with a number on it that makes me flinch. I see his minions in yellow hats, holding rolled-up maps and surveyor’s tools, waving their arms to encompass the edges of my land.
Heather and I argue or make love all night. When she asks me when we are leaving I don’t answer. I want to walk her through the tents and show her Kathy Flanagan’s sign. I want her to see Sunny Smith reading to the twins. I want her to see the grain on the wood I have saved from the old house, the veins in the marble from the hearth, the horseshoe that hung over the door. I want to tell her that people like us have dreams of seeing the world, but we aren’t the kind of people who do that. We’re the kind of people who are proud to be the fifth generation living on the same patch of land. We’re the kind of people who live in houses that used to have grand names that now sound as hollow as the long hallways. We can hear our houses breathe late at night. We can tell by the way the leaves hang on the trees if a storm is coming, and we can tell by the sound of the wolves howling if they are baying at the moon in longing or in pursuit of something that flees in the darkness.
It’s hard to explain why you love a place that tries to kill you three or four times a year, either by force of nature or the wild animals that roam the perimeter of the world you know.
Some nights she gets so angry she packs her backpack and stomps off into the woods. But she is scared of the wolves and always returns. She accuses me of using the wolves to keep her here. When she is really mad she screams that all of us are imprisoned here, that we have created walls that don’t exist. She tells us geography is bullshit, that places don’t have souls. She points at the ruins of the house and tells me it is just fucking wood and goddamn stone, and I don’t know how to tell her that geography is more than just a physical location. I can’t explain why some people are drawn to the land and some people are not.
Every few days she tells me she is leaving. She kneels inside the tent flap and says, “I’m leaving. There’s nothing you can do to stop me.” Outside, the birds are saying, “Who let the dogs out?” and “Me so horny.” I can smell bacon being cooked somewhere over a fire. It’s morning and the air is as still as the twins.
I tell her I don’t want her to go but that I understand if she has to leave. She tilts her head to the side, trying to figure out what trick I am playing. After a few moments she backs out of the tent, still eyeing me suspiciously. I stick my head out and signal the twins, who intercept Heather and ask for a story, or I wave to Sticks and Stones, who ask her about New Orleans, and if you can really get hookers there. At night, when she has still not left, she lies beside me not talking, her body turned away from me. I speak softly, so as not to scare her. This is what Heather wants: the open world in front of her. She wants to hike through Central America and ride a motorcycle across Argentina. She wants to swim in the Nile and drive camels through the Sahara. She does not want to be tied to the land. She does not believe there are only certain places you can be happy, so I tell her we’ll be Romanian gypsies, or trapeze artists traveling through Old Mexico. We will be Tibetan Sherpas, or Eskimo traders, or kangaroo hunters. I tell her we will tour the South in an old VW Bug that will break down in small towns where people will not be tolerant of her Northern upbringing. I say we will backpack across Nicaragua and hope we are not taken prisoner by drug lords, and all these stories seem to make her happy. She purrs contentedly beside me. Her breath smells like apples.
These are sad lies and they never end.
The wind came up Christmas Eve and the tent flaps whipped in the wind. The lights strung from the tents swayed in little arcs and the fires sawed back and forth and spit sparks. The cedar trees had been covered in fake snow and people were passing around eggnog and whiskey. Waves on the lake lapped at the bank. The wolves howling reminded us of places we had never been.
It took a long time for us to realize a storm was coming. We had the radio tuned to Christmas songs, and Bill Smith’s TV was showing Christmas Mass. When Heather’s tent came unmoored and shot down the driveway twirling end over end, Kathy Flanagan ran for Heckle and Jeckle. When she ducked inside her tent, the wind tore it off her back and sent it chasing after Heather’s and Heckle or Jeckle said, “Well, fuck me!” Bill Smith cut the power and the lights died and we stood in darkness, watching lightning hit all around us, and felt the rising wind on the backs of our necks.
“The cellar,” I said. “Go.”
The trees bent in the wind and leaves littered the air. In the flashes of lightning I could see people running. The surface of the lake frothed white. Streaks of lightning jabbed at the ground and then the thunder came. The first drops of rain fell, big and warm on my head, and then the heavens opened.
By the time I made it to the cellar I was soaked. Inside, it smelled of wet clothing and damp earth. Heather’s hair was plastered to her face. She wore a white shirt and I could see her nipples. Rainwater came under the door and we backed in the far corner and stood there listening to the rain on the roof.
“Ain’t we a sight?” Bill Smith said. He carried a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket and when he tried to fish one out it came apart in his hands.
Sunny Smith was counting heads. She was up to 29 when there was an enormous crack of thunder. In the aftermath I thought I heard sirens, or the wind, but it was Sunny Smith screaming, and it took a few minutes for us to realize that the twins were still out in the storm.
It took three of us to push the door open against the wind. Our flashlights were feeble things in the darkness. The wind tore all words away so there was nothing to do but go. The trees were still shaking and rocks and dirt and hail whipped around in the wind. It was impossible to tell direction. I saw C.V. holding his hand over his eyes and Bill Smith bent low over the ground. I saw Sticks and Stones holding onto one another, and I saw Kathy Flanagan and Sunny Smith holding hands to stay together as they ran out into the storm.
Outside, the air still felt warm. The rain was warm, mixed with hail now. I cupped my hands around my face. I looked back once at the cellar, and in a flash saw Heather standing by the door, yelling at me. I thought she said, “Come back.”
The twins were not by the edge of the lake. They were not by the cannon. I couldn’t hear myself calling for them. Every flash of lightning burned itself across my eyes. Trees were falling in the forest. Mud seeped through my shoes. Occasionally I could see C.V. or Kathy or Sunny, cupping their hands around their mouths, heads turning from side to side. The rain fell sideways, and the hail stung like hornets.
I found the twins by the ruins. They were still lions, still flanking what used to be the front steps of the old house. They were not scared. They stood in the wind as if they were statues. Not even their hair moved. They did not blink, and when I first lifted Allison to my shoulder she seemed to weigh more than the combined weight of history and place. The wind and rain stopped, and for a moment I could see and hear. The twins were crying quietly. They said, “Where’s Mother and Father?” In the sudden quiet I could hear Kathy Flanagan and Sunny Smith calling for the twins and then the tornado dropped.
It is something you will always remember. Imagine wind taking shape. The air seems to be sucked away from you. You draw breath as hard and fast as you can but there is no more air in the world. Then the sound comes, like wolves howling in an ancient forest in the lost depths of time. Beside me, the ruins of the old house hummed like electricity. They glowed like ghosts. They shifted as I picked up Annabelle, and as I ran with one twin over each shoulder, I saw the remains of the house rise up slowly, hovering in the air. It hung there for a moment and then disappeared.
Kathy Flanagan did not come back that night. Nor did she come back the next day, or the day after that. Sunny was the last person to see her. They got separated when the tornado dropped. Sunny says they were holding hands, and then they were not. Sunny knelt in the mud and called for her, but her words were whipped away. The hail and rocks stung her, and when she could see and hear again, Kathy was gone. She does not believe Kathy is dead, and no one tells her otherwise.
Bennett Hale-Coe did come back, though he wore a haunted look after seeing people digging through the ruins of ruins, trying to salvage what little they had been able to salvage from the last storm. He has not made any more offers on the land, and the lawyers have not yet come back.
Heckle and Jeckle got out of their cage sometime during the storm, and no one has seen them since. Nor has anyone seen the wolves. No one has heard them howling in the night, their throats sounding hoarse and torn, like a lament for something lost.
All the tents are gone, as is the old Indian. As near as we can tell it rolled into the lake. The only thing that remains of the house is the marble hearthstones. They tumbled in the wind, and I will have start over, but they were too heavy for the wind to carry away. I have them and the old cannon, which I have aimed at the sky now, in case the storms come again. C.V. thinks we can dive in after the Indian in the spring and bring it back up. He says I can find the wood remains of the house, or cut new. I try to share his enthusiasm but remember the twins asking where their mother and father were. I remember the house hovering over us, then disappearing. It will be hard, I think.
Kathy Flanagan’s “Home Is Where The Heart Is” sign is gone, and her basket mailbox, and Heckle and Jeckle, though Sticks and Stones remain confident they will return. They wander through the trees yelling, “We love you, Kathy,” and hoping voices repeat it back.
Heather’s “Bless This Mess” sign is gone too. Heather is still here, for now. At night, when she talks of leaving, the fire flickering across her face and the stars bright above us, we go with her in our minds. She talks of the wilds of Borneo, the Serengeti plains, the summit of K2. She wants to relieve sickness in Third World countries, be a peace emissary to the Middle East, settle the dispute in Kashmir, and all these things sound foreign and exciting, but I can tell by the looks on people’s faces that they just want their homes back.
I do not know how long Heather will stay, or if she will. We sleep in the storm cellar. When we are alone, our voices echo off the concrete walls. She tells me I can’t build an entire house with only hearthstones. She says we will never find the Indian, or, if she is in a good mood, she says we can rebuild it and tour the country on motorcycle. Inside the cellar, her voice sounds like it is underwater, like it has no strength. She can’t understand why we would want to rebuild. But you know, if you have ever lived in a place like this.