The storm hung far in front us, with its billowy clouds and the striking iciness of its swift, penetrating winds menacing the clear blue sky overhead. The fresh smell of dampness hit us. Later I would be told it came from ozone created by the rambling forces of lightning against the molecules of air, but, even back then, it smelled of clean things, of things that you want to hold next to you forever, like mothers, and small children, and your favorite toy that guards you in the darkness against all evil creatures, or the touch of a newly clean sheet in the cool of an autumn night. We could hear now the thunder rolling across the distant sky, its rumbling a reminder of the forces and the powers that were soon to come upon us. I thrilled to the sounds and the smells and the visual fireworks that exploded in the sky. The heavenly vault was covered with gigantic cobwebs that flickered and flamed and shook themselves and each other. A cold, damp wind struck my face, and my heart raced with expectation at the sensual caresses that awaited me.
My grandfather was still and quiet. His look of wonder was mingled with a touch of concern and of consternation. The house was behind us, a hundred yards from the fence line by which we now stood. Inside my grandmother cooked over the green-hued wood stove that I thought had been passed down from the Garden of Eden. That night we would eat fried chicken, fresh made bread, green peas picked that afternoon from the garden, and rice. We must have served that night half the rice in the world just on our own plates, covering it with heaps of cayenne pepper and gravy leftover from the noon repast.
As we ate the clouds gathered high above the tin roof of the house, its seven rooms protected by metal above and, along the sides amply wide eaves that had been put there for no other purpose than to keep out the rain. As I started in on my second plate, nine year olds can eat all they want without worrying about gaining weight or getting indigestion, the storm broke loose. Thousands of drops per second clattered into the tin roof, and the sound was deafening. Still, after a time, we were able to set the noise into the background and talk in normal voices. Nothing tastes better than a supper under a pouring rain with the windows opened and a swift breeze flowing past, pungent with the smells of the outside.
Though I only knew later the details, this was how Hurricane Audrey came upon us. We had heard about it on the radio, heard the warnings to get on high ground, warnings which all too many people, to their own disastrous end, ignored. But, high on top of the fifty foot hill, we were safe from storm surges and flooding, at least if it stayed within the normal bounds of a storm’s ravages. My grandfather had installed three lightning rods the year before, so we felt we were safe in that matter. The shed next to the house, that could be reached by staying under the eaves, was stocked with enough wood to last a century. The pantry held uncountable stores of home canned foods and enough fresh greens, tomatoes, pears, oranges, and butterbeans to last several days. My grandparents always thought ahead and stored up goods against lean times.
Still, despite my irremissible faith in the power of my grandparents to overcome all evil, I sensed in them a vague fear, not of death or of monetary ruin, but that, even though they had done their best to make their house solid and able to weather the storm, nothing was ever for certain. My brothers and sisters, all four of them, had planned to arrive two days from this one, but the weather held them back. I had the guest room to myself, for now, with its eiderdown mattresses and pillows, and its homemade quilts all soft, and warm, and inviting. When the shutters were closed not even the storm could bother me. I knew this because this rain was hardly the first one that had visited in these environs. When my grandmother tucked me in I felt as if I had slipped into a haven of luxury and quiet, and I fell asleep as she was closing the solid wooden door.
In the morning I opened the shutters and looked out. As I stood on the cool oak floor I watched the limbs of the trees in the distance as they writhed in the turbulence that beset them. Some limbs had already been torn off from the trunks, and they lay scattered here and there as if, even after they had fallen, the winds had picked them up and driven them far from their home. The fresh morning breeze that slipped across my pajama-clad body was almost too cold. A nip had come into the air, something I did not normally experience when everything was wet and wild outside.
The oak trees suffered most. The willows and the small Chinese tallows had limber boughs and branches that bent and shifted in the winds, and they stood barely ravaged by the storm save for the loss of leaves and the breaking of some of the more slender tips and twigs. But the oaks, massive and stiff, proud in their stateliness, could do naught but strain against the forces of the storm until their branches, even the huge ones as big round as a strong man’s waist, ripped and tore from the trunks and lay on the ground as still in death as they had been in life when there were no breezes.
Some of the bigger oaks toppled completely, their shallow roots wrenched from the soft brown earth of this bottomland that had been given to us by a river long ago moved by nature so far, far, away from our land, almost twenty miles away now. I wondered what the river would look like after this tempest had passed. My imaginations turned out to be so incorrect that even today, some fifty years later, I wonder how I could have been so naïve and untutored in the ways of hurricanes.
But, for the moment, all went well. We ate, made taffy, played cards, at night by the kerosene lamp, and enjoyed each other’s company. My grandparents clearly were concerned about the safety of their crops, but, though they tried to hide it, I sensed it. Still, I was glad they did not bring it up. To have seen my grandparents as weak, even in the struggle against so violent a storm, would have been difficult for me. Fortunately, their income was not principally derived from the farming, but the delicious and nutritious fresh foods they fostered came almost exclusively from their own gardening. My grandfather smoked his evening cigar at the end of the first day. I reveled in that smell which seeped across the room and made me feel that nature truly loved us by giving us cigars. Later, as I wandered into college, I took up smoking them myself, until, the time came in which the habit simply no longer pleased me, so I stopped completely from one day to the next.
The second day found the sky dark and overcast. The wind and the rain beat ceaselessly against everything unprotected from them. We had long ago put the noises from the tin roof out of our ears. The whole day passed as a prolonged dawn, the light of the sun unable to penetrate the clouds above or the flowing sheets of rain rushing through the sky. I could see that, outside, the storm was winning. Even the willows and the tallows were now in tatters and shreds.
Audrey showed no mercy to anything it met. My grandmother began to transfer items from the shed into the house. The shed was on the lee side of the rains, so, with the eaves as our umbrella, we could moves things into the parlor. Even my grandfather helped. He would always help where he was needed, but, because of the division of labor defined by his work and my grandmother’s staying at home all the time, I had rarely seen him do anything about the house save for repairs and painting. Slowly we got everything into the parlor, and just in time. The roof of the shed shredded and tore and fell to pieces. But we had beaten the storm on that point. Everything we needed was still with us.
About noon the eye of the hurricane passed over us. The sun shone in full splendor. The winds almost ceased to exist. That fresh smell which accompanies the aftermath or all hard rains settled upon the land. Birds that had come out of wherever they were hiding flew hither and thither to what was left standing of the trees. On a sudden the sky darkened once more, and the winds, this time in the opposite direction from which they had come before, again hurled the rains at our roof and our walls. I thanked the heavens that we had saved everything from the shed during the first encounter with the storm, because now the path from the back door to the shed found itself almost flooded with water. We should have been hard put, at that time, to save anything by taking it from the shed to the parlor.
Here we were on the third day. The games had ceased. My grandfather still smoked his cigars, but he looked out the windows several times each hour as if he hoped to see the clouds and waters gone away. My grandmother cooked and cleaned by the light of the kerosene lantern. The cistern was, of course, all full and eager to give us water. It had been constructed of heavy steel and thick, powerful boards that could hold up no matter what nature might send us.
I opened the front door, the winds now were at the back door, to glance down the hill. Water flowed there as if the very river had burst its banks and come to meet us. Brown waves of semi-water, or semi-mud, swept by. An occasional tree limb or wagon part showed itself even in the hollow of the darkness that surrounded us. I saw all too many dead cows or horses float by. I wondered how many small animals, animals too small to be seen against the murk, had met the same fate.
Then I heard the sound’ and I saw it. The tornado roared in the sky perhaps 200 yards from our home. I could not tell in which direction it was going, for the dawn was still in its infancy and the swirling wings clouded my vision. The funnel caught up everything in its path, tossing trees and fences around as if they had been feathers. As I watched it became clear that the tornado was headed straight for the house. I hurled myself into the room in which my grandparents were waiting. My grandmother was kneeling in prayer. My grandfather pulled me gently to the bathroom, stuffed me into the closet half filled with towels and sheets, kissed me goodbye, then shut the door. The next thing I remember is the howl of the funnel as it shredded the house. If my grandparents had cried out to me, I could not have heard it. The panels and boards and wooden girders of the house strained and creaked and tore with a rasping noise that even the tornado’s roar could not contain.
I woke up sometime later, but I did not know how long I had been unconscious. What was left standing of the house were the walls of the closet into which my grandfather had pushed me, the wall of the back part of the house, and a section of roof that had belonged somewhere else from where it now was lodged. The rains poured down unceasingly. Lightning spread throughout the sky, and its thunder sounded in rumbles across the vault in which I should have liked so much to see the sun. A small section of the shed still had a piece of roofing to shield it. To there I crawled, shivering and shaking with the cold, breathing hard against the violent tremors that surged through my body. Once safe against the rain, at least, I sat quiet and silent, thinking about where my grandparents might be, wondering should I ever get out of this alive. Death had a new meaning for me then, but I did not what that meaning might be. I knew my grandparents were probably dead, but I did not know exactly what consequences that held either for them or for me.
All the day I sat unmoving as the rain slid by. I could here the flooding water to the south of me as the river sent its swollen waters beyond its banks. I was hungry, cold, afraid, and alone. Night came, and the storm kept on. At sometime in the darkness, sleep took me. I awoke to a sunlit sky devoid of any wind or rain or swift passing currents. Such a peace after such turmoil brings relief all the way to the soul. I could see that the tornado had not touched down everywhere, and I walked towards the house in which my grandparents’ best friend lived. In the distance I saw it standing solid and sound. I knocked on the door, stepped inside, sat down at the kitchen table, and broke into uncontrollable sobs. I was safe. But others had paid such a price for it.
All the other stories I read about challenging the elements have fierce battles against raging waters, battles that last, battles in which first the rains are winning and then the protagonist goes ahead, with the one in charge changing until, at last, the teller of the tail, wins or loses. But, it was not that way with me. Everything was soft, and warm, and comfortable, and my faith in my safety was complete. In less than a minute everything was destroyed, all on a sudden, all lost, all gone forever. Never again can I be lonely, for nothing can ever match the singularity of how I felt separated from all beings as I sat alone under the still hanging roof of that shed.
No trace of my grandparents was ever found. Still, I carry them with me wherever I go. And I know now that which even the strongest of us sometimes never come to realize. Quiet courage in the face of danger surpasses all the deeds of all the heroes of our novels and our legends. That can never change.