Updated: Aug 19, 2019
My twin and I lay half asleep in a dark bedroom. The bass of a warm wind rattled the glass in the metal window frames. Springtime sounded wholly different than the high pitched howl of winter.
Daddy waited down the hall and past the kitchen. He opened the patio slider to hear how fast the storm approached. His pacing would last long after the weatherman's storm warning ended, and it made me nervous.
Laura got out of bed and opened the window to listen because she got a thrill from thunder. She counted how far away the lightning struck. But I didn’t let her keep it open very long.
On her way back to bed, she stumbled into the tower, our tower, made of large plastic blocks we had for nine years, since we were babies. When Mama wanted to get rid of them, we begged her not to. She said that as long as we played with them, we could keep them until we were old women. So Laura and I used them to track the times we finished each other's thoughts or said a word at the same time. It happened almost every day, and we added a block to the tower every time. It was the first true act of love I ever remember. It made us complete when so many of my fears seemed unmanageable. When we ran out of blocks, we took it down and started again. We were about to finish another tower.
The wind blew harder, and the chimes outside our window clanged in a mad jumble. The chimes, dark red bells, swung above the porch. There were seven of them on the cord; to me they were immense, each of them almost as big as my head. On a pretty day, they lolled around on each others' rims in the breeze. If the wind blew hard, I thought they’d shatter our window, but Daddy had tied them tight. They always stopped short of touching the glass.
I saw it happen by flashes of lightning. Water overflowed the gutters. At times, I thought the bells might blow off the hook. If they did, they’d fly away to unreachable places. On this night, they hit each other hard, but they were not yet swept away in the gusts. They rang heavy and deep, constantly metal to metal, until the cord blew horizontally with the ground, a sign that the wind was strong enough to pick up the dog.
Daddy used a battery operated radio since the electricity had just gone out. He sat listening, then I’d hear him pacing with a watchful energy. He got up, sat down, lit up, made a phone call.
Mama stayed on the couch where she crocheted the same afghan that she’d worked on the last five days. Sometimes she stopped and looked out the patio beside my father as the trees swayed in the flood light.
Mama did something useful, always. Nothing changed for her in a thunderstorm. When it ended, we’d come to her for warm food and a clean pillow. She worked with habitual grace. When she tired of crocheting, she shelled the peas that she and Laura had grown out back by the garden wall. Lunches were bagged for the next day.
"What do you think the blackbirds do in a wind like this?" Laura asked.
I answered, "I don't know. I never thought about that." Earlier that day I shot bottle rockets into the woods just to hear the rush of the blackbird wings as they all sprang up together at the sudden pop. They never flew very far before lighting again on the branches. I didn't hurt them, I reminded Laura.
Somehow Laura didn't know to be afraid of blackbirds. Just like she knew the bells would never reach our window. Laura made me feel like I should care more about living things. Once, she said that when something died in the cold windowsill, like a fly or a wasp, she felt her heart flutter and her breath catch in her throat. I only wanted to sweep it away with the dust.
Laura said, "A tornado picked up Grandad's chickens, 'stripped clean of every feather.' he said, but they clucked around the yard just the same."
"And the pill bottles," I added. "The pills get churned into powder with the lid still on.... What does that do to people?"
She helped me imagine. "Maybe our hair would be straightened, and we wouldn't have to take care of our curls anymore." I could tell by her voice that Laura was smiling.
"Yeah, that'd be nice." I said.
"Maybe we'd be stretched taller and look older. People would see us and know we were different. We'd have wisdom in our eyes, and there would be only a few of our kind, living to tell about the world at the middle of a tornado, where there's no up or down, or left or right, a place where we could read each other's minds."
I added, "And we could tell who else had lived through a tornado by the blue glow that came from their mouths."
Laura fell asleep but woke up when I tossed around. I said, "Maybe the birds can fly above the wind, above the tornadoes?"
Laura said, "I don't know. It's really cold up there. I'll bet they hear a storm coming a long time before we do. I think they know to fly away, the way a dog knows a woman is gonna give birth before she does."
I was tired. We had played hard and stayed up late because of the storm. I tried to go to sleep but woke up in a pinch of fear, remembering the spider I saw in bed after supper. I killed it with a handful of tissues. Winter had made us all dormant, and we had just forgotten about spiders. The bug season would begin soon with a vengeance. My father had sprayed poison under our bed, as it was a brown recluse I killed. Mama let us stay up later to let the poison settle. We made popcorn and played UNO when it started to rain, but Daddy sent us to bed when we wouldn't agree on the rules.
I lay there thinking about spiders and how they might climb from the floor to the bed. I wondered if the blanket was touching the wall because spiders could climb from the wall to my blanket. My teacher said they swing from tree to tree for hundreds of miles. Move and bite is what they do. She said that a famous writer named Rudyard Kipling put the legs of his kitchen table in cans of kerosene. He left food on the table and didn't worry about the ants getting to it. I decided this trick could work for a bed but only if the blanket didn't touch the wall, and I figured I could talk Daddy into trying it.
I fixed my thoughts on the bells, engulfed by that fearful sound, no rhythm in their clanging and twirling. I forgot the spider. I forgot the weather man on the radio. I forgot my father's pacing. Then I saw by lightning the bells flipped in a full somersault on their hook. It's what I'd been waiting for. Our father bellowed above the thunder. "Girls! It's time to go down!"
Our dog Pete ran out first and lay at the door of the storm cellar as flat as he possibly could with his legs spread to the four winds. Going down the steep steps, Daddy said, "It's ok, June. I sprayed in here last week." I shivered but wasn't cold. "If you get bit by a brown recluse, I’ll take you to the doctor tomorrow." Sitting in the cellar, Daddy leaned back on the bench and smiled, "If there's still a doctor to go to." I smiled back at him.
Laura and I were 5 when we built the shelter. She asked for a skylight in the ceiling. Mother said, "That would be nice, wouldn't it? But we can't do that. The whole thing has to be underground to be safe." Huddling under a mound of earth, I looked up and imagined the skylight. I saw Uno cards flying through the pitch night, lit up for a second by a flash of lightning. Laura and I sat on the mattress, flying as the billows lifted us higher and higher. We leaned and steered it far above the blackberries and honeysuckle, skimming the topmost trees of the woods where we played. We flew in big circles, like the roundabouts in Memphis and Jackson.
Just wider than a hallway, we built the cellar out of concrete, and we all came down one sunny day to stain the walls and floor different rainbow colors. Red, yellow, blue, and green, soft colors soaked into the concrete. They faded in some places as if the colors had bled through the walls straight from nature. On this night, Daddy kept a strong flashlight burning. He pointed it at the blue floor.
Mama and Laura sat on the bench across from us. The time down there went by quickly. If we'd been above the ground it would've felt like forever. Laura leaned on Mama and dozed. Mama leaned against the wall, talking to Daddy about her sisters. "I called them, and they’re fine. They’re not in the path."
The engine of the tornado roared its loudest as the freight-train rumbled around our shelter. I wondered what I was hearing. The buckle of boards? The groan and splinter of branches? Our home, turning back into the dust it came from? I was afraid to ask. I didn’t hear the bells and was sure we wouldn’t see them again.
I shivered and tasted something sour and gritty. We heard the doors of the cellar burst open, and we all turned to look. Mama and Laura were pulled from their bench, but Daddy and I stayed seated on ours. We never had time to reach for them. They flew out into the night with their backs first, their arms and legs stretched out toward us. We saw them by flashlight for a second until they flew from the cellar and disappeared.