They all agreed it sounded like a train when it hit. Like a train howling across a track of human bodies, all laid out in a row, screaming. Except one woman, who’d grown up near a tree farm. She said the storm sounded like that, like cutting down trees, real quiet then rushing down, a bunch of screaming birds, then quiet again. But the screaming, she agreed about that.
Maureen Bailey who lived on the county line was out of town when it happened and said that when she came back, she found her refrigerator half a mile down the road in a ditch. She found her little dog’s collar hanging from a tree, still buckled in a loop, but no dog. The volunteer firemen had gathered in the brick garage where they kept the trucks. That was the safest place in town, said Greta Wilson who’d encouraged her husband Ted to be a volunteer two years ago to get him out of the house. I wanted to stay home because of the cats, she said. There was an old calico rubbing up against her leg and she was trying to straighten the bent edge of a photograph. Her lips were pressed together. Damn the things that manage to hang around, she said.
One girl, age seven, kneels on her bed, staring out her window at what she’d like to remember as a sharp, spinning top made of cloud, but what appears is a long wall of gray rain and sickish green light. The baby pear trees shake, white blooms trembling and flying away. Her face is close to the window and the trees are bent at unnatural angles before her mother hollers for her to get away from there and go into the bathroom where she hides under a urine-stained crib mattress with her little sister who’s got bruises up her left arm.
She will later remember only her cramped knees and her sister’s white hair pressed up against her face, and the stale, drunk smell of her mother shaking the little black radio, trying to make it work for godsake. And then her mother crying, crying how sorry she is. But right now she’s imagining the roof lifting up like a lid off a jar, exposing the three of them as they look up into a funnel of flying cats and lawn mowers and school busses. It would pluck away that mattress like another petal off the pear trees and then it would take her up and up toward a single perfect hole of blue. But the storm does not touch them, though she can feel it, no—she can only hear it, skipping right over them, groaning and wheeling by like a rusted old machine.
There’s a coy ray of sun as the living emerge from hiding, shading their eyes, blinking as though woken from a long and troubling dream. There is a brief green rain that comes simultaneous with sunlight, shining the wet streets, polishing twisted sheets of metal siding into something disturbingly, but undeniably beautiful. There’s no more wind, and no leaves left to stir on trees. But as dusk settles, lightening winks in the distance and the storm sweeps into the next town and the next, like a great black skirt twirling toward them, those people who lay muted in waiting.
They’d be talking about it for years, the same way they still talk about it now. How they should have left the year the quarter-miler ripped the steeple off the Baptist church and impaled Jim Ramsey through the gut, pinning him to a tree. Same way they still go on about the twister that tore through the summer of ’58 and knocked down seven houses in the shape of cross. How it was a sign from God, and how they’d all planned to leave and never did. Right now they’re angry and everybody wants to go, but everybody, everybody, will find a reason to stay.
They’re telling stories already, have been for hours, before the thing hardly had a chance to spin out of town. Marilyn Pierce is holding her arms above her head, grabbing at the air, showing them how she reached for her daughter’s foot when the tornado tried to suck them both up out of their bathtub where they’d been hiding under the couch cushions. Her sister, Melinda, sits on a big slab of cement, where the house used to be, nodding her head and saying, Thank you Jesus, while Marilyn tells her story again for the eleventh time.
We’re all just reaching for her, she says. We’re all just holding onto her best we could and we just kept on praying, please Jesus don’t take our Sarah Lynn. We just kept on praying that whole time. Marilyn turns to the girl who is standing to the side with her arms crossed over her chest.
Say what it felt like, Sarah Lynn. Tell them what you said about God pulling you up to heaven. Sarah Lynn stares down at her legs, balancing on the sides of her tennis shoes.
Like God was trying to pull me up to heaven, she says. And then he saw Mama holding on to me by the foot and then he let go.
Marilyn and her sister laugh at that, and cry a little bit. There’s a picture of the three of them in the Sunday paper but Marilyn had blinked and Sarah Lynn was looking at the ground and they were all standing in front of what the paper said looked like a great big tombstone except for the front door which was still standing in the door frame, opening onto nothing at all.
By Sunday, the count is thirty two, missing or dead. Firemen from other towns come and start picking through piles of splintered wood and nails and collapsed brick walls. They mark what they finish searching with a red X of spray paint until the whole town has broke out in hives that keep spreading until every upside down trailer and flattened out barn has been marked up and abandoned.
No one’s ever mentioned how church attendance always seemed to double after a good storm. It makes people start talking to God, reminds them about retribution, makes everybody feel like they might finally get what they always believed they deserved.
There is no electricity on Sunday. And no preacher. But the black man from the dairy farm comes with his only living calf tied on a rope so nobody will steal it and a few school teachers and the fat lady who ran the dog grooming place that’s gone now, and some kids with pants sagging around their hips and the guy everybody thinks is a child molester is there in a plaid shirt, and the couple who kept half the money from their charity fund raiser, and one mechanic, and a blind lady who went to this church three times a week, every one of them is gathered on the blacktop where one church still stands, leaning toward an elm tree like an old man on a cane, and everyone keeps on praying at it. Forgive us, forgive us, forgive us.