The storms of summer are the most memorable. One might happen in this way: out of the stillness of a humid afternoon, in the midst of which you sit with a gnat whining at your ear in enhancement of your solitude, you hear a rending as of a tree splitting down its middle, and then an explosion like a crate of dynamite goes off. After you recover, and begin a tour of the house to close the windows, the rain starts, or the hail, or a combination of them, and you might wonder, fearing a tornado, why it is that you’ve never trained your family to take a quick route to the safest part of the basement when they feel a trembling through the house like the approach of an overloaded locomotive.
What is so pernicious about summer storms is the resistance in our nature to admit them. We acknowledge the possibility of storms in the spring, yes, when rain on the roof can assume the sound of a waterfall; or in the winter, with a howling wind accompanying drifting snow; or even in the fall, when heavy bodied rain tears off the last of the leaves and pastes them over spearing stubble. But summer is the season we’re to be let off, to be free of this, as we expect, after the ingrained conditioning of years in school, to be freed from all our onerous chores. So summer storms set us outside our expectations, and often isolate us physically, since we don’t take the precautions we do during other seasons; we expect to bask in stillness, taking summer off as recklessly as—well, that storm on its way.
It was the summer of 1980, the same season in which I watched twin tornadoes set down from a black-green sky and finally spin themselves out without harm. I was working in an outer shed on a farm in North Dakota, when I realized that I was enveloped in utter silence. Then in the distance I heard the rumbling of that approaching locomotive. I thought of my family in the house and went for the door of the shed and opened it against a sound like rifle fire, Hailstones the size of marbles, then golf balls, were ricochetting off everything in sight. A few hit my hand at the half-open door. I pulled it shut, and out one of the high windows, which I had newly installed that summer but hadn’t yet equipped with locks, I saw the anvil-shaped cloud, and then, with a sudden drop in pressure I could feel inside my ears, all four windows sprang wide, wobbling on their hinges, and pages of a hand-written manuscript started climbing out the closest opening in a chattering stream.
I grabbed at the pages, batting some down, but only stirred things up worse, and now the shed was shaking and everything loose or on a surface was springing for the windows in a rattling swirl worse than moths around my face. The hail had forced the door inward, I saw, and went for it, but so much ice had built up I couldn’t get it closed, and suddenly a fresh wash of rain, mixed with hail, sprang from the exact direction to enter the door, and a carpet I’d lugged all the way from New York rumpled up and then lifted against my legs with the wind. I was soaked and dripping in seconds. “And it’s summer!” I almost cried out loud, as if my statement could bring this incongruous situation to an end.
After the small tornado I gathered from our fields as much of the manuscript as I could immediately get my hands on, and my daughter and my niece, who was visiting, began to make wider rounds. Over a hundred pages were lost, but by the time the two of them had covered about a hundred acres, alert to the glints of pages, the task of reconstructing the manuscript began to seem less hopeless. Each sheet had to be spread out to dry, and some were battered so badly it took tape to reassemble them, but I had written in pencil, not ink; nearly everything was legible, and as I continued to recover more pages or shreds of them over the summer, I began to think that nearly nothing was irrevocable.
I have been in summer storms as bad, when a house trembled above the corner of the basement where my family huddled, praying; when a waterspout developed off a beach on Lake Michigan, so distant over the water a group of us blithely went on with our picnic, only to see it suddenly swerve inland, tilting and swaying at its top, and start up the beach as all of us scattered, everything from the tables going up, and soon become so overweighted with sand it gave out with a sound like the contents of a swimming pool falling from five stories.
The glory of summer storms is their diversity: heat lightning traveling like networks of nerves through evening clouds; the hazy pinpricking rains of the Pacific Northwest; bronze-tinged banks of smog over L.A., and the dangerous wind-driven sea past Catalina Island as the smog moves off; storms of cottonwood pollen along inland rivers, called “summer snow” by French voyageurs, and the sudden, startling August snows of the upper Rockies; firestorms in western forests darkening a dozen states with pine-sweet smoke; sleet ticking against steel derricks and oil drums in Manitoba; the magnetic storming of Northern Lights over the upper latitudes, igniting the entire dome of heaven with pulsing currents of gold and pastel; a cloudburst descending from a lime-green sky along the Texas Gulf—a gullywasher in which torn-off leaves skate down a clay-brown current laced with foam; the windstorms, termed “monsoons” by locals, that travel across the Arizona desert in late July, piling up such towering clouds of dusty silica the dimmed sun shimmers like a coppery star; the tropical rains of southern Florida that come like clockwork, every day near noon, falling in great dollops of drops large as quarters, and then rise in steamy humidity to fall at the same hour the next day; atmospheric inversions over Chicago, and the stilled, muffled air that tastes of ozone; the rains that transform New York into an equatorial capital in August, when even potted ferns outside a hotel appear to wilt in the sticky texture, and all of the best psychiatrists, even those who served residencies in Vietnam, take off for Europe or the Cape.
And then there is the peculiar summer storm that most of us have experienced at least once. You rent a house or cabin at the ocean or a lake or cape or bayou or bay, and arrive with the whole family, one of the few opportunities you’ll have to enjoy the summer together. The first night, as you lie in bed trying to sleep, you become aware of a sound like squirrels scrabbling on the roof. Rain. You fall asleep to the sound and wake to blue light and go to the window; it hasn’t let up. It’s a gentle summer rain, such a dallying drizzle you can scarcely make out the drops, the kind of rain you look forward to for your lawn’s sake — but not here. The children are arguing. You get out the broken and taped boxes of picture puzzles, reproduced in the garish colors of the forties, pull an old murder-mystery from a bookshelf, and crawl back into bed to wait this out.
It doesn’t let up. At the grocery or general store the locals are exultant; this will be great for the crops, they crow. Such a gentle summer rain, they say. Back at the rented sanctum your spouse complains that you’re mixing the drinks too stiffly and having one right after the other. The children won’t stop arguing. You suggest that they run out and play in the rain, splash in puddles, and at their looks you realize they’ve aged. And you remember that it’s in the spring, anyway, when puddles attract them; by summer they want the real thing. They’re bored, they say, and you wonder why it is that when you talked for weeks about this vacation, you found it necessary, like a bland travel poster, to emphasize the sun so much. You go to the window once more and experience the perverse joy of the natives; there is no sign of this letting up, and the grass and leaves everywhere look bejewelled with billions of drops. To break up the worst of the children’s fights you take down a chess set and call a son to you at the card table you’ve set up. The rain continues overhead until the last day of your rental.
Out on the beach, finally in the sun, you’re grudgingly grateful at least for this; and you realize that the time has been instructive. You’ll have to stop drinking. Your wife, you’ve learned, wants a new car, since it’s largely fallen to her to transport the children everywhere; and your youngest son, about whom you’ve harbored a secret fear of his being slow, is more than your equal at chess, and has perhaps always only needed your concern and encouragement. And the daughter you thought was becoming a slugabed actually gets up as early as always, but now spends an hour each morning at the reading you’ve recommended, and then another hour at the mirror. Of all of the children, she is the one who has most grown up —suddenly a young woman —and you might have missed this, along with the way she’s beginning to take on half of your characteristics, if it hadn’t been for this season of enforced closeness caused by the gentlest of summer rains.
Now that the elements are in place, there must be a final storm, the one that struck when I was thirteen. I was working that summer on a ranch near the Montana border, twenty miles from the nearest town, riding horses every day, helping with the livestock and haying, and I was interested in a girl — the daughter of the nearest neighbor, several miles up out of the river valley the ranch lay in, across coulee-intersected hills. Sibbhon, I’ll call her. Her father, a Skoal-dipping cowboy, was known for his skill with the fiddle and his temper, and I rode with him and the family in their car every Sunday to church, a forty-mile drive. If Sibbhon’s brother got close enough on the backseat to touch her (I sat at the opposite window, in torment at her nearness), her freckled face flamed to the roots of her black hair, and she let him have it so hard with an elbow he doubled over. She was fifteen.
She was celebrating her birthday that summer, and invited me to the party, which I thought meant me; that is, I figured I was her date. But the wife of the rancher I worked for said.“If I know Sibbhon, she’s invited every man and boy who can stand upright from here to Miles City.”
On the day of her party, one of those summer winds that plague the western plains, like an endless sirocco, started up. I began dressing two hours early; I’d bought a new pair of boots from a mail-order catalogue, a new cowboy shirt, buckskin riding gloves, and one of those basket-weave cowboy hats, spray-painted white, that were the style. I saddled up Lady, an aging mare who was mine to ride that summer, and saw through her skittishness that the weather was getting worse. Rapid black clouds were stretching so thickly across the sky it was turning dark. By the time I led Lady to the ranch house it seemed we were in the middle of an eclipse.
“Should I go?” I asked the rancher, who had turned on the pole light and stepped outside.
“Why wouldn’t you?” he asked, in the cheery, encouraging way he had of dealing with everything, even nature.
“It’s so dark—” I wanted to mention the storm.
“Lady knows the way.”
His wife came to the screen door, in yellow kitchen light that seemed to contain warmth, and said, “You wouldn’t want Sibbhon to think you aren’t man enough to ride a few miles to see her on her birthday, would you?”
The rancher helped me mount; I couldn’t reach the stirrups. “Go to the spring and take the trail east,” he said. “It hits at their gate. Snug the gate up good.”
He had stepped back as he spoke and I could barely see him below his hat brim. I swung Lady around on a road I couldn’t see, it was so dark, and was about to turn back when I saw the rancher’s wife still at the door. I gave up trying to make out the road, and kept Lady true to course by the sound of her hooves on packed ground. And when I was off the road? In my hesitation of thought Lady pivoted and headed for home. She was headstrong if she sensed you didn’t have the upper hand—“muley,” the rancher called her—and it took some doing to turn her back.
The spring was a half mile off, and by the time we got there I was tired of trying to hold my hat on and keep her headed right. While I looked up the darkened valley, she found the spring, from the way her head went down, nearly jerking the reins from my gloved hands, and I let her drink. The spring was in the crevice of a valley extending to the hilltops, and the trail, I knew from herding cows, ambled along the topside of the valley. I started her up and she resisted, so I prodded her flanks, and then my hat went as a wind whooped down the draw, hitting us broadside so hard Lady crowhopped. I slid off, shaking, and gripped the reins, my lifeline in the dark. There was my hat, a dim glow in the darkness ahead. I reached for it and struck stone —a boulder, a mistake, the sort of place rattlesnakes hid.
I finally found it wedged in a stand of buckbrush that scraped at me as I extracted it, and shoved it inside my shirt and snapped the shirt shut. I as able to remount by climbing the hillside and leaping across the saddle. Lady took off at a gallop, as if she’d received her reward in a drink at the spring, and was now bent on getting home. We were halfway back before I got her stopped and turned in the right direction again.
She started up the valley with her head down into the wind, as if each step would be her last, and I could hear the fluttery clatter of the leaves on the oaks to my right. There was a break in the clouds and for a moment I saw the treetops bending like whips in the wind. As we came over the crest of the hill I had to gasp to get my breath; in my battle with Lady I hadn’t noticed the wind had grown so fierce. It felt as if gusts of it would lift me out of the saddle, and with a popping sound my bulging shirt flew open and I grabbed my hat but spooked Lady, who seemed to be going sideways about fifty. I could hear the trees again and was frightened not so much by the shapes I imagined they were assuming as the actual whipsawing I had seen, and they were louder now. One could break off. Lady stopped. I slapped at both sides of her rump with the reins but she wouldn’t move. “Lady!” I yelled, the word tearing away, and she yawed to one side as if she would go over, then backed into the wind, her head down. There was the sensation of a hand smoothing the back of my shirt and I swung around and slapped at it. Her blowing tail. No matter what I did I couldn’t get her to move, and she started trembling underneath me.
“All right,” I said, and slid out of the saddle. “You’ll have to show me the way.”
I stumbled through the dark, gripping the reins, and occasionally she nudged my side as if to say she appreciated it that I was down here with her. Wherever here was. I couldn’t see the ground but could feel it; rough; my boots would be ruined, if I got through this. She stopped, balking again. I turned my back to the wind, pulling at the reins, and ran into a barbed-wire fence. I put my hand out and felt a gate post; in our struggle she had directed me here and was telling me to stop. I got her through and cinched the gate up, and after we d walked a ways I saw a line of light above us. It was a hilltop, and over its crest I saw gold shafts slanting from every window of the house and the barn at Sibbhon’s; her father was scheduled to play the fiddle for her birthday celebration and dance.
I ran into a boulder big enough to serve as a mounting step, leaped up on Lady, pulled out my hat, and held it on with one hand as I let her have her head. At the barn I leaped off in the midst of Lady’s halting, as Sibbhon’s father did, but no one was there to notice. No welcome. I eased open a sliding door and saw Sibbhon in the alley of the barn, in t he calico shirt and tight jeans she wore to church, standing on straw bales in a blaze of light.
“Well!” she said.
“Am I late.?
“Sheet! And don’t bring that damn clubfoot old mare in here!” she cried. “Tie her up outside!”
I did, and Sibbhon slid the door shut as I stepped inside, into warmth. I pulled off my mangled hat.
“That damn storm’s about done it,” she said, and glared at me with half-crazed eyes, as if I were the storm.
“Daddy’s in the house so drunk he’ll be lucky if he sees Tuesday!”
What day is it, I almost asked, remembering her party was to be on Friday; I felt I’d been riding a month.
She strode over to the bales, the boots under her jeans swooshing in hollow sounds with each step, and jumped up on some boards laid over them in a platform, then turned as if in expectation, her fists on her hips. I walked over to her with my hat in my hands, hoping she might teach me to dance, or better, allow the stormy correspondences I saw in her so often to break over me.
“That’s it!” she said. “We might as well go on into the blame old house and tie this birthday off.”
“With Ma and the kids. End it!”
“Don’t you get it? Look around! You’re the only damn person here!”
So we wait out storms sometimes to be reminded of their power to isolate, though there is always another side. After that summer night, no storm in or out of nature ever threatened me as much, because Sibbhon’s dismissal of me was also a recognition of my tenacity, or foolhardiness —the nature of one willing to strike through upheaval for the other side, knowing now that there is another side and knowing, too, what is waiting there: always another survivor.