*Image: “Storms Never Last,” Tornadic Supercell by David Smith, 24″ x 18″ Oil on panel, 2014
by Melissa Wiley
A tornado’s hurried intake of breath uprooted a pine tree in my parents’ garden, my mom calls to tell me earlier on a Sunday morning than I need to hear it. What would they have done if it hit the house while they were sleeping? she asks. For several moments, I stay silent. Lying in bed in my Chicago apartment, I play with the satin ties of my pajamas as something mute yet solid expands between us. I allow this rather than anything spoken to express my relief at being better protected from the elements.
Thirteen years later, and her reciprocal silence is all that travels between myself and a woman whose absence remains its own unsatisfying presence. Thirteen years later, and the cyclone seems to have augured her cancer diagnosis. If it was a sign, though, we ignored it. Had we only looked upon ourselves as its natural victims, perhaps we might have expected what did to happen.
Had the tornado flicked its tail toward the kitchen after dancing briefly in rotation, they would have been flattened, I eventually say in response to my mom’s question. Flattening my voice in imitation of the imagined wreckage, I can afford to be callous if only because my parents have escaped the damage. I am also in the process of distancing myself from their goodness, too much of which and even natural phenomena can take advantage.
A family living half a mile away have lost their home and one of their children, my mom adds, begging for my compassion. A girl of nine or ten has been struck fatally by a fence post, her heart’s electricity darkened by nothing more than a tornado still in the process of formation. Air becoming restive turned briefly into something almost human, into wind tilting its head down toward its sternum. Lumber, siding, and insulation stretched long as pink intestines have splayed themselves across fields of autumn soybeans darkened into something rotten.
This is life I am all too familiar with, she seems to forget for a moment, because I’ve left it. On a farm where cows are born and die on a regular basis, my parents’ existence is real in a way mine isn’t. Theirs is life at its most candid. Theirs bares its body to storm systems, overlooking mortality’s precipice. By staying in Chicago after college, this is what I tell myself I have avoided.
My parents lose power for days on end. They survive on canned tuna and boxes of raisins in the wake of the tornado’s county-wide destruction as I eat out at Thai restaurants and sleep late on weekends at my boyfriend’s. I could come closer to the wind spinning itself around them any time I wish. I could make more frequent visits or move an hour closer for easier driving distance. I could live inside a tornado’s eye where all the world goes quiet. Instead, I rent a studio a few blocks away from a train that sounds like but never is a tornado approaching my apartment.
After her talk of the storm is finished, my mom asks if I’ll take three days off from my job in January to go skiing with her, my dad, and younger sister, soon home for winter break from her freshman year of college. My mom has two weeks off for Christmas from her work as a school counselor, and my dad can pay someone to feed his herd of heifers. They haven’t taken a vacation in four years, she tells me. She has never seen the Rockies.
There will be hot springs too, she whispers once I agree. “Healing waters,” she suspires through the phone’s speaker. She says we can all cure ourselves of maladies in Steamboat Springs, where there are never any steamboats wheeling down any rivers, only mountains made steeper by the rain’s dull carving. In this northern Colorado town my mom has read about in a magazine, tornados are not a danger. Air does nothing except flush skiers’ faces, leaving them to widen the angle of their skis when they feel afraid of flying.
I was 22, five months out of college, and working at a translation company a floor below the headquarters of Playboy magazine when my mom called and invited me to Steamboat Springs. Hired as a project manager, I translated nothing, only arranged for others to convert tracts of Tagalog or Urdu into English for marketing companies and sent the translators payment. Two months after I returned from Colorado from what was our final family vacation without our then knowing, I was fired for overpaying some translators and underpaying others randomly. My ennui had also thickened the air in the office, my boss mentioned, though I’d indulged nothing more than my native introspection. I’d declined opportunities to represent our company at conventions as well as invitations to co-workers’ birthday parties. I’d worked wordlessly, spending my lunch hours reading. Between chapters I wondered what I’d sacrificed for the city’s shrill blare of sirens, for its seeming safety.
On the ground floor of our office building was a market where I bought lunch from the deli. Over the past few months, I’d fallen a little in love with the man who worked the counter and he a little in love with me, I felt without knowing. Once he grew used to seeing my face a couple times a week, he started casually interrogating me, when I told him yes, I was dating someone, had moved here for college from rural Indiana, and no, didn’t work for Playboy magazine.
With his blue eyes shining, he asked me whether our farm had animals, and I nodded, asking for more mayonnaise. He asked what kind—any goats or sheep?—and when I told him pastel ponies with rumps embossed with cupcakes, he laughed to the point I was worried he’d slice a finger off as he shaved a ham shank. In response, I looked at him squarely, saying, “What, you don’t believe me?”
I didn’t lie to him entirely. As a little girl, I’d sent several of my plastic ponies swimming down a green river cleaving one of our pastures into what I thought of as two countries. Letting go of tails I’d finished braiding, I knew I’d lose them even if they didn’t sink. I knew they couldn’t step with their short lavender legs back up onto the bank. They had no muscles either to tense against currents that knocked them sideways, so I as good as killed them in the swimming. The river ran only in one direction relentlessly, as do most things subject to entropy. It widened toward an ocean too many miles away for me to ever see.
To my mom, I pretended the ponies had simply fallen, and in her goodness she believed me. Together, we mourned their drowning as I imagined they, like the child killed years later on the farm only half a mile away, were victims of the river’s torrents versus my hand’s weaker hold of things. I pretended this while letting one pony after another tumble down the jaundiced grass blades.
I now think I was practicing, forcing my ponies to surrender to annihilation for me. I was trying to be braver than my parents, for whom death—of cows, of grandparents, of Jesus on Good Friday, of the prospect of my little sister’s disappearance when she once went missing—became tragedy. At every fresh instance of life succumbing to undoing, their eyes reddened, revealing cracks concealed within the whiteness. Little girl that I was, I felt stronger than them already.
After I was fired from my job at the translation company, I left without saying goodbye to the man in the deli. Occasionally, my life still seems loveless enough for me to wonder if he ever missed me. I wonder only because these have become the kinds of love that mean the most to me. Offered freely with no exchange of last names, they remind me this life continues if for no other reason than desiring.
Rain does not drain passively down the Rockies, and anyone who has ever fallen knows this, that falling requires your consciousness. While relinquishing my plastic ponies to the river’s sweep, I first felt this. Their abrasion against pale stones and islands of yellow algae was an active process, if one I only witnessed. Their bright hair collected sediment as they receded then vanished.
As rain collapses down a mountain, each droplet likewise grows rounder at its bottom. Each small containment of liquid absorbs minerals from rock before resting within a cavern. Yet even here, water undergoes further transformation, expanding into steam under pressure from lava heating the base of the mountain. Steam in turn escapes from a hot spring in the shape of tongues long and lisping, summoning a crepuscular flood of human bodies. Late into the evening, men and women float naked in water so warm they often mistake it for healing.
Our first morning in Colorado, we walked past a man holding a falcon outside a bakery. He wore a fleece jacket over body armor fitted to musculature that may not have filled its cavities. In a bucket at his feet, a rock halfway turned to crystal and gently luminescing weighted dollar bills crusted with snow, and I half suspected the rock of being more alive than the man holding the falcon, because neither moved or blinked. If we dropped change into the bucket, maybe he or his falcon will come to life, I suggested to my parents by way of asking them for money I’d forgotten to bring. That I would easily toss it away, they said, was what came of me living in a city.
My mom shivered as we walked past the bakery, saying birds with such long talons gave her the willies. She didn’t understand the appeal of training a predator species, and my dad agreed. I could see some, though, I offered, if only because raptors don’t rest willingly on a human body. When a falcon slays its prey, the falconer hides the carcass, keeping the bird hungry enough to continue stalking. I could imagine satisfaction in harnessing a power so instinctive, I told them. I could find pleasure in the weight of something deadly resting on my shoulder.
I had no reason to suspect my parents were both dying then from different diseases, yet something inside me resisted their aversion to nature’s prowess, its strength that became at times calamitous. I defended falconry fully aware that free from human interference, the falcon could have prepared better for starvation, eating all the quarry it wanted.
That afternoon, I returned to the hotel several hours before my sister and parents. I unzipped my coat and sat on a couch facing an aquarium in the lobby’s entrance, watching fish breach water’s surface. One by one, they appeared to be coming up for oxygen, though they were only filling their bladders with air to stay buoyant. Otherwise, they’d sink to tank’s bottom, where there is no soil to bury them. Easier always to flush them down the toilet. Easier to live desensitized to things that plummet. Easier too to delay real living for your next incarnation. Easier for me now to believe in multiple lifetimes when this one feels wasted.
If I am somehow born again, if I am born as another woman, I only hope it is with lips so thick that anyone I kiss will drown within their pillows and creases. Sometimes this is the only reason why I continue to live when I’m so tired of it. So that once reborn in another body, I’ll gain all my weight in my lips, becoming an object of pure longing.
This is hardly a good reason for not taking the life I’m still unsure if some god has given, I can hear my parents saying years after their deaths. Hope for a more erotic lifetime to come hardly suffices as a purpose for this, for not ending it all just when life feels loveless, when no more men in delis make an appearance. Lust is hardly any substitute for goodness.
Fortunately, I no longer have to hear them squawking. I can fly back to Colorado and walk naked without them in the hot springs once I buy myself a plane ticket if I feel the need. I can walk there alone, feeling my skin warmed by travertine, limestone long softened and from which stalactites straggle, so that here among the Rockies you feel as if you’re sheltered in a grotto. Unlike other forms of limestone, travertine never turns to marble. It sits too near the earth’s entry to the underworld to grace a cathedral.
Even under night’s cool skies, the earth’s mantle still warms waters collecting in mountains’ hollows, allowing people to walk shoeless on snow in January’s Colorado. They enter the pools as strangers eye their silhouettes beneath the light of the moon’s slim sickle.
I changed into my Speedo an hour before a man wearing a vest hung with ocher tassels drove us a few miles closer to the firmament to take waters softened with minerals. In our hotel room’s bathroom, my vagina imprinted a milky mandorla onto my suit’s fabric, though I still emboss nearly every bathing suit or pair of panties with this same almond, which represents Christ’s aureole in Christian iconography, my parents’ religion. Most of us, though, recognize its shape as a vulva, its white seal that eventually stains the cotton.
In my privacy, I bent down to smell the life of my small, white wholeness. My life and no one else’s. Because when you don’t glow with a mandorla yourself for others to notice, when no light surrounding your head makes you seem any better than average, you can take still comfort in a smaller one leached from your uterus, in the fullness you have birthed by virtue of being a woman. This residue you leave everywhere of blanched almonds.
My mom could not have known all the bathers would be naked, all except for ourselves and another family with young children. She could never have anticipated the number of lissome young men and women. The man in the fringed vest drove us up so high up a mountain the city’s lights dimmed into sparse, orange embers from a fire’s disintegration. Yet still we could see the hang of nipples and knots of pubic hair once our eyes adjusted to the darkness. Still we could see couples caressing each other’s spinal columns, men massaging a breast with one hand while reaching the other down deeper into the water’s blackness.
A cancer surgeon had excised my mom’s left breast eight years before our vacation. I was 14 when it happened, something neither she nor my dad afterward ever mentioned. A man she met for only one appointment stole part of the warmth from her because her nipple had filled with cancer. She told me the day before she drove herself for surgery to a hospital in Indianapolis.
I asked her a few times in years subsequent if she needed to return for another examination. I asked, but she only shook her head, refusing to foresee any complications. For all her softness, this was her one area of hardness. So I can only assume that as soon as her surgery was finished, the cancer lurking in her lymph nodes began its metastasis. I can only assume she lived a little more than a decade afterward suffering in silence.
The last two days of our vacation, she wore a red knit sweater I’d bought her that year for Christmas. Inside it, her one real breast hung limp while the cotton she filled her left bra cup with pointed higher toward the power lines crossing in the distance. For one of my gifts that year, she’d knit me an afghan I now stow deep inside my closet. In time, I know its stitching will slacken until it unravels into moss dyed violet. Still I hate for my husband to hurry its ruin by wrapping himself with it. He is tall, just taller than the blanket, and stretches it over toenails he grows long so they won’t graft inside his skin, toenails that might rip apart its stitches. I try to say this kindly yet always end up screaming regardless.
Only once did I confront my mom’s missing breast, when she changed clothes with her bedroom door open to the hallway and I saw it reflected in a mirror in passing. It resembled an eye socket missing its pupil somehow still staring, a socket stricken with blindness and robbed of its pink iris.
According to his diaries, Percy Bysshe Shelley imagined he saw a pair of eyes blink inside his wife’s nipples, prompting a fit a screaming calmed later with ether. I learned this in college from a professor I had long, languorous dreams of fucking. I learned this then made the mistake of sharing it with my mom one Thanksgiving as my dad carved the turkey. Soon she left the dining room for the kitchen. When she returned, I could see she had been crying. I had lost my opportunity to tell her the better part of Shelley’s story.
Whether Shelley’s death by sea before he turned thirty fulfilled a suicidal dream or was deluded seafaring in the face of a storm clearly coming, his heart famously didn’t burn on the funeral pyre his friends built off the coast of Italy. The rest of him charred like the offal of any other human being, yet his body’s central organ resisted the flames’ heat. It averted incineration but did not succeed at living.
For years his wife, Mary, kept what the fire could not consume wrapped in silk on her writing desk, while of my mom I have considerably less remaining. I hardly resemble her either, people tell me. I have two breasts, but with neither can I see her clearly. The few pictures I have of her too only remind me only how ugly I’m growing in comparison. She was so lovely, so slender, even if her bottom half bulged as she grew older, growing round as a water droplet falling down a mountain while one breast watched and the other saw nothing.
As my mom and I continued standing in the water, as close to the earth’s inner fire as we would ever come together, I asked her where the steamboats had all gone, though we both knew there had never been any. I asked only to distract her from my dad looking toward other women with no eyes in their nipples to see him looking, when I told myself this was the last time I’d ever travel with my family.
In answer to my question, she turned toward me with her face lit into a laugh and said it was false advertising, wasn’t it? In place of any steamboats, there were only bubbles at water’s surface bursting from the earth’s furnace. The steam smeared everything seeming solid at present into ghosts of memory too early in the making.
“We’re too old for this,” my mom said when we walked inside our hotel lobby an hour afterward. She meant she hadn’t wanted to see these slim, young bodies through steam continually shape-shifting, steam itself supple and copulating. If this was falling, it was not the kind of falling she wanted, into water heated so hot by rock we hesitated to leave the ice where we’d stood barefoot.
In the 19th century, fur trappers who strayed into this corner of Colorado reported steam ascending from the hot springs rose from steamboats coursing along a river as yet unseen. Even steam, however, cannot hover forever above trees that themselves grow only so tall before they collapse of their own height or simply tire of growing. And we all must fall eventually from the weight of our own fullness, from eating fruit replete with knowledge as well as sweetness. Shattering is the price we all pay from approaching wholeness. Of all the lies we tell our ourselves, nothing is more dishonest than pretending nature doesn’t like inflicting damage, that there are not predators haunting even bakery doorways, always among us.
Our last day, my parents asked if I wanted to ski before we flew back early that evening. They reminded me it might be my last opportunity for who knew how many years to come. Overspreading a bagel with cream cheese, I said I’d seen enough of the mountains and would stay inside and read. For a few more minutes, they tried persuading me but eventually refilled their coffee.
I wanted the fire for a companion, I added, continuing the argument they had ceded already. I’d enjoy it more if I went skiing first then returned to it, they suggested, so I told them I’d seen blood yesterday dotting the slopes in amoebic splotches. They reminded me we were eating, and I said no more about it.
The red snow, I know now, only overlaid a species of algae rich in carotenoids, the same as those found in carrots. As algae grows and the snow’s blush deepens, snow begins to smell as well as look like snow splattered with sliced watermelons. And in dreams I’ve had since my first menstruation, I am standing naked on a balcony ready to throw them. I’m poised to toss a pile of watermelons onto a street as hoary as our last Colorado morning for unknown reasons.
Pedestrians are my only problem. Dropping the fruit might kill any number of innocent victims. But the watermelons are growing on vines overspreading the carpet in the room behind me. Their rapid reproduction is threatening to push me off the balcony, so eventually I throw them, risking fatalities as well as exposing my body. Yet as soon as the first watermelon is about to smatter a man reading a newspaper, he disappears and all of humanity with him. The streets and sidewalk are silenced in snowfall while I stand there and shiver, still hurtling watermelons that have begun wrapping their tendrils around the wrought iron ringing the balcony. I’m left with no choice except to keep turning the snow a deeper shade of scarlet.
And much as I’m wary of facile dream interpretations, it is red, all of it. Algae below snow and blood flowing monthly from my uterus, always red running beneath the surface, of skin and snow and water heated by rock itself burning deep within the planet. And in the white and blue of Colorado, I was starved for redness, for evidence of the earth’s own inner throbbing. Rather than skiing, I wanted to sit before the fire all afternoon lost in sexual fantasies I could not indulge when traveling with my parents. I was captivated more by the fire than any mountains at breakfast.
That night, we flew back to Indianapolis through a light snowstorm whose white flushed unseen skiers’ faces while dissolving any fires into blankness. The defroster in the car we’d parked at the airport had stopped working, so I cleared the fog growing thicker from our breathing from the windshield with my hands as my mom drove home.
“Just keeping wiping,” she told me, when the highway began to recede then vanish. The hot springs’ steam had followed us, she said, almost laughing, though it had fled the earth for Colorado’s atmosphere entirely. By the time we turned up our driveway, our breaths had hardened into something nearly solid, into crystals so clear at the windows’ edges we could see nothing through them.