Day One Hundred Seven
It was clouding up when I went to bed last night, and I heard the rain come during the night. Being from the desert, I thought it was wonderful, and huddled under my blankets, thinking of all the green, growing things that the rain would feed.
By morning, the rain had stopped, but when I looked outside, the sky was still overcast and full of odd, lumpy clouds tinged faintly green.
I had never seen anything like it before. It would’ve been fascinating, except that the air was heavy, and the horizon stubbornly black, with the occasional flash of lightning in the distance. Something felt wrong.
I found Flecha wide-eyed and skittish in the room where I had stabled her. She tossed her head, ignored my offer of oats, and resisted all reassurance. I peeked again out the window, and suddenly could’ve used some reassurance, myself. The lumpy clouds were bearing down on us like a rockslide in the mountains. Whatever kind of storm this was, it meant business.
Since Flecha’s room had a hole in the roof and no doors, I decided it would be best to move her into my room, which was more solid and abutted the main building. But as anxious as she seemed to get out of the building, when I tried to lead her outside, she balked. By now the wind was picking up, blowing dirt, leaves, twigs, and trash. I tugged at Flecha’s halter. She wouldn’t budge. “Come on, Flechita. How long have we been together? Don’t you trust me?”
Rain was coming down in fat, heavy drops. I took off my jacket and put it over Flecha’s head, covering her eyes. I tried to keep calm and speak soothing words, even though my own mental state was almost as bad as hers.
“Ven, Flechita, mi hijita, graciosita. Ven. . .”
I got her outside. The rain was starting to get serious, and the sky was glowing green and yellow from the lightning flashes. I tugged at the halter. Flecha dug in. Damn stupid horse!
“Come on, baby. A few more steps. A few more. Slow means we just get wetter, so hurry up. Ven, Flechita bonita.”
When we got to the door of my room, she sensed I was trying to take her into an enclosed space. She stopped and would go no farther. God save me from stubborn animals that haven’t got sense to go in out of the rain! By now we were drenched, thunder was crashing overhead, and the wind was howling through the broken windows of the motel, snapping branches off the trees and hurling them through the air. Hail was starting to come down in hard, acorn-sized pellets. And still my stupid horse wouldn’t go inside! So I did the only thing I could do. I took the jacket off her head, went behind her and slapped her hard on the flank, praying she wouldn’t bolt into the dresser or something. She darted into my musty room, I shut the door against the storm, and spent a terrifying half hour in the dark, with only the fading light of my solar lantern and a skittish horse for company.
The wind shrieked and threw things against the building. Rain battered the walls and windows in sheets, accompanied by the occasional pounding of hail. The door rattled on its hinges, a window in the bathroom shattered, and water leaked down from the ceiling, first in drops, then in steady trickles that pooled on the bed and floor. At times, gusts would strike with such fury that I could feel the walls tremble. And when something big and heavy crashed against the building with a boom, Flecha and I both screamed.
As curious as I was terrified, I crept toward the window and drew the blinds with shaking hands. What I saw in the distance will haunt my nightmares for the rest of my life.
My first thought was that the clouds were attacking! Now that I know better, I feel pretty dumb. But until today, I had never seen or heard of a tornado. We didn’t have such things where I grew up, and I’ve never been to school. So I spent several terrifying minutes watching what appeared to be a column of cloud weaving its way across the landscape. I turned from the window in a panic, looking all around for a place to hide or a means of escape. But where could you go if the clouds were after you? I couldn’t even pace the room, because I had a horse in here with me, jerking her head and rolling her eyes and looking probably no less terrified than I was.
I took several deep breaths. I had to get a grip on myself. It was just a cloud. And things must be getting better, because the rain was slackening. Clouds did strange things in Missouri. It was nothing to be afraid of. I peeked out the window again. The thing was moving away toward the horizon, but now another was snaking down out of the sky like a giant finger reaching toward the earth. I screamed and threw myself onto the bed, right in a puddle from the leaking roof. With mattress springs poking me in the gut, I covered my head with my blanket.
By the time I got through being such a baby, it was over. The storm had become an ordinary rain shower, and the day was growing lighter. When I dared to look out the window again, I saw only ordinary clouds of smooth gray, pressed flat against the sky and drizzling the sweetest, most ordinary raindrops imaginable.
But I no longer trusted the sky. It was almost noon and the sun had come out before I finally felt like it was safe to go outside and resume my journey.
I rode through a changed landscape, full of windblown leaves, trash and branches. Entire trees had fallen over, some of them torn up by their roots. And surprisingly large objects, like old tires and chunks of scrap wood had been tossed around like the toys of an overgrown and irritable child. But the sky was intensely blue, the sunlight pure gold, and it was hard to believe such a devastating storm had recently passed. Even the birds didn’t seem to believe it, twittering on the tree branches, as if in surprise.
If I had any doubts about the ferocity of what I had witnessed this morning, they were put to rest by what I came upon after about half an hour.
A few dazed people were sitting on some of the wreckage, staring at nothing, seemingly in shock. I approached and asked if there was anything I could do to help.
A woman with a baby shrugged and pulled her child closer. An old man muttered that there was food in the cellar and they’d be okay. But a young man of perhaps sixteen looked up at me and said, “We’re going to be all right. But some of these others. . .”
I looked around and could see a few people picking around in the wreckage. So I tied Flecha to a broken post and went to help. I spent the rest of the afternoon searching for the missing. When we found someone who was dead, we carried the body to what remained of a church, so friends and family members could make identification. When we found someone living, we took them to the red brick school, where a few interior rooms were still intact and had been set up as a primitive hospital. I knew about treating wounds from when I was with Unitas, where training accidents and injuries in the line of duty were common. As night fell and we had to call off the search, I took my recharged solar lantern to the hospital and helped splint and bandage people until well into the evening.
It was only when there were no more simple injuries I could help with that it occurred to me that I hadn’t eaten all day. Some of the survivors were making a common meal from what they had been able to salvage, and they invited me to join them.
We made introductions, having been too busy working to care about such niceties before now. Some of the survivors sat stunned and silent, barely picking at their food. Others babbled their particular storm story over and over to anyone who would listen. A few cried. And a few others directed all their energy into helping everyone else. These were the people I fell in with, and upon learning that I was from a land that never saw these types of storms, a woman named Alice explained all about tornadoes.
I feel a little silly now for having reacted in the cowardly way I did this morning. But now I know what to do, if I ever encounter one of these storms again. I hope there won’t be a next time, but if there is, I’ll do better.
Tonight I’m sleeping in a cellar with a nice family who all survived the storm, although their dog and mule have been lost, and some of their friends are among the dead and missing. It’s kind of them to let me, a stranger, share the only home they have left. I think I’ll give them my coffee in the morning. I can buy more somewhere, and I feel like I owe them something.
What a strange and terrifying place Missouri is! When I wrote last night about how wonderful it must be to live where it rains, I hadn’t realized that there could be a danger to it, too. I guess no place is really safe.
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