ACT OF GOD
They name the storm Beth as though it’s a hurricane, the surge in places rising even higher than if it had been one. Whales find their way to shore and some die there, though at the time most of us don’t know it. It is nearly Christmas, and the same president who has declared himself a neo-colonial authority in the Gulf also designates the state’s coastal counties as disaster areas. Any sense of the nor’easter as something extraordinary turns out to be premature. In three months my mother will be packing vegetable seeds into soil in plastic trays on the living room rug and the howling will restart. Then it will snow in Birmingham; then tornadoes will strike in Ocala. Three feet of snow outside the door, and the parking lots in the neighboring town where we buy our gas and groceries will be dotted with sooty castles. The power is out for days this time. Schools shutter and go quiet. A tree is caught up in the winds and felled beside the garage, which has always insisted on making the little house appear even smaller and now is eating a lump of its own dough—so miniscule does it seem lounging among the drifts and buds and branches—while inside we run from laundry closet to junk drawer to basement, finding more candles, matches, clothespins for hanging the wet, heavy shirts and jeans the old way: on ropes in the unfinished cellar. Things are getting weirder, though at the time most of us don’t know it. Eventually I will be sixteen and march emphatically on the capitol and accomplish nothing, the crowd moving together down the National Mall with the gelatinous rhythm of a deep sea creature or a space monster in a Marvel movie. Eventually it will blizzard for days in April, fat snowflakes falling on Dutch sailing ships in canals so that my son feels himself called to stand perched before the glass, his toes curled like a bird’s around the slim heating pipe, watching.
CATASTROPHIC RISK: EARTH CHANGES EDITION
February again and it’s warm despite our northern latitude. As a flat-chested kid in a checkered bikini you think nothing of this, lying alone on the deck and then on the warmer stones dug from the forest that make up your back doorstep, where you’re just puny enough to still fit. If you’re like me you might confuse the sun’s image with the sound of airplanes, think you hear the slow hum of its rays pulsing out and down into the green emptiness of the backyard. It is a miraculous thing, this audible sun. It converts the rusted swings into something brilliant and dappled, their flimsy seats squeezing your hips as they cough and creak. If you’re like me your mother is inside, sitting rapt on the couch, VHS tape in the player tucked behind the barely sanded doors of the hutch. On the screen she sees future meteorological phenomena bloom like carnivorous flowers. The male narrator continues smoothly explaining and she comes to understand that this, like everything else, will end. Later you hear the wails, muffled as if her nose and mouth were pressed tightly against a pillow, though she tells you to your face that it is simply important to be prepared. You can weather the impending catastrophes or else perhaps achieve rebirth in an alternative dimension where families remain, happy, bound together in the exploding light. If you’re like me you find this oddly comforting and you attain a kind of emotional equilibrium, doubt being scientifically impossible for you at the moment, though you will discover in adulthood that you feel an inexplicable sense of horror at the remembered clack of the rewinding tape. Your mother’s sister calls, and the ringing echoes continuously through the kitchen. You refuse to skate at the wooded pond while you still can, boots shuffling instead across the ice.
1. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to bicycle shirtless over the dry lake.
2. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to find herself rolling like an empty beer bottle in the back of the car.
3. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to become consumed with the acquisition of superfluous possessions, curving her hoarding body around them like they are so many essential foodstuffs.
4. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to make friends with people whose auras will confuse hers, leading to internal conflict and boisterous explosions of street-level violence.
5. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to end metaphysically alone in a white room surrounded by strange, indistinct faces.
6. The girl’s mother is working hard at this.
7. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to throw her phone into the pit of the subway track, allowing the delicate buttons and compactly folded body to be crushed under the wheels of the inevitable train.
8. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to then use the demise of the phone as an excuse for silence, for staying home in the earsplitting city.
9. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to leave mounds of laundry so long unfolded that they grow to reach the flaky crust of the ceiling, steering herself around them with heavy and encumbered slowness.
10. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to take up pool as a hobby instead of reading, returning each day smoke-laden to the apartment, her pockets and handbag full of the clacking balls.
11. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to jump from the highest point of the hiking trail because she believes, falsely, that the impending trees will offer a softer cushion than her figure.
12. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to start speaking in the language of her less distinguished ancestors only to find one morning that her tongue is stuck motionless in the hollow of her mouth, a grotesquely fleshy and useless appendage.
13. The girl’s mother is fearful and exhausted.
14. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to sit in the semi-dark of the apartment and, with a tweezer, calmly pluck each hair from her limbs until all that remains is a surface that is smooth like a parched salt flat.
15. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to begin dancing and find that she is unable to stop, even once her arms and legs quiver with overuse.
16. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the trees that surround and dot the city to dematerialize in the night, leaving the disoriented girl in a sterile and alien landscape.
17. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the sterile and alien landscape to throw the girl into such a panic that she simply compresses herself into a small package and sits, counting, waiting for the exterior world to right itself.
18. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the ocean weeds to remember the girl, her unromantic ankles and buzzing voice, and launch themselves toward the shore with the intention of finishing what they started.
19. The girl’s mother doesn’t want the girl to get too close to the garden soil and discover one day that she and it—its crumbly mounds and fly-dotted tomato cages—are now impossible to differentiate.
20. The girl’s mother disappears into the encroaching quiet.