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Storm Country by Paul Crenshaw (Excerpt)

The first tornado I can remember was when I was eight. The storm came in the afternoon, as many storms do. It was early in March – a month that, as the saying goes in Arkansas, enters like a lion, leaves like a lion. My father was watching a basketball game on TV when the sound disappeared, followed by the steady beep that meant an announcement was coming. Thunderstorms are moving through the area, the announcement ran at the bottom of the screen. Tornadoes possible. Take shelter. When the announcement disappeared, the state of Arkansas appeared on the screen, the western counties lit like radiation. My father went out to study the sky and came back in at a run.

“Let’s go,” he said.

The trees were dancing as we ran to the truck, leaves and small branches swirling in the wind and falling all around. At the road up the hill to my grandfather’s house a dust devil danced before my father ran his truck through it, dispersing the dust. A line of rain moved toward us through the fields. The clouds in the distance were green.

By the time we reached the top of the hill the wind was rocking the truck and the first drops of rain were hitting the hood, big and loud and hard. The curtain of rain reached us, going from a few drops to a downpour in an instant. The wind ripped the truck door from my father’s hand. My grandfather ran out from the cellar door, where he’d been watching for us, waiting. He took my brother, my father took me. We couldn’t see the cellar in the rain. Thunder rumbled the hills, and lightning stabbed down, sharp and quick, splitting the rain, everything quiet for an instant before the thunder struck.

We splashed through the rain and into the cellar. I was wet, plastered to my father’s chest. My mother took us down the stairs. My father and grandfather stood peering through the window at the rain. The day had gone dark.

Downstairs, my grandmother was telling stories to my two younger cousins, who were flinching in the sharp crashes of each thunder. The room smelled of kerosene, of earth and wind and rain. My skin was wet, hair cold, as my mother wrapped me in a quilt. In the brief silences between thunderclaps, we could hear the rain and my father and grandfather on the stairs. I peered through the door and heard my father say, “There it is.”

He turned and saw me standing at the bottom of the stairs and motioned me up. The rain had slowed and was falling lightly now; the wind settled down in the trees. I stood on the steps with my father as he pointed into the distance, where a dark funnel coiled downward from the black clouds, like smoke, or wind taking shape and color. At the base of the tornado, dust and debris hovered, circling slowly, and I heard the sound of storm for the first time. It grew out of air, out of wind. It seemed as silent as noise can be, a faint howling that reached us over the rain, almost peaceful from a distance. But then it would hit a line of trees or a fence, shooting trees and fence posts and barbed wire into the air. It crossed over a pond, and water turned it almost white for an instant. It hit an old barn like a fist, smashing boards and metal, slinging debris about.

We watched, not speaking, as the tornado moved over the empty fields in the distance, leaving a swath of devastation in its wake. After a time it folded itself back into the underbelly of the clouds, rising silently, dispersing like smoke in the wind, the sound gone and the air still once again.

“It’s over,” my father said, but I could still see in my mind the black funnel dropping from the clouds, twisting across the landscape, throwing trees and dirt and anything in its path, tearing tracts of land as it went on its way. Before me was the result, the path of the tornado, cut through the hills. And, for no reason it seemed, it faded away, gone as surely as it had come. We stood there for a long time after it was over, silent, watching the clouds roll on through, speeding swiftly toward night. After a time--an hour or three or four--the clouds peeled back, revealing bright stars flung across the sky.

My father and my grandfather had watched other tornadoes before, just like that one, had seen them and knew what they could do. I had thought that they were standing guard through the night, watching until it was safe for us to come out, putting themselves between us and the danger that lurked outside. But as we turned and went down the stairs together, I realized they watched from the window to see the terrible beauty of the storm rolling across the hills, hail falling from the sky, streaks of lightning in the jagged edges of the storm, the twisting funnel of clouds that held such power.