by Bruce Meyer
There had been so many fierce tropical storms that year the National Hurricane Center exhausted its alphabetical list of names and by early September they were christening category fives with a new sequence of ABCs. We were living on the coast when Alex passed through after Walter. My wife, kids, and I took refuge in a bedroom closet on the second floor at the back of the house. We believed we were safe until a pine tree crashed through the roof, crushing our bed and dresser, and stranding us for three days high above the ground with the tidal surge swirling around the foundations of our house.
Determined not to get caught on low ground again, we relocated twenty miles inland where we thought we were safe.
But Douglas was different.
The water rose twenty feet above sea level in a matter of hours, and when I put my eye to a knothole in the plywood on the front window I saw waves coursing over our lawn and could smell the salt in it.
We spent the night in the crawl-space of the attic. If the water had been six inches higher, we would have drowned as we sheltered in place. Douglas was our last warning. We should have evacuated when we had the chance. The first arm of wind ripped off the shingles and the next arm tore at the decking of the roof. Our children were screaming but the gale force wind drowned out their cries.
The waters subsided.
It wasn’t the silence of the storm’s eye. That had long passed.
It was the absence of sound that might have greeted Noah when he sent forth the raven from his ark. I pried open the front door. The neighborhood was gone. A heap of broken lumber and the sign for a gas station a mile down the highway were floating in a foot of water where the house across the street once stood.
And there was a man on our front lawn.
He faced down. His arms appeared to be clutching something that had been torn from his embrace. He was still wearing his undershirt. I waded out and covered the lower half of his body with a sheet of shingles and sat down at the edge of what had been our porch to wait for rescuers to arrive.
My wife called to me to come in. I told her to go back in the house. I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t want her to see the body.
I had switched off the electricity and gas before Douglas hit, but there were those who had not done so. A hydro wire sparked from the one pole left standing on the block. Our rental house was the only structure left standing. We’d been lucky.
People lived here. It wasn’t fair this should happen to them. It wasn’t fair that month after month, year after year, storms kept coming and grew more intense every time they struck.
And what could I do about the man? An old man from the look of him—sprawled where the storm surge had carried him, perhaps sweeping him from the arms of his wife as they lay together in bed, hoping to ride out the worst of it or clutching his dog, the frightened animal fighting so hard for life it abandoned the old man in his time of need. Or maybe he had fallen from the sky as the eye of the hurricane picked him up and dropped him where he lay? I have heard stories of angels falling from Heaven. They are battered from the wrath of the sky, just like the old man on the lawn. And though I do not believe angels fall unless they are torn from the kingdom of clouds during hurricanes, I accept they can be carried twenty miles inland in the grip of a storm surge.
I wanted to feel for him. I wanted to sit down and weep beside his body and ask why he had let go of what he once held. I wanted to know his name. I wanted him to ask him about his life, how he worked for years, built his own world, did good or bad—neither mattered now—and saw everything he knew and loved shattered in single night.
Had he been washed all this way inland from the coast? Had he been someone local whose final journey was short? The longer he lay there, motionless and clutching at what he lost, the more he blended with the debris and I was angry at myself for having grown inured to calamity and numb to the consequences of living so recklessly in the world.
He was bald and his grey hair was wild and tufted from having been tossed in the surge. He had at least two days growth of stubble on his face. Had he spent his final hour preparing a futile defence against the blast? Who was he? Someone’s husband? A family’s father just like me or a grandfather, or the elderly uncle who decided to be brave and ride it out?
Both he and I were fools for believing we could stand our ground instead of running for safety. Perhaps he had no means to run or was confused and didn’t to know where to go if he did head for safety. We both believed the brave myth of ‘shelter in place.’ But bravery means nothing to a hurricane. It does not hear our taunts or our shouts or even our anguished cries when we realize we miscalculated our odds of survival.
And soon there would be Edward, after that Felix, and the whiplash of George.
I wondered where I would have ended up had I been in his place with no fight left in my body or soul and let myself become a nameless traveler in the drift and debris with no idea where or when I would arrive at the journey’s end and with no one to greet me there and no way for me to call to them if they were and only silence to tell them who I was.
Bruce Meyer is author of sixty-four books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction. His stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international prizes. His most recent book is Down in the Ground (Guernica Editions).