The winds are coming around again, and Mama is sick, again.
The Waiting Day
The winds are coming around again, and Mama is sick, again. This time she says it’s in her chest, that all the dust from the summer is getting in her mouth and crawling down into her lungs and crumpling up her organs like flowers in drought. All she does is lie in her room like a dead animal, her hair tumbled dirt. She keeps the curtains drawn but the hot gets in anyway, dry thick fingers that find their way through the cracks, the kind of hot that makes her skin fracture into long lines like the ground in Death Valley. Afternoons are still and stay forever. Charlie and I suck on ice cubes on the front steps, bat flies.
It is summer and the days are thick and slow like honey. The sky is thirsty blue, whitened out and spread thin like dry paint, and all the land is still as a ghost, waiting for the wind. It is our fourth day like this, with Mama flat as a fallen oak tree, her hands dried leaves over her eyes. I thought yesterday about taking the truck into Hanford with Charlie to get ice cream or steal grapefruits off the trees whose long arms lean all tired over the fences of the nice houses over there, but the truck has no air conditioning, and I didn’t really feel like running into anyone. Instead, I braided her tangled red hair and turned on the hose for her to run in, but we couldn’t do that for long because it is careless. We watched the local news channel for a little, where men in the tiny buzzing screen debated how strong the winds might be this time, and whether people should be bringing in their cows and children, and hosing down their roofs, filling the gas up in their cars. When our eyes started to hurt, we lay with our arms out on the porch and waited for the sun to set and it took so long. We caught lizards and then let them go.
But now it is the fourth day, and I am tired of making pancakes for every meal and tired sick of babysitting Charlie, who is always humming to herself and wanting me to go out looking for fairies with her. Charlie is six years younger than me – I am thirteen and she is seven, and she believes in just about everything there is to believe in. I try to tell her that fairies aren’t real and even if they are, we won’t find them in the Central Valley. “If you were a fairy,” I say as I brush her hair, “would you want to live here where there aren’t any trees or any water and you could get eaten by coyotes or burned up, or would you want to live somewhere where there would be big safe trees to sleep in and lots of blue rivers and fog?” That shut her up, and I felt bad for saying it.
I need a break from Charlie, so I go into Mama’s room. It is dark in there and hot, hotter than outside, hot like I’m standing under a big bubbling volcano. Mama is on her back on the bed, and she shines like she is lying in moonlight, only there is no moonlight.
“What,” she says, and it is not a question, and it is hollow like an elephant seal’s empty skin, and I feel the memory of cold.
Every time they tell us the winds are coming back, Mama gets sick, and when she gets sick, everything is very quiet, so quiet that sometimes I forget to breathe and find myself gasping for air as if I have been underwater, which of course I haven’t been. She never has a fever, or a cough, or a runny nose, like what Charlie and I get when we are sick. She is just slow and still and sad, and never wants to look out the window. She tells us it is something different every time: she breathed in smoke the wrong way, there are ants in her veins that are making her itch, her skin is thirsty, the hot is getting behind her eyes, things like that. This time it’s dust.
For weeks they’ve been promising rain. Apparently, some big storm is supposed to come and fight the wind and keep us out of trouble. But the sky is washed up for miles over the flatlands, and I know there will be no rain. There is a song my father used to hum under his breath to us, on past summers like this, still and waiting, when everything had to be watered down and we spent all night watching the horizon for any sign of something red. It never rains in Southern California, he’d sing, laugh like train whistles. But girl, don’t they warn ya… He never sang what came after that, and then he was gone, and I was so nervous because I didn’t know what I should be warned about.
I know there will be no rain.
I am worried about Mama, but mostly I am hot. Dust litters the bottom of my tongue. Back on the porch, I know it must be noon, the sun is so high up in the sky, and it looks as if any second it might begin a fast fall and burn us. Somewhere across the big dry field, a calf is crying, and it echoes like the broken engine of my father’s old pickup truck. There was a time when this field was green, full of dandelions and mustardseed, and Mama would swing me out in front of her and we would go searching for caterpillars, big and yellow and fuzzy with wide sky eyes. I held them in my hands. The dirt was thick under the grass and smelled like a big clean animal. The drought was bad then, or we thought it was bad, or maybe we weren’t paying enough attention. The drought was bad, but there was still rain in April and so the grass always came back and filled up the earth. That was before Charlie was born. Sometimes I look at her and feel a big blue sickness in my chest.
“How hot is it?” Charlie asks. She is on her back with her legs up on one of the porch pillars, and her red hair falls off the side like a little fire.
“I’m burning inside,” she says, and I am mad.
The air is so thick I have an urge to open my hands and grab it.
“Tell me a story,” Charlie says.
I am having a new problem where I am running out of things to say. Every word feels heavy in my mouth, like the beginning of a disaster, and dry, all cracked up and stupid. Today, when I speak, the words are dust, splintering down my lips. They are sour, useless. Mama.
“About snow. Oh! Or rivers, please?”
My throat is so dry. “In other places it gets really cold and rain freezes up and floats down from the clouds and people catch it on their tongues and lie down in it.”
“And some people say that two little girls went walking alone a long time ago and fell into one, and their voices became the voices of the river.”
Silence. “I’m thirsty.”
I am suddenly so tired, as if all of the rain missing from California has gathered up inside my body and is trapping me on the creaking wood slat at the front of the porch. As if I am the storm that’s supposed to but won’t ever be coming. The last time I saw a river – a real river, not the dried-up gorges of the Central Valley – was when I was Charlie’s age. My father drove me and Mama to the North for a weekend, and what I remember most was that the sound of water was everywhere, and the trees were so tall and thick that people said there were other animals, other worlds, way up above the clouds. And I remember that the river wasn’t blue at all. It was a hundred different colors. It was the colors of the stones and salamanders at its bottom. It was the color of the deep green of the trees. It was my own reflection. I thought that wherever that river must go was certainly the beginning, or the ending, of the earth, and I could see myself so clearly in the water I was sure it was going to take me with it, to that secret place, and I was scared, and also I wasn’t scared.
North is where my father went, after the rain didn’t come for three straight years. He went to see if it was still coming to those rivers, to see if there was any green left at all in California. I begged him to let me come with him, but he said Mama and Charlie needed me more than he did. Once he finds a place where we can live, my father will come back for us, and when he does, I know Mama won’t be sick anymore.
My father and Mama argued about him leaving a lot the night before he left, when they thought Charlie and I couldn’t hear them. We couldn’t, not really, but I could hear the whispered wailings of Mama and my father’s voice, calm like the sea. He convinced her, I guess, and left two years ago on the 4th of July, which is a day that Mama says used to be a big deal, with laughing and swimming and something called fireworks, which Charlie and I could not make any sense of.
“They put fire in the sky?” I asked, again and again. “They lit the sky on fire?”
“Not fire,” Mama said. “Light.” I could not understand the difference.
The day he left Mama cried so hard that her pillow soaked all the way through, and I thought it was magical that so much water could have come from her. I wish Mama still cried. It would be better than her dead silence. And when she cried, I always felt a little calmer, because I knew it meant she missed him.
I think I feel the wind come but it is just Charlie blowing air out through her lips. I scrape my hands over the old porch wood and pick out the splinters. They leave little red marks on the edges of my fingers. The days are always like this before the wind, holding their breath, waiting, wanting, for something terrible.
It is still inside our house, as if it is empty. Sometimes I try to think very hard about the world Mama grew up in, and I can’t see it. My brain can’t fit all that green. I have never picked a strawberry, never seen families of deer eat up early morning sun, the way my mother said she did in Julian, the little town near San Diego where she grew up. Mama said in Julian people spent half the year making pies and there were oak trees so big you couldn’t see where they ended, and children swung on tires from the branches of the trees. I never knew a tree strong enough to swing on. If I were Mama, I don’t know if I would have the courage to go outside either.
When we can’t sit still anymore, Charlie and I go to the beach. I am too young to drive the truck, but I do anyway. The dusty sweat of the air soaks down my back and my cheeks, like I’m sitting in a puddle of oil. Charlie sits in the front, which she is also not supposed to do. On the radio, which will be stuck on one staticky channel forever because Mama was very angry one night and hit the stereo hard, a man and a woman are talking in excited voices about how the Santa Ana winds are coming, there’s no doubt about it, and there is no sign of rain.
It’s all crackly and hard to hear, but I catch things in between static:
This might be the big one, Rick. I think you’re… Stacey I’m… protect your… like any emergency… water down the roofs… no sense in evacuating, we… no way to know which … will come from.
After a while, Charlie starts to hum over the radio, an old Johnny Cash melody, dad’s favorite. We keep the windows down and I lick the desert off the front of my teeth, turn right onto the I-5. I am a good driver because I am good at keeping still and good at trying not to see anything that is around me. I’ve driven on this road all my life, and there has never been a day when we haven’t passed a dead coyote, or deer, or hawk. I trained my eye not to see all the death around me, the sagging oak trees and burning car wrecks, silent dog bodies.
The beach smells bad, and I know before we get out of the car that this wasn’t such a good idea. The wind off the water is salty thick. Seabirds cry. Charlie says, “What’s that smell?”
The sea is all yellow on top, like the sun’s fallen down and died and its body is stretched out on the surface of the water. The waves are thick and slow like syrup. A pelican flies over them, her wings massive and deep earth brown, her mouth open big like an ancient cave. She bends down to touch the water, and shoots straight back up as if something has bit her. At the shoreline, a bundle of a mother elephant seal lies still in a pool of thick water, waves glowing like melted fireflies. This is the beach where I learned to swim, a long time ago.
I was seven, in early summer, and had spent months asking my father about the ocean, what it felt like and looked like deep down and who looked after it. He told me about miles and miles of blue, about forests that grew out of the ocean floor, about translucent animals with tentacles and wide eyes. He told me massive blue creatures silently watched over the sea, and that their skin was thick and cool, and that my mother loved them more than anything. In summer, after I had begged and begged, he took me down to this beach, to the very edge of the ocean. He waded into the waves, his back shining under the sun, and pulled out the plastic bottles and cans that floated on top of the water. He put me on his shoulders and we walked into the ocean, and the blue was so powerful, so wide and so real, that I wept. I knew that the water could heal everything that hurt, and I jumped from his shoulders and tried to gather it all up in my mouth, but it was salty and metallic, and I spit it up, and got in trouble after that and had to come out for a while. When I finally learned to swim, to put my head under the water, I felt I had discovered a place no other human knew about, and I wanted so badly to sink down into the blue forest, and for no one ever to find me. But obviously other humans knew about the ocean, and it is too dangerous to swim in now.
“I don’t like the smell. Rotten eggs.”
“Neither do I.”
“Is that what the water is supposed to look like?” Charlie asks, and I am suddenly out of breath. I am so tired of Charlie, don’t want to play mother anymore.
“It didn’t used to look like that.”
“What did it used to look like?”
I am out of breath like I have been running forever. When will my father come back to get us? “It was blue and protected by giants.”
Charlie stares at the sick-stained sea. “What happened?”
Stones on my tongue. “Some people hurt it really bad.”
“Did we?” Charlie asks, and looks up at me with her big full eyes.
“I don’t know.”
We go home while the sun drops its heavy head. I keep the radio off, put my arm out the window. The air is still writhing with the reverberation of heat, as if the earth itself is burning from below, rising to meet us. But also it is not like that. It is a temperature close to silver, like the moon. The road is long and straight, its casualties like shadows in the deep dry gutters. Charlie leans her head out the window, opens her mouth wide. I suck in the air. I love when the night comes, when the lights are turned off of everything and all of it glistens and the air is thick with something you can’t quite put your finger on. Sometimes I imagine the night is full of ghosts with bodies like gentle wind, blue whispers of oak trees and deer and mountain lions. And even though he is not dead, my father too, hiding in the orange grove. When he finally comes back for us, I know it will rain. And when it rains, Mama will open her arms and dance in it, like how she used to, her mouth wide, her body soaked in sky.
By the time we are home, it seems all of California is blue, the horizon deep and alive as water, and everything washed clean. There is a ghost in our driveway and even though I think you probably can’t hit a ghost with your car, I swerve anyway into the cactus patch. “Stay here,” I tell Charlie, and am out of the car and in the dust, looking for my father. But there is no ghost there, and no father, only a coyote. He has big yellow eyes and is missing half a tail, and in the dark his eyes glow like two suns. His skin hangs off the bones of his body and as I watch him, I think I can feel my own skin sliding down my legs in folds, as if I am melting, or shrinking, or burning. He stares at me, still. He turns and is gone.
The lights in our house are off, its windows are holes, and the screens on them seem to hum like flies. It is a slow, creaking darkness. I think this means that Mama is still lying down, but when Charlie and I climb up the porch, the peeling wood steps still warm and sagging with memory of the heavy sun, I see that she is sitting at the kitchen table in the blue.
“Mama?” Charlie’s words seem to take a shape in the dark, like the first breath of a big wind.
“Where have you been?” She says, and her voice sounds ashy and thick, as if spoken from the bottom of a well. I can just make out the shattered secret green of her eyes, and in the dark my mother shines like oil, my mother is a bent-up Joshua tree, her limbs all twisted and dry and magnificent, and I am cold, and through the open door something is maybe moving.
“To the beach,” I say. “We wanted some fresh air.”
“How was it?” She seems to trip over her lips.
“Beautiful,” I say, and beside me Charlie is still.
“Did you see any elephant seals?” And I wish so badly I did not know how to speak.
“Many,” I say. “Lying on their backs in the sun.” And I cannot help myself. I go on. “And the water was so blue too, Mama, and there was so much of it. And it made the most extraordinary sound. We saw all different kinds of fish in the waves, and far away I think we saw a –” But I cannot remember the name of the ancient blue giant my father told me all about and Mama used to love. I think it had something to do with crying. It doesn’t matter anyway because she is gone again, and she cannot hear me. She has hidden her eyes with her hands.
“Mama?” Charlie whispers. At the back of my head, I think maybe I feel wind. I turn sharp to face the open door, but there is nothing: just the long, dry earth.
“How does all the dust get in here? Why do you keep that door open? It’s choking me. It’s making me sick. I can’t breathe through all this dirt.” Her voice is hollow again, burnt.
“Mama.” When I look at my mother, I feel I can see her losing color, like a painting slowly erased by sun. “The winds are coming. We need to water down the house. They’re saying it might be the one we’ve been waiting for. Mama? I don’t know how to get on the roof to do it. Do you think we have enough water? They’re saying we need to get ready now. It’s coming.”
She does not move. I know that no matter what comes for us, she will not move. And suddenly there is a tremor in my bones, and at first, I think an earthquake has come to take us back into the dust, but then I realize that the feeling is just in me, and that it is rage.
“Get up Mama. The winds are coming and it’s not going to rain. Can you hear? It’s not going to rain.” And Charlie is not next to me and quiet anymore, she is on Mama, pulling at her hair and clothes, trying to drag her off the chair like a ragdoll.
“MAMA! Wake up, Mama!” Mama’s head falls forward onto the table. She swats at Charlie, covers her ears. I can feel the dust climbing up my arms, can feel its soot fingers on my lips, can’t breathe. Charlie looks up from Mama and through the open door, and I can feel it before I turn. Charlie is shouting at me, is grabbing at my clothes, but I am out the door, I am in the wind, and it has come, finally, warm and wailing and dead. It is everything, and the land creaks on ancient wounds, and the only oak trees left in the valley howl in recognition. Everything has arms. The wind chases the blue out of the sky, and there has never been any blue, and there will never be any rain.
And then Charlie is out in the wind, she is shouting that something is singing, or stinging, and her voice comes to me like the rush of a river. The wind wraps itself around her little green dress and holds her. She digs her feet into the ground. The sky tumbles down on us black and glowing like fireflies. Across the valley, light falls like stars, silver and strong, and it is lightning, and the world is glowing big and writhing. I can smell it beginning. Blood from the earth spreads across the desert, fast and loud and ready, and the fire runs at us on oil feet, climbs up the sky, and I can’t watch anymore. My skin can barely hold on to my young, crooked bones. I know it is now. The earth is returning her wounds to us.
I turn away to cover my eyes with my hands and I am facing Charlie, barefoot in the dust, her eyes echoing the vicious light, eyes spilling river water, and she does not turn away. She stands and she faces it as it comes.