A shroud of humidity wrapped my body and pulled my hair down with sweat as I walked across a half-acre of my property to the entry of a shed. Its metal doors resisted as I tried to pull them open. The cut metal at their bottom edge tore at the thick blades of St. Augustine grass. The handle, radiant with heat, made me snap my hand back several times, until I succeeded and crossed into the damp, dark sanctuary. My sneakers left solitary imprints, marking this territory. Their stripes illustrated the soil. It, too, advanced in age, had undergone genesis and transformation in this southwest Louisiana climate, a bleached ochre in places to a deepening rust in others. Slim rays of sharp sun streamed through the metal roof planks and painted a mural of light on the walls.
Vestiges of a lifetime hid in dark corners. Under the dovetail joints of a wooden table clustered silken spider egg sacs. Their parents flexed their eight legs and jumped around the tabletop ignoring my presence. They kept watch over the bounty of coffee cups under the table. One with a chip steadfastly held five others in a leaning column of stoneware. The top cup teetered, fearful of a fall, while the crowd of saucers below jeered it on. Leaning against the sidewall rested an empty hutch. Its glass door hung ajar, weary from decades of displaying knick-knacks – a retirement plaque, a bell someone brought back from Germany, and a china teacup with painted roses. Under the peeling veneer, mildew was invited to creep along the open wood. Faded blue, green, and pink Tupperware in a corner wished to be useful again; instead each piece crowded in a cardboard box, embarrassed by hardened sauce from a meal long ago. Propped up against the box, a congregation of six small faces, descending in order, peered out of a glass frame. The first yearned for a second chance, the second and third sought an explanation, the fourth hoped for reconciliation, the fifth demanded penance, and the sixth wondered what happened.
A beveled wooden music box with golden inlay called to me from a clear plastic bin, so I got on my knees and took it out. A muted scent of perfume drifted into the moist, stale air. I lifted the top of the music box and each plink of its steel teeth formed a ponderous version of Unchained Melody. The brass key turned next to an inscription that wasn’t mine. When the last note bounced off the metal walls and settled into silence, I placed the music box back in its home and took out a ring that was waiting patiently. Smoothed from years of wear by neighboring fingers, the band cradled six stones, small, distinct, and dulled by time. It was loose on my finger, but I held it in place, and lifted my arm so it could catch a piece of sun for momentary glinting. Sweat off the tip of my nose dripped to the ground, leaving salty remnants to mix in the dust. Heat permeated, so with each item back in place, I sealed the bin and backed out of the doors. A cloud softened the sunlight, so with hands pressing on the door’s surface, leaning in, I pushed them closed and rested against them in the brief shadow, a momentary extension of the structure. I stood in the shade offered by my trees as I felt a steady breeze dry my sweaty skin so that it became like fine pea gravel, gritty and brown. Four long beeps called through the open windows of my house, an alert, the first watch, the lookout for impending conditions of a hurricane.
The spruce pine that lived alone, an interloper among other trees, must have cracked under the roar of the wind. His tall, lean trunk tried to sway and bend, but he must have reached his breaking point in the final hours of the hurricane. So unlike the live oaks with their bulky trunks and arching limbs, the spruce pine must have become unsteady. His taproot, straight and narrow, couldn’t hold like the oaks with their ropey roots reaching and crawling across the yard and thrusting deep toward the core of the earth. Instead when the rains came and lifted worms, frogs, and crawfish from their homes, they also loosened the spruce pine’s foundation. He shifted and tried to regain his balance. He called to the oaks, “Hold me up.” That must have been when his center was lost and he swung toward the ground like a pendulum untethered from its fixed point. The wind shredded his branches to the top of his spreading, irregular crown. As each gust tore at his aging, furrowed bark he could feel himself, exposed and raw, giving into the rage of the hurricane. His struggle ended; his branches flowed like hair above his trunk as he collapsed on top of my house.
It was so early for a hurricane of this size, early August, coming when least expected. I went to survey the wreckage. Evacuated, I was a refugee in my own land. I left my car a quarter mile from my house to forge a new path through what felt like an alien landscape. As the indention of my roofline became visible, I opened into a darting dance across a tapestry of branches and sticks into my foyer. A rafter that tried to break the fall of the spruce pine was splintered on the floor. The spruce pine lay near the front door as though it tried to miss the house. Water dropped on my face and I shielded my eyes from new light that penetrated the open roof, turning faded walls to a brilliant white. I ran my finger along the spruce pine’s bark in the stillness of a world grown silent, no hum of electricity, no mush and whine of traffic, just my quiet grief for this pine that could no longer stand.
I could have left him there and gone about my daily life. Moss and mold would have grown along the counters and sink. My ceiling would have become a canopy as oak limbs would have gathered across the roof. Mud and clay would have covered the floor and new sprouts would have emerged underfoot – thistle, virgnia buttonweed and dollar weed – flora that cannot be deterred; flora that cannot be dissuaded; flora that would weave its stringy white roots into a rug. Mud daubers would have built their solitary homes in the crevices of standing walls, forming communities in spite of themselves. I would have hoped for a Mandeville vine to find its way and give us a flourish of pink. My spruce pine would have opened himself, offering a home of new life for the larvae of spiders and ants. I could have lived among them all, my hair growing in thick ropes, my feet developing a callous coat, and my face remaining dusted and sweaty. The spruce pine, once lonely and lacking, would have been forever changing under my watchful eye in the center of my house.
But I knew I wouldn’t. The roar of the chain saws plunged and separated him from this house. Roofers were issued to close the open hole and shut me in again, never to ruminate again about the life that didn’t happen. Repairmen worked on the façade of my home, restoring the air conditioner to its rightful place; its fan became a constant whirl. I knew that days would pass into months and life would go along as though we were able to make a permanent stake in the face of storms that waited in the Gulf, storms that were no longer broken by the marsh that has been washed away day after day.
This hurricane must have grown swollen and arrogant as he crossed the Gulf, a locomotive barreling through a tunnel with a predetermined destination, crossing beyond his natural border. In his hubris, he became unpredictable, nearing the coast then reaching back to the warm waters to re-emerge larger and bolder, daring me to run or remain, taunting me to try to protect what was mine. I waited, answering his challenge standing solidly on my back porch, gripping the wooden banister of my stoop and looking upward to meet the pelting rain, the wet harbinger of the coming torrent. In the distance, my shed, enveloped in water, seemed larger, like David ready to fight Goliath, keeping watch over my dominion, a place holding a past that only I am left to remember.
The initial gusts dug deep to find an inner strength, to do the bidding of the eye of the storm, so I headed into the yard to rescue what I could, lifting the burden from my shed, releasing him from fault. The screen door repeatedly slammed, telling me to come back inside, but I knew this path, the number of steps, the size of my stride. In my effort the mud sucked my shoes off, my toes squished in rivulets, and the small plastic grocery bags I carried took flight. But I continued into the brief safety of metal walls vibrating in time with the gusts. Wind screeching through a tear in the roof seam signified the beginning of an unstoppable act. Absent my bag, I surveyed what I could save, running my fingers across the Tupperware and coffee cups and grabbing the photos, the music box, and the ring. Shielding them under my shirt, I entered back into the storm. Each tug of my feet from the mud’s suction slowed my pace, but I crossed the expanse of the yard and closed my door on the storm. Intermittent chimes came from the music box as I twisted it in plastic and tape, the ring safely inside, and placed it between my mattresses next to the photo frame.
It was the police that called me from my cocoon of fury, broke my will, and took me away. I climbed into their van and looked back to my unwavering trees, my abandoned house, and my mailbox, the first sacrifice, who had already crumpled to the ground. I sat in a van with sweaty, crushed captives, arriving from homes I never visited, down roads I never knew, their faces full of fear and shock from the storm, the great equalizer. Their eyes implored me for a recount of my siege as they shared their stories, each of them figuring as protagonist, hero, savior. My eyes were fixed on fragments that fluttered by the van window – the bit of roof, the crushed metal, the red fabric from a garden flag, leaves – calling to me to come back and claim them. I looked away, only able to pick blue paint from my banister out of my reddened fingernails.
And now, a month later, the sun shines and the work is underway on the house, the men clamor, a diligent orchestra to which I have grown accustomed. I wake to the pound of hammers and brew coffee to the plink of pipes. I feel like I have been away so long, closed up in a distant tower. At last I am released to begin again, to renew life patterns, so I head to Walmart. The greeter that lives down my street must have missed my face because his hands flap slightly to the side as I approach, ready to take flight. He must have missed waiting for his bus to take him to work, missed standing on his foamy mat waiting to greet the familiar and unfamiliar with a wave and a nod. His blue nametag says Walter and it is fastened, lopsided, on his green vest with the word greeter on the back. Each morning he must wake in search of himself and when he dons his vest and pins his tag he must exhale and say “Here I am.” We nod to each other and we are both pleased with a reminder that maybe the hurricane didn’t break our stride. Maybe, as though on a continuous loop, we have been here all along, and Walter greets me and I walk past him wishing that I could know all he wishes for me to know. Or maybe he is just happy like he always is and I am happy like I always am to know we are expected, anticipated.
My usual path leads me to the flower section and even though I am feet away, the acrid scent of stored flowers meets me. These flowers must have been surprised to be cut, sprayed, and dyed before they were placed in a dark truck to make their way to the hands of men buying last minute gifts for lovers or daughters remembering mothers in nursing homes, trigged by fleeting memories while driving through town and passing a park with a slide they loved when they were small and needful. I want to buy them all so they can sit in the sunshine and feel soft rain wash traces of artificial dye from their petals. I pass over the proud, white daisies knowing that someone will pick them up and take them home, pour water in their vase until one by one they droop and are singularly plucked and tossed. Instead I pay for daisies with neon green and a shock of orange as I continue on my regained weekly routine toward the cemetery.
I park where I always park, in the new section of the cemetery. I start here because I like to visit Jesus in white marble, gleaming on sunny days, and sit on the steps at his feet. I wonder who he was before the sculptor chiseled him into being; a rock, limestone, maybe once by a lake watching over the waves in Chile or deep within a Georgia mountain minding his own business until men cut away at him so that he could stand before me, draped in a hard cloak, pointing north, as though directing traffic and telling me where to go. After the storm, he still stands, overlooking the gravesites now strewn with leaves, sticks, and plastic flowers. Pinwheels that were pulled from their rightful places in vases to amuse the dead now lay around, waiting in vain for a cool breeze. The smell of gardenia is unbearably strong, so I work my way to the old section of the cemetery with shade so thick grass doesn’t grow. Narrow rock and gravel roads trace around the plots forming little neighborhoods arranged in a grid so you can move to and from; silently visiting friends and family without worry that you might get lost.
My dead are one step from the curb off the new section. Untouched by the storms and the days that followed, they must have wondered where I went. I put two flowers in the vase fixed on my mother’s headstone, one for her and one for my brother, the opal birthstone in the ring I keep in my shed. His hat is in there, even though he is not. Flung into the hole at her burial by my brother, that hat must have felt the crush of the dirt before it all went dark, tossed aside by a drunk as though of no value, as though it was not there on his head or by his side at every bar and for every drink. My brother’s body, eventually a donation to science, told a questionable tale to medical residents seeking an answer to the nature of life. Next, I put one flower in the vase for my oldest sister, the ring’s aquamarine stone, who left us in the cover of night in a car that hit a tree. The car must have felt her head smack his steering wheel, her arms fall on his leather front seat, and her last hot breaths fill his carriage. The car must have wondered if his brakes overheated or his clutch failed. He must have wondered if he could have held tight in that last moment when his bumper, then headlights, then hood, collapsed in on each other or if there was simply no stopping an object in motion. My final two flowers are for my other sisters, emerald and ruby. They are buried on top of each other; caskets stacked like dominos because there was no money for separate plots. One was buried deep and waited on the other for a year. They found themselves on the doorstep of charity hospitals, places that know their names are a joke on the poor. When the broken enter their territory, they wish they could give them a brochure to help them find their way, tips to mitigate against what lurks under the eye of disinterested parties with scalpels. But they can’t, so they must have mourned my sisters, who one by one arrived and departed. I am opal too, just like my brother. I lay on the ground next to the row of my family and close my eyes. I want to sink into the ground, transformed, cell by cell, adapting slowly to a new underground environment, until I am with them again. I would whisper, “I am here.” I would lay next to them like we once did when we shared bedrooms and secrets and anger and heartbreak.
My sixth sister is amethyst, and she is on the other side of town. After my cemetery visits I drive by her home in a building that shrinks under the name Haven of Hope. Her memory finally left her after years of capricious negligence. Fickle about cutting neural networks, he took names, lives, conversations over coffee that became conversations over wine, red and cheap. But he left traces of our last meeting about our mother’s will, a document that ballooned with import, thin and unsubstantial, filled with nothing. Memory pruned from my sister the recollection that I went into our mother’s house before my sister could, taking the music boxes and the ring and the photos and hoarding them in my shed because my sister had enough; enough of our mother’s love, enough of her husband and children’s love. She was full like a blowfish, so I took them and hid them. Memory left her knowing that she should refuse to see me, but she doesn’t know why, so she throws her remote, her fruit, her toothbrush, anything in arms reach in her small room tucked away down a long hall with white and green checked tile. I drive by her building in amends, in penance, wishing that she knew with each passing day I carry our memories like a light tote in my hand on a spring day ready to collect salamanders from my window sills and set them free in my back yard. They keep coming back, and I keep letting them go.
I head home knowing it is time to take the music box, the ring, and the photos secured under my mattress to my reconstructed shed. He is a diminutive version of his earlier self, shrunken in the absence of the coffee cups, Tupperware, hutch, and knick-knacks that could not be saved. I open the new, bright, shiny door that embarrasses him and I assure him with my rescued bounty. As I place the photos on the ground and unwrap the music box from its plastic protection, I attend to the inscription that is to our mother from my amethyst sister. I leave my mother’s birthstone ring inside. I can only visit these things that are not mine; these things that are as transient as my lost spruce, as fleeting as the words I yelled to the wind, “I am unafraid.” With each visit, I search for the absolution that must come at some point, at some time to those who seek to become more than they were, like my spruce in the moment he fell, believing he may be renewed. Like me in my moment of grief wishing I could make it so.
Monica L. Bellon-Harn is a native of Lake Charles, LA, and lives near the Texas/Louisiana border. She studied short story writing through The Writer’s Studio and with Texas author Jim Sanderson. She is a professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences.