I stopped at the drugstore to pick up some medicine for my mom, and noticed that, to the northwest, the skies were darkening and foreboding.
Hurrying through and back out, I jumped in the truck and – bemoaning the price of gasoline but reminding myself that some quests demand flesh and blood – took to the road to chase the storm.
I was born in the wake of Hurricane Hilda. Sherman Alexie once noted that there are some children who are born of fire, and who burn everything they touch; and there are some children who are made of ash, and fall apart if you touch them. I am a child of wind and rain.
It’s hard to chase a storm north around these parts, but I realized the black front was moving toward me, and I was in fact rushing to meet it, down backways and roads less traveled.
Irresistible force. Immovable object, I mused. Which will falter?
The tires whined, screamed, tearing across pavement as I raced toward the storm. Which would falter? Probably I, were this a contest, but it’s not. It’s a rush toward embrace.
High speed drift on a prairie road
Hot tires sing like a string being bowed
Sudden town rears up, then explodes
Fragments resolve into white line code
Whirl on, silver wheels–
When the barometer falls, everything seems to compress. It’s the humidity, the pressure, the unrelenting approach of the storm, and in the tinted edge atop the windshield the storm is blue-black, churning, but no rain has come.
I scan the clouds for movement, but what can I say here if I saw it? Perhaps, on my death bed, I’ll confess what I’ve found in storm fronts and black squalls. There was no lightning, and no thunder so the raptor shape I searched for wouldn’t be there, anyway. Still my very own words reminded me that it’s the journey, not the destination:
When we stop chasing thunderbirds, what else is there?
What, indeed? Here I am, wasting my last few gallons of fuel for the week, an empty wallet in my back pocket, chasing storms through a world grown nearly comatose, its dreams the stark ruminations of a madman. Beasts slouch in dark corners of its dreams, stalking us in ways varied and diverse; preying upon us in our well-ordered, linear and oh, so terribly comfortable world…until the beasts come, and they may not be fanged or clawed, but in their numbers and their mechanisms they are just as terrifying and deadly. There names are binary; their faces white noise.
Sometimes I feel that way: Like I’m stuck inside the dreams of a madman. Scorching through thick air after the storm, truck spewing noxious clouds of exhaust, I wonder if perhaps it’s me that’s mad. Me in a dream and it’s not a storm I’m chasing at all.
Cane rows whiz by, long vertebrae, tractors throw brown, famished and exhausted soil as they dig rows and drainage furrows, and red-wing blackbirds take flight as I speed past. A little boy, long before recorded history, threw a stone at a blackbird, bloodied it, and it nearly died. The red-wing bears the mark of the boy’s shame to remind all my father’s people of his crime.
Perhaps it won’t be thunderbirds I’ll find in the folds and billows of the storm, nearer now and eclipsing the entire sky. Perhaps I’ll glimpse Ustupu, the boy who’s uncle’s wife despised him and vowed to do him in. She sent him to kill a black squirrel, but his grandfather – who saw the woman’s treachery – warned him not to leave any claws on the animal to avoid bad luck. He forgot one claw, though, and the wife scratched her own face with it, accused Ustupu of the crime, and tried to have the uncle kill him.
The uncle tried and failed, and the wife continued to set traps to bring about the boy’s demise, culminating in her order for him to kill her a turkey.
Ustupu’s grandfather told him only to kill the turkey in the topmost branch of a tree, to avoid the mysterious doom the wife planned. Ustupu went, with his six hunting dogs, and found a tree full of turkeys, but his aim was poor and he killed the bird right below the top one.
His dogs rushed for the fallen turkey, but as one-by-one they touched the bird, each dog burst into flames, and all six ascended skyward, and Ustupu was pulled along with them.
The storm is nearly overwhelming everything now, filling every nook and cranny of existence, and I recall what my grandmother wrote of the boy’s eternal fate:
It is said that if one wants Ustupu to visit him, he can call him down from the skies, and because of his trying to be obedient, he will come. But because of his forgetfulness and careless aim when on earth, he cannot remain here. Whoever calls him down must also command him to return – in Chitimacha language. If the one calling him fails to do this, Ustupu will remain on earth as the killer of all remaining Indians.
Every spring, he passes to the north. I chase the storm, the thunderbirds, and the sad, betrayed boy, and droplets of crystalline rain splatter against the windshield. I lower the window a bit and the air is cool, saturated with the storm. As I make a turn, I slow to a crawl and strain to listen for the boy, there in the clouds, calling his six dogs to him for all eternity:
Cins-kut, aps-ca! Tep-kani, apcuk, Kuc, apcuk, Kapainch, apcuk, Neka, apcuk Ku-tep, apcuk! Come! Come! Come!
Dreams of a madman. Is it the world, or is it me? Indian killers, cursed and damned. Rivers formed by giant snakes, and dread Neka sama, the beast that would lurch from flames and snatch children into the hearth.
Rain blasts the windshield, obscuring the world – the madman’s dreams, soaked – and I scarcely slow down but turn on the wipers to see. No wings. No boy. No great dogs. They shrink away from cellular towers and contrailed jets. Hide from exhaust fumes, whining electricity-generating turbines and spidering transmission lines. The air is full of radio waves, burdened with chemicals and particles. They can’t exist there anymore than a trout in a polluted stream. Our cities shriek with cold misery, our seething masses moan resumes, degrees, accolades and promotions, but what they are really doing is singing dirges.
When my people fade at last into the dim memory of history, will we take their beasts with us? What, after all, will become of us when we are no more? When all we were has passed?
Then I am home, and my key is sliding into the lock of the door. The little yellow puppy is bounding to get out of his kennel, and I feel a pang of guilt for making him wait longer for my return and his release, while I was out chasing spectres and gospels written not on ancient parchment but repeated on the tongues of generations. I rush him to the back door to "do his business" and across the yard, over the bayou, the storm is moving past me, brighter skies following.
I ease into a wooden rocker, and the pup leaps for me in exuberant welcome. I rub his ear and mumble, "Good boy, Bogie, I missed you, too," but in the back of my mind flashed confirmations. Barrel mindlessly down the chute. Shrink from the riding crop, wince from the static that just seems to permeate everything beyond the storms. Child of the wind, and the rain, I could be captive to the ringing phones and ticking clocks, and to some extent I always shall be no matter how vehemently I struggle for freedom.
But…when we stop chasing thunderbirds what else, really, is there?
Madness? Perhaps. It is far more peaceful than the shrieking, tortured wail of the existence we make our way through day after day after day until the grave looms up and suddenly – far too soon – swallows us up.
(A debt to Bruce Cockburn and Faye R. Stouff is gratefully acknowledged.)