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June 20, 2011 / Mir Plemmons

Two Coils, Twisted

Two Coils, Twisted

           Annie sat in her old, overstuffed chair – tiny, tucked up and nestled in it, as always. The lamp table was in easy reach, with her battered record player and her beloved 33s. Today was a day for Billie Holiday – Annie was feeling every single one of her 82 years, and full of memories. Gold joys, red passions and pains, brown endurances. She was in her autumn time of life. She’d decided that when she turned 75.

As “It’s Easy to Remember” wound down, her eyes turned toward the next record. She was going to play “Fine and Mellow”, but the air today had a tense stillness. It reminded her of something, but the something wouldn’t come clear. She was tired. She turned the record over and put it on to play but then dozed off. She dreamed all reds and browns: Billie sang of strange and bitter fruit on the poplar tree that Annie, as a lady, did not like to recollect. She awoke, disoriented, to a rising storm to the North.

 

Clem was out fishing. Well, now, when you’re livin’ slow on the lake, and the next load of pots ain’t owed to the shop for another week – any still morning can keep you later on the water than you meant. No harm done, is there? Still… he looked above the trees on the South side of the lake, at those clouds building up trouble. Best get back to the house. This Spring – if it was Spring – kept bringing the darnedest weather. He didn’t plan to get caught out.

He unshipped the oars, and began the even, steady pulls of long practice. Rowing is meditative, and the weather reminded him of Sarah. She’d played with words, the only one but his mother who called him Clement. She said it, laughing, and laughed more when she called him Inclement. He shook his head to clear it, and rowed harder.

He beached the boat, hauled it up and lashed it down. He wondered when he’d be able to just snub its line to the dock cleat and be done. Not any time soon, he figured. He stopped by the shed on his way up to the house. He usually did, after Sarah came back to mind. He’d built the pottery studio – wheel, shelves, everything there but the new kiln – years ago. Built for her. His favorite photo of her, a little faded now, sat on the sill. He touched it and wondered again if he threw pots because he liked the feel of the clay all that much, or because when he touched it he touched her.

*                                    *                                    *

Annie found herself urgently collecting her coat and hat, listening to the rising wind. She didn’t know what was driving her outside; she was sure as sure the siren would start any minute, and she really was getting too old for this. It might be early in the year, but this storm had …intentions. Regrettably, it didn’t matter. She didn’t ignore those hunches, not anymore. Whatever the price for answering the call, the price for ignoring wasn’t one she was willing to pay. She shoved into her good sturdy shoes, dismissed the umbrella, then trotted downstairs and out the door.

Her feet took her the few blocks to the town’s heart, through gritty winds that were, as yet, unfocused and deniable. Annie and the old bandstand had sidestepped a score of storms together. She dropped onto a bench to catch her breath. Too old for this. The autumn time of one’s life is not for running, being out in storms or dam’fool idealistic crusades. On cue, the tornado siren came to life 60 yards away, on the ex-firehouse. Beneath the thunderheads to the Northeast, a downward roiling point gathered, and the sky took on a greenish cast.

 

Clem’s head snapped up. Outside the South-facing window, the sky had gone green. He berated himself. Here he’d been, woolgathering in the pottery shed, while the wind’s fingers explored its eaves with increasing interest. It took the siren’s distant wail to shake him loose and force him to pay attention.

He wrenched the door open against the wind’s pull and paused, staring at the storm. The winds were getting high and hungry though he couldn’t make out a funnel cloud. Some reluctance held him back from the cellar, but he sure couldn’t stay in this shed. As if to make that point, the wind gave the shed a good, hard yank, getting serious about it. He looked up in time to see a tornado descend, looking like nothing so much as a horse’s pizzle. Past time to get out of this shed and to real cover He had to make it to the storm cellar, and he knew he couldn’t afford the time he’d lost. With a grimace, he reached back, grabbed the photo and stuffed it in his coat pocket. Jamming his cap down low, Clem braced himself and stepped into the full force of the storm.

*                                    *                                    *

The bandstand stood impervious, above this swirling of wind and leaf, paper and branch – and seemingly limitless dirt. Trashcans rolled and clanged, and a window screen cartwheeled crazily down the street. Annie kept her head down. Her work didn’t require seeing the winds, not exactly. She settled back into herself, reaching deep down. She’d done this for decades, after all. It had its own ways and rhythms.

Her grandmother’s proud, weathered face – older even than Annie was now – shone in her mind, joined by a chanting voice that rolled Hausa words to meet American realities. Her grandmother always said the rain on a tin roof reminded her of the music of her childhood, two lifetimes and two continents ago.  Grandmother’s pride was more than equal to the task of holding onto language and skills through dangerous decades of hiding both but using both to protect her town, and gladly bringing it forth when time ripened, to teach the child who listened.

Now the words came, words of stability and safety, of community and protection. She built walls for her town with words and rhythms that grew out of ways to keep prowling beasts away at night. Grandmother was a blessing to the whole town, though they’d never known the half of it. She’d say that’s as it should be. The storm faded from Annie’s awareness, partly as she got to work, and partly in response to it. The winds’ skirts twirled away from Annie and the bandstand, losing the pace of their dance. Annie kept pushing, chanting, rolling the words against the thundering voice of the twister as it tried to set its plough against the Northern edge of town. Annie knew her craft, and smoothly spread Grandmother’s power to protect her home again. She’d see to it. The tornado would miss.

 

On the other side of the storm, Clem’s slog against the wind suddenly shifted. He was knocked sideways, and tumbled like a kicked dog into a ditch his tractor’d left in all the doggone rain. Hurting, he gathered himself and started to crawl toward the cellar. The storm had jumped toward him and started grinding its way over his fields. He was going to have to be smart; this was big trouble and little time. As he moved, he noticed the wind had ripped his coat when it threw him. He checked, in a moment of realization: the photograph was gone from his pocket. Normally a mild, sad man, the sound that burst forth was a decades-old dam breaking. The “NO!” that ripped loose from him shook the very sky.

A sudden stillness wrapped Clem, the shed (minus a section of roof) and a circle a good seventy feet in all directions. He still could hardly see the house, but he sure could see the grass pulled and stripped around him. Nothing moved in his circle. Clem’s overworked brain stuttered to a stop. His circle?! His circle!? …What? Dazed, he groaned his way up and staggered to where the startled wind had dropped his picture. Maybe it was Sarah’s circle, instead. He half-collapsed half-sank to the ground, gathered in the picture and curled around it, holding it in his lap.

Touching it brought him back to a shred of pragmatism, anyway. He had to get to shelter before whatever-it-was that made this circle just wasn’t, anymore. The cellar was still outside his doubtful safe zone, though as he looked he realized the winds were no longer going in the same direction. The storm seemed to be splitting around him. He looked up. And up. And up. A narrow glimpse of clear sky could be seen, way up there. He tried to gather himself. He really ought to do something, not just sit there on the wet grass with a broken picture frame in a cone of silence. He just couldn’t figure what.

*                                    *                                    *

Her focus frayed when the storm did. Something was very different, this time. The storm stopped moving away, rebounded, and then – there was a sudden eddy of stray winds off the cloud’s North side. Within a minute, a small funnel started coming down to gather them. Now she had two cyclones to manage, and they were fighting her. Worse, she was tired and the tornado was pushing, trying to backtrack on her. This was new. New wasn’t good. Not when only an old woman stood between the town and two funnels.

Annie mentally shook herself by the scruff of the neck. She’d built her life on being determined. She wasn’t having any of this nonsense! Resolve firmed, she pushed back. This time, the storm could not smoothly slip away from a small zone and leave her town safe. She’d have to do more, and quickly, while she still had a bit of energy. Then she’d rest. She would have to. Her energy was dipping dangerously low.

 

Clem was still sitting in his yard. He didn’t seem to be able to make himself get up. It wasn’t pain – he’d ache later from the wind throwing him, but not yet. What was this? Why was he so exhausted? That question seemed a lot safer than any questions about the still circle around him. Thinking of it, he looked out. The winds were still whipping field and lawn past the circle, but he was now between the first tornado and a new mini-tornado. He hadn’t even noticed.

He slowly realized he was feeling more pressured, stressed, like there was something he needed to do or he’d be back in danger. Everything still seemed too abstract, and he thought he might be in shock, but something was niggling at him. He tried to force himself to look more closely. It took a minute for him to find it: the circle was shifting. The big tornado was coming toward him, and pushing on the circle. He wondered if it would collapse. Not a good thought. If it was somehow his circle, could he help it? Clem looked at the edge of the circle. Experimentally, he imagined it as a pot on the wheel, and his hand, smoothed with slip, easing its wall gently outward. That felt right. It might be easier if he just lay down, so he tried that. He mentally set his shoulders and feet as if all of him was his hand, and shoved. The circle moved back. Encouraged, Clem shoved harder. Maybe he could move it far enough to get to the cellar! He crawled out of the ditch, stood gingerly, and walked toward it, still pushing. Step by step, the circle moved, and step by step he got closer to safety. Just to be careful, he pushed the circle a yard past the cellar door before splitting his attention to lift it. Climbing down while focusing on the circle felt like a huge risk, but with no choice in the matter, he managed. Once inside and latched down, he collapsed into the chair and stopped pushing. Immediately, the storm was overhead, a freight train coming out of a tunnel. Clem was just glad that he was finally safe inside his!

*                                    *                                    *

Annie rocked forward suddenly, gave a last burst of energy and fell off the bench. She’d lost control of the storm, and her shield collapsed. She had nothing left to give, no energy and no ideas. All she could do was lay there and breathe, and even that seemed difficult. It was the bandstand’s turn to protect her, she thought, as she drifted down.

Strong winds knocked through the town, bringing hail with them and flinging frozen softballs nearly sideways as it chased the tornado. Cars and houses were damaged, as was the bandstand. As it passed, the only person caught outside was Annie. She found herself lying on the floor, accompanied by hailstones. She felt cool, but it was nice, sort of restful. She needed rest. The white and grey of the bandstand and the hailstone by her head was soothing, wintery. She wondered dully about the red splash. Red belonged in fall, and Annie felt that she’d been too long in fall. It was time for winter. It was time for rest. She’d rest, now. Rest. That was a good thought. She decided she wouldn’t get up for a bit, she’d just settle down for a good winter’s sleep.

 

The next day, Clem assessed damage and started picking up. He’d been so tired he fell asleep in the cellar and had to fumble for the flashlight to get breakfast and let himself out in the morning. He had no idea how long he’d slept. The pottery shed had lost its roof and a window, but was surprisingly intact. Even a good third of his pots had survived! His house was missed – just a gutter torn loose. A few unknown scrapes along his truck. He was pretty lucky – there for a while, he’d thought he was in serious trouble. He set Sarah’s picture back in its place in the shed and started sweeping.

He even got his newspaper, if a few hours late. The headline was, of course, the tornados and the final hail. Clem read that the North side of near every building in town was damaged. There was also a death notice. Seems an old lady got caught out in the storm, knocked in the head by a 3” hailstone while trying to shelter in that old, broken down bandstand. That was a pity. Poor old lady. Clem folded up the paper and got back to work.

The vision for the short was two lives that never realized they were impacting each other – one protagonist was trained and experienced but tired; and the other had just the instinctive reaction of a crisis awakening.

Concept: There’s a page from the town newspaper as a postlude, with her obit and a coil pot he donated to city hall w/ the two funnels leaning against each other and a pile of hailstones against the side opposite the small funnel.

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Mir Plemmons / Jun 22 2011 6:56 am

    I got a comment that I need to be more overt w/ where the two characters are in relation to each other, and that I was too abrupt w/ the ending… will re-examine once I’ve got the book one roughed out. Other input?

  2. Mir Plemmons / Sep 7 2011 9:37 pm

    (This was written for and submitted to Southern Fried Weirdness in response to a call for a disaster relief donation anthology; rejected b/c the ending seemed too much for the raw survivor community. I plan a little more editing, then learning how to find submission opportunities.)

    The vision for the short was two lives that never realized they were impacting each other – one protagonist was trained and experienced but tired; and the other had just the instinctive reaction of a crisis awakening.
    Concept: There’s a page from the town newspaper as a postlude, with her obit and a coil pot he donated to city hall w/ the two funnels leaning against each other and a pile of hailstones against the side opposite the small funnel

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