Tornado, by Richard Spilman

It had been a day when the geese

came up from the river and circled

like cows and wouldn’t be chased 

to flight even by a child, when heat

hung heavy over the zoo–the cats

stayed in their cages, the monkeys

hunkered into the shade of artificial

trees, and the creatures of the plain 

were brought to their knees.  My 

daughter, bored by their inactivity, 

flung fish food into the koi pond 

to watch the water explode.

A leaden breeze rose and the tulips,

the lilies, the iris, the masses of spring

flowers nailed to their beds, strained 

against their roots as if beckoning.

Then it appeared in the west, a sheer

granite face of cloud as monumental

as El Capitan and nearing us with

the deceptive speed of a battleship.

The sirens squawked, and from

the slit windows of the herpetarium 

we watched a road grow penumbral, 

then disappear into night, while in

the fleeing brilliance slow wide spirals

of debris rose like souls gathered

into Heaven–“Look at the leaves!” 

she cried and the circling colors dipped. 

You could almost hear music. 

Then the rain–hard, loud, cruel. 

The monitors slept, the two-headed 

rattlesnake wound from side to side. 

We ate hot dogs from a refugee cart 

and watched the tulips beaten down

by forces they had invoked.  In its 

wake, my daughter shed her shoes 

and danced in the rain, as if to say

how small a thing a storm can be.

We walked into a sunset glow at mid-

afternoon.  Everything–trees, grass,

fence rails, sidewalks, cars in the lot–

had discovered some inner light.

Her leaves were roofing tiles, red 

and grey, scattered over the lot 

like leaflets.  One had lodged

beneath my wiper. She claimed it 

as she claimed dead bugs and bits

of gravel, souvenir of her passage.

On the radio, witnesses exulted:

a restaurant near the mall, flattened;

a Caravan belly up in a motel pool;

power lines sparking near a school.

The storm had skipped through the city

like a rock on a pond, scalping houses 

as it went and came to us soundless, 

invisible except for the tiles.

On the way home, we circumvented 

downed trees, the roof of a garage; 

nameless debris huddled against fences

like refugees; the road lay like a forest

path in spring half-hidden by windfall.

At our turn, men were sawing a huge 

limb that had fallen on a parked car,

cupping it like a mittened hand. 

The drain, dammed by leaves, had

created a tiny lake; the car seemed 

to be sinking.  A fireman reached

in, removed a chunk of window glass

and a purse.  His hands were bloody.

He wiped them on a clump of leaves.

She had stopped to wait out the wind 

as if it were an ambulance passing.  

The police waved us into an alley,

 and we went on. My daughter said, 

“The woman’s dead, isn’t she?”  

And I knew from that day on 

when she saw leaves she’d see blood

and know that always in the midst

of such desperate beauty there is

tragedy: a littered street, a woman 

by sheer chance trapped and dying, 

a man who stares at his hands.

Taken from the book “In the Night Speaking” with permission from the author.

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