Volume 4 Number 1
2011

 

Mad Sky

Nicholas Ozment


Mid-afternoon, I’m pounding back in some nails that done worked their way loose from a fence post when it happens. Sweat’s dripping into my eyes but I suddenly get a chill. Now I ain’t had much schoolin’, but a man don’t need that kind of schoolin’ to know what’s coming. I feel it in my blood and in my bones.

I put the hammer down on the post, look up above the shock of feed that stands like a wigwam in front of me, and sure enough, I see the signs. Sky is flushed and furrowed. Clouds bruising up. Suddenly it’s cold as the ice box, and there it is. A dark, sky-tall, twisting plowman coming across the field tossing cotton like a summer blizzard. An earth-churning hell-giant, ‘cept it’s coming down from heaven. Just like the one, long time back, that got my brother. Freddy, God rest his soul, he was reaped and his body re-sewn in the blink of an eye, without ceremony, beneath a pile of barn roof slats.

I catch a whiff of Freddy’s cologne as if he was standing beside me—that’s how strong the memory is.

My hair whips free as my straw hat sails away. My farm, my barns, my house—just loose clods of dirt lying in the path of the row that plowman’s hoeing. If his foot treads near us… Dear Lord we’ll be pulled up like shallow sprouts, flung aside. Don’t reckon no one ever did survive that kinda handlin’.

I run to the house so fast I like’ta set my boots on fire. Mama, seven daughters, five sons—gotta get ‘em all underground, into the root cellar. So’s I don’t have to plant any of ‘em in the ground for good. I usher ‘em all down, waving my arms, just short of shoving ‘em ass-over-teakettle into that cellar—kind’ly like Noah pushing the tail-dragging animals onto the ark when he hears them thunderclaps breaking.

My heart just about nearly kicks out of my chest when I see one of my girls veer off like she’s going back to the house. “No, Gracie, you kain’t go back for yer doll!” My voice brooks no dissent, and she scampers in after the others.

I’m the last, and I can feel the sting of sand and gravel and twigs against my cheeks. Dark as night now, except there’s a strange greenish tint to the sky, and that hungry beast is like Jack’s beanstalk and the giant all rolled into one, wanting to pull me up into the clouds where there’ll be only death, no magic goose or pot o’ gold.

I squeeze on in after and grab the rope, pull the planks down with a thwack over our little pocket of safety. That unmerciful plowman tugs back, tries to pop the lid off like a pop-bottle top. But the older boys grab the slack rope dangling beneath me and add their weight to the tug-o’-war. Lil Martha, the seventh, squeals out, “Ewww, a water dawg!” A mud salamander done slid across’t her toes.

Wind shrieks through the leaky tin vent. Roar above my head grows so loud I know he’s directly overhead. He’d sure like’ta yank us all out and dance with us. But he’d be more careless than Grace with her rag dolls, leave us scattered and strewn, y’know, beat the stuffin’ right out of us. I hang on the rope with the weight of a hanged man.

After a spell, when I can hear the girls splashing their bare feet in the mud puddles and the boys fishing dills out of the wood pickle barrel, I reckon it’s safe enough to throw the lid off’n this hole. But first I glance over at the axe I stashed. May need it in case the twister left something on top of us. It’s there, next to the shelf stocked with canned food for if the axe ain’t enough and we have to wait for the neighbors to dig us out.

I give them planks a heave. Thankfully nothing pushes back, and the family emerges from the grave. A mini- Judgment Day resurrection, everyone laughing and whooping and hollering.

Except me. I still have a chill, because I thought I heard—when that twister was directly on top of us—the voice of Freddy in the wind, a-callin’ my name. I thought I heard him whisper, way down under the roar of the mad sky, to come on out for a family reunion… and bring the wife and kids.