Twenty-year-old Jenilee Lane, whose dreams are as narrow as the sky is wide, doesn’t imagine any good could come out of the tornado that has ripped across the Missouri farmland where she makes her home. But some inner spark compels her to take action. To rescue her elderly neighbor Eudora Gibson from the cellar in which she’s been trapped. To make her way to the nearby town of Poetry, where the townspeople have begun to gather in the only building left standing. To collect from the devastated landscape fragments of life that lie strewn about in the tornado’s wake: letters, photographs, and mementos that might mean something to people who have lost everything.
Eudora Gibson didn’t think Jenilee had it in her. But the girl she’s hardly noticed for years is now surprising her—stepping forward with a bravery that inspires Eudora to face her own bitter past. Brought close by tragedy, the two will learn lessons about the resilience of the human spirit and the ties that make a community strong. And together, they will travel to a place that once lay beyond their dreams.
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There is a moth in a cocoon outside the window. It has been there for months, twisted by the wind, dampened by the rain, a reminder that the windowframes should have been cleaned and painted last fall. It is spring, and there is a tiny hole in the end of the cocoon, a small probe pushing through, sawing back and forth, struggling to free the creature inside.
The moth has labored for hours, and only now has it pushed two legs through the hole. Inside in the darkness, does it know why it must struggle? Somewhere in the mass of cells and neurons that make up its tiny body, is it aware that the struggle is God's way of pumping fluid into its wings? If not for the struggle, it would come into the world with a swollen body and flightless wings. It would be a creature without strength, unable to fulfill its purpose.
I wonder if it can sense the warmth of my hand on the other side of the glass as night falls and another spring storm blows in.
On nights like this, I do not sleep. I sit awake and listen as the storms howl through the valley. Like the moth, I have emerged in a place that was once beyond my imagining.
Outside, I hear a gust of wind, and I remember. I remember where I have come from, and it is as if every blessing in my life has been showered anew around me.
I fall to my knees, and I thank God for everything. Even for the wind. For the fragments of my life that survived it, and the fragments that didn't, and the things that were changed forever. . . .
On the afternoon of July 29, the entire town of Poetry, Missouri, was cast to the wind. The town rained down around me for what seemed like an eternity as the tornado receded into the sky and disappeared, spitting out what was left of Poetry.
I stood watching, thinking it was the most horrible, awesome sight I had ever seen, unlike anything I had experienced in my twenty-one years of living. If Daddy had been home he would have yelled at me for not having sense enough to go to the cellar. But once you start watching something so enormous and so vile, it pulls you in just as surely as if you were caught in the vortex itself. I don't know what it is that makes people want to look into the face of evil. . . .
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," I remember saying. My mind couldn't comprehend what was happening. Only a few minutes before, I had been fixing dinner for Daddy and my younger brother, Nate, listening to an old Bob Wills record, and wondering if the coming storm would bring rain. I was thinking about leaving again-having that fantasy where I packed Mama's old suitcase and went . . . somewhere. The dream always came wrapped in a tissue-paper layer of guilt, so that I couldn't see the contents clearly. Perhaps that was a merciful thing, because I knew Daddy and Nate couldn't get by without me.
I heard branches slapping against the house as if the oak tree knew about the dream and was angry. Outside the window, a car sped by, a black Mercedes going too fast on the gravel, like it was running from something. It fishtailed back and forth on the curve, throwing rocks against the yard fence before it straightened and rushed onward.
Probably one of those doctors or lawyers leaving the resort on the lake, I thought. Probably doesn't want his high-dollar car to get wet. They should stick to the paved roads where they belong.
The car disappeared down Good Hope Road, and the wind came up, roaring like a freight train. Hail pounded the roof, and debris whipped through the air, crashing into the house and barn.
When I ran to the screen door, the sky was swirling like a giant black cauldron. I watched as the cone of the tornado slowly separated from the ground and disappeared into the sky. Not a half mile away, a wall of rain was falling, but at our house the hail stopped suddenly. The roar faded, and destruction lay everywhere-pieces of wood and metal, tree branches, shredded furniture, torn clothing, shards of glass glittering like diamonds in the afternoon sunlight.
Bits of paper floated from the churning clouds, drifting, swirling, dancing, as if they had all the time in the world.
They filled the sky like snow.
The air was so quiet I could hear the papers falling, rustling slightly against an eerie silence, like a battlefield after the battle, when only the corpses remain. I wondered where so much paper could have come from, and if it had been blown all the way from Poetry, three miles across the low hills.
The big oak tree in the yard moaned, its limbs heavy with a crusty coating of fresh hail. I stared at the ice, then turned around in disbelief, looking at our single-story brick house and seeing everything as it had always been-the peeling paint, the overgrown bushes, the torn window screen where Nate sneaked out of his bedroom at night.
A piece of paper fell lightly on the screen and hung there, fluttering against the window like a bird trying to break free.
I remember thinking, Why not us? Why not our house? Why is everything the same as it was yesterday, last week, last month, last year, ten minutes ago? Why wasn't anything destroyed, or changed, or carried away . . .?
I had the strangest sense of wishing that it had been. Then I realized how crazy that was. I should have been thanking God I was alive.
Turning around, I gazed at the wall of rain, now moving away toward the east, revealing the footprint of the beast-an enormous path of stripped earth and strewn debris, ending in a narrow swath of twisted trees just past Daddy's wheat field. From there, it carved a jagged scar toward the horizon, toward Poetry. Where farms had been, there was nothing.
I wondered how God could let something so terrible happen at all.
A mile down the valley, the pecan orchard that had hidden old lady Gibson's farmhouse stood splintered, the limbs hanging like broken bones. Near the road, a geyser of water sprayed into the air, mixing with the falling rain.
I realized the tornado had passed across the Gibson farm. Gasping the gritty air, I ran down the porch steps and across the yard. At the sound of the yard gate opening, Daddy's bird dog rushed from under the house and slammed against my legs, sending me sprawling into the litter on the grass.
"Get away, Bo!" I hollered, grabbing his collar as he tried to bulldoze his way through the gate. "Get back in the yard, you big, stupid dog!" Daddy's dogs were always big and stupid, and always trying to escape.
I held on as Bo plowed a furrow into the long, scrappy grass outside the gate and pounced on a bit of paper blowing by. Scrambling to my feet, I dragged him into the yard and struggled to hook him to his chain while he cavorted with the paper, grabbing it, then dropping it and pouncing on it again. I caught a quick glimpse of a face.
A photograph. A baby. A birth announcement.
Securing the chain, I snatched the photograph away, dried it on my jeans, then looked at it with the same horrible fascination that had forced me to stare at the tornado.
Somebody's baby. Just newborn. A girl. Seven pounds, six ounces. The space where the name would have been was torn away.
A coldness came over me, as if all of the blood in my body were draining to my feet and disappearing into the grass. For a moment I stood frozen. I didn't want to move, or think, or be. I didn't want to know what reality waited outside the yard fence, or who the baby was, or what might have happened to her. It was too awful to comprehend.
Come on, Jenilee. Come on. Get your head on straight. . . .
The voice in my mind sounded like Mama's. At least the way I remembered her sounding. I slipped the photograph into my pocket and ran across the yard, leaving Bo yapping at the end of his chain.
Come on, Jenilee, hurry up, the voice reverberated as I rushed to the shed to get the pickup, then realized that
Daddy and Nate had taken the pickup to Kansas City that morning. There was nothing left but the tractor. I climbed on and started the engine.
No time to be afraid, just back it out of the shed and drive down to Mrs. Gibson's house. It's not the first time you've driven a tractor. Mama's voice sounded insistently in my head. But I wondered: If she were really there, would she worry about what Daddy would say? Daddy didn't let the tractor off the property, and he hadn't liked Mrs. Gibson since her goats got in his pasture, and he shot them thinking they were deer, and she called the sheriff and had Daddy thrown in jail. After that, we didn't have much to do with the Gibsons. We didn't have much to do with anybody. Daddy had pretty well driven off all of the neighbors.
"Come on, Jenilee," I muttered, wondering how my mind could still be thinking all the normal things when nothing around me was normal. Everything had been changed in an instant. I could see the destruction, yet I wanted to deny that it had happened.
The tractor squealed an ear-piercing complaint as I stopped on the road and tried to put it into forward gear. It jerked into motion, the rumble of the diesel engine seeming to shake the hushed earth as I steered through the debris on the road. The wind blew damp strands of blond hair across my face, pasting them against the film of perspiration on my cheeks. Tiny drops of rain cooled my skin as I brushed the hair away and stared at the furrow cut by the tornado, watching it grow larger and more surreal as I sped closer. Overhead the clouds parted, and muted afternoon sunshine streamed through the hole, seeming out of place against the dark clouds and ravaged earth.
Ruined trees and stripped earth surrounded me as I reached the Gibson place. The air smelled of dust and plaster, electrical burn, wet dirt, freshly cut wood, and rain. It was an unnatural scent, like nothing I could remember. The rain slowed, the sky seeming to hold its breath as I passed what remained of the Gibsons' orchard. Mangled sheets of rusty galvanized metal lay wrapped around shattered tree trunks and cracked fence posts. The farm was unrecognizable-the earth bare, the trees sheared off, nothing remaining but twisted trunks and broken branches dangling without leaves.
Breath caught in my throat. The foundation of Mrs. Gibson's farmhouse had been stripped clean. Beside the ruined barn lay a pile of splintered boards, a battered refrigerator, what was left of the farmhouse roof.
I ground the tractor to a halt in front of the overturned well house and killed the engine. I called out Mrs. Gibson's name, then listened for an answer, afraid to breathe.
Nothing but the drumming of the last drops of rain on the hood of the tractor and the hiss-hiss of water hitting the warm engine. Near the well, the spray from the pipes died to a weary, noiseless gurgle.
"Mrs. Gibson?" I hollered, jumping down, my tennis shoes sinking into the mud. "Mrs. Gibson . . . Is anybody here? Hello . . ." I climbed clumsily over a pile of broken boards that may have once been part of the yard fence.
I stopped again to listen. Nothing but the click-click of the tractor engine settling and the throb of blood in my ears.
I swallowed hard, my mind racing.
I could see the taillights of her car beneath the collapsed garage.
"Mrs. Gibson?" The tractor engine coughed, as if it might come to life again, and I jerked sideways, stumbling over a section of picket fence rammed into the dirt like spears. "Is anybody here? It's Jenilee Lane. . . ."
Something sharp clawed my knee as I pushed to my feet. I touched the trickle of blood that ran down my leg and disappeared into my sneaker, tracing a warm trail against the cold dampness on my skin. I pulled my hand away, looked absently at the watery red liquid on my fingers, listened again.
Closing my eyes, I let out a long breath. Maybe she isn't home.
A noise whispered through the darkness in my mind. A sound almost too faint to hear. A baby crying. Maybe Mrs. Gibson was home, and maybe one of her grandbabies was with her. . . .
I stumbled toward the sound. "I'm coming! I'm coming!" I screamed. "Who's there? Is anybody there?" I scrambled over a section of the house wall, rushing to the backyard. "Hello . . . anybody . . ."
The sound came again, close by. Not a baby. "A cat," I whispered, slapping my hand over my heart, catching my breath. "Just a cat." The sound was muffled, as if the cat might be trapped underneath something. "Here, kitty, kitty. Where are you, kitty?"
The cat mewed again, leading me toward a pile of rubble.
"Here, kitty." I stepped closer. "Here, kitty."
"Hello?" The sound of a voice came so suddenly, I jumped backward. "Hello! Help us!" It was the desperate call of a child's voice.