The Paradox of a Hurricane: Death and Love Its Wake
Gabrielle Bellot Wonders From Afar About the Fate of Her Parents
The word for them came from the Taino and Maya, denoting pure wind-water force, titanic storms with long lashing arms unleashed by a vengeful zemi, deity, of the weather. A cantankerous god that whispered, on quick sharp breaths across the Atlantic, ruin. Juracán, the Spanish colonists phoneticized it, which became huracán, then hurricane. A blunt, wood-sharp word, not too short, not too long, vaguely ungainly.
We have largely stopped believing in this god, nearly all its adherents butchered and poisoned and enslaved to death by the blunderbuss-wielding brutes who came from across an ocean, yet there remains something mythic, something unspeakable and primally unsettling, about the hurricane. There is still something to this cult. The old god lives, arms swinging, cyclopean eye gray and scarcely blinking, gaze alien and still as a great squid’s.
I lived through one with my parents a decade ago in Dominica; days ago, my parents almost didn’t live after one hit.
Caribbean literature is full of hurricanes. They live in the stories of the Caribs, the last of whom live primarily in Dominica, and whose name lives on in the Europeanization Caribbean, even as the colonists erroneously took “Carib” to mean “cannibal.” The archetypal imperialist text about our archipelago, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, requires a shipwrecking storm for its story; Aimé Césaire, rewriting Shakespeare’s play as an “adaptation for a black theatre,” begins with “the storm to end all storms.”
After Hurricane Maria, I found myself turning many times to Derek Walcott’s poem, “Hurucan,” which remains my favorite evocation of our region’s tempests. The god of these fatal storms will “rage / till we get your name right,” Walcott writes: the name the Amerindians gave it, not the incult appellations, false idols, of the colonists. Some islands seem cursed to so frequently be the target of this blind god; others are directly hit relatively rarely, but left strewn with devastation in their wake, like my own island. The storms punctuate our life: dry season, hurricane season.
Every year, people would pray, fervently, that the storm would turn away from us, thanking the Christian deity if it did and blaming the prime minister’s avarice and the postlapsarian downfall of society if it did not; few of those down on their knees seemed concerned that if the storm did turn, it would inevitably devastate another island, casting concern, to me as a teenage skeptic, about God’s sense of meteorological justice.
All art aspires to the condition of music, Walter Pater claimed. The hurricane is operatic: its song, really a scream without target, is long, harsh, a single undulating note, lieder ohne worte. An ululating drone: the slap chatter drum of leaves branches entire roofs flung, the found poems, sudden notes, of a song made on the go. From a distance, it is beautiful in a romanticized way, as a banshee’s wail is; when you hear it yourself, it is haunting, horrible, ugly, artless. From a distance it seems the violence of a cracked genius, the tortured tortuous madness of a Scriabin; in its path, this image dissolves, deliquesces, explodes. All things can seem art, from a distance. All horrors can seem gentle, from a distance.
It starts with the rains, announcing the end of the dry season, the end of the yellow grasses that blackened with fire when some damnass casually tossed a cigarette into a field of razor grass. The dust is next. Sahara dust, my mother always said as she swept, is a sign of hurricanes. Finally, and sometimes too late, warnings on the radio and television and over the weather websites my mother and various aunties pore over. A rush, then, to repair or erect hurricane shutters, to bring in furniture from verandas, to board up windows, to remove the trash left by workmen along the roads that will fill with water and breed hordes of shrill mosquitoes, to get hurricane lamps and candles and matches and kerosene and flashlights and food, and, sometimes, to get in final hours of play and drinks at the rum shop still filled with incredulous souls shaking their heads.
The sky is muted, a Whistlerian white dampening to beige, greige, then the gray of galvanized roofs, then a wasteland shade known simply as bleak. So comes an old god not normally known for his subtlety: a wordless, unmistakable feeling, a charged atmosphere that builds and builds.
The buses that normally blare reggae and dancehall as they careen along the edges of precipices to overtake other cars on roads barely big enough for two vehicles have now fallen silent, huddled in garages or under gray and blue tarpaulin or simply abandoned, in silence, on roadsides, beneath immortelle trees that do not live up to their name. The bananas bristle; the cane fields tremble. Even the airplanes, masters of the sky, begin to shiver in their bunkers. The gulls alternate between chatter and silence more than usual. Almost no one thinks of the sea’s denizens during a hurricane but even they sense the god’s moods: the way the water temperature changes and the waves begin to crest and the lures of the fishermen not lost in sad reveries retreat. The currents, wind of the sea, strengthen, and the sharks quietly disappear, pushing down into the dark blue, or the black; even the blue morays, dimly aware, stop grinning. The currents startle, for a moment, the shipwrecks from their bubble-snores and dreams of past centuries, their bones juddering as if the ghosts of their crews have returned, and then they return to the silty silence, waiting. All the world is calm and quiet-loud as a bone-shudder before the storm comes.
The wind always comes first, but the rain is when the panic sets in. At the thunder and lightning we begin, again, to make jokes; laughter is our brief shield, our call to harbor of our loved ones, so we know they are all with us, united by grins, chuckles, frowns, sighs at boy you stupid, eh. We are together, if for a moment, ships docked at the same calm, vespertilian port.
The lights, if they are still on, flicker, then go. The candle flames dance, then fade for a moment, nearly tugged from life. We close all the hurricane shutters, and the house, finally, is dark. More candles bloom on. Ceilings, briefly, are lit by flashlights propped up by pillows and ankles.
Then comes the long, unending sound of the wind, battering us, furious at the houses it has not unroofed, the windows it has not shattered, the trees it has not felled.
For two days we live in the dark, new brief inhabitants of the cave. All we hear is storm; we can barely even hear each other when we speak. We seem ectothermic, gleaning energy, for a bit, from the light of each other, if there is any warmth to go around. We turn on the gas on the stove; there is no flame, just the persistent tik-tik-tik of mindless electric desire, put our lit match to it, create a blue orbit of fire, turn it down, heat water in a pot or fry something by candlelight, trying not to attract the suicidal moths that will, in their sailor-frenzy, immolate themselves in the wick or burn off their wings in the pan. Our dogs, who normally live outside, did not want to come in; they preferred, with a canine certainty, to hide under the jeep in the garage. We do not see them until the tempest has left.
For this hurricane, we are lucky. Only the outer bands hit us. My parents knew this better than I did; they remembered Hurricane David, which demolished Dominica in 1979, nearly a decade before I was born. Yet even this milder storm—Hurricane Dean—seems fearsome. All hurricanes are fearsome.
When we go outside, finally, the world seems new. The German Shepherds are cowed, briefly, then back to their antics, chasing each other through the graveyard of branches and trash and fragments of far-flung homes. All is a quiet chaos at first: tree limbs strewn everywhere, banana trees uprooted, glass, pieces of things with unclear origins. We are high in the mountains but the ground has become thick and muddy, waterlogged as a mangrove swamp. We are lucky, indeed. A landslide has made the road impassable; elsewhere in the island, someone has been swallowed up by a landslide. The stories come slowly: this bridge has washed away, can you believe, we were driving over it just a few days ago and wasn’t I telling you the bridge looked unsteady, and elsewhere the rivers have surged brown and snakes from the banks are writhing in the water. The death toll is low; scarier are the people simply never found, there the day before, ghost the next. Whether roofs came off or not seems almost a toss of dice; they dot some hills, some full, some fragments, sheets of zinc, the asbestos sheets that should not still be used but which people like my uncle kept stacked outside their homes, salmon-pink tiles. Later, my father will climb a ladder with a cutlass in hand to try to repair something against the wishes of my mother and he will fall, cutlass sailing after him, miraculously injured only by the ground, but injured permanently.
A decade later, Hurricane Maria. It comes suddenly, yet another tempest on the heels of a horrible streak. The hurricane—sharing a name with my mother—is headed directly for my home. I am no longer in Dominica, but my parents and much of my extended family are. Shortly before the storm is due to hit, I lose contact with them. The same is true for many Dominicans abroad. The prime minister, brought nearly to the level of his constituents, has his roof annihilated and home flooded; he issues a chilling sepulchral little statement to a TV station, Please tell the world that Dominica has been devastated… In the morning we will know how many dead there are, before he, too, disappears. The island is suddenly, terrifyingly, silent, but for a few radio signals, which we eagerly listen to online.
For days, some of us hear nothing, even as we call, text, yell.
This is the greatest, scariest power of that awful old god: the uncertain, deathly silence its rages leave behind.
After some time, I, like some Dominicans, hear from my loved ones in glimpses, glimmers, even as the island is still without power. My parents tell me they survived by hiding in a closet, once the windows exploded and torpedoes of mud and wood and stone came hurtling through the house. They have limited food; they may not have power for six weeks. The island is a shipwreck disaster. Dominica was still recovering economically and otherwise from the ravages of Tropical Storm Erika; now, things seem almost hopeless.
I feel so powerless from afar as they tell me all this. Just before learning of Hurricane Maria, I had gotten into big arguments with my parents; my mother has never accepted that I am queer, has made life difficult for my father by blaming him, absurdly, for what I am, then blaming everyone and everything. When I stop hearing from them after the storm, I wonder if they took those words to heart, if the last conversation they might remember is so full of anger. I hope through the silence they are not dead. When I hear they survived in a closet in a storm named for my mother I feel strange: the metaphors are too much for fiction, I having also lived in a closet. The metaphors are too much, honestly, for now.
The god will sleep, soon, but in the meantime, it has decimated so many other worlds.
Hurricanes, briefly, unite, even as they sunder water and earth; our old arguments die off, under our terror that someone has died. This terrible, malignant deity, for all its scattershot anger, leaves love in the wake of its tempests. The love is temporary, fugacious: we will know we are back to normal life when our worst grievances return. Yet we should take this as a reminder: love, even after all is broken. “We return the pieces of fear / to their proper place, / the shelf at the back of the mind,” Walcott writes, just as we may do with this love brief-bloomed from fear—but we should put the ones we nearly lost, instead, on a different shelf.
If we are smart, we hold them closer, from now on, until an old death-god wakes and whispers again.