“Listen,” I say to him. “‘RECORD HEAT. SEVEN DAYS IN A ROW. OVER NINETY IN IOWA AND A DROUGHT HAS SPREAD ACROSS EIGHTY PERCENT OF THE USA. IT’S RUINING THE RANCHERS AND FARMERS.’”
I turn to the comics and check out the latest Li’l Abner cartoon, then notice the caption on the next page under the photo of a short man in uniform who looks a lot like Charlie Chaplin.
“ADOLF HITLER, LEADER OF THE NATIONAL SOCIALIST WORKERS’ PARTY, TAKES OVER GERMANY.” I read the headline, but skip the article. “I don’t know why we should care. Germany’s so far away.”
Outside the window it’s another cloudless, sunny day. “Looks like a good afternoon to pick the last of the beans,” I tell my silent partner. “We better get back to work.” I find our straw hats and buckets and lead him out to the garden.
An hour later, a breeze ruffles my hair and within minutes I’m holding on to Dr. Blum’s arm. The sky has turned dark and the wind is almost ripping my clothes off.
“Come on! We better get inside.” I pick up our buckets, pull on Dr. Blum’s arm, and head for the house. Small branches, torn from the trees, are flying everywhere, and then the rain comes, hard, cold pellets that sting.
“Is this a tornado?” I say out loud as we pull the blue door closed behind us. We have no telephone to call for help, not that anyone would come. No radio to listen to a weather report. No shutters to cover the windows. No basement to hide in. Then I remember the underground springhouse out by the barn.
“Blum! Come on!” He is sitting on the sofa staring into space, as if he doesn’t hear the roar or feel the house shake. “We need to get to the springhouse,” I shout into his face, shaking his shoulders.
“Blum, help me. Please! I can’t do this alone.” The doctor rises slowly like a man in a dream, and I lead him to the back door, where we stop under the porch eaves. Water streams down the hillside, already four inches deep in the low places. Then the thunder comes and the lightning.
CRACK! A tree somewhere close is struck and comes down. “We’d better go!” I shout. “I’ll hold on to you.” I push Blum down the three wooden steps but he stops again. I push him once more and that’s when he does something wholly unexpected. He throws me over his shoulder and, like a fireman, heads for the only safe shelter we have.
We’re halfway to the springhouse built into the side of the hill when the hail starts, chunks of ice the size of marbles. Even in Vermont, I’d never seen anything like this. Blum is slipping and sliding over the ice-covered ground. I’m still slung over his shoulder and I try to cover our heads.
At the entrance to the underground shelter, the doctor deposits me in the mud and I look up, expecting, perhaps, a smile saying “Surprised you, didn’t I?” But there’s just the same blank stare, as if his picking me up was a reflex that didn’t involve his mind.
Thunder rumbles ever closer, with lightning right after it; we are in a war zone of light and sound and when I pull open the door, it blows off its hinges and sails away. Panting, we both fall inside, safe for the moment, watching nature go crazy in front of us.
Within an hour, the tempest is over, but it isn’t until the sun comes out that I get up my nerve to look outside to see if our barn and house are still standing. They are, but pellets of ice still litter the ground.
The garden is a mess. It’s good we picked most of the beans and tomatoes before the storm, because only one in three plants is left standing. The root vegetables, like carrots and beets, are okay.
When we crunch across the ice toward the house, I find that we do have a broken window where a branch from the old oak in front flew right through the glass. A row of shingles has also blown off, but these things are small. Already, Mr. Maddock and his tractor are coming up the road.
He pulls up near the house. “You folks okay?”
“Yes, thank you. And you?”
“Had to carry the missus down the cellar steps. Nearly fell. Lost a few chickens. They were outside and there was no way I could get to them. The cattle hid in the gulley down by the creek and the horses were locked up in their stalls.”
“I didn’t even think of our chickens. Good thing they were in the barn. I’ll have to fix my roof, though. Water got in. And there’s the one window.”
“Mrs. Maddock says she’s cooking up baked beans for your supper. You aren’t to trouble about it.” He looks at Blum, who is sitting on the porch staring into space again. You can tell it riles him. “Can’t that man do anything to help you? Can’t he get up and do something?”
“Not much. He can’t do very much. He doesn’t know how to help me.”
Except once, I think, one time today . . . when I really needed him.
By evening, Patience and Daniel also come up Wild Rose Road to check on us.
“Hello!” Patience yells, jumping out of the Ford. She’s invented some kind of carrier for her little boy, a sling made out of bright cloth that she wears around her hip. It makes her look like a native from Borneo, but I doubt she cares. “Are you okay? Did you get much damage?”
From her cheerful expression you’d think she was talking about something dangerous but fun, a trip through the haunted house at the county fair or a roller coaster ride. I’m already up on the roof trying to tack down some wooden shingles over the hole while Blum sits on the porch bench.
“How you doing, old buddy?” Daniel says to him. “Hold on, Becky, I’ll give you a hand.” He crawls up the ladder. “Looks like you’ll need a new window too. I might have an old one out in my barn.”
When the work is done, Patience brings a basket of sandwiches out of their auto and I bring out Sarah Maddock’s baked beans. We sit on the porch eating companionably as the sun drops behind the green leaves and a V of geese overhead honks as they fly southward. Daniel offers the doctor a sip from his hip flask, but I put out my hand to stop him.
“You don’t give a mentally handicapped person alcohol,” I inform him, as if I’m the matron at a Rehabilitation Hospital for Disabled Soldiers. The vet looks puzzled and a little hurt, because he’s been doing it all along, but Patience breaks the awkward silence.
“So it must have been scary. The worst storms always come from the west. Being on the east side of Spruce Mountain, we were spared. The hail was rough though. A stone the size of a baseball cracked Daniel’s back windshield.”
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