Driven Into the Hurricane's Eye

Grabbing a slicker, a woman heads southeast ahead of the storm as the floodtide rises

SHOULD I head into the hurricane ... not a sensible direction. But I've missed, and the hurricane may not, the ramshackle farmhouse we rent beside the salty Patuxent River. I must drive down to batten hatches before floodtide swoops up the brief sickle of beach, crashes over the low embankment, weeds, and grass, grinds up the precarious porch, washes through windows. Even those windows we shut before leaving the country last Sunday gape top and bottom. Winters we stuff gaps with putty. Five ceilings already leak: I must empty and replace pails. The hurricane may take the roof. Such devastation in the Caribbean.

Safe still in town, I inspect flashlights, bring in plants, lock windows, unplug computers, check the gas tank. I'll go tomorrow. This downpour....

The weather alternates between torrents, mists, a sallow sun. Like monsoons in Malaysia. Useful to plunge me into my neglected novel, which embraces me. I remember how Malaysians and expatriates alike dreaded monsoon season. I found it exciting, as did my son Alexander, age 12, our Malaysian year.

Now 25, he volunteered to go last night in my stead. With two buddies he'd haul to safety our canoe, a borrowed 14-foot sailboat, four windsurfers of varied ownership.

This morning he called: They'd arrived at 3 a.m., lugged up the hulls, watched videos, left at 6 a.m.

So I'm certain that, given rain and darkness, they didn't secure the boats nor rescue the confusion of sails, paddles, oars, rods, crabnets, life jackets, and beach chairs. Alexander admitted they had no time for windows.

Better go myself. The huge walnut trees, survivors of many storms but now moribund, may fall, and a tree falls without anyone overhearing: What of their populations of squirrels, possums, otters, woodchucks, foxes, birds? The ospreys have already departed. In bad weather gulls fly up river from the Chesapeake.

But the family of vultures - black-capped, black-necked, elegant, almost friendly, nesting in the old chicken house - what if the hurricane wrecks their loft?

Still warm in southern Maryland, but the garden needs final harvesting before frost and floods.

My novel-in-progress lies fallow in the country. I closed the window above the heaps of pages, but storms shatter panes.

And I could help my neighbors, a mile up the dirt road, batten down, pack up, come into town.

I grab a slicker and head southeast, ahead of the hurricane, intersecting, intercepting.

Rain falls in scrim, pours curtains down the windshield. Wiser to retreat, abandon the land to the sea. I have unfinished tasks in town. I could work on translations here.

Drumming into my head is a poem I memorized at 15, by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841):


The lone sail whitens In the foggy light blue sea... What does it seek in distant realms? Or abandon in its native land? Waves are playing, winds are whistling, The mast bends and creaks. Happiness it does not ask Nor does it flee from happiness! Streams of azure waves below, Rays of golden sun above - The sail, rebellious, begs a storm, As if in storms one could find peace.

Outside the hull of my car, wind whistles, the aerial's mast crackles with news of the hurricane's destructive path northward. Due here before evening. Meanwhile, rain falls, rivers swell, flood crest is expected midafternoon.

I recall hurricanes - literal and figurative - missed. Childhood Septembers I waited by lighthouses as surf mounted, but my mother always insisted we hasten inland. Now, therefore, it's onto the highway, into today's torrents.

Which gradually lessen. Mere sprinkle when finally I turn onto the dirt road through the woods. At times there is a sullen yellowy glow, then more rain.

Winds claw the car door, slam house doors, tear at me, rip through cornstalks, flatten soybeans, wrack trees, hurl walnuts, churn the broad millpond of river into a battlefield of briny whitecaps.

The trees remain shakily in place, have shed a few dead limbs. Firewood.

Eleven a.m.: Too early for high tide but already waves lap barricades of briar and baring roots of locust trees fringing the beach.

No beach visible.

No vultures visible. Have they flown the coop?

Strange lack of any creatures, except two gulls flying in place against layers of blowing clouds.

Bumblebees continue ravaging ragweed.

Alexander and his friends did a fine job of dragging canoe and windsurfers into the barn. The sailboat, unmasted, sits in the iris bed. I rush to lash hulls and lug gear from the shrinking shoreline into barn and chicken house, which may themselves blow away. I collect bits of roof, shut what windows will close, dump and reposition buckets under leaks.

Gales can hurl porch furniture - I drag everything indoors. Viewing the bared flooring, I promise that if the porch survives, I'll repaint it. I check the neighbors' house: shipshape, and empty. They had the sense to retreat inland.

While I'd hate to miss the action, time to get on the road before trees start falling. I put the chain saw in the car.

The rain stops. Shreds of light pierce clouds. A ghost of sun. ``Deceiving orb,'' I sniff. ``This is only the eye of the storm.''

The lastest reports demote the hurricane to a tropical storm. And it may circumvent us. All that rain was a cold front coming anyway. But rivers leak with extra water, flash-flood watch continues.

There is, as my mother used to say, ``enough blue to make a Dutchman's breeches.'' Don't trust it to last.

While it does, I gather the penultimate marigolds, tomatoes, buckets of basil for a winter of pesto. Pumpkins can wait.

The car is packed, fragrant.

But because the afternoon is surprisingly warm, I take my chances and wade in. The water has never been so high - normally ``high tide'' means it's waist deep a quarter mile out, and all August jellyfish were aggressive. The river is surfy like the ocean we were too busy to visit all summer.

I swim and swim. The best swim of the year.

The sun persists. The vultures perch on the chicken house roof, wings outstretched, airing feathers. I shake dust from my manuscript.

I've missed another hurricane. But though storm warnings persist, what an afternoon of happiness, unasked, unfled.

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