Years later, Margaret’s mother told her the farmers smelled a tornado coming that day, but when she turned on the old rosewood kitchen radio, the gravelly voiced announcer guaranteed listeners that no severe weather changes would occur, just a slight quickening of wind and maybe some rain. Still, her father warned Margaret to be careful, his voice tender, the static from the radio background like a cat clawing metal.
Churned up by the wind on a cold day twenty years later, Margaret could smell the stale, earthy scent even now. It brought back the memory of that morning, when Margaret was still a child, but on the edge of something else. They were sitting in the kitchen while Margaret ate her breakfast. Her mother was sipping coffee a white, gold-rimmed teacup, something she’d brought with her when she moved to the flatlands. Her father sat opposite Margaret, a tall man with wide hips, he wore his usual olive green suit and dark tie, a slender silver clip at the center.
As Margaret sprinkled an extra spoon of sugar on her cornflakes, he stood up and leaned across the table to kiss her. “Off to work,” he said. Smiling for a moment before he straightened. “Remember to take cover if there’s a storm.”
Margaret smiled back, and watched as he turned and walked towards the front hallway.
“Howard.” Her mother stood quickly and followed him. At the sound of her voice he stopped on the threshold to the front hallway and she sidled up next to him. “But what about the latch on the cellar door?” she asked, her voice husky as if, Margaret thought, she was asking for something else entirely, something less solid than fixing a latch.
Margaret could see her father rub his thumb along the faint line in his cheek, the one that formed a dimple when he smiled. He let his hand rest on his wife’s shoulder before quickly pecking her. “I’ll do it this weekend,” he said and turned away again, readying to leave.
“But the cellar doors — they need to be reinforced in case of tornado.” Her mother leaned back against the door jamb, her arms folded behind her, and ran a slippered toe along the grain of their pine wood floor. “Even a big storm can whip one off its hinges.” She looked down as she said this, an act of pretend Margaret observed before whenever her mother wanted something.
Her father reappeared in the doorway, putting on his gray brimmed hat with the broad black band, settling it just above his eyebrows. “If I’m home tonight, Evelyn, I promise.”
Margaret, confused, stopped eating. “What?” She looked to her mother, a tall woman with broad shoulders, for some clarity. But she didn’t respond and her expression froze into a harsh mask, so Margaret looked away. Her father left the room and they heard the front door close slowly and quietly.
So it was just the two of them until Margaret had to leave for school. The sudden silence felt like a deep, long crevice she’d rather not traverse. Her mother returned to the table and took a pained sip of coffee from the white china gold-rimmed cup, one of the few family pieces had left. She didn’t have a bubble hairdo like the other mothers in their small Midwest town, but wore her thick hair long, colored in varying hues like a rainbow of brown.
Evelyn put the cup down and leaned on her elbow and intently stared at Margaret across the table, who knew this meant her mother was about to say something unpleasant.
Instead, Evelyn picked up her tweezers and adjusted the round stainless steel mirror at a tilt so she could peer into its surface and identify each offending hair that marred the delicate arc of her eyebrows. Every morning she examined the line of her naturally thick brows, but today, she seemed to attack them, plucking them thin, matching one high arch to the other, the hairs quickly freed from each reluctant pore. They dropped onto the surface of the Formica table one by one.
Margaret stopped eating and tried to suppress the queasiness cramping her stomach.
Evelyn paused, tweezers poised in the air. Margaret thought about how different they were. Her mother had a high forehead, prominent cheekbones, and hazel eyes. Margaret’s face was round, her eyes just an ordinary brown. The only thing they had in common were their thick eyebrows, but Margaret also had hairs feathered in between, which she found embarrassing.
Her mother looked back down at her reflection and smiled. “I think we’ll go see that handsome pediatrician today.”
Margaret’s throat closed, and a shiver raced to the base of her spine. The first time she’d met the doctor was a year ago, two months after her twelfth birthday. Her mother had sat on a shiny maple chair and Margaret watched as the doctor tilted his head at an angle to look at the pie-shaped slices of naked thigh showing between the garters of her mother’s girdle. Evelyn always bragged about her long slim legs, but Margaret’s legs were more like her father’s. She didn’t mind looking like him because whenever she thought of her father, it gave her fortitude. She liked saying the word. It felt strong to say aloud. Fortitude, she thought.
The pediatrician had acted pleased with the prospect of her mother. “When we made the appointment on the phone,” he said at that first visit, “I didn’t expect to meet such a cultured and sophisticated mother in a small Midwestern town like this.”
“Oh, you’re just flattering me.” Her mother fluttered her lashes, winking at Margaret at the same time as if she was included in the joke.
Margaret tried to eat her cereal and kept her voice low. “Why do I have to see the doctor again?” She worried that if she said too much her mother’s mood might sour.
“Oh, we just want to make sure you don’t get one of those frequent colds that will keep you home from school. Don’t you remember we discussed setting up another appointment?”
The last one was just a month ago. Looking at her reflection in the silver toaster on the counter behind her mother, Margaret thought about how the doctor had stood her on the large, black scale, pushing the weights back and forth along the metal arms, as her mother eyed it and made that familiar hateful sound in the back of her throat, a gulp, as if she was swallowing her words. Margaret knew she was eager to appear like a concerned mother in front of the doctor, a man with dark slicked back hair. Rather than looking at the scale, Margaret had stared at the wooden tongue depressors and cotton balls in glass jars lined up side by side on the metal table. As the doctor made jokes with her mother, Evelyn made little humming sounds of assent.
The doctor led Margaret to the exam table, turning away as she took off her skirt and blouse. He examined her all over, pushing up her undershirt and then pulling her panties down around her ankles. “You’re older now,” he’d said. “You can get infections – tell me if that happens.”
Margaret didn’t know what he meant, but she knew she felt uncomfortable. The feeling began in her hips and spread upward during the examination. She looked over at her mother, who kept on chatting to the doctor, turning her head this way and that, her long, dark hair catching the light. When speaking, she ran her fingers through her hair and tried to sound witty, laughing at her own jokes.
When he was done, her mother followed him into the other room to discuss the results of his examination. As she put on her blouse and skirt, Margaret could hear their murmurs and muffled sounds through the wall. She sat on the dark, wooden chair and took out her book, Nancy Drew and The Race Against Time. She always read during this part of the visit because they stayed in there for a while.
Dipping her spoon into the cereal, Margaret looked again at the shiny surface of the toaster; her reflection was glum, mocking. Outside, through the large mullioned windows, where the light was dim in contrast to the bright, lemon yellow kitchen, she could see the leaves eddy and spin in the wind currents like reluctant dancers.
Finished with plucking, each eyebrow now a narrow line above her eyes, Evelyn wiped the hairs from the mirror and onto the floor. She picked up Margaret’s cereal bowl and stood appraising her. Margaret was wearing her black and white checkerboard kilt with the two leather straps and brass buckles, the one her mother said was “slimming.” The stiff wool waistband scratched against Margaret’s skin and always left a raised red line across her back when she took it off at night. When she moved, her white shirt pulled out and chafed and itched like poison ivy.
She’d worn the kilt to please her mother. Maybe her approval would keep Margaret from going to the doctor’s. Maybe Margaret could offer to do a chore. She wasn’t exactly sure why she felt so jittery every time her mother mentioned the man. “I’m too old to go to the pediatrician,” she said at last.
“It’ll be all right,” her mother said and gave Margaret the barest glimmer of a smile. “Why don’t we get your hair cut today? Something a little more fashionable?”
“Instead?” Margaret asked hopefully. She could bear that. Going to the fancy hairdresser on Stilton Street would be another failed attempt to change Margaret into a ladylike daughter, like the other girls, who were already experimenting with makeup and hairstyles. She knew she’d still come out looking chubby; her mother shied away from the word fat, a more accurate description. She really didn’t care about how she looked; she cared about knowing things.
Evelyn smoothed Margaret’s hair and gently cupped her chin. “You’re growing up. Look at those beautiful eyes. The boys will be smitten.” Then she carried her cup and Margaret’s brown cereal bowl to the soapstone sink. “No. We can get your hair done after the appointment. I’ll pick you up from school,” she said, placing the dishes in the soapy water. Then she reached back to retie the stiff red apron strings that were coming loose from the bow at her back.
Margaret hated the stiffness of that apron and how her mother kept tying it and retying it, spreading out the wings of the bow so it stood alert. “Have to get going,” she said with relief, picked up her bookbag and stood, eager to leave.
Her mother turned back from the sink and assessed her again. “I think you’ve gotten taller. Why don’t you let me pluck your eyebrows, take a little off the bottom to give them a nice curve?”
Just the thought of having those tweezers near her eyes made Margaret cringe. She walked into the front hall, opened the door to the coat closet, and leaned her head against the sleeve of her father’s heavy blue coat. Pressing her face into it, she could smell the lime of his aftershave. Her father liked to sit down with her at the big wooden table after supper on Sundays, where he would spread out pads of paper, both graph and lined, while her mother cleared away the dishes and put leftovers in individual amber glass containers. Then he would sharpen four pencils with his old green penknife and lay them in a row beside the paper.
They would sit there until nightfall, her father explaining various elements of algebra and geometry and writing formulas in his neat, tiny handwriting. Margaret loved sitting next to him. She thought he was more handsome than any doctor, even though he wore tiny round metal glasses and was beginning to grow bald, his graying hair a soft circle around his head. He tried combing it sideways to cover the bald spot, but the curly hairs kept jumping back into place. Margaret thought he looked distinguished. He was a patient teacher, coaching her to solve theorems and understand complicated mathematical concepts. When she asked a question, he was encouraging, and leaned in close to her, nodding with that look of pride on his face.
“But how can you tell the line in the circle is parallel to the diameter?” she had asked the night before.
“Good question. Give yourself time to think it through,” he asked, grinning, raising his pointy eyebrows into an arc of approval. “What have I taught you?” The edges of his rolled up sleeves stretched against his forearms.
Margaret used the ruler and then wrote down her measurements. She felt like a princess, not like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but more like Queen Elizabeth, who grew up to become ruler of a country.
She felt her mother behind them; a curvy shadow appeared on the paper. “Howard, you promised to straighten those boxes in the attic today.”
“Well, Evelyn, there just wasn’t time; I’ll have to do it another day.”
Her mother seemed to dim whenever her father put things off. Evelyn walked away, her heels clicked hard against the wood floors.
“There’s an equal distance between lines when they’re parallel,” Margaret said to her father.
“Excellent!” He sat back, smiling, and handed her the three-sided ruler like the one he used at work. “Measure it out.”
“Howard,” her mother called as she walked in from the porch. “I think the door might be coming off its hinges. Can’t you take a look at it?” She lay her hands on his shoulders and bent to kiss him, then leaned into him, cheek to cheek. “You promised a month ago.”
“I’ll do it tomorrow,” he told her quietly, glancing at Margaret, then at his wife. Later that night, Margaret could hear them arguing through the bedroom wall.
Margaret grabbed her satchel and walked out of the house into the thick, dreary air. She tugged her coat even tighter around her body against the cold wind, and touched the yard’s wide maple for luck. In springtime, when its deep red leaves stood out against the flat, dry land, she felt moments of sheer pleasure. She loved to sit in the curve of the lowest limb and read.
What had her mother called the pediatrician? That “handsome doctor”? She made him sound like Prince Charming.
Margaret ran her finger along the coarse bark. Maybe today she could stop going there for good. After all, she was almost thirteen and, if she tried really hard, she could convince her mother to find another doctor, like the general practitioner her parents went to.
The sky looked full of storm, but she walked as slowly as she always did so that she could count the two hundred and fifty-three cracks in the cement along the sidewalk from home to school. She had counted them every day for the past seven years. “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back,” the girls used to sing on the playground as they carefully avoided each fissure in the uneven and eroding cement. That was before they had boyfriends.
Avoiding cracks required paying extravagant attention to her steps. Margaret had to lift her feet over every line, no matter how tiny, and place her foot squarely in the next space, or she could lose her balance. She never missed, even when it rained or darkened early with the shortening days of winter and she could barely see each individual line. She felt regal, a queen in command of the world, stepping properly and holding her head high.
Once she arrived at school, Margaret noticed the other girls gossiping and whispering as if they were sharing a romantic secret. Margaret caught phrases like “twister” and “get out early,” but she didn’t venture near them to find out the details. The sky told her enough. An edgy excitement moved through the classroom, like an electric current passing from student to student, which caused Margaret and her classmates to fidget all morning. The teacher had lost all patience by recess and, exhaling noisily, insisted they go out. “Run it off outside,” she said. The girls were glad to be let free, but they mainly stood in clumps in the small playground, intensely talking, their voices hardly above a whisper. Margaret heard more allusions to weather changes and concern about crops. She could see bits of rock and dirt churned up and the sky was darkening. When the bell sounded announcing the return to class, they all jumped at once like chickadees on a wire.
The afternoon lessons were excruciating. Margaret watched the beginning drops of rain slap against the large row of windows. Muddy water eddied down the glass like long strokes made by paintbrushes. The teacher was droning on about algebra. Margaret was the smartest girl in those subjects and liked it, even if the other students thought her silly for knowing math. Her father had an important job in the city, managing the power station. Maybe Margaret would also become an electrical engineer one day.
She felt drawn to look outside. Something was stirring, demanding her attention. The rain began to pelt the glass and then subsided, only to start up again, and the last leaves were snatched off the trees and sent spinning into the air.
She heard thunder in the distance. In the margin of the notebook, Margaret drew a box, and then another, and another, trying to make each one a little larger than the one before so they progressed in size along the page. The teacher was explaining concepts in the most tedious fashion, as if they were in first grade rather than seventh.
A siren sounded, a single long burst, a storm warning, and everyone in the classroom began to put away their pencils and books. Next, over the intercom, they heard the principal, trying to calm them. “Boys and girls, you are perfectly safe. The storm is too close for anyone to go home. Line up quietly and walk down to the gymnasium. Follow your teacher’s orders and no running.”
Margaret couldn’t wait to watch the tornado pass by. She’d never really seen one, except for the pictures on television. She gathered up her books and filed out of the classroom with the other children. Once they reached the stairs, she sped up, nearly knocking over a first grader in her excitement. His friend yelled to her, “Hey, the teacher said no running.”
“Sorry!” she yelled back. She rushed on down and stood on the landing so she could peer out the window, scanning the yellow-black sky for funnels or cylinders.
Two more girls ran past, holding hands; one girl sobbing in fear while the other comforted her. “Margaret,” a boy called out. “Hurry, hurry, you’re always the last to line up. You don’t want to be by a window if the twister gets close.”
Margaret wouldn’t have to go to the doctor now. The storm was her release. But then something her father said seemed to stick in her throat. “If I’m home tonight . . . .” Why had he said that?
Margaret ran out of the stairwell and down the hallway towards the front door. She could hear her classmates calling, “Hey, where are you going?” She ignored them. Then she was standing on the front steps of the school. The surge of leaves and dust looked like a meteor shower. For a moment she considered going back inside, sitting on the floor of the cavernous gym with the other children, but then she gathered herself up and imagined being already at home, huddled in their cellar, the bottles of stored water and jars of canned beets, tomatoes, string beans and fruit lining the rock walls. Margaret thought about the peaches she would share with her father, their favorite, the two of them eating the moist fruit during the approaching winter when the sun set earlier and earlier. Her father said they reminded him of the autumn sun, burnt orange and the edges furry and uneven.
The wind pushed at her body. She gingerly put each foot down for fear that she would misstep. The strong gusts began sweeping from west to east, forming whirlpools around her feet, the swirling grit making it difficult to see. She’d never stepped on a crack, not in seven years of walking to and from school, even when she was tired or angry or didn’t feel well, and she wasn’t going to let a tornado break her record. The wind shoved at her. She was having trouble balancing, and she felt like she was losing her hold on the world. Margaret held her head high and pulled up her collar, trying to gain her bearings. She thought of her mother waiting for her. What if she was standing outside in this storm calling for Margaret?
Then, for a moment, the light came through and she could see her foot in a particular cluster of cracks she had named the forest. Several slender fissures spread out from the larger one that looked like a trunk. The wind whipped as if to summon her and she raised her head to it. Over to the west, a thin thread of black beckoned her. The gyre of smoke was tall as a silo or radio tower. She wished a loose strand would uncurl and reach out to her, gather her up into a cushion of dark cloud and pull her along above the austere, flat land. Then from everywhere a low howl ordered her like a moan, startling her, demanding she walk faster. Dust and leaves spun around her. She was on tiptoe now, tentatively choosing each safe space of pavement, panicked she would make a mistake. “Step on a crack...” she sang to herself. What if her mother really did fall down the cellar stairs and was lying on the stone floor, broken and bleeding? Margaret stiffened herself against the wind. She had to make it home. Or, maybe her mother was still at the kitchen table, listening to the drumming storm, holding herself tighter with each crack of lightning.
“Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six....” Margaret counted as she kept stepping forward as if negotiating a plank bridge over a chasm. When she turned the corner, the dust hurled itself into her eyes and partially blinded her. She tried to tie her scarf around her head so her face was covered, like immigrants she had seen in war movies. The rain began to beat down in thick sheets of water, hiding the dark gyre from view so she couldn’t tell how close it was coming.
She hugged herself from the wind as the water bombarded her, coming harder and faster, like hail. Then suddenly she was so tired from trying to push forward through the wind and rain, she had to sit down. It occurred to her the tornado could beat her home. She looked around for a building to duck into, but rain screened her from the world.
Against the wind, Margaret forced herself back up and spread out her arms as if to hold the weather back. Ahead of her on the pavement was a large triangular-shaped space between cracks. It felt like a safe destination. Just as she lifted her foot and bent forward, the rain swelled, and the wind swept against her as if the powerful arm of Mother Nature sent her sprawling to the ground.
She lay across the sidewalk, and let the rain hit her until it started to seem less interested in bruising her. She raised her head only to discover her foot had landed straight across the largest crack, a crevice with lines like lightning streaks spreading out towards the four edges of the cement block. Step on a crack. She imagined her mother, her head flat against the stone floor, her hips facing the window, and her beautiful legs laid bare, her torso twisted and swollen from the fall, a narrow path of blood edging across her cheek. “No, no!” Margaret sobbed at the ominous thought.
When she tried to stand, her foot became caught in the deepest fissure. Margaret used both hands to pull herself free and forced herself up. She crossed her fingers tightly, making two crosses on each hand, so her mother would be okay. What was she thinking? Why had she walked so slowly when her mother could be torn apart by the storm?
She kept moving into the wind, pushing as hard as she could, her clothes drenched and clinging from the brackish water, the tornado right behind. Cows were lying down, but no other animals were evident. She could see the twister, a vehement cone of black moving along the blistered meadows. If she didn’t get home and into the cellar, it really could harm her. Now it didn’t seem so exciting. Her mother would be looking for Margaret, perhaps waiting to close the cellar doors until she got there.
She knew she wasn’t far from home, maybe just a few minutes. She urged herself on until she could see the house, its pitched roof, the windows, some cracked and shattered by the storm. The maple was split partway down the middle, one side bent over, collapsed like a fallen soldier, the delicate tips of each bare branch touching the ground as if surrendering to it.
One of the cellar doors was slamming back and forth in the wind, hanging from a single hinge. “Mama!” Margaret screamed as she ran towards it. At the top step, she grabbed the railing, but a gust of wind kicked her forward with such force she stumbled, sliding down the slick stairs. “Mama?” she called again into the deep, dark room. There was no answer. Finally, Margaret found her balance and leaned against the rough cellar wall, the doors clanging angrily.
“Thank God, Margaret.” Her mother’s voice no more than a mere rasp. “Just before the phones went dead, they called and said you had left school. You must be drenched.”
“But Daddy?” Margaret peered into the dimness.
“He’s safe in town. Quick, secure the door.”
Hugging the wall, Margaret edged back up the steps and slowly pushed on the loose door with all her might as she forced out the wind and torrential rain and pulled down the heavy iron arm into the brace. The room darkened even more. She couldn’t see her mother. She shuddered as she pulled a heavy woolen blanket around herself and searched on the shelves along the stairs for candles and matches, feeling the pine boards rough beneath her exposed fingertips. Taking the tallest candle, she lit it. Gingerly holding out it out in front of her, she walked back down in the direction of her mother’s voice.
Margaret could see her now. She sat against the wall, her stockings torn, her long legs swollen and bruised. Her mother looked bankrupt, as if all the air had been knocked out of her.
“I was so worried about you out in the storm that I went out to look for you,” Evelyn whispered. “But you’re safe now.”
She turned and smiled at her daughter.
Margaret trembled. She had never seen her mother look so frail. The howling outside grew stronger again, closer.
When Evelyn spoke, it was with an air of resignation. “It’ll never pass. The storm will never pass.
Then Margaret remembered with the feeling of a whirlwind vanishing from her stomach, that the storm would prevent her going to the doctor. Now she knew she would never have to see him again. “No more pediatricians,” she said and looked straight at her mother. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Evelyn nodded, but Margaret could see she was shivering.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine.” Her mother’s words, more like a question, sounded as distant as the thrumming of the storm against the cellar, as cold as the chill air. Then she began to whimper and rub her legs.
Margaret knelt down beside her and placed the candle on the floor. “I’m here now,” Margaret said. “Soon the storm will pass by and Daddy will come home.” She could see her father sitting in his office, using his pencil and quietly working out equations. She made up her mind to call him when the phones came back on and tell him he was needed at home.
Margaret was certain now, as she listened and gauged the wail of the wind, that the storm would soon die down. She noticed her mother become listless and unresponsive. When she grabbed her mother’s hands and gently squeezed them, her skin was cooler. “It’ll be all right, it’ll be all right,” Margaret said as they waited together in the dim basement. She opened the blanket and pulled it around them, leaning against her mother to warm her. Margaret smoothed down her hair and stroked her arm while repeating those calming words as if by being together they could stay the chill wind groaning through the cracks in the wood doors and walls until the threat of the storm finally passed over.