Big Weather: Lightening

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Big Weather: Lightening

No place to escape the white sizzle, coming in at 200,000 amps per bolt
By E. Annie Proulx

What a fiery summer, no rain, the well gone dry. I was trying to finish the house. Spent the day on a ladder sloshing stain on clapboards that radiated heat like a bed of coals, the breathless air so thick I could scratch it with my fingernails.

Around five I got off the ladder, fixed a mason jar full of ice and gin, and sat on the back steps. The slack sky was bruised up. I could hear rumbles like a truck going over a plank bridge. By the last tilt of the mason jar the sky was in mood indigo. To the north, west, and south, nothing but lightning jelly and thunder roll and a strange cloud, underside studded with immense dusky udders. The west leaned forward, shot out snake tongues.

When the first rain belted down, when the wind hit, I went inside to watch the storm through the open door. The rain clicked into pea-size hail, a tympani section on metal roof, truck, wheelbarrrow, flagstones. Storm in, power out.

A glaring blue flash and the ionized air exploded in a stunning thunderclap. Another and another. I slammed the door. Lightning erupted in a shuttering, wild, demented carnival of raw electricity: streamers and leaders, streaks, forks, bolts, and arcs, until the atmosphere itself burned and the hail pearls glowed. Window ghastly white as though dashed with a bucket of milk. There was the roar of cloudburst, windburst, and a tearing sound as a tree fell against the side of the house. Scientists say lightning strikes the earth a hundred times a second; if that is so, the rest of the world was safe for a few hours.

I recognize the major flaw in my house -- huge windows in every wall. No room, no corner, no stairwell escaped the white sizzle of lightning peaking at 200,000 amps per bolt just beyond the glass. If we get out of this, I said to the mason jar, if the house don't blow down or blow up, some of these naked windows are gone, hello walls.

And that's why they went. What you don't see can't hurt you.

E. Annie Proulx is the author of Heart Songs and Other Stories, Postcards, and The Shipping News, which won the 1993 National Book Award and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize.

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