Outside magazine, March 1995
Here in Oxford, Mississippi, most of the leaves are fallen and this place looks bombed all over again. Last February the ice storm of the century passed through the Arkansas delta into north Mississippi and lower Tennessee up to Nashville. Eleven at night, I was out in the front yard waiting for it, led by a special alarm, even horror, in the voice of the television weathercaster. Like a Jeremiah just miles ahead of the storm and pointing backward down the road, raving. The edge of the storm came on in feather-light little BB's, then began to drive and pile. The glass on the west of the house went pecking as if attacked by a gale of birds. Under the streetlights the swirls of white-silver turned almost opaque. It was a determined blizzard. A southerner doesn't see such driving ice more than twice in a lifetime. But at one I went to bed pleasantly aroused, rich as a caveman with the weather outside.
When my wife and I awoke, civilization as we knew it had mainly shut down. Luckily we had gas heaters. All electricity and water were gone; no telephone, all local radio stations kaput. Outside, the trees were draped sculptures in white, but in their quietness, a whole new storm of ghouls.
I am an addict of great weathers. Had I been in Hurricane Camille, which struck the Mississippi coast in 1969, I would be dead. I would have been the leading fool in some motel party hoisting a silver mug, crying havoc, hailing and adoring the wind until blasted off like a kite. Twelve years ago I decided I wanted Oxford for my home when I was having coffee at the Hoka, a café in a warehouse with a tin roof. A violent rainstorm came up. The sound of it thrashing on the tin moved something deep within me, a memory of another storm, my pals and me in a barn sleeping on hay when I was a boy: That tin roof was the margin against everything dangerous.
But at noon when limbs and then whole trees began falling around me, nothing was nice. The picturesque had turned into terror. Whatever we were, whatever good and rotten had transpired in this, our little jewel of a city, these trees had witnessed it. Now they were splitting apart and falling wholesale with mournful cracks and awful thuds. They were coming in the window glass like dead uncles. Next door, an 80-foot tree fell on a neighbor woman's Mercedes, the fetish of her life. She came out into the driveway wailing as I've never heard a white person wail. But you see a whole tree go over like that, and your grip on the universe goes. A small mob of slackers came down the block and stood around the big tree over the Mercedes. They grinned, sort of worshiping the event. But the woods running down a hill to the east went into an exploding mutual collapse too much like the end of the world, and everyone fled back inside.
All these old trees were like family in the act of dying, their agony was more terrible than the storm itself. We had been confident, even arrogant, with them around us, I realized. They'd been comforting brothers and sisters. Now the town was suddenly half as tall.
In the next weeks, trucks and electricians from four states poured into town. You would drive around very stupidly and like a zombie point to another great oak down, another smashed roof: Look at that, Sue. A vast pile of debris burned like the end of a war out on the west edge of town.
You hear a fatuous volume about growing, nurturing, and blossoming as a person nowadays. But great subtractions must be granted, too. There is not always more of us, growing, flapping leaves around like idiot vines.
Here under a rare storm of ice we got our comeuppance. The leaves are gone, and we see it all over again. Lessness rules. But in the South we've been used to that for quite a while.
Barry Hannah's most recent collection of stories is Bats Out of Hell, published by Grove Press.
Filed To: Snow Sports