You think you've seen some strange weather lately, and I know these scientists are blaming it on the world getting hotter every year, but I think that's a load of hooie. Back when I was kid, that last year we lived up on the mountain was just as freaky as they come, and no one had even heard of "global warming" yet -- hell, everybody's grandpa or uncle knew of times of weather that confounded everybody. We just all kept an eye on the sky and got through it.
That was the year we thought Spring had finally come when all the maples had little red tips on the branches, and the willows by the river in town was already showing green. Ma wouldn't let us run barefoot yet, but we didn't have to wear mittens or hats any more, which was good, because Ma had unraveled two baby afghans to make them, and only my sister Florence wasn't embarrassed to be wearing pink and baby blue.
Anyway, Hastings and me was down by the creek watching the honeybees fly to the mud for a drink -- when you don't have a television, even a bug is right interesting -- and then the breeze stopped. Everything got real quiet. Usually you can hear the squirrels scratching around in the trees, or mice under the leaves on the ground, and you always hear birds calling and cheeping and cussing at one another. Not this time. Hastings and I got off our knees and just naturally stood back to back looking to see if maybe a bear had snuck up on us. We didn't see anything, but I tell you, the hair on the back of my head started to prickle like a haunt was breathing on me.
"Edgar," asked Hastings in a little kind of shaky voice, "you think the birds are afraid of something?"
"I say we head back to the house," I told him, trying to figure out how not to seem like I was scared, too. "Maybe we can surprise Ma by getting home for lunch for once."
He rubbed his belly but didn't look at me. "I am kind of hungry, I guess."
We headed back across and up the hill as quick as we could, but we was quiet like the air. It just seemed like it would be a bad idea to go crashing through the leaves and brush making a lot of noise. Felt to me like the whole world had just decided to hold its breath.
We got to the house, and Ma was out on the porch staring up at the sky with her forehead wrinkled. She'd noticed that quiet, too. Florence came out, her eyes big as saucers. "Ma, there's something funny. All the chickens just went back in the coop. All of them."
Ma shouted in the door, "Ham! Go get your Pa and Uncle Ed! Tell them I want them home right now!" She went to her clothesline and started feeling the clothes she'd hung that morning. "Dry enough," she whispered, and started pulling clothespins off and draping the shirts over her arm. "Florence, you and Edgar bring in some wood, and Hastings, you get the little basket and find me a bunch of kindling sticks."
"Why, Ma?" Hastings asked her.
"Maybe I have a hankering to bake bread tomorrow," she told him. "Might even make enough to take to town on Saturday."
She pulled the last of Uncle Ed's socks off the line, and then we all stopped in our tracks. A little breeze, short and fast, riffled through the trees. It got quiet again, and then another one blew past, and I swear it was like somebody opened up an icebox and let the cold out. A crow started cawing somewhere up on the mountain, and one of the mules screamed a great honking, gasping cry. Ma dropped a couple pieces of laundry, then snapped, "Hurry up, you two! Hastings, don't go out of sight of the porch, hear me?"
All she had to do was open up the stall doors and the gate and those mules trotted into the barn like it was feeding time. The goat and her kid was already in there in the hay. By the time Ma got back in the house, the clouds had almost covered the sky, and those gusts had got colder and faster. She sent us for another load of wood.
Florence and I brought in as much wood as we could carry, and Pa and Uncle Ed and Ham came in through the back door right after us. "Spittin' cold rain already," said Uncle Ed. "And the wind's out of the southwest. That don't make no sense."
"It's a Freak," Ma said to him. "We've heard of them. Grammaw said to pay attention to the birds, that's how you know!"
The front door blew open, banging against the table like someone kicked it in. "Where's Hastings?" shouted Pa above the wind, that had begun to howl in the trees with a "Whhhhrrrrrr!" sound. The swishing of the branches mixed with that to make it darn near impossible to hear with the door open. Pa slammed it shut and held it with his back.
"Gettin' kindling," said Ma, and he and she both ran out the front door and off the porch, getting hit by sleet and snow flakes, shouting my brother's name.
There was a big blast of lightning that made us all blink. Ham counted, "One one thousand, two one thousand, three ... " and the thunder hit, sounding like a cannon blast overhead, only it went on and on.
Ma and Pa shouted for Hastings, and found him hiding on the east side of the house because he got afraid when the sleet started hitting him. Pa carried him and his little basket of kindling back into the house. Snow was flying through the air, and all three of them had their left sides white when they came in the door, looking like half-people, half snowmen.
"Git a fire lit," Pa commanded over the howl of the wind.
Uncle Ed took Hastings' basket of twigs and leaves and threw it into the firebox. Ma stopped him from striking a match by putting a hand on his arm. "Ed, I do this every day. Go find us a bottle of corn to get us through this storm, and I'll get the fire going." Ma pulled most of the twigs out, but then put some small pieces from the woodpile in there, poured a jigger of corn liquor on them, and then put the twigs back in, adding about twenty pages of the Sears-Roebuck catalog tucked in among them. She lit a candle and stuck that in the stove along side a split piece of wood. Thunder pounded us again, and Uncle Ed said, "Holy Hell," as he peered out the front window.
The sleet had disappeared, replaced by snow driving sideways from the southwest. All the trees we could see had white on their southwest side. The wind was whipping the tops of the trees back and forth, and the thunder and lightning was smashing the air.
"Looky here, Pa," said Ham, pointing at the front door of the house. The wind was blowing so hard that there was snow driving under the bottom of it, fat little snowflakes that curled in like white skeeters, and melted when they got about three feet in. The windows looking out on the porch were getting plastered with the snow, and so were the ones on the west side. "Pack that rug up against the door," Pa shouted, "and get something against the back door, too. Ed, dang it, quit sucking on that bottle." (Uncle Ed tended to think that corn was the solution to every problem he encountered, from Miss Susy Allen down at the general store in Winston to hangnails, and weather was included in that inventory.)
Ham and Florence and me all ran from window to window in the cabin to look out. We couldn't see nothing from the south and west windows at all -- it looked like there was three inches of snow packed on the panes. To the east we could look out and see a river of snow blowing past. "Dayum my eyes," Ham muttered, and Florence squeaked, "I'm telling Ma!" and ran back to the front room to tattle about Ham's language. I followed her, because the thunder was right overhead and if the house blew down, I didn't think Ham would notice I was buried, or bother to dig me out if he did.
Ma and Pa had lit a lamp already, even though it was lunchtime, on account of how dark it had got. Hastings was under the table, up against Pa's legs. I joined him. The lightning wasn't separate from the thunder by then, just flash and crash all in one. Then there was a crackling boom and a flash of light, and Florence screamed a shrill little-girl scream, and Pa shouted, "Nooo!" just before the top of the big white pine fell through the porch-roof, spitting sparks I could see glowing through the snow on the front window. "C'mon, Ed!" he shouted over the thunder, and slapped Uncle Ed on the shoulder a couple times. Uncle Ed pinched his nose once, and then followed Pa to the front door. Ma followed them, and held the door from swinging open all the way when they went out. Snow blew in all the way to the woodstove, sizzling when it hit the hot iron.
They was hardly out the door for a minute before they staggered back in again, and helped Ma push the door shut against the wind. They had snow caked on their heads and backs that fell off onto the floor in chunks. "Nothing's burning on it," Pa hollered at Ma. "But you'll get a new porch come summer." He pushed the rug back up against the door, but stayed standing by the window, looking out at the top of the pine tree.
Ma uncovered yesterday's corn bread and spread some preserves across it, and by the time we was done eating it, and had our hands and faces wiped with a damp cloth, the wind had died down and the thunder had turned into a low rumble off to the north. There was only a few snowflakes drifting by, and up above, we could see patches of blue between the clouds. All of us ventured out to look at the snow and the cracked tree.
If it had been Christmas, I'd have to say that was the prettiest scene I ever saw, except for the smashed porch, of course. Everything was white and thick with snow -- there must have been ten inches of it on the ground. Hastings and Florence and I started making snowballs, waiting for Ham to come into range, but he just stood there with our folks.
It wasn't even cold by then. We hadn't put on our jackets, but the only thing that felt cold was the snow on our red hands. The wind had stopped. The air was so quiet I could hear Pa talking over by the end of the porch. "Hope it's not going to do this all spring."
Ma stood like she was listening to something. "I don't like this."
"It'll melt, Sis. In fact I wish I had an extra barrel to shovel full of this -- bet it would make some flavorful brew. Grandpa said snow is full of vitamins, better than any water."
"Ed, Grandpa said if you make a necklace out of goat turds, you won't ever have relatives overstay their visit." Ma looked at him sideways without moving her head. "Maybe he was right, and I ought to make one."
Uncle Ed laughed. "You don't mean that. Come on, Hal, let's go see if the still is okay."
"No," said Ma, and just then a mean little gust blew through the trees from the east. She swung her arm at us. "Get back inside!"
We ran. Ham and the adults came after us; Ma went directly out to the wood stack and brought in another armload of wood. She pushed an old blanket up against the back door after she came back. The wind had started to gust again, and the pieces of blue sky were gone.
This time there wasn't much lightning, just a couple flashes, but the wind was worse, and was out of the northeast, in swirls. Instead of thunder, we heard the cracking of trees falling from the weight of the caked snow on one side and the push of the wind from the other.
There was a sound like rocks hitting the roof, and we poked our heads out to see hail the size of walnuts pelting out of the sky. Down that hail came, and I swear, if a man had been out in that, he'd have been knocked simple. By nightfall it stopped, and it got so cold that we could see our breaths if we stood by the front door.
Sometime in the night I woke up, and looked out the window to see the moon shining off the trees and front yard like they was both made of glass. I dragged the quilt off my bed and went out to sleep in the front room by the stove. Ham and Hastings was already there.
It stayed cold as a dairyman's hand in December for the next two weeks, and felt colder because we knew we should have been warm. Me and Ham and Hastings just stayed by the woodstove at night, in case any more trees might fall and smash the back of the house; Florence slept under the table with Ma. Pa and Uncle Ed took the hatchet and chopped stairsteps in the ice up to the still, where they had a lean-to and kept the fire going under the corn mash.
That storm had an unexpected benefit, though. Up at the top of the ridge, a small herd of does tried to get to the creek on their game trails in the early dawn, but the footing was so icy they just fell and slid down the mountain like they was on rolly-coasters and a couple of them fetched up against the trees near the house. Ma carved them up and we had some of the finest stewed venison you ever tasted in your life, along with so much dried venison jerky she had to empty out a chest of her dowry-goods and stack the vittles in there to carry to town to sell.
She didn't tell Pa and Uncle Ed about the does, as they was too engrossed in the maintenance of the still. She was a spiteful woman when she was irritated. She never told Pa about the money she made from the doe jerky until the revenuers found the still and burned down the house and we had to find a place in town.
"It's a wild wind that blows somebody some good," she told us when we packed the mules down the mountain that spring. "You keep your ears listening for the wind and your eyes on the sky, and nothing will catch you by surprise."
So don't be getting in a panic over your funny weather this spring. There were plenty of odd springs in the past. Just keep your wits about you, and don't believe everything that weatherman on TV says. Anybody who wears a suit that looks that bad can't be real reliable.