That night, as Sam slept, Daisy snuck out and drove out of town, the sky clear, the moon half-empty. Ahead of her the tail lights of a semi-trailer. She watched for the gleam of green deer eyes on the shoulder. Turned south before the little village, with its trailer houses and boarded-up shops. A sour smell of silage. Then she was over the North Platte River, the water the color of molten silver.
When she came to the driveway she dimmed her lights. The SUV shook as she drove over the bars of the cattle gate. She turned into a lot with a pile of crushed rock on one side the size of a house. An old dump truck tilted into the dirt, rust infecting its undercarriage and fenders. She parked next to it, got out, and walked to the sandstone bluff. She hiked through short prairie grass and sage brush until she found the spot. Holding her breath, she listened for anything that might be out there.
People had realized the mountain lions were coming back when one walked into town. Soundlessly moving down the river, just before dawn, hungry. It prowled over lawns, past porches and kids’ toys strewn in the grass until it was cornered between a daycare and a church, facing down the shotguns of a sheriff and his deputy.
Four more cougars had been killed in the past five years. People talked about hearing them crying in the hills and repeated statistics, giving out the population numbers cited by county rangers. They told stories about friends of friends who knew someone who had an encounter.
Daisy had never seen one, nor heard a cry, but she longed to. Whenever she went to that spot on the bluff to watch the satellites she thought of them out there in the night until she had to confront and accept that one day she would die. That was the release she wanted.
As a child she would spend summer nights on her back on a trampoline and play connect-the-dots to make her own constellations. She remembered the first time she saw a satellite moving, not slowly exactly, but not quickly either. It was a rare thing to see even one then. Now it was different. Now she could see dozens in a night steadily passing in the spaces between the stars. They gave off less light and were pale, but as long as it was clear she could watch them making patterns for hours.
She had come with Sam to this same range of hills in May. That night the moon rose over the bluffs in the southeast, not quite full, but bright enough to tint the sky and give off a dim glow. After parking in a weed-grown turnoff, Sam carried a picnic basket through the prairie. Mosquitoes whined in their ears as they walked. Dry cheatgrass burrowed into their socks. They found a flat place to lie in a clearing that was half-ringed by Ponderosa pines and facing out over the valley. Daisy spread out a quilt. Wind blew through the calm. Once they had everything in place Daisy walked down the bluff to stand on the plain and look out across the land. Above her Cassiopeia rose, the W on its side. She could still marvel at the view, how much and how far she could see.
They awoke with the dawn, the sky over the horizon fading in. A sunset in reverse, orange, then pink, then a feathery purple, until the sun became visible and round, glowing hot and large over the edge of the land. They cut up a cantaloupe and ate it.
After they ate they hiked to the pond where the creek used to run. The old dam kept it there with enough water to swim. A few bullfrogs retreated as they stepped in.
“It’s too cold,” Daisy said.
“Just push through,” Sam replied.
They waded through the reeds, with each step sinking ankle-deep into mud. When the water was chest high they stopped and looked around. Dragonflies, red and blue, hunted on the surface. Daisy looked up at the contrails spreading across the blue.
“You won’t be able to do this if you leave,” she said. “You won’t know where to find places like this.”
Sam didn’t say anything. Daisy listened to the frogs. She saw a young cottonwood standing alone, its branches high enough to be out of the way yet low enough to grab out of necessity. She imagined Sam pressing against her, his hair wet and slicked back, the three-day growth of his beard a thin bark. She could taste the pond on his skin. She wanted him to press her into the tree until it broke. Or she did. She wanted to hear something crack. But she could only hear the frogs.
They drove home, still, wet, the radio off, the only noise the quiet.
Daisy could trace her obsession with tornadoes back to her childhood, to the time when she watched the clouds contorting and twisting together until they began to spin. She was young, maybe nine at the time, the day the first one came. Her mother had her out in the garden pulling weeds between the sweet-corn rows.
“Make sure you’re getting the roots,” her mother said. “They’ll just come back if you don’t get them deep enough.”
The ground would squeak when the kosha weed came out intact, dry soil crumbling off onto her bare feet. The wind blew warm against her back, no relief just air moving on skin. She felt the atmosphere shift and her mother stood up and looked around the land, scanning south past the valley to the river and farther, to the hills. She turned and looked north to the lake, then west to the town and to the bluffs. Darkness moving. Long white roots hanging down from the bellies of the clouds, shaking off rain dirt from the weeds. In the west, a cloud as big as half the land—behind her, in the east, another just as large.
It took a while for the two systems to meet. Daisy could clearly remember the moment when her mother dropped the hoe and said, “We better go inside now.” The rest of it she remembered in patches. The clouds converging over the field beside their farm, the soil lifting off the ground and spinning before the funnel reached the land, the roaring wind, the tree branches knocking against the dining room wall, then standing at the basement window, unable to see the entire twister top to bottom, only the wide, spinning, black mouth where it touched the ground.
Daisy remembered her mother saying “go back into the goddamn sky.” The only time she ever heard her swear.
They crouched next to the piano until it passed.
The next afternoon she drove toward the sun. Staring at the horizon calmed her, placed her in time, and she would have driven over the mountains, into the sea, if it was possible. At dusk the air took on a heaviness that wasn’t fog, or mist, but a less perceptible thickness, a grayness, as though in the fading day the air was replaced with a darker light that weighed more, and became more difficult to exist in. She had made the drive enough to know what season it was by the length of the shadows.
She went past the prairie where the scientists had found all the buffalo bones. The sky looked like a mountain range turned upside down. Out in the grassland she could see, small and thin, not black, but gray, a cyclone on a flat plain, tufts of dust at the point where it made contact and twisted on the pastureland.
The dirt road inclined gradually and she followed it up until it curved along the edge of a bluff. She stopped and looked down into the flatland, where the soil was a red clay and the gray cyclone spun dark red dust up to a third of its length, violent, writhing. She thought about how the center of it would sound, the wind on all sides of you, growling, howling, roaring. The twister moved over the land steady, slow. She got out of the car and stood watching until it stopped moving, then, as though summoned to another duty somewhere else, it retreated into the clouds.
There was lightning in the sky as she drove home thinking about Sam. She conjured two tornadoes on the horizon. There we are, she thought, the two of us, and we are spinning in the dirt, and the town we are heading for is us, too, but we don’t know why. We don’t know why we’re doing anything. We could go back up in the sky but how long until we reemerged?
A day later, she watched a canary yellow crop duster fly over the power lines then bank left and make a half-circle, high above a field of pinto beans. The bean plants were dark and bushy in their rows, long pods growing pale green, not yet full.
It took a moment to build the courage to make the drive to the little bar. She knew it would mean a lot of thinking about herself once she got there. She watched the plane turn and dive under the power lines, between the poles, and release the insecticide in a white cloud that floated above the beans for a moment then fell, coating the diamond-shaped leaves.
As she came to the dead town, with its small houses set back from Main Street, rusting cars in the lots left behind over the last forty years, she thought on what it means to stay where you’re from. The pain of it. Dragging your past around behind you.
A flatbed Ford with a four-wheeler on the bed, the mud on the tires dry and hard, and a maroon ‘70s model Buick LeSabre were parked outside the bar. Boards covered the windows of the post office building next to it.
The aroma of the fryer, of a place that was once filled with tobacco smoke, of beer scum in the cracks in the tile floor, of the musk of working men, all hit her like a swinging door as she went in. A stained pool table, football posters, beer signs and a touch-screen jukebox playing Townes Van Zandt’s “Be Here To Love Me” under low, soft light. Three men sat at the far elbow of the bar, not talking. Two of the three seemed to have found a spot somewhere in the space between the floor and the wall to fixate upon and they held their gaze there. The other one watched TV. A clouded mirror reflected liquor bottles and beer taps and the tools the bartenders used to fashion drinks. She took a stool at the other end.
I don’t give a shit about happiness, she thought. I just don’t want to lose everything I’ve built.
After two drinks she drove back to the house. Sam was sitting on the porch, a beer on his knee, smiling. He stood up and smoothed out his pants. A little awkward but confident enough. She turned off the car then rummaged in her purse for a moment before she got out, taking a few extra glances, trying to gain as much information as she could. He kept his smile. When she opened the door the heat felt almost like another obstacle.
“So you got the job?” she asked.
“I got offered the job,” he said.
“When do they want you to start? When are you moving?”
She walked past him, stopping at the door long enough for him to answer.
“I want to talk to you about this,” he said.
“Did you eat?”
She walked inside, not waiting for his reply.
The next day she stayed in bed until he left for work, then she called in sick and drove up past the science plots where they tested fields of hybrid corn. Then around the lake, which was calm that early, the boys with their jetskis still asleep. She had been one of those summertime girls who went out to the water every chance she could. She went with boys she didn’t like because they had a boat. Upperclassmen who drank and swore to impress her. Girls in the grade below who gained from having her on a towel next to them.
She had loved that lake for exactly four years then never swam in it again.
After driving for an hour, she came to the place. She sat with the engine off, the only sound the wind in the windows. Gusts rocking the SUV strong enough to lift up small rocks to click against the door panels and fenders.
She could see it there jumping, hopping across the pasture, touching ground for a second then coming back up and snapping down again like a rattlesnake striking, its head and fangs tearing into the red dirt and chewing up clouds of dust. She needed to know how it sounded in the center. She wanted it to encircle her. Overwhelm her senses. Wind. Rocks. Noise.
She checked to make sure she had left the keys in the ignition, then she stepped out of the car, feeling its safety, its ability to protect her diminish as she left it. The twister was still down and now all the sound came loud, roaring. She imagined walking into it, pebbles stinging her face, rocks in her eyes, her mouth and ears full of dirt and grass. To be weightless and spinning. The release of lifting off of this earth.
Bart Schaneman lives in Denver, Colorado, where he works as a reporter covering the cannabis industry. He’s had short fiction published in Per Contra, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Pindeldyboz, Laurus, and Dispatch Review. Previously he worked as the editor-in-chief of the Star-Herald newspaper of Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
read next: Khal Torabully, translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson, “[For the first time…]“
“Cyclones” appeared in TLR: Contents May Shift (Summer, 2020)