SPECIFIC AIR by Rebecca Titus
by Rebecca Titus
It is midnight in early March and I am on the phone, pacing the wood floors of my sweet, single-story house on the east side. Since moving in four months ago, I’ve come to love everything about this place, from the nesting red-tailed hawks in the front yard to the train tracks in the back. It’s a weirdly balmy night in Nashville and I’m talking to my musician-projectionist friend back in Virginia, comparing my mother’s old gardens to coral reefs. Before it sold, my friend saw that house for herself: the superabundant lightning bugs, the blooms on the trumpet vine, the fractal canopy suspended above the creek. She gets what I mean about the flowers. I jot down some notes, hang up, and go fill a water glass. I catch a flash of white light through the slats of my blinds and step on the back deck.
Oh hey, lightning.
Minutes later, in bed, I receive a never-before-seen mass text: Imminent Extreme Alert: TORNADO WARNING in this area until 1AM. Seek shelter immediately.
Housemate’s in Bali and parents are asleep and I’m too new in town to have a go-to, deep-help person yet, so I turn into my own go-to, deep-help person. I grab my backpack, my grandmother’s opal ring, and the key to the cellar. This house has one of those outdoor access, cement-stair basements, so I need to go outside to get inside. The siren sounds just like the movies. Trees lash the air behind me as I pull the doorknob tight with one hand and turn the key with the other. It gives and I burst into the basement, rushing over to grab a thick white comforter off my painting chair. Within seconds, the power cuts off and the room goes black.
Okay, okay, okay, I hear myself saying. There is unusual pressure in my ears. I want to watch from the doorway, but I don’t know if it’s safe. From the landing at the bottom of the stairs, I look up into the dark, churning sky. This is not a normal storm. The lights of downtown Nashville, which are usually visible beyond the skeletal winter trees, have completely vanished. Clouds flash the color of split pea soup. Bursts of blue-white light explode somewhere off to the right. I can’t see the hail but now I can hear it. The siren revs up again and I exhale, stretching a single-syllable curse into an entire emphatic sentence.
I slam the door and retreat into the basement. Time to decide which corner is most likely to keep me alive—definitely the creepy interior closet with the breaker box and the hot water heater. I use the faint light of my phone to navigate across the room, knocking into a couple boxes on the way.
Okay, okay. I feel dread pooling my stomach, tension in my lower back. I hear the familiar sound of an approaching train, but I know that this time it is not a train. I wrap myself in the blanket, squeeze into the narrow closet, and pull the door closed. Okay.
The dreams started in my early twenties. It was usually the same clipped scene: me, standing outside, watching gunmetal-green clouds whirl above a forest. Half the time, I had my camera and took pictures of the funnel cloud as it dropped down, expanded, and started to advance.
For the most part, these were not violent nightmares of being crushed or flung into the air—I was just mesmerized and filled with terror. The dreams placed me in a moment of chilling recognition. Whenever I dreamed of a dark funnel cloud moving on the horizon, I saw the shape of absolute danger. The word impending comes to mind.
But what is it, actually, other than a symbol of doom? A tornado is a wild-card weather event, a ferociously spinning vortex of air brought to earth for a short time under exceptional circumstances. When a severe thunderstorm exhibits dangerous rotation in its mesocyclone, tornado formation is possible. But the factors that compel a particular supercell to level up its violence remain a mystery, as only a fraction of such storms actually produce tornados. It’s not yet possible for us to anticipate when or where a twister will touch down, if at all. In the dreams, and growing up back East, I always wanted to keep an eye on the storm.
If you look closely, nature makes for pretty watchable TV. On any given day at my parents’ old house, you might witness the second a hawk snags a starling off right the lawn. More likely, you’d see a groundhog sprint for the shed, an aggressive spat between blue jays, or a towering cloud formation straight out of a dream—but anything was possible. That’s the feeling: endless potential. You could never get to the bottom of it.
My parents raised me and my brothers to take an attentive, reverent approach toward the world: to keep our eyes peeled for oddities and unexpected blips of beauty. We were taught that your day can be massively improved by a brush with the other-than-human world—elements, animals, plants, all of it. Beyond seizing these opportunities, we were encouraged to acknowledge and appreciate them.
Growing up, that meant that we stopped what we were doing to look at an enormous black snake wrapped around the back tire of my mother’s truck. It meant that my brothers and I built bonfires out of cherry tree trimmings and ice caves out of blizzard snow. It meant that I got a full report from one of them after he witnessed a lethal duel between a toad and a praying mantis, and that my mom and I got to brag about the curious fawn that approached us in the car.
All this to say: I grew up with the understanding that human beings are embedded in a field of interdependent relationships. Sunlight, ivy, owl, oak—I wouldn’t be me without them.
Sometime after 1:00 a.m., when the tornado sirens stop, I leave the basement closet to check the sky again. It doesn’t look tranquil, but the freaky, dire feeling in the air is gone. Firetruck and police sirens start up, blaring louder and louder until there are blue lights flashing all over the trees. Nope, I think, exhausted. Too much. I go back inside the house, peek through the blinds to make sure my car isn’t crushed under a pine tree, and fall into bed. No dreams.
In the morning, I wake up to a bunch of texts from friends all over the place. Hey girl are you okay after last night? Call me when you’re up. Just checking in. We are safe. Damage to the property. Did you see?? It’s pretty bad. People died. Love you.
I issue a stream of responses and return a missed call from my brother, who studies, reveres, and tracks bad weather in a way that would make our farming ancestors proud.
“Did you get in the basement and everything?” he asks.
“Dude, I had to. It did not feel like a regular tornado warning. When the lightning lit up the clouds, they were completely green. Never seen that in my life.”
“You did the right thing,” he says, his voice knowing and grave. “You’ve got to respect nature.”
“Yeah,” I say, looking out the window at a line of cars being turned away from my block. The power pylon just down the street is now lying across the road, blocking traffic. “You really do.”
Ten minutes away, my parents’ place has power, so I drive over with an overnight bag. In the kitchen, my dad pulls up the Weather Channel’s map of the tornado path. He points to my house in relation to the green line and I gasp so theatrically you’d think I was joking.
“No way. Dad. It was right there. It was right there.”
“Yeah, it was,” he says. “A couple hundred yards, maybe. Your mom’s gonna lose it. But think about it: as scary as it is, knowing how close it came—how much more terrifying would it have been during the daytime? When you could see it?”
I think of my dreams, get a chill.
Turns out, when I could no longer find the lights of downtown Nashville anywhere on the horizon, it was because the twister was on the ground, heading east, blocking my view of the city. At the time, I thought I was looking into the dark, but I was actually looking at the tornado.
I try to spin the endless potential of nature as a good thing, but I’ll admit that its capacity for surprise is unnerving. At any given time, the outdoor environment you find yourself in may rapidly change. It can put you in a situation that didn’t exist ten minutes ago. Action may be required. Sometimes you’ve got to get involved.
My parents never said this out loud, but they modeled it all the time: my mom once rushed into the backyard to thwart a hawk’s raiding of a rabbit nest; my dad once had to catch a lawn-wandering, dinosaurian snapping turtle in a trash can. So it’s little surprise that when my brother and I encountered a dead white goose on the grass as little kids, we named him Gander and buried the body at the edge of the stream. We were known to scoop tadpoles off the pool cover in the spring, to check the filter for trapped frogs in the summer.
It’s not like doing this kind of shit makes you a saint or something. It’s just common courtesy. If we want to watch geese fly in a V-formation overhead and hear frogs in the summer darkness, we ought to show them some respect. To do what we can when we’re called to.
On Wednesday morning, I get a text from my friend that got hit hard: Let’s document with art. Whenever there is daylight come. There are side streets.
My walk through Five Points is punctuated by a series of stomach drops. The tea and candle store, the art supply shop, the spot where I just saw M sing. The nail salon and CBD store no longer have walls to speak of, and the back of the brewery is missing, along with most of its mural. Next to a stretch of exposed drywall, half of a large, green, cone-shaped hop flower remains.
When I get there, my friend’s house is swarming with people hauling tree limbs and debris into trucks. Her trailer and outdoor tub are lying in a pile of disturbed earth behind the house. Her entire fence is leveled, save for a single painted slat of wood. Three birds and a squirrel lie still in a small patch of the garden. I find my friend and hug her. I take photos and move around.
I find a blue flowerpot in a deep hole under an uprooted tree. I spot two planks of stripped wood stuck straight through a door-sized pane of intact glass. I see buffet tables piled high with free barbeque. I see a woman with a crushed look on her face standing beside a roofless music venue. I see feather tufts in a small circle on the ground.
Later, I try to get back to my house through the park, but it’s still taped off. I leave my car near the entrance, adjust my settings, and set off to see the downed trees.
I come across one pileated red-headed woodpecker, a couple of squirrels, and a single cyclist, but otherwise, the park is still. I feel physically activated and full of uneasy jitters. Full-sized trees are lying on the ground, limbs all over the place. Oak, pine, sycamore, hackberry, hickory, walnut—massive, gorgeous, ripped out by the roots like so many dandelions, strewn across the golf course, piled in crisscrossing heaps.
I swing my camera around and climb up on one huge, horizontal trunk, hopping across to another, shooting the landscape, checking leafy branches for birds’ nests. At the top of the hill, near my house, I see a ragged gap where the tornado crossed the train tracks. Looking down at the sloping hills of the park, I try to visualize an honest-to-god vortex thrashing its way through this quiet, green place. My imagination fails. I still can’t quite grasp it, even as my hand is sticky with sap from a felled forty-foot pine.
Thank you for the oxygen, I murmur again and again, passing from one to another. You were a great tree, tree.
My recurring dreams were visceral and hard to forget. I talked about them, wrote about them, and read about them. All the dream resources advocated for keeping a morning record, so I got in the habit of writing down the scraps.
In this one dream, my mom and I are standing in a crowd on a shoreline, facing the water. There are a dozen white horses in the surf and six or seven waterspouts in the distance. Everyone is watching but no one is afraid. Taking photos, I turn to my mom and say, Can you believe this is real life? It’s just like my dreams! To which she shakes her head, astonished. At that moment, I’m really glad to have both a camera and a witness.
Why is it that most dreams swiftly dissolve in the daylight while others intrude on waking life, commanding our attention? Why does one supercell scare the dog and drench the city while another spawns ten tornados across middle Tennessee? Such uncountable, unknowable variables, these are. The human brain, the mesocyclone. We are subject to them both.
Clearing debris on the north side of town the next day, I come across a small, unharmed tree that looks like it had been dressed with pale pink party streamers or cotton candy. Shreds of insulation hang from each of its thin branches, glinting in the sun like millennial tinsel. From a distance, it could be a cherry blossom or a dogwood. When I try to pick it off with my gloves, the insulation resists, coming apart in grainy tufts. The fine, pink fuzz clings to the bark like stubborn lint. I ache for a hand-held vacuum.
All around me, volunteers in boots and work gloves assemble in droves, hauling wheelbarrows and chainsaws. In the alleys, between towering piles of branches and roof siding, smiling people push carts full of water bottles and snacks. Inside the damaged middle school, folks are boxing up school supplies before the building is taken down. The day is charged with a palpable sense of purpose. The sun is high and bright. I’ve never seen such openness on the faces of strangers.
Checking my phone, I see my friend back on the east side is making plans to host a community drum circle. Local businesses that suffered damage give updates on their status; others that were spared raise money to support them. People share stories, solidarity, and links to donation drives. Music City knows.
I am trying to apply what my parents taught me—to respect the tornado’s right to exist while grappling with the tragic consequences of its power. To be aware, to be grateful. To hold the wreckage and the gathering.
A formidable force of nature tore its way through this vibrant city in the dark of night and the very next day, our interconnectedness suddenly appeared obvious. As if an ancient, secret lamp were turned on, revealing the fragile, knotted web that has always held this thing together.
We look good in this light. We should keep it on.
Rebecca Titus is a writer and visual artist whose work can be found in Mount Hope, After the Pause, Foundry, Susquehanna Review, The Hollins Critic, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Hollins University, reads poetry for Flock literary journal, and draws live music in Nashville.