Chapter Two: The Fall
“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” ~ Haruki Murakami
On the evening of November 23, 1998, a major windstorm moved over Whidbey Island in Washington State. The windows of my small house rattled and shook, and with each gust the storm grew stronger. A chorus of thudding branches and howling winds merged to create a mad symphony of sounds. I lay down my book—this was no time to “Put Aside the Ego and Better Your Life.” It was time to grab a blanket and retreat.
This place that I now called home had promised to free me from the chaos of life on the mainland. Whidbey Island was a world of soaring evergreens, gently rolling hills, and small wooden farm houses—a world with few traffic lights and even fewer fast food restaurants. My home stood in sharp contrast to the pastel suburban dwellings surrounding it. With its brightly painted pink door and black shutters, it was otherworldly—a fairy tale mistakenly placed in a book of essays. It had once stood unchallenged in a vast expanse of Douglas fir trees, staunchly resisting encroaching suburbia, but ultimately it had succumbed to progress. A year earlier my neighbor Jim had bought the lot next to mine and built a rambler just inches from my property line.
Inside, the house reflected my personality—simple, straightforward, and slightly eccentric. Skylights embedded in the high, wood-beamed ceiling gave the illusion of space to a small kitchen, living and dining area that made up the front of the house. The rear housed two small bedrooms and a bathroom. But my favorite room was the one that lay over the bedroom. The loft was accessible only from the living room by climbing a rustic wooden ladder. With its low ceilings and graceful aura, it was the perfect place to sit, reflect, and write. When the sun chose to shine, its small stained-glass windows cast a warm, cathedral-like glow over oak-paneled walls. The loft was my creative haven. Over the years its walls and ceilings had absorbed my hopes and dreams.
I tugged the blanket around my ears, trying to block out the sound of the moaning wind. Darkness took hold; daytime drizzle gave way to angry, pelting rain. Thankfully,my son Eric had decided to spend the night at his girlfriend’s and my other three kids were safe on the mainland. Edgar the cat paced nervously back and forth on the sofa, searching for a place to hide. Stopping abruptly, he poked his nose under a pillow and nudged it, trying in vain to fit his large black body into the small space below. The pillow, oblivious to his need for protection, tumbled onto the wooden floor. Edgar leaped off the sofa,up the ladder and into the loft, leaving me to fend for myself.
Outside, the storm plowed through with increasing fury—inside the lights began to dim. They flickered one last frantic gasp, then died, plunging the room into darkness. My fingers fumbled for the flashlight I’d placed next to me—its incandescent beam led me to the kitchen drawers and my emergency supplies. Now I sat, eyes fixed on the wall, mesmerized by patterns of flickering candlelight.
Each thud on the roof signaled the start of Armageddon in my overwrought brain. Could my fragile wooden house withstand the gusts, or would it simply collapse under the strain? It was nine o’clock, too early for bed, but I wanted to leave this lonely room with its high ceilings and clunking branches. Flashlight in hand, I retreated to the bedroom, leaving the door ajar for Edgar. As the heat of my body warmed the flannel sheets I drifted off to another place, far from the raging winds. Sometime after midnight the piercing beep, beep, beep of my pager jerked me from restless dreams. It was my week on call in the IT office and the power had gone out. I should go to the mainland and put things in order, but how could I? The ferries had stopped running. Groggily I reached my hand across the pillow and stifled the beep.
Once more I sank into fitful sleep. Lost in my dream world, I was oblivious to the passage of time. Then, a jarring echo—the crash of thunder, shattering of glass, metal crunching against metal—diverse sounds mingled to form one massive and prolonged boom. The house resonated from somewhere deep in the ground. I jerked upwards in a state of terror, eyes wide open. Had the crash been real or was it my pager that had woken me from a nightmare? Then I remembered—I’d turned my pager off.
The wind outside no longer howled—the storm had passed. In its place was an eerie silence that permeated very pore of my body. I was still in the house, but it wasn’t the house I knew. How long had I been sleeping? Why had I woken so suddenly? Time… what was the time? I reached over to illuminate the face of my small battery-powered alarm clock. 4:05.
My heart beat wildly—I groped in vain for my flashlight as my eyes adjusted to the dark. Shadows appeared where there should have been only walls, long spindly shadows protruding at wild angles. My senses were flooded with the pungent aroma of pine needles. I exhaled deeply as my fingers found the cold metal torch near my pillow and focused its strong beam on the bed covers in front of me, hoping to see Edgar’s familiar mass of black fur. There was nothing, not even a dent in the covers to signal his presence. I’d read somewhere that animals could sense impending disaster and, remembering my cat’s strange behavior during the storm, I was sure it was true. I prayed he’d found a safe place to hide.
I scanned the walls in search of damage. The one near my bed looked fine, though something was missing—my Haitian oil painting. It had fallen to the floor, face down, frame cracked. As I passed the beam across the wall opposite the bed, my sweaty hand nearly dropped the flashlight. What was that? My eyes blinked involuntarily as I tried to take in what I saw. A huge tree limb filled the opening that led to the living room, its huge, needle-covered branches almost reaching the bed. The door that had once filled the opening now hung pitifully from one hinge. Angling the flashlight upwards, I checked the ceiling slowly and carefully. Spider-leg cracks appeared at regular intervals, along with one huge crack in the corner. Time to leave, I thought to myself, wondering how I could accomplish this seemingly impossible task.
The noise of crunching leaves broke through eerie silence. Sounds of rhythmic footsteps and snapping branches grew closer, then abruptly stopped. A baritone voice drifted through the closed glass window.
“Hello, hello… is anyone there?”.
I recognized the voice of my neighbor Jim, and relief coursed through me in comforting waves.
“Yeah, I’m OK. I just need to get out of here, but the doorway’s blocked.” My voice sounded embarrassingly childlike.
“There’s a window here, and a ladder. If you can get to the window and open it, I’ll help you down.”
A ladder? Then I remembered. I’d been assessing water damage up near the roof and had forgotten to put it away. Was that only two days ago?
I quickly shed my pajamas, donning the first clothes I could find—tee shirt, jeans, sweatshirt, and a hat to keep off the rain. Then I put together a hasty package—my purse, extra clothes, pillow, the flashlight, the book I’d been reading, my pager, my camera, all neatly wrapped in a blanket.
Like the window of a jail cell, my only exit sat teasingly out of reach, the sill just above nose level. I could barely see the outline of the ladder in between sprawling branches. One step at a time, I told myself, as I dislodged the wooden chair from under my computer table and dragged it over to the window. Now I had some leverage. With my left hand, I gripped the bundle of possessions; with my right, I reached for the window’s aluminum handle, compressed it to release the lock, then slid it slowly open. I tossed my bundle to Jim, then strained to get my knees up over the window ledge and onto the ladder. Carefully, I worked my way down, snapping and shoving anything in my way. Finally, I felt solid earth beneath my feet as my neighbor’s face popped into view, a portrait framed in pine needles.
“Are you sure you’re ok?” Jim asked, his face a mixture of worry and relief. “That was some tree that fell on your house.”
“Yeah, I’m OK. Just a little shaken up, in more ways than one. Last thing I remember is my pager going off, then this huge crash that shook the house. I’m just glad you found me”
“Hey, I’m glad I found you too. I wasn’t sure what to expect.” Jim smiled. “Damn tree woke me up way too early this morning.”
“Did it hit your house too? Which tree was it?” I pictured one of those scraggly pines on the edge of my garden. I had never trusted the thin ones—the ones that bent in the wind like stalks of grass in a meadow.
“No, it missed my house. It decided to fall the other way. Follow me, I’ll show you which one it was.” Jim aimed his flashlight at the ground.
We rounded the edge of the house, continuing into the large expanse of open yard, where he abruptly stopped. He turned and raised the light, sweeping an arc over the front of my house. The gray wall, bright pink door still intact, leaned precariously close the ground, pushed outward by a mass of branches. The detached garage, which sat only a few yards away, stood unscathed, having miraculously escaped the wrath of the tree.
Using the fallen trunk as a guide, we made our way slowly toward the edge of the property. The flashlight bobbed up and down with each step Jim took. In front of me, the ground suddenly disappeared, leaving only black.
“Watch out!” Jim aimed his flashlight at the inky void below.
Illuminated in the ghostly beam, a huge mass of roots protruded from a cavernous hole that appeared to be some 30 feet in diameter. Beyond the hole, the fallen tree stretched forever—across my porch, through the house, past the neighbor’s home. Then nothing, as the flashlight beam faded into the darkness beyond. I stood speechless. Never in a million years would I have imagined this tree falling. It was majestic, immense, and it stood alone at the edge of my property.
As we neared Jim’s house I heard the chugging of a generator. Lights glowed invitingly through the curtains. Just a few short steps brought us to his front porch and into the warmth of his house.
“Have a seat,” Jim said, pointing to the couch. “Would you like some coffee?”
Strange, I thought, how situations could bring people together. Though Jim had lived next door to me for a year now, we were virtual strangers. We traded occasional greetings, but I’d never entered his house. I looked at the clock on the wall—it was almost 5:00—nearly an hour since the tree had fallen.
We talked as we sat, waiting for darkness to ease its grip.As the first signs of daylight gradually filtered through the living room curtains, my eyes grew heavy—my head fell ungracefully onto my shoulder. I was startled awake by the mechanical thumping of twin blades overhead.
“Hey, did you hear that?” Jim said excitedly. “Sounds like a chopper. Let’s go and check it out.”
As I craned my neck upwards, I could see the faint outlines of a familiar news emblem on the side of the helicopter. We looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. Maybe they were filming.
“C’mon” Jim said, dashing back to the house.
As we flipped through channels we spotted it—my home. From the helicopter view above it looked tiny and vulnerable. The tree had cut a path directly through the middle of the building, obliterating the dining room,kitchen and living room and narrowly missing my bedroom. It lay there, an elongated octopus, its tentacled branches invading almost every square inch of my home.
As the sky lightened I began the search for Edgar. Though I had no desire to return to the wreckage of my home, I knew I had to find my cat.
As I left, Jim’s voice trailed off behind me. “Where are you going?”
“Edgar! I need to find him.”
“Edgar, who’s Edgar”
“Edgar, kitty, kitty, kitty…” I scoured the landscape for signs of a black cat—nothing, not even a meow. Fear had likely led him to the woods behind the house and he’d never return. He’d prowl the wilderness forever, surviving on mice and slugs. Then, as I neared the porch, I saw him—a coal-black furry mask of confusion and fear, poking out from under the wooden slats. He couldn’t understand why his world had suddenly vanished. I scooped him into my arms and held him close to my face, breathing into his warm fur. Suddenly, just for a moment, I felt grounded once more.