wHen my brotHer FisH turned tHirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he’d caused it. I had liked living down southontheedgeofland,nexttothepushing-pullingwaves. I had liked it with a mighty kind of liking, so moving had been hard—hard like the pavement the first time I fell off my pink two-wheeler and my palms burned like fire from all of the hurt just under the skin. But it was plain that fish could live nowhere near or nearby or next to or close to or on or around any largish bodies of water. Water had a way of triggering my brother and making ordinary, everyday weather take a frightening turn for the worse.
Unlike any normal hurricane, fish’s birthday storm had started without warning. One minute, my brother was tearing paper from presents in our backyard near the beach; the next minute, both fish and the afternoon sky went a funny and fearsome shade of gray. My brother gripped the edge of the picnic table as the wind kicked up around him, gaining momentum and ripping the wrapping paper out of his hands, sailing it high up into the sky with all of the balloons and streamers roiling together and disintegrating like a birthday party in a blender. Groaning and cracking, trees shuddered and bent over double, uprooting and falling as easily as sticks in wet sand. Rain pelted us like gravel thrown by a playground bully as windows shattered and shingles ripped off the roof. As the storm surged and the ocean wavestossedandchurned,spillingragingwateranddebris farther and farther up the beach, Momma and Poppa grabbed hold of fish and held on tight, while the rest of us ran for cover. Momma and Poppa knew what was happening. They had been expecting something like this and knew that they had to keep my brother calm and help him ride out his storm.
That hurricane had been the shortest on record, but to keep the coastal towns safe from our fish, our family had packed up and moved deep inland, plunging into the very heart of the land and stopping as close to the center of the country as we could get. There, without big water to fuel big storms, fish could make it blow and rain without so much heartache and ruin.
Settling directly between Nebraska and Kansas in a little place all our own, just off Highway 81, we were well beyond hollering distance from the nearest neighbor, which was the best place to be for a family like ours. The closest town was merely a far-off blur across the highway, and was not even big enough to have its own school or store, or gas station or mayor.
Monday through Wednesday, we called our thin stretch of land Kansaska. Thursday through Saturday, we called it Nebransas. On Sundays, since that was the Lord’s Day, we called it nothing at all, out of respect for
His creating our world without the lines already drawn on its face like all my grandpa’s wrinkles.
If it weren’t for old Grandpa Bomba, Kansaska-Nebransas wouldn’t even have existed for us to live there. When Grandpa wasn’t a grandpa and was just instead a small-fry, hobbledehoy boy blowing out thirteen dripping candles on a lopsided cake, his savvy hit him hard and sudden—just like it did to fish that day of the backyard birthday party and the hurricane—and the entire state of Idaho got made. At least, that’s the way Grandpa Bomba always told the story.
“Before I turned thirteen,” he’d say, “Montana bumped dead straight into Washington, and Wyoming and Oregon shared a cozy border.” The tale of Grandpa’s thirteenth birthday had grown over the years just like the land he could move and stretch, and Momma just shook her head and smiled every time he’d start talking tall. But in truth, that young boy who grew up and grew old like wine and dirt, had been making new places whenever and wherever he pleased. That was Grandpa’s savvy.
My savvy hadn’t come along yet. But I was only two days away from my very own thirteen dripping candles—though my momma’s cakes never lopped to the side or to the middle. Momma’s cakes were perfect, just like Momma, because that was her savvy. Momma was perfect. Anything she made was perfect. Everything she did was perfect. Even when she messed up, Momma messed up perfectly.
I often reckoned what it would be like for me. I pictured myself blowing out the candles on my cake and fires dying in chimneys across four counties. Or I imagined making my secret birthday wish—getting my cheeks full and round with air—then floating up toward the ceiling like my very own happy birthday balloon.
“My savvy is going to be a good one,” I told my brother Rocket. “I just know it.”
“Girls don’t get the powerful jujubes,” said Rocket, running one hand through his dark shock of unkempt hair with a crackle of static. “Girls only get quiet, polite savvies—sugar and spice and everything humdrum savvies. It’s boys who get the earthshaking kinds of savvy.”
I had scowled at my brother and stuck out my tongue. Rocket and I both knew that there were plenty of girls climbing round our family tree that had strong and sturdy savvies, like Great-aunt Jules, who could step back twenty minutes in time every time she sneezed; or our second cousin Olive, who could melt ice with a single red-hot stare.
Rocket was seventeen and full of junk that I wasn’t allowed to say until I got much, much older. But he was electric through and through, and that had always gone to his head. for fun, Rocket would make my hair stand on end like he’d rubbed it with a balloon, or hit fish with a wicked zap from the other side of the room. But Rocket could keep the lights on when the power went out, and our family sure liked that, especially the littler Beaumonts.
Rocket was the oldest, with fish and me following after. Born only a year apart, fish and I were nearly the same height and looked a lot alike, both with hair like sand and straw—hair like Momma’s. But while I had Poppa’s hazel eyes, fish had Momma’s ocean blue ones. It was as if we’d each taken a little bit of Momma, or a little bit of Poppa, and made the rest our own.
I wasn’t the youngest or the smallest in the family; broody Samson was a dark and shadowy seven, and doll-faced Gypsy was three. It was Gypsy who started calling me Mibs, when my full name, Mississippi, became far too much for her toothsome toddler tongue to manage. But that had been a relief. That name had always followed me around like one of fish’s heavy storm clouds.
The itch and scritch of birthday buzz was about all I was feeling on the Thursday before the friday before the Saturday I turned thirteen. Sitting at the dinner table, next to Poppa’s empty chair and ready plate, I barely ate a bite. Across from me, Gypsy prattled endlessly, counting the make-believe creatures she imagined seeing in the room, and begging me to help her name them.
I pushed the food around my plate, ignoring my sister and daydreaming about what it would be like when I got my very own savvy, when the telephone rang right in the middle of pot roast, mashed potatoes, and mighty unpopular green beans. As Momma rose to answer, us kids, and Grandpa Bomba too, seized the chance to plop our mashers on top of our beans while Momma’s back was turned. Samson tucked some of those beans into his pockets to give to his dead pet turtle, even though Momma always said he shouldn’t be giving it any of our good food, seeing how it was dead and all, and the food would just go to rot. But Samson was sure as sadly sure that his turtle was only hibernating, and Momma hadn’t the heart to toss it from the house.
We were all smiling to each other around the kitchen table at the smart way we’d taken care of those beans when Momma dropped the phone with a rattling clatter and a single sob—perfectly devastated. She sank to the floor, looking for all the world as if she were staring right through the checkered brown and blue linoleum to behold the burning hot-lava core at the very center of the Earth.
“It’s Poppa,” Momma said in a choked voice, as her perfect features stretched and pinched.
A gust of wind burst from fish’s side of the table, blowing everyone’s hair and sending our paper napkins flying pell-mell onto the floor. The air in the room grew warm and humid as though the house itself had broken out into a ripe, nervous sweat, and the many dusty, tightly lidded, empty-looking jars that lined the tops of all the cupboards rattled and clinked like a hundred toasting glasses. Outside it was already raining fish rain—drops hastened from a sprinkle to a downpour in seconds as fish stared, wide-eyed and gaping like his namesake, holding back his fear but unable to scumble his savvy.
“Momma?” Rocket ventured. The air around him crackled with static, and his T-shirt clung to him like socks to towels straight from the dryer. The lights in the house pulsed, and blue sparks popped and snapped at the tips of his nervous, twitching fingers.
Momma looked at Poppa’s empty chair and waiting plate, then she turned to us, chin trembling, and told us about the accident on the highway. She told us how Poppa’s car had gotten crushed up bad, like a pop can under a cowboy boot, and how he’d gone and forgotten to get out before it happened, landing himself in a room and a bed at Salina Hope Hospital, where now he lay broken and asleep, not able to wake up.
“Don’t fret, child,” Grandpa consoled Momma as though they were back in time and Momma was still a young girl sitting on his knee crying over a broken doll. “Those doctors know what’s what. They’ll fix your fellow up in no time. They’ll get his buttons sewn back on.” Grandpa Bomba’s tone was soft and reassuring. But as the strobe-like flashes from Rocket’s nervous sparks lit Grandpa’s face, I could see the worry etched deep into all his wrinkles.
For half of a half of a half of a second I hated Poppa. I hated him for working so far away from home and for having to take the highway every day. I hated him for getting in that accident and for ruining our pot roast. Mostly, I realized that my perfect cake with its pink and yellow frosting was probably not going to get made, and I hated Poppa for wrecking my most important birthday before it had even arrived. Then I felt the burning shame of even having those thoughts about my good, sweet poppa and sank low in my chair. To make amends for my selfish feelings, I sat quietly and ate every last unwelcome green bean from beneath my mashed potatoes, as fish’s rain lashed against the windows and Rocket caused every lightbulb in the house to explode with a live-wire zing and a popping shatter, sending shards of glass tinkling to the floor and pitching the house into darkness.