La Nina—Pandora Andre-Beatty
When the phone rang at 3:23 am Mira was already awake. She’d been lying in bed listening to the rain pound on the roof above. Hearing the rain was like a reminder of how all of this was somehow her fault. She could also hear the water dripping into the various buckets strategically placed around the bedroom. She knew her husband was awake as well, but it still surprised her when he quickly reached across her to snatch the phone from her nightstand.
“Hello?” His voice sounded urgent, as if he’d been waiting for the call all evening. And in a way they had both been waiting for the call since they moved in.
. . .
For days now it felt as if the sky were emptying over their heads, drumming rain onto the metal roof of their 1910 farmhouse. That quaint metal roof had been one of the selling points that most drew Mira to the place, despite her husband’s cautioning that it looked to be the original roofing which made it over 100 years old.
They’d come up to the Skagit Valley from Redmond in springtime 2 years ago to ride their bikes through the blazing color fields of tulips and daffodils. It was a rare sunny day in the Pacific Northwest, and after the long dark winter both Mira and Mick felt like giddy school kids playing hooky. They both had called in sick to their respective tech firms to take advantage of the beautiful day and to enjoy the relative quiet of a weekday visit to the Tulipfest.
While riding along a quiet country road they’d seen the farmstead sitting up on a rise from the distance. It was a charmingly faded white clapboard two-story building with a porch that angled down in one corner and the dull silver metal roof, bearing a patina that only time and rain can create. As they pedaled closer they could see further beyond the farmhouse there was a brick red barn whose wooden doors hung partly open. Behind the barn a tributary of the Skagit River meandered through the acres of farmland that surrounded the property. The grass grew up high around the barn and the house. Mira did not hesitate turning her bike down the long dipping driveway that rose again up to the house.
“Are you coming Mick?” She shouted over her shoulder as she pedaled harder towards the house, sitting on its small hill. Mick had stopped at the for-sale sign posted at the end of the driveway, looking as if he wasn’t sure if he would join her in trespassing on the abandoned property. But by the time Mira had her bike leaning up against the side of the house he was halfway there.
Mira peered into the grimy windows but couldn’t see into the house due to a yellowed shade. She was going to try the door. She turned to tell Mick to hurry. He was already off his bike and looking concerned. He did not share Mira’s delight in “exploring” but also could not stop her from dragging him along. He ran up the hill and took one step onto the sloping porch, which promptly broke through, leaving one foot on the concrete step and the other buried up to its calf in splintered rotten deck wood.
It was this moment, they liked to joke, that Mira knew they would buy the place, and that Mick knew it would be his cross to bear.
In the 2 years they’d owned the farmstead they’d both quit their tech jobs and cashed in Mick’s 401k to finance the seemly endless repairs needed to the farmhouse and barn. They’d done many improvements themselves, including shoring up the decrepit porch and re-hanging the barn doors. Both felt satisfaction doing the physical work they’d never had at their 9-5 jobs. But the roof was beyond their primitive carpentry skills. They had waited for a long enough dry stretch to have the roofer replace it, but it being a La Nina year there hadn’t been any time when it wasn’t raining. Now Mira was tormented by the pounding sound the rain made on the metal and the incessant dripping inside their bedroom.
. . .
The voice on the other end of the call spoke quickly and loudly as if they were trying to be heard over a din. Mira could not make out what they said, but she knew by the tone that the call was not a call of comfort; rather it was a call to action.
Swinging her feet out of the warmth of the bed she felt the cool wood floor beneath her feet. The floor that they had refinished themselves over the past summer, hand sanding the corners where the floor sander they’d rented couldn’t reach. Sitting upright changed the way the rain sounded, making it louder and more insistent. She reached over to turn on the light and realized the power had gone out. Lighting the candle that they kept on the bedside table (they’d quickly realized power-outages were common in 100 year old houses) she saw Mick toss the now defunct phone onto the bed.
“What’d they say?” she asked. Knowing it wasn’t good news.
“Johnson’s levy failed.” Mick was hurrying into a pair of jeans and pulling on thick socks. “Fuck!” he shouted as he tripped on a bucket near the foot of the bed, spilling the rainwater all over the bedroom floor.
. . .
When they’d purchased the farmhouse the realtor had explained why the house was perched on it’s own seemingly man-made hill. The Skagit Valley sat at the base of the North Cascade Mountain Range and the rivers that flowed out of the mountains were prone to flooding. While the rich soil had long drawn agriculturists to the area, the periodic flooding had led early settlers to build up dykes and levies to control the rivers and creeks that criss-crossed the flood plain. Building a house on a hill, even a small one like the farmstead was on, helped guarantee that the water could rise and fall, with the house staying above it all. However, new scientific studies showed the possibility of what they called “100 Year Flood.” The scenario involved a heavy snowpack year, caused by La Nina, followed by heavy springtime rains, leading to unprecedented flooding in all the areas between the Cascades and Puget Sound. Mina argued to Mick that if the house had survived for 100 years already it was certainly safe for the next 100. He wasn’t as sure.
. . .
When Mira got downstairs Mick was already pulling his rubber boots on over his already damp socks. She held the candle up to illuminate the room. The rain seemed quieter until he pulled open the front door. The wind snuffed the candle out. Darkness and rain were all they could see. Mark shut the door against the storm and went to find the high-powered flashlight that never seemed to be where it was supposed to be. He returned from the kitchen with the flashlight already on, its bright light glinting off the window glass which Mira had painstakingly scraped all traces of paint and grime. This time when they opened the door they braced themselves for the blast. Both wearing Gortex jackets and rubber boots they ventured onto the deck, gripping each other against the wind and rain. At the edge of the porch Mick shone the light towards the barn. The powerful light illuminated the side of the building and then passing lower, revealed the dark water that swirled around the base.
“My chicks!” Mira cried lunging for the steps off the porch.
“Mira! No!” Mick yelled as she descended into the dark.
. . .
The idea of having her own hens had been one of Mira’s main arguments for living at the farmhouse.
“Just think of those free-range eggs!” she’d enthused to Mick. “No more $4 a dozen at the farmer’s market!”
When she’d come home from the feed store with a box of 12 yellow peeping chicks, it was Mick who had to fashion together a place to keep them warm and safe. “But not IN the house.” He’d put his foot down on that one. Which left the barn, to be finally used again for what it was intended, housing animals. Not that the 11 chicks (one had died the first night in the box) made much use out of the cavernous space.
. . .
Mira quickly realized the futility of getting to the barn. She slipped on the muddy slope leading away from the house, landing hard on her backside. Mud clung to her hands as she struggled to stand up. Mick ran to her with the flashlight bobbing light onto her mud-bathed state in time to help her to her feet. She was trying hard not to cry but the fall had jarred something loose that had been building for a while. She clung to Mick burying her face into his shoulder.
“Don’t worry about the chicks. They’ll be fine in that big old barn,” he reassured her. Patting her on her very muddy back.
“But the power is out and they’ll be too cold with out their heat-lamp!” she wailed.
Keeping an arm around Mina, Mick shined the light again on the barn to see if reaching it was possible in any way. In the 5 minutes they’d been outside the water had already risen higher. He noticed one of the barn doors they had so proudly re-hung on refinished hinges was again gaping open. As he watched the door began to slowly open as if pushed by and unseen force. He realized the water was now running in earnest through the barn.
“You go back to the porch and wait for me there,” he told her giving her a little push up the hill. “I’ll be right back.”
As Mira groped her way in the dark back to the house she felt more alone in the world than she ever had before. Heaving herself up onto the porch she finally turned to look towards the barn. She could see Mick’s flashlight shining through the gaping wood walls of the barn. She had a moment of hope that he’d made it to the chicks when suddenly a sharp cracking sound cut through the storm. She watched in horror as the flashlight illuminated wall of the barn suddenly caved into itself, bringing the roof crashing down. The light no longer visible, Mina could only hear the sound of splintering wood and the sound of rushing water.
. . .
At first light Mina opened her eyes. She was still on the porch where she had fainted after witnessing the barn collapse. All was calm now. The silvery grey sky reflected into the perfectly glassy water that surrounded the farmhouse, itself an island amidst a sea of water. A small sound drew her to peer over the edge of the porch into the black water. There, on a floating piece of barn wood, was a single yellow peeping chick.