[audio:https://newfound.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Wise.mp3|titles=”Hurricane Oswald” by Guinotte Wise]
The courtyard filled with Monarch butterflies as Travis and Emilie sat on the stone bench by the Catawba tree.
“They are migrating south. Did you know they travel across Pontchartrain with the cars on the causeway? On the long bridge?” When tired or spent, her pronunciation relaxed back into Creole, and she said “wis zee cars” and “zee long brishge.”
“On the cars?”
“Non. Alongside. Avec,” she said. They coupled again in the sunshine.
After showering, while dressing, she said, “Do you believe a hurricane begins with a butterfly movement or a bird wing somewhere over the ocean?”
“I believe in a lot of things I never thought I would,” he said.
On the west coast of Africa off Sierra Leone, one of the crew of a Chinese fishing vessel marveled at the size of a Monarch butterfly alighting on a brightly painted blue boat sitting tied to the dock. The large butterfly rose in the air, did some aerobatic pirouettes over the warm Atlantic water and flew out to sea. A few minutes later, the little blue boat began to bump and spin, pulling at its frazzled rope. An airborne churn produced some whitecaps in a widening circle a mile or so out in the Atlantic. Monarch butterflies flew in and out of the disturbed air, formed up in a small cloud and headed for land. A diamond miner in the Bonthe district looked up to see a flock of very large Monarchs diving and playing as they headed in toward New Guinea. He took it all as a sign.
The tropical disturbance that spun the small boats off Sierra Leone meandered inland following the Monarchs’ playful trail, kicking up winds in Bobo-Dioulasso, scattering old books and paper items in the market area, pulling at the merchants’ rugs and snapping laundry on lines. One book that survived the sudden sand-filled gusts was found by an Englishman, an archaeologist, in Bamako. The book was a 1960 first edition of “Alpaca” by H. L. Hunt. Paperbound. Covers sunned, heavily rubbed, darkened, creased. Other than sand between the pages, the book was in exceptional shape. It had found its way to the marketplace through Libya, having been read by an amused Muammar Gaddafi a few years after Hunt Oil was nationalized. The book had been thrown away. It surfaced again in a bookstall in Brazzaville, where a French motorcyclist bought it. He read it before he was killed for his backpack outside of Lome. The killers scattered the contents, finding nothing they could use, and a villager picked up the book and traded it for a coffee in Accra. From there, its trip to Bobo-Dioulasso was an unremarkable series of trades and barters, usually along with other household goods. Nobody could read the strange language.
The book espouses, among other things, more votes for those with more money in a utopian civilization.
The storm, gaining in strength, confidence, and shriekability, crossed the Sahara, driving nomads into buffeted tents, or at least into the confines of their robes, coughing but not cursing: it is Allah’s will to send the sands awhirl and screaming. Camels sighed and closed their eyes. Similar photos are seen in National Geographic in 1911 or 2011.
NOAA satellite viewers saw the storm as faces and fingers forming over the Atlantic. “Look at this, Josh. No shit, looks like a face!” Josh ate his Subway Chicken Bacon Ranch and nodded. “Now it looks like a splatter painting, you know those things like you get at a fair for your kid.” Josh wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, typed a message into his computer after checking the hurricane names list. Looked like this one was Oswald. The black community was pissed, someone said, because there weren’t any black names, like Shoricia or Towanda. Josh was black, and, personally, he didn’t give a rat’s ass what they called them. They could call them Shitaree #3 for all he cared. He just knew, from satellite shots, what the storms looked like forming: Evil motherfuckers.
A chauffeur stood in the lee of a nightclub entryway in Freetown, Sierra Leone, collar up, holding onto his cap and trying to smoke a cigarette. The wind was fierce on the outer wall of the weather coming through. Papers and detritus blew by. A seagull struggled in the wind, trying to fly against it, gaining no distance. Finally the bird allowed itself to be flung in the opposite direction, veering low past the black limo as it found its flying balance again.
The whirl of weather that was rapidly becoming Hurricane Oswald carried Saharan sand in the inner rim of its eye-wall and would bring the sand across the ocean with various flotsam, including pages of books from the bazaar in Bobo-Dioulasso as well as a lost military mail envelope from 1943 with rare Mauritanian stamps. The envelope, addressed to General Omar Bradley in fading sepia ink, bore the return imprint of General George Patton. Buried in the sands of the Sahara Desert, the envelope had been in fair condition until it met a struggling Cape cormorant and exploded into small pieces.
The French doors to the courtyard remained open, admitting a jasmine smell layered with the fragrance of the blossoms on the Catawba tree; and the breeze riffled the white linen curtains. Travis waited for Emilie to finish dressing and watched the muted TV. An attractive weather girl swooped her hands over a diagram of the Atlantic Ocean that looked somewhat like a turning Weed Eater and pointed both hands to the Gulf Coast. Then directly at New Orleans. She was pretty and young, like Emilie. The irony of the approaching hurricane’s name was not lost on Travis, who had been Emilie’s age when JFK was killed, although he was sure Oswald was not the killer. Coming back to where it had all started. Perhaps to wreak havoc.
He knew Emilie would not remain with him for long.
Guinotte Wise has been a creative director in advertising for most of his working life. He is also a sculptor. He lives with his wife, Freddie, on a farm about fifty miles south of Kansas City.