We couldn’t see the destruction, but we knew it was coming. An unstoppable force springing out from the Earth. Trembling, we scrambled outside. We craned our heads upwards and searched for the signs, just me and my brother on that crisp, early morning. Stained blue as a cornflower, spread as wide as Creation, the sky at that moment seemed perfectly still. But we felt the breeze lick our skin, watched the clouds start to shift, and oh, we knew better. The destruction was coming. It was caught in the wind, and it was blowing our way.
Month after month, warnings had been piling up on each other. Mount St. Helens was going to erupt. Just tremors at first, and then earthquakes, then fractures. Slowly ripping the mountain in two. And then, that sunny, Spring Sunday morning in May, St. Helens blew open, rocketing over five hundred million tons (tons!) of ash into the atmosphere. Barely a hundred miles away from our house, belching ash at speeds that were near supersonic.
My brother and I, in a whirlwind of glee, waited outside to embrace it. We’d never seen such a thing.
“Get in-side!” shouted our mother. She was standing before us, but not looking at us, her attention drawn up to the sky. She’d long been exhausted by what the news was reporting, about the threat of certain eruption. If God wants that mountain to blow, it’ll blow, she’d announced. And God had made his decision. Only one hundred miles. The distance between us and His fury. She clamped her hands to our shoulders and dragged us inside.
One hundred miles is nothing to God, after all.
But the explosion blew away from us, not toward us. Ash found its way anyway, swarming our town like scorched, paper locusts. For days, it slid under our door cracks, between the sills of our windows, left a scum on the sidewalks. Grab a burst of fresh cherry blossoms, slap a neighbor’s dented mailbox, and your fingers were varnished in soot.
My brother and I were delighted.
“Get inside!,” our mother admonished, her sons dry-washed in filth. “Didn’t I say not to get yourselves dirty?” And again, her attention seemed to detach from our presence, to slip away from her sons and out toward the horizon. I tried to look where she looked, tried to see what she saw, but could see nothing but fading blue twilight.
Another early Spring Sunday, the first after the eruption, and I wandered from bedroom to living room. My brother and father sat still on the couch. Outside, bluebirds were chirping, sunlight was shining. The world all around seemed perfectly still. Inside, our father crinkled a white sheet of paper. It’s a note from our mother. He slipped it to me.
She’s left us. She’s found someone else, some other man she’s fallen in love with. It’s him she prefers, not the husband and children she already has. She’s not coming back, she doesn’t want to be found, so please, she begs us, don’t try to find her. Less than half of a handwritten page, not a single plea for forgiveness expressed, not a single smudge in her precise, even cursive.
“Stay clean,” she advises her boys. “There’s still ash everywhere.”
Outside, my brother and I lazed in the grass of our overgrown yard, plucking fragrant blades from the earth. Had there been warnings? The crying she never knew we could hear? The fights she never knew we were watching? The way she would look at us, then past us, as if unwinding time in her mind? Warnings piling up on each other, month after month, until finally, she exploded.
Streaks of filth on our hands, on our clothes, rubbing off from the earth where we lay. Our father had been wailing and weeping, grieving his loss, and his sons had followed suite, mirrors for his sorrow, his tears. As dirt accumulated between the folds of our fingers so did the awareness that the only person who was bothered by the state of our cleanliness had vanished. Now, mirroring each other instead of our father, we reflected slight, cautious smiles.
The wind began to blow with the sunset, sweeping the grass like a wave, lifting bits of ash to the sky, to the clouds and beyond, to the places only our mother could see.
Will McMillan was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where he lives to this day. His work has been featured in The Sun, Sweet, Citron Review, Hobart, Pidgeonholes, and many other literary journals.