Rain lashed through the hellishly hot Saharan sky, hurling itself groundward with chaotic fury only to evaporate before it made contact with the dying earth. The newly dry air was sucked up again into the wet layer to repeat its journey until the storm subsided.
An hour later the edge of the desert was as it had been days, months, and years before, revealing no signs of having been changed by the storm. Heat shimmered over still-parched, endlessly shifting sands, sending eddies of fine dust into a sky brilliant with unrelenting light. The very air seemed to glitter as sunlight sparked away from the myriad minute planes of mica and silica particles the earth sacrificed to the sky in convective obedience.
Some of the grains of sand and minerals, the spores and bacteria, had already traveled untold distances. Abandoned by winds long since vanquished, they had lain here for days or decades ready to be lifted once again to the sky. Some particles came from the beds of ancient seas and primeval jungles; others were more recent, formed only a few millennia ago when the earth writhed, heaving rock and ash into chaotic skies as it gave birth to the African lands, the implacable massifs and the dusty plains encircling them.
Smaller than dust and immeasurably light, the particles were swept upward and overland, floating westward on the hot winds, taking with them the harsh and timeless lessons of the desert. Without will, without desire, they hovered over dunes as the airstream steadied. Silent travelers, they dipped to the earth and rose above it, blinding eddies in a river of wind, and swept over scoured plains that kept untold secrets, that hid the treasures and the miseries of civilizations long dead.
As they entered the dense, sticky air above the city, the microscopic particles of dirt and minerals, of pollen, fungi, and bacteria, of long-dead plants and creatures, began to cluster. Unavoidably, they collided with the irresistible, heavy carbonaceous particulates that humankind hurled into the sky. Since humans had discovered fire, they’d mimicked the actions of the earth itself, sending ash and smoke heavenward with abandon, dulling the atmosphere, dirtying it.
The wind kept the particles aloft, leading them on an endless, nomadic flight, its mission inexorable, its duration eternal. They’d blown through refugee camps and over embattled lands, embracing the death and desperation that rose in the unholy heat on the fetid air. They swept across wasted fields and villages, depositing remnants of times both better and worse and lifting into their midst both the hope and the destruction that lay beneath them.
Mountains rose before the particulates, precipitating many to the earth, sending others ever higher. Lakes and rivers beckoned, swelling the air with moisture unknown to many of the particles for countless ages.
Some fell. Some remained aloft, continuing their traversal of savanna and desert, plantation and city.
Eventually, the particle plume reached the sea. In a startled tumult it dispersed, broadening its sweep, extending its reach, no longer limited by the boundaries of a landmass beneath it. Like a heat-dazed serpent uncoiling under sudden shade, the pale gold shimmer of dust unfurled a lacy haze above the deep blue waters of Africa’s western coastline. Its elegant leading edge undulating toward the lush distant lands of the Caribbean and the Americas, the golden filigree of ancient dust was visible from space. Thousands of unseen eyes began to watch it, waiting and wondering what effect it might have on distant shores and distant lives.
May 31, 4:57 p.m., eastern coast of Barbados
“Did you cut every one of my classes?” Richard Carlisle—senior meteorologist for a major TV network, professor emeritus of the meteorology department at Cornell, and generally mild-mannered Southerner on the receding edge of middle age—stared at his former student with undisguised disbelief. He might have laughed if his safety weren’t at stake.
Barely sparing it a glance, Richard pointed, straight armed, to the breadth of paned glass behind him. The window framed the limitless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean from the steep, rugged cliffs dropping below him to a horizon nearly obscured by an encroaching, churning late-afternoon sky. Thick layers of cumulonimbus mamma clouds resembled sinister, undulating bubble wrap as they stretched across the water.
“In case you were asleep at the wheel that semester, Denny, what’s brewing out there is called a tropical storm. The sustained wind speed is fifty-five miles an hour and gusts are hitting seventy-five. Does that mean anything to you, son?” He paused. “Let me refresh your memory. A person can’t remain vertical against anything stronger than that. And you want me to go out there—on a rooftop terrace—and do my stand-up? Are you plumb crazy?”
He would have preferred to say something stronger, but there were too many between-shift waitstaffers bustling through the rooftop dining room of one of Barbados’s most luxurious oceanfront hotels on the eve of hurricane season. The island, the easternmost in the Caribbean and arguably the first that would feel the effects of the season’s weather, was facing the upcoming storm season in typical Caribbean style, with a languid shrug.
Twenty-four-year-old Denny Buxton, Richard’s former student and current assistant producer, grinned with the unique idiocy of someone who has seen just enough of life not to realize he hasn’t seen nearly enough. “Dude, c’mon. The Weather Channel guys do it. Hell, Jim Cantore is somewhere on a beach right now getting his ass sandblasted six ways ’til Sunday.” Denny paused. “Okay, how’s this? We’ll tie you down. I saw some of those loop things in the floor that they use to tie down tents.”
Richard continued to stare at him, dumbfounded. The kid was a fool. Unfortunately, he was also right. Viewership spiked during bad weather, but doing something crazy never hurt.
Denny’s idiot grin never faded. In fact, it grew broader. “You want to do it. Holy shit, man, I can’t believe it. You’re gonna do it.” Laughing, Denny exchanged an exuberant high five with the cameraman, who was not much older and no more sensible.
Richard looked over his shoulder at the wall of windows and the dark, glowering bank of cumulonimbus clouds beyond it. The smooth, caplike pileus cloud had stabilized, as the last radar report had indicated it would, and the storm hovered over the ocean, threatening to come ashore at any moment in a rush of wind and hot rain.
The storm would be fast and furious, probably gone within an hour. Not overly dangerous, it would wallop the coastline, annoy the residents, and scare the hell out of the tourists, dousing the hardiest, or foolhardiest, among them who remained outdoors. After the rain ended, the island would return to being steamy and still, the weather a suitably sultry backdrop for its summer season.
“C’mon. Let’s mosey. We’re on in thirty.” Denny and the cameraman pushed through the door, and into the wind.
Richard took a deep, resigned breath and followed them onto the roof.
“We’ll just do the teaser out here. If it gets too bad, we’ll go back inside,” Denny yelled over the howling wind.
“A decision only a moron could make,” Richard drawled under his breath.
Denny squinted at him and mouthed, What?
Richard smiled tightly. “I said, ‘Good idea.’”
Denny nodded. “You stand there,” he shouted, pointing to an open area that afforded no protection from the elements. “That way if you get knocked over, you won’t fall over the edge.”
Shaking his head, Richard moved to his marks and grimaced against the wind as Denny gave him the countdown with his fingers. As the producer’s last finger folded into his palm, Richard flashed his on-camera smile.
“Hello, America, from the not-so-sunny Caribbean. On the day before the official start of the hurricane season, we’re already bracing for a close encounter with the second named storm of this year. In what is already shaping up to be a remarkable hurricane season, I’ll be providing you with a bird’s-eye view of Tropical Storm Barney from the coast of beautiful—” He stopped speaking as he saw Denny’s eyes widen and his jaw sag.
Microphone in hand, Richard glanced over his shoulder. His gut clenched as he watched the bloated, menacing clouds exploding over the open ocean with the unholy force of a mid-air detonation. Furious plumes burst in all directions and the sea’s dark, choppy swells erupted into a frenzied expanse of boiling, churning whitecaps thundering a crazed ambush on the suddenly puny cliffs and the beach at their base, fifty feet below.
Faster than his mind could register what was happening, the wall of wind hammered at Richard, knocking him to the floor and sending him skidding headfirst into the stone skirting wall that surrounded the roof. As unconsciousness rushed over him, Richard remembered the last time, the only time, he’d witnessed anything like those clouds.
The South China Sea in 1971.
Those storms hadn’t been pretty.
They hadn’t been natural, either.
Copyright © 2007 by William H. Evans and Marianna Jameson