This story begins as perhaps none should, it begins with a great tragedy, but luckily it does not end there or this would make for one short book, now wouldn’t it? And a bummer of a one at that!
Truthfully though, that’s not really true, as the story actually begins just before the tragedy—or no no not even that is true as the story is in fact already underway, near a small farmhouse in the remote hills of Louisiana. Well, it used to be a farmhouse, back when farming was profitable, but now the only things that grow from human hand are in a small garden out front and in it are all sorts of things, from calendulas and snapdragons to onions and tomatoes, and all tended for quite tenderly.
The same can’t be said for the house, however, which looks as if it wouldn’t even take a big bad wolf to blow down. Perhaps just a small runt of a wolf with no ill intent whatsoever. Perhaps if he’d only sneezed on his way by.
But there are no wolves here. In fact, there’s so little going on we must instead follow the fresh footprints in the muddy farm field off to the side, the ones that lead through a flatwood forest out back and into a meadow of tall wild grass where a small patch in the middle has been laid flat, matching the exact size and shape of a little girl.
A little girl named Ella, to be exact, and to be even more exact, a little brown haired girl named Ella who’s humming a tune—something simple, something sweet. It rolls over her lips like a calm ocean tide over a beach, and then not like the tide, is swept up into the air by a swift breeze. A strange wind that feels both hot and cold.
It wasn’t like this when she’d left the house. The clouds are moving so fast now she can’t even makes shapes out of them, whereas earlier she’d spotted all sorts of things—a fluffy bunny here, a flying whale there, a great puffy city brimming with the strangest creatures she ever saw who knew only how to look like each other and, since none had ever looked like anyone to begin with, all looked like nobody.
An older, more experienced person might instantly deduce something from this, but before Ella can get even half as far as one of them, her mother yells at her from far away,
Calling her back inside, most likely, and Ella doesn’t want to go. It’s not fair. She hasn’t even been out more than an hour. She hasn’t even made it to the river yet, her favorite place to go, and where at the top of the largest oak she can just make out the tiniest bit of the Gulf of Mexico on the horizon.
She plucks a nearby dandelion and spins it around in her fingers. Nothing creates like a nature. A beautiful yellow flower that’ll become even more beautiful when it sprouts a head full of parachutes she can blow away. Except, of course, it’s not a flower at all, just another common weed her father wages a daily war against in his garden. Strange to her what makes a weed a weed and a flower a flower, for she finds this weed to be more interesting than any flower in his garden.
“Ella!” her mother yells again.
Ella pokes her head up and looks through the forest. The flatwoods are a tall and slender pine and looking through them is like looking through vertical window blinds. She can just make out slivers of her house and half her mother standing on the back porch.
At Ella’s feet is a butterfly net. She has caught all sorts of things with it, but not a single butterfly. They seem to know how to stay just out of reach and, as if to mock her further, one now grazes her cheek. Ordinarily they’d never come this close, but the wind’s blowing it crazy. Ella grabs her net and swipes at it and, of course, misses. The butterfly skims the grass and disappears into the shade of the old oak trees.
Ella chases it in . . . and quickly loses it.
The oaks line a small river, which they dip their massive roots into like children do with their feet at the end of docks. Upstream, beneath the largest oak, lies a upturned rowboat. Ella kicks it and it makes a pleasing thud.
Even more pleasingly, a small toad scurries out from underneath. He croaks angrily at her and jumps onto a big oak root. He hops again, only this time Ella catches him in her net. She untangles him and holds him up. Her first toad. A hideous brown thing full of warts.
“I don’t suppose you’ll turn into a handsome prince if I kiss you?” she says.
The toad stares back, oblivious. He licks his lips for no reason other than to lick them. Thin grotesque lines. Are those even lips? She sets him down on a rock.
“Of course not. You’re not even a frog.”
A gust of wind blows him off, but he catches the side and crawls back up.
The tree leaves rustle. The land darkens. Raindrops dot the river . . . the glistening toad . . . Ella’s face. She pulls her coat tight.
“Ella! Get back here!”
It’s her father this time, barely audible over the rising storm. Ella crunches her face. When it’s her father, she knows it’s serious. She looks down at the poor toad looking sadly up at her. He’s about to fall over again.
“Ok, but we gotta hurry,” she tells him, then snatches him up, drops him into her coat breast pocket, and climbs the big oak tree. On the way up, the leaves are so thick nothing outside the tree can be seen, but when she crawls out onto a particular branch a hole opens up. Only this time, she does not see the tiny bit of Gulf. It’s more like the whole Gulf has stood up to see her. Like the ocean and clouds have joined. A massive hurricane! the likes of which the world has never seen. Inland of it, tornadoes spin off across the land like pirouetting ballerinas.
The toad pokes his head up and his eyes grow big. He’s about to croak when Ella drops back down the tree and hurries through the meadow. The sky above is now ugly and violent, spiraling into a disaster. My, how quickly things can change. Hurricanes that touch land can spawn over a hundred tornadoes, forming in a matter of minutes. In this instance, one hundred and eighteen, though the one touching down ahead is the only one of any concern to Ella.
The look on her face says it all. All fear. She runs faster, grass whipping at her legs, wind tearing at her hair, and when she enters the forest—branches swat and cut at her as if the cruel hands of witches.
Ahead, the tornado lifts her house up, ripping pieces off as it spins it around. Hundred mile per hour winds that now take hold of Ella’s frail body and fling her back through the air. She reaches out to her house, to her parents inside swirling away, and
She hits a tree and all the lights go out.