Horse with Tornado

The son is in the parlor now, which the mother has begun to call the living room because they are alive after all, well, but for the father. As the boy slept upstairs, the mother and the father sometimes made love late into the night on the floor, on the sofa, or seated together in the old burgundy wingback chair. And though it’s just a word, the funereal sound of parlor, well, at least at the moment, this is too much for her. Living room, she says, and it sounds strange—enlivening rather than living. The enlivening room. But she wants the room to be living. 

The sound of rain falls inside the house. The family pet—a giant red and blue macaw—lives in this large barrel-shaped brass cage in the father’s study. The parrot’s name is Charlie and he can conjure all manner of voices and sounds. The boy’s father was a mathematician. Sometimes the parrot will whisper a formula, a piece of proof, some operation, as if thinking aloud in the boy’s father’s voice. 

The study’s open door faces the now–living room. Where the son is reclined on the sofa, reading. He glances up from his book. The parrot in its cage. The rain is drilling down, though there is no rain drilling down outside in the yard. It’s a rather warm afternoon in the summer, and though the sky is darkening out the window and it might rain, the air is still dry. What is this sound? The sound is coming from the father’s study, the boy’s parrot perched in the brass cage. Now thunder booms from its opened thorax, ricochets through a tangled curtain of trees. As with the tenor of the boy’s father’s voice, the storm has passed through this room so often that sometimes the boy forgets the sound even as it surrounds him. 

The boy is reading a story in which a compass throbs like a sleeping bird. The book is too old for him, some of the words and ideas are confusing, but he likes it because it conjures what is hard to draw from the room now, which is the living breath of his father, who would read to him here. 

Because the boy’s mother has stopped calling the living room the parlor now, each time she says living room, the boy thinks of ice cream, a local ice cream parlor, named Atz’s. Long counters, a player piano, tall fluted crystal and the general appearance of being out of time, a thing of the past, an old establishment where many have sat and enjoyed themselves and then later died and turned to ghosts. Like the boy’s father and the imprint of what was once a complete family: a ghost, that imprint. A wax seal missing its original stamp.

The player piano at Atz’s goes silent as the boy tries to recall it playing. Like the rain, it’s here and not here. Like his father is here and not here. Like the parlor. He remembers his father’s voice, a baritone. One of the things that can keep the boy awake at night—and which sometimes startles him awake in the morning—is the fear of forgetting that voice, its paternal hold vulnerable to circumstance, memory, and time. Like a dream that made sense in situ but which goes irrational, irrelevant, cascading into oblivion soon after waking, until it never existed. In bed sometimes he’ll draw the covers up over him like a tent, and shake the blanket so that static electricity creates heat lightning in the warm surrounding dark. This is his father’s voice now, a storm of filaments charged into the dark.

Through the window, out the front porch, there is a caned chair with twelve very tall unruly shrubs beyond, anchored into the old earth, earth dead and living. The cracked sidewalk opens down a path onto a broken street. 

The boy is listening from inside the parrot, its steady tropical storm drilling down. The dark in the sky has gathered up. Across the street, there is a gray house with white shutters on the windows, a yellow lawn. There, the boy counts thirteen blocks of concrete divided by a thin rectilinear cross-band of grass spread out before a low porch. The boy’s father was a geometrist. Often, a very old woman sits there in her wheelchair in the heat. Her still silhouette under the porch is just a shape sometimes to the boy, because the boy views old age that way anyway: a shape rather than a state or a future. The way stars blaze patterns in the sky that are present and not-present. The way stars are millions of years away.

Late August has withered the old woman’s roses and lawn. But what can she do? She sits in this heat and recalls things in black and white. As a child she kissed a girl, once—or perhaps she had more than once. You’ll forget me, won’t you, the girl said. She returns to this memory often, holds it up in her mind like a square photograph, a soft light and soft dark, deckled edges. The number of times she’s looked at the kiss has given it a multiplied, living frequency. Each kiss so real that she loses herself in it, here, now, unaware of her body, her gestures out on this porch. A fear of hers for years is that she’ll forget her life, witnessing as she has her memory in some process of desaturation. As if fading in the sun. But the shapes—the outlines—have only clarified, drawn up, pressing into the present. You’ll forget me, won’t you, the girl says, often. Her voice is faint but her presence holds as if etched in glass.

The boy is at the window watching the old woman in her wheelchair. He sees the woman’s arms reaching out, as if trying to hold something, someone. The parrot rains and booms in the study. It is darker out now and increasingly humid. But it’s still not-raining. There is a barometer right by the window on the boy’s front porch. The boy likes its shape and the memories it conjures, but when he pretends to consult it, imitating his father, the measurement behind the glass means nothing. The parrot’s thunder booms from the study several times, ricocheting through trees with enormous green leaves. The sound’s harder edges fray inside the boy like the smallest filaments of electricity, like little hairs of live static. Yet the barometer pressure remains unchanged, even as the parrot’s hissing rain pulls on some thick canopy inside the house. 

The boy doesn’t realize the rain and the booming from inside the parrot are neither of these things. The parrot is singing the memory of the jungle being cleared. Charlie, this parrot’s, hissing rain and thunder is really that of distant explosives and the sound of fire spreading and of trees falling. 

The old woman across the street is reaching out as if to hold someone. As if trying to grab at the darkening air. The boy finds it hard to watch, as if something wordless within him understands her. He turns from the window. He passes his book opened and flattened at the page he’d let off at. The cover’s blue and black maze of worn geometrical shapes lies open facing up there on the sofa. The boy walks into the study, Charlie, Boom-Booms. Dredged from some enormous space within his thick black speckled tongue, where the boy imagines all memory is stored. The parrot is very old. (The boy once tried to count the speckles on the black tongue as if they marked, like the rings of a tree, his age.) The boy thinks, maybe right now, in his rainforest, the bird’s own family perches, shielded from the rain beneath wide green leaves, their parrot minds inscribing the sound in memory like a book.

Out his father’s study a blind flash cracks and freezes the yard and the big brown garage. As if the bird had produced some ceremonious conjuring of the real thing, like some rain dance. The parrot’s past and the real storm gather and become a single thing now. Memory materialized into the present. The boy counts to four, the boom running up a knife calving earth. And in that count of four the bird watches a spirit of pooled light curl and flex; a bough descends through a crackling hiss, several shadows flit and scatter, a capuchin screams. Cascading forward from oblivion into a material friction. An animal madness. Now the real rain falls outside the study window and steam begins to rise over the grass. The boy is watching his startled parrot. He sees the soaked trunk of a Dutch elm, the bark variegated and wet, an aurora of some green patina bloom tattooed over the bark. He imagined a little village inside the odd fungal growth, his father had started the car nearby, the tailpipe breathing into the wet air, his mother glassy and spectral in the passenger seat, the gray calm of the mist everywhere. The boy came up to the car and his shoulder brushed a wet shrub. It’s nothing, he thinks, that was nothing. Why remember it if it was nothing? In the car his mother said, you didn’t say that. And his father said, yes I did. I did. Forget it. I heard it. Do we need this? Now? Is this so important? Time spun, churning forward, its gestures dredging up some earth of pure memory. The Dutch elm, cut down several months ago, its thick trunk remains where the rest of it was sawed and chipped. But what was cut, the boughs and branches and twig, rise up anyway. We are here, now, the boy thinks. As if only now he and the bird can see this, as if it needed to be said. And lightning smashes outside again, the room awakened, and the boy counts for the boom but the sound never comes. 

There, deeper in the yard, inside that big brown garage, an old Model T is suspended in the air by chains from the heavy beams—what the boy’s father’s voice, still in the boy’s memory, talks about someday rebuilding. It’s one of those things that remain a dream, that never actually gets done. A project that pushes perpetually into the future. Until someday all of it will have vanished; without an accounting; it will have never been. 

Tufts of cotton and horsehair blister from the cracked leather upholstery. The heat and neglect have teased the tufts out. The horsehair has an interesting story, which the boy does not know. It comes from the tails and manes of three horses, alive generations before. These horses once lived on a single farm in Greenburg, Indiana. Their owner’s daughter, a little girl at the time, named them Apple, Bonita, and Fury. Decades later, the three horses would gather into a single horse whenever this little girl, now an old woman, recalled them. And she referred to this horse—composed in memory from three—by the single name, Fury. The Fury in her memory was always skittish, set in relief against a sky on the edge of something. A sky the shade of oxblood smeared in lilac, pink, a deeper gray-green—an enormous darkness and fluid triangle twisting, tearing up the farmland horizon. Veins of lightning produced as if from within its belly, shooting down and out like bright wiry hair.

Then the rain turns to hail, falling white beads that bounce, scattering like laughter. The boy hears the parrot mutter, the production ex nihil of –0, or, in nonmathematical terms, an expression of oblivion. Projected somehow as if from the living room. Would his dad have even said that? Outside, across the street, the old woman is still sitting there on her covered porch as hail tumbles around her. She loves the sound of it, like an old voice. She’s passed through the histories of all the boys and girls she’d ever known. Absences, opening their arms. Even certain strangers who linger unexplained, but linger nonetheless. Ghost boys come and give her gifts—a silver locket, a pack of Bicycle playing cards, a Liberty Dollar—each of which she tucks into a box. Until they gather replicated and spill over the lid of memory. But, in the end, it’s this one she looks forward to recalling—with the presence in memory of seeing and touching—the most. The girl, always, just around the corner, coming up like a smile. A name forgotten, somehow. Mary? Melissa, Marnie, Melanie? As if the most important part were nameless. The voice. Oh, that voice, the infinitude it conjures. The old woman on her porch thinks of that voice and the hail sings around her. Once, during tornado season, she watched a barn lifted from the earth. It rose like a spaceship and twirled slower than the things around it. It floated twirling into the sky. 

Three weeks from now an ambulance will pull up to the house across the street and wait. As if hesitant, unsure of what to do next. The boy will be watching. The weather, cooler. The sky blue and bright. When much later the ambulance pulls out and drives away it will leave a peculiar silence hardening in the dark behind the windows. It will stay there for as long as the boy can remember. It will put strange memories into him, here in the living room. He will have finished the book he’d been reading; he will have lodged away the particular storm that brought hail falling outside the windows. He’ll be onto another book. 

But here in his father’s study—weeks before the ambulance—where the boy sits with his parrot, it is safe. The boy watches the empty space beyond the study door, the book split open on the sofa, the lamp is on, the front window deeper, etched in a gray frosted square. He prefers the parlor to his mother’s living room: it was in the parlor his father sat and read aloud to him, helped him with schoolwork, the quotients and carried-overs and exponents. There in the parlor his father held the barometer’s clock face and explained its numerology of pressures and densities of thin air. And here, still, his father sits, holding that instrument, watching his son, watching the scarlet macaw there. Because memory remains its living gaze long after the dead wake in some other register. The hailstorm boiling outside now has made the room dark and beautiful, a little cooler. Father and son have always liked it the most that way. The boy will remember this, years from now. A darker Fall will come soon. Out the nearer study window, the sky above the garage is of the strangest colors. The bird is quiet and the boy sees that the parrot has fallen asleep, lulled by the hailstorm’s song. As if its tongue had primed some pump and now in a dream the hail and the rain are extinguishing all its animal grief.


David Ryan is the author of the short-story collection Animals in Motion (Roundabout Press, 2014). His most recent fiction appears in the 2022 and 2023 O. Henry Prize anthologies, the 2023 Desperate Literature Short Story Prize anthology (Spain/UK), Harvard Review, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, FENCE, and elsewhere. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and in the low-residency program at New England College.