by Gayla Chaney
Amanda Shirley, my cousin, claims that hurricane groupies hate her for what she’s doing. “What’s in a name? I’ll tell you,” Amanda confides. “Identity, that’s what. Try getting noticed without one.”
My cousin’s obsession with nameless tornadoes led to her writing The Anonymous Storms Manifesto, which she emailed to everyone in the mayor’s address book while she was still employed as his personal assistant. Those emails, along with a few other aberrant acts, resulted in her termination, but by that time, her advocacy for tornado identity had evolved into a manic allegiance. “I welcome unemployment for the freedom it gives me,” Amanda announced after receiving her pink slip. “My weather waifs need my undivided attention.”
That’s what she said just before she moved back in with her ailing father whose farm has become the focal point for her storm watching. Channel Five videotaped Amanda during a recent storm as she raced outside, armed only with an umbrella and two functioning ears, to listen as an approaching tornado whistled out its name to her: Clara. Clara joins Alvin, Harlan, Rosalee, and Vern as just a few of the identities that Amanda has attached to storms that have recently passed through our community. “I don’t name them. They name themselves,” she retorts when quizzed about specific, storm monikers. “I only report what I hear.”
Sixty human lives are lost every year to tornadoes. Everyone in town knows this because Amanda sent that statistic out in one of her regular emails. “Yet, the nation refuses to christen them,” she stated, continuing her personal crusade. “Unless and until this policy is changed, I will persevere.”
My cousin no longer perceives tornadoes as weather conditions; she considers them similar to adoptable children. She photographs approaching funnel clouds and any destruction left in the aftermath. “I live a purpose-driven life,” she offers as explanation to those who are foolish enough to inquire why she dares Fate to suck her up into a whirling vortex.
“Hurricanes are granted identities, even if they never reach land. Even if they cause no damage. It’s not fair.” Amanda’s eyes light up when she speaks of storm discrimination. “Hurricane Katrina this…Hurricane Katrina that. Blah, blah, blah. That hurricane didn’t cause the devastating flooding in New Orleans; the poorly engineered levies did. The hurricane got all the credit, but honestly, it really didn’t deserve it.”
Our entire family is embarrassed by Amanda’s fervor for unnamed tornadoes. Yet, we can no more stop her behavior than we can silence the wailing voices she hears. Stark and beautiful photographs of Ruby, Boris, Hilda, and Frank, last year’s cyclonic terrors, have been framed and are hanging on the walls of Amanda’s room.
Amanda will eventually be a tornado victim, no doubt. She scurries up and down her father’s fence line whenever approaching clouds darken the summer sky. She listens for the storms to call out their names in whistling dust. When the rain sprays her face, she likens it to being anointed. It is her vocation, she maintains, to legitimize nameless, weather waifs.
Watching Amanda rush out into a storm with only her umbrella and her zeal, one cannot help but ponder the mystical, meteorological madness that has consumed her. I want to call after her, “Amanda, please come back to us!” But she won’t hear me. During storms, she is attuned solely to sounds emitted from the dark billows. Tornadoes, existing ever so briefly in the course of a season, seemingly filter words to Amanda through their windy dirge. These dangerous, yet alluring voices supposedly send encoded messages in trilling velocities to my cousin. She declares herself their trusted emissary to whom they impart their secret identities in an esoteric tongue, which is, Amanda acknowledges, a language only the anointed can understand.