It was happening again — the storm at our backs. The billowy, gray-blue clouds that seemed to grow taller and blacker each time I glanced back, yet somehow remained stock still. Never materializing into rain or bright flashes of lightning. Never moving forward, as if the clouds had been painted there. I couldn’t help but think of it as an omen — I tended to think of everything that way, in omens and signs and horoscopes. I organized each day into good signs and bad signs, good moods and blue periods. If I saw a wasp crawling on the outside of my kitchen window in the morning, then that was an ill-omen and surely my anxieties and fears would be made manifest — my phone would ring and it would be my brother. Or the worst thing would happen, the unspeakable thing that we all carried with us, that my phone would ring and someone would tell me he would never call again.
Back to the storm. Behind us, for a few days now. Each day of our family vacation, the forecast called for thunderstorms. And somehow, each day, the clouds would build up right to where the cluster of salty mangroves met the clean white sand, and go no further. The mangroves, which stretched for about a mile back from the beach and were intercut with brackish waterways that held alligators and huge tropical spiders and sometimes paddle boarders, were what made this place special. I always liked the mangroves because of the way they responded to a hostile environment with what seemed like equal hostility by making their home in undrinkable water and coating the marsh with sharp, spike-like roots that rose out of the shallow water like black fingers. You couldn’t walk through it. You couldn’t plant seeds and harvest from it. It wasn’t meant for me. It wasn’t meant for humans.
The state of Florida, though, is made up of places and towns that weren’t meant for humans. Entire cities are built on land that wasn’t, land that should be swamps, land that had to be razed and drained and then filled with sand dredged from the bottom of the ocean to make a new coral reef of sorts, of mismatched and pastel-toned buildings of all shapes and sizes. Ice cream parlors and hotels, tourist gift shops and chain restaurants, painted in grapefruit pinks and lime and banana yellows, rising from pavement where sawgrass marshes once flowed.
These mangroves were special because they had survived — whether by law or local conservation committee or some swamp witch’s spell, they had not been razed. People often say that the human spirit is indomitable, but that doesn’t always mean good things. Some enterprising developers had found a workaround and built a boardwalk through the mangroves instead, with just enough room for both the early morning retirees and their daily snail-paced walks and the little motorized trams that zipped vacationing families like us back and forth.
We come here nearly every year, to the mangroves, in the summer or over spring break, depending on schedules. My grandfather has a place right nearby, and a membership to the beach club. Both mostly unused by him for a few years now. He prefers to stay up north, and we can’t blame him. It’s a lonely drive for just one man, which is what he has become since my grandmother passed.
I look out at the water of the gulf, waveless and bright green. We are near Clam Pass Bay, and as the tides come in and go out, so does brackish water from the mangroves — disconcertingly warm and so murky that you can’t see your own feet, carrying seeds and debris and rainwater. It creates something of a lazy river as it cuts past a big sandbar — we’ve always called it The Current. And we’ve always jumped in at the start of it, close to the mangroves and their spikes, and let the hot shallow water carry us deeper, reaching for the sandbar, stretching toes to reach the bottom, letting the current tumble us, scraping knees and elbows and then going back again and again until the sun sets and it’s time to catch the tram back home.
My two youngest siblings — twins, younger than me by a margin that surprises everyone but fellow Catholics — are diving for loose mangrove seeds, playing that kind of futile game that only children understand. Like running a trench from the shoreline back to the beach chairs to move the ocean, or digging a hole so deep you might end up on the other side of the world. A project that will be washed away overnight, it’s purpose forgotten. They run up to me, soaking wet and breathless, to tell me they are planting a mangrove farm.
Looking at them, I see the clear blue late afternoon sky, the lazy waves of the gulf, the shallow green water. And behind us, the storm is still building but not moving forward. Unnamed and unmentioned, but how could it not be an omen? How could it not represent our brother? Surely everyone else could see it, the meaning of the storm.
Our brother, younger than me but older than the rest of us. The date set in stone for when it would happen. When, not if.
He is not here with us. He is adrift in a different sea, of jailhouse blue shirts and cement blocks. He will be sentenced soon. He might get twenty years, a prospect my father cannot even bear to say out loud. He would definitely get at least nine. A certainty no one else wanted to put to words. When, not if.
He is not with us, but he was always on our tongues and behind our eyes.
He is the storm at our backs — had always been, since he was fourteen. He was the rain and thunder, the ruined day. The fist sized hole in a plaster wall. The screaming wind, the banging at my window in the dead of night. The ever-present threat — I’ll do it, he had said. I’ll kill myself.
I wasn’t meant to hear it — that threat had been for my father. But I had heard it, could never unhear it, and now I jumped at every ring of my phone.
I look over my shoulder at the clouds, at the storm that won’t move. The storm that won’t strike, but threatens to. I think about running through the mangroves barefoot, what it would feel like. To run into the storm, to feel it fully. But I am soft skinned and I would tear to pieces, and the storm would come for my youngest siblings.
They don’t know what’s happened, or what will happen. When, not if. They are too young to remember. All they know is that before he was the storm, my brother was the tradition: he was the one who first dared to leap into the brackish water, unafraid of the murk or what the deep waters might contain. He named the current, tamed it for the rest of us.
The twins are waving me over now, into the water. They want to show me their work — nearly twenty mangrove seeds firmly buried halfway in the soft sand of the gulf. I dutifully put on too-tight children’s swim goggles and dive down to see the mangrove farm, orderly and neat but whimsical just by its existence. A combination of their personalities, I think. My sister’s take-charge attitude and determination, and my brother’s easy-going nature and still-childlike ability to believe in the impossible. They are twelve, all gangly limbs and adult teeth in a child’s mouth.
I don’t tell them that mangrove seeds can’t grow in the ocean. Instead, I say that maybe it will become a new mangrove forest, a wonder of twisted limbs and spiky roots, improbably rising from the ocean, and maybe twenty years from now we’ll have made a new current. When we come back — when, not if — with our own kids, all of us together, we’ll tell them about the mangrove farm and how it kept the storm back. How the storm never came, how the whispered conversation I had overheard — if, not when — was only ever an imagined omen.
C. Maria Lang works in politics and currently lives in Florida. In her spare time, Lang enjoys listening to true crime podcasts, reading thrillers and mysteries, and baking things that taste way better than they look.
© 2021, C. Maria Lang