Was this the worst, the edge of the hugest hurricane ever to pound up the coast? She was nothing to it.
Blustery when Miranda went to bed, the wind wrenched her from sleep just before midnight. Gusts moaned in the chimney as Ella, the dog, pressed close to her side. The wind moved into her. The walls shook. Light slivered through the floorboards from the kitchen below. Slipping from bed, she pulled on her jeans, wool sweater, slippers. Ella, a slim shadow, leaped to the floor. At the rear of the house, wind smashed against the windows, swooped into Miranda’s stomach, hurled rain like nails at the glass, pressing out of the southeast, where their autumn storms usually came from.
This excerpt of Blaze Island (Goose Lane Editions, 2020) by Catherine Bush is reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher.
Blaze Island is a new climate-themed, Shakespeare-inspired novel from bestselling author Catherine Bush. The time is now or an alternate near now, the world close to our own. A mammoth Category Five hurricane sweeps up the eastern seaboard of North America, leaving devastation in its wake, its outer wings brushing over tiny Blaze Island in the North Atlantic.
Just as the storm disrupts the present, it stirs up the past: Miranda’s memories of growing up in an isolated, wind-swept cove and the events of long ago that her father will not allow her to speak of. In the aftermath of the storm, she finds herself in a world altered so quickly and so radically that she hardly knows what has happened. As Miranda says, change is clear after it happens.
At her entry, her father started from the kitchen table, shutting the lid of his laptop. Still in his work coveralls, he was not a tall man but feral and muscular, his beard close-cropped. Something rushed across his face, which he tried to hide, and his discomfort made Miranda’s skin prickle, attuned as she was to his every fluctuation.
“What were you looking at?”
“The wind map,” her father said and opened his laptop again. When the page reloaded, the wind swirled like sleet against the blue earth, its green strength darkening to red. For days they’d tracked Hurricane Fernand, Category 5 then 4 then 5 again, winds topping 250 kilometers per hour as the hurricane churned up the east coast of North America, ripped away trees and homes in Florida, flooded land and roads and cities in Georgia and North Carolina, flattened towns. In dismay Miranda had stared over her father’s shoulder as he paced through news sites at photos of crushed and roofless houses, floating cars, uprooted trees, the pictures sinking into her before her father clicked them out of sight.
Don’t look, he kept saying. But she had—at a brown sea swelling through a Manhattan subway station she remembered travelling through so many years ago—
On Blaze Island, they were too far north for most hurricanes, but the ocean water was warming, making hurricanes larger, fiercer, pulling them closer all the time.
“You said the hurricane was moving out to sea.”
“Wind’s come round.” Her father, who went by the name of Alan Wells, ran a hand through his greying hair until it stood up in gusts. “She’s swerved, though we’ll still only get the brush of her outermost wings.”
They had their own power, stored in a shed full of batteries, a small windmill supported by guy wires, solar panels fastened with metal bolts to rock and roof, and their small house, alone in its sloped fields with a view out to sea, almost never lost electricity in storms, even when a hard wind knocked out the town’s. Her father had planted trees as a windbreak, cedars to the north of the house, alders on the slope to the east. He’d insulated the walls when they’d moved to the cove eight years before, the summer Miranda turned eleven, so the rooms were snug, the wood stove pluming heat.
“How about a game of gin rummy?” He extracted a pack of cards from the utility drawer. “And tea, if you’re not going to sleep.”
It seemed her father wasn’t about to sleep either.
As Miranda pulled mugs from the cupboard, her father came close and squeezed her shoulder. “We’ll be fine. We live in a world of wind out here. We’re storm-seasoned.”
It was true. Hurricanes might swerve their way, but ordinary winds on Blaze Island were like nothing Miranda had experienced before coming to this place: winds like a huge body pummeling her body, winds strong enough to knock her over or lift her off her feet, winds that sometimes made it impossible to move at all. Wind had ripped a car door out of her hands, unlatched the storm door, pushed so hard against their house that they were trapped inside. Winter blizzards rearranged the landscape so that from one day to the next Miranda barely recognized where she was, shoved snow so high against their back door that their closest neighbor, Pat Green, had to plow his way down their lane to dig them out.
Long ago, in a rented house on the tip of Cape Cod, in the midst of Gabrielle, the first hurricane Miranda had lived through, her beautiful mother had been the one to suggest card games. While the wind slammed against the roof and threw seaweed at the windows, Jenny Erens lit an oil lamp and seven-year-old Miranda found cards in a drawer, both of them trying to tempt her moody father, who stared fixedly into the storm, to join them.
In the darkened utility room, when Miranda went to fetch milk, the leftover wind from Hurricane Fernand grew louder, a hoarse cry, high, low, a force loud as a train hammering the walls. The wind, wild even for the island, made her stall. Through the dark window she searched for the slope leading up to the vegetable garden, through the saplings that her father had planted over the years, here in a place where there’d been no trees for centuries.
“Do you remember that storm chaser, the one who went from place to place recording the sounds of typhoons and hurricanes,” her father called from the kitchen. “We heard him on the radio, speaking from a shack in the Philippines in the midst of a typhoon, Talas, I believe it was, saying that every storm has its own voice, depending on whether it’s blowing through trees or power lines or over city or ocean. Some sound female and some male. This one sounds female, don’t you think?”
Did it? From the middle of the kitchen, her sleek black body trembling, Ella let out a bark.
“What is it?” Miranda called to her as the kettle switched off.
“It’s just the wind,” said her father, ruffling Ella’s fur. Yet Ella, who had been born in Nain, on the northern coast of Labrador, who had known hard winds her whole life, stayed tense.
In the mud room, Miranda switched on the outside light. Yellow poured onto the doorstep. At the edge of the bridge, on the steps, lay a slumped form. A hand gripped one of the wooden railings of the bridge the way a drowning man might clasp a piece of driftwood or the edge of a raft to stop himself from being swept out to sea. Shock funneled through her as the body lifted his head, black hair plastered to his scalp. No one Miranda had ever seen.
She scrambled into her boots and jacket without thinking, wrenching the sticky handle of their everyday door. Beyond it, the wind bucked against the wooden storm door, held in place by hooks, wrestling with Miranda as her fingers stumbled to release the bottom hook. When she undid the top one, the door would swing open and bash into the stranger. What choice did she have? The hook leaped free, and the door slammed out of her hands, pulling her with it.
She was in the blast. Wind and rain tore at her. Wind ripped through her jacket, her hair, her skin, her mouth. A monstrous fury. Was this the worst, the edge of the hugest hurricane ever to pound up the coast? She was nothing to it. Wind would carry her away, but there was someone else, a boy, a young man, trying to pull himself up the steps to her house. She had to help.
She reached out. There was a tug on her hood, her shoulder, an immense strength wrenching her back as she struggled forward, pulling her into the house while the rain bit her face. Her father. There was ferocity in him, her stern protector. “Get inside.” He’d thrown on his rain jacket, a rope wrapped around his waist.
“I’ll hold onto the rope,” Miranda said, giddy and reeling. They were both in the doorway. Wind and rain swept into the room behind them.
“No you won’t,” her father said. “Tie the rope to the bottom banister.”
The house would be his counterweight. In the first hurricane ever to brush the island, Hurricane Jose, he’d struggled outside in the middle of the night to close the door of their store shed, which had swung open, and been caught, swept off his feet, forced to crawl back to the house, inch his way back. Eleven then, Miranda had slept through all of it. He told her the story the morning after, leaving Miranda with nothing but bolts of panic and remorse. Without knowing it she’d almost lost him, the only parent she had left. After that, Alan had strung up ropes between their outbuildings whenever high winds and storms were brewing.
Now, soaked to the skin, she stumbled back through the kitchen, ordinary and warm, cards and mugs still on the table. There was a howling behind the sitting room door, Ella, whom her father must have locked inside. Miranda’s heart surged into the storm again. To the stranger. Breathless, she tugged the rope around the banister as tight as she could with a knot her father had taught her.
When the rope went taut, it caught the leg of a kitchen chair and toppled it, pitched the table up against the wall. In the mud room, her father was a silhouette beyond the door, wind pouring into the house, rain like savage stars all around him. Braced against the railing, he lowered himself to reach the stranger. Everything in the room rippled and shook. The empty egg basket took flight. Miranda almost tripped over the rope. Her father hauled the stranger up the steps as the wind screamed. On his hands and knees, the young man was close enough that she could extend a hand to him once more, she and her father working together. The stranger’s hand, cold and wet, grasped Miranda’s. While her father grabbed his jacket, she pulled him in, battling the wind for him, dragging him over the lintel.
He whispered something as he collapsed to the floor.
Time grew large enough to contain her father, still outside, letting the wind flood over him, as if he wanted to meet the storm, truly see it, feel it, know it. He was shouting into it. Miranda drew in one long, ragged breath. Then her father too was inside, tugging the storm door closed. Once more they were barricaded from the weather, the dark mud room askew, hats pulled from hooks, water pooling across the floor where the stranger lay, a lime-green anorak slick against him. Cold water streamed across Miranda’s skin, her hair heavy as a pelt on her back. Stunned excitement flew through her. Her father shook himself the way a dog will after a fight, the room still too full of wind for speech, his skin shining. The stranger closed his eyes. Was he hurt, was he badly injured, dying? The clasp of his hand left its trace on hers. Miranda knelt beside him.
“Don’t touch him.”
Then it was her father’s turn to crouch over the prone body. “Are you in pain?”
Groaning, the stranger curled into a little ball. Like a child. But he shook his head and the tremor of a smile passed across his face. “I’m winded.”
Slowly he struggled out of his soaked jacket, Miranda taking hold of each sleeve as he loosened his arms from them. That he was alive and unharmed seemed miraculous. On her father’s rain-slick face, there was an expression of kindly, immense, partly suppressed curiosity and relief. They weren’t supposed to invite strangers into their house. They weren’t supposed to welcome any visitors, at least not people from away, but how could they turn away someone flung onto their doorstep like this?
Catherine Bush is the author of four novels, including the Canada Reads long-listed Accusation, the Trillium Award shortlisted Claire’s Head, and the national bestseller The Rules of Engagement — a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Blaze Island is her fifth novel. Bush was recently a Fiction Meets Science Fellow at the HWK in Germany and is associate professor and coordinator of the Creative Writing MFA at the University of Guelph. She lives in Toronto.
Header photo by Andrey Polivanov, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Catherine Bush courtesy University of Guelph.