The Night the Thunder Called

I inhale. I exhale. Every breath is a consummation with place.

There was a moment when I knew this was true. 

I lived in a one-room cabin for three years, alone. No phone, no electricity. I walked across fields, then a short path through a hemlock forest to get there. I carried all my supplies on my back. I hauled water from a spring on the hill above me. I snowshoed in winter, and lay in tall field grass beneath the starred road of the Milky Way in summer. I walked barefoot, drenched in moonlight. I bled, urinated, and defecated into the soil. A great horned owl flew at me out of the darkness, three times, within inches of my face. I stood mindless, awed, unafraid.  

The night my life changed I was reading at the table by the light of the kerosene lamp. The warm June air turned suddenly cold. Thunder rumbled, cracked, then roared. Lightning flashed through the room like a strobe. Rain as loud as clashing cymbals pounded the metal roof.  Suddenly, I wanted to feel the storm all over and inside of me.

I threw off my jeans and cotton shirt. I pulled the heavy wooden door open, and ran outside naked into rain so cold I gasped. I shivered and leapt down the woods path, my feet slipping in mud and over familiar roots, darkness punctuated by repeated flashes of light. At the gate to the pasture I stopped, closed my eyes, turned my face to the sky, and opened my mouth. I swallowed mouthfuls of rain. As the rain slowed, I ran into the pasture, lifted my arms and twirled and danced and laughed. I lay down and rolled on the slippery grass. I let the rain pelt my back and legs. My tears soaked into the ground as I smoothed the grass with my hands, the hair on my arms and legs tingling. 

I could no longer feel my body. No part of the storm felt outside of me. In those moments, I knew that lightning, cloud, wet grass, heavy rain and I were the same being. 

I was not under the guidance of hallucinogenic plants or fungi or the influence of alcohol. The spell of life had gripped me, and for once I didn’t shake myself free.  

Thunder called me to forget what humans had taught me. That night, my body understood that the risk  bigger than my own death by lightning was not responding to that storm’s summons with all the power that surged in me. 

Everything about this experience made sense to me. But I kept it to myself. The year was 1991. I was twenty-six years old. I could think of no one in my life to tell. 

The next day, sunlight warmed my face and woke me. My wet hair soaked the pillow. Mud caked to my arms and legs. The bottoms of my feet were raw. Still naked, I felt cleansed and clear. Hallowed. Every heartbeat, every breath of wind, every fly buzzing around my head, loudly pulsed with life. I spent the day lying by my tiny garden in front of the cabin, spellbound. 

That evening, I had agreed to care for a friend’s dogs while she was away for the night. I drove an hour to her house, took a long walk with her golden retrievers, then curled up on a futon on her screened porch and slept. 

When I returned home the following afternoon, my neighbor, Steve, a rangy, grey-haired farmer, met me at the trailhead to my cabin, at the pullout where I parked my car. 

Someone was up in your woods last night, he said. I was down at the barn before bed and saw a light shining through the trees. Someone was walking around up there with a headlamp. 

I had few visitors, and no friends who would drop in unannounced late at night. 

Seems odd, Steve. Maybe it was moonlight reflecting on the cabin windows. 

But I knew the moon phase. The new crescent had set well before midnight. And my cabin could not be seen through the trees. 

I don’t mean to scare you, but I thought you should know. 

A little tendril of fear sprouted in my belly. 

A burly guy in the general store always asks me my name and invites me to see the coyotes he’s killed. Another man who smells heavily of tobacco and stale beer once said to me, I know where you live. I just been up there, hunting. And what about two nights ago? Had someone seen me out in the field during the storm? Suddenly, I was not only afraid, but angry. Who would creep around at night? Who might know I was away?

On the trail, all the footprints were mine. Inside the cabin, the mason jar of daisies, the copper tea kettle on the wood stove, the sky blue ceramic canisters of flour and rice on the counter were all untouched. Nothing looked missing or out of place. Maybe Steve was wrong.

Still, I took my heavy cast iron frying pan up to bed in the loft with me that night.

The wind rose as I lay down. White pine branches knocked onto the roof. The porcupine that liked to chew on my little porch trundled up and cooed. The barred owl soughed its four-syllable call. I imagined the great horned owl in the maple tree, guarding my place in this forest. I listened for human footsteps. Eventually, I closed my eyes. I slept.  

The next morning, the charred face of the skillet on the loft floor next to me looked like an intruder. It belonged hanging above the wood stove. I climbed down the ladder with the pan in one hand, and hung it on the thick iron hook. I would not live with a weapon in my bed. 

Stepping outside onto the dewy ground, I felt like I was the only woman in the forest. I stood among  maple tree, bracken, petal, wild bee, fox, worm, coyote. I knelt down and stroked the waxy leaves of wild ginger, imagining their thin gold roots below my feet. I looked up at the hemlock and white pine that made a dark green canopy above the cabin. 

A woman making love to the land, pressing her body to the ground, feeling the pelting rain, and knowing this as ecstasy, was once not shameful and something to hide. Before millennia of patriarchal repression. Before colonization. Before the earth – and women – became things to exploit and desecrate. 

 I remember how white male professors in my literature seminars in the 1980s praised Whitman,  Wordsworth, and Keats for making love to the earth. So natural, for those guys, to see the earth as lover, and then make some poems about it. No one killed them for writing about their sensual love of each leaf of grass. 

That night in the storm, my body remembered the time before women were murdered for the power of their connection to the earth. As I made love to the rain, the thunder, the clouds, and the grass without shame and with intense abandon and pleasure, I felt complete love for myself. Love for my love of the earth that birthed me. Love for the earth that I will nourish in return, with my flesh and bones and teeth and organs, when I no longer breathe. 

 Why is that still a little hard to write? 

Because the history of women who could not live as freely as I live flows in my veins. Because in my country at this moment, the rights of women to govern their own bodies are being systematically taken away. 

I put a birch twig in my mouth and roll it on my tongue, break through to its cambium with my teeth. I lick dew from a new maple leaf on a sapling. I put my bare feet on cool, wet pasture grass.

How many generations in my own lineage do I have to go back to find a woman who wasn’t afraid to lie naked on the ground? 

How far back to find a woman who openly loved herself for the sensual, sexual being that she is?

Like the earth, an ancestor’s body is a place we inhabit, and in my family there was a secret. 

When my maternal grandmother was a child, she had a special, favorite aunt who took a train trip across the country with a girlfriend. She was young and single and adventurous.

My great, great aunt’s name was Florence Waters. Flower, water. Her name evokes blossoms, springtime.  Florence never returned from that train trip. The family never heard from her again. She was twenty-four years old. The year was 1923. 

My mother told me this, over lunch, at a busy cafe, while I still lived in the cabin. In a few days, I would be leaving with a girlfriend to bicycle and backpack in Newfoundland.

Florence seemed to have far more money than she made at her job scooping ice cream at the corner store, my mother said. She had a few boyfriends, nothing steady. She stayed out all night. 

To me, the thought of  a woman in my lineage who left home and traveled at a time when few women who had little financial means could and did, was exciting. 

 Maybe Florence created a whole new life for herself, I said to my mother. 

Not very likely. Everyone believes the trip ended in tragedy. 

Maybe she was pregnant, and left home to have a baby. Or her friend was pregnant. 

That’s possible. Florence was…well…everyone in the family said she was a prostitute. Whatever happened, everyone thinks Florence and her friend got into some kind of trouble that was impossible to get out of. Your grandmother was devastated.  

You mean you think she was murdered?

It’s what everyone in the family thinks. 

I’m so stunned by this, I don’t ask my mother why she tells me this story. Why now. But I think I know why. This story is a warning. 

I will not let it make me afraid. 

Florence Waters becomes my muse, my mentor. I make altars to her memory with river stones, sea glass,   owl feathers, and coyote bones. I write a poem about her. I promise her I will not forget her. I absorb her memory and feel her life intermingle with mine.

It will be years before I think to look up the etymology of the word prostitute

When I do, here’s what I find:

From the Latin: pro – forward, forth, toward the front, public

From the Latin: sta/statuere – to place, set down, to stand, or make firm 

The word prostitute originates in the idea of being in public, going forth, standing in place.

I extemporize. A woman who places herself in the world. A woman who stands in her place.

The fear of my female ancestors flows in my veins. But so does the courage of one. 

Florence, I don’t know where you are buried – at the bottom of a river or a well or in a shallow grave – or beneath the grass in a cemetery full of graceful cottonwoods, with an engraved marble headstone, marking your full and chosen life in a place that loved you back.

But I remember you and honor that you are alive in me. That you were with me that night the thunder called. That I was anticipated by and fed by women like you. In the story I tell myself about you, you fully loved the raw beauty of the earth. 

One day I will be buried on the land where I now live, where the roots of trees will find nourishment in my bones. Where insects will inhabit my uterus and heart and lungs. Where well below the ground, new springs will well up and new life will blossom, fed by me, as I was birthed and nourished by the earth. 

Until then, I will stand in place, my feet cool and damp in summer grass, knowing that here, on this land,   is precisely where I belong, that the earth is who I am meant to love.

About the Author

Anne Bergeron is a writer, teacher, and healing arts practitioner  who lives among the trees in eastern Vermont. She tends gardens and raises chickens for eggs and sheep for wool on an off-grid homestead she built with her husband, where they share their lives with two delightful huskies. Her poems and essays appear in previous issues of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, as well as Flyway: A Journal of Writing and Environment, The Hopper, The Dark Mountain Project, and several issues of Blueline Magazine. She views writing, teaching, gardening, and fiber arts as joyful regenerative practices for the earth.

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