Jean-François Millet, The Gust of Wind, 1871.
Alone and asleep last December, I woke to two men standing in the doorway of my bedroom. I saw their guns held by their thighs. A flashlight blinded me.
“Everything all right in here?” one said, stepping into the room.
I held out my palm to block the light.
“Police,” he said. “There was an alarm going off.”
I knew there wasn’t an alarm going off because it had been deactivated months earlier. I thought, This is not the police. This is a home invasion. When I turned on the bedside lamp and saw their uniforms, I thought, Those are fake uniforms.
He told me to get out of bed. I stood between them in my boxers and T-shirt.
“Why are there no clothes in here?” the other man said, pointing to the open drawers across the room. “What, you just move in?” They holstered their guns.
“Yes,” I said. I’d just returned home to Massachusetts after half a year away.
Rain crackled on the roof and lashed the windows. The day had been warm because of a southerly storm shoving up against the underarm of Cape Cod. Out the window I saw a third man standing on the patio, perhaps guarding the exits.
“Come with us,” one of the men said.
The house is down a long driveway on a fishhook peninsula. On one side is the ocean; on the other is a river that shares my middle name. The house is a loft my great-grandfather built for my great-grandmother. Hardwood floors. High ceilings. Wooden chandeliers hanging from wooden beams and permanently covered in a frost of dust. There’s a cluttered centuries-worth of old books, shells, and antique souvenirs and no insulation.
When I walked into the main room, I saw that the overhead lights and lamps were on. The men had been there for some time. I’ve lived in the house since before I walked, and could lead a tour blindfolded. It’s not easy to find the bedroom. You go into the house, take a U-turn to a back hallway, pivot to another hall, and go through a door. You’d have to spend some time looking around for it.
I sat on the couch while they stood over me. They asked in so many ways for me to prove that I lived there. The clock on the stove blinked three A.M. I had an Iowa driver’s license, a Dutch visa, a passport with an old address, and a student ID from a college in New York. The men shook their heads. I thought of pointing out the window to the river flowing under the darkness. My namesake. Very obvious things can be hard to prove.
One of the officers asked my birthday and social security number, relayed that into a radio strapped to his shoulder. “You’re good,” he said, quickly.
“There are two houses at this address,” the other said.
“My aunt’s house,” I said, pointing across the driveway.
“We came down the driveway, and the door to this one was open,” he said, explaining the mistake to himself. “Rain coming in. If a door is open and there’s an alarm going off at the address, we enter.”
“The southerly,” I said.
“The wind. It pushes open the door when the wind is from the south. The latch is broken.”
Satisfied that I wasn’t a squatter, they went off to check my aunt’s house, where the alarm was still sounding. I walked to the doorway, put my hand out to feel the summery rain come down two weeks before Christmas. Thin waterfalls hissed off the roof. The maple trees bucked. It felt like the first night of spring. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear peepers.
After they left, I sat in the kitchen with all the lights off, listening to the storm put its shoulder into the house. The breathy whistle of the wind’s violence only increased before dawn. I went down to the basement, found a screwdriver, and took apart the front door’s latch. But even with all the metal pieces spread on the ground, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. Something with the bolt. I put the pieces back together and leaned a chair against the door to keep it shut.
I made coffee, toweled the wet floor by the door, and watched the sky go from dead blue to dead gray.
Alone and walking the peninsula in the following days, I thought of the southerly wind, of the chances that the gale opening a door coincided with my aunt’s false alarm. By then the wind had clocked to a westerly, churning the sea and scattering branches over the lawn. Then came an icy northerly that laid the ocean down flat and waveless.
On one of my walks, I looked up to the feathery cirrus clouds. I grew up calling them horsetails, and they predicted bad weather. I know the names of clouds, a lexicon I’ve carried around since middle school: nimbus, cumulonimbus, cirrus, cumulus, thunderheads, wave clouds, roll clouds—all freighted along in an unnamed broth of moving air.
Why aren’t there names for the wind? I thought. For these parentheses of the weather, binding up clouds and rain and snow and sun. Only in wind’s velocity do we really notice it, give it a name. Bob. Harvey. Force 5. Sandy. Katrina. Titled in violence, or as the famous overseas giants: mistral, bise, trade winds. It’s not surprising the wind often has a bad reputation—even Ahab, the psychopath hunting earth’s largest predator, finds it an imposing competitor: “ ’Tis a noble and heroic thing, the wind! Who ever conquered it? In every fight it has the last and bitterest blow. Run tilting at it, and you but run through it.”
Yet most of the time, the wind is a gentler and more ubiquitous thing. It’s just a tree rustler. Hem player. As Marilynne Robinson writes in Lila, “The wind always somewhere, trifling with the leaves, troubling the firelight.” Something to put your face to on a hot day. The quotidian winds go unnamed in the shadow of the bigger ones—as if thunderhead were the only cloud I knew.
In a notebook, I jotted down the winds I had known, aside from the obvious ones, like the blustery nor’easter, the locally famous Smokey Sou’wester. There was the cold early-autumn northerly that reminds me still of the first days of school. There was that warm southerly in March, a harbinger of spring that puts you in a good mood. That three-day westerly coming in every season. That directionless midsummer wind, playful and mercurial, as if too excited with the day to decide where and how to blow. The wind that comes at sunrise and is gone in an hour. I imagined whole branches of winds, starting in cardinal directions and fanning into characteristics, just like order, family, genus, species. A taxonomy of winds.
There’s a specific satisfaction in making lists. Frictionless writing that settles the mind. I named the back-to-school northerly Borealis Autumnus Frigus Serenum. The warm harbinger of spring, Vernalis Amare (“first love”). The westerly that never quit, Vesper Robustus Strenuissimum. The directionless early summer wind, Profugo (“homeless”). The sunrise wind, Prima Lux. After days of walking along the ocean and thinking and naming, I had thirty-four types of wind branching out from the compass points, splitting in seasons, wet versus dry, cold versus warm, rare or common, under sunny skies or typically cloudy.
The south wind that pushed open the door that night comes from the sea. Where I’m from, it’s called an offshore wind. It’s a wind that generations of sailors—those New Bedford and Nantucket whalers, merchants, fishermen—have loved. The one that blew them home in the summer. On a downwind southerly, you move with and in the wind, and so all goes still—allowed the same fragile expansiveness of a cloud freighted by wind that would flatten an oak. I fell asleep at the helm while sailing home on a southerly summers ago. I’d draped my arm on the tiller. Let the boom swing out. Closed my eyes. Listened to the water’s cluck on the hull. Woke up a quarter mile closer to land. Southerlies, and the storms they bore when it wasn’t summer, roam through New England’s literature. Robert Frost’s “To the Thawing Wind∏ starts with a trumpet blast: “Come with rain, O loud Southwester!” In the final lines of that poem, he describes the same type of storm wind I heard when sitting half naked with the police:
Bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit’s crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o’er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out of door.
The earlier New England bard Henry David Thoreau seems always to be jotting down the wind’s character or musical instruments of the day. It “roars amid the pines like surf”; “there is a certain resounding woodiness in the tone”; “the faint sounds of birds—dreaming aloud—in the night—the fresh cool air & sound of the wind rushing over the rocks.” It’s hard to find a page in his Cape Cod that doesn’t articulate the wind in degrees of iciness or strength or ocean raking or wave heaping. And often with ranging anthropomorphisms: “The wind seemed to blow not so much as the exciting cause, as from sympathy with the already agitated ocean.” But of all the winds, he pays extra close attention to the southerly, as in these famous lines from Walden: “I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumblebee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house.”
The southerly usually brings warmth and freshness. A change. As Thoreau writes in “A Winter Walk,” “The south wind melts the snow at noon, and the bare ground appears with its withered grass and leaves, and we are invigorated by the perfume which exhales from it, as by the scent of strong meats.”
There’s always a Farmer’s Almanac lying around my house. If I wanted to investigate local winds, that’s where I’d find the best descriptions. Looking through the pages, I experienced that creepy echo you sometimes get in research—the moment when you read a fact that you’ve experienced firsthand and so experience it twice. It was in this old New Englander’s saying: “A southerly wind with showers of rain will bring the wind from the west again.” The three-day Westerly had, in fact, swung in the day after the police left. Of course, these winds had already been tracked. There was likely already a local wind taxonomy, rolled up and stowed in the corner of an attic.
By now I know myself enough to understand that I rarely deal with stress head-on. For instance, instead of first calling the police station to ask if two officers standing in your bedroom with guns was normal or legal, I spent days not doing much of anything, just looking at the trees stirring in the wind, the tussling dune grass, the gulls unfolding their wings and levitating over the beach.
I understand now that in the wind taxonomy, I wanted to know who had opened the door and let the armed men into my house. I was looking for someone to blame. The police, I later learned, can enter any house with an open door. I was searching for a criminal responsible for the week of nights following in which I’d gasp awake at almost exactly three A.M. and look at the door, expecting silhouettes of men watching me sleep. I needed a name.
I found him in the Auster Calidum Borealis branch—warm winter southerlies. Amare Falsus, I called him. “False love.” That warm December wind, cousin of the January thaw. The one that stays for some blissful vernal days and then vanishes before an icy northerly swings around to shake the windowpanes. Coming and going. Leaving you unsure it was ever there.
Ben Shattuck is a writer and painter from coastal Massachusetts. He is the director of the Cuttyhunk Island Writers’ Residency, the curator of the Dedee Shattuck Gallery, and a recipient of the 2017 PEN America Best Debut Short Story Award. His writing can be found in the Harvard Review, The Common, Salon, Lit Hub, and other publications.
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