Nonfiction by Victoria Lewis
When the side of Mount Saint Helens blew out with the force of a hydrogen bomb the morning of May 18, 1980, thirty-year-old volcanologist David Johnston, at his post six miles north of the mountain, had just enough time to radio five words before the pyroclastic flow enveloped him.
“Vancouver. Vancouver. This is it.”
As he watched the north slope of the mountain collapse into an avalanche and slide toward Spirit Lake, did he know that his first breath of superheated air and pulverized rock would be his last?
We were eighty-five miles from the mountain that Sunday morning, standing motionless in front of my brother’s picture window. He was holding his baby son. His wife held their toddler’s hand and my husband held our infant son as we watched the ash fall. After all those months of venting and shuddering, the mountain finally exploded.
Gray and fast, it made a faint hissing as steady as dry rain. Snakes came out from under bushes and trees, out of the tall grass next to the fence, and headed toward the porch leaving S-shaped trails on the driveway as they sought shelter under the house.
The air tasted like when you forget a pot on the stove and it starts to scorch. It burned the back of my throat and coated my tongue. As the house dimmed, I drifted from window to window, too tense to sit down. My five-month-old fussed a little, so I filled a tall glass at the kitchen sink. Nursing makes me thirsty and I needed something to wash the taste of sulfur out of my mouth. As the milk let down, a feeling of warmth slurred from the top of my head down my neck, over my shoulders and through my veins.
The grit whispered into the evening. In the morning we walked out under the trees, their leaves and branches frosted gray, an inch-deep layer of fine powder puffed around our feet, and I heard the birds give life to a world muted in ash.
Forty years later summer wildfires, driven by wind and fed by drought-dried timber, yellowed the sky with the smoke and ash. I stepped outside and felt my lungs seize in the hostile air. In the fall we welcomed the rain. In the spring, like stoic hosts, too shy to ask our guest to leave, we waited for the skies to clear. Sitting under the overhang in front of my house, I wrapped my hands around a cup of hot coffee and watched the sun, glaring under rumpled gray clouds, light each drop of rain and string silver beads on every bright blade of grass.
In the weeks before the mountain erupted, fractures, quakes, and rising steam warned of the rivers of mud, flattened trees, and dry rain to come. Now, the oracles of fire and flood urge us to care for the earth as a mother tends to her child.
As I nursed my son that Sunday morning, I glanced out the window at the steel-gray sky. The only thing that felt real was the weight of his head in the crook of my arm. When we were kids playing volcano, we jumped from couch to chair to cushion over hot lava. I ran the fingers of my free hand over the bumpy brocade of the couch and watched the mountain fall around me.
Victoria Lewis lives in Portland, Oregon. After teaching for thirty years, she started a new career as a computer programmer. Her work has been published by Entropy, Madcap Review, Persimmon Tree, The Oregonian, The Portland Tribune, Oregon Quarterly, Teaching Tolerance, Oregon English, and Oregon Humanities.