Saturday, February 2, 2008


There was thunder last night.

There was a lot, actually, considering that it almost never thunders in winter. I saw the first flash of lightning through my closed eyes as I tried to sleep, and it popped them open. Skeptical about the source of the light, I waited...and listened. There it was, an unmistakable rumble. I counted maybe eight of these before I drifted off.

Of course, it was also raining last night. The weighty snow that began in the afternoon turned to sleet in the evening, coating all the cars in the parking lot with thick ice. The rain started later and turned the world to slush. With drops smattering the windows, it almost felt natural to hear the thunder rolling in.

I'll never forget the only other time I heard thunder in winter. It was mid-December in Vermont, the night before I was to leave the state for good. The second snowstorm of the week, both some of the heaviest on record, was just letting up. Everything was quiet, as it is under such a thick snow blanket, and I lay in bed staring out the window, too wound up to sleep.

There was a sudden flicker, and the sky turned purple. I remember everything purple, the dark clouds faintly glowing from the hazy city night light, the plump sheet of snow on the neighbor's roof, the lazy flakes still in the air, right through to the sheer curtains in my room and the white shag carpet. A quick moment of purple and then, low and soft, the echoes of distant thunder. It happened once more, and that was all. Only two, and soft, but that was my favorite thunder.

Something in that roar makes you feel its power. It's like a jet engine, or an avalanche, but those things are visible, comprehensible. You can look at them and see their boundaries. Thunder is elusive power. And because it's intangible, it becomes even more powerful.

Native Americans in northern North America ascribed boundaries to the thunder of the spring and summer storms. They noticed that the commencement of thunderstorms in the spring coincided with the return of migratory birds from the south. This gave rise to the mythical Thunderbird, a giant creature whose wing beats produced the deafening roar.

Though perhaps more tangible, Thunderbirds retain immense power. Whenever I hear thunder, I can't help but picture a flock of them cutting through the sky. Perhaps last night there was just one, lost in the winter storm, beating its giant wings hard to get home.

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