Rainstorm, North Dakota

There is, in your past, a road that hugs the sea: a transcontinental highway that you can pick up or leave at any time, made not of on-ramps and off-ramps but of uncontrolled crossings and stoplights you are free to turn at, drive through, or ignore entirely.

The ocean it caresses is the Pacific, wrongly named as it is anything but: a churlish, riotous nightmare full of clicking sea monsters and tumbling currents of suspended garbage carried by the tides to Point Nemo, the farthest spot from land, where it foams so thick it almost becomes walkable. It is a human oasis in an untameable landscape. Here, though, on the coast, its fingers grope clumsily at the dunes, press themselves slowly into the rocks. This, here, is what they want: this is the biggest challenge, the unconquerable frontier, the virgin world that says no and no and no.

There is, in your present, a storm. A common storm to someone, perhaps, whose capacious thunder leaves plenty of room for meadowlarks to yaw between turrets of rain. Perhaps it comes once a month, perhaps once a day, but it is, to be clear, common.

There are, in fact, two storms: one is cold, one is warm. One rises, one sinks. When they meet, the wind turns upward to heaven. When it turns, it begins to narrow and spin. 

In your present, the sky is green. In your present, the sidereal canopy of stars you’d fallen asleep to has been covered like clocks and mirrors before a funeral. In your present, you are in a tent. In your present, you are terrified.

No one expects a tornado except the people who are used to them. There are stories everywhere of relaxed Midwesterners who pull up onto their patios to watch the run-up to a storm, who listen to the sirens blare and watch the sky churl the way in yesteryear they might have parked a Chevy in front of a drive-in theater. If the blockbuster busts up the block, it’s not too high a price to pay.

But you, no, you’ve set up a tent, a little plastic, vinyl, cheap tent that’s blue and gray and nailed to the floor with thin aluminum pins. You crawled into it to fall asleep, just a few hours earlier, covered in constellations. A cool breeze nibbled off the hot evening air. A wide canyon was your only neighbor, the only clamorsuch as it wasbeing the shuffling hooves of wild horses hundreds of feet below. The canyon was carved when the river made a wrong turn a million years before and decided, stubbornly, never to double back. You’d been there, in paradise found, since mid-morning. You’d fallen asleep, you were sure, in Eden before the apples.

When the storm comes, it comes quickly: as fast as the horses dashing into the brush below, as fast as memory. It’s an ecstasy of smell: soil tilled up from miles away, all rush and brush and oil. The sky quickens into emerald. The wind begins to wrap at the flaps of your tiny plastic pyramid. The breeze turns freezing.

You are in love. Maybe. Probably. Surely. Maybe not. Who knows? You’re in love and you’re in Mexico, and at times it’s hard to tell the difference. 

You’re on the transcontinental highway that hugs the Pacific, in a car that is held together only by magical mechanics: it would have been condemned in any other nation, but here it begs a premium. It functions, and that’s enough. It’s been a long afternoon of hot little towns and small meals, of dropping in on overhawked ruins that amount to not much more than a couple rocks or an etching that could have been left six or sixty thousand weeks ago. 

You pull in, on a lark, into a half-eroded hotel built in more hopeful times, pressed into a beach that is almost inaccessible, steeply set under a rock face that’s got far more kelp than footprints. Its optimistic ambition has been exceeded by vulgar reality: the paint has been lapped off by the coarse tongue of salted wind; the cement is cracked, the staff is perpetually on break. Small burn marks mar the roof; who knows how many storms have cracked lightning into it.

You are in love and it is beautiful; perhaps the only guests there, you are shown to a room with nothing outside it but five thousand miles of ocean, a little balcony hanging forward out of it and over the cliffs. You bicker to keep the doors wide open for the night and both fall asleep on top of the now-sweaty sheets. 

You screw your courage to the sticking place, and decide to stay. Green sky or no, storm or no, there is no better option: the closest town is an hour away, in the dark, on an awful gutted road. You’d just trade one calamity, you think, for another.

The day before, you’d seen another tornado—a distant, lumbering wisp in another green sky, a state away, that had moments earlier flattened two grain silos. You can see why they love the theater of it: something beautiful and bad that happens to other people. You could feel the pressure change in the air—as it comes, as it goes—palpable to the mammal in you, the thing that has known for sixty million years when to scurry, when to hide.

Lightning cracks brief but bright as daylight, and you can see the whole world in blinding snaps: every inch of the canyon, the curling clouds in the distance, the funnel. The canyon is unimpressed; who knows here, too, how many storms have cracked lightning into it.

Staying, you suspect, is stupid. But stupefied, you stay. You throw a tarp over the tent and, once you’re rooked back inside, immediately the wind begins to whip it violently. You clench the place where soil and rocks should be but instead is just the smooth floor of cheap plastic.

You’re not scared, you tell yourself. You just need to get away with it.

As the storm kicks up into a fury, you lie on your back, not scared, not scared, no, not scared, and marvel at how everything sounds like something else.

For starters, storm-wind sounds like waves. 

With the balcony door open, it’s hard to sleep. The waves roll up and slap against the rock, and it’s the loudest thing you’ve ever heard. Worse than city wails, worse than screaming sirens. In huge heaving thuds, in and out, in and out, in even rhythm—four beats a minute—you can hear the entire Pacific breathing. The stucco walls don’t seem sufficient to hold it back but, of course, they do. The ocean moans in the darkness, and the hotel’s frame creaks and contracts gently in the chill.

So, when the wind begins to thrash your tiny tent around, you can try and put your fear to rest by, instead, teaching yourself to savor the sounds of things. Light rain, you can tell yourself, sounds like crackling fires—logs set up on a foggy beach, built into their own little pyramid, as families on lawn chairs circle them and warm themselves in the thick mist. When the rain gets harder and harder, listen: it’s just hot steak, sizzling in the pan. A warm meal on the way.

The tree branches swing and buckle above you, but no—turn your ear to them. They’re rocking chairs.

When the tent begins to shift, ignore it. As the sky begins to loosen light hail over you and your canyon, remember that it’s actually just the sound of fingers tapping at a typewriter. It’s just a story forming. When the hail gets larger and drops into the rain-sotted earth around you, put your ear to the ground and feel the vibrations, the way the ancestors felt the music of the earth: no, they’re not weaponized sky. They are not rocks. No, they’re cubes of ice, clinking into a glass full of scotch whiskey or, punctuated by the fizz of rain, a fresh, crisp glass of Coca-Cola on a summer afternoon in Mexico. 

When the lightning strikes, hear instead the snap of the sails in the boats just off the Sinaloa coast. Think of the smooth seas that never made even one good sailor; think of the beautiful women lying spread across the deck, the whole world their balcony door.

When the tornado forms, you’ll know. The mammal in you will feel it in his bones. You’ll hear only the sound of a rumbling train but no, listen more sweetly: It’s the sound of two bodies rustling in bed. It’s the sound of the traffic driving down that transcontinental highway that you can pick up or leave at any time. It’s the ocean, tell yourself. It’s the sea. As it gets closer and closer, remind yourself: you’re not scared. You just need to get away with it. And that this is not the sound of the storm. No. It’s love.


  • B. A. Van Sise is an author and photographic artist focused on the intersection between language and the visual image. He is the author of two monographs: the visual poetry anthology Children of Grass: A Portrait of American Poetry with Mary-Louise Parker, and Invited to Life: After the Holocaust with Neil Gaiman, Mayim Bialik, and Sabrina Orah Mark. He has previously been featured in solo exhibitions at the Center for Creative Photography, the Center for Jewish History and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, as well as in group exhibitions at the Peabody Essex Museum, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Los Angeles Center of Photography and the Whitney Museum of American Art; a number of his portraits of American poets are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. His short nonfiction and poetry has been featured in Poets & Writers, The North American Review, Nowhere, the Los Angeles Review, Tupelo Quarterly, The Southampton Review, Eclectica, and The Intrepid Times, and he is a frequent reviewer of poetry and photography titles for the New York Journal of Books. He has been a finalist for the Rattle Poetry Prize, the Travel Media Awards, and the Meitar Award for Excellence in Photography. He is a 2022 New York State Council on the Arts Fellow in Photography, a Prix de la Photographie Paris award-winner, and an Independent Book Publishers Awards gold medalist.

  • NSF’s NOIRLab (formally named the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory) is the US national center for ground-based, nighttime optical astronomy. 1. International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/T. Slovinský. Gemini South, one half of the International Gemini Observatory, a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab, is seen here with its laser guide star in action. Both of the Gemini telescopes use laser guide stars to provide data for the calibration of their adaptive optics, systems of deformable mirrors that compensate for fluctuations in the upper atmosphere which can blur the images of distant stars and galaxies. Software then analyzes feedback from the laser to provide a model for the adaptive optics to map against. 2. KPNO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/B. Tafreshi. For a photo taken at night, this image appears to be ablaze with light. The winding road, which leads to Gemini North, one half of the international Gemini Observatory, a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab, looks like a bright white ribbon. However, this abundance of artificial light is an illusion. In reality, enormous effort is made to keep artificial light in the area around the telescopes to a bare minimum. This mitigates interference by light sources from Earth with astronomical observations 3. International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Chu. These whirling lines in the sky are the trails of stars after an hour-long exposure above Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab. The trails are shortest around the North Star, Polaris, a star that happens to coincide almost directly with the celestial north pole. The different colors in the trails reflect the different temperatures of the stars, with blue being the hottest stars and yellow/red the coolest. The telescope visible above the horizon is the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter Telescope, and the red glow on the mountain is caused by red lights used to ensure the eyes of visitors and staff remain dark adapted at night. Images found at https://noirlab.edu/public/programs/csdc/