When I was growing up, my neighbor always talked about earthquake weather. She was old, her hands as gnarled as the knobs on the oak tree in her front yard. Everyone called her tia; though her relatives had long since moved away she was auntie to everyone. Her family had been in California since before California existed, working at the missions under the Mexican flag long before the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was even considered.
“Mija,” she’d say to me, smiling up into the orange tree where I perched, plucking fresh fruit from the high boughs and dropping it to her waiting hands. “This is earthquake weather. The air is still and the clouds are high. Mira.” Tia’s hand would point to the horizon, and I’d squint against the glare of the blazing sun to see the summer storm growing against the foothills. “Yes, I see it,” I’d say, and she’d nod approvingly. “Good, mija. Come with me and pray to los santos, we’ll keep the ground still.” I’d sit and eat fresh conchas with a glass bottle of Coke while she knelt at an altar she’d set up in a hall closet, rosary beads clicking as she prayed in Spanish for protection. It worked, I guess; every summer, the valley stayed in once piece.
Until the summer she died.
The mass was a hot July Saturday. I soaked through my black dress and stuck to the laquered wood of the pew as the priest droned. My eyes kept drifting to the windows. I never meant to be disrespectful, but the few attempts Tia made to teach me Spanish ended in frustration.
Each time my eyes wandered, they would settle on the horizon. Clouds banked against the foothills without a lick of wind in the air. “Earthquake weather,” I mumbled to myself. I looked around the chapel then, studying paintings and carvings of various saints. I wondered which were the ones Tia prayed to. I knew her rosary beads were clutched tightly in her gnarled hands beneath the laquered lid of the coffin.
After Tia’s body was set into the ground, the neighbors that knew her went with her family back to her house. The walls were still painted bright yellow; the smell of fresh conchas still hung in the air. I stepped outside for a cigarette under the orange tree and looked to the horizon again. The clouds hung heavy and dark, creeping nearer to the valley floor. A shiver ran down my spine and I looked into the boughs of the tree, searching for ripe fruit. Old habits die hard.
The clouds shifted, casting an ominous shadow on the ground. The heat grew almost oppresive; a heavy blanket draped and unmoving. I stubbed my cigarette out against my shoe and headed inside. There was air conditioning there, at least, and cold glass bottles of Coke.
The house felt the earthquake before we did. For a split second, Tia’s shelves rocked. Everyone looked, confused, as her neatly stacked sets of pure-white dishes slid and broke against the kitchen floor. When the first jolt came, none of us were prepared. We slammed around the room like the insides of a piñata after the first swing of the bat. Everyone scrambled for cover as dishes shattered into flying shards and paintings fell off the wall. Somehow, I found myself in Tia’s tiny closet shrine, face to face with her saints.
“Please,” I gasped. “Por favor. Stop the shaking. Please stop it.” I wasn’t Catholic, but if they listened to Tia every day, maybe they’d make an exception for me just this once. The house jerked and groaned; a carved saint toppled onto my foot, and then everything was still. Car alarms screeched outside and dogs barked, but for a moment the ground stopped moving.
In the next four days, six more earthquakes hit, each stronger than the last. The heavy clouds hung against the mountains the whole time. There was never a breath of wind, and the smell of burning buildings and dying people hung in the air. When the ground finally broke away, the clouds split open and a hot rain poured down, turning the valley to coastline with each fat drop.
I live in Minnesota now. I hate the snow. I miss the sun and the smell of ripe oranges in the summer.
I do not miss earthquake weather.