The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina

This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina, released by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020. 

Beyond Mt. St. Helens


The rumbling went on for months—earth-shaking, steam- venting. Everyone on edge. The volcanologist on the mountain and the mother of a teenager who had crossed the line from adolescent angst to something deeper and more volatile both kept watch. They monitored signs, listened for subtle changes in the underground reverberations. And even though all the omens were there and they knew the cataclysm was possible, the day it happened, they weren’t prepared.

     The body of the scientist was never found.

      Hundreds of miles east, the mother saw the dense black filling the sky in the west. She watched it move toward her. She said it was a thunderstorm that would soon pass.

      Those don’t look like thunderclouds, she thought.

      She carried the storms of her Midwestern youth in her body—the feel of the south wind on her skin, the drop in barometric pressure in her chest. She sensed the approach of thunder and lightning unconsciously, the way she knew, even in her sleep, the slide of a bedroom window being opened, the sound of soft sneakers on the roof, the groan of tires rolling slowly across gravel.

     It doesn’t smell like rain.

     Everything else seemed to be in order—traffic lights progressed from green to yellow to red, children held other mothers’ hands as they crossed the street. But the advancing peril stretched across the sky in an unmistakable line. On one side, the cloudless blue of morning, the color of a baby’s blanket and a child’s eyes open in wonder; on the other, unbroken darkness.

     No wind.
      If this is a storm, there should be wind.

     She watched the blackness pass overhead until it moved so far east it obliterated all the blue. The sun, too, disappeared in the middle of the day, eclipsed not by moon but by ash ejected from deep beneath the surface, the detritus of what had burned. The ash began to fall, deceptively soft, snow- like, disaster settling in slow motion. She could not deny what had happened: Explosion. White flows of hot gas. Molten rock. Magma. Melted glaciers. Splintered pines. Floods. Mud. Wasteland.

     Screeching tires. Broken glass. Death.

     Maybe you understand. Maybe you, too, told yourself it was a thunderstorm that would blow over. Maybe for you, denial ended when you saw the pills missing from the cabinet. Or perhaps you were the mother who drove, sleep-deprived, to the area under the bridge in the part of the city where you’d been told to look. Maybe you knew just before you saw fire flash from the barrel of the gun. Maybe you felt your bones shatter with the impact.


     The mother went inside, shut the doors, closed the windows. She did not even answer the phone.

      The ash—pulverized rock and volcanic glass—fell all day and into the real night, which she could no longer distinguish from day. Was it OK to breathe? The ash coated cars, peeled the paint the way a burn flays skin. Gray soot piled in the spaces between stalks of grain in wheat fields, heaped in streets, and became imprinted with the tracks of tires of those brave enough to leave their homes.

      She was not brave.

      Inside the house, stuffy with heat and blame, she longed for rain. Rain to cool the air, to restrain the powder that seeped into every opening, to wash it all away, to promise rebirth. When the rain came, it choked on the ash, changed it to sludge that filled the gutters, hardening as it dried. She tried to shovel it from the sidewalk, to clear a path for the children when they went back to school, but it was heavier than she could carry.

      Some people scooped the muck into buckets, mixed it with stabilizers, spread it on plates and mugs and round bowls formed of clay, firing it until it was hard and glossy, transforming tragedy into art.

      She was not a potter.

      Maybe you heard about it or saw it on the news, and you said: Couldn’t she see the signs?

     She saw. She said it was a thunderstorm. Who expects eruption? Even the volcanologist’s mother told herself he was probably safe.

Years Later

     The mother breathes again without effort. She hikes the trail that meanders across hillsides still scarred moon-like from the blast. Some wounds never heal. But she sees growth too. New life. Huckleberry bushes with fat blue-red fruit. Fire moss. Noble fir. Beaded bone lichen. Sunflower.

      Another path winds through green hummocks formed from landslides of mud and debris moving faster than highway speed limits. Alders grow straight. Elk calves live there now, a hopeful sign, though she knows they are vulnerable despite their size and the close eyes of mothers who would put their own bodies between them and danger.

      At the Visitor’s Center, the light in the room dims until there is only darkness. A video describes how theories of ecological regeneration have been affirmed and challenged by surprising stories of life overcoming catastrophe: Understory plants protected by a blanket of snow. Nutrients that rained from the sky—insects and pollen and seeds blown from the north and the south.

      What survived was hit and miss. What grew was not predictable, didn’t follow the steps experts outlined as required.

      No one can promise resilience or redemption.
      To some extent, recovery is a matter of chance.

Lois Ruskai Melina was raised as a city girl before Title IX provided many athletic opportunities for girls. She was an adult before she discovered her love of sports and the outdoors. Melina is the author of three books on adoption published by HarperCollins as well as a book about elite women swimmers training for the 2000 Olympics: By a Fraction of a Second (Sports Publications, Inc., 2000). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the 2016 Best of the Net anthology, Colorado Review, Blood Orange Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Sport Literate, among others. Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs on a floating house near Portland, Oregon. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.

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