A Catalog of Storms

The wind’s moving fast again. The weathermen lean into it, letting it wear away at them until they turn to rain and cloud.

“Look there, Sila.” Mumma points as she grips my shoulder.

Her arthritis-crooked hand shakes. Her cuticles are pale red from washwater. Her finger makes an arc against the sky that ends at the dark shadows on the cliffs.

“You can see those two, just there. Almost gone. The weather wouldn’t take them if they weren’t wayward already, though.” She tsks. “Varyl, Lillit, pay attention. Don’t let that be any of you girls.”

Her voice sounds proud and sad because she’s thinking of her aunt, who turned to lightning.

The town’s first weatherman.

The three of us kids stare across the bay to where the setting sun’s turned the cliff dark. On the edge of the cliff sits an old mansion that didn’t fall into the sea with the others: the Cliffwatch. Its turrets and cupolas are wrapped with steel cables from the broken bridge. Looks like metal vines grabbed and tethered the building to the solid part of the jutting cliff.

All the weathermen live there, until they don’t anymore.

“They’re leaned too far out and too still to be people.” Varyl waves Mumma’s hand down.

Varyl always says stuff like that because…

“They used to be people. They’re weathermen now,” Lillit answers.

…Lillit always rises to the bait.

“”You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Varyl whispers, and her eyes dance because she knows she’s got her twin in knots, wishing to be first and best at something. Lillit is always second at everything.

Mumma sighs, but I wait, ears perked, for whatever’s coming next because it’s always something wicked. Lillit has a fast temper.

But none of us are prepared this time.

“I do too know. I talked to one, once,” Lillit yells and then her hand goes up over her mouth, just for a moment, and her eyes look like she’d cut Varyl if she thought she’d get away with it.

And Mumma’s already turned and got Lillit by the ear. “You did what.” Her voice shudders. “Varyl, keep an eye out.”

Some weathermen visit relatives in town, when the weather is calm. They look for others like them, or who might be. When they do that, mothers hide their children.

Mumma starts to drag Lillit on home. And just then a passing weatherman starts to scream by the fountain as if he’d read Mumma’s weather, not the sky’s.

When weathermen warn about a squall, it always comes. Storms aren’t their fault, and they’ll come anyway. The key is to know what kind of storm’s coming and what to do when it does. Weathermen can do that.

For a time.

I grab our basket of washing. Mumma and Varyl grab Lillit. We run as far from the fountain as fast as we can, before the sky turns ash-grey and the searing clouds—the really bad kind—begin to fall.

And that’s how Lillit is saved from a thrashing, but is still lost to us in the end.

An Incomplete Catalog of Storms

A Felrag: the summer wind that turns the water green first, then churns up dark clouds into fists. Not deadly, usually, but good to warn the boats.

A Browtic: rising heat from below that drives the rats and snakes from underground before they roast there. The streets swirl with them, they bite and bite until the browtic cools. Make sure all babies are well and high.

A Neap-Change: the forgotten tide that’s neither low nor high, the calmest of waters, when what rests in the deeps slowly slither forth. A silent storm that looks nothing like a storm. It looks like calm and moonlight on water, but then people go missing.

A Glare: a storm of silence and retribution, with no forgiveness, a terror of it, that takes over a whole community until the person causing it is removed. It looks like a dry wind, but it’s always some person that’s behind it.

A Vivid: that bright sunlit rainbow-edged storm that seduces young women out into the early morning before they’ve been properly wrapped in cloaks. The one that gets in their lungs and makes them sing until they cry, until they can only taste food made of honey and milk and they grow pale and glass-eyed. Beware vivids in spring for the bride’s sake.

A Searcloud: heated air so thick it blinds as it wraps charred arms around those it catches, then billows in the lungs, scorching words from their sounds, memories from their bearers. Often followed by sorrow, searclouds are best avoided, run through at top speed, or never named.

An Ashpale: thick, gathering clouds from the heights, where the ice forms. When it leaves, everything in its path is slick and frozen. Scream it away if you can, before your breath freezes too.

The Cliffwatch is broken now, its far wall tumbled half down to the ocean so that every room ends in water.

We go up there a lot to poke around now that we’re older.

After that Searcloud passed, Mumma searched through our house until she found Lillit’s notes—her name wasn’t on them, but we’d know her penmanship anywhere. Since she’s left-handed and it smears, whether chalk or ink. My handwriting doesn’t smear. Nor Varyl’’s.

The paper—a whole sheet!—was crammed into a crack in the wall behind our bed. I rubbed the thick handmade weave of it between my fingers, counting until Mumma snatched it away again.

Lillit had been making up storms, five of them already, mixing them in with known weather. She’d been practicing.

Mumma shrieked at her, as you could imagine. “You don’t want this. You don’t want it.”

I ducked behind Varyl, who was watching, wide-eyed. Everyone’s needed for battle against the storms, but no one wants someone they love to go.

And Lillit, for the first time, didn’t talk back. She stood as still as a weatherman. She did want it.

While we ran to her room to help her pack, Mumma wept.

The Mayor knocked when it was time to take Lillit up the cliff. “Twice in your family! Do you think Sila too? Or Varyl?” He looked eagerly around Mumma’s wide frame at us. “A great honor!”

“Sila and Varyl don’t have enough sense to come out of the rain, much less call storms,” Mumma said. She bustled the Mayor from the threshold and they flanked Lillit, who stepped forward without a word, her face already saying “up,” even as her feet crunched the gravel down.

Mumma left her second-eldest daughter inside the gates and didn’t look back, as is right and proper.

She draped herself in honor until the Mayor left, so no one saw her crying but me and that’s because I know Mumma better than she thinks I do.

I know Lillit too.

Being the youngest doesn’t have many advantages, but this one is worth all the rest: everyone forgets you’re there. If you’re watchful, you can learn a lot.

Here are a few:

I knew Lillit could hear wind and water earlier than everyone else.

I know Varyl is practicing in her room every night trying to catch up.

I know Mumma’s cried herself to sleep more than once and that Varyl wishes she were sleet and snow, alternately. That neither one know what Lillit will turn into when she goes.

And I know, whether Lillit turns to clouds or rain, that I’ll be next, not Varyl. Me.

And that maybe someone will cry over me.

I already started making lists. I’ll be ready.

Mumma goes up to the Cliffwatch all the time.

“You stay,” she says to Varyl and me. But I follow, just close enough that I see Lillit start to go all mist around the edges, and Momma shake her back solid, crying.

Weathermen can’t help it, they have to name the storms they think of, and soon they’re warning about the weather for all of us, and eventually they fight it too.

While Mumma and I are gone, the Mayor comes by our house and puts a ribbon on our door. We get extra milk every Tuesday.

That doesn’t make things better, in the end. Milk isn’t a sister.

“The weather gets them and gets them,” Mumma’s voice is proud and sad when she returns. From now on, she won’t say “wayward,” won’t hear anyone speak of Lilit nor her aunt as a cautionary tale. “We scold because of our own selfishness,” she says. “We don’t want them to change.” Her aunt went gone a long time ago.

We all visit Lillit twice, early on. Once, sweeping through town after a squall. Another time, down near the fishing boats, where the lightning likes to play. She saved a fisherman swept out to sea, by blowing his boat back to safe harbor.

We might go more often, but Mumma doesn’t want us to catch any ideas.

A basket of oysters appears outside our door. Then a string of smoked fish.

When storms come, weathermen name it away. Yelling works too. So does diving straight into it and shattering it, but you can only do that once you’ve turned to wind and rain.

Like I said, storms would come anyway. When we know what to call them, we know how to fight them. And we can help the weathermen, Mumma says after Lillit goes, so they don’t wear themselves out.

Weathermen give us some warning. Then we all fight back against the air.

“The storms got smarter than us,” Varyl whispers at night when we can’t sleep for missing her twin, “after we broke the weather. The wind and rain got used to winning. They liked it.”

A predator without equal, the weather tore us to pieces after the sky turned grey and the sea rose.

Some drowned or were lost in the winds. Others fled, then gathered in safe places and hunkered down. Like in our town. Safe, cliffs on all sides, a long corridor we can see the ocean coming for miles.

Ours was a holiday place, once, until people started turning into weather too. Because the sky and the very air were broken, Varyl says.

Soon we stopped losing our treasures to the wind. Big things first: Houses stayed put. The hour hand for the clock stayed on the clock tower. Then little things too, like pieces of paper and petals. I wasn’t used to so many petals staying on the trees.

The wind hadn’t expected its prey to practice, to fight back.

When the weather realized, finally, that it was being named and outsmarted, then the wind started hunting down weathermen. Because a predator must always attack.

But the weathermen? Sometimes when they grow light enough, they lift into the clouds and push the weather back from up high.

“And through the hole they leave behind,” Varyl whispers. Half asleep, I can barely hear her. “You can see the sky, blue as the denim our old dress might have been, once.”

The Cliffwatch is broken now, its roof gaping wide as if the grey sky makes better shelter.

We climb over the building like rats, looking for treasure. For a piece of her.

We peer out at the ocean through where the walls used to be. We steal through a house that’s leaned farther out over the water since the last time we came, a house that’s grown loud in asking the wind to send its emptied frame into the sea.

Varyl stands watch, alone, always now. She’s silent. She misses Lillit most.

Mumma and I collect baskets of hinges and knobs, latches and keyholes. People collect them, to remember. Some have storms inscribed around their edges: a Cumulous—which made the eardrums ring and then burst; a Bitter—where the wind didn’t stop blowing until everyone fought.

“She learned them for us, Mumma,” I whisper, holding an embroidered curtain. My fingers work the threads, turning the stitches into list of things I miss about Lillit: her laugh, her stubborn way of standing, her handwriting. How she’d brush my hair every morning without yanking, like Varyl does now.

Mumma doesn’t shush me anymore. Her eyes tear up a little. “Sila, I remember before the storms, when half the days were sunny. When the sky was blue.” She coughs and puts a grey ribbon in my basket. “At least, I remember people talking like that, about a blue sky.”

I’m wearing Varyl’s hand-me-down dress, it’s denim, and used to be blue too; a soft baby blue when it belonged to my sister; a darker navy back when it was Mumma’s long coat.

Now the grey bodice has winds embroidered on it, not storms. Varyl did the stitching. The dress says: felrag, mistral, lillit, föhn, in swirling white thread.

The basket I hold is made of grey and white sticks; my washing basket most days. Today it is a treasure basket. We are collecting what the weather left us.

Mumma gasps when she tugs up a floorboard to find a whole catalog of storms beaten into brass hinges.

We’ve found catalogs before, marked in pinpricks on the edge of a book and embroidered with tiny stitches in the hem of a curtain, but never so many. They sell well at market, as people think they’re lucky.

Time was, if you could name a storm, you could catch it, for a while. Beat it.

If it didn’t catch you first.

So the more names in the catalog, the luckier they feel.

We’ve never sold Lillit’s first catalog. That one’s ours.

After Lillit goes, I try naming storms.

A Somanyquestions: the storm of younger sisters, especially. There is nothing you can do about it.

A Toomuchtoofast: that storm that plagues mothers sometimes. Bring soothing cakes and extra hands for holding things and folding things.

A Leaving: that rush when everything swoops up in dust and agitation and what’s left is scoured. Prepare to bolt your doors so you don’t lose what wants to be lost.

When I sneak up to the Cliffwatch to show my sister, she’s got rain for hair and wind in her eyes, but she hugs me and laughs at my list and says to keep trying.

Mumma never knows how often I visit her.

“Terrible storms, for years,” Varyl tells it, “snatched people straight from their houses. Left columns of sand in the chairs, dragged weeds through the bedding.”

But then we happened, right back at the weather. I know this story. And the battle’s gone on for a while.

Long before Lillit and Varyl and I were born, the Mayor’s son shouted to the rain to stop before one of her speeches. And it did. Mumma’s aunt at the edge of town yelled back lightning once.

The weather struck back: a whole family became a thick grey mist that filled their house and didn’t disperse.

Then Mumma’s aunt and the Mayor’s son shouted weather names when storms approached. At first it was frightening, and people stayed away. Then the Mayor realized how useful, how fortunate. Put them up at the Cliffwatch, to keep them safe.

Then the news crier, she went out one day and saw snow on her hand—a single, perfect flake. The day was warm, the sky clear, trees were budding and ready to make more trees and she lifted the snowflake to her lips and whirled away.

The town didn’t know what to think. We’d been studying the weather that became smarter than us. We’d gotten the weather in us too, maybe.

Mumma’s aunt turned to lightning and struck the clouds. Scattered them.

Right after that, the ocean grabbed the bluff and ripped it down. Left the Cliffwatch tilted over the ocean, but the people who’d got the weather in them didn’t want to leave.

That was the battle—had been already, but now we knew it was a fight—the weathermen yelling at the weather, to warn us before the storms caught them too. The parents yelling at their kids to stay out of the rain. Out of the Cliffwatch.

But I’d decided. I’d go when my turn came.

Because deciding you needed to do something was always so much better than waking up to find you’d done it.

Mumma’s aunt had crackled when she was angry; the Mayor’s son was mostly given to dry days and wet days until he turned to squall one morning and blew away.

The storms grew stronger. The bigger ones lasted weeks. The slow ones took years. At market, we heard whispers: a few in town worried the storms fed on spent weathermen. Mumma hated that talk. It always followed a Searcloud.

Sometimes, storms linked together to grow strong: Ashpales and Vivids and Glares.

I lied when I said Mumma never looked back. I saw her do it.

She wasn’t supposed to but the Mayor had walked on and she turned and I watched her watch Lillit with a hunger that made me stomp out the gate.

Returning to the Cliffwatch is worse than looking back. Don’t tell anyone but she does that in secret. All the time.

She doesn’t visit then. She stands outside the gates in the dark when she can’t sleep, draped in shadows so no one will see her, except maybe Lillit. I sneak behind her, walking in her footsteps so nothing crunches to give me away.

I see her catch Lillit in the window of the Cliffwatch now and then. See Lillit lift a hand and curl it. See Mumma match the gesture and then Lillit tears away.

Mumma doubles her efforts to lure Lillit back. She leaves biscuits on the cliff’s edge. Hair ribbons, “in case the wind took Lillit’s from her.”

She forgets to do the neighbors’ laundry, twice, until they ask someone else. We stay hungry for a bit, then Varyl goes after the washing.

Up in the old clock tower in town where a storm took the second and minute hands but left the hour, a weatherman starts shouting about a Clarity.

Mumma starts running towards the cliff, but not for safety.

Varyl and I go screeching after her, a different kind of squall, beating against the weather, up to the Cliffwatch.

A Secret Catalog of Storms

A Loss That’s Probably Your Fault: a really quiet storm. Mean too. It gets smaller and smaller until it tears right through you.

A Grieving: this one sneaks up on mothers especially and catches them off guard. Hide familiar things that belong to loved ones, make sure they can’t surprise anyone. A lingering storm.

An I Told You Not To, Sila: an angry storm, only happens when someone finds your lists. The kind that happens when they burn the list so that no one will know you’re catching wayward.

The biggest storm yet hits when we’re almost done running.

We’re near the top of the cliff, the big old house in our sights, and bam, the Clarity brings down torrents of bright-lit rain that makes the insides of our ears hurt. Breathing sears our lungs and we can’t tell if that’s from the running or the storm. And then the storm starts screeching, tries to pull our hair, drag us over the cliff.

We try to shelter in the Cliffwatch.

The wind hums around us, the ice starts blueing our cheeks, Varyl’s teeth start chattering and then stop, and oh let us in, I cry. Don’t be so stubborn.

Varyl pounds on the door.

But this time, the door doesn’t open for Varyl. The door doesn’t mind Mumma either, no matter how hard she pounds.

Only when I crawl through the freeze, around to the cliff’s edge and yell, something turns my way, blows the shutters open. I pull my family through, even Mumma, who is trying to stay out in the wind, trying to make it take her too.

We get inside the Cliffwatch and shake ourselves dry. “That Clarity had an Ashpale on the end of it,” I say. I’m sure of it. “There’s a Bright coming.”

So many storms, all at once, and I know their names. They are ganging up against us.

I want to fight.

Varyl stares at me, shouts for Mumma, but Mumma’s searching the rooms for Lillit.

“We can’t stay here and lose Sila too,” Varyl says. She turns to me. “You don’t want this.”

But I do, I think. I want to fight the weather until it takes me too.

And maybe Mumma wants it also.

Varyl clasps my hand, and Mumma’s, the minute the weather stops howling. She drags us both back to our house, through the frozen wood, across the square, past the frozen fountain. Our feet crunch ice into petals that mark our path. Varyl’s shouting at Mumma. She’s shaking her arm, which judders beneath her shirt, all the muscles loose and swingy, but the part of Mumma at the end of the arm doesn’t move. Because she saw what I saw, she saw Lillit begin to blow, saw her hair rise and flow, and her fingers and all the rest of her with it, out to face the big storm, made of Ashpale and Vivid and Glare and Clarity.

That was the last time we saw Lillit’s face in any window. Mumma had brought ribbons but those blew away. Now sometimes she scatters petals for Lillit to play with.

Climbing the remains of the Cliffwatch later, we find small storms in corners, a few dark clouds. You can put them in jars now and take them home, watch until the lightning fades.

Sometimes they don’t fade, these pieces of weather. The frozen water that doesn’t thaw. A tiny squall that rides your shoulder until you laugh.

They’re still here, just lesser, because the weather is less too.

That day, all the storms spilled over the bay at once, fire from below and lightning and the green clouds and the grey. That day, the weathermen rose up into the wind and shouted until they were raw and we hid, and the storms shouted back—one big storm where there had been many smaller ones—and it dove for the town, the Cliffwatch, the few ships in the harbor.

And the weathermen hung from the cliff house and some of them caught the wind. Some of them turned to rain. Some to lightning. Then they all struck back together. The ones who already rode the high clouds too.

We wanted to help, I could feel the clouds tugging at my breath, but some of the winds beat at our cheeks and the rain struck our faces, pushing us back. And the terrible storms couldn’t reach us, couldn’t take us.

Instead, the Cliffwatch cracked and the clouds and the wind swept it all up back into the sky where it had come from long ago.

Later, we walked home. A spot of blue sky opened up and just as suddenly disappeared. A cool breeze crossed my face and I felt Lillit’s fingers in it.

A hero is more than a sister. And less.

The milk keeps coming, but the fish doesn’t.

The weathermen are in the clouds now. Varyl says they keep the sky blue and the sea green and the air clear of ice.

We climb into the Cliffwatch sometimes to find the notes and drawings, the hinges and papers and knobs. We hold these tight, a way to touch the absences. We say their names. We say, they did it for us. They wanted to go.

With the wind on my skin and in my ears, I still think I could blow away too if I wished hard enough.

Mumma says we don’t need weathermen as much anymore.

Sometimes a little bit of sky even turns blue on its own.

Still, we hold their catalogs close: fabric and metal; wind and rain.

We try to remember their faces.

At sunset, Mumma goes to the open wall facing the ocean.

“You don’t need to stay,” she says, stubborn, maybe a little selfish.

But there she is so there I am beside her and soon Varyl also.

All of us, the sunset painting our faces bright. And then, for a moment before us out over the sea, there she is too, our Lillit, blowing soft against our cheeks.

We stretch out our arms to hug her and she weaves between them like a breath.

(Editors’ Note: “A Catalog of Storms,” is read by Erika Ensign and Fran Wilde is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast 26A.)

Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been finalists for three Nebula awards, two Hugo Awards, and a World Fantasy Award. They include her Andre Norton- and Compton Crook-winning debut novel, Updraft (Tor, 2015); its sequels, Cloudbound and Horizon; the middle-grade novel Riverland (forthcoming from Abrams in April 2019); and the novelette “The Jewel and Her Lapidary.” Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, and the 2017 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” which appeared in Uncanny, was a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award, and won the 2018 Eugie Foster Memorial Award. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at franwilde.net.

photo by Kyle Cassidy

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