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Kentucky & Brown - Emily Miller

When I arrived in Scotland, frightened to be living in a new country, the shades of blue and green welcomed me. I am old friends with those colors; they painted my childhood. In December, the greens have mostly gone to sleep, but the blue skies of Scotland are ever lovely to see.

December 11th, I wake up to a slew of Skype messages. My friend Mariah is assuring the rest of us that she’s alive. I check Facebook for the news. A tornado, larger and more aggressive than Kentucky has seen in recent memory, has striped across my home state like the lance of a devil. My friend Mariah is alive, and miraculously, her family and pets are as well. The neighborhood she grew up in has been obliterated. For twenty-three years, her parent’s house was home.

Now, it is brown dirt.

The first few days of the aftermath, Mariah is a force of nature. She works constantly from dawn to dusk. Kentucky is a kind place; her family has no want of help after the disaster. Trucks from neighboring counties arrive with food and volunteers. My Facebook feed is flooded with help lines and offers for assistance. A local man is collecting tarps and setting them up for free, protecting houses whose roofs now lie miles away. From Scotland, all I can do is try and buy her family delivered pizzas so they don’t have to worry about dinner, but Mariah kindly turns me down; no vehicles aside from emergency personnel are permitted on the roads. Mariah’s reassurances that she is safe are peppered with love and gratitude for every single person who offers help in the crisis. She and her family are resilient, hard workers. Within no time, they’ve salvaged what can be saved, smiling all the while.

But every now and then, she messages me, you get grounded and look around you.

If you pull Draffenville up on Google Maps, the area is green and dotted with the same breed of small houses you’ll find anywhere else in the Bluegrass State. Frozen, pretty, memorialized. Everything depicted is destroyed now. The cemetery has been obliterated: even the dead have lost their homes. There is a Wikipedia page for the 2021 Kentucky tornado. It lists the story of the woman and her three children who got flung into the air, clinging onto a mattress. It has a long string of names of buildings that were destroyed. Not one of the fifty-six fatalities is mentioned by name. Mariah knows names; her neighbor down the street died by staying in the living room. Mariah’s parents took her grandmother to the basement to wait out the storm. Ten seconds later, her father emerged from the stairs and saw only the sky above him. Her uncle tossed his family into a bathtub, threw a mattress over them, and laid on top. A curio fell and pinned him to the mattress, preventing him from being sucked into the tornado. Mayfield Consumer Products, a scented candle factory, completely collapsed with over a hundred workers still inside. They were told they’d be fired if they left. It took ten seconds for the tornado to pass over Mariah’s family, over her uncle, over a hundred workers trapped. Ten seconds.

If you had a list of all fifty-six fatalities, it would take more time to say their names than it did for them to die.

When the work dwindled down, my friend began to feel the full impact of what had happened to her family. Her messages became reflective. Though what had happened to her and her family cannot be described in any other way than traumatic, she insisted she had nothing to be sad about. She told me she found her old treehouse two yards over, dissembled like a gingerbread house. The day bed her father made for her, with its metal frames lovingly twisted into hearts, was crushed like a Coke can. The jigsaw puzzles she had framed on the wall were resting on the ground, free of their frames, yet still assembled. She insisted she had no right to be sad, that what had been lost hadn’t been hers for seven years. Denial pretends to protect but draws out the pain instead. We do outgrow our childhood; that does not mean that it no longer belongs to us.

I flew back to Kentucky on December 13th. There were charities and pop-up support centers everywhere, channeling people’s Christmastime good-will into the families that needed it most. The first weekend in January is traditionally “Friendmas” for Mariah, me, and the rest of our wonderful friends. It’s exactly what it sounds like—Christmas with your friends—and that year, we were having it at Sara’s home. The day before, Kentucky had a snowstorm. My father drove me to Sara’s in a four-wheel-drive truck and had to pull people out of ditches on his way back. While we were at Sara’s, Mariah got messages from her mother. Laughing, she showed them to us. It was the inside of her home; a blanket of snow had smothered everything inside. She said that as a child, she would have loved having snow inside. Now, they had to throw it all out before everything got soggy. Other than that moment, the tornado was not mentioned. Some things slide smoother out of a pen than off a tongue.

It is a testament to Mariah’s husband and her family that they made sure she came to Friendmas. She was clearly finding it hard to justify a weekend with friends while the situation of her family was still unsteady. Mariah left hours after her initial intended departure time so she could be with her parents before the house was demolished. We only had a few days to cheer her up, and she spent that time trying to do everyone’s dishes and clean everything she could get her hands on, under the excuse that work was relaxing. We couldn’t force her to stop, but she couldn’t stop us from helping, either.

I returned to Scotland. On my mantlepiece in Scotland, I hang letters. I like seeing them. Every letter is a piece of how much the sender cares about me. I first wrote that concept down in a letter to Mariah, who was my near-constant correspondent before the disaster. Mariah’s letters usually begin with a thousand questions—have you visited this, how do you enjoy that, where’s your favorite café, how are your classes, how are you personally, have you called a therapist yet—­from which I pick and choose the ones I can answer positively. The rest of the letter is usually diaristic. Mariah hardly had time for letter-writing as she and her family pulled their lives back together, so her next letter didn’t arrive in Scotland until late January.

It contained small references to how the rest of her family is doing. Dad has all of his clocks hung up here, she writes in her next letter, and the ticking noises surround whoever hears them. I think the sound is comforting for Dad. A fragment of home. Mom told me that sometimes she drives to our house just to sit in the driveway and cry. She remembers every moment that happened there and cries until she’s empty again.

Mariah does not cry. Mariah goes to the driveway and screams, screams until her throat aches and nothing is left to give. This, I can imagine. Brown, wiped wasteland, hollow fields and empty skies, and high over it, cutting through everything as surely as the tornado did—a woman screaming. I can hear her all the way in Scotland. In my head, she screams for ten seconds. Filling grief with rage is an old story. I wonder how many Kentuckians are telling that same story.

The indomitable strength of Mariah and her family is not an exclusively Kentuckian trait, but it is one that the United States forgets Kentucky has. The only time Kentucky is noticed is when someone mentions bourbon, the Derby, KFC, or Mitch McConnell. We are a fly-over state; oft forgotten, except when admired from the window of a plane. Here in Scotland, I often pull up a Google Maps image of my home in Kentucky to show my friends how far away from civilization my home is. A favorite thing to do when talking about my home is to pull up the many, many photos I have of the forest, fields, and sky, and then hold them up in front of the Scottish landscape so people can see the similarity in colors for themselves. We are the “Bluegrass State” for a reason.

Mariah writes to tell me that green is gone.

Everything here is just…brown. Broken trees, churned dirt, caked mud, splintered homes. Just brown and broken. Where rows of older, wooden houses used to be, there are now fields of tilled dirt, littered with remnants of the lives that filled that space. I can’t decide if things looked sadder before or after the demolitions started. Right after the tornado there were piles of homes on top of each other with people crawling across them like ants on their hills until sun-down and curfew began. Salvaging. The houses that weren’t swept away looked like cross-sections in a textbook. ‘Here we see an example of an average 8-year-old girls’ bedroom. Notice the coloring pages still taped to the wall.’ ‘In Fig.2, you’ll see the contents of an average American family home at Christmastime. The presents have been replaced with their neighbor’s dresser.’

Mariah’s honesty rings like poetry. I carry those words around with me through Edinburgh. I see the blue sky, the green grass, and I think about Kentucky. This is not home, yet it looks like how her home should be. The colors are right, but the space is wrong. Reading about the brown dirt unnerves me. Kentucky dirt is a color both ruddy and cold. It’s become a profane color, I can tell. Brown means dirt and death and done. Kentuckians help when we can. We offer our hands. My hands are 3,982 miles away from my friend Mariah. I can’t help her, hug her, or hold anything together for her. I’m a writer, not a therapist. I can’t tell her how to process grief or rage. I can’t tell her the steps to rebuild her life. I don’t even know the steps to build mine. All I can give her is words, and words do not build a home, but in my next letter to Mariah in Kentucky, I try.

I want you to do something for me, I write, the next time you pull up to the driveway to scream. I want you to bring this letter with you, and I want you to imagine a house. Not the same house, but a new house, built by you and your family. You and Zac will lay hardwood flooring. We’ll all come to decorate and help set everything up. Casey and Sara’s art will be in the halls. Lauren will have arranged your books for you. My letters will be on your desk. Your mother will paint the walls; your dad’s clocks will hang on them. You will lay out the landscaping, plant the garden, watch it grow. The trees will come back, and the birds with them. Everything you hear and see and smell will be a piece of how much someone cares about you, and that will be what grows.

January 7th, 2023. It has been a little over a year since the tornadoes destroyed the home of Mariah’s parents, and I am visiting. It is Friendmas again, and this year we are having a Regency-styled dinner at the home of Mariah’s parents. Mariah drives us through what used to be forest; most of the trees have bent completely in half. She goes down a twisted road to show us the land that used to be her childhood home. The man who bought it swore to replant all that was there. Instead, he’s been dumping sewage down the ravines and paved over what used to be daffodils and memories. Mariah tells us they’ve called the city thrice about him, but no one knows what will happen. We drive on.

Her parents live in a new house not far away. When the tornadoes destroyed the area, many of the affluent people owning lake homes sold them. The previous owners of this home were friends of Mariah’s parents. Mariah’s parents promised to take care of it, and they kept that promise. The hardwood flooring is new, the paint is glossy, the mantle above the fireplace is handmade by Mariah’s father. Everything is cherished, lauded, beautiful. In the kitchen, standing firm and tall by the island counter, is a wood beam dark as dirt, slightly twisted. There are markings on it—kid’s names, heights, years. Mariah’s mother explains that this is the support beam from the basement of the house that was destroyed. All of her children’s heights are marked on it. When the house was demolished, she asked the workers if they could save the beam. They did.

I think of at that beam while we cook, while Mariah’s mother talks paint colors and Mariah’s father talks deck building. I think about the kindness of a demolition team—this, this, can you just help us save this—and the shattered trees that still show no sign of growing back. I think about daffodils, letters, and snow. How do you say it? I think your family is made from what spring uses to kill winter. I think the human condition is hiding in the butter-yellow paint of your laundry room. I think the profound truth of rebirth lies in making gingerbread in the shape of dragons right now.

I say nothing. I cut out a gingerbread cookie. I think about brown.


Emily Miller graduated from the University of Edinburgh with her Masters in Creative Writing. She won the 2021 Ringwood Short Story Competition. Now, she lives in a log cabin nestled in the forests of Kentucky.

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