New Essay out in Entropy today: The Ibis and the Storm

On Sunday night I read about Hurricane Matthew. It was swirling around the Caribbean and possibly headed north, to South Florida. The forecasters warned that the results would be devastating, particularly for the poverty-stricken, to those with weak shelter. Online, there were videos from space station cameras clearly revealing the storm’s eye, a perfect circle leering at its audience.

*

In high school, my dream was to go to the University of Miami. I lived about forty minutes away, in Hialeah, in an immigrant town that was a far cry from the private university that was UM, and another world from “The City Beautiful” that was Coral Gables. A lot of the school’s allure was its unaffordability, its inaccessibility to people like us. The UM Hurricanes call the heroic ibis their mascot, since, according to legend, the bird is the last animal to take shelter when a storm threatens. Such irony, I thought when I first learned this, that the smallest creatures are always the most resilient.

*

Sophomore year, we were assigned to read The Scarlet Ibis in English class. The narrator has a sickly brother named Doodle who isn’t expected to live very long. He does live, however, and the narrator eventually teaches his brother how to run, climb trees, and even swim. One day they find a scarlet ibis in bad shape, having been blown off course somehow. It eventually dies. To honor it, Doodle buries it while his family looks on, laughing at him. Such a silly boy to care so much, they think as they howl. Later, as the brothers play outside, a storm arises. They run back home and when Doodle slows down in exhaustion and fear, his brother leaves him behind, frustrated with his many inadequacies. Doodle is found dead in the end, scarlet blood pouring out of his mouth.

*

When Katrina hit South Florida, I had just graduated from high school and was getting ready to move away for college. The storm was only a Category 1 then. My apartment complex lost power and because we hardly had any money, a few friends from the complex pitched in to buy hamburger meat to grill. We gathered just enough for a small barbecue. I’ll never forget how the taste of warm food on my tongue filled me with hope, how it felt like God hadn’t forgotten about us. After the lights finally turned back on, days later, we all stood on our balconies and cheered, clapping until our hands burned.

*

In ancient Hermopolis, the African Sacred Ibis was sacrificed. The bird was reared for this purpose alone. In a pyramid south of Giza, Archeologists discovered one and a half million ibises mummified and buried. Today in Egypt, statues and murals can be found of the wading birds standing elegantly, their necks craned, their legs sturdy.

*

A couple of days after rolling through South Florida, Katrina hit New Orleans at an increased Category 5. They were offered no mercy. As I watched the news updates, all of the white news anchors unceasingly reported about the crime and the looting, people breaking into grocery stores to steal milk for their kids. They’re hungry, I kept saying to the TV. What do you expect people to do when they’re hungry? My family was poor, but I noticed that the people on TV seemed worse off. The hurricane had hit us, but it had hit them much, much harder.

As I packed my one suitcase for college, I wondered if this was how the people with money would be like there, too.

*

According to folklore, the northern bald ibis was one of the very first birds Noah released from his ark. For them, it was symbol of fertility. I imagine Noah opening its cage and the bird slowly stepping out, unsure if taking flight was simply a game of some sort, or real-life freedom. It must have opened its wings and soared.

*

Natural disasters seem to have a way of striking the most impoverished places on Earth. When I was younger, I used to wonder if God hated the poor so much, or if wealthy people simply had the better luck. Now, I see it more as a standardized test, pulled out and administered to society and waiting for our response. We fail it every time.

*

As Hurricane Matthew makes landfall and dismantles the Caribbean, I can’t help but wonder if everyone will be forgotten, if we, and our politicians, will fail our poor once more? This morning, after I poured my cup of coffee and sat down to read the news, I could only think: Maybe we don’t feel the need to defend those who consistently go through war?

The Ibis and the Storm


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