A quarter of a century ago, deeply in love but without much money, my wife and I took a delayed honeymoon in Charleston, South Carolina. We went in August, which was cheaper because fewer tourists want to go there when the city is hot. Having grown up in Louisiana, we weren’t worried about Charleston’s tropical climate.
We stayed at a lovely old row house made into a bed-and-breakfast. Our nicely appointed room on the top floor had been fashioned from the attic chamber and had low ceilings. I bumped my head a few times but didn’t care. Newlyweds smile through a lot.
On our first night there, I was awakened by loud booms and flashes of light. My first thought was of Fort Sumter across the harbor, the place where the Civil War had started with a lengthy bombardment. Rubbing sleep from my eyes as I listened to the commotion, I wondered if the rebels and Yankees had decided to stage a rematch. The ruckus turned out to be a big thunderstorm, its drama magnified as it passed over the water.
The weather that night reminded me that nature can be as powerful as any army or navy, often even stronger. It’s something I thought about as Hurricane Florence rolled through South Carolina this month. Charleston’s hometown paper, The Post and Courier, reported that the city was largely spared from Florence’s wrath. Other parts of the state haven’t been so lucky. Winds and flooding have brought misery to many in both of the Carolinas.
Florence also made me think of Flannery O’Connor, who had figured into my honeymoon all those years ago. O’Connor, the Georgia author who died in 1964, was known as a Southern Gothic writer because her fiction has such strange characters and bizarre happenings. Her work, which I’d first learned about when it was assigned to me in college, led readers to see creation as a dark mystery where anything could happen.
I reconnected with her writing when my wife and I toured downtown Charleston and I spotted a collection of O’Connor’s collected stories in a local bookshop. The cover, dominated by a brilliant peacock, made me forget what a sobering writer O’Connor could be. The book’s illustration made it seem like a cheerful thing to read during a trip away from home.
But cheer wasn’t really O’Connor’s trademark. She could have a wicked sense of humor, as in “Good Country People,” in which a cynical amputee gets tricked out of her artificial leg. But her stories are often about our essential human fragility, how vulnerable we are even when we think we’re in control.
She was fascinated by peacocks because, like nature itself, they could be beautiful but intimidating. It’s a reality we revisit every hurricane season in the South, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.