|Farmer and sons during dust storm Oklahoma. Photo: FSA.|
Public domain via wikimedia commons.
"The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes..."
It never seemed as though they had much, and yet when it came time to take their lives with them, even not enough was too much.
Beds and food, water and tools.
Can I take my books? If he takes his books, then I can take my toy horse. No, only God's book. Whichever toys will fit in your pocket. Marbles, a tin wind-up mouse with sparkling eyes. What about the dogs. Wishbone can go, he hunts. Good to have him as pertection. Smoky stays with the old man down the road. Ain't got more than a season left in him, one more mouth to feed.
Wishbone, hearing his name, thumps his tail with an apologetic grin and then belly crawls under the 27 Hudson and flops down in the marginally cooler dust. Smoky has already taken his rightful place in the trace of mud under the pump. The few scraggly chickens by the shed set up a ruckus; a shadow streaks by and disappears up the stone step and into the sagging house. The cats, never ones to be completely subjugated by man or nature, have been skulking about and eying the proceedings. When the people move on, cats will hunt the mice which nibble the seed from the vegetation which will grow between the floorboards. Doors will drift open, the wind will scour the walls, the dust will find every nook and niche and settle gently into a dunescape. Left in the kitchen are the cracked plates from back east, the dainty christening cup from England, the paperweight brought all the way from Chicago's World Fair. A flyspecked picture of Jesus torn from a calendar smiles benignly above the iron stove.
The wind, which has scoured everything else in the great Dust Bowl down to bare bones, has stripped its inhabitants as well. Fields of wheat, taller than a man, great steel tractors thrumming in solitary parades across the land, the hope of stout sons and well-fed wives; the Promise of Tomorrow, all suffocated under the multi-hued clouds endlessly rolling over them. Black from Kansas, gray from Colorado, red from right here in Oklahoma. Hello neighbor.
The wind blows, burying and exhuming. Fanning the wildfire and blowing out the lantern. Bringing the storm and one day heralding the rain.
Ma, in her bleached Mother Hubbard, she of loving and infinite patience, wedges the last of the bundles into the cramped back seat. Of all the things left behind, it is the tiny body of her firstborn, asleep in the family plot, which tugs at her the most. Only the name, painstakingly spelled out in the family Bible, can go with them.
Down the road to the east the suitcase farmers, of vulturistic and infinite patience, await the start of an auction. They will buy at rock bottom, hold the land, sell the rest. One day the rains will return and Europe will be needing wheat again. Look what the War did for prices. Might even be another one. Wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Down the road to the west Rev. Poley readies the sacraments for the few left to attend services tomorrow. Behold, I have smitten my hand at thy dishonest gain which thou hast made.
Down the road to the south a gray stubbled farmer rocks on his front porch. In 1888 mercury froze solid in Minnesota thermometers, ice crystals clogged ears and noses, even the film on eyeballs thickened. Children caught in the blizzard died in schoolhouses, in fields, in barns. Four feet of snow, drifts as high as fifteen, and when the spring thaw came bodies of people and livestock bloomed in macabre unison with crocuses and snowdrops. Lord, if ever I can be warm again. And so 48 years later he is uncomplaining. Thermometers stuck in the ground read 151F. The rest of the family pulled up stakes and left for California, not without cajoling and pleading, father and son finally blowing like bulls and pointing shotguns at each other in mutual fear and admiration at the others gumption. But he will not leave the land, he belongs to it, is too old to move on and start over. There's a keg of salted pork and tinned beans in the storeroom, sorghum and coffee, flour and lard and soap. Son and father had grasped hands, cleared throats, stood back. Ain't got more than a season left in me, one more mouth to feed. Well then, we'll send for you when we make it, Pa. Anyways, yer too ornery to die anytime soon.
Soon he'll have the old dog to keep him company. And the preacher, who's vowed to stay, nearby to give him a proper burial. Nothing fancy, just wrapped in the quilt his long-dead wife had sewn with her beautifully gnarled hands. Drop me in a hole deep enough to keep the coyotes and cats out. He stands creakily, feels to see if his fly is buttoned, pours a little water from a tin cup over his head and rinses the dust from his eyes. The groaning door echoes his joints as he steps into the kitchen and sits down at the table. Opening the Bible to a random page, he laboriously copies a text; he will follow its lead. Yesterday's is still on the table, already curling at the edges. Psalms 119:35 Thy word is a lamp unto my feet. In curling script after he has written the lantern on the table is the same one used to find William doring the blizard. It saw the black colt with the star born. It was by my Violet when she passed.
Today's reads Nehemiah 7. And I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first...
And so today he will write the names of his forefathers, and his family, and how he came to be here. The slip of paper will be rolled and placed into a Mason jar, one of hundreds once filled with bounty but now waiting expectantly for something other than dusty air.
Screw the lid down tight. Carry it carefully back to the rapidly emptying store room. Place it with the others, a glass pyramid, preserves of another kind. Shuffle across the floorboards as dust eddies mark the slow passage. Lie down on the left side of a mattress which still bears the faint imprint of another on the right. Close gritty eyes and and trust that they will open again. Listen to the one unfailing companion.
The wind has always blown, will continue to blow. What we take with us is one story. What we leave behind, another.
This is one in a series of short stories and vignettes set during the Dust Bowl years. Other include Rain's Gonna Come and What Follows the Plow