Chapter 38

Featured

1921 Winter (outside of Circe, Kansas)

Approaching the sign, ‘Topeka City Limits’, the car slowed from a self-confident 40 mph to a doubtful 25 mph; having surrendered to uncertainty enough to allow this decrease of speed (and determination), slowed further to 20… 15 mph. A blue Jordan sedan, it was packed (inside) and loaded down (the roof and trunk lid) with items not commonly associated with an afternoon drive or even, for that matter, a short stay with relatives in a nearby State. That the oblong rear window reflected light at all implied the decision to give up some storage space in exchange for the added safety afforded by a rear window. It was easy to guess, given that furniture and carpentry tools were among the items packed in and on the car, that the occupants had little interest in seeing where they had been. Their location, the west bound lane of Route 75 on the edge of the last decent-sized city in eastern Kansas and the time, a mid-afternoon Sunday in January, provided for very little likelihood of cars lining up behind them, horns trumpeting demands that they make a decision and get moving.

The two adult occupants of the dark-blue Jordan, like a pair of tropical fish, leaned toward the inside of the car’s windshield seeking some extra guidance from the sign that read: ‘McPherson County 100 miles’, and below that, a highway marker, ‘Route 56 West.’ Turning and facing each other in unison, both receded to the interior and the car turned left towards the afternoon sun.

As did a number of families in the early 1920s, (many, many more as the decade advanced), the Davis family drove west. Modern innovation, a labor pool increased to flood levels by the end of a war and simple bad luck, put Micael and Lisa Davis in the position of having to leave the town of their childhood and, for too short a time, the place where they planned to create and raise a family. The decision to leave appeared the only alternative to waiting in the hope that something would change and Micael would be able to find work. When there are no options and the clock is ticking, moving to another part of the country felt like a more acceptable fate than waiting for the sheriff to come to your door and announce, with a degree of embarrassment, having known you all your life, that you no longer could live in the house you poured your life savings into only a few years before. Taking everything that would fit in the car on which they were still making payments and driving towards a distant part of the country that seemed to lack the problems that afflicted Dayton, Ohio seemed to be the only responsible action a man, trying to provide for his family, could take.

Micael and Lisa Davis packed up their car and drove west, mercifully spared the irony of placing their hopes in following the setting sun. Micael Davis was one of the few born with that special talent for being able to fashion useful, and often beautiful objects, from chunks of wood and pieces of trees. His wood-working skill provided a comfortable life for his family, until innovation and industrialization, in gross and crude imitation of his craft, managed to produce substitutes that were deemed acceptable by people who had less and less money for handcrafted goods. Sears and Roebuck was among the first corporations that found the means of providing mass-produced, but reasonably priced coffins into which the nails of a slowing economy could be driven. Craftsmen, as desperate as anyone deprived of a market for what they created, found themselves working on production lines, modern-day serfs in the service of a new king.

“We’re doing the right thing, aren’t we, Micael?”

Lisa’s voice was soft, her words edged with the tension she felt and tried to hide. It was a tone that her husband would remember more often in their bed as a newly married couple, their lives then still un-defined. Here, in the front seat of an automobile on an empty highway, there was passion, but it was the passion of a mother to protect her children and a wife’s willingness to face adversity at her husband’s side.

“Yeah, Lisa, we are. We’ll drive this car wherever the good Lord and the road takes us. I’ll get you and the girls to wherever it is we’re meant to be. Starting over don’t scare me none, long as you’re by my side.”

Micael, stared at the highway map, colorful and full of ridge folds, he spread and flattened it against the steering wheel, a paper coat-of-arms on a mass-produced shield.

“It looks like after this Route 56 goes on for a spell, maybe a couple more hours, then County Rd #2 picks up and runs straight on through McPherson County. Can’t say I like how far and few between the towns are out here, but the Jordan’s a good car and the tank is still mostly full. I reckon the shorter route is better. The quicker we get to California, the sooner our family can get back to being happy.”

“The girls and I are happy, Micael. As long as we’re together that’s all that really matters.”

Lisa reached over and put her hand over Micael’s, lightly enough to be felt as love and support, but not enough to betray the fear that she felt trying to grow within her.

***

The early afternoon light cast slanted marble columns across the open living room of the Baumeister home. The fireplace glowed with a quiet energy, warmth extended well into the room, ventilation cleverly arranged to spread the heat throughout the first floor (and up through vents in the ceilings). Directly in front of the rubble-stone hearth was a brown leather couch, to either side, leather arm chairs. Between the couch and the fire was a low table of beautifully polished wood. Covering the top were, ‘The Jungle’, ‘Walden’, ‘Woman and the Nineteenth Century’ and, (of course) ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ the crafted-leather covers bound the furniture to the fireplace.

Farthest from the front door and turned just enough to allow a view both of the fireplace and out the windows overlooking the front porch, Almira sat, her legs curled under her slight form, amid a nest of blankets. At first glance she appeared to be dozing, head tilted slightly downward, light brown hair formed a crest overhanging her face. In her arms a baby slept, all soft-flesh pink and showing the random sleeping movements that slowly turned the soft blanket folds into perfectly fitted clothing.

Without moving, Almira smiled slightly and said,

“Hi, Simone.”

Her voice had a quality of stillness, though to describe it as ‘quiet’ would be like calling the ocean ‘a large body of water’, however, the physical effort required even for this short greeting was enough to cause waves of light brown hair to slip and tumble-down and over her eyes.

“It is with no small pride that I’ve developed the ability to move in a manner some call graceful, even more say soundlessly, but you, my young new friend, are among the very few people I do not seem to be able to approach undetected.”

Simone smiled, wrapped her pale shoulders with a blanket from a neat stack near the front window and sat at the far end of the sofa. The blanket was covered with the black and red geometric patterns favored by the Shawnee. It managed, by virtue of expert weaving enhanced by the flickering firelight, to entice the eye with the illusion of depth that bordered on frightening. In stark contrast, the older woman’s blonde hair framed dark blue eyes, that while focused, always seemed to be looking somewhere else, somewhere far away. Simone Baumeister possessed a presence at once contradictory while resisting description.

Almira glanced at her host. The ticking of the grandfather clock provided a wooden counter-beat, to Aurora’s newly started heartbeat. The child lay against Almira’s breast, feeding complete for the moment; she took up the other major chore of a newborn’s life: sleeping. There were moments when, mother and daughter, their breathing in sync, Almira could feel, like the tiniest of drums, the syncopation of life, a triple time counterpoint to her own slow and steady heartbeat.

Almira had a passing vision that combined ferocious machinery and soaring brick walls that rose and as quickly sank, as a fading horizon, the opposite of the experience of the alert sailor, at the end of an ocean-crossing, catching the first sight of land rising from the horizon.

“I think he’s happy here.”

Simone spoke without preamble or context, as if answering in anticipation of a question.

Almira, her child asleep at her breast, glanced up and spoke with a voice that declined to disturb the air until it had crossed the short distance to its intended recipient; a maternal ventriloquism allowing conversation while permitting the sleeping to remain asleep.

“Yes, for all his concern and protectiveness, Sterling seems to have allowed himself to relax. The past year has been difficult. In the way of men, the greater the demands, the less he admits to himself how difficult his life has become. Carrying the world on his shoulders, accompanying his wife across the country to both escape and to discover an alternative to a life suddenly untenable; all without complaint.”

Simone shifted her gaze towards the double windows and the hills that rose from the meadows behind the newly completed dormitory building,

“He loves you more than he knows. But this child that sleeps in your arms, so much a different matter! Your Sterling is only beginning to sense the boundless love he has for your daughter. For the moment, he’s like one raised in a highland wilderness, and finding a mountain stream, follows its downward course. This man may read books, talk to travellers and educate himself in all matters concerning streams and rivers and oceans, accepting that by finding one, he would surely know the other, both the stream and the ocean are nothing more than water in different volumes, he tells himself, certain that knowledge is a substitute for experience. However, nothing can prepare him for the moment he stands before the ocean, the waves grabbing his legs in a hungry lover’s embrace, the salt tang intoxicating him. Sterling sees the child, and like the distant glimpse of the sea through gaps in the forest, he begins to suspect how much a child, a daughter, can mean to her father.”

Almira felt a twinge, like the chance tickle of a reed on the side of the leg when swimming in unfamiliar waters, a hint of future panic, the broken memory of a fragment of a dream. Fields and wolves, dark shapes in the underbrush, appearing only to disappear. Before she could turn her attention, the dark forms blended into the darker recesses of her mind.

“Your husband would be happy anywhere in the world as long as you and his daughter are there, wouldn’t he?”

Almira felt the cold recede as suddenly as it appeared, replaced by the warmth of her child’s face against her skin, the smell of life floating like a new angel’s halo.

“Yes, Simone, he is happy wherever his family is.”

“But it is not so simple for you, Almira Ristani, is it?”

Almira tried to recall if, perhaps in the course of a lazy afternoon conversation, she’d told Simone her maiden name. She immediately dismissed the thought as inconsequential. Despite the fact that she sat a mere ten feet away, try as she might, Almira could not quite bring Simone Baumeister entirely into focus, she remained, as the image seen in a telescope held in reverse, clearly in sight with fine details just out of reach. Deciding that her host was a woman of good intent, Almira chose to smile and maintain her watch over her sleeping baby.

“You have a gift. More of a power, really. Can you see how it can be both? What you’ve accomplished in your relatively short life may seem to exist only in the context of the places you have lived and the people you have known. Your friend Annie and Sister Aloysius and all the people who you’ve helped, have all been a part of your life, but they are not the reason you’ve been so successful in your work. You look around at your new home here, at the vast spaces and the slower pace of life and can’t help but wonder if your talent, your work itself, has any place in this strange land.

But you, of all people, know that men and women and families are the same no matter where you are; the real difference lies in how time passes, the speed of life. Even, and especially here, in this place where days are replaced by seasons and the very earth itself is an active part of people’s daily lives. Fortunately, my young friend, you are of the small number of people who thrive on bending the world to your will, it is that you are able to affect the lives of others that you enjoy, every bit as much as the outcome of your efforts.”

Seeing Aurora sleep peacefully, Almira glanced up through the veil of hair that shaded her eyes,

“What I was very good at, back East, was simply getting people to accept that what they have in common is more powerful than what they think makes them different. All my work with the labor unions sprang from that simple insight. But that was in an environment, a social context, that was very, very different from life out here. I could do what I did because the workers I organized numbered in the hundreds, the thousands. All I needed to do was help individual men and women see the power they might harness once they joined together as a group.  I am, I suspect, a woman of the cities. I’m not so sure there’s a need for my talents in a place as different as this.”

Simone raised a very light blond eyebrow and Almira looked back and smiled in appreciation of the woman’s simple, subtle and quite non-verbal gesture. Had Simone Baumeister stood on the couch and shouted while waving her arms, there would have been no discernible improvement over her silent effort to command Almira’s attention.

Laughing as much at herself as in a sharing with the other woman, Almira continued,

“I don’t really know anything about the culture or the economy of this part of the country. Sterling, my gifted husband, is a man who can paint a world with words. He can tell you the history of this town, this state. In the course of doing that, telling you a tale, he weaves the mundane facts of daily life in the farmlands of Kansas.
This place is starkly different from New England. When I lie awake in the early morning it feels threateningly alien, as if, while I slept, I was flown to a very foreign country and everyone acts as if I belonged there. On our visit to the Gale farm, Henry Gale gave quite the enthusiastic tour. His knowledge of agriculture and farming was altogether impressive and his love for the life was quite apparent.

The thing is, as you said, I know people and where there are people who have become successful and wealthy, there are people who are powerless. As much as I might hope and dream of a future that would be otherwise, where there are working men and women, there are bosses. And the workers always live at the mercy of the bosses.”

Almira felt a familiar passion rise. Though to a stranger the force of her words and the fire in her eyes might convince them she was angry. She did not feel anger, she felt a need to help the powerless discover the power that she believe was within all people. To help people stand up to power was what burned within the petite form curled in a leather arm-chair, her baby in her arms, her mind pacing the room, alive with the joy of a worthy struggle.

“Theodore and I will be leaving Kansas this year, in late Spring, I think. We wanted to find someone to carry on our work here. We both think you and Sterling and Aurora would be the perfect people to assume that role.”

Almira turned her head slightly to look at the fire, a silent chill crept up her back onto her shoulders and said,

“Thank you, Simone, that means a great deal to me. But I’m surprised that there wouldn’t be a line of people, especially the other farmers in the area who would jump at the chance to take over your farm.”

“You’re half right, Almira. Your Sterling’s friend Emily Gale has long coveted our little farm. However, it’s in the ‘taking this farm over’ aspect where you are mistaken. Theodore and I not only have established a successful farm, more importantly we have created a refuge. We’ve spent years here working so that people, total strangers who find themselves at our gate, can find welcome. When they leave our home we know we’ve helped people. Yes, we have a profitable working farm, but helping strangers in need, people for whom there are no guarantees of happiness is the reason we are here.”

“I will say that, as people who stood on your porch on a dark night, you have succeeded in creating a safe haven in an otherwise cold and somewhat hostile land. I also understand what you mean about finding the right kind of person, the person who holds the same values as you and Ted. But surely there are kind people living and working in Circe or in the surrounding county who make suitable owners.”

Almira looked up from Aurora, who was, in the mild movements of a baby, waking from a comfortable sleep, to find that Simone was now within arms reach, sitting at the near end of the sofa.

“Almira believe when I say that you are one of the most intelligent women I’ve had the pleasure to know, but on this you’re mistaken, more likely, I’m not expressing myself as clearly as I should. I’ll suggest that you’re mistaking the kindness of the meek for the love of those in need, which is a virtue found only in the strong. The meek are kind, but their’s is a gentle charity, more the personal demonstration of virtue. There are those who have a drive and the will to intercede on behalf of those in need. You and Sterling are both kind, but more importantly, you are also very strong people. In a farming community such as ours, out here in the near wilderness, kindness is all too often left in the pulpit of the Churches, fodder for an inspiring sermon to motivate the parishioners to do more for those less fortunate. If we sold our farm to a kind but meek owner, they would lose the treasure Teddy and I have built here in less than a year. On the other hand, were you and Sterling the owners, stewards, if you prefer, then the likes of our neighbor Emily Gale would have no more success convincing you to sell out to her than she’s had with me and my Theodore.”

Almira smiled with a look in her eyes that confirmed Simone’s assessment.

“No, you’re correct. Since arriving here, I’ve wrestled with the fear that I’d left my talents and skills behind, in the city. But a larger part of me knows there are people out here in this vaster part of the country who would welcome my help. On a smaller scale, to be sure, but worthwhile nevertheless, one person or one family at a time.”

There came the sound of heavy boots outside on the wooden porch.

As the two men walked through the door, Sterling was saying,

“Well that does sound like an interesting proposition. I need discuss it with Almira… oh you’re here!”

Teddy Baumeister stood in the open door and spoke as if addressing a crowd of strangers,

“There! Did I not say that my friend Sterling here is a very smart young man?”

The young couple and the older man and woman laughed, and in her blanket, the very young child seemed to smile as well.

***

“Don’t you think we should stop, maybe the next town?”

Lisa Davis stared out her window, the blue of a cloudless day took on a darker hue, as the sun moved towards the horizon, abandoning the world to night.

Micael heard the fear in his wife’s voice, it was a minor note really, a tone that a stranger would not have detected. He, being nothing anywhere close to a stranger, heard concern for their two children. The Davis’ had spent one night sleeping in the car and although everyone passed the night quietly, the following day, he noticed his daughters staring with longing at every house they passed.

“Yeah, Lisa, I’m with you on that.This County Road #2 seems to take us right through a small town called Circe. We should be alright, as long as the map isn’t wrong.”

***

Dinner with Simone and Ted Baumeister was always enjoyable. They had an improbably long dinner table set up on the opposite side of the open front room. Other than the rough-hewn support columns, there was nothing to block the view of the fireplace on the far wall. The kitchen was at the back of the house. The first floor was designed to encourage people to eat and talk and be together.

Teddy liked to cook, so Simone would set out the table and act as host, ferrying out dishes and platters of whatever struck her husband’s fancy to prepare. He and I found an old, but still very serviceable, cradle in the attic, and as soon as Almira was able to join us, Aurora, when not in her mother’s arms, had her own place at the Baumeister’s dinner table.

“So tell us, you two, would you like to settle down on this farm that my Simone and I have built?”

After Ted and I returned from our walk, Almira and I accepted our host’s offer to watch Aurora so that we might go for our own walk. There were a couple of hours of comfortable daylight left and we certainly had a lot to talk about. I took Almira up to the spring in the hills. We sat together, the still pool reflected both the blue sky and the grey of the cavern. We sat together, our backs against an unyielding surface and remembered when we first met. The water was not quite warm, yet not chilling cold, the rock surrounding and protecting it held a warmth that managed to make the ancient stone somehow comfortable and we remembered how we’d travelled together, running from and running towards the world.

Without warning, Almira spun around and, knees outside of mine, sat facing me. Her twice broken nose, a crooked deformity on a lesser woman, was transformed by the dark power that lay just below the surface of her eyes. I saw such passion for life that I knew there was nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her, and there was a strength that promised I would never die alone.

As I stared, almost helplessly, into her eyes she started to grin. Resting her forehead against mine, sitting on my crossed legs, she laughed with what could only be described as the joy of the two of us being together. I let her laugh and felt her body and her spirit.

“Well, husband of mine, shall we till the earth and join the company of the landed gentry?”

I felt such a torrent of love that I had to join her in laughing, otherwise I feared I’d either dissolve into tears or stand and howl at the sky.

“We are surely destined to change this place, wife of mine. Our family will grow and flourish in this vast and empty land.”

Back at the dinner table I looked at out hosts. Theodore Baumeister had a way of beaming with confident good will, while his wife Simone had a quality of both being and not being, that rather than being disturbing, had a way of instilling peace and calm. I took Almira’s hand and said,

“We’d be honored to continue the tradition you’ve established here. We shall draw up the agreements, sign the Deed and record it at the Town Hall in Circe, first thing tomorrow.”

As I looked at Almira, there was a glow to her face. The happy silence of the room was broken by the sound of a car engine, creeping to a stop and sighing into quiet.

We all sat in silence as we heard two sets of footsteps cross the porch and, from outside, came a woman’s voice,

“Do you think we should bother them, Micael, it’s beginning to get dark.”

Then a deeper, more resolute voice,

“We can ask, if they tell us to go away, we’ll still be together.”

I looked at Teddy and Simone. Simone was now crouched next to Aurora’s cradle adjusting her blanket and Teddy simply said,

“Well, Mr. and Mrs. Gulch, you would appear to have company!”

Almira was already standing and holding her hand out to me. I took her hand in mine and we went to see who was at our door.

Chapter 37

Featured

Winter 1921 Circe, Kansas

The Christmas season was snowless and un-seasonably warm. Old-timers, always willing and ready to offer their opinions on historical precedents, were in their marginalized glory. Holding forth at the luncheon counter of Randall’s Pharmacy on Main Street or around the wood stove in the open stock room of Crane’s Farm Supply Store, over on West Main, most prefaced their assessment with, “Oh, this is surely the warmest winter since….”

On at least three days in December, the senior members of Circe society could be found gathered in small groups around the granite fountain (that had no water) in the center of the town square. Being across the street from the Library provided a safety net against the dimming of the midday sun or a surprise arrival of the north wind which constantly prowled the open lands surrounding the small town. The warmth of the reading room provided a small, barely noticed irony, as the old timers continued their debates in volumes that were hushed and subdued only to the speaker and very definitely not to the other patrons of the library.

In 1920, in Circe, the Christmas decorations on storefronts and public buildings looked smaller, somehow less enthusiastic. The lack of snow deprived them of a uniform white backdrop, always most flattering, for the colorful ribbons, bows and wreaths. In a small town like Circe, where people labored to a day’s exhaustion eleven months of the year, the decorations tended towards what one might charitably describe as ‘frantically festive’. Traditional holiday reds and greens, when set against the earth-tone shades of a dry winter, took on the look of overly ripe vegetables.

Residents of Circe awoke to find snow on the ground only twice in the entire month of December. On those two occasions, the night’s accumulation was too puny to resist the winter sun and by afternoon melted, withdrawn into the still soft earth.

Simone and Theodore Baumeister loved all the holidays, but Christmas most of all. For one of them, this affinity was a direct result of a natural disposition to caring for others; for the other, a physical resemblance to the central figure in most Christmas tales, surely did not hurt.

Teddy Baumeister enjoyed Christmas so much so that every year, as Halloween approached, he would announce to his wife, (and anyone else within earshot), that the time had come for him to grow the beard he was always meant to have.

“It’s also a very good excuse to put on weight. My Simone is always after me about eating too much, but for the Christmas season, she makes an exception.”

Teddy Baumeister broke the silence after two hours of working on what he and Simone called, ‘the dormitory’. Even though we’d just arrived, little more than a month ago, it was obvious that the holidays were only a ‘single day excuse’ to interrupt the endless labor of farming. Through the months of January and February, the ground frozen solid, whatever work could be done was moved indoors. There was always equipment to be repaired and maintained and, as a break, the occasional day spent on the moon-scape of the winter prairie, mending fences and rescuing strayed livestock. For the Baumeisters, there was also the building of ‘the dormitory’, now just about complete and ready for occupancy.

Most of the farms in this part of the country needed to employ transient labor; planting and harvesting demanded man-hours well in excess of that necessary to maintain a small farm during the other three-quarters of the year. Usually living quarters were thrown up, ideally as multi-use structures. By chance of geography, the Baumeisters chose to buy a farm located on one of the primary routes west. Travelers, both those in search of work and those in search of other essential qualities of life, passed by the Baumeister farm in greater numbers than they did the other farms. Visitors who might stop on their journey, drawn to the light in an otherwise dark landscape, would find welcome. In addition, being a working farm, those who sought an opportunity to earn a little money, would be offered whatever might be available.

However, it was during the times of year when the demand and need for transient workers was low that the Baumeisters demonstrated their essential nature and character. Travelers and workers were met with charity and welcome. As a result, the Baumeister farm did very well year round, as people usually returned kindness with kindness. Their small farm was consistently more profitable at the end of each year than most of their neighbors.

Simone and Theodore’s plan to build ‘the dormitory’ grew from need. It was not a need to acquire. It was not a need to increase the profitability of the farm. It was, in a sense, as self-serving a need as either of these. The Baumeisters enjoyed helping people. They discovered the need to build an extra building, one that would allow them to never be in a position of having to turn a person (or a family) away. The building was nearly finished when Almira and I arrived. As so many before us, drawn to the lights of their home, driven by a need to be welcomed. I was more than happy to help, even if the damage to my right arm cut back on my carpentry skills.

“She indulges me, I know, but to the ends of the earth I would go for her.”

Ted Baumeister put down the backsaw he was using to trim the bottom of the last interior door that needed to be finished,

” ‘Theodore,’ she might say one morning at breakfast, ‘I read in a magazine, down at Randall’s Drugstore about a special mineral water found only in one remote corner of the Dakotas. They said it has near magical properties…’

…well, Sterling, I must admit that, before she could finish telling me what drinking this water might do, I would have the car started and kissing her goodbye.”

I looked up from trying to plane the bottom edge of the last interior door left to be hung. Although I had it laid out on two saw horses, putting the bottom edge at just the right height, I struggled to complete this relatively simple task. My right arm has good days and not-so-good days in terms of stiffness and mobility and unfortunately, today was not a good day. I thought about nailing the door to the saw horses, so it didn’t slide every time I took a pass at it with the plane. I must’ve had the look on my face that Almira refers to as ‘patient frustration’ because Ted stopped with his monologue and, after staring at me for a minute, started laughing. Theodore Baumeister had the kind of laugh that novice writers often refer to as ‘contagious laughter’. The fact of the matter is that it would be more accurate to refer to it as ‘infectious laughter’. All that was necessary was to be in the same room, or not the same room, he was not an overly quiet man, and his laughter became your laughter.

“Ted, I believe you. Lets hope that the two women in the house don’t take a hankering for some Champagne from France or sausage from Germany, or there’ll be no one to feed the cows!”

I smiled, happy to have a non-war-damaged-arm reason to put down the wood plane for a minute. Ted stood up straight, which in his case involved a risk of hitting his head on the top of the door frame, and set his backsaw next to my wood plane on the currently table-like interior door.

“I agree with you, Sterling, my friend. We are lucky men that they, your Almira and my Simone are modest, down to earth women both. They would not send us on frivolous journeys. There is, of course, a third in the house, a woman to be…”

I walked to the window and looked towards the farmhouse,

“Aurora, my sunrise. No, I have not forgotten. I would more likely forget that the earth was under my feet or the sky above my head. I feel odd, and in a way embarrassed, to say it aloud, but it sometimes scares me how much I love that child.”

“Come lets you and I take a walk. The sun is high, your child is safe, I want to show you something.”

We crossed the fields, the winter stubble of corn stalks failed to obscure the neat parallel rows of the previous planting, a natural corduroy terrain, evidence of the endless encroachment of man. Off to the right, destroying the ruler straight horizon, grew a rounded terracing of rising land, small groves of trees and low bushes, making the increasing elevation difficult to detect. As we veered towards the hills, the corn fields turned into meadows and grasslands, the soft vegetation now stiff and textured by the winter’s cold.

We approached a row of cedar trees, feathery trunks showing pale red, branches reaching skywards with a peculiar and somewhat disturbing grasping appearance. Teddy turned to me and said ‘ten paces in, turn around and walk backward for the last 6 feet. Watch out for the hole,’ and disappeared into the prickly green branches.

I did as he suggested and when I turned, (after stepping backwards the last six steps), I found myself in a small clearing. The space was about 20 feet from wall of evergreen bushes to wall of evergreens. The space was dominated by a small cavern that half-covered a pool of water, clearly some sort of natural spring. Ted was sitting on a ledge created by an out-cropping of the bedrock; beginning deep within the cavern it ran along the right side of the darkened space, out into the open and ran to the right along the hillside that sheltered the cavern opening.

The pool of water was mirror-still. The air in this space felt more comfortable than it should and there was a quality of motion to the water. It wasn’t so much beneath the surface, rather it was a quality of the still, clear water itself.

“The Shawnee tribe made this part of the Plains their home, ranging across the land up to the Rockies. At least they did until the white man came bearing gifts. The Indians thought of this spring as a sacred place. I don’t remember the word in their language, but ‘the crying stones’ would be the best translation of the name they gave it. It never changes, never runs dry. Water comes up from somewhere within the earth and fills the pool to the same level. No matter if there is a drought dry enough to wear away the soil or flooding downpours that scrub the land of all features; the pool is always at the same level.”

Ted’s words parted the curtain of blue-grey smoke in front of his face as he concentrated on getting his pipe lit. He’d draw on the pipe, with a slightly slurpy inhale, watch the release of smoke from the carved bowl when he stopped. Several times he would take the pipe from his mouth and, after looking down into the bed of glowing tobacco, tamp it very slightly, puff, examine and puff again. After about 5 minutes, he looked up at me as if I’d just walked into the clearing, smiled and with a broad gesture said,

“Come, Sterling! Come and sit. I have a proposition for you.”

***

Summers End 1939

Dorothy Gale stood at the corral fence. Its first section began at the corner of the barn that faced the farmhouse. It then ran a short length, interrupted itself with a wide swinging gate and, anchored in the ground once more, headed out to the pasture land. A now controlled expanse of otherwise open land.

The cool dampness of the wood fitted itself against her forearms as she leaned on the top rail. The air was still, the sky improbably full of towering clouds, rejected troops of an army arriving at the battlefield a day after armistice. Blue, grey and an occasional patch of black, the clouds had such texture and dimension, Dorothy unconsciously tightened her grip on the fence, the animal mind now alert, signaling the threat of being crushed by an avalanche from the sky.

‘Little wonder that, in all the myths down through the ages, the world begins with giants roaming the earth,’

Dorothy thought, as she scanned the horizon. Although surrounded for a thousand miles by hills, grass and mountains, the expression on the young woman’s face would be instantly recognizable to any open-ocean sailor.

“Mind some company, roomie?”

Eliza Thornberg stepped next to her friend. Dorothy half-turned her head and smiled. Eliza nudged her friend with her shoulder and took up a similar position, standing at the fence.

“My god, the sky is beautiful.”

Eliza stared at the sky above the western horizon, the blue that was hatching from the now blurry clouds, was the color of easter eggs. As she watched, hazy clouds evaporated, creating a hole in the far distant clouds, it felt like she was looking into the sky of another world.

“How do you people not go crazy? There is nothing human about this place, there is nothing that I can walk to and touch. I think I understand some of what you’ve told me about growing up in this place.”

Dorothy made a sound like ‘surprise interrupted by another, more surprising event’, looked out from the corner of her eye and said,

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Eliza turned towards her,

“No, I probably wouldn’t if you weren’t my friend. However, Miss Dorothy Gale, you are, so it doesn’t matter what it may sound like to a stranger.”

Eliza turned and leaned back against the fence, looking towards the farmhouse. She felt her natural self-confidence return, the vast and un-controllable fields and too far horizon no longer distracting her,

“Hey, Dorothy, sorry about my bitchiness back at the house. No excuse for it. Except maybe ‘wide-open spaces hysteria'”,

Dorothy laughed,

“There is such a thing, right? Glamorous sophisticated girl from wealthy family succumbs to the near silent charm of the natives, only to witness the callous mistreatment of her best friend at the hands of her immediate family. At Sunday dinner. I read about it last semester in psych class. It’s a real thing. So it’s not my fault.”

Again laughter grew between the two and the rough-hewn boards of the corral fence pulled deeper on the young arms, as if resenting an implied lack of respect.

“No Eliza, I’m the one who should be apologizing, I’ve been a terrible host and a rotten friend. Your surprise visit is the best thing that anyone has ever done for me…”

Dorothy paused and looked out towards County Road #2 as it formed a limit to the growth of the Gale farm, at least in a northerly direction, she seemed to catch herself and resumed,

“…and all I’ve done is drag you to a hospital, send you off with a farm hand to another farm and put on a demonstration of the perfect un-grateful daughter. Wait a minute, except for the un-grateful daughter thing, that pretty much is all there is to do in this place.”

“Hey girl, don’t give it a second thought. If our positions were reversed and you paid me a surprise visit at home, I’d probably take you to a museum, maybe go hear the Philadelphia Symphony and perhaps some sail….”

Eliza noticed the expression on Dorothy’s face,

“Yeah, no difference!”

“But seriously Dorothy, you’re my friend and that’s all that matters, right?”

“I guess.”

“And you and I, we’ll head off to Newport even if only for a week or two before school. It’ll be fun! We’ll make the boys believe they’ve died and gone to heaven and spoil everything for when they get back to Havard and Yale, and their Ivy League girl friends ask them about their summer vacation!”

“Sounds like a good idea.”

“So what is it that’s eating at you? I’ve only known you for a year, but that’s a year living together, which everyone knows is the equivalent of 5 years if we just lived in the same town, going to the same school. Is it the old lady in the hospital or is it something with your Aunt Em?”

“Yes.”

The wind rose and when Eliza turned towards her friend, Dorothy’s face was obscured by her dark hair, blown in random waves that seemed to make her face at once un-recognizable while never really changing.

“I can’t say why, but I suddenly need to know who my real mother was.”

“Does your Aunt know?”

“I think she does.”

“So ask her,”

“I can’t, Eliza. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are the only parents I’ve ever known. This farm is the only home I’ve ever know. As far back as I remember, I’ve always been here.”

“Sure, but it’s normal for a little girl, hell, any kid, to want to know who their mother and father are, or were.”

Eliza stopped as she heard Dorothy’s voice, quieter and calmer, as if they were sitting in a library and she was showing Eliza something in a dusty reference book.

“When I was about seven, I started asking about where I came from and where my father and mother were. At first Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry pretended they didn’t hear me, ignoring my questions and counting on a child’s lack of tenacity. It wasn’t very long after I started to ask them about my parents, when one of the girls in my class, for no reason I can remember, decided to call me ‘Little Orphan Dorothy’. Her name was Linda Renaude, huh, funny the things we remember. Anyway, when the name-calling started I made the mistake of asking her to not call me that.”

Seeing Eliza’s understanding smile, Dorothy added,

“I know! But I was only seven years old, I didn’t know about mean people. Up until then the only people I had regular contact with were Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and whoever we had working for us. In any event, I asked her to not call me that, that it was mean and my Aunt and Uncle were my parents. That, as any mature person knows, made her certain that she was on to something.

Finally, one Friday towards the end of the school year, Linda got some older friends, they were in the third grade I think, to join her and they started following me around at morning recess calling out, ‘Little Orphan Dorothy, Little Orphan Dorothy….’.

For whatever reason, maybe because Mother’s Day was that weekend, I stopped trying to ignore her and instead, pushed her down in the dirt. Everyone stood and stared and no one said anything and I remember feeling surprised at what I did and started to cry. Yet even though she was laying on the ground, Linda said in a real mean way, “Thats why you’re an orphan, Little Orphan Dorothy”.

I stood over her and said, in a quiet and calm tone of voice, ‘Don’t say that. It’s mean and it’s not true.’ But she wouldn’t stop and suddenly I kicked her in the stomach and when she turned over with her hands around her middle, I kneeled on her back and started pushing dirt in her mouth and saying, ‘It’s not nice to be mean’ and kept making her eat dirt. One of the other girls ran to get a teacher and I stayed on Linda Renaude’s back until I felt myself lifted into the air by Mr. Collins, the janitor. He carried me back to the school-house and I had to sit outside the principle’s office until my Aunt Em arrived. The principal  asked her if I ever acted violent before and if there was any history of violence in my family. Aunt Emily denied that I’d ever done anything like this before, but when the principle asked about any family history, Auntie Em got very quiet and I saw a look in her face, an odd look, like she was afraid of something.”

Eliza felt something like fear cover and un-cover her, like the curtain during the recent dinner, it was there and then not there. A lightest of touches and a repeating of this light feeling of fear, as if to remind her that it wasn’t her imagination. She chided herself for such feelings and listened as her friend continued,

“Somehow she convinced the principle that I was under a lot of pressure because of my school work. She said something that at the time I thought was odd, something about being on the library committee and how she was also a donor to the library book fund. The principle, Mr. Ryan, sat very straight in his chair and stopped smiling. He then suggested that it might be best for me to go home early, just this one time. I can remember the ride back to the farm, like it was yesterday. I was sitting between Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry, who was driving. He still had on his overalls and Auntie Em was dressed like it was a Sunday, she even had on her gold rim glasses. Finally, I asked them to tell me who my parents were,

“Auntie Em, I love you and Uncle Henry and would never do anything to be unkind, but where are my mother and father?”

Emily looked over at me, glanced at Henry, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the road since we pulled away from the school, looked out her window and said,

“Dorothy, both of them are gone. Your father died in a terrible and unnecessary fight with another man. Your mother, well, she never recovered from it. She came to me and asked me to, ‘Give the child the home I cannot.’ She made me promise to never speak of her or the fight, to anyone, ever. Even you. She said, ‘I want what is best for my baby. Don’t ever discuss us with anyone again.’ And she went away.”

My aunt Emily turned to me as we rode in the truck and said,

“You don’t want me to break my promise to her, do you? It would hurt everyone if I did. Since you’ve decided to ask, you are the one who has to decide to keep the promise.”

I sat back on the leather seat, rocking just a little from one side to another as we passed along a rough part of County Road #2. Even now, telling you about that day, I have a feeling of falling, falling into a well, and I said, ‘No. Auntie Em, I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone, especially her.’

We got home and Aunt Emily made my favorite dinner and we never spoke of my real parents again.

Eliza put her arm around her friend, leaning her forehead against Dorothy’s shoulder,

“Shit. Hey, I’m sorry. Here I was thinking that, ‘At least her mother didn’t go and die on her like mine did’. It must have been so hard for you to not know what happened to her, to them.”

Dorothy looked briefly towards the farmhouse, in time to see Hunk step up on the porch of his cottage. He waved, but Eliza was looking at her and she was too far away in her memory to wave an acknowledgment. Hunk stared for a second more than necessary and went into the small house.

…Eliza reached over, ran her left hand through Dorothy’s thick brown hair, sweeping it back against the side and give the length a twist. Leaning further back she said,

“Wait, now that I have the barn and the bales of hay in the background, I think I can picture you. What a pretty farm girl you must have been”

After a moment of silence, both girls began to laugh.

Chapter 36

Featured

The newborn child, wrapped in woolen blankets (embroidered with the name ‘Packard’ along one edge) stared up at her mother as Sterling drove the car towards the Baumeister’s farm. He never completely took his eyes off the baby or his wife for the 20 minutes that remained. Sterling Gulch managed to drive the seven miles to the farm almost entirely using only his peripheral vision. Two young people and one very, very young person travelled alone together, over the gravel road under canopy of the prairie night sky.

Almira, fine brown hair stuck in flattened clumps to the smooth skin of her forehead, looked at her baby and said,

“My God! We created this? How is that even possible.”

Sterling, leaning across the seat, left hand on the steering wheel, his right arm around Almira and the child, laughed,

“Well, dear, when a man and a woman loves each other very much… Ow!”

Almira, her eyes shining in the darkened interior of the car, joined her husband’s laughter,

“You did well, my husband. She has your nose and jaw line, for which I’m very grateful.”

Sterling Gulch turned and put his hand gently under Almira’s chin, the slightest of pressure, without changing the downward tilt of her face,

“She has eyes like a nighttime sun. She has your eyes, Almira. And I am very grateful for that. But what this child does not have is a name. She should have a name. Although ‘our beautiful daughter’ is enough for me, we really should give her a name by which others may know her.”

“Agreed, Sterling. You are the writer and creative one in the family.”

Almira stopped and somehow smiled directly at Sterling without takes her eyes off the baby,

“What a change in that word there is now, we are a family. So, husband, what is our daughter’s name?”

“Aurora”

Almira smiled at the baby, as tears turned her eyes into pools of dark light,

“Aurora, welcome to the family.”

The car moved along the road as new lights in the distance grew into windows and figures stepped from the porch, as the car came to a halt.

Simone and Teddy were both, somehow without reflecting headlights or glowing with the red glow of the brake lights, at the passenger side of the car as Sterling turned off the engine.

“Welcome home.”

Chapter 35

Featured

Dorothy Gale frowned as she watched Hunk Dietrich sprint towards the house, trying to run out from under the growing hail. Through the dining room window she could see the hail as it bounced off the ground, in that oddly delicate way that hail has, at least at the very beginning of a storm. The hail that bounced off Hunk as he ran, grew from little more than white raindrops to pea-sized ovals of ice in the short time it took him to cover the distance from the barn to the house. She heard the double thump as Hunk, deciding to forgo walking up the porch stairs, jumped the last six horizontal, and three vertical, feet to the protection of the covered porch.

The tops of the trees bent to the wind in an odd, undulating motion that made her think of fronds of kelp responding to an approaching storm. It was as if the branches were trying to root themselves in the black-heavy clouds beginning to surround the farm. That the wind was constantly changing speed and direction was more un-settling than a stronger steady wind. The conversation in the dining room of the Gale home shifted from being the center of everyone’s attention, to being an unintended contrast to the sounds of wind and hail everywhere other than the inside of the house. Adding to the growing tension was the sight, through the flapping curtains, of inverted leaves on the trees, their pale undersides giving the elm trees an ominous and slightly ghostly appearance.

Hunk backed through the swinging door from the kitchen, brushing ice from his shoulders as he turned, seeking Eliza Thornberg’s attention.

“Your car’s in the barn, my lady. It’s as safe there as anywhere in these parts, at least at this moment. And best of all, it won’t be full of dents and broken glass after the storm passes.”

Emily Gale and Thaddeus Morgan stood behind their chairs, Hunk’s precipitous departure had ended all chance of a civilized conversation over Sunday afternoon dinner. Emily shot Hunk a look of disapproval only to see that he was giving everything he had to being noticed by the young woman from Philadelphia. She immediately looked at her husband Henry, always her most reliable go-to person, whenever she had the need to lash. He was sitting and eating his meal, oblivious to his wife’s quandary, a host without the power to maintain a balanced interaction among her guests.

Neither Dorothy nor Henry Gale moved from their places at the round dining room table. Eliza Thornberg moved from her place closest to the windows and stood in front of Hunk, her expression deceptively intense.

“Are you out of your god-damned mind? What were you thinking? Did you forget to put in your brain this morning? That hail drumming the roof is the size of golf balls!”

Hunk smiled into the angry girl’s face. His confidence grew, in no small part fueled by the adrenaline that remained in now unnecessary abundance after his run through the pelting hail. Hunk’s normally guileless smile shifted, exertion twisting a normally pleasant and open smile into a grin.

“Who says chivalry is dead? Weren’t nothing, ma’am. I was glad to do it.”

Adrenaline, after the precipitating event, is often slow to flush from one’s system. Much like a person stepping from a dark room into one that is brightly lit, Hunk struggled to re-assess the signals he was receiving from the people in the dining room. He was clearly the center of attention which, for 99% of the time, was not where Hunk Dietrich enjoyed being. His confidence began to shrink as Eliza’s expression remained unchanged. A smiling appreciation of his spontaneous action was nowhere to be found in the girl’s face. She did not appear to be amused; to the contrary everything in her manner conveyed disapproval. Worse than her not smiling back, worse even than her getting angry, was the scorn that seemed to be just under the surface of Eliza Thornberg’s face. There was a near palpable sense of a gulf between her and the other people in the room. Her expression was the same that an explorer, greeted by the eagerly friendly natives of a primitive and unsophisticated land, might wear. Hunk felt an all too familiar feeling of dismay grow like predatory vines through his mind, self-consciousness providing all the thorny bite needed for it to capture his mind.

“No, Hunk, I’m not thanking you for going out into the storm. I’m asking you what you were thinking about, going out into that hail to rescue a ….car. A car, Hunk, not a person trapped in a dangerous situation, not even an animal. That I might understand, but a car.”

Hunk’s confident smile shimmered with uncertainty, doubt growing like rot in an apple, the visible signs only a hint of the depth of the decay.

“You’re still looking at me like I’m speaking Swahili. Don’t you get it? I don’t care about the car! Hell, it’s not even my car. It’s a loan from some man I met once, a man who wanted to suck up to my father. The stupid thing could get struck by lightning and burst into flames and I wouldn’t have left the table until dinner was over.”

Hunk stared, fear and uncertainty re-asserting an all too familiar hold on his face. The conversation that floated above the dining room table fluttered like an over-sized moth, suddenly successful in its effort to find the brightest (and most dangerous) light. Dorothy looked up from her plate and looked at Eliza and Hunk the way a person stares at a friend at a masquerade ball, knowing that under the mask was a person very well-known to her.

Eliza turned from Hunk quickly enough that his face was obscured by the wave of brunette hair. As light as the touch was, he recoiled as if stung by a swarm of hornets. Seeing the stunned looks in the eyes of her host, she tried to restrain the vehemence in her voice,

“What is it with you people? Tell me how I’ve only been here a week and can’t appreciate the subtleties of life in the country. I get how direct and forthright and ‘tell it like it is’ you people are supposed to be, but I sure as hell know greed and insecurity when I see it. As nice and friendly every one has been to me, there’s this thing about possessions that you have that’s really un-attractive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the people where I come from aren’t as prone to greed and wanting more than the other guy, but they don’t cover it up with all the wholesome, pious ‘aw shucks’ crap that I see around me.”

From the suddenly nighttime sky, came the rumble of thunder. Hunk pulled aside the white curtains and stared towards the southern sky. His eyes and ears strained to see and hear something in the distance. Blown by the wind, the curtain wrapped itself around his waist, an oddly intimate embrace.

“Sorry to interrupt everyone’s lunch, but this might be a good time for you all to move it down to the shelter.”

“No, Hunk. I’m not going down there. I’ll wait here. If you’re right about whats coming next in this storm, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll get sucked up into a tornado? The last time that happened, my life actually improved, at least for a while. Don’t you agree, Auntie Em?”

“Now you’re just talking crazy, young lady.”

Emily Gale staring at the girl, addressed her dinner guest,

“See, Doctor Morgan? This is exactly what I was telling you. She insists on being defiant.  What have I done to deserve this kind of disrespect? I should think that given how we’ve provided for her all these years, allowing her a better life than she would have had… otherwise. For all my sacrifice, this is what we get, demands and disobedience.”

“‘Dr Morgan‘? What exactly are you talking about, Aunt Emily? What has Dr. Morgan have to do with this family. Not counting, that is, that damn hospital wing that means so much to you. Sounds like you’ve been sharing a lot about our family with Dr. Morgan. Did you tell him about my visions after the Storm of ’37? Did you go to him, demanding that he do something, give you a potion, a medicine that will make your ‘niece’ behave? Did you hope he would suggest something to restore me to being a useful part of the Gale Farm?”

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, his expression betrayed his regret at not taking the less responsible path and staying with his wife this Sunday afternoon. Hearing the distant growling of thunder, he looked around the dining room; he felt an actor on stage, in a play he was shanghaied into the role of good-natured foil. He decided to remain silent, confident his cue would be obvious or, better yet, the action would focus on one of the other players.

Henry Gale continued to enjoy his meal. He sat, a look of contentment on his face, comfortable not participating in the conversations flaring up in the room. His expression, one of acceptance for what he knew was good and resignation to the things that were bad. The secret to his composure being that he knew he had done well to procure one and could only endure the other. When he did look up, a pause between bites of roast chicken and the occasional sips of cold water, his face projected a peacefulness more commonly observed in the face of soldiers after learning that the order to charge into the enemy’s guns, but not yet hearing the actual order. He looked around the dining room and saw nothing but responsibility, debt and a fleeting promise of happiness. He looked back at his plate and continued to eat.

Eliza Thornberg sat down in her chair. The white linen curtains behind her, given life by the increasing wind, draped themselves over her shoulders, a momentary bride.

Hunk’s posture was a perfect illustration of the fight/flight instinct. Like all animals, when first aware of an approaching but undefined threat, his body portrayed the simplest of all life’s decisions. Survival required action, debate of options, a luxury.

Dorothy turned in her seat towards Emily Gale and the hapless Thaddeus Morgan. Emily looked around the dining room and felt sad and angry. As she watched her adopted daughter turn her attention on her, Emily Gale spoke first.

“Dorothy Gale! You don’t know how lucky you are. You have a hardworking father and mother who wanted only whats best for you and the family. No matter who tells you otherwise.”

Dorothy began to feel the need to get up and run, out of the room, out into the yard, out into the path of whatever storm happened to be heading towards her. What kept her seated was a belief, more of a fragment, of a forgotten memory. There was something that, once she discovered it’s nature, would make sense of her feelings. It had something to do with travels, but ever elusive it slipped from her mind.

She looked around the dining room and had the sudden conviction that everyone wore a disguise. She frowned at her own thought, she knew quite well who was who and  was certain no one was wearing a disguise or mask or hiding any secrets.

But’ a small voice in her head spoke up, meek yet bold, as if a mouse before a man, ‘you also once knew that there was nothing beyond the rainbow and you were totally certain that scarecrows couldn’t speak, witches were not real and every day life was to be lived and not questioned. Didn’t you?‘ There was the lilt of hope in the last words. It was more a reminder of something that she misplaced, but not thrown away.

Dorothy Gale felt dismay spreading like a yawn from her thoughts to her feelings, the tired that was just behind the yawn was how she felt when she returned to Circe after the Storm of ’37. Then, as this Sunday afternoon, she looked around at the townspeople and her family and friends and had to resist the desire to ask everyone, “I know who you are here, but who are you really?” The changes from her time in… the other place, were such that she did not feel that she had changed, that instead, the world around her had changed. As it did, or did not.

Increasingly feeling like a stranger in her home and hometown, Dorothy Gale realized that the cure was simple but the price was high. She could go back to her life being Dorothy Gale, the painfully normal farm girl who had been adopted by the prominent Gale family and raised almost like one of their own children, or she could find her real mother.

***

“Remember that night last spring, out in the corner of the yard at your father’s house?”

“You read to me, from my Gulliver’s Travels.”

Almira’s voice rose from the dark side of the front seat of our car, the small orange glow on the end of my cigarette a tiny fire, lighting the woolen hills of blankets she had gathered around her for our drive home through the cold Kansas night. The other side of the front seat was extra dark because Almira had taken the three blankets, (that she made the sales manager give us when we bought the car right off the showroom floor), and built herself a …. not a nest.

While great intelligence is an asset in any man or woman, what set Almira apart was her passion. Her will to love, to bring together, to fight when necessary and to protect those in need of a champion; despite the fact she was as near to bringing a child into the world as possible and still be able to run to the car after an excruciatingly tedious social occasion, what she had created on her side of the Packard’s front seat was not a nest.

As a mother-to-be, my wife was not a member of one of the gentle and kind and complacent families of God’s creatures, fashioning warm and dry nests, from pieces of branches and threads of straw meant for comfort as they brought new life into the world, trusting in nature and good fortune that she might be over-looked by the larger (and hungrier) varieties of God’s creatures at her moment of weakness.

Almira had taken the new, very expensive brown woolen car blankets and built a den.

“Yeah, I remember.”

“You gave me a life to bring out to the world that night. A life that’s some of me and some of you.”

I slid my right hand over across the seat and felt her reach out and grasp it.

“You gave me my own life back, that night, Almira.”

“It’s always going to be you and me, and our child, isn’t it?”

Almira shifted in her blankets, leaned forward with both elbows on the dashboard, her chin in her hands and watched as we drove across a flat and simple landscape.

“Remember the times we sat huddled together outside the mill? You and me surrounded by the brick walls? we could escape the cold and the hard times in that small space, because I had you and you had me. The world, that world out there, is only where we pass through, it does not define us. Our love, and only our love, defines and gives us meaning.”

I heard the smile and confidence in her voice as we drove through the dark.

The Gale farm was not all that far from where we were living with the Baumeisters, at least not far by local standards. If it were a summer day and I was alone in the car I could have made the trip in 45 minutes. It was neither. This Sunday’s evening drive looked to be about 90 minutes. Which was not a bad thing. Since arriving in Circe, Almira and I have not had a lot of time alone. Simone and Ted were wonderful hosts, but that they were the only other people in the large farmhouse did nothing to decrease the feeling of being in a fish bowl at times.

“I love Simone and Teddy, but It’s good to be alone. As guests in someone’s house, even up in our room, I never feel, you know, like we’re alone. It’s nice to be with you, seems like its been forever.”

Almira seemed to read my mind. It was a talent that I had come to grips with and it’s mostly a good thing.

“Once the baby arrives, I suspect that moments like this will become a bit of a luxury.”

Almira pulled on the back half of her blanket den and I saw her eyes, the familiar intensity in them triggered not-unpleasant ripples to run through me.

“How do you do that?”

I laughed, but softened it by pretending to concentrate on the road ahead, which now was a ribbon of lighter dark against a nearly black background. The flattened cones of light ran ahead of the car, the stars, somehow, provided enough light to make out the prairie landscape on either side of the road.

“Do what?”

“Change your size at will. At one minute I see a shy 16-year-old girl, reading a book on a hand-me-down couch in a musty union hall, the very next minute I watch you make politicians, business men and stevedores hang on your every word. A very cute mammal running circles around the huge dinosaurs who roar and make like they will rule forever. And you, my powerful inheritor of the earth, just wait and bide your time.”

“Well for one thing I don’t know if I like your choice of similes. And besides, I do not change size and make myself the center of everything!'”

Our laughter gave the noise of the car on the gravel road a run for its money.

“Well, thanks for coming along, babe. If I had to go through that alone, I don’t know if I could have made it to desert.”

“Henry Gale seemed like a nice enough fellow. His wife Emily, well, Emily is a very impressive young woman. She’s accomplished a great deal with what she had, with where she came from.”

Almira spoke more to the passing scenery, as if by understanding the geography, she would better understand the people living in it.

“You, my dear wife, possess the mind of a politician and the heart of an angel. Emily Sauvage inherited money from her uncle Charles. It was only after an unsuccessful attempt to make it in Philadelphia society, that she returned home and bought a run-down farm with part of her rather sizable inheritance. Everything else she has done since then was evident in the eyes of the 16-year-old girl, fresh from Kansas, when she visited her brother at Dartmouth.”

“And you, my dear husband are gifted with an imagination that lets you see the world in a grain of sand and the ambitions in the eyes of a lonely girl. It is you who has the heart of an angel. All that most of us would have seen in her eyes, then or now, is a desperate need for material things in the vain hope of securing social status. All in the service of making her feel a part of a world that she doesn’t believe she belongs.”

I was, as always, impressed by Almira’s talent for people. The Sunday dinner at the Gale farm went exactly as Emily Gale had planned it and it was successful in re-assuring her that she was on the path to a happy life. Henry showed us the barn and the livestock and the equipment, still shiny and new. His enthusiasm for farming was simple, sincere and the one relaxing aspect to the entire afternoon. The dinner, of course, was in Emily’s domain and was not as enjoyable.

“Well, thank you anyway, babe. Once I handed over Cyril’s envelop, I was pretty much ready to leave and get back to the Baumeister’s. Have I told you what a genius you are at bringing out the best in people.”

“One odd thing.”

I looked over at her, light brown hair providing a decorative fringe to the brown woolen blanket she wore as a hood,

“Odder than the small bedroom on the far side of the living room? The one where someone had painted a row of animals along the top of the wall, just below the ceiling?”

“Very observant!”

I laughed at the burst of pride in my chest at her two-word acknowledgment.  I suspect that when I’m old and in my 50s, I’ll still feel as good when Almira compliments me.

“And very diplomatic of you not to ask about it. But, there was a moment in the kitchen. I had a casserole dish in each hand, was turned to leave to put them on the table and she was standing there, next to the door to the dining room and staring at me. I didn’t say anything, just stood there. Finally, almost to herself, Emily said, ‘Dorothy is what I will name my child. No matter how long it takes, that’s the name I will give her and that will make her mine.’
She looked up, as if seeing me for the first time, laughed and said, ‘So much to do, a good hostess never rests.'”

The dark sky arced and connected ‘back there’ to ‘up ahead’, as we drove to our temporary home with the Baumeisters.

What?”

I saw a frown of pained surprise grip Almira’s face. It was gone as soon as I turned to look closer at her. My foot came off the gas pedal but my left hand tensed on the steering wheel.

“Nothing. Your little friend Emily may know how to read, but is far from a good cook. Something I ate, maybe some of whatever was in that orangey yellow casserole dish. Gas. It’s not enough that I feel like I have to pee whenever I… stand up or sit down? I get to have gas too!”

She laughed, curled her legs up on the seat between us and looked up through the passenger side window,

“So much space. If I look at the right angle, it’s like I’m flying over the land and I ….oh!”

Now both my hands tried to change the placement of the indentations carved into the steering well.

ohh!!

The note of surprise in Almira’s voice was replaced by an upturn into fear, followed immediately by a sound that I’ve never heard from her. Out of nowhere came a memory of one time my father took me to Roger Williams Zoo. There was a new exhibit, an African lion and the newspaper said that the curators believed she was pregnant. My father and I stood at the edge of the moat that encircled the lion exhibit for at least an hour. We never once saw the lioness. I remember being disappointed and my father saying, ‘Sometimes, son, things go according to our plans. But pretty much nature does what she does on her own timetable.’ As we turned to walk away, I heard a roar from the depths of the cavern-like enclosure. It was a sound of fear mixed with triumph that I never heard again, until just now.

“My god!”

I looked frantically through the windshield and, twisting, out through every window, searching for something in the vast darkness that I could recognize. I looked back at Almira, she was pulling the blankets against her shoulder and pushing her feet against my leg. Hard.

“Sterling…. I think it’s happening…”

“But the doctor said… you are supposed to have the baby in January…”

The look on her face made me stop talking about doctors.

I brought the car to a complete stop, but kept the engine running. A part of me was thinking that we would at least be warm, a much bigger part of me was looking for a direction to run in, to take Almira someplace where people knew what to do. I even got out, stood on the running board and looked up the road in the direction of the Baumeisters. I did resist the urge to climb on the roof and wave my arms, as the sounds of my wife in distress grew and made the featureless landscape darker than I would have thought possible.

“OK, if you can hold out just a little longer, I’ll get us back to the Baumeisters. Simone will know what to do.”

Sitting up a little, Almira caught my eyes and held them by force of will,

“This, dear husband, is not a matter of learning. This is a matter of our baby deciding to join us ahead of schedule.”

“But if I drive real fast… ” I saw a look of exasperation grow in her eyes, “Ok, then I’ll drive real slow and we’ll be closer every minute and then…”

Almira reached from where she leaned up against the car door and grabbed my hand and held it tight. Encouraged, I continued,

“And if we can get close enough, I’ll use the horn and they’ll hear us and they’ll come to help you.”

Her grip tightened to the point where it felt like the bones in my knuckles were rubbing directly against each other,

“We’re alone out here, Sterling. The time is now. The baby is not going to wait. I need you to help me. It’s just you and me”

Her eyes began to focus somewhere I would never see and she made a sound, nearly the same as the one that I heard as a 10-year-old boy. This time my father was not standing next to me to explain what I must do. I suddenly knew that, as it had been the first night we met, on a winter’s night years before, I needed to hold her and know that she had the strength to do what had to be done. And she would know that I would be there and never let her go.

In a brief lull, in the quiet of the car, land and fields and night animals still, as they witnessed Almira’s cries, I brushed back a stray veil of dampened hair from her eyes. She looked up at me and smiled,

“Almost there, husband of mine, we’re almost there.”

“I am here as I have always been and will always be, wife of mine. You are the center of my world.”

I felt her grip increase and after the passage of time I could not count, her cries were replaced by a smaller cry. I pulled her close and she and I formed a shelter between us, three of us now.