Chapter 45

August 11, 1922  Circe, Kansas

Almira managed to pull Sterling into a half-upright position, his head resting against her breast, by finding the section of slanted stone where, minutes before, they both spoke quietly of their life. She had to use her left arm to push herself into a balance with his far greater bulk. With most of Sterling’s weight now on her chest, Almira let herself fall back against the still warm stone. Feeling the support behind her back allowed her to focus on the too-silent man in her arms. For the first time she began to see the red of blood, seemingly everywhere. Glancing down at herself, she saw a dress in tatters, one shoulder and breast completely bare, the torn fabric twisted into an oblong of wrinkles, like a wash-cloth carelessly thrown from a bath. Her right hand was traced in red, along the inside of her fingers and across the tops of both forearms. Her left was holding Sterling’s head still, fingers entwined in hair damp with blood. Gently, she ran her right hand across his forehead,

“Are you hurt?”

Even as Sterling spoke, Almira felt the muscles in his arms and chest tighten as he tried to sit upright. She felt something like an electric shock through her scalp when she looked down and saw blood, a bright red splotch in the center of his shirt, grow and spread.

“Yeah, babe. I’m good. You look a little beat up, though.”

She leaned slightly forward against the weight of his upper body as she felt his right arm move behind her as he pulled himself closer to her. He tried, with slow success to look up into her eyes from where he rested, beard stubble scraping towards the side of her breast. She felt a decrease in weight as he managed to raise and turn his face to look up at her, his eyes laughed but coughing seized him.

“If I get my nose broken one more time, I swear I’m just gonna leave it that way. At least I won’t have to dress up for Halloween.”

“No, don’t make me laugh!”

Sterling tried and failed to sound like he was capable of laughter. A tiny spasm grew into coughing that sounded like a man drowning. Worse than the sound was the spreading of the red stain, now showing liquid pooling in the folds of his once-white shirt.

“I won’t. We’ll just sit here and rest. And then, in a little bit, we’ll get up and wash ourselves in the spring and go back home. After all, we don’t want to alarm our daughter.”

The coughing stopped, but the field of red that marked the center of Sterling’s shirt and formed the center of Almira’s life at the moment, grew.

“Almira?”

“Yeah babe?”

“I need a little more time before we move.”

Her hand, now smeared with blood, both hers and his, grasped his hand that was moving towards her, a hopeless attempt to touch her face.

“No, Sterling, we don’t have to get up now.”

She felt the man relax slightly, as if resting and considering his counter point in an engaging conversation. The silence grew and she spoke, in an un-intentional whisper,

“It just struck me that the most important times in our life together have been you and me leaning against something very solid. We fell in love with our backs against a mill wall, we conceived our daughter with a stone wall that stood silently and protected us from the winter wind.”

Almira looked down at Sterling and saw his eyes begin to focus on some distant point. A tiny, shiny-reflective drop swelled from the corner of her eye and began to descend her cheek, washing the red stains as it moved, leaving behind a very small trail of clean flesh, a defiantly innocent mark on her face. Sterling looked back at her, her heart stuttered as a voice in her mind said, ‘he’s farther away now, you can see it in his eyes’. His voice brought her back to the rough stone ground and the growing darkness,

“Funny, for some reason all I can think of is that book you love so much. How does it start?”

Refusing the part of her that wanted to cower away, somewhere, anywhere but where she and her husband sat covered in blood and bound by love, she recited in a voice that carried the wonder of the tale,

“The author gives some account of himself and family. His first inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his life. Gets safe on shore in the country of Lilliput; is made a prisoner, and carried up the country.”

Almira, watching Sterling’s eyes come back from their distant focus, felt his voice as much as heard it. A vibration through her body that matched the words she spoke and gave them a strength that she was incapable of imparting alone. The green walls of cedar and cottonwood trees seemed to grow taller and straighter, somehow took on a slightly red color. The man and the woman remembered and, by remembering, shared what they had created together with their love, until, all too soon, Almira was reciting the words alone.

***

August 11, 1922

Almira stood in the open doorway and looked at the two men and Emily Gale standing around the dining room table. Emily, Aurora still in her arms, immediately turned away, as if to hide the sight of the child. Almira recognized Gareth Herlihy, now older, heavier and somehow smaller than when last they spoke, half a continent and a lifetime away. The man standing next to him looked like someone she might have met, but could not imagine where or what his name was. The howl of distant wolves in the wilderness echoed from her memory.

“My God!”

“Dear sweet Mary, mother of God”

“There you are!”

The three adults spoke nearly as one, yet conveyed a response that could not have been more different.

Almira Gulch, the glaringly bright early afternoon sunlight served to obscure the details of the shape in the doorway, cast a 5 foot 2 inch woman-shaped shadow. She stepped into the house and stood in the center of the room. To the right was the large stone fireplace surrounded by comfortable seating and to the left, a large rectangular dinner table. Plain wooden chairs along the two long sides and chairs with armrests at either end, illustrating the natural caste system of household furniture. On the table was a pitcher of water and three glasses. Standing along the side of the table farthest from the front door were Emily Gale, Captain Gareth Herlihy and Judge Lucius Delemonte. They were frozen in their personally characteristic reaction as Almira stepped into the house, the sun glare of the outside diminishing, allowing her to be seen in all her terrible detail.

Her blue dress was torn at the right waist, a long, downward flash of white of her underwear. The blue fabric seemed to be of a pattern, until the light shifted and it then appeared to be shades of blue and finally, the eye made it’s inevitable and necessary adjustment, the wispy brushes of red on the field of white where her dress was torn, came into clear view. The blue fabric was uniform but was soaking wet.

The front of her dress was torn from both shoulders, her right breast in plain view, anatomical details of this most female part of the body obscured by a wash of red. The color varied, brighter towards the center of that part of her clothing that, tangled with undergarments remained in position, shell-shocked guard of an outpost  overrun by barbarians intent not only on defeating, but of defiling the enemy. The blood darkened towards reddish-brown over her shoulder and down her arms.

Almira Gulch stood in the middle of her home and stared with eyes that burned, hers a face as fiercely painted as any warrior of the vanishing tribes native to the area. Her nose was bent to the right, its original prominence allowed an angle that an average normal nose would not. Blood red was the dominant color. The whiteness of her flesh became the accent, rather than the background. Streaks ran, bloody glaciers of tears creeping down her cheeks. The brightness of the red was refreshed by a tear at her hairline, a cut, hidden in that hair plastered against her scalp.

“We have the child. I have papers. This man is a District Judge and appointed by the State of Kansas. I have been assigned as legal guardian to look out for the welfare of this poor child. And if you know whats good for her, you’ll just go away.”

Almira turned towards the sound of the voice, seeing only the flashing of the spectacles and the oblong shape of her child. The sharp-edged woman, though younger in years, made her think of the Norn, that inhabited the myths she would read as a child, held Aurora so that her face, eyes closed in sleep, faced away from the room and its occupants. She felt a relief at Aurora being turned away and so spared the sight of her mother dressed in blood and pain. She felt her heart begin to break, a sensation as real as the dull ache of her damaged face, deep in her center. Almira, a vast wasteland dream landscape growing and threatening to drag her away, stepped forward.

Emily Gale continued, her voice taking on a slightly ragged, sing-song lilt.

“Here’s his order allowing me to take her. To be her mother, to provide her with a life that you cannot, being a fugitive from the law and all. And before you can try to deny it, this is a policeman, a police Captain and he has a Warrant for both of… for you. From the look of you, I’d say this came not a moment too soon. It’s for the good of the child.”

Almira Gulch looked at Emily Gale. She looked at Gareth Herlihy who had a look of horror on his face that was mixed with something of regret. The other man took, in the manner of a priest performing a mass, a folded piece of paper from inside his suitcoat and moving a pitcher of water to the side, laid it down on the dining table. The Honorable Lucius Dellamonte took a small leather case from the small briefcase that he placed next to the document and looking down at Almira, said,

“This is an Order from the State of Kansas. It is an involuntary custody order conferring the right of locus parentas, involuntarae, to Mrs Emily Gale. If you sign the bottom here, it will go much easier on your child. This man,” he glanced to his left at Gareth Herlihy, “is a policeman and, temporarily an Officer of the Court. From the looks of you, his services are needed, but of greater importance, he has, in his possession, a Warrant for the arrest of one Sterling Gulch.”

Gareth Herlihy stared at Almira Gulch, the memory of a winter night in Lawrence grew in his mind with unexpected violence which made him step to his left, inadvertently bumping into the dining table. The force of his leg hit the table sufficient to jolt the pitcher of water, causing water to spill out onto the table.

“Watch that! You oaf! Water! Get it away from my papers. Thats an official document!!”

Emily Gale managed to shriek, without raising her voice.

Almira Gulch stared at the paper on the table. Aurora began to cry.

“We’re done here. Captain Herlihy I believe you have a Warrant to serve. Once you’ve done that I believe that Judge Delemonte has the Writ of Seizure of the farm to make all this neat and tidy.”

Emily Gale began to speak to the child in her arms, her tone becoming insistent, as if the fervor in her voice would make the child’s distress less noticeable,

“So you see, Dorothy, everything will be as it should. The Law says that arrested people cannot own property, at least not in this state. It wouldn’t be proper.”

The Honorable Lucius Delemonte looked up over the top of his glasses,

“Well, Herlihy? Do you have a Warrant or don’t you? I haven’t got all day. This only works when the property is held by known criminals.”

Gareth Herlihy’s right hand went to the inside pocket of his suit coat. Pulling back the lapel  with his left, the silk label of Brooks Brothers drew his attention. He heard the memory the CEO of the Essex Corporation, Frederick Prendergast, as he whispered in a voice at once condescending and imperious, “Don’t worry about the money, Herlihy. You do your job and the Corporation will take care of you. Hell, my tailor will have your suit ready before you can go home and pack. I won’t have a representative of my company looking like some common flatfoot. Do this one thing and we’ll give you a gold watch, a medal and you can go back to your little wife in your little house and enjoy retirement.”

Looking at the small woman, any modesty afforded her was from the dark, grainy rust color of blood, Gareth Herlihy took the Warrant from his pocket. Holding it carefully, in two fingers of both hands, he turned to face the thin-faced woman who stood at the table, the child held in the way a bird of prey, intent on not killing its prey until returning to its nest.

“No. I don’t think this is going to happen today. No matter where it is we are, I am still the law in Lawrence.”

He tore the long document into two pieces, then tore those pieces crosswise. He looked at the woman with the child and the Judge with the glasses and put the pieces of paper in his pocket.

“I’m done here, Delemonte. I saw a car out by the barn, if the owner of the property,” he looked at Almira,  ‘Mrs Gulch doesn’t mind, I’ll drive myself back to town. I’ve a train to catch.”

Emily Gale turned on the Judge,

“Delemonte! Are you going to let him get away with that? What kind of goddamn judge are you, do something!”

“Emily, there’s nothing I can do. His Warrant was issued by a Massachusetts court, I have no jurisdiction. He can do whatever he wants to do or not do.”

“I don’t care about jurisdictions! I want whats right for this child and this farm is supposed to be mine. All of it.”

“You’ve got the child. For once in your life, be satisfied with what you’ve managed to take. Let it go, there’s no basis for a seizure of a person’s property without due process, which in this case, would be an arrest. No arrest, no Writ of Seizure.”

The Judge walked out of the house in time to see Gareth Herlihy drive out of the open gate and head out County Road #2. He got into his own car, started the engine and waited.

Emily Gale looked at Almira Gulch,

“Very well, I’ll bide my time. I may not be able to get the deed right here and right now, but I have friends and I have money. Just stay out of my way and maybe I won’t get you arrested by a new Warrant. I have the child. She is now my child. Leave it be, keep your distance or I’ll be back for you and your little farm. From what I guess, you’ll be too busy, working alone to be stirring up trouble with talk about the child.”

Emily Gale backed away from Almira, towards the front door, keeping the child’s face away from seeing the woman standing alone in the living room.

***

After the sound of the Judge’s car dwindled into silence up County Road #2, Almira walked to the leather sofa that faced the cold fireplace. She picked up a leather-bound book from a side table, a black and red Navajo blanket from the back of a chair and wrapped herself into a woolen cocoon. Clutching the book to her chest underneath the blanket, she sat in the center of the couch and stared at ashes that rose like grey snowdrifts under the grates of the cold hearth. The single, tiny trail of un-stained flesh on her cheek slowly grew wider. Silent tears flowed from her heart down her face, the dried remains of blood carried away slowly.

***

The night followed the day, as it always must. Sometimes the dark serves as a hiding place for the things we fear, other times it lets us escape and be alone with the things that exist only in our minds.

The light of the car’s headlamps washed across the living room, running up the walls, disappearing in the doorways of the rooms to the back of the house. Stopping it’s motion, it illuminated the figure of a woman, a shawl of black and red, sitting motionless in the center of a sofa facing the dark fireplace. The shadow of the woman created another figure, sitting in the chair to the far side of the sofa, a silent and dark companion. Neither moved at the sound of voices that rode the footfalls as they crossed the porch and stopped at the open front door.

“Hello! Anyone home?”

A woman’s voice came, in a less forceful tone, to the right of the man’s,

“Seth, I think I saw someone when we drove up. It was a woman, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, I know I saw the sign, it said ‘Almira’s Keep’ right there at the gate,”

Seth Allger turned from the door and looked at his wife,

“This is the place. Look, over there, that building, that can only be the, what did Micael say in his letter, they called it ‘the dormitory’. I know we have the right place. But he said there was always a light on.”

“Maybe we should come back during the day. When it’s not so dark. Come on, I don’t want to intrude on anyone.”

Seth Allger felt the hours of driving from Kansas City pull down on his arms, as he stepped off the porch to where his wife waited. As his foot hit the ground, he heard the squeaking of the screen door, followed by the wooden clap as it slammed shut and, almost immediately, the voice of his daughter from the interior of the dark house.

“My goodness! There’s a woman here.”

Stepping back up onto the porch, Seth called out,

“Claire! Be careful. We’re strangers and this is not our house.”

Seeing a lamp on the wall to the left of the doorway, Seth struck a match, put it to the wick and watched as the light grew. The room came into view, black turning to grey, dark rough shapes turning into furniture. He spotted another lamp on an end table in the living room to the right and lit it as well.

His daughter Claire, her long blonde hair white in the soft glowing of the lamps, was crouching in front of a woman who, wrapped in a blanket of some sort, was sitting on the sofa, facing the fireplace. Seth turned and called out to his wife, still standing next to their car,

“Evelyn, bring the first aid kit. There’s a woman here who seems to have lost a lot of blood.”

Turning back, Seth smiled. His young daughter, Claire, was gently cleaning the silent woman’s hands with a rag that she dipped in a pitcher of water. His smile was in part because he knew for a fact that there was no pitcher of water in the living room when he looked around, after lighting the second lamp.

Almira, far away in a dream of flying from the high wall of a castle, felt her hands being pulled towards the earth. She looked away from the distant mountains that seemed to guide her silent flight. The pull on her hands was gentle and, somehow, carried a message of love and with a sigh, let her path through the air be changed.

“I’m Claire. What is your name? Is this your house? We are so tired from driving. Can we stay here.”

Almira Gulch pulled her arm out from the cocoon of blanket and pulled the girl to her side,

“I couldn’t think of anything better than to have you and your family stay the night.”

***

August 11, 1939  St. Mary’s Hospital  Circe, Kansas

Dorothy sat and looked over at the woman in the bed. She sat assuming the chair would be where it needed to be, behind her, next to the narrow bed. The light in the room seemed to grow and brighten. Looking around, she realized that it was night-time dark outside the windows and that, where there had been orderly rows of people sitting, there was now a crowd, moving, without grace towards the building. There were two chairs on their sides in the grass, looking existentially hopeless, like a boat on dry land, sitting in the sand, too far from the sea. As she stared out the window, a commemorative program flew, like a bird with paralyzed wings, and stuck to the glass of the window.

She looked at the woman in the bed.

“You’re my mother, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Yes I am.”

“Why did you abandon me.”

The look in the eyes of the woman in the bed was not what Dorothy expected. Her second question came from a place inside that she thought she had long locked away. Surprised at the anger that clutched to her words, Dorothy looked and could not see even a hint of what she’d expected to see in the face of the woman; the look of a stumbling rebound of contrition and rationalization. Instead, she saw in the eyes of the woman, a small woman who barely raised the covers of the hospital bed, a look of sad pride. The look in this woman’s eyes startled Dorothy Gale. There was a focus into a distance that was clearly beyond the walls of the Charity Ward, beyond the town in distance and in time.

The woman seemed to pull herself from her memories and focused on the girl with a ferocity that caused Dorothy to lean back in her chair.

“I had no other choice.”

Confused, Dorothy sought the most jagged part of her feelings, feelings that seemed so dark that to expose them would create an eternal night, extinguishing all hope. She closed her eyes and, with a tiny regret blunting the edge of her painful words said,

“Did you love me?”

For the second time, what she saw on the face of the woman in the bed, a face at once familiar as her right hand and as distant as the moon, was not what she expected. Dorothy saw tears in eyes nearly shut. And then she heard the woman begin to laugh.

It was a laughter that was at once joyous and full of near unbearable pain. It was the kind of laughter that very close relatives share on the day of the death of someone very close to both.

“I have never stopped loving you, you are my child. I love you still. That has never changed. Time can only change things, it can’t change or reduce or destroy love. Time is only skin deep. It cannot touch what we are within, if we do not let it.

***

Dorothy sat, not taking her eyes off the face of the woman in the bed. To her right, through the last window, the trees were beginning to look like paint brushes, pulled one way and then another. There was a sound, distant behind the whistling of air through the gap in the wood-frame windows, a deep, almost subterranean roar. It grew slowly. Outside on the west lawn the audience for the groundbreaking ceremony were walking towards the front entrance to the hospital, some faster than others. There were those, mostly the younger people among the gathered, who every few steps would turn around and, continuing to walk with the crowd, only now walking backwards, would stare toward the southwest, as if watching for something approaching. For it’s part, the sky in all directions was some shade of grey. And somehow …familiar.

***

Hunk Dietrich burst through the double doors of the Ward C,

“It’s a twister! It’s heading this way. Come on! Everyone is in the basement, under the main building. It’s the only safe place!”

Dorothy saw a flash of something bright fly by the windows, followed by the crash of glass. Immediately afterwards, she saw another bright object, one of the folding chairs from the neat and civilized rows on the west lawn. This chair was about six feet off the ground as it passed the window. It crashed through the last window where the ward branched off the main hospital building.

Hunk had moved towards Dorothy’s end of the aisle when the first chair went by and was no longer standing just inside the double doors. This was fortunate, as the impact of the second chair drove shards of window glass across the far end of the room, geometrically deadly pieces of glass embedded in the wall, like transparent arrows.

Dorothy stood up next to the bed and reached for the blankets that covered Almira.

“Come on. We need to get you out of that bed and down into the basement.”

She turned to Hunk,

“Hunk you get on that side of the bed. The quickest and safest way to get Mrs. Gulch to the basement is if we carry her in the bed sheets.”

“No. I won’t be going with you. I’m staying here.”

“What? What are you talking about? Do you see what’s going on out there? Do you see the folding chairs crashing through the windows? Wait, if you turn, you should be able to watch my adopted mother’s podium find a home on the roof. We can’t stay here. It’s not safe. There’s a tornado, in case you can’t hear that roaring sound.”

“I do hear it. It’s alright, Aurora. I promise you it’s going to be alright.”

“How can you possible say that?! That’s a tornado heading directly towards this hospital and nothing can stop it. And if there’s anyone who knows what tornadoes can do, its me, so don’t tell me what will happen.”

Dorothy felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Dorothy, it’s going to be alright. We, your mother and I, need to stay here. And I agree with you, you know more than most people how powerful storms can be.”

Dorothy turned to see Nurse Griswold standing next to her. Through the window behind her, the view of the west lawn was all but obscured by blowing debris coming from past the parking lot, headed towards the back of the hospital.

“Dorothy! We have to go.” Hunks voice became insistent. “This part of the hospital does not have a basement. It sits on a low stone foundation. If we don’t leave right now, we will not get to the shelter in time.”

Turning back to the bed, Dorothy saw the old woman struggling with something on the collar of her hospital gown. Something very red. She was pulling at the ribbon attached to the collar.

Dorothy leaned over and saw that a single stitch held the ribbon in place. She pulled and it broke. The ribbon, free of the thin thread that held it in place, un-folded. Released from long restraint, it flowed into a very red, almost ruby-red ribbon barely a half-inch wide and about six inches long.

Almira look up at Dorothy with eyes at once victorious and at peace,

“This is yours. This was given to your father before you were born. He loved you more than you can know and I wore it the day he died. I’ve kept it as close as I could over the years, just for this moment.”

Almira put the ribbon in the palm of Dorothy’s hand, folding her daughters fingers over, enclosing the red ribbon.

“I meant it when I said that love is not a possession that can be taken away and it’s not a place that can be destroyed, it is a connection between people. I loved your father more than anything on earth. We both loved you more than anything on earth because you are the best of both of us.”

Dorothy felt a strong hand on her upper arm and Hunk, with an urgency that seemed to cause him more distress than her, looked her in the eye and said,

“Now. We have to go.”

“One more thing, my daughter.”

The very small woman with the very prominent nose reached towards the metal table to the left of the bed, faltering as the sheets and blanket restricted her efforts. Claire Griswold reached with an efficient grace into the single drawer and handed a leather-bound book to the woman in the bed.

“Here. My life is marked by the words in this book. Take it and share it with those you love.”

Hunk Dietrich walked down the aisle, his right hand around Dorothy Gale’s upper left arm, and pulled her along towards the double swinging doors and safety of the storm shelter below the hospital.

Dorothy’s last sight of the room was of a tall blonde woman seated next to a bed with a small, older woman lying in it. They appeared to be in conversation.

***

Wichita Times Tribune August 18, 1939

“The tornado that passed through Circe last Friday was example of the peculiar nature of that type of storm. The path of destruction was of uncommonly limited scope. Crossing town limits at West Main Street, it inflicted little damage to the stores and shops.

‘The twister’, according to Silas Fremont, who was about to leave the Circe Free Library when the funnel cloud moved along the street, ‘it took a left turn, just as pretty as you please, right up the Commons and blew bloody hell out of the fountain and then, as god is my witness, turned again and took a bead on the hospital.’

Damage to the fountain was considerable and early assessments put it ‘beyond repair’. St Mary’s Hospital is where the oddity of tornado damage was most clearly demonstrated. After moving across the West Lawn, where the dedication of the new wing was hurriedly evacuated, it hit the part of the hospital that housed the Charity Ward, resulting in its total destruction.

Dr Thaddeus Morgan, who was one of the first to leave the basement shelter, reported, ‘I hesitate to use the term, but the destruction was one of surgical precision. Nothing remained of the old Charity Ward, yet the two swinging doors in their frame still opened and closed. Alas, they open on nothing but dirt and stone.’

A surprising lack of debris was left on the scene after the passing of the tornado, which withdrew back up into the clouds after striking the hospital. There are reports of two women being in the ward at the time of the strike, But records show only one women, Almira Gulch, as being in the hospital at the time.

No bodies have been found or recovered.”

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