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,
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.