Chapter 39

Featured

August 4, 1939  Circe, Kansas

“You do remember that the ribbon cutting is next week, don’t you? Are you in such a hurry to get back to your little friends in New York that you’d deprive your parents the courtesy of attending? It’s not as if we haven’t struggled for years to send you to your precious school. I think you owe your father that much, don’t you?”

Dorothy sat across the breakfast table, the years of conditioning compelled her to pay attention to her mother. There’s a saying that there’s good even in the bad, and so it was with Dorothy’s relationship with her adopted mother; Dorothy was not surprised by the older woman’s reaction to her announcement of the change in plans for her return to school in New York. For her part in this well rehearsed and practiced scene, Emily Gale twisted her spotless napkin into a shape that looked, for all the world, like a strangled white bird and glared at the girl. In the semaphore of non-verbal familial battles, the older woman’s eyes proudly proclaimed that she still had the strength to withstand the abuse that was inevitable when raising an ungrateful and selfish child.

“If it helps any, I’ll be going with Eliza to her parents home in Newport to spend a week or two before school starts. You’ve alway said that college was as much about meeting new people and having new experiences as it was studying and getting good grades.”

The sudden sharpness in Emily Gale’s eyes, a glint every bit the sudden spark created when two hardened surfaces strike each other; the motion was direct enough to multiply the energy and yet, sufficiently oblique to avoid mutual annihilation. Dorothy turned in her chair, looked out through the curtained windows and absently rubbed her fingers. The unconscious motion in pale imitation of her mother’s silent violence against the table linen. She felt an itch that originated, somehow, from inside her hands. As commonly happens, rubbing her hands together provided a feeling of relief that lasted right up to the moment the massaging became destructive of the flesh it intended to soothe.

‘I guess I must be a Gale.’ Dorothy thought with bitter relief, ‘I see an opportunity to take advantage of her and I don’t have the slightest compunction or hesitation at inflicting pain.’

“Why yes, Aunt Em. I’ll be there for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Eliza and I plan to leave immediately afterwards and drive to Kansas City. I know how important the day is for you and how hard you’ve worked. Uncle Henry and I will be there for you.”

Turning back towards the table, Dorothy realized that her adopted mother was no longer at the table. Without a sound she’d left and was sitting in her small office on the far side of the adjoining living room. The matter of when Dorothy would leave home had been resolved to her satisfaction, so had turned her attention to matters of greater importance.

***

August 5, 1939  Circe, Kansas

“Hi Becky. Have some overdue books I believe I need to return.”

Hunk Dietrich, eyes adjusting to the indoor dusk of the library, smiled pleasantly towards the young girl on the far side of the Main Circulation desk. He felt an unexpected excitement at the high school senior’s response to his greeting.  He found himself thinking,  ‘… minus one destroyed family, a few years off my age and I might be carrying flowers instead of these overdue school books’.  He smiled openly at the simple and un-affected welcome on the face of the young girl. Becky Stillworth, only 17 years old, was young enough to react without contrivance, simply shared her happiness. There was, in her response to Hunk’s greeting, an un-intended display, in the focus in her eyes, the tilt of her head, of the beauty and passion that was, as yet, an un-realized quality.

Hunk was certain, glimpsing the split-second image reflected in the girl’s eyes, that his decision to leave the Gale farm was the correct one.

“I got accepted to the University of Chicago!”

Becky’s happy excitement made her statement as much a lyric of a song as a recitation of fact. She moved around the desk with the natural grace of the young, still free of the chains of life’s lessons, both good and bad. As she moved through the dusty-hushed atmosphere of a library in the middle of a summer day, she left a wake of simple and unadulterated joy as she came to stand in front of Hunk. She came to a stop near enough to feel the press of his chest, advancing and receding with each breath. Surprised Hunk simply stopped breathing and smiled,

“I knew you could do it, kiddo. There ain’t no stopping you now!”

As Hunk Dietrich stared down into Becky Stillworth’s face, the exuberance of a happy teenage girl evolved into a silently confident attitude, the transformation from gifted young girl into talented young woman, now complete.

Throwing her arms around his denim shoulders, Becky Stillworth hugged her friend and ignored the frowns of the middle-aged library patrons. Further back in the shadows of the reading room, the quiet smiles of the older patrons rang like silent bells.

“Come on! Lets go outside so I can tell you everything! I’m so happy!”

Hunk smiled and let Becky lead him outside, content to dream for a short time before he had to leave and discover what life might be prepared to offer ...if he found the courage to demand it.

***

July 3, 1922  Circe, Kansas

Almira Gulch walked out through the back door of their farmhouse, walked along the far side of the barn and along the rear of the two-story building they called ‘the dormitory’. She planned to approach un-noticed, where her husband Sterling was painting window trim and her daughter Aurora watched from the lawn, shaded by young elm trees, in the relative safety of her playpen.

The farm’s former owners, Teddy and Simone Baumeister, planted elm saplings at the right front corner of the building, even before they finished construction. Their hope was that with time, they would provide shade from the summer sun, the time of year when people want to enjoy meals outdoors. The three-year-old elm trees were beginning to spread enough to provide a cool spot for Aurora Gulch to sit outside and watch her father paint.

As Almira quietly approached, she could see Aurora in the center of the quilt that was spread over the grass, a safe and comfortable surface, suitable for sleeping babies. Or, as it happened at this moment, wide-awake babies. Surrounding the child, a protective enclosure was created by inter-locking sections of wooden fencing. Fashioned from light weight maple, each section was three feet in height and four feet in length. The vertical slats, sanded and polished smooth, were as far apart to allow a free view, while keeping Aurora safely confined. It had been a gift from the first guests that Almira and Sterling had as new owners of the farm. Micael and Lisa Davis presented them with the hand-crafted playpen as they left, the end of their three-week stay.

“Wish we had more to give you in repayment of your hospitality. I found the wood in the barn, it didn’t seem to be in use and, well, I made this for your daughter.”

Micael Davis leaned the five sections of lovingly polished wood, complete with a large red ribbon bow, against the front porch railing,

“My Lisa found the ribbon in our things, though I can’t remember packing away any ribbon when I loaded up the car back in Canton.”

Almira returned Lisa Davis’s shy smile with a wink,

“We just wanted you to know how much we appreciate your letting us stay and rest up a bit.”

Almira put her baby in Sterling’s arms, stepped to the edge of the porch and hugged both Lisa and Micael; Lisa’s eyes grew shiny with emotion and Micael’s eyes grew wide in happy surprise,

“We’re grateful you could stay with us. You helped us realize that we made the right decision buying this place. If ever you’re passing through these parts, our home is your home.”

Almira took Aurora back and leaned against Sterling, his left arm around her shoulders. They stood on the porch and watched the Davis family drive out through the gates, turn left and disappear into the distance, down County Road #2, headed west.

Now, on a warm August day, Almira stood watching Sterling paint the last of the window frames. He used his left hand, his right arm while useable, did not allow the fine motor control painting trim required.

A little more than 18 months old, Aurora seemed to be a normally developing child. More and more frequently she found reason to stand on her own two feet, although if her father was anywhere near, Aurora would plant herself down wherever she might be and hold out her two arms and stare at him until he picked her up. She would smile and batter his face with soft, rounded fists, her heartfelt reward for his help. The wooden enclosure provided her with the opportunity to be outside while allowing Almira and Sterling the freedom to attend to the many chores involved in running the farm.

After her first birthday, Aurora settled into a daily routine of sleeping and growing and though they had no prior experience with children, both Almira and Sterling would describe their daughter as a quiet child. Aurora was inclined to roam whenever given a chance, however, when put down on the quilt in the playpen, she seemed content to sit and watch the nearby adults. With the onset of warmer weather, more and more time was spent outside, as Sterling worked on one or another of the endless daily chores and repairs.

Almira stood just around the corner of the building and watched her daughter watch her father. As Sterling dipped his brush and spread the paint over the thin boards surrounding the windows, Aurora did not simply stare at him, a life-sized mobile, hung over a baby’s crib to randomly attract their attention; she was watching him. Almira was startled when, as Sterling ran his brush up and down along the window she noticed Aurora’s tiny right hand moving in a similar motion. Less precise a motion, of course, her still pudgy arm uncertain but enthusiastic. However, whenever Sterling stopped, so did Aurora. For no reason Almira thought, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Taken by half-formed images of a warm room surrounded by chairs and books, she dismissed it as another outbreak of her notoriously active imagination and walked up to the father and daughter working in the shade of a small grove of young elm trees.

Sterling stopped painting and said,

“Hey was that Emily Gale I saw leaving here a couple of hours ago?”

“It most certainly was, our neighbor, and your old flame… ”

Almira watched for the delayed response on her husbands face….

“Well, she was stopping by to be neighborly and invited us to the fireworks celebration in town. Seems like some of the bigger farms chip in and put out a spread on the town square and even pay for the fireworks.”

“You might want to take Aurora, she’s old enough now to not be frightened by the noise and the lights. Your old husband, on the other hand, will be staying here, possibly under the covers, at least until all the merriment is over.”

Sterling continued painting. Almira walked over and, stooping under his outstretched left arm,  faced him with her back against the shingles of the side of the building. She smiled and looked up at him. The difference in their height, at least a foot, allowed him to continue painting, or at least pretend to continue painting. Each time he bent to dip his brush in the paint can, she would remain where she was, forcing him to brush his face on her head and along her face to her chest.

Almira stood and smiled as, apparently delighted with the new entertainment, Aurora made sounds of baby laughter and cooing sounds.

***

July 4, 1922  Lawrence, Massachusetts

“Freddy, here’s that list you wanted. I had my Registrar type it up yesterday, just before I left Hanover. Mrs. Tompkins, who’s been to every graduation ceremony since before you and I got out of goddamn high school, made a crack about it being the oddest list of graduating class biographies she’s seen in a long time. Nevertheless, those of us charged with keeping Dartmouth at the top of the ivy-covered heap, recognize the value in keeping our more successful alumni happy.”

Nigel Fiske sat in one of the two chairs that faced Frederick Prendergast’s desk. The same age as Frederick, Nigel tended to the ‘over’ side of overweight and had difficulty sitting in the short-backed visitor’s chair. Across his ample gut, the gold links securing his Phi Beta Kappa key appeared strained, a mongrel’s chain drafted into use securing a rusty freighter at dock. To his left, Lizabeth Addams stood, a stoic look turning her patrician features to the far side of 30.

“Well, Nigel, I’m happy you could come down and enjoy the holiday with Constance and me. I trust you’ll find the accommodations I’ve arranged, to your liking.”

“Yes, Freddy I’m enjoying my visit to your little mill town,

Nigel Fiske’s left hand snaked around Lizabeth’s waist,

“and your Miss Addams here, has promised to show me the best position to enjoy the fireworks.”

The President of Dartmouth College rubbed the side of Lizabeth Addam’s hip with his free hand and grinned like a schoolboy running to the woodshed with his first deck of nude playing cards. For her part, Lizabeth stared out the windows behind the CEO of the Essex Corporation, as if searching for a familiar landmark. The longing on her face held a hint of self-loathing.

Frederick Prendergast stared at his secretary, looked down at the sheets of paper and said,

“Nigel, your Endowment Fund is in luck! This list is exactly what I’ve been looking for since, well, a while now. I have some last-minute matters to attend to, what say we meet for drinks, 3:00 o’clock this afternoon?”

Nigel Fiske beamed at the mention of Endowments and pushed himself towards the forward edge of his chair, the risk of falling to the floor offset by the momentum that would allow him to stand without having to lean on the young woman.

“Splendid idea, Freddy! I’m sure Miss Addams and I can occupy ourselves…”

“Sorry, Nigel, I need her myself. It’ll be less than an hour. I’ll see that you don’t get lonely, at least for too long.”

A look of stubborn petulance crept from Nigel’s mouth towards his eyes. He considered strategies to convince his host to change his plans, however, the effort to steady himself took more of his attention than he’d planned. To make matters worse, the young woman had stepped forward towards her boss’s desk and deprived him of a steadying arm.

Frederick Prendergast looked back down at the papers on his desk, one graduate’s biography outlined in red.

“Miss Addams? I believe that Captain Herlihy is scheduled for a brief visit this morning,

He looked at his pocket watch and then back at the woman and smiled,

“Go ahead and send him on in when he arrives. I want to get this work done so we can enjoy the Fourth.”

***

“Alright, Herlihy, I’ve got a town to manage and this Fourth of July extravaganza ain’t running itself. Lets get this done.”

Sitting at his desk, behind him the July green of the Commons was decorated in the blue and reds of the Fourth of July celebration. Frederick ran his index finger down the typed list and looked up at his visitor.

“You ready?”

The Chief of Police of Lawrence, Massachusetts, not bothering to sit, had a small notebook and a pencil in his hands.

“Her name is Emily Gale. She’s the sister of Cyril Sauvage, the late Cyril Sauvage, decorated and dead war veteran and the former college roommate of one Sterling Gulch. She lives in a small and pointless town by the name of Circe. According to my source, Mrs. Gale recently made a large donation to Dartmouth and, given the size of her gift, the Dean followed up and established contact with her.  In a reply to his letter, she went on at length how she enjoyed her visit to Hanover when she was a girl and now that her brother’s roommate had moved to her hometown, she felt she should do something in honor of her brother’s memory.

The bastard’s in fuckin Kansas, can you believe that?”

Gareth Herlihy stood silently. This matter of finding a suspect of a murder, now nearly 10 years in the past, had been the glue that kept him and this man behind the desk joined over the years. He waited in silence because he knew that Frederick Prendergast enjoyed explaining how clever he was to people he was certain were not.

“This time we have the son-of-a-bitch. If, that is, you don’t fuck this up again. I’m not taking any chances this time, Herlihy. Miss Addams has your train tickets and a generous retainer’s fee. Go to Kansas and bring me back the murderer. And his little wife, too. There are three return tickets in the envelope. Just to be on the safe side, I’ve had what passes as local authorities out there in Kansas notified of your arrival. They will not say or do a thing until you get there. Understand?”

Gareth Herlihy felt tired and at the same time, felt a rising sense of relief, wanting only to put an end to this matter of who murdered a woman and a man during the 1912 walk out at the mills. This, he decided as he stood and pretended to listen, was as good a point as any to end his career in law enforcement and enjoy his hard-earned retirement.

Still without a word, Gareth Herlihy put the note-book in his pocket, walked out of the office. As he passed her desk, he took the large envelope held out by the young and very attractive secretary.

As soon as the outer office door closed, Lizabeth Addams heard Frederick Prendergast’s painfully smooth and charming voice creep from the small intercom on her desk,

“Miss Addams, I don’t care what you have to do, but find Herschel Goloby and get him here before the end of the day.”

Advertisements

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.

Chapter 34

Featured

“Are you sure you’re feeling up this?”

The Baumeisters waved from the porch as Almira and I drove out through the always open gate, turned right and headed south on County Rd #2.

We’d accepted their invitation to stay with them, at least until we made a decision where we would spend the winter. Given Almira’s condition, we didn’t need any convincing that settling here in Circe, at least until the baby was born, was the right decision. Even more importantly, there was something about Ted and Simone that made me feel welcome and, not being a person to quickly make friends, that’s saying a lot. Almira is, in her way, more comfortable around strangers, from the look on her face, as she walked through the front door just a few nights before, you’d have thought that she’d lived there all her life.

Simone and Ted Baumeister were in their late thirties and, at the moment, alone in the large farmhouse. Ted showed me what he referred to as, the ‘dormitory’ the day after our arrival, explaining that he’d just completed the interior and it was ready for whoever needed a place to stay. I started to say something about how it would only take a little time to move from the large second floor bedroom, when he interrupted me,

“Nein! Not you and Almira! Our children, they have all grown and moved on, this dormitory, I built because, well, because we are able to build it. You’d be surprised at how many people pass by our small farm here. Many are looking for work, some seeking direction, all need a comfortable place to rest for a short time from their journey. But you and little Almira, you are different. You, I think, you are family. You will stay with us in the house, for as long as you wish.”

I looked past the two-story building at the barn, about 100 yards further back from the road. It had corrals and pens on it’s far side, and beyond, lay fields, now in frozen slumber awaiting the warmth of Spring to awaken them. Ted and I walked back towards the house,

“I appreciate it, Ted. I don’t know how long we’ll be staying in Circe, but I know I like it here and Almira loves it. My wife is one of the most self-assured women I’ve ever met and she always finds the best in the people; her work with the unions makes that a very valuable quality. I saw something in her face the other night, when Simone opened the door and welcomed us. There was a relaxing, a letting down of her guard that made me believe in miracles. For the first time since we left Providence, I saw an expression on her face that told me she felt at home. Thank you. I won’t burden you with the details, but it is quite remarkable.”

Ted Baumeister, a very large man, easily six-foot three, put his arm across my shoulders as we walked up the porch stairs. At a volume that was something a little quieter than a roar, he announced our return,

“Simone! What is for dinner!”

Almira and Simone were sitting on a sofa that faced the over-sized fireplace, there were books everywhere. Some open on a low table, passages illuminated by the flames of the warming fire, several lying on the floor, a modern fairy ring surrounding the two women. Almira had one book in her lap, pointing to a passage that surely was in support of whatever point she was about to make to Simone, who had her own book, resting on the arm of the blue and gray fabric sofa. She looked up and laughing said,

“Exactly my question, Teddy. You and Sterling there, be sure to let Almira and me know in plenty of time to free ourselves of this avalanche of words and ideas. We are starving!”

We all laughed and Ted Baumeister and I headed for the kitchen.

***

Watching the road ahead, I noticed the scarecrow in the field that we saw the night we arrived at the Baumeisters. It was still in the same part of the field, except rather than left arm pointing, it’s right arm was pointing in what would have been the opposite direction. I felt a twinge pulling at the scar tissue on my face, ‘Well, Sterling’, I thought, ‘chalk one up to long-term effects of shell shock on memory.’ I followed the County Rd #2 to the right and after about twenty minutes I could see in the distance, still just a smudge below the razor clean horizon, a farmhouse and barn, both set at the end of a long fenced driveway.

Almira was quiet since we left the Baumeister’s. Ted and Simone referred to it as ‘the Keep’, an odd but somehow reassuring term for their homestead. She stared out the window, her eyes focused somewhere not on the maps and certainly not a place merely a physical distance away. I knew the look and I knew that all I could do was not worry and be available to her. Eventually she would return, as she always did, sometimes happy, other times exhausted, as if she’d crossed some immeasurable distance, exploring places not found on any motor club map.

I turned left off County Rd #2 at a gate marked: Gale

The barn, to the right as we approached the compound was freshly painted very red, the corral fencing was all new, un-broken and barely worn. There was a small structure next to the barn, a low one story building that seemed to serve as storage of some sort. My knowledge of working farms and farming now exhausted, I drove into the area, that friends back East would refer to as ‘the dooryard’, that lay between the barn and the house and parked the car.

The house had a wide porch lined with windows and a door at the far left end. Very similar to the Baumeisters. One look at Almira confirmed that it wasn’t that similar to the Baumeisters.

“You know that I will turn this car around, right this instant, all you have to do is say the word. You know that, right Almira?”

She smiled, a hint of reserve in her eyes, like a lone cloud in a clear sky,

“We are here, husband of mine, together we can stand up to anything the world might decide to throw at us.” A look of a 16-year-old grew in the depths of her eyes, “But, let’s make this quick, shall we? Simone said that she had some herbs that will tell us the sex of our child-to-be. I’d rather be there, having a beautifully odd woman pretending to know things about me than to be here at a stranger’s house, a stranger who will claim to know things about us.”

We got out of the Packard and went up to the door and knocked and waited.

***

“Sky don’t look so good.”

Eliza Thornberg, sitting next to Dorothy on the porch of the Gale house, titled forward in the rocking chair,

“The hell you say, Mr. Fonda! It’s warm, the sun’s out and there’s not a cloud to be seen anywhere. I think I had you up too late, last night! It looks to be a near perfect August day.”

She leaned back and let the half-round motion of the chair lift her legs up to the porch railing. Looking from under the brim of her straw hat, she looked towards Hunk Dietrich and, turning slightly, winked at Dorothy in the chair next to her.

Dorothy smiled tentatively, trying to recall if she’d ever seen her friend wearing a straw hat. She was fairly certain she had not and her smile faltered as it dawned on her that not only was it not Eliza’s hat, it was Hunk’s.

Hunk walked slowly across the dirt yard that between the farmhouse and the barn and the small cottage that served as his living quarters. He ate most of his meals with the Gale family, at least except during the winter months, when the demands of his correspondence classes kept him indoors, studying. There remained only a few more courses to complete in order to earn the college degree that formed the center of his private, personal life. Hunk stopped halfway across the yard and stared up at the sky. Having lived his entire life in the Midwest, he was very attuned to the slightest of changes in the weather. In a part of the country that otherwise appeared to be quite plain, in geographic character, the High Plains and the wide area that bordered them was prone to surprisingly dramatic (and lethal) outbursts of weather. Snow in the winter could show up at the end of an otherwise springlike day; rain, absent for months arrived with a pent-up ferocity to flatten crops and wash out roads. Almost in compliment to the plainness of the geography, the truly dangerous weather came with very little advanced warning. The tornadoes, often hidden in the night dark, sprang from the belly of thunderclouds, mindlessly destructive children, hungry for destruction.

Hunk stopped moving when Eliza rested her feet on the railing. She wore a skirt that, when simply standing, engaged in an innocent conversation, was of a somewhat provocative style, given the social context of a small rural community in the American Midwest. When the legs behind the skirt’s brightly patterned folds were tipped upwards, the resulting display of the female form moved into fashion territory much less commonly encountered on a working farm, in the middle of Kansas. Not that her dress slid up past her knees, at least not that much. The back half of Eliza’s legs was what caused the young farm hand to stop in his tracks. Like a slightly arabesque tent down a side aisle, part of a traveling carnival, the tented view of the Eliza’s legs held both promise and threat, neither explicitly stated.

Hunk stood, stuck in a patch of indecision as he wrestled with his conflicting response to the sight of the two girls, sitting on the porch waiting for Sunday dinner to begin.

Eliza smiled at Hunk, shaped by both affection and a touch of gleeful cruelty. She genuinely liked Hunk. She certainly found him physically attractive, although he carried a bit of the ordinary in his polite, deferential manner. While she found that quality sweet, in her experience it almost always was followed by boredom. At odds with this characteristic response, Eliza felt a visceral response, as physical as a sneeze, to her memory of the previous evening with him as they sat at a window booth in a forgettable diner in an equally forgettable town and Hunk Dietrich became someone else. It was not so much he became an exaggerated version of his normal self, as happened all too often when boys get drunk on liquor or love. The outcome of infatuation was usually that the big gets bigger and the unpleasant becomes awful. The transformation in the man in the diner was more akin to when a person is so distracted that they forget to be weak and simply act from the heart. The effect of this simple naturalness was overwhelmingly powerful. Even if she had not found Hunk Dietrich attractive, the previous evening would not have progressed differently.

Now, with a radio whispering a tune somewhere inside the house, Eliza Thornberg wrestled with her sense of control and was grateful that it was the daytime-normal version of Hunk standing in the middle of the yard in front of the Gale home.

“No, Eliza, sorry to say but you’re not from around here. There’s something in the air.”

Hunk’s tone was just a little more assertive. It was an echo of the previous evening, strong enough for Eliza to feel suddenly less confident with her feet on the porch railing. She sat forward, her satin D’orsays flat against the smooth boards of the porch.

Dorothy, still frowning, rocked back in her chair,

“Hunk’s always been good predicting changes in the weather. Out here, they call it, ‘having a weather eye’. It means he can sense a change before it happens. It’s a gift and he’s almost always right about whether it’s going to rain or be hot or have tornadoes destroy your town.”

The edge in Hunk’s voice seemed to fade as he turned his head and spoke to Dorothy. He was now standing at the railing opposite Eliza, leaning with both elbows on the rail, hands together, pointed at Eliza opposite him.

He looked at her and smiled,

“I like the idea that back East at your school, the worst thing they have for weather is snow. No surprise…. storms. I like that.”

Eliza, uncertain why, felt uncomfortable. Hunk turned towards her, locked eyes and she remembered.

“Well, we do have blizzards back East! We even had a hurricane pass by three years ago. They’re not exactly tame and safe.”

Hunk smiled in a way that made her feel like she had no idea who any of the people around her were and why she was among them,

“Sure, I’ve read about the wind and the tree damage. Huge storms that move slowly up the coastline. But around here, the storms are more…personal. And sometimes, there’s a storm that comes looking for you. And no matter where you hide, if it catches you, it will take you away.”

“I think I’ll go help Margherita set the table for dinner. I believe Auntie Em invited Doctor Morgan and his wife for dinner.”

“You want some help?” Eliza suddenly found herself wanting to be doing something boring.

“Nah, I can handle it”

Hunk vaulted the railing and crouched in front of Eliza, the suddenness and implied strength startling her into rocking back in the chair.

Smiling, Hunk put both hands on the ends of the armrests and tipped the chair forward. Eliza frowned and her temper, flared like a spark in dry pine needles, her eyes grew dark and was about to speak when,

“Dinner time, everyone!”

Hunk held out his hand.

Eliza felt the flare of temper, like a backfire out of control, spread within her. Her need to control and perhaps to hurt someone was replaced by a simple and plain feeling of need.

***

“So, Doctor Morgan, I understand that in a week or so, the construction will be starting!”

Emily Gale’s voice had a jagged trill to it that, had it been heard from a 6-year-old girl in the middle of a surprise birthday party, would not have been overly noticeable. The strained light-heartedness made each phrase of her attempt at dinner conversation, all the more brittle. The light in the room ebbed and flowed as clouds grew in the sky outside, the tone of her voice as jarring as biting down on a scrap of aluminum foil hidden in a fork full of picnic potato salad.

Henry Gale sat in his ‘good clothes’ at the head of the table. Being a round table, it was so purely on the basis of Emily’s announcement, ‘…and Henry sits there, at the head of the table’. Henry focused his attention on his plate, as if somewhere in the patterns of gravy and mashed potatoes there might be discovered a map to a secret treasure.
Hunk sat closest to the kitchen door and the two windows that opened out to the porch. Behind him, the mid-afternoon sunlight began to draw curved-geometric patterns on the white linen curtains as they swayed in the growing breeze. To his right, Eliza Thornberg sat and tried to appear interested in conversation that kept dying and being pulled from the ashes by the host. She was looking at Doctor Morgan and Emily Gale, but was exquisitely aware of Hunk Dietrich next to her, every few minutes twist in his seat and lean back to glance out the open windows behind him. Each time he did so, his leg would press against Eliza’s and a feeling of dismay would grow stronger inside her. Feeling a blush creep up from the top of her blouse, laying claim to the sides of her face, Eliza began to think that it might be time to think about returning to Philadelphia.

She was distracted from her distraction by the sound of Emily Gale prodding her dinner guest with pointed questions intermixed with obvious flattery, all mixed together like a child’s mud pie, clearly determined to demonstrate a skill that she did not possess.

Dorothy was seated to Thaddeus Morgan’s right. The Doctor was bracketed by Gale women and had a look that any nurse at St Mary’s would recognize. It was the expression he wore whenever walking into the operating room knowing that there was little chance of the patient’s survival. It was professional stoicism at it’s best. Dorothy picked at her food like a farm hand sitting on a porch whittling, waiting out a passing rainstorm.

Thaddeus Morgan looked to his left, Emily Gale sitting painfully upright, the look on her face the determined optimism of a spoiled child about to sit in the lap of a department store Santa Claus and said,

“Well, there is much left to do before the bulldozers come to the doors. We have almost all the primary functions of the old wing moved to temporary quarters. My wife, Eleanor is over-seeing that part of the transition. A very talented administrator, my wife.”

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, directed the last part of his answer to Eliza, who, in turn, leaned forward in her seat and nodded as if she was interested in hearing the qualification of the Medical Director’s wife.

“She regretted not being able to join us today,” he spoke now more to the table at large, as he recalled the morning, “she takes her duties at the hospital very seriously. Too seriously at times.”

Emily Gale was clearly less interested in the fact that the Medical Director had confidence in his wife’s abilities than she was in how soon the old wing of the hospital could be torn down.

“So, Thad, you expect to start demolition in a week to 10 days, do I hear you correctly?”

“Well, Emily, as I said, most of the equipment and fixtures have been re-located to other parts of the hospital. Of course, we still have one remaining patient in Ward C.”

Thaddeus Morgan watched Emily slice the roast on her plate with an expert efficiency that reminded him of the head surgeon in medical school. At the beginning of the semester of Thad Morgan’s second year, Doctor Alphonse Wolff would look over the body of the cadaver in front of him and say with a cheerful smile to the interns, “Gentleman, dinner is served.” Bringing himself back to the present he stared at Emily Gale, as she continued,

“Just move her out! From what I hear she doesn’t do anything but lie there, taking up space. Put her in the children’s ward. Put her in the morgue for all I care.”

Thad Morgan looked uncomfortably around the dining room table, as if searching for understanding or, failing that, a sympathetic ear.

“One simply doesn’t move a patient willy nilly, not someone in her condition.”

“Well, I never…”

Emily sat back, linen napkin twisted between her hands, eyes circled the room, looking angrily at someone to swoop down upon.

Eliza Thornberg was leaning forward in her chair, staring at her plate, brows pursed, an  expression of frustration mixed with a touch of fear. Hunk Dietrich was leaning away from the table towards the open windows, his expression one of alertness. Henry Gale continued to eat, shoulders relaxed, long-accustomed to the piercing talons of his wife’s temper and her inability to tolerate frustration. He continued to quietly enjoy his food.

“Listen, Thaddeus if you think all my plans and money are just going to stand by and….

“Will Mrs. Gulch wake up?”

Aunt Em’s head swiveled on her shoulders. No other part of her body moved, she simply turned her head and glared at Dorothy. Dorothy, for her part, looked intently at the doctor. Something flickered in Emily Gale’s eyes, something like doubt and fear.

“Will she ever wake up again?” Dorothy repeated quietly, as if she were asking about the weather.

“Young lady! Dr Morgan is the head of the entire hospital. He does not take care of everyone there and certainly does not look after an old lady like that Miss Gulch, lying in the way in the indigent ward.”

“It’s Mrs. Gulch,”

“What did you say?”

“Nurse Griswold told me that her proper name is Mrs. Gulch.”

“Who did you say told you that, Miss Gale?”

Thaddeus Morgan turned to face Dorothy, his considerable bulk almost obscuring Emily Gale who was also starting to stand up from the table, as if to move around the doctor.

“Nurse Griswold. A tall, thin woman with long blonde hair and the most curious way of moving. She told me that Mrs. Gulch is suffering from dehydration.”

Like a choir of badly trained monks, singing out of sync, the intake of breath came from all the people around the table at the same moment, a collective gasp.

“Nurse Griswold said Mrs. Gulch was ‘a girl trapped in an old woman’s body and just needed someone to help her get free.'”

Emily Gale stood up and spoke at the same moment as Dr Thaddeus Morgan tried to re-assure the girl and settle himself,

“Well, Miss Gale, medicine is not such a simple matter of how things look and do not look, there are tests and ….”

“That will be enough nonsense at my table, young lady…”

Somewhere in the distance there was a tapping sound. It began slowly and the sound of each individual tap grew in force and volume.

Hunk was already walking past the open windows, the curtains, now blowing inwards, wrapped themselves around his legs as he passed, headed towards the kitchen.

“Hail. And, unless I’m mistaken, lightning is moving this way. I think this might be a good time to tell our guests the location of your storm shelter, Henry.”

Hunk stopped at the door and looked at Eliza,

“Maybe I can rescue your pretty yellow convertible, ‘Liza. Stay close to Dorothy.”

Chapter 33

Featured

‘Route 56 West’

Below the black, Highway Gothic letters, too small to be read from the inside of a car in the westbound lane, were the words: ‘National Old Trails Road Association’.

The black enamel paint was still shiny, surely not more than six months old. I let the Packard coast past the sign, leaning over my sleeping wife to read the legend under the ‘Route 56’. The vegetation at the base of the signpost was barely rooted in the grayish red soil. The Highway marker was planted in the no-man’s land between the packed gravel roadway and the farm fields that paced the road as it fled to the West.

Back behind the wheel, I got the car back up to cruising speed. The writer in me took over, as it occurred to me that the sign we’d just passed was best appreciated by drivers racing down the road. As both a highway route marker and a symbol, it truly represented the whole, rather than the parts. Route 56 was as big, (or long) as the State of Kansas was wide. I smiled to myself, grateful that Almira was asleep, as she surely would’ve instantly intuited the reason for my slowing down and staring at the sign. She would have said something to the effect that life offered some of us more splotches of color on our palates than it did for others. Although she would sound like she was teasing, I would see a reflection in her eyes that reminded me that we were one whole person in two, very different bodies.

Driving through the middle of Kansas, between Council Grove and Circe, I couldn’t decide if the three-strand barbed wire fence, never far from the road, was there to protect the endless fields from the highway or to protect those of us who flew over the prairie in our cars and trucks from something more primeval lying just beneath the grassy floor of the rolling hills.

Next to me, Almira moved in her sleep, a small sound escaping her lips, barely discernible against the rumble of the car engine. Only her face showed in the mound of blankets that she had gathered around her when we left Council Grove.

‘Circe 17 miles’

Almost as a postscript, less than a quarter mile beyond the shiny modern highway sign, there appeared a second signpost. Nearer to the fence than the roadway, this signpost seemed to be a refugee from the surrounding fields. More than a simple wooden post, the upright was the former trunk of a mid-sized cedar tree. It’s branch knobs weathered smooth, feathery bark long since peeled down to the inner heartwood, sun and rain bringing out a grey-red color. Nailed to this post were hand-painted signs: Sante Fe NM – 570 miles * Winslow AZ – 862 miles * Barstow CA -1,275 miles and San Diego CA – 1385. The lettering of each was clearly done by different people, at different times. You couldn’t help but sense a different intent in each. Like tea leaves from a fortune teller’s cup, each small painted rectangle offered a clear invitation to the promise of a new and better life. Leaving behind the familiar, the un-stated cost.

Although the distance from Kansas City to Circe was only 200 miles, we decided to break it into two days of driving. This wasn’t only for the obvious reason that one of us was an eight months pregnant woman. We’d both been experiencing a curious reversal of the normal urgency that people experience when the end of a long trip draws near. This feeling established itself as soon as we stepped off the train from St Louis.

That we’d picked Circe as our destination was not an entirely random choice. Circe was the hometown of my friend, college roommate and Army buddy, Cyril Sauvage. As men often do, when mortality becomes a significant part of daily life, we made a battlefield promise to each other, that the survivor would deliver a final letter home. This responsibility was made less onerous by the un-stated fact that to be burdened by the promise meant that life continued on; it was a secret gamble on life.

Being that I survived the war, I was honor-bound to keep my promise to Cyril, who did not. When the time came to leave our home in Providence, the cost of my survival asserted itself and Circe became our destination.

We were driving to the home of Cyril Sauvage’s sister, Emily. I met Emily Sauvage once before, while a freshman at Dartmouth College. Cyril and I were roommates in the Pike House dormitory. Though a year ahead of me and an engineering student (to my liberal arts), we got along well enough. Late in the fall semester, Cyril’s mother and sister travelled to New England to visit. I recall that Emily Sauvage, for whatever reason, went to great lengths to appear older and more mature than her actual 14 years. On the next to the last day of their visit, while Cyril and his mother attended a formal tea at the Dean’s home, I took Emily on a tour of the campus and the town of Hanover. Emily seemed quite impressed by the sometimes over-done attempts at sophistication so often found in an Ivy League school. For my part, I admit to having been a little immature, even for a college freshman and sort of showed off a little. I was quite convinced of my charm and was somewhat irresponsible on a couple of occasions as we visited a bar or two in town.

It was the envelope in my satchel, my promise to Cyril to deliver it home that jogged my memory to remember receiving at least two letters from his sister after her visit. I think I might have written one letter in return back. But life took over and I was soon caught up in my life as a future writer and part-time small-town Casanova. As it turned out, I left school after my first year and my wanderings lead me to a mill town a hundred miles away. Through no effort on my part, only the good fortune that comes to some, I managed to find a life that waited in the form of a girl in a mill town. A girl with eyes that saw my soul and reflected the potential good that I had long given up on ever achieving. It was only when I returned to school, after marrying Almira Ristani, did I re-connect with Cyril, who was, by then, in graduate school. One night after exams, sitting in a bar, he convinced me that joining the American Expeditionary Force would be the best way that I could prove to my young wife that I was responsible enough to be the head of our yet-to-be family.

Now, in the dying light of an early December afternoon, I looked at the small signs growing off the long dead cedar tree and thought that maybe California would be a better last stop.

“You know what I miss the very most about our home back in New England?”

Remaining mostly hidden in her private cavern, Almira remained quite still. I turned my head,

“Indoors.”

I laughed and the pile of blankets next to me shook as Almira giggled from under the covers. She had a gift for laughter that you might liken to musical genius or perfect pitch. She was capable of expressing amusement in seemingly endless variety. Everything from a belly laugh to rib-cramping guffaws that make you feel at risk of dying for lack of breath to a polite but sincere laugh that not only did not interrupt the eye contact of a close social interaction but enhanced it. Everything from the childishly enthusiastic energy of a giggle to a barely noticeable snicker.

“Where are we now, babe?”

“About an hour from Circe.”

She said nothing, content to look out through the windshield,

“Hey, Almira I’m sorry to drag you all the way out here into the middle of nowhere….”

“No! I’m the one who dragged us out here.”

“OK we’re both responsible, but for different reasons.”

The skeletal winter trees stood lining the ridges that ran along the highway. Harsh brown jagged silhouettes clawed at the cold blue sky, threatening the sun with the ancient anger of the winter season.

“You know, we don’t have to stay. I’ll give them Cyril’s letters and his medals, pay my respects and we can be on our way.”

“I appreciate that. And if it were just you and I, my answer would be, ‘Yes, lets you and I stay on the road’. If my destiny is to become a vagabond union organizer traveling with a published author searching the countryside for truth in this new century, I wouldn’t hesitate. But it’s not the two of us, it’s the three of us. Our family. Our love has made us more than just a woman and a man trying to make sense of a cold and all-to-often cruel world. You and I have created one more chance for the world to get it right. We are a family now.”

Almira spoke with an intensity that I’ve heard directed at me only in our times of sharing love or when standing before an audience of people showing them how to better live their lives. Riding along Route 56, headed west, her passion banished the limitless horizon and towering sky that surrounded us. There was only the two of us and our soon to be born child.

“You know, once we get settled here, or where ever we decide is home for the three of us, I was thinking that I’d take a quick trip back East.”

She watched me in a silence that was louder and more jarring than anything I heard in my entire war year.

“Wait! Hear me out. I have friends from college who are now well connected businessmen. A couple of classmates are very successful attorneys. I thought I’d go and sit down with this Herlihy guy and put an end to the questions and suspicions once and for all.”

No.”

“I’m sure that once I talk to the authorities, they’ll strike us from their list and we’ll never hear from the Lawrence Police again. It’s the only way.”

Appearing ahead in the growing dark, like a ghost forced to wander the same corridors in a haunted mansion night after endless night, was a white square to the side of the road, ‘County Road #2’ in black letters against a once-white background. It stood at an intersection, a loyal solider unaware that the battle-lines had been re-drawn, determined to fulfill his duty despite the lack of reinforcement. The intersection, like so many we’d driven through in the last two days, was simply the point where two roads crossed at right angles. For a part of the country that seemed to be nothing but wide-open spaces, there was an oddly contentious feeling to these four corners in the middle of nowhere. Two ruler-straight bands of tar and gravel meeting at a single point on the map, a physical manifestation of a point between ‘here’ and ‘there’. Of course, each road existed only because they maintained their own definition of ‘here’ and ‘there’. It seemed to be as basic, and sadly hopeless, an example of the plight of all of us wandering the earth.

I turned right onto County Road #2 and accelerated, the hope of catching up to the setting sun still strong, despite the dark in my rearview mirror.

Almira slept fitfully in her nest of blankets and pillows next to me. Being eight and a half months pregnant made the drive from Kansas City difficult for her. Being 5′ 2″ made creating a relatively comfortable space in the front seat of the Packard possible, given enough pillows and blankets. Fortunately for us, Kansas City was large enough to have several car dealers and among them a Packard dealership, the only car brand to offer a sedan. The thought of driving 200 miles in an open car, even with a canvas roof, was not a welcomed prospect. A direct result of my father’s shrewd business sense while he was alive, and very ample Estate, we didn’t hesitate to buy the sedan that sat on the showroom floor of Hudson-Jones’ Packard dealership on Fulton Street in Kansas City. The car was large, comfortable and, being this year’s model, even had a heater. Almira sat behind the wheel, her arms extended straight out in order to have her hands on the wheel and still reach the pedals and looked at the salesman and said,

“Throw in three of those driving blankets and we’ll take it.”

The car was as comfortable as we might have hoped and, after a day of writing letters to send to Edward, (who would re-post them from the Providence post office), we set out for Circe, Kansas and the home of the sister of my friend Cyril Sauvage. Emily Sauvage, now Emily Gale, lived outside of Circe on a farm she and her husband Henry bought with money inherited from an uncle back East. I got in touch with her once we’d left Providence and she was expecting us, ‘sometime in December’.

The day grew dim as we drove north on County Rd #2.

Awakened by the slowing of the car, Almira sat up on her side of the front seat.

“Where are we, Sterling”?

Her voice was quiet and, somehow, confident. It was the tone of a woman accustomed to being called upon to make a decision, yet always open to the opinion of others.

“We seem to have come to a fork in the road.”

As forks in the road go, this was a wide fork, more like it was the joining of two separate paths than the splitting of one. Opposite us was a rail fence that ran both to the right and the left, off into the distance at a shallow angle. There was still enough light to see that behind the fence was the winter remains of a cornfield.

“What the hell is that!”

Almira sat forward in her seat and pointed off to the right. A hundred feet or so, back from the road as it disappeared to the right, was what looked like a man wearing a straw hat, standing among the stubble of the previous season’s harvest.

After a second Almira laughed.

“A scarecrow! Finally something that reminds me of home, out here in this endless outdoors!”

There was a softening of the edge to her voice, her initial caution now relieved of the potential threat.

“Outside of town, back home, there was a small farm that ran along the edge of the Merrimack that we used to walk out to see, on summer days. It had a small herd of cows, three horses and cornfields. But they were normal sized fields, the kind you could run through with your friends on a summer day, not like these monstrosities out here. You could get lost and die before finding your way out of one of these fields.”

I looked at her as she stared, her eyes peaceful,

“Then it’s to the right we go?”

Her smile broadened,

“Well, it seems like the best choice, does it not, husband of mine?”

“Indeed it does, wife of mine.”

We drove up the road, which fortunately was maintained as all the roads to this point. The light of the sun was beginning to bleed redly into the horizon, the clouds, emboldened by the sun’s decline, gathered like wolves surrounding the dying glow.

I saw lights in the distance, on the left side of the road and pressed on the accelerator.

“So, we might have gotten a bit off the track. If I learned anything fighting in the war, it was: when it starts to get dark, find a place where you can watch all approaches and have something solid at your back.”

I turned in through a pair of rough-hewn wooden gates, both pulled back to the sides in the open position. On the road, just before the gate, was a sign, very artistically painted that simply read: ‘Baumeister Welcome to All’

I parked in front of the two story farmhouse, got out and walked around to the passenger side door. The house had a covered porch running across the entire front and lights glowed behind the curtains at each of the four windows. As I closed Almira’s door, I saw a  large building a hundred yards of so away and to the right of the farmhouse and next to that, a small grove of trees.

I knocked on the broad wooden door, Almira stood to my right. While I knew better than to ask that she stay in the car, I did insist that she stand slightly behind me, at least until we knew who we were dealing with in this large and well-kept farmhouse.

I could hear a woman’s voice, increasing in volume as she moved about the interior. At once distant as if she were in a room to the back of the house, then nearer, but almost immediately sounding distant again.

“Teddy!! Are you down there?”

“Mein lieber abwesend gemachter Ehemann!”

“Oh alright. No! Stay in your workshop, I’ll see who it is.” ( her voice grew louder)  “Coming! I will be there in a…”

Frowning, I looked at Almira standing next to me, her car blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She was smiling.

“Such a night this is….”

I heard a latch being thrown and a chain rattling, heavy links giving off a dull clinking sound as she withdrew whatever lock there was on the inside.

The door did not so much open as the light grew from a narrow pointed vertical bar, broadening into a doorway sized area of illumination. As dark as it now was behind us, we could almost feel the warmth of the light bathe us as we stood on the porch.

“Come in, please! Come in”

The first thing I saw was a woman’s face, surrounded by light. As she stepped back and my eyes adjusted, the light resolved itself into the interior of the farmhouse. But not all the light. A surprising amount of it stayed in place, surrounding the woman in the open doorway. The first thing I saw was her hair, it was the lightest shades of blond possible, without being white. The woman was tall, nearly as tall as I was and her eyes were very blue. The description ‘willowy’ shouldered all other adjectives from my mind. She looked at me and smiled.

She looked to my right where Almira stood, the blanket like a cowl over her head, held in a folded bunch at her throat, spilling open down her front, bulging belly and down to just brushing the tops of her shoes.

I glanced down at Almira affectionately. I looked back at our host, thinking to introduce ourselves and was startled that, somehow, she was now standing in the middle of the room, still looking at Almira. Granted it had been a long day on the road, but I would swear that this woman essayed the slightest of curtseys, a barely-noticeable downward nod of her head. It was enough that her long blonde hair flowed forward around her face, in the briefest of waves.

Almira pulled the blanket from her head and stepped forward.

The blonde woman smiled and said,

“Welcome.”