Chapter 46

Featured

May 24, 1942

South Lawn, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY

Dorothy approached the South Lawn from Mead Way. After leaving her room, she decided that what her butterflies needed was a nice, quiet walk down the tree-lined street that ran along the southern end of the campus. The sight of an expanse of green grass crowded with ruler-straight rows of light brown wooden chairs brought a memory. Without thought, her fingers found the fold of ribbon on the collar of her graduation gown. Against the somber black of the heavy material, its shade of red darkened further, to almost a blood-red. The image tendrils in her mind was of a storm on a summer’s day. The emotion that tinted the faded image was of sad nostalgia, the melody of a tale of discovery and loss. Since the day in August, three years before, Dorothy found the two emotions linked in such an intimate way as to make them one. She smiled to herself, as she’d come to understand that life almost always involved leaving behind the comfortable familiarity of youth and over-coming new challenges. And, if those two elements of life are not a prescription for creating a state of mixed emotion in a person, then nothing is.

The temperature approached 70 degrees when she left the dormitory. She was the last resident in the building, her friend and roommate Eliza, had invited Dorothy to stay with her at her parents home in Philadelphia for the summer. Dorothy thanked her friend, but remained in the room at McCracken Hall.

The atmosphere on the, small, private campus in the suburbs of New York City was one of subdued excitement, if for no other reason than the influx of strangers and near-strangers as families and friends arrived for the Commencement ceremony. Dorothy decided to put on her gown, her mortar board under her arm and get away from the last-minute chores of the day.

Commencement was scheduled to begin at 1:00 pm. The guest seating formed two rectangles facing the most imposing building on campus, Westlands. Three stories of brick and mortar, it’s triangular gables divided the slate roof into three, almost equal sections; it was the effect of the last gable that the architect had been most proud of, one roofline extending to the side, almost to the ground. It provided the sense of an anchor to the earth, the soaring peaks bound and secure. The impression was of many more spires than it possessed, a castle in the wooded shadow of the city, Westlands was the very heart of the campus.

A fieldstone wall divided Westland’s formal patio from the expanse of manicured grass of the South Lawn. A growing line of cabs waited, in Sunday politeness, as family and relatives arrived. Like a chance dam of fallen branches across a spring-swollen stream, people gathered at the entrance gates; once through, the guests would spread out in multiple streams, across the lawn towards the seating area. Children, siblings of the day’s graduates found their own, preferred seating, among the trees and hedges that formed the boundaries between campus and the surrounding residential neighborhood. While these future Sarah Lawrence students ran and played, their parents reacquainted themselves with the grounds, pointing out changes to the campus to their spouse who would often feign interest, lacking any emotional investment in the small collection of tudor style buildings. The real prize for the returning students-turned-adults was to encounter former teachers, who walked among the guests, regaling spouses with tales of their students greatest accomplishments and most embarrassing moments, with an all too frequent disregard for the distinction between the two.

Dorothy walked towards the center aisle that divided the rectangle of wooden chairs, now beginning to fill with family and friends of the graduating class. As she passed the rearmost row of chairs, she felt an arm insinuate itself inside the crook of her right elbow, a man’s voice, with the confidential tone of a person trying to secure a favor, came from slightly behind her,

“I wont’ be any trouble because I don’t eat a thing…and I won’t try to manage things because I can’t think. Won’t you take me with you?”

Dorothy turned to see Hunk Dietrich smiling at her.

Hunk was holding hands with a young woman who Dorothy felt she should recognize. She stood to shoulder height of Hunk, had a good figure, short brown hair and dark eyes that blazed with intelligence; she also wore a wedding ring on her left hand.

“Hi, Dorothy It’s me… Becky. Becky Stillworth? From the Circe Free Library?”

She smiled with a friendly confidence that seemed beyond her apparent years, looking to be all of twenty years old.

“I’m sorry,” Hunk spoke quietly, “Dorothy, this is my wife Becky. Becky, this is…”

The two young women were already in an embrace that spoke of a connection that made the social niceties of a formal introduction altogether unnecessary.

Dorothy stepped back and looked at the young couple. Becky’s hand had already found Hunk’s and they stood together and smiled back at her in way that spoke of a relationship still in its formative stages. Hunk, easily four inches taller than Becky, his posture broadcasted a surprising assertiveness and, less surprising, pride in being very obviously bound to the woman at his side.

Becky, for her part, presented a quiet watchfulness, looking up at her husband when he spoke, yet never in a way that implied that anyone else was ignorable. It was an attitude that was both protective and totally confident in their relationship.

“So, what have you been up to?” Dorothy spoke to a space somewhere between the two. A glance at their inter-twined fingers made clear that two people had become parts of something more than, and different from, merely a man and a young woman.

“Becky is finishing up her residency at the university in the Fall!” Hunk’s voice conveyed a pride, not simply in the former Becky Stillworth’s accomplishments, but a pride in the fact that she was his wife. Becky smiled quietly, again, with a confidence that was softened by the way she looked at him, as he answered Dorothy.

“And, you, Hunk? I’m ever so happy to have you here at graduation, but what are you doing and why, since clearly I must ask, are you in the uniform of an Army Lieutenant?”

Dorothy did not miss the change in Becky’s face at her mention of Hunk’s clothing. The girl showed a subtle, yet clear withdrawing. It was as if the topic was not something she wanted to discuss, or for that matter, even acknowledge.

“I’m going overseas as a special correspondent.”

“A war correspondent?”

“Well,” Hunk laughed. That he leaned slightly towards Dorothy, which required that he lean slightly away from Becky, spoke volumes. The hours of discussion between the young husband and even younger wife over the merits of a bold adventure, surely nights of carefully parsed pleading arguments against risking a future, played out on Becky’s face, “…more as an author correspondent.”

Dorothy raised an eyebrow, wanting to align herself as neutrally as possible, the topic was clearly highly charged, yet her curiosity out-weighed her caution enough to encourage Hunk to explain further.

‘Well, you remember how I ended up here, on the East Coast after I left Circe and, how before she left that summer, Eliza promised she would mention me to her father. Well, once I completed the last course I had for my degree, I went to his publishing house and, well, I asked for a job.”

There was a fierce humility in Hunk’s voice. It hinted at, (since it was humility), the courage it took, not merely to ask the wealthy owner of a Philadelphia publishing house for a job, but rather the courage necessary to ignore the part of him that insisted he was a simple farmhand from Kansas. The voice that said, ‘you might have a brain, but you don’t have any right to associate with successful people the likes of Theodore Allen Thornberg… the 3rd!‘ And yet, Hunk Dietrich had done just that.

“He said yes, absolutely! Well, to say I was surprised would be an understatement. It was a very good day. Better than I realized, because it wasn’t more than a year after starting, when Ted told me he was opening an office in Chicago and he wanted me to help get it up and running.”

Dorothy watched as Hunk went from looking directly at her, to slowly, a glance and then a longer glance, to looking at the young woman at his side.

“One day, during a quiet lunch by myself on a bench in Washington Park. At any rate, I was sitting quietly one August day when I heard a beautiful girl’s voice,”

With a private smile, Becky pushed her elbow into Hunk’s rib cage, he laughed and looked down at her with such intense and un-conditional love, that Dorothy stepped back in surprise. Not surprisingly, neither noticed.

“…Hunk? Is that you?”

Hunk looked back at Dorothy, his expression full of the grace of emotional integration that some few, lucky couples experience. It showed in the intense pleasantness of his smile, anchored in some undefinable way to his love for the young woman.

There was a soft swell of music from the loudspeakers just behind the dias at the far end of the lawn.

“Is that for you?” Hunk looked around, there were now more people seated than there were empty chairs.

“Yes. It’s time for me to get ready. Don’t you two go anywhere afterwards. We need to catch up on so much.”

Dorothy walked quickly away, her robe streaming out behind her, as she headed towards the dais.

***

“We conclude today’s Commencement Ceremony with the Valedictorian of the Class of 1942, Dorothy Aurora Gulch,” President Warren announced to the family and friends sitting on the South Lawn of Sarah Lawrence College.

The applause was strong and solid as Dorothy rose from her seat at the edge of the dais and walked to the podium. As she shook hands with the College president, the applause was punctuated by a very enthusiastic whistle, from the last row of the black-robed ranks of the Class of 1942.

“Aurora!! Give ’em hell.”

Dorothy looked up and immediately spotted Eliza, her classmates leaning outwards away from where she sat, grinning. Dorothy smiled and gave her friend a thumbs up.

“Thank you, President Warren. Thank you, Class of 1942. It’s an honor to be here and I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on this most special of days.”

Dorothy scanned the crowd and saw Emily Gale, seated in the middle of a row, two rows back from the graduating class section. She was sitting, the Commencement program clasped to her chest, and staring up at the stage. She was wearing her gold wire-rim glasses and an expensive, but very conservative dress. ‘Easter Morning church service clothes,’ Dorothy thought with a smile. At that moment, Emily Gale noticed Dorothy looking back at her and, as Dorothy watched, her adoptive mother reached out her left hand to the empty seat to her side. She began to turn in her seat, her face showing a memory of something forgotten and let her hand return to holding the program. Dorothy felt a twinge of something like sadness, and, for reasons she had learned to not bother trying to understand, remembered a day in Astronomy class during her Junior year. The professor mentioned ‘star pairs’, of which increasing numbers were being discovered as the science and telescopes improved. Standing at the podium, looking at the woman who raised her, she heard his voice, ‘there are rare, but, we suspect quite numerous, given the size of the galaxy, what we call companion stars. A pair of suns locked into an internal orbit with one star always the dimmer of the other.’

Dorothy thought about how inseparable Emily and Henry Gale were, and how the woman looked so much smaller with the seat to her side empty. In the pairing of Henry Gale and Emily Sauvage, a union as permanent as any joining of celestial bodies bound by their own gravity, Henry was immediately identifiable as the companion star. He did not feel, nor did he act as an inferior to his wife; he simply accepted the fact that she was the dominant member of the pair.

Emily Gale sat alone, with an uprightness that managed to increase the impression of space between her and the people around her, all sitting in matching wooden folding chairs. There was nothing in Emily Gale’s face that would make a person hesitate to smile hello, seeing her as being of an age to identify her as a parent of a graduating student. She would look around at the other parents and they would smile a greeting, Emily would nod in acknowledgement. And remain sitting, very much in the center of her chair. She viewed her role as necessary to the process, a child could not graduate from college without having a parent to make it all possible. In her form of modesty, Emily accepted all friendly greetings as acknowledgment of her success in raising a daughter to adulthood.

Dorothy put the papers she carried in her left hand on the slanted surface of the podium. Only Constance Warren, President of the College, in her slightly elevated chair, could see the papers. As she watched the young woman prepare to speak, a whisp of wind caught the top edge of the sheets enough to lift them, held at the bottom by Dorothy’s quick reflexes; she saw the pages were completely blank, smiled and made a mental note to follow this woman’s career.

“We of the Class of 1942 face a world at war. A world that appears bent on self-destruction. We look around and realize that, although we are still very young, we are called to stand up with the people who, only a short time ago, sheltered us, picked us up when we fell down, and soothed our fears when night’s terrors came to visit. As women enjoying the benefits of attending a very special institution of learning, we have all worked hard at our studies over the last four years. The hours of study and preparation often left us, at the end of a long day, feeling worn down by more than a girl should be expected to bear under. And yet, we do not have to look far to see how many others, women and men, are being asked to labor under much, much more difficult and dangerous conditions.
However, my address is not about the work we face as we leave the campus of Sarah Lawrence. Most of us are from gifted and privileged families and though labor is a relative term, we will enjoy opportunities not available to many young women in this country. Women, girls really, who are working in factories and mills, meeting the demands of the war effort.
My address is not about war.
My address is not about opportunity. All though those are surely what we will be confronting tomorrow and the days that unfold as we leave the safe and secure campus here in Bronxville.
My address today is about love and it is about family.
We read each day about the increasing casualties of the war overseas. And, if we read carefully, we will see the casualties echoed here, in our country, safe from the ravening armies, the bombardment from invisible planes flying through the night to destroy people and cities.
Life seems especially full of tragedy and sorrow in this new decade. Families are torn apart, by bullets and bombs, by fear and by hate.

When I was a young girl I thought I was alone in the world. I knew I had a family because they were there and took care of me and I worked and did what any daughter would do, work and share in the family life.

But I thought I was alone and I had to go to another world to find out that I was not alone. It was only by going to another world and finding people who I could help and be helped by to achieve what we needed to, only then did I begin to realize that love is not something that we get from another, but it is a feeling that is given to another.”

Dorothy paused and looking towards the back left of the audience caught Hunk’s eye. He smiled.
“I have a family. It is a family I know and it is a family that I learned about only after time had passed. I thought that family and home were a place, a group of familiar faces. I once believed that I had found my way back to home after being taken away by chance and the forces of life and nature.
Home and family, I found, were more than addresses and names. I searched for a mother that I did not know I had lost and when I found her, believed that I was losing her. She taught me, in a very short space of time that love is not a thing to be held on to,”
Dorothy reached up to the collar of her white gown and touched the ruby-red ribbon that she’d pinned there.
“…love is a quality that makes up who we are. Love for another, a father or a daughter, is not because they are sitting at the family table or sleeping under the roof or, ”
she looked around at the faces arrayed before the stage,
“gathered together to celebrate a transition from childhood to adulthood. Love is within the person and nothing can change that. And although it is better to be able to reach out and touch and hug a loved one, when that is not possible, through the intervention of others, the love itself is not diminished.
I once said ‘Theres no place like home’ and it meant a lot to me. But I’ve come to realize that no matter what home looks like, the people in our lives that matter cannot be taken from us, at least in the way that is important, our love for them.
Remember that as we go out into a world seemingly bent on destroying that which makes it most wonderful, that the love of the family is the one thing that will transcend death and distance.”
The End

Chapter 45

Featured

August 11, 1922  Circe, Kansas

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

“Are you hurt?”

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

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

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

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

“No, don’t make me laugh!”

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

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

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

“Almira?”

“Yeah babe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

August 11, 1922

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

“My God!”

“Dear sweet Mary, mother of God”

“There you are!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Gale managed to shriek, without raising her voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Gale turned on the Judge,

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Gale looked at Almira Gulch,

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

“Hello! Anyone home?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My goodness! There’s a woman here.”

Stepping back up onto the porch, Seth called out,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

She looked at the woman in the bed.

“You’re my mother, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Yes I am.”

“Why did you abandon me.”

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

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

“I had no other choice.”

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

“Did you love me?”

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned to Hunk,

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy felt a hand on her shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now. We have to go.”

“One more thing, my daughter.”

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

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

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

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

***

Wichita Times Tribune August 18, 1939

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

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

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

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

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

No bodies have been found or recovered.”

Chapter 44

Featured

August 11, 1922 Circe, Kansas

‘The crying rock’, the name given by the Shawnee, had somehow escaped being renamed upon the arrival of the settlers. A notable exception, as the second assault of any conquering force is to re-name an area’s natural features. It is a re-drawing of the map, both literally and figuratively. This strategy is especially devastating when it was applied to an indigenous people who lacked an aggressively utilitarian relationship with nature. After all, what claim of ownership might a native enforce on property, when they didn’t even know the legal name of the place?

In the cleft of a granite outcropping, shielded by a grove of cottonwood and red cedars, ‘the crying rock’ produced an endless supply of very, very pure water. Refreshed by an un-detectable process of exchange, the level of water in the small pool never changed. The fresh water replaced the old which, in turn, sank back into the bedrock. There was no obvious outlet for the water, it did not form a stream that grew into river, to flow away across the land. It was simply a pool, shaded by trees, surrounded by granite.

Surrounding the pool, a ring of red cedars and cottonwoods created a natural shelter from the extremes of the seasons. In the winter, the wall of green held back the cold wind that, like waves on the shore, crashed against any obstruction or variation of the level earth. The cedar and cottonwood, like any effective shield, gave and bent before the force of winter’s wind and, by doing so, survived. In the summer, the spring’s waters prevented the roots and lower branches of the trees and bushes from falling prey to the heat of the summer sun. The height of the surrounding greenery allowed light to penetrate only at midday. The afternoon hours, when sun’s heat was most damaging on plants and people, found the interior space surrounding the spring, in dappled shade as the sun descended towards the western edge of the world.

The sun had just set on the private horizon of the tops of the surrounding trees. Stillness descended as the cooler shade crept across the grey-into-green floor of the space. The pool, half inside the cave and half out, onto the chance leveling of the earth, had a smooth shoreline, as the grass gave way to hard-packed earth that became impenetrable granite as it slid into the water of the pool. The space around the pool of the spring was only 20 feet from any edge to any other edge. The rock walls of the cave extended outwards, forming a slightly titled back-rest before it blended back into the ground.

***

After we ate lunch I found the point along the smooth rock wall with the angle to the ground that created the perfect back-rest. I sat, manuscript and satchel to my right, upright enough to reach my papers and yet did not have to bend over too much to write. Almira found me to be a suitable cushion between her back and the granite and leaned back against my chest, my legs serving nicely as arms of her newly discovered chaise lounge. She stared off to the left at the dapples of light that chased each other over the roof of the cave, the wind pulled at the top branches of the shading trees.

It was quiet, the dry sighing of the branches of cottonwood trees accented the shade of the private space.

Almira had a book open in her lap. They both remained un-read, artifacts of a life and effort that waited patiently for us beyond the living green wall. Time passed in shared quiet, for us measured in minutes, for the sheltering trees it might have been years and to the spring that bubbled from the granite, time was a quality of existence, not a measure of quantity elapsed.

“Are you glad we met?”

Almira smiled at my question, I felt her tracing her happiness along the ridges of muscle and tendon of my forearms, crossed, encircling her,

“I would have no other life, Sterling.”

I pulled her closer, my face slid through the soft waves of hair and I held Almira’s right hand up in front of us,

“What a beautiful ribbon you have around your wrist. Are you borrowing our daughter’s clothing already?”

Almira laughed, turned her head slightly, her fine, brown hair forming a delicate veil,

“It’s the ribbon that you used to secure Aurora’s blanket as we drove home the night she was born. It’s my single favorite article of clothing, I’ll have you know.”

“Yeah, its funny, I remember I first saw it the night we turned up on Teddy and Simone’s doorstep. It was in a basket of cloth and yarn next to the couch in the living room. I swear I just barely glanced at it. What caught my eye was it’s incredible ruby-red color, but I didn’t stop to pick it up or anything. It was, if you recall, a very odd night.”

I felt the weight rock against my chest, her silent acknowledgement of our first night in the house that became our home.

“Anyway, I was coming back from my last trip out to the car, you were already upstairs in our room,”

“Well, I was…we were very tired, and our daughter-to-be made it clear that she wanted me to stop getting up and down so she could get some rest!”

I felt Almira laugh soundlessly, the vibration of amusement rippled down through my chest. She tensed for a second, repositioned the side of her head, as if searching for a sound, interrupted by her own laughter, itself silent. Just as suddenly she relaxed, as I continued,

“It must have been the last trip to get something from the car as I walked through the living room. I know I looked around the room, it being late and all, not a person in sight. Then, as I was about to go up the stairs, I heard Simone’s voice right behind me!”

We laughed, sharing the memory of the first encounter with our host’s tendency to be observed only when she desired. Neither of us ever felt threatened by Simone’s ability to be in one place and then another, without being seen traversing the space between.

“Anyway, I turned and there she was, right behind me. She looked at me, took my hand and pressed the ruby ribbon into my palm and said the strangest thing.”

I felt a shudder ripple up Almira’s back. I remember an expression my mother would use, usually when a chill breeze might sneak under a warming sweater, ‘I believe that somebody just walked over my grave’. I pressed my arms along Almira’s sides, holding and warming us both. She smiled into the distance, searching for a sight too far away to see.

“She said, ‘Here, Sterling, this ribbon will hold an angel to the earth and keep the devil at bay.’ Our friend Simone was wonderful, but she would come out with some of the strangest of things at times.”

I looked down at the manuscript that lay open in the leather portfolio spread open on the flat rock to my side. I was in final re-write of my second novel and felt a familiar reluctance to see it end. There was a joy at the thought of creating a world that others, people I will never meet, could enter and discover strange lands and places.

The red and black Navaho blanket seemed to float over the packed but dry soil that spread from the edge of the pool out to the surrounding evergreen. The dark clay of the ground fading into a pale green as it approached the low fronds of the living wall that protected the entrance to the natural spring, which in turn, gave rise to the shallow cave that contained the pool of water.

***

“There you are.”

Her head on Sterling’s chest, the deep male voice sounded more distant than possible, given the clearing around the spring was, at best, 20 feet across. One section of the wall of green opposite where she and Sterling lay, took on a darker shade that formed a man’s shape which pushed the branches outward.

Herschel Goloby stood over Almira and Sterling Gulch. He held an oily-dark gun in his right hand and a pair of handcuffs in his left. He threw the shiny metal into Almira’s lap.

“You, put them on him.”

Almira felt the muscles in her legs and forearms tighten in the pre-conscious response of most animals when, facing a threat, decide to fight rather than flee. She shifted her weight on what had a second ago been the comfortable (and comforting) surface of her husband’s torso. Sterling, who was responding alike, through the increased tension of his muscles provided a stable platform for her leap.

Springing up and towards the man with the gun, Almira found her intended trajectory altered by an un-expected motion from behind, as Sterling began his move. Mid-flight, Almira realized that she would not hit the man full-on. Instead, Sterling’s push forced her to the right.

Surprisingly quick, for a man of his size, Herschel Goloby, brought his gun around, in a swiping motion from right to left and caught Almira full in the face, as she closed the distance between them. The soft, wet crunch as the gun barrel impacted the side of her nose was louder than the battle-scream that was her only warning of her attack. From the corner of her eye, she saw Sterling grab Herschel in a two-armed hug. Even as the bigger man attempted to bring his gun arm back from striking Almira, there was enough delay to allow Sterling to trap his arms. Almira hit the feathery trunks of the row of red cedar that formed the wall to the right, her shoulder and back impacted on the spiny branches.

Herschel Goloby found himself in the grasp of a 6 foot 2 inch man trapping both his arms, pinning them to his sides. The small woman lay on the ground to his left, her face blood-red from where the sight at the end of the gun barrel scored a deep gash. He found himself unable to move his arms as the other man pulled him away from the woman on the ground and towards the pool of water. His instructions to bring the man back alive forgotten, Herschel twisted in an effort to break free of the bear hug the man had on him.

Sterling grabbed Herschel’s gun hand and spun to his left. Both men, locked in mortal embrace, rotated in a counter-clockwise direction, a lethal pirouette that, immediately unstable, caused them to fall towards the edge of the spring.

Almira pushed herself half-upright, wincing at the pricks of the cedar branches under her hand. She shook her head and was rewarded by lightning bolts of pain. The knife-edged shocks radiated through and around her eye sockets, bony fingers extending around the sides of her head and meeting in the back at the base of her skull. With an oddly dainty and careful motion, she wiped the blood that flowed down from the cut over her left eye enough to clear her vision and looked for a weapon. On the ground, nudging her thigh, a forgotten lover at the end of a movie, was a rock the size of a soft ball. Careful not to bend her head, she felt the tickling wetness of blood getting blocked by her eyebrows, Almira picked up the rock. Getting one foot planted on the ground, and pushing off from her thigh, she managed to stand. She looked at the two men, now on the ground at the edge of the silent pool.

Sterling and Herschel were entangled on the ground, heads at the edge of the spring, where the granite rose from the earth, forming a crescent shore. Sterling was lying half on Herschel, his legs moving clear to find a grip on the ground that would allow him the leverage to rise. Herschel was on his back, his head on the edge of the pool.

Almira, lurched across the clearing, as much from her effort to counter-balance the weight of the rock she held in both hands, as her feet moved to remain underneath her. As she got to where the risk of tripping on the legs of the two men became significant, she spoke in a voice that hung in space,

“Sterling move to your left. Now.”

Sterling let go of whatever his hands were grappling and pushed off to the side, leaving Herschel, on his back, his head cradled by a rocky mound, half in and half out of the spring. Herschel stared at Almira, as she raised her arms over her head. 

Almira brought the rock, grasped in both hands, downwards. There was an odd ‘give’ as the rock impacted the front of Herschel Goloby’s face. This was followed immediately by a dull cracking sound, the sound sometimes heard walking over fresh snow covering an older, crusted layer beneath. The bones that made Herschel Goloby look like Herschel Goloby were driven inwards and upwards. Unfortunately for him, these shards of bone were all that protected the brain from the outside world.

Unable to counter balance the downward momentum, Almira fell to her knees. Still holding the rock, she clenched her thighs as death spasms raced down through Herschel’s’ legs and out through his arms. She raised the stone over her head, both hands clenching through the blood that coated the un-even, roughly oval shape and looked down at the man. Herschel’s face was identifiable only by virtue of location at the front of the skull. Where there should have been a nose, the most distinctive promentory of the face, there was a depression, a bloody caldera, the hollow of the lower skull showing dark and in the center, the blunted remains of a nostril. There was, somehow, still a spark of life in his open eyes. He stared back at her, his torn lips pulled back exposing broken teeth, it was the look of any animal, driven by instinct to survive at any cost. Defiance flared, not as a rational argument against extinction, rather a silent scream against the forces that provided it self-awareness and was now taking it away.

Almira made a sound, something between a scream of rage and a wail of sorrow.

The blood flowing from the front of Herschel Goloby’s wreck of a face slowed, as his head, no longer controlled by life, fell back into and under the water of the spring.

Almira let her fingers fall from the rock, now seated in the center of the man’s ruined face. A chance spasm moved his head to the left and the stone rolled to the side and fell into the water with a curiously casual sounding splash. She watched as tendrils of blood followed the rock downwards, pulled by secret currents into the depths of the inner pool.

Her ragged breath, slowed.

Almira knew that she needed to get to Sterling. She turned, tried to stand and fell. After what seemed like a lifetime, she got one foot under herself and pushed against the body of Herschel Goloby with the other. It provided her the leverage to stand and, as Newton would insist, gave motion to the body, which rolled once and slid into and down under the dark water.

***

Emily Gale watched the old sedan approach the farm. Turning off County Road #2 with the elaborate caution of a driver either very young or very old, the car pulled to a stop in front of the house, its engine coughed twice and shuddered into silence. Unlike the greeting she offered her previous, un-planned guest, she stood holding Aurora in her arms. Emily held the child carefully, slightly away from her body, subtle indications of how un-practiced she was in holding a child in her arms. An observant onlooker might have noticed the strain and tension in the wrong groups of muscles.

Emily forced herself to smile, the only set of muscles that she felt confident in relaxing, the rest of her body feeling the weight of the child in her arms. She felt tension grow in her lower arms rather than her neck and shoulders, which surprised the young woman, as her posture had always been one of her best features. The muscles of the body always tell the tales that lie in the mind. Here, in the early afternoon, it spoke of a woman who had less fear of dropping the baby than she had of the child being taken away from her. Emily Gale stood with her back to the barn and dormitory building, facing the car in a way that assured that the child in her arms would focus on her and not the two men getting out of the car.

The driver was the Honorable Alexander Lucius Dellamonte. He pushed his door open into the half-way position, the better to provide support as he moved his considerable bulk from the car seat to the dooryard. His driver’s coat, very similar in color and texture to the canvas roof of the car, had the effect of making the man appear to be a part of the car itself. Judge Dellamonte glanced up at Emily as he forced his legs down on to the dusty ground and heaved himself into an upright position.

On the far side of the car, Gareth Herlihy, Captain of the Lawrence, Massachusetts Police Department, already out of the car, stood looking at the two-story building and the red barn beyond. Emily thought of her earlier visitor and realized that this man also was more interested in the other buildings of the farm. Her frown grew as it occurred to her that the majority of the day’s visitors had an agenda other than hers. Although confident in the virtue of her actions, she found herself feeling increasingly impatient.

The dust, freed from the dirt of the yard by the rolling tires of the car, caught up with the now still automobile and continued on towards the two-story dormitory building, it’s paint fresh and clean, the red barn and the open land beyond.

“There you are….”

Emily Gale, seeing that the people she required were finally present, fought to keep the uncertainty from her voice. The child was becoming an increasingly heavy strain on her arms.

***

August 11, 1939   Circe, Kansas

“There you are…”

The voice of the tall, thin, blonde nurse seemed to hang in the air, motionless despite the air-stirring of the ceiling fans. Like propellers of a ship still tied to a pier, the slowly spinning paddles flickered the light from the round white fixtures, more noticeable as the world outside the long, low room grew darker for reasons of its own.

Dorothy Gale stared at Nurse Griswold, once again standing next to the only occupied bed in the empty Charity Ward. It was not so much that she moved quickly and gracefully from being next to her to being 30 feet away, she was simply in one place at one moment and another, the next.

“Don’t concern yourself with how I move from where I am to where I must be, come here. No! it’s alright,” the ghost of a smile accented her eyes, “walking just as you always do will suffice.”

The woman laughed. It was the first time Dorothy could recall hearing her laugh, there was an undertone of sadness almost hidden in the woman’s laughter that, had she heard it from anyone else, it would surely make her cry.

Dorothy Gale stepped up to the side of the bed. The worn brown blanket rubbed the side of her knee, it was the distant feeling of familiarity that often hid in boxes of childhood clothing or yellow-edged envelops, falling from their hiding in an old book.

Dorothy sensed movement outside on the west lawn, in clear view through the row of windows along the wall. Even as the motion outdoors registered in her mind, she experienced the sensation of the lights in the ward brightening. With the increase of light, the figure in the narrow bed became more detailed.

Dorothy’s first impression was of a very small, very thin and very old woman lying, like an Egyptian mummy caught halfway through the process of mummification, in the bed. The worn brown blanket was clean, free of wrinkles and was tucked in at the sides of the mattress, contributing to the impression of a body rather than a living person. The blankets were not so tight as to obliterate or otherwise obscure the shape of the person in the bed. The slight changes of the otherwise flat plane of the covers suggested a certain roundness to the figure. This would lead a reasonable person to conclude, ‘this is a woman, an old woman in this bed’.

Above the folded line of the top of the sheet was a face framed in greying hair. The hair had enough of its original brown to prevent the thought, ‘white hair of a very old person’ and instead, ‘brown hair of a woman rapidly approaching old age’.

The woman was not awake, her eyes were closed, her features almost inert and therefore left the person comfortable ignoring the question, ‘what does this woman look like?’ The impressions of a person’s appearance is intimately tied to the play of expressions, a frown of aggression, the smile of friendliness. All accent the emotions, (theirs and ours) and increase (or decrease) the observer’s judgement of attractive or un-attractive.

The nurse was nowhere to be seen. The moment at the side of the last bed in the row of beds was for Dorothy Gale and the sleeping woman, a ribbon of the deepest red sewn to the collar of her tired blue nightgown.

Dorothy reached out to touch the ribbon and the woman opened her eyes, slowly, as would a person returning to morning from a night’s restful sleep,

“Hello, Aurora.”

Dorothy jumped back and felt the leather and steel of a chair at the back of her knees.

Chapter 43

Featured

August 11, 1922 Circe, Kansas

The black Packard rolled quietly, to a dusty stop, directly in front of the broad porch of the two-story farmhouse. At the open gate on County Road #2, the hand-painted sign welcomed visitors to, ‘Almira’s Keep’.

Herschel Goloby sat in the driver’s seat. He did not look out through the bug-splattered windshield at the central yard of the farm. He did not stare up towards the two-story building, its window trim a freshly painted blue, that stood, the third side of a very un-even square. Herschel Goloby sat, as much a part of the brand-new, road-dirty car, as the mirrors on either side and the chrome bumpers in front and back. He did not even turn his head to the left, to look at the porch, matching pairs of windows bracketing the open front door. The screen door was shut, allowing only the stray breeze that might wander across the yard from the shade of the small grove of elm trees. Three minutes came, waited patiently and passed, yet nothing moved, inside or outside the car. The passing time was marked by the oddly dainty metallic ticking of the car’s engine, cooling from the day’s mechanical exertion.

Finally the chrome lever of the driver’s door handle tilted downwards, a mechanical bow to the master of its house, and Herschel Goloby slipped out of the car. ‘Slipped’ was the best word, as the motion that took him from sitting behind the wheel of the car to standing outside of it, was extraordinarily graceful. One minute there was a dark, man-shaped silhouette inside the car, the next, a very real and very large man standing next to it.

He stood, as quietly as he had sat, his right arm rested along the top of the open car door, his left, down to his side, the oily-gray of the gun barely discernible against the black of his trousers. Still not moving, he stared at every window, the four along the second floor, the four that lined the porch and finally, the open front door. While not lingering on one more than the others, he studied the house, including the interior of which was barely visible through the curtains of the windows and the screen door, a grainy dark scene of furniture and space.

The screen door opened with a twisting squeak, as the spring that held it shut resisted the forces that it was created to resist, and a woman stepped out onto the porch. Without a backward glance, she held onto the door and closed it, rather than allow the spring to do its invariably noisy job. The woman was thin, of average height and had light brown hair, worn in a style that spoke of a person concerned with the details of appearance. She wore silver wire-rimmed glasses, accentuating a face not naturally inclined to smiling. She was speaking, even before she could identify either the car or its occupant, her tone was one of a person who took no great pleasure in being obeyed, but would not tolerate disobedience.

“Captain Herlihy? What are you doing here so soon? It’s not yet one thirty! I was told that you would be arriving with the Judge. And that was not to have been until one thirty. It’s only one fifteen.”

Emily Gale looked over the top of her glasses, at the man standing next to the large black car. Dressed in an expensive suit of a style favored by lawyers and (successful) businessman, the man appeared as out-of-place as an anvil at a baptism. His physique would best be described as, ‘blocky and muscled’. He projected an aura of lethality, in part enhanced by the fact that he simply stood and stared at her, neither curious nor impatient. The gun at his side was not a particular cause for alarm, as men wearing sidearms was not un-common, the frontier days only a couple of coats of paint under the civilized buildings of most prairie towns.  It was the stillness in the man that was most striking. In Emily Gale’s experience, most people were incapable of standing (or sitting) completely still. There was always a glance to the side, a sigh of boredom, a twitch of a hand wanting to be in motion, the slight shuffle of a foot; all expressions of a need to not exist in a state of quietness. The man standing in front of her, on her borrowed porch, was demonstrating a state of composure that very few people were capable of, and most would do anything to avoid.

The former Emily Sauvage was proud of her innate ability to read people. Once married to Henry Gale, she naturally took the role of manager of all aspects of running their small, (but growing), farm that involved dealing with people. That the Gale farm was now one of the largest and most successful farms in McPherson County was proof of her ability. Her skill in negotiating, whether hiring itinerant laborers for Fall harvest time or sitting across a kitchen table from a farmer who could not keep up the payments to the bank, lay in knowing when to make her final offer; all depended on reading the many small tell-tales available to a person with sufficient will and desire. Looking down at the broad-shouldered man, Emily tried to decide what it was about him that was not right. She realized that there was, in this man, a complete lack of need. Making it worse was the lack of curiosity exhibited by the man. Most people, motivated by fear or by desire, demonstrated curiosity. The average person always wanted to discover what might happen next, if for no other reason than to establish if the situation was dangerous, whether the other person was a friend or foe. There was nothing in the face of the man staring back at her that hinted at uncertainty or tentativeness.

Emily remembered her first trip back East, as a young girl. She and her mother stayed with her wealthy uncle Charles. One sunny March day, it was agreed by all adults that a trip to the Philadelphia zoo would be the perfect opportunity for a young country girl to broaden her horizons. Now, twenty years later, she could almost smell the wild musk, that gently assaulted her as she stood on the far-side of dark iron bars, staring at the Indian tiger. The man at the foot of the stairs had the same look as did the tiger in the zoo. It was a look of unselfconscious assessment. And, as with the tiger, there was no sense of a rational sensibility behind his eyes. There would be no arguing, convincing, threatening or cajoling this man. Whatever his business here was, nothing short of death would prevent him from completing whatever mission brought him here, to the dusty dooryard of a small farm in central Kansas.

Without thinking, Emily glanced up towards the hills that rose from the far end of the meadows out past the barn, looking for any sign of activity. She saw none.

Herschel Goloby stared back at the woman on the porch. His expression was that of any predator who, at rest, observes movement. He focused on the woman, but in no way was she the only element in his surroundings being measured and judged. He also paid attention to the open double doors of the barn and, especially, the two-story house that rose to the right of the parking area. Herschel studied each window, door and vantage point within sight of where he stood. He’d managed to be successful in a very dangerous occupation, in large part, because of his highly developed awareness of his surroundings at all times. Herschel Goloby’s life depended on his ability to not only detect current danger, but to identify potential sources of surprise.

He looked back at the woman, who had not stopped talking, but was now standing on the edge of the porch. She was asking questions, which meant there was nothing about her that was important to him. His only concern was finding the man and the woman. If she had information that would help, he would get her to tell him what she knew. The place at the end of the map, still on the front seat of the car, was here, where he stood. There was nothing beyond, at least according to the hand drawn map. Therefore, this was the only place the man and woman could be.

Naturally, Herschel did not recognize the woman. His instructions did not specify a course of action once he arrived at his destination. There was no contingency that allowed for the man and the woman not being in this location. Since this talking woman was the only person in the location provided by the map, Herschel decided that she would have to tell him where he could find the man and the woman.

Through his life, Herschel Goloby managed to overcome his limited intellect by virtue of an exceptional ability to focus on only what he deemed important. While he never developed the degree of social skill that afforded most people the opportunity to acquire new information through communication, he was possessed of an innate sense of the emotional state of those he came into contact with, either by choice or circumstance. This was, of course, a quality shared by most other predators. To be in tune with the emotional state of the prey was always an advantage.

The woman on the porch exhibited none of the fear he was accustomed to seeing in the people unfortunate enough to be forced into interacting with him. Herschel sensed, purely on an un-conscious level, that she was as focused on a single task as was he. Everything about her indicated that, rather than being intimidated by a large, armed stranger, the woman was, in the simplest of terms, annoyed.

“Did you hear me? You were supposed to travel with Judge Dellamonte, not show up here all alone, and fifteen minutes early at that!. I trust you didn’t forget the arrest warrants. Well? Are you deaf? Answer me!”

“Where is the man and the small woman. I am here for the man and the woman. Are they in the house?”

Herschel took a single step towards the porch. Emily stepped off the porch on to the top step, directly into the large man’s path.

“You mean the Gulches? They’re not here, of course! Those two are off on a picnic, on this fine sunny afternoon. Why do you want to know that? You’re not Captain Herlihy, are you?”

Only at that moment, did it dawn on Emily Gale that this large, quiet man was not the lawman from back East she was expecting. While he had a gun, which was expected of a lawman, he showed no interest in anything, save the whereabouts of Sterling and Almira. She wished he would talk a little more, as she was beginning to think that he was a bit touched in the head, if not downright simple. Emily prided herself on what she referred to as ‘being quick on her feet’. She was completely unaware of the opinion of some (well, more than ‘some’, maybe even ‘most’) of the members of the woman’s auxiliary, that her most prominent gift was the innate capacity to manipulate people. To Emily Gale, hers was a God-given talent to make the best out of surprising developments. Whatever it might be, on this particular afternoon in August, Emily seized the opportunity.

She pointed past the two-story dormitory building, out towards where the meadow-land rose to climb into the low hills,

“Out yonder, that grove of trees, up at the top of that low hill? Do you see it? The evergreens clumping together near the top?”

She waited. Finally the man turned his head and looked in the direction she pointed,

“You go up there, up the hill, past the meadow. You’ll come to a stand of evergreens.”

She watched the man’s face begin to tense up, around the eyes, as if his mind relied entirely on only what he could see. He clearly was straining to visualize her instructions and was failing. Emily sensed that this man, while naturally dangerous, would become hostile if he felt cornered, even in something like following directions. He was getting the look that the hogs showed when it was time for their cutting.

“That greenery you see, up near the top?”

A lessening of the frown on his face indicated a growing comprehension,

“Those bushes hide an opening in the side of the hill. If you push through the branches, won’t be more than three, four feet deep, you’ll find them both. I reckon, if you’re quiet, and you strike me as a naturally quiet type, you’ll hear them before they hear you. If they’re the ones you came to see, you’ll find them there. I doubt they’re expecting a person like you, so before you go marching up the hill, move your car to the left side of the barn. That way, if they happen to come out to see if everything is alright down here, they won’t see nothing out of the ordinary.”

Herschel Goloby stared at the woman who sounded like a policeman, but spoke like a school teacher. As often happens to those of limited abilities, he had only a very limited set of memories from his childhood. In that odd way of those with exceptional minds, the few memories were possessed of remarkable detail. He remembered a day in his very brief tenure as a pupil at St. Victoria’s Elementary School. Sister Symphonia, his third grade teacher, was, perhaps, the only adult during his short academic career who did not write the over-sized child off as a lost cause. In fact, it was only due to her patience, that Herschel Goloby learned that if it was written down, complicated matters became manageable. ‘If you write it down, Herschel, you can do anything!’ Her spontaneous compliment burned itself into the ten-year-old’s mind and shaped his life.

The thin woman, with the shiny glasses and the fancy dress who stood over him and spoke in a slow and careful voice, reminded Herschel of being in school and so, he listened to what she said, his lips moving, a singer learning a song of hate from a distant choir. Without another word, he turned, got into the car, drove it the hundred yards or so, parked it, got out and walked around the front of the barn.

Emily Gale stepped back into the living room. Through the front windows, she watched as the very large, very quiet man walked past the barn out into the meadow. She frowned, however, when she saw that rather than follow the obvious and well-worn path through the middle of the field, he veered off to the right. Taking this more roundabout path made for a much more difficult climb. It did not occur to her, nor would she have been likely to care, that this path would allow a person to get right up to the top of the hills without being seen from any looking down from above.

Emily walked over to where Aurora lay, now stirring from her nap. Deprived of a familiar face looking down on her, the barely awake child began to make sounds best characterized as ‘tentative crying’. She was not hungry, having eaten only a short time before, so there was no need to cry, rather it was the absence of her mother and father that elicited the sounds of fear-tinged disappointment.

“Dorothy! You’re awake!! That’s wonderful. It’s time for lunch and then we’ll see some nice people who will let you join our family and we’ll be happy for ever and ever.”

The child looked up at the woman with the look of innocent optimism that is so much a part of earliest childhood and burst into tears.

***

Wichita Office of the National Weather Service 1:23 pm August 11, 1939

Barry Conant was not happy. The information he’d received from the NWS station in Norman, OK included reported sightings of funnel clouds. The observers in both Enid and Alva, Oklahoma, reported hail and some cloud rotation, but no funnels. The main cold front clearly was bearing down on Wichita. Suddenly the telegraph, still a mainstay in the effort to communicate across the vast prairies of the Midwest, burst into a clattering shout, as Donny Wilkerson, a long-time and therefore very reliable observer out of Hutchinson, Kansas, sent a telegraph,

‘Brief funnel cloud, dissipated, headed north towards McPherson County.’

Barry picked up the phone and, when the operator came on the line, spoke in the calm yet urgent tone of a professional meteorologist,

“Diane? Please patch me through to the police departments in the following towns.”

***

August 11, 1939 Circe, Kansas

The clicking of her heels filled the silent main lobby of St Mary’s hospital. With its marble floor and somewhat grandiose rotunda, the sound bounced around the open space as Dorothy crossed from the main entrance to the corridor that lead to the patient’s wing and the Charity Ward. With the groundbreaking ceremony in full-swing, the only noise in the building were the normal breathing-like sounds of a hospital that one usually heard only during the deepest parts of the nighttime. Dorothy glanced at the memorial plaque, inset into the wall, that informed the distracted, or bored, visitor of the fact that the hospital was built-in 1896 and was added to in 1922. Below these dates was a list, in bronze relief lettering, of every Medical Director from the original, (Dr. Martin Louis Trembaly), right up to the current, Dr. Thaddeus Morgan.

Dorothy walked quickly down the corridor, open doors to either side; most patients rooms appeared to be occupied. From a few of these, the sound of a radio, set at a volume loud enough to distract a visitor sitting at a bedside, but low enough to allow the person in the bed to remain asleep, chased after the passing girl, as if hungry for attention. The corridor ended in a ‘T’. Hallways ran off to either side, one towards more patients’ rooms and the other towards laboratories and supply rooms. Directly opposite, as she had no intention of going to the left or going to the right, stood the double swinging doors of Ward C.

Fully aware that Nurse Claire Griswold would be waiting for her in Ward C, Dorothy found herself feeling both excited and, for no reason, quite sad. She thought of her last day of classes at college, when she returned to her dormitory, and saw taxis idling in the front of the building, open trunks consuming luggage like trained tigers in a zoo. Returning to her dorm suite, she passed rooms that either were emptied of its occupant or had the disheveled look of a bedroom being un-decorated; that starkly de-personalized appearance that shows when a person is leaving one living space for a more preferred place. With an un-characteristic lack of patience, she pushed the swinging door inwards and stepped into the ward.

Ward C was empty of patients, except for one. The last patient lay in the last bed on the left. The ten beds that made up the Charity Ward were divided into equal rows of five on each side of the long room. The other nine beds were empty, their mattresses were rolled up like over-sized and un-appetizing pastry and set in the middle of the interlocking metal webbing of the un-made beds.

Dorothy looked to her left and saw Nurse Claire Griswold at the far end of the ward, standing next to the last bed. The beds on that side of the room were against the outer wall and it’s row of windows. What appeared to be a very small woman, the worn-brown blanket up to her neck, lay in the bed. The tall, blonde nurse appeared to be speaking to her.

Dorothy walked down the aisle between the empty beds. She noticed the curtains on all the windows had been pulled and she could easily see out to the west lawn. Like a too-slow turning of a stereoscope, she saw, as she walked towards the end of the room, rows of wooden folding chairs, filled with the backs and the heads of the spectators at the groundbreaking ceremony. As the frame changed at the window in the middle of the row, she stopped at the sound of her aunt’s voice, “…because God favors those he loves.”

The backdrop of sky behind the woman standing before the politely attentive crowd of well-dressed people was one of distant turmoil. The clouds rising from the southern horizon seemed to collide and pile up upon one and other, a slow motion avalanche in reverse. While mostly angry shades of grey, there were patches of too-bright light embedded in the towering walls of clouds. Fading and growing as they moved from west to east, they shot stretched patches of sunlight across the lawn. Those people hit by the random glimpses of the bluest of skies, would raise their hands up to shade their eyes, only to have the clouds collapse on the opening, the restored cloud-dim light night-dark in comparison. The leaves of the elm trees that lined the edge of the hospital grounds were turned over, their pale undersides mute warnings of an approaching storm.

Dorothy felt a surprisingly cool breeze caress her legs and watched the curtains dance inwards, trying to find greater shelter inside the wide room.

“Dorothy? There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Dorothy was not surprised to hear the nurse’s voice come from just behind her. One of her most vivid memories of the blonde woman, one that seemed to be her’s for much longer than the mere weeks of a summer’s vacation, was of Nurse Griswold’s ability to move without being observed. As if possessed of the power to appear and re-appear anywhere at will, she now stood in the center of the aisle opposite where Dorothy stood looking out over the west lawn.

Dorothy Gale followed Claire Griswold to the last bed in the ward.

Chapter 40

Featured

July 5 1922 Lawrence, Massachusetts

Lizabeth Addams happened to be kneeling in front of the open bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, when she heard a small metallic click behind her. It wasn’t a particularly loud or forceful sound, nowhere near the startling assault on the ears of a dropped water-glass, shattering on the floor, or the frantic yelp of the dog, who sleeping too near a doorway, has his tail stepped on by a half-asleep owner, trying to get to the bathroom late at night. This quiet but somehow, hard click was the kind of sound that triggered the small muscles buried under the scalp to tug on the outer ears, pulling them forward in a vestigial reflex meant to help locate a threat. It was a sound that caused goose bumps to grow from the flesh and pull on the formerly smooth and comfortable fabric of the young woman’s expensive blouse. An ancient, yet still vital corner of her brain was doing nothing less than attempting to expand a nonexistent mane. An atavistic strategy to appear larger and more fearsome. The rationale was simple, whatever the unseen threat, it might choose to move on, seeking weaker, easier prey. The modern woman, who was Lizabeth Addams, however, simply felt a sudden chill and pulled her sweater closer around her.

Rising, Lizabeth felt the fingers of her right hand curling in, as if grasping an un-seen object, as she rose from her crouch and faced the office. She maintained a physical contact with the polished wood surface, as if to anchor herself or perhaps, to provide a leverage point, should sudden movement became necessary.

She recognized Herschel Goloby immediately. He was not a small man, however there was something to the way he carried himself that made him seem larger and threatening. Herschel Goloby exuded a sense of violence barely restrained. It was as if he was always about to spring forward. His shoulders, a rounded block of granite, balanced over a body that managed, by virtue of a certain economy in motion, to give the impression of grace and deliberateness of movement.

Herschel Goloby, like a basilisk from childhood fairy tales made real, stood in front of Lizabeth Addams’ desk. His eyes held an intelligence that seemed to flutter, like a guttering flame of a candle, melted down to the last shining pool of wax. Intelligence and cunning were the brightest lights, self-awareness the least; both flashing from deep in his eyes, a slow-motion explosion.

Lizabeth caught herself about to make the sign of the cross, certain that any indication she felt threatened would result in more attention from the man than she wanted; the actual amount being, none whatsoever. She walked three steps back to her desk. Like an apprentice ironworker, gripped by the yawing depths to either side of a narrow beam, yet all too aware of the need to appear confident and un-affected by fear; she donned the superficial friendliness of the professional receptionist and tried to smile. The thought of smiling at this man died quickly and senselessly, like a baby sea turtle running the sandy gauntlet to the safety of the ocean. She stared at the ledger on her desk with the desperate interest of a starving but illiterate woman, trying to make sense of a restaurant menu.

Lizabeth caught herself glancing towards the closed-door of her boss’s office and thought, ‘You bastard.’ Her fear was mixed with a resentment for feeling an almost infantile desire that Frederick Prendergast come out of his office and protect her. The strength of her desire to be rescued by the appearance of her employer made her angrier than she was frightened and looked up and said,

“Yes, may I help you?”

Lizabeth forced a smile onto her face, brushed a wave of brunette hair from in front of her eyes. The causal gesture prompted a sense memory of the pleasure she felt while dressing, the thought of how her choices would please her employer, was almost instantly spoiled with a soured taste of regret. With almost childlike impatience, she tucked the errant wave behind her ear and looked into the dark void of Herschel Goloby’s face, the rumble of his breath crawling from his chest, transforming into words like baby crocodiles born in a tangle of damp life.

“I am here to see your boss. Mr. Frederick Prendergast.”

There was a slight delay between the sentences, making it sound as if he had memorized the ten words.

Before he could complete his statement, Lizabeth was across the room, hating the thought of turning her back to the man, who remained, again silent, standing in front of her desk. She opened the inner office door.

“Mr. Prendergast? Mr. Goloby is here to see you.”

***

August 7 1939 Circe, Kansas

As Dorothy rode up to one of the wrought iron benches that circled the granite fountain in the Town Square, she thought she saw Hunk, standing and talking to someone off to the side, at the top of the staircase of the Circe Free Library. That she chose to leave her bicycle leaning against a bench, rather than in front of her destination, St Mary’s Hospital, betrayed a caution that she might, herself, be unaware of.

She turned towards the library, looked once more and was certain it was Hunk. Whoever he was talking to was not visible, as they stood in the alcove formed by one of the faux Corinthian columns and the massive front wall of the library. The sun was behind Dorothy, at an angle to the front of the building, the result was that whoever Hunk was speaking to was cloaked in the dark of the shaded corner. From the downward tilt of Hunk’s head, the person was significantly shorter and, from the slow but assertive gestures, mostly likely a girl or woman. Turning and walking across the Town Square towards the hospital, Dorothy was struck by her own lack of curiosity, even that bemused thought fell from her mind as she got closer to the reason she rode, alone on her bicycle, into Town. Soon, she started up the broad staircase at the entrance to St Mary’s hospital.

***

“So, Becky, one more year of small town high school and you’re off to Chicago?”

Hunk Dietrich, pulled out of the library more by the attractive power of the young girl’s enthusiasm than the tug on his arm, stood smiling down at Becky Stillworth, his back to the street. It was not until much later in the day did he reflect, not only on his conversation outside the front entrance, but in his choice of position. He was not simply blocking the sun, shining over his shoulder into the girl’s eyes, he stood in such a way to shield her from the un-wanted attention of those who might happen along. This created a question that before his trip into town, this particular August morning, would never have occurred to him. Especially since he’d only recently made the decision to leave his current employer, Emily and Henry Gale. Why he felt the need for privacy, or, more to the point, the need to protect Becky Stillworth’s privacy, was a question that grew in his mind more rapidly because, he suspected, of the very significant change in his own life.

Becky Stillworth stood in the shaded alcove and looked up at Hunk Dietrich and felt an excitement that seemed more personal than simply relaying the good news of her acceptance by the college of her choice. She felt a growing optimism about her life that was, at once, exciting and somewhat frightening. Her habit of protecting her truest dreams by keeping them private was born of necessity, as those around her were ill-equipped to support and encourage her dream of going away to school to study medicine. There was, in fact, only one person who did not chide her for being un-realistic or withhold their attention because they felt she was getting too snooty, that person was Hunk Dietrich. Since the day she started her part-time job at the library, she found in the farm hand a willingness, not only to listen to her give voice to her dream, but to return the trust by describing his own ambition to acquire an education beyond that which was available to the average farm hand. His value to his employer, as a very hard worker was sufficient to mitigate their natural tendency to make fun of him. As long as it did not interfere with his work on the Gale farm, his dream was tolerated.

The cool touch of the stone wall on Becky Stillworth’s back pulled her skin tight, small buds of goosebumps caught pleasurably at the fabric of her blue pattered blouse. She found that the space she stood in with Hunk was, somehow, growing increasingly small. The air they shared became increasingly comfortable, as if she provided a place to store the heat of the sun that he absorbed as he blocked the light from striking her directly. She felt good.

Her enthusiasm changed when Hunk said ‘off to Chicago’. It was a strange feeling, to anticipate missing a place, like her hometown, as she did not think she had any strong attachment to the town or her classmates or even her parents. She loved them and all, but they did not share any part of her ambition to become a doctor. A sense of loss washed over her, amplifying the cool of the library wall. At the same time she felt drawn to the warmth of sun.

“But it’s still a year off and there’ll be lots of time to talk and do research. I can help you with your college studies between now and then, Hunk”

“I’m leaving Circe, Becky”

The space the young man and younger girl shared, hidden from the surrounding every day world by the shade from the towering stone column, was an illusion. However, as with some illusions and the underlying feelings for most relationships, it’s effect was real as far as they were concerned, standing on the stairs of a public building in the middle of the day, wanting privacy without being conscious of a growing need to be together.

***

August 7, 1922 Circe, Kansas

“Hey, babe, lets call it quits for the day,”

Sterling looked up from the dark of the tractor’s engine compartment, which in turn, stood in the half shade, half bright sunlight of the open barn door.

Almira spoke from the triangle of cool shade, cast by the gable end of the barn. Aurora rode at her hip, every bit the loyal crew sitting in the crow’s nest of the tall ship, feeling its way into an unfamiliar harbor. Aurora reached towards her father with one, still somewhat pudgy, hand while clutching the cloth of her mother’s dress.

Feeling her long, light brown hair dislodged by her daughter’s now frantic waving, Almira tossed her head back, trying to clear her vision. The prominent ridge of her nose interfered  with what should have been an efficient, even graceful motion, of her head, as any mare tossing her mane would amply illustrate. Her too-often broken and not properly healed nose was not, however, the distracting and un-attractive disfigurement it would have been on another woman. Almira had eyes that were possessed of a depth and glowed with an intelligent kindness that was more than equal to the centermost feature of her face. She stopped trying, now having more, rather than less, hair in her face. Catching sight of the smile growing on her husbands face, she laughed,

“What? Am I looking like the original pioneer woman? Because if that’s whats prompting the grin, I can assure you, Mister, that you are very mistaken!”

Lacking the maturity that would convey the more subtle inferences of adult conversation and still not possessing the capacity to link emotions to her still immature speech center, Aurora waved both her arms, trusting that her mother would not let her fall. The Gulch family shared their laughter.

“Lets take Emily up on her offer.”

“What offer?”

“To babysit Aurora, one day next week.”

“I don’t know, Sterling.”

Sterling and Almira sat at one of the three wooden tables set up in the shade of the elm trees just outside the Dormitory. Aurora lay on her quilt, content to reign over the quiet afternoon at the now empty Gulch farm. The last guest had left the morning before, gratitude and promises of repayment trailing from the car like earth-bound confetti.

“She told me that she’d love to come here and give Aurora her lunch and watch her nap. She thought we might enjoy having an opportunity to go into town by ourselves or maybe just go for a ride or a walk or…”

“What does she want?”

“Not sure.”

The two lapsed into a comfortable silence, the stray sounds of their daughter serving as an anchor to their individual and private speculation on Emily Gale’s offer. The Gales, along with the other farmers in Circe, welcomed Sterling and Almira into their community, if for no other reason than they all were engaged in the same struggle with the same opponent, weather and nature. Sterling discovered that he had a certain aptitude for agriculture and farming. His enthusiasm and willingness to help anyone needing an extra hand, went a long way to being accepted by the people of the small farming town. Almira found her own reward in making welcome the people of the road who, by luck or, increasingly, by word-of-mouth, knocked on their door, hoping for a chance to rest and recover what for many was a search for a new life. The people who stayed with them, for a day or a week, would repay the hospitality by offering to help with the work and labor of the farm. Almira’s talent for organization served her very well, she would always find appropriate (and productive) tasks for everyone who asked how they might help.

Neither Sterling nor Almira could remember when their farm acquired the name ‘Almira’s Keep’. Through whatever the grapevine that existed connecting the homeless with the wanderers, visitors began to refer to the farm by that name. It came as little surprise that one morning in May, a couple shyly complimented them on the beautifully painted sign at the gate. An unknown guest had taken it upon themselves to put up a carved relief and painted sign that read, ‘Almira’s Keep’.

“Well, I think she’s just trying to be neighborly. We’ve done really well with our place here. Your opinion on the natural goodness of man is turning out to be more than optimism. The best example would be the Clendersons. Their stay made the difference between getting through harvesting next month on our own and having to ask Ephraim Hardesty or one of the others for help.”

“But, I like Ephraim.”

“So do I and his wife too, she’s one smart woman. Anyway, Zeb Clenderson’s innate talent with machines and his willingness to help, our tractor and other equipment is as good as new. You wonder why, seeing how they’re such good people, hardworking people, they end up here, on the way to elsewhere.”

“It hurts to see people so alone out on the road, their lives resting on four wheels and some sheet metal. I wish we could do more.”

“Well those literacy classes of yours are really something. I’m sure I saw one or two local farm hands at the last classes you held in the dormitory, last month.”

“I enjoy doing it. Though I swear I overheard Emily Gale, one Saturday when I was at the drugstore say something to one of her friends about ‘uppity laborers’. I kind of doubt I’ll be seeing any of the laborers from the Gale farm any time soon. I get the distinct impression that she doesn’t approve of the adult classes I’ve been teaching.”

Almira smiled, and looked down at Aurora who was now sound asleep on her side, quilt pulled up to her mouth.

Sterling reached over and took her left hand in his and smiled,

“But what we’re doing here is good. It’s good for the travelers who get to stop and rest and talk to others with the same problem, and its good for the local workers and laborers. Maybe it’s not organizing a union for thousands of workers or writing articles for a big city newspaper, but there’s nothing in the world I’d rather do than be here on our farm with you and our daughter.”

“Well, I guess charity should begin at home. Tell your girlfriend Emily that she’s welcome to come and watch Aurora one day next week.”

***

August 7 1939 Circe, Kansas

“Miss Gale?”

Dorothy was about to push her way through the double swinging doors of Ward C. As she walked up the corridor, she thought she saw a figure in white through the two rounded-square windows in the grey metal doors. It was the figure of a tall, blonde-haired woman and it moved from the right to the left.

Dorothy recalled her last meeting with the Nurse Griswold. She’d promised to return and now, finally felt there might be some answers to the questions that, like layers of nacre, smoothing over an irritant and forming a pearl, had built up around her original question she’d demanded of a very old and very asleep, Almira Gulch.

“Miss Gale!”

Doctor Thaddeus Morgan’s voice had the quality that opera singers envied, he could project great emotion, at very low volume. Like a miniature opera hall, his voice somehow seemed to be coming from in front of her, between where she stood and where she wanted to be. Feeling an undefined opportunity slipping away, she stopped and waited in the corridor.  The sound of distant voices announcing matters of life and death in the perfectly enunciated, thoroughly devoid of human emotion tone of the hospital intercom.

Dorothy took one look back towards Ward C, thought she saw someone move from left to right and turned to face the approaching hospital director.

‘Yes, Dr. Morgan?”

“I’m glad I caught you!”

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan prided himself on being able to speak without sounding out of breath, despite the fact that he was,

“Your suggestion at dinner last week was quite apt. Your friend, Mrs. Gulch, is responding to the IV drip. She is not yet conscious, but is showing definite improvement.”

Dorothy was surprised at the sudden feeling of conflict. She wanted more than ever to go to the bedside of the old woman who had become the focus of her summer at home and, at the same time felt a fear, a fear of what she might hear.

Up until this moment, Dorothy Gales’ only goal in life was to get Mrs. Almira Gulch to answer her question. More specifically to have her explain what had happened since she left for college to change how the town of Circe regarded the old woman. Dorothy found a growing reluctance, a self-consciousness, at the prospect of actually speaking to Mrs. Gulch.

Up until that moment, in her mind, it had been all about Dorothy Gale’s questions. The thought of having a conversation, and in the process, perhaps being asked questions, made her feel very uncertain. It was a very un-settling feeling.

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.”

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.