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.

Chapter 37

Featured

Winter 1921 Circe, Kansas

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

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

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

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 On those two occasions, the night’s accumulation was too puny to resist the winter sun and by afternoon melted, withdrawn into the still soft earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I walked to the window and looked towards the farmhouse,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Summers End 1939

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

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

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

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

“Mind some company, roomie?”

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

“My god, the sky is beautiful.”

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

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

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

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

Eliza turned towards her,

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

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

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

Dorothy laughed,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eliza noticed the expression on Dorothy’s face,

“Yeah, no difference!”

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

“I guess.”

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

“Sounds like a good idea.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Does your Aunt know?”

“I think she does.”

“So ask her,”

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

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

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

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

Seeing Eliza’s understanding smile, Dorothy added,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 36

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aurora”

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

“Aurora, welcome to the family.”

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

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

“Welcome home.”

Chapter 35

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I remember.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you do that?”

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

“Do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One odd thing.”

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

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

“Very observant!”

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

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

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

What?”

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

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

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

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

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

ohh!!

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

“My god!”

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

“Sterling…. I think it’s happening…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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