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.
“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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.