Chapter 46

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May 24, 1942

South Lawn, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy turned to see Hunk Dietrich smiling at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A war correspondent?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Hunk? Is that you?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Aurora!! Give ’em hell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 45

Featured

August 11, 1922  Circe, Kansas

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

“Are you hurt?”

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

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

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

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

“No, don’t make me laugh!”

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

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

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

“Almira?”

“Yeah babe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

August 11, 1922

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

“My God!”

“Dear sweet Mary, mother of God”

“There you are!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Gale managed to shriek, without raising her voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Gale turned on the Judge,

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Gale looked at Almira Gulch,

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

“Hello! Anyone home?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My goodness! There’s a woman here.”

Stepping back up onto the porch, Seth called out,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

She looked at the woman in the bed.

“You’re my mother, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Yes I am.”

“Why did you abandon me.”

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

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

“I had no other choice.”

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

“Did you love me?”

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned to Hunk,

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy felt a hand on her shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now. We have to go.”

“One more thing, my daughter.”

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

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

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

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

***

Wichita Times Tribune August 18, 1939

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

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

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

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

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

No bodies have been found or recovered.”

Chapter 44

Featured

August 11, 1922 Circe, Kansas

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Are you glad we met?”

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

“I would have no other life, Sterling.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“There you are.”

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

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

“You, put them on him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sterling move to your left. Now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her ragged breath, slowed.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“There you are….”

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

***

August 11, 1939   Circe, Kansas

“There you are…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Aurora.”

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

Chapter 41

Featured

August 11 1939 Circe, Kansas  (late morning)

“It’s about time you got here, young lady.”

Emily Gale stood at the podium, at the edge of the small stage that was set up on the west lawn of St. Mary’s hospital. A hospital employee was busily setting out wooden folding chairs in rows before the stage. The west lawn was ideal for the groundbreaking ceremony, not only for its level expanse of grass and proximity to the hospital’s parking lot, but for it’s view of the soon-to-be-demolished wing, itself the original effort to expand the hospital. A single level, wood-frame structure, it branched off the rear of the granite and brick four story main building and had housed St Mary’s Charity Ward since 1922. Windows ran along both sides of the structure and afforded half the patients within, a view of the green, tree-shaded west lawn. The other half, five to be precise, ten being the maximum capacity of the ward, were consigned to being involuntary sentinels of the service entrance and staff parking lot. The new addition, soon to occupy the space taken up by the ward and it’s one remaining patient, would be three stories tall, have fewer windows and would result, as the freshly printed programs proudly pointed out, ‘in a re-focusing of an essential community institution’.

The driving force behind the new addition stood behind the podium on the small, and currently empty, stage. Looking up, Emily Gale glared at the two young women walking across the lawn.

“The ceremony’s not for another two hours, Auntie Em!”

Dorothy looked at her adopted mother from halfway up the center aisle, newly created by the two groupings of chairs. Noticing that Eliza was no longer at her side, Dorothy turned and watched her friend talking to a tall, young man. At least a foot taller than Eliza, he had three folding chairs leaning against his leg and from the blue short-sleeved shirt, she guessed he was an intern, no doubt taking the opportunity to help set up for the groundbreaking ceremony. As he smiled, Eliza pointed towards the parking lot and her yellow convertible. He laughed, looked back towards the hospital and nodded his head. Eliza turned, caught Dorothy’s eye and winked.

“Don’t tell me how much time I have, missy. There’s more to do than you think. The ceremony will begin at 1 sharp. I’ll give my speech at 1:15 and then we’ll walk together… as a family, to the side of the old wing and turn over a shovel of dirt. We’ll make a difference to this town and even if you no longer care, the Gale family will be remembered!”

The papers on the slanted wood of the podium fluttered suddenly. The sky to the east remained as pale, hot and featureless blue as it had been since just after dawn, when the sun broke free of the horizon. To the south and west, it was a much different story. Instead of a clean, sharp line following the contours of the far distant fields that formed the horizon, Dorothy could see a dark jaggedness. Where normally the brown and beige of the fields blended with the pale blue of the sky, there were obsidian serrations, as if the increasingly dark gray clouds were fleeing something worse to the south, something that tore at the fabric of the fair-white clouds.

Dorothy glanced at the trees that grew along Cathedral Ave from the hospital entrance down to the Town Square, two blocks to the east, and thought she saw the slight paleness of the undersides of the elm and oak leaves.

“Henry! Get me something to hold these papers down with! I’ll not have my speech interrupted by a page flying wildly across the lawn!”

Henry Gale, sitting, nearly un-noticed, on one of the chairs that lined the back of the stage, looked up,

“Well, Em, I reckon I can find something in the hospital to serve that purpose, a paper weight or some sort of clip.” He stepped the single step off the stage and walked towards the hospital, veering to the right and the main entrance.

“Get Thaddeus Morgan to give you something. Seeing how we’re building him a bigger hospital, it’s the least he can do.”

The gust died as suddenly as it was born, the three pages of her speech safely flat on the lectern. Emily turned her attention back to Dorothy, still standing at the head of the aisle, facing the stage.

“My stars and garters! The biggest event in this small town since….since I can’t say when and that’s how you choose to dress?”

Emily Gale stared at the blue and white gingham dress, a very white blouse with a subtle ballooning at the shoulders. Her gaze grew increasingly critical until she noticed that Dorothy had put her hair up in braids, a hairstyle she seemed to have left behind when she went away to college.

“What about all those fancy new clothes you brought back from New York? Surely you had something a little more, well, a little more in keeping with the occasion. I guess it’s all too true what they say, some people just can’t leave their humble beginnings behind, no matter how much is done for them. For all the better things in life and the advantages of being a part of a successful family, there’ll always be those who are more kitchen than parlor. Breeding always shows in the end.”

Emily looked back down at the lectern. As much as she liked what she’d written, illustrating the dedication and commitment to hard work that went into growing the Gale property from a small family stakehold into one of the largest farms in McPherson County, she was not satisfied with the ending. With a frown of annoyance, Emily Gale stared down at Dorothy, who remained standing in front of the stage. Her friend Eliza was walking towards the parking lot, the tall young man following eagerly.

“Well, just remember, young lady, I want you up here with your father, sitting behind me when I give my speech. Henry Stuart is sending both a reporter and a photographer to write this up for the McPherson County Observer. And you’ll be pleased to know, he said he’d put in a call to a friend of his who runs the Kansas City Star. We might be in the news in the city. Won’t that be exciting?”

Somehow avoiding the nearby trees, a particularly strong gust of wind sneaked up behind Emily and roughly tousled her carefully brushed hair, like an over-excited teenage boy in a schoolyard with too much energy and too large an audience. Feeling the folds of her dress flutter and lift, she reached down, only to see the white papers rise and fly up and over the grassy lawn. Dorothy stepped to intercept them, succeeded in snatching one page in the air and stamped her right foot on the second paper, as it scuttled across the lawn. Looking up at her Auntie Em, who, with the brim of her hat forced close to her ears, seemed to be flying as she stepped off the stage, focused only on the paper under Dorothy’s foot.

“Be careful! Give me that!”

Dorothy picked up the page, added it to the one she’d caught and handed both to her aunt.

“Here. You can have them. I certainly don’t need them.”

Stepping up on the small stage, Dorothy sat in the chair at the end of the single row behind the dais.

Emily Gale stared at the three pages of words, with a scowl twisting her face, daring the words to deny her the opportunity to tell the people, some of whom were already walking towards the stage, the inspiring story of how a hometown girl from humble beginnings lifted herself from poverty to become one of the towns leading citizens. Her speech would also assign some credit to the good lord for having the sense to provide Emily Sauvage with a hard-working husband. The rest, as she smiled, speaks for itself.

***

August 11 1922 Circe, Kansas (late morning)

“Why Emily! Almira and Aurora and I were upstairs, I guess we didn’t hear you knock. Uh…you’re early!”

I was relieved that Almira remained upstairs with Aurora, when the knocking on the front door began. Despite my having told Emily Gale that the best time to come to the house was 12:30, there she was, standing on our porch at 11:45 am. Stepping past her out to the porch steps, I watched a dust cloud settle over fresh tire tracks in front of the house. Henry, his face barely visible in the truck’s rear view mirror, was headed down County Road #2. I waved at the back of the truck, as far as I could tell, Henry didn’t wave back. I turned back towards Emily and said,

“So Henry isn’t going to join you? Thats too bad, Aurora really took a liking to him that last time we visited.  ‘Hen!! Hen’ was all she could say the whole afternoon after we got home.”

“What?” Emily was already in the living room, looking at every corner of the room, a frown growing on her face.

“Henry. Your husband Henry.”

“What about him?”

She turned and looked at me, a flash of annoyance that she struggled to control.

“I thought Henry was going to be with you. You know, for lunch, here, today? Thought the two of you would be making the day of it. Here. Watching Aurora?”

Again her brows tried to control the growing anger and impatience that colored her eyes. Fortunately Almira chose that moment to come halfway down the stairs.

“Hello, Emily. I just have to feed Aurora and then we’ll both come downstairs.”

Emily spun to face Almira,

“I can help…” she broke off the sentence and confusion showed in her eyes as she seemed to struggle to make sense of what she was saying.

“Don’t give it a thought, we won’t be long. I see you brought some toys and blankets, Sterling can show you where you can put them.”

Almira walked back up the stairs and Emily returned her attention in my direction.

“I’m willing to help, you know,”

Emily’s face displayed emotions that I can’t recall ever seeing in one person’s eyes, at least not all at once, at the same time. There was an angry, flinty look in response to my question about her husband, Henry. But even then, there was, underneath, or maybe behind the anger, a shiny, hard calculation as, just for a split second, she measured and assessed. All in a blink of the eye. However, what was startling, perhaps because it occupied her face as the other emotions came and retreated, was a look of sadness. Underneath her slightly furrowed brow and subtly critical eye, was the face of a child confronting the loss of something precious. And, perhaps because it was not on the face of a child, there was not the slightest hint of accepting the loss. As soon as I saw it, it was gone and Emily had moved to the couch and was putting her things down on the table.

“I brought some milk, fresh as can be. Here, put this in the refrigerator for me. I’m sure Dorothy will be getting hungry later on.”

I stopped, startled from my own reverie, but decided that I must have mis-heard her.

***

The National Weather Service’s newest field office was located on the second floor of the maintenance hanger at the Wichita Municipal Airport

On Friday August 11, 1939 at 6:00 am sharp, the six telegraphs in the new-enough-to-smell-the-paint office of the National Weather Service, started clattering.  Most of them relayed routine reports from spotters spread out through the surrounding states, reporting the overnight and pre-dawn weather activity. At precisely 6:24 am, a spotter outside of Norman, OK reported severe thunderstorms. A follow-up from the Tulsa station added to the picture by describing the development of several wall clouds. However, no hail was observed and, within 30 minutes, the sky was clearing as the morning progressed from dawn into full daytime.

Head meteorologist, Barry Conant, was the first meteorologist assigned to the Wichita station. On this particular Friday morning, his first entry into the day’s log read:

‘Preliminary signs of tornadic activity to the south appears to have been false alarms. Seems like just another hot Kansas day.’

He was partially correct.

***

August 11 1939 Circe, Kansas (early afternoon)

Dorothy sat at the end of the single row of chairs at the back of the small stage. Between her and the gathered dignitaries, politicians, reporters and senior citizens balanced on wooden chairs arrayed across the west lawn of St Mary’s hospital, Dr Thaddeus Morgan was concluding his introduction. The Chief of Medicine had spent the previous 15 minutes explaining how critical a community resource St Mary’s hospital  was, not only for Circe, but all the towns in McPherson County.

Her Uncle Henry sat to Dorothy’s left and, next to him his wife, Emily, who was writing frantically on the three sheets of paper in her lap. Each time the audience applauded, she would scrawl a note in the margins. Henry caught Dorothy looking at her stepmother, winked and leaned back in his seat so she could see the pages, each an angry field of cross-outs and corrections.

Emily Gale’s efforts to revise her speech was made all the more difficult by the wind that ruffled the pages in random bursts and breezes. To make matters worse, fast-moving clouds would slide in front of the sun without warning, and the light would switch from glaringly bright to squinting dark without warning. Leaning to her right in order to see around Thaddeus Morgan’s ample backside, Dorothy studied the crowd of Sunday-dressed people sitting on their uncomfortably hard chairs.

A couple just arriving caught her eye, as they walked, hand-in-hand across the lawn. They managed the peculiar ‘slow haste’ that people attempt when late but hope to avoid the attention that running would attract. The young woman wore a dark skirt that, even at the distance Dorothy was, was obviously tightly fitted. Despite the weather and fit of her skirt, the girl wore a sweater, sleeves draped across her shoulders. Being August-hot, the sweater clearly was inspired by some residual modesty, as her blouse was tight and the temperature high. Her companion was tall in a dark suit that did not quite fit. Despite the effort to dress formally, the lack of a neck tie was obviously deliberate.

Dorothy stared and almost let her stiff cardboard, commemorative program drop to the ground as she realized that the young, almost well-dressed man was Hunk Dietrich. Dorothy scanned the audience and spotted Eliza among the guests. The look on Eliza’s face made Dorothy wonder if her friend could read minds, as the grin on her face, a deliberate turning of her head towards where Hunk now sat, made it clear that she, too, recognized the couple.

Dorothy watched as Hunk pulled the chair out for the young woman. Something in her response to having her chair held, made her appear much younger. Even from up on the stage, the girl’s figure was quite noticeable and, with a second jolt of recognition, Dorothy realized that Hunk was sitting next to Becky Stillworth. She was the part-time library worker, full-time high school senior-to-be, who’d stopped Dorothy in the Town Square earlier in the summer, wanting to talk to her about college.

“Every small town has its heroes and, all too often its villains. These are the people who till the land and sew the cloth; every civilization that rises, does so because of the blood, sweat and tears of hard-working people. Every small town has members who, through luck, talent or ambition, rise up and make a difference. Circe is no exception.”

Turning her attention back to Dr. Morgan, Dorothy realized that he was about to introduce her mother. ‘At least then’, she thought, ‘they can get out their silly silver shovels and pretend to dig a hole and all this will be over’. Dorothy’s luggage was already in Eliza’s car, the plan was to drive for Kansas City as soon as they could get away from the ground-breaking ceremony.

Dorothy watched as Hunk leaned and whispered something to Becky Stillworth. Whatever he said caused her to smile and when she smiled, his face lit up in a way that Dorothy thought she would never have seen in the man she thought she knew so well. It was an expression of a happy confidence in himself and a fierce joy in the obviously new relationship.

From the corner of her eye, Dorothy saw movement in the windows of the Charity Ward. It was a flash of white that moved with an uncanny smoothness past the windows closest to the main building on to the left, towards the far end of the ward.

At that moment a cloud slid between the sun and the west lawn of St. Mary’s. Sharp glints and pale reflections in the glass windows were extinguished, and, in that second of slight darkening, Dorothy saw a woman standing in the last window. She had very blonde hair and was staring at Dorothy.

“May I introduce to you a member of the Gale family, Mrs…”

Thaddeus Morgan stuttered in surprise as Dorothy stepped off the stage and, without a glance back, walked towards the front entrance of the hospital.

“…Mrs Emily Gale. Please join me in giving her a warm welcome. She will tell us a little about the journey that brought her to this exciting day.”

A sudden burst of wind ranged across the lawn and rolled over the gathering. It was startling not because of its strength, (although it was, in fact, one of the stronger gusts of the afternoon), what caused people to make sounds of surprise and small noises of fear, was its temperature. Like a rogue wave amidst a normal, and therefore non-threatening, sea, the wind pushed against the women and pulled the hats from the men’s heads. For a day that started with temperatures in the 90s, the coolness of this last wind made the hair rise on the back of the neck of many in the assembled crowd.

Emily Gale cursed the wind and approached the podium, her attention so focused on the three sheets of paper that held her speech, that she did not notice the main door of the hospital closing behind a determined young woman.

***

August 11 1922 Circe, Kansas (early afternoon)

“Come on, Sterling, let’s get going.”

Almira pulled my right hand, turned me in the direction of the dormitory and we walked around the corner of the building, leaving Emily Gale standing on the porch holding Aurora.

Of course, I’d still be standing there, ten feet from the front of our house, waving at our daughter, setting records for variations on the expression, ‘bye bye’. Aurora laughed her enjoyment of the show I was putting on and mimicked my waving. Her 18-month-old attempt to duplicate my gestures were mostly, ‘b’ sounds with a long vowel. She waved her arms and kept it up as long as I did, all the while, bursting into gurgling laughter.

Emily stood on the porch holding Aurora and smiled cheerfully when the first of the ‘bye byes’ began. Her smile. began to flatten out after only about five minutes, as she tired of the game. For a woman several years younger than Almira, Emily Gale managed to look every bit the stern schoolmarm, standing ramrod straight in her long, too formal dress that looked suspiciously brand-new. Her wire-rim glasses added a steely outline to her eyes. ‘But,’ I thought, ‘no one would buy a dress just to babysit for a neighbor for a couple of hours. Would they?’

“Come on, Sterling, the sooner we have our picnic lunch, the sooner we can get back to our normal lives.”

Almira pulled me along as we waded through the still mostly green grass of the meadow that marked the transition from the level terrain on which the house and the barn and the dormitory building were built, to the gentle slope up to the low hills that rose, like a battlement in the northwest section of our property. We’d decided to take a picnic lunch and blanket out to the spring. This announcement did little to stop Emily’s somewhat frenetic suggestions that we take the whole day for ourselves. With a look I would normally associate with the word ‘fervor’, she actually suggested that we take a trip into Kansas City. She assured us that if we wanted to get away for an overnight trip, it would be no trouble at all.

I caught Almira’s eye and smiled and she relaxed and smiled back at me,

“We all walk before we crawl, Emily. Lets see how Almira and I do with a picnic out at the springs for a couple of hours. Then, maybe for the next time, we might try something more ambitious, we’re very new at this parenting thing, you know?”

“Don’t you agree, dear?”

I reached out and took Almira’s hand and succeeded in breaking the growing intensity in her eyes. My wife is the most patient woman in the world, she has brought together parties that were at the point of physical conflict and, by her calming and peaceful guidance, allow them to come together in agreement. I have also seen my wife, at the time a girl of no more than sixteen, nearly kill a man three times her size. Even as she stood over him, his screams of pain filling the union hall, she remained silent. But in her eyes then, that winter’s night there was the rage-triumphant scream to give pause to any valkyrie of ancient legend. I saw a growing coldness in Almira’s eyes and thought it best to help her focus on the positive.

She held Aurora out to Emily Gale. Emily held our daughter and walked towards the front door. I took advantage of the momentum and broke the spell that threatened to overcome my wife.

I had my arm around Almira as we stood at the wall of evergreens that protected the spring that flowed eternally from the earth, our choice for a picnic lunch. I looked down over the gentle slope of the hills, the meadow we’d just crossed still showing our bent-grass path from the barn. The dormitory and our home just beyond it looked like a midwestern fairy tale castle.

Almira leaned into me and said with a mischievous grin,

“Well, husband-of-mine, I’d say we’re certainly not in Lawrence, Massachusetts, anymore. Wouldn’t you agree?”

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 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.