Chapter 43

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August 11, 1922 Circe, Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

August 11, 1939 Circe, Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 42

Featured

Wichita Kansas August 11 1939

National Weather Service (Wichita Municipal Airport) Midday Weather Bulletin

Head meteorologist Barry Conant had to make his first decision as the head of the newest NWS Field office. He smiled ruefully at how differently he felt about making forecasts, now that he was in charge of the office and not just a staff meteorologist. 

“Meteorology is art disguised as science. And if that doesn’t make your job difficult enough, the science it’s trying to look like, is mostly engineering. The ‘facts’ are millibars and barometric pressures displayed in gray, on white maps. The public would be just as happy if we told them we spread chicken entrails on the ground behind the weather office and took our forecasts from reading the patterns, provided our forecasts were always correct and accurate. But meteorology is a science and it not only requires having the intelligence to see the pattern, it insists that you have the guts to stand up and say, “There’s dangerous weather coming. Don’t wait, prepare.”

The speech on the last day of classes at the University of Washington was almost fresh enough to hear Professor Milger’s voice. Barry sat at his desk, the dry-clicking sound of the wall clock reminding him that the Noon Advisory was the second most read (or listened to) forecast of the day.

The evidence and the indications were there, the reports from Tulsa and Norman observers, while not coming out and saying, ‘funnel clouds’, demanded that he issue a tornado warning.

***

August 11 1922 Circe, Kansas County Road #2

Herschel Goloby stared through the dust-shadowed windshield of the black Packard. The sign read, ‘County Road #2’. His very simple plan was entering the final stage. In the early morning hours of the day, he’d stepped off the train that carried him from Boston, Massachusetts to Kansas City, Kansas, got in the car that was waiting at the station and drove west.

On the seat next to him, under the squared black shape of a Colt .45 and the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun, was a ledger. The book was spread open, the lined pages were of an off-white nearly yellow color. Printed in large letters were a series of incomplete sentences;  ‘Get on the train’ ‘Get off in Kansas City’, ‘Go to Western Union and get car’. Next to the ledger was a single sheet of paper with a hand-drawn map. In smudged graphite black, it started on the right edge of the page with Kansas City (an almost perfect circle enclosing the words), a line with route numbers drawn above it and, finally at the near left edge of the paper, where the final notation of ‘County Road #2’ was a large ‘X’. Underneath the X was written, in the overly precise letter-shaping of a child or a person with much else on their mind: ‘bring him back. kill her.’

Herschel Goloby was not in any way self-conscious about his near complete illiteracy. He often required directions, (and steps involved in certain tasks), be written out. He managed, by the simple expedient of requiring whoever hired him, to write everything out. That he was as effective as he was at his chosen work was acknowledged in the complete absence of raised eyebrows, smirk or joke about the literacy rates in New England.

When plans changed or alterations became necessary, Herschel Goloby simply found someone to write out the changes for him. It might be anyone, voluntary or otherwise, who would be told to write what he told them to write. That the handwriting of these changes (to his instructions) sometimes appeared shaky was a reflection of the mental state of the stenographer, not the person dictating.

He looked at the road sign and frowned. Herschel Goloby was, by even the most charitable estimations, a primitive man. Primitive in that he lacked both the drive and perceived need to engage with others to contribute to the common good. Herschel Goloby was bothered only when something occurred to interfere with his day or when he encountered a new or novel element that could not be ignored.

Herschel drove west from the train station in Kansas City. He stopped only twice to relieve himself, once in a small grove of trees and the second by the roadside along a desolate stretch of highway. At this last stop, the scenery consisted of nothing more than a world of wheat fields.

County Road #2 stopped leading straight ahead and now insisted that the driver make a decision. Quite a simple decision: turn right or turn left. The sign that insisted this decision be made, was planted in a cornfield that, by its orderly furrows and tall stalks was as unyielding as a plain brick wall.

Herschel decided to get out of the car and stretch his legs. Leaving the car in the middle of the road, pointed straight ahead, he stepped from the car. Looking around without any interest in where he was, he stretched his arms over his head, sweat-darkened shirt made him look like a black and white photo of victims of gangland territorial conflict. He wore a very expensive tailored business suit. Although Herschel was rarely concerned with the exact time, a gold chain crossed his vest, the chain secured a gold watch. He wound the watch every morning and would stare at the intricately crafted face, much as might a serf in the Middle Ages staring at a page of an elaborately illustrated bible. He paid a great deal of money for the watch and was quite  aware, even derived pleasure, from the envious looks from those he might show the timepiece. He wore the attire of a business man, a successful business man, if the custom tailoring was any indication. The majority of his clients were business men, (successful and otherwise), however buying custom suits was more a reflection of the lack of clothing in his size, than it was personal taste in fashion.

Herschel walked towards the rail fence that divided the field and it’s cultivated nature from the road, and it’s man-made nature, and stopped.

Sensing motion in the field, his arm went from hanging at his side to pointing ruler straight in an instant. There was a waving motion from a point about 30 feet into the cornfield. Looking down along his pointed arm, the waving motion resolved itself into a dark blue bandana. Without changing his position as additional elements resolved themselves into the scene before, Herschel saw the scarecrow, standing amid rows of corn. Being caught off guard, in his line of work, a surprise like this was in no way a source of amusement. He pulled the trigger of the .45 twice. The scarecrow’s head disintegrated, a split-second later, the wood frame that held the straw-filled man upright followed, splinters and sticks flying in all directions. Six crows flew from a grove of trees, a short distance away.

Un-zipping his sweat-stained trousers, Herschel Goloby urinated on the fence, constantly scanning the road in the three directions it provided. After a time, he got back into the Packard, picked up the ledger on the passenger side and stared at the lettering on the open page. His lips moved in slow reflection of the memory of hearing the instructions read aloud by a luckless hitchhiker. The man ran up to the car and seemed happy to have been offered a ride, up until the moment Herschel handed him the ledger and told him to read what was written on the page. Simon Lassiter spent what remained of his life reading over and over, the contents of a single page of the ledger. Finally, Herschel pulled the car over to the side of the road, on a section of road where nothing but wheat and barbed wire fences were to be seen. His passenger expressed genuine surprise at the isolated location. His surprise turned to alarm, unfortunately, his assessment of the situation came too late to change his fate. The instinct to survive is surely the more persistent of those that motivate man, Simon Lassiter, in a desperate attempt to change the unchangeable, opened his door and, nearly shouting with relief, got out and stood next to the car, “Hey mister this is great. I have some friends up yonder. This will give me a chance to…”

Herschel leaned over, extended his arm through the still open passenger side window, shot Simon Lassiter in the face twice before he could finish thanking him for the ride.

Herschel Goloby continued his drive, his instructions playing and re-playing in his head, the voice of the soon-to-be-deceased out of work school teacher, Simon Lassiter reading, ‘…bring him back and kill her.”

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 38

Featured

1921 Winter (outside of Circe, Kansas)

Approaching the sign, ‘Topeka City Limits’, the car slowed from a self-confident 40 mph to a doubtful 25 mph; having surrendered to uncertainty enough to allow this decrease of speed (and determination), slowed further to 20… 15 mph. A blue Jordan sedan, it was packed (inside) and loaded down (the roof and trunk lid) with items not commonly associated with an afternoon drive or even, for that matter, a short stay with relatives in a nearby State. That the oblong rear window reflected light at all implied the decision to give up some storage space in exchange for the added safety afforded by a rear window. It was easy to guess, given that furniture and carpentry tools were among the items packed in and on the car, that the occupants had little interest in seeing where they had been. Their location, the west bound lane of Route 75 on the edge of the last decent-sized city in eastern Kansas and the time, a mid-afternoon Sunday in January, provided for very little likelihood of cars lining up behind them, horns trumpeting demands that they make a decision and get moving.

The two adult occupants of the dark-blue Jordan, like a pair of tropical fish, leaned toward the inside of the car’s windshield seeking some extra guidance from the sign that read: ‘McPherson County 100 miles’, and below that, a highway marker, ‘Route 56 West.’ Turning and facing each other in unison, both receded to the interior and the car turned left towards the afternoon sun.

As did a number of families in the early 1920s, (many, many more as the decade advanced), the Davis family drove west. Modern innovation, a labor pool increased to flood levels by the end of a war and simple bad luck, put Micael and Lisa Davis in the position of having to leave the town of their childhood and, for too short a time, the place where they planned to create and raise a family. The decision to leave appeared the only alternative to waiting in the hope that something would change and Micael would be able to find work. When there are no options and the clock is ticking, moving to another part of the country felt like a more acceptable fate than waiting for the sheriff to come to your door and announce, with a degree of embarrassment, having known you all your life, that you no longer could live in the house you poured your life savings into only a few years before. Taking everything that would fit in the car on which they were still making payments and driving towards a distant part of the country that seemed to lack the problems that afflicted Dayton, Ohio seemed to be the only responsible action a man, trying to provide for his family, could take.

Micael and Lisa Davis packed up their car and drove west, mercifully spared the irony of placing their hopes in following the setting sun. Micael Davis was one of the few born with that special talent for being able to fashion useful, and often beautiful objects, from chunks of wood and pieces of trees. His wood-working skill provided a comfortable life for his family, until innovation and industrialization, in gross and crude imitation of his craft, managed to produce substitutes that were deemed acceptable by people who had less and less money for handcrafted goods. Sears and Roebuck was among the first corporations that found the means of providing mass-produced, but reasonably priced coffins into which the nails of a slowing economy could be driven. Craftsmen, as desperate as anyone deprived of a market for what they created, found themselves working on production lines, modern-day serfs in the service of a new king.

“We’re doing the right thing, aren’t we, Micael?”

Lisa’s voice was soft, her words edged with the tension she felt and tried to hide. It was a tone that her husband would remember more often in their bed as a newly married couple, their lives then still un-defined. Here, in the front seat of an automobile on an empty highway, there was passion, but it was the passion of a mother to protect her children and a wife’s willingness to face adversity at her husband’s side.

“Yeah, Lisa, we are. We’ll drive this car wherever the good Lord and the road takes us. I’ll get you and the girls to wherever it is we’re meant to be. Starting over don’t scare me none, long as you’re by my side.”

Micael, stared at the highway map, colorful and full of ridge folds, he spread and flattened it against the steering wheel, a paper coat-of-arms on a mass-produced shield.

“It looks like after this Route 56 goes on for a spell, maybe a couple more hours, then County Rd #2 picks up and runs straight on through McPherson County. Can’t say I like how far and few between the towns are out here, but the Jordan’s a good car and the tank is still mostly full. I reckon the shorter route is better. The quicker we get to California, the sooner our family can get back to being happy.”

“The girls and I are happy, Micael. As long as we’re together that’s all that really matters.”

Lisa reached over and put her hand over Micael’s, lightly enough to be felt as love and support, but not enough to betray the fear that she felt trying to grow within her.

***

The early afternoon light cast slanted marble columns across the open living room of the Baumeister home. The fireplace glowed with a quiet energy, warmth extended well into the room, ventilation cleverly arranged to spread the heat throughout the first floor (and up through vents in the ceilings). Directly in front of the rubble-stone hearth was a brown leather couch, to either side, leather arm chairs. Between the couch and the fire was a low table of beautifully polished wood. Covering the top were, ‘The Jungle’, ‘Walden’, ‘Woman and the Nineteenth Century’ and, (of course) ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ the crafted-leather covers bound the furniture to the fireplace.

Farthest from the front door and turned just enough to allow a view both of the fireplace and out the windows overlooking the front porch, Almira sat, her legs curled under her slight form, amid a nest of blankets. At first glance she appeared to be dozing, head tilted slightly downward, light brown hair formed a crest overhanging her face. In her arms a baby slept, all soft-flesh pink and showing the random sleeping movements that slowly turned the soft blanket folds into perfectly fitted clothing.

Without moving, Almira smiled slightly and said,

“Hi, Simone.”

Her voice had a quality of stillness, though to describe it as ‘quiet’ would be like calling the ocean ‘a large body of water’, however, the physical effort required even for this short greeting was enough to cause waves of light brown hair to slip and tumble-down and over her eyes.

“It is with no small pride that I’ve developed the ability to move in a manner some call graceful, even more say soundlessly, but you, my young new friend, are among the very few people I do not seem to be able to approach undetected.”

Simone smiled, wrapped her pale shoulders with a blanket from a neat stack near the front window and sat at the far end of the sofa. The blanket was covered with the black and red geometric patterns favored by the Shawnee. It managed, by virtue of expert weaving enhanced by the flickering firelight, to entice the eye with the illusion of depth that bordered on frightening. In stark contrast, the older woman’s blonde hair framed dark blue eyes, that while focused, always seemed to be looking somewhere else, somewhere far away. Simone Baumeister possessed a presence at once contradictory while resisting description.

Almira glanced at her host. The ticking of the grandfather clock provided a wooden counter-beat, to Aurora’s newly started heartbeat. The child lay against Almira’s breast, feeding complete for the moment; she took up the other major chore of a newborn’s life: sleeping. There were moments when, mother and daughter, their breathing in sync, Almira could feel, like the tiniest of drums, the syncopation of life, a triple time counterpoint to her own slow and steady heartbeat.

Almira had a passing vision that combined ferocious machinery and soaring brick walls that rose and as quickly sank, as a fading horizon, the opposite of the experience of the alert sailor, at the end of an ocean-crossing, catching the first sight of land rising from the horizon.

“I think he’s happy here.”

Simone spoke without preamble or context, as if answering in anticipation of a question.

Almira, her child asleep at her breast, glanced up and spoke with a voice that declined to disturb the air until it had crossed the short distance to its intended recipient; a maternal ventriloquism allowing conversation while permitting the sleeping to remain asleep.

“Yes, for all his concern and protectiveness, Sterling seems to have allowed himself to relax. The past year has been difficult. In the way of men, the greater the demands, the less he admits to himself how difficult his life has become. Carrying the world on his shoulders, accompanying his wife across the country to both escape and to discover an alternative to a life suddenly untenable; all without complaint.”

Simone shifted her gaze towards the double windows and the hills that rose from the meadows behind the newly completed dormitory building,

“He loves you more than he knows. But this child that sleeps in your arms, so much a different matter! Your Sterling is only beginning to sense the boundless love he has for your daughter. For the moment, he’s like one raised in a highland wilderness, and finding a mountain stream, follows its downward course. This man may read books, talk to travellers and educate himself in all matters concerning streams and rivers and oceans, accepting that by finding one, he would surely know the other, both the stream and the ocean are nothing more than water in different volumes, he tells himself, certain that knowledge is a substitute for experience. However, nothing can prepare him for the moment he stands before the ocean, the waves grabbing his legs in a hungry lover’s embrace, the salt tang intoxicating him. Sterling sees the child, and like the distant glimpse of the sea through gaps in the forest, he begins to suspect how much a child, a daughter, can mean to her father.”

Almira felt a twinge, like the chance tickle of a reed on the side of the leg when swimming in unfamiliar waters, a hint of future panic, the broken memory of a fragment of a dream. Fields and wolves, dark shapes in the underbrush, appearing only to disappear. Before she could turn her attention, the dark forms blended into the darker recesses of her mind.

“Your husband would be happy anywhere in the world as long as you and his daughter are there, wouldn’t he?”

Almira felt the cold recede as suddenly as it appeared, replaced by the warmth of her child’s face against her skin, the smell of life floating like a new angel’s halo.

“Yes, Simone, he is happy wherever his family is.”

“But it is not so simple for you, Almira Ristani, is it?”

Almira tried to recall if, perhaps in the course of a lazy afternoon conversation, she’d told Simone her maiden name. She immediately dismissed the thought as inconsequential. Despite the fact that she sat a mere ten feet away, try as she might, Almira could not quite bring Simone Baumeister entirely into focus, she remained, as the image seen in a telescope held in reverse, clearly in sight with fine details just out of reach. Deciding that her host was a woman of good intent, Almira chose to smile and maintain her watch over her sleeping baby.

“You have a gift. More of a power, really. Can you see how it can be both? What you’ve accomplished in your relatively short life may seem to exist only in the context of the places you have lived and the people you have known. Your friend Annie and Sister Aloysius and all the people who you’ve helped, have all been a part of your life, but they are not the reason you’ve been so successful in your work. You look around at your new home here, at the vast spaces and the slower pace of life and can’t help but wonder if your talent, your work itself, has any place in this strange land.

But you, of all people, know that men and women and families are the same no matter where you are; the real difference lies in how time passes, the speed of life. Even, and especially here, in this place where days are replaced by seasons and the very earth itself is an active part of people’s daily lives. Fortunately, my young friend, you are of the small number of people who thrive on bending the world to your will, it is that you are able to affect the lives of others that you enjoy, every bit as much as the outcome of your efforts.”

Seeing Aurora sleep peacefully, Almira glanced up through the veil of hair that shaded her eyes,

“What I was very good at, back East, was simply getting people to accept that what they have in common is more powerful than what they think makes them different. All my work with the labor unions sprang from that simple insight. But that was in an environment, a social context, that was very, very different from life out here. I could do what I did because the workers I organized numbered in the hundreds, the thousands. All I needed to do was help individual men and women see the power they might harness once they joined together as a group.  I am, I suspect, a woman of the cities. I’m not so sure there’s a need for my talents in a place as different as this.”

Simone raised a very light blond eyebrow and Almira looked back and smiled in appreciation of the woman’s simple, subtle and quite non-verbal gesture. Had Simone Baumeister stood on the couch and shouted while waving her arms, there would have been no discernible improvement over her silent effort to command Almira’s attention.

Laughing as much at herself as in a sharing with the other woman, Almira continued,

“I don’t really know anything about the culture or the economy of this part of the country. Sterling, my gifted husband, is a man who can paint a world with words. He can tell you the history of this town, this state. In the course of doing that, telling you a tale, he weaves the mundane facts of daily life in the farmlands of Kansas.
This place is starkly different from New England. When I lie awake in the early morning it feels threateningly alien, as if, while I slept, I was flown to a very foreign country and everyone acts as if I belonged there. On our visit to the Gale farm, Henry Gale gave quite the enthusiastic tour. His knowledge of agriculture and farming was altogether impressive and his love for the life was quite apparent.

The thing is, as you said, I know people and where there are people who have become successful and wealthy, there are people who are powerless. As much as I might hope and dream of a future that would be otherwise, where there are working men and women, there are bosses. And the workers always live at the mercy of the bosses.”

Almira felt a familiar passion rise. Though to a stranger the force of her words and the fire in her eyes might convince them she was angry. She did not feel anger, she felt a need to help the powerless discover the power that she believe was within all people. To help people stand up to power was what burned within the petite form curled in a leather arm-chair, her baby in her arms, her mind pacing the room, alive with the joy of a worthy struggle.

“Theodore and I will be leaving Kansas this year, in late Spring, I think. We wanted to find someone to carry on our work here. We both think you and Sterling and Aurora would be the perfect people to assume that role.”

Almira turned her head slightly to look at the fire, a silent chill crept up her back onto her shoulders and said,

“Thank you, Simone, that means a great deal to me. But I’m surprised that there wouldn’t be a line of people, especially the other farmers in the area who would jump at the chance to take over your farm.”

“You’re half right, Almira. Your Sterling’s friend Emily Gale has long coveted our little farm. However, it’s in the ‘taking this farm over’ aspect where you are mistaken. Theodore and I not only have established a successful farm, more importantly we have created a refuge. We’ve spent years here working so that people, total strangers who find themselves at our gate, can find welcome. When they leave our home we know we’ve helped people. Yes, we have a profitable working farm, but helping strangers in need, people for whom there are no guarantees of happiness is the reason we are here.”

“I will say that, as people who stood on your porch on a dark night, you have succeeded in creating a safe haven in an otherwise cold and somewhat hostile land. I also understand what you mean about finding the right kind of person, the person who holds the same values as you and Ted. But surely there are kind people living and working in Circe or in the surrounding county who make suitable owners.”

Almira looked up from Aurora, who was, in the mild movements of a baby, waking from a comfortable sleep, to find that Simone was now within arms reach, sitting at the near end of the sofa.

“Almira believe when I say that you are one of the most intelligent women I’ve had the pleasure to know, but on this you’re mistaken, more likely, I’m not expressing myself as clearly as I should. I’ll suggest that you’re mistaking the kindness of the meek for the love of those in need, which is a virtue found only in the strong. The meek are kind, but their’s is a gentle charity, more the personal demonstration of virtue. There are those who have a drive and the will to intercede on behalf of those in need. You and Sterling are both kind, but more importantly, you are also very strong people. In a farming community such as ours, out here in the near wilderness, kindness is all too often left in the pulpit of the Churches, fodder for an inspiring sermon to motivate the parishioners to do more for those less fortunate. If we sold our farm to a kind but meek owner, they would lose the treasure Teddy and I have built here in less than a year. On the other hand, were you and Sterling the owners, stewards, if you prefer, then the likes of our neighbor Emily Gale would have no more success convincing you to sell out to her than she’s had with me and my Theodore.”

Almira smiled with a look in her eyes that confirmed Simone’s assessment.

“No, you’re correct. Since arriving here, I’ve wrestled with the fear that I’d left my talents and skills behind, in the city. But a larger part of me knows there are people out here in this vaster part of the country who would welcome my help. On a smaller scale, to be sure, but worthwhile nevertheless, one person or one family at a time.”

There came the sound of heavy boots outside on the wooden porch.

As the two men walked through the door, Sterling was saying,

“Well that does sound like an interesting proposition. I need discuss it with Almira… oh you’re here!”

Teddy Baumeister stood in the open door and spoke as if addressing a crowd of strangers,

“There! Did I not say that my friend Sterling here is a very smart young man?”

The young couple and the older man and woman laughed, and in her blanket, the very young child seemed to smile as well.

***

“Don’t you think we should stop, maybe the next town?”

Lisa Davis stared out her window, the blue of a cloudless day took on a darker hue, as the sun moved towards the horizon, abandoning the world to night.

Micael heard the fear in his wife’s voice, it was a minor note really, a tone that a stranger would not have detected. He, being nothing anywhere close to a stranger, heard concern for their two children. The Davis’ had spent one night sleeping in the car and although everyone passed the night quietly, the following day, he noticed his daughters staring with longing at every house they passed.

“Yeah, Lisa, I’m with you on that.This County Road #2 seems to take us right through a small town called Circe. We should be alright, as long as the map isn’t wrong.”

***

Dinner with Simone and Ted Baumeister was always enjoyable. They had an improbably long dinner table set up on the opposite side of the open front room. Other than the rough-hewn support columns, there was nothing to block the view of the fireplace on the far wall. The kitchen was at the back of the house. The first floor was designed to encourage people to eat and talk and be together.

Teddy liked to cook, so Simone would set out the table and act as host, ferrying out dishes and platters of whatever struck her husband’s fancy to prepare. He and I found an old, but still very serviceable, cradle in the attic, and as soon as Almira was able to join us, Aurora, when not in her mother’s arms, had her own place at the Baumeister’s dinner table.

“So tell us, you two, would you like to settle down on this farm that my Simone and I have built?”

After Ted and I returned from our walk, Almira and I accepted our host’s offer to watch Aurora so that we might go for our own walk. There were a couple of hours of comfortable daylight left and we certainly had a lot to talk about. I took Almira up to the spring in the hills. We sat together, the still pool reflected both the blue sky and the grey of the cavern. We sat together, our backs against an unyielding surface and remembered when we first met. The water was not quite warm, yet not chilling cold, the rock surrounding and protecting it held a warmth that managed to make the ancient stone somehow comfortable and we remembered how we’d travelled together, running from and running towards the world.

Without warning, Almira spun around and, knees outside of mine, sat facing me. Her twice broken nose, a crooked deformity on a lesser woman, was transformed by the dark power that lay just below the surface of her eyes. I saw such passion for life that I knew there was nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her, and there was a strength that promised I would never die alone.

As I stared, almost helplessly, into her eyes she started to grin. Resting her forehead against mine, sitting on my crossed legs, she laughed with what could only be described as the joy of the two of us being together. I let her laugh and felt her body and her spirit.

“Well, husband of mine, shall we till the earth and join the company of the landed gentry?”

I felt such a torrent of love that I had to join her in laughing, otherwise I feared I’d either dissolve into tears or stand and howl at the sky.

“We are surely destined to change this place, wife of mine. Our family will grow and flourish in this vast and empty land.”

Back at the dinner table I looked at out hosts. Theodore Baumeister had a way of beaming with confident good will, while his wife Simone had a quality of both being and not being, that rather than being disturbing, had a way of instilling peace and calm. I took Almira’s hand and said,

“We’d be honored to continue the tradition you’ve established here. We shall draw up the agreements, sign the Deed and record it at the Town Hall in Circe, first thing tomorrow.”

As I looked at Almira, there was a glow to her face. The happy silence of the room was broken by the sound of a car engine, creeping to a stop and sighing into quiet.

We all sat in silence as we heard two sets of footsteps cross the porch and, from outside, came a woman’s voice,

“Do you think we should bother them, Micael, it’s beginning to get dark.”

Then a deeper, more resolute voice,

“We can ask, if they tell us to go away, we’ll still be together.”

I looked at Teddy and Simone. Simone was now crouched next to Aurora’s cradle adjusting her blanket and Teddy simply said,

“Well, Mr. and Mrs. Gulch, you would appear to have company!”

Almira was already standing and holding her hand out to me. I took her hand in mine and we went to see who was at our door.

Chapter 37

Featured

Winter 1921 Circe, Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I walked to the window and looked towards the farmhouse,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Summers End 1939

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

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

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

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

“Mind some company, roomie?”

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

“My god, the sky is beautiful.”

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

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

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

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

Eliza turned towards her,

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

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

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

Dorothy laughed,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eliza noticed the expression on Dorothy’s face,

“Yeah, no difference!”

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

“I guess.”

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

“Sounds like a good idea.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Does your Aunt know?”

“I think she does.”

“So ask her,”

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

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

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

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

Seeing Eliza’s understanding smile, Dorothy added,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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