Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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   “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray
    place you call Kansas.”

   “That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl.
            —L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Dorothy pulls the bedclothes off the children in the cold morning dark.

“I have a secret surprise for you, but you have to promise to be very, very quiet, and you have to hurry.”

Mary begins to cry but Robert shushes her. Dorothy helps them dress and promises them if they are quick there will be sweets and a train ride. She has already packed the suitcase she now tugs from under the bed. Robert pulls on his boots and asks if Papa is coming. Zeke, their father, is out in the barn with the cows, though his sour-sweet breath still lingers in the air.

“It’s a special place only magical children and their mamas can go,” Dorothy answers.

Robert grins at his sister—they remember their mother’s stories.

“Race me through the fields,” she says.

They will make it to the train station before daybreak if they hurry.

Out the back door they go, through the mile of frozen fields that leads away from the barn where Zeke is hunched in the damp hay, half asleep against a warm flank, chewing, always chewing, just like the cows. The children can feel the hard earth under their feet. The corn stalks crackle as if they might disintegrate. It hasn’t rained in weeks.

The station is empty, except for a stooped old man sweeping the platform, stirring up little dust clouds. Occasionally he stops to puff on his cigarette and look at the mother—young, but already the lines on her face—and her small children, who huddle close on the bench. Dorothy gives the man an unsmiling nod.

The boy coughs. “I’m cold, Mama.”

Dorothy takes off her blue Sunday overcoat and drapes it across their laps. Mary rubs her eyes and pulls her hair into her mouth. The sun begins to show in pale streaks above a bank of low clouds that remind Dorothy of weak, twice-wrung tea. Waste not, want not. Try to make the water taste like anything but dust. All she could ever taste was dust, her whole life.

Dorothy looks down the track, her feet resting on the suitcase. She can feel her feet trembling on the hard leather. She thinks of everything she left behind. She hadn’t thought to bring a warm blanket. There was the water to haul for the horses, the slop for the pigs. Everything not done would now never be done.

The train can be heard in the distance. Dorothy stands and rights the suitcase. Robert stands too. She tries to hold his hand but he pulls away.

“Where we going?” he asks.

Dorothy takes in the long slope of his nose, the flat cheekbone. Zeke’s profile. “We’ll see when we get there.”

She picks Mary up and lets the girl, who is almost too big to be carried, wrap her sleepy body around her. The train rumbles into view. Mary holds her hands over her ears. Robert counts the cars—one, two, three, four. They start to go by so fast he loses track.

“Will the train stop?”

“It will,” Dorothy says. “It’s got to.”

If it doesn’t—she wants to shudder the thought loose, like flapping the dust out of her clothes at the end of every long day in the fields. God’s will in that dry, gray earth.

But the train slows, and she lets a breath out. It feels like she’s been holding her breath her whole life, since she was young and believed in something. The brakes screech as a passenger car door slows to a stop in front of them and opens. Mary slides out of her mother’s arms and takes Robert’s hand, and they climb up the little steps, their eyes wide. They’ve never been on a train before. Dorothy follows with the suitcase. The old man is leaning on the broom, smoking.

The car is empty, so they take up three rows. The children are bouncing, waving to the crows out the window. They name the crows after the characters in their mother’s stories. The stories are about good and evil, and what happens to girls when they dream and then grow up. When the train lurches forward, Mary scurries into Dorothy’s lap and buries herself in her coat again. Robert looks out at the fields, crusted with frost. They go by slowly at first. Soon he settles in next to her and leans his head on her arm. Dorothy watches for the farm and the barn and then closes her eyes until the train begins to pick up speed. They pass the mill, a silo, a crumbling chimney standing alone, the white clapboard church. Horses running.

“What about Papa? Isn’t he coming too?” Mary asks.

Zeke will be back from the barn by now. He will pick up the cold coffee pot, holler for her. Holler again. He will find the empty bed, see the drawers gaping like mouths that must be fed. Feel around under the mattress for the bundle of money. He will strike a fist against the door frame. He’ll see the row of shoes gone, including Dorothy’s Sunday shoes. Her work boots still standing by the door, caked in mud. He will see the small empty oval over the fireplace where a year ago she had hung the pale photograph of the baby boy they lost and the wisp of straw-colored hair tied in a black ribbon. And her ring on the mantle—perhaps he will pick it up and notice how dull it is now, how bent, how far from a circle.

He will throw her kitchen chair, her basket of mending. He will get in the truck. Turn the key. Turn again. Pound the wheel with the flat of his palm. In the exhaust pipe, he will find the potatoes she had dug up the day before, the bitter smell of half a year’s labor spoiled by a late frost. He will curse her, up into the lightening sky.

“Maybe Papa will come look for us,” Robert says.

Perhaps days or weeks or months from now, she thinks, Zeke will find them.

They pass through new towns she’s never seen, over rivers whose names she doesn’t know, so she makes up names for the children. They have never seen a river. The corn fields are replaced by green hills, blue mountains. They blink at the colors. It rains a bit. Mary sleeps now, and even Robert eventually closes his eyes. Dorothy begins to drift too. She dreams of the pigs. The rustling corn. She dreams of the farm where she grew up, miles away from here, of the mute faces watching the sky, of the swirling dust. She dreams of his chewing, the spurts of rusty spit.

They pass factories, smokestacks. Dorothy wakes the children. She opens up the packed lunch of bread and ham and they eat quietly. They are so quiet. They see people waving from their porches in the shacks on the outskirts of the city that go on for miles. The children wave back and bite into their sandwiches. They watch her.

The train enters a tunnel. In the dark she closes her eyes. For a moment, she’s back in the root cellar, with Robert and Mary huddled close. She can see the tears streaming, their mouths open, but she can’t hear them. The train’s howl is the swirling muscle of wind and dust scraping the fields, wrenching trees and houses out of the earth like a fist. The rattle of the train cars on the tracks becomes the clatter of the jars on the cellar shelves, all she could put by for another hard winter. There’s the taste of blood and dirt, there’s Zeke with the broken broomstick she always used to fish laundry out of the scalding tub. The smell of dust and liquor and lye. The terrible clank of his belt buckle.

She opens her eyes and allows a small idea to grow into a prayer, a spell:

Zeke set fire to the barn.

Set fire to the animals.

Let the smoke mix with dust.

Set fire to our room, to the bed where I bore my babies, where I bled, where my last child died in my arms.

Take that rifle off the rack and sit down in your chair.

Remove your right boot.

Hold my ring in your left hand, rifle in your right.

Finish it.

The conductor calls out, “Next stop, Indianapolis.”

Dorothy opens her eyes. The late afternoon sun spills through the window, clear and cold. A different light. She smiles at the children and gathers up their things.  

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