Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Photo by Lisa Chizuka 
They lived in the middle of the dust-ridden plains, two miles from anywhere, any house, any town. No trees relieved the landscape; no birdsong filled the air. Nothing surrounded them save a flat unremarkable line, where land met sky, for as far as the eye could see. Funnel clouds of dirt danced with mocking merriment about the ramshackle house, its clapboard shutters—once rich brown—were now nothing more than pale gray, crooked teeth.
            Mama washed laundry in the big copper bucket in the back yard. Not their own laundry, a course, the rich folks’ laundry. Them that came in fancy motorized vehicles that banged and popped, them that dropped their baskets at the edge of the dirt strip pretending to be a street, and went on their way without so much as a “howdy-do.” They returned at dusk, hand Mama a few dollars, and leave as quick as they’d come.
            Every now and again Jacob tried to talk to them, but they’d just look down their long noses at him and keep walking. His little sister Jessie never talked to them. Jessie never talked to anyone; not even Mama and Jacob. Not anymore. Not since daddy got to her.
            Scrunched down upon spindly legs and bare feet, Jacob stared at the small motionless pebbles,
those he saw with his mind’s eye as his marbles, in the circle he had drawn in the dirt at the bottom of the two rickety front steps. Grimy and gray in reality, their brilliant color rivaled their smoothness in his imagination-skewed vision. Most days he spent hours lost in the angles of this game, but today his mind was as scattered as the pebbles when he flicked them with his shooter. His cousin Howard was coming to stay for three whole days. He’d never met his cousin, never had someone to play with other than his silent sister for more than a few hours at a time. His stomach flopped with excitement. He heard its growl above the silence and the wind.
            By the time the wagon wheel’s rumble reached them, Jacob’s feet—washed every night before bed and prayers—were as filthy as the ground now tattooed with his footprints.
            “Mama,” he called out, his voice cracked to a squeak then swirled around the house on the unrelenting wind. “They’re here.”
            Wiping pruny hands on her faded calico dress, Mama came round the corner. She smiled at her son, at the excitement in his bucktooth grin, the spark in the dark brown eyes that looked just like hers. She put a loving hand on his shoulder and they walked toward the slat board-sided wagon. Mama looked over her shoulder, sending her smile toward Jess who sat on the porch in the tattered straw rocking chair. Her doll, perched face out in her lap, shared Jess’s vacant gaze. Jess hadn’t moved since morning; she rarely did.
            “Hey, Martha.” The large man driving the wagon doffed his straw hat as he pulled the horse gently to a stop.
            “Hey, Fred.” Mama looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun with a red-skinned hand.
            “Me and Gail sure do ‘ppreciate this,” Fred said, wiping the sweat and dust from his eyes with a worn, washed out green bandanna. "And don't worry none. Anyone who asks will think he's with his grandmother back east."
            Mama nodded; answering only with a tight lipped smile.         
            Fred turned his jowl-heavy chin over his beefy shoulder. “Come on, Howard, get on out.”
            The wagon bounced as a young blond boy jumped out the back. He stood, one hand holding a lumpy burlap sack, the other shoved deep in the slash pocket of his indigo overalls, his long legs reaching the ground many inches beyond the bottom of his pants.
            “Our pleasure. Be good for the kids to have some company,” Mama said. “How’s Aunt Clara?”
            “Still holdin’ on, far’s we know. We’ll let ya’ know more when we get back.”
            Mama nodded, lowering her head, and rubbing the back of her neck as she sometimes did. She gave Jacob a tender push.
            “Well, go on. Bring your cousin in the house.”
            Jacob shuffled forward, dragging his bare feet as if he hadn’t been waiting for this moment for days. As he walked toward his cousin, wondering why Howard was so much taller than he even though they were both twelve-years-old, he noticed a small drawstring bag hanging from around Howard’s neck.
            “What’s that?” Jacob asked by way of greeting, squinting up at the unfamiliar but not unfriendly face above him.
            “Marbles.” Howard replied.
            Jacob’s smile spread so far his dry lips cracked.
            “I’ll be back in a couple hours,” Mama said, pushing her once pretty blue hat firmly down on her head. “I’m goin’ to town to get somethin’ special for dinner, in honor of Howard bein’ here and all.”
            “Thanks, Cousin Martha.” Howard stood, nodding his long, freckle-covered face. “Mighty nice of you.”
            Mama smiled. “You two keep a good eye on Jessie, ya’ hear?”
            “What’s this one?” Jacob held a marble up before his eyes like a delicate treasure.
           “Cat’s Eye,” Howard answered, his gaze flicking over his shoulder to Jessie, who still rocked in the fraying chair, her baby doll held firm but lovingly in her lap. “What’s wrong with your sister?”
            Jacob looked up at Jessie, at her pretty, vacant face, the brown eyes she shared with him and her mother, the tousled dirty blond hair. “She’s just quiet.”        
            “Whaddya’ mean quiet? Seems like she don’t talk or nothin’.” Howard took more marbles out of his bag. Jacob didn’t seem to mind talking long as he could look at the marbles.
            “No, she don’t…much,” Jacob replied, reaching out for the little gems hungrily.
            “How come?”
            Jacob shrugged. “Dun know for sure. She started talkin’ when she was little, but then…”
            Jacob’s gaze flicked up to his cousin’s curious face as his tongue twisted on the unspoken words.
            “Well, then we ran away from daddy. She ain’t never talked since.”
            Howard sat down on the puffy dry earth. “Why’d you run away from your daddy?”
            Jacob wondered if Howard had as many marbles as he did questions. “Just got too hard for him, I guess. He done take the hard out on us.... So we ran.”
            That was hard for Mama too, Jacob knew. He saw it in her eyes sometimes, like she was on the edge of a cliff looking down, not wondering if she’d fall, but when. Most times the look went away, especially when she looked at him and Jessie. No matter how tired or how hungry, she gave to them what they needed most, herself. She taught them how to play checkers with colored pebbles in squares she’d drawn on the floor. She read stories from borrowed books, acting out the parts and using different voices. And always, always, she loved them, delighted in loving them.
            Jacob raised his eyes back to his sister. “She’s a good girl.”
            Howard turned back to Jacob and shrugged. That seemed enough for him.
            Neither boy noticed when she stood up, crossed the porch, and descended the crooked stairs. When her shadow fell over him, Jacob jumped.
            “What the hell?” The words slipped out of his mouth before he could catch them. He worried if Mama heard, then remembered she wasn’t back yet. He watched Jess amble away toward the dirt street with slow, plodding steps.
            “Where she goin’?” Howard jumped up.
            Jacob didn’t answer, couldn’t. He stood and followed Jess.
            “Where you goin’, Jess?” He called, catching up to her with quick dust puffing steps.
            Jess kept walking. She seemed so small with her little feet and hobnobbed, skinny legs. Jacob wondered if all eight-year-olds were as small as she.
            “You all right, Jessie?” Howard walked beside Jacob, who walked behind Jess. The girl didn’t answer him either.
            A few feet from the street, Jessie stopped. Jacob and Howard stopped. The boys looked at each other. Silently they circled around the still girl to stand before her.
            Jessie stared straight down. Jacob and Howard looked down too. Jacob’s thin brows furrowed on his smooth, sun kissed skin. Where did the hole Jessie stood in come from? Had it been there before?
            “What’s wrong, Jessie?” Jacob asked, his thin whisper wafting away on the never-ending wind.
            Jessie’s head rose slowly. Her unblinking eyes protruded from her gaunt face as her lips fell
open in a gruesome gash. Her scream, when it came, shattered any peace that ever lived here.
            “IT’S COMING!”
            The days passed far too quickly and Jacob learned the sadness of separation at Howard’s leaving. His cousin promised to come again and bring more marbles, maybe even give Jacob some of his own. That night they played another game with Mama, he laughed so hard his stomach hurt. When Mama tucked him in bed, her love covered him as completely as the dry dust covered the earth and his sadness disappeared. He felt guilty ‘cause he never told Mama about Jessie, about her walk and her scream. He didn’t want to make things worse for Mama; he wasn’t sure she could take it.
            The pounding woke them up; it shook the earth beneath the clean, bare wood floor and quivered deep in their bellies. Jacob was afraid to move, he found only enough courage to open his eyes. Jessie lay beside him; her bulging eyes bore into his as if she’d been staring at him for hours, waiting. This time she whispered.
            “It’s coming.”
            Jacob bolted upright with a gasp. His Mama stood at the open door, her silhouette dark against the pale early morning light. She stared out at the distance, the tip of one rough skinned thumb stuck between her teeth. Jacob ran past her onto the porch. Small figures moved about on the horizon. Three wagons huddled around them, long poles—longer than any Jacob or his Mama had ever seen—stuck out the back. For hours they watched the men, watched as they dug deep holes in the earth and rammed the poles in them. The newly raised poles reached out from the earth, skeletal fingers beckoning to the heavens.
            One by one the men emptied the wagons and drove them away. One creaking conveyance roared toward them. Jacob ran out to the street, waving his hands until the man driving the wagon pulled up on the reins.
            “What you doin’ out there, mister?”
            “Why, we puttin’ in e-lectricity poles, boy. They bringin’ e-lectricity out here. And then something called tel-o-phones.” As if that explained everything, the man whipped the reins and continued on his way.
            Jacob ran back to Mama.
           “They puttin’ in somethin’ called ‘lectricity and telpones.” Jacob stood at her feet, looking up into her eyes. “Is it gonna be all right, Mama?”
            Mama looked down and Jacob saw it, that standing on the edge of the cliff look. But this time it was worse, this time the fear turned her eyes into dark shadowed hollows in her blanched face.
            She shook her head with the slow futility of denying inevitability.
            “He’ll be coming now.”

The End
(c) Donna Russo Morin 2007


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Donna Russo Morin said...

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