Leona – Chapter Sixteen

Leona - Chapter Sixteen

Howdy!

How are you enjoying fall?

I’m here with the sixteenth installment of Leona.

Click here for a list of chapters or to start from the very beginning.

I hope you enjoy this week’s chapter!


Chapter Sixteen

The new year started off, but not well. It began with a dust storm that managed to get through any sliver of crack in the wall. It continued with another cow of ours, dead. On January 18, we watched helplessly as another automobile, strapped with chairs and blankets, drove solemnly through Beaver. I watched it pass, and my heart stopped. The listless faces staring out belonged to the Whitlocks.

Will and Frank saw me, but didn’t recognize me. How many years had it been? They looked away with shame. Shame at having failed. At having to leave. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of!” I wanted to cry. But I was rooted to the spot. How many others would have the same fate? How utterly hopeless Frank, now fourteen or fifteen, looked. Will had aged beyond recovery. I went inside, downcast, and tears finally came. One glistened as it coursed down my cheek. I wiped it away as if I could wipe away the disaster that caused it. But I couldn’t, and I knew it.

After that, it seemed that everyone I cared about was lining into single file and leaving forever.

Eloise came up to my desk the next day, and stuck her hand out. “Well, it was nice knowin’ you,” she said cheerfully. “I’m headin’ East, to live with my Aunt and her family.”

I accepted it without a fight, and rose to give her a hug.

“I hear that there isn’t dirt there,” I said finally, attempting to make a joke, “It all blew here. Good luck and have a good trip.”

She shook her head and I saw a tear in her eye. “Imagine all the stores and places to explore in Boston,” she said, but it seemed to me that she was imagining all the people she was leaving behind here in Beaver.

“Maybe you’ll visit me?” It was a question. I nodded.

“Maybe. Good luck,” I repeated.  

She spotted my watery eyes. I coughed and said, “This dirt,” as if it explained my symptoms.

In a way, it did. It explained everyone’s symptoms. It was accountable for misplacing hundreds of families and friends. Eloise smiled sympathetically and shook her head.

“Boston,” she murmured, and her watery green eyes flashed with hope. Hesitantly, she offered a small smile. Then she turned and walked away. That was the last I ever saw of Eloise Ally.

Only three days after her departure, I watched helplessly as Dolores and her new husband left to go back East. Arlene was next to go. A few school friends asked me to help them throw a party for Arlene. Her family was leaving the next day. She held onto us, crying. I sure didn’t blame her. I had seen the pictures and headlines in the newspapers. “Not Enough Work,” and “Many Go Hungry” were common titles. Pictures of whole families living in shacks weren’t new. I let her cry, and I cried with her. “I’ll never see you again,” she sobbed to us. A couple girls looked down uncomfortably. “That’s not true,” Lillian ventured. “Maybe we’ll visit you. You’ve gotta keep positive. It’ll be Ok.”

Arlene was handed a cookie, and managed to pull herself together. “You were the best,” she told us. We all smiled. “I have to go now,” she said regretfully. We all gave her hugs, and she kept the tears in until she reached Lillian, her lifelong friend. She burst into tears again. “No, Ar. Don’t cry. We’ll see each other soon,” Lillian comforted. She was telling herself that, too.

Arlene went away, eyes red, girls waving and calling to her. She turned and looked at us one last time, faking a smile. And that is how Arlene left.

Suddenly, life lost any glimmer of joy it had possessed. I lived just to get through the next day, the next week. Mama became busier, as it was the only way to take her mind off her problems. Dad became despondent. Bud continued to grow up in silence. As for me, it seemed I had forgotten myself. I looked in the mirror, expecting to see the country girl I was staring back at me. Instead, I saw a woman. A woman with tired brown eyes, and a mouth that never had reason to smile. A woman on the verge of losing hope.

It was April when it happened. I was sitting at the ranch, my old bed faithfully bearing my weight. The book I was reading slipped from my hands and I dozed off. After only ten minutes or so, I woke up, confused. Was I outside? Was it a dust storm? Dirt sifted through the air. I recognized my bedroom, and hopped up. Throwing back the curtains, I gasped. It was as black as night outside. Dirt was making itself known inside as well as out. I bolted down the stairs calling, “Mama! Dad? Is everyone Ok?” There was no answer. I threw open the door and scrambled onto the porch. For one second, the dirt let up and I saw Bud pushing his way toward the road. “No!” I screamed. “Wait!”

He turned around to find me, and must have heard the desperation in my voice. He appeared moments later, face ashen. “They’re went out walkin’,” he said, his face panicked. My eyes widened with fear. “Come on,” I said over my shoulder, and I shot inside. He stumbled in behind me, and I scrambled down the cellar steps, my bare feet padding on the packed dirt floor. I felt around for our biggest lantern, and a coil of rope. Bud caught on, and tripped up the stairs for matches. I threw the lantern his direction and flew out the door. Tying the rope around the pillar on the porch, I began to tie the other end to my waist. Bud came out, and yanked it out of my hands. “You stay here,” he yelled above the raging wind.

I nodded and secured it tightly around his waist. He thrust his head near mine and called, “I’ll yank the rope twice when I find them.” With that, he barged head first into the storm. I called, but he didn’t hear me. He was already disappearing. “Let this work,” I prayed.

I stood for what seemed to be hours, dirt swirling around me, hand over my nose. The dust made my eyes burn and water, and all I could taste was mud. After about ten minutes, Bud appeared, without Mama and Dad. “Where are they?” I cried. He shook his head. “Rope’s not long enough,” he said. “Are you sure they went that way?” I asked, pointing in the direction of the school. He nodded. I bolted inside and found another coil of rope, this time a tangled mass. It was dirty, a coil we had saved from the barn, but it was rope.

I sped out into the dirt. Panting, I told Bud, “We’ll have to try again.” I began untying him and tied the two ropes together. He jumped off the steps as soon as he was tied. “Be safe!” I yelled, and this time he heard me. He yelled something I couldn’t understand back.

It seemed like hours as I watched the rope unraveling, following Bud farther and farther from safety. The storm bore down on me, and it felt as if my lungs were being compressed. I reached out and grasped the worn porch beam. The comfort it gave me also channeled in courage. I stood up, squinting through the dirt. Then I had an idea. I bolted inside again. Grabbing a lantern from the basement and wetting cloth, I lit the lantern hurriedly and scrambled onto the ever-darkening porch. I hooked my arm around Bud’s rope, used my hand to hold the cloth to my face, and began to assimilate into the storm, lantern held high. I followed the rope until I brushed Bud’s shoulder. Then I screamed along with his shouts.

Finally, we heard a muffled noise, and Dad stumbled up to us, Mama grasping his arm. I flung the damp, and now dirty, cloths to their faces and turned to follow the rope home. They saw our intentions and followed us quickly.

We stumbled onto the porch, relieved. Gasping for breath, we all tripped inside and slammed the door. Mama and Dad sat down, and I hurried to get water for them. A thick layer of dirt had intruded, and even the table was covered. Mama took a drink, and sat back closing her eyes. “You were smart about the rope,” she murmured, and she was silent.

Dad was staring at the wall. “Came on quickly. We were about two miles away when we saw it. We started runnin’ home, but it caught us first.”

I was shaking. I was so relieved that everyone was alive and alright. Just recently, a rumor had been that a man stuck in a storm had suffocated. It gave me chills just to recall how Bud had said it.

Suddenly, I heard pecking on the porch. A loud squawk informed me that a chicken had found shelter under our porch. The chickens! “Mama!” I exclaimed, jumping up. “The chickens! I let them out of the coop ‘cause it was so nice!” Mama looked at me slowly. “They’ll get along,” she told me quietly. They were her prized hens, and they were being killed by dirt. I put my head in my hands, only to feel the gritty dirt grinding my forehead. I sighed, envisioning the hens running blindly about and suffocating. A tear dripped onto the table, wetting the dust.

Why were these storms seeking us out? Inflicting pain, suffering, and suffocating every victim in its path? My body writhed with anger. “Leave us alone!” my whole being shrieked inwardly. I could have sworn I heard it cackle.

When the storm finally ended, it was about seven o’clock, and getting dark. We rushed outside to see what was left of the hens. Some of the birds were huddled under the coop, the dirt trapping them. Mama uttered a sigh of relief when we dug them out – the cock strutted out with injured pride. Without a cock, there was no way to hatch chicks. But when we counted, two were missing. We found the soiled body of one in the dirt, legs sticking out limply. There was no trace of the other.

We buried the bird a ways behind the barn. There was plenty enough dirt to do it with. Mama hustled the birds into their coop and got them a dish of water and some feed. I watched as they pecked at it selfishly. Soon, people will act the same way, I thought bitterly. I turned to go inside. “Hey, Sis,” Bud said, sounding amused, “Look.” I turned around and caught sight of an animal. A mutt, really. He sat on his haunches, a ways away, watching us, and watching the coop. “Shoo!” I said, running toward him. He backed away, fear in his eyes, his tail tucked under him. I stopped. He looked at me pitifully. Thoughtful, I ran inside. I emerged with an old bowl and a handful of dried beans. Slowly, I set the beans in the dirt, one by one. The scraggly animal began eating them at once, following the trail.

I ran the the pump and slowly pumped a small amount of brown water into the cracked dish. Setting it down, I backed away. The dog lapped it up thirstily and looked at me with his pathetic brown eyes. I gave in and got him some more. At least I was wasting water on something as tired of the dirt as me. He drained it again, and, finding a lost bean in the dirt, set to munching it contentedly. He stared at me the whole time.

Standing up, he wandered away. I looked after him. Obviously, he had gotten what he wanted, the ungrateful mutt. I looked again. He relieved himself on the remains of the barn and bounded back over, tongue hanging out.

I hesitantly reached out my hand and patted the bur filled fur. There didn’t seem to be fleas. Dirt killed ‘em all, I thought with satisfaction. I grabbed him by the neck and hauled him toward the house. Bud had gone inside, and he reappeared with rope.

“Here,” he said, tossing it to me. It landed with a thud and caused the dust to float up, like a band of hungry locusts. I bent down and picked it up. Cautiously, I tied it around the dogs neck. He tried to bite it, and wriggled  free. Running around the yard, he challenged me to chase him. I didn’t. I sat down in the dirt and waited. Before long, he came up and nosed my hand. I grabbed his neck and tied the rope around it. Bud laughed, and went inside. The dog sat down and gave into his fate. I threw my arms around him. He stood still for a moment, then whined. I let go. His tail started to wag. “Don’t like hugs?,” I asked, giving him a friendly shove. I tied the end of the rope to the porch, and went inside to find something for the thing to eat. There wasn’t much.

I re-appeared with some shriveled beans, a small bowl of cow’s milk, too potent for us humans, and, a raw egg I had taken when no one was looking. I dropped the beans into the milk, and cracked the egg into that. The dog lapped it up eagerly.

I sat down to look at him. He wasn’t really any color at all. Sort of a bland brownish color, I guessed. His crooked, dirty teeth and long nails told me he had been wandering around for some time. He finished my concoction and looked up at me gratefully. With brown teeth, brown eyes, and I guess brown fur, you could barely tell where he left off, and the dirt began.  

Mama came out, and with a glance at the mutt, said, “No, Sis. There ain’t enough water.” She gave it a pat and stepped back inside. “He’ll die,” I called. “No he won’t. He’ll manage.” I sighed, untied the dog, and said, “Get along.”

He followed me as I walked toward the house.  I patted him, then pushed him away and turned to go. He followed. “No,” I told him, and I pointed for him to leave. “Get along,” I told him. With one last glance at me, he turned and bounded away.

From then on, the dog would show up almost every weekend at the ranch, whining at the back door and scratching it. Occasionally, (when no one was looking) I would present him with a small bowl of water and a handful of this or that. That is why he kept coming back. Finally, water got so scarce, I couldn’t even hand him that.  

He stopped coming so often, but when he did, he was even mangier than before. He whined, panting, at the wooden door, but it stayed closed. I closed my eyes, covered my ears, and tried not to hear his pitiful begging. He was cut short by Mama, who opened the door and said, ”Shoo now, shoo!” and flapped her hands at him. He left, tail between his legs.

That was the last time I ever saw the begging little rascal. He never came back.


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