When I first walked into our crooked two-room house, Mama was standing at the sink, staring out the window at the barren fields outside.
The wind was blowing steadily, sending great big clouds of dust swirling through the air. It made a shushing sound against the glass, like someone was asking for quiet. There weren’t any crops in our field, or the next field, or the next … or any, it seemed like, for as far as the eye could see. With nothing in its way, the wind just blew and blew forever, right through Oklahoma and into infinity, carrying all the dirt along with it.
I stood behind Mama and watched as she wiped a plate with a dishrag, round and round and round, real slow, like her mind was somewhere else. After a while, I opened my mouth to try and say something, but I couldn’t get any words to come out. I guess I made some sort of noise though, because Mama turned around real quick. I must have spooked her. She dropped the dish onto the floor, where it shattered into a thousand pieces. Her face went sheet-white.
“Anabel,” she whispered.
She put her hands over her mouth, then took a step closer to me. Her eyes got wet. She reached out and touched my cheek, then my hair. Her hand was shaking. It was like she was testing that I was real, that I wasn’t some kind of ghost or apparition. Finally, she dropped to her knees and hugged me so hard I thought my ribs would break.
I put my head on her shoulder and let her hair tickle my nose. I could smell soap on her neck, and sweat in her hair. Smoke too. She wasn’t supposed to have cigarettes — Papa said it made her smell like an ashtray — but I knew she kept a few rolled up in the bedrail, along the side of the mattress. She’d sneak a quick puff or two out on the back step sometimes when Papa wasn’t around, blowing the smoke sideways into the wind, then snuffing the cigarette out on the side of the house and tucking the leftover stub into the seam of her apron.
Mama hugged me for what felt like forever. Finally, she pulled away and held me at arm’s length, her hands still on my shoulders. She touched my cheek again.
“Glory be,” she said. “My baby’s home.”
Mama ain’t changed much since I last seen her, though I’d be lying if I said she didn’t look older. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been gone — six months? a year? — but her hair seemed grayer then I remembered. Her skin was more loose around the eyes too, with dark circles, real puffy, like she’d been crying a lot. I suppose maybe she has been. Can’t hardly blame her. Times have been tough around here. Real tough.
Of course, the first thing she said when she saw me, after she caught her breath, was to tell me that I looked a fright, and to set about fussing with my hair. Appearances have always been so important to her. Even though we didn’t have much, she always found a way to look nice. Hair done up in curls, lipstick on her lips, everything clean and tidy. She was a real looker, is how Papa put it. Used to be, at least. He’d say that second part with a wink, and Mama would snap him in the rear with her dish towel and say, “Dale! Stop teasing!” Then later I’d see her in the mirror, pulling at the skin around her mouth, trying to make the lines go away. They never did, for long.
After she swept up the pieces of broken plate, Mama took my hand and walked me into the bedroom.
“I made a new dress for you,” she said. “For when you came home.” She opened the bedroom closet and rummaged around inside. “Papa said I was wasting my time, that you weren’t ever coming back, but I told him, I said, ‘my time’s my business, and yes she sure as heck is.’ He wasn’t too happy with that.” She laughed. The sound was sharp and loud in the tiny, low-roofed room. “You know how he feels about sassing back.”
Did I ever. If there was one thing Papa hated, it was sass. There wasn’t no place for a girl to be talking back to her father. Or her husband. Or any man, really. Not unless she wanted a handprint on her hide. I learned that lesson the hard way. Only had to be taught once though. Papa made sure of that.
“I prayed on it though,” Mama continued. “I prayed on it real hard.” She pointed behind her at a small table by the bed where she had set up a photo of me, along with some melted-down candles, a hand-made cross, and a small jar full of dirt. “I prayed that you’d come home, and the crops would come back, and everything would go back to how it used to be. And now, glory be, here you are.”
I walked over and picked up the photo. It was a picture of me and Charlie Henderson from next door, taken by Papa at the Church of God Easter festival a few years back, before he had to sell off his camera to pay for groceries. We were five, maybe six years old, both clutching these huge jackrabbits and looking just happy as could be. A big banner sagged over our heads, with the words “HE IS RISEN” painted on them in bright red letters.
I remembered that day so clearly. The sky was blue. The wind was still. There wasn’t any dust. We weren’t sick yet.
It was a good day. Maybe the best.
Maybe the last.
Pretty soon after that day, the dust storms started. “Black blizzards” people called them. They’d come across the sky like a towering black ocean wave, as far and high as the eye could see, just waiting to crash over us and wash us clear off the Earth. Except, instead of water, these waves were made of dirt. When they hit, the dust was so thick that we could hardly breathe. We couldn’t even step outside without a wet towel over our faces, lest we take in too much dust in our lungs.
Mama said the storms were a test, that God was testing our faith. But Papa saw it different. He saw it like God had abandoned us. All of us, all at once. We were forgotten by God, forgotten by the government, forgotten by everyone.
“A man has to make his own way now,” is how he put it. “We’re on our own.”
I remember Charlie’s dad, Mr. Henderson, answered “Amen” to that. That was a church word, which I thought was a funny thing to say to someone doubting God. But maybe that was the point.
Before long, people started getting sick, coughing, spitting up black phlegm. Dust-sick, they called it. Babies and old people had it the worst. It got the Miller twins down the road first, one then the other, a few days later. Then it took old Mr. Kleffman, and Mrs. Robinson from the grocery in town. Soon, even strong men like Calvin White and Tom Frantz were laid up, their breathing sounding like rusty nails in a shaken tin can. Not everyone who got dust-sick died, but the ones who didn’t coughed so bad, they wished they would’ve.
While we were hunkering down during one of the storms, I asked Papa why everything had gone so bad so quick. He said we were in a Depression, and nobody could fix it, not even Mr. Roosevelt. That made me scared because, if the President couldn’t fix it, who could?
I wasn’t expecting an answer, but Mama gave one anyway.
“The Reverend,” she said.
Papa snorted out a bitter laugh, then spit into a jar. “Some Reverend. Man ain’t even got a church.”
Papa was right. The Church of the Resurrection was nothing more than an old tent with a bunch of wooden benches and a raised-up stage in the front. The Reverend preached from behind an altar made of bushel baskets, with an old door laid across them. That was part of what Mama liked about him though. He didn’t need a big building like the Church of God did.
“It means he’s humble,” she said. “He’s regular, just like us.”
“Humble ain’t got nothing to do with it,” Papa grumbled. Mama opened her mouth to object, but Papa kept going. “Just look at him. Regular folks ain’t got suits like that. That’s a city-made suit. Naw, he’s a huckster, through and through. He just likes the attention. Wants to hear poor folks clap for him, to hoot and holler and shout ‘Glory be!’ at whatever nonsense he’s spewing.”
We had started going to see The Reverend around a year before. Things were about as bad as could be for us at the time. First we lost our crop, then Grandma got dust-sick, then Mama lost her baby right when it was ready to be born.
For a while, Mama couldn’t even bring herself to get out of bed. She’d just lay there with the crook of her arm over her eyes, a handkerchief clutched in her hand. Nothing Papa would say could get her up.
It was Mrs. Henderson who said The Reverend could help. She had lost a baby too, and started going to see him soon after. She said he was really something special. Said he claimed he could do miracles. That he was our salvation. That he alone could save us.
After a time, Mama wasn’t getting any better, so Papa took us to The Reverend, to see what all the fuss was about.
He was a big man, the biggest I’d ever seen. His face was sun-baked, with light hair that flew around his head like a crazy halo when the wind blew. He always wore a black suit with a long red tie, no matter the weather. He was a sour man. Humorless. I never once saw him laugh, or even crack a smile. He showed his teeth, sure, when it suited him. But there was no joy in his eyes when he did. They were flat and black, and his smile was mean. Cruel, the kind you’d see a man make when a cripple fell on the steps and his groceries spilled out on the ground.
You’d think a man as big as him would have a voice to match, but he didn’t. His voice was thin and reedy. It seemed to come more from his nose than his mouth. The way he preached didn’t sound like any preacher I’d ever heard either. The Mass we used to go to at the Church of God was quiet and reverent, with its hymns and homilies and silent prayers. The Reverend’s Mass wasn’t like that at all. In fact, he didn’t even call it a Mass — he called it a Revival. It was loud and angry, with talk of demons and plagues and the Devil, of the End Times and the godforsaken ground. That’s what he called it: godforsaken. Said Satan himself must’ve cursed the land for it to dry up like it did.
He’d get the congregation all fired up, to where they were shouting and cursing the land as if it was out to get them. I always thought, how can land be bad? It’s just land. It don’t do anything except sit there and try to be left alone. It’s people that are doing things to the land, not the other way around.
When I asked Papa about it, he said some people don’t want to blame themselves, so they take it out on the land instead. Makes them feel better to point their rage at something that can’t fight back.
“Like the lamb?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, looking troubled. “That’s something different.”
The lamb was still fresh on my mind, from the Sunday before. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way it squealed and screamed, with four men holding it down so The Reverend could slit its throat.
I could see the whites of its eyes, staring at me, wide with terror, pleading. Papa tried to cover my face, but I pulled away so I could look.
I wanted to see. Until I did, that is.
Then I wished I hadn’t.
I watched as The Reverend plunged his hands into the torrent of blood arcing from the lamb’s throat, then raised his blood-gloved hands towards the sky. Blood snaked down his forearms and into the sleeves of his suit.
“Glory be!” he proclaimed.
The lamb’s blood poured down the altar and soaked into the dusty ground. Mama and Mrs. Henderson and the others chanted and swayed. Spit flew from their lips and misted the air as they intoned “Glory be” over and over again in a rising swell of delirious rapture.
Papa was stone silent, his jaw set, his head slowly shaking side to side. He locked eyes with Mr. Henderson nearby for a moment. Something unsaid passed between them.
Once the lamb was dead, we made a line and waited while The Reverend made the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead, with a finger dipped in blood. I felt sick.
“What’s that have to do with God?” I asked Papa when we got home afterwards.
“Nothing,” he said, taking a wet rag and gently dabbing at the mark on my forehead. “Nothing at all.”
“Then why did the people let him do it?”
“‘Cause they’re scared, and when people are scared, they’ll believe anything just to not be so scared anymore. To take things back to how they used to be.”
“Are we scared?” I asked him.
Papa took a long time to answer. He looked over at Mama, who was on her knees in front of her small bedroom altar. Candlelight flickered on her face. Her hands were clasped tight at her chin. Her lips moved in silent prayer. Finally, he nodded.
I took one last look at the photo of me and Charlie, then put it back on the table where I got it.
Mama was still digging through the closet looking for the new dress, mumbling about “where the heck is the darned thing” and “if he threw it away …” Finally, she gave up searching the closet and went to look for it in the big trunk at the end of the bed instead.
Wax from the melted candles was pooled and dried on the table’s scratched-up wood. I scraped at some of the wax with my thumb, then picked up the handmade cross and turned it over in my hands. It had been crafted by one of the ladies at the Church of the Resurrection.
The tips of the cross were stained a dark reddish-brown, dipped in the blood of the sacrificial lamb. I guess that was supposed to make it more holy somehow. “Consecrated,” was the word The Reverend used. Papa changed it to a different word though, under his breath.
“Desecrated,” is what he called it.
The Reverend preached that the road to Resurrection was traveled on our knees. He said if we prayed hard enough, then God would bless the ground, and the crops would rise from the dirt, just like Jesus did. Our old life would be restored. Everything would be as it was.
As it was, again it all shall be, I thought, remembering the line from the prayer Mama made me say every night before bed. The fallen shall rise. The lost shall be found. The taken shall be returned. Glory be to the God of the Grain, praise to the Prince of the Fields. Amen.
That’s why Mama took to praying all the time, why she had Papa build the little altar beside the bed. She brought in a jar of dirt from the field, along with the blood-stained cross and the candles, and made her own little place of worship. The picture of me and Charlie wasn’t there at the time. She must’ve added that after I left.
Mama prayed at that altar every morning, noon, and night, asking God to bring back the crop, to bring back the rain, to restore what we lost. To give her a sign that everything would be okay.
Papa got pretty frustrated with the whole charade. He said Mama spent all her time praying into a jar of dirt, instead of actually doing something useful.
“Don’t you see?” he told her. “Things ain’t going back to how they used to be. Times have changed. We need to change too, or we’re gonna get left behind.”
But Mama didn’t want to hear any of that. She didn’t want to change. She wanted things to be the way they always were. Change was the Devil’s work, that’s what The Reverend said. God made the world just so. And it was meant to stay that way.
Eventually, Papa got to the point where he made a ruckus outside the tent one Sunday after the Revival, in front of The Reverend.
“I don’t know, Pauline,” he said to Mama. “All this praying don’t seem to do no good, as far as I can see. On our knees every night and twice on Sundays, and for what? We still ain’t got no rain. Ain’t got no crops either. We got dirt though. Got plenty of that!” He bent down and picked up a handful of dirt, then threw it down. “Got a bumper crop of dirt. Dust too, hoo boy! You want dust? We got a special, two bushels for the price of one. We’ll throw in a mud pie too, if you can spare a cup of water to mix it in. We ain’t got none here, see?”
He said it like it was supposed to be funny, but it wasn’t. Mama started to cry.
After he was done ranting, Papa got in his truck and sped away, leaving me and Mama behind. We had to hitch a ride home with Mrs. Henderson. She told Mama not to worry, that Mr. Henderson had lost his faith too. She patted Mama on the knee.
“We’ll just have to pray twice as hard, to make up the difference.”
“Here it is. Ta-da!”
Mama finally found the new dress, all the way at the bottom of the clothes trunk. She pulled it out with a flourish and held it up for me to see.
Like my other dress, it was made from the leftover flour sacks we got from the Relief Office. President Roosevelt knew that poor folks like us used the sacks to make clothes, so he did what he could to make them nice. Mama had found a sack with a bloom of pink flowers, like the kind we grew in our garden before it dried out. She turned it into a cute dress with short sleeves and a small waist, and a belt that she braided from different colored lengths of twine.
It was nothing fancy, but she sewed it up extra fine. It was pretty, I thought.
Mama shook the dress out with a sharp snap and laid it out on the bed. Dust went swirling up in the air in little spirals, then drifted down towards the floor. The way it caught the sunbeams streaming through the windows made me think of God. Like maybe He was still around. Like we hadn’t been abandoned after all.
“Hope it fits,” Mama said. “Let’s see.”
She lifted my arms and pulled my old dress off, up and over my head. It was real dirty. Pretty torn up, too. She balled it up and threw it in the corner like it was trash. Then she slipped the new dress over my head and tied up the string in the back. She walked around me to the front, checking out the fit, tugging at the seams, brushing off the shoulders, picking off little pieces of thread and lint as she went.
While she primped and groomed me, I looked out the bedroom window at the Henderson’s house next door. Their front door was wide open, with the screen door banging in the wind. Mr. Henderson still ain’t fixed that latch, I thought to myself.
Charlie Henderson was my best friend. Always had been, since we were babies. We did everything together. Grew up together, went to school together, played stickball together, and — when the dust storms got so bad they blocked out the sun for a week at a time — we got dust-sick together. Ended up right next to each other at little old Mercy Hospital up the road in Boise City.
And now, we were coming home together too.
I thought to myself, I hope Charlie’s parents are as happy to see him as Mama is to see me.
Mama circled her fingers around my wrists, lifted my arms, and examined my hands. First one, then the other. “Oh my, your nails!” she exclaimed. She was right. They looked terrible. They were ragged and torn, with semi-circles of dirt caked underneath. “We’ve got to get these clean.” She disappeared from the bedroom back into the kitchen. I could hear the water running as she soaked her dishrag and loaded it with washing powder.
While I waited for her to come back, I looked out the window again. I was surprised to see Mr. Henderson emerging out of their barn and heading towards the back door of their house. He was leaning into the wind, shielding his eyes against the sharp sting of the sand with one hand. In his other hand, he carried his rifle. He threw open the back door and disappeared inside.
Mama came back into the room, her dishrag dripping a trail of soap bubbles along the floor. She wiped the grime from my hands and cleaned my nails, then straightened up and took a step back. Her eyes got all teary.
“Glory be,” she said. “Look at you. You look so pretty.” Then she took me by the shoulders and turned me around to face the mirror, so I could see for myself.
I stared at my reflection in the dust-streaked glass. I didn’t feel pretty.
The skin on my face was the color of dead leaves. It was dried and tight on my skull, and split in some places, exposing dull white bone underneath. There was a hole in my cheek where the teeth showed though, and a sunken black crater where one of my eyes used to be. I didn’t have a nose. Half my lips were gone. I tried to say something, but my jaw wasn’t working right. It just hung wide open, and a little bit sideways. That’s how I could see that I didn’t have a tongue.
As I stared at my ruined face, I could hear screams coming from the direction of the Hendersons’ house, followed by gunshots. I started to get worried. That ain’t good, I thought. I hope Charlie’s alright.
I watched in the mirror as Mama took her wood-handled hairbrush and tried to brush through the mats in my hair. She was doing her best, but the bristles kept getting stuck. After a few tries, she gave up and put the brush down on the dresser. It had big clumps of hair in it, with ragged strips of rotten skin still attached. Undeterred, she gathered up what hair I had left on my head and started weaving it into a braid instead.
Suddenly, the floor shook under my bare feet. Heavy footsteps thudded across the front porch of our house, followed by the familiar squeak of the front door opening. A few more footsteps, inside the house now, then Papa threw open the bedroom door. He stopped dead in his tracks. His face went gray as the Boise City Post.
Mr. Henderson entered behind him, still carrying his rifle. Red-black flecks of blood were peppered across his cheeks and neck and were splatted down the front of his white undershirt. His expression was grim.
Mama primped up the dress around my shoulders, then turned me around to face my father.
“Look who’s home,” she said. She smiled. Tears streamed down her face, cutting tracks through the dust on her cheeks.
Papa’s breathing tapered down to nothing. He was silent. He closed his eyes and pressed the back of his hand to his lips.
Mr. Henderson chambered a round in the rifle.
With his eyes still closed, Papa reached out towards Charlie’s father. Mr. Henderson handed him the rifle.
“Go,” Papa said. His voice was choked, barely a whisper. Mr. Henderson made the sign of the cross, then backed out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Papa gripped the rifle in his hands, his finger rigid against the trigger guard. He swallowed hard.
“Anabel,” Mama said quietly. “Say hello to your father.” With a firm hand in the middle of my back, she guided me closer to him.
Papa opened his eyes. His face was pained.
I looked down at the floor, ashamed of my horrid appearance. I didn’t want him to see me like this. I couldn’t bear to have him looking at me. I wanted to crawl away, back into the dirt where I came from.
Papa reached down and nudged my chin up with the side of one curled finger. He took a moment to look at my face. Then he leaned the rifle in the corner by the door frame and dropped to one knee. He extended his arms and enfolded me in a warm hug. I hugged him back. The stubble from his cheek was rough against my face.
I heard Mama exhale a shuddery sigh. She knelt down and embraced me from behind. We held each other like that for a while, nobody saying anything.
Finally, Mama lifted her head and looked over to the small table where my picture was. She drew in a breath, then touched Papa’s arm.
“Dale,” she said. She flicked her eyes towards the table.
Papa looked over. A sob hitched in his chest. In the small jar next to my photo, a bright green shoot of leaves was poking through the dirt. It wasn’t like any normal shoot I had ever seen — it was twisted like a corkscrew, with a sharp tip at the end. But it was there. It was alive.
“Everything as it was,” Mama said.
Papa placed a soft kiss on my forehead, then kissed Mama on the lips.