Black Sunday, 1935
Sunday, 7 April.
Weathered plank siding and clear panes of glass; coarse dirt drifted against the church’s foundations. Wagons parked willy-nilly on all sides—I bring us to a stop and remove our Jenny from the harness and hitch her to a post. She nibbles coarse grass with three other mules and two dozen horses. Farmers, sharecroppers, families; everything gray and brown. Outside the door Reverend Mr. Lindahl spreads his arms. I step back two paces.
“Mrs. Bergstrom,” he says. “You and the children will stay for dinner tonight? And before you protest, it’s not in imposition.”
“Mr. Lindahl,” I say, “twelve miles at night on the River Road—”
“One imagines Kearney County, Kansas is one of the safest places in the world. Why, you’ll be our guests. Alma’s asked after you. She often goes on about your storytelling. It would do her a world of good to have another lady in the house to talk with. Nellie helps, of course; but she’s only a girl. Alma needs another woman to boost her spirits. She’s poorly. The doctor says it’s the catarrh—all this dust makes it hard for her to breathe; sad to say, it gets worse with each passing day.”
“I’m afraid the baby’s coughing will disturb her.”
“Alma loves children,” he says. “Maybe there’s something you need at Cott’s General Store in Lakin? Beds for both you and the children. I’ll send Daniel back to your farm to tell your husband.”
“Thank you,” I say. “We’ll head into town directly after church.”
His sermon touches on the parable of the loaves and fishes, an intended message of hope. We have homes—shacks; chickens, cows, and mules—scrawny; crops—scanty. My neighbors and I tally future wagonloads of wheat; turn one egg into a dozen, a dozen eggs into a dozen dozen; and fill bushel baskets with apples and peaches. Foreclosures miraculously change to ownership titles free and clear. I admire and despise our small dreams.
Town doctors warn against the dust pneumonia. The land office says to rotate the crops every year. It has no advice for when there are no crops.
I will take what comes my way and be happy. Of despair I will have none.
“Nellie!” Mrs. Lindahl is shrill as an angry mouse. “Is everything ready? Sheets, quilts, washbasins, chamber pots, lamps filled with oil?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Nellie’s apron is threadbare and her blue calico hand-me-down skirt has an extender sewn inside the hem.
“Then continue your work in the kitchen.” Nellie leaves the room. “My sister Clara’s children—orphans. I’m trying to bring Nellie and Daniel up correctly—see this book? Dr. Cuthbertson’s Guide to Raising Children. Because I’ve none of my own. And who’s fault is that? Well, God had a say in making me barren. How old are they now?”
“Christina is seven, and Gunnar is six.” I nod to my own children. They follow Nellie to the kitchen. “The baby is two months come next Sunday. We haven’t named her yet.”
“Of course I had no warning Einar was inviting guests—oh, Astrid, do sit down—I may call you Astrid, mayn’t I? Dinner will be simple. We are plain folks.” She rearranges the rug over her knees. “It must be wonderful living so close to the land. The newspaper men call it hardscrabble, a word harsh on the ear. With all these dry storms it must be quite a challenge.”
“Carl hauls water by the bucket to the kitchen garden every day. It’s all we’ve got. The prairie is reclaiming the fields. Oh, Mrs. Lindahl, if you could see those withered corn seedlings, and the wheat not even making an effort. Just plowed rows of baked soil. Then there’s the Farm Relief Bill. We hope to—well—the government pays people not to grow crops—it’s all about the price of wheat and corn. This Depression touches everyone and everything.”
“Do you play contract bridge? I used to, until my health turned. I don’t wish this life on anyone. Oh, yes, we had electricity brought in last year. One wonders how people have managed without it. I’d be lost without my reading lamp.”
The simple dinner is roast chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, carrots, dinner rolls, cheese, baked pears, and cherry pie.
After dinner I entertain everyone with some of the many folktales my mother taught me. I was sixteen when I emigrated from Sweden, and I remember everything that went before.
The bedsheets and chamber pots smell of lavender. Curtains billow and a motorcar chugs along the street. The clear sound of a piano and a woman’s voice singing Beautiful Dreamer. I share the room with Christina and the baby; Gunnar has his own room.
I toss and turn on the feather bed.
Monday, 8 April.
“Daniel delivered the message?” Reverend Mr. Lindahl dismounts from his horse. Carl unhitches Jenny from our wagon.
“Yes, sir,” says my husband. “Thank you for your hospitality to my family, and I hope your wife is feeling better.”
“We’ve been blessed with a bit of a windfall this year—”
“I really don’t—”
“This is not charity, Carl. It would only go to waste.”
They unload sacks of rice, flour, and sugar; a mixed bushel of carrots, radishes, and onions; a cloth-covered crate of Nellie’s pies, cakes, and cookies.
Excited to be home, the children chase a recently acquired puppy in circles.
We adults chat some more and when the Reverend realizes he will not be asked in, he mounts his horse and takes his leave. Carl strides to the well, hauls the buckets to the garden. The land around our house is dead—the big oak that was here before us is a skeleton.
“Charity,” he says. “What else is it when it comes from a man wearing a dog collar?” He holds up a lettuce leaf pocked with holes. “Locusts, caterpillars, moths, even ants. “What the dust doesn’t smother, the insects ravage. Tell me Astrid, why God does this to us. He demands so much and gives nothing in return.”
“Now, more than ever, we have to believe.”
“It gets worse with every passing season. There is no end to this weather.”
“I shan’t turn away.”
In the house I sweep dust from the stove top and place a chunk of salt pork in a pan of beans soaked the night before. I tell Gunnar and Christina to bring in firewood. Every day they go farther afield and search the bare land and gravelly stream beds for fallen branches, sticks, even twigs. They’ve made it a game, counting footsteps until they find the overlooked chunk of timber or broken plank. I cover Nellie’s crate with a piece of oilcloth and hang it and the sacks of staples from a crossbeam. I feed the stove with twists of prairie grass and shovel ashes out the door. The children return with bundles of wood, and Christina takes my place before the stove. Gunnar scatters feed for five chickens.
Carl’s stiff back and shoulders, his sunburnt neck and brown arms. He scrapes shallow trenches next to each fledgling collard, lettuce, bush bean, snap pea, and potato plant. We want the water to soak deep, not pool on the surface. I follow him and cull withered leaves, shake dust from rosemary, thyme, mint, and lavender.
Another false sunset, a brownish-orange sky and the lingering heat of the day.
We wash hands and sit at the kitchen table.
“Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest,” says Carl, “and let Thy gifts to us be blessed. Amen.”
Our meal is beans and salt bread, well water, and Nellie’s pecan pie. Thinking I can’t see, the children feed the puppy beans and pie from their spoons.
After supper Carl tunes his guitar and whole-heartedly launches into the favorites we always return to: Hard Times, I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger, Life’s Railway to Heaven, Speak to My Heart, The Spirit is Calling. Even Gunnar and Christina know the words. Man and woman, boy and girl. Our voices float and weave across burnt stubble, thirsty stock, dried-up streams; across the thick night of the prairie.
“Mama, please sing the one about the river,” says Christina.
“Why, that’s a Sunday song,” I say.
Carl is already strumming the chords. The vision has been on my mind. For five minutes I forget the twists and turns leading from a wedding ceremony to a sagging house, a sad Jenny in the stable, and one hundred and sixty acres of wind.
“Yes we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God.”
When I’m finished prairie silence fills the room. The children quiver with an excitement I cannot pierce.
Wednesday, 10 April.
Carl fills four baskets with last year’s squash and piles pieces of our old car on the wagon. Tire rims, steering wheel, two doors he’s pried free, a sack of wires and spark plugs. He hitches up Jenny and guides her down the road. While he barters in Lakin the inescapable silence settles over the land. The wind refuses to stop and song sparrows huddle at the roof’s edge.
I dip bread crusts in well water, apologize for my lack of milk. The baby sucks on the bread, turns away, and commences crying again. Too old to cry, Gunnar and Christina are struck dumb with sadness. The puppy has run away. They know about coyotes and hawks; they know hunger. That does not make it easier. Jenny nibbles handfuls of dried grass; we ration her hay. She flicks her tail and the flies swarm around her eyes. If an animal could speak what would she say?
The weather turns like a wheel—windy to calm and back again. Mornings and evenings are cloudless and tinted red and orange. Days are the blue-gray ash and high streaks of cloud that ripple and vanish.
The ones who came before built their homes from bricks of sod and the prairie cried out at her many wounds. At the far edge of our dead fields straight mounds of dirt mark the foundations of such a home. All we ever found were rusted tools, a broken bison skull, and scattered turquoise Indian beads. What people forget or abandon.
Carl returns just after noon. I wait until he’s taken Jenny to the stable.
“I decided before I left that I wouldn’t bring any of it back. A greengrocer and automobile repair garage took everything. Some of it for money—” and he sprinkles nickels, dimes, and quarters on the table—“and some in staples.”
Vinegar, cooking oil, salt, coffee, and yet another sack of beans. Four bales of hay for Jenny, wax-paper wrapped sweets for the children.
Friday, 12 April.
Breakfast is salt bread and beans, the last of Nellie’s sugar cookies. The well water tastes of iron. Early morning two heaped up Model Ts head west on the asphalt road. There are rumors of harvesting jobs, orchards of fruit and nuts, miles of cotton and onion fields. A green world of the imagination.
I boil soiled diapers in the big saucepan, then drape them over a crumbling honeysuckle bush to dry. Overalls, linen shirts, a girl’s dress, and everyone’s undergarments.
“I imagine California,” says Carl, “and it’s all peach blossoms and grapefruit trees, but underneath is the same dry dirt. Better the enemy you know. This can’t go on another year. It must turn to our advantage.”
“The man from the bank—” I say.
“—can go to the devil. Another small loan for seed—who would say no? I’d rather eat steak and corn and drink milk every day—but I can’t. That’s a fact pure and simple.”
A full day bringing water to delicate plants. We stand at the edge of what was supposed to be the wheat field.
“How can weeds live on air and sunlight?” I say.
“It’s a cruel joke,” he says. “Look. What do you see?”
“A horse and wagon—too far to know who it is. Drifts and dunes filling furrows.”
“Look into the heat.”
Rising heat—mirages—cool lakes, frog ponds, and rainbow waterfalls.
“Far away,” I say, “so close.”
After dinner we sing again. I feel empty, as people sometimes do when they pray without believing. The sound of the guitar sinks into the prairie night. Serious hearts for serious times.
My husband feels it too. He begins a new song we’ve heard on a radio several times when visiting neighbors, and looks right at me while singing about a paper moon over a cardboard sea.
A half-moon rises. I drape a damp sheet across the top of the baby’s crib. Everyone in the house awake and waiting for the first of a hundred choking coughs of the night. Spitting thick air from dry mouths, shaking sheets and blankets, gulping water and never feeling cool or clean.
The baby stops crying in the night. I slide a twig into the stove’s embers and light the lantern. She lies still in her tiny bed and stares at the underside of the roof and waves her fists in circles. I kneel by the bed and pray for rain.
Sunday, 14 April.
Fewer wagons and horses around the church.
“Where is everyone?” I say.
“Enjoying the cool weather on a day of rest?” says Carl. “We’ll move the table outside in the shade of the house and eat our mid-day meal beneath the sky. Would you like that?”
The children smile—any little change a diversion.
“Mama,” says Christina, “Gunnar crawled under the wagons and got all dirty.”
“Tattling is a sin,” I say to Christina. “And you, young man, what were you doing under the wagons?”
“Looking for our dog,” says Gunnar.
“Well, then, that’s all right. Angels don’t always wear white gowns with gold trim. Sometimes they come in denim, broadcloth, or old flour sacks.” I’ve sewn patches over patches and replaced missing buttons with safety pins.
Seated on the hard backless benches, we nod to neighbors we hardly see anymore.
“Isaiah chapter forty-one, verse ten,” says Reverend Mr. Lindahl. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
What is strength, what is righteousness? What is starvation, ruination?
People cool themselves with paper fans that mimic the whisper of breezes through tall, green wheat. Am I the only one who knows what that means?
Arbor Day is two weeks away. Following the sermon Reverend Lindahl speaks on the importance of lay participation in building and maintaining the community.
“The twisters sweep away the topsoil and render the earth unproductive and unprofitable!” he says. “Is it any wonder banks foreclose and force us to act as tenant farmers on the land we once owned? Arbor Day is an opportunity for all of us to give back to the land that gave us birth, raised us up, the land where so many of us are buried and where the soil mixes with the blood. Trees slow the wind and keep Kansas from blowing away.”
People smile. No one laughs.
“A member of this very congregation has kindly donated seedlings grown from the trees Charles Button planted on his return from the battlefields of Shiloh in 1871. Major Button would heartily approve of the further propagation of the seeds he planted sixty-four years ago.”
Outside people accept small bundles of apple, plum, apricot, and cherry seedlings.
After the service I seek her out. Away from a bedridden guardian, Nellie reflects sunshine in her smile.
“I want to thank you again,” I say. “We were touched by your kindness. I don’t know when I’ve had the ingredients for a pie.”
“The cherries were dry—I soaked them overnight and sometimes that’s as good as fresh.”
“I’d invite you to visit—we have little to offer.”
“Mrs. Bergstrom, you have no idea how happy that makes me. Let’s plan on a visit soon. Maybe next Sunday, if Aunt Alma approves? Daniel can take me on his horse—if that’s all right with you—”
“You’re both welcome. And you needn’t bring anything.”
“But I brought you this,” she says.
A basket with more baked goods. A johnnycake, cookies, four loaves of brown bread and a dish of freshly churned butter.
I look around to see if Carl is watching, then cover the basket with a piece of burlap and place it in the back of our wagon.
“I can’t repay your kindness,” I say. “Simple as that.”
“You repaid me by accepting my gift.” Nellie looks at the thin crowd. “I only wish I could help everyone.”
I place the butter dish and one of the loaves on the kitchen table. The children sprinkle sugar on their bread.
“Did I do the right thing?” I say.
“It would look foolish to return any of this now,” says Carl.
We give thanks.
“It’s beginning to feel like spring.”
“The air smells different.”
I throw off my apron and step outside. A long, low dark cloud stretches from north to east, and still no wind. As I watch the cloud gathers and rises, unhindered. Back in the kitchen we hurry to wrap the food in cloths and store everything in a steamer trunk. I hook the shutters and the children gather sheets. Carl brings in our mule’s galvanized water tub and fills it with buckets from the well.
Gray and black, the dust storm reaches from one edge of the world to the other, taller than anything I could imagine. It swirls, roils, and punches fists against the bare earth.
We huddle on the floor. The wind pulls the window frame from the wall. Moving darkness flows into the house. The airborne soil covers the wet sheets covering us and turns to mud.
Time passes without measure. I become numb.
And when the day falls the stories fall with it.
And when the voice calls, we must answer.
The hand of God in everything we do or do not do.
The things that bind us may break apart or dissolve. The fading calls of the meadowlark and prairie chicken. Sodbusters who lost hope, hearth, and home.
Red streaks fill the darkness.
“It’s letting up,” says Carl.
He crawls out from under our dirt-covered tent. I grab his ankle. He shakes off my hand.
“Is this the end times?” says Christina. “Like Reverend Lindahl talked about?”
“Just another dust storm,” I say. “Look. Starting to clear. I can see night instead of nothingness.”
Carl returns with the lantern.
“The garden is buried in a foot of soil,” he says. “Chickens are missing.”
“Busted out and gone. Must have been frightened something awful.”
We shake out bedclothes and turn mattresses. Gunnar and Christina stare at me.
“We’ll eat in the morning,” I say.
The call of a passing owl in the lingering haze.
Heaven flickers with a thousand stars.
Monday, 15 April.
“Can’t stop.” Daniel reins in his horse on the River Road. “Everyone’s going in all directions checking on neighbors. After I get to Kendall I’ll turn around. Tell me what you need, I’ll pass it on.”
“We’re done here,” says Carl. “Tell the bank they can take back their land.”
“He doesn’t mean that.” I shake a handful of silver coins. “Drinking water, firewood, and soap for washing up. And a doctor for the baby here. She’s got the dust pneumonia.”
His horse picks its way through soft drifted soil.
I pull up well water. After the dirt settles, I splash it over the children’s hair and faces. Rinse and twist out a piece of cloth until their grins break through. I lie to them that Jenny will come back if we clean up her home. They rush across the farm yard to rake and sweep her stall. Their father sits on an overturned wheelbarrow and gazes at the sky.
“No charity,” I say. “Those days are over.” I start to wash his face and he stays my hand.
“God can’t stand to look at the mess He’s made. Draws a curtain over it all and forgets about us.”
“Maybe the worst is past,” I say. “Maybe this storm was the final blast, and after this—”
“I’m slow to anger, but right now I’m boiling.” He strides out to a pile of rocks at the edge of what was once a field and commences to throw stones at the sky.
I carry the baby’s basket back to the house and cover it with a clean, wet sheet.
Gunnar and Christina refill the metal tub with water. We sweep and shovel dust. I wash every surface I can reach.
I scrape a thin, dirty layer from the butter and cut thick slices of bread.
Gunnar carries his bread and butter to the door and stares out. His father perches on the rock pile and slaps his dusty hat on his knee. The temperature rises.
Christina watches me nurse. The baby is more alert—a good sign.
“Mama,” says my daughter, “I know it’s not after-supper time, but—will you sing the river song?”
“Yes, mama,” says my son. “Please?”
“Only if you sing with me,” I say.
After a minute another voice joins in. Man and woman, boy and girl. Our voices float across the promised land.
Robert Kostuck is an M.Ed. graduate from Northern Arizona University. Recently published fiction, essays, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Southwest Review, Louisiana Literature, Free State Review, Zone 3, Saint Ann’s Review, Bryant Literary Review, Concho River Review, Flyway: A Literary Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Silk Road, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Crab Creek Review, Takahē Magazine, Roanoke Review, EVENT, and Tiferet. He is currently working on short stories, essays, and novels. He lives near an ocean; his heart belongs to the Chihuahua and Sonora deserts.
Copyright © 2019 Writing for Peace. All rights reserved.