|Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. (Photo in public
“What is it, Pa?” Naomi caught the panic in Lem’s demeanor the second he set foot in the front yard at a dead run. Her heart leaped to her throat and her gaze drew to the horizon behind him — a dark red swirling cloud darkening the sky in the middle of the day.
“Dust storm!” His boots clattered across the porch. “You get the boys, I’ll get the windows! We’re gonna need wet rags. That’s Red Dust comin’!”
Naomi didn’t wait to be told twice. She dropped the laundry into the basket, gathered her skirts and ran around the house hollering at the top of her lungs, “Mel! Kilion! House!”
Her two boys looked up from where they were fixing the back fence. Seeing her frantic movements, they glanced at the sky and understood immediately. Mel ran for the barn to bar the door, while the younger of the two sprinted toward the pump behind the house.
“Where are the rags, Ma?” he called.
“In the barrel!” she yelled back. The wind was picking up now, and the howling filled her ears. They had only moments before the dust would be upon them. The third time this month.
Back inside the house, Kilion distributed the wet rags, and they huddled together around the kitchen table listening to the wind whip around the house. Lem had gathered the lanterns and lit them, but the dust outside covered the sun, leaving no light but what they could get from the oil lamps.
“They’re getting worse,” Kilion muttered through the wet rag over his mouth and nose.
Lem leaned forward on his elbows with his hands folded in front of him. He had secured a wet bandana over his face, and Naomi could see his knuckles grow white with tension. From her place beside him, she reached for his hands, covering them with her own gently.
When his gaze finally met hers, she could see the raw emotion he was desperately trying to conceal. Lem was a man of few words, but when he did speak, it was for a purpose. Naomi waited as the flying dust whistled outside the thin walls.
Lem swallowed hard. “The top soil’s gone. Won’t get no crops this year.” His eyes searched hers for understanding.
Naomi nodded. Her stomach seemed to twist in empathy for her husband’s grief. She knew he felt it was a failure on his part, and her heart went out to him. There wasn’t anything he could do about the dust storms, but there was no telling him that. He was a proud man and saw it as his most important responsibility to provide for his family.
“This here’s a famine, Ma. And we don’t stand no chance, lessen’ we pack up and move.”
Mel and Kilion stared at their father, their bright blue eyes reflecting the flickering lantern light. Naomi knew he had been considering it, but he rarely thought out loud. Lem was a figuring man. And there was no chance he had made the decision lightly.
“Where d’you figger on goin’, Pa?” she asked. Naomi knew her husband would have his plan all worked out before he ever announced his intentions to the family.
“What about the farm, Pa?” Mel asked. Kilion’s eyes seemed to echo his concern. They had worked their whole lives on this piece of land — scratched out a meager existence through rain and drought, harsh winter cold and brutal summer heat. They were inextricably bound to the land. It was part of them. It was part of all of them.
Inevitable loss took root in Naomi’s heart then, slowly encompassing her until she couldn’t contain the sorrow any more, and it began to spill over through her tears.
“Heared tell thar’s work out west. California, maybe. We’ll head that way, see what we can find.” Lem turned to his sons. “Done talked to yer Uncle Jude. He’ll keep an eye on the place fer a bit ‘ til this drought passes. Then we’ll be back.”
He squeezed his wife’s hand, no doubt an effort to infuse reassurance. She smiled back at him, taking his cues to comfort their sons. “Yes, a’course we’ll be back. This drought’ll be over ‘fore ya know it, and we’ll come right back.” Some hope. Naomi would cling to that.
~ Following Naomi (in progress)