The Seed Wind

After the storms began they all looked the same: sandy-haired, leather-skinned, sharply outlined, a topical grimness that had started to sink in. Only the eyes remained untouched, enhanced in their neutral canvas – dazzling green or blue. Or sometimes, two blots of chocolate brown looked out at you, only this brown was something from memory, a brown so rich it could only be achieved by mixing water and earth to make mud. Around here, there was only dust.

When the wind slowed to a sigh, they resumed their chores. The father wrapped his face and began to plow. He dug and raked the ashes of his barren fields. The mother wrapped her face and gutted the house, sweeping the walls, the windows and the floor. The children combed the cattle, or made the cornbread, or calmed the baby. Nobody rested when the dust settled.

“Sally, bring that jug o’ milk in here!” Ma yelled out the back door.

Sally inched step by step into the house, balancing the jug carefully between her hands. The milk sloshed around the base. There was not much, and what there was, was swirled with dirt, like a cinnamon roll.

“I told you to comb that cow ‘afore you milked her,” Ma said under her breath.  “Now, run along and grab th’others while I strain this. The bread is ready.”

It had only been a couple of hours since the winds had died down. But in that tiny, breathable space, the house had been swept and scrubbed to the nub, the laundry washed and hung out on the line, the cow milked, the horses brushed, and the rugs beaten and draped over the fence.

Sally stood on the porch and scanned the horizon. The sun was setting red in the sky. She spotted a swirling dirt devil tracking evenly across the plain and pulled her socks up over her knees. She ran towards her father’s plow, leaving billowing footprints in the ground behind her. The air crackled. Her hair stood up in short stalks above her forehead.

A few months ago, Sally had lost her coveted braids, the one truly fine thing she’d felt she possessed. Her hair had gotten so knotted and locked by the winds, that finally Ma had taken a knife to it. Sally had bit her lip to keep from crying, (Ma would have only scolded her vanity) but she let the tears fall afterward, in the secrecy of the barn. One by one, all the girls at school sported shorter and shorter locks, and she felt thankful that underneath its dusty topcoat her hair was still the color of gold.

Sally stopped short of the plow, waving her arms back and forth. She was breathless from sprinting and breathed deep to pull in some air. Then she coughed, spitting up a brown mess. She smeared it with the toe of her boot, watching the spit pill above the hard earth.

Pa cut the engine and emerged from a curtain of dust – tall, wiry, and coated.

“Come here, Sal,” he said as he untied the bandana from the back of his neck and carefully folded it over to find a clean spot. He used that to wipe his eyes.

Sally giggled. Her Pa looked like a chimney sweep, with a ring around his lips and two patches around his eyes.

“Give me a kiss,” Pa growled like a bear, swooping her up high above his head as she screamed and tried to resist.

“You’re dirty, Pa! Ma wants you to come in for dinner!”

Pa released her and then checked the sky. “Dinner? It’s barely two o’clock!”

“Nuh-uh,” Sally retorted. “The sun is already setting,” Sally pointed to the red swell in the horizon.

“Sally, honey, you’re pointing to th’East. Look up, gal; the sun’s still high!”

Sally looked up, squinting. Sunlight pierced through her fair lashes.

“But then why’re those clouds red, Pa?” Sally wondered.

Pa stood and stared. They saw that the distant mass of red was getting higher and higher, climbing and chunking to form a wall.  His face grew stern. “Because them ain’t clouds, Sally. That’s dust!”

Sally gasped and whispered, “Red dust!”

Puffs of dirt began to swirl up her feet, climbing her legs.

Pa grabbed her by the shoulders, “Now you run and tell Ma a storm’s coming. A big one. I’ve got to move this plow behind the barn; else, it’ll get covered. Dinner’s goin’ to have to wait.”

Sally didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to move. She wanted to stay outside with her Pa and feel the sunshine burn her cheeks. But she felt the wind start to lift up her skirt and she shielded her eyes with her little hand and turned tail for the house.

“Ma, Ma!” Sally screamed. “Storm’s comin’!”

Her mother appeared in the doorframe, white cotton dress newly pressed and hair combed tight in a bun behind her ears. Sally watched her face change as she spotted the red cloud bulging in the distance. It took only an instant for her to spring into action.

“Get the line, Sally,” she ordered, before running to the barn to fetch the boys. “And bring in the rugs off the fence. Quick as you can, now!”

Sally ran to the line, tearing off the still damp clothes. The pins popped in the air like corn. She staggered under the heavy bundle, but was careful not to let anything trail on the ground before she plopped the whole mess inside the back door.

As she ran to the fence, the sky was overtaken by a great swarm of black squawking birds, circling higher and higher above her head before swooping away. Sally knew there wasn’t much time now.

She slid the wool rugs off the fence one by one and tried not to think of Pa in the field. She couldn’t hear the tractor; the wind was whipping too loudly. When all four rugs were off the fence, its wooden pickets began to shake and clatter. Sally dragged the rugs, two at a time to the porch, leaning into the wind and squeezing her eyes so tight that tears built up in the corners, and then streaked off into her hair.

Inside the house, Sally heaved the rugs into the front room. The baby was screaming in her crib but Sally couldn’t tend to that now. The wind shrieked, dancing around the doorframe. The sand was sliding in across the freshly scrubbed floor

Sally pulled a wobbly stool over to the door. She found the nail hole in the corner of the longest rug and put it in her mouth. Then she carefully climbed up the stool ‘til she teetered on the seat. On her tiptoes she could reach the long nail sticking out of the top of the doorframe and she poked it through, hanging the rug. Then she climbed down, moved the stool over and did the other side. Sally hung the other three rugs over the windows in the house. Then she went to fetch the baby.

“Shh, shh, shh,” she whispered as she clutched her sister close and bounced her tight against her chest. Baby Em was in uproar, her face purple, the snot from her nose streaked with dirt. Sally lifted the bottom of her skirt and wiped her sister’s face cooing, “There, there. Ma’ll be in soon and you can get some milk.”

Sally put Em upright on her shoulder, patting her back as the baby coughed. She looked out the back window and saw Ma holding hands with her brothers Felix and little Joe, heads ducked like three bullets coming her way. The back door swung open and slammed shut as they blew in.

“Give her to me,” Ma said, unbuttoning her dress and sliding Em into her clutch as easily as a man slides his watch into his waist pocket. Em cooed.

“Where’s Pa?” Felix asked. He was the oldest, a boy of thirteen, tall and wiry like the rest of them, but with sharpness to his features that made him look nearly as old as his Pa.

“He’s still in the field,” Sally said, and they both ran to the front window. As they pulled back the blanket to peep, the wind swelled, shaking the warm glass.

“I cain’t see nothing,” Felix said.

“He’s out there, somewhere,” Sally replied, adding, “I didn’t hear the tractor.”

“Foolish,” Felix muttered. “I’m gonna’ have to go out there and help him.”

Felix slipped back behind the blanket and stomped toward the door.

“No, you don’t,” Ma said, quietly.

Felix turned to see her standing, Em at her breast and little Joe wrapped around her leg.

“You’re not going out there,” she repeated.

“But Pa’s out there! He cain’t see!” Felix yelled.

“He can see fine,” Ma said. “I need you in here – you gotta’ board up the doors or we’re all goin’ to be buried in this.”

“But Ma!” Felix pressed.

“Now,” Ma said. And, that was it. Felix slumped his shoulders and stomped over to the pile of scrap wood next to the fireplace.

Sally strained her eyes to see if she could make out any shapes in the undulating red mass before her. It grew dark and deep like dried blood and then would lighten suddenly to a puff of tangerine – but nowhere in that swirling, boiling mass was anything familiar. The world had been converted into a red planet, and everything taken up.

“Sally, come away from that window, now,” Ma snapped the back of Sally’s dress with a towel and she jumped back, skidding on the floor.

“Fetch us some bread.”

“Yes’m,” Sally murmured as she tripped over to the kitchen counter.

The house was dark. Every gap and crack in the walls glowed scarlet as though the walls were smoldering, seconds before going up in flames. The wind outside huffed and puffed, and Sally thought that maybe this time, their house might just fly away like a stack of hay.

Since the last storm had only ended that morning, Ma hadn’t had time to re-hang the crosses and the oil painting of the ocean that Pa had bought her for their wedding. It lay in a pile under the kitchen table, along with all the other knick-knacks and ornaments that transformed the plain pine box into their home. Pa had seen it at the fair, and he told Ma that the blue-gray water looked peaceful, like her eyes. Those eyes, like that painting, were a wet, still, place, far from this one.

Sally pulled the cornbread off the counter. It was cold and hard. She sawed it into five pieces, divvying them out onto tin plates. Then she pulled the cups from the rattling cupboard and reached for the pitcher of milk.

“No milk,” Ma said from the rocking chair. “Not now.”

Sally brought the plates to the table and Felix and Joe took a seat. Ma stayed in her rocking chair as the three children ate the hard bread, forcing it down their throats with whatever spit they could summon.

“Ain’t you goin’ to eat, Ma?” little Joe asked.

“Later,” Ma replied. “Em’s still suckling.”

Suddenly, a roaring gust of wind lifted the contents of the house. The children were suspended in mid-air above their seats. For one transcendent moment, everything floated. Then it all came back down in a crash. The shutters clapped a loud round of applause before releasing their hold and somersaulting away.

“Felix, board the doors now,” said Ma, glancing around nervously, as she settled the jostled Em.

“But Pa,” Felix protested.

“We’ll meet that later,” Ma said and rocked a little faster in her chair.

Sally could hear the animals braying outside. She pictured Molly, the dairy cow, legs trembling beneath her, eyes rolling about her head stupidly as the two horses stomped and reared in their stalls. The wind was carrying on now. The inhabitants of the plain board house quieted as the storm took on voices; a mother humming, children shrieking, a grandma shushing and whistling between the gaps in her teeth.

Sally watched Felix fumble for nails in his pocket as he slowly banged the front door shut, piece by odd piece. The house kept getting hotter and darker. The kerosene lamp in the middle of the table faded like a firefly as more dust and less air combined in the room. Baby Em fell asleep and Ma rose to go lay her back in the crib, covering it with a damp sheet.

Sally scooted back her chair and stood to collect the plates. Every last crumb had been devoured, even without the milk to help them along. She took the dishes over to the washbasin and laid them inside softly.

She was right next to the back door, and for a second, she hesitated, peering back into the darkness. Then she quickly grabbed a wet tea towel from off the basin and wrapped it around her nose and mouth, knotting it behind her head. She groped for the handle and as she turned it, the door blew open. A massive wave of red smoke charged into the house. She heard her mother scream, “Sally!” as she dragged the door shut behind her.

In the storm, Sally glued her eyes shut. The sand pelted her skin everywhere, making her feel like she was on fire. Everything was aloud, alive, electric. The animals groaned and sighed along with the barn. The wind sobbed. She pressed her face to the side of the house, digging her fingers into the space between the planks and sliding her feet sideways, as the wind whipped up her hair and her skirt.

Something sharp flew by and slapped her in the back of the leg. She reached down to touch it and felt a warm gush of blood on her skin. Instinctively, she put her fingers in her mouth and was surprised for a moment at how good the blood felt on her tongue and parched gums.

After she passed the porch window, Sally knew she wasn’t far from the edge of the house. She inched her right foot out slowly until she felt the toe of her boot slip forward into nothing. She wrapped her body round the edge of the corner and suddenly knew she’d never faced a wind this strong before. Her hair sliced at her forehead, her skirt pulled so hard between her legs she thought it might just tear off. She let go of the house with one hand and tried to take a step out into the open, but when she did, her foot slipped, and the wind threw her down into the ground, scraping her palms. She lay her face down on its side and just listened to the groaning. Then, she dug her fingernails into the dirt and started to crawl.

She inched toward the fence, elbow after elbow, knee after knee, pushing her stomach hard into the dirt and trying to shield her face from the wind, changing direction every few seconds. Mostly, she held her breath. When the blood started to hammer inside her head she reached her hand up to the tea towel and sealed it as best she could around the base of her neck, inhaling deeply. What she drew in was hot air mixed with a flying mass of dirt. She imagined her throat and her lungs like the outline of a pinball game she’d seen out in Boise City when they’d gone to visit her grandma. She held her mouth shut as the dust pinballs ricocheted down her neck and flew around the inside of her body, dinging and lighting up all its parts.

Her nose and throat burned, squelching the desire to sneeze. Her eyes itched, but she knew better than to rub them and scratch herself blind. Her forehead scraped against a mass of twigs. Sally reached up her hand and felt through the twigs to the picket fence. Tumbleweed had jammed into the fence, clutching it in a twisted, unbreakable embrace. Sally kneeled, and wrapped her fingers around the topline of the fence. She pulled herself up, pressing into the fence, snapping pieces off the tumbleweed.  The fence wavered but held. A wall of velvety sand was building up on both sides.

Keeping her head low and her lips tightly sealed, Sally started to walk, breaking through the twigs of tumbleweed until her foot pushed through the dust, now up to her ankles. She screamed “Pa!” inside her head. The wind howled. Sally trekked on as the dust moved up from her ankles to her shins.

She thought about the birds and wondered if they had flown fast enough to beat these bloody clouds. Maybe they got whipped up higher and higher, spinning around and going nowhere like a hamster wheel, their hearts bursting from effort. Probably, they had plummeted right out of the sky and would be found with broken necks in the makeshift graveyard that revealed itself after the dust rolled by.

She remembered how the first big storm had caught Pa’s old wagon horses outside, grazing on the thistle. He’d found them afterwards lying side by side on the ground, half in, half out of the char dust, eyes wide open. They were foamy with sweat from running endless, blind circles.

Pa tried to salvage as much meat as he could off those gangly beasts, and Felix and little Joe helped out by cutting them open and tossing their organs into a bucket first. Felix told Sally how he took the knife to the horses’ lungs and sliced them in half. “They were stuffed full of black dirt. Looked like a monarch’s wings.”

Back at the house, little Joe sat whimpering in the corner.

“Joe honey, why’on’t you go fetch me that bible under the table. Bring it over here, with the lamp.”

Joe stood up, wiping his nose and wet cheeks on his sleeve in the dark. He felt his way through the main room with his hands out before him, until he reached the lamp’s feeble glow. Under the table his fingers seized around the leather bible that was their main company through the long, isolated winters.

“Come on over here and sit in my lap,” said Ma.

Joe set the lamp on the table next to Ma’s rocking chair and climbed up her legs with the book, sniffling. He was only five.

“Now tell me, what story do you wanna’ hear?” Ma asked.

“Tell me ‘bout my name agin,” whispered Joe.

And Ma read to him about Joseph and the pharaoh’s dreams, “And I saw in my dream, and, behold, seven ears came up in one stalk, full and good: And, behold, seven ears, withered, thin, and blasted with the east wind, sprung up after them: And the thin ears devoured the seven good ears.”

She rocked as she read, as the room grew hotter and thicker.  It happened like this now. You could go to bed by the shade of evening and then wake in the pitch-black, sweating through the sheets. The heat came on like a broken oven, whenever it wanted to.

Felix spoke softly out of the dark, “I think he’s sleeping now, Ma.”

Ma closed the bible slowly, carefully laying it on the table next to the lamp.

“Ma, I gotta’ get out there. I could find Sally – I could find Pa,” Felix pressed.

The creaking rocking chair slowed as Ma considered. Why had Sally run out there?

But she already knew why. Pa was Sally’s favorite, and he hers. Sally rode on her Pa’s shoulders every chance she could get; insisted on standing behind him in the cycling dirt as he plowed the fields every day, the both of them blackened in the long afternoon. She took after him too, more so than her brothers, fair with eyes of cobalt blue, and long faces that crinkled up into wild smiles as they hooted and giggled at whatever mischief they were plotting. She ought to have seen it coming. She ought to have tied Sally’s wrists to the chair to keep her from going out there.

“Felix, I cain’t,” Ma said, her voice breaking. “What if…” and she didn’t finish. “I need you with me,” said Ma. “It’ll be over soon and then you can run out and find them. They’re probably holed up with the Turners by now.” As she said it, it gave her some relief.

The Turners lived on the other side of the field. Pa would have been close to their cellar while he was out plowing.

“Yes, I’m sure that’s it,” said Ma. And in the dark room, Felix did not see her swallow hard.

Sally’s mind wandered as she trudged along the fence and she forced herself to concentrate. She was almost to the tractor now and her hope was rising, just a few more steps. She wished she could call out. Pa could be standing right in front of her and she wouldn’t know it. She’d have to find him by feel.

It reminded her of how they would play hide-and-seek in the thick fields of wheat that used to grow. Pa would hop off the tractor and dive belly-first into the wheat, slithering away. Sally, knowing the game, would close her eyes and count to ten before she climbed down and chased the bent trail, swimming her way through the long, silky stalks.

The field was thick and tall, and Sally would thoroughly part through it inch by inch, like a teacher’s comb searching for nits, and then finally, her foot would touch something hard or lumpy and she would pounce – right on her Pa’s back.

Now, she would do the same. She had counted thirteen posts she passed along the fence so she was about thirteen yards from the house. That seemed right.

The red earth had risen halfway up her legs, and it was getting harder and harder to muscle through it. Her hands and knees were scratched bloody from the sharp fence posts and the trapped tumbleweed. Her head ached from holding her breath, and everywhere her skin burned. But, her heart was light. She was close.

She knelt down along the fence, feeling the dust rise up her skirt, hesitating for a moment, before plunging her fingers in the billowy dirt and sweeping it aside to cast herself forward. She shoved her body out into the field, moving in juts. She was almost within reach of where the tractor had been and she pictured her Pa, holed up underneath, safe behind the big tires. Suddenly, her head bumped against hard rubber. She was there. She had made it!

She stuck her hands into the deep grooves of the tall tire and dragged herself the rest of the way. Then she felt for the opening under the tractor, but at first she could feel only more dirt. She moved from one tire to the next, the dirt reaching up to her middle, her torn hands nicking along the unforgiving metal, until finally, she found an opening. There was a small corner, under the tractor’s back wheel, where three sandy bluffs had created a shelter. She scrambled inside.

It was glorious to breathe. Sally yanked the filthy tea towel from her nose and filled her lungs, over and over. She wanted to investigate her cuts and scrapes but was too anxious to find Pa. She rejoiced in screaming, “Pa! Pa! Pa!” But, the wind smothered the cries, as good as yelling into a pillow. So, Sally lay on her back and kicked the bottom of the tractor as she screamed. Anything to make sound, anything to let Pa know she was here. She thought he might have buried himself a bit, just to keep the flying sand off his skin.

As she banged and banged and screamed and screamed, a dark image appeared. She envisioned herself, wading through the wall of dirt behind her, until she reached out and felt something cool – her Pa’s still hand. Sally felt a huge sob surging; it broke out of her throat like dynamite had been set off in her stomach. And another and another came, until finally all the sobs were expelled, and she lay, pulsing, on the ground, her face in a tiny puddle of red mud.

She didn’t want to go swimming in the dirt to find her Pa! She didn’t want to find him with his lungs all patchwork with red dust! There was still that seed of hope inside, that maybe, he had found a breathing hole and just couldn’t hear her to respond.

She pulled the caked rag up over her streaked face and clamped her mouth and eyes shut again.

The dirt was thick, thicker than along the fence and she had a hard time trying to force her arms in front of her. So she turned around, and slid her feet into the mound behind her, jiggling her legs up and down to move the sand. As she jiggled and pushed, she was able to get her legs straight out in front of her, and then she began to wiggle them sideways, trying to cover the width of the tractor. If Pa were under here, some part of him would have to be in that space.

The wind wailed, and in the cover of its sound, Sally began to sing, softly at first, then a bit stronger, a song that her Pa wrote for her. He would sing it to her at night, rocking her in the rocking chair, while she drifted off. “Sally sleeps in her daddy’s arms, watching and waiting for him.” The words didn’t make much sense, but they comforted her, and the warm vibration from her Pa’s chest as he hummed sent the most delicious feeling through her, like taking long sips from a steaming glass of milk.

There was only dust. She was resigned now. She would lay here until the storm passed. Pa wasn’t here. He must have found another shelter somewhere. Besides, she was sleepy. She hunched her back right up against the sandy wall and curled her knees into her chest. What she saw before her eyes gently rolled back was the endless, wrawling red.

This storm carried seeds from across the plains. As it traveled, it would hover over one man’s land, gathering up his carefully sown rows in a swift gust, and then transport those seeds hundreds of miles, before raining them down in another man’s field. Gifts of corn and wheat fell, disoriented, in cotton fields. And the wind blew both East and West, stealing and sharing at its whim.

When a farmer’s crop moved off his land, he would move too, packing up his kin and following his fortune to stranger and further places, as the seeds of life picked up and rolled over, were planted and sprung.

Inside the wooden house, the rocking chair creaked. Little Joe and Baby Em slept, and Ma and Felix prayed. It was quiet now. The doors no longer bulged against their stays.

“Ma?” Felix said.

“Yes, you can go now,” she answered.

He sprung up and started pulling the wood off the front door. Every exiting nail let out a quick screech that sent a shiver through Ma’s spine. It seemed to take forever, the room so hot and dark, but before he’d reached the bottom rung, the handle began to shake. “Hello?” Felix called out.

“It’s me,” said Pa. “You got the door locked.”

“Hang on,” Felix said, his voice pitched high with relief.

Ma stopped rocking and carefully stood up with Joe slumped over her shoulder.

Felix popped open the door and slapped Pa on the back a number of times before backing up a little awkwardly. “I wanted to come and get you,” he said.

Pa looked past him towards Ma and said, “I got hung up trying to start that dang tractor and then the wind came on so fast, I didn’t think I could make it to the house. I was with the Turners.”

Ma stood still as iron. Pa was alone.

“Sally,” she mouthed, before Pa and Felix set off running. Then she closed her eyes.

Pa didn’t need to ask Felix what happened. He just kept cursing himself over and over. Like Ma, he should’ve guessed that Sally would find a way to come looking for him.

Felix spoke, “She must have headed to tha’ tractor.”

The world outside had changed. The field looked like it had been invaded by that red weed Felix had heard mention of in “The War of the Worlds.” This is what a takeover would look like, he thought. “This is Mars,” he whispered.

Pa only hastened his pace through the quilted earth. They could both see the tractor now, and it looked just like a sand dune. The big back tires stuck out of the red dirt, but the front end was entirely engulfed.

“She cain’t…” Pa didn’t finish.

The ride height was filled up with sand. Felix and Pa got down on their knees and started scooping the dust away as fast as they could. And then Felix felt her. “Pa, she’s here!” he screamed.

And the two of them freed her head and her shoulders and pulled her out of the dirt.

“How long was she…” but again, Pa couldn’t finish. Sally was dead. Her whole body was swathed in red, her hair in red worms, her arms and legs streaked with dust and blood. Her eyes were closed. The red dirt had even coated her lashes.

Pa flung her over his knees. He started pounding between her shoulders with the butt of his hand, but she was lax. Her head flopped delicately from side to side.

“NO!” Pa screamed and he turned her over, cradling her head in his lap. He pulled apart her lips and saw that her mouth and her nostrils were glutted with sand. And then he folded over her, covering her face and chest with his own. Her limbs stuck out like a bundle of kindling.

Felix did not know whether to stand or sit, to stay or run back to the house. His own stomach was hollow and tearing, all the breath gone out of him.

He might have stood like that, staring at Pa, for hours. But eventually he squatted down next to his Pa and whispered, “Should we go tell Ma?”

Pa didn’t respond. He couldn’t move.

He stayed in the field for three days. Felix brought him water and plates of food that he left untouched. Ma couldn’t even bring herself to walk out the front door. And little Joe, well, he was just scared. He clung to Felix’s legs and wrapped his arms around his waist. Every once in a while, he asked, “Do ya’ think they’re ok?” And Felix would answer, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

By the end of the third day, a full moon was rising. Ma suddenly sat upright in her rocking chair and said to Felix, “It’s time.” Then she wrapped her grey shawl deliberately around her spiky shoulders and stomped out into the field. Pa was still sitting there, clasping Sally in a motionless heap. Ma’s steps slowed as she came nearer.

“Linus,” she said. “You hafta come in now. The chil’ren are afraid and there’s much to do.”

Pa lifted his head, uncovering Sally as he met his wife’s eyes. They were dancing about, bobbing in their sockets, not still or cool like he remembered.

“Sally!” Ma brayed, and dropped, upon the both of them, and would have wept if she had any tears, but instead she grasped her dear daughter’s tiny shoulders and felt along the bony arms to the pudgy fingers.

“What did we do?” she asked Pa, and as soon as she said it, she regretted it, because his face darkened.

I did this,” he said.

Then he rose, still cradling Sally in his arms, and headed towards the house.

“What you doing? Where’re you goin’? What are we goin’ to do?” Ma kept asking questions as Pa kept walking.

When they reached the house, Pa turned and said, “Bring me some blankets.” Then he continued on to the barn. In a moment Ma was back, a pile of blankets slung over her fallen shoulders.

“Lay’em flat,” Pa instructed. She did. Then Pa gently rested Sally’s body at one end. He filled up a bucket of water and grabbed a sponge and started to clean her. As he bathed her skin, the little red creature looked more and more like his little girl. And he could now see the gashes and tears on her knees and the slices on her hands and knuckles. The bucket water grew bloodier as Sally grew whiter.

Ma took a comb and started to work the clumps of dirt out of her hair. At times, the bright moonlight reflected off Sally’s eyes or her teeth, and she seemed to flash to life.

When she was clean, and her hair as shiny as it had ever been, Pa said, “I need to wrap her up.”

He rolled her up in one of the blankets, entombing her, again. He picked up the cold bundle, placing it in the back of the wagon.

Ma whispered, “What now?”

“We go,” Pa said. “We leave in tha’ morning, so only take what we can carry.”

“But where?” Ma asked. “Where is there to go?”

“We cain’t stay here,” Pa said.

The house was left almost as they had kept it, minus only a few pots and pans and linens. Other wanderers might borrow cover under its roof for a night or two, thankful for a free night’s rest on their way to somewhere else, but the family was never replaced. Something about the lay of the land, the movement of the sun as it made shadows of the hours, didn’t seem to fit, or held no promise.

Mrs. Turner often found herself walking along the picket fence, opening the door to the old barn and looking in, as if hoping that, out of the stillness, her neighbors might just reappear in an instant, as quickly as they had left.

What she and Mr. Turner could never determine was who had planted the marigolds? They had sprung up that spring, thousands of miniature suns, fluttering their cheerful petals nonstop in gay frenzy, having taken like weeds to the hardened, clay soil.