Monday, February 22, 2016

When The Dust Settles

    “Sssshhhh, sssshhhhh, baby, it’s okay, baby. Ssssshhhhh, sssssshhhhh”, Sarah said as she sat on the dirt floor with her newborn son held against her chest and rocked him back and forth. The ceiling and slats of the siding of the house were shaking and Sarah didn’t know how long they’d hold. She’d only had a couple of weeks with baby Michael before the wild black winds kicked up. There’d been no time to prepare for such a force of nature. They’d had previous dust and sand storms that came through these plains, weeks of them, but nothing like what was now seen through the bubbled glass windows of their small farmland house. There was no way this ramshackle shelter would stand against the dry relentless winds that were blowing through so incredibly hard. It had gotten so dark, so fast. The sun had completely disappeared and it was only mid-afternoon, a good 3 or 4 hours left of sunlight on a normal day. The temperature dropped and the air chilled without the sun’s warmth. Sarah thought it looked like the end of days outside after a glance through one of the windows, vowing to herself that she wouldn’t look again and drew closed the thin fabric of the curtains she’d sewn. She had been proud of those curtains. They were the first things she put up in an attempt to make the tiny two-room house a home just after she and John were married. He was a good, proud, and hearty land worker who’d left Sarah and their new son for a meeting with a man in New Mexico about work. John was eager to provide Sarah and Michael with a new chapter for their lives together. Sarah wondered how far John made it before the black winds found him. Her chest felt heavy thinking about where he’d have to stop and take cover and if he was ok, where ever he was.
     It started off as such a perfect Sunday. The skies so clear blue and the sun shining after not having seen it for weeks. Sarah busied herself with hanging the laundry outside and John packed up the jalopy and left that morning. He and Sarah had decided they were done with being Oklahoma land owners and were excited to find something new further west. The weather that year, and especially over the last few weeks, just wasn’t accommodating for working the soil and the drought, which had hit the year they got married, proved to be too harsh. John and Sarah were fully committed to each other and were able to stay optimistic through it all. The cattle that John brought with him were all gone after the first wave of dust storms came through. Their lungs had basically filled with mud from breathing in the fine dust of top soils and silt that constantly drifted through the atmosphere. 
Michael’s arrival had stalled their first plans to move west and Sarah had to power through the last few months while John fought to keep his new family afloat after the livestock and crops were all gone. They’d wanted children and were pleasantly surprised when they found out that Sarah was pregnant with Michael and that he’d be a spring baby. Both John and Sarah had never felt so revived and renewed and Michael’s birth had gone so smoothly, as if he was just as eager to be in this world and in this new life. John cried when he’d first gazed upon his son and he looked at Sarah with a new found appreciation and respect. Sarah absolutely glowed throughout the process and fell in love with the little human she and John created. She was so grateful and felt so blessed to be Michael’s mother and saw in John’s eyes that he’d do anything and everything for them.
     She looked down at Michael, swaddled in the quilt she’d made in the months before he came. His face was partially covered to protect him from the dust that made its way into the house. Her eyes welled up and a tear landed on the only spot of Michael’s forehead that was exposed between folds of fabric. Where the tear landed, the dust in the air collected and stuck to it. Fine wisps of silt were raining in through the ceiling and Sarah noticed a bow in some of the boards where the dirt outside was so heavily weighted against the wall boards that they bent inward slightly. The smell of the kerosene lamp got stronger as it filtered through the cloth that Sarah had draped over her face. Michael started crying again. Sarah slowly moved her hand to Michael’s face. She covered his nose and mouth and said, “Ssssshhhh, ssssshhhh, baby. It’s OK, baby. Ssssshhhh.”


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I wrote this after studying Dorothea Lange in a photography class and started researching The Dust Bowl and Black Sunday in the '30s.
In one article, it was reported that a survivor had admitted that she'd contemplated killing her newborn just to spare him the environmental hell they were living in.
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