Authors: Rae Meadows
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For my mother,
Jane Elizabeth Ernster Meadows
Thank you to:
Sarah Bowlin, my talented and generous editor, who made this book so much better.
Elisabeth Weed, my agent, friend, and advocate from the beginning.
All the folks at Henry Holt. Every writer should have a team this good.
My first readers: Alex Darrow, Susannah Meadows, Jessica Darrow, and Michelle Wildgen, whose kindness and guidance nudged me forward from a first draft.
Christina Paige. Boise City, baby!
Jennifer Sey, Mark Sundeen, April Saks, Carolyn Frazier, Andrew Wilcox, Lance McDaniel, Amy Sweigert, Carol Lawson, Lynn Kilpatrick, Darin Strauss, Lewis Buzbee, Sabine Laerum, Emma Fusco-Straub, Curtis Sittenfeld, Emily Bell, Michael Donohue, Dune Lawrence, David Khoury, Maartje Oldenburg, Melissa Kantor, Ben Gantcher, Rebekah Coleman, Meredith and Jennifer Bell, Aaron Sanders, and Denise Wood Hahn.
The Twin Cities contingent: Pamela Klinger-Horn, Beth Slater Winnick, Nina Roberson, Frank Bures, Bridgit Jordan, Jeff Chen, and Karen Ho.
My friends from the University of Utah Creative Writing Program.
Bob Barry and the Wednesday crew at the LIU pottery studio.
The Meadows and Darrow families, always.
Alex, Indigo, and Olive. You are the best.
Annie Bell awoke in the blue darkness before dawn, her nightdress in a damp tangle at her knees. She'd dreamed about the baby, ten years gone, but all that stayed with her were stray details: the tang of sour milk, a bleating cry she couldn't soothe. Samuel slept beside her, his hand clenched, his face scrunched into the pillow. She inched away from him and sat up. There had been no rain for seventy-two days and counting. The mercury would climb past a hundred today and no doubt again tomorrow.
She rose quickly, quietly, and padded downstairs through the kitchen and out the back door. They would all be up soon, but in these last moments before the sun, cool air still hid in the shadows, and the hushed morning wind whispered against her arms. She stepped gingerly to avoid the grasshopper husks that littered the yard. As she rounded the barn and the darkness faded to gray, she noticed a mound of half-darned socks lumped on a hay bale.
Oh, Birdie. How often she'd thought this recently. About her daughter's lack of urgency, her inability to see what needed to get done. To her they were only socks with holes; but Annie knew, like any farmer's wife, that they were one of a thousand things that kept the place going.
Annie brushed the hair from her forehead; after nineteen years on the farm, it was now mapped with lines, making her look, she thought, older than thirty-seven. It was getting harder to stretch their means. Provide, provide, provide, she repeated in her head as she kneaded bread or wrung out the sheets or ground old wheat into porridge, while her daughter frittered away the afternoons. Thinking about a boy, she had little doubt.
Really it was Birdie's daydreaming that rankled Annie most of all. This wasn't fair, she knew. Part of being young was giving in to the feeling that your life was full of possibility. Annie knew she had done the same when she'd first met Samuel all those years ago, remembered what it was like to want things for herself. But now, here were the land, the farm, the house, her children, her husband.
She dropped the socks where she'd found them. Let Birdie be for now, she thought, try and give her a little space. She slid her toe in an arc across the hard-packed dirt.
A jackrabbit knifed in front of her and then was gone. The sun appeared, and, as it rose, would slowly take with it any respite from the heat. Birdie would soon drag her feet to the barn to milk, Fred would charge out to see the hens, Samuel would look around for a way he hadn't yet thought of to beckon life from the fields.
It was time to make the biscuits.
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IRDIE STEPPED OUTSIDE
the kitchen door into the arid wind. She rounded the house and made a visor with her hand. Nothing. Always nothing. Land as flat as a razor in every direction, a burned-out watery mirage. To the north was Kansas, and to the south, Texas; to the west were New Mexico and Colorado, and to the east, the rest of Oklahoma. The windmill was the tallest point on the farm, flanked by the barn. Her father had built the small shed off in front a few years ago, now mostly full of burlap sacks of grasshopper bait. The wind buzzed against her ears, blowing her hair in her face. Relentless.
She grabbed her hair into a ponytail with her fist, unwilling yet to tie it back with string or rubber band. Where had she left her green ribbon? She pulled down the bucket from the windmill and pumped the water up, brown at first before it ran clean. Now taller than the house, the grove of locust trees her father had planted in that first year on the farm offered better shade than the scraggly mesquites. She carried the bucket over and emptied it around the base of the trees. Last week her father had poured water on the roof of their house, which had made it sizzle and steam, but hadn't done much to cool anything down inside. At least she'd never had to live in the old sod dugout, which was little more than a roof on a mound of dirt beyond the barn. At least they now had running water and electricity in the house.
“Birdie,” her father said from the open door of the shed.
Samuel Bell's ropy arms were reddish brown from the sun, and his hair had grown thin, as if the drought were eroding him, too. He used to laugh readily at Fred's clowning, even sing sometimes in the evening, stomping his foot to keep time, some lively tune he'd picked up in the barracks in his sharecropper days. But now any leftover energy went into worry, into thumbing through the tissue-thin pages of his Bible, its cover cracked like the veins of a long-dead leaf. You needed at least sixteen inches of rain to grow anything and they had had four. With only weeks until harvest, the plants should have been at grain filling, at milk stage, or even soft dough, but the kernels were still as small and hard as tacks.
Last week a man from Amarillo had come with charts and graphs, talking about rain.
“Haven't you waited long enough?” he'd asked a packed school gymnasium.
Here was a chance to do something, the farmers nodded. A way out of the drought. None of them had the money to spare but there was no choice, really.
“How do you go about that?” Samuel asked.
“Explosives. A heck of a lot of them,” the man answered. “Give her a little shake up there,” he said pointing at the sky. “We done it north of Las Cruces. And down there at Toad Creek, East Texas. Those boys in Washington could do it for y'all but they don't want to spend the money.”
The farmers grumbled. Of course, of course. It would be up to them to help themselves.
“Let's bomb it to hell!” someone had shouted.
The man had smiled and clapped, had kept on clapping until the farmers had joined in, even pounding their feet on the wooden floor.
The farm's small remaining patch of grass crunched under Samuel's feet, chewed to its roots by the cows and desiccated by the sun. The man from Amarillo would arrive midweek. Samuel was skeptical, of course, but they had all paid their share, come what may.
“Make yourself useful,” Samuel said to Birdie. “Get some of that thistle off the fence.” It was all that seemed to grow now and it tormented him to watch it cartwheel across the dry yard.
Birdie hated hauling tumbleweeds, which scratched her arms and face. Cy Mack had run his thumb along her chin and told her she was the softest thing in Oklahoma. He said he loved her freckled nose and the dimple in her cheek. He said she smelled like clover.
“That pile's too tall already,” she said to her father.
“Start a new one.”
She sighed and wiped the sweat off her lip with her arm.
“It's so hot,” she said.
Samuel laughed a little. “You don't say.”
Out on the western fence, at the edge of the largest field, she plied a tumbleweed thatch from the barbed wire and tossed it to the side. And then the wind paused. Birdie felt the quiet like a shiver, and in that still breath she could hear the meadowlarks chirping and beating their wings. In the distance, a black haze that looked like mountains. The heaviest clouds she'd ever seen were rolling toward them. Delight rose up in her as if she'd been handed a big, pink-bowed package. She ran back to her father.
Her father looked up from the fence post he was rewiring. He took his hat off, ran his hand over his hair, and put his hat back on. Relief bloomed in his face.
“Well, hallelujah,” he said. “Go get your mother. The rains have come.”
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RED BALANCED A
twig across two rocks as a bridge for the ants. He made a line of biscuit crumbs up the side to entice them to climb.
“Come on, little fellows,” he thought. “Eat up.”
Fred was knock-kneed and pallid, younger than his eight years. He had never spoken. His parents had given up trying to get him to, and he'd settled into his own way of communicating, a proficiency of expressions and gestures that his family knew well. Now he wrote on a small chalkboard, which he carried to school, and he kept notebooks stashed around the house, pencils attached with yarn and tape.
The anthill was the size of a bread box. He was tempted to jump on it and watch the little black workers scurry, but he resisted. One of the ants skittered out, elbowed antennae quivering. Fred crouched down and pressed the marcher down softly into the dirt with his finger. He'd learned in school about how an ant colony operates as a unified whole, the ants working together for the good of the group. He wondered how many would need to die before the colony would notice.
It was getting hard to see, the dark specks of the ants indistinguishable from the ground. He blinked and rubbed his eyes with his fists. He stood, confused by the sudden darkness, and then he saw the clouds.
Rain would mean wheat would mean money would mean a bicycle.