Questions before I started writing…
Why is Dorthy an orphan? Why does she live with Uncle Henry and Auntie Em and who are they really to her? What happened to her parents?
Raw writing, Day 1.
The Kansas landscape was dry and cracked. The ground sat parched, waiting for rain. Henry bent to run the dusty soil through his fingers. It was hard, rocky soil. The wind picked it from his hand and sent it, mixing with the dirty air. His horse, Shy was her name, her bones showing through her thinning coat, gave a soft whinny. Henry grunting in response, stood at the plow. The silhouette of dead and broken trees stood along the horizon. The ground was too hard to walk a plow, his horse too thin, his land too dead. Behind him sat the greying home, leaning away from the wind.
He took his hands from the plow and walked up to Shy. He gave her a rub behind the ears. “Done for today” he said. He unhooked the neck yoke from the plow and led her back to a lean-to corral. He eased her collar from her neck and hung it on a faded and broken post.
The well sat back from the house. He was going to have to dig it deeper if the rain didn’t come soon. Or leave this land. He turned the crank handle which pulled up a bucket, muddy, but still wet. He took it to Shy and she drank thirstily. He looked to the sky, it seemed dark to the West, but with the dust these days, it was hard to tell.
Henry turned to the small house. Four grey walls, the once painted home now peeling and flaking to the ground. He had, once upon a time, been able to bring thick opaque windows from the nearest town, a full day’s ride. He’d also, a few months later, brought home his young wife, Emily.
Their marriage had been one of love, but as the farm turned gray and dusty, so did they. Emily, once bright eyed with deep pink cheeks, was now gaunt and grey. Her eyes were clouded, her back hunched, her hair, always pulled into a tight bun, was thin over her scalp. The clothes she had brought as part of her marriage trunk now hung from her frame, all color faded to the Kansas sun and dust. They had wanted to have children, once, but time had passed and there had never been any sign of a growing family.
Henry entered the dark house, a glimmer of light filtered through the smokey glass. His wife was hunched over a hearth of clay and rock. There was little to burn, they used dried buffalo dung he gathered when he left to hunt. The smell was embedded in the walls. It burned low and smokey, but kept the caste-iron kettle hot.
“Done already?” She asked quietly.
“Yup. Grounds too hard.”
“Soup’s ready when you want it.”
Soup was being kind. Salted buffalo, dried from back before the buffalo left to search for water and food. Water from the bottom of a muddy well, boiled and strained through the fabric of an old grey dress, now too tattered to wear. A handful of wheat, boiled to mush. There was still a bag of wheat, wrapped in buffalo pelt, treasured like gold. This was their lifeline, along with a few coins hidden at the bottom. The coins weren’t much, but they could help them to another life if it came to that. The bag was wrapped in the dry corner of the basement, really a hole dug into the earth and covered with a trapdoor in the center of the house.
The smokey room had a worn table in the corner with two chairs. There were two chipped porcelain dishes, two porcelain bowls, a sugar dish (long empty) and real silver spoons, all a gift from her parents when she married Henry and set out for a life on the plains. Those spoons would also help them if the time came, but neither she nor Henry spoke of trading them. Not yet.
Emily ladled the mush into the bowls and together they sat at the table.
Folding their hands to pray, Henry spoke his few words, “Lord, thank you for this bounty. Amen.”
“Amen,” echoed Emily.
As they sat in their silence, the wind, always constant, began to strengthen.
“Sounds like a storm a’comin’,” said Henry. His words were gentle, but Em could see the way his eyes tightened as he glanced toward the windows.
“Perhaps rain?” Emily said, when suddenly a great force hit the small home. Emily let out a shriek, small, like the squeak of a mouse, before covering her mouth with her hands.
“Into the cellar, now,” said Henry. “I have to open the gate for Shy.”
Just before Henry reached the door, there was a loud crack of light which filled the spaces between the wall boards, a burst of thunder shook the floor, and the door flew open. Wind and pellets of ice filled the one-room home. Emily sat, paralyzed as she watched Henry’s silhouette running from the home. With another flash of light, the air filled with thunder. Emily fell from her chair and crawled to the trap door. She unlatched the brass hook, and lifted the heavy boards. The space underneath was really no more than a crawl space. With her legs on the dirt below, her waist at the entrance, she grabbed the open cellar door and pulled. The wind fought to keep it open, but she finally wrestled it into place.
As the cellar door closed, Emily found the noise around her to be dampened. If Henry were with her, they would barricade the cellar door by placing a piece of wood through old metal brackets; the remains of their wagon. But Emily was alone and was afraid that if she barricaded the cellar door, she would be leaving Henry to his fate. Instead, she crawled to the farthest corner of the cellar and began to pray.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit, Father, into your hands I commit my spirit, Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” With each repetition, she found her fear quieting, until the prayer, spoken loudly at first, became quiet and within herself, a meditation as the storm raged around her.
She didn’t notice the storm quiet, didn’t notice when the cellar door finally opened.
“Come on out, storm’s past,” said Henry.
His voice pulled her from her trance and she crawled to the cellar door. Henry gave her his hand and helped her out.
“Come see,” he said, leading her to the door.
As she stood in the doorway, looking out on their land, she was transfixed. The ground was wet, puddles stood everywhere through the field. The sun had returned, but it seemed softer. The air that had stood dusty for so many months was clear. The sky was golden. Shy was rolling on her back in the mud.
“The Lord will provide,” she said in her quiet way, turning to walk back into the house. As she turned, she felt his hand on her shoulder. It tightened.
“Do ya see…” there was a strangeness to his voice.
Emily turned to look at her husband, his gaze fixed on something in the distance. She turned in the direction of his gaze. She saw nothing.
“There,” he pointed towards the horizon. “Somethin’ was movin’.”
“Probably an animal is all.”
“No, looks like a child,” he said and began walking away from the house, away from Emily.
Emily watched him from the door as he grew distant. She thought she could see it now, a small form at the edge of sight. She was certain it was only a trick of the eye. Town was far and the nearest neighbors were a half-days walk.
As her husband neared the shape, she watched him fall to his knees.
She heard his voice, urgent over the distance. She began to walk, the mud pulling at her feet. She began to make out a child’s form and broke into a run; the mud wanting to trip her and pull her down. She managed to keep to her feet until she came upon them.
Her husband, her Henry, on his knees in the mud. Just feet in front of him was a small girl child. She looked up at Emily, wide blue eyes surrounded by long black lashes. One thumb was stuck deep in her mouth and tucked into her other arm, a tiny black puppy. The girl’s dark hair was wet, plastered to her face. Her clothes were tattered and she had mud over her legs and arms, smeared over her face. The collar of her dress was pulled up against her neck, as if something weighted it down in the back. The girl could not me more than 2 years old.
Emily found herself sinking to her knees, next to her husband. She held her arms out.
“Come child,” she said.
The child stood quietly frozen, watching them.
“Please. We won’t hurt you.”
The puppy in the child’s arms began to wiggle. The child took her thumb from her mouth, her focus now on the dog, but the puppy wiggled between her fingers and fell to the ground. She was such a tiny thing, the fall was not too far. The child reached for the dog but it scampered over to Henry, wagging it’s little tail so hard it almost fell over. Henry reached down to the creature and when it licked his hand, he smiled for the first time in years.
The child smiled at him, and looked to Emily.
“Come child,” she said again, her arms still outstretched. And now she did. The child ran into her arms and tucked her head into the woman’s neck.
Emily held the child. Could feel the child’s wild heartbeat against her chest. She closed her eyes, feeling the warmth sink into her, bringing the color back to her cheeks. She looked at Henry, tears streaming down her face. Henry was coming to his feet, he had placed the puppy in his shirt pocket. It peered out at them curiously, content.
The child kept herself wrapped around Emily as Henry helped her to her feet. With her arms around the child, she could feel something on the back of the dress. Something heavy seemed to be sitting just under the fabric.
They walked through the mud, back to their small home on the Kansas plains. Once they came to the door, the sun setting to the west, Emily tried to put the girl down, to put her in the chair at the table, to clean her off, but the girls held to her tightly.
Henry took the puppy from his shirt pocket and placed it in an old basket Emily used for collecting herbs. He lined the basket with a bit of buffalo hide and set it near the hearth. The puppy curled into a ball but did not sleep. He kept his eyes open and watched the child and the woman.
Henry helped Emily into her rocker and lit a candle. He added a dried dung patty to the fire with a bit of precious wood he had collected for when the nights became too cold. Emily said, “Henry, there is something tucked in the top of her dress. Do you think you can pull it out?”
Henry looked down the back of the dress..
“Looks to be a pocket, but it’s sewn shut.”
“My scissors are in my sewing basket.”
Henry fetched the scissors and gently cut the seams at the top of the dress.
Emily watched him, watched the way his face changed as he saw what was hidden in the dress.
Slowly, he pulled the contents of the pockets into the low glow of the candle light. Legal tender notes, folded into a small bundle. Emily gasped as she saw the numbers printed on them, 5’s, 10’s, and 20’s.
“Hide it away,” whispered Emily.
“It belongs to the child,” responded Henry.
“It belongs to child,” answered Emily, “but we mus’ent let anyone know about the money until we find her family.”
“We will find her family,” answered Henry.
“Yes, we will find her family, but we will love her as our own until we do.”
As I write, I find myself asking a lot of questions like, what do they grow in Kansas? How do you unhook a plow? What does it smell like to burn dung? Here are some of the sites I went to today.
Clyde Ehlers Interview – How to Harness a Horse to a Plow
History of Money in the United States
Read Along with the Original “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”