A luminous, tenderly rendered novel of a woman fighting for her family's survival in the early years of the Dust Bowl; from the acclaimed and award-winning Rae Meadows.
Annie Bell can't escape the dust. It's in her hair, covering the windowsills, coating the animals in the barn, in the corners of her children's dry, cracked lips. It's 1934 and the Bell farm in Mulehead, Oklahoma is struggling as the earliest storms of The Dust Bowl descend. All around them the wheat harvests are drying out and people are packing up their belongings as storms lay waste to the Great Plains. As the Bells wait for the rains to come, Annie and each member of her family are pulled in different directions. Annie's fragile young son, Fred, suffers from dust pneumonia; her headstrong daughter, Birdie, flush with first love, is choosing a dangerous path out of Mulehead; and Samuel, her husband, is plagued by disturbing dreams of rain.
As Annie, desperate for an escape of her own, flirts with the affections of an unlikely admirer, she must choose who she is going to become. With her warm storytelling and beautiful prose, Rae Meadows brings to life an unforgettable family that faces hardship with rare grit and determination. Rich in detail and epic in scope, I Will Send Rain is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, filled with hope, morality, and love.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|File size:||858 KB|
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I Will Send Rain
By Rae Meadows
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Rae Meadows
All rights reserved.
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.
* * *
Birdie 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."
* * *
Fred 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.
* * *
"Mama!" birdie cried, the door snapping shut behind her. Inside the farmhouse it was hot and close, the windows covered against the sun.
"Now what is it, Barbara Ann?" Annie said. A lost button? A dress she'd seen in town? A splinter in her thumb that would keep her from milking? Her daughter found drama everywhere, her emotions so quick to bubble up to the surface. "I'm in the kitchen," Annie said. "No need to yell."
The ivy wallpaper Annie had put up five years before was curling away from the wall in the corners. The green leaves, the indulgence, felt mocking now, bumpy under her hand. She felt as if she had faded along with the ivy print, all the work and the wait had slowly leached her of color, too.
"Mama, come out. Come quick." Birdie was breathless.
Annie untied her apron in the doorway. She'd traded three dozen eggs for a last quart of mulberries from the Jensens, which she'd just finished baking into a pie. It was a rare extravagance. Her garden was still strong, at least. She watered it each night, bucket by bucket from the well.
"What's all your clatter about?" she asked.
She wondered if Birdie would finally tell her about Cy Mack. Annie already knew the girl was moony for him, that much was obvious. She had sensed for a while that Birdie had her eye on something beyond Mulehead. She would press for details about Kansas City, where Annie herself had only been once. Did the women have red-painted fingernails? Were the buildings taller than the grain elevator? When the radio had worked — the oiled-walnut box now on the floor shoved next to the sofa — Birdie would lose herself to the stories of Ann of the Airlanes or The Romance of Helen Trent, always eager for news of places far away. So the idea of Cy Mack courting her daughter needled at Annie, concerned her more than she wanted to admit. He was a farmer's son, already farming full-time. No matter what he might be telling Birdie now, Annie knew that Cy would never leave.
"Rain, Mama. It's rain," Birdie said.
Annie felt her face soften and rise. At last.
They ran outside together, mouths agape when they saw the wall of thick black clouds headed their way. Annie put her hand on Samuel's shoulder, a gesture of relief and solidarity both. Birdie noticed. It was more than she had seen pass between her parents in months.
"Where's your brother?" Samuel asked.
"Maybe over in that gulch near Woodrow's place," Birdie said. "I don't know."
"What if there's lightning?" Annie asked.
"He'll come when the rain starts," he said. "It seems it'll be hard to miss."
"We should celebrate," she said. "No need to wait for supper."
Birdie loved the musty, sweet fruit and larded crust of mulberry pie. Before she turned toward the house, though, she saw what her father now saw. The clouds were not gathering overhead as they should have been, they were instead moving at them like a wall, the sun lost in a hazy scrim, the winds picking up, dry and popping with electricity, biting and raw against her skin.
"What in God's name?" Her father squinted against the darkening sky, which turned brownish and then dark gray, even green in places where the sun was trying to burn through. It was midday but it looked like dusk, the sweep of an otherworldly hand.
Birdie started to cough.
"Fred," her mother said.
"I'll go," Samuel said. "Get inside."
He nodded his head to the old dugout, two rooms they'd gouged from the earth, where he and Annie had first lived when they'd arrived as newlyweds. Almost fully underground, it was the closest thing they had to a cellar.
He ran east toward Woodrow's place, hoping the boy had sense enough to head for home. If he even saw the clouds. Samuel knew his son could spend all day counting cow chips or following coyote tracks, oblivious, his face as open as a sunflower.
"Fred!" he yelled, though it was pointless given the wind. Dirt began to blow. The world had gone dark and haywire. Dear God, Samuel thought, what is this ugliness?
* * *
Fred ran in from the fence, scared. How close was he to home? Was that the barn up ahead? His spindly legs took him blindly forward, his flailing arms searching for anything solid around him. His name, faint and carried by the wind. Louder this time.
He barreled into Samuel, jolting them both with a zinger of a shock, a hundred times what he could get from rubbing his feet on the rug and then touching the doorknob. The dust generated electricity all around them. He held onto his father's hand as they ran, the wind whipping their clothes and burning their eyes, to the dugout door.
They closed themselves in and Fred scampered to his mother's feet. She smoothed her hand over his wiry hair. He is safe, she thought, be thankful for that. But she could not hold on to her relief. Surprise — she swallowed dryly — things can always get worse.
They sat atop sacks of surplus wheat from three years ago. Outside the wind groaned, grating against the roof. Birdie knew she should be ashamed for feeling excited, but her heart thumped, loud in her ears, like the time they'd waited out a twister in the Macks' cellar after a Sunday supper, she next to Cy, then sixteen to her thirteen. He'd leaned over and said, "You're safe down here," and her ears had burned.
"Samuel? What is this?" Annie asked. She pulled her dress over her knees and rocked her feet against the floor.
"I don't know, Ann. I don't hear any hail, though," Samuel said. "I suppose that's a good sign."
Annie stood and straightened the canned beets, parsnips, and beans, the dugout now their makeshift storehouse. When had he stopped calling her Annie? They had become more formal with each other, more careful. She could feel herself retreating. Today, though, standing next to him when she'd seen the clouds and, thinking they held rain, felt the tightness in her jaw ease, she had imagined again a carpet of wildflowers, trumpet vines, and pale green buffalo grass all around them, and she'd felt an old tenderness swelling. You and me and this family, she had wanted to say. She had offered her silent hand instead.
"Seems to have passed," Samuel said. "I don't hear much."
"How could there be no rain with clouds like that?" Fred thought. He was disappointed. There would be no bicycle.
* * *
Samuel dislodged the old door with his shoulder and climbed out into the light. The sun was out again, that much they could see. A moment later Birdie and her mother followed through the door, Fred trailing behind.
"Dust," Samuel said, as if they couldn't see for themselves.
The world was buried under it: the garden, the window ledges, the wheat. Birdie wiped her hand across her face, trailing a mix of sweat and grit. The wind blew the fine sand over her shoes. She could feel it in her eyes and in her throat. Her father looked dolefully out at his buried fields, but he seemed unable to move, unwilling yet to acknowledge what had befallen his land. Annie trudged straight to the garden.
"You ever hear of a dust storm before?" Birdie asked.
"I never did," Samuel said.
"Think it'll make the papers?"
"I think it will."
Birdie wanted to talk to Cy about it, to see how he looked at her. His eyes were the color of an April sky before you started to wish for clouds.
Fred coughed and hacked up blackened phlegm and spat it into the dirt.
"Learn some manners," Birdie said.
"Pill," Fred thought, squinting his eyes at her. Bossy pill. Wash your hands, Fred. Fill the trough, Fred, Leave me alone, Fred. The rest of the time she only cared about Cy. He'd seen her slip out of the house last night.
"Birdie, go check on the cows. Take a rag for their noses. Fred, see to the coop."
Excerpted from I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows. Copyright © 2016 Rae Meadows. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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