Farm Girl

Beryl Funk was a farm girl, but she wanted nothing to do with all that sowing and reaping and slopping and slaughtering.  Fertilizing.  Jesus!  The stink of it.  All that barnyard discussion about blight, insects, hail, wind, and rain.  She knew in her bones and pigtails by the time she was six and three-quarters years old that she’d been meant for greener pastures.  Her trajectory down the birth canal had shot her straight toward Paris, but she’d been waylaid just off the runway.  After a year at Elmore Elementary chomping on construction paper and drinking Elmer’s, she was screaming, “Get me to an ecole, quick!”  By the time she’d made it to Fruitland Junior High she had advanced enough in erudition she was screaming, “Get me to a fucking ecole, quick!” 

            Her grace, deportment, and posture were the sensation of Vivan Rutenbeck High School.  At the twelfth grade talent show she walked back and forth across the stage three times balancing all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past on her head.  Then she stepped up to the microphone to explain.  “I am an allegory of Creation.  I bear on my head all seven volumes of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, one volume for each day of creation and one for His day of rest.  A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is a masterpiece written by a bedridden momma’s boy.  It was written in Paris from whence all creation flows.  Vote for me, s’il vous plait.”

            The competition was rigged.  Beryl received seven votes.  The Osterhorn triplets, who juggled thirteen ears of corn among them, received 143.  Beryl considered the source.  She was not offended.  Defeat proved her point.

            When the minister spoke of the rain of manna from heaven, she pictured croissants and brioche falling from the sky and pelting people as they strolled along the Champs d’Lysee using parasols for protection.

            One night the devil appeared to her in a dream as the Phantom of the Opera.  He took her into the sewers of Paris and said, “All of this will be yours if you will fall down and worship me.”

            “Whoah!  You’re the devil!”

            The next night she dreamed that the Lord God Himself in the person of Marcel Proust took her up to the pinnacle of the Eiffel Tower and said to her, “I have given you the skeletal structure of a Parisian.”

            The following night she wrestled with an angel until about cockcrow.  Having the skeletal structure of a Parisian, she was about to whip him.  Sensing defeat in the offing, the angel called time, but as he was hightailing it, Beryl said, “Tell me something!”

            He agreed.  “Your name is no longer Beryl.  From now on it is Adele.”

            “Vast improvement,” she said.  “That will do nicely.”

            That morning at breakfast, she announced to her parents, “Mother, Father, the Lord God Himself appeared to me and told me I have a Parisian skeleton.  Furthermore, my name is no longer Beryl.  It is Adele.  An angel told me that. I did not get his name.  Now that I have graduated from high school, I am going to Paris to become what I’ve always been but have been in the wrong place to be.”

            Her brother Ralph, spewing bacon said, “If you’re dead set on being a street prostitute, you could go to Des Moines and do that.”

            “It wouldn’t be the same in Des Moines.  In Des Moines, they are streets.  In Paris they are rues and champses.”

            “Shut up, Boy.  Go see to the hogs,” their father said.  “Would you settle for Des Moines?  That’s French.  It’s a step in the right direction.  And closer.”

            “The Lord God was very clear.  I have a Parisian skeleton not a Des Moines skeleton.  Besides, I am going to be a literary genius, and the only place you can do that is in Paris.”

            “Yah,” Ralph said.  “She’s going to write ‘Hawkeye Hooker:  From Farm Girl to Ho.’”

            “The hogs, Boy!  If you can eat them, you can slop them.”

            “Or if Des Moines is too big a chunk for you to bite off your first time out, you could start in Belle Plaine.”

            Their father chased Ralph from the room.

“Tell us, Girl,” her mother said, having settled in her mind not to switch to Adele without a fight but deciding not to start the fight until she’d sharpened her nails, “who is this Lord God Himself who told you you have a Parisian skeleton?  I know who the real Lord God Himself is, but who was yours?”

“Mine was the real Lord God Himself too.  Marcel Proust. He wrote about kissing his momma goodnight and having nightmares if she wouldn’t. He also wrote about the pains of not being sure whether or not his lover was a lesbian.”

“Would you like another biscuit?”

“He lived a life of tormented affections.  It is no wonder he wrote every word in bed.”

“Give me a good soybean crop any day over that bucket of fodder,” her father said.  “To think that any daughter of mine would fall in with that kind of literary riff-raff and call it God.”

“Only God could write sentences that long and think so much about thinking.”

“There’s something wrong with any man that thinks that much about thinking. What about doing?  Did he ever do anything about doing or was it all thinking about thinking?  How do you think your golden Paris got there in the first place unless the people that make this world visible did something about doing?  All I ever wanted was a daughter that did something about doing. And what do I get? A daughter whose God writes in bed. They should have dragged him from his bed and made him pound a few nails.”

“You would pound nails through the hands and feet of the artist soul.  You would crucify the artist.”

“Sure, if I could get my hands on him. We don’t need his dirty sheets.”

“You don’t realize how much you need art. That is your problem, Daddy.  My God wrote the sensitives’ bible.”

“My God wrote Honor thy Father and Mother that thou might dwell long in the land.

Yours wrote Think about kissing thy mother so that thou might lie long in the bed.  My aching back!  I am going to go mow something.”

After he had gone out, Adele ate some fat. “He has never gotten over the fact his name is Jethro.”

Adele’s mother was of the “this will not end well” mindset, so she was well situated to receive the present situation.

“What does Daddy do when he’s done doing? He eats and falls asleep. “But is it enough?”

“It’s enough to get him up to do again.”

“A man should do more than do. But even Proust did things now and then. Daddy has no idea Proust performed experiments on rats.”

“What for?”

“To see what they would do.  Someone had to find out.”

Her mother rubbed her arms as if they ached, but it was just something to do.

She asked her mother, “Did you ever think your problem is you have never gotten over being named Kitty?  It’s not even short for anything.  My God!  It’s Kitty on the birth certificate. Did you ever think they named you that because they wanted one instead?”

“I had never thought about it.”

“It’s time to think!  Proust started his masterpiece when he caught a whiff of coffee.

He started to remember things. He remembered things past.”

“But isn’t that all there is to remember? The past?”

“Time is an illusion, Mother. That being true, I suppose you could remember the future.  I might call my masterpiece ‘Remembrance of Things Future.’”

“But what will you do until you are wealthy enough to lie in bed and sniff coffee and experiment on rats?”

“The point in life, Mother, is to be, not to do. Haven’t you gotten that yet?”

“But how can you be without doing?”

“Being is doing. It is enough doing to be.”

“I would rather bake a pie than be someone who would bake a pie if she wasn’t so busy being.”

Adele walked down and stood by the gate. Her father was across the road in the field going gangbusters on a tractor, fanning himself with his hat. The alfalfa was a light turquoise in the slanting rays of the sun just breaking over the top of the long grove of trees standing like a protective sentinel at the field’s edge. The trees stretched all the way back to the miserable creek that meandered along the far side of their land. He turned the tractor and saw her and waved his hat at her, and she waved back.

“I might look like a farm girl,” she thought, “hailing her daddy, but he doesn’t know I’m waving au revoir.  He thinks he’s waving at Beryl, but Beryl’s not there, nor ever was she. The parents never know a changeling when they see one, but the changeling knows what’s happened. I don’t know how it happened, but at least I know it happened and has its fated outcome.”

All the property and equipment and outbuildings and the house itself, everything within the circle of her vision looked provisional, set to fly apart, teetering on the brink of the first good solid tornado to come along. She, on the other hand, felt inevitable and permanent, the one inevitable thing in a vast field of fragile “what if this breaks or fails?” material. Where were the snows of yesterday? Correct that. Where were the pies, the farms, the laborers of yesterday? Monsieurs Beaudelaire and Proust were firmly packed into the shelves of any decent library radiating profound thought, civilizing and sensitizing the whole shebang, slapping it up it’s numb backside. 

“The girl’s lazy,” her father was thinking at that very moment. “She’s afraid of a little sweat. You do, you sweat. It’s as simple as that. We’ve spoiled her. We didn’t make enough demands. The boy’s shouldered it all, dimwit that he is. She had her piano lessons, her drawing lessons, her voice lessons, her dance lessons, deportment lessons. What do you get when you cross a farm girl with high culture? An ass with its ass in the air. That’s right, Beryl. Dab a little eau de hog pen behind your ass ears and take off for Paris with your ass in the air. My aching back! We refined all the good out of her. But then, she always thought she was too good for us. She always did act like she was the privileged relative from the East visiting her hick relations. She sure as hell ate well enough on her poor relations. Where did she think that came from? Too busy with her Mr. Rochester and her Heathcliff to get her nose out the literary flophouse and help out around the house.”

“One of us has to develop her mind, Daddy.  Nobody called time on evolution.”

  “I used to love her quick comebacks and her cheeky attitude.  I thought she would develop into a spitfire you could get some use out of.  Little did I know her sassiness was turning the ground to quicksand around me so there’d be nothing to build on.  She’ll go to Paris over my dead body.  She’s got as much business in Paris as Sylvia does.”

Sylvia was the prize sow he was grooming to take the blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair and bring him a bundle at the auction. Sylvia was their ticket to Myrtle Beach for two weeks come next winter. Someone was traveling somewhere away from the farm, and it wasn’t uppity Beryl to Paris. Once he put the restraints on her, she’d be doing good to make it to the county line.

The sun flattened onto the tops of the trees like an egg yolk spreading until the heat rising from the skillet provided the tension to stop it. It wobbled a little and finally gelled.  It was not a solid round sunrise, the kind they had as Mr. Proust was going to sleep for the day after a busy night of writing and rat experimentation. How long would it be before she got to sleep through a good solid Parisian sunset like Mr. Proust had?  What a bore to have her sunrise compare to an egg yolk when in centers of culture they got perfect round gold discs to ring in their days? That right there, the quality of the sun as it got about its business for the day, told you a lot about the worth of a place.

It was going to be a hot one. At some point they’d probably haul out one of those towering thunderheads and plop it down on that wobbly mess like a big white chicken too dumb to know the shell had broken and it was gumming its chicken rear up with a gooey yellow stillborn. What a place! What a dearth of poetry there was in it. Chickens and botched eggs. That was the heavens over this cluckey landscape.

Adele lay in the hammock in the shade of the huge willow in the dooryard until lunch reading War and Peace and much preferring peace to the siege of Moscow. She saw many ways to improve on the character of Natasha, but then Tolstoy had always felt that Woman, hot ticket though She was, stood in the way of his onrush toward God.  Still, nothing could be worse than Anna Karenina and Levin’s rhapsodies over agriculture and farm implements.  She’d wished for his death more than she had for the death of any literary character outside every single novel of Thomas Hardy.

She placed “W and P” on her belly and closed her eyes and enjoyed for a moment being an intellectual gouged like a splinter into this hog-tied landscape. Irritating it, irritating it. What use was it being brilliant among corn? Corn didn’t give a shit, to give it a turn of phrase.

She dozed a little. In her dream she heard a voice say to her, “They crave it like something that was once in them but was destroyed.” This was the key to envy.  They wanted what she had but was forever denied to them because it had died a permanent death. Yet they retained a dim memory of the glory they had lost like the damned in hell whose torments were quadrupled by a vague intuition of the paradise they’d lost.  “They oppose me because I stand, or lie, among them as a sign saying “This way heaven.” 

She pitied them. They were forever doomed to this place, spinning their lives out in soul-numbing labor. The definition of insanity was doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting a different outcome every time, like Sisyphus rolling his stone to the top of the hill expecting it finally to tip over the edge and roll down the other side to complete his labor, or Prometheus expecting his liver to stop regenerating so the eagle could finish its meal. Poor suckers. They wanted to be done with livers and rolling stones, to be free of their labors and the vicissitudes of plagues and storms. “Feel sympathy for them, Adele, not contempt” was the message of her dream.

She opened her eyes and saw her brother coming out of the barn on a tractor pulling a wagon with bundles of hay in it to toss to the cattle. He drove to the pasture, unloaded the bales, and loosened them with his pitchfork. The cattle looked up from their beds of repose in the bare earth under the gnarled expansive cottonwood tree and slowly worked themselves up rear ends first and ambled over, their wide slavered nostrils pulsating. Ralph whipped his thigh with his leather hat and reached out and stroked the head of the star-capped calf that sidled up closest to him. The calf’s momma ignored the offense, lowered her head, and bit into a clump of hay. With a snap of her broad head she let the clump fly to separate the stalks and lapped at them as they fell with her soft paddle-like tongue.

There was Ralph’s Sisyphusian labor right there. Day in day out, never a change. Well, that wasn’t quite true. One day the dumb beasts would take a ride in a truck, and very shortly there would be something delicious on the table. But watching this same ritual enacted day after day, she recognized in it something of the pathetic futility of the old myth. One didn’t really connect what she was seeing to a hamburger or a T-bone or the lucre for a new gown for the spring recital. It was all too grubby and mute and remote from anything interesting.

Ralph washed up at the trough in the barn where the mules drank. He was a beast of burden himself. She might dedicate a book to him to compensate him a little. To My Dear Brother Rafe (she could never do Ralph) Delepierre (she couldn’t do Funk either.)  This made Adele Delepierre the name under which she would write and publish her own seven-volume masterpiece “Remembrance of Things Future.”

As Ralph came up the path, hair dripping wet, the pall of noon-time exhaustion on his gaunt farmer face, Adele swung her legs out of the hammock and clasped “W and P” to her chest to show him how thick it was and by that how crammed full of knowledge and experience her brain must be. 

“I want you to know, Brother, it’s not lost on me.”

He stopped and wiped his fat bare arm across his face and beat the straw off his hat.  “Hunh?”

“It has come to my attention that I feel great sympathy for you.”

He wrinkled his nose and curled his purple upper lip in that ugly uncomprehending way he couldn’t help. “What are you talking about?”

“The way you plod back and forth in a rut forever like a rat in a maze and can’t find your way out.”

He tossed his big grubby hand at her and said, “Who wants to get out?  Go away,” which made her follow him as he moved on toward the house. “Go to Paris or wherever you think you belong. Don’t feel sorry for me. When he kicks the bucket, this place’ll be mine. You’re not any place in the will. I’ve seen it. Sylvia’s worth more than you are.”

            He drew his index finger across his throat and made a gagging sound.

            Adele supposed Ralph thought he unnerved her with that about a will and inheritance and her being cut out.  But who needed a farm and all that trouble when she had a masterpiece that came so easily?  With the proper intellectual credentials, practically all a person had to do was lie down in bed, have a servant bring her coffee, sniff it, and go to town.  Oh, and a little dipping cookie by the name of Madeleine.  Careful!  Don’t let it get soggy!

            “What did you do all morning, Beryl?” her father asked her at lunch.

            Adele stared at the wall between him and her mother.  She didn’t hear that because it wasn’t addressed to her.

            “Beryl, your father asked you a question.”

            “Pass the cottage cheese, please.”

            “Not until you answer your father.  He asked you what you did all morning.”

            She tick-tocked her head smartly and turned on him a smile as gooey at that chicken’s bum with the runny egg mashed into it.  “I don’t know what Beryl did, or even who she is, but Adele followed Napoleon to Moscow.  When he got there, he turned right around and went home because he’d caught a cold.  Josephine gave him cough syrup.  Then Bezukhov married Natasha and she got very fat, and they lived happily ever after.”

            It was on her tongue to say, “Mother, Father, I want you to know I pity you both with the profound tenderness of an artist,” when her father jumped in and said, “I’ve had better conversation with Sylvia.  And she did something practical today compared to what you got up to.  She ate three buckets full of slop all her own and probably put on another three pounds.  She’s right on course to tip the scales at 750 and bring us a blue ribbon and a nice wad of cash.  That’s what you do on a farm.  You fatten the hogs, not hypothetical Russian ladies.”

            “I didn’t fatten her.  County Tolstoy, genius, did.  Anybody can become a pig.  Only a few people can write masterpieces.”

            “In which people become pigs.”

            “She was still lovely.  Sylvia is revolting.  And your devotion to her is revolting.”  She stood with her plate of food, trying to decide where to throw it and how hard.  But that was just the sort of thing that would happen on a farm.  She wouldn’t play into their hands.  They had almost tricked her, but as she stood there looking for a target, she remembered her station.  Let the others throw plates out of frustration.  They were stuck to the place like flies to flypaper.  “I am Adele, and Adele is a gossamer butterfly,” she reminded herself.

            “Sit down!” her father ordered her after she had.  “No child of mine leaves the table before I do.”

            She kept it mental:  I hate to inform you, Daddy, but I am not your child.  I am the child of the Holy Spirit Literature which one golden dawn overshadowed that woman there, a mere vessel, and caused her to conceive.  It is a sacred mystery.  It would have made more sense if He had chosen Colette, but perhaps He wanted me to be humble in part.

            Her mother’s face, plain and parched as Kansas, expressed the hopeless urgency of a youth orchestra conductor begging her charges to sound at least one similar tone.  “Let’s all try to get along.  Let’s pull together.  Remember, we are all Funks.”

            The name was like a punch to Adele’s gut, but she took it like a lady.  It was Funk until she got out of here.  Note to Adele:  hear Delepierre for Funk.

            Her father bullied his ham around his plate with his fork.  “We’ll get along when that one comes down off her cloud and joins the effort.  You can’t pull together with a weak link.  But all that’s about to change.  You realize, Girl, you haven’t done enough.  In fact, you haven’t done anything.  But you’re going to do more.”

            “Stop calling me girl.  I’m a lady.  I’m not one of your wall-eyed heifers.”

            Ralph smirked, putting a greasy gray glaze on everything within his range of vision like he owned it all and reveled in getting it dirty.  “I built a shed in a day,” the old grease gun said like it was something to be proud of.

            “Oh, a shed.  We could always use another one of those.  There aren’t enough sheds to go around.”

            Their mother clasped her sweating milk glass with both hands.  “Please!  I just want my children to get along.”  Nobody paid her any attention.  It was her imploring whiny voice.  Every word from her mouth sounded like beggery, alms work.  “Give me a crumb.  Please!  I’ll live off a crumb.”  Who could take seriously anyone who would exist on such paltry goods, afraid to want more for fear of disappointment?  When Adele had her reputation, she’d fly her to Paris and show her around, show her what she really should have hoped for.  The amazement in her weathered washed-out face would be heartbreaking.  Adele would make up for some of that by buying her new shoes and a fishnet tote for her baguette.

            Beef Brisket over there pointed his clubbed thumb at her.  “She’s got her silk undies all in a twist because she found out about the will.  She went rooting around like a shoat and found out she’s not in it.”

            Their father took hold of the table’s edge and opened his eyes wide enough to swallow the entire room.  His face went russet.  He pointed his eyes at her, black and deadly.  “What do you know about any will?  Have you been snooping around in my office?”

            “Somebody has to dust it sometime, Daddy (she never had though she had danced with the feather duster plenty of times and once smashed a yellow jacket with it).

            “Now, Jethro, remember your heart,” their mother said, making little picking motions in the air as if pulling lint off the situation.

            It was plain martyrdom to hear Jethro, the name that dare not speak its name, uttered aloud. 

            Now he rested his elbow on the table and leaned his weight on it and leveled his finger at her.  “You stay out of my office.  What I do with this property is my business.  You’re provided for in another way.  I’ve seen to your future.  And it begins as soon as next Monday.”

            “Thanks, but I’ve seen to my own future.  I remember it, and it is good.”

            “I’ve got the future,” he said.

            “No.  I write the future in every elegant detail.”

            “Oh, really?  How does it go?”
            “Never mind that.  But it wasn’t me.  It was him.”
            Ralph licked gloating mock-innocence around his blubbery farm boy lips.

            “He’s the one that read your will and told me about it.  He said when you kick the bucket it’s all his.  I am cut out.  Those were his exact words.  Kick the bucket, Daddy.  That’s how your farm boy refers to your tragic death.”

            “Nobody’s dying.  Your daddy’s not dying.”  Their mother said it with the gasping refusal of a soon-to-be-widow who had just heard her husband’s death sentence pronounced in court.

            “Oh, shut up, Kitty.  Don’t wade into this mess.  Whoever’s to blame, if you’re so nosy, I’ve got fifty thousand dollars down payment in that safe ready to close the deal on the Hawkins property on Monday, deeded in the name of Miss Beryl Funk.  I’ll lend you two of our hands and you’ll have your own sheep farm to play around with.  Your mother and I discussed it.”

            “Disgust is right.”

            “You’re plenty intelligent enough to make it work.”

            “Get this through your thick welded skull.  I am not a farm girl nor ever have been.”

Her brother sniggered.  “Beryl, you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.”

            “The liturgy says ‘dust,’ you dolt.  And I’m not and I won’t.”

            “Oh, I forgot.  You’re made out of ambrosia.”

            “I’m surprised you know what ambrosia is.”

            “It’s a salad made with mandarin oranges, coconut, and whipped cream.”

            Why anybody with fifty thousand to throw around would sink it in sheep instead of art funding was a mystery to her, and she said as much.

            “Your future is in sheep,” her father came back.

            “Oh, Jesus!” shot out of her.  “What does she who can put them on pins and needles with ‘Rustle of Spring’ have to do with sheep?”

            Ralph conceded with suety enthusiasm, “That ‘Rustle of Spring’ was kisass, I’ll have to say.  I thought you were going to whip up a tornado and blow the whole recital hall away.”

            “Now imagine a lady that can do that holding a shepherd’s crook, and I think you’ll see the absurdity of this sheep farm deal.”

            Her father kicked back from the table with a ripping belch as if blown in reverse by it.  “That’s chaff.  Sheep are real.  And don’t take our Lord’s name in vain.  There were sheep at his birth.  Shepherds too.  Who did the angels announce it to?  Shepherds.  What does that tell you about sheep farms in the scheme of things?”

            She hated to tell him, and didn’t, that that as one poorly written book, with lots of jumping around and loose ends and no character development.  Suddenly there He is, and He’s already perfect.  Where do you go from there?  You didn’t even know what they looked like or why they did what they did.  As for character motivation, it was all blamed on the one thing:  sin.  Generic to the point of being meaningless.  No subtlety, no ambiguity, which meant a failure of art.  And that bloody crazy last chapter with the martyrs washing their robes white in the blood of a lamb.  It made no sense.  She wouldn’t have written it.  God!  She hoped she’d do a whale of a lot better than that.  If she was any judge of talent, and she was, she would.  It would happen to be the only damned thing the three of them read besides the newspaper and “Ag Update.”

            “You might be interested to know, as a point of reference, Ingrid Bergman played ‘Rustle of Spring in ‘Intermezzo.’  It was her big number.  She didn’t have a sheep farm.  She had a concert career.”

            This Ilsa Lund, as she was known in the movie, also had an affair with a man with the face of a donkey, but that didn’t bear mentioning.

            “Beryl, eat your ham,” her mother said.

            “C’est du jambon.”

            Ralph snorted so like his soulmate Sylvia.  “You want me to slap her?”

            “I would not feel it,” she said.  “I am not in the body.  I am in the soul.  And the soul is not here.  The body does not get first dibs on its choice of locale.  The soul does.”

            Her father made a crater in his mound of mashed potatoes and dumped peas in it then poured ham juice in on that.  “I tell you what.  After lunch, that body that’s not here and I are going to head over to the Hawkins farm and look the place over.”

            “I know what a patch of mud looks like.”

            “The fencing is good.  You won’t have to worry about that.”

            “That is good to hear.  I was afraid I would lie awake at night worrying about fencing.”

            “Good pasture.  Shadow Creek runs through it.  Solid bank.  Sandy for drainage.  Barn in good repair.”

            “Do the sheepdogs come with it?  Oh, I hope sheepdogs come with it.”

            “A couple of acres for haying.  You and your brother can mow it.  Some acreage to rent out to another farmer.”

            “I’ve got all I can do here,” Ralph said.

            “You’ll help your sister.”

            “Like she’s helped me.  I’ll go lie in a hammock and develop my mind.”

            “Develop your mind?”  She arched her eyebrows and snatched a biscuit.  “There is no place to begin.”

            If they thought they were going to turn her into Bathsheba Everdene and imprison her between the covers of the hell that was a Thomas Hardy novel, they, of all people were most deceived.  Barn dances.  Fiddles.  Bidding on pies for a chance to dance with the crustmaker.  In strides Judd dressed in a barrel.  Bucolia cum laude.  Mr. Forster might pop a boner, British style, over that, but she certainly would not.  She’d set fire to the barn while they were all jigging their tits off and clucking with the chickens. 

            Everyone who was, or was some close equivalent of the same, understood what it was to be human.  How few knew what it was to be divine.  “Je suis divin,” she said aloud, not in French, but in the French.

            The three of them moved their eyes but nothing else toward her.  They were like hanging portraits with eyes that followed you in a creepy old house.

            Put a good face on it, Adele, she coached herself.  The body means nothing.  It is a chitinous shell, that’s all.  The detritus of a dog-day cicada found clinging to the bark of an oak.  The soul has escaped.  You hear it stridulating in the heavens, but try to locate the source! 

            Cicadas as souls.  It was the best she could do for poetry in this place.

            Pretense was the mother of escape.  Here was her plan.  As soon as she’d turned eighteen last December, she’d applied for a passport and haunted the mailbox every afternoon until she had it in her clutches.  She carried it in her bra where some of the other girls carried their knives and well-worn condoms, bound as they were to this place with a dooryard full of brats and squirrels to skin.  At night she slept with it under her pillow.  Her plan had been to get a job at the local Dairy Barn or Hamburger Window when she could work up the stomach for it, if her parents wouldn’t cough up enough for a plane ticket and three months booster for rent in some artist’s dive.  So far they’d denied her their patronage.  It was beginning to look like one of these days she’d have to sally into town and beg to stand at a window on Main street and dump cold nearly solidified formula into sugar cones, terrace them nicely up to the signature curl on top like the forelock of Time you were supposed to seize, and hand them over to herds of squealing little piggies.  She’d do it if she had to, knowing it was all for getting to Paris.  She would have died if it was all done for staying around here.  She would rather lie down and be chopped to bits by a thresher than save money for hanging around Fruitland.  But she’d had too many prophetic dreams to think that was about to happen.  This place wasn’t going to best her.

            The news about the bundle had appeared as a stroke of divine intervention.  Fifty thousand would do nicely to get her on the right side of the Atlantic.  If he meant it to establish her footing, well, she knew best how to do that, and it didn’t involve sheep.

            He might find sudden acquiescence suspicious, so she gave her provisional concession that grudging twist and only went so far.  “All right, Daddy, if you’re bound and determined, I’ll go look the place over with you.  But I won’t promise you anything.”

            “You’ll fall in love with it, Beryl.  I swear you will.  It’s 150 acres, only one hundred head of sheep, not too many to manage till you catch on.  Then you can breed them like crazy.”

            “That does sound kind of fun.  But I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

            “I’m not working for her.”

            “Don’t pout, boy.  You’ll do what I tell you to do.  You’ll find you like hard work, Beryl.  You have good strong hands, broad shoulders, a thick back and neck.  Anybody that looks at you can tell you were cut out to be a farmer.  Bred for it.  You and your brother both.  Cut out of the same cloth.  Male and female He created them.  But it’s the same dirt of the earth He formed them out of.  There wasn’t girl dirt and boy dirt.  There as just dirt.  It won’t be long before you’re as good a farmer as your brother.  Better maybe.  You might just wind up surpassing him.  Make me proud, girl.  Same dirt, Beryl, remember that.  Same dirt.”

            With this disgusting talk about dirt, it was all she could do to keep her dinner where it had gone.  But she played along and cooed and wiggled and acted like she was catching what she’d always been immune to:  farm fever.  It was getting in there and scampering up and down her nerves and making her twitch and get hot to cram some of that good old fashioned dirt under her fingernails and toenails, into the cracks of her calluses yet to come.

            All those sheep will be yours if you will bow down and worship me she heard the devil say.  Sure, she’d play along with Lucifer in order to get her hands on the money.  Then she’d run like hell.

            “Well, Daddy, you might just have a point.”

            Ralph threw his hand.  “Aw, she’s just playing along to get back in the will.”

            “Hush up, boy.  She’s already in the will.  This is her will.  It’s my will too.”  Her father reached across the table to take her hand with his old cracked droughty riverbed of a hand stinking of Sylvia. 

            “You’ve got to do this, Adele,” she told herself.  “Take it.  Do it for Paris.”

            “Oh, Daddy,” she breathed relentingly.  She stretched and leaned over and touched his fingertips and managed not to flinch or gag.  “Maybe it will work out after all.”

            No doubt about it at all, Daddy.  I know the combis.

            Her father had recently purchased a new steel safe with one inch thick walls, two combination dials, reinforced by granite.  The thing weighed a ton and was guaranteed to withstand the winds of an EF4 tornado.  The house would go, the safe would stay put.  The thing was so heavy it broke the lips on three of the porch steps and left tracks in the hardwood floor in the living room from the wheels of the cart the men used to move it in.  It was the size of Sylvia, and Adele had said when she first saw it, “Since Sylvia is the most valuable thing you possess, Daddy, you be sure to run her in there in case of a tornado.  She’ll be right there when you get back.”

            Mr. Stutzer, the Cyclone Safe salesman who’d sold and delivered the safe, the father of the sluttiest girl at Rutenbeck High, had written the combis down on a piece of paper at her father’s desk.  Her father hovered there, committing the combis to memory, and then Mr. Stutzer went outside and lit the piece of paper with his cigarette lighter and let it burn to ashes in the yard.

            That evening, Adele had snuck into her father’s office, laid a clean sheet of paper on the blotter, and lightly run a charcoal pencil over the white paper until the numbers heavy-handed Mrs. Stutzer, whose daughter was a notorious slut and no friend of the arts in fact a sneering detractor and thus the enemy of Adele, had ground in there.

            She’d fished around in it a couple of times to see what was what when her parents were at prayer meeting or visiting friends and her brother was out on a date with whoever was most desperate any particular night and found little of interest.  Insurance papers, deeds, licenses for this and that, bills of sale, bank books, two diamond necklaces, heirlooms from her grandmother that her mother had never worn and had never had occasion to wear and probably never would wear unless one day she took a notion to impress the folks at Piggy-Wiggly or Everything’s a Dollar or a Farm Bureau meeting.

She’d read the old will which passed the property and its assets and debts on to the three of them equally upon her father’s death.  So she knew their financial worth, which was sufficient to send her off but tied up in the legal technicality of her father’s still being alive.  He’d made a big to-do in recent weeks about penning a new will, contents undisclosed, and it was this will, apparently, not yet placed in Sylvia, as Adele referred to the new safe, that Ralph had read and gloated over.

            What difference did a will make when her father was alive and she needed cash now, or soon, sooner, anyway, than his living out his life expectancy would satisfy?  He was only forty-six and in good health.  It could be three decades before she got any sustenance out of the contents of a will.  Fathead Ralph as well, for that matter.  He didn’t take that into account.  Being cut out of the new will and given a sheep farm instead was the best thing that ever happened to her, and immediate fun.  Because of her being “disinherited,” fifty-thousand with her name on it was lying there smiling in an airless tornado-proof vault a mere two rooms away.  That made for a fine meal ultimately.

            Let it look like a win for him.  He could not have played more numbly, blindly into her hands.

            “I’m not pretending at all, Ralphie.  Now that I think it through un peu, I am truly excited thinking about the doors a sheep farm will open for me.  I can’t wait to get my hands on it.”

            Her father slapped the table. “Atta girl!”

            Her mother, tears in her eyes, mute with happiness, smiled a milk mustache on her.  Adele took her napkin and reached over and scrubbed it right off her helpless face.

            Ralph chewed on and on a mouthful of something that tasted the more putrid the longer he put off swallowing it.

            Adele, temporarily a bird dog rather than a porch dog to duty, helped her mother clear the table and rinse and stack the dishes and store the leftovers while her father tracked down the farm hands to give them some instructions on how to keep the place from collapsing during his absence.  Then the three of them piled into the front seat of the truck and took off for the Hawkins place.  They passed Ralph grubbing around in the ditch trying to corral the star-headed calf that had broken through the fence and was licking a cattail, expecting it to turn into a teat.  Ralph was so focused on his rescue effort he didn’t even turn when his father tooted the horn and waved as they passed.

            “He frets over that youngling like it was his own daughter,” her mother said.

            Her father threw his head back and widened his nostrils to receive the manuery breeze.  “It won’t kill him to eat it later though.”

            “Why, he frets over that thing like your father does you, Beryl,” her mother added with surprise, pleased but stumped by her own comparison.

            Drive faster so we can get this over with, was all Adele could think.  That was the worst yet, being compared to a dodo calf mucking around in a ditch, fawned over by a farm peon.

            The turn-off was half a mile down the road to the right, a dirt road with a rut that ran mainly through the middle but began to meander side to side the closer they got to the Hawkins dump.  They were tossed around, their tailbones stabbing the seat.

            “Bite down,” her father said through gritted teeth, “or you’ll nip your tongue off.”

            The hell if she’d own a piece of property you had to mind your tongue to get to.

            A peeling gray house stood just inside the property line with a porch running the length of it and sagging to the right.  A wiry broomstick of an old woman sat on the porch swing snapping beans into what looked like a porcelain bed pan when they pulled in.  She leapt up and shouted, “Buck, they’re here!”  She set the peas down on the floor for the flies to get to and smoothed her checkered belted dress over her ironing board body.  An old man in gray trousers hanging by suspenders from his narrow shoulders passed through the rusted screen door and waved and pointed where they should park.

            The old man and her father shook hands and greeted one another.  His old wife stood at his side giving them a skeleton smile and smoothing her frazzled cobweb again and again to her flat tall skull.

            “This is Beryl.  She means to own the place.”

            “A fine looking farm girl,” old Mr. Hawkins said, snapping his suspenders.

            Her mother beamed.  “We think so.  Smart as a firecracker too.”

            “Class valedictorian,” her father crowed. “Reads two languages.”

            “Hope one of em’s English,” the old woman quipped and dipped her shoulders as a laugh.

            “But now she wants to make something of herself.”

            Let them talk, Adele.  Let them say whatever they want.  It’s just air.  Let it be sucked up into that heat devil.

            Somewhere a retarded boy was singing.  She’d heard they had one.  She caught a glimpse of him as he came out from behind a large willow behind the house and slipped behind a rotting potting shed.  If she had to spend five minutes in that house, she’d be retarded too.  She closed her eyes and thought of the great God Himself Marcel Proust lounging between silk sheets under a plush comforter, giving the world a good look at walking down a path, spilling onto paper all the higher thinking prompted by the experience.  How far removed salvation was from this place.  If she had to bed down for a single night in this joint, she’d forever lose contact with her mind, that treasure chest.

            “Hot one,” the old woman said.  She turned a keen eye to the western horizon.  “Might be a storm later.”  Then the old witch cackled like she could stir it up if she wanted.

            Heat caused the slight ridge that formed the western horizon to ripple and shift ever so slightly as ghostly images of it rose like its departing glassy skin and hovered and collapsed.

            “About four o’clock there’ll come a downpour.”

            “That’s good,” her father said.  “I hate paying for rain.”

            Mr. Hawkins scratched slowly up and down his hips.  “If you have to.”

            While the old woman and Adele’s mother stayed on the porch to chat, Mr. Hawkins walked the two of them over the place.  The sheep were even dumber than cows.  Rather than congregate in the shade of the four large trees that grew in their grazing field, they scattered themselves all over creation, all standing, most of them in the beating sun.

            “Don’t they ever sit or lie down?” she asked Hawkins out of morbid curiosity.

            “If they want to.  Don’t often want to.  They like to be able to see farther than they could if they laid down.”

            This sounded like a tale you’d tell a tourist to mislead her so she’d be amazed when the opposite of what you’d said was likely to happen happened.  But she let it go.  Hell if she’d pastor beasts that were even dumber than cows.

            Every once in a while the voice of the retarded son rose above their unremarkable conversation. It was like the voice of the squad leader chanting out lines for the ranked formation to repeat to keep them in rhythm as they marched along or swung their pick axes at a bed of solid rock.

            “Is that your boy?” she said.

            “That’s Alvin.”

            “He’s loud.  What’s he saying?”

            “Damned if I know.  He just carries on.  Sometimes all day.  There he goes now behind the feed station.”

            She just caught sight of his red shirt as he darted behind the miserable lean-to Mr. Hawkins called a feed station.  There was a barn too, collapsing, like the house, in the direction of the prevailing wind.  It was unfathomable that the blizzards that came roaring out of the Dakotas had so far spared this flimsy mock-up of a farm.

            “It almost,” and she couldn’t quite believe she was admitting this, “sounds like he’s singing or chanting in French.”

            “Doubt it.  The boy barely knows English.”

            He called him a boy, but from what little she’d glimpsed of Alvin, he appeared to be in middle age, possibly older than her father.  He was no boy physically regardless where he fell mentally.

            “He doesn’t go with the place, does he?”  She hadn’t meant to say it out loud, but there it was.

            Mr. Hawkins slapped his thighs and leaned back and let out a cackle not unlike his wife’s.  “Ha ha!  Come with the place?  No, he’s moving off with us.  We see to him, you know how it is.  See to him.  It’s what you do for your children.”

            “Amen,” her father said.

            There he was again, dashing out from behind the feed station and streaking toward the barn, shouting as he went.  It sounded to her for all the world like he was saying, “Mauvis mouton.  Mauvis.  Mauvis.”  Bad sheep, bad, bad.  That couldn’t be, but that’s all her ears made of his nonsense.

            To think that an idiot would speak French.  You’d have to be a French idiot in France to speak French, not an idiot gamboling around a sheep farm in the American heartland.  She didn’t like to hear him, so she directed their attention to the fence line at the north end of the property and said, “Let’s go see what that’s about.”

            When they got there, sure enough it was a fence.  They followed it the length of the field to Shadow Creek.  They approached the creek by a gentle slope easily navigable by sheep.  The banks were gouged with their spindly hoof prints. 

            “You’ve just got to be careful in a storm not to let them come down here,” Mr. Hawkins said.  “If it floods and they’re caught down here, when the creek rises, they’ll stand and watch it till it fills up their noses and drowns them.”

            “Sounds like what sheep do,” she said.

            “Beryl’ll put some smarts into them.  They won’t behave like that when she’s in charge.”    The unintended insult went right by old Hawkins.  Her father himself didn’t catch it.

            “Well, then we’re all settled for Monday, two o’clock at Settleman’s office.  We’ll pass the gauntlet to this one here.”  Her father swung loosely and slugged her on the shoulder as she’d seen him do to Ralph a hundred times, the buddy boy equivalent of a notary stamp.  “You’ll be there too, Beryl.  We’ll talk business.”

            The retard popped out from around the side of the house, making stars of his hands as if he were wearing puppets over them, a tongue-filled grin spread across his wrinkled freckled face.  He was like a shriveled monkey-faced child in middle age.

            He’d fallen silent in his hiding place as they approached the house.  The silence was a long warning that it couldn’t hold.  Adele had braced herself against the moment it would be broken.  That moment was timed to the jab to her shoulder when Alvin appeared and swung his arm up toward the western horizon where a mound of dirty white clouds had appeared with the yeast of an updraft working in them.  The retard bellowed, “Mauvais mouton!  Mauvais mouton!” until he’d whipped himself into a frenzy like an ape threatening an approaching enemy, hefting a huge boulder in both ape arms and working up the momentum to heave it.  In the midst of this undignified display, he turned and looked directly at Adele and broke into a loud cackle so like his parents made it might have been all three of them laughing at once.  Then he sped off toward the ditch and threw himself in it and lay buried somewhere in a jungle of cattails and unmanaged scrub grass.

            The old woman crossed her arms and smiled with satisfaction.  “That boy.  D’you hear him?  Hey’s saying, ‘Look at that cloud.’  He loves clouds.  You’d think he’d made them and put them up there for all to see.”

            “That’s not what he said,” Adele corrected her angrily.  “He said, ‘Bad sheep.’  In French.”

            They all had a good laugh over that.

            “Laugh all you want.  Somebody’s taught that boy French.”

            Mr. Hawkins rubbed his white stubbled chin.  “Must have been the sheep.  Sheep musta tutored him in it.”

            “I know French.”

            “Beryl hears everything in French,” her mother said.  “It’s the way she thinks.  She’s got a translating brain.”

            The old woman rocked back and forth heel to toe.  “Oh, really . One of those.  Must be confusing.  I never had that sort of a thing to mess me up with.  Well, you come here and you learn the language of sheep and forget the other.  That’s what that boy’s talking.  Sheep.”

            “Sometimes I do wonder,” his father said.

            As the rest of them appeared content to stand around on the porch and chat all the day long while grasshoppers ate them alive, Adele said her au revoirs and headed for the truck.

            “Well, I’ll see you Monday then, Girlie,” Mr. Hawkins called after her, and then her parents said their parting lines and followed along.

            In the truck Adele stared fiercely at the dashboard to avoid seeing Alvin if he exploded out from behind something.  A mere glimpse was worse than a steady view.  She might get used to him if she looked at him, but to catch him flying in to lodge in the corner of her eye was like him burying himself in her to lay eggs and infest her being.

            “Let’s get out of here.”

            “I’m going just as fast as I can,” her father said as he pulled onto the dirt road and crept along.  He was giving the place yet another lingering assessment.  “All that for you, Girl.”

            She kept it up as best she could.  “Wow.”

            “You’re not looking.”

            “I saw plenty.” 
            She peeked just enough to see they’d passed the fence post marking the end of the Hawkins property.  That money had her name on it, and she would see to it it never turned into a name on a deed for that dump.

            “What the …” her father shouted and swerved the truck hard to the left to avoid the black bowling ball rolled down the rut in the middle of the dirt road toward them by Alvin.  He had appeared out of nowhere quick as a heart attack, squatted down, and given it a shove then just as quickly taken cover in the ditch and disappeared.  If they had blinked, the would have missed seeing the culprit and thought the bowling ball had materialized on its own and propelled itself down the road.

            “Now where do you suppose he got a bowling ball?” her mother said as the thing lost momentum and bumped to a halt against their right tire.

            “Same place he got French, I suppose,” her father said.

            Neither of them seemed particularly surprised or upset after her father’s initial outburst.

            Her father had stopped the truck at the left side of the narrow road.  Adele opened the door and hopped out.  I’ll handle this.”

            She retrieved the ball, and placing it at her right ear like a shot-putter but holding it with both hands, leaned forward on one leg and gave it a mighty heave toward the place in the ditch where the retard had seemed to vanish.  She waited to hear a satisfying thud and a cry of pain or an expiring gust, but there was only the agitated susurrus of the wind like a frantic bird turning over the leaves and shaking the branches of that ugly grove of trees in search of a way back to its nest or a place to die.  The wind ceased then, and as she headed back to the truck she heard a muffled cackle from the shaggy grass lair punctuated by the chanted song, “Mauvais muton, mauvais muton.”  Look at that cloud.

            She hadn’t killed him.  She hadn’t even injured him.  She’d leave the place as she’d found it, in complete genetic and aesthetic disorder.

            They turned west onto the paved road and headed directly toward that cloud building lump upon lump and spreading sideways as if a clean sheet were being thrown out under it to the north.  The road drew a straight line to the southern verge of it.  Adele saw in it an enormous tufted chicken, plump and stupid, roosting where it pleased without regard to the byways of human traffic.  The fierce sun at two o’clock bleached it a transfiguration white on the outer surfaces of the bulbous masses that stuck together like air-filled cheeks to form the mound while the pockets where the cheeks infolded and joined were shaded blueberry.

            Her mother thrust her head forward to get a better look.  “Looks like we’ve got something coming.”

            Trust her to come out with a profound observation

            You’ve got something coming all right, Adele thought.

            “Alvin was right,” her mother continued.  “That’s a cloud all right.”

            “Quite a cloud,” Adele’s father said.

            How long could they spin affirming statements about a cloud?

            “You get these kinds of clouds in June.”

            I should time them.

            Her father nodded.  “There’s no good in that cloud, I can tell you that.”

            And that was about all he could tell.

            Her mother rubbed her wrists.  “I hope a funnel doesn’t drop out of that.”

            “It’d miss a good chance if it didn’t.”

            Yes.  A good chance to wipe a sheep farm and a Hee-Haw Trinity off the map.

            Adele estimated she had two and a half hours before the booger arrived and did what it was going to do.  That left her enough time to do the things she had to do and not seem to be rushing around the house with plans in her head.  All it would take to get the bundle out of Sylvia would be for her father to stretch out in his recliner for a nap and her mother to lose herself in preparing a double crust pie.

            “Right now it looks like a big chicken ruffling itself, don’t you think?  I hope it doesn’t hover over the farm and drop a bunch of eggs on it,” her mother said.

            “That’s all we’d need.  Hail would ruin the soybeans and the corn.  Might knock a few cattle out if I can’t get them all run in.”

            “Nothing we could do to stop it.  It does what it pleases.  And we need to rain.  I just hope it behaves itself.”

            “I wouldn’t trade being a farmer for any other privilege on God’s green earth, except before a storm.  I’ll stretch out fifteen minutes when we get home to catch my second wind and then sew everything up tight.  The equipment in and the cows in the barn and the hogs in the shelter and hope for the best.”

            He played right into Adele’s plans as surely as if she’d handed him the script. 

            “And Mother, to celebrate my good fortune, why don’t you make us a nice rhubarb pie for supper?  You know how I love a rhubarb pie.”

            “No, I don’t.  I’ve only see you spit it out.”

            “Why do you forget everything because of what I did as a child?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You don’t check the bed every morning to see if I’ve peed it, do you?”

            “I don’t think so.  Heavenly days, I’m so busy I don’t know what I do.  You’re not saying I should, are you?”

            Adele gave a tired sigh in response.

            As they turned in the drive, she said, “That’s funny.  I was thinking the same thing back there, it looks like a big self-centered chicken.  Isn’t that ironic?”

            “Well, there’s not much else around to compare it to.  You’ve got a fine farm mind, Beryl.  You see the natural world as an extension of the farm.”

            Change your landscape, change your life, Adele reminded herself.  Don’t let it bother you you thought one thing Mother did.  You’re sure as hell not turning into that.  It’s only coincidence.

            Her father parked the truck in the shade near her hammock.  “Look at us.  We’re all three sweating like pigs.”

            Her mother snorted at this, and he snorted back.  And they started conversing in snorts, back and forth, nodding and tipping their heads for piggy emphasis, tickling each other until they suffocated in the fun and their faces turned an ugly blotchy purple. 

            Adele got out and slammed the door in disgust.  Good Lord!  They’d been married twenty-five years and still played with each other.  How humiliating it was to be the daughter of parents who enjoyed playing pigs with each other.  She’d have to scrub her brain with a volume of Proust to efface the memory of that scene.  They might as well go lay down in the wallow with Sylvia as behave like that.

            Adele sat down so hard in the hammock she nearly tipped the supporting cradle.  Ralph came out of the barn carrying a sack of feed corn to toss to the hogs and looked over at the truck where the squalor of pig play was still going on.  They were making themselves sweatier and tireder by the second but seemed to have lost their minds and be unable to stop themselves.  Ralph, shaking his head, walked over, reached in the open window, and laid on the horn.  His father swung around, startled.  “What?”

            “You two ought to stop that.  It looks undignified.”

            Their mother pulled a “well aren’t you silly?” face and slapped the air.  “Oh, you know your father and me when we get going.”

            “It looked like you two were having fits.  Next you’ll be ripping off your clothes and rolling around in the driveway.”

            “You watch your language, boy.  Your mother and I have not once rolled around in the driveway and never will.  After you’ve done that I want you to, find Brady and Sam and leave off plowing and start securing the place.  There’s a big chicken coming.”

            Their mother squealed with laughter.

            “What they give you two to drink over there?”  Ralph shot her a glance.  “Beryl?”

            “Sun got them.  Shot them right through the head.”

            “Do what I tell you.”

            “I have just a little bit of plowing left.”

            “Hurry up and finish what you can in half an hour.  Then find the two and close the place up.  It might be nothing, or it might be something.  What’s my motto?”

            “Prepare for the worst.
            “And thank God when it’s extra work for nothing.”

            “Sir, yes, Sir.”

            It was a measure of their plummet from an already low-level grace that even Ralph called it undignified.  She glared holes through them as they walked up the path and disappeared inside.

            Poor Ralph.  He had no Proust to cling to when confronted with the spectacle of his parents demeaning themselves.  She had the consolation of intricate page-long sentences describing the camellias Swann gave Odette.

            Ralph lugged off to whoop it up with Sylvia and the gang, leaving her alone in the yard.  She opened “W and P” in the middle and fanned herself with it as she regarded the bubbling boil-covered cloud spreading up from the horizon.  It grew vertically as she watched it like a plume of smoke shooting up from a broad-mouthed volcano.  To the naked eye, it appeared to be advancing slowly forward if at all.  All its motion was in an upward direction.  She watched in unresisting amazement.  It would tower its way up into the stratosphere in short order, a fist in a white and blue glove raised in defiance of heaven.  No longer was it a comical chicken but a force to be reckoned with.  What was going on inside it?  It was also like a beautiful ancient city veiled in myth, veiled in mystery.  She lifted her eyes to its final height, a point beyond which it was not allowed to go, the limit to hubris imposed on Mother Nature.  It flattened against the invisible trapdoor to heaven.  A thin layer of spume spread out from the top over thin blue air for what might have been fifty miles.  Thor’s anvil.  Had the Norse seen something like this bearing down on them and conjured up their deities? 

            Adele came out of her trance.  This collusion of visible and invisible nature forces was a masterpiece worthy of awe.  Call it the prairie’s one Proustian achievement, a towering monument to brute creative energy, mindless but formal in its way.  So the art museum of the heartland was in the sky.  Its canvas of wonders might be set to disperse at some point in time, but not before lording it over all creation.

            It was a call to action.

            Time to get cracking, Adele.

            By now her mother would be shaking flour all over the kitchen, her father would have thrown himself back in his recliner, sucking air in and out through his mouth, thunder ripping through his sinuses. 

            As she walked toward the house, she caught sight of her brother leaving the sty and its snorting throng and heading off to finish harrowing the earth.  She snuck through the living room past her father and entered his office and closed the door carefully behind her.  She dialed dear Sylvia’s twin teats and held her breath as she pulled the sow’s flank open.  There lay the stacks of her father’s mania for dealing in cash only.  So like a farmer.  Something he could lay his hands on, run his fingers through, sniff, fan like a deck of cards, lick.  A mere bank draft wasn’t tactile enough for him.   Gotta touch it, not imagine it, not scribble its symbol on a piece of paper.

            She squirreled her fortune into an empty trash can and piled some junk on top of it so that if he woke up as she passed through on the way to her room he would think she was heading to the bin with some refuse.  She spun Sylvia’s teats and walked swiftly out of there.

            As she passed through the living room on the way to her room, her father worked the tasty contents of a dream like a cow chewing its cud.  Her mother sang “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” in the kitchen, beating a pie pan for a tambourine.  All she wanted was the love you promised beneath a haloed moon.  But don’t fool yourself into thinking she’d hide herself in sorrow while you play your cheating game.

            I’m not cheating anybody.  That’s my money in this trash can.  Five stacks of five-hundred dollar bills.  Why McKinleys?  So her father could feel their weight in his palm.  And his mother was a McKinely before she became a Funk.  She got married to acquire a stench.  A sweet nod to what his momma was before she stank.

            Adele entered her room and locked the door behind her and took a medium-size travel case from her closet.  She filled it with three days’ change of underwear, because undies were always the weak link; a framed photograph of Marcel Proust she’d torn out of a library book; ten packs of beef jerky, the one artifact of rural life that seemed acceptable to her; the notebook with the two-page outline of the masterpiece she would write.  The story began the first day a young woman who had taken flight set foot in Paris.  She’d penned a classic first sentence.  It had taken her two weeks to get it right:  “The dark handsome stranger who stepped into her path offered her cheese, camembert?, brie?, and said in a French that lisped a little, ‘You must be an American.  You have no hair under your arms.’  Then she would describe the cheese.  But first she needed to experience the cheese.  The experience of French cheese had to wait until she got to France.  It was essential to the elegiac realism that characterized her book that the cheese of her experience not be imported.

            She threw in a few other things that seemed pertinent to not coming back:  the blue ribbon she’d won at the state music contest for “Rustle of Spring,” and an essay she’d written as a final project in Advance Standing English:  “Burying the Hatchet in the Baron de Charlus’ Skull:  Freud and Proust Make Peace Over a Pervert.” 

            With that she was fully prepared to go.  She did not pack sentiments.  This was not the place for a backward glance.  The place was backward enough on its own.

            She put her ear to the door and heard her father stir and groan and lower his foot rest with a bang.  She placed the traveling case behind the door with her purse, felt out the passport in her bra, and walked out with the nonchalance of a native of Paris seeing the Eiffel Tower for the umpteenth time.

            “You want to go help me, Beryl?  You’ll have to do this yourself on your own land pretty soon.  Kitty!  I’m up and out the door.”

            Her mother snorted from the kitchen, and her father laughed and said, “I love you so, my little larder.”

            If she’d had any doubt that going was the right decision, this was the perfect exchange to convince her flight was her only sane option.

            Holding the finished pie, her mother came to the kitchen door.  “Here, Beryl, come in the kitchen with me and let’s watch the pie bake.”

            “No, she’s coming with me.”

            “I’d rather watch the pie bake.”

            “You don’t need to watch the pie bake.  The pie’ll bake on its own.  The equipment won’t drive itself back to the barn on its own.  The cows won’t get corralled on their own.”

            “Those cows don’t need to be anywhere but out in the pasture.  They’re not scared of a little rain.”

            Her father set his fists on his hips, jutted out his chin.  Anger darkened his eyes.  “If that’s the way it is.  Nothing’s been signed yet.  That fifty thousand can go right back in the bank where it came from.”

            He moved toward the office door, meaning to get his hands on it and do the deed right then.

            “All right!  All right!  I’ll come help.  Just let me get some old clothes on.  I’ll meet you out front.”

            Adele put on some old work jeans and a pair of rubber boots and hid the case in her closet in the event her mother snooped while she was gone.  This was the first chink in her plan but wouldn’t be a fatal one as long as she kept him from the safe. 

            They drove to the south field, and she hopped the hayer Ralph had left there yesterday and kicked it into gear and began the long grind from the bottom of the field up the path toward the barn looming an impossible distance away.

            The flat-topped monster, brilliant yellow-white in full sunlight and expanding toward them, was twice as large as it had been when they’d reached home half an hour ago and so tall she gasped when she threw her head back to see how high over the earth it extended.  The sky under it had gone a greenish purple, and shreds of black clouds scudded north beneath it toward the shining white water tower of Fruitland.  Yet the thunderhead, because of its size, seemed closer than it really was and its proximity to Fruitland an optical illusion.  She estimated it was still a good hour away from interfering in her life.  She was hot to get off the property this afternoon.  The possibility that her father would go to the safe for some reason and make a discovery increased the longer she stuck around.  She could always put the money back and try again tomorrow if she was thwarted today, but every visit to the safe entailed a risk.  She was ready to go now, and that was all there was to it.

            On the house and barn side of the road, Ralph and the two hands darted around trying to scare the cows into a huddle and press them toward the barn, waving their hats and shouting, feinting this way and that.  She finally crossed the road and tried to beat her father to the barn, but as she drove in he reached the yard from the west on the tractor and pulled in behind her.  He told her to go back into the field and drive the truck back, then go drive the pigs into the shelter while he cleared the yard of anything that might be a projectile in the wind.  It would take him longer to do that than it would her to bring back the truck, so she agreed.  When she pulled into the drive twenty minutes later, he was still about the business of hauling chairs and tables and the innards of disassembled vehicles and car body parts and tools and ladders and tubs of this and that into the barn and tarping what he couldn’t move.

            “Go see to the hogs.”

            She headed that way but slipped around the side of the house and when he wasn’t looking opened the bulkhead to the basement.  She snuck up the stairs from the basement and moved down the back hall to her room, changed into something nice, collected her belongings, and retraced her steps.

            All this wore on her nerves as did anything that was not part of what she’d imagined happening, which included being cast in the role of farm girl.  She’d struggled all her life to prove to them she wasn’t formed in that image.  They’d know now when they didn’t see her anymore that the real Adele had been invisible all along.  They’d know the reality of her when they didn’t see her anymore.

            The real me is that I’m gone from where I’ve never been, Mommy, Daddy, Ralphie.  I’ve been a genius in Paris all this time.

            She peeked around the edge of the house.  When her father disappeared into the barn pushing an old washing machine, she ran to her beater of a car and got in and ducked down.  It was a piece of junk, but it was good enough to abandon in an airport parking lot.

            I am in but not of this place, she reminded herself.  Soon where I am will be where I am of.  In and of.  In and of.  She heard the voice of the Lord God Himself Marcel Proust say in the French, “Today you shall be with me in Paris.”  And following this:  “Strike while the iron is hot, like Thor is about to do.”  She did not know the French for that, but the Lord God Himself Marcel Proust was kind enough to switch to English.

            She rose up far enough to see Ralph tramping across the field toward the wallow, leaving the two hands to scare the stragglers up the path toward the barn.  The bull, left alone and furious on top a mound at the far end of the pasture, shook its enormous head and bellowed defiantly, prepared to stand his ground come what may.  She had that spirit, that bull spirit, but to go, not stay.

            The sun had finally traversed the sky far enough to get lost behind the mountainous thunderhead.  Its rays shot out from over the top of the cloud in gleaming spikes as if the sun god had crowned the storm Supreme Ruler of Nature.  She could almost see in the cloud a barbarian’s rapacious face.  “Expect no mercy,” his expression said. 

“I can outrun you,” Adele answered back.

            She started the car and eased it across the lawn towards the drive, meeting her father just as he came out of the barn pushing the hand truck.  She slowed down, stopped for a second, rolled the passenger side window down and waved at his stunned expression.

            “Are you nuts?” he called over.  “Where do you think you’re off to?  Did you see to the hogs?”

            “Oh, yes.  I thought I’d drive over to my new place and give it another look over.”

            “That can wait.  This thing is closing in at the speed of a freight train.  You’ll get caught out in it.”

            The air was still and even hotter now that the sun had been blotted out by the wall of clouds.  There was a moment when the air quivered like the haunches of a horse stung by a black fly, and everything she saw turned a glassy blue.

            “Oh, they’ll shelter me if I get caught.  After all, I should see how the place acts in a storm.”

            He started to approach the car, but she pulled away to prevent him from seeing what lay in the floorboard.

            “Bye, Daddy.”

            “Come back here, you numbskull.  I thought I raised a smarter daughter than that.”

            “You sure did,” she said, but the sound of her voice was drowned in engine noise.

            A gust of wind slapped her face as she turned onto the road, and she heard the first volley of thunder roll north across the prairie behind her.  She imagined the Fruitland water tower shuddering in the reverberation and springing leaks and pissing itself in every direction.  In the rearview mirror she saw a triple pronged bolt of lightning driven into the ground like a trident from the hand of an angry cloud-dressed god. 

            When she got to the highway south toward Des Moines about three miles past the turnoff to the Hawkins sheep swamp, she’d gun it and in no time pull out from under that preening chicken gone crazy.  That belching wind tunnel was strictly a local phenomenon.

            Lordy Lordy what a perfect day to leave all things local behind.

            She tooted the horn and shouted, “Free!  Free!  I’m free at last!” as she barreled long.  When she was about quarter of a mile from the Hawkins turnoff, a red blur with stick arms and a jack o’lantern grin shot out of the ditch on her left, hopped around in the road in front of her a second, and was sucked into the ditch on the right.  She cried out and swerving to avoid hitting it drove the car nose-first into the ditch into which the idiot vanished.  She hit her head against the steering wheel so hard she went blind.  She heard herself scream, “I’ve got to get out of here,” and passed out.

            She awoke a short time later and shook her head, held her hands in front of her face to make sure she has all her fingers and sang “Frere Jacques” to check her hearing.  She sighted down the ditch run and saw the grass bending and sweeping forward as the retard scuttled through it on his way home, cackling the witchy Hawkins laugh.

            “I should have just hit him and gone on.”

            What business did she have to show mercy to a mental defective when it cost her this?

            She’d lost enough time sitting unconscious that the storm had run her to ground.  A swirling mess had detached itself from the main cloud and hovered like a wolly black sheep over the bottom end of their land.  It fell to the ground once and bounced back up like an enormous gas-filled sausage, then rolled toward her, lengthening horizontally as it came.

            She reached over and seized her traveling case and scrambled out of the car and ran through the ditch hoping to reach the Hawkins farm before whatever it was got on top of her.  It didn’t look like any tornado she’d ever seen, detached as it was from the main cloud.  It came at her like a rolling pin.  Its rotation was perpendicular to the ground, not parallel to it.  It bounced again and bounced again, bounding toward her, a cigar-shaped horizontal column of wind and dust.

            The sound of the wind was so great she couldn’t hear herself scream over it.  The wind itself might have been her scream.  It boomed like a drum, so loudly she felt the pressure against her ear dreams and thought surely they would burst if it didn’t stop.  She imagined all kinds of things in it:  bleating, “The Rustle of Spring,” her father’s voice calling, “Beryl!  Beryl!  Come help me get Sylvia on the scale,” the retard’s “Mauvais muton, mauvais muton,” that cackle that picked at her skin.

            The grass flattened before her as she fled on all fours, dragging the traveling case with her.  She’d forgotten her purse and turned to crawl back only to see the car rock side to side.  Its  rear end rose slowly off the ground until it stood on its nose and flipped onto the roof, tires in the air.  Vibrating, it came nose up, exposing its underbelly to her, all its guts, its bars, ties, struts, its juices spilling out like blood from a beast speared and dying.  It teetered and cartwheeled sideways, over and over, across the road into the field on the opposite side.  The cloud angled toward her and descended and then immediately rose and passed over her head, ripping the traveling case from her grip and bearing it aloft.  The contents burst out to be drawn after the churning cloud as it spun across the road and continued on through the field to the northeast:  money, underwear, notebook, essay, picture of Proust, Capri pants, sundress, three new packages of hose, her diploma, guidebooks to Paris, to famous literary haunts, to Pere Lachaise, her DVD of “An American in Paris.”  All was drawn along and lifted hundreds of feet into the air in a sustained whoosh in the wake of the sidewinder.  Fork lightning cracked the world into pieces and thunder concussed unceasingly with the noise of great columns toppling at the destruction of all the sacred temples that had ever been sacked and thrown to the ground.  The rain followed in blinding waves that turned the world white as if the ocean had been ordered to cover the earth as it had in the days of yore when myths were made.

            And then, the wind all in the east, the rain came straight down with the strength of fists pummeling her.

            Beryl crawled out of the ditch and staggered across the road into the field, hands raised as if to catch her ticket to Paris when it fell back to earth.

            An hour later, the Hawkinses drove past in their ancient black station wagon on their way to celebrate the farm sale with a rare treat:  dinner out at Hamburger Window.  Alvin sat in the third compartment with the seat adjusted to face out the back window, singing quietly to himself.  The sun shone on the gleaming black fields, and a rainbow arched across the sky to the east flanking the retreating storm.

            “Look at there.  What’s she doing there?” Mrs. Hawkins said, pointing at Beryl, who still wandered the muddy field with her arms and face raised to the clear sky.  Her battered car sat upright facing the road about forty feet in.

            “Praising the Lord for her deliverance, I’d say.”

            “Look at those trees down.  And that fence a mess.  Good thing it passed through open country and didn’t chew the place up any worse than it did.”

            “Why’d she drive in there, you suppose?”
            “Out of the path of the storm, I suppose.”  She rolled the window down and called out, “You OK out there, Beryl Jean?”

            “Don’t interrupt a girl in her prayers.  That’s a picture right there:  at play in the fields of the Lord.”

            “Covered in mud.  She looks like a little negress.  Still I recognize her.  Let’s go.  My stomach’s growling.”

            From his seat of honor in the rear, their son kept up the song he’d been working over all afternoon.  When he caught sight of Beryl, he beat on the window and sang with special urgency.

            “Everything changes,” his father said.  “Weather comes and goes, but that boy never changes.”

            “That’s not a cloud, Son.  That’s a farm girl.”

            “Don’t bother.  He gets a thing in his mind, and there it is, written in stone like over a grave.”

Photography Credit: Jason Rice

David Vardeman is a fiction writer who lives in Maine.