“It’s the dust,” he said. “I can’t stand the damned dust.” And he couldn’t.
Moving around the house he dusted reflexively, compulsively, the dampened cloth swinging and swiping in defiance of the elements: dry and hot a personal affront, windy an insult, dusty a threat, a visceral reminder of those wretched days atop the Caprock when dust was not merely dust but a destroyer.
Even when the worst of the Dust Bowl had passed he absorbed the stories and with them the grief and the fear. Blowing sand stripping his uncle’s car of paint in less time than it takes now for the telling of it. His mother wedging damp towels into cracks around the windows and doors of the old house, wringing out excess water and re-wetting them with her tears. The neighbor caught out in the fast-moving storm, unable to see and disoriented, certain of death and burial by billowing, unconstrained dirt.
Even apocryphal stories rang true. No one could prove that a Panhandle priest fled back to Illinois after that awful Ash Wednesday service, fled to the valleys and verdant fields, the rivers and rain of his midwestern home. On the other hand, no one doubted it was possible. Priest or not, what man could stand to curse his neighbors, reminding them of their coming from dust and returning to dust even as the dust of destruction overtook their lives?
“Were you afraid it would happen again?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “It didn’t take much to remind folks. Still doesn’t. When the rains don’t come people get nervous, kind of alert. They watch the sky more, look for clouds, sniff the air. If a well goes dry, if there’s no hay, if the springs stop running…”
He trailed off, considering. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I’d sit on the front step of the house. There wasn’t anything around but the lane out to the road, and the fields. I’d sit there and watch the wheat blow, bending and waving. It looked like I thought the ocean would look if I ever could see it. I looked at that wheat and thought about water while I waited for the clouds to build. Sometimes I’d think about rain, really good rains that I remembered. Anybody who lives in the Panhandle better keep some good rain memories around. They’ll stand you in good stead in the dry days.”
It’s a dry day, now. Coastal marshes are emptying, while the water birds grieve. Tendrils of smoke curl in from distant fires and the frogs have grown silent. Do they have their own memories, their own tales of courage and survival through the dry times? Perhaps they do. Perhaps, like people of the drought, they too are waiting: for refreshment, for renewal, for rain.