There were signs. There are always signs when the world ends.
In the winter of 1929, Imogene Hale found her well-water turned to viscous black oil, which clotted to tar by the following Monday. A year later, my Uncle Emmett’s fields came up in knots of blue-dusted prairie grass rather than the Silver King sweetcorn he seeded. Fresh-paved roads turned pock-marked and dented as the moon. Tractor oil hardened to grit and glitter, like ground glass.
In 1932, the dust began to blow and it never stopped. That was the only sign the rest of the world seemed interested in, especially once some of our dirt rained on Mr. Roosevelt’s head in D.C. and turned his morning milk an ugly pinky-brown. Then it was suddenly a bona fide Natural Disaster. Newspapers all over the country worried about THE BLACK BLIZZARDS OF THE MIDWEST, and asked WILL WE BE NEXT?
The newspapers didn’t mention the tractor oil or the bad seed. They didn’t say how sometimes you looked south through the haze and saw pale green hills where there weren’t hills before, like distant cities made of moss, and felt a strange pressing on your limbs as if some vast, unseen force were pushing you away from the land you worked. I guess they didn’t believe it. I don’t blame them. I barely believed it myself.
Until I found you, babygirl. Until you came back to me.
Now, I know people find babies sometimes and it doesn’t mean the world’s ending. It usually just means some poor girl found herself in a bad way and made her child a raft of reeds and floated him downriver, or left him on a doorstep. Babies are pretty ordinary in the grand scheme of things.
But she wasn’t ordinary. I was walking the field—field being a relative term, nobody in their right mind could’ve seen those scraggled stalks sticking up from the ground like dry-rotted teeth and recognized it for a field—and there she was. Naked as a turnip, the color of dust. Nestled among the broken wheat like she’d grown there all spring, sage-bright eyes waiting just for me.
I had time to think oh, babygirl, I missed you, and then I was back home, kneeling on the floor, clutching her to my chest and heaving with hurt. My tears caked into salted mud on my cheeks. Where they landed on her cinnamon skin they seeped like rain into cracked earth.
Babygirl, I missed you. Why did you go? I carried you seven long months, right below my heart, and then you up and left me before I could even give you a name. And I was all alone with nothing for company but this damn dust that chatters and whispers to me in my sleep.
In D.C. all those smart folks and science-types got together and published a thin blue pamphlet that said exactly why our dirt had risen up like a great red ghost and whistled away from us. They used words like “dryland farming” and “over-plowed,” and I’m no great shakes at reading but I know when I’m being blamed for the end of the world. Like we should’ve known better than to plant our wheat right in the belly of the country, and harvest and plow and plant again, like we’d been warned and this was God’s own retribution for our arrogance.
Horseshit, Uncle Emmett would say. The rain follows the plow, that’s what they said when he came west to farm his plot of prairie grass and bluestem. He plowed and plowed and the rain stopped coming, and now the people follow the rain.
The pamphlet also gave us a five step system to prevent further erosion. John and I tried our best to follow the directions, and so did our neighbors. When your fields stand barren and the wind whispers ugly truths in your ears and all your fresh milk goes sour overnight, there’s not much you won’t try.
1. Terrace Your Fields! Have you ever tried to pile dust into terraces? It’s like building a sandcastle out of sugar in a windstorm.
2. Irrigate Regularly! We laughed and laughed when we read that one, John and me. We shook our fists at the hazed orange sky and advised it to irrigate regularly. But John’s laughter turned to coughing, and we fell into silence that wasn’t silence because even on a clear day you heard the dust shush-shushing over the ground.
3. Build Windbreaks! John tried. I helped, but I was pretty far along by then and he didn’t like to see me hauling pallets in the noon heat, leaning them against our old fence line. Get gone, he told me, in that false-rough way of his. That’s what I liked about him the first time I set eyes on him—he had that stoic, hardscrabble jaw, like every other man in western Kansas, but John’s eyes were laughing eyes. Bull-thistle blue, crimped in brown lines at their edges.
The next morning our windbreaks were splintered and scattered, strewn across the land in queer jagged shapes. We didn’t try again.
4. Let the Land Rest! We figured that was another way of saying: Leave. The soil you remember, the soil you used to run your fingers through like wet black coffee grounds when you were a girl, has gone away and you ought to follow it. I wish we had. I wish John and I and our babygirl were lying in an orange grove in south Georgia, and the world was bright green and blue like it is on the label of FAULTLESS BRAND FRUIT SALAD.
5. Keep Your Chin Up! There is nothing more galling in the world than somebody better off than you telling you to keep your chin up. Imagine Mr. Ford pausing beside the bread line and advising those poor hungry-eyed bastards to keep their chins up. I cursed a blue streak the first time I read it.
The second time, I took a match to it and tossed the ashes into the wind. Maybe it ended up back in the East and turned the President’s milk char-black.
That was after John drowned in the blood and mud of his own lungs. It was the middle of a storm, one of the boiling black ones that lasted days, so I just sat and sat at the kitchen table because there was nowhere to go, no one to tell, nothing but the sound of dust slithering like a great snake across the tin. I hoped it would slide down through the rafters and swallow me whole.
I should’ve remembered to eat, babygirl. I know that now. I should’ve slept. I should have curled around the tiny flutter of your heart and kept you safe and stopped the bleeding, and when you slid red and purple-white into the world, small as a crow, I should have fought for you. Instead I just sat, dizzy and dull, listening to the dust.
But you came back to me. I don’t know how because I buried you and John deep as I could in the hardpan, but maybe the ones we love best come back to us. Maybe John is walking towards me right now, out of those distant green hills.
Charity Glover and the ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses arrived at some ungodly hour the next morning to check up on me. The way vultures like to check up on roadkill. They’d been coming once a week since the bad storm, clucking and shuffling and leaving pies with the crusts cut just so.
“Good morning, Mrs. Dawley,” chirped Charity. She always seemed to swallow the second half of the missus, like she still couldn’t believe I’d married a penniless tenant-farmer and she was giving me the chance to undo it now. “And how are we to—”
She saw the red-cotton bundle in my arms. One little fist waved cheerily at her. The ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses stood still as hens with a hawkshadow overhead.
“Where—oh, Selma, where did you get that baby?”
Did she think I’d stolen her? I knew they didn’t like me much, because I refused to join their club and only went to Church about every fifth or fifteenth Sunday, but Jesus H. “I found her.” I made my voice flat as cold iron.
The other women shuffled, but Charity was made of sterner stuff. “Where, dear?”
I found her in the dust, but she’s mine, I know she is—from dust to dust, isn’t that how it goes? “In the wheatfield. To the south.”
I watched her face, white as an undercooked pancake, turn whiter. All the trouble seemed to come up from the south, from those wavering green hills we tried to ignore.
Imogene Hale opened her mouth and closed it. She finally got out, “And just what do you intend to do with it?”
“I don’t see how that’s a damn bit of your business, Imogene,” I spat. That temper, John used to tell me, it’ll get you in trouble one day. I made myself smile in that softening way, like a woman overworked who just didn’t know what she’s saying, bless her heart. “I just mean she was left on my land, and that makes her my trouble.” They knew about the sovereignty of property lines. “I guess I intend to take care of her.”
Charity pasted a matching smile on her face. They fluttered amongst themselves and produced a pot pie and a jar of pickled beans in a basket. A little blue pamphlet stuck out of it like a flag. “You can get the basket back to me on Sunday,” said Charity. “And I noticed you didn’t come by the Post Office so I brought you the new Better Farming booklet. Read it close, now.”
They scampered back through the rust-colored yard and left us alone to watch the sun swim up from its bloody sea, dim and distant.
I should have asked about spare milk; I’d dried up weeks ago and the baby from the field wasn’t very interested in powdered milk warmed on the stove top. She’d howled until tiny tears gathered like dewdrops at the corners of her eyes and I’d given up in disgust with myself, a woman near thirty who didn’t know how to care for a baby.
She was mewling now. I repeated the powdered milk experiment inside. She spat it out, unrepentant eyes glowing scrub-green.
You must’ve got that anger from me, babygirl. Your Daddy would laugh and laugh if he were here.
I flipped through Better Farming: Strategies for Soil Conservation in the Drought-Affected Areas, rather than curl up on the floor and cry myself sick. The booklet was the same waste of ink and pulp it was before, but there were six steps now.
6. Don’t be afraid! However, should you encounter any unusual events or irregularities, DO NOT ENGAGE. Report them to your Extension Agent IMMEDIATELY.
Apparently somebody official, somebody with a nice corner office in a government building, believed in our portents. The horseshoes rusting to dust overnight, the apple trees turning to chalky stone, the green mirages in the south. And he didn’t like them much.
The wailing sharpened, burrowing like a bonesaw into my chest. A dull, pressing ache began in my breasts, thump-thumping with my heartbeat, and dampness dotted my dress like two tears. I unbuttoned, but it wasn’t cream-colored milk leaking from me. This liquid was clear as rainwater. I touched my fingers to my breast, licked the water from them—it tasted of low-hanging clouds and morning dew, the spring thunderstorms that no longer rolled across the flats. The baby watched with animal-hungry eyes. I pulled her to me, and she suckled like a fawn after a too-long night.
I watched the rainwater gathering at the corners of her red-earth lips and doubt came to me for the first time. She looked so alien, so inhuman, nothing at all like the baby I’d carried in my belly. Prairie-colored eyes flicked up to me, as if they were trying to tell me something, to send me some obscure message in an unfamiliar language.
No, no that isn’t so. You’re my babygirl. You just need to learn how to live here with me, in this dear, dry, dying world.
That Sunday I dressed her in a laced frock the color of old pearls. It made her dark skin seem darker, like dust after rain. (Do you like it? I made it for you, when you still lived beneath my heart.) I wore my best dress and we walked to town under a sky as blue and fragile as bird’s eggs. The wind rose around my ankles, hissing up from the south.
After John died I was a regular at Church, sitting in the back pew waiting for God to come down from his cloud-covered castle and explain why I’d lost my love and my firstborn. Isn’t that kind of thing usually reserved for His enemies? But He never arrived and I grew tired of the sweaty smell of desperation.
That day, I was just going for the pure spite of it. I wanted to show Charity and her hens I wasn’t afraid of them or their damn pamphlet, the way you’d stamp your foot to scare off hungry cats. I wanted to march in with my chin up and my eyes blazing and show them my babygirl, safe in my arms.
I lingered in the open doorway just long enough for heads to crane around, for silence to flutter like a white curtain around us. I smiled a brazen, biting smile with twenty extra teeth that didn’t belong in Church. The heads flicked back towards the pulpit, except for one old man with a bright ring of white hair. Uncle Emmett. I didn’t look at him as I passed.
We sat in the very front pew. In my arms, the baby shifted and tugged in discomfort. Her back arched against my arms. I tried to look like a good mother, with the kind of child who didn’t drink rainwater, whose eyes weren’t green and distant as the hills.
By the time Preacher Jacob stumped his way to the front and began his usual list of announcements, he was speaking over a discontented whine issuing from my arms. He ignored it. Preachers are good at turning their cheeks away from you.
“Now, folks—” He always slipped a “folks” somewhere towards the beginning of his sermons, like a politician. “It seems to me that it’s time to talk about the battle each and every one of us is fighting, against our great enemy—the one great enemy, he who Peter called a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” I felt the congregation lean towards him like moths to a match.
The baby squirmed more forcefully in my arms.
“But I fear we do not see the lion, even as he stalks among us. We see his works and call them uncanny, or strange, or irregular. We dismiss them. But I would remind you that there are only TWO POWERS IN THIS WORLD—” His audience rippled in pleasurable shock, “—yes, that’s right, ONLY TWO POWERS. There is OUR LORD GOD ALMIGHTY, and there is our ENEMY.”
Eyes pressed against the back of my head. The baby wailed. I wished we were both curled in our quilts at home.
The preacher turned slowly until he faced me. From the first pew I could see the dampness of his hands clamping the lectern, his pupils like distant dead stars, but I imagined it looked more impressive from further away. “And I advise us now to PUT ON THE WHOLE ARMOR OF GOD, that we may STAND AGAINST THE WILES OF THE DEVIL—”
And my babygirl let out a sound like a screech owl at midnight. A wild, fey sound that made every hair stand on end. I stood and walked as fast as a woman can walk without running, eyes burning me like lit cigarettes as I passed.
The wind outside was already meaner and grittier, the fragile blue of the sky rotting to a crusted old-blood color. The door opened and someone shuffled out.
I wanted to ignore him, or spit in his wrinkled walnut face. But Uncle Emmett was the first one to come by the house after that black storm. He found a ragged husk of a woman lying in the field beside two fresh-dug graves, certain the world had already ended. Instead of hollering for help, he sat down in the dust with me and kept vigil until dusk. Until I decided I didn’t want to die of stubbornness, clinging to the dead bones of the world I’d loved. Until I decided only cowards believed in the end of the world. I owed him for that.
“Selma, don’t you mind Preacher Jacob and his malice.”
“Well.” He stepped forward, peered into the blankets to see her springtime eyes watching him solemnly. “As it happens, I think he’s got it wrong this time. I don’t think either of the two powers he was talking about made the dust rise, or sent this baby. Which means there’s some third power. An old, strange one.”
“And here I thought you were a Christian.”
“After a fashion. But what was here before we brought Christ? Just a dead, empty grassland, without a miracle in sight? Horseshit.” I’d never much worried what was here before me, or what came after. “I think whatever was here before—the buffalo, the lions and jack rabbits, Coyote himself—is tired of being forgot. Tired of being plowed and planted and plowed again without so much as a thank you, tired of fence lines and railroad tracks slicing her up like a goddamn jigsaw puzzle. And she’s setting it right.”
He nodded at the white-lace bundle in my arms. “And I figure she’s a part of it, someway or another.”
“No, she isn’t.” Don’t you listen to him, all right babygirl? I know you left me once, all alone except for the old-penny smell of my own blood, but you came back to me and you just haven’t learned yet how to be tame, how to be real. “She’s my daughter. John’s daughter.”
His weathered-wood hand touched my elbow. “What’s her name then, Selma? Call her by her right name.”
She didn’t have a name because I never gave her one, but—
I remembered saying her name long before she was born, when my belly was a soft swell. Bad luck, John said, but he didn’t mean it and I kissed him where his eyes crinkled into crow’s feet. I’d named her, used a bent nail to scratch it into the cross over her grave—
I looked south where the once-green horizon boiled like black tar.
“You better get in there and tell them, Emmett. The dust is rising.”
I ran and the dust ran behind me, shuddering over the dry fields and tossing the earth into the air, playful and cruel as a cat. Red and black swirled around us. I looked down to see her face bright and wild in the wind, her mouth opening to the dust and letting in pour in, her arms waving as though the dirt were a part of her own queer world and she was glad to see it.
Oh Lord, what are you?
The house was dark, the windows alive with black whorls of dust, faint clouds filtering soft as snow through every crack. I laid her on the bed and began the feverish ritual of tying curtains closed and jamming pillows against the door jams, feeling my mouth turn to mud. When I finished we were a pair of pill bugs curled in the dark with the air stale and hot around us.
I know your name, don’t I?
I used to whisper your name as I watered my little kitchen garden, my line of coffee cans trying to protect the soft green shoots in their bellies. I said it as I fell asleep on black nights when every single star was eaten up by dust. I said it to you, do you remember it? I called you—
Her eyes were locked on mine, green with secrets and the silhouettes of cities on the horizon.
“Helena,” I tried to say, but the word tangled in my throat like a calf in barbed wire. It thrashed and fell still.
You’re not my babygirl, are you?
My babygirl died. I remember her tiny chest in my palm, shuddering up and down before the terrible, choking stillness. I remember wiping the blood and fluid off her arms, frail as sparrow wings, and tucking her in an old JC Penny box because I didn’t have anything else.
Helena was her name.
You don’t have a name. You’re not her.
Grief, in my experience, is a lot like dust. It turns food gritty and sour, it sifts onto your pillow as you sleep and burrows into every pore of skin, and you can never truly be rid of it. For a little while I thought I’d finally escaped it—I thought my babygirl came back—but I was wrong.
At dawn I found myself beached on the bed with the dust baby beside me, wet-lipped and watchful.
She blinked at me, solemn as a saint. The dust that settled on her dark limbs in the night was damp, as if she slept beneath a gentle patter or rain. She smelled of the springtimes of my childhood, walking through the fields and feeling the greenness of each wheat stalk unfurling beneath the soil.
She didn’t look much like the end of the world. She was too vital, too alive, and her eyes were pressing at me again as if there were some wordless message she wanted me to read, or an offer she extended.
I rolled away and pulled against the front door until it shhhhed through a drift of glittering dust and hung crooked against the light. The world outside had been remade in the night, sculpted into brown and red hills that shimmered dully in the dawn, beautiful and strange as the surface of a dead planet. It took me a while before I noticed it.
Our old Allis-Chalmers tractor reduced to a few thin iron bones. The ends of my hoe and digging spade rusted to gray dust. The hinges on the door behind me eaten away. There wasn’t a single piece of iron left untouched. The wind had come hissing up from the south and gnawed the metal to dust. On the horizon, that strange green-tinged city shone more clearly than I’d ever seen it.
It was then that I believed, for the first time, the storms would never stop. No matter how many windbreaks we built or how far up we kept our chins. Something out there—something old, something powerful—was through with us. It would peel us off the back of the land like a dog scratching away fleas, and the world would end.
But I’d decided once before, lying atop my husband’s grave and wishing I could sink through the earth to join him, that only cowards believed in the end of the world. It changes, sometimes brutally, and we can either change with it or die of stubbornness.
I stumbled back inside and curled again on the bed beside the dust baby. Is that it? Are we supposed to choose?
Maybe she was an ambassador sent from a neighboring country, offering one last chance for peace before the war. Perhaps if we learned to care for her, and for the wild, strange earth beneath our feet, things would come to a different end. The change might be less brutal. But I thought of Preacher Jacob, of the lean hate on the faces that turned towards me, and knew they’d made their choice.
And so had I.
I pulled the dust baby to me and unbuttoned my dress again. You’ll need that strength soon, dust baby. It won’t be long now.
It wasn’t. They came at dusk, a shambling crowd like a single many-legged beast trudging through the dust. I’d spent the day trailing my fingers over the familiar shapes of home, making furrows in the dust and staring south out my windows.
“Selma Dawley! We’d like a word!” Well, I could hardly lock them out, with no hinges or latch. “Bring that devil out with you.” I thought I recognized Mr. Glover’s voice. I bet Charity was standing at his elbow with her mouth all crimped up like a Christmas bow.
I gathered my few things and settled the dust baby into her crude sling. We faced them together, a horde with nothing left but a hot red thread of hate. Their farms had turned to deserts, their wells were dry, their tools had been eaten away in the night. People get mean, when their world ends.
Mr. Glover stepped towards me. I didn’t move. “Mrs. Dawley, I think you know why we’re here.” I did, but I wanted to hear somebody say it. Like a school ground dare. “We know that storm last night wasn’t natural. And that baby of yours, she isn’t either.” Mr. Glover floundered into silence. I looked for Uncle Emmett, but he wasn’t there. Good man. Somebody would surely tell him where I went, next day, and I pictured his wood-seamed face bending in hope.
Preacher Jacob bulled forward. I guess all that preaching gave him an aversion to silence. “We’re here to set it straight, to cast out our Enemy wherever he lives.” Nodding, shuffling, mean jaws clenching. “We’re calling on you to take that thing back where she came from. Right now.”
Well, they weren’t yet so red-eyed they’d swing an infant by her ankles and smash her skull against the doorframe, but they were teetering on the edge. They were all watching my face for something—rebellion or weakness or possibly Satanic possession—but they didn’t find anything.
I walked through them, barefoot out across the dust-drifted field, putting them at my back. Knobbled wheat stalks hid beneath the sliding dunes, turning my ankles beneath me. The wind tossed little handfuls of dust in my face. The baby in my arms waved her arms in unseemly delight.
Soon the townsfolk were nothing but smudged blurs behind me, wind-blown mirages like the city on the horizon. I passed the little hollow where I’d found the dust baby, but I didn’t stop.
You don’t even have a name. I gave my daughter a name—HELENA DAWLEY, 1934, it says above her grave—but it didn’t save her. Names are just prayers mothers make to the future, that the world will keep spinning on its axis, undying, for as long as you live.
It will, Dustbaby. I didn’t look back. Not once. You only look back if you’re leaving something behind, and all I was leaving was a dead world of neat-planted wheat rows and combines and fresh-paved roads lying like ropes across the land. We’d thought it would last forever. We’d thought we could plow the wild out of the west and build our lives from its sun-bleached bones.
But the wildness slid beneath the thin crust of cornrows and tractor tines, the way prairie fires sometimes dove down into the earth and burned unseen, waiting for months or years before rising and turning the sky red with its heat. I didn’t know what might grow back after the burning, only that I meant to rise from those ashes.
Don’t be afraid! Isn’t that what the pamphlet said?
The blue-green horizon in the south grew clearer and stranger as we walked towards it. The air smelled wild, like mud and stars. The dust beneath my feet began to feel cool and damp, with that almost-vibration that means live things burrowed and crawled and oozed somewhere beneath the surface. Tiny white flowers dotted the earth like constellations. One night, it rained.
They were signs. There are always signs, when the world changes.
ALIX E. HARROW recently resettled in her old Kentucky home, where she teaches African and African American history, reviews speculative fiction on her blog and at Strange Horizons, and tinkers with fiction. She and her partner spend their time rescuing their gloriously dilapidated home from imminent collapse, and accumulating books and animals.