Under the Rainbow
by Joan C. Connor
Elvira Gulch. The ugliness of the name proved prophetic. Loose-jointed, lanky-armed, hank-haired, spindle-twisted, I dreaded mirrors. And I would have dreaded the long walks to school with the other children chanting, "Elvira, crack a mirror. Elvira, scare a crow," if it had not been for my sister Dawn walking alongside of me. "Just ignore them, Elvira," she said. "In Latin, your name means the white or fair." Fair. Dawn filled me with wonder, wonder at her fairness. Only Dawn, wearing her beauty like blinders to the ugliness of the world, could lead me unblinkingly through the dusty, unhappy walks to school and back. Only Dawn lit up those long, colorless days as endless as the fields of Kansas. Only Dawn found in me something to love.
We grew up on the farm. My parents counted the days in chores not hours. Slop the pigs, feed the chicks. At night they counted dollars to buy more acres, to raise more grain, to buy more corn to feed more horses, to slop more pigs, to feed more chicks, to make more dollars. In the midday's heat the farm smelled like boiling mud, sulphurous. The stench knew the farm better than my parents did, every corner of the outbuildings, every undifferentiated inch of the wheatfields, every molecule of lazy air in the house. It permeated everything, our clothes, our hair, our skin. In the summer the stench bubbled until it hung like a cloud of steam over the farm--a dropped ceiling of sky.
The smell was so familiar, so close we ceased to notice it, breathing it as indiscriminately as air. I can no longer remember the smell, only its presence, as fixed as Kansas. I remember my childhood with callouses, as hard-grained and straight as a broomstick in my hand. But sometimes Dawn and I snuck away into the far hayfields and nested in a hollow of the hypnotic, nodding stalks. We read any book we could find, any book that turned the page on Kansas. We read and re-read our favorite books, The Secret Garden, The Wizard of Oz, and watched the clouds scud over us, taking the shapes of our fantasies.
I envisioned castles, turreted cities. I imagined myself as beautiful as Glinda in star-studded tulle, my skirt sweeping the floor of those cloudy halls until the clouds wisped away like my dreams of them. Cirrus clouds, Dawn called them; she knew the names of all the formations. In them, Dawn saw wondrous, monstrous things. Cumulus clouds puffed into monkeys, dancing trees. The cumulonimbus clouds towered like haunted fortresses. Their thunder echoed the footsteps of the witches and ogres tromping around within them. Nimbus clouds nosed black rowboats, oarless through the sky. Dawn said all of Kansas once rippled, a great shallow sea. The soil was salty. When her imagination turned from the sky, it sailed over the wheatfields until, sails luffing in the wind, she said, "It's time to go home now. There are chores to do." Earthbound again, she lead the way home.
I yearn for those days with the same desperate yearning I felt then: to balloon away in the wind, away from the hardscrabble farm, with only Dawn in the basket with me, and me, in her eyes, transformed, beautified.
My parents died just before my eighteenth birthday. My father ran over my mother with the baler, and, when he leaped off the tractor to go to her, it rolled over him. He'd forgotten to set the brake. At least that was how the coroner pieced events together. They found Ma and Poppa in the field of Turkey Red and the tractor, spinning its wheels, hung up in the gully.
We buried them just beyond the dooryard garden, on the lee side of the house from the chicken coops. Their twin epitaphs read, "Toil no more." Dawn took over the management of the farm. My parents had left us wealthy. At their death, we owned half the county. But the land didn't make us any richer; it just tugged us into the endless round of chores. Dawn hired hands to help with the wheat and corn and livestock. The days burned by us, relentless as July sun. We worked hard through droughts and downpours and no longer walked down to the far hayfield to dream.
One morning I sat down at the kitchen table with my coffee. I always took my coffee seriously, black and hot, even in the hottest weather. Dawn was crouching over the books, a bitten pencil stub in her hand, figuring in the ledger columns. She looked up at me, and her face was as dry-furrowed as a drought-caked garden. Somehow, when my back had been turned, age had settled into the tiny lines of her face like dust. We were spinster sisters trapped on the farm until our lives played out, two old women tucked into their dilapidating farmhouse, whose lawn children dared each other to step on before they ran shrieking off into the dusk. I lowered my eyes, got up from the table, and ran water into the saucepan to boil our morning eggs. I turned the timer over and watched the grains of sand dribble into the bottom of the glass. I had never meant for Dawn to give up so much. She had buried her dreams beyond the dooryard garden years ago. And mine had finally frittered themselves away.
But there was a child in the neighborhood who strangely revived them. She lived on a neighboring farm with her Aunt Emily, who had once been a child in the throng that jeered me on to school. ("Just ignore them," Dawn said.) But her niece, Dorothy, seemed like a gentle child. She never flitted over our outlying fields at night in the constellations of fireflies. I never heard her voice raise above the others' shrieks in the games of graveyard tag before Dawn could shoo them off, scattering them in screams of "Witch rich bitch." The girl, Dorothy, kept to herself and her farm. Her eyes reminded me of Dawn's back in the days when clouds played over them, leapfrogging into the fantastic shapes of Dawn's imagination. So long ago--fields and fields ago.
Once, when I was biking into town, I saw Dorothy leaning her back against the fence rail, singing to herself. And I stopped my bicycle to listen. Her voice rose, climbed up the fence, balanced on the top rail, until it picked up a breeze, latched onto a cloud, and puffed away--so lovely that I forgot myself. I banged my shin against the bike pedal, startling her. She turned to look at me. Those eyes. As I stared at them, they seemed wider than the plains, than Kansas, as wide as the range of desire and dreams. I would have given her anything in that instant, anything earthly or unearthly I could have given her, to protect that longing against broken promises. I dropped my bicycle on the side of the road. It clattered down in a puff of dust. I walked to her. My hands reached out for hers. I longed to feel the youth of her skin between my old, crabbed hands. I longed to tell her that dreams can lose their buoyancy, like a gas balloon weighted with too much ballast, sandbagged by too many years. I wanted to tell her, "Float away. Float away now while the wind favors you." "Dorothy," I said.
In her eyes I saw my hands grasping at myself. She screamed, and her little dog--I had not seen the dog--leaped into the air and clamped his jaw down on my hand. His teeth piercing my skin made me see red needles behind my closed lids. She ran off while my eyes were still pinched tightly closed.
As I biked away, my tears crawled shiney snail trails through the dust on my face. The teethmarks burned into my hand, puckering the skin. The heat rippled watery mirages on the road, teasing my hot hand with illusory coolness. I was a fool, a meddling, screwball spinster. I felt like a slop in a trough.
But, biking back past Emily's house on the way home, hot, dusty, sweaty, tired, I saw that little dog frisking back and forth, worrying the pigs, nipping at them through the fence around the sty. And something ugly boiled up in me. And it didn't boil away overnight. I woke up sticky hot, my hand swollen. After my coffee, I walked out on the porch and ran my hand over the heat-blistered clapboard, the flaked paint. I straddled my bicycle and pedaled off to Emily's farm.
I hadn't intended to take the dog away from Dorothy, though the law was on my side. I never really meant to hurt the girl. I only wanted to warn her it had best not happen again. But, once inside the farmhouse, I felt as wanted as a broken broom handle. Emily, plump in her apron, dusted with baking powder and flour, her family rising like yeast bread around her, reduced me with a single look to something stick-figured, absurd. I felt as out of place bumbling into this family's farm in Kansas as a witch or a wizard from Oz.
And then I saw her, Dorothy, in the cool dim of her room, the glimmer of her dark eyes. My voice shrilled out of my control, flew raging into their faces like a bat, a thing possessed, threatening to fetch the Sheriff. I knew even then, I think, that my histrionics teetered on hysteria, but my self-conscious melodrama only angered me more. I stuffed the mite-sized mutt--such a small dog, really--into my grocery basket and pedaled back to the farm.
When I opened the basket at home, it was empty. And, as I slumped on the porch steps in the morning heat, the basket wavered, shimmered in the heat waves, weaving back and forth. It assumed a hallucinatory significance there on the bare, bleached boards of the porch floor. An empty basket. I was a fool. I was an empty basket. Feeble threats, aimless evil, a self-important eddy of wind swirling around as if it were a tornado. I wished it would rain in down spouts, soak the earth until, soggy, it could hold no more, and the waters roiled, rolled away the farm, dragging my puny life, my doddering dreams down in the torrent.
That night the tornado came. Dawn saw it first, hovering over the field of Turkey Red like a tin funnel of wind. The earth, dehydrated into powder, could hold nothing back. "The chickens," Dawn yelled, and she ran out onto the porch. I followed her to the door calling her name, but the wind tore the words from me, scattered them like chicken feed. With a short, metallic shriek, the hinges pulled from the door jamb, and the door sailed away like a kite. I could not make Dawn out in the eddies of dust and buckets, shingles and branches, and I threw myself face forward on the floor, the tornado clawing at the windows and clapboards of the house and roaring like an unfed lion. And then it was gone.
Broken chairs, rubber tires, chicken wire heaped themselves like rubble in a dump. I picked my way through an altered, alien world calling Dawn's name, poking through the piles of rubbish like some poor dump-picker. And then I found her. Her feet still in her red bedroom slippers poked out from underneath the corner of someone's wind-ripped house--wearing it as if it were a housecoat.
The rest of the summer I can only re-create from the bits and pieces salvaged from others' accounts. After Dawn's death, I wasn't myself. I was in a state of what Emily kindly called "shock," for it was she, along with Hunk, her hired hand, who found me, who had the courage and goodness of heart to come out in the storm to see how Dawn and I had fared. Emily said there was a rainbow in the sky after the storm, like the sign of the covenant God made with Noah that the waters would no longer flood the earth. It arched over the cornfields. She and Hunk found me kneeling by the porch steps, holding my sister's slippers in my hands.
As Emily later told it, "It was as if the tornado had whirled right into Elvira whisking everything into a tumult." I wandered around the farm in my black, mourning weeds, mumbling about chores, the broomstick tight in my hand, but never sweeping. Sometimes I stood looking down to the field of Turkey Red, as fixed as Lot's wife, Emily said. Scraps and tatters of the past whirled in my head. Sometimes Emily caught a passing word or two as I wandered around talking to the chicken coop, the house, the wheatfields, as if they had become sensible. Crazy talk, Emily said, about flying monkeys, dancing trees. Wheat chaff, the dust of dreams. Once, I accused Dorothy of stealing Dawn's slippers, and I raged for hours, waving my empty hands in the air. And, each time, Emily guided me back to bed, clucking, "Come home, Elvira. It's going to be all right." I slept long hours, days into nights. The summer lolled on, hot and droughty, while Emily, Hunk, and Dorothy spelled each other watching me. Emily arranged Dawn's funeral and buried her with Ma and Poppa just beyond the dooryard garden. Emily took over the books, oversaw the fields and livestock, the re-painting of the house. She's a smart woman. Although she'd just call it common sense, she has a wizard's gift for figures and charity, and the courage to carry on. She endured the summer.
One morning while Emily was out feeding the chickens, I woke, went to the stove, and lit the burner beneath the kettle. The sleeve of my robe must have brushed the flame. When Emily came through the front door, I was, as she described it, a pillar of fire. She ran to the porch and picked up the bucket Hunk kept below the down spout to catch what little rain water fell, and she splashed the water over me. I woke to myself from my long, summer nightmare.
I think the fire awoke the fear in me, the ferocious fire to live. But Emily, being a Christian woman, liked to think of it in religious terms as my trial by fire, my spiritual redemption by water. (Whenever she gets to this part of the story, Hunk laughs out loud, remembering me drenched, my hair plastered to my head, and spluttering mad.) I don't have any memory of "my spell" that summer, only the memories of Emily's retelling of it. But I've no doubt Emily saved my life many times, and I'd given her little cause. Emily is the salt of the earth. "Earthly disaster is God's way testing man and bringing Christians together," Emily says. She will not accept my gratitude. When I thank her, she purses her lips and thanks me for giving her the chance to perform her Christian duty. "Have salt in yourselves," she recites, "and peace with one another." Emily's salt will never lose its savor.
I sold the farm that fall, although I still go out to leave flowers on Ma and Poppa's graves, and on Dawn's. I bought a small grocery store in town and named it "The Rainbow," although everyone calls it Vira's. I'm locally famous for my coffee. Sometimes the farmers and hired hands come in and sit down with a cup of Maxwell House right in the store. In the summer the children bang in and out of the screen door so that my old sign with the rainbow painted on it rattles. I'll have to get Hunk to tighten it one of these days.
Dorothy is no longer one of the children who come in for Popsicles and penny candy. She's grown up and moved to Hollywood, a famous singer now, but she still writes her Auntie Em. She took the little dog, Toto, with her when she left. Not once did she mention the day I came out to the farm and took Toto away or the day Toto bit me. It seems as long ago as forever.
My life isn't perfect. I miss Dawn. Sometimes I'm lonely. I even nursed a silly hope for a while that Hunk and I... But he's like my brother, my male double, really, all arms and legs flopping and flapping around. He's a good friend and teases me when he comes in for coffee. "Elvira, that voice of yours could crack glass. Now fill my mug and don't break it."
Still, I have restless moments when I yearn for something, and I don't even know what I'm yearning for -- the past or future. When the snake-oil hucksters and palm-reading charlatans roll through town, their wagons painted with advertisements, "Professor So-and-So's miracle water cures all complaints," I wish I could throw this life away, jump aboard the wagon, wheel right out of town, right out of the picture and into another.
When I get this longing to hop the fence of my own backyard and follow my heart's desire, Emily brings me up short with the cautionary parable of Lot's wife. "Look not behind thee," she says waggling her finger in my face, and then adds, "You should be happy, Elvira, with what you have." I smile, because the next line in Genesis is, "Neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain." Emily never recites that line.
Life must have been easier then, in Genesis, when all the world was new, no history to confound you, to separate you from the present, a God intervening to tell you right from wrong. I do not tell Emily my thoughts on this, because I do not wish to contradict her. But I know time itself is loss. Seas evaporate. Salt mixes with soil. Clouds reshape themselves. Children pass, and pass, then pass away. Our dreams wither around us. The seeds scatter in the wind. I count my losses like blessings because I know: our deficiencies keep us dreaming, our desires give us hope. And, until we find the object of our heart's desire, we live for what we lack.
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