The world is dry.
Every morning, the sun rises a few hours after I do. The room is still dark when I kneel by the bed and perform my daily prayer. I prefer to pray in the dark, when I can see no rips in my dress, no scratches on my skin. Just me and God.
My father told me that it takes a lot of hubris to think this way. Told me that God doesn’t care about what state my dress is in or whether or not I’m worse for the wear - as long as I am pure of heart like everyone else.
In the darkness of that early dawn, when I can’t see the world beyond the shadows against my eyes, I feel pure. I feel unbreakable.
But sooner or later, the day always breaks me.
After I pray, I go to the barn to check on the animals. We’ve got a few cows, an old goat who doesn’t produce milk anymore, and a small batch of chickens. I spread the feed to them, pat them down, toss the hay with our old rusty pitchfork. Most days I can find some eggs and the cows are always fruitful.
Once the animals are sated, I return to the house to wake my brother and father. I start the fire and place a skillet over the flame, crack the eggs open to fry, slice some bread. My brother is very small because he’s very young, but I put aside most of the food for him - he’s going to be strong one day. I look forward to the day when he can take on the fields, but in the meantime he mostly works in the house - sweeping, mending, tending to the garden where we have some collards and leeks I planted last season.
My father wakes up around the same time as my brother. He’s a fine man in his own way. He’s quiet, he never hits me or yells anything like I’ve seen other fathers do. There are times when I wish for a different man to be sitting at the table any morning - a man without that Good Book always in his hands. But I understand that this is blasphemous.
We hold hands at the table and my brother and father say the Lord’s prayer. I’ve been told by my father that it’s better for them to say it, that a woman speaking the prayer disgraces the words. Sometimes I see women in the church pray out loud - I know my father does not care for it, nor does he care for the lace dresses they wear and the jewelry around their neck. He often warns me not to indulge in such things.
I know not where I would acquire such attire even if I wanted to. Perhaps from the dressmakers in town.
I am told that my brother and I are very lucky to have such a holy man for a father. Every morning he leaves the farm to walk to the chapel, where he works all day to keep it clean and tidy. He also listens to the preachers whenever he can and on days when there is no sermon, he prays in solitude for hours. There was a time when he wasn’t so devoted - I am told that before our mother died, he was an every-Sunday Christian and nothing more. But when she passed, he started spending every day at the church. I don’t remember much of this - I was younger and spent most of my time taking care of my brother, who was a little over a year old. I remember we had neighbors then, ones who helped with tilling the soil and taking care of the animals.
I finished tilling the soil for the season yesterday. The ground is still a little tough, cold enough from winter that it hasn’t quite thawed from the newborn spring. But I remembered from last year that if I wait too long, the summer weeds will eat away at the barley. And I hope to make enough money from the summer market that we can buy enough lumbar to fix the fences. We can’t afford a horse or anything, so I had to put my back into the work but by yesterday’s sunset, I had set the field for planting.
This soil is so dry, it feels like ash between my fingers. The barley's not yet in the ground and already I fear of it dying.
We haven’t had rain yet at all this season. The last time anything like that happened was a snowstorm in the middle of winter. Ever since then, it’s just been dry.
There’s an old well that my father dug many years ago, and it provides water, but not much. I worry about the well drying and the crops dying, about the barley going to waste and us not having enough money for anything, much less fences. And I fear the thought of my father arriving home from the church, that Good Book in his hands, and upon seeing the dead barley, deciding that he had been too lenient of a father to his children.
I have a strange thought sometimes that my body is a seed, and that if the barley won’t grow, that I’ll end up in the soil myself. There’s an old stone with my mother’s name on it several yards into the neighboring woods. But I think if I go in the ground, my father will put me in the fields, let my body feed the barley like when our neighbor buried their dead dog in their garden.
I sow the seeds clumsily, lacking the practice I’ve seen from other farmers on their lands. Other farmers are big men, shaped by years of labors and nature's inclination to give men strength. I’m stronger than I look, but I feel broken. I feel worn out, like my skin could fall off any day now.
My father tells me these are blasphemous thoughts.
He tells me to be grateful for the labor, for through this hard work I can prove that my heart is pure.
I whisper these things every morning to God - it doesn’t feel blasphemous. It feels like my body will break open and fall apart, and what will crawl out is neither myself nor mine. Maybe it’s all I’m good for. After all, it’s not like suitors come knocking - no young men live in my world, and if they did, surely they would think I’m as used up as I feel.
It takes a few hours to sow all the barley. I’m particular about it.
I see my brother standing on the porch. I smile at his cute little face scrunched up in the sunlight. He’s growing fast but he still looks like a baby to me.
I don’t remark on it. Instead, I call out to him, “Did you fix his jacket?”
Our father’s still walking around in his winter jacket on account of a stubborn hole in his other one. The tear is on the lapel, it should be easily fixed but it's so visible that he’s self conscious about it. It’s something that requires small hands to really mend correctly.
“No,” my brother said softly before returning inside dutifully.
One day, I’d like him to learn how to read. I hope my father will teach him, but then I fear that my brother will walk the same path and follow him to the chapel every morning. I have nightmares of the two of them inside the house reading that Good Book out loud to each other while I till the soil from dawn to dusk. I think I would break.
My shoulder complains when I hoist water up from the well. It’s been complaining a lot lately but I know better than to bring it up to my father and there’s nothing my brother can do about it. Maybe one day it’ll pop off and I’ll just have one arm.
I carefully splash water onto the barley, but the soil is so dry. I remember our neighbor's soil was like this before he planted that dead dog in the ground - then the earth was richer, the plants grew taller. Maybe if my arm pops off, we can feed it to the barley. I smile at the thought with a wild sense of hilarity.
By the time the sun sinks back down on the horizon, the animals are inside the barn, the barley is properly watered, and there’s a pot of soup simmering over the open flame and my brother is slicing bread. My father arrives shortly after nightfall, and the three of us join hands as he and my brother recite the Lord’s prayer before partaking in the meal.
My stomach rumbles a lot these days. Sometimes when he hears it, my father tells me again of Jesus’s time spent in the desert. Other times he just ignores it.
After we finish eating and my brother and I wash the dishes, we sit and listen to my father read aloud the Bible. He does this every evening, the reading aloud. He’s worried that my brother and I are too busy with the homestead, that we’ll wander into sin and despair because we’re not at church as often as he. We join him every Sunday but he worries that it’s not enough.
It’s just nice to sit for a while, though I'd rather sleep. It is hard to pay attention to the words my father speaks when my eyes are so heavy, the tales of old dead men and miracles beyond my comprehension. But I know better than to ask for an early night, I am aware of the seven sins and the danger of forsaking the Good Book.
My body aches when I finally do lay my head down, some hours later. My room is dark and quiet, but I feel the filth on my skin, the day’s sweat and the dirt of the farm. I sleep in the same dress I work in.
One time, my father and I were in town to buy supplies and we saw a flyer on a wall. It must have been advertising a dressmaker because there was a drawing of a woman in a big blue gown. I reckon she must have been at some fancy party, she was covered in frills and lace and her face was strangely colorful.
I thought my father was going to tell me to be wary of such things, for surely her low-cut blouse and bunched-up form were wrong in the same way as those women in the church. It seemed un-Godly. But my father had lingered on the flyer, and had stared at the dress for some time. He hadn’t said much about it. I guess that means it’s good for some women to be dressed up in frills and lace, but not others.
Sometimes I wonder if God would prefer I be dressed in frills and lace.
I wonder if rain will come soon.
The next morning, I wake before the dawn and I pray.
I talk to God and ask Him about the frills and laces. I ask Him about my body and if I am a seed. I ask Him if my brother will be strong soon, if my father will help me tend to the barley.
My room is dark and quiet.
I leave the house quietly and go to the barn to tend to the animals. I give them their feed, I pat their bodies, I grab a few eggs for breakfast and a bucket of milk. I toss the hay with that old rusty pitchfork and I have to stop for a moment because my shoulder’s starting to hurt real bad, but I get back to it soon enough.
As I walk back to the house, it’s hard to tell in the early morning darkness but the clouds look darker.
My father and my brother say the Lords Prayer and then we eat our eggs and bread. With a tip of his hat, my father says goodbye for the day, marching off into that ominous dark grey world.
It’s when I’m helping my brother scrub the skillet that we hear the sound. It is a low sound, but large. Through the open door, I see the sun, but it is muted, gray. A cool wind whips through the house and makes our hair stand on end.
My brother and I peer out the door and we can both hear the tip-toe sound of water hitting the soil.
The rain has come gently.
A few droplets of water hit the top of my head as my only warning before it picks up in volume. My brother lets out a girlish shriek and runs back inside the house, but I stand in it. I have been waiting for it.
The water slides down my face, wiping away the days of labor, the hours of sweat. I’ve been covered in my own dirt but I didn’t realize how dry I was until now, letting the water wash over me. It’s cool and soft and it feels like something bigger than myself.
I look back to see my brother has grown to his senses and is placing some clean pots out to collect the water. He’s a smart boy. One day he’ll be strong, and when that day comes I won’t be alone in these fields. In the onslaught of the rain, I grow even more reckless with my thoughts - that if the rain keeps up, our father won’t come back from the church tonight, will stay there with his evening prayers and won’t come home to eat our bread.
The rain falls hard and I smile.
I feel pure.