It came up from the west—an angry, roiling black wall a thousand feet high and moving at sixty miles an hour. Clayton saw it coming and threw a tarp over the chicken coop. He put the mule and cow into the cowshed and tied grain sacks loosely over their heads. Olive stuffed damp tea cloths and sheets into the cracks around the doors and windows, though she knew nothing she did would be enough to stop the dust. As suffocating darkness swept over their little farmhouse, the husband and wife huddled together under blankets. Grit peppered the windows glass while static electricity made Clayton’s brown hair stand on end. Olive clutched Baby Thomas, to her breast.
After three or four hours, the whirlwind of dust passed. Clayton tried to push open the front door but found he couldn’t. He had to go around the back way to get the scoop shovel from the shed to clear the porch enough to open the door again. The mule and cow were up to their ankles in the fine dust and grit that had sifted in through the chinks in the slat walls. Olive had to dig through inches of dirt to uncover the cabbages in their garden.
She had pleaded with him then. Her sister, Violet, had invited them to stay at her place in St. Louis. Violet was sure that Clayton could find work. He and Olive could make a good life there, while here in Oklahoma, life hung like a shriveled leaf on a dead vine. But Clayton had refused the offer. “Grandaddy was the first in this county to stake a claim in 1864, and Daddy worked himself to death for this land. You think I’m going to forsake their sacrifice? We’re staying put, Olive! This drought will pass. We must be patient.”
Olive tried, but patience became more difficult when the surrounding fields turned brown and when their closest neighbors piled everything into the back of a rattletrap truck and moved to California. Olive asked Clayton then if they could leave, and she asked him again when the well bucket started coming up half-filled with mud. But Clayton was stubborn. He’d been born stubborn.
“Have faith, Olive,” he said.
So, Olive tried to have faith. She read the Bible every morning and night. When a traveling preacher set up a tent in town, she went. The congregation did odd things there. They spoke in tongues and fell into rapturous fits. They chanted and handled snakes. After that, Clayton would sometimes find Olive standing on the porch at sundown, her arms held up toward the darkening sky, murmuring strange words. It was as if she couldn’t hear him then, so intense were her prayers.
Olive prayed for relief. She prayed to understand the curse that had been laid upon them. She prayed to understand the sin for which it seemed all of Oklahoma and northern Texas was being punished. She prayed for their neighbors, their animals, their crops. She prayed for Baby Thomas. She prayed for Clayton to change his mind. She prayed constantly for rain, but there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky since last May.
There was always dust. And no matter how hard she fought it, there was so much dust that she could write her name with her finger on the dining room table every morning. Her eyes were always red and irritated. Nothing ever stayed clean.
The dust storms were the hardest. You could tell when one was coming. Sometimes it was announced on the radio just before the signal turned to static. Animals would become unsettled. The sun would disappear. If you were unlucky enough to be outdoors when a storm came up, your skin felt like it was being sandpapered. And sometimes afterward, you coughed blood.
The storm in April 1935, had been the worst yet. The papers had called it Black Sunday. But this morning, the towering wall of dust that rolled toward them like a locomotive seemed even angrier than the Black Sunday storm had been. Clayton had been repairing the windmill when he first saw it. It was twice as tall as any dust cloud he’d ever seen, moving faster, and crackling with bolts of lightning. It scared him so much that he nearly fell as he scrambled down from the tower. He yelled for Olive to herd the chickens into the parlor, and this time, he brought the mule and the cow into the kitchen.
Clayton got his hammer and nails and went to the bedroom to get blankets and sheets. He found that Olive had already fashioned a tent out of quilts on the bed for the two of them and Baby Thomas. Clayton took everything he could carry from the blanket chest and hurried to the front porch. Where he found Olive standing in the yard, facing the whirlwind that would be upon them in minutes.
“Olive! Olive! Help me!” he yelled, but she seemed not to hear him.
Frantically, Clayton nailed the blankets over the windows and the door frame. He then dropped his hammer and ran toward Olive to drag her into the house. Her eyes were closed. Her arms were raised, and she was murmuring strange works at the dust wall that had nearly reached their perimeter fence. Lightning within the cloud crackled. The windmill swung in crazy circles, clanking and creaking. Clayton could hear Thomas crying in the bedroom.
Clayton reached out grab Olive’s arm but stopped when he saw the writing rattlesnakes she had wrapped around each wrist.
“Olive! Come with me!” he shouted.
But she turned toward him, opened her eyes, and calmly said, “Clay, go comfort Thomas. He’s frightened.” Then she returned to her incantations.
In frustration, Clayton ran into the house and to his child. He waited under the quilt for Olive and the onslaught of grit, but neither of those things came. Instead, there was silence. Even the windmill stopped complaining.
Clayton went outside to inspect the damage. Olive sat on the front porch steps, looking exhausted. The dust at her feet showed the zig-zag escape route of the rattlers she’d held. Along the fenced that surrounded the house, fine, wind-blown soil reached as high as the center rail, held back as if their little farmhouse had been protected inside a glass box. Beyond the fence, for as high as Clayton could see and in all four directions, the dust continued to swirl and spit lightning like a furious dragon. But within the square acre around their house, all was calm and quiet.
Some years passed. The churning wall of dust didn’t go away, nor did the seeming spell that Olive had cast. She refused to talk about what she’d done or how she’d done it. After a while, life inside their protected box seemed almost normal, except that there was no sound. There was no wind, yet the pump worked fine. There was no rain, yet the well was full. Their garden grew crops, their animals and Thomas all thrived within their defended space, while outside, the duststorm raged without ceasing.
One night after supper, Olive said, “I think it’s time for us to go, don’t you?”
Clayton looked up. “Go where?”
“To St. Louis. To live with Violet.”
“Why would we do that?”
She stared at him. “Why? Is this tiny world enough for you? Think about Thomas! If we stay here, he’ll never get to meet anther child. We only have two books in the house—the Bible and an almanac. How can he get an education? How can he have his own family someday if we remain here?”
“But don’t you see, Olive, what happened here was a sign from God! We’ve been spared! We have all that we need to live right here, so long as the dust stays on the other side of the fence. And anyway, how could we leave? Who could survive a walk through that?” he said, pointing through the window to the churning wall of dust. “We have no idea how far it reaches. We don’t know if anybody’s still alive out there!”
She looked at him, sadly. “There are voices in the dust. Thomas can hear them. I can hear them.”
Clayton stood up from the table. “It’s settled, Olive! We’re staying!”
“Whatever you say, Clayton,” Olive said. But in the morning, the front gate was open, and she and Thomas were gone.
Clayton found it hard to live without Olive, not only because he had no one to help him with the farm and housework. There was no one to talk to, and he missed his boy. He missed laughter. He missed Olive’s warm body next to him in bed.
He wondered sometimes if his little family could possibly have survived. What might Thomas look like now? He wouldn’t be a child, still. How old would he be now? Clayton realized that he had no idea anymore of the passing of time. One day had seemed to melt into the next.
Sometimes, Clayton would bring a chair from the kitchen and sit as near as he dared to the dust. Olive had said she heard voices out there, and after a time, Clayton thought he could hear them, too. Snatches of conversation. People laughing. He was always hopeful to their voices—Olive’s and Thomas’s—but all he could make out were whispers.
Clayton often had nightmares about his missing family. Most painful were the dreams where he imagined Olive being lost in the storm, changing her mind and trying to make it back to the safety of their little house and to him. Clayton imagined Olive, struggling blindly through the choking whirlwind. He’d feel her terror as she tried to protect their child through that blackness. He’d see her lying face down in the dust. He often woke up in tears.
Clayton also wondered if he only imagined hearing voices in the dust. Perhaps he only imagined the dust. He worried that his isolation might be making him go mad. Olive had not wanted their boy to grow up in this loneliness, so much that she’d risked both their lives to escape it. Clayton hadn’t understood her then. He understood her now.
This morning, early, Clayton put on his best clothes. He went outside, and for the first time since Olive had conjured the invisible barrier, he opened the fence gate. Immediately, the roar of the storm outside assaulted him. He lowered his head, held a handkerchief over his nose, and stepped into the moving mass.
Clayton clamped his eyes closed as he walked forward, holding one hand out in front of himself. Grit blasted his skin. As he made his way, sounds around him faded, then suddenly grew louder. He slogged through the churning darkness for what seemed hours, until he felt a hard surface under his feet. With his eyes still tightly closed, Clayton began to hear new sounds. Clanking, squeaking, beeping noises, distant chatter.
When he opened his eyes, Clayton found himself in the center of what seemed an acre of shelves, filled with carefully aligned bottles and packages in all sorts of colors. Bright lights blazed above him, and here and there he could see people pushing carts made of wire through a maze of corridors.
“Good afternoon, sir!” came a voice behind him.
Clayton spun around to see the short, tubby young man, wearing a blue apron.
The young man smiled at Clayton. “Welcome to Walmart!”