The dark storm raged around her, she needed to get inside or she would die. Sara was still on the ground after falling, she had to get up! The sand and rocks pelted her body through her thin dress, pressing tiny needles into her skin. It was another dust storm, coming from the west to engulf their farm, but bigger than ever before. The black blizzard had filled the air, she had no landmarks to know which way to go. She stood up and began running forward, she hoped it was the right way. The whipping dirt was cutting her, blinding her. Her own farm had turned against her. She fell again and felt fear grip her. She is going to die here!
Suddenly someone was lifting her up, saying her name. She felt the strong arms and relief washed over her, she was not alone. The dust swirled and flowed around them, she couldn't see or breath. She pulled her dress up to cover her mouth and nose and with her eyes shut blindly followed her savior. Tripping several times, she thought she would never make it out of the storm.
‘We’re here, up the steps!” A man shouted, muffled in the blowing winds. She kicked the first step and almost fell before she was able to scuffle up the rest.
And then, through the door, she heard it slam behind her.
The difference was immediate, she felt the relief of cool air on her skin. She tried to look around but everything was black. Did the dust blind her?
“I can’t see, I can’t see-” she cried.
Then a wet rag was washing her face, gently wiping the caked dust off.
Sara blinked finally to see Darren, her neighbor, his square jaw clenched with concern. He had a sharp line across his face where his bandana had covered his mouth and nose, his forehead and blond hair now dark brown were covered with dirt.
“Are you OK?”
“Yes,” Sara spat out dust into the arm of her dress, “Maybe a drink of water-”
Darren handed Sara a cup of water and she drank it greedily, it tasted pure and sweet. She looked at the bottom of her cup, and looked up. She was shocked to see it free of dust.
Darren smiled, and poured her another cup from his jug before he closed it back up with a cloth and then a rubber top.
“Thank you for saving me, the storm was so quick, I didn’t see it until-"
“-Ben wouldn’t even go after you, to save you from this apocalypse.” Daren turned to look out the window and Sara followed his gaze at the heavy winds outside. It was as black as night outside, though it was only noon.
“You are going to be here for a while.” Her pulse raced when she realized they were alone in his home.
Earlier that morning, Sara walked their lands with Darren and her husband Ben. Their connected farms were decimated by the lack of rain and insects eating their crops. Ben and Darren, both lean men in overalls could not be more different. A third generation Oklahoman, Ben was tall and thin with a sharp beaked nose, worry lines outlined in dust on his forehead. Darren, educated in the East, had moved to Oklahoma with his wife to farm a land grant. Once thick and soft, he had been hardened by farming life.
“A man takes up farming knowing he is at the whim of God.” Darren said, their feet crunching on the land desiccated by the drought. “It takes good soil and hard work. Weather needs to cooperate to provide rain and sun in the right proportion. There also needs to be ready labor to bring the crop in and then a strong market to sell. When everything works well, family farms like ours can prosper. We have seen a few good years.” He stopped to look out on raised beds in parallel lines stretched out to the horizon. Where there were supposed to be green shoots of growing wheat, tufts of dead brown stalks waved in the morning breeze.
“However, if one thing goes wrong, the crop will be ruined. I believe God turned against us. He has emptied his handbag of holocaust on us. Maybe it was just arrogance that our government decided to promote farming on land that could not sustain it. We plowed under deep-rooted prairie grasses to plant cash crops of corn and wheat that could not hold the soil. Then the rain did not come year after year after year and the soil dried into dust. Maybe it was a coincidence that both a plague of jackrabbits and a plague of grasshoppers devoured anything that was left so there was little to sell in this great depression.”
“Maybe as the Preacher says, God has turned against us because we have sinned?.”
Darren nodded at her. “Whatever happened, He has forsaken us, and these storms are now blowing farms off this land entirely, including ours.”
Darren took his hat off to wipe the sweat off his forehead.
“I still think we can pull through, we just need a miracle-” Ben said.
“All farmers believe in miracles; the question is, how many can you believe in? I have lost hope.” Darren said.
They walked into Sara and Ben’s house, a large one room shack, with a porch tilting toward the south. The wood walls on the old house had warped and faded, letting the dust seep in from the west winds. Sara took three cups stacked upside down out of the cupboard, and turned them right side up on the table. She placed the cups on the counter and began to pour from the water jug. Brown and muddy water filled up the cups. She pushed the cups toward the men and then without waiting choked hers down, and then refilled it.
Darren sat down at Sara’s kitchen table, and grabbed the cup and drank it all in one motion. Ben looked at the water and gave Sara a glowering look
“Sara! You didn't cover the water jug! I told you a hundred times!”
“I did cover it…”
“Evidently not! How can you drink this?” Ben lifted up his glass, and then threw its contents on the wood floor.
“Even if it is tainted it is better than nothing-” Sara said, quietly.
“A man can’t even get a clean drink of water in his own house!” Ben slammed his hand down on the table. ” A damn effort would be appreciated!” He broke out into a coughing fit, hacking into a handkerchief pulled from his pocket, until finally he cleared his throat. Sara saw dark blood and dust on the cloth before he put it away.
Ben’s words cut her. Again and again he belittled her, wearing her down with his disrespect. She worked hard, raising the chickens, milking the cow and making the butter. Her income from the eggs and butter has been the only money coming in, but Ben didn't comment about that, just took it for granted.
He did not care about her. When did he change? She asked herself, again. There was love once, but that had dried up too.
“Dust gets in everything, it is not Sara’s fault-” Darren said.
“I'm working on the fields all day, and you do nothing, nothing!” Ben shouted again at Sara.
Sara had been in this argument before and just put her head down to take the tongue lashing.
“It is a wife's job to keep the house!” Ben suddenly looked at Darren, “Sorry Darren.”
“No it is OK. Since Martha left I have had to keep house myself. It is a lot of work.“ Darren said quietly.
Looking out the window Ben asked, “Have you heard if she made it to her Mother’s?”
“Um, yeah.’ Ben said. “She made it, but she didn’t say when she was coming back.”
“I wrote to her at her Mother’s, but haven’t received a letter back.” Sara said.
You used the address I gave you?” Darren said, looking closely at her.
“Yes,” Sara said. “She always talked about how much she loved Oklahoma, I didn't expect her to leave so sudden, or stay away so long.”
“-It has been tough for her.” Darren interrupted. “And she didn't like my dream of leaving to California.”
“If it would just rain,” Ben said, looking to change the subject. “It would tamp down this dust and we can -”
“-Oklahoma is in a drought, Ben.” Darren turned toward Ben. “Like in the ‘teens. You remember how dry it was. But now there are just too many damn people, all putting in wheat, drawing from Beaver. That river can only support so much-”
“-That river has supported this family for 30 years!” Ben shouted.
“But not the next 30!” Darren shouted back. “This land is turning to dust!” Darren paused, “I think it is time to go.”
“You just put in some new plants? I saw you digging last month-”
“What?” Darren said, his eyes wide. “Oh yes, well dead now.” He waved his hand.
“I cannot stay here, I need to get out of this desert! I am headed out to California. They need hands, and they’ll pay! I have no money left, I owe the bank everything. I am going, and soon. I think you and Sara should come with me”.
Sara looked across the room at Darren and their eyes met. She held his gaze for a minute and then looked away. What if Ben sees them? She looks down and away quickly, her face flushed. What is she doing? That is Martha’s husband!
“And just leave the land? This is my land! “ Ben’s face was turning red.
“The bank owns your land, Ben, and mine. We have no crop to pay the note. What do you think is going to happen? It is still summer, if we get out to California before harvest is over we can get some money and hopefully a place to live.” Darren’s eyes blazed with the fervor of a preacher.
“You have heard the stories, California is the Garden of Eden! Orange trees on every corner, perfect weather, and endless beaches. That is where I need to go, I am tired of being a dirt farmer.”
“Those stories can’t be true.” Ben threw his arm up in disgust.
“True or not, there is nothing for me here.”
Sara watched Ben’s expression as Darren spoke, she could see his anger growing, hardening the lines in his face. Sara could not stay any longer, his response to the failing farm was to close up into himself. Ben used to pay attention to her, listen to her. She remembers when they would share their dreams together. But now he only spoke to her to criticize. The failures had changed him, he was just a shell of anger and bitterness. She longed to be cared for again, to have a loving connection instead of the constant barbs and belittling. Nothing can grow in this barren home.
“Ben, listen to Darren, maybe he is right, maybe we should go to California. Something needs to change, we can’t keep living like this-” Sara pleaded.
“-Sara, shut up! This is man’s talk! No place for a woman!” He threw the cup at her, hitting her in the chest.
“Damn you!” Sara stood up and walked out the back door, slamming the door behind her.
She thirsted for someone to care about her needs. To Ben, she was just part of the furniture, a chair to be sat on and abused.
Born in Guymon, Oklahoma, she hasn't been more than a day's ride away in her entire life. California was a dream, but maybe…
The storm came out of nowhere. She felt the wind pick up, and tried to ignore it, walking the fields to vent her fury. Suddenly she was surrounded by dust, pelting her arms and legs. A strong wind pushed her, her feet slipped on the loose soil, and she crashed down. She could just stay here and die on her land like everything else on the farm.
She felt safe now she was rescued and in Darren’s house. In the shade of an old maple tree, it was much cooler than in her own. As the storm raged outside, Sara tilted her head, and looked at him. She had not really looked at him for a long time, and she felt again the crush she had when she first met him. He is such a caring man. What would it be like to be with someone who cared for her.
“Are you OK?” His question snapped her back to the present.
His concern, the first from anyone in so long, broke her down. She began to cry. Looking down at the cup of water, she did not know how else to answer.
“I am just so thirsty, I can not get enough….”
The wind picked up outside, shaking the house. In fear Sara grabbed Darren tight. He looked at her and instead of pulling away, he kissed her. She hesitated at first then kissed him back. Her whole body vibrated in excitement. Sara finally pushed him away.
“We can’t, Darren, Martha is my friend…”
“I need you.” Darren said. “You understand we can not stay here. Ben will never listen.
Leave Ben and come with me to California. Martha is gone. We can make a fresh start, I can’t do it by myself, and Martha didn’t want to leave. I need you to make it work. Please?”
“I need a moment.” Sara went to the back room and sat on the bed. A storm of emotions raged inside her. She looked around and saw all of Martha’s dresses still hung on nails on the wall, and on the side table-
“Darren, why are Martha's dresses here, and the locket from her mother, she would never leave these? What happened?”
Darren walked in the back room. He fell to his knees.
“She just wouldn't listen! Oklahoma is not the land of opportunity, it is a graveyard! A cursed desert! We have to get out of this God-forsaken land.” Daren put his head down. “I told her I would leave without her if she would not come and- there was a fight. You know how stubborn she was, and things got out of hand.”
Tears streamed down his dust covered cheeks.
“I buried her in her beloved land.”
Darren's voice change to a whisper. “But I have to go, do you understand? I am leaving for California, for the Promised Land!” Darren reached out for Sara’s hand and gripped them, his eyes pleading. “I care for you, and I know you believe like I do, we need to move on.”
Darren's hands squeezed even tighter.
“We can make a new start! Ben will never leave this land, and I know how he treats you. We still have a chance to make something of our lives.” Darren looked into Sara’s eyes. She saw the deep need in him.
“Come with me!”
Sara’s heart leapt. This is a man who gave her attention, who needed her. It was like a cool drink of water after walking through a dessert.
She thought of Martha briefly, but then it passed from her mind. Her new adventure awaits.
“Even if he is tainted it is better than nothing-”
The storm blew through the night before continuing to the east.
The next day, the wagon tracks in the thick dust headed west.