When the Plow Broke the Plains

Keith Rebec Click to read more...

Keith Rebec is a graduate student working on his MA in Writing at Northern Michigan University.  His work has appeared in The Portland Review, Monkeybicycle, apt and Underground Voices.  He’s also the managing editor of the literary magazine Pithead Chapel.  For further information, contact www.keithrebec.com.

the desire for rain was so strong folks killed snakes, hung them belly-up from fences. In between the blankets of dust and half-buried children, the miles of crisp carcasses stretched over barbed-wire, men dropped to their knees, many for the first time, and asked God to snare the rain—for the winds and madness to cease. But the topsoil failed to relent and muscled underneath clapboards, the warped window edges—clogging eyes, mouths—and turned the world into the darkest hole one had ever leaned in. And over in Texas, rainmakers shot nitroglycerine jelly into the red cloud cover, the TNT devices housed in rubber balloons, in an attempt to birth another ocean, to turn the world upside down. But the balloons failed and the sky didn’t cave and only bits of rubber fell.

Cimarron County, Oklahoma
When the big storm arrived April 14th, 1935—Black Sunday—the woman who believed the end was near drowned her twin daughters in a bucket of lye water. Livestock—the cattle and horses and goats and sheep—in grassless pastures befell to blindness from sand and ran in circles, choked and died. Others lumbered straight into the sides of barns, of houses, and broke their necks. Families, in one last attempt to flee, packed cans of beans and chicken feet into their Model A or covered wagon. Some even tied quartered animals and their dead relatives to the tops. When a wheeled buggy got hung on a rim of road silt and sank, the people waited inside during daylight hours as the “black blizzards” rolled over, counted Mississippis while sand rose to the windows and grit stripped the paint, then crawled out at night when the world spun slower, when the winds petered out, to cook sugar-cured bacon, once hand stuffed in cans, atop a tumbleweed fire.

Dallam County, Texas
Soil swallowed the sun like a horse pill, and for weeks it failed to show its restless head. Often, when a brother or father or sister or mother slipped into the so-called apocalypse, he or she usually suffocated to death within the first surveyor’s chain—a land measurement of sixty-six feet at pinnacle—and may or may not have been found when the winds abated. The bulging bellies of the dead were full of sand, of stones the size of buffalo nickels. And inches into this darkness, static electricity crackled in blue flame, knocked the men who got too close to the ground, and forced women to tie cloth around door handles to spare the children from piddling.

Seward County, Kansas
One morning when the sky opened after weeks environmental paralysis residents found a gift: thousands of rabbits. The community, with torn overalls and soot-covered faces, formed rabbit drives, and equipped all men, women, and children with a club—hammer, stick, rock—and forced the hares against fences, into the corners of dwellings, where women and children waited in shadow with clenched fists, with bony arms held high, for a turn. After hundreds of rabbits were knocked dead and piled like stones, the drivers, the killers, with bloody knuckles and cheeks, tacked the beasts to chunks of wood, yanked their hides off. The communities had a barbecue, along parched roads, the first meal other than sand or lard biscuits in months. And like the rabbits, grasshoppers arrived in swarms, swallowed fields of dwindling crops. The children, weather permitting, would play hopper-stomp with bug juices between their toes and squash the brittle husks underfoot long into the night. But after all the wheat was gone, and rabbit, and bean cans, people made grasshopper soups, relishes, biscuits, anything to avoid having their bellies wrap around their backbones.

Kiowa County, Colorado
Silicosis, the lung disease also known as potter’s rot, closed one’s life like a scab. To manufacture dust masks, women cut bed sheets and wet them in bowls of wash water, of urine, and wrapped the frayed filters around the heads of their children, of their greedy husbands. Before the rags dried, brown rings formed around mouth edges where soil slipped through, and while the dirt ate at the plains, at the people and animals, at the moisture in eyes and lungs, families moved in all directions with these grit catchers strung around their heads, looking for a tractor or a dead body to crawl under, any place to hide.

On the North Bank of the Potomac
Most Americans, outside of those still living in the plains, had no idea 300 million tons of soil from Oklahoma moved east on a given day, clogging highways, the view of the sun. When it finally reached D.C., the South Lawn of the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt rested in his wheelchair near the water fountain as the first cloud descended, when pebbles and prairie grasses blew into his gin martini, his eyes. And maybe it irritated him when he couldn’t see the White House through all the silt, the madness, the tumbleweeds that skimmed the Mississippi River and rolled straight to Maryland and were now caught in the spokes of his chair. And, perhaps, after he realized the dirt was too thick to pick from his drink, he wheeled himself, or, rather, a servant wheeled him, into the house where he called on Congress to act before the millions of refugees arrived at his doorstep, with hats turned up, with dead and dying children in their arms, with a bone to break.

Down on Capitol Hill
In an emergency meeting, Congress proposed drilling the Ogallala aquifer to hell if need be. No man-made disaster shall fill the eyes of a U.S. President, they said. And pudgy men, in shiny Fords, rolled onto the prairie in straight lines with seersucker suits, hair slicked in pomade jelly, and stood, rubbed elbows at the bottom of the world. And these men, some six deep in cars and sipping highballs, drove to swallowed farms to access the damage, to discuss government programs that could fix the catastrophe, but nothing worked and the dust blew.

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