Historical Fiction by Jon Sindell
The iniquities of the father are visited on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate g-d, our minister said. In the buckboard Aunt Em explained what iniquity meant, and I felt so proud to learn such an impressive word, for I was still small, Little Dottie, they called me. I believed everything the minister said, but this particular warning meant little to me, for my uncle had taken me by the shoulders after I arrived and said quite plainly that, although we were family, I wasn’t his child, only his niece. His child, he said, was with the Lord now. It wasn’t the lessons from those Sunday sermons that stuck with me anyway, it was the warmth that filled me when I thought of g–d’s love, and the infinite mercy of the lamb of g–d.
We had lambs on the farm. They grazed in the tall grass, and in the springtime they bounced like cotton balls among the bluebells and purple coneflowers I’d gather for Aunt Em. And I’d bounce with them. I was knee-high to a grasshopper, as Aunt Em said, so no one could see me in the tall grass. When we got tired, and the sunflower sun beat hard down upon us, the lambs and I rested beneath the twisted, old apple tree in the middle of the alfalfa field, the only shade tree in that part of the farm. I cuddled the lambs and nursed them from a bottle. When Aunt Em made me stop, saying, quite correctly, that it would put them off their feed, I put my finger in their mouths and felt my love flowing through me like milk.
One day, Uncle was setting fence posts as I cuddled the lambs. He wiped the sweat from his brow and said with a voice that he failed to make soft that I should get back to work. Aside from working in my ABC primer, my work consisted of tending our kitchen vegetable garden, fetching water, and helping Auntie however I could. I obliged my uncle because he was right, and he hadn’t asked for my mouth to feed. There was much work to do, for the field hands — We had had three for years, right after the war, when prices were high. — had lit out for better pay. ‘Greener pastures,’ Auntie explained with a sad patient sigh. Her words confused me because our pasture looked so lovely and green, a sea of tall grasses that waved at me in a personal way. I had felt betrayed because the men were my friends, but Auntie explained that you couldn’t blame them, we were behind in their wages and had been often, and they’d stayed with us as long as they could. Judge not, Little Dot, lest ye be judged. I knew she was right, and repented of my pride.
A year or two later, Auntie and Uncle sat in the glow of the oil lamp and, in low, worried voices, spoke cold words like foreclosure and bankrupt. Uncle tightened his fist around the fruit jar that held his apple jack, and Aunt Em touched his hand as if to say, ‘not too much, dear Henry,’ though she never would chastise him out loud.
It had long been her custom to call him Dear Henry, but she had done so mostly in earlier years, and in lighter moods. When Uncle matched her light mood, he’d sing, “How shall I fix it, dear Liza?” Little Dot, in those years, would act out the song with a real wooden bucket, and we’d laugh as if our home was the world and a wonderful place. These days, Aunt only brought Dear Henry out as a tool.
Uncle Henry had fought in the war, and Aunt Em told me he’d been a doughboy. On the porch on summer nights, she’d tell me about the church social where he first spoke to her. He was the handsomest thing, she said, a tall Kansas boy just back from the war, and in uniform, too. He turned all the girls’ heads. His hair was golden like corn, and his eyes were alight with goodness and truth. She said that he was a good Christian boy, a hard worker, and played “The Tennessee Waltz” on his grandfather’s cornet. I clung to that image as the years passed. Uncle refused to talk about the war, though I begged him to do so, so Auntie talked to me when we put up fruit. It’s a hard thing to fight against evil, Dottie. It sneaks into men’s hearts. It sneaks into their homes like the winter wind through the chinks in the timbers. Life is a battle of good against evil, and fighting evil is the Christian thing to do. There is simply no choice. Sometimes on Sundays, she’d play “Onward Christian Soldiers” on the broken–down piano in our parlor, and she’d sing as loud and clear as she did in church, when I was so proud to sit next to her.
“War’s fine for them’s never fought ’em,” Uncle Henry said in a hard, bitter voice the one time he ever did speak on the subject.
When I was still Little Dot, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Uncle had been a doughboy. And from the time I was tall enough to reach the kitchen counter, when I was about four until I was seven, my little girl’s imagination told me that Uncle Henry must have been a baker in the war. I imagined him baking pies and bread for the brave Christian soldiers that fought The Hun as I helped roll out the dough for the apple pie we made from that one apple tree in the alfalfa field, or the Granny Smith trees in the back orchard.
There was more talk of bad prices from overproduction, and when I was ten, we sold the piano and Auntie’s walnut washstand. Again fearful words were uttered at night: Foreclosure. Bankruptcy.
Uncle borrowed from kin though it killed him to do so, and sold all our stock and the rest of our good furniture — except my mother’s bureau, because Aunt Em crossed her arms and said, “Over my dead body.” Uncle glared at her and she clutched her heart. I worried because I knew what a heart attack was, because Auntie Em had told me that Mr. Burnham, who grew wheat, corn, rye, and seven kinds of apples, including two that he’d cultivated himself, had died of a heart attack. Years later, I learned that he shot himself rather than see his farm go. Uncle took every cent and bought a Fordson tractor and a combine like the big outfits with absentee owners that were taking over good land all over the county, outfits that plowed the tall grass under and cut down the fruit trees and farmed only corn, or only wheat, and nothing else. They loaded the last of our sheep onto a rancher’s truck, and when Uncle saw me crying, he said, as he often had before, that we couldn’t survive on the prices today. But he said it hard this time, with such a flinty stare at the horizon that I felt ashamed of myself for crying, and afraid of him.
He cleared the land in no time, it seemed, and plowed the alfalfa under to make more room for corn, and cut down the shady apple tree because he said it was in the way. Anyway, the lambs were gone.
His first corn harvest was good, and he made good money — cabbage, he now called it. After the harvest, he cleared the Granny Smith orchard. The second harvest was good and the next ones were, too. All the harvests were good for years, and Uncle never let a field go fallow. It’s like printing money, he said, as green as the corn. You wouldn’t stop printing money, now would you? I received a new dress three times a year. There was nowhere to wear them excepting church, however, for most of our neighbors had sold out to the large outfits who could afford the machinery they could not afford. But I treasured a necklace that Uncle bought in Kansas City, a genuine silver necklace with a perfect ruby pendent cut into a heart. I looked at myself from every angle and in every pose. At first Auntie sighed, and then she railed in a shrill, desperate voice about vanity. But I didn’t care.
The corn stalks stood tall in perfect green rows, and I walked among them to be cool in the shade and to think about life when the change came upon me. I danced among the rows at times, and sometimes I cried for no reason at all. The corn stalks were my friends, which was lucky, for I had no friends besides one girl who lived a long bike ride away, and one boy, an old friend, who was going through the change himself, and looked at me in a hungry way that disturbed me.
Uncle paid off his kin completely after the third year’s harvest, including a bonus of interest which they tried to refuse. He bought more land from the people who owned the farm next to ours, the Pearsons, who had been in the county for four generations. They were stubborn, Uncle said, because they refused to change with the times, and that’s why they went bust. Uncle bought a scrimshaw pipe in Kansas City and puffed on it with a satisfied look as he worked accounts late at night. Auntie prayed for humility, but did so softly so that Uncle would not think she was praying for him. Nor did she object when he drank store-bought rye, but prayed that he’d find moderation and thrift.
There were more massive harvests and plenty of money, and Uncle would say, ‘we’re in the long green,’ the way he would tell folks we were ‘in the corn,’ or the way another farmer might say, ‘we’re in the rye.’ He hired men, and they slept in a bunkhouse and did not eat with us. He added two large rooms to the house.
The rain stopped falling when I was fifteen. We got by alright though the corn was stunted for there was half a harvest, at least, and Uncle had set cash aside. I spent nights walking the corn rows looking at the moon, but I was not praying for rain, as Auntie supposed. I was simply wishing to be somewhere else. To be anywhere else. I didn’t know why.
When I was sixteen there was no rain again, and the wind stripped away the topsoil that had nothing to cling to, with the grasses plowed under and the trees all uprooted. We covered our mouths when we walked out of doors if so much as a breeze blew. The wind blew for days, and clouds of dust rose and blocked out the sun.
All the people gathered at the county seat and stared up at the sky. A farmer’s wife with a red, pie-shaped face pressed her lips together and squinted to the west. The dust was dark and covered the land. It’s a plague of locusts, she said. It’s end times, a man said through clenched teeth.
Strangers came to all the farmhouses in the next days and weeks. Bankers came, and sharpies representing the big landholders came. Some were sent off at the point of a gun, but mostly folks listened — numbly, without hearing. A preacher came spouting Bible verses. Repent before it’s too late, he said.
We thought we could survive till next year, for Uncle still had money in the bank, and he could borrow more at a good rate using the land he’d picked up cheap as collateral. He even thought he might pick up more land cheap from our neighbors. He never should have said it out loud, for Aunt fixed him a glare as long and hard as any I’d ever seen her give out. To my surprise, Uncle jutted out his lower lip and stared back at her. Then he raised the store-bought rye to his lips — to get her goat, I supposed.
The winter was harsh, and a hard, dead silence ruled the house. The spring thaw came and Uncle worked the parched land. Auntie and I prayed for rain, but we knew it was hopeless even if it did rain, for all the good soil had blown away, and what remained was powdery and dead, having been worked every season without rest. We made plans to move. Uncle still had some money and hoped to buy a farm in California or a ranch in Montana where his people came from. Dorothy, said Em, holding my hand, you’ll always have a home with us. You know that, sweetheart. Yes, said Uncle. But there was a holding-back in his voice, and I knew we were done.
I was not the only girl hobo, I met quite a few. I learned to jump a freight and never had so much fun in my life. I’d hold the grip iron and stand at the open door of a boxcar so I could feel the wind blowing back my hair, which I no longer wore in pigtails, but had grown out in waves. I learned to panhandle, and the men called me Meal Ticket because I could cadge a handout so well. I’d say, “Could I have some for my three friends, too, please,” and the lady of the house would grumble at first when she realized she’d been worked, then she’d smile a little and fill three more brown bags — nosebags, we called them.
Men paid attention to me for other reasons, too, and that kept me on edge, especially at night in the jungles. I’d attach myself to some older man who seemed decent, but one time, my protector pulled me into the trees, and I only escaped by grabbing a rock as I lay on my back and cracking his skull. I lit out in the darkness and walked until dawn and hid in a hayloft. The hay smelled like home, and I wept. I hid for three days in the barn behind a stack of hay bales, eating raw goose eggs and stealing apple peels and such from the slop. At last I pushed on.
I got lucky right off. I met a boy my age who was good to me and would not take advantage. He was a farm boy from Nebraska with sky-blue eyes and straw-colored hair and he was wiry strong, and nobody bothered me when I was with him. The older hobos liked us, called us prom king and queen, and we had fine times telling stories around the fire, drinking whiskey, singing, playing cards. I dealt cards like a wizard and was admired for that. The men admired me for my drinking, too, for I learned to drink whiskey because it warmed me at night, and then I learned to like it for the other reasons. They whistled at how I could drink so much without getting sick. But I had bad dreams.
Many of the ’bos were factory men who came from the east when the factories closed. They were decent men, but not our kind. Our kind were farm folk who talked like us and feared the same g–d, and Jim and I naturally flocked to them. They were Okies and Arkies and Texans, or from Kansas or Nebraska, but the townfolk called all of us Okies when we walked dirty and ragged into their towns. So we all took to calling ourselves Okies regardless of where we had come from, to show that we were all in it together. ‘Dumb Okie,’ we’d laugh, except those whose teeth hurt.
We freighthopped to Oregon at strawberry time and stuck around to work the blueberries. The blueberry camp was a good camp for migrants, for we got ten cents a bushel, and the foreman let us sneak berries whenever we pleased. Jimmy and I smeared our faces with berries one day for no reason at all, and when we kissed, we were one juicy pie. I got the runs awful, but the sores in my mouth improved from the vitamins in the berries. Then we moved on and picked hops for a while, and when the hops were all in, we climbed up onto a bright-yellow boxcar heading down south to California. We had long heard stories of its endless green valleys.
We signed on to pick apples at a big ranch in Lodi that grew their own variety called Emerald Beauties. They were a little sour like our Grannies back home but were sweeter and rounder and as big as baseballs. The tree itself had twisted, gnarled branches like the Granny, but the Emerald’s branches were even stranger, very knobby and thick. I thought how strange it was that such beautiful apples set on such trees. The foreman let each picker have an apple on the first day — “Compliments of Mr. Martin,” he grunted in a way that was contemptuous, it seemed to me, of Mr. Martin, us, and even himself — so we could see the value of what we were doing. I closed my eyes when I took my first bite and let the juice trickle down my neck. The foreman, a huge man called Pulaski, had a long broom handle that he used to knock apples, and when I opened my eyes he was pointing the stick at the juice on my breastbone and leering. Jimmy pushed the stick away in a clever, innocent way, as if the stick was a turnstile and he just wanted to pass. Pulaski’s eyebrows were thick and black and had white hairs that stuck out like feelers, and he scrunched them together and glared down at Jimmy, but Jimmy played dumb.
Pulaski watched me all day. He made me climb up ladders to work the high branches, and I could feel his stare on my legs and my backside. I was dizzy with anger that I fought to keep in, and got bees in my stomach. He watched me when I worked the low branches, too, because he knew my shirt would ride up when I reached. Jimmy hated Pulaski, and I called him son of a bitch beneath my breath. This added to my shame, because Auntie always preached that a good Christian woman never curses. Jimmy shot looks down at Pulaski from the tallest branches — Pulasksi always made him work the tall branches and gave him rickety ladders. He also sent Jimmy on needless errands. One such time, Pulaski walked up to me and pressed his stick lengthwise against my belly. Nice shape, he said. I got a nice cabin, he said. Lots of good food. Chicken every day, and steak on Sundays. Red wine, table grapes, all the apples you could eat. Cheeses, almonds, every kind of olive. He knew I was hungry and longed for good food, apples most of all. We all longed for apples because we worked them all day but could not eat any, as eating them was a firing offense. Pulaski said he had a soft bed. You need a man, he said with a dumb floppy smile, not a boy.
I looked up into his stubbly face. “If you touch me, I’ll kill you.” My heart was knocking against my ribs, but I did not waver. You must always fight evil. There is simply no choice. His eyes grew large and his chest heaved, but he had no wit, and he stalked away.
I dreamed of apples that night. Not for the first time. I dreamed I was eating apple pie at the kitchen table with Auntie after supper, just we two. She was weary but happy, with that mild smile that comes from true goodness. “Auntie Em,” I said, and reached for her hand — but she vanished. I awoke from the shock in the darkness of the bunkhouse with cold sweat on my brow and strange women sleeping all around me. I bit my lip to stifle my sobs. My stomach growled. I spied a hunk of cheese the size of a bar of soap sticking out from beneath the pillow of a girl in a lower bunk. I thought for a moment of swooping down to swipe it. Instead, I slipped on my pants and wandered out into the orchard. There was only a sliver of moon, and I groped my way along a row of trees to a section I knew had not been worked yet. I felt as though evil beings were looking down on me from either side, but I knew it was just the misshapen branches of the Beauties reaching out in the darkness, and no apple tree was going to scare me after what I’d been through. I pulled an apple from the branch and bit into it with a crunch that I imagined could be heard for miles around, the night was so still. It was sweet and tangy, like the one apple they’d allowed us on the first day. I bit again, and the juice rolled down my chin. But I slowed my chewing since the pulp got mealy. It was a big worm, and I spat out bits of worm and apple and worked the saliva to get the worm chunks out from between my teeth and from between the gap where a tooth had fallen out months before.
The next morning I had to have apple, but I had to have it in the light of day. So when Pulaski barked out assignments, I pretended not to hear and set out walking toward a row of trees at the far end of the orchard, for Pulaski was lazy and would not walk out there. Two other girls were working the same section, and I had to wait twenty minutes or so until their backs were turned. I reached for an apple. But just as I touched it, something whizzed and cracked my hand such that I liked to pass out. It was Pulaski’s pole. I howled from pain and Jimmy came running, and when he got near me, Pulaski whacked him in the forehead and Jimmy went down, a gash in his forehead oozing blood.
“She’s a thief,” said Pulaski, pointing at me with the pole, then he jabbed Jimmy in the gut with it. “He tried to attack me,” he told the pickers who were watching. There was a threat in his gaze, and they lowered their eyes. He looked at Jimmy trying to sit up. Blood was streaming from his head, and I pressed my headscarf to his forehead with my good hand and forgot all about the pain from my broken hand for a moment. “Five minutes,” Pulaski growled. “Five minutes, you’re gone.”
We worked our way by thumb and freight to the apple country along the California coast north of San Francisco because the air was cooler than in the San Joaquin Valley, and if we were going to starve, we might as well be comfortable. But with us looking more bedraggled than ever, and Jimmy with a big red scar on his forehead, the hiring bosses screwed their noses up as if we were troublemakers, even Reds. My busted hand was bound in cloth, and though I hid it behind my back, they always seemed to sniff it out. Literally sniffed it out, maybe, because it smelled rank. My whole self smelled rank. I had buried my hair inside a cap to look more plain, in case I was hired and the foremen were pigs, and that may have also helped us not to get hired.
So we made our way to the Russian River and bathed in it to wash off the stink, and we swam around laughing and lay out on a sand bar. Then the hunger bit, and we set off again. The sole of one of Jimmy’s shoes was loose and flapped at the toe when he walked, and he said, ‘what the hell’s so funny about that,’ that they make those cartoons of ’bos.
There was an orchard we found by following the marks left on trees by other hobos before us. There must have been many because the orchard was posted all over with no trespassing signs and fenced with barbed wire. We looked across the wire at an orchard of beautiful trees set with red and gold apples maybe two or three days shy of picking. We didn’t dare go in to take apples in the daylight, so we followed a beaten foot trail down into a ravine and found a camp of ten or twelve ’bos lounging next to a little gully fifty yards from the orchard. They welcomed us but their eyes were dull, as if they’d been on the road for six months too long. They gave us each a hunk of bread, and we knew not to ask where it had come from.
It was an Okie camp. All the men came out of the Dust Bowl like us, and all had the same story: the fruit trees uprooted, the grasses cut down, the soil never replenished, the wind and the dust.
“Ye shall reap,” the camp wit grinned, “as ye shall sow.”
“We sowed like we knew,” said a man bitterly. “Like the big boys with the money. Folks got to keep up.”
“Never mind, brothers,” another man said. He took up a rutted guitar. “We’ve landed in a better place,” he said, and gazed grandly and facetiously up at the redwoods surrounding the gully.
I followed his gaze to the tops of those majestic trees, the most magnificent trees I ever had seen. I walked my gaze all the way from the treetops down to the beautiful undergrowth of spear-shaped ferns of a lovely light green.
“California is a Garden of Eden,” the guitar picker sang, “a paradise to live in or see.” The men chuckled — some lightly, some bitterly — but all knew the song. The guitar picker played until dark.
“I’m getting some apples,” said Jimmy. There was hardly any food, and the men hardly moved the whole time we were there. They were desperate to get hired in a day or two to knock down apples in the orchard nearby.
“I’m coming, too,” I told Jimmy.
We used sticks to poke our way up the ravine to the edge of the farm and crept southward along the fence, then cut east at the corner of the field to the farthest point away from the house. It was warm and the air smelled of hay and horse dung. Jimmy had wire cutters from one of the men. He snipped the two lowest wires, and in we crawled. There was a tree twenty feet in from the fence set with apples so big we could see their outlines even in the darkness. I reached for one but fell back onto the ground at the sound of a shotgun blast. Leaves and apples fell all around us. We ran back to the fence without looking back and scrambled through the gap in the wire. All I kept thinking was, ‘don’t shoot my heinie; don’t shoot my heinie.’ A few feet on the good side of the fence we ducked behind a tree and looked back. We saw the dark outline of a man watching us. His legs were spread, and a shotgun rested across his shoulder. He had not shot to kill and did not wish to kill, but he had sure enough shooed us away from his crop.
“Have fun?” asked one man with a hard kind of laugh.
“Sure,” Jimmy said. “A million laughs.” His hand was pressed to his leg. I made him show me. It was bleeding from a barb that had torn a gash two inches long on the top of his thigh. I ministered to him with water and alcohol to clean the wound, then asked the men to let him have whiskey. When they saw how ugly the gash was, they passed it right away. Jimmy took one long swallow — Thrift was his way. — then set his jaw while I stitched him up with catgut the way I’d seen Aunt Em do so many times for Uncle Henry and for Zeke, Hunk, and Hickory, the field hands we’d had when I was small. I thought about them while I poked the catgut through Jimmy’s skin. I remembered Zeke pulling a splinter from my hand that I got climbing the fence around the pigpen. I got lost in my past, and Jimmy was somewhere else, too, staring blankly across the gully as if he didn’t care about the wound or the pain or anything else. I stitched the wound up pretty neat and bandaged it with a cloth that a man from Texas pulled from his bundle.
A man decided to play the blues harp. He played comically, with warbles in strange places and wiggly phrases, and breathy jerks where you didn’t expect them. Like a carnival ride. Some of the men laughed and some didn’t — or, as it seemed to me, wouldn’t. The player put the harp down and looked at the non-laughing men with sad clown eyes.
“Here, sis,” said a round man all balled up in rumpled clothing. He was from Broken Arrow, a for-real Okie. “It’s good for the soul,” he said with a halfway sort of grin. It was whiskey, and his offer meant that I was okay.
I paid him the country courtesy of not wiping the mouth of the bottle even though his mouth was juicy and his lip had a sore, and he acknowledged my courtesy by bowing his head like a gent. I took a huge slug, and he raised his brow in appreciation of my prowess. Go on, he gestured, so I had a lot more, and the party resumed. The man with the harp commenced to play and the guitar picker joined him. I crawled over to Jimmy, set my face in his lap. He patted my hair, which was stringy but clean from bathing in the river.
I dreamed of apples of all colors hanging by the dozens like Christmas tree ornaments on tall, twisted trees in a deep, dark grove. I reached for one but the tree was alive. It slapped my hand — my broken one — and I screamed in terror and pain. I bolted upright. Jimmy was asleep, as were most of the others.
An old hobo with a long, craggy face was staring at me in an accusing way. He stabbed the air with a gnarled finger. “You have sown the wind,” he said in a scratchy voice. “Ye shall reap the whirlwind.” He scrunched his nose, and darkness filled the ridges. “You have sown the wind, and shall reap the whirlwind.” He thrust his finger. My heart felt stabbed.
“Manners, Deke,” said the Texan, but he said it with little conviction.
Deke still glared at me, and I lowered my eyes. A tear fell like fruit.
“Ashes to ashes,” the Texas man said with a philosophic air. He picked up a handful of ash that had cooled. “Dust to dust.” He let the ash fall out of his hand. “Ain’t that the perfect verse for us, Kansas? For dust ’bos like us?”
“No sir,” I said.
I couldn’t look up, but I felt the men’s hunger as I felt my own hunger growling inside me, and I smelt the stench of their unwashed bodies mingled with the sweet woodsmoke. A skeeter stabbed my neck, and hordes of others lighted on the ashen faces of the sleeping men, disturbing their dreams. Flies buzzed Jimmy’s wound. I was glad that I’d dressed it.
“Iniquities, sir.” I impulsively covered my ruby pendent. “Visited on the children.”
The 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical
We are pleased to announce this piece as a Notable Mention for The 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical, honoring the independent press’ best writing on themes of historical people, places, events, objects, or ideas. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
JON SINDELL’s short fiction has appeared in several dozen publications, among them Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Word Riot, Connotation Press, MadHat Lit, New South, Mojave River Review, The Good Men Project, Prick of the Spindle, and Weave. He is the author of the books, Family Happiness and The Roadkill Collection. A human, he earns his bread as a humanities tutor and professional writing coach. He curates the Rolling Writers reading series in San Francisco and practiced law once’t.