• FTB Literary Group

Cattails in The Fall -Tiffany Lindfield

Updated: May 20, 2020

1. And unto the Earth She fell. She fell unto it’s rolling grasses and wept. She beat her fists into the dirt of the Earth, cursing Earth. 2. Unto the Earth She cursed. She cursed the Earth for indifference. 3. She cried unto the Earth, “I curse you Earth! I curse you so that you can no longer bring forth.” 3. She tried to end the life from which She had sprung but the sun shone through her eyes, revealing the sight of cattails; seeds. 5. At once, She stood close to the edge of a pond where cattails in the fall stood. 6. She cupped her hands around them, touching them unto her face; large and soft; fragile for a wind to carry them to soil. 7. Seed; She was seed; bore seed. And unto the Earth, She and cattails in the fall stood. 8. And unto the Earth a lion and her cubs, and a coyote and her cubs, and cattails in the fall stood.

1933 That was one of her visions. She had them often. Sometimes in her mind, sometimes in the dust—maybe her mind was dust, too, she thought. The whole place was dust. She’d walk about the yard as if walking through a vast sand box. And sometimes she’d see visions right there in the dirt. Dirt. Dust. Sand. It wasn’t all the same was it? She’d scoop some of it in her hands, wondering from where this batch blew in from. Someone at the feed store had said it was Topeka dirt. That was why when the clouds came up it was black, they said. In other parts they said it was a brown color; others talked tones of orange. This day she laid right out in it, her skin a burning crimson, open blisters on cracked hands, hoping for the next dust storm to blow her away. Let the wind carry her like it carried those seeds, she thought but it was a calm day. The wind strangely absent and still no rain. Laying down on the ground, looking up, she saw a crystal blue sky, white puffs of clouds drifting in a lazy stroll. She saw a bird or two take off, flaps in the air. It was funny, she thought. Grounded, they were miraculous in detail. Down to the fuzzy holes on their beaks. Were those noses? Intricate claw beds and songs to sing. But up there, far away, they barely had a shape against the blue canvas of sky. She remembered the time she saw a hawk carrying a snake. The serpent’s body violently twisting, trying to escape the grips of a tenacious beak—escape fate, the inevitable. In another vision the snake fell. What happened? She didn’t know. Did the hawk let go by accident or did it grow weary of carrying? It’s a thing—growing weary of carrying. That devil fell right beside her, his body a thud in the dirt, the impact throwing dust in her eyes. She was used to the dust and did not even blink. The snake stared at her with two small eyes, black beads and let out a red tongue, still worked up. That was the body’s way. It kept going on, laboring, revving up—after things like that. Near death and all. It fascinated her. The way the body grips and holds onto life. She saw it in her husbands’ hands—hands still toiling and wrist deep in the dirt, yet not one damn drop of rain. She even felt in her bones, life tugging to remain—too stiff to move but still piddling in that sandbox, hunger stabbing at her sides, her throat dry with a voice catching on dust, suffocating her words. She felt her whole-body shriveling from death, like grapes under suns, no shade. When would the next storm come and carry her with it? She closed her eyes. Soon, she thought. The storms always came now, roaming the countryside, settling in the creases of old woman’s fat, in the lips of their vaginas, the wombs of their bellies, in the cereal and the cracks of their kitchen tables. And she saw it again. Cattails in the fall. This time on the slope of a mountain where a lion with a supple, brown coat stood, grounded on large paws. Her coat was the same color as the swaying cattails. The lion’s long tail, curling at the end—lest it drag the ground, as she preyed upon someone to eat. “Mary Bell, you just gonna give up, huh?” Timothy asked. She turned to see her husband on the porch, petting a small dress over his knee; he was watching Mary’s flapping arms and legs make angels. They had seen children do this in Kentucky’s snow. It snowed up there, and rained so hard people would say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” They had trees and mountains and wildflowers, too.

1928 She had carried some of those wildflowers with her—to Oklahoma, in the family Bible when Timothy and she made the drive. Timothy and she had just got married. How could she refuse? He was a tender-hearted man. Gentle as balmy rain. She could sit for hours listening to him talk, content as his words tumbled out slowly, cautious, with pauses to make sure he was saying the right thing. She was lucky and she knew that. He had run home one day, revved up with a brochure in his hand. They didn’t have to stay in Kentucky, in the backwoods, among the mountain folk mining, he said. They could pack up and drive to Oklahoma and be farmers. Have their own piece of land. Everyone they really loved was dead or stupid anyways, she thought and there was something bewitching in his eyes. He talked quick about it, without a single stutter. She knew he had caught a hold of something wild, by the tail; It was a dream. They packed up the little they had. He helped her climb in the truck and held his hand on her belly, swollen with child as they etched closer to dreams of wealth and ease. She held that brochure, sleek finish, as their beat-up truck bounced along the road to new places, new land. They would grow wheat, golden wheat in the heart of Oklahoma and prosper—the brochure read. “I think we’ll get in trouble out there,” She said, sucking on the bottom of a weed. “Why you think that?” “Just so many people, digging up all that land. Don’t the land need what we might be digging up?” “People farm in Kentucky.” “That was different. You can’t really dig up a whole mountain. But look here at this picture. It’s all flat. We’ll be diggin’ up all they is to dig. People are okay with you takin’ a little or some of what they have. But we thinkin’ of taking everything she has.” “She?” “The Earth.” Timothy laughed, then smiled with endearment. “You really got some strange notions, Mary Bell.” First two months there, her back bent to a flat Earth, the sun beating against it, she miscarried their first child—right there in wind-slapped grass, watching as it seemed to wave her comfort. She fell into it with a scream as her body forced death out of her. She yelled for him, but Timothy was riding on a borrowed tractor, ripping the soil, in a straw hat, a pipe in his mouth, fresh tobacco. By the time he made it home, the sun resting behind him, she lay naked in their marital bed, her legs open, staring at a red spot in the sheet, crying, her body shaking. “Mary. No.” He ran, instinctively putting his hand on her belly. “No baby in this belly. She’s out there in the yard, in the grass…She…She was a girl,” Mary said with blood swiped across her cheeks. Timothy put his face in the space between her arm and shoulder. She could feel his hair wet with sweat, smell the fortitude in his weakness. The next day, he dug a hole and laid the baby in the ground, wrapped in an old sheet. He went to cry but wiped his face, saying, “She up in heaven with Jesus. Ain’t no need in me fussin.’ Lord, I ask that you look after her, now,” he said, tears streaming down his face, despite.

1929 Lindsey was born in the summer of ‘29, this time right in the middle of their plot of field. Mary was carrying something to Timothy when her water broke. And she squatted under the same sun, on the same Earth and gave birth—this time to a live baby girl who came out in a roar; howling like coyotes. As the child broke from her body, a vision of mountain lions chasing prey pierced her mind. Mary could see Timothy running to her, his hands flapping. His face widening into a dazzling smile, under a lambent sky when he saw the baby. He placed an earth laden hand on her head, mixing blood and dirt. And husband and wife walked back to the house, Mary holding the baby and their umbilical cord.

Late 1930 She remembered the day she heard about it. The Great Depression. Sam, a stubby man from church was passing around the town’s paper. Timothy couldn’t read or write, but Mary could having been taught by her grandmother, and she read it cover to cover while Pastor Tom bellowed about hell and fire, sweating and wiping it away. Maybe he was already in hell, Mary thought. “That man could find sweat in a snowstorm,” she whispered to Timothy, who flagged her off, intent on the preacher’s words. Later on; “What that paper say, Maybear? He asked, as they sat by a fire she made. Chicken in his teeth. “Says the Depression is coming.” “We’ve heard about that,” he said. “It’s coming to Oklahoma.” “It ain’t.” “It is,” Mary Bell said wrapping Lindsey tight in a pink blanket the Havemeyer’s had given her. It was soft, all the way from New York, Mrs. Havemyer had said. Baby cooed. “Lindsey says its coming,” Mary said. He reached for the baby and put his face to hers. He was like that with things smaller than him. She would catch him in the hen house, petting the heads of their chickens with just one finger, bent down to see them—to see their eyes.

Early 1931 Maya’s General store sat in the town’s square and of all things it was run by an old widow woman, named Maya. Maya’s nephew, John, helped her with the store’s busy work. Mary Bell loved going to the store, watching how Maya told John to do this or that and he’d hop this way or that in the prettiest skin she had seen on a man. “Oh, now nothin’ stays the same. Things always changin,” Maya said, handing Timothy change as Mary noted all the lines on her face, like chicken scratches across dirt. Another store patron, June spoke up, “Ya’ know I heard that all that rain that was a comin’ was nothing but a fluke. My husband heard it from some Indian man whose family been livin’ on these plains for more than any of us could count backward.” “Woman, what ya’ mean a fluke?” Mr. Massey, sitting near the store’s heater asked. John chimed in with a bag of potatoes slapped across his back, “Hog pussy. We just goin’ through a lil’ dry spell. A small spell and well, no harm in that. That rain is just around the corner. Bet your bottom dollar on that. Yep, come the end of this month and this area will be flooded.” “We ain’t been on this land long enough to know what it gonna do or not gonna do and even if we got a sense of what she was aiming to do— that when she’ll change on us. Like I said, things always changin,” Maya said. Timothy and Mary listened to the chatter, then walked out into a windy breeze, as Lindsey waddled behind, a sucker in her hand. “Pa, look!” She said, holding a red pop up to Timothy, who saw it was now spotted with black soil.” “Ain’t nothing but a bit of dirt. Lick it off. Won’t hurt you none.” Lindsey put the candy in her mouth. *** The end of the month came and the next, but John’s flood never came—or even a light shower. Timothy was a sight to see, with his shirt undone, sweat slipping down his neck, and chest. An old, dirty hat crooked, his face tilted to the sky, eyebrows furrowed. “You think it will rain?” He asked Mary Bell. “Looks like it wants to.” “I saw lighten’ earlier, yonder up,” he said pointing. Lindsey pointed her finger up to the same sky, snug on her mother’s hip. Mary Bell swung herself around in a circle, whirling Lindsey around who grabbed her mother’s shoulder. “Wee,” Mary bell said. “Wee,” Lindsey repeated with a bright smile, dimples resting in new skin. Dinner came and went and still no rain, despite. And then late in the night, they all heard it. Thunder roaring and crashing against their one-room house. Timothy jerked out of bed and ran right into it. Mary followed him, and the toddler followed, waddling behind them both, “Ma. Pa” “It’s gonna rain, baby, told you it would,” he said with sweet relief, his grin showing teeth unattended to. “You gonna get struck by it,” Mary said. “God ain’t gonna do a good man like that.” “Ain’t no rain coming, Tim.” He stopped awing the sky and stared dead at her, in saggy underpants, the elastic worn. “Why do you go and say somethin’ like that? Maybe you want us to die out here?” He said, walking right past her, with his bottom lip tucked under crooked teeth. He was sitting on the bed, with his head in his hands when she and Lindsey walked back into the house, his shoulders shrug. His fingers dirt black. He knew the land, could feel a wind before it came, smell rain before it fell. He knew the buffaloe grass, it’s root. The feel of it in his hands, turned over in his calloused palms; he knew the chickens in the yard; knew all their names: Lucy, Lucky, Betty, Boop, and Tom. “I can only tell you what I think is all.” “Mary, somethin’ is changin.’ Somethin’ coming like we ain’t ever seen,” he whispered as if speaking above would give the dreaded thing nearing Godspeed. “I told you we done took too much from her.” Timothy jumped up, like a ghost conjured poked him in the rib and he ran outside, his family following, slowly. “Pa, lookin’ for?” Lindsey asked, watching him digging barehanded in the ground. He looked up, his eyes reflecting under a full moon’s light. “You remember when we first got here? Remember we could dig deep as ever and the ground was wet?” He asked. “I remember. The grass had those deep roots, kept the water locked in the ground. But we done dug them all up.” Mary Bell and Lindsey looked at the dry dirt in his hands, crumpling like small rocks. “Well look here, it’s all gone. Dry as a bone,” he said. Mary Bell leaned her head on his shoulder, his face still bent to the Earth. “I’m scared we're gonna starve out here. The wind blows the damn seed right out the ground and what we do grow ain’t worth nothin’ now.” “Timmy, we done took too much from her." He pushed her off his shoulder and walked away, towards the field, cursing her under his breath.

1932 They were driving back from town when the first real dust storm came and decided to set up house. Her and Tim and the baby girl had been sitting outside the feed store, sharing a coke and some caramel for Lindsey’s birthday. Getting in the car, the sun light seemed to dim—just a tad, but as they began to drive, they saw it, they were driving right into it; A large black cloud. Timothy got wiggly in his seat, pointing, “What’s that...that rain?” Mary Bell craned her neck, straining her eyes. Timothy stopped the car, got out, sensing something peculiar. Mary Bell put her head out of the car window, feeling grits of sand hit her in the face. She then got out of the car, telling Timothy, “It’s coming.” Timothy stared ahead. “What’s comin’ Mary? What the hell is coming? Just say what’s coming!” He screamed, spit flying from a mouth twisted. They all got back in the car, as another motorist headed their way, Mr. Paul from the feed store, who pulled beside them, rolling down his window. “It’s the end of the world. Calvary is coming!" He said. Mary Bell held her tongue as Timothy stared on. “It ain’t rain, you think?” “That ain’t rain, son. That’s the end of the world,” he answered, then sped off. “Does he expect to beat it? The end of the world?” Mary asked. Timothy started the truck back up, driving fast, saying he would get them home and keep them safe. One hand was on the wheel and his other went from Mary to Lindsey, making sure to touch their face or pat their knees. But the dark cloud grew closer and closer, like a heap of moving tar, stealing the light from the sky. And then it fell, the dust—all of a sudden, in a frantic whoosh, stopping them dead in the road. Like a blanket being pulled over faces, smothering them in heat and darkness. They could barely hear anything but the rage of it and covered their ears, then their mouths and eyes as the dust blew in sideways though a window stuck open. Mary Bell and Timothy hovered, in obscurity, over Lindsey who was squealing, trying to shield her. It seemed like hours before it passed over, but it was only minutes. The same cloud of dust that had moved over them, was now rushing behind them, as they started the truck and drove home in near darkness, wiping it from their faces. Lindsey cradled, knobby kneed, in Mary’s lap. Timothy shook so hard, relief and fear, that his hands barely kept the steering wheel steady. When they got home, they saw the cow turned over in the yard, only hoofs sticking out, the chickens clucking wildly, flapping dust off their bodies. Inside, their fingers felt a thick sweeping of dust over everything in the house. Mary made a fire and in its glow their faces lit up like charcoal drawings, eyebrows fixated in shock. “God done forsake this place,” Timothy said. “We did this,” Mary Bell responded.

1933 Timothy, Mary Bell, and Lindsey stood on the porch of the Havemyer’s nice white house, all removing the makeshift masks they had been wearing, but Lindsey who cried when Mary tried to remove hers, saying, “I need it, mama.” “We safe here,” Timothy said, but Lindsey held the knot from being untied with small hands. Inside, Mrs. Havemyer ran about the kitchen, talking, chattering, you couldn’t get a word in. And Mary Bell didn’t have many words to get in. Her stomach ached as the smell of biscuits and a pot of greens stewed. Mary Bell watched Havemyer glaze a ham, slowly, methodically as if she were painting some masterpiece to hang on the wall. She had fancy things like that all over her house. Pictures, glass animals, books, even rugs and a housecat; a small yellow bird sitting in a cage. Lindsey sat in Mary’s lap whimpering like a rag doll. The child hadn’t eaten anything but a potato in two days and now a glass of cold milk, with a cookie; Mrs. Havemyer saying, “Let’s go ahead and give this baby somethin’ to eat." It was only then that Lindsey let Mary take the mask off. Mary Bell stared at the yellow bird, wondering what it must have felt like to have flown once, perched in trees, now behind cooper wire. “How old is the bird?” “Oh, birdie…birdie is, well, honey, I don’t know. She came all the way from Tennessee, forgot what they call them now. Mr. Havemyer may kn—” “He doesn’t sing, much," Mary said with a blank stare. “Oh,” she said, surprised. Mr. Havemyer, followed by a few other locals, including Timothy walked in. “Hole is dug,” Mr. Havemyer said, with a clap of his hands, proudly. “Oh dear, well poor little souls,” Mrs. Havemeyer said in habit. Chairs pulled out, and people gathered around the dining room’s large oak table. Mary knew it was the biggest meal many of them had seen in months—years, or ever, except for the Havemyers. Lindsey stared in awe at the food before her, timidly bringing food from bowls, platters and trays to her plate. “I just can’t understand burin’ good meat when so many starvin’?” Jefferey said, without a bit of shame in his low status. “Like Wallace said, we can’t go around nursing pigs til’ clavary. But everyone sittin’ here…everyone helpin’ me with this will get a hog a piece. Okay, Mary? If you can feed more, you can have more,” Mr. Havemyer said. Mrs. Havemyer smiled wide, moving her eyes along the faces of the men, sternly. “How about that preachin’ this morning?” “Ya know some people are packin’ up now, say it better to leave now, then stay here and wait on somethin’ that may never come,” Thomas, a young buck from Alabama said. “Where can they go?” Jefferey asked. “The depression is worse in other places.” “But they have rain,” Jean said, a reserved man answered. Everyone looked at Jean, who rarely talked, noticed his eyes swollen from tears held back. “I’m so sorry about Helena,” Timothy said to Jean, who nodded. “She’s in glory, now, right next to the golden throne!” Mrs. Havemyer sung out, clasping her hands to the ceiling. “Right, she is,” Thomas said. And then everyone went on about the bread, the butter, the ham and all the fixings as Mrs. Havemyer glowed. Then the frenzy of forks on plates settled, people pushed back their chairs to make room for their guts, and Mr. Havemyer said, coolly, "It's time.” Mary watched as the men stood up, Jean last, adjusting hats over their heads and wiping their faces. “Oh dear, poor little souls,” Mrs. Havemyer said. Mary Bell could hear the pigs squealing from inside as the men rounded them up. Did they know? She was sure they did and she sat, holding back what she knew to be rage, as Mrs. Havemyer went on and on about passing through Nebraska, her sewing circle, something Ruth said from the bible. Later that night, lying side by side with Lindsey wedged between them, Timothy told Mary about the burying of those piglets and some sows alive; said that he and the other men shot as many as they could, so they didn’t have to die—like that—so slowly, dust-covered. He said the babies screamed, that the sight of their legs, tails, the flat part of their noses, their mouths opening—revved up, hanging on, begging for it—mercy, for life was tormenting his mind. Mary put her hand on his cheek, and he spoke the truth of it, passing it to her so he could sleep. “It was nothing short of a crime,” the preacher man said, a week later. "Killing off good meat, when people all over God's Earth were starving," he went on. But his cows had died, that same day, the same way. And the paper passing around the church that day read, “The Great Culling.” That night, after Sunday’s sermon, Lindsey’s cough worsened, rambling them awake all through the night like thickets brushing against the bodies of birds. Lindsey was dying the same way Jean’s wife and many others in the town had died. Ammonia from breathing in all the dust. They sat with her through that first night, the next and on the third night, her last night. Mary Bell felt that same revving in her daughter’s hands, hands refusing to let go. Lindsey tugged weakly on her mother’s dress, pulled at her own mouth, crying as death called, taking what it could. Mary thought of Oklahoma sand choking her daughter; fragments, pieces of old life lodged in her daughter’s new lungs. As Lindsey wailed against death, the sow the Havemyer’s had given them hollered, her screams echoing off wind and it was in Lindsey's eyes that Mary saw mother pigs calling out, mouths wide open, when Lindsey finally let go. Death came and took everything; it takes everything. Even the memories fade. She let the child flop down on the floor as a vision of a coyote in the mouth of a mountain lion seared her mind. Timothy threw his hands down to catch the child, asking Mary, “What you doin’ woman?” but she didn’t hear him. She saw the lion walk back with a kill, blood on her face, to a den of two cubs hungry, the cubs pawing the body of a once powerful creature. He held the dead child, limp in his arms, his head leaned back on its neck, mouth wide open, spit at the creases, the rot in his teeth showing. Mary didn’t move for hours as Timothy mourned in fits and grunts. He slapped Mary, leaving a print of his hand across her dirty face, and still she sat seeing vision of this and that. He called her crazy and said maybe if she had of kept Lindsey out of the storms, she’d be alive. Mary stood up and went outside at that—"You did this,” she said bluntly. She sat under the stars, cussing every one of them, sometimes more than once until she fell asleep. She awoke and cursed some more. Fall of 1939 And here she was, only days later—or was it months or years— laid out in the yard, her mind held captive in visions, flapping her arms and legs. Him watching from the porch, Lindsey’s dress in his hands. And then it rained. And she could finally let the tears roll from her eyes. She wiped her face, but the tears kept slipping. And tears, rain and dust covered her face. She didn’t know when Timothy came to her side, but he did. He had her in his arms, holding her to a bony chest, heaving, the rain soaking them wet. “Mary Bell don’t die on me. If you give up, I’ll have to give up, too. Don’t you see that?” They raised each other up, onto the Earth, and stood tall. She realizing— Earth— was strong and that She could go on for a while longer; a little while longer.

Tiffany Lindfield is a social worker by day, by, trade and in heart working as an advocate for climate justice. By night, she is a prolific reader of anything decent and a writer.

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