The sheet snaps crisply in the wind, perfectly white, a blank canvas hanging on a line. A woman, neither young nor particularly old, bends over a large, wicker basket. Her hands are large and red, prematurely knotted from the harsh, unceasing wind. She is a good-sized woman. An old floral print dress clings to generous haunches as she efficiently plucks each item from the line and places it in the basket. She is one of an unbroken line of generations past, hardened and forged by life on the plains.
The woman knows she has only precious moments before the storms will begin again, completely blotting out the sun. The dust is a living, biblical storm, a constant plague that infiltrates every part of life. Dust or no, their sparse evening meal must find its way onto the table; their bellies growl in a constant dull ache. The crops have been savaged by the assault, topsoil ripped apart and carried miles away. Even so, she is determined her children will have something pure to sleep upon. They must not fester in filth and relentless, soul-crushing dirt. There will be clean sheets to rest their heads upon. If nothing else, she will give them that.
The laundry dances upon the rising tide, a beautiful, flapping symphony billowing all around her as the winds begin in earnest. A thousand raving lunatics whistle in her ear, high-pitched voices screaming in agony. Her fingers, raw from unending labor, go about their work with grim efficiency. Sudden darkness creeps over the land, turning the white of her freshly cleaned sheets sepia-toned.
A figure breaks away in the distance as the woman hastily yanks the laundry from the line. A man, impossibly tall and cadaverous with freakishly long arms, makes his way through the back fields. Each budding husk of corn withers in premature death as he saunters by, arms outstretched in ecstasy. A bleached, over sized head with cavernous black eyes balances precariously on emaciated shoulders, long wisps of straw-like hair flying around him like a deranged halo. He is carefree, his skeletal hands lovingly stroking the top of each new stalk as they blacken and rot in supplication before him.
He is everywhere. He is nowhere. He moves like a malignant shadow toward the woman, enjoying the sweet anticipation of their eventual encounter. There is no need to hurry. The storm is his life’s blood. A giant, rollicking wave of misery leaving miles of destruction in its wake. Day in, day out, the great dust bowl rages and dances in tribute to him. He will have his due. The woman will not escape.
The man smiles as he approaches her, unhinging a jaw full of razor sharp teeth. Blood and bits of gore drip from his mouth and down onto the battered soil. She looks up in alarm, looking past him and into the turbulence beyond. One day she will see him. The woman will cower as her children sputter and die before her. He has only to wait. The wind will do the rest.
The woman pulls the final sheet into the basket, throwing her body over it as she turns to run. Chunks of soil and ruined crops rain down from every direction, battering the woman relentlessly. The man speeds up his pace, certain that if he can catch her in time, his hunger will finally be satiated.
Tasting the warm comfort of her fear, he watches as she trips and falls onto the laundry, scrambling to right herself and make it to the house before she is buried by the tempest. The dust churns, picking up steam into a terrifying black crest, over twenty stories high. The woman’s eyes grow wide. Her children, a disheveled, dirty pair, call out to her from the door, pleading and begging her to please hurry, run! The boy’s hands stretch out to her, but the little girl is different. She looks past her mother and the laundry and the chaos. Directly into his eyes. He is momentarily paralyzed, caught off guard as the girl gives him a slow, deliberate smile. In horror, he can see her taking her natural place in the next generation. Her headstrong mother in miniature, staking her claim. Mocking him.
He lets out an earth-shattering howl as the woman crosses the threshold, throwing the laundry inside before slamming the door shut behind her. The worst of the storm pummels the tiny clapboard house over and over, venting his unending ire and frustration.
They can’t hold out forever. Pieces of their livelihood rain down like water from the sky. One day, he knows he will win.
The man retreats, becoming one with the storm, vowing to come back the next day and the next and the day after that. In the meantime, he has the wind and the dirt to do his bidding. The all-encompassing, relentless, soul-crushing dirt. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes.
Dust to dust.
Nature will have his due. It is only a matter of time.
Image by David Mark from Pixabay
8 thoughts on “Dust to Dust by A. Elizabeth Herting”
It’s great to see you back!
I had three thoughts on this.
First was the beastie man from ‘Jeepers Creepers’.
The second was Kings ‘The Stand’
And third was the hope of the kids defeating ‘It’ also by King.
Not bad thoughts to initiate in a reader from a piece of work that has completely it’s own identity.
Very descriptive, the storm was done brilliantly and we had a monster! I like monsters.
i enjoyed this story where man and nature compete, and the winner is encapsulated in a child’s smile.
In our modern times, we are chastised by political zealots about climate change and how we must save the planet, otherwise we will become extinct. Nature wins. I am sure the planet will survive and perhaps get along much better without the human race.
Elizabeth’s story reminded me of John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’, and the harsh conditions of that period.
i found the descriptive narrative encapsulating and the choice of words gave a deep dark tone of building fear. Of course, the defiance of the child’s smile had my attention reverberating and i had to smile knowing our future is safe!
Glad to see the return of Ms. Herting. She always brings such passionate energy to her work. And this piece is a perfect example of that. Stark, desolate, yet at the same time it moves along.
Beware the scarecrow! I liked it that Mom’s not going to drop her laundry for no freaky famine bearing dustbowl monster, even though it sounds as if future sheet drying ventures may end very badly. Reminds me a bit of the surreal TV series ‘Carnavale.’
I admit I was scared. For me, this piece speaks to the endurance of women. The daughter is ready to take up the challenge and the next generation sees life in a different light. Stylewise I’m reminded of Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean and bits of Markus Zusak. I’m a sucker for descriptive writing and this story does it well.
Death gets us all eventually. Till it does, we can keep the sheets clean and take care of the ones we love. But death will get them, too. (What a dark comment this is!)
A dark comment, but a good story, I should have said!
Absolutely terrifying and so beautifully written! ‘The woman will not escape’. Maybe not, but her daughter is willing to take on whatever follows after her inevitable death. The cycle will continue, mocking the monster for a long time to come.
Thanks for sharing this piece with us.