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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“Tornado!” someone shouted. “Run!”

None of us moved. We stood riveted at the windows as it came. My whole body tingled as if with electricity. That long crooked finger of cloud was a terrible thing to behold, but it was also mesmerizing. The air around it was filled with black pieces of debris like a flock of frenzying crows, things torn asunder by a power nothing earthly could resist. It was near enough now that I saw it uproot trees as it
crossed the Gilead River. It came at the water tower, and I suddenly remembered Albert and Volz, who were whitewashing the big tank. I pressed my nose to the window glass, straining to see if they were still up there. The job was only half-done,
still visible under the old whitewash, but as nearly as I could tell, the tower was deserted.

The tornado ripped across the ball field, and I watched the bleachers disintegrate in splinters. We should have moved, run to find shelter, but it was too late now. We stood paralyzed, watching our doom approach.

Then, by some miracle, the tornado turned and began to follow the river. It tore up the ground north of the school, sliding past all the buildings and the Brickmans’ fine home, heading toward the town of Lincoln itself. We ran to the windows along the east side of the dorm and watched the tornado skirt the south end of town and move into the farmland farther out along the river.

And I realized where it was headed.

Mose did, too. He grabbed my arm and signed,
Mrs. Frost and Emmy.

outside, we saw Volz and Albert coming from the dining hall. Behind them, others trickled out, and I figured they’d all huddled inside that great stone building to ride out the storm. Mose and I raced across the old parade ground.

“Mrs. Frost and Emmy,” I hollered. “Have you seen them?”

Volz shook his head. “Not today.”

“That tornado’s headed straight for their place.”

“Shouldn’t they be here somewhere?” Albert said.

“Let’s try her classroom,” Volz said.

She wasn’t there.

“Mrs. Brickman,” Volz suggested next. “She will know.”

We hurried to the Brickman home and pounded on the door, but no one answered. Albert went to the garage and peered through a window.

“The Franklin’s gone,” he said.

Volz pounded more and the door finally opened. Clyde Brickman stood there, as white as a ghost.

“That damn tornado almost got me,” he said.

“Cora Frost,” Volz demanded. “Was she at school today?”

Brickman scowled and thought a moment. “I don’t know.”

“Mrs. Brickman,” Volz said. “Does she know?”

“Thelma left for Saint Paul this morning, Herman. She’s gone all week.”


Volz looked east, down the track of destruction left by the storm. We all looked that way. In my whole life, I had never been so afraid.

“Wait here,” Volz said. “I get my automobile.”

He drove us all, Brickman included, toward the home of Cora and Emmy Frost. At the south end of Lincoln, we saw that the wooden buildings next to the grain elevators lay in rubble. We followed the dirt road that lay beside the river, driving through the aftermath of capricious destruction. Here, a barn had been torn in half while not twenty yards away the farmhouse stood untouched. There, a silo had lost its top, but inside the cattle pen still intact next to it, cows browsed as if nothing had happened. I saw a big sheet of corrugated metal bent around a cottonwood trunk like Christmas wrapping paper. For the first time in forever, I found myself praying sincerely, desperately asking God to spare Cora Frost and her daughter.

When we arrived at the farm, all my hope died. Where only a few days before, Mrs. Frost and the Brickmans had sat in the parlor sipping tea, nothing remained now but splintered boards. The barn had been obliterated. Many of the orchard trees had been torn out by their roots and lay thrown in an abysmal jumble. Mrs. Frost’s truck lay flipped on its top like a dead turtle. Over everything lay utter silence.

We dug among the ruins, lifting debris, calling their names. I was sure we wouldn’t find them alive, and because of this, didn’t really want to find them at all. I could see how easily the storm had twisted
and torn things of solid construction, and I didn’t want to look on the actuality of what it must have done to something as fragile as flesh and bone. So mostly I just stood numb atop the broken roof beams that had once sheltered Cora and Emmy Frost, and that, for a brief time, I’d let myself believe would shelter me, too.

I’d lost my mother and my father. I’d been beaten, degraded, thrown into isolation, but until that moment, I’d never lost hope that someday things would be better.

Then Mose signed,
Hear that?

I listened, and I heard it, too.

Mose started pulling up boards and broken beams. The rest of us joined in. We worked feverishly, clearing the debris above the little cries we heard. We finally reached the outside entrance to the cellar, where the door was still blocked by two heavy sections of broken joists. We cleared those, and Mose yanked open the door. Staring up at us from the dark inside stood little Emmy Frost, her face and clothing covered in dust, the curls of her hair tangled stiff with grit, her blue eyes blinking at the sudden light. Mose bounded down the stairs and swept her up in his arms and brought her out, and signed to her,
Your mother?

“I don’t know.” Emmy was crying hysterically. She shook her head wildly and said again, “I don’t know.”

“Was she with you down there?” Volz asked.

Again the headshake, and dust flew from her hair in a cloud. “She put me there and then she left me all alone.”

“Where did she go, Emmy?” Albert asked.

“Big George,” she said. “She was going to let him out of the barn.”

After her husband died, Cora Frost had chosen to keep the draft horse, though feeding such a great beast was a costly chore. Volz and Albert had already checked the pile of rubble that had been the barn, but they ran back and began going through the debris again.

“Where’s Mama?” Emmy cried. “Mama?”

“Hush, girl,” Brickman said. “It does you no good to cry.”

She paid him no attention. “Mama!”

Mose sat down on the rubble of the house and took Emmy onto his lap and held her against his chest and she cried and cried. After a while, Albert and Volz returned and simply shook their heads.

“I will take her back to the school,” Volz said.

“I’ll go with you,” Brickman said.

I crossed my arms and stood firm. “I’m not leaving until we find Mrs. Frost.”

Volz didn’t argue. “All right, Odie. Albert, Mose, will you stay also?”

They both nodded.

“I will send someone back for you. Clyde, let’s get this little girl out of here.”

They tried to pull Emmy away from Mose, but she clung to him fiercely, and finally Volz said, “You come, too, Mose.”

They walked away, Mose carrying little Emmy, but Brickman lingered a moment and surveyed the destruction. Under his breath he said, “Jesus.”

“You were wrong,” I told him.

He looked at me and squinted. “Wrong?”

“You said God was a shepherd and would take care of us. God’s no shepherd.”

He didn’t respond.

“You know what God is, Mr. Brickman? A goddamn tornado, that’s what he is.”

Brickman simply turned and walked away.

After they were gone, Albert and I stood alone. The sky above us was clear and blue, as if it had never hurled at us the hell of the last couple of hours. I heard a meadowlark sing.

“It was going to be perfect,” I said. “Everything was finally going to be perfect.”

Albert turned in a full circle, taking in the whole of the devastation around us. When he spoke, his voice was as hard as I’d ever heard it. “One by one, Odie,” he said. “One by one.”


Frost’s body later that day, a mile distant, cradled in the branches of an elm in a farmyard where the tornado had done no damage at all but had, as it dissipated, deposited a lot of debris. Big George, the draft horse, was found unharmed, not far from the destruction of the Frost farm, placidly munching grass along the bank of the Gilead River.

When she received the report of what had happened, Mrs. Brickman returned from Saint Paul immediately. She magnanimously declared that Emmy Frost would not be motherless for long. It was her intention to adopt the little girl just as soon as she could.

Mose, when he heard this, signed,
Black Witch her new mother?
Then he signed something that Mrs. Frost, had she been alive, would never have approved of.

Albert said in a low, resigned voice, “What the Black Witch wants, the Black Witch gets.”

To me it seemed just one more unfair thing in a long line of terrible unfairnesses. I could live with all the disappointment and destruction that a heartless God had sent my way. Maybe I even deserved it. But Emmy Frost? All she’d ever done her whole brief life was bring happiness to the rest of us. And Mrs. Frost? If ever there’d been an angel on this earth, it was her.

The funeral service was held on Thursday in the gymnasium. All the kids at school were there, except Billy Red Sleeve, who hadn’t been picked up by the authorities yet. We were dressed as if for Sunday, and the podium Mr. Brickman always preached from stood on the gym floor with chairs behind it for him and Mrs. Brickman, and one for Emmy, who sat there slumped like a lifeless doll. We hadn’t
seen her since that terrible day of the tornado. She wore a new dress and shiny new leather shoes. The grit and dust and plaster had been so thick in her hair that they couldn’t wash it out, and they’d simply cut back all her curls to within an inch of her scalp. Without the dress, she could have passed for a boy.

Miss Stratton sat at the pump organ. She played “Rock of Ages” and we all mumbled along. Mr. Brickman gave the eulogy. For the first time I could recall, he spoke to us in a respectful tone with no bombast whatsoever. I’d never liked him, but I was grateful for the kind—and true—things he said about Cora Frost.

Then the Brickmans got a surprise.

Miss Stratton announced, “Odie O’Banion and I have something we’d like to offer in Cora’s memory.” She nodded to me, and I stood.

“What are you doing?” Albert whispered. He eyed the Brickmans, who sat with looks on their faces that were far from Christian.

“Just listen,” I said.

Mose signed,
Make it sweet, Odie.

I stood beside the pump organ and pulled my harmonica from my pocket, and Miss Stratton and I played together the song we’d been practicing in secret.

I’d promised myself I wouldn’t cry. I wanted to deliver the only gift I had to offer in the memory of Cora Frost. But as I started blowing the first notes of “Shenandoah,” the tears began to run. I played on anyway, and Miss Stratton followed, and the music itself seemed to weep and not just for what we’d lost that week. It was for the families and the childhoods and the dreams that were, even for those of us so young, already gone forever. But as I continued, I went to that place only music could take me, and although Cora Frost was dead and about to be buried along with my fleeting hope of a better life, I imagined she was listening somewhere, with her husband at her side, and they were both smiling down on me and Emmy and Albert and Mose and all the others whose lives, at least for a while, had been better because of them. And in the end, that’s where my tears were coming from.

When I finished, everyone was crying, even Mr. Brickman, who had a heart, I could see, though a small one. But the Black Witch had no heart, and she shed not one tear. She was giving me and Miss Stratton the evil eye. I tried to return to my seat on the bleachers, but Miss Stratton took my hand and held me where I stood.

Mr. Brickman closed with a prayer, and the kids all began to file out. Mrs. Brickman leaned to Emmy and said something, then she stood and walked to the pump organ.

“A lovely tune” were the words she said, but her voice said something entirely different. “And quite unexpected.”

Miss Stratton looked as if she believed the Black Witch was going to pounce and devour her whole.

I said, “It was my idea, ma’am. I knew it was Mrs. Frost’s favorite song. Miss Stratton was just being nice, that’s all.”

“Nice. Of course. But, Lavinia, next time you decide to be nice, I’d like to know in advance. And I have to tell you that I find it strange you bend so easily to the whims of one of our students.”

“It won’t happen again, Thelma.”

Mrs. Brickman trained her eyes on me. “You played well, Odie.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Enjoy that harmonica while you can.”

She walked to Emmy, took her by the arm, and led her out. Emmy glanced back at me once. I knew that lost look well, and it broke my heart to see it on her face.

Miss Stratton stared where they’d gone and said quietly, “That tornado took the wrong woman.”

Lincoln School was rare, and that day was no exception. We all had our work assignments. The haying was finished in Bledsoe’s fields, but I’d drawn another unpleasant assignment—grounds work under DiMarco’s iron gaze. I had no intention of working for
DiMarco that afternoon. While the others followed Volz and Mr. Greene to the dining hall, I slipped away.

It was three miles to the devastated Frost farmstead. When I arrived, I saw that everything was pretty much as we’d left it on that terrible afternoon of the tornado, all untouched rubble. The leaves of the torn-up orchard trees were already drying out, turning brown and brittle. The truck still lay flipped on its top and still reminded me of a dead turtle. I saw a rabbit munching on the young shoots in Mrs. Frost’s big garden. It eyed me and made no move to run. The destruction of the farmstead was total, but less than a hundred yards away, the trees along the river had been left untouched.

I walked down to the rack where Mr. Frost had always kept his canoe. The sturdy little craft still lay cradled with the paddles stored beneath. I sat down on the riverbank and remembered the last time I’d been there, the last good day. I’d cried some when I played “Shenandoah,” but now I wept a river of tears. I hated Albert for being so right. I shouldn’t have let myself get close to Mrs. Frost and Emmy. One was dead and the other, it seemed to me, was as good as. I felt terrible about the little girl’s fate, but what could I do? It was just like with Billy Red Sleeve. I would never be the good shepherd I wanted to be.

BOOK: This Tender Land
2.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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