Issue #19 |

The Promised Land

panoramic shot of an oasis in a desert valley

i

Every morning, when the black of sky had barely lightened to a deep blue in the east and the camp lay quiet and exhausted, Maggie McCurdy heard her father stir, and prop himself up on one elbow, and say to her mother, “All right, old woman, time.” Then Maggie’s mother sat up, eyes wide and frightened.

They were five, sleeping all on two tick mattresses. Maggie’s mother and father slept on one. Maggie shared the other tick with two brothers, Keith, just a year younger than her, and little Butch. A third brother, younger than Butch, had died from dysentery their first year in California, and they did not speak his name anymore.

Maggie’s mother Rose groaned and turned over to all fours before rising unsteady to her feet in the tent, and Maggie kicked at Butch, and pushed Keith’s hands away from where they had strayed over her body, and rose to help her mother get breakfast. She lit the kerosene cooker while her mother gathered food from the cab of the truck where all was stowed to keep it away from rats. Some mornings it was beans and fried dough, some mornings fried cornmeal, some mornings oatmeal mush, some mornings boiled potatoes. By the time breakfast was hot, all were up and huddled around the cooker, hungry for whatever there was. Before the sun rose over the distant mountains, they had their cotton sacks shook out, ready to tie around their necks and drag through the long day.

The McCurdys had been in this same pickers camp the year before, when they first came to California from Texas. They’d found it through talk with other migrants along Highway 99, then by following an old truck like theirs down a rutted lane to a small clearing beside an old oxen shed. People had already staked out small places for their tents and stoves, and the McCurdys did the same. After the cotton was over, they’d joined the flight to the next crop, and the next, and now, a year later, they were again where they began.

Maggie always worked a row next to Annabel Burnham, another girl of sixteen from Dallam County. They talked through the long day, pinching cotton fiber into their sacks, each pinch tiny, yet adding to the weight they dragged behind them. The talk made the work feel lighter. They shared thoughts about boys in the camp, about their strutting and preening before the girls, about their naked need and want. Annabel had already settled on a boy she called her fiancé, a seventeen-year-old named Thomas, blond and fair and always sunburned. Thomas had wanted to be a schoolteacher before his family was dusted out of their farm, and he still wanted to be. And Annabel talked about being married to a schoolteacher, and Maggie agreed about how nice it would be, though neither talked of how Thomas would get to the Teachers College in East Texas from pickers camps in California.

Maggie talked about life after the camps as well, though she held only vague ideas of what the shape of her life might be and how she might get free. None of the boys she knew offered a way out, nor did the older men who looked her over, hungry men in their twenties and thirties also chasing harvests around the state.

Both Maggie and Annabel swore they would not get married until they were out of the camps. They had helped at birthings, done on newspapers spread over carpets laid on a dirt floor, and they’d witnessed pain unspeakable. Afterwards, they’d taken the newspapers out to burn or bury as best they could, to keep them away from any boys or dogs. They had also seen babies die after a week, or a month. They talked about one girl in the camps who had married young, and had two young children who yet lived, and had a hard and thinned face always, and was always fearful.

At the end of each day, Maggie’s cotton sack was weighed up with her father’s and her brothers’ sacks, and her father collected all the tickets. Then they trudged down the single rude lane lined with tents and cardboard huts, feeling the stink from kerosene and open pit toilets. Maggie’s mother worked half the day, then came back to simmer beans over the cooker. After Maggie folded and stowed her cotton sack, she set to peeling a few potatoes they might add to the beans. She had done this same thing last year, in this same season, in this same place. The second year in California had begun, and it would be the same as the first year, but worse because only the same, and her talk with Annabel only talk.

ii

Maggie’s family had lived on the Hightop, altitude 4000 feet, called agriculture’s last frontier, where land was still to be had and every man could be his own landlord. The land agents had promised a region level, rich, tillable, with deep soil beneath the buffalo grass. A quarter section with a dirt tank and shallow well, no deeper than eighty feet, could support melons and orchards and garden truck crops, and a half dozen cows, and eighty acres of wheat or milo or kaffir for market. The agents promised also peace and plenty, sunshine and contentment, health, wealth, and opportunity, safety from panic, freedom from struggle, a road to happiness.

Maggie’s father borrowed and bought land in 1922, and bought a tractor, and a Grand Detour plow, and peeled up the grasslands. And the first years were good and prosperous, for the McCurdys and for their neighbors in the Hightop. They had seasons of rain, and the railroad had reached the nearby town of Coldwater, so the grain they grew was easy to market. All about them, and throughout the High Plains, grasslands were stripped, planted to grains, left bare to the changing seasons.

The family left the Hightop ten years after they’d arrived, when the drought had turned their land from living soil to lifeless dry particulate. The green years ended, and the markets crashed, and their farmhouse lay stranded amid shoals of barren desert. The eighty-foot well ran dry, and the fruit trees they had planted withered, trees that they had nurtured with hand-carried buckets of water. When the winds came and lifted the dirt and blackened the sky, and the mortgage company caught up with them, and the finance company caught up with them, they boarded up the windows of their house and nailed shut the door, packed what they could in bundles and boxes and crates roped to the roof or running boards of their truck, and joined the migrants rolling toward California.

But Maggie knew her parents hadn’t forgotten the Hightop. She heard them remember it green with spring rain and yellow with rich grain, a cherished place reft from them, their plowing and planting and harvesting a work blessed by God.

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When the cotton first started, the rich first picking, a few nickels were spared for the movies, and Maggie walked the mile into town from camp with Annabel and Thomas to see Katherine Hepburn as Jo in Little Women. And as she stood on the tiled terrazzo in line at the ticket booth, she noticed a town boy staring at her. He was leaning against the movie poster cases that showed coming attractions, with some other boys but a little apart from them, and his face was smooth and youthful, the face of someone who had never had to sleep without sheets, and his eyes were dark and warm. When she noticed him staring, she looked down and smiled, as though to herself, looked at the tiles and smoothed down her dress with both hands so that it gave some hint of her figure. She was tall, slender but not frail, and her hair was red and bright and fierce. She sometimes felt awkward because she was so tall, taller than most girls and some boys, but the look she thought she saw in his eyes was admiration.

 

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Lawrence Coates is the author of five books, most recently The Goodbye House. His first novel, The Blossom Festival, won the Western States Book Award for Fiction and was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Series. His second novel, The Master of Monterey, was published in 2003, and his third novel, …

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