Whose Names are Unknown

by Sanora Babb


Julia was standing in the yard shading her eyes with her hand, looking at the northern sky. The April sun was delicately warm through her dress. It was mid-afternoon. Milt and the old man were working in the field. They had borrowed one of Starwood’s teams for a few days to get on with the work.

Each time they turned at the row ends she saw them stand and look at the sky. They talked a moment and started on another row. Once Milt saw her in the yard and waved. He pointed to the sky and shouted but she could not distinguish the words.

Along the north the sky was a pale yellow, the strange dead color of a lamp flame through a window in daylight. This dull inert mass had been lingering on the horizon for the last hour but now she saw it take the shape of a curved wall rising slowly in the air. As it rose the color changed to faint brown, and she realized suddenly that it was moving in a great cloud but still a long way off. Her concern was distracted by the sound of a car. Brownell’s truck was coming down the road from town. She waited in the yard and Max leaned out and waved as he turned in the gate. He pulled up and took off his large hat, leaning over the wheel, looking at the sky and back to Julia.

“It’s coming,” he said.

“It still looks ‘way off,” she said hopefully.

“Well, it might not get here, maybe blow itself out before that. Strange things, aren’t they? Several years of ‘em now but none as mean looking as this one.”

“Gee, it’s been so pretty and nice I thought sure there wouldn’t be any this year,” Julia said. “It makes me feel queer to see that thing hovering around. I thought it just came up but I remember now when I let the chickens out this morning I said to myself it looked hazy up north. I thought it might be a snow somewhere then it began to look yellow.”

“They’re not the same as our regular old dust blowing. That’s not so bad and we’re kinda used to it. Some place else it’s mosquitoes.” He laughed but she looked worried. They both looked at the young wheat. A small peaceful wind was making lively ripples in its tender green leafiness. When it is ripe, he thought, it will bow deep to the wind in long waves like a gold sea, and nothing’s prettier. They looked at the wheat a long time and did not speak. Finally he sat as if rousing himself from his thoughts.

“Maybe I’d better go round to the school and pretend to be a school bus. It’s about recess, and it might be better if the kids get home. I suspect you’d feel easier if I bring yours home, wouldn’t you, Mrs. Dunne?”

Along the north the sky was a pale yellow, the strange dead color of a lamp flame through a window in daylight.

“I’d certainly thank you to.”

“Did you hear the school is closing after this year? They can’t get enough taxes in this dust to keep going, but they may be able to send one of the school buses out from Flatlands. They’d get a better school in town.”

“I’d like that better, but its too bad Anna will lose her school.”

“She was going to give it up anyway. I hope we have a little place of our own by next winter, Mrs. Dunne.” She felt the quiet compliment of his words.

“I hope you do,” she said. “Anna is a nice girl.”

“We can’t say anything yet because of her folks. They may like me better after harvest,” he said laughing. Julia looked at the sky again as if he had reminded her.

“Oh, that’ll blow over, Mrs. Dunne. Don’t worry about the wheat. It’ll stand a little wind and dust. I’d better be off now. I’ll bring your girls. Goodbye.” The cloud was still rising with an ominous slowness but was far away. Perhaps she was over-anxious. She went back to her interrupted work, peering out the window now and then. Tomorrow was washday. If the dust flew she would have to put it off and that always seemed to upset the whole week. She began to think about Anna.

The heavy even thud of the horses’ feet and the sound of the harness and the single trees dragging behind them startled her into a new anxiety. From the window she could see Milt and the old man walking behind the teams holding the lines tiredly. The old man watered his team, threw the tugs across their backs, secured the lines and hoisted himself onto the back of one of the bays. He slapped the horse on the rump and they started toward the gate, the mate staying close along side. Why in the world did he have to start off to Starwoods now? They weren’t finished with the team. Maybe they were, or it meant he wanted to get them back in the barn. Their own was large enough only for the horses and Bossy. She ran up the steps and shouted to the old man. He pulled to a stop.

“Better watch for Max along the road and get a ride back. He’s bringing the kids home.” He raised his hand in acknowledgement and went on. “That cloud gives me the creeps,” she said half- aloud, and went back down the steps. Later she thought maybe we better milk early tonight, and she put water on the stove for scalding the milk pails. She was getting ready to pour boiling water in a pail when she heard Milt running to the house, not fast but running. His shoes sounded out on the bare hard ground.

“Julie! Julie!” he called from the door in a quick voice. “Come out!” She put the tea kettle on the stove and hurried up the steps. He was standing with his hands in the hip pockets of his overalls looking at the rapidly changing sky.

He was standing with his hands in the hip pockets of his overalls looking at the rapidly changing sky. 

“She’s coming!” he said. She stood beside him and they watched the high moving wall of dust that had spread from east to west in a semi-circle that rose into the sky and bent over at its crest like a terrible mountainous wave about to plunge down upon them. The cool spring air had a sudden faint odor of dust.

“Where are the kids? I hope Dad caught Max!” Julia was excited.

“They’re coming down the road aways. They’ll get here. Look, did you ever see such a sight?”The dirt had dropped over the Brennermann farm like a curtain. He looked at his wheat and his face tightened. The smell of dust was strong in their noses now, slapping their senses like a thick fat hand.

“Look!” he said again, and they stood together not saying anything, awed by this new attack of nature. It was an evil monster coming on mysterious, footless silence. It was magnificent and horrible like a nightmare of destiny towering over their slight world that had every day before this impressed upon them its vast unconquerable might. Grains of dust sounded against their shoes in a low flurry. The open land beyond was blotted out as the brown mass struck on the edge of his field.

“She’s on the wheat now. It’s a gonner. It’ll cover it up. Funny though, it’s so quiet and not as thick as it looked. Maybe it’ll stay in the air and blow past.”

“No wind,” Julia said in surprise. The truck turned into the gate. Milt watched the dust sift slowly over the wheat and creep toward them. “Good heavens! The chickens!” Julia said, and began shooing them into the hen house with her apron.

The old man helped the little girls from the truck.

“Better come in, Max,” Milt called to him above the sounds of the motor.

“Thanks. I’d better get home. The folks might think I’m under that thing. Looks like the end of the world,” he said, trying to be cheerful.

“Think it’ll get us?” Milt asked

“We’ll know as soon as it’s over. I don’t think it’s as bad as it looks. Well, good luck to you.”

“Same to you, boy. We’ll need plenty if this keeps up.”

“S’long,” Max called to all of them.

The air was getting thick now. Some of the green field showed, fluttering before the low wind. Lonnie ran to Milt and held onto his trouser leg.

“What is it, papa?” she asked. “A still cyclone?” He looked at her and laughed. “No, pardner, it looks like Canada raised up and flew this way.”

They watched the windows for a sign of clearing, but the dust kept on in a monotonous soundless deluge. 

“Oh, I’ve got to gather the eggs!” Myra took off her stocking cap and ran into the henhouse with the chickens. She came out holding the cap carefully. The old man was helping Julia.

“These blamed hens haven’t got sense enough to come in out of the rain,” Julia said.

“That’s the truth,” the old man said. The hens were running up to the door then turning off around the house excited by the hurried urging and uncertain about going to roost before sundown. Finally the last hen was gently shushed in, and Julia fastened the door. Milt watched the dust until the last of the wheat was covered.

“We’d better go in or we’ll choke,” he said bitterly. The dust rolled over them in thin clouds, incredibly quiet, moving as if by an obscure power. There was no sound. They retreated into the dugout, Milt last. He shielded his eyes and nose and looked up. The top was far above him, taller than a tree. Then it passed over the house and he could see nothing but dust before his eyes. The barn was only a shadow. He noticed in surprise that the dust was very fine and soft, unlike the harsh grains which cut against his skin on windy days. He felt it fit in his throat like fur and had to cough. He went in and shut the door securely, kicking a sack against the crack. As he went down into the room he saw the dust like a mist.

“Look how it’s sifting in around the windows,” Julia said. “How will we sleep in this!”

“We’ll sleep,” the old man said wearily. “When you’re tired you sleep.”

“We slept last summer and the one before,” Milt said.

It was magnificent and horrible like a nightmare of destiny towering over their slight world that had every day before this impressed upon them its vast unconquerable might. 

“Well, we’ll have to milk. We’ll wait awhile. Maybe it will slacken. I can scald the pails and put cloths over them.” They watched the windows for a sign of clearing, but the dust kept on in a monotonous soundless deluge.

Finally, Julia and the old man tied handkerchiefs about their mouths and noses and went out to milk. Milt sat on the bed waiting to look at the wheat. When they came back he had not moved. They shook the dust from their cloths onto the steps and pulled the kerchiefs off. The upper parts of their faces were dark.

“Whew!” they said together, spitting the powdery film off their tongues.

“Let up any yet?” Milt asked.

“No,” the old man said. “This is a real siege. Worse than any so far. I wager it won’t stop all night.”

“How can you tell?”

“Can’t for sure. Somethin’ steady about the way it’s comin’. Like the way a steady rain falls different from a shower.”

“Wish to hell it was rain! Next year we wouldn’t be able to plant if it don’t stop. If the top soil’s not gone, it will be covered up. If all of us farmers wasn’t so stubborn we wouldn’t have planted this year!”

“Well, we have to take the bitter with the sweet,” the old man said laconically.

“Where in hell is the sweet?” The old man nodded his head sidewise in a sharp movement and made the clucking sound with his tongue and teeth. He had said the wrong thing.

“I’ll go out and look around,”Milt said.

“Wait till we eat,”Julia said impatiently. “Dust or no dust, we have to eat.” She drew her finger along the oilcloth table cover and it left a trail in the dust. She wiped it off carefully, and set down on the lard can with a pan of potatoes in her lap. The peelings fell away paper-thin with no waste. When she dipped into the lard can where she kept the flour she noticed how low it was, and scooped the cup cautiously so as not to strike the bottom and call Milt’s attention to it. In the silence, they heard the dog scratching and whining at the door.

“Let him in,” Milt said to Myra. “It’s even too much for Rusty!”


Excerpted from Sanora Babb’s Dust Bowl novel Whose Names Are Unknown. Excerpt courtesy Dearcopp. Reprinted in This Land, Vo. 4 Issue 19. Oct. 1, 2013.