Lilli Clarke. They call her the marked girl. Beginning at her left shoulder, a pink birthmark tracks up her throat just past her jaw, like a finger pointing to her brain. Abandoned by her family, she is ostracized by everyone but her grandmother and cousin Bert, Six years of dust storms have left sixteen-year-old Lilli close to death with dust pneumonia. Now she must leave the only real home she’s ever had, or risk death when the next storm hits.
Southwestern Kansas, 1938
My time grows short, while my fevered brain wonders if I’d ever existed to begin with. The inevitable stands before me. The world consists of nothing more than wind and dust, endless storms swallowing all life with their voracious appetites.
If I want to, I can rise from my bed and struggle outdoors in my threadbare, flour-sack dress to stand and release the spark of life within me. To let mind, body, everything, disappear into the whirlwind. Its ceaseless roar can consume me at last and perform the final conclusion left to my imagination. My sixteen years of life at its end. Six years of dust storms had almost done the job anyway. Might as well let them finish it.
But I can’t go. I won’t. I don’t know why.
One more breath. A rattle and rasp scrape in my chest while I fight to draw in air through the wet cloth covering my face. I’ve lost the remembrance of the former blessing of easy breathing. Now, my entire will bends toward the intake of air that will feed the tiny flame of life inside me.
My grandmother’s hands adjust the cloth. I know she sits by my bed and wills me to breathe while the duster pummels our home. She and I, the only ones left in the howling world, are cut off from everyone else as though we lived alone on the moon.
Is Cousin Gerald’s house really down the road, he and Bert hunkered inside? Is the town still there somewhere, standing against the shrieking monster clawing at it? Perhaps, once the sounds cease, anything left alive will creep out to view an endless brown world of dust, all signs of human habitation wiped away. Why do I try so hard to stay alive? Let me go, Gram. Ask me to give up.
But her fingers smooth back wisps of my hair, and the low sound of her murmured prayers gives me something to focus on, along with my labored breaths. Anything but the sound of the wind and the dust scouring the house, trying to destroy our tiny lives and meager possessions.
Gram’s voice rises when she takes my hand. “When you’re better, Lilli, I’ll send you somewhere pretty. Somewhere with trees and grass. Until the land comes back. Then you’ll come back to me, too. And I’ll be here and we’ll plant a garden again.”
Another lifetime ago. Our garden. Greens, corn, and potatoes to have with side meat. Cucumbers for pickling. Berries for dessert.
Oh, Gram, those days are long gone. Swallowed in the dust. I don’t care if there are trees or grass somewhere. I can’t leave you. The only one who ever loved me. I’ll die here, with the sound of your prayers disappearing into the wind, along with my last breath. I’m sorry, Gram.
* * *
Maybe the silence woke me. Had I finally died? My eyes blink open and the ever-present grit hurts my eyeballs while I survey the room. The weathered clapboard walls and roof still stand. I lift a pale hand and study it. I’m still here, too.
The front door yawns open, and the two windows on either side are un-shuttered. A portion of cloudless blue sky shines above the flat, brown landscape. I draw in a shaky breath, relieved that only a slight rattle sounds in my chest. Voices flutter in from somewhere on the porch.
Gram says, “I decided. When she’s strong enough, I’ll send her to my sister.”
“What if Aunt Margaret don’t want her?” Cousin Gerald clears his throat. “Lilli’s bad luck. Cursed. Everybody knows that. She’s marked.”
If I had enough damp in my eyes, I might cry. How unfair people are. It always surprises me, though by now I should have wised up.
Gram’s sweet voice calms my flush of anger. “It’s wrong to blame her for things that happened. It’s not her fault. And I don’t believe in luck.”
“Aunt Helen, open your eyes. When bad things happen, you got to ask why. Cousin Sally lost her wits after she birthed Lilli. She was fine after she had Frank and Jasper. Then, after Lilli, there goes her right mind.”
“It’s not Lilli’s doing. I’ll never believe that.”
“Well, you’re the only one who don’t. This family’ll never live down what happened.” A chair leg scrapes and Cousin Gerald’s boots sound on the porch steps. “I’m glad she’ll be going, though, for your sake. You ain’t had a moment’s peace the years you’ve had her.”
My heart breaks for Gram. Maybe he’s right. Nothing has gone well for her since I came. The few pleasures she did enjoy have been stripped away. Invitations to social gatherings and friendly drop-by visits have dried up like the creek in our back yard. People avoid her, even at church, because she brings me there. They say God marked me, like Cain, though I never murdered anyone like he did. But murder followed me anyway, so they say.
God can smile on her once I leave. The slight, rhythmic thump of her rocker punctuates her humming of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
His eye is on you, Gram. But He doesn’t care a lick about me. Why do I have to go live with Great-Aunt Margaret? I hardly know her, but she’ll hate me like everyone else does. Everyone except Gram and Bert. I heave out as big a sigh as I can manage and drift back to sleep.
Nancy Shew Bolton is a wife, mother of five grown sons, and grandmother to a boy and girl. Ever since she learned to write, she would jot down her thoughts and impressions, and now expresses herself through novels. Nancy loves to write character-driven stories about relationships of love and faith.