She blew in a day early, just before the fifteen-story-high, rolling black dirt clouds hit. I’d seen a dress as pretty as hers once. The Mayor’s wife brought one back from a Kansas City trip. The beauty of this purple fabric with tiny blue roses that crawled over it as if on a trellis was more than I could absorb.
Mama had a trellis. She loved those red blooms, watered them and put cow manure at the roots. To make them strong, she said. Nothing was strong enough to stand against the rolling black dirt clouds. Not the roses, not the trellis, not even Daddy and Mama and Baby Henry. They were gone. Lucille and I were left.
It seemed strange to find color in this black and drab world. The dirt was everywhere. Aunt Gert wiped, cleaned and washed, but nothing kept it away. Her once blue cotton dress was so faded it was a pale gray against the dust covered walls. I fingered my thin, faded dress and tried to remember what it looked like the day Mama finished the last stitch on the hem.
“Carrie,” Aunt Gert said to the woman in color, “close the door. The dirt storm’s almost here.”
“Shirley,” Aunt Gert said to me, “wet the cloths for the girls.”
I got up from the floor where I sat with my arm around Lucille. She was only seven and cried when the black hit. I could almost remember her laughter from before Mama and Daddy and Baby Henry were buried trying to walk in a dirt storm back to the farm from town.
At ten, I was the oldest and Aunt Gert needed my help with my younger cousins, Nellie, Janie and Bertha. Usually Walter too, but he and Uncle Henry were at the barn trying to keep the animals calm.
I took pieces of stiff cloth to the washstand, wet them, rung each tightly so that no water was wasted and took them to the girls. I folded them in half and tied them around their faces, covering their noses and mouths. I tied mine and sat down next to Lucille. The rolling dirt cloud was nearly on us.
“Everyone hold hands now,” Aunt Gert yelled over the roar. “Close your eyes.”
As the swirling, biting, deafening, choking, suffocating dirt blew in around windows, door frames, down the chimney, up through floor boards and made cracks in the wall chinking, I held hands with Lucille and Bertha. I took one last look at the women at the table; Aunt Gert had her eyes closed, my godmother Carrie’s eyes were wide and frightened.
The total blackness, so alien four years ago when the dirt storms began, were now nearly a rest time. I didn’t have to worry if a storm was coming or make sure the animals were in the barn, or watch the girls to keep them safe, or see the pain in Lucille’s eyes, or the lines grow deeper in Uncle Henry’s face and how thin cousin Walter had gotten. All I had to do was sit and try to breathe through the wet cloth as it dried. And pray I wouldn’t start coughing.
I couldn’t imagine a world with no black storms or swirled up dirt mounds against fences, barns and houses. Was it possible Lucille and I could escape? Mama had talked of her bosom friend, Carrie, but we’d never met her. Was there really a world not covered in grime? There must be, if a pretty woman in a purple dress with blue roses had come to this place where we fought to live. Would it be fair to the others if we were freed? Fair to Mama and to Daddy and to Baby Henry to go away from the place they died? It would be like being Snow White woken up by Prince Charming’s kiss, or like the thief on the cross being told by Jesus that today that thief would be with him in paradise. It would be like escaping from hell to heaven.
The black went on and on. Lucille coughed and coughed. Had I dreamed a pretty lady in a purple dress with blue roses? As the storm lightened, I saw Carrie’s closed eyes, her face cloth nearly black, dust all over her, but the purple with tiny blue flowers was still there. In that instant I knew what to do. I put my arm around my sister’s shoulder and pulled her close. “Hold on, Lucille,” I whispered, “hold on, we’re leaving here. We’re going to live.”