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Clouded

The grains of dirt had flown by like bullets. They seared my flesh and embedded themselves into every single surface, living and non. Barely audible pings ricocheted like little BBs off the tin roof. If you listened quietly, Mama said, it sounded like snowflakes flitting to the ground. That’s the kind of thing they had in the North, where she grew up. But down in Texas, we didn’t have snow. We didn’t even have rain. All we had were dust storms and heat and worry. Clouds of swirling dirt would swallow the land, enveloping entire farms and towns. Days during the drought were almost always the same: it was sweltering, the blue sky was boiling, and there was still no sign of rain. The massive clouds of dirt were once again choking the farm. I wanted to be angry-but with whom? With tedious thoughts, I let the days pass by. Working systematically, we tried to finish up what we could before another storm would hit.
Sunday. It was a beautiful morning. Days like that almost allowed me to forget about the drought. When I woke up, the cheery sky greeted me with its shimmering blue grin. The heat was even tolerable! I was amazed; maybe the rains really would come, I thought. Entertaining those notions, I had decided to head down to my friend Harry’s farm. His family was doing far more poorly than mine-and that was saying a lot. I always tried to lend myself to them whenever possible. Everyone could always use help but they seemed to need it the most.
The wind was calm. It was almost too calm. I kept looking around, trying to find something out of the ordinary. But no, the dirt-racked homes and barns, the dry, sparse crops, the withered animals and there similarly frail looking owners, and the monotonously dirty horizon were all very familiar. Everywhere I looked, I saw dingy scenes of reflection: we were all worried and, because of that, focused evermore on how great the past was. In every farmer’s hardened eyes, I saw images of luscious crops. In the sweat-streaked faces of women, laugh lines were all but faded. But it was the children that haunted me the most. Out of everyone, they still laughed and sang and played. They had accepted the drought and hardly knew anything else. The children were more adjusted than anyone else. And it broke my heart. I, at age eighteen, was considered an adult. At that age, I was able to feel the hardships personally. And yet, I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it.
Upon reaching Harry’s porch, I heard shrieks of excitement from inside. His kid sisters were far more lively than usual, their mother, more anxious. I greeted her and then the children, who I whisked around and set back down on their skinny legs. Harry, his mother said, was out in the back barn making more room for the expected calves. Nodding to the three, I headed out to see Harry.
The sky, in contrast to the grey roof of the barn, was turning a sickly color. That was really nothing to worry about-the skies were like a kaleidoscope. Turning into the barn, I found Harry, soaked with perspiration. However tolerable the outside had been, the barn was stifling.
“Harry!” I called to him. “How many calves are you expecting?” Setting down his armload, he strode across the barn.
“Well, I reckon about ten. Of course, some are probably not going to make it.” His eyes glazed over at this depressing thought. The imminent loss heading towards his family pained him. I knew exactly how he felt.
“Harry, it will be all right. Things will get better.” I could only pray that my words would come true.
He began to reply but was interrupted by a shout from his mother.
“Harry! Jack! Boys, come look at this!” Her voice, which was usually low and eve, was high and jumpy. Sprinting into the yard, a wall of deep darkness met us. Miles away on the horizon, a gigantic wall of dirt, black as night, was rolling towards us. The air around was as still as a photograph; it was like waiting for a wave to come. As it was building, it was pulling all the wind into it, adding more and more power until the inevitable crash.
We stood in silence. The little girls trembled with silent terror. Their mother, arms around her youngsters, had stared in awe. Harry watched the forthcoming storm with tears in his eyes. After losing their father the year the drought began, the family took hardships worse than ever. And now: this. The cows. I read it on his face, yet he was frozen: with fear, anger, fatigue? Looking back at the storm, I focused my energy and ran to the paddock that was holding the animals. Shoving the gate open, I milled about, trying to round up the herd and save all I could.
Struggling with the resistance of the cows, I had pushed and shoved until I had one in the barn. I would run back and get another one in. If a cow was left exposed during a dust storm, it, like people, could die. I wouldn’t let the loss of any head in that small herd fall on Harry’s family, not even if it killed me. Sweat had poured into my eyes but I did not feel its sting. My hands were bleeding from the rough barn wood. After getting about five cows in, my stride was broken. A calf was lying in the dust, still damp with fresh life. I looked around. Most of the cows were still outside. The cloud was getting bigger and far too close for comfort.
“Harry!”, I screamed. That was all he had needed for his trance to be shattered. Taking one last glance at the cloud, I turned back to the cows. Harry joined me and together, we got them all in the barn, a bit upset but sheltered. I went to his mother and begged her to take the girls and herself down to the storm cellar. Standing outside was doing them no good, I told her. She nodded and ushered them inside. BOOM! The wide doors swung shut. Harry had turned to me and spoke.
“Thank you. If you hadn’t come here today, I don’t know what would have happened. How can I repay you?”
“You don’t need to repay me. Harry, you would have done the same for me. Listen, you go on down there now and be safe. I’ll see you later, maybe once this storm passes.”
“Jack! Stay! It’s too dangerous-the storm too close-for you to walk home. You’ll be caught in the middle of that thing and die!”
“Trust me. I won’t die. But Mama will kill me if I’m not home. You know how she gets about the storms. And look at this one! Bigger than any before!”
“You’re not going to listen, are you? Fine. But get home. I’ve a bad feeling.”
“A bad feeling, Harry? I can’t imagine why!” My attempt to joke had worked; a smile had appeared on his grimy face. I said my goodbye’s and turned towards home.
Within the first few steps I took, I could almost taste the change. Just about an hour before, I had been almost sure rain would be falling down on us soon and now, the biggest dust storm I’d ever seen was heading towards us, unwavering in its stature. It looked as if the homes had been abandoned. People were sparse; only a few farmers were out, hands on hips, staring at the approaching storm as if they could scare if off with an interminable glare. Still, the wind was gone. No light breeze disturbed the surfaces top-coated with dirt; the laundry hung limply on the line. The world leading up to the ominous cloud was still. It felt like I was shuffling towards doom in the midst of a ghost town.
I watched the fields besides me for a while. I could hardly remember how beautiful they had once been. Looking at their barren dirt littered with dunes was heartbreaking. How did our land go from productive and lush to a living nightmare? I searched for an answer, a sign, anything but found nothing. My eyes analyzing each farm they came across, I did not notice just how close the storm had come until a sudden burst of wind nearly knocked me to the dusty ground. I stopped and tried to regain my bearings; it was so unexpected. And that is when I looked up and saw that I would meet this storm in the middle. My home and family would already be engulfed while I was still waiting for my personal introduction.
I watched with unblinking eyes as the monstrosity edged towards my family’s farm. Closer and closer it crept, boiling with anxiety. As soon as its fingers licked the boundary of the property, it closed in. In a matter of seconds, I could no longer see my home. The storm still surged forth. Its hunger was not abated in the slightest by lapping up the many farms it surely had before mine. If that cloud had eyes, they were surely staring me down. But I held my ground. With each step, I planted my feet more surely and securely into the dirt, leaving little clouds behind each lifted foot. I watched and waited. Every second that passed led me closer to the confrontation that would determine how, or if, the rest of my life would go. I had nothing to protect me: no mask, no water to wet down cloth, no glasses. I was absolutely without anything to physically protect me. I did, however, have my prayers.
Maybe a few minutes went by, or maybe it was an hour. Either way, the storm finally met me. It came with a thunderous roar, a threatening snarl that ate me like long-sought after prey. In its jaws, I was held aloft and tossed about like a ball. My sure steps turned into trembling plods, and then into faulty stumbles. The dirt was tearing into my skin, filling my lungs, and searing my eyes. It seemed as if my eyeballs had swollen up to ten times their normal size and had dried out, all at the same time. I rubbed them in a frantic attempt to free them of the dirt. This only increased the pain; I fell to the ground screaming and flailing. The screams allowed more dirt in. My throat was so dry, I could not swallow. The cloud angrily swirled around me but I could feel its power surging forth, onwards from me. I was just another victim, an addition to the body count. And it was still hungry.
I tried to crawl in the direction I believed to be home but found the strength had been stolen away, fuel for the cloud. Breathing was becoming ragged and even more tiresome. My eyes felt as if they had been sewn shut; I did not even attempt to open them. The pain that gravitated out and into my body began there and felt as if I was being electrocuted from my eye sockets out. If tears would have been able to form, I could have watered the entire state of Texas. But tears could not come. My eyes, it seemed, had failed me. I was so exhausted, I could barely hold my head up. Finally, I came to the point where I could not. Dropping to the ground, I did not move.





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