I was ten the first time I saw the pearl. The soil had come loose in Sweetgrass, and to protect the family, my father dug the pearl out of its niche beneath the jamb. He had to clean it, and, since we only had one room, he had no choice but to show us. Taking it outside would have defeated the purpose. Where the dust lived. Where the problems were.
The plains were fast upon us, though I didn’t know it then. Only father knew. That’s why he extracted the pearl from its rusted tobacco tin By protecting it, he was protecting us.
He buffed it slowly, evenly, so it would hold mother’s paraffin against the dust.
There was no other way.
Jonah was fourteen, and he watched our father. He watched the pearl.
Father looked at me. “Come closer, Caroline,” he said.
The tax man was sweating beneath his layers. He wore so many, in blacks: vests, jackets, a hat with curled rims. The landowners came in blacks, and so did the preacher and the lawyers. Black was an invasion. An outfit of shadows for coming inside. Black car, black book, black ink in the pen. Jonah and I stood against the wall, watching mother watching father. I didn’t know then that we had the pearl. Jonah had fire in his eyes. He was staring at father, staring at the tax man.
The two men sat very still at our small table. The smell of the morning’s pork hung in the air. The stove hadn’t quite heated mother’s washing water.
“It’s the stock exchange,” the tax man said.
Father nodded slowly.
“Too many sales,” the tax man said. “Nothing left to trade.” The tax man bit off the ends of his words as he spoke. Saving bits for later, maybe. Between him and my father, they tried to disturb the air as little as possible.
The tax man glanced again at his black book. Father’s fingers were resting on its spine where the tax man had settled it in front of him. It was still closed.
Father nodded again.
“Sign the ledger,” the tax man said. “Might not matter. Country’s gone broke.” He looked out the window.
“Loosened the dust,” father said, “out on the plains.”
“Most like,” the tax man said. “Nothing left of the war-cropping to keep that soil down. Too much, too fast. No time for rotation.”
Father nodded. His blond beard glistened where the light found it, oiled by sweat and sunshine. He’d been at the fields when the tax man came–when mother sent Jonah out to collect him, and the tax man stood and sweated outside our front door.
Father’s beard looked like the wheat, nodding its secret conversations with the wind and the soil. Nodding that it knew something. Father knew something. He knew what was coming.
“Might need another war, then,” he said. “Another demand.”
Father signed the tax man’s ledger. He licked the pen just like it was a pencil and scribbled his name into the black book.
Jonah stared, with fire in his eyes.
Mother sighed, her hands twisted in her apron.
Outside, the wheat exhaled, stirring the first breeze.
Henry’s family didn’t have a pearl. They didn’t come from the same Old Country as the first Lindsay had. They had a little wax man.
It was harvest time then. Henry wasn’t working with his father and brothers because of the dust fever. He’d caught it in the summer and, for weeks, coughed and drooled and vomited dirt. He caught it in the devils. He and I and Jonah and the other young Finchers would jump into them. Make games out of who got tossed farthest. I usually won, jerked out of breath–ten, twelve, sometimes fifteen feet. Jonah said it was because I was light. Because I was a girl. The wind was different with girls, he said. It wasn’t mad at them.
Henry’s skin had changed with the fever. No longer wheat-gold, he was as pale as the new cotton. Henry’s family had switched the crops last season, before the soil came loose. Henry looked just like the little wax man, pale and sweating in his father’s tiny cellar.
Henry was getting better. He was lucky. There weren’t many of mine and Henry’s classmates left. A few had survived the fever, the wheat-to-cotton maelstrom that angered the soil. When the new rigs settled, without any fallow rest, the dirt had nested in us–in the lungs and the bellies of all of the children. Switching kids–wheat-to-cotton. Wheat-to-cotton. Those as passed on, they went underground to sleep in puddles of fairy mud, mother said, to live in dirt mounds and dark wells. Mother had stories.
Henry said the rigs were the mounds. That their classmates played underground now. He was sore that the fever hadn’t taken him down.
“It’s all of us,” Henry said. “The little man is Fincher himself.”
I looked at the little wax man. He had skin like soil rigs–mounded and uneven, pressed into form by fingers, nails, anything that could push. I could see through him a bit, lying there in Henry’s palm. Top skin was white and sweating, like Henry Fincher. Inside, he was yellow–old and golden. He was like the Finchers’ fields.
“What’s he for?” I asked.
“For farming,” Henry said. “What every Fincher is for.”
“But why do you have him?”
I wouldn’t touch Fincher–it looked warm in Henry’s palm. Mother said to stay away from boys who looked warm. Fincher was close enough to a boy. Molly Haver disappeared last winter–mother said she got too close to somebody too warm. Some boys, most like.
“They wouldn’t be no other Finchers without the first one,” Henry said. “Father says the cotton’ll fix him. Make him all white and proper. When he’s all white and proper, we’ll be all right. We won’t have to go nowhere. Father won’t have to sign any more books.”
“Don’t you have a Lindsay in the cellar, Caroline?” he asked.
I looked at him, looking for the fire that burned Jonah’s eyes when he talked about the pearl.
“We have a pearl,” I said. “We’re a pearl.”
Henry looked confused. “How’re you a pearl? You’re all Lindsays.”
“It’s from the Old Country,” I said.
Henry curled his fingers around Fincher. With a squint, he pulled it to his lips and blew the dust from its belly.
The little man was made of wax. Must be the Finchers’d be safe, too. Must be the same as the paraffin father smoothed onto the pearl.
Henry blew again, harder. Outside, there was yelling. There was wind. There was dirt between the cotton, as loose as the exchange, father had been saying. Jonah had been saying it, too. The exchange had collapsed, mother told me, so there was nothing to keep the soil in place, to keep them farming. There was nothing to keep their land theirs.
Even the cotton couldn’t do it. Outside, Finchers ran between the rigs, heading for the barn, for the corral, for everything that needed to be waxed against the flying dirt. Even the cotton couldn’t keep it down.
Henry kissed me then–my first one. A quick, dirty kiss on my cheek. My skin felt warm where he’d pressed his lips.
“Supposed to,” he said. “Boys kiss girls.”
I nodded. He was holding Fincher tightly. Outside, the sky had become dark.
Our house rolled–end over end over end. End over end. Even so, it didn’t go anywhere. We rolled and rolled, stuck in place, everything slipping and falling and gathering in corners. Mother kept at her washing, occasionally grabbing shirts and underwear as they fluttered over her head. The water lapped and wobbled in the basin, but it didn’t drip free.
I was laid up in my pallet–a morning of dust fever, but nothing serious, mother said. I was allowed to stay home. Father and Jonah had finished most of the harvest with the other men.
Eventually, the rolling stopped with a crash. Thunder pealed outside, and the windows were dark with wind and dust. It had gathered like red snow upon the blistered panes. There were pots and horseshoes and sacks of flour everywhere. The house hadn’t broken, but mother’s ladles were still humming from the crash, singing themselves steadily back to quiet.
“Mother,” I said, dizzy. Ill. There had been red between my legs that morning. Mother didn’t tell father.
There was red again. The rolling and crashing and ringing had stopped. When mother came to put her hands on my shoulders, it was the whole house doing so. The house was dark, and earthy, and tumbled round. There were no corners now.
She gave me some clean cotton, from Henry’s grandmother. She had a loom, and her wicker-work fingers tugged at it all day. She never said anything, but she sang mumble-songs like a quiet day in church. She gave us cotton. Mother gave me cotton.
“Do you feel warm?” mother asked.
“What was that rolling?”
Mother’s brows came together, gently. Their lines of packed dust like rivers squirming. They came together like fingers, like the hands on my shoulders, like the now-round house, or mother cupping dough. Over and over, cupping and pulling. Coming together again and again.
The house creaked, groaning into the rising wind. Mother looked at the door. Father opened it slowly, his fist clamped onto the back of Jonah’s collar.
Mother moved in front of me.
Father’s brows came together. In his other hand, he showed mother the pearl.
Jonah looked at me. That same fire burning. Curls of dirt rose like smoke upon the wind behind him.
Father looked at us, and without a word, closed the door.
There was red again. It was on my hands, slipping in lines down my back, gathering with the dirt in the soft creases in the backs of my knees. My back felt like fire, and I thought of Jonah.
Henry had dropped the melon when the shot cracked across the farm. He kept running.
I lay between the rigs, unable to move. I didn’t cry. It was getting dark, and Mr. Bradford wouldn’t find me if I didn’t cry. My back was burning from the shot. From Mr. Bradford’s shotgun. I lay still and let the red gather. I let it shhh the soil. The melon vines were quiet in their unstable dirt where I lay.
When Mr. Bradford found me, he didn’t look angry. He saw where Henry had dropped the melon between the rigs. It was smooth and white and red with the wet of the setting sun. He pulled me up gently and pressed a shotgun shell into my fist.
“Take that to your father,” Mr. Bradford said.
“You tell him it was dark.”
“Who was that with you?”
I thought about the little wax man. Henry said there wasn’t any yellow any more–it was all white and proper. Fincher was all white and proper.
Father’s fields were turning brown with the dusts. Two acres had already browned up and disappeared, slipping between the rigs, consumed by their own fevers. Underground in the fairy mud now. He had signed another book last week.
It had been Mr. Fincher’s book. A new, black book with white, white pages.
“You won’t say,” Mr. Bradford said.
Between my fingers, I balled sticky blood into the quiet soil, rolling and rolling it. Smooth and round. A bloody, dirty me. I wouldn’t say. I dropped the little me and pushed it into the rig with my foot.
I didn’t come out of the ground until I was back home.
Inside, father took the shotgun shell wordlessly. Mother watched, her fingers coming together at her sides when she saw the red down my back.
Father peeled back the shell’s wax and split its little, wedged mouth right open. He turned the shell over, and rock salt piled into his palm.
He gave the salt to mother, who wrapped it in cheesecloth and set it on her counter.
“You were with Henry Fincher?” he asked me, his brows parting.
I wouldn’t say. I hadn’t seen Fincher in two years. I hadn’t seen how white he’d become. Henry was just Henry. Henry Fincher was a waxen boy who could turn the fields white and proper. His brothers could turn the fields white and proper. His sisters were always white now, pale and snowy. Their mother had hired workers of her own to pick the white fields. She and the Fincher girls stayed as white as could be. Whiter than the pearl, even.
Father’s fields didn’t turn at all.
He extracted the pearl from its tin under the jamb. For a time, he shifted his stares between me and the pearl. He had shaved his golden beard, and the lines in his jaw were like the rigs themselves.
“I’m going to see Fincher,” he said, clutching the pearl. He stared hard at me.
“Will he mind Jonah’s place?” mother asked.
“I’ll see that he does,” father said.
He didn’t look at me as he closed the door.
When mother had done with me, when we’d done with Grandmother Fincher’s cotton, we joined father and Jonah outside. The winds had quieted; the fields were quiet in their rows and rows. A cluster of Jonah’s friends were watching us from far away. They looked like tiny stick men, standing so far and so still.
Father still had Jonah by the collar. When Jonah looked at me, the fire had grown brighter in his eyes.
Father extended a handful of marbles to mother. They shone in all colors, in cloudy and painted glass, chipped and smooth, like the inside of the house. Rounded by rolling and rolling and rolling.
I looked at the stick-boys. Jonah had never owned a marble.
Mother took them.
“He won them,” father said.
Jonah’s fingers came together at his sides. Fists.
“With the pearl. He was shooting with the pearl.”
With the house. With us.
Rolling and rolling.
All of us rolling, bouncing against other tiny worlds, other dusty, waxen places with other dusty problems. With other things coming together.
“Give them back,” mother said. “You played unfair.”
Jonah said “No.”
Father extracted the pearl from his pocket. The air felt clean as it brushed against our freed skin. “This is a family, Jonah.”
“And look what it did, father,” Jonah said. “Look what I can do with the whole family.”
Father looked at him. Mother began walking toward the stick-boys.
I watched father drag Jonah to mother’s vegetable garden. I watched him stand him up on the scarecrow’s mount. I watched him tie his arms and legs against the ragged hickory beams. Father couldn’t punish him with more work. Work was the family. Work was the pearl, and Jonah would work with the pearl. He wanted to work with the pearl. His eyes burned when he looked at the pearl, watching it doing nothing. Waxy and sweating in its tiny, dark places. Waiting just to roll and shine and lord in the sun. Like mother’s stories. The fairy kings under the water. The pearls they traded in Inverness, the ones they stole on the Prince of Wales–the boat from the Old Country. The tobacco tins they collected in Carolina. That Lindsay himself worked for before coming first to Kansas, then to Texas, then everywhere else. They’d kicked him off the high land, mother said, in the Old Country.
Father could only punish Jonah by giving him to the rows for a bit. Just a bit.
He would only leave him up there for a bit, father would later say.
“You’ll go to Boston,” mother said. “You and Henry, after the wedding.”
“Where’s Boston?” I asked.
Mother sat still at the table. “It’s near the water. A bit closer to the Old Country.”
“Were you ever there?”
“Who will help you around here?” I asked.
“Mother won’t need help,” father said, his jaws coming together. “We’re leaving.”
He had the pearl-tin clutched tight in his fist. He hadn’t given it to Fincher. When he went that night.
“We’ll pick fruit in the sun,” mother said. “In California. I won’t need help.”
“Where’s California?” I asked.
“That doesn’t matter.”
I started crying then. The house came together. After so long. After so long since the rolling and rounding and crashing together. After so much time soft and dark and earthy, its corners came back together. Already, it looked emptier.
“What about Jonah’s grave?”
After so long since Jonah.
“Fincher won’t till there,” father said. “Gave his word.”
Father came back that night with the pearl. He paid his last debt to Fincher with our land. He couldn’t give up the pearl–it was all of us. Even Jonah.
In Boston, Henry would be going to a school. Fincher had grown so white, had begun to glow in his cellar, that the family was sending itself in all directions. The girls would go to Savannah. Henry and his brothers would learn New England business. The house would be used for the new workers staying behind. The ones with no money. The ones who had long since signed everything away with dark ink in dark ledgers. And what they had signed away had never come back together.
Father paid my way. He couldn’t release the pearl. He couldn’t close the debt without the land.
There was red in the sky when I looked out the window. Mother’s skin reflected the red light, but father’s eyes were gathering its shadows. It had gotten into him, the red.
The plains were nigh upon us, and they were red, red, red.
Mother gave back the marbles. Jonah had only been on the hickory a little while. We were sitting at the table when the red, red clouds stole the sky. The house snapped and creaked and threw things. It blew heavy dust at us from beneath the windows, through the doorjamb, and from the small, puckered mouths in the clinker-built siding. Everything was dust and the screaming, red sky.
Father jerked open the door, and the dust came in. It attacked him. Straight from the loosened rigs, flying like so many bullwhips. Flakes of whitewashed siding, ripped from the house and pulled by the eddy inside, painted the new bloodspots on father’s skin. They filled the little wounds, white and proper. When he got up again, he screamed Jonah’s name and fought the wind, but the dust pushed him back down. The house was a cave now.
Mother shut the door from behind. She touched father’s head where it leaned against the wall. She stared out the window, as the storm screamed back at father.
The red sky turned black. The house rolled and rolled. And this time, it did not stay in place. I found the tobacco tin beneath the doorjamb, and I clutched it against my chest. Inside, the pearl rolled and rolled in circles against the edges, clanging and screaming against the metal as it went. I held it tight and rolled and rolled.
The fire died with Jonah. Now there’s nothing to burn away the dark. The fields, white and proper, are as tar-black as the sky. The Finchers, scattered, are everywhere as morose as my Henry–I read as much in their letters. Troubled and displaced. I have learned.
Fincher, somewhere, must be sealed against the dusty night which is now ever-present upon the plain, in the Bowl, they call it. Fincher’s soft flesh, though it is still right and proper, can no longer breathe. He can no longer be molded within whatever safe canister his wardens have sealed him. He has lost his warmth.
The pearl went with my parents. In the sun, in California, where I imagine them picking orange after orange, coming together at night to watch the sun set over such a large place, coming together to keep the pearl in their palms. There is no wax upon its skin in all that sun, and we are vulnerable again to whatever blows upon us. Though the Bowl has gone dark, and stays so, I need only worry about what falls upon me here.
The clouds of Jonah’s great storm have blown so high, they weep upon Boston. Every day, it is red rain that falls, droplets of Old Egypt’s Nile, the rain of wrath and fire. My Henry, is, of course, nothing but wax. Static though his Wax Fincher is, nothing can get through the family’s richened, white-and-proper flesh.
But I am no longer a Lindsay, I can roll no longer, and I haven’t the flesh-of-wax Fincher blood to keep me clean against all the red rain. I have only the name. My children are as imperturbable as their father, and they wear clothes every day in shades of rich black over their cream-white skins.
I have only the red rain. Everywhere there is red, and nothing rolls in this house of many corners. Nothing comes together, not even Dr. Marchant’s laudanum-tonics. Not the rest-treatments, not even the salts, thick and rocky as they are–like the shot still burning clean against my spine, still buried in my flesh. I am my mother’s salt-filled cheesecloth, and I keep cotton for the blood.
Henry buys me Old Country pearls whenever he can, but they do not hold wax.
I listen to the wind and the rain, and between treatments, I roll. Between treatments, things come together.