BY BONNIE BREWER-KRAUS
Copyright is held by the author.
The house listens and shudders, a silent witness to passions and furies it cannot understand. The man sulks and broods, the woman chatters or cries. Her words, when she is alone, fly about like starlings refusing to roost. When the man is there, her words are nails in a coffin. The floorboards are unwilling eavesdroppers.
The man moans, “How can I make a living from this unwilling soil? It resists me at every turn. That wind never stops blowing, like it has something to say.”
The woman is at the woodstove where she feeds the fire and watches it bloom. “This land doesn’t want us, Henry,” she says, “we are interlopers.”
“The United States government says different. I have a piece of paper that gives me dominion over this soil.”
“They lied to us,” she says sadly, knowing he will never admit he’d been a sucker. “Those government men and the railroad they lied through their teeth. Paradise on earth, they said; rich, fertile soil, they said. Like they created the earth and were God above and what they decreed would come to pass.”
He sank her inheritance into this land, this house; the money that represented a lifetime of struggle for her Swedish immigrant parents, the money which was supposed to buy her a future.
The soil flies through the air like furies on the wing and seeps into every pore in the house. No matter how many times a day she sweeps, the dust is everywhere: in their food, in their eyes, on their skin when they go to bed at night and he reaches for her. She thinks, dust to dust.
The house is accustomed to death; its walls, its floors, its furniture made of once living things ripped from the earth, hewn and hacked. The woman walks through the house and touches every surface, measuring her prison by touch, eyes closed. The babies die one by one, shrivelled mites lacking the will to live. The little graves are marked by crosses on the small hill swept by clouds. The woman grieves and then she goes numb and hard. The man slaps her and curses her. She is as unyielding as the land he is determined to master. Everything resists him.
He spends time in town where he finds other bitter, angry, restless men whose dreams have broken on the hard ground. Liquor both stokes and soothes their fury. The house holds its breath, and the woman waits for him, an axe in her lap and death in her eyes.
“She lost her mind,” they whisper afterward in town. “Happens out here. Prairie madness.”
The house exhales ghosts from its chimney and attic, while the cellar walls press against soil alive with fungi and bacteria. The microbes dismantle the house molecule by molecule. The snow and rain seeps into the wood, creating pathways for termites and carpenter ants, while the winds tear off the shingles. The house dreams of decomposition.
Bonnie Brewer-Kraus is a writer and essayist based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, within sight of Lake Erie. A former architect, she is inspired by the melancholy and gritty beauty of the American Midwest landscape and its people. Her work can be found in Reflections on the Land: An Anthology, Coffin Bell, and The Gordon Square Review, among others.