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Prairie Fever by Annika Barranti Klein


There is something unsettling about Annika Barranti Klein’s “Prairie Fever” right from the first line. There is the obvious sense of foreboding from the setting itself and the focus on the wind: a quiet and lonely Nebraskan prairie, a sense of isolation. But the choppy sentences, clear language, and the first-person point-of-view, with the feeling that we have an unreliable narrator, also add to the captivating dissociated tone. The horrible loneliness and monotony comes through in the spotless voice.

Klein has crafted a true Western here, though with a subversion of genre conventions (see the author’s note for more on this): a sweeping story in which place is essential. And like good Southern Gothic, the house itself is a character. The sentences help create a disquiet, moving between eerie stillness and raging weather. So much is contained in the one-sentence paragraphs scattered throughout: “I don’t like Nebraska” carries a heavy weight. With a powerful and simple last line, this is a strong, contained narrative that keeps us on edge, but never alienates.  —CRAFT


 

The wind’s at it again.

When this happens, I can’t sleep. There have been nights when it felt as though I was awake every minute, staring into the darkness and listening to the howling, swooshing, relentless sound.

It gets so dark here, darker than anywhere else I’ve been. Outside the stars illuminate the prairie, but inside there’s no sign of light.

Some nights I drift off, only to be woken by the wind. Last night I started awake and saw a figure at the foot of my bed. I thought at first it was Henry, but it wasn’t. Then I thought perhaps it was Death, come for me, and I was disappointed when I blinked and it was gone.

Some nights the howl is more of a roar.

The wind blows in the daytime, too, but at least in the day there are chores to do.

I don’t like Nebraska.

Henry is fixing the roof, he says. He’s been fixing the roof for a long time. Days, weeks; I haven’t counted.

I don’t know what is wrong with the roof, but he is fixing it.

In summer, when the wind is calmer, I sit with the claim-shanty door open and take the air. The grasses ripple and fold like waves in the ocean. The winds don’t sound like the tides. Tides are beautiful, repetitive, rock you to sleep. Even when they are rough, they sound gentle. The grasses are nearly flattened by the wind. I have a pair of socks for Henry in my lap but I forget them and just sit watching the wind, stronger than any I ever saw in Massachusetts but calmer than it’s been in a week.

“Dinner about ready?”

Henry’s voice startles me. I must have been mesmerized. Perhaps even asleep. I haven’t slept at night in a long while.

I haven’t heard his voice in a long while, either. Yesterday, the day before? I can’t remember.

I stand, dropping my knitting.

“I’ll make you a sandwich,” I say, hoping there is still bread from Saturday’s baking.

There is bread, and I spread butter on it. I make tea. Henry likes tea. I would rather drink coffee, but he hasn’t been to town.

While he eats, I drink a cup of tea (it’s too hot) and watch the grass.

I speak suddenly, without meaning to. “I could go to town, for supplies.”

He stares at me for a minute.

He’s going to say no. He doesn’t want me around all the townsfolk. I don’t know what he thinks they’d do, but it can’t be worse than the nothing that ever happens at home.

“Very well. I could use some more nails.”

I can hardly believe it.

“I’ll go in the morning, after breakfast.”

He nods, just barely. I guess that’s decided, then. Lucky I did the washing Monday. I nearly left it. My everyday dress hasn’t had the opportunity to get dirty yet.

I don’t sleep at all. I don’t know if it’s the wind or nerves. I’m going to town!

But I don’t go to town. It rains. The wind makes the rain come sideways, so I have to keep the door closed. It’s dark inside, with just one window.

I try to read a book, but the words move around on the page.

I knit a few rounds on Henry’s socks. The stitches are wildly inconsistent. The wind is tensioning the thread.

The sound of the rain makes it easier to sleep at night. It rains for three days. On the fourth, it’s dry. I want to go to town, but the road is knee-deep mud. It’s two weeks before I get to go.

I bake bread. I wash Henry’s clothes. I bring in a bucketful of water from the rain barrel and wash my hair. One of Henry’s shirts is blown free of the washing line and I chase it for what must, surely, be a mile. I can’t see the homestead anymore when I finally catch it. I think about never going back, but I have nowhere else to go.

Henry puts up a line indoors. I mend the shirt and wash it again. I milk the cow and churn the butter. I listen to the wind.

Finally Henry hitches up the horses and gives me a purse of money. He warns me to be careful with it and to be home by nightfall, unless the wind is too strong to drive. If I can’t drive, I am to board the horses and stay the night in town. It’s the most he’s said to me in months.

I hope the wind blows everything away except the hotel. It can blow the hotel away, too, for all I care, but then what will become of me? Perhaps the wind will take me away.

I go to the hardware store and buy Henry’s nails.

At the general store I order flour, salt, and coffee. While I wait, I look at the bolts of calico. I don’t need a new dress, but the colors are a welcome change from looking at grass and clapboard every day. Greens and yellows and browns with tiny flowers; one has strawberries. I remember strawberries. So little and sweet. I used to pick them in the schoolyard. Raspberries in the church gardens.

I reach out my hand without meaning to and touch the dark green fabric with the strawberries. Suddenly I’m aware of someone behind me. My hand drops and I spin around.

It’s a woman, small and golden with dark hair. She wears a beautiful dress, blue with white patterning like leaves or feathers. Her eyes glitter. I think they’re green but I am lost in them.

“Hello.”

I think she says hello. I shake my head to clear it. I blink a few times. I hear the wind in my head even though it is still, mercifully still, outside.

“I’m sorry,” I say, even though I don’t want to be sorry, I’m not sorry. “I am just looking. I don’t need any material just now.”

“I miss strawberries, too,” she says softly. “I’m Alice.”

“Katherine,” I tell her. I haven’t said my name out loud in a long time. Usually I just say Mrs. Armstrong. But I am not just Henry’s name. I am Katherine. At least I was, and today I will be again.

“Have you had dinner, Katherine?”

I shake my head no. I packed bread and butter. It’s under the wagon seat.

Alice smiles and turns and walks toward the back of the shop, stopping to look over her shoulder. I follow.

In the back, Alice has a small kitchen. She gives me cold roasted chicken and a glass of milk and a bowl of—

“Raspberries?!”

I reach out and snatch one and pop it in my mouth. It really is a black raspberry, the kind that grow wild in the woods of Massachusetts. I can’t believe it.

“Where did you—?”

“They grow on the north side of town, past the depot.”

“Thank you.”

We eat quietly. I don’t know why she invited me to join her. Maybe she is lonely too.

“Is this your store?”

“My cousin Andrew’s. I’m a dressmaker. Shirtmaker, mostly. When men without wives need something sewn, they buy the material here and pay me to sew it for them.”

“They pay you?”

I know women work all over. I taught school for a year before I married Henry and we lost the baby and came west. But I suppose it never occurred to me that a woman could live here and work and live without a man. I suppose it helps that her cousin is a man, but to live here with no husband—it seemed impossible until this moment.

“They pay me, yes, and I have more work than I can handle! Cousin Andrew is talking of going back east, so I will have to take on a partner.”

I can’t believe what she is saying.

Her green eyes are like a vortex. I thank her for lunch and she asks me to come visit again soon.

I get home in time to make supper for Henry. I pull my rocking chair outside and sit, reading, until the sun is down and it is too dark to see. Then I drag the chair back in, put on my nightgown, and crawl into bed, careful not to disturb Henry. I needn’t have been careful; he is still awake. He turns to me.

I close my eyes and picture the vortex.

After, I lie on my back and stare up into the darkness, wishing, for once, that I could live.

Some of the crops do not survive after the rains. The wheat is flattened, but once it dries out we have it for hay to keep the cow and her calf and the horses warm and fed this winter. The corn grows tall again and the crows begin to eat it. I pick what I can. Potatoes are plentiful.

My monthlies come and I am so relieved that I cry while kneading the bread dough.

Autumn approaches. I long for apples. There are only cottonwood trees here, few and far between.

Henry announces that he is going to town to put up provisions for the winter. He says I may come with him. I wash and press my Sunday dress and brush my hair until it shines.

In town, he goes to the lumberyard. After he loads up the wagon, he tells me to choose material for a new dress, and to get some to make him new shirts. I smile, because I am sure he means to make me happy with the gift of a new dress. He does not know why buying material makes me happy.

Alice helps us like she would help strangers. I try not to let it sting.

I buy four yards of the green with the strawberries. Later, at home, I cry as I sew it. I feel terribly foolish.

“Heard Andrew Wheeler is heading back to Mississippi.”

I’m not sure what Henry is talking about at first, then I realize: Alice’s cousin Andrew. I wonder if she found a partner.

“That cousin of his is keeping the store. What do you think about that?”

Henry has been speaking to me more, now that the winds have lessened. I imagine myself climbing up onto the roof and smashing it in, so he would go back to spending the days fixing it and not even looking at me. He turns to me at night and I pretend I am already asleep.

After the first snow, Henry goes up on the roof to replace some of the tar paper. I do not see him slip. I find him in a heap by the side of the shanty, hollering. His leg looks bad. I hitch up the horses—that much I can do myself—but I can’t get Henry into the wagon. He is twice as big as me. So I leave him where he is, leaning against the house, and drive to town by myself.

There is no answer at the doctor’s place so I go to Alice.

“I think I tried to kill Henry,” I tell her.

She laughs at me and says no amount of wishing could have made him fall. She makes me wait in her little kitchen with a cup of coffee while she goes and finds the doctor. She comes back a little bit later and says the doctor is on his way to my place. She tells me she’s put up my horses. I am too distraught to drive back. I should spend the night.

Her bed is warm and her arms are tight and gentle and she smells like roses.

The next day I go back to the shanty. The doctor tells me Henry will have to convalesce for weeks, maybe months. He advises him to go to the city, since I am too small to help him. He says I should board in town. I wonder if I am living in a dream.

I go back to Alice.

Winds drive the snow and for months we stay indoors nearly every day. We find ways to pass the time. Alice loves novels. She has a dozen, and I read to her while she sews. She talks of buying a newfangled sewing machine. One day when the weather is fine, I send off to Omaha for a book of Walt Whitman’s poems. I sleep through the night, every night, in spite of the wind. The vortex lives inside me now.

I hear from Henry’s doctors. He has contracted a bad cough, and they worry it could be tuberculosis. He has to stay all winter.

Spring comes. Alice sews shirts and I run the store. The book of poems arrives and I give it to her. I am embarrassed that it is not something bigger, shinier, more; embarrassed to be presenting her with gifts at all. I go to the shanty and collect my rocking chair. I tell the neighbor who kept the cow and calf all winter to keep them forever.

I get a letter from Henry. He sounds angry. I haven’t written. He wants to know if he has anything to come home to when his lungs are stronger. I write back that the roof has caved in; he should go back to Boston.

He does. I live.

 


ANNIKA BARRANTI KLEIN grew up in New York, dreaming of the prairies. Instead, she ended up in Los Angeles, surrounded by high desert. She is a writer of short stories, poems, and novels, and a contributing editor at Book Riot. She lives with her family in a tiny apartment full of books. Her favorite Western movies are Silverado, Rio Bravo, and The Magnificent Seven. Her favorite Western novels are Topaz, My Antonia, Anything For Billy, and the one she has yet to write. Her flash fiction is at Enchanted Conversation and her poetry is at Fireside. This is her first story-length publication. Find her online at annikaobscura.com.

 

Author’s Note

I love Westerns. I also hate Westerns, because the entire genre is predicated on colonialism. Stories of the Indigenous people who were here first, of the Black people who were kidnapped and brought here against their will, of the Chinese immigrants who built the infrastructure of the West and were then excluded from citizenship, of the (often white) immigrant women who had little to no say over their lives—all of these stories and more have historically been erased, if they are written in the first place, in favor of heroic stories of white cowboys (in reality, one in four cowboys were Black, many were Mexican, and not all were male), gambling men with guns, and “the pioneer spirit.” Sometimes, for a change, Westerns are about heroic soldiers of the Civil War (usually on the Confederate side). The women whose stories are told are, for the most part, the “exceptional” women, i.e. the ones most like men (but not queer women, of course). And of course, those stories are very often written by men.

I am a white American cis woman. I grew up reading the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and not questioning Pa’s desire to go west and Ma’s fear of “Indians.” As a child I was afraid of the woman with the knife who threatened her husband because she wanted to go home to the east (These Happy Golden Years). Now I want to know her story.

What happens to a woman whose husband decides to go west, a woman who is forced to leave everything familiar—most likely her family, friends, perhaps a job, and certainly the place she knows—and live in isolation in the great wide open, where the wind sweeps across the prairie so loudly it could drive you mad? Does she disappear into herself, as Ma did? Become hard and libertarian, as Laura did? Or does she end up scared and desperate, threatening her husband with a knife in the dark? If she could find happiness, satisfaction, what would it look like?

As a teenager I graduated to Willa Cather’s stories of struggling immigrants. Reading My Antonia at age sixteen changed my life in ways that I struggle to articulate twenty-five years later. What I do know is that Cather used language to convey the feeling of a West that I had not seen before, one that rang true for me. When I moved west in 2002, I did not find melancholy; to me, the wide-open skies and endless plains are beautiful. But I do not have to live in them in isolation; in fact, I kept going all the way to California.

The stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color in the American West are not mine to tell. The Western genre is slowly becoming more inclusive, and it is my hope that BIPOC authors, especially women and other marginalized genders, are given room to tell their stories. I have written at Book Riot about Western books that are not only white men’s stories. They exist, and more are coming. With any luck, movies will eventually catch up and follow suit.

What I hope I have accomplished with “Prairie Fever” is to answer—hopefully without erasing anyone else’s voice—the questions I asked above: for a white woman who is in the West without wanting to be there, who has few options and must withstand ceaseless winds, what might satisfaction look like?

 


ANNIKA BARRANTI KLEIN grew up in New York, dreaming of the prairies. Instead, she ended up in Los Angeles, surrounded by high desert. She is a writer of short stories, poems, and novels, and a contributing editor at Book Riot. She lives with her family in a tiny apartment full of books. Her favorite Western movies are Silverado, Rio Bravo, and The Magnificent Seven. Her favorite Western novels are Topaz, My Antonia, Anything For Billy, and the one she has yet to write. Her flash fiction is at Enchanted Conversation and her poetry is at Fireside. This is her first story-length publication. Find her online at annikaobscura.com.