Empire of Dirt by Jonathan Bohr Heinen
This opening chapter of Jonathan Bohr Heinen’s Empire of Dirt is the third-place winner of the 2019 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, judged by Naomi Huffman.
Fifteen-year-old Sarah Billard has spent her entire life on the scorched plains of Oklahoma, the setting of Jonathan Bohr Heinen’s Empire of Dirt. It’s the onset of the Dust Bowl era, and Sarah has spent the last few years toiling alongside her father to extract anything from the “hardpan” earth. Their efforts have largely proved futile, and in their struggle, they’ve transferred their faith elsewhere. Her father pleas for mercies from God and obeys other superstitions, and Sarah, like any typical teen, thinks only of possible lives in other places. She looks across the expanse of land between herself and the horizon, dust in every direction, and feels her body changing, her sense of self expanding.
Heinen’s writing is richly detailed and closely observed; I could nearly feel the dust between my teeth. The image of the closing paragraphs is still so clear in my mind: Sarah and her father sit opposite one another, playing cards as they wait out a dust storm. Sarah pushes her chair back, impatient with a game they’ve dealt too many times. “Just one more hand,” her father says. Sarah agrees, for now.
That morning, when they set out to follow the fence line that surrounded their property, Sarah Billard didn’t expect her daddy to stop at the southern section. She could hardly recall the last time seed had taken root there—all those acres had been blown down to hardpan—but her daddy pulled the pickup beside the barbed wire anyway.
Stretching to the horizon and spreading as far as she could see was their land, hundreds of acres sunbaked to the dull, brown shade of pecan shells and so thoroughly wizened that the cracks running through the surface reminded her of a broken porcelain plate. She followed her daddy when he got out of the pickup and watched as he rummaged around in the bed, but it wasn’t until he’d withdrawn the hoe, run his thumb across the pitted blade, and started toward the fence line where a snake lay loosely coiled that she knew why he had pulled over.
She leaned against the pickup, arms knotted across her chest. He stopped a couple yards short of where the snake lay and nudged it with the hoe. It unfurled and lazily slinked across the hardpan. From where Sarah stood, she could see the pattern of brown and yellow scales, the unembellished tail. It wasn’t a rattler, just a simple bull snake. It posed them no danger and meant them no harm.
Her daddy lifted the hoe anyhow.
The blade clinked when it hit hardpan. The body thrashed—a blur of brown and yellow—and whipped up a small cloud of dust that was soon swept away by a light wind. When the thrashing waned, he called her over and held out the hoe for her to take.
That close, she could see the snake more clearly. Its head lay severed beside a thin spray of blood, and she was startled by its eye, a small round dot ringed in gold, how it seemed to be looking toward its own disjoined body, jaw open, a sliver of black tongue lolling over its lip.
The body slithered aimlessly nearby. Then the tail grazed the head, and the snake’s jaws snapped shut. The tail whipped back and forth but the severed head held fast. She couldn’t imagine the poor thing would have attacked itself if it knew any better, and she wondered if it felt at once both the sensations of biting and being bit.
Her daddy stepped forward and secured the body beneath his boot. Go on, he said.
She pried the snake’s head loose with the blade of the hoe, and the body slid away in retreat. She placed the flat edge of the blade on the head and pressed down. The skull cracked, and she was unsettled by the faintness of the sound, the easy violence of the moment, as irrevocable as breaking an egg. When she lifted the hoe, the head was flat, dispossessed of all instinct and thought. Should have brained it to begin with, she muttered and flicked the crushed head into a patch of scorched, yellow scrub near a fencepost.
Her daddy knelt and picked up what was left. The body coiled miserably around his forearm. He stood and nodded toward the pickup. They made their way to it.
While he peeled the snake from his arm, she laid the hoe in the bed and got back in the pickup. She was looking ahead, admiring the sun, bright and orange, sitting right on the rim of the horizon like a penny that had been flipped into the air and fallen perfectly on its edge. She squinted, held her thumb and pointer in front of her, and pinched them around the sun in the distance, amused by the thought of plucking it from the sky and putting it in her pocket, but she was brought out of her reverie by the hard, flat thump of the snake being thrown in the bed. Her daddy climbed in beside her and started the engine.
They drove the remaining length of the southern section in silence. It wasn’t until they’d taken a turn and headed down the dirt road that led to the southwestern quarter that her daddy said, Look, girl…
Girl? She gave him a hard stare. She was almost fifteen years old and already mature. When something on the farm needed doing, she skipped school to help, caught up on her learning in the evening, and kept her complaints to herself. Not to mention that her body was beginning to take shape. She was changing, had changed enough already that she’d close to outgrown her clothes, had changed enough it was awkward for her daddy to show her the casual affection he had when she was a child. She wasn’t a girl; she was practically grown. He took that tone with her only on certain occasions: when she’d done something childish and stupid, or when he had.
When they reached the southwestern quarter, he pulled the pickup to a stop, sighed, and said, I’m sorry, Sugar. I know you don’t like the killing. He pointed out the window and asked, You see what we’ve got here? We have to do what we can to keep it going. He pushed open the door and said, Come on, now. This won’t take too long.
While he retrieved the snake from the bed of the pickup, she looked to the southwestern quarter. There was more fence, more land, but these fields were dull green, filled with ripening wheat plants that had grown steadily since winter thawed, and this fence was strung with dozens of dead snakes. There were a couple of prairie rattlers in the mix, a single copperhead, but most of them were harmless—night snakes, milk snakes, and bull snakes. He’d even hung the tiny coachwhip he’d spotted in a dry creek bed and stomped dead. After he’d killed it, Sarah mentioned how pretty it was and pointed to the shimmering brown scales patterned like woven leather. He didn’t want to kill it, he told her. He had to.
Awhile back, he’d got in his head an old wives’ tale that hanging dead snakes during a drought would cause rain. Where he’d heard it, she couldn’t say for sure, though she suspected it had come from Larry Cobb, Arn Martin, or one of the other hand-wringing sodbusters who hung around the co-op when things weren’t too bad and bellied up to the bar at the Yellow Torch when they were.
He wasn’t always such a superstitious man. She could recall simple gestures—the horseshoe he’d hung in the barn for good luck, the way he knocked his knuckles against the kitchen table to avoid tempting fate, and the pinches of spilled salt he threw over his shoulder to blind the devil—but it wasn’t until recently that he seemed certain what he was doing would work.
When his fortunes first turned, he’d gone to God. After a few seasons of crop failure, dust storms that swept seed from the ground, and month after month with no rain, he was frustrated, angry, and unsure of what to do. At night, he would carry the kerosene lamp into his bedroom and set it on the nightstand beside the framed picture of her mother. He would kneel beside the bed, fold his hands, and by the dull, orange light of the lamp, he would pray. But the dust storms didn’t stop, the rain returned only on the rarest occasions, and eventually he knelt bedside, hands clasped so tightly that it seemed as if one were trying to wrest the other into capitulation. He prayed begrudgingly, asking questions to which he would never receive answers, until finally he felt he wasn’t speaking to anyone but himself. Then he would carry the lamp into his room, smother the flame, and lie down quietly in the dark.
But he hadn’t given up.
God sent him no signs, so he searched for them himself. He sought out harbingers of rain—a red sky in the morning, the loud chirping of crickets, a halo circling the moon—and though they appeared from time to time, the sky never broke. After another failed crop, he saw no point in placing his stock in signs and started killing snakes.
She supposed he wanted to feel like he had a hand in what happened, like he could do something more than pray or scout, and though it rained the day after he killed the coachwhip—just a sprinkling, not even a quarter inch—it didn’t for the ones he’d killed before that, and it hadn’t for the ones he’d killed since.
The snakes hung from the fence in different stages of decay: knotted like thick lengths of rope; gut-torn by birds, shreds sagging from the wires; the tiny coachwhip so long gone that there was nothing left of it but a slumping hull of fragile scales that had lost their shine. Her daddy walked down the line until he found a place for the bull snake. He strung it among the rest and dusted his hands on the front of his pants. Then he parted the wires, slid between them, and headed into the field.
A few lengths down, a pair of blackbirds perched on the wire and pecked the carrion. She plucked the wire and waited, counting the time it took for the vibration to reach the birds in the way she used to count the time between a flash of lightning and the thunder that followed. The birds lit off the wire. They rose and fell, beating their wings against rough air. She watched them fly away, shadowy forms against an endless panel of powder blue. They banked toward the rising sun, growing smaller and smaller until they were nothing but a pair of indistinguishable smudges in the sky that eventually vanished from sight.
Earlier that spring, when the shoots first emerged, she expected them to shrivel and die from thirst, but the leaves tillered and joined, and now she wove between the wires and set out across the field, brushing her hand through the tangle of flag leaves fluttering like linen on the line.
Half a year ago, that same quarter was nothing but a few stalks of volunteer wheat that’d turned bone white under the sun. Her daddy was usually optimistic, but she knew he couldn’t picture a good future for them then. It may just be a matter of time, he said. Their nearest neighbor, Roman Hull, had lost his farm, and she knew they might soon lose theirs, too. One more year, he told her. If nothing comes up, we’re through. The idea wasn’t unwelcome to Sarah. She often imagined them in different places, like the cities she’d seen in the movies, doing something other than overseeing spent dirt.
With the quarter bare, no crops to see to, her daddy suggested they pay Mr. Hull a visit. He’d been working at the Done Right, a repair shop and filling station on the edge of town, since he lost his farm. Her daddy said, We should take him a batch of molasses cookies. Something to lift his spirits. What’s got him down? she asked.
Her daddy grabbed the ingredients from the pantry, set them on the kitchen counter, and said, He’s working at the Done Right.
Sarah measured out the ingredients and asked, What’s he have to do there?
He’ll be pumping gas and filling tires, I guess. The man’s handy under the hood, but he won’t get to do much more than change a fan belt or replace some spark plugs. He might drive the wrecker if something breaks down, but that’s it.
That’s not so bad. She mixed the dough and said, It’s a step up from farming things that don’t grow no more.
You think so? he asked.
You only think that because you don’t know what nothing is. Imagine what it’s like to have a place that’s yours only and lose it. It may not be too long before you know just how that feels. He grabbed the wooden spoon from the mixing bowl and took a bite of the dough. Then he set the spoon on the counter and said, The oven is ready when you are.
Once the cookies had baked and cooled, they packed them in a tin and drove to the Done Right. When they arrived, Mr. Hull’s old, speckled bird dog, Princess, came running. She circled Sarah a few times and then led the way to Mr. Hull.
The wrecker was parked in the service bay out back, a couple of gas pumps were posted in the front, and between them was a small wooden building with a slanted roof. The wood was dry, shedding splinters as rough and unruly as the hair on a hog, and the door leading inside was so desiccated it had shrunk in the frame and no longer hung plumb. A bottle opener was mounted on one side of the door, a pile of bent bottle caps on the ground beneath it, and a chipped, enamel Conoco sign hung on the other.
Mr. Hull sat out front in a folding chair. The radio on the card table beside him played Don Azpiazu’s “The Peanut Vendor.” He drummed his fingers along to the rattle of maracas and squealing trumpet, then he reached for a half-empty bottle of brown liquor and took a drink. Princess barked when they reached Mr. Hull. He set down the bottle, smiled weakly, and wobbled toward them.
I’ll be damned, he said. What brings you here, Joseph?
Her daddy shook his hand and said, Came to see how’re you holding up?
Worse than I was, he said, but better than some, I suppose. He leaned in, gave Sarah a hug, and said, Good to see you, darling.
We brought you some cookies, she said and handed him the tin.
He cracked the lid, raised the tin near his nose, and sniffed. He held out the tin to offer Sarah a cookie, but she shied away. He nodded toward the building and said, At least go get yourself a coke.
The shelves inside were sparsely stocked with rolls of Life Savers, Baby Ruth bars, and Wrigley’s gum. Tins of oil and a few six-volt batteries were lined up against the wall. Near the counter, she found a dry ice box packed with warm bottles of 7UP, Orange Crush, and coke, and on the wall behind it hung a map of Oklahoma, replete with little line drawings: an Indian hunted buffalo with a bow and arrow in Creek County, jackrabbits ran across the Cherokee Strip, teepees sat beside oil rigs in Anadarko, and longhorns grazed the Osage Nation. Printed in large block letters that filled the panhandle were the words, No Man’s Land, and right between the relative metropolises of Guymon and Boise City, someone had driven a ten-penny nail halfway into the wall and written below it, Here is where you are.
She didn’t want to spend her whole life there, get hitched after high school and inherit her daddy’s holdings and all the problems that came with them. Besides, her prospects were poor. The only boy who’d taken an interest in her was Bobby Pudder. He was handsome and gentle, and when he asked her to the fall dance, she was flattered to have his attention, but that night, after the music stopped and he led her to outside to an open field where they could see the stars and talk, he told her how he hoped to one day run his family’s farm, and she knew he had no ambition to be anywhere else but there. He put his hand on her shoulder and timidly leaned forward, and she imagined how it would be if they got together: her wanting one thing, him another, the two of them dancing out-of-sync until one of them died. When their lips met, she felt nothing.
She pulled a bottle from the icebox and looked once more at that pitiful nail driven into the map. She imagined what all could happen away from it, past the drawn boundaries, and she knew that if there was ever a chance to go someplace else, she would take it.
She popped the cap on the bottle opener by the door. Mr. Hull and her daddy were sitting on opposite sides of the card table. Mr. Hull grabbed a cookie from the tin, took a bite, and washed it down with whiskey. Then he slid the bottle across the table to her daddy. Sarah sat on an overturned bucket nearby and sipped her coke while the radio played.
Princess circled her, rolled onto her side, and exposed her belly. She stretched her paws while Sarah scratched her stomach, then she got to her feet and started walking. She made it off the lot and headed down the road. Sarah called her a couple times, but the dog didn’t turn back.
Mr. Hull, she said and pointed to the wandering dog.
He stood, whistled loudly, and yelled, Princess, get on over here! The dog stopped, but it wasn’t until he screamed, Now, goddamn it! that she doubled back. She’s been going off on her own ever since we moved here, he said.
Her daddy asked, Where’s she headed?
Probably trying to find her way back home.
The music stopped and gave way to dead air, the crackle of static like a ragged breath. Then a voice came over the airwaves and said, My friends… I have been on a journey of husbandry. Fifteen hundred miles away, FDR was sitting at a desk in the White House, surrounded by a cluster of microphones.
Mr. Hull twisted the dial one way—nothing but fuzz—then the other—muffled drums, brass, and ivory.
Turn it back, her daddy said. I want to hear what he’s got to say.
FDR hadn’t stopped in the panhandle, but he’d toured the breadbasket and seen what they were up against. No cracked earth, he said, no blistering sun, no burning wind, no grasshoppers are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen and their wives and children, who have carried on through desperate days and inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity and their courage.
Her daddy listened intently until the voice faded. Then static hummed and popped from the speaker, and before another word or note of music could reach them over the airwaves, Mr. Hull turned the knob and switched off the radio.
Her daddy took a sip of whiskey, pushed the bottle back across the table, and said, You think he’s right?
If he was right about me, Mr. Hull said, I’d still have my farm. He got up, stepped off the porch, and stumbled to the side of the Done Right. He sighed deeply and started to piss. Once he was finished, he came back around to the front of the building. He scanned the lot and looked down the road. Then he asked, Where’s the dog?
Sarah wasn’t impressed by what FDR had said either. Years later, decades later, she would hear an apocryphal story about FDR, how the voice that had praised their intrepidity on the radio that day was the same voice that, when advised to depopulate the drought-affected regions and move every working hand from the fields, had said, I know they’re trying to make both ends meet on land not fit for farming. But if that’s what they want to do, then I take it it’s their funeral, and for as much good as that man did in his life, for the nation, she struggled to forgive him for what he’d said when it seemed no one was listening.
But her daddy seemed to take heart in what he’d heard. When it was time to plant again, he reseeded the southern section with native grass and took out a loan to drill the southwestern quarter with wheat. Sarah thought the grass would take root, but it didn’t; she thought the wheat would die, and it lived.
Now she and her daddy waded through the great stand of wheat in the southwestern quarter. They checked the plants for signs of infestation and black rust but found none. The wind picked up, and they brushed aside the swaying stalks and leaves. When they got to the fence, her daddy parted the wires for her, and she slid between them, doing her best to dodge the dead snakes. Once through, she held open the wires. He cleared them, turned to survey the southwestern quarter once more, and smiled slightly. Then he looked to bare sky and said, All we need now is some rain.
By the time they returned home, the sun had risen to its zenith, and when Sarah stepped out of the pickup, her shadow pooled around her feet like a hole in the ground that she could fall through. She took the hoe from the bed of the truck, could still see a smear of the bull snake’s blood among the dirt and rust on the blade.
Chickens wandered the lot, pecking phantom feed in the dirt and clucking. She was heading past them, on her way to the garden they kept between their house and the barn, when she caught sight of the collapsed cottonwood in the distance. It was one of the only trees on their property. Claimed by the drought early on, it was now stripped of bark and slouched heavily to one side, almost uprooted.
She pointed to it with the hoe and asked, Do you see that?
An assembly of birds had settled in the tree. They ruffled their feathers and shuffled along the branches. Were the tree not dead and dried out, they might have been mistaken for trembling leaves. She wondered if the blackbirds she chased off the wire in the southwestern quarter were among them.
Her daddy said, I’ve seen flocks of meadowlarks and mourning doves in that tree before, but never so many different kinds together.
What are they doing there?
He stood for a moment, like he was trying to unravel the mystery of it. Finally he said, Hell if I know. Then he told her he’d meet her in the garden and headed for the barn.
The carrots, onions, peas, and potatoes they’d planted on St. Patrick’s Day had sprouted well, but as they grew, the leaves withered to yellow. She hacked around the edges of one of the potato plants with the hoe and pulled it from the ground. The potatoes were small and green skinned. She knew they’d be bitter.
Her daddy said, Don’t give up on them. He’d gotten a watering can from the barn, filled it at the well, and now he tilted it as he walked down the row, sprinkling the plants. There’s nothing here past saving, he said.
While he nursed the plants they had going, he tasked her to hoe rows for the cucumbers, tomatoes, and sweet peppers they would sow. She chopped lines in the ground. The wind blew while they worked, lifting dry dirt into the air. Her daddy came to her, pulled a couple of handkerchiefs from his pocket, and handed one to her. She tied it to cover her nose and mouth, and he did the same.
Years back, when drought first hit and the wind filled the air with dust, her daddy had knelt before her in that same garden and tied her handkerchief for her before he tied his, and when he was finished, he said, Look at us. Just like Belle Starr and Jesse James. This is a stick up, he said, and they pointed at one another, their fingers fashioned like guns, and fired.
She was halfway through the fourth row when she swung the hoe and struck a rock. She set the hoe aside and began digging with her hands. The rock was firmly lodged in the ground, and she wiggled it back and forth like a loose tooth. She pulled it from the ground—jagged, no bigger than those puny potatoes—and carried it to the pile of rocks behind the barn.
Walking back to the garden, she felt a gale blowing strong and steady. A veil of dust dimmed the sun, and the sky took on the tint of an old photograph. In the corner of her eye, she saw the birds rise from the cottonwood in a chaotic arrangement, like the spread of birdshot through a sheet of tin. She didn’t notice her daddy was standing with her until he placed his hand on her back.
A great cloud of dust crested the horizon and began to grow. More birds flew ahead of it, crude silhouettes of all shapes and sizes, beating their wings in a frenzied attempt to outrun the storm, but the dust cloud rose and rolled forward. One by one, the birds tumbled from the sky and disappeared in the dust.
Come on, her daddy said. They stowed their tools and started to bring in the chickens.
The chickens scrambled around the lot. Her daddy chased after one of the hens; Sarah closed in on the old rooster. No sooner had she put hand to feather, the rooster struck, but she didn’t let go. He pecked a few holes in the back of her hand before she could restrain him and feed him into the coop with the others. Her daddy pushed in the last hen and latched the door. They covered the coop with a tarp to keep out the dust, weighed down the corners with stones, and retreated into the house.
Her daddy shut the door and they stood in the kitchen. Sunlight bled through the windows, undulating like a guttering candle flame. He pulled the stopper from the glass water jug that sat on the counter. Sarah took out a basin and filled it with rags. He doused them with water, and once they were wet, he wrung them and passed them to her to stuff along the thresholds and windowsills. It was more a ritual than remedy. Soon the wind would ferry dust through every loose seam. There would be dust on the dishes in the cupboards, dust covering the clothes that hung in the closet, dust on their skin and in the air that they breathed.
When they were finished, her daddy dabbed the blood off her hand with a damp rag, and said, Ill-tempered as that old rooster is, he didn’t get you too bad.
He took two glasses from the cupboard, filled them with water, and hammered the stopper back into the jug with the flat of his hand. If you’re going to eat, he said, you better do it now. Then he carried the water glasses to the table and sat down.
Next to a half-pan of stale cornbread was a leg of salt-cured ham they got from the last hog killing. She smeared the cornbread with butter, carved off a hunk of ham, and sat down at the table with her daddy.
He looked out the window while the wind whistled and moaned. Outside, the dust grew thicker, the light dwindled. There was no telling how far back the storm stretched, how long it would last—an hour? a day?—or what damage it would do, but her daddy kept looking out the window, staring into the dust the way a fortune teller stares into a cloudy crystal ball, trying to divine the future.
She took a couple of bites of ham and tore off a piece of cornbread. Don’t think about it, she said. There’s nothing we can do. She slid the pan of cornbread across the table.
He pushed it back and said, I’m not hungry.
She was about to take another bite when she heard tapping on their door. No sooner had she asked, Did you hear that? a hard, flat smack rent the air.
It’s just them birds, her daddy said. He got up from the table, opened a drawer in the kitchen, and pulled out a deck of cards. The storm is stirring them up, he said. He sat back down at the table, spilled the cards from their sleeve, and split the deck. They’re hitting the house like hailstones, he said.
He began to shuffle the cards, and Sarah listened. After a few more bangs and bumps, there was silence, broken only by the sound of her daddy riffling the cards.
She imagined that most of the birds had skirted by them, left to tumble in the currents until another obstacle presented itself or the wind finally rested and they fell from the sky. She supposed where they came to a stop didn’t matter all that much. They were already dead.
She took a bite of cornbread and washed it down with a gulp of water.
Her daddy set the deck in front of her to cut.
What are we playing?
He scooped up the cards and said, Gin. Then he dealt them each a hand. He flipped a four of clubs face up and asked, Do you want it?
She arranged the cards in her hand, looking for sets and runs, and shook her head. She’d rather take her chances with the cards in the deck.
They made it through a few hands, but the storm worsened. The wind made a hollow sound like breath in an empty bottle, and though the sun was still out there somewhere, it was obscured by the dust. Shadows the deep purple shade of a fresh bruise washed over the room. Her daddy lit the kerosene lamp, and she watched while the dust rode the air, drifting through the orange light like sparks escaping a fire.
After a few more hands, she’d had enough. Her daddy was an impatient card player. He would build his melds, and as soon as he had fewer than ten points in deadwood, he would knock and force her to show her hand. Every time he did it, she undercut him—building her game off his sets and runs—and took the points, but he kept dealing, chasing bad melds to the end of each hand.
A thin layer of dust coated her skin, and a few beads of sweat slid down her arm and cut trails in it. There was no sense in ignoring it. The two of them should have been in their beds, under the covers, trying not to breathe it in. She laid her cards on the table and pushed back her chair.
She knew they couldn’t keep carrying on like they were, waiting for a break that hadn’t come and probably wouldn’t, and though she’d often wished for the farm to fail, for them to pull up stakes and push on, as she imagined the wind ripping wheat from the southwestern quarter, blowing the snakes off the barbed wire, and killing birds, she knew that if any part of the southwestern quarter made it through the storm unharmed, her daddy would want to keep going.
He shuffled the deck. Just one more hand, he said. He pulled a card off the top, pushed it toward her, and said, Please.
She pulled her chair back to the table and said, All right. One more.
JONATHAN BOHR HEINEN’s writing has appeared in the Cimarron Review, Florida Review, The Boiler, Arroyo, and Tusculum Review, among other places, and has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He teaches at the College of Charleston, where he serves as managing editor for Crazyhorse, and is a staff member for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.