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Dust Bowl Children

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He who plays the bass is her cousin. He came to her when the Depression took his job, and his wife and daughter went with it.

"I'll look for them," he said from her doorstep, with the voice of their great-grandfather and the eyes to match. "Just not from that house. The bank hasn't taken it - not yet - but it's not mine anymore."

He did look for a while. He tried. No one can fault him for not trying.

She's fed him and kept meat on his bones, and his indebtedness to her makes him get out of bed every morning.

"This house will always be yours," she tells him. Would have been, if his father had been the favorite son instead of hers.  

"Blood sticks with blood," she says, but he's learned that's not always true. She doesn't know how to tell him that she's different - not without admitting that she has nothing left but this house and her little makeshift family, and a woman's got to keep her pride.

Maybe pride's the reason his wife left, she thinks. She pushes that thought away, but it comes to her at night. Maybe they're alike.

 

 

He who plays the guitar - that most agreeable of instruments - is an old friend, the quietest person she knows. He was the preacher's son, before the preacher left in search of a larger flock.

"He means a less impoverished flock," the son told her, trembling with a rage she didn't know he possessed. "One that will need him less."

"A flock that can shepherd itself," she mused, but he corrected her bitterly: "No. A flock that can keep its shepherd comfortable in exchange for his guidance. Or his discretion."

So the preacher's son stayed "because Jesus would stay." It strikes her as quaint - admirable, but naively so. She doesn't see Jesus anywhere helping out. Only the preacher's son, only the one good egg out of the entire bunch. The only member of the congregation to keep to God's Word when times got tough.

She certainly hasn't.

She asks him why he still believes all those things, and he says simply that where there is a reason, there cannot also be faith.

She asks him why he is unmarried still (he seems so young, but his hands betray his age), and his brow furrows as he says, "God didn't mean for me to marry."

He tells her his first love is the banjo. If only God hadn't called the preacher to take his with him.

"Surely something more docile would suit you better," she says, so he explains.

"A banjo is capable of overwhelming other instruments, but in the right hands, it can be made to complement them instead. It requires restraint. It's also joyful. It was brought here by an enslaved people and it helped keep their will unbroken. Jesus would have played a banjo."

That answer comforts her, somehow. Maybe that's the reason Jesus hasn't come to help them. They have no banjo to offer in return.

 

 

He who plays the mandolin is her lover.

He didn't start out that way; he was the first to come, a grifter half-dead of hunger.

"Just three days," he pleaded, "and then I'll be on my way," but on the second day he found her father's old mandolin, and he would play to her at night over the flickering remains of her second-to-last candle. Songs of faraway mountains drifted between them, long-dead protagonists vibrating in the air like ghosts she could see, until she felt that these stories were hers, too, that she needed to keep them somehow.

"Teach me those songs before you go," she asked, but he has so many songs. He must've made up some of them on the spot.

"You'll trick me," she says. "You'll take everything I have and go. These things happen, you know."

"Not to you," he intones, and kisses her ribcage. "Never you." He doesn't understand that it has already, once before. He hasn't seen her mad etchings in the barn, hasn't yet earned that right.

Why do you think I'm special? she wants to ask, but she isn't ready. Not quite. Let times get better first. Let him no longer depend on her for survival, let him feel a gust of fresh wind on his face, let her leave her father's mandolin in his sole custody for too long, and then she'll see.

She loves him, probably, but that means nothing. She doesn't hold out much hope for love.

And yet, their voices complement each other so perfectly, it would be a shame if his were lying.

 

 

He who plays the dobro is the newcomer.

"A friend," her cousin and her lover told her. "He can offer protection." There's more to it, but she doesn't ask about those things. The others look at him in awe, but she only sees a strong pair of hands that so far know when to keep to their own business.

She finds his resonator guitar a curiosity. "It has a human voice inside," he says, and she lets him stay mostly for that reason, secret machinations be damned.

She doesn't know him yet, but she will.

 

 

Mornings, they go into town. They take their instruments, but she suspects that's just for show - for the townspeople or for her, she isn't sure.

She watches for them all day - for threats or other drifters, too, but mostly for them. She doesn't know what they do or where they get the food and supplies, all packed into their instrument cases. Candle stubs stitched into felt, little packages of salt in the guitar body.

She'd lend them her fiddle, but she can't take the risk. Her fiddle is hers alone. They don't know she has it.

She takes it out when she's alone and plays songs for them, and for herself. For the protagonists of those songs from far away.

She gazes out at the brown, barren landscape, and the fiddle says everything she can't.