dust :: susan aizenberg

When she woke in the morning, the only clean part of her pillow was the outline of her head.
                                —Timothy Egan

I think it must have come to seem to them biblical,
    those seasons of drouth, the earth itself a glistering
anvil beneath bleached and empty skies, the sun’s light,
    sharp as a blade, piercing the dried and naked stands

of honey locusts their men had set as windbreaks,
    withering their roses and pansies and the neat kitchen
gardens, bordered by mulberry hedges, they’d tended.
    No living green anywhere for the eye to rest,

they wrote their families back East, nothing thrives
    but thistle and insects, the damned rabbits.
For miles
around them, nothing but abandoned farms,
    no crops to anchor the fields, and when blow season

came, the big rollers and black dusters bearing
    their rough freight of blown topsoil to blind
the cattle and scrape the paint off the barns, the air
    so charged with static a kiss or a handshake

knocked you flat, it must have seemed a plague.
    Sky black as the inside of a dog, the men said.
Blow your nose, your hand comes away black-snotted.
    Father Coughlin on the radio blamed the Jews

and bankers, but it must have felt like God himself
    was furious, and who could fathom God? Imagine
how they had to wake to it, morning after morning,
    a meal of dust sifting through the ceiling,

coating the turned-over pots and soaking through
    the wet towels veiling every surface. How it snaked
past the door jams and window frames they’d sealed
    with newspapers and gummed tape, rags soaked

in kerosene. Imagine the blackened sheets
    and the gritty oil that filmed the water they drew
to wash them in, the layers of dust that rippled across
    their scrubbed floors, deep enough for dunes

they had to wake the eldest boy or girl each morning
    to shovel out, their mouths and noses masked
like small Jesse Jameses. And when the cattle began to die,
    and then the children, the frail sacs of their lungs

shredded and their stomachs swollen with dirt,
    some of them went sorrowing, dust mad,
through the vacant streets, but mostly, they endured.
    It’s them I think of now, the ones who endured,

how they must have rested, so briefly,
    in the evenings, writing their letters home before prayer
and bed by the dim light of oil lamps, how they
    must have stared at the unstoppable dust rising

again in the darkening air, the way they
    must have breathed it in slowly, slowly out.