* * *
Esther had seen a river once before.
Early one morning Aaron had ordered Bessie
to the feed store in Independence
and, while she was at it, to pick up
a box of ten-penny nails.
Curled up in the front parlor,
Esther overheard them. Before
the rest of the family had yawned awake,
she had found her way in the dark
to the kerosene lamp, the chair
at the far end of the room, where
the encyclopedia sat neatly on its shelf.
Today she was deep into the M’s. In Mexico,
she learned, all the people are lazy
and sleep much of the day away.
whispered Esther, and imagined whole
villages asleep in their beds while the hens
got loose from the henhouse.
What’s the matter with the store in town?
Bessie demanded. Esther could hear
the turn in her mother’s voice.
Aaron did not reply. Esther knew
he’d be lighting his morning pipe. She
could hear him strike the match
on the iron stove, could hear
from down the long hall the flame
burst—could feel the heat even as she sat
as small as she could make herself.
Esther knew, too, what her father planned
while Mother Bessie was away, why
he was sending her to town.
She rose quickly, placed the volume
carefully between L and N, and hurried
up the front stairs to her attic room.
Through her dormered window she saw
Aaron head toward the wagon he’d hitched
and tied to the gate of the kitchen garden,
where Bessie now stood, arms stiff at her sides,
among paperwhites and narcissus
in early show along the privet hedge.
Esther dressed quickly, laced up
her boots, and descended the back stairway
as her father methodically checked the traces
and hames, tightened the horse’s girth.
When he turned to meet Bessie’s
dour face, Esther met his eyes instead
and seized the reins.
Where do you think you’re going, girl? Aaron snarled,
stepping back. But Esther had already mounted
the wagon, felt the mare’s delicate mouth
respond from the bit down the length of the leather.
Before Aaron could stop her she ordered the horse Ride!
She knew Independence was west, so drove
hard away from the rising sun
until she came to a wide river, wildness
she could not yet fathom, a ribbon
of copper green moving so swiftly behind
a stand of cottonwood that for an instant
it looked to the girl as if the trees were moving
while the river stood still.
where in the world all that water came from,
then turned the wagon around
and headed back home.
* * *
The land brooded with sad farms, barley
just taking hold that would not survive
the drought or the merciless wind,
and beyond the barley grew sorghum,
as far as the eye could see, and what land
did not support a crop suffered buffalo grass,
and prairie dogs the farmers called fury
weeds, busy with their miserable lives.
Esther could not have known while
she dozed—just one of many on this train
traveling in regimental discomfort, folks
who would die working the land
and be buried there—that beneath them,
the great continent of Pangaea was once
split by a vast inland sea, where
winged lizards and giant sharks
and turtles twice the size of an ox
held sway, and long-necked plesiosaurs
with great oar-like paddles prowled
alongside graceful, serpentine
predators forty-five feet, twenty tons—
where she now stirred and nearly
wakened from her dream of mountains,
trillions of miniscule organisms sank
to sea bottom, their delicate carcasses
forming the chalk hills and limestone
quarries and shale beds that shaped
this prairie—what this girl understood
as flat, unchanging, was in fact the slow
rumination of what had always been,
shifting without notice, the forcemeat
of time on all things.
* * *
Aaron had unfolded the map
and struggled to set it flat enough to read,
but the best he could do left two hills
where his knees bent under it.
Esther sat very still as she always did
if it fell to her to be nearest him
when he was vexed.
Here! We must be here! Aaron blurted
to no one in particular. Startled
out of her stillness, Esther followed
her father’s gaze to one of the hills
where his finger jabbed at a black dot
beside a thin blue line.
She had seen maps in the encyclopedia,
maps of Africa, of mountains in South America,
the whole British Empire. Never
had she seen a map of Kansas.
Where did we start, Father? Esther asked.
But Aaron was at it again, trying
to smooth the paper, and paid no attention.
So she leaned in and saw that he had circled
Montgomery County, where the farm sat
heavy on the land, where Bessie’s brooding
countenance brightened as she worked
in the kitchen garden, its precise rows
of potatoes, sugar beets to feed the hens.
Esther conjured the snap peas and kale
near the tidy bed of verbena, her mother
bending to harvest thyme and marjoram,
their lingering fragrance.
Then the girl looked up toward her attic room
and saw herself there at the window,
gazing out beyond the barn.
She was thinner than she’d imagined
herself to be, in that life, just days ago, but
she’d thought her mouth to be a grim slash
across her face.
And it was.
The smell of fried chicken brought her back
to the train, to the family across the aisle
noisily opening their box lunches,
and to Aaron, still fingering the map.
Disquiet settled in her stomach.
Everywhere she had ever been in her life
was within the distance of the width