Green earth stretches to infinity. Corn and soybean fields fill the horizon under the sky’s vast blue basin. We leave the hustle of the interstate and find a parallel two-lane road that stitches farms to half empty towns. Here and there a dilapidated farmhouse, abandoned to owls and mice, stands beside a newly built house with metal siding. At Skunk Creek we check into an antique motel managed by a couple from India. Our room is clean and without amenities. The bathroom fixtures are different shades of blue—sapphire, azure, and turquoise.
The accents at the Food Mart lilt into a swirl of faces. Some are nut brown. Others pale as the moon. New immigrants stand in line beside buxom farmwomen of German descent wearing years of childbearing on their hips.
We met the great aunts of these women while visiting a convent on our circle through the Midwest. The nuns had grown up on tiny farms struggling to feed large families and had escaped from the odium of raising their siblings. Their choices were stark: the convent or a lackluster marriage. Most were sixteen when they became novices. They are elderly now, but count themselves blessed.
One nun smiles as she recalls cleaning the marble angels in the adoration chapel with a toothbrush to remove the dust from its sculpted folds. The air in the chapel is as heavy as a ton of feathers. The Hebrew word for holiness, “kavod,” is rooted in the word for weight.
The order of sisters who built this chapel three generations ago still maintain a twenty-four hour prayer vigil. Some still wear traditional garb. They have gone bald after decades of wearing wimples and continue covering their heads. A stylishly dressed, middle-aged nun also kneels before the altar. Her pale, golden hair shines like a halo in the soft light filtering through the stained glass windows.
Much of the Midwest hasn’t aged as gracefully. Many of the antique storefronts in the farm towns we pass through stare at us with empty windows. Others pioneer new languages as they advertise children’s clothes and baked goods. “Mundos infantile,” I read and savor the aroma slipping enticingly through the door of a Somali restaurant. A tinkling bell announces ice cream. The Hispanic vendor sells frozen delicacies from a battered blue cart.
I lick the cool sweetness of a popsicle and study the shorn fields. The fermentation of the yellow stubble stings my nostrils. A locomotive’s whistle accosts my ears with its piercing blast as a seemingly endless procession of rusty cars rolls over the wide green earth towards skyscraper granaries towering near houses on the verge of collapse.
We take a detour home, past a place identified as Last Chance. It’s still a dot on the map, but there’s no town. Only the shell of an abandoned homestead rattles in the wind. The dry-eyed sky taunts the thirsting ground with shadows of clouds while the Earth cries out with parched lips in frequencies too high for the human ear to hear. The voice of the Earth becomes a fine dust that the wind hurls towards the heavens. It is too weak to tear open the clouds. They float tantalizingly in the sky as the wind paws at their soft underbellies.
We feel thirsty ourselves but there is nowhere to stop for a drink. Turning westward, we drive the final stretch home.
Published in Stories