Thursday, February 08, 2007

Golden Wheat, Black Coal Ch. 2

Demeter, shining goddess, joined in love with Iasion the hero, on the rich island of Crete; They lay on fallow land which had been ploughed three times, and she gave birth to Ploutos, splendid god who travels far…and everyone who meets or touches him, grows wealthy, for great riches come from him.
Hesiod, Theogony

The two women settled on the train, wearing dusters and veiled hats to protect them from the soot and grit that penetrated the train car and became embedded in the emerald green upholstery. Once they pulled out, the noise of the steam, the wheels and the whistle was nearly unendurable. Stops were frequent to load on more wood, more water, more passengers, more freight. In addition, there were stops for animals and objects that had somehow drifted onto the tracks, rock slides and fallen trees, even in Massachusetts which was supposed to be civilized and orderly. Only after they had spent time in the West would they realize that these were small slides and mere saplings.
Gradually Demeter became dulled, drifting into a kind of dreaming swoon. She was limp, drained, after all the hurrying around to get arrangements made. Leaning back, she stripped off her gloves, baring hands that were soft-skinned but hard muscled. They were broad, long-fingered hands that had swung a scythe in her girlhood when she worked in the family fields of the Old Country. A steady rhythm and the grass went down, done for the season. Was that to be the fate of Pers? There was plenty of time to contemplate the countryside of the eastern United States and to imagine how it might be different from the Great Western Desert, but she couldn’t focus. They were traveling alongside a canal where mules towed loaded barges.
A land salesman sat across from them. “Yessirree! The canal used to be the secret of prosperity. No use growing a bumper crop if you can’t get it to market. But that canal can’t be moved to a new location once it’s dug. The railroad now, that’ll get your crops to where they’ll sell high. The railroad goes everywhere! Now I got some land in these here brochures that will take your breath away -- and all of it within a day’s wagon drive to the railway.”
Cate’s face was red with heat and she was looking for something to fan herself. “Hand me one of them brochures, sir!” He did and she used it to create a small breeze, ignoring his disappointment. She’d left off her hat and her red hair fluttered around her face, but the sweat still trickled.
“You ladies goin’ clear out to the West?”
Cate gave him a tight nod.
The land drummer was not to be discouraged. “It’s grain land out there in the West, you know. Flat land, plow up that grass like you was cuttin’ butter, no trees to chop, hardly a stone to pick, black earth.”
Cate thought of Ireland, where she’d grown up. Potatoes is what had kept them alive -- potatoes grown among the rocks in earth that was practically peat. Rocks to pick -- ah, yes. But what a snug tight house a body could make with them. Dig the floor down a bit and set the stones together artfully... a big hearth on one end. “If there are neither stones nor trees, of what does a body make a house?”
The salesman glowed with his success at provoking interest. “Why the grass sod itself is cut as bricks and stacked up to make the warmest, cleverest house. All you need to buy for a house is window glass and a stovepipe! The rest you can cut right out of the yard.”
Cate laughed at the ridiculous idea. Like the fairytale old man and his wife who lived in a vinegar cruet, except that the thing kept breaking. So they’d go off down the road with their door on their backs, looking for a new vinegar cruet and a sour task it was. But an Irish story for sure.
The salesman, who sometimes thought of being a preacher, began to overreach himself. “Grain is at the heart of civilization! It was only with the development of grain that the city could be invented and the city is the heart of all the arts and sciences. But the greatest cities of all will be built in the West, because that’s where the grain can be grown from one horizon to another, so far and wide that a horse couldn’t cross the field in a day! Massive steam engines will be needed to thrash it all.”
“Damn machines,” cried Cate. “Puttin’ honest people out of work.” At last the salesman shut up.

Demeter thought of her four children topologically, as though they were a flat, square field divided into four equal flat squares, so that she would be fair in her judgment of them. Two boys and two girls. But the four were entirely different from each other. Plutus was a capitalist, a natural elitist who understood Wall Street and lived well on that understanding. His house was three stories tall and refined in design, his wife was proud and well-dressed, and he managed his assets so cleverly that he was able to send his daughters abroad and his sons to good schools.
Boots was a country-man who raised horses and sold farm machinery. His pride was not in his house, which was very nice, but rather in his fields and barns. His great delight was not in running the business, though he was careful to hire reliable and resourceful people to do that, but in going onto the floors where his workmen assembled the steel rakes and plows that his horses would pull, creating a harvest that would spill over in grain and corn. Just now they were designing new sod-breaking plow blades that would cut down through the tangle that made the prairie fit for nothing but roving buffalo and their attendant Indians. Soon it would be civilized. A combination of railroads and elevators would transform the nation, feed and transport the immigrants who crowded onto the continent, and ready the land for cities.
The two boys were a comfort to her. The two girls were not. Cory was always defiant, noisy and daring. A blonde like her mother, she was pretty in a way that her mother was not -- she was rosy and made funny faces with her little red mouth and big blue eyes. She was totally disrespectful of propriety and constantly throwing off any kinds of restraints. As soon as she was a grown woman, Demeter had set her free -- she preferred to think of it that way rather than as throwing her out and anyway she could not be prevented from leaving -- and she had gone West until she was out-of-touch. None knew where she was -- but a person could be fairly confident that whereever it might be, a party was in progress.
And then Pers, the dark one, who had a sweet but melancholy streak. Left alone, she would sit in the house quietly, looking out the window, and never even think to eat unless someone came to get her. Her claim was that she was not particularly unhappy, she just was not interested in much. But she did like teaching little children, and Demeter had managed to get Boots to take her on one of his selling trips, so as to find her a teaching job someplace invigorating -- maybe near mountains.
It had seemed to work. She had learned to ride horseback on a fat pony and everyone made much of her. Her natural darkness was brightened with pink cheeks and flashing eyes. Demeter had thought the young woman was finally on her way, and now this.
She lay back against the train seat, stiff as cut and dried grass, trying to think of the root of it all. She had birthed her children in the Old Country and begun to raise them there. But there were not enough opportunities and too many constraints from the past. The land was tiring and people were not open to new ideas about fertilization. She had decided to emigrate to America.
Now in this new country, her sons did well but her daughters not only refused marriage, they refused housekeeping at all. They weren’t even like their cousin, Hester, who at least owned a beautiful small house of her own in Hartford, Connecticut, and followed literary pursuits, often with great impact on the whole nation. Maybe the daughters didn’t marry because the likely men had been killed in the War between the States. Maybe the prospects were better out West. They both denied a new generation of children for Demeter to enjoy in her old age, but at least Cory did not deny her body. Until now Pers had resisted even a casual liason with a suitable young man.
To what dark uses was she subjected now? She knew who had her. Mort Lethe could not be less suitable. Too old, too cold, too overbearing and small-hearted. He was a law unto himself who obeyed no jurisdictions and did as he pleased, no matter the consequences.
Demeter sat up straight on the train seat, impatient and determined. She would not think of the worst darkness of the world, but strive towards the light. Cate looked at her, knowing what she thought. She didn’t have to be psychic to understand Demeter. She too thought that Pers had been taken out of her sunlit maiden’s life, but she felt certain the girl was not dead, not in a grave.
Rather, when she reached her mind out past the horizon, the image was roads, travel. Pers had been moved across the country from where she was seized, but she was alive. And they were in pursuit along this double steel snake of a way, curving around the land and along waterways, in pursuit of the setting sun.
As they went, civilization thinned. The towns grew farther apart and the cultivated fields began to give way to a tall grass, unending tall grass that might conceal anything.

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