Bottomland is a haunting story of pride, love, and betrayal, set among the rugged terrain of Iowa, the fields of war-torn Flanders, and the bustling Chicago streets. With exquisite lyricism, Michelle Hoover deftly examines the intrepid ways a person can forge a life of one's own despite the dangerous obstacles of prejudice and oppression.
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It was little more than a month before winter shut us in when I last saw the youngest of my sisters. Our little Myrle. I woke to find her shivering just inside the front door when she should have long gone to bed. It was dark as a cellar in that hall and outside it would be darker — miles of field and grassland lay beyond the front porch. Our house sat alone on the prairie, far from its neighbors. The road to our place was a run of stubble and dirt. Myrle's hair shone white on her shoulders and she wore nothing but a nightgown, her arms and feet bare in the cold — not enough sense to cover herself though she was almost grown.
I raised my lantern to her face. "Why, Myrle," I said, "you'll catch your death."
The look she gave, as if startled out of sleep. Her eyes teared and she ducked her head. The door was locked at her back. After the war, Father would have made sure of it. A draft rushed our ankles from the doorstep. The rest of the house was still, nothing but a wind outside knocking the stable gate. I touched Myrle's forehead and felt it damp. She brushed away my hand. Her other hand she hid behind her hip, and when I asked her to show it, she glanced up the staircase and called our sister's name, as if Esther might rush down to save her. I turned my head and Myrle was off — the white of her nightgown a whirl up the stair. In their bedroom above, the two girls whispered together. When at last Esther stepped out, she looked down at me with her dark face, her hands very still where they gripped the rail. Without a word, she slipped back inside and drew the door shut behind her.
Later that night, I would wake again and remember Myrle as she stood in the hall. What noise had woken me a second time, I could not say. The hall had been cold when I'd found her, though her fingertips were colder. Her nightgown carried the smell of the riverbed. As she rushed away, I saw how her hair clung to her neck, her nightgown damp against her back, and the mat where she'd stood was dark with wet. When Myrle was born, I too was just a teenager, but when first I held her, I believed nothing was so fearsome and astonishing as a child. All the many times we had watched her and chased her and held her fast — brushing her hair, tickling her feet, clutching her hands. As I lay in my room, I imagined again the heat of the flame as I'd held up my lantern. I saw how it had burned close to Myrle's cheeks until she flushed. I took the blanket from my bed, wrapped it around my shoulders, and stepped out into the hall. When I tried the front door, it was locked as it had been, but the hall was empty now. Not a sound came from the room above.
I should have been wary of the stillness the next morning, but quiet in a house is a thing a woman likes to keep. The sun hadn't yet risen. A sliver showed against the eastern windows, and I sat on the kitchen steps, waiting for the others to wake. Through the fog, my brothers walked in the dark with their buckets of milk. Lee, the younger, was large as an oak and pale, while my older brother Ray was thin, bent. A tin cup banged from his hip, one he hooked to his belt to keep only for himself. They dropped the buckets by the steps and Ray grimaced, wrenching the door open with his good hand. "You're late," I told them. Lee shrugged, following his brother inside. "There's eggs," I called. The buckets smelled of hay, the milk adrift with dirt and hair until I strained it, though I couldn't convince myself to even start. I thought of frost, of the snow coming. We had the last of the harvest to bring in and the cellar to fill with canning, a new washhouse to frame if my brothers could get the lumber for a good price. Were Mother alive, she would have liked to see such a thing done. The door banged open at my back and Ray hurried off without another word between us. Lee stopped to nudge me with the toe of his boot. "Ray's in a mood."
"Ray's always in a mood."
"Right, right," Lee said with a wink. He put a knuckle to his ear. "Esther didn't come out this morning."
"She must be in the pastures."
"She said she'd come to the smithy, said she had something for me. Don't forget, she said. And I almost did. She forgot more, I guess."
Lee headed off and I opened the door to the kitchen. Esther, she didn't forget anything. Inside, my sister Agnes stood over the stove, picking through the pan of eggs. I might have scolded her, but the kitchen table was empty, the chairs pushed close. I had left a stack of plates by the sink for our breakfasts. Half of them were stacked just the same, clean enough they shone. The sun was starting now at the horizon, and Agnes still wore her nightgown.
"Why aren't you dressed?"
Agnes' curls were matted from her sleep on the back porch, her refuge from her sisters in the warmer months. She looked like a child standing there, balancing on her toes. "I couldn't. Our room is locked."
"It must be stuck again. Are you sure?"
She pinched her gown to show me what I had already seen.
"Where are your sisters?"
"I don't know," she complained. "They're sleeping."
I hurried to the foot of the stair, but the door at the top was closed. "Esther, Myrle," I called.
Agnes joined me in the hall with her plate.
"At the table, Agnes."
She made a face.
"Go on up, then," I said. "Wake them."
"But the door."
I went myself into the chill morning. Without the two girls at their chores, a half dozen of our youngest steers would be out to pasture, their feed low, and both my brothers were off without knowing. Already the animals in the barn were restless, begging for attention. The potatoes in the garden were close to a freeze, three dozen or more tomato plants set to move to the cellar. In the distance, the Clarks' chimney smoked, the glint of a lantern in the Elliots' barn. I drove the cows from the pasture, my arms heavy with buckets by the time I returned from the well. In their pen, the hogs clamored for feed, and I carried a pail of swill to them and turned the horses out into the growing warmth.
Back in the house, the door at the top of the stairs was closed. When I put my ear to the wood, I heard nothing. When I tried the knob, it wouldn't turn. My baby sisters were huddled together in their beds, or so I imagined, and I felt old and dry and ever less a woman as my years went and I remained unchanged, except for the fraying of my hems. With Mother gone, I had tried my best, but our youngest were growing wild. They freed the animals from their pens, filled their pockets at the market without paying. For a month, Myrle had gone to bed without supper and in a teary state, and Esther had taken to spying at us from around corners, that mushroom cap of her hair short above her ears, like a boy's. Aren't you too old for games? I asked her. Aren't you too old? she returned. Too quick for her own good, that one, and with a terrible imagination. Why, she could convince a person the devil himself knelt in front of the parlor fire, warming his hands.
"Can't you open it?"
I startled. Agnes waited behind me on the stairs. "What's wrong?" she said.
"Go on, I'll take care of it."
"Borrow something of mine. We're late for the chickens."
Agnes groaned and hurried off. I pushed at the door with my shoulder and it gave an inch. Finally I ran at it with my full weight. The frame popped, the wood cracking. Inside the room was dark.
What had Father taught us? Never make too much of something. Lest that something make a fool of you instead.
The smell of the girls hit me at once, earthy and sweet. Myrle's bed was empty, unmade, but Esther's was straight as a piece of wood. Against the far wall, Agnes' bed stood alone. Behind the door, a small wooden chair lay on its side, one of its legs broken — the very thing that must have held the door closed. In a draft from the stairs, the drawings Agnes had hung of our family stirred, Mother watching me as if I'd somehow forgotten her. The room otherwise appeared untouched, the dresser tops clean save for the girls' combs, the bone brown and marbled for Esther and dove-colored for Myrle. A picture of a woman's hand stuck to the mirror, the hand bodiless and pale with a bracelet cutting into its wrist, an advertisement Myrle had torn out herself. Under Myrle's bed was a shadow, and I crouched to my knees to know what it was. A hammer. The end of it was ruined and fresh with chips of wood.
"Agnes, I told you. ..." I took to my feet, but it was only Patricia, dull little Patricia. A lump of a woman and kind as cotton, Ray's wife was lovely in the way of ghosts, her hands forever gripped in front of her as if to stave off violence.
"They're gone," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"They're not here," I snapped.
Patricia stepped into the room with a puzzled look and touched Myrle's pillow. The woman was so slow and vacant, older than me though seeming not. She took up the pillow and started to plump it, only to sit on the bed as if tired. "But where could they be?"
I sat next to her, the hammer heavy in my lap. Surely the girls were hiding in the barn or had taken the bicycle. Gone to our neighbors the Clarks for breakfast, to the Elliots to see the new pups — though they avoided both houses as much as we ever did. Patricia stared about the room, her hands closed between her thighs. A tide was rising in my throat. On a busy morning such as this. On any morning at all, and the girls had gone running about. But there, out of the corner of my eye, the chair lay on its side with its broken leg, a damaged child.
"Oh dear," Patricia sighed. Before she could say another word, Agnes appeared in the door, my brothers behind her holding their hats.
"Agnes," I complained.
Ray shouldered his way in. "What have they done now?"
"Did you see them outside?"
He shook his head.
"Maybe they went to town," Patricia mumbled.
"But it's miles," I said. "And they couldn't have made it on foot. Not in the dark."
"It's Esther," Ray said. "She'd run off at any chance."
"No," Lee let out. He stepped in with chaff on his skin and the smell of the barn. "I just don't think they'd do that, run off. They've never tried anything the like."
"And what about the chair?" I asked.
Ray caught the chair in his fists and the leg dangled until he broke it off.
"It doesn't make sense," Patricia said. She tried to take Ray's hand, but both were locked around the chair, even the two stubby fingers on his bad side. Lee stood at the door and juggled the broken knob, stooping to eye the bolt. Without a word, Agnes waited alone in the hall. She wore one of my own dresses, and it draped the boards at her feet. I followed her gaze. The only window in the room hung low between the girls' beds, the frame so small a grown woman couldn't get her shoulders through if she tried.
"Let's not tell Father," Ray said. "Not yet."
"How can we not tell him?" I asked. But Father, he'd gotten into the habit of sleeping late. Ever since Mother went, the work had fallen more and more to us, while Father walked the property from one end to the next as if counting pennies.
"Yes," I said, thinking we might find the girls, we might settle everything, before Father knew we'd lost track of them for even a few hours. The others looked at me, waiting. Downstairs in the kitchen, the stovepipes shuddered. At the far end of the hall, the snap of Father's cane. We turned our heads. Soon he would appear in the doorway with his face red and sweating above his beard, his jacket gaping. Already at the bottom of the stairs, he called out, "What are you all making there?"
With a glance over her shoulder, Agnes drew up her skirt, took a step in. "The window's open," she whispered.
She nodded at the hammer in my hand. "Father had it nailed shut last year."
We set off on our search. At first we circled our own acres, only to come up short when we reached the fences. Lee scoured the smokehouse and barn, as if the girls could have fallen asleep with the cows, and Father worked his way along the river, stabbing at the water with his cane. Soon we headed farther out, Agnes and Patricia to the Clarks' and myself to the Elliots', the men staying behind to finish stocking the pens. Dutchy, our neighbors had said of us before the war, though with Father's accent and the misfortune of his birthplace, they now knew us for Germans and believed that far the worse. The horses stood with their chests against the wooden gates, watching us. The bells on the cows struck a hollow note as they ate. The land rose up in front of me, a gray place.
The Elliot house was quiet. As I stepped onto their porch, I knew the girls would never visit by choice. The farm was ragged, what with only the old man to care for it, his son and the son's wife, flighty newlyweds as they were. The porch cracked underfoot. Rot had set into the sills. And there was old Mr. Elliot, opening the screen with a squint before I could dare knock. He worried at me as if trying to remember which of the Hess girls I was.
"It's Nan, Mr. Elliot."
"Haven't seen you in a long while."
"Have you seen any of us?"
"Nope, no." He scratched at his ear. Mr. Elliot was well over seventy. His eyes drifted and his forearm shook as he leaned against his cane. The poor man, waiting for me to explain myself. But what could I say? That the girls hadn't done their chores? That we had somehow misplaced them?
"Our girls," I started again. "The two youngest. They seem to have wandered off."
Old Elliot looked blank. An American flag hung curled around the porch post, stripped and bleeding its colors. "Wandered off, you say?"
"Have you seen them?"
"I haven't seen any of you. Those girls, they must be joking. That's what girls do. The kind I used to know."
"Would you mind if I looked around?"
The old man winced. Behind him, the door swung open again. His son Tom slouched against the frame, licking his lower lip. "What's this here?"
"She's asking about the girls," Mr. Elliot said.
"Have you seen them? Esther and Myrle."
Tom shook his head and shook it again. "Why would I?" His eyes were pale and dim, and a twitch made him blink every few minutes, lifting the corners of his smile into something different. The boy had been a wreck since the war, though he'd gotten a girl to marry him, and a surprise marriage that.
"Another time, maybe." I peered past them into the dark house, a light over the table and a greater darkness in the hall. "And say hello to your wife for me, Tom. In school, Dora and I used to be very good friends."
"That right?" Tom said.
"Well," said Mr. Elliot.
I headed home, my hand to my forehead against the sun. Only with a wary glance did I search their smokehouse and barn, the far corner of their stables. It was full daylight now and the fields were barren after harvest. Far off, a scabby break of trees showed at the horizon. The river that marked the border between our two families seemed no more than a run of weeds. The Elliots' house perched in its yard like an old crow, the wood blackened, while our own sat dust-colored and brown, a stretch of boxes with the girls' room a cap on top. For a good quarter mile I imagined the Elliots watching me as I went, waiting for me to cross the river again. Old Elliot had hung that flag on his porch when Tom came home from the service, and he'd posted a sign at the market in town, next to the door. "Shouldn't we be concerned," the sign had read, "about the enemy living among us?" Then in a larger hand:
TUESDAY MEETING COUNCIL OF NATIONAL DEFENSE SEVEN IN THE EVENING THE ELLIOTS
At the riverbank, I turned at last to see Tom standing alone on the porch. I waved, but he ducked inside. A strange boy, but strange didn't mean badness. He could hardly rope a calf, least of all harm a girl, and surely Dora kept him in line. But if there were men like Tom Elliot after the war, how many worse had come home?
When Patricia saw me across the fields, she gave a sad shake of her head. The Clarks might have made for an easier visit, the group of them being the more talkative, but as a family of women — three rabbity sisters and their mother, their father an invalid in his bed — talk was often all they did. Agnes ran ahead of Patricia to the chicken pen, a coat across her shoulders and my dress dragging behind her. Off to the east, Ray worked the horses, bent to press the blades of the harrow to level the fields. I thought of the broken chair, the way Ray had so easily snapped the leg in two, despite his ruined hand. The girls must have propped the chair up to block the door, or someone had, making it difficult to leave the room or enter it. But who did they want to keep out — or in? At night, Father always locked the main doors both inside and out. He kept the keys on the hook by his bed, and I carried the same in the pocket of my apron. Through the fabric, I felt for their dull weight. Across the pasture, Patricia called my name, the sound like a swarm of insects. A grunt from the fields, and there was my brother bent over his work, his shoe coming down on the harrow's spine as if he had hit a stone. He had no time to search for the girls, not when they'd only run off on a stunt — or so he believed. Now Ray moved like a dark shape in those fields, driving the horses as hard as he could.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bottomland"
Copyright © 2016 Michelle Hoover.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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