When you live in Kansas, you drive through miles of country between the farming towns. At night when you let your eyes gaze over the fields, you can see them far away on the horizons. On the mornings when fog rolls over the land, they're closer than you think. They don't quite walk across the fields, but drift, and some kick up dirt devils wherever they sit. They look like you and me, but they're lost. They're lost because they have no eyes, and they drift because they have no souls.
They're people who've died in these fields, their graves disrupted year after year. Native Americans, pioneers, sodbusters, bank robbers, whores, starved children; yes, the children. Suffocating in the dust bowl, bitten by rattlesnakes, thrown from farm equipment, drowning in the streams. They cry for their mothers and fathers, wandering lonely in the same field, consumed by a fire and shot down in the civil war. They're everywhere, and they want to be seen. Most of all they want to rest.
Where Do We Go When We Die, Papa?
I was raised on an old farm. Our house was built by the same man that built the courthouse in town, about ten miles away. My two sisters and I grew up with a healthy fear of God and the open space that blanketed our land. The fields are vast; high grass grows to hide the snakes and mice, and if someone should mistake you for a coyote, you may meet an unpleasant end. That never stopped us from exploring while the fields were bare. We sat high up in the barn, where the bricks were old and loose around the tall, gaping windows.
It was my littlest sister whom noticed the drifters first. She was seven, and had only just learned to climb the rope to the loft of the barn when she pointed into the fields. We weren't afraid of the shadows that drifted through the fences. We could easily brush them off as figments of our imagination, or trees casting shadows on the ground. My middle sister said we should go closer, so, just as we had a hundred times before, we set out under the barbed wire into the flat mile before us. We ran and ran until we were red and breathless, and then we ran back. We counted clouds and looked for wild flowers until the sun went down, and then we went in for dinner and scripture.
Sitting on the front porch that night, all three of us watched the strangers move over the horizons. My littlest sister was the first to remark about it to our parents. "You should tell Papa to get those people out of the field, Mama. They shouldn't go that far at night," she said frankly.
Mama gave her a strange look. "Nobody's in that field, I don't think there is..." she muttered, checking for herself. She resumed swinging on the porch swing and thought no more of it.
That night we all said our prayers and nodded off early. Around midnight something woke me suddenly. It sounded like a baby's cry at first, but then it sounded like a woman weeping, then a man calling some unfamiliar name. The sound of it shook me up enough to find my parents. About halfway down the stairs a horrible shriek caused me to fall to my knees in terror. What could it be? I thought. This time it was like a slaughtered pig and a shrill owl's scream. As I mounted enough courage to crawl past the kitchen I was caught by my youngest sister, hiding beneath the kitchen table.
She had a knife from the counter clutched in her hand, and the look of terror on her washed over me in an icy wave. She pulled me by the wrist wordlessly to the glass doors. "Look," was all she said. I lowered my head to peek below the pane and saw them.
They were closer now than they'd been earlier. Two had drifted up to the house like they were under still water. They had no eyes, and their faces were of weeping and misery. There was a woman who had a long, simple dress on without any shoes. Her frame was slim and her skin was tight against her bones. She had been sick, I thought, no, I knew. The other was a boy, wearing old clothes. He had no eyes either, but he had a dent in him, on his head, and what looked like a broken arm. He was clutching something. A brick? I thought, Yes, it's one from the barn.
I watched them drift away, back into the night, shrieking occasionally. My little sister and I woke our parents to tell them what we had seen. Papa strode outside with his gun but came back in, saying there was nothing but an empty field. They stayed up with us until morning, and when it came, the day seemed as normal as any. When my middle sister woke up, we retold our tale and she told us to stop scaring her.
A little while later, I found my youngest sister viewing an old photograph hanging in the second living room. It was the family of the man who had built the house, with their maids and field hands. The house in the photo was complete, so it was taken sometime after 1898. The builder was on the far left with one of his daughters in his lap and his wife by his side, three sons and three more daughters standing nearby, three maids and three field workers, making 15 people all together. The woman had been one of the maids, the one in the middle, we were sure, but we weren't so certain about the boy. She thought it was the farm hand, I thought one of the sons. He may not have been the same age in the picture, or he may have not been there at all.
That night my youngest sister sat on Papa's lap as he swung from the porch. The sky was fading and I was ready to go inside when she asked, "Where do we go when we die, papa?"
He considered for a moment and said: "Heaven darling, we all go to heaven."
We never asked any further.
Far From Home
Thank goodness you're here, officer, send someone out to that field over there right away, she might still be there, but I reckon she's gone away now, the sun comin' up and all. I'm afraid of the dark, elsewise I probably wouldn't have crossed the field. My car ran out of gas out here and I saw light a ways off, so I headed straight in that direction. I thought I would find a gas station.
About halfway through the field a little dirt devil whirled up and caught my eye, that's when I noticed the little girl, just sittin' in the field! In the middle of the night!
I was worried for her, so I walk up a little closer and shout: "Hey!" well she turned her head a bit but didn't answer. She was wearin' a dress I guess, it looked almost like somethin' for a dress-up game to me. I walked a little closer and noticed her leg. It was out in front of her, wrapped up in cloth. As I got closer I could smell it, and it had an infection, pretty serious I reckon to smell that foul. So I shout, "You okay? Where is your house, little girl?" and she says:
"I'm far from home." Well that just chilled me to the core. I didn't want to get much closer, so I said:
"Where are your parents?" She stayed quiet for a while and said:
"They kept going, on the trail." I looked around and didn't see no trails, just a big old field! "I fell off." She says, "I fell off and hurt myself." That puzzled me so I asked:
"Well ain't they comin' back for ya?"
"I don't think so. They left me a long time ago."
Well... that nearly broke my heart. So I walk closer to pick her up, you know, take her somewhere where she could get a doctor, find her parents or somethin'. I don't know why but I got this feelin' that she was off somehow, so I walk in a wide circle around her to get a better look at the little thing, and when I get around... well she had no eyes. Like they'd been gouged out or somethin'. Just black holes. I thought, "Well you hurt yourself worse than I'd thought. She could die out here left like that," and went to take her hand. She was cold. Not like ice, but just like the ground beneath her.
I jumped back at that, I knew she wasn't alive then. She was beyond any help I could offer, so I ran. I ran to this gas station and called you folks right away. That's about how it happened, officer.