Eighty-some years previous, through a town that was to flourish and past a farm that would disappear, the river slid -- all that happened began with that flow of water. The town on its banks was very new and its main street was a long curved road that followed the will of a muddy river full of brush, silt, and oxbows that threw the whole town off the strict clean grid laid out by railroad plat. The river flooded each spring and dragged local backyards into its roil, even though the banks were strengthened with riprap and piled high with rocks torn from reconstructed walls and foundations. It was a hopelessly complicated river, one that froze deceptively, broke rough, drowned one or two every year in its icy run. it was a dead river in some places, one that harbored only carp and bullheads. Wild in others, it lured moose down from Canada into the town limits. When the land along its banks was newly broken, paddleboats and barges of grain moved grandly from its source to Winnipeg, for the river flowed inscrutably north. Across from what would become church land and the town park, over on the Minnesota side, a farm spread generously up and down the river and back into wide hot fields.
The bonanza farm belonged to easterners who had sold a foundry in Vermont and with their money bought the flat vastness that lay along the river. They raised astounding crops when the land was young -- rutabagas that weighed sixty pounds, wheat unbearably lush, corn on cobs like truncheons. Then six grasshopper years occurred during which even the handles on the hoes and rakes were eaten and a U.S. cavalry soldier, too, partially devoured while he lay drunk in the insects' path. The enterprise suffered losses on a grand scale. The farm was split among four brothers, eventually, who then sold off half each so that by the time Berndt Vogel escaped the latest war of Europe, during which he'd been chopped mightily but inconclusively in six places by a lieutenant's saber and then kicked by a horse so ever after his jaw didn't shut right, there was just one beautiful and peaceful swatch of land about to go for grabs. In the time it would take for him to gather the money -- by forswearing women, drinking cheap beers only, and working twenty-hour days -- to retrieve it from the local bank, the price of that farm would drop further, further, and the earth rise up in a great ship of destruction. Sails of dust carried half of Berndt's lush dirt over the horizon, but enough remained for him to plant and reap six fields.
So Berndt survived. On his land there stood a hangarlike barn that once had housed teams of great blue Percherons and Belgian draft horses. Only one horse was left, old and made of brutal velvet, but the others still moved in the powerful synchronicity of his dreams. Berndt liked to work in the heat of this horse's breath. The vast building echoed and only one small part was still in use-housing a cow, chickens, one depressed pig. Berndt kept the rest in decent repair not only because as a good German he must waste nothing that had come his way but because he saw in those grand dust-filled shafts of light something he could worship.
The spirit of the farm was there in the lost breath of horses. He fussed over the one remaining mammoth and imagined one day his farm entire, vast and teeming, crews of men under his command, a cookhouse, bunkhouse, equipment, a woman and children sturdily determined to their toil. A garden in which seeds bearing the scented pinks and sharp red geraniums of his childhood were planted and thrived.
How surprised he was to find, one morning, as though sown by the wind and summoned by his dreams, a woman standing barefoot, starved, and frowzy in the doorway of his barn. She was pale but sturdy, angular, a strong flower, very young, nearly bald and dressed in a rough shift. He blinked stupidly at the vision. Light poured around her like smoke and swirled at her gesture of need. She spoke with a low, gravelly abruptness: "Ich habe Hunger."
Copyright Louise Erdrich 2001. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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