The Butterfly and the Flame - Chapter 4

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In this chapter, Emily's father, James faces a Sophie's choice: Surrender his trans-daughter into an arranged marriage knowing the possible deadly consequences when she comes of age, or slowly starve to death over the winter months.

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James looked over his fields with dismay. As far as he could see, brittle and dead sticks jutted up like thorns through the dried and blistered soil. It had now been ninety-one days since rain had graced his crops, and since then he had been at war with the sun to keep them alive. He had made endless trips the creek that ran behind the fields to fill watering cans full of water to pour over the plants. In the end, it was no use; the heat fried their roots and evaporated the water. He put his hands above his eyes and glared at his solar nemesis.

Everything was lost. What could be harvested wouldn’t be enough to last his family more than a few weeks. If they slaughtered the animals, they might have enough meat to last two months, possibly three to four, if the hunting was good. The best case scenario? They would be able to survive until March, but even then he would have no money to buy seeds or livestock.

James threw his hat to the ground. It had been a terrible year. Since they had moved from New Antioch ten months ago, nothing had gone right. Why had they trekked all this way to end up starving to death? Surely the weather was better back in New Antioch, and even if it wasn’t, at least he could have relied on his or Julia’s family to help them make it through the winter. A stiff breeze gusted from the south, stirring up miniature dirt devils. James watched his future disappearing into the air with them.

Over the past few weeks, David Marsh had been soliciting offers to buy the land from him for a reasonable price. Each time Marsh hinted at the subject of buying his land, James thanked him but reassured David that he’d be fine, while he hoped and prayed for a miracle from the skies.

Nothing happened. He was a modern-day Job trapped in a test of faith that had no end. Whatever deal Marsh offered would keep him alive, but he and his family would be little better than slaves. But what choice did he have? If he didn’t take the deal, his family would be penniless and starving inside half a year.
He no longer had any choice. He’d have to visit David tomorrow and pray that his offer was still on the table. James bent down and picked up his hat. “Why, God? Why this, now, after everything?” he said.

* * *

James found little sleep that night and as the sun rose, he found himself paralyzed in his bed.

Day ninety-two.

Normally, James would be feeding the livestock now, but what was the point? In a few hours they wouldn’t be his anymore. James looked at Julia, who was sleeping peacefully next to him. She had cringed when he told her that he was going to sell the farm. She sensed his frustration and disbelief. But all she said was, “We’ll get through this. Whatever happens, even if we are broke, we’ll still have each other.” He wished he could his share her optimism.
As the morning passed, he could no longer remain idle in his bed. He got up, but he still couldn’t shake the dull ache of apathy that filled his body. As he dressed, he could hear Aaron and Emily playing in the next room.

“Aaron, no! Don’t kill it.”

“Why not? It’s just a spider!”

“So, what did it ever do to you?”

“It’s just a spider. There are hundreds of ’em everywhere.”

James smiled at the irony. He was like the spider, caught between forces of life and misery. He listened to the children play-fight some more. He knew who would win, and it wouldn’t be the spider.

Julia greeted him with a simple, but loving, kiss to his cheek when he came into the family eating room. He sat at the table with his children and tried his best to stay upbeat. For a moment he wished he could trade places with Aaron and be a boy again, just so he could live one day without worrying about tomorrow.

“Ma said you didn’t sleep well last night, so I fed the animals for you, Pa,” Aaron said with proud enthusiasm.

“Hey! I helped too,” Emily said.

“Thank you. That was very thoughtful,” James said.

“We only have one bag of corn feed left,” Emily said. “Can we go with you tomorrow when you get some more?”

James gritted his teeth. The drought had wiped out all the fields where the cattle typically grazed. In order to keep them alive, he had had to resort to buying expensive feed. Doing so had drained what little savings they had had. He didn’t want to tell his children that, with a disastrous harvest looming ahead, he might not be able to spend the last of his money on animal feed.

“We’ll have to see. I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring.”

Julia prepared a light meal of scrambled eggs and boiled carrots. Knowing the potential crisis they faced, she made the helpings smaller than what she traditionally served. James only ate a little of his food and gave Aaron the rest when he complained that he was still hungry.

Beads of sweat condensed on James’s forehead. One look out the window told him all he needed to know about the weather. There were no clouds in the sky, the air was still, and if the previous three months were any indication, the sun’s blistering rays would nearly bake him into a human roast.

“Do you kids wanna go to church today or stay home?” James asked.

Before he had discussed his plans with his wife, James originally had planned to go by himself and approach Marsh after the service to discuss selling his land. The prospect of his children seeing him beg David Marsh for their survival sent chills up his spine. But Julia didn’t want to deprive the children from worshiping. The family went every week, and she wanted to make sure Aaron and Emily would grow up to have a strong faith. They argued for nearly an hour, but Julia would not relent unless they were at least given the opportunity to go.

“I don’t wanna go. It’s too hot to listen to some old boring sermon,” Aaron said.

“How ’bout you, Emily?” he asked her. He expected her to follow her brother’s lead.

Emily frowned as she thought it over. “I think I wanna come with you.”

“You sure?” James said, emphasizing the last word carefully.

Emily’s eyes darted away from him to her mother. “Yes, I think so,” she said at last.

“Okay,” he said. Emily had been following him around more than she had at any other time in her life. She always wanted to spend his free time with him. It was as if Emily was trying to make up for something. “Why don’t you go fill our canteens with water while I get the horse ready?”

“Okay,” she said. She slid off her chair, grabbed the canteens from the cabinet, and then disappeared out the door.

James stood and slid his chair back under the table. “Well, I s’pose I better go get Duncan saddled up.”

Julia gave him a quick hug, “Okay, good luck with everything.”

“Yeah,” he said softly. He turned to make his way outside.

“Good luck with what?” Aaron asked.

“Never you mind. Your father just has a couple of things he needs to take care of after church,” Julia said.

James closed the door behind him. He didn’t want to tell his children that he had failed to keep them fed and that he would have to become a sharecropper in order to survive, yet it was only a matter of time before they would know.

James retrieved Duncan from the barn, saddled him up, and brought him out to the front of the house, where Emily was waiting for him. He reached down and, with an effortless motion, picked her up and set her in front of him.

“You sure you want to go, Em? You know it’s gonna be pretty hot in there.”

“I don’t mind. I’d rather go with you than just sit in the house all day.”

“Okay,” he said.

Emily looked up at him, “You okay, Pa?”

“Yeah, I’ll be okay.”

He looked back at Emily, into her deep blue, loving eyes. As she looked at him, he felt some of his anxiety slip away. Perhaps it wasn’t bad for her to come after all. Perhaps if she was there it would give him the strength to get through the day and do what needed to be done

Continue reading Chapter 4: www.dana-deyoung.com/bff4.pdf

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