Ella Mae packed more thriftily than before – taking only the essentials. So family portraits and the meager record collection (Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland) – all being left – as well as the dented tin box on the kitchen shelf, behind the flour bags.
For this journey, purging the family of its belongings served two purposes – practicality for certain – but this was a swan song too – adieu to her most shattered affection. So on the eve before the Sumpter family’s migration, Ella Mae tottered to and fro on the barnyard floor. She squeezed her knees against her breasts, eyeing the pale gray box she’d snuck from the kitchen. Through the dust and mire, the sun’ s red-yellow rays danced atop the metal, conspicuous on the crispy straw where she’d placed it. Ella Mae swayed the whole night through; at dawn, she jutted out her slender, matronly neck and crept back into the house. Then kneaded dough for pancakes – made of only flour and water – for her children needed breakfast – a grueling journey lie ahead.
Ella Mae did not look back as they pulled away; she knew the abandoned box looked awkward in the empty barn.
With airy spirits and wide eyes, the Sumpters bucked along craggy roads, heading west for work and seeking refuge from their indigence. They stopped for the night just east of Topeka. Weary and shamed by his failures, Ella Mae’s husband set up camp and the girls readied for bed. Ella Mae gasped in horror when she saw her youngest daughter nestled in the bedroll – gripping the marred metal box. Ella Mae met her husband’s eyes, just before he darted them downward and busied himself with kindling and canopy stakes.
“Where did you get that?” Her heart flailed in her stomach and ears and little Lorna jerked in fright. Ella Mae wrenched away the box and ambled from the family. She had to compose herself – the pitch in her voice wasn’t dignified – so she wandered up the road in search of a place to brood. She held the box at arms length.
But soon enough, she clutched its bowed corners into her chest and slumped into the chalky dirt, weeping next to a sprawling Cottonwood. She moaned – the lamentation split the night and echoed in her bridegroom’s ears. He kneeled by the dying fire, head in hands. “I curse you God, it didn’t have to be this way.”
Ella Mae peered into the vast Kansas sky and at long last, whispered the smoldering truth… and with all her might, thrashed the box against the tree’s thick trunk ‘til the tiny bones scattered on the ground.
With great poise, Ella Mae crouched beside her husband and lifted his chin with her lanky index finger, “You’re a broken man,” she spoke coolly, “and you killed my baby boy.” She stood tall, shadowing her beloved, and swept her cotton frock with both palms.
“Now, let’s tend to that fire shall we.”
© Chad V Broughman