We were high above the Iowa prairie soil, in a windowless room with cinderblock walls, copies of O Pioneers! scattered across the table. We had turned to the opening pages, the part when Alexandra takes off her veil and bares her thick, reddish-yellow braids. A traveling man sees her and can’t keep from speaking out loud. “My God, girl,” he says, “what a head of hair!” She shoots him a look that makes him drop his cigar and feebly retreat to the saloon, as if shepherded there by the cold wind blowing over the wild plains.
The professor said he didn’t know what to make of it; the graduate students offered impressions. I pictured Prohibition revenuers hunting the countryside with their axes, peering into furnaces, digging through bins of coal, watching for Fords sagging on their springs, and I felt with my foot for my bag on the floor, for the full bottle of whiskey nestled inside.
In the middle of town—between the university greenhouses that grew rows of corn through winter and the edge of the sweeping farm fields littered with last fall’s stover—there was a remnant of tall grass prairie where dead bluestem matted the ground in spring and turkey vultures circled overhead. I went there at sunset with my pack slung over my shoulder, the bottle sloshing, to lie back in the dry grass at the top of the ridge and listen to the wind come in short sighs. The horizon burned, backlighting the encroaching honey locusts that lined the creek at the edge of the prairie scrap, making their budding branches into black streaks.
Even then I must have known I would back out of the university. Too much for me. My attention tangled in the weeds growing from cracks in the sidewalks, lifted into the air with the riotous flocks of crows—murders, storytellings—from the landscaped trees. I lingered where the fringes of order frayed. In the middle of the most altered state, prairie plants still cropped up in fence lines and field edges. Goldenrods and sunflowers bloomed along roadways and railways, in urban wastelands. Remnants persisted in pioneer cemeteries and lonely slopes where plows could not easily turn the soil. A few farmers still made hay from prairie grass, keeping the brush at bay, and cattle grazed pastures where prairie species bided time as roots, sending forth no flowers, as though veiled, waiting for fire. I had read that any pastureland spared from heavy plowing might show itself as prairie if burned. I kept watch for signs of smoke.
The sunlight pooled in the west like the whiskey I held over my tongue, and the tips of the honey locust branches lost their sharpness and bled into the purple sky. A train sounded on the tracks near campus. Bats flew overhead, small pieces of the descending darkness dislodged. Above me, constellations appeared in the haze from distant streetlamps and an airplane blinked among them. I dug my fingers through the mat of grass into the cold soil and felt my skin chill. Beneath my body, green blades pushed through dead stalks: big bluestem, Indian grass, sideoats grama, prairie dropseed, like the wild hay that once grew at the back of farms, the tall patches of weeds that fed cattle and hid barrels of whiskey as they aged—when whiskey cooked in hog houses, when there were stills in beehives, barrels in church basements and haymows, bottles in fence posts and hollowed out monuments in the cemetery. The wind strengthened. How long the light endured at the edge of my vision.
I saw the prairie in bloom only once, at the end of the summer, after my boxes were packed. The remnant spilled over with color, the grass so tall and tangled I struggled to walk. I stumbled about as the darkness fell, the traveler’s words on my lips. My God, what a head of hair.
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Zachary Hawkins is a sixth generation farmer in Wabash County, Indiana, where he lives with his wife. His writing has appeared in The Wapsipincon Almanac and Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment and is forthcoming in Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland from Ice Cube Press. He has also released two recordings as one half of the folk duo Jayber Crow.