[ Issue 6 / August 2013]

 He said, ‘I look for butterflies

That sleep among the wheat.’

–– Lewis Carroll

Fourteen-year-old Cameron Perkins imagined huge naval ships sailing through the dense growth at harvest time when the wheat stood higher than he did. In his mind’s eye the gently rolling plains resembled the ocean he had seen only in books. When the parched winds blew, the crop would heave and surge, and he could picture the bows of great steel vessels disappearing and reappearing in the turbulent sea of grain.

“You think battleships could cross the fields?” he’d asked his grandfather, Will Perkins, as he busily prepared to cut down the amber waves with his American Harvester.

“When the mountains rise, son. When the mountains rise,” came the old man’s standard reply to anything he viewed as beyond the realm of possibility.

“I bet they could, grandpa.”

“Yeah, and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, Cam. Now give me a hand here. We’ve, uh, got to flatten the surf before them warships plough through here.”

Cameron loved his grandfather as much as he had his deceased parents and grandmother. The three Perkinses had come to a grisly end in a car accident in 1948, leaving their only child and grandson in the sole care of the family’s 71-year-old patriarch. Since then, life revolved around he and his grandfather on the 1200-acre farm. For a long time after the unthinkable tragedy, deep sadness had turned their once happy world into a bleak and sullen place, but gradually the darkness lifted and the pain of their loss lessened. Although things became more bearable, Cameron would sometimes find his grandfather in front of the fireplace mantle talking to the photograph of his departed wife. He never interrupted his grandfather on those occasions or asked him what he said to the woman he had known as Granny Hildy. It seemed like it would violate his grandfather’s privacy to do so. Cameron didn’t want him to know he had seen him crying, even though he’d been seen weeping over his parents’ pictures.

“Well, at least you’re not suffering from a drought,” said his grandfather, wrapping his arm around Cameron’s shoulder. “Maybe you could shed some of them big tears on the crop.”

The year of the life-shattering accident had seen the fields turn to dust in one of the worst droughts on record. It had been so bad the annual harvest festival had been cancelled, and the nearest neighbors––some five miles away––had abandoned their farm. Their son, Dwight, was Cameron’s age, and the two had become best friends before his parents moved in with their own some distance away. Cameron had never felt so alone during the year that followed. Compounding his sense of isolation was his grandfather’s new stoicism. Before the loss of his wife, he had always been quick to add his two cents to any conversation. Now he mostly spoke in monosyllables, which left Cameron thirsting for verbal companionship.

Young Perkins attempted to enliven things by suggesting that they take a trip after the coming harvest, but the old man seemed determined to remain in his melancholy state and rejected the idea out of hand.

“Why’d we do that?”

“I’ve never been anywhere, grandpa. Can’t we go down to Omaha to see the zoo and go to the movies?”

“There are things to do after bringing in the crop. Responsibilities don’t end when the cutting does, Cam.”

“Okay, then. Can we at least get a TV set? There’s nothing to do around here at night.”

“Sleep is what we do at night. ‘Sides, televisions cost a heap and we likely wouldn’t get a signal out here anyway.”

“If we had a high antenna like the Caufields did. They could get a station. I saw it myself. We could build a real tall one . . . a hundred feet high.”

“When the mountains rise, kiddo,” responded Mr. Perkins.

*

The next year passed without any measurable change, except for the weather. The arid soil was revived by an autumn of heavy rain and a winter of deep snow. The resulting bumper crop helped to lift his grandfather’s flagging spirits, and his slowly returning cheerfulness enhanced Cameron’s mood as well. Despite the upswing in spirits, however, the elder Perkins suffered from a nagging cough and arthritis that made his fingers swell and ache.

“Maybe after harvest we’ll go visit your Aunt Giselle out in Colorado. She lives in a place called Lyons.”

Cameron was excited about the prospect of a trip and he counted the days until the time to reap began. But as it neared, a problem arose that threatened disaster. His grandfather’s usual seasonal hires were not available. One had moved away and the other was laid up with a broken leg.

“We can do it ourselves, grandpa,” offered Cameron.

“When the mountains rise. No way we can do it without Bo and Jessie. Hard enough with them.”

As the time for harvesting the hundreds of acres of wheat arrived, Cameron’s grandfather conceded that there was nothing left to do but bring in as much of the crop with the aid of his grandson as was possible. Despite a widespread search, he had not been able to find another person to help with the task.

“Guess we’re really on our own now, Cam. Thought things were hopeless without your Pa lending a hand. Now there’s no Bo and Jessie. Lord, help us.”

Over the next week, the Perkins pair worked from sunrise to sunset gathering and hauling what they could of the bountiful yield. Both Cameron and Will drove tractors with sickle mowers attached. Cameron had driven the farm-only vehicle once before, but after a few hours at the wheel, he felt confident. In fact, cutting through the forest of grain was the best he had felt since losing his friend.

Despite their formidable efforts, however, most of the farm remained blanketed with the uncut crop. At the same time, Cameron’s concern for his grandfather’s health rose. At the end of the day, Will was totally spent and had no appetite. He would drop into his recliner and fall asleep immediately, awaking every so often from a fit of coughing. During one of his grandfather’s spasms, Cameron noticed blood on his handkerchief. His apprehension soared.

“Grandpa, you need a doctor. We should go to the hospital,” he pleaded.

“When the mountains rise, Cam. We got work to do,” replied his grandfather, closing his his eyes and breathing heavily.

The next morning the elder Perkins appeared pale and acted listless. He sipped his coffee but pushed aside the eggs Cameron had scrambled.

“You need to eat for your strength, grandpa. Can’t work like you are.”

“Not going to work. We’re going to my sister’s. You can stay with her awhile. I’ll come back and finish this up.”

“You can’t do it alone! You’re sick,” protested Cameron.

“I’ll be fine. You’ll have a better time with your aunt. She’s a good woman. You’ll like her. I’ll fetch you in about a month. I wrote down her address. You should keep it on you in case . . .”

“But . . .”

“Now, no argument, please. Get your things together, and we’ll hit the road. You’re a good boy, Cam, and you’ve been a big help. But some things need more help than you can give them, and this is one of those times. Besides, we got enough crop in to survive ‘til the next one. That’s what counts.”

Cameron reluctantly packed his things and placed them in back of the pickup truck.

“Please let me stay here and help with the harvest,” implored Cameron again, as he took the seat next to his grandfather.

Without responding, Will Perkins put the truck in gear and drove down the dirt driveway leading to another unpaved road. In ten minutes they reached the single lane paved road that would take them to the two-lane blacktop that ran west.

“Should get there tomorrow if this old heap holds up,” offered Will, trying to suppress another coughing spell.

By mid-afternoon they had reached North Platte, and Will had reluctantly ceded to Cameron’s request to visit Buffalo Bill’s homestead.

“Thanks, Grandpa. The sign says it isn’t far.”

“Far enough, but what the heck. I’m curious, too. My Pa, your great granddad, actually knew him.”

“Really? Did he kill all those Indians they say he did?”

“No, I think he just hired them for his Wild West show.”

*

Cameron and his grandfather spent the night in a small cabin in Ogallala, a town not far from the northeastern corner of Colorado. In the morning, it took him a considerable effort to raise his grandfather from sleep. When he succeeded, he was frightened by the look of confusion on his face. Several seconds passed before Will said anything, and when he did, Cameron’s fear increased.

“We got more wheat to cut down on the west third. Let’s get going. It won’t harvest by itself,” mumbled Will, lifting himself up with his elbows.

“Grandpa. We’re on our way to Aunt Giselle’s house. Don’t you remember?”

After a few moments, Will Perkins’s eyes gathered focus. “Sure, I do. Just was dreaming is all. Better get going, huh?”

Cameron was encouraged by his grandfather’s suddenly renewed interest in breakfast. After consuming a meal that included eggs and flapjacks, the duo climbed into the dust-covered pickup and continued their westward trek.

For the first time during their journey, they engaged in lively conversation that included fond recollections of their beloved lost family members.

“Your Granny Hildy was the sweetest gal I ever met, not that I met many ladies. Only a dozen in my high school class, but Hildegard was the prettiest of the lot, I can promise you that,” recalled Will.

“You think people who die ever come back to visit us so we can see them again?” asked Cameron, looking at his grandfather’s angular profile that had always reminded him of Abe Lincoln.

“When the mountains rise, but not in this world, I’m afraid.” His grandfather sighed as they crossed the state line into Colorado. “Well, here we are. Your first state outside of Nebraska, boy. Congratulations! You’re a man of the world now.”

Cameron was thrilled to have finally gone beyond the border of his home state. It was something he had long awaited, but he was disappointed that there was no dramatic change in the landscape.

“I thought it would look different, grandpa.”

“Oh, it will soon. Don’t you fret. It will look unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

“When?”

“In a couple hours. Don’t be . . .”

Will made a loud gasp and his body stiffened. The truck began to leave the road, and Cameron grabbed the steering wheel and directed the vehicle onto the dirt shoulder, pressing the break as hard as he could.

“Grandpa! Grandpa! What’s the matter?” screamed Cameron, but he got no response.

Will’s face was ashen and beginning to turn blue. Small bubbles oozed from his lips. He’s having a heart attack. Get help before he dies, thought Cameron, jumping from the truck. But there were no cars to flag down. What can I do! He’s dying . . . he’s dying! Several minutes passed without a sign of another vehicle. Sobbing, Cameron went around to the driver’s side and pushed his grandfather away from the steering wheel. I got to get help. Find a hospital. There’s nothing here.

Cameron moved the truck back onto the road and pressed the accelerator to the floor, causing the vehicle to jerk violently. He had never handled a standard shift before. The tractor he had driven had only forward and backward gears. After several attempts, he managed to get the truck into a higher gear that gave him cruising speed. By the time he had come to a town, he knew his grandfather was no longer alive, and he had decided to take him to his sister’s house rather than someplace unfamiliar along the way.

Cameron tried without success to stem the tide of tears that rolled down his cheeks as he drove on. Grandpa . . . poor Grandpa, he moaned, feeling like the last person on the planet. And then, very slowly, the foothills of the Rocky Mountains began to appear on the horizon. Soon he could make out the real mountains farther west. The sight lifted his spirits and the closer he got to the snow-capped peaks, the less hopelessness he felt.

“Look, Grandpa. The mountains are rising. I bet you can see Granny Hildy now . . . and Mom and Dad, too.”

*

 

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Michael C.Keith is the author of more than 20 books on electronic media, among them Talking Radio, Voices in the Purple Haze, Radio cultures, Signal in the Air, and the classic text book The Radio Station. The recipient of numerous awards in his academic field, he is also the author of dozens of journal articles and short stories and has served in a variety of editorial positions. In addition, he is also the author of an acclaimed memoir—The Next Better Place (screenplay coauthored with Cetya Powell), a young adult novel—Life is falling Sideways, and  five story anthologies—Of Night and Life, Everything is Epic, And Through the Trembling Air,  Sad Boy, and Hoag’s Object. He has been nominated for two Pushcart prizes and a Pen/O. Henry award and was the finalist for the National Indie Excellence award for short fiction anthology and a finalist for the 2013 International Book Award in the ‘Fiction Visionary’ category.

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