A bomb drops on Myrtle, Iowa. It was only a matter of time. Mothers make do with what's left in their cupboards; they milk cows and collect eggs. Sorghum fields go to ruin and root cellars overflow. Winter is imminent.
"We won't go hungry," Frances says. Her father is gone. All the men are gone. They are in the sky and on the ground. Some have fallen already.
"Quiet, hush," her mother says.
Frances jumps on her bike and rides for miles to join her siblings amongst the burnt out ruins where Aaron and his friend John build a tower that extends toward the sky and Elin and Enid create an elaborate floor plan with rows of fallen bricks. Elin insists that Frances can't just walk over walls but must enter and exit by the door, which is over here.
"Frances means a free woman."
"But you aren't a woman yet," Elin insists.
"I can be whatever I want," Frances says.
"What does John mean?" Elin asks.
"God is merciful."
Frances is eleven, Aaron nine, Elin seven, and Enid five.
"I think my mom is crazy," John says.
"You can stay with us," Aaron says. "Our mom is still okay."
- - -
At first their mother was determined to keep everything normal. She made her children finish whatever chapter they'd left off on in school. She kept what little money was left wrapped in a handkerchief stuck into the top of her girdle. She drove the Dodge back and forth to town until it ran out of gas, and then she walked until a boy jumped out of a bush and tore at her clothing, finding the hidden makeshift purse. She ran all the way home and vowed never to go to town again.
"It isn't safe out there," she tells Frances, whose imagination has opened up far too wide to embrace anything as small as fear.
- - -
"All the world's a stage," Frances tells the others. They take their places within a labyrinth of sets created by fallen walls and collapsed structures, everything crushed or split or opened to the sky. Frances performs surgery of one kind or another on the fallen heroes. She lifts Enid's dress and says, "Scalpel," while holding out her hand.
"Boys can't be nurses," Aaron protests.
Frances pulls the piece of cloth from her mouth.
"This is the new world order," she says.
John shrugs and hands Frances a kitchen knife that's been twisted beyond recognition.
"You call this a scalpel?"
"It's the best we can do in these times, Doctor."
Frances smiles and looks at Aaron, "I'll have to keep your friend in mind for a promotion."
- - -
Their mother sits atop the old mare. "Supper," she shouts. Frances peers over the black wall of the rectory, and Enid pulls her dress down with relief. "I hate suppertime. It ruins the day," Frances says. All but Enid agree.
Their mother smiles as they file out, one by one, and follow her on their bikes.
"How was your day?" she asks as they poke the tender crusts of their chicken pot pies.
Enid opens her mouth and Frances quickly says, "Enid is our prize actress. She's a young Lauren Bacall."
Enid was going to tell her mother that life is not fair and Frances is bossy, but because she is too young to recognize manipulation, only old enough to do it, she smiles. Aaron notes that they forgot to say grace.
"Heavens," their mother says. "I don't suppose it'll count to say it now. Ah well, everything will be okay, our men will prevail, this is the beginning of the end." No, no, no, that's not what I meant. Where did that voice come from?
"Mom," Aaron says. "John's mom went crazy."
"It's the silence after the storm," she says. When her husband was at home, she didn't need to worry. Now it eats at her, but she tries her best to hide this from the children. I am the adult, she reminds herself. She takes the apple cobbler from the oven and sets it on the windowsill to cool. It is one of the early days of autumn, and she fears the coming snow, which is sure to muffle sound all the more.
"It is dead quiet," Frances says. Her mother jumps and then turns, each word measured, "How many times do I have to tell you not to say such things."
"It's just a figure of speech," Frances says. "I'll get the dessert plates," she adds in the sweetest voice she can muster.
Once the younger children are safely tucked away, their mother sits and watches the piles of dust accumulate on the shelves, the screen as it sags, the time move. Her hands weigh where they rest on her thighs. A shadow remains when she lifts one hand to push her hair back for a fourth time, fifth time? She's lost count.
- - -
Frances lies in bed, replaying the day's scenes. She sleeps like a baby and embraces the silent new day. The absence of combines and school buses is a blessing, God's way of saying "Let the children prevail."
The morning starts with buttermilk biscuits, eggs, and bacon. "Whoa," their mother says after the children wipe their mouths clean with their sleeves. "Your chores."
Aaron feeds the pigs with John's help; Elin and Enid hang the wash; Frances works her way through the list her mother has drawn up for her. "You have more weight to pull."
- - -
As always, the others have been long at play by the time Frances makes it to the ruins.
"Hi ho," Aaron calls from a toppled barn. "I dare anyone to enter my domain."
"Well, what about my domain?" John yells from his pile. "I will skin you alive."
"Aha," Elin shouts, a broken pipe in her fist, "do not come closer or I will pummel you with this mighty sword."
"If you don't enter each other's domains, it could become boring," Frances says.
The three look down at her.
"Don't listen to her, for she is just a peasant."
"What's a peasant?" John asks.
Elin scratches her head, "Well, she is very poor."
Enid sits in the street picking breadcrumbs off her sweater. "Maybe we should play prince and princess."
"That's stupid," Aaron says.
"Then I'm going home." Enid is slightly chubby, not as energetic or daring. She'll tell on them. She's the snitch. "Wait," Elin says. "We'll figure out a way to play."
John runs down from his pile and takes Enid by the hand, "Fair princess, come with me."
"It's time to do something," Frances thinks, her tender breasts about to burst under her blue gingham shirt. She fashions a crown out of coiled electrical wire and broken dishware while the others remain intent on their game.
"What about us?" Elin asks when she notices Frances's headdress glistening in the sun.
"You'll need gowns and the boys will need armor if you want to join my queendom."
"Do we get crowns?" Enid asks.
"You'll have to work your way up, but it's possible."
John bikes to his father's supply shed for hammers and nails and all sorts of clipping devices. He and Aaron cut and bend, scratching themselves as they fashion crude face masks out of the metal lining of chimneys and breastplates from corrugated aluminum. Frances clothes Elin and Enid in heavy curtains tied about their chests and necks; the gowns tug at their throats as they walk. She circles her sisters' wrists with electrical wire and drapes herself in sheets.
Frances knights the two boys and tells her sisters that they will play the parts of maids in waiting. Elin complains; she doesn't want to clean.
"No, not that kind of maid. These knights must fight for the right to have you," Frances says.
"But I don't want either of them," Aaron says. "They're my sisters."
"You must or we'll all have to go home," Frances says. "Choose your weapons."
Aaron and John slowly put one foot in front of the other, wincing as the metal digs into their ribs.
"Are you mice or men?" Frances asks.
- - -
"Suppertime," a voice wails. Their mother straddles the mare, an apron tied around her waist, her face covered with a fine dusting of flour.
"Not again. Do we have to?" Aaron moans.
Frances turns toward her queendom and glares, "Raise your weapons. There's no reason to listen to mothers anymore." Elin picks up a large foundation stone and tries to hurl it toward the mare.
"Please," their mother pleads, halfheartedly, and then gallops away. Above all, I have lost faith.
- - -
Frances pricks her finger on a rusty nail. The others take turns licking her blood. "Now you all must listen to me." They nod their heads in agreement.
"We're hungry," they say.
About the author:
Angela Jane Fountas writes, teaches, and runs writehabit.org in Seattle. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Diagram, Faultline, Rewrite, Uncapped, and The Writer. She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama.