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Wheatfields Under Thunderclouds

a story

By G. Douglas KerrPublished 11 months ago Updated 11 months ago 7 min read
Runner-Up in Painted Prose Challenge

Indiana held fields of winter wheat. To be clear it does still, but when we stopped at the station to fill the car and drain our bladders, the road behind us and the road ahead saw the encroaching storm push toward us from the west. Driving north to see my father’s father and my uncle, the image of the approaching storm held for me the first look of foreshadowing.

My grandfather was sick - sick and old. Born before nineteen hundred, he lived across two world wars, fighting in the first, immigrating to America, finding and working a Michigan farm ultimately to retire there among the fields and the pine tree forest he had planted upon arrival of his three boys decades ago. He had lived a full life and we were paying homage to the decisions he had made; to marry an American girl and raise my father and his two older brothers in this country.

To hear my father tell it, Europe was torn apart by 1920. Their wheat fields were thrown into the air as consequence of shelling and destruction. ‘Of course though’, he said ‘you can step on a wheat stalk and break it with your boot.’ he said smiling. But this joke didn’t land. As a girl raised in the city of Cincinnati, I had no reference to how to feed people. The image of a wheat field was something only seen on the TV or the backdrop for a rural picture book. I couldn’t see the reason for a wheat field or my family's connection to them. But here it was alive. It leaned with the wind, only to shoot back up when the push eased and the long, tanning stems could stand again. They seemed to push each other back up, each strand as it stood supported the others in the attempt to right the field and reach toward what sun they had left. The wind would push them back down and the tossed seeds flopped back and forth as the intensity of the storm increased.

‘I don’t think we’re going to beat it.’ my father said. ‘No.’ my mother said. ‘We should wait here.’

And so we did. My dad pulled the station wagon away from the pump and in between the yellow lines perpendicular to the concrete surrounding the front of the station and turned it off. The car faced the store. I turned my head back to the storm. From where I stood at the corner of the building I could see the wheat field and turning my head to the car, I saw my younger brother exit the station as the glass door squeaked. If the chipped paint on the stucco walls and small bell above the door didn’t scream route 27 - Indiana, the attendant and his dirty blonde mullet sure did. His ‘Born to be Bad’ oversized, ripped sleeve, t-shirt proved to me that he had watched one too many Schwartzenegger movies and had exactly zero dental work. Disappointment ensued from my brother that he could not have more chips even though we were staying longer at this almost random highway rest stop.

Determined to wait until the last second, I heard it before whipping my head back to the wheat field. The rain changed the smell of the air from the dusty late summer chaffed-off wheat to that of a falling stream. I took in another breath to be certain that the change had been that fast and that clear. As my eyes adjusted to the distance, the heavy drops hit the fields. The blades of tall grass shook as if struck on the head and winnowed like a punch drunk boxer. Then they fell. The line of where the rain pushed them to the ground moved toward me faster than I expected. The wind which undulated the field with its push and pull earlier was nowhere near as strong as the pressure from the rain. Long flattening strokes of soaking grass wiped across the fields, the weight of standing made that much heavier in the storm.

I broke in a run. ‘Open the door!’ I shouted. My parents looked up. ‘In the car! Everyone in the car!’ they said. My mom and dad dove toward the door handles. Teddy stood there on the hot black asphalt, his hand in a bag of chips. ‘What’s everybody doing?’

I got to the back seat door pulling it open as the rain came over the front of the station pelting the stucco and the concrete and the asphalt. It deafened every other sound. My brother shouted something, got the hint and climbed in the car. My parents sat in the front and we all sat listening to the rain.

Rolling at a whisper and then growing, the thunder trailed the wind.

It was a Wednesday. My dad called off work which he never did. They pulled Teddy out of sports camp. My mom told her job that she would not be in the rest of the week. My parents wanted me to know the highschool a bit before going there full time as a freshman and enrolled me in a typing class. I wasn’t missing anything really. It was just more practice for our hands, covered with a shoebox that had a side missing on the first generation black and white Macintosh. But I made a friend, the girl sitting next to me, Anna. That’s really what the class was for and my parents had smiled to themselves that their plan to acclimate me to the big highschool was working. But they pulled me for the week too, and from the first scheduled hang out with Anna when my dad got a phone call from Uncle Frank. ‘Oh,’ my dad said, turning away from the dinner table Tuesday night, wrapping the cord across his arm. ‘I didn’t think it was that bad.’

Thinking back on the drive he must have been pushing ninety on the highway. Not the interstate, but this two lane route that the Amish used with their buggy and horse. We did not get far on the quarter tank in the car. This trip was so unlike all other car vacations. My dad always planned everything out and prepared for the predictable issues on a five plus hour car ride. Today was rushed and his mind only seemed to focus on the rain flooding the windshield, blurring our view of the station. I remember his breathing; deep and deliberate.

‘My father had a sword, a pattern sword.’ he said. My mom looked at him, her eyebrows raised. ‘I thought it was the coolest thing growing up. My brothers and I would always want to play with it.’

‘Can I see it when we get to Grandpa's house?’ Teddy said. My father just shook his head.

‘Etched on the side, it said ‘The Great War’ and he used it running up hills in France.’ We stayed silent in the car, as this was not a story meant for us. ‘When I told him I thought that was cool he told me he would rather be a farmer. He said it was a young man’s dream to run around with a sword. An adult would dream of feeding his family.’ The rain still fell against the car and the wind pushed it slightly with the four of us inside.

‘He said he remembered thinking about his sister and his family a lot while he was in France and how he wanted to see them again.’ He nodded.

‘He taught me how to whistle.... And be happy.’

‘How do you be happy?’ I asked, not understanding the question that I asked.

‘You realize you cannot control the weather.’ My dad turned to me and smiled, his eyes starting to twinkle.

His drive to see his father one last time had stopped, because of the storm. I knew then something that Van Gough did not find in that field almost a hundred years prior. The wheat would stand tall. The push of the wind and weight of the rain were only temporary. Of course I never saw the painting prior to this day years ago. But the day I saw the painting in a National Geographic article; Van Gough’s Wheatfields Under Thunderclouds, I smelled the change in weather from dusty summer to downpour - which made no sense even at the time. I saw the rush of the storm coming at me and remembered listening to the white noise inside the station wagon. I remember thinking that Van Gough probably had that same feeling - trying to capture whatever was coming at him when he painted it a few weeks before his death in Auvers-sur-Oise. My grandfather would see that same field less than thirty years later than Van Gough. But my grandfather survived it. I am proof of that. I remember listening to my father breathing and watching him from the back seat as he thought about his dad, my mom reaching over from the passenger seat to hold his hand. My brother complained about his soggy chips.

I remember being quiet in the face of the coming storm, knowing that I would outlast it. When we finally got to my grandfather’s house, we arrived too late.


About the Creator

G. Douglas Kerr

I am a hermit and sometimes come out of my shell.

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Comments (4)

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  • Staringale3 months ago

    This is very well-written, the picture in the beginning itself is very beautiful. Congrats on being a runner-up.

  • Test10 months ago

    Great story, with so many dimensions to it, of family, history, childhood perspectives. Beautifully done.💙Anneliese

  • Ava Mack10 months ago

    This is so beautiful! I love the connection between the wheat field of Indiana and that of Van Gogh's painting and the grandfather who connects the two for the narrator. Congratulations on your runner up!

  • Babs Iverson10 months ago

    Congratulations on runner up!!!❤️❤️💕

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