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Departing Dust

Prompt: Find a picture and create a narrative to explain the image

By D.K. ShepardPublished 2 years ago Updated 8 months ago 4 min read
Departing Dust
Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

This story was inspired by a William Gedney photograph that can be viewed at the Duke University online archives.

Joanna’s fingers grazed the cotton fabric, tracing the lines of the pale yellow pinstripes. Her thumb lingered at one of the small silver buttons at the collar. It was a pretty dress, terribly fine compared to the faded blue frock she currently wore. She couldn't help but glance down at her skirt to spy the faint red clay stains from the time she fell during the hoop rolling race at the church picnic. Then she fingered the singed sleeve hem from when her youngest brother, John, failed to mind his candle at last year’s Christmas eve service. Her blue frock told a story of her past, this yellow one was a blank page.

Late on a hot summer night two weeks ago, Joanna had seen Ma sewing. Joanna had crept out of the bed she shared with her five year old sister, Lily, to fetch a drink of water. The air had been heavy, smothering her with its warm dampness and yet Ma was huddled in the glow of a burning lamp. Joanna hadn’t guessed then that Ma’s hands were working on something for her, and now she could only stare in surprised silence at the perfect cloth with its bands of sunshine.

“Don’t fret now,” Ma declared. “I got the fabric from Miss Dorothy for a most generous price.”

Joanna had always liked Miss Dorothy, whose husband owned the general store, but now she was tempted to kiss the ground the woman walked on. Miss Dorothy was surely a saint.

“Besides, it is well past time that a girl of your age have something proper to wear,” Ma continued. “And think how special it would be for the start of school tomorrow.”

Of course that was it. School. Joanna gave Ma a wary glance, she thought this had been settled. She was too old for school; she needed to do her part to support the family. She was going to be fourteen in a month, and already last year she’d been the second oldest student at the Black Mountain one-room schoolhouse. Only the preacher's son was older and he was leaving for the mission school in Danville.

Joanna had already tried to quit last autumn, but Ma hadn’t allowed it. Now another summer was ending and Ma was as stubborn and insistent as ever that Joanna continue her education. It would have been an impossibility, but two years ago a boarding high school had been started at the Pine Mountain Settlement School. Joanna’s schoolhouse teacher had written them about her, how she’d read every book in the schoolhouse’s two shelf library and how she was gifted with figures. Now they’d extended a scholarship offer, and Ma was so proud. Secretly, Joanna was proud too and ached to go, but she’d feel so guilty for leaving not to mention how scared she became when she thought of leaving her home.

“Ma, I can’t go. It isn’t right,” Joanna whispered.

“Stop talking like that, Jo,” Ma said sternly. “What could be more right? Tell me. You’re too bright for laundry and cleaning the chicken coop. That brain of yours is going to take you places and someday you’ll come back from those places and share them with the kids at the schoolhouse so they can go to those places too.”

Joanna cast her eyes down to the floor, not knowing what to say.

Ma stepped close and gently grabbed Joanna’s shoulders. Joanna looked up to meet Ma’s eyes, which radiated confidence and certainty. Seconds passed, then Ma nodded her head toward the dress. “You can try it on after you’ve scrubbed yourself real good and clean,” she declared.

Lilly and Joana’s two brothers were out on the porch having their fun in the wash tub, making the water slosh over the rusted rim. Though it would be a miracle if they stayed pristine till the morning.

Ma ushered Joanna out the front door and waited till she knelt beside the tub and let her ten year old brother Charlie pour a pan of cool stream water over her raven hair. The younger children carried on with their splashing and squealing, while she scrubbed layers of dirt from under her nails.

Joanna surveyed the trees surrounding the log cabin and watched Ma, stooping slightly from years of physical labor. A lot of hard work was required to keep the home together while Pa slaved day after day in the coal mines. It seemed selfish to keep going to school when Ma desperately needed help. How could she sit at a desk reading books when there was a garden to tend and eggs to collect.

Then Joanna looked at Lilly with her gossamer hair and cherub cheeks. Water droplets catching sunlight creating a halo around her head. She let herself imagine Lilly old and weathered like Ma, fighting for survival. Maybe it was selfish to leave her home for an adventure she desperately wanted, but maybe this wouldn’t be for her, it would be for Lilly and all the other kids who could shine brightly beyond the smog of coal dust.

Short Story

About the Creator

D.K. Shepard

Character Crafter, Witty Banter Enthusiast, World Builder, Unpublished novelist...for now

Fantasy is where I thrive, but I like to experiment with genres for my short stories. Currently employed as a teacher in Louisville.

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    D.K. ShepardWritten by D.K. Shepard

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