194 / 365 – Dust

FRED VANEK

The dust billowed up like that. Swirls, shaken loose from the land. I watched them from down in the dry creek beds where I tried to find shade. I watched them and tried to read them. Troops moving down the dry and dusty summer roads? A convoy of trucks, Russian trucks, moving west now? Or Germans in retreat? Once the whole horizon to the north seemed to flare up with yellow dust, the line where the earth and sky met growing vague and then disappearing, as if the whole earth was turning to dust and blowing away forever. At the edge of a town a few nights later, where a man let me hide in his chicken coop and he brought me an end of dark bread, after the sun had set and it was dark, and he drew a picture of what I think was a tank, with a stick in the dirt. He pointed off to the north and then at me, questioning. I shook my head and pointed east. He drew another and another shape in the dirt next to the tank, like circles, lots of them, and then he scratched them out. He was talking the whole time, telling a story I couldn’t know, but I thought it was that there had been a big battle of German and Russian tanks and the Germans had been wiped out.

I had traveled by night, but the days were getting longer. I watched the sky, the dust. It seemed to billow up everywhere. The Soviet army was coming. I had to stay ahead of it. It was like some kind of monster coming, devouring the farms, the plain. Or a giant machine that would harvest the parched crops and the dead land one last time before it was burnt over forever. Everyone was afraid in the towns I visited. I had thought they would see my uniform and shoot me. Nobody likes a deserter. But everywhere I went, the farms I passed near, the villages I skirted, people offered me food, or a place with straw to curl up for awhile. The days were long enough now I had to travel in open daylight. Still, the billowing dust seemed close behind.

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