Plum Creek


Dinah was in charge of herself. She did her homework and fixed dinner every day but Sunday—not too much for a nine-year-old going on 10, not if the nine-year-old was Dinah, her father said. At school she was in third grade, reading books with chapters and no pictures, and mastering multiplication. When the afternoon school bus dropped Dinah at the ranch gate, she walked the quarter mile to the low-water bridge across Plum Creek, where Mama’s more-or-less terrier, Bird, waited under a live oak, rain or shine. Once Dinah crossed the creek, she was home.

Dinah knew that doing things in a regular way made time pass. The minute she got to the house, she changed her school dress for dungarees, checked that the meat for dinner was truly thawing and that they had their starch, usually rice. Daddy didn’t get home until six. His work as a county extension agent took him from one end of the county to the other. His office was all the way in Luling, the next big town.

Because Mama had left them in the spring when the bluebonnets were starting and before the garden amounted to much, the first few months she was gone, Dinah picked their dinner vegetables from the big bags of English peas, green beans, and broccoli in the freezer. Most afternoons, Dinah raced through her homework at the kitchen table with a pair of binoculars by her side to watch for a squirrel they called Notcho because his ear had been cut in a fight. Bird waited with only a small show of impatience—a twitch of her tail, her brown eyes slantwise to check on Dinah. After homework, they’d head out to see what the day had done. They inspected Daddy’s flats of seedlings on the big plywood tables on sawhorses. They checked the clematis on the fence, the mountain laurel, and the Mexican plum, the first to bloom each year, and then they took off around the ranch and into the woods, returning in time to cook dinner. In the brief moment after she opened the kitchen door, Dinah couldn’t help herself. She looked for her mother.


Dinah had no clear idea of why her mother was gone; she had memories of voices in the night and talk of money, money, money, money. Moira once told Dinah, Your daddy’s not the least bit ambitious, so you and I must do our best with second best. Another time, there was a door flung open, a sudden shaft of light in her dark bedroom, and the sound of loud voices when her mother and father thought she slept. Try as she might, Dinah couldn’t hear their words. Dinah pictured her mother in the vegetable garden, and when she held the image long enough she heard Moira sighing, but her mother might as easily have sighed from being hot and tired as from yearning for a different life with a man who was ambitious and gave her first best. Whatever her mother’s reasons, Dinah’s imagination couldn’t take her past the irreducible fact that one day she came home from school and her mother was gone.

Dinah’s father, DR, claimed that he had little interest in people. The world that held him was botanical. Hybrids and imports inspired his scorn; he only respected the uncultivated natives. If he had his way, he once told Dinah, he’d spend his life wandering and be happy if he saw even half of the species to be found across Texas. DR had graduated from Texas a&m University, his father’s alma mater, in the mid-1930s. DR’s father had died at an early age, electrocuted in a farm accident. It wasn’t a question of whether DR would attend A&M; it was a given. He majored in plants—as he called the science of growing bigger, better, and more bug-resistant crops to feed the increasing numbers of livestock and people—and after graduation he became a county extension agent and worked in one rural area of Texas after another.

David Rangel Warren met Dinah’s mother, Moira O’Brien, when he was in Fort Worth for a convention. He married her and took her west, where there were plant-devouring cattle and money-producing oil fields, and then to counties south, where there was so much land, all of it flat, that it was like standing on a great ocean. There, crops tore up the native habitat and cattle overgrazed. Moira’s family had not wanted her to marry DR. They had toiled for decades in Fort Worth, selling automobiles for a harvest of cash, and wanted her to have a businessman or a banker for a husband.

In driving from ranch to ranch, small town to small town, Dinah’s father became a keen observer of the landscape. Anyone who wasn’t blind could see the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes blanketing in spring, but DR’s view was keener; he taught Dinah to read the signs the plants gave in their cycle.

DR’s longest assignment, the one he said he would retire from, was in Central Texas, Caldwell County, 30 miles south of Austin. In exchange for minimal caretaking duties, he and Moira and Dinah lived on a ranch on Plum Creek. There he conceived the idea of saving at least one Texas wildflower from what he called the three horsemen: cattle, highways, and development. He chose Amoreuxia wrightii, the fragile Yellowshow, and began by gathering seeds and finding the best conditions to propagate them in pots, flats, and beds. He collected the Yellowshow’s tiny seeds and distributed them free of charge to whoever would take them. Because of his conviction that the abundant wildflowers of Texas were in grave danger, DR endured the amusement of his fellow citizens, and Dinah went through school as the daughter of a crank.

One afternoon, when the school bus pulled up to the ranch gate, Bird wasn’t waiting for Dinah under the live oak. Mr. Christie, the bus driver, took a look at the sky and ordered Dinah to get to the house and stay there.

“Go to the center of the house,” he told her. “Don’t tarry. Tornado possibilities.”

Daddy always said that Vernon Christie looked for the cloud and ignored the silver lining, but that afternoon the sky was as green as a lima bean, and it throbbed as if something wanted out.

When Dinah got to the house, Bird was there. The dog wormed inside the kitchen before Dinah opened the door more than a crack. Bird hated thunder, lightning, and rain, and probably wasn’t fond of tornadoes. She didn’t fear snakes, though, and alerted Dinah to rattlers on their walks. Now she was whining. Maybe she could hear the tornado and Dinah couldn’t. Dinah noticed at that moment how very still everything was, and then she heard a new noise like a train far off but coming closer, the biggest train the world had ever known, bearing down on them.

Go to the center of the house but where was that?

They had no storm cellar. They had no cellar at all. The house rested on cedar posts.

Not upstairs, which was all Dinah’s, all three rooms now that Mama was gone and Daddy had moved downstairs.

Not the porch or the kitchen or Daddy’s room.

Bird was whimpering. The house had two windows on each of its four sides. The windows matched, up and down, so many windows, windows all around. Dinah checked the kitchen clock, as if the tornado were a real train, due any minute, and she and Bird might miss it. The fur along the ridge of Bird’s spine was standing straight up. Dinah ran into the hall and opened the door of the big closet. Bird pushed past, and Dinah closed the door behind them. The sound of the train was muffled in the dark among the suitcases and cardboard boxes. Dinah found a free place at the back of the closet and sat with her knees to her chin, her head touching the hems of jackets and coats hanging empty above them. Bird leaned into Dinah, shivering like she was cold through and through, and smelling like earth. There was another smell in the closet, a familiar one, sweet and brisk and maybe something sharp beneath the sweetness: Mama in the garden brushing a drop of sweat away and inspecting the row she’d hoed with a look on her face that said her own storm of temper and discontent was coming.

One day, Dinah had arrived home from school and her mother’s things were gone. Clothes gone. Bible gone. And gone was the embroidered runner Mama kept on her vanity, along with the jars of Noxema and Jergen’s lotion and her bottle of lily of the valley cologne, her silver-backed brush, and the Breck shampoo bottle from the side of the bathtub. Where were all of Mama’s things, Dinah had wondered. And where was Mama herself? Dinah’s father didn’t make it possible to voice either question.


Now, in the wind and the howling of the train, in the pounding of the metal roof trying to free itself, Dinah’s first question was answered by the boxes that her father in his fury and misery had shut in the closet. Now, when the sounds were bearing down upon her, Dinah was grateful for her mother’s presence even if it was just her things. If she closed her eyes and breathed in as deep as she could, Dinah might catch the train.

The tornado came close, knocking down their mailbox, taking the scrubby trees alongside the road, missing the house, missing Dinah and the dog.

Two years later, Moira’s oldest brother telephoned one Thursday night, while DR and Dinah were listening to The Lone Ranger, to say that Moira was dead. Inexplicably, she had been living in Los Angeles, and her car had been hit by a truck on her way to work. Her body was with her parents, and if DR wanted to attend the funeral he’d better get to Fort Worth in a hurry.

The church in Fort Worth had tall white columns in front. DR wouldn’t let go of Dinah’s hand as he walked her down the aisle and sat her close to the altar. They were just one row behind the family, and the sight of Moira’s well-known features on their unsmiling faces—her long nose and the shape of her eyes—was dizzying. As soon as Dinah got settled, her grandmother turned around and called her by name, telling Dinah to go up front to pay her respects to her mother. The top of the casket was closed. Dinah took courage and touched her hand to the polished wooden surface. The coffin looked both too small and too large. Dinah couldn’t decide whether or not it was a good fit for Moira, but, then, she wasn’t convinced that her mother was inside.

The sermon and the prayers were nothing that couldn’t have been said of any human being who’d been born and died.

Dinah and DR rode out to the cemetery in the pickup, following the hearse and the limousines, and after the cemetery, at Dinah’s grandmother’s invitation, they went to the house, which was grander than the best houses in their town, even though it was the county seat. When the guests left, and the food and drink had been cleared away by a maid in a white apron, the family sat in the living room. Dinah had eaten too many lemon bars, but she knew better than to complain to her father.

“We can offer Dinah things you can’t, David,” her grandmother was saying. “And we’d like nothing more than to have her with us. We’ve had this discussion before—”

“I haven’t forgotten your kind offers,” DR said, in the accepting tone he used for the weather and the failure of an experiment. Dinah wondered when these offers had been made. DR, dressed in his one suit, white shirt, and the red tie he’d ironed that morning, was next to Dinah on a plush couch. A strand of enormous pearls curled on her grandmother’s bosom. City and country, her grandmother and father might as well have been from separate galaxies.

“We can educate the girl,” an uncle said. He was the one closest to Moira in age, the one who looked most like her, and Dinah concentrated on his eyebrows. “Fort Worth has a lot to offer a girl like Dinah. Dancing lessons. Piano. Or another instrument if she prefers. We have the resources. We can send her to college in the East. She’ll have real opportunity.”

Dinah was in no way musical. Dancing was not her strong suit. She knew they wouldn’t let her keep her mother’s dog, and in that moment the after-school walks with Bird seemed precious above all else. Besides, who would see that dinner was waiting for her father?

Her grandfather’s voice was gravelly, like he hadn’t talked in days. “If Dinah doesn’t come live with us, that’s the end of it. No money from this family, no trust fund, no inheritance. Not a dime.”

Dinah’s father got up from his chair. “Your offer is generous,” he said. “I appreciate it. Still and all, I don’t think making a rich orphan of Dinah is any solution.”

Only then did DR look at Dinah, but she was already on her feet. She gave a curtsey, the best she could manage, and raised her hand in a wave. She couldn’t do what manners dictated and kiss her grandparents and uncles farewell. She walked out beside her father and drove with him home to Plum Creek.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Laura Furman is a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and series editor of The O. Henry Prize Stories. She is the author of three collections of stories, two novels, and a memoir.


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