By Jennifer Henderson
“Over there, behind that door,” the guide tells you, “is the one of the largest collections of Oz memorabilia.” Her red hair is thin under the bright lights. You walk past showcases filled with L. Frank Baum’s first books and hundreds of children’s toys—dolls, kites, mobiles, stuffed animals, everything you feel now you might have longed for once. There are photographs of Dorothy and Toto during casting, an evolution of Dorothy’s pigtails and blue checkered gingham dress. She looks like you, your dad once said. You wore your hair in braids for weeks.
You follow the yellow brick road, which meanders by life-size statues of the main characters, pausing at Glenda the Good Witch in her pale pink dress stippled with stars. She holds her magic wand over your head, and you remember Halloween in your pink tutu, waving the silver rod and glittered star. You believed you could conjure magic, a shimmering pool of dreams where sugarplums and dancing dwarfs mingled in delicious harmony. You twirled up to each door, hoping to meet your nemesis, The Wicked Witch of the West.
And when this road leads you through a dark forest to a gather of scarlet flowers, Oz in the distance—a painted green castle on a plaster wall—you wish you were young again, like the first time you saw Dorothy drift off to sleep in the field of poppies whose deep red reminded you of sunburns and the dress your mother once wore. You were in Utah then, growing up near mountains, far from tornados and rainbows.
Then Kansas, home for the last five years, where you’ll drive across the interstate, sidling from one point of interest to the next—the Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City; The Garden of Eden in Lucas; The Geographic Center of the U.S. in Lebanon. You’ll see them all. You’ll stretch arms around the yellowed twine, touching fingers with a friend; tour the cement figures of Adam and Eve, staring at the red apple centered in a rocky palm; stand in the middle of things, the earth that is dead center of us all.
You’ll walk the prairie and chase tornados, watching the clouds spin like a ballerina in gray shoes. There will be humid summer days visiting with your white-haired neighbor, Clara, whose good eye winks when she brings you lettuce from her garden, when she tells you about teaching elementary school children in Western Kansas, about the time Lyle brought the lariat to school and she lassoed him when he misbehaved.
You’ll read the Wizard of Oz and disagree with the dusty plains Baum conjures for Dorothy, the black and white farm she’ll leave and return to, then probably leave again. Kansas is not merely flat; it is not the Heartland (that catchphrase of Romanticism); it is not the place where twisters whisk off young girls, sweeping them and their little dogs through air, across space, out into a vast Technicolor dream. Kansas is here. Right through that door.
You walk through the foyer and out into the rain. The sky is overcast but cool. Just one week and you’ll leave, follow a better job east across farmland and mountains, watch the terrain whiz past your window as though you were caught in a storm that pushed you up into the clouds and planted you in the gaudy green of Virginia, this Emerald City—exaggerated leaves, drenching rains, and claustrophobic terrain. Nearly every evening, you’ll sit at your computer and look at image after image of Kansas, lingering a few minutes on the one you took from the prairie the night before you left: the sunset blood red, like poppies.
Jennifer Henderson is a writer living in Pearisburg, Virginia. Her work has appeared in River Teeth, Flint Hills Review, Petroglyph, I.S.L.E., and Western American Literature, and is forthcoming in Under the Sun. She also reviews books for Newpages.com.