To write, I have decided, is to be insane. In ordinary life you look sane, act sane—just as sane as any mother of five children. But once you start to write, you are moonstruck, out of your senses. As you stare hard inward, following behind your eyes the images of invisible places, of people, of events, and listening hard inward to silent voices and unspoken conversations—as you are seeing the story, hearing it, feeling it—your very skin becomes permeable, not a boundary, and you enter the place of your writing and live inside the people who live there. You think and say incredible things. You even love other people—you don’t love your children and your husband at all. And here is the interesting thing to me: when this happens, you often learn something, understand something, that can transcend the words on the paper.
C. B. D.
Sat’y 25 Mar ’05
The death of Jules Verne was reported in the morning papers—a great loss to France and to the world. When I read this news,
I confess I was briefly startled into tears—just had to sit down and cry. Generally I am not much of a one for tears, and so my youngest son, named Jules for that very man, came and climbed on me, pulling at my hair and whining the way children will do, and dogs the same way, they’ll climb on you and lick your eyes because they want things to go on being understandable, they don’t want you to sit down suddenly in a kitchen chair crying.
I won’t tolerate having my hair pulled, which my children know very well, so I stood up and tumbled my son right out of my lap. “Don’t grab on my hair,” I said, and discovered, upon sitting down again, that I was already finished with crying. There followed a theatrical burst of sobbing from Jules where he lay on the floor at my feet, but as quickly done with—a long wet sigh—when I pulled him onto my knee. He settled his bony little spine against my bosom and began to twist a forelock of his own hair around his pointy finger while I held the newspaper out in front of us and read:
Death Relieves Jules Verne
Calmly Foresaw His End and Discussed It with His Family
He had suffered from cataracts and deafness and diabetes, this was something I knew. And seventy-seven. Well, it shouldn’t have been a surprise; I don’t suppose it was. But something about it was unexpected, a jolt. Indeed, he leaves large work, long years of glorious writing; and now is dead. The world is changing, he told us, and in my strong opinion Verne predicted very nearly every one of the major mechanical developments of this century; his ideas have obtained a kind of technological immortality. The world is changing but people go on dying in the usual ways, is somewhere near what I was thinking, now that the prophet himself had arrived at the limits of personal mortality.
“Bird of six weeks kills her self with gas,” my son read
solemnly. My children all are smart as whips, which I have written in these pages many times, but this last one an uncommon case: not yet five years old, but for more than a year he has been copying his letters from books and reading to me the captions of the daily newspaper.
I looked where he pointed. “Bride,” I said. “Bride of six weeks.”
“What’s a bride?”
“A woman with a romantic inclination which has led her into reckless behavior.”
This answer might have seemed sensible to him if he hadn’t taken up from his older brothers a mistrust of anything I am likely to say about women. And my children are parlor artists, every one of them: he breathed out in a dramatical fashion and tipped his head backward against my breast, staring upward with the expectation of a revised reply.
“A woman newly married,” I said.
“Enslaved to a man,” I told him truthfully. At four years of age he has no appreciation of scrupulous truthfulness nor understanding of irony, and withal has learned from his brothers to question anything I am likely to say about men. “Ma!” he said, in the particular way of all my children, exasperated and demanding.
I said into his turned-up face, “When a man and a woman decide to live as husband and wife, that’s marriage. Like Otto and Edith.”
He considered the idea, studying upward with his eyes evidently fixed on the little dark caves of my nose; then he said seriously, “Like Jules and Charlotte.”
Well, boys are prone to confuse the mother with the wife; in
fact, husbands are prone to this same thing. So I only said, “No, not like you and me. We are mother and son.”
I expected him to follow this line of questioning to its next natural point—to ask me if I had a husband, and who was he, which is related to, but not the same as, Do I have a father, and where is he? (heard and answered many times); but his mind does not work like mine and shortly he had circled round again to another issue. “Why’d the bride kill herself with gas?”
With a child as young as Jules there is not much point in carrying scrupulous truthfulness to the edge of the abyss. “I don’t know,” I said. “It may just be she was very, very sad.” Both of us considered this poor sad bride for a moment. The world is changing but people go on dying in the usual ways. Then I said, “Get up now, I have work. So do you. I want you to find the dog and a scissors and cut the hair away from his eyes, but not too short, and don’t poke his face nor yours, and put the scissors away after.”
This was something he had attempted without instruction on two occasions in the recent past, for which reason I had hidden the scissors thoroughly and cautioned the dog against cooperation. But I had lately been wondering if Permission would cut the desirability right out of that particular adventure, and in any case Horace Stuband would be rowing Melba up the slough by this time, and it might be, if Jules went on searching out the scissors for a quarter of an hour, Melba would be standing in my kitchen tying on her apron and I’d be locked away in the shed when the matter came to a climax.
Jules popped out of my lap with a little shout and went off at a gallop, calling for the dog.
“Ma!” Frank said from the very air aloft. “Lightning’s hid her kitties up here, Ma, there’s a hidey-hole under the eave. Look!”
Someone has taught that cat to count, is my belief, for she has never failed to notice when we have sneaked off with the weaklings and the crooked-born of her kittens, and she has become more and more wily with each successive litter, determined to raise them all, runts and mutants all, in a behavior that to my mind must be proof of the basic tenets of Darwin, or disproof; which, I cannot as yet decide. For more than a week my children have been looking for Lightning’s new litter in places as unlikely as sugar bowls, desk drawers, and rooftops.
“Where?” I called to Frank, and went out in the mud of the yard to see where he was pointing from his slippery toehold on the gable of the kitchen porch. “Oh my Lord, Frank. Can you see them? How many are in there?”
“She’s in there with them. I ain’t reaching in. It smells like puke and she’ll bite a hole in me and I’ll bleed to death.”
I school my children as to the rules of absolute construction, agreement of the participle, and placement of copulative conjunctions, but ignore the colloquial as a matter of principle. Ignore, as well, certain subjects of interest to Frank, whose inclination is to direct people’s attention toward blood, purulence, and excrement. I said, “Just look in there, Frank, for heaven’s sake. Count them.”
“I don’t want to put my face up there! She’ll tear my eyes out and I’ll be blind.”
Parlor artists, every one of them—which is something their departed father unjustly blamed on me. “Well, then, come down from the roof and go look for Lewis; he’s left the woodpile in a jumble. Let Lightning keep her mutant, godforsaken children, only I won’t be held responsible for what comes to pass. It’s inevitable, I suppose, that a Cat Monster will someday take over the earth.”
I shook the newspaper as interjection, but having given up for now any hope of reading the dying words of Jules Verne, I returned the paper to the parlor, to the teetery stack at the end of the davenport bed. If I’m to follow what is happening in the world, and what’s being said about this writer or that book, and the details not only of the book industry but of biology and archaeology, chemistry and medicine, the latest debates over the conceptions of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and arguments to do with socialism, feminism, evolution, eugenics, insanity, disease, not to mention what it was exactly that Jules Verne said to his family before he died, and if I’m to go on living three thousand miles from the centers of science and politics and publishing, it always will be necessary to rely on a barrowload of subscriptions to publications of all sorts, and books through the mails. It’s a very lot of reading, and for four days of each and every month there’s no keeping up, as Melba never can be persuaded away from making a monthly visit to her daughter, Florence, in Yacolt, leaving my children and me to manage the household without her; and since the U.S. Post Office continues to bring my mail to the dock at Skamokawa every day with the flood tide, the stack of unread newspapers and periodicals always will build up during my housekeeper’s monthly absence, until by the fourth and last day it slides off the arm of the davenport bed into a loose mountain on the floor beside it: a direct result of Melba’s stubbornness and the continuing inability of my children to manage their lives without subvention and stewardship.
As if in perfect demonstration of this truth, I discovered Jules in the kitchen standing on his toes on a high stool so as to peer through the deep dust along the top of the Wilson cabinet, while his brother stood below, jiggling the stool legs beneath him.
“Oscar, quit that. Jules, climb down from there. You won’t find the scissors in this kitchen, Jules, I’ve looked myself and I know for a fact they are not here. Look out in the potato cellar for them, that would be my advice. And failing that, try along the garden fence; someone may have left them lying on the grass there.”
“I never did,” Oscar said in a righteously aggrieved way.
“Did too,” Jules told him automatically, and the two of them fell to wrestling on the kitchen floor. Oscar, at barely seven, is small enough to present Jules, who is big for his age, with a challenging but not impossible opponent. They wrestle daily over important matters, such as whose arrow came nearest killing a particular Indian or slavering wolf, and trivial matters such as who wiped whose snot on whose trousers.
“I haven’t said that Oscar left the scissors out by the garden fence; I said you ought to go look there. In fact, both of you ought to head for the garden straightaway and search the fence line thoroughly.”
I stepped around their thrashing arms and legs and began to clear away these last four days of table scrapings. My personal belief is that a woman’s worth doesn’t lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the commencement of each of Melba’s absences I always am determined, on principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba’s belief, though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity more horrible than Frankenstein’s monster, and on her return there is a particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder. I believe it’s dread of that look that sometimes moves me at the last moment toward a cursory sweep of the carpet, a symbolic neatening of dirty plates.
“Ma, I can’t find Lewis.” Frank was breathless, roseate. “I
think he’s disappeared. There’s tracks and blood. I think he was maybe captured by Indians.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. But if Lewis has disappeared, Frank, it’ll fall on you, as his twin, to neaten the woodpile.”
“Go and ask any Indians you see skulking about whether they have seen your brother. Look in all the mine shafts and secret caves. Follow the blood trail. I’m serious, Frank. I want you to find Lewis and I want Lewis to put straight the woodpile.”
“Ma! He won’t do it, Ma! He’s out in the woods digging a bear trap and he says he won’t come.”
“Go tell Lewis I’m giving his clothes to the orphans in Panama and his pocket-knife to Oscar. Tell Lewis, since he’s got bear meat to eat, he surely won’t be needing a place set for him at the supper table. And tell Lewis that Melba is in a fine temper; if she sees the woodpile like that, she’ll box his ears off and he’ll bleed to death.”
Frank’s face brightened; he went off to deliver these warnings to Lewis. Oscar went off to claim Lewis’s pocket-knife. Jules went off to look for scissors in the deep grass along the garden fence. I stood briefly in an empty room.
Just as Samuel Butler is said to have stopped everywhere and anywhere to write down his notes, it is my habit to snatch up every moment of quiet and solitariness for myself, to sit right down in these circumstances and turn out a few lines, a paragraph of deathless prose, while none of my children are underfoot: I keep a little notebook in the pocket of every apron and wrapper for just such momentary occasions. But I expected Melba; and I am as liable to be governed by my housekeeper as any woman. I went on scraping the plates bitterly and carried the pail out to Buster, who has taken up the prudent doggy
habit of hiding under the floor of the toolshed whenever summoned by a child below a certain age.
The shores of the Columbia River at this lower end are crowded with small and flat islands divided from one another by the narrow slackwater of the sloughs—that is to say, by the river’s back alleys as it finds its slow way round and among the islands. Price Island and Tenasillahe are so low lying as to be barely suitable for fish-seining sites, but this island (having no name, and therefore just the Island) is a great wedge of rolling pastureland and arable fields, as well as wood-lots of black cottonwood and red alder, engirt by the Steamboat, Alger, and Ellison Sloughs. I should be surprised if the highest hillock on the Island stands ten feet above the flood tide of an average spring freshet, for which reason this house and several of its outbuildings perch upon high stone piers in the hope (usually vain) of getting through our periodic out-of-the-ordinary tides with merely draggled skirts.
When Buster scooted out for the pail of scraps, I peered into the great muddy vacancy beneath the shed and called, “George,” for my oldest sat in the dim dampness there, with his back reclined to the rocks of a corner pier and his head not visible to me unless I bothered to circle around to another corner and lean in. He said, “What,” in a flat and sullen way as if it were a reply.
“What are you doing under there? Reading a book? Consulting the stars?”
George, having the advantage of years, has long since reached an understanding of irony, but continues without any appreciation for it. “Ma,” he said, from the very mountaintop of Impatience, “will you leave me be.”
He has gotten to be fourteen with no encouragement from
me. I believe the perfect age for any son is a certain week in his eleventh year when he balances briefly at the triangular intersection of self-sufficiency, unconditional love, and eagerness to please. If Science is to be believed, nothing in the universe actually ceases to exist, but I have begun to wonder: Whatever happens to all that affection, those years of motherly attachment, when a son determines to discard them?
“I’ll do exactly that,” I told him, and I removed the empty pail from under Buster’s nose and carried it back to the house.
At this time of year the path between the kitchen and the shed is always a perfect trench of mud, for which reason I had gone over there barefooted and with my hem pulled up into my belt. I’ve read that the Wahkiakum and Kathlamet Indians of this coast never wore a shoe, and the sensibleness of that has stayed with me ever since. While I stood at the kitchen door stroking the bottoms of my muddy feet along the rag rug, I discovered Melba standing in the front hall taking stock of the clutter. Horace Stuband had delivered her and silently rowed himself home.
Her look went round the rooms while her hat came off and then her gloves. “I see you’ve left all the work to pile up for me,” she said in her usual way, which is Aggrieved.
Melba has failed to age well and suffers from an unlovely overbite as well as an unsympathetic nature, but I believe I understand why men once found her attractive. She is a small woman, under five feet in her shoes, generous of bosom, with a waist that suggests it once was narrow as a boy’s; it would be in a man’s nature to consider a woman’s figure ahead of her character. But she has made unlucky choices: two husbands have died young, and the third, Henry, is a terrible drunkard and a womanizer. Unlucky, too, has been her experience of childbearing:
a miscarriage, then a stillborn son, then a daughter borne hard and born early, and a surgeon’s hysterical removal of her womb. Then, I suppose, Melba’s daughter married and left the house before Melba felt herself quite finished with raising her up; this would account for the way in which she goes on trying to direct Florence’s life from afar, in daily letters shored up by these monthly visitations.
There is an approach I have learned from the dog, who will always pass by a warlike cat by pretending not to notice her. “Frank has found Lightning,” was what I briskly announced. “It seems she’s been hiding her kittens in the eave of the kitchen porch roof.” Melba, catlike, received my information with a certain narrowing of the eyes and a throaty, wordless warning; but her coat then came briskly off and was hung upon the hook, after which she brought down her apron and tied up the strings. So if she was briefly distracted from my insufficiencies as a housekeeper, my purpose was served. “Frank is searching for Lewis, who may have been killed by Indians,” I said. “Oscar is in the house playing with knives. Jules is in the garden looking for scissors. George is lying under the shed with the dog.” I went about the business of gathering up my newspapers and digests while I delivered this household report to Melba; and while she was still standing in the front hall gathering up her dander, I was carrying my armload out the kitchen door and through the mud to the shed.
Every writer needs a time and place in which to work. When some or all of my children were yet unborn, there had been space in this house for me to claim as my own: an unused bedroom, a sunporch, the rib-roofed third-floor attic. But it has been a terrible task to write books underneath the same roof with five irrepressible boys; this house is full as a tick and
peaceless. When push came to shove, I was forced to look to other buildings for a room of my own.
When her own children were young, it had been my mother’s habit to lock herself in the outhouse with her embroidery, and in certain seasons of the year when the deer were likely to come down into the yard to browse the tender lawn with our cow, Mother kept a rifle with her and developed a deadly aim from two hundred yards. I never did consider following my mother’s example, for our two-holer stands like a bastion upon its high stone foundation and is a favorite stronghold of my continually warring sons; they have made a particular science of scaling its ramparts, from which vantage they ambush their unsuspecting brothers with missiles of various kinds, or fire on their enemies with wooden guns. I briefly gave thought to the little barn the cow stands in to get relief from the rain, but refused it on the grounds that it’s three-sided (open to weather from the south), frequently lies in flood, and is home to certain of Lightning’s misconceived offspring. When I first looked to the shed, it was full up with stove wood and tools and broken things waiting there for repair, but numbered its walls at four and had a door that would shut and latch. I instructed the boys to bring the stove wood outside, where it was a-rowed between the stone footings under cover of the shed floor, and our broken things out to the yard, to rust or rot or be made over by one boy or another into a steam launch or a cannon; and then the tools and I were able to come to an amicable division of space. When I had fitted a lock to the inside of the door, the place became proof against my children. Horace Stuband, when he saw what I was doing, took it on himself to reboard the floor against mice and mud and reshake the roof against rain and draught. I have forty acres for no good reason except Wes had a childish
notion of himself as a Gentleman Farmer; and with Wes gone, I have leased the greater part of these acres to my neighbor for his cows. Of course, Stuband long has conducted himself as no mere neighbor, instead a prospective husband, which I don’t encourage; but I accept the tangible tokens of his courtship with a sensible and silent gratitude.
The shed is windowless and dark, hot or cold with the weather, but if cold, Melba will send one of the boys over every long while with a heated brick for my feet to rest on, and if hot, a cake of ice. As for the lack of outlook, I consider I am driven inward to fanciful mountain-scapes and lost continents, and no worse for it, though in certain weathers I find I must take a breath when I go in the little dark room, in the manner, I suppose, of a hard-rock miner going down in the shaft; and sometimes, coming out, I am surprised by the light, by the absolute green of Stuband’s pastures, or a sky unexpectedly huge and blowsy with cloud, or the receding purplish ridges of the Nehalem Mountains. This, I imagine, must be the surprise felt by someone who comes up from years in a dungeon; or by Mountain Mary, returning from the black heart of a volcano where she has discovered blind pygmies living in a secret civilization.
On the other hand, I rather like the rain striking the roof of the shed, the unpatterned drumming, and on those days there is comfort in lantern light, the little room become snug and golden. Inasmuch as rain is what we commonly have for weather, I am able to get along.
I climbed up the ladder to the high doorsill and while I scraped my soles free of mud I said to George or the dog, “Don’t thump around down there while I’m at work,” and someone, George or the dog, made a sound of grievance. I toppled my
papers and periodicals onto the maple secretary, which once was my husband’s, lit the lamp, locked the door, and put the chair under me. The dying words of Jules Verne notwithstanding, it’s my habit when I can escape to this study to keep my morning hours for reading, my afternoons for writing. Being as it was already (though barely) afternoon, I dipped the pen in the ink pot and drove the nib across the page with a pent-up fury. The horrible sight, I wrote, so clouded her mind and bound up the winds of reason that she nearly cried quits with Fate and gave up the battle of Life.
Melba always has complained of her son-in-law, Homer, that he torments his daughter in a man’s careless way by bringing down with him from the log camps horrid tales of Wild Men of the Woods, and so forth. I don’t believe a child is spoiled by the telling of monster stories; I’ve told them myself, in such a way as to make the boys jump. But Homer will swear every story is true, and that he has been a witness of great barefooted tracks in the mud, twenty inches from toe to heel, and night screaming of a bestial sort which is not the roaring of bears or lions, which he claims he would recognize. He brings to his family gruesome accounts of monstrous hairy men stepping forth from the shrub-wood to crush an empty oil barrel, or bend back the iron top of a donkey engine, or brandish an uprooted tree, and long recountings of stories other men have told him, of women captured from sylvan picnics and toted miles across the mountains on the shoulders of stinking man-beasts. (Such is the nature of men, I am sure in their own camps, outside the earshot of wives and children, these timbermen tell one another the lascivious details of the ways in which these creatures force their sexual attentions on captive women.)
Melba, I’m sure, wishes that her son-in-law would bring
home to his wife and daughter gentler tales of the sort she told her own young child: St. Augustine’s fables of men whose ears are large enough to sleep in, and fanciful tales of griffins and centaurs. The Wild Man of the Woods strikes her as altogether too near to the real, and consequently dreadful. It is a discredited feeling in civilized nations, but I believe we are all still afraid of the dark, and here in this land of dark forests the very air is imbued with such stories; indeed, the loggers had the tales first from the Indians. The realness of them is another matter. As the woods are daylighted, and wilderness gives way to modern advances in education and technology, I expect to see the end of the Wild Man, exactly as faeries and gnomes disappeared with the encroaching of the cities in Europe.
I also frankly wonder why Homer’s stories remind me of certain of the white man’s fearful fictions of other races. It seems to me men always have endowed the Indian, the Negro, the Hottentot with savagery and a strong reek, with apelike looks and movements, and with a taste for white women, and my own belief is that it’s not a matter of other races but a matter of fear. There is a bestial side to human nature, basic and primitive impulses in the bodies of men which clamor for satisfaction, and it must be a Christian comfort to ascribe such things not to oneself or one’s tribe but to hairy giants and savages. It may be the Wild Man of the Woods is but a ghost of the wild man within.
I am forgiving of poor, dull Homer, though, inasmuch as I’m always on the lookout for the seeds of my novels and have begun to make these wild-man tales over, turn them quite on their backs and fill the shells with my own turtle stew: the brave Helena Reed, Girl Adventurer, has come face-to-face with a secret race of hairy mountain giants, and in particular with a single example, the great and fearful Tatoosh of the See-Ah-Tiks
(whose civilization, of course, will prove more enlightened than our own).
Today I wrote straight through—brought the dear girl to the very gates of their great secret cavern—2,000 words in rather more than five and a half hours. Of course, by then it was long since dark. If it suits Melba, she will sometimes send one of my sons down with a sandwich at midday, but she never will bring my supper to the shed; she’s stubbornly of the opinion I should quit my work as the night falls, whether I’ve got to a stopping place or not. So when I went up the path to the house, I discovered Stuband sitting with my children at the supper table. Melba is determined that he should have a wife, and I’m determined that it never will be me, but standing on the porch looking through the kitchen window to the sight of my sons happily plying their forks, and sweet, sad Horace Stuband sitting with them, neatly tipping a glass of milk to his mustache, I admit I was pierced with loneliness. There is something about a lighted room when you are standing outside it in the cold night.
His hair has gone gray early, his whiskers gray, and his lean, pensive face just short of pleasing to the eye. He is indulgent of my children and kind with his cows, a man largely self-educated, and I believe he’s a bit in awe of me; in fact he seldom looks at me when he speaks, which I suppose is due to abject fear; all of which may very well be good qualities in a husband. And any woman might wish to console him for a sad life: years ago, his baby son drowned in the bath and his wife afterward fell into a long melancholia from which no one, least of all Stuband, could deliver her. When a second child died on the day of its birth, the poor woman began a habit of walking the fields and pastures all night and falling to sleep outdoors in the daylight, very often lying on the graves of her babies. One day she lay down
in Hume Sandersen’s hay field, asleep or not, and the blades of Sandersen’s new reaping and binding machine passed over her. It always has struck me that the woman was careful not to lay herself down in her own husband’s hay field; and that Sandersen is well known as a man of cold feeling. People say he cleaned out his machine and went back to work the same day.
But it’s marriage I mean to avoid, not poor Stuband.
While I wiped my feet at the kitchen door I said, “Hello, boys, it’s gotten cold as hell,” which was true, the mud on the path having gone hard and glazed. Melba, standing at the stove with a pancake lifter held up like a scepter, clicked her teeth in irritation. She objects to my cursing, on the grounds that women should defend the purity of children’s minds. It’s my argument that a child’s happiness and well-being decreases in direct proportion to the degree of his civilization.
“Snow, Ma?” This from Oscar and Jules both at once, raising their faces to me hopefully.
We are always more likely to get rain in this quarter of the world than snow, and I have seen winters pass here with no more than a brief flurry in January, but Stuband, who is as childish in that way as any of my sons, gave back the boys’ eagerness. “I’ve seen it snow this late in the year,” he said. “Look here, boys, I’ve seen it snow in May. In ninety-two, we were skating on the sloughs and driving wagons out on the bosom of the river, it was that froze.”
I placed myself on the bit of bench between the twins and lifted a finger of mashed potatoes from Lewis’s plate. “I believe you’ve missed the question, Stuband,” I said. “The boys want to know if there’s snow in this particular bit of cold weather, and since the sky has now gone clear as a windowpane, I should think the likeliest answer is No.”
Stuband is used to my glibness, I suppose, or might have
pitched me a crestfallen look. It was Melba, deliberately serving the boys’ coconut hermits ahead of my cold supper, who rattled the plate warningly with the edge of her spatula.
I said to the boys, “In any case, if you’re yearning for snow, you should yearn for it on a day of the week when it will do you some good.”
“What’s ‘yearn’?” Jules whispered to Stuband, and Stuband, who is an amateur reader and has taught himself the rudiments of vocabulary, said, “It’s to pray after something.”
George corrected him mildly, “Ma doesn’t pray. She’s a Freethinker.”
Stuband then said, “It’s to set your heart for it,” and got to the real point: “School’s called off if it snows.”
This brought a light into the faces of the two youngest, quite as if the news pertained to the moment, though an entire Sunday divides them from their next possible encounter with the schoolhouse. In these isolated precincts the school term is intermittent at best, commencing when a teacher can be found and ceasing when one cannot, so my sons have become more than a little spoiled from home schooling. When the six of us are left to our own devices, I teach the children Thucydides & Co. in the mornings, and then—having encouraged them to form museums, to collect fossils and butterflies and to dissect worms—I let them run wild in the woods and fields for the rest of the day while I scribble, which is, more or less, the curriculum famously advocated by Seton and his fellow Woodcrafters as being advantageous to the active minds and bodies of the young.
Melba at last brought round my plate, and while I bolted down the cold roast and mashed potatoes, the lima beans, the new bread and butter, the boys brought up memorable snowfalls and then memorable teachers. The Island School, having
lost a string of teachers to the custody of lonely bachelors, has lately taken to hiring girls whose principal qualification is their seeming unsuitableness as brides—hard-featured and repellent girls of vicious disposition and shiftless intelligence. I expect my sons to become wise through teaching one another the canny sufferance of inept teachers.
Stuband kept out of this discussion—he has a quiet center, which I suppose is due to the difficulties of his life—but then he cleared his throat and made an attempt to speak across the boys to me. “I’m glad to see the sky clear off some,” he said. “There’s no good to plow while this rain keeps up.” He said this in an interested way, but one of his shortcomings is a notable lack of conversational themes. The boys were arguing about whether Miss Parrish kept a thumbscrew in her desk drawer, and whether the little vial in the deep pocket of her duster contained itching powder or arsenic, and I’m afraid my ear must have been taking this in with somewhat more attention than poor Stuband’s weather talk. He went a few words further, seeming to speak to the fork as he pushed it along the edge of his empty plate; and then reversing his fork to travel the opposite way around the china, the poor man lapsed silent.
In the following silence—well, not silence, as the older boys began to give the younger an elaborate account of a girl whose fingernails had turned black from a teacher’s hammering them with a handy piece of stove wood—I studied the shape of Stuband’s big gray mustache, a smoothly down-turned and pleated crescent very like the horns of an Arctic musk ox, and when he became aware of this, he looked up. There are times when I feel under his scrutiny: as if he has taken me into his hands like a book and is studying the pages.
I was driven to say, “You know, Stuband, there are some very
strange things going on in the world today, and the world is flying forward just as fast as it can.” His look became startled, so that I was freed to plow ahead. “Encke’s comet,” I said. “Blindness cured by a miraculous drug. Moons circling Jupiter. A tunnel under the Hudson River. We shall soon be piping natural gas from the sloughs into our houses for lights and for cooking.” I then began at some length on the future of agriculture: in our lifetime, plants rendered microbe-proof; farmers raising isinglass roofs over their fields, just as if they were circus tents—but miles in expanse—and growing their crops under those transparent covers without the suffering of bad weather.
I suppose I thought this would leave him fazed. He is always dim and earnest with respect to my knowledge of the future and of the advances of Science; it is principally for this reason I suffer Melba’s practice of asking him in for dinner. But when he had considered things—drawing one horn of his mustache up into his mouth thoughtfully—he said, “I wonder the wind wouldn’t take hold of such a roof, Mrs. Drummond. A circus tent won’t stand much wind, I know that.”
Finding that our interview had turned suddenly interesting again, Oscar said, “I saw the roof fly off the Renegade Queen’s Wild West Fair and Bavarian Exposition!” On the instant, the other boys pushed in with their own recollections of that memorable event, when we all had stood in the streets of Astoria and watched the striped and flounced pavilion of the Renegade Queen sail over the roofs of town and flatten quietly on the backs of thirteen sheep, who were caught by surprise standing dreamily in their own field. It was Frank who remembered: those ewes had gone into a kind of nervous prostration from which they never had recovered, and word had reached us afterward that the farmer had been forced to
slaughter every one of them to relieve them of their anxiety.
I kept to the point of my argument: “Not isinglass,” I told Stuband, “which I meant only as a similitude. We should expect to see the invention of an artificial resin, clear as glass but plastic in its consistency, like putty or wax, which will therefore hold up to the wind and keep out every kind of scourge from cutworms to rabbits. The world is in a terrific flux, Stuband, and astonishing things are in the air all around us.”
The boys by then had gone on from talk of slaughtered sheep to other memorable and bloody animal encounters: a hog that had run amok in the neighborhood with the butcher’s knife stuck in its throat; a dog whose eye was pierced with a porcupine quill; a drowned gopher found inexplicably high in the crotch of a hemlock tree. Finally they had come round to arguments about the length of time a headless chicken might go on running around a yard spurting blood from its neck hole, and plans were being made to conduct a scientific test of the question.
“I believe you must be right about that, Mrs. Drummond,” Stuband said to me, and he spread his mouth again so the edge of his teeth parted the mustache in an abstracted smile. “I never have felt so in a flat spin.”
The prosperity of the last century has had a curious effect upon literature. As every slum and hamlet has embraced compulsory schooling, unprecedented numbers of literate adults have risen among us, to form a great audience of readers, and though Montaigne has said that books are the only masterpieces of Art the poor can have as well as the rich, it must be these Great Unwashed who are to blame for the commercialization of the publishing industry. Of course, one could
argue that publishers have ever worshiped the Dollar more than Art, but with the rise of a large, and largely undiscriminating, audience, publishing houses have raced toward mediocrity as pigs to a trough. Of the immense outpouring of novels, how few will be alive in ninety years? Think how many hundreds of books are never heard of (and justly) after their first editions.
If at the present moment literature looks discouraging—where is the successor to Verne?—not Wells, surely—I suppose we need not lose sleep over it; such states have prevailed in the past and will in the future. But the higher form of Romance is the highest form of fiction and it will never desert us. Such men as write them (and I should say women, if there were any) write as artists and give little consideration to the editor’s requirements, being always first concerned with expressing important Truths, though they be unpopular. It is the rest of us who write to earn a living, and if we are to succeed must please the editor, who in turn is driven to please the public.
The Beadle Half-Dime Library refused my little novel The Magic Helpmate: A Romance of the Seen and Unseen on the grounds that it advocated women’s natural superiority, and therefore was bound to fail in the popular market. In that book Lettie Porter is transformed by X rays and develops the ability to influence others’ thoughts. Following her husband’s cowardly suicide—he cannot accept that she is superior to him in intellect—she founds a meditation center where selected women come to learn this ability from her, and as her movement grows, these women influence the course of world events in such a way that war and violence of every kind very nearly disappear from the earth. In the final chapter, Lettie, though much loved by men and women of all nations, dies a martyr’s death at the hands of the incorrigibly malevolent Count Madeira, whose murderous act results—of course!—in his own death as well. In the final scenes, Lettie’s serenely beautiful daughter Edith receives the honorific title Empress of the World.
In the world of book publishing, there is an axiom that what is good cannot be popular and what is popular cannot be good; from that, I suppose, I should believe The Magic Helpmate better than it is. The poor orphaned manuscript was finally taken by Tosh and Thompson, which printed fewer than a thousand copies, of which more than half were discarded for want of readers.
Fiction could go along slowly in the old days, when it took two weeks to get news from across the Atlantic; now we like our novels to barrel along. And the principal wish of the multitudes is to hear repeated the established views, beliefs, and emotions, without regard to the truth (though even the Great Unwashed will recognize him, I hope, when the successor to Verne, to Kipling, to Poe arises from out the Ordinary Sea; I mistrust the individual man but have faith in the community of them).
There are, of course, considerable practical difficulties to a woman being a great and artful writer while at the same time mother of five children; more profitable and less arduous to write pot-boilers. I therefore have no particular objections to the readers’ lowering of standards, having been a beneficiary of it myself. Several books of mine—trivial novels of moon voyages, African adventures, time travel, stories of Black Wizards with mysterious powers of invisibility—have had a surprising popularity and deliver an income sufficient to support a family of six.
If I pander to popular taste with romantic tales of girl heroes who are both brave and desirable, crack shots, and cunning horsewomen who “clean up well”—if my plots are selected from the ordinary stock of forged letters, birthmarks, disguises, accidental meetings, mistaken identities, babies exchanged in the cradle, newly discovered wills, lost heirs—well, I have been encouraged in it by the economics of the literary marketplace and the necessities of supporting a family. I should have no reason to apologize.
And while I would never put myself forward as a likely successor to Verne—I shall never be as popular—my intrepid heroines are perhaps too lively for the common rabble—I can amuse and digress with the best of them, and have an imagination that gives way to no man.
C. B. D.
Still Sat’y (midnight)
This is past midnight, with the boys in bed and Melba below me in the kitchen, though the hour for baking pies is long since past.
I have been in the grip of a jealous muse, so rose again after Stuband had been banished to his own house and everyone here abed, to take up the brave Miss Helena Reed. In the manner of the infamous and popular George Sand, it’s sometimes my practice to sit up very late, scratching my pen quietly by candlelight on the tiny escritoire in my bedroom, with my cold feet drawn under this chair, which was once my husband’s mother’s, an ersatz French desk chair with a stiff silk cushion and a carven, inhumanly shaped back—a chair which entirely suits my purposes, as I have a mind that inclines toward wandering if I am too comfortable.
Tonight I believe I was silent as Coleridge’s shadows, but shortly I heard the attic floor take Melba’s weight. From my mother I’ve received unbroken health, together with an iron constitution and the gift of getting by on little sleep, but this late-night writing is a practice Melba objects to, believing strongly herself in knitting up the ravell’d sleave of care; she never has been an admirer of George Sand, on the warrant of that woman’s queer and scandalous habits.
The attic stairs creaked, and then Melba spoke with her face pressed against the face of my door. “The clock has struck twelve,” she whispered, hoarse and irritable, “an hour at which any respectable woman ought to be asleep.” Practicing her impertinent habit, she then swung the door in and followed her words through. With her feet planted and her candle aloft, she was the very picture of Umbrage.
“Or working,” I said sourly, “if the woman is so inclined,” and I went on doing it. I was at an important point—Helena at the very heart of the great cave city of the Mountain Giants, and her attention drawn to a scene of great animation and excitement transpiring in the arcade.
It is Melba’s usual practice to carry on with her objections, and my habit to resist them, until all impulse to write has been lost in the marshaling of my arguments and I am badgered into a kind of surrender—customarily a promise to retire at the next strike of the clock. But tonight she stood a few moments fixed in my doorway, gathering herself for battle, and then gathered the hem of her nightgown into her fist and went silently out. My work supports this entire household, and ever has, I had been preparing to tell her, which is true, and an argument she always will ignore.
I went on with my writing—Helena not alarmed, the dear girl, inasmuch as she has caught a particular gleam of amusement in the eyes of the noble Tatoosh. The boards of the first-floor staircase tightened and released in a familiar way, and shortly I heard a rattling of the kitchen stove. I considered, and wrote, and considered, and then put my feet to the cold floor and wriggled them, and when they had woken enough to bear my weight, I went stiffly after Melba down the narrow stairs to the kitchen.
She had lit the lamp and stood in its high shadows with a bowl pressed up to her ribs, cutting lard into flour with the blade of a knife. There were winter apples, little yellow knobs withered and spotted with brown, piled up in the sink.
“What are you doing?” I said. It was clear she had begun to make a pie; I expected her to know I was asking another question entirely.
“I am working,” she said sullenly, “as any woman may do at any hour she’s so inclined.” Her mouth was drawn up in a little pucker. She had hung her apron from her neck without tying its strings, and much of her hair had escaped a disheveled braid. Horned and yellowing toenails were ranked below the edge of her gown.
“What do you think? That this example will shame me?”
She bristled up, her chin pushing toward me until the crepey skin of her throat was tight on its cords. “I don’t think nothing of that, I’m just making a pie, and that’s all. Go on back to your own work.” She shook a palmful of water over the dough and drove a fork briskly around the bowl. “Go on,” she said in another minute, without lifting her attention from her work.
I said, as a kind of warning, “Don’t expect me to take your pie from the oven, once you have gone off to your bed.”
“I’ll get the pie out myself. This is my work, it’s nothing to do with you.” Her face had reddened suddenly with the heat of fierce and honest anger. She shoveled flour to the breadboard and tipped the ball of dough onto it, but before taking up the rolling pin she held her bare hands out tenderly for a brief, frowning self-examination. This gesture before beginning one’s work always will make me think of Mother, who had the same odd habit, though Melba’s hands are small as a girl’s, reddened and split and peeling from excessive dryness, and my mother’s
hands were of another sort, big and blunt and tanned, toughened with callus across the palms and at the joint of the middle finger. In the last year of her life the baby finger of Mother’s right hand was crooked and swollen, and I suppose, had she lived into old age, she’d have been troubled with arthritis, but her hands went on seeming to me strong and well made until the day she died. I consider there is something vaguely afflicted about Melba, and when she spreads her small bleeding fingers for that little inspection, I’m inclined to think it arises from her hands.
The air in the kitchen was crackling cold. I went to the stove and shook the wood about, for that stove is pettish, very like a man, and must be coaxed into doing the woman’s bidding. When I determined there was sufficient smoke in the room, I took up a paring knife and stood at the sink peeling apples. If this disagreed with Melba, she didn’t say. She had by then taken after the dough with the rolling pin, in her typically short, radiating blows.
We are unlike each other and get along chiefly by the favored method of couples who have been long married: there is very little conversation between us. But it’s the way of those couples, I suppose, that a small alteration of habit raises a kind of signal of alarm, like the watchman’s rattle of the knob.
“How is Henry?” I asked her eventually. Her husband frequents low places and is a pathetic drunkard. She has long since given up living under his roof but goes on delivering his supper on Sunday afternoons, and in addition stopping by to see him on the occasion of any errand that takes her into town, for he lives alone in a rented house not far from the Skamokawa steamer landing.
“As always,” she told me in some disgust. The pie dough had
become a great circle, soft and elastic, springing against the pan. She lifted it neatly into the pie tin and began to slice the apples as I peeled them.
“And Harriet?” Until this moment, I had rudely failed to ask for the most recent news of her family; and her granddaughter, Harriet, is frail, a peaked little girl whose skin bruises violet at the mere touch. She is Florence’s only child, a thin, shy thing born in the same month and nearly on the same day as Oscar. My older boys often have declared they would have preferred a trade.
Melba pursed her mouth. “She’s thin. I would put weight on her if it was up to me.” This was ground we had covered often.
“And how is Florence?”
“Oh, Florence is just fine.” She delivered these words in a mutter which I determined to be begrudging or concealing.
Florence is prone to Female Complaints, and I have released Melba from my house more than once for the stated reason of nursing her daughter back to health; so I pressed Melba on this matter. “Is Florence not feeling well? I suppose you shouldn’t have come away if she needed you.” I have a thorough dislike of my housekeeper’s absenting herself from my house but never have been among those Utopists who advocate the severing of a woman’s ties to her children.
“If they have a need for me to be there, well, then, they’ll just have to ask me,” Melba said in a disgruntled way.
“Someone is sick, then? Who is it? Is it Homer?”
She made a quick loud noise, a release of aggravation. “He never goes sick, no, it’s not Homer.” Then finally she let loose of the first part of her pent-up news: “He means to take Harriet up in the woods with him come Monday morning and keep her there all the week long, which he evidently has made out to be
a great adventure for the child, though up until now he’s always said it was a great danger, and his very life on the line from dawn to dark. I argued with Florence over it, but the truth is she has no say in her own house, it’s all Homer’s way and ever has been. He’s evidently determined to do it, and of course he’s got Harriet wanting it too, though she’ll be among a pack of dirty timber beasts with not a single woman to see that she washes her face and eats proper.”
“Where is this camp of Homer’s, Melba?”
She gestured wildly with the paring knife. “Oh, it’s way back in the greenwoods. They was working in the burn, but when the rains come, it got to be all a mud slide, and so they moved far up there on Canyon Crick.”
A great timber industry flourishes in Yacolt just now, but most of it is a frantic rush to salvage dead trees; the great burn of ’02 has left that forest over there a wasteland of ash and cinders and blackened poles for twenty-five miles to the east and south, but I took Canyon Creek to lie out in the saved woods.
“Is there not housing for the family men up there? Why is it Florence didn’t move up there with him when the camp was moved?”
“Oh, there’s homeguards right there in Yacolt as walks out to their work every morning, but he wouldn’t have none of that, had to go out in the almighty tules, where there’s all men and no whistle to tell them when to eat and when to sleep.”
I don’t know Homer well, but my general opinion of men and their childish posturing has not suffered any from the stories Melba has brought down from Yacolt. To marry and make himself the father of a child, and then arrange to keep himself up in the woods among other men for six days out of seven, is entirely the thing a man would do.
“Well, you shouldn’t worry,” I said, since the adventure was evidently already decided. “I’ve never seen a crew of loggers without a soft spot for a child, and I expect they’ll watch over her like a spoiled dog. You ought to know she’ll never go hungry, for there’s more food in a log camp than on a maharani’s table.”
Melba had no answer for this, beyond the disgusted expelling of her breath. We went on turning and paring and slicing the apples in silence until she said suddenly—a burst of bitterness—“And his wife. My Florence. In all the months she never has said a word to me about it, I had to see it for myself, that he’s got her in a delicate condition. I don’t know why I had to learn this like any stranger on the street, and not from my daughter’s own mouth.”
Florence, very like her mother, had suffered a hard delivery, and it had been darkly hinted that the Yacolt surgeon had forbidden Homer to share his wife’s bed; that Harriet, in the manner of her mother, was to be an only child.
I said, “Well, you shouldn’t be surprised a man would put his sexual appetite ahead of his wife’s health, Melba.”
I suppose in some domestic novels this frankness of speaking might have brought on a fainting swoon, but Melba has an unflappable demeanor, and in any case she never has been the sort of person to tie her corset too tight. She is stubborn in her convictions regarding a woman’s language, though, and I always expect to be taken to task for my lapses. It was a great surprise when she answered fiercely, “That don’t surprise me at all! Men are no different than toms and roosters, when it comes to it! But Florence should have told me he’d gotten another one on her. I’m her mother. I wish she’d told me, and not let it go on like this until I had to see it for myself.”
She never came to the edge of tears, but there was a distress
in her voice that I had not looked for. I’m not clever in these cases, but after a bit I said, “Oh, she was just afraid to frighten you, Melba,” and that may have comforted her. She said, “Well, maybe so,” and we lapsed again into silence. She began to pinch up the rim of the pie crust with a fissured, reddened thumb and forefinger. “I’ll just sit down here until it comes done,” she said when we had put the pie in the oven, and then she said quietly, “Go on, now,” and her face, which had been drawn up, gave way to tiredness.
I went up the stairs, but I soon came down again and told her from the last step, “Now, Melba, don’t be worrying over Florence and Harriet.”
I had surprised her, coming down again; she had already pulled out a kitchen chair and was sitting in it, stroking back the yellowy gray hair from her brow. “No,” she said with a little note of astonishment, and she dropped her hands down in her lap and twisted the chapped fingers together. Her look when it finally passed over me was softly forbearing. “No, I won’t if I can help it,” she said, which of course she cannot.
As her husband’s hands came to her in the darkness, as he came pulling at her nightgown, as he turned her on the bed, the woman whispered briefly not a protest but something like a resigned inquiry. He believed his use of her body was an entitlement, which was something she believed herself. In any case, though he was not generally a brutal man, she had learned that in sexual matters he was deaf to her objections. In the early days and weeks of their marriage, her repugnance and painful cries had secretly quickened his sexual appetite, so that his possession
of his bride had been all but indistinguishable from the rape of an astonished child. Now, after nine years of marriage, she was largely indifferent to the act of copulation, and he accepted her indifference as natural and unavoidable—regrettable only for the loss of a certain heated ferocity.
As he opened her legs and covered her, he said in a hoarse murmur, “Just this once, just this one time,” which was something he said every time, and which he may have meant as a kind of apology; they both had been warned if he got her with child again, it might be the death of her. She had borne him one living child and twice had discharged a formless embryo resembling the infant body of a bird or of a fish. Her husband had pressed his conjugal rights upon her even while she was still shedding blood from those losses, and this may have been the cause of the present troubles with her womb.
As he beat his heavy hips against the open bowl of her pelvis, he began a low brutish grunting such as she had once heard bears make—it might have been bears—in the dark woods where she had played as a child. She lay still and silent beneath her husband, as she had once lain still and silent, alone under the heavy branching trees, waiting to be eaten or taken by the monsters whose heavy dark bodies moving past her, grumbling and gnarling, she had merely glimpsed against the obscurity of the forest; only when his ragged fingernails came scraping at her breasts did a lisping whistle rise through her teeth, a birdlike sound, thin, a woodnote—merely glimpsed.
He had become convinced that he could prevent his wife from suffering further pregnancies by wetting two fingers of his hand with his saliva and swabbing the semen from her vulva after intercourse. In another month it would become apparent to him that she was carrying again, and he would cease this
well-meant gesture; but for now he still believed in it, and as soon as he had finished using her he rose to his knees above his wife and ritually cleaned up after himself. The moon lit his wife’s pale belly and the pale flesh of her thighs, though not the damp run where his fingers searched, thorough and thoughtful as a man destroying blind whelps in a dark wolfish warren of the earth.
Sun’y 26 Mar ’05
I meant to let the boys run wild while I gave the day over to writing; if we had enjoyed our usual poor weather, all lowering clouds and sheets of rain, I would have held to that intent. But when the fog lifted off the water, it was a fine sunny day, and a scrubbing westerly breeze drove out the frost. In the month of March such days are infinitely rare, a gift of grace and glory, and so the boys and I, together with Stuband and the Eustlers, took a boat up to the mouth of the Elochoman River and spread a picnic lunch on the grass. Melba, on Sundays, is in thrall to the Lutheran Church, and though our little diversion would surely have taken her mind from her worries, she held stubborn against my coaxing and rowed herself to town on the Sunday morning tide, where in the silence of prayer I imagine she fell to contemplating her daughter dead of childbirth and her granddaughter killed by a rolling log. Horace Stuband is a Methodist and a regular churchgoer himself, but the boys evidently persuaded him to thank God for his infrequent gift of fair weather by actually taking pleasure in it. Otto and Edith Eustler, who have the farm northeast of Stuband’s, are backsliders from the Catholic Church, and for this, as for their readiness to pack a lunch, they are the perfect picture of good company on a Sunday.
We raised the sail on Otto’s fine little skiff so as to catch a following air, and coasted upriver into the Elochoman Slough, then George and the twins rowed turn and turn about, a winding course amongst the tiny clay-bank islands of the river delta until we had agreed on a mote of prairie fletched with red huckleberry bushes and bare legs of viny willow. The ground was soft and wet, the grasses laid flat by the months of rain, but we overspread a tarpaulin before putting out the picnic cloth, and built a fire up from driftwood and dead clumps of alder thicket, and were comfortable lying about in the thin sunlight munching roast beef sandwiches and sour cream cookies. The boys disappeared into the bushes as soon as the food was eaten, and the men cast their fishhooks into the river; Edith and I lay on the picnic cloth with our shoes off and our belts unbuckled and put the whip of gossip to various and sundry Skamokawans.
Edith is a woman of about sixty whose children are long since scattered about the world: Blanche, the oldest, became a schoolteacher and settled on an island off the shore of North Carolina, where she is a contented spinster; Myrtle married a seiner and followed him to Alaska, where I suppose they must spend their summers on a scow in one Alaska river or another, and their winters in Juneau or Prince Rupert in a drafty rented house. Adelin, who is a carpenter and boat-builder, lives a bachelor’s life on the beach near Eureka; and Jim, who was once Edith’s baby boy, has taken up law in Portland and has recently settled upon a particular woman to wife. I believe there were others, who died in their childhood, but I report this from hearsay, for Edith never speaks of any but her living children. She and Otto had a farm in Montavilla and sold it to settle here. The house in which they raised their children was “rattle-can empty,” she told me, as if that should explain it.
Otto is entirely an educated man, a Prussian who held a place as professor of music at an institution in Berlin. This was during the war between Prussia and Austria, the reign of Bismarck, and it was partly to escape the army that he came west. Edith’s father was a person of conscience who by then had already brought his family out of Prussia—as soon as Bismarck robbed Denmark of the province of Schleswig-Holstein. Edith is fond of telling me that she and Otto lived in the same Berlin street at one time but they had to come to Montavilla to make each other’s acquaintance. She had been a gifted student of music herself and wished to be a composer, but of course, when she became a student of Otto’s, all that was forgotten. They were married and she gave up the violin in favor of raising her children.
The story of my mother’s death, that terrible sinking of the Gleaner, and so forth, is still told hereabouts, and I think Edith must know of it, although, like her vanished babies, it’s something we never speak of. If my mother had gone on living she would now be sixty, and I believe Edith sometimes imagines I am one of her daughters, as sometimes I imagine this myself. I am fond of her as I am of few women. She is clever and funny and has an easy manner about her, as if nothing discomforts or surprises her, least of all my vulgar immodesty and the scandal that still attends Wes Drummond’s forsaking of his wife and family. And of course, there is the matter of the clay pipe which Edith goes on smoking against Otto’s express wishes—a habit of many years’ standing. She was encouraged in it as a distraction from hard labor by the midwife who attended Blanche’s birth—I encourage her in it myself.
I told her an amusing story about Arlie Shoup, who is a Freethinker and never has stepped foot in church, though his
wife, Grace, is Catholic: when the priest arrived rain-soaked for his once-a-month Mass, and Grace lent him her husband’s clothes, the priest told his congregation there was hope for Arlie yet, since his clothes had made it inside the church.
And she told me of the Fuger brothers’ recent row-de-dow, in which Fred sank his front teeth into one of Karl’s hands and held on like a bulldog, all the while thumping the daylights out of Karl with two fists, while Karl, with but one free hand to smite with, yelled bloody murder, so as to make the neighbors wonder which of them had finally killed the other.
We thoroughly aired our opinions about that purse-seiner whose body washed up at Jim Crow Point with an axe mark in his shoulder. The principal industry here, aside from lumbering and dairying, is fishing, and there is the same kind of traditional feud between the gillnetters and purse-seiners on the rivers as occurred between the sheepmen and cattlemen on the Western range. It is a perpetual vendetta—many a gillnetter has disappeared from his boat in a heavy fog. Edith and I are agreed that men, in the matter of territorial disputes, are little different from bears and other wild beasts of the woods, which idea we return to on the relevant occasions, such as this one.
We had been telling our stories and heaping dirt upon the male sex and consequently laughing so hard that Otto and Horace came wandering back to us, feeling a bit left out, I think, and we laughed when we saw the two of them, their faces a bit pathetic, anxious to discover what they were missing—laughed until tears stood in our eyes.
I suppose I should report that in the afternoon there was a bit of a scare, the twins coming at the run to say Oscar had fallen into the river and drowned. I am used to my children bringing false reports of tragedy, and by the lights of the new mind
sciences, I believe my natural complexion must be Sanguine, for I’m not one of those women who watch the horizon in dread of tornadoes and I am phlegmatic as regards small cuts and bloody noses. But the boys’ faces were white, and their pants sopping past the knees, which gave my heart a cruel turn. Calamity has been delivered regularly to my door, so whenever I stand at the divide where terrible events in my life may yet come out well or badly, I generally expect to hear the dead-man whistle blow. I dashed off without my shoes, with my belt flying from its loops, following Frank and Lewis through the brush and thickets to a muddy and caved-in bank where Jules was standing wailing, but no sign of Oscar, and it was minutes of agony before I could get a coherent story from the boys, a disconnected narrative of slingshots and pebbles—a cry and a splash when Lewis let fly his missile at an obscure target in the bushes—he was sure it was Oscar. But they had not seen him go in the water, this much became clear. Where was George? There was disagreement. Frank swore he had heard George give a heroic shout—I’ll save you, Oscar!—but Lewis thought it was Oscar himself, crying to be saved, and George must still be hiding in the shrubs—it had been a wide-ranging game of stalk-and-shoot.
By this time Horace had caught up to us—he made a show of inexcitability but was grim and white about the mouth, which frightened me as much as anything else—and then Otto and Edith, who were trailing and out of breath and entirely alarmed. We four, hanging on to the three undrowned boys, began a search. It was a small river island, perhaps two acres in extent, and you would think it an easy matter to cover every inch of ground, but it was grown over with shrubbery and thickets of alder, willow, and dogwood, and there was standing water and seepage at every hand. We had to beat tediously through every
grove and woodlet, look beneath every bush, wade each and every pond; we were at it a good long while.
My first rush of unholy dread had tailed away upon hearing the whole story, and I was sure of another false alarm; but as all our shouting went unanswered, and no boys came flushing from the trees, my heart began to fidget again. I have an energetic imagination and no trouble imagining the worst: George had jumped in the water to rescue Oscar, and now they were both dead. But of course, it was all a flash in the pan, a quick bright light and a clap of thunder, but no consequence. George had cooked up the scheme to fool and scare his brothers, and engaged Oscar in it; they were hiding in a lovely deep logjam at the upstream tip of the island.
He said he was sorry, and pointedly apologized to Edith and Otto and Horace. But he is too old to whip and too smart to intimidate, and has a desperate pigheadedness which arrives by way of the male line: while I bellowed and lambasted, he sat on his driftwood and gazed off across the water with a finely conceived frown.
We trailed back to the boat in a straggling, dispirited column. Stuband walked with George—he afterward said he was trying to make him realize the pain and worry he had caused me—and so I brought up the rear, where I fell into an irrational dejection, as if the outcome of the adventure had been unfortunate. When I climbed up from the little mud beach, there was the Telephone on the uphill run from Astoria, passing along the far side of the island. I stood and looked.
The stubby little boats plodding by on their daily tasks get my short attention, but the big white steamers with their great stacks throwing pennants of smoke and the national ensign snapping at the king post and their chime whistles moaning, oh
my, they put on a fine show, worth watching. The Telephone is long and lean and clean of line—she can give even the renowned Potter a run for the money—and from a wide outlook such as Pillar Rock or the tip of Nasset Point, I would have seen how she cuts the water away on either side, leaving long arrowheads of waves making toward the shore and a straight wake of froth behind; but from that brushy island in the Elochoman Slough there is a peculiar foreshortened view, and the packet looked to me quite as if she were floating over the island’s mudflats and tidal grasses. A man was on the afterdeck, a little dark figure in a black coat, in a cloth cap, and from this distance I wouldn’t have known if it was the Pope; but something in his posture started an unfortunate chord of memory, and that, together with the relief of worry, made my throat close up suddenly. The fellow was leaning his forearms on the railing and looking off across the boat’s wake toward the passing shoreline, and when he saw me watching, he lifted his hand. After just a moment, I lifted mine.
Bodily offspring I do not leave, but mental offspring I do. Well, my books do not have to be sent to school and college and then insist on going into the Church or take to drinking or marry their mother’s maid.
Something has come about. Dont worry. Harriet has gone missing but they are all looking for her and will find her soon,
as she cant have gone far. She went up to the camp with Homer on M’day morn and on W’day night was lost, which I did not hear of until now, and all the men there are looking and say they will find her. I am sick, but try not to worry. What can I do? Dont come, Mother, as theres nothing to do but wait and worry, which I am doing enough for both of us. I will send word when shes found. Homer must he worried and very beat in from looking for her but I should be glad if he never had taken her up to Camp, and I would look too if they would let me. What can I do here? I am praying for my baby girl and ask you the same. Its in Gods hands and so I try not to worry. I pray God is watching over my little angel. I will write when shes found.
The mails so slow I am sending this letter with Henneng Sunstrom who is going out tonight to look for work in Astoria.
Late, Fri’y 31 Mar
It seems Melba’s fears have summoned up the event. We have had a letter from Florence which is a distraught announcement that Harriet has gone lost in the Yacolt woods. Of course, Melba expects to be indulged in her overanxious worry, but I have a sensible mind and have told her the affair will all be ended by tomorrow. Since Harriet evidently went missing on Wednesday night, and Florence did not get word of it until Thursday afternoon, she has by now already been found, and we will have the news by tomorrow on the early boat: this is only sweet reason. And I reminded Melba of the outcome of the boys’ picnic
escapade on Sunday, which is the usual outcome in such cases. But I am a poor friend, I suppose, to sit at the kitchen table and drink my coffee as deliberate as a churchman taking wine, while Melba goes on in a terrible state of nerves.
I argued with her that she ought to follow her daughter’s clear advice to stay home and wait for word. “Do you think the child will be found quicker because you travel over there to Yacolt and pray from Florence’s house instead of this one? Word’s on its way by this time, Melba, and will pass you on a boat going downriver as you go up.”
“Well, that would be all right,” Melba said with her usual stubbornness and her eyebrows drawn up in a look of nervous strain and perturbation. “I guess I could stand the trip anyway, to hear that she’s found. But if she’s found killed”—a trembling mouth—“then I guess I would want to be there for Florence’s sake.” She stood and then sat again restlessly, the tips of her fingers capturing and releasing bits of twig and walnut shell and litter from the tablecloth.
She had been in midst of cracking walnuts when the news found her, sitting at this work at the kitchen table with an ear toward our reading of Elizabeth Phelps Ward’s The Silent Partner. When the boys came to a particular moment in the reading—Mr. Hayle, the senior partner, bringing to Miss Kelso the dispatch with news of her poor father’s death—this scene reminded Lewis and Frank, and they asked Melba suddenly of her news from Florence, which Melba claimed not to know, and then the story came out: Florence had sent her own dispatch not by the U.S. Mail but delivered hand to hand, first by a logging tramp who stepped off the afternoon boat only long enough to pass it to the hand of Joe Wells, who was loading fish and broke from his work to carry the folded note down
the pier to Clarence Evansen in the mill office, who brought it from the pocket of his coat and passed it on to the twins as they sauntered past the wharf on their way home from school. And of course, they laid the folded and sealed sheet on the front hall table until Melba should come in from hanging out the laundry, and she failed to notice it, and they failed to think of it again, believing she had read it long since. This they made up for, but late. And poor Melba, breaking from her walnuts to read the letter, cast me such a wild look—I suppose in that moment we both knew: if it was an apology and peace offering intended to smooth Melba’s ruffled feathers, or a note to say Harriet had come through her week in the woods without the loss of a limb, it would doubtless have been posted in the usual way.
“Oh! I just knew this was bound to come to a terrible end, this trip into the woods,” Melba said dramatically, and her chin shook with the strain. “I’ve had an awful, awful feeling in my bones.”
“You speak like this is Tragic Opera and you are a Gypsy soothsayer,” I told her flatly. “I daresay Harriet’s not dead. We have had a glorious week of warm and dry weather, and a child won’t be any the worse from spending a night in a hollow tree, for heaven’s sake.”
It was, of course, quite easy for me to be heedless and untroubled, this being not one of my own children; and I might have considered Melba’s feelings. She reddened in silence until finally getting out, “That girl of Florence’s is no older than your Oscar,” which rebuke was enough to shame me.
I believe her anger may have done her some little good, though, for she then took up her nut pliers and, grim-faced, cracked a walnut into the lap of her apron and fiercely picked through the broken shell for nut meats; which action, from
habit, I suppose, or fretting or irritation, caused her to keep on with the shelling. A peck of unshelled nuts lay on the tabletop, nut meats filling one mason jar and half another; the emptied shells were heaped in a pan. The snap of the pliers, the hollow rattle of the shells dropping into the pan, the small dry rustle of the nut meats going into the jar became methodical, and vaguely a comfort. While I sat with my coffee and watched her at this work, I believe she forgave me for Cold Logic; and of course I also forgave her for Excitable Worry.
“Lord, I wish’d they’d been working in the burnt woods,” she said in a miserable way, and I took Melba’s meaning: a child lost in a fire-scorched forest was likely to be spotted, while one lost in the green brush and trees might go on hidden in that rank jungle to the crack of doom. “Lord, Lord, what was he thinking, taking Harriet up there without other women to watch out for her?”
I had no answer for this. She has spent the last many years complaining about the failings of her son-in-law, but to blame him for the loss of his own child seemed to me a heartless cruelty.
“Well, we ought to hear something more in the morning,” I said firmly, and this awakened Melba’s irritation.
“It’s a good four days or five to get a letter between us. They shuffle that mail back and forth across two hundred miles to cover but seventy.”
“Oh, I know the mails are slow as hell. I don’t mean by the Post Office, Melba, of course not. But word’ll be sent out with someone who’s going downriver, as was done with Henneng Sundstrom. You’ll hear something in the morning, from someone on the Lurline. You know Florence wouldn’t let you go on wondering and worrying.”
She said nothing in reply, and it was clear to me that she
was unpersuaded. Melba is strong in her opinions and quick to make up her mind to something; it wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d stood up right then and packed her duffel and hurried off to catch the evening boat to Portland.
“Well, you’ll do as you feel best, Melba, but you have my opinion. You ought to stay put until the boats have come through tomorrow. I expect word will come on the Lurline in the morning, but if not, then the Potter will bring it on the afternoon tide. Here is the hard truth, which you know as well as I do: If Harriet is to be found safe, it must happen in this first little while. If there’s no good news on the Potter by tomorrow afternoon, well then I agree you ought to take yourself to Yacolt and wait with your daughter, because the search is liable to go on for the long haul.”
Her chin began to dimple again. “That’s an unfeeling thing to say,” she told me, but did not deny it. In the silence that followed I began to see that I had turned her from going.
“We baked a sour cream cake, me and Harriet, while I was over there this last time,” she told me desolately. “And we sung rhymes together, and I darned up the holes in her dolly.”
If there was an answer for me to make, I did not discover it. I thought of putting my fingers around Melba’s hands to still them from their worried shelling, but feared this might start her weeping. I’m a notoriously poor friend wherever tears are concerned.
Many years ago a small tribe of Indians went huckleberrying on a certain prairie and some of their children were mysteriously lost. Since they could not find the children they concluded that
they had been stolen by the wild spirits of the forest. Thereupon they called the prairie Yacolt, meaning “haunted by spirits.”
“ABORIGINAL PLACE NAMES IN THE STATE OF WASHINGTON,”
American Anthropologist 9 (1907)
3 p.m. Sat’y 1 Apr ’05
I have been strongly of the opinion the Lurline would bring things to a quick end—that word would come saying Harriet had wandered back into camp with a dirty face and a hole in her stockings; and this delay (I admit) is worrisome, though I would not say so to Melba. While the waiting goes on, I find I can’t keep my mind upon my writing—made only the briefest attempt following lunch, and have now abandoned the shed and come into the house, where I am sitting in the front parlor making these notes, keeping out of the way of Melba as she carries on with her violent scrubbing of the kitchen floor; though of course we may both be interrupted if the Potter brings word on the evening tide, as we all expect. (Of course we will get favorable news this afternoon; I fully expect it.)
It is the Lurline which delivers and takes the regular mails daily on its route from Portland to Astoria, and on most occasions I’ll wait for Stuband to bring or take my letters—he rows a boatload of cream to town every day, and the post office is directly on his course. We are two miles from town, but as my house sits at the eastern entrance of the Steamboat Slough, I am able to keep a close eye on the Lurline’s approach, and therefore if I’m anxious—in particular expectation of a posting—I can always send one of my boys in a boat as soon as
she whistles, and depending on the direction of the wind and which boy it is, he may reach the wharf before they have tied up the steamer, and row back with my letter before the Lurline has cleared the river beacon on her way west to Pillar Rock. But with this worry about Harriet hanging over the house like a sword, I told Melba this morning that I would ride into town and meet the Lurline myself, as I was sure she would bring a note from Florence on the early tide. Of course, even in such circumstances as these, Melba has an abhorrence of wasted steps, so she pressed on me other errands—a pair of shoes crying for new heels, and a little list of notions to be bought—which relieved my guilt about carrying on with my own usual concerns and habits. I dressed for town with no more than ordinary irreverence, put a batch of my outbound letters and an installment of a story for Leslie’s Illustrated in the saddlebags with Melba’s shoes, and thus outfitted dear Margaret between my knees, and we pedaled off across Stuband’s lumpy cow pasture and onto the downriver trail.
Just as anyone will name a steed, I have called my bicycle by the name of Margaret Le Long, a woman I read of who pedaled alone from Chicago to San Francisco in two months, carrying no more than a change of underwear and a pistol, and firing the pistol but once, when it became necessary to break up a stubborn bunch of cattle that had overrun the road somewhere west of Laramie, Wyoming. I try to take my Margaret onto the trails regularly, as she relishes a good brisk run and will not gladly suffer the weakness of a sedentary woman; but of course on the first day of April I believe I’m the only fool in Wahkiakum County attempting to ride a two-wheeled conveyance.
Given that the rain falls here for hours and days and weeks at a time, and the ground consequently is a quagmire nine
months of the year, and inasmuch as the state of Washington cannot be persuaded to let hold of its fistful of tax money for such superfluity as road building in remote precincts such as ours, the principal roads hereabouts are the running streams, sloughs, and rivers. Every child of five is a crackerjack boat handler. I’m as lively a sailor as the next man but continue my practice of bicycling year around on the principle of modernity and the hope of scandal, and for the further reason that a bicycle depends on neither the tides nor the wind, and my experiment with walking on water has proved a failure—I could not correct a troubling tendency to overbalance upon the pontoons and end up on my head in the slough.
The greater part of our local Indian trails must surely be 2,000 years old, for so long has there been continuous settlement at the mouth of Skamokawa Creek, but such proven tracks run upon the ridges and uplands, whereas the two-mile track from my yard to town runs beside the Steamboat Slough, which is tidewater, and the trail only barely passable at certain times of the day and certain seasons of the year. Of course I have necessarily made myself used to riding in mud and I never give up holding tight to the handlebars and keeping a sharp eye on the ditches and potholes; I’ve flown off my saddle and laid open the skin of elbows and knees from coming down that imperfect path with too little caution.
Conversely, there is nothing that points up the modernity of these times so much as the miles of wooden causeway various Skamokawans have built right across mud, marsh, and slough in a spider’s web of boardwalks connecting one neighbor with another, church with parsonage, mill with mess hall, boat works with float house. Old Peder Goehring’s place, while yet a mile from town proper, is the nearest outpost of boardwalk, and at
Goehring’s I am able to leave the Steamboat trail, lift Margaret onto the boards, and be finished with mud.
Poor old Goehring is a Finn and a Republican, and consequently a man of considerable conservatism. He was standing on his boat landing when I pedaled by him, and so, for effect, I made of his boardwalk a bicycle speedway; and having raised up a fine wind, I thrust out my boot heels and went freewheeling. His shout of contempt, when it came to me on the spring air, was a particular pleasure on a morning grievously short of them.
There’s a great deal of foolishness been written about the dangers of the bicycling craze. As regards women, the intoxication of flying through the streets under ones own power is said to lead to unspecified, doubtless shameful, acts of immorality, and on those worrisome grounds I frequently bicycle into town wearing a man’s getup and smoking a cigar. If I had foreseen the poor outcome to the morning, I might have adopted a more solemn decorum in respect of Melba’s situation, but as it was, I rolled down to the town limit and stood a minute, holding Margaret to my trousered leg while I nipped the end from a cigar and got it puffing. Two men were surveying a field there between the boat works and the shingle mill, and they gave me a little inspection; Bob Vandewater, who was sitting on a stump watching them work, took me nonchalantly. News of Harriett’s misadventure has been kept very close within the family the boys given strict instructions and threatened with torturous consequences should they tell, as Melba does not wish her husband to learn the news and use it as an excuse to loudly drown in his beer. So Vandewater, being therefore ignorant of events, said only, “Hullo, Mizz Drummond, you need a light?” without much looking away from what interested him. It was his field that was being measured. The log business is booming just now
and the town with it, as may be evidenced by the Alger Slough bridge, which is a wondrous piece of work with a 135-feet draw; I suppose Vandewater, with that bridge in mind, will make this cutover land into town lots and sell them for an unseemly profit. He is a man of commerce.
“No, Vandewater, I’d never take a light from a man,” I said to him with no more than my normal disaffection, and soon afterward Margaret and I were mounted up again and rolling over the boardwalk to the U.S. Post Office.
Until lately, the Skamokawa post office had made its home in the sawmill, where it occupied a corner of the mill company’s store, but in recent weeks has come into a leased building at the narrow, downriver tip of the island, on the wharf between the sawmill and the boat works. These are swank accommodations, sporting new shelving and counters, fine coal oil lamps, and a long porch for sheltering postal customers out of the rain, as well as a handsome sign locating the place for the ever-transient population of loggers, seiners, and cannery crew. We might have had, as well, a cancel machine of the very latest design, a quite glorious mechanical marvel, if we had not had at the time a postmaster with a deep distrust of mechanization. He received the thing with suspicion and promptly gave it to the mill, where others more mechanically inclined, and having no qualms about the progress of technology, made it over into a lumber planer.
Belva Gardner is now the postmistress. She is a widow woman of about fifty or so whose three grandchildren have been left in her care. The mother of those children was killed by mud slide on the Deep River trail, and Gardner’s son, who had fathered them, brought them to his mother to keep until he could acquire another wife. Seeing as how he’s a faller who lives in the woods among a population of other men, everyone’s
expectation is that those children are now Belva Gardner’s to raise. The youngest of them, Lucille, was seated on the post office floor with her shift hiked up to her hips and her elbows pinched between a pair of skinned and scabby knees. This is a girl about Harriet’s age, thin and pale like Harriet, which must be why it gave me a little jolt to see her doll-baby resting lightly in her lap, its several holes neatly darned. “Hello, Lucille,” I said. Being Oscar’s age, she has often played in our yard, but she bent her head shyly when I spoke to her, and her lips and eyes directed a murmury stream toward the doll: secrets in a secret language.
I put the big Leslie’s envelope on the postal scale and dug pennies from my pants pocket after the fashion of a man, while Belva Gardner stood behind the counter in green eyeshade and sleeve protectors, pushing the little weight along its bar to the balance point. “This must go out on the boat as soon as possible,” I said to her, meaning the envelope for Leslie’s. She said, “It will,” in the disinterested and negligent way of civil servants everywhere, which encouraged me to say, in the vain hope of impressing her, “They’re waiting for it in New York, and it must go to proof by the twenty-eighth of April.” Belva is a petty despot, who gave me a second look as flat as the first and said, “It’ll go out on the Lurline when she comes,” as her hand pushed the entire of my mail carelessly out of sight under the edge of the counter.
There being as yet no sign at all of the steamboat, I retrieved Margaret from where she leaned at the front of the post office and we pushed on around the sawmill and behind the mess hall and the office of the Skamokawa Eagle to the bridge. When you have come around the end of the island to face Nasset Point, then you can see that Skamokawa is laid out in a rather pretty way, built on pilings over the water and meandering along the
several river sloughs and up the several forks of Skamokawa Creek.
All the business buildings face their fronts to the water so that, without a street between, the waterways are the streets, and the high wharfs the sidewalks. Narrow wooden causeways, railed to save drunkards from falling off, span the low places between the pilings, and on the mainland a string of boardwalks run upward from the waterfront to houses on the higher ground behind the stores. Little Venice, people are wont to call this town, which I believe is from an excess of civic pride. Nevertheless, whenever fair weather graces a Regatta day, I find I must shout “Huzzah!” with the rest of them when the decorated boats parade up the little bright harbor into the water streets.
The Skamokawa anchorage is both deep and sheltered; log booms lie in the sloughs in bad weather, and there are a few small hand-logging outfits who skid down to the river and hang their booms in the Columbia River, east and west of the town. We are long in years, as Western towns go, and in the self-conscious manner of the logging West, much is made of the “old days” before the donkey engine—the days of ox teams and bull-whackers and monstrous trees so immense as to challenge the imagination. Now the big trees have all been cut for miles around, and there is a packet that stops daily on a westbound trip to Astoria, and another on an eastbound to Kalama, Ridgefield, and Portland, and we get every kind of local river traffic—tugs and trawlers as well as rowboats and barges. We are, if not entirely civilized, entirely modern, and consider ourselves at the center of Western commerce and industry.
The walks this day were overrun with men. The first day of April, which might be considered at the outside edge of the logging season, had brought to town an early swarm of loggers
and millmen, cruisers and pulp-concession men, and this rare spate of sun had brought them out of the saloons and promenading along the wharfs. I had put on wool pants and lace-up boots, together with a collarless logger’s shirt and woolly vest, and outfitted thus, pedaling muddy Margaret over the bridge and into town, I was gawkingstock. There’s not much point in dressing outlandishly if it goes unnoticed, is my belief, and so I’ve refrained from cutting short my hair, which has been advocated by certain Feminists as being both liberating and sensible. I have a big and squarish sort of face, very strong around the chin, and my eyebrows, by a woman’s standards, ought to be plucked, as they’re thick and dark without the least delicacy of an arch; in men’s clothes I would fear being taken entirely for a man if not for my hair, which is a womanly crown, thick and with an inclination to wave, and of a chestnut red not yet gone to gray. When I put on men’s clothes, I pin up my hair in a proper Psyche knot, loose and charmingly curled at the nape, so there’s no mistaking my sex, and this gains me the desired effect when displayed against the cigar and clothes of a workingman. On the wharf, men who had newly come to town just stood and took a long look. Skamokawa people are hardened to my ways, though, and as a sign of their Western liberalism will make a show of imperturbability. Shopmen and farmers I knew tipped their hats with aplomb; which courtesy I returned by briskly dipping my lit cigar with my clenched teeth.
There are two bootmakers on the wharf, one a Swede named Orvil Jurgensen and one a Chinaman whose name is unknown to everyone and believed irrelevant, since he has always answered to China Sam. China Sam is the only Celestial in Skamokawa who does not come and go with the cannery season, a distinction sufficient in itself to inspire my confidence. When I had left
Melba’s shoes with him, and gone to Thatcher’s for the needles and matches and baking powder on her list, and wandered in and out of the confectioner’s on my own account, and put the little paper packages of notions and candies in the basket at Margaret’s head, we went (merry as a cricket, I’m afraid) down again to the wharf to await the Lurline.
And when the packet came and went without news of any kind, well, it took me aback. Of course, we will get a favorable letter this afternoon—I am fairly sure of it. But watching the Lurline steam away without word at all from Yacolt—just for that moment—I suffered a sudden terrible misgiving as to how this adventure might come out. And I suppose that moment of misgiving is to blame for my poor behavior afterward.
I should have gone (of course) straightaway back to Melba with word that there was no word (and for not doing it, I have since been vehemently condemned). But I imagined she would come to this discovery on her own when the Lurline steamed past the house and I did not come flying back at once with a wild look of triumph or of grief; and in my lowered mood, I frankly dreaded returning myself to the orbit of her overanxious hysteria. When I had stood some little while in disorder, watching the Lurline out of sight, I took it suddenly into my mind to go up the hill and see Joseph Sheets.
He has queer ways, old Sheets, and the common run of the rabble is that he is a lunatic. Since I am held to be something of a lunatic too, I consider the old man a confederate. He has a little shack on top of a high hill that overlooks the three forks of Skamokawa Creek, and the light from his cabin at the summit can be seen from nearly any farm up the left, right, or middle fork—a night beacon for travelers. He is a recluse in most respects, though he will come down from his hill to lay in rice
and flour, and on those occasions has been known to involve himself in a card game or two and play on through the night. He grows tobacco and strawberries on a couple of acres he has cleared at the top of his hill, and will sell to anyone who comes up there to buy them. Mother sent Teddy and me up that steep trail every strawberry season, and it was old Sheets (though he must not have been old in those days; do you suppose he was forty?) who taught my brother and me to roll tobacco leaves and smoke them, the most vile kind of cigars.
It’s always my intent to conquer Sheets’s hill without dismounting, and I believe this is something I will one day accomplish; but it will have to be on a day when the mud is not sticky. In April, of course, it’s a hopeless ambition. I went up resolutely, standing on the pedals, but after a short, sweaty exercise, I stood off and pushed Margaret heavily up through the long aisle in the trees. That trail of his, not being of Wahkiakum Indian origin, is laid out in the White Man’s imperfect way, plunging almost directly up from the river bluff to the hilltop. The trees all grow straight from the sidehill, while the ground bears off sharply beneath them, and of course the rain gathers itself and shoots down the trail to the river just as if it were a log flume. In certain weathers, a person laboring uphill against the muddy stream can’t stand and get her wind, or, standing, she’ll begin to slide down again; and going down the hill the hind end of a bicycle is liable to slew around and pass the front end.
At the edge of Sheets’s cleared field I put Margaret to rest against a tree and went on, as broken winded as an old horse, until I had come out on the highest point. I stood awhile getting back my breath, and then I just stood and looked, because I had come up for the clear day, the view, as much as the old man. And here is the truth: I had come also for the irrational
purpose of “looking” for Harriet, which doubtless some people will think is a species of prayer from a woman who does not believe in prayer, and which of course I deny.
From that certain point at the top of Sheets’s hill, in limpid air, you can see the Columbia from Cathlamet Head to Grays Point, the bright water littered with islands and scalloped with little inlets. You can see the drift logs piled white along the narrow beaches, and the gray ribbons of the sloughs looping across the lowlands in a deep-laid design that from the water is unknowable. You can see bristling dead poles of burnt timber showing against bare mottled rock amid the immeasurable forests of the Nehalem Mountains as they break in long blue ridges southward across the sky; and the unapproachably distant peaks of Hood and St. Helens adrift like pyramidal icebergs at the edge of a purplish sea. From the top of Sheets’s hill, if the weather is soft, you can hear the low moan of the Columbia River bar more than twenty miles to the west.
But in that immensity of woods and mountains and waters a person can also see the horses and men laboring on the fish-seining grounds at Welch’s Island, and gillnet boats upon their drifts upstream and down, and salmon traps near Puget Island, and columns of smoke from a dozen sawmills and from the Altoona Cannery. There are cleared fields and the dark dots of houses all up and down the valley bottoms, and of course everywhere the high flaring stumps of cut trees and shattered small timber where the loggers have been at work. I was struck, suddenly, by the sense of a human presence upon the wilderness, which was a reassurance and comfort more rational to me than any prayer.
When I had taken in about all the reassurance there was, I called for Sheets and walked down through the berry rows to
his little place, calling again. He will come out to you with a tender grin or hide in the trees and wait until you’ve looked, and called, and gone; this is Sheets.
I had about given up and left a little folio of peppermints tucked into his door latch when he evidently made me out from his hiding place in the brush and broke cover at last. “Well, see who that is,” he said to the air, “it’s Mr. Charlie Bridger,” which is an old childhood name he has always attached to me, and I replied, “Yes, it’s me, Sheets, I’m glad to see you,” and I gave the peppermints into his hand.
He has a rank smell of tobacco about him, and I suppose it’s tobacco to blame for the yellowing of his beard, but he is strongly built, his old features clean and angular, “shaped with an axe,” as my mother would say about him, and I believe he must have been catmint to women when he was young and sane. Skamokawa gossip has Sheets coming west as a result of a broken engagement, and though he is now quite unmarriageable, a thoroughgoing hermit of odd habits, suppose there are women who would accept him nonetheless on the strength of rumors: he is thought to keep a box of gold coins buried in his yard.
I offered him one of my Kentucky cigars and lit my own stub again, and we smoked together companionably. “Well, Sheets,” I said, “here are your dry spring days,” for Sheets’s foretellings of the coming year’s weather have always been widely celebrated, and the Skamokawa Eagle annually has sent someone to ask after his predictions. Last January’s clipping is still pinned to the wall of my kitchen. “Sky’ll clear up a good week in all, around the end of March,” pronounced the Skamokawa Weather Prophet, and upon being reminded that the town receives an average fifteen inches of rain in the month of March, replied, “Well I guess rain will fall hard on the other twenty-five of the days.”
He solemnly pulled on the cigar while he considered my remark, and then, with a practiced slanting motion of his head, released a plume of smoke toward the sky. “It’s a mystery of the Lord, I expect.”
I have heard of hermits more intent on their solitude than Sheets. There is a couple living eight miles up the Left Fork who grow their own garden, hay field, berries, and fruit, and have been to town only twice in anyone’s memory, each time the wife arriving in her wedding suit and high-topped old shoes. And my dog, Buster, may be crazier than old Sheets: he is afraid of certain dread spots in the front hallway and the kitchen, and will go to any lengths to keep from stepping upon them. What I believe may be Sheets’s singular glory is his raising of tobacco in a climate such as this one, where the sun arriving on the first of April must be pronounced a mythic creature, and a sign of God’s wonders.
While we strolled up and down admiring his rows of strawberries, the small rosettes of new green growth among the brown and withered leaves of the summer past, I asked after his prospects for a good crop and listened as he told the coming weather and in his customary way tolled the names of the dead, among them his sisters and his mother and old acquaintances of his childhood. He lives alone, and I’ve always understood his lunacy to be a kind of loneliness. But when he walked me back across the hill to Margaret he began suddenly to give me his advice about the little witches who will come and live right under the floor of your house if you let them, and must be driven out by pouring boiling water through the cracks; and this brought me up a little.
In my childhood, if Sheets had carried a pistol in his belt and cited the old poets, I suppose Teddy and I would have made him over into a Hero, but as it was, we thought he was a holy
oracle, a Wizard. Sitting with him at the top of his hill, the three of us soberly smoking, we would often ask for his prophesies on matters more momentous to us than the weather: Will the flood get as high as our house? Will Pearl’s calf be a heifer? Will Lester’s runt puppy die? And without knowing who Lester was, or any of the other circumstances of our question, he would simply take the cigar from his mouth and answer yes or no; and the future, we knew, would be sealed.
Of course, it’s been years since I’ve asked for one of Sheets’s divinations or believed in them. But walking back across his hill—I don’t know why—I had meant to ask the old man whether Harriet would be safely found. And I suppose it was his quiet rant which closed my mouth; or I had a qualm of good sense, or of dread.
When anything in [my books] is rather strange and outré, it is probably drawn straight from nature as close as I could draw it; when it is plausible, there is probably no particular and especial foundation for it.
On the boat landing (Skamokawa), Sat’y night
I write this hurriedly while the Telephone is making her approach.
It is a mild paradox, I suppose, that plots taken from real life often are the harder to believe. In the dime novel, misadventure and misfortune are discreetly foreshadowed; one expects a heroine to suffer adversity and equally expects the outcome to be favorable. In real life such events are more often defined by
their absolute unexpectedness and the indeterminacy of the outcome. Extraordinary things happen in real life and extraordinary coincidences occur, but I daresay a deft pen must make them plausible before they can be delivered to the pages of a novel. I should not have dared to write a fiction so improbable as this: on the T. J. Potter came word that Harriet, after all, may not have wandered away lost; that she may have been seized by a giant wild ape and carried off to his lair in the woods, which possibility was at first kept from Florence to spare her from torment.
Melba and I fell out entirely over this news. She received it as a ghastly truth and collapsed prematurely into horror and grief; I would not take the story seriously enough and made of it a barbarous joke. “Jacko the Chimpanzee has made his escape from Barnum’s, then,” I said to her, “and has come back to the woods to take his revenge on little children.”
She turned to me a wildly rabid look, which I felt I must parry with reasonable theories: “This was a bear, Melba, or some hirsute old tramp in his flapping rags.”
Inasmuch as Harriet continued missing, these words were both blind and cruel, which I knew as soon as they were out of my mouth. Melba’s whole face folded inward and I could not think how to recover my damn-fool mistake. We stood in the front hall, bound in a malignant silence.
“What is ‘hirsute’?” Jules whispered. I had forgotten him standing there, with his fists wrapped in my skirt, and children have an instinct for understanding when argument has transcended the ordinary and become dangerous: his eyes were round and white with alarm. “Hairy,” I said, and rested my palm on the crown of his head. “?‘Hirsute’ is hairy. Run over to Eustler’s and ask Edith to come and see me. And then run over to Stuband’s and ask how his mother cows are doing. Tell him I
sent you over. You can help him pull calves, if any of his mother cows are so inclined.”
Though pulling calves has been denied to him in the past on grounds of his young age, he was not distracted from his fear. He took a deeper grip of my dress and screwed up his mouth to cry.
I stooped and took his face firmly in my two hands. “Go get Edith and then go over to Stuband’s,” I said, in the voice I reserved for Serious Matters Involving Punishment. I peeled his fingers from their clench and pushed him to the porch. When the door closed between us, he burst out crying and went off in the general direction of Eustler’s.
“You aren’t right, the way you deal with that boy,” Melba said bitterly. “He’s high strung.”
“He’s thin-skinned, and will have to get over it,” I told her. Then I said, “We’ll take the Telephone on the flood tide, Melba. I’ll farm the little boys out to Edith, and Stuband can look in on George and the twins, who ought to be old enough to fend for themselves.”
She was evidently startled. “I don’t need you to see after me.”
“What you need is someone of a clear mind and fit for a tramp afoot and horseback, who can go out from Yacolt to that deepwoods camp and learn the truth of what has happened to Harriet.”
Her clenched face examined me with considerable distrust. I would not have been surprised by further argument, but in a bit she wrung her chapped hands together and began silently to weep.
“Oh now, Melba, don’t,” I said.
“Well, I try to consider your comfort, but you can’t always be spared other women’s tears,” she said crossly. She pressed her
knuckles to her eyes and went on standing with her hands at her face, sobbing quietly. At long last she withdrew an embroidered hanky from her pocket and wiped her eyes with it. “There,” she said, folding the handkerchief to a precise square once again, “I’m finished for now. I’ll go up and pack my duffel.” Which I took to mean I should go up and pack mine.
Of course, there was considerable alarm and argument from Horace Stuband, who is entirely a man of his times, that is to say hidebound and proper. If he was scandalized at the prospect of my traipsing into logging camps unaccompanied, he did not say so, but made his argument—that he should go in my place—by raising foremost the question of danger, as if a woman may not stand up to a wild, fierce life as well as a man; and of course the question of strength, and stamina, and heart, in case the search should go on long or lead to horror. I blame a too-narrow imagination for his failure to mention death at the hands of an orang-utan. I said to him, “A woman can and should do everything a man can do, and do it without ceasing to be female,” which he has heard me say before. “Waiting For Word,” I further told him, “has often been the female portion but shall never be mine if I can help it.”
And here is the boat. We are off.
WHAT IS IT?
A STRANGE CREATURE CAPTURED ABOVE YALE
A BRITISH COLUMBIA GORILLA
Yale, B.C., July 3rd, 1882.
“Jacko,” as the creature has been called by his capturers, is something of the gorilla type, standing about four feet seven inches in height and weighing
127 pounds. He has long, black, strong hair and resembles a human being with one exception, his entire body, excepting his hands (or paws) and feet, is covered with glossy hair about one inch long. His fore arm is much longer than a man’s fore arm, and he possesses extraordinary strength, as he will take hold of a stick and break it by wrenching or twisting it, which no man living could break in the same way. Since his capture he is very reticent, only occasionally uttering a noise which is half bark and half growl. He is, however, becoming daily more attached to his keeper, Mr. George Tilbury, of this place, who proposes shortly starting for London, England, to exhibit him. His favorite food so far is berries, and he drinks fresh milk with evident relish. By advice of Dr. Hannington raw meats have been withheld from Jacko, as the doctor thinks it would have a tendency to make him savage.
The Daily Colonist
(Port of Victoria, British Columbia)
On the Telephone, early a.m., 2 Apr
At the front of my mind is a thicket of worries to do with Harriet, of course, and Melba, and my children left behind; in the middle ground there are half a hundred lesser concerns, such as the state of our pregnant cow and whether the Brussels sprouts standing ripe in the garden will go neglectfully to seed in my absence; what lies dimly at the back of my mind is a small, irrepressible tremor of excitement. As the Telephone bore us away from the Skamokawa landing in foreboding midnight darkness,
there was a whispering, ignoble voice within me which said, We are two women entering on a wilderness adventure.
We have not been tempted to waste money on a berth, for all the little cabins are taken, and in fact several men are sleeping on the passage floors. The women’s saloon is crowded and restless with children, which is the worst situation for Melba, so we are sleeping sitting up in the smoking room, or rather we drowse there, for a number of men play cards all night, and their murmury voices and the soft ripple of shuffled cards, as well as the spitting of tobacco, keep up without cease. Once, when I had dreamt in a shallow way, I woke to find Melba asleep in the deck chair opposite to mine, displaying a clenched frown that pulled her eyebrows right in to her nose. I am well acquainted with her black look, for it’s brought out at every tedious aggravation, but just then with her body slumped in the chair, seeming shrunken and aged with this bad news from Yacolt, it struck me that her face was engraved by sorrow. My little writerly fancies, my childish plots involving the two of us in bravery and derring-do and perilous rescue, all of that was beaten back suddenly by a terrible clear vision of Harriet raped and strangled. I put my hand to my heart, the quick drum-drumming, and then I had to stand as quietly as I could manage and creep out through the cigar smoke, past the frank inspection of the card players, to the afterdeck, where the cold rain was a distraction and there was no sound but the steady thumping of the engines, and I stood a long while, heavy, leaning as against a brute force, staring across the black water, the black wind, to the dim moving line of the river shore.
This was, after all, not the best thing for my state of mind, as I never have learned to ride the river at night without falling into an old morose train of thought. I began to follow my
misgivings about Harriet down a dark and secret path, and shortly I was brooding about Wes. Why is it, do you suppose, we are so at the mercy of Memory?
“Is you feeling ill, miss?”
I said no, I most surely was not, and what I was feeling was the need to be Alone, all this even before seeing who it was, a broad-necked old Swede of the sort to grow a beard in winter and shave it when the weather warms up, a line of thick blond brows shading his eyes, a florid complexion. I had an intent to be rude, but he failed to take notice of it and settled his big arms on the rail to the left of me. “Well, good then. I seen you go pale and wondered if it was the boat gived it, or the smoke, or what.”
“It was the What,” I said, which made him blink and smile in confusion. But shortly he took another run at the situation and began to entertain me with information on the keeping of bees—I recall fire-weed spoken of with approval. These bee stories gave way at last to fish stories, for his honey deliveries all up and down the river evidently leave him with sufficient time to dig clams and to fish for perch, and he is proud minded as regards his long casts off the rocks at Seaview.
The greater number of these old Scandinavian bachelors are a quiet type who must be poked and whipped before they can be made to speak, but the odd one will be burdened with an excess of energy and a sore need for female company, and this was evidently such a one. Without so much as a word of encouragement from me, he gave an account of the major events of his life, including the cracked skull he suffered from falling “arse over tea kettle” while shoe-skating on the frozen mud-puddles of Tenasillahe Island; events of the Great Flood of ’92, in which he hooked and landed an entire house filled with all its possessions
as it floated by him on the river; and the heartbreaking accidental death of his dog Frazer, a brown-and-white spaniel which he had unknowingly rolled over with the wheels of his own wagon.
These stories might have been entertaining if he’d had the knack for telling them, but he was the sort to argue with himself over every small detail—It was We’nsdee the ninth, no, musta bean the tenth, no, I’s right the first time, was the ninth, morning of the ninth, or shortly after I’d had m’ lunch—and as a result I lost patience the longer he kept at it, and became flat-out surly in my responses. It could be that rough treatment is wasted on a man of his good nature, for he wore on at a deliberate pace, emptying his sack of stories, and presently I gave up listening. While the old Swede prattled, I began to get our ducks in a row.
My experience of traveling is an odd mare’s nest: I have twice crossed over the nation, and have a passing familiarity with the Capitol Building in Washington, and the Metropolitan Opera House in the city of New York, but on the other hand, after nearly thirty years’ acquaintance with the logging and fishing country of the lower Columbia, I never have been in Yacolt, indeed few places in the state of Washington aside from the Skamokawa environs, and few in Oregon save Astoria and Portland and the steamer landings between them. Howsomever, every mill town resembles every other, and getting into the backwoods requires a private understanding of bad roads rather more than anything else.
The Telephone will deliver us to the foot of Alder Street, city of Portland, where we must then hire a cab to the train yard and get onto a lumber train bound over the bridge and through the woods to Yacolt. This will be the easy part, for the trains run three or four times a day in and out of every booming log town, bringing down the logs and trailing a Daylight car for the
millmen and loggers, timber cruisers, and the occasional wife or mother; we are likely to gain Florence’s doorstep by lunch.
Beyond Yacolt, the way is less clear. They will have laid track out into the timber and built camps at the ends of the spurs, a great pin-wheel of industry and destruction, and one or another of those rails will bring me more or less in the direction of Homer’s camp at Canyon Creek. From there I shall have to try to catch a ride with a millman supplied of mule or horse; and failing that, I must walk. In either case, I’ve every expectation of deep ruts and mud holes, narrow embankments, and wicked steep climbs. These backwoods camps are notorious for their remoteness.
From the Canyon Creek camp, if the search has not come to a pass by then, I fully mean to make myself part of it. Beyond that is impossible of imagination.
I have not met a man with better feet than mine, but my neck is wobbly and won’t take a heavy pack. I have come away from the house with clothes and boots for a tramp, and my purse crammed with soda crackers and cheese, but a full provisioning waits for Yacolt; while the Swede sang on, I exercised my brain with a thoroughly abstemious list of rations. And when at last he cheerfully lifted his cap and sauntered off in search of another feminine audience, I found I had quite recovered my spirits. I have a mind that relishes a plan.
For the trip one needs to be as unhampered by clothes as possible. Men always seem to know what to wear; or at least, they never confess that they are uncomfortable; but all women have not learned the lesson yet. An active woman can get
along well for a month’s tramp with two short skirts and one jacket of some stout material, as corduroy or denim; bloomers and leggins of the same goods, or at least the same color; strong shoes, not too heavy, but with a thick sole containing Hungarian nails, for tramping, and a lighter pair to rest one’s feet in camp; a sunbonnet and a soft canvas hat; a few darkish shirt waists of cotton crepe which will wash easily and not need ironing; some stout gloves; two changes of underwear; one flannelette nightgown, and a golf cape, or a heavy shawl. She will need hairpins galore to keep tidy and all the necessities of a workbag.
“HOUSEKEEPING IN THE SUMMER CAMP,”
Sunset Magazine, May 1902
The man put his folded newspaper in the pocket of his coat and his hands into his trouser’s pockets and stood with his shoulders hunched, waiting for his wife to stop fiddling with the boy’s shoelaces. The wife had released her infant son into the arms of her eldest, and then, to guard against the possibility of the boy stumbling with the baby, she had squatted to tie up the muddy laces trailing rearward from his muddy shoes. The boy was ten. He twisted his shoulders anxiously, shifting his eyes up and down the wharf in fear of being seen while his mother, with her skirts gathered around her knees, was crouched at his feet.
Their other sons were with them on the boat landing. The youngest—that is, the one who had been youngest before the birth of this last child—stood between his next-older brothers,
gripping a hand of each. His brothers, who might usually have squeezed and twisted his fingers until he cried, assumed an uncommon attitude of nervous solemnity, and all three stood in a tableau, shifting their feet restlessly, watching the wood go aboard, and the transfer of the mail, eyeing the pilot and the passengers. Their manner was fueled by a kind of foreboding. Sometime in the dim and distant past—months ago—their father had used to take a boat regularly, but the boys viewed those earlier days as if through a long lens, and understood their father’s departure now to be unusual and exotic, a cause for gravity and formality.
The restless dignity of his children made the man anxious to be gone. He wished to jump straight over this moment so that he might be sitting in the stove heat of the Hassalo, unfolding his newspaper, arguing mildly with other men about the coming currency crisis, the dogs of Wall Street, the doings of Harriman and James J. Hill. He fingered the coins in his trouser’s pocket and gazed off across the water to the cloud mass dragging past the mountain slopes, its rooster tails of mist. The river was ridged with whitecaps in the path of a wind slanting eastward into the gorge.
“Do you have your sandwich?” his wife said to him, standing finally between her oldest son and her husband. Dinner on the Hassalo was lavish and cheap—Jerusalem artichokes and smoked chicken, plums, peppered steak—an entire smorgasbord for four bits; but he and his wife were guarding their money, and his coat pockets were weighty with Grape-Nuts and cheese.
“Yes,” he said irritably, and his small bristling-up caused his wife to tighten her smile. She touched his sleeve, which she meant as a kind of apology.
In a moment he pulled his hands from his trousers and took
her hands in them. He had, in the days before this, helped his neighbor with dressing his hogs, had traded this labor for hams, and the work had coarsened his palms. He was conscious of it, and of his wife’s palms, smooth and cold and slightly damp. She had held on to her housekeeper through the months of their money troubles, which he understood was necessary; he didn’t understand why his wife’s hands, which were not work-roughened, caused him to feel bitterly used.
“All right,” he said irrelevantly, and she mistook this for I’ll write. “No novels, please. I shouldn’t want the competition.” Her teasing of him was ineluctable, one of the wry and clever things that had endeared her to him and now was sometimes a provocation. The man was glad to be escaping his wife for these several days. But he understood, also, that he would inevitably begin to yearn for her opinion of things, and that he would begin to save up the small events of his days in order to share them with her.
“Whether they hire me or don’t, I’ll get home on the Sunday boat,” he said. They had been over this, and he could see that she was unwilling to go over it again. He had meant it as a kind of signal, an indication of his affection for her, and so he understood her impatience as a kind of signal too, and realized suddenly that his eyes had filled with tears. She found his tears amusing, or shameful, and kissed him with a light laugh. “It’s not the ends of the earth,” she said.
Marriage, the woman had discovered, was nothing close to what she had imagined when she had been newly wed: was less romantic, more mundane, made up of small compromises and irritations, agreements and misunderstandings, and a gradual accumulation of common memories. They were both romantically inclined, but her husband had a more sentimental nature
than her own, and he viewed their marriage as having lost a good deal of its passion. The woman was not aware of his feeling and considered the loss of passion in their marriage to be the natural and unregrettable order of things.
He picked up each of the younger boys in turn and squeezed him to his chest; he touched his lips tenderly to the infant’s cheek. He and his wife had lately agreed that their oldest son was too well grown for his father’s embraces, and so he only cupped the boy’s head briefly, a hand around his cold ear. Then he put his arms around his wife and briefly placed his mouth against her temple, before escaping over the planks onto the steamer.
The Hassalo was wallowy and slow in foul weather but nicely fitted out with brass lamps and Brussels carpets, polished chrome stoves, stewards in white coats. Bundles of dead grouse and pheasant hung in the cool shadows of the boat gangways. He pushed up the stair and through the warm, smoky air of the men’s cabin, out to the afterdeck, where he stood watching while the mooring lines were cast off. His wife had taken the baby into her arms, and their oldest son now stood with the bunch of littler boys, affecting a manly posture of hands in pockets. When the boat began to slide away from the landing, his wife shifted the infant’s weight in her arms, holding the baby more upright as if displaying it for him, or allowing the baby to send him her last greeting. He looked away over the choppy water, distracted by a flurry of birds hoisting their bodies into the damp air, and when he looked again his sons were scattering up the wharf, running and shouting, but his wife was still standing with the baby, watching after the boat. The wind had brought some of her hair down from its chignon, and she bent her head to one side slightly, attempting to capture the loose
lock against her collar. It was already impossible for him to see the features of her face, but this gesture was so particular to her that his throat swelled suddenly with familiar, abiding affection. She swayed a bit, and then he realized that she had freed her arm, was lifting it to him, waving; and after just a moment he raised his own.
There was a cold wind on the afterdeck, and as he straightened, gathering himself to go in the cabin, he realized he was basely happy—delivered, briefly, from the strains of ordinary living, which in recent months had been not ordinary but in extremis.
The woman went on standing on the pier after her husband had taken himself inside the cabin of the Hassalo. This was not due to any inkling or premonition, but from a wish to put off returning to the house—the five boys demanding her continual attention. She was a spirited young woman who enjoyed solitude and reading and writing but found herself engulfed by the demands of her children. She considered herself an unnatural mother, lacking in the native affections and patience she believed to be given to other women. She had only recently come through the tiring, insistent first weeks of caring for the baby, the physical absorption of it, and had fallen into—not suffering, really, but feeling unloved and put-upon and irritable. At night, with the baby crying and miserable with colic, she had grown tireder and tireder, and the anguish of having no time for herself, not even the time necessary to keep a diary—of finding her day cut into small and smaller pieces—this anguish visited her at night. She was half inclined to cry at being unable to devote herself entirely to her work, though she considered the work only a means to an end, which was the support of her family. In later years she would discover that the work was
everything to her—everything—but now she tossed and tossed, trying to explain and defend something that shifted and was elusive; and at such times she had secretly—horrifyingly—wished for a calamity that would free her of the weight, the otherwise inescapable burden, of her maternity.
She believed that she had lately carried another weight, which was her husband—as if he were drowning and she must save him; as if she were swimming hard toward a distant shore with both her husband and her children depending from her arms and shoulders, and her legs scissoring through the water as she labored to keep all of them above the chop of the waves.
My mother was a single-woman homesteader for twelve years after her husband’s death and knew a thing or two about independence, which prepared me to take an uncustomary view of women’s roles. And after all, I lived far back on the frontier, very far from the artificial restraints by which most girls are hedged in. I had the good fortune to “run wild,” which is exactly the activity that develops a good physique and an unconventional mind.
Of course, after my mother’s death my life as an unbroken colt was brought to its end; I was sent out east to live with my mother’s sister. I recall little of the rail trip save that I was bridled and saddled in cumbrous long skirts, corsets, and high heels, my hair bound up with pins, and so forth; and that I spent a good deal of energy in tirades against fate, and in daydreams which I suppose were despairing attempts to find some outlet for my wildness. I would flee to Paris, or to Alaska. Run off to the Territories and marry an Apache. “If only I were a man,” I wrote in my diary, “I would mount an expedition and conquer the South Pole.”
In my first days and weeks in New York, I lay on my bed at night
and imagined myself captured by Indians, and through my bravery and derring-do winning a place as their woman chief. When I explained the Indian political view to the white generals, they were moved to tears and set aside the richest lands as a sovereign Indian nation. My photograph appeared in Eastern newspapers above the caption “She likes to ride hard and speak her mind.” And then I was in love. The man I loved was a Frenchman come west to study the Indian languages, and for his health. He placed himself in my tutelage and was soon bewitched by my prowess as a horsewoman, as a leader of my adopted peoples, and as a communicator with animals and the spirit world. When I had overseen his return to health, we were married, though shortly afterward he was killed by men who had meant their bullets for me.
Then I went to New Orleans and surrounded myself with intelligent men—artists and writers—with whom I talked, discussed, and argued, and female friends who were my confidantes in matters of romantic love. What is the meaning of love? we asked one another, and the answer was always: Suffering. Love means sorrowing and suffering. My friends cast meaningful looks in my direction; my poor dead Frenchman qualified me to speak in this manner.
As things fell out, I discovered New York to be a center for Freethinkers, women’s rights, muckraking journalism, artistic and musical experiments of all kinds. My aunt ran a shelter for battered wives and in those days surrounded herself with militant suffragists—women who were the lesser-known habitués of New York’s literary and cultural worlds and devoted themselves to intellectual clubs and social reform. In their early lives, as in my mother’s, these women had had more control over their own destinies. They had not been (as now) a class of idle women supported by wealthy husbands, but had worked hard, and therefore had expected and received the right to be eccentric, to smoke and play cards and tell stories, and to make fun of hypocrisy.
By all rights I should have become a bluestockinged wildwoman—an artist of pseudonymous fame and freakish habits; but it is a notoriously difficult thing to throw over the chains of the world’s expectations of females. I had seen my own mother as an example of what a woman could accomplish without a man, and my outrageous notions of male and female relations were cemented at the feet of those wildwomen friends of my aunt’s. If I had been born a man, I would have created for myself a world full of work and egoism and imagined that my whole life belonged to me. But since I was born a woman, I suffered the usual girlish desires and aspirations; and I believed that my life should eventually be joined to a husband’s. It went on seeming to me that the whole aim of Feminism must be to get the vote and to place a woman in the free position to marry whom she will—to ensure that her marriage relation never was one of owner and chattel but a partnership between agreeable companions.
I meant to wait before marrying, to be clearheaded and rational, to consider coolly the pros and cons of (doubtless) several proposals; but of course that was all thrown over when I met Wes. I was nineteen. In a manner somewhat like Edith and Otto Eustler, we had spent our childhoods rowing up and down the same rivers and sloughs but never had stood face-to-face until three thousand miles from the lower Columbia, seated at a Thinking Club of the New York Public Library. I should remember this meeting—what we were Thinking about—but do not, beyond the astonishment of learning that Wesley Drummond’s home and mine lay nearly within gunshot of each other.
His family had a fish receiving station and cold storage plant on a rocky point just to the west of Dahlia, from which they shipped frozen sturgeon and caviar by rail to the East Coast. I told him about my mother’s farm up Skamokawa Creek, which now was rented out to neighbors. We went over the names of people we knew in common and told certain gossip which had not made it across the intervening nine
or ten miles. I remember that he was passionate in his belief that the wealth of capitalism would shortly abolish poverty. I had just begun to see my stories into print, and he encouraged me to write, stating his belief that women’s minds should be satisfied as well as their hearts. We had read the same books. His eyes were a delicate green.
By the time I was twenty, I was a mother in addition to a wife, and within the next ten years would be the mother of five, and alone.
I have always been of two minds on the matter of Love. In one of them I am a fool for the romantic hero in buckskins, and the heroine who is a crack shot and binds up the poor boy’s wounds without swooning; they marry and live happily unto The End. But when I am in my other mind, I know that love is a longer, more difficult, and more interesting story.
The lower Columbia is a wilderness of gillnetters, horse-seiners, salmon boats, and fish traps, which the steamboats must negotiate without tangling their wheels. I have been aboard boats that lunged suddenly to one side or the other to avoid disaster—passengers thrown to their knees, china sent flying, lamps swinging crazily. Every now and then when a boat makes an urgent hairpin turn, someone is thrown over the rail.
Twenty-three days after my husband’s failure to return to his wife, a man’s body washed up near Stella, at the mouth of Germany Creek. This news was brought to me by a sheriff’s deputy, who stood with his hat in his hands, turning and turning it by the soft brim as he brought the words out laboriously. I suppose he expected me to fly into hysteria.
I was excused from viewing the body—Horace Stuband and Otto Eustler went in my place. Evidently the face, as well as body, were much destroyed, and the clothes remaining to the corpse were ragged and muddy remnants of blue serge such as Wes wore, along with half the men plying the river routes. Nothing remained of the pockets.
The lower river, of course, is home to numberless migrants, army
deserters, tramps, and ship jumpers, any one of whom might disappear without notice or report. Who was to say this was Wes’s body when it might just as well have been a friendless Bavarian hop-picker headed for the Finnish baths in Astoria?
When it was suggested to me that I might wish to claim the body, I said that I did not. I understood what was being offered: inasmuch as a deserted wife is held to be discreditable, here was the dignity of widowhood. But I always have preferred scandal to sympathy; and I had had twenty-three days to sound out my heart and to discover its druthers: I would rather hate a living husband than grieve a dead one.
C. B. D.
There is nothing in the whole world so unbecoming to a woman as a Nonconformist conscience.
Sun’y afternoon 2 Apr ’05 (Yacolt)
I am told there are a dozen mills within a two-mile radius of this town, and no proof can be more telling than the occasional scrawny young tree standing forlorn amidst the stumps and shattered brush either side of the railroad right-of-way. At sight of this shorn countryside, I have begun to relent a little in my opinion of Homer traipsing off into the tules to work. The homeguards here have a long walk and then some to bring them to uncut timber, burnt or green, and the big trees are sure to be away back in the deepwoods, for the nearby hills were hand-logged and re-hand-logged in days before the boom.
The town is unremarkable except for its late flowering. If
there were settlers here before ’03, then the greater part of them were taking up claims in the best interests of the timber companies, would be my guess. Now that the railroad has brought the logging industry to town, there are a few hopeful souls who have scratched at the ground between the stumps and planted hops, but I should be surprised if the town much survives the falling of the last tree.
Florence has her house very near the train yard—Melba pointed it out to me as soon as we had stepped down on the landing—but the mud was deep in the streets and Melba could not be persuaded to shuck her shoes and cross directly, which meant we must keep to the boardwalks where possible and take a tedious way around, which I’m afraid I did chafe at, being anxious to get past this necessary visit and deliver myself into the woods.
All the business buildings a-rowed beside the tracks are of a raw newness, and Florence likewise lives in a new little shack cobbled together of rough lumber and shakes. I have seen worse, and lived in them too. Melba called, “Florence,” against the shut door, her voice breaking a bit, and then with her usual impertinence promptly lifted the latch and stepped across the mudsill.
Upon every horizontal surface in that room sat a woman, her hands busied with needlework. Half a dozen faces lifted to us with strained, anxious attention. The girl who let her embroidery fall and came weeping onto Melba’s bosom was not Florence, surely—could not be, for Melba’s girl has a rosy round countenance of the sort people call a Sweetheart Face, and not this face all bone and ash—but oh, oh, and my heart sinking in my breast. There was a terrible moment, a quick shying away, an unreasonable dread for my own children left behind: I was run
through by a blind impulse to break and turn back. In such ways does a body defend itself from an unbearable pain.
Our entrance roused a little bustle of activity, and directly a lunch was brought forward and urged especially upon Florence, who sipped coffee and touched the chicken with her fork. Melba, sitting beside her, patted her knee from time to time, which invariably started them both into tears.
I sat over my own plate beside a woman with a no-nonsense look to her, and shortly I had as much news as there was to be had, though the crux of it is rumor and thirdhand tale: Evidently Homer and others heard Harriet’s cry of alarm, and following a trail of freakish big footprints, they came on tufts of coarse hair from bear or beast or wildman, and a scrap of Harriet’s shift. In the rain and mud the trail was lost, though, and now every man in that part of the woods is engaged in looking for sign. At Camp 8 they have shut down the logging show, which is an uncommon event; the injury or death of a man might only call for poles run through the sleeves of a coat and two men to haul him down from the woods when the boss declares there is sufficient time. But rough old fallers and buckers and heartless boss-loggers will weaken where a child is concerned, and men in camps lying miles away to the east and south are keeping a lookout. There have been a dozen sightings of “monstrous forms,” and three men claim to have seen little Harriet carried upon a hairy creature’s back like a yoke.
Of course, it is typical of men not to think of sending detailed and accurate information back to the waiting women, and every scrap of news reaching Yacolt is delayed and distorted by the distance. Generally Florence must wait for news to come to town with the occasional injured man. The country being rough and rock-ribbed, it is seemingly every bit as risky
to mount a search for monsters as to carry on with logging: four men have been carried down from the woods so far, of which two suffered from broken bones and two were shot by their nervous fellows in the deep brush. Homer evidently has not left off his searching even to comfort his wife, being unwilling to surrender the greater part of a day to travel here and back again. In any case, I should wonder what he would say to Florence if he came. That she must prepare herself for the worst?
“There is a general hope that if the beast’s den can be tumbled on, Harriet might yet be found alive.”
This last was said to me by a sober mind, and with a solemn face.
From the women in Florence’s house I have gained a better notion of how one must travel to reach Homer’s camp in the deepwoods, and this only confirms my belief that the trek is beyond Melba’s capabilities. In the morning (for I have missed the afternoon run) I shall have to hitch aboard a log train the six miles to Chelatchie Prairie at the terminus of the regular line and catch a little Shay engine up the spur line to Camp 6 on Canyon Creek. Evidently one must then walk five miles of flume to Camp 7 and two miles of footpath to reach Camp 8, away up the canyon. Since Melba is too weak and old for a hike of that kind, she’ll remain here with her daughter while I go on alone.
Immediately on finishing lunch, someone instigated a prayer, and every woman in the room went down on her knees, even an old lady of eighty or eighty-five whose joints crackled when she knelt. Melba and I are both stubborn in our separate beliefs, and I generally will neither bow my head nor kneel for prayers and devotions; but to coldly stand while Melba and Florence were on their knees praying Jesus to return Harriet harmless
would defeat even my own expectations. I let myself down to the floor and examined my clasped hands briefly before taking my glance around the room. Eyes were tightly shut beneath earnest frowns, lips were moving in devout silence. At length, a heavy woman with moles on her face, whose name had been told to me but which I’d promptly forgotten, opened her mouth and importuned the Lord on Harriet’s behalf in a series of platitudes and prescribed phrases which the others seemed to think well of. Then we stood again, and the women picked up their needlework and resumed the solemn business of Waiting For Word. When I have caught up these notes (I suppose I mean now) I shall go into town and buy my provisions, and tomorrow at the crack of dawn shall be off into the woods.
Once we were awakened in the middle of the night by the screams of a wild beast that sounded like the yells and laughter of a demented man. I took my rifle; it was moonlight; I went in to the field, but could not make up the animal; I let go a shot in its direction, for conscience’s sake. Never heard anything like it ever afterward. We thought it might have been a hyena; it may have been only an unusually gifted coyote.
Later, at another time, a large beast came to the edge of the cleared land, and would utter a scream that sounded like a frightened colt. I took my rifle, and a lantern, but the beast disappeared. My idea is, it was a cougar.
Early Days in Yacolt
C. B. D. (1889; unpublished)
It’s my belief there are only a few necessary conditions for female emancipation.
First, food preparation must be removed from the province of the home: I dream of a nourishing meal to which one adds only water; cheap and plentiful cafés; and refrigerated produce.
Then there must be a transformation of domestic duties through technology—principally the mechanization of heat and laundry. Freed of the labor of chopping and splitting wood, hauling and heating water, scrubbing and soaking and hanging up her family’s clothes, a woman’s real self will be able to have its day.
With the public spread of health care and birth control, women will be relieved of the unending cycle of maternity and nursing—freed, after raising through their infancy one or two or three children, to develop occupations suitable to their inclinations. And if there is available public education for all children unto the last degree, then every woman’s mind will be a fertile field for ideas and she will have been properly prepared for the life she chooses to occupy.
Lastly, of course, women need the vote.
We are already “free” in the sense of being considered no man’s possession. Of late there has been some improvement in a woman’s rights to property and to children in the case of divorce. But we are still politically disenfranchised and economically dependent, undereducated and—this is my belief—overpampered. With suffrage and these very few improvements and scientific advances, there will be no economic necessity to
marry; and if a woman chooses to marry, she will have been cut loose from onerous domestic responsibilities and will still retain her independence. I envision a day very soon when women as a class shall be guaranteed happiness. We lack only the technology.
Evening of the 2nd (Yacolt)
The hotels and saloons here, as in any lumbering town, are crowded in winters and on weekends, when loggers are forced out of the woods by bad weather or by the Sabbath, and this being a Sunday, men were scuffling on the sidewalks or sleeping drunk in the gutters when I passed uptown to find a store. I am at home in any village where the storefronts all trumpet the price of beer—was put at ease to find a few men, in the rumpled clothes they had slept in, standing before employment office chalkboards, gazing upon listings for axemen, rigging-slingers, buckers, and swampers.
Of course, with the uncommonly early spring weather, all the mills and shows are working twelve-hour shifts, and consequently the shops in town do the bulk of their trade on the weekends and do not trouble to close in honor of the Lord’s Day. In the Worthington’s store the shopkeeper was a Swede whose name was not Worthington, and he took my list between thumb and forefinger and examined it in wonder, as if it were the schematic of a ship that would sail to the moon.
“What’s we got here, eh? What’s is this?”
Having formed a clear idea of what lies between Yacolt and Camp 8, and how I might get from here to there, I had refined my little list of sustainables to a miserly few. At Camp 6 I can expect to receive the cook’s fare for lunch before stepping off
the end of the rails into the deepwoods; and once I’ve reached Camp 8 a cook supplies board to all that great search-party of men. Therefore I meant to pay Yacolt’s dear prices for only matches in tins (many matches, for this is wet country), plug tobacco (for, paradoxically, cigars may not be lit in the woods without risk of runaway fire), dried apricots, hardtack, chocolate, and coffee, which ought to keep me alive for the tramp from Camp 6 to Camp 8 and replenish me when I’m engaged in the grim business of the search. I asked also for a map of the Yacolt environs, especially a Company map marking off every spur line, backwoods camp, flume, and trail. It was evidently these items, one or all, which had confounded the shopkeeper; or it was the tin pants in a small man’s size, which I had put onto the list from an expectation that I’d be bucking brush and crawling into caves.
I should have told the fellow truthfully that I was on a terrible errand with bleak prospects, but in recent years have made it my habit, wherever tender or wretched feelings are concerned, to put on a show of coldness and disregard. Naturally I went on in my old jog-trot way, saying to the Swede, “As you see, they are stores for a flight to the moon.”
This facetiousness bewildered him no more than before. He swung his eyes to me with a slight frown and then posed a question and three more in a murmur of Swedish—inquiries evidently directed at his own ears—and upon hearing the answer, brightened considerably. “Sure, sure,” he said, and thumped the list with a blunt, blackened thumbnail. I supposed this to mean all had become clear to him: the ship in question would fly to the moon by helium power, after first being launched from the isle of Majorca by a giant rubber strap.
My small pile of stores appeared slowly on the counter. From
the shopkeeper’s frowns and gesticulations it became clear that I must settle for a general map covering half the territory of two states, which does not suit my purposes very well but is evidently the only map to be had. And he carried on a sporadic discussion with himself, arguing both sides of the question of chocolate: whether it was to be cake or powder. I know a word of Swedish here or there, but since my Swedish does not include “Majorca,” I kept still and waited for the man’s finding; and it fell out correctly that a lunar journey is better served by cake chocolate than by powdered.
I confess without shame, this little shopping expedition uptown was a bright, brief escape from the terrible unhappiness in Florence’s house, and when I came out again into the bustling street—men carrying on their affairs in the fine sunlight quite as if nothing were amiss in the world—I found I was short of the necessary courage for going into that cave of despair again. I am a hopeless lilyliver, evidently, and if there had been a hermit sitting on a hill nearby, I suppose I would have set out for the top. In the event, my groceries and I made a vagrant and cowardly return through town, west to the end of the business district and then north among the little houses and chicken yards and stacks of cordwood, until we chanced onto a baseball field where three men were attempting to burn out a yellowjackets’ nest in the ground, well out from the first-base line.
A boy with a wooden leg sat on the three-tier bleachers between third base and home plate, watching this activity with interest. He sat on the lowest bench and rested his elbows back on the next high, with his wooden leg and his other one outstretched before him. An east wind had sprung up and cleared out the smoke of burning slab, sawdust, and mill-ends, the great piles that go on burning day and night for years in such towns as
these, and the sun shone through for a moment. The bleachers struck me as a fine place to enjoy the improbable spring sunlight and several minutes of free entertainment.
The boy wore a police uniform with brass buttons but no insignia, which is a get-up I know loggers are fond of wearing, seeing as they are inexpensive and warm and known to wear well. He was half a dozen years older than George, I thought, and with George’s smart look to his face. His name, he said, was Dick Musch. When we had shared our opinions of the proper way to eliminate a yellowjackets’ nest and speculated happily on what might happen in the coming minutes, I leant back and rested my elbows on the bench beside him and commented upon his wooden leg in a mild and roundabout way. “I believe I’ve seen half a dozen crippled men in coming four blocks through town,” I said, which didn’t seem to offend or surprise him.
“Donkey boilers blow up,” he said easily. “People fall from flumes, band saws break, a tree walks, a leg gets caught in the bight of the donkey cable. I guess there is about a hundred ways to get killed or hurt in the woods and the mills.”
While the hornet hunters fumbled to place their firepot in the hole and cover the hole with a big homemade sheet-metal hood, Dick Musch and I exchanged one-legged-man stories. I told him about the old Russian whose leg was lost in a fishing accident, and when he applied to the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union for help, they bought a wooden leg and leased it to the fellow, for fear that an outright donation would set a dangerous precedent.
The boy knew an old man, a chute-flagger, who had ridden a runaway car down the hill into Yacolt. When he was thrown off and his friends came running to ask if he was hurt, he said no, he wasn’t, not unless you counted that he had broken his
leg; and he brandished the shattered wooden foot.
“Here is what that old man give me,” he said, “when my own leg was cut off.” He pulled from his pocket a limp and dog-eared postcard of a one-legged tramp, hat in hand at the back porch of a fine house. Kind Lady, I had the misfortin ter loose me leg, was the tramp’s line, and the lady’s firm reply, Well, it’s no use lookin for it here, I ain’t got it!
“It cheered me up considerable,” Dick said, looking down fondly at the card.
“Are you twenty yet?” I asked him.
“No ma’am, I’m seventeen.”
I had supposed him to be young, but this news—seventeen!—brought on a sudden moment of irrational dread, a vague presentiment of accident or maiming befalling one of my own children while I am off rescuing Harriet—but in the next moment the yellowjackets came out of the ground and the hapless bee killers scattered in a fine panic across the field, arms flailing and hands clawing at shirt collars. The boy fell to laughing in such a sweet way that when he rocked forward to clasp his knees, the one just above the whittled smooth ash-wood leg and the neat fold and pin of the trouser leg, I forgot all worry for my sons—forgot Harriet, even, in that bubbling musical sound of pure joy.
I had meant to get from Dick Musch his mother’s name and address, having the somewhat maudlin idea that I might write to her about this meeting with her son. But it slipped my mind along with the other things, and I didn’t remember it until long after Dick and I had shaken hands and gone our separate ways. I will tell you when I remembered it: it was when I was unfolding my blanket-bed on the floor of Florence’s cottage just a while ago and from the small bedroom at the back I heard Florence’s
voice, a wordless moaning, and then her mother’s whisper, her mournful comforting words, “Here, here, come here, lay your head down in your mother’s lap.”
A woman of my queer and scandalous habits is seldom made to receive visits or to pay them, for which reason the hours between supper and bed can be entirely given over to the small domestic dramas. When we are not playing duplicate Whist, the boys and I often read aloud, going by turns round the room, and I have made condemned books a particular center of interest: Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (which was dull and which the boys would not put up with), Balzac, Fielding, Zola, and especially Oscar Wilde, whom the world knows I admire highly. We have lately been reading “The Isle of Caninus,” which story we have come through in three days; and though Kingsley’s tale is a poor patch on Verne, and his story lifted almost entirely from Welsh tales of the Fortunate Islands, the boys are loyal to any story in which dogs roam in a free state. Even Kingsley’s steely-hearted hero, Lord Coquardz, was so struck by the cheerfulness of creatures in their naturally wild condition that—George was reading now—“never afterward would he see fit to confine a dog to leash or crate.”
I’ve suffered through readings in the drawing rooms of literati, at which it was strictly forbidden to interrupt, but my sons are inclined to break in with shouts or whispers of complaint, corrections, queries, approval, as befits the reader and the story, and I’m inclined to think they’re better listeners for it. Now Oscar asked our general assembly, “What’s a leash?” Inasmuch as Buster was at that moment lying prostrate and twitching with dream under the dining room table, I intended to make a sour remark, intended to say, Our house is the very exemplar of the Isle of Caninus, as neither the dog nor
the children know the meaning of the word “leash.” But George, speaking the words with slow gravity and a considered manner, said, “Old Gus Statmuller, how he ties up his dogs.” And the other boys all lifted their eyes to him with an admiring look.
Fatherless, George has made up his own manhood, and his brothers and friends consider him bold and high flying, cunning, deep. He is sensible of this and plays to it, without veering from his natural character, which is solemn and iconoclastic. He has only recently given up a childhood determination to be a lighthouse keeper and now has in mind a career as a muckraking journalist for McClure’s magazine. It was George, of course, who authored, printed, and delivered to the neighbors, as well as to every fence post, a vehement and righteous broadside regarding Augustus Statmuller’s habit of tying his youngest child in the yard with his dogs, a child of an age with Oscar but feebleminded, damaged at birth by a doctor with clumsy forceps. Several neighborhood women of tender sensibilities thereafter begged Statmuller to take the child inside, which accomplished nothing; but the Wahkiakum County sheriff advised him similarly, and people now say he keeps the child tied to a leg of the kitchen stove.
Without a pause, George went on reading down toward the end of Lord Coquardz’s adventures on Caninus, but while still pages from the end he closed the book in midsentence and said matter-of-factly, “Anybody would know what happens next,” which wasn’t true—Kingsley is nothing if not inventive. But Lewis and Frank together trumpeted, “Sure! Anybody!” which forced Oscar to say he knew the end too, and then it was only poor Jules, with a wail of dismay, who begged to be told. There was a brief flurry of cruel lying in which the twins and Oscar advanced an assortment of horrific endings: “His throat is cut by the queen of the Fortunate Islands!” “He buries the treasure in a sack soaked with poison, and the dogs dig it up and they all die!” Jules wailed the louder, and George, who had been looking off with a
fine theatrical disinterest, allowed himself to be drawn slowly into the argument. He began to tell an elaborate plot of his own, involving the intrepid Lord Coquardz with, first, Hermaphrodite, then Xerxes, on an archipelago inhabited by dwarfs. It was a meandering invention, intricate and unsolvable, but the other boys followed it with shouts of devotion; and when the end was reached and the loose ends snipped off wholesale, they were satisfied.
Editors, I shall hope—every one of them.
C. B. D.
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Camp 6 (in the woods) 3 Apr
I told Melba and Florence to expect me gone by the first light, as I planned to rise early and catch the 5:30 train to Chelatchie Prairie. In the cold half-darkness, as I was putting on my traveling pants and buttoning a wool shirt and jacket and lacing my boots, I heard someone stirring in the little back room, and shortly here came Melba, dressed and clutching both her duffel and a stubborn look. Of course, she is too decrepit to make the trip up the flume and the trail to Camp 8, and we had thoroughly agreed upon her waiting in Yacolt with her daughter while I went up into the woods alone. But since I have long known Melba to be willful and bullheaded, I don’t know why I should ever be surprised when she changes her mind.
She followed after me onto the sidewalk and shut the door
quietly on Florence. We went without words through the smoke-gray streets to an open café on Railroad Avenue across from the station landing and drank our coffee in silence and ate our mush in silence while the day paled, and finally I said, “What in the world was the point of my coming up here, then, if you insist upon going into the woods yourself?”
And she put her chin out and said, “What is the point of my staying behind?” Florence, being with child, is absolutely prevented from the trip, but Melba is convinced the duty should fall to some one of the family, which must be her. I let this foolish argument stand out from the shore, and after suffering the silence, she said, “Well, I won’t hold you up, if it comes to that. You can put me beside the tracks.” Which I coldly agreed to do.
The caboose of the Chelatchie Prairie train, attached to a long line of trucks and flatcars, has doubtless done duty as coach for traveling loggers in various stages of illness or intoxication, as well as all manner of agents and cruisers, wives and filles de joie, which must account for the sanguine way the conductor and the brakeman took four of us aboard. His passengers comprised a man with a handlebars mustache and a mild manner, bound for Amboy, bearing with him a little girl in a blue crepe jumper; and us two women, going all the way up the line, one of us well upholstered and getting along in years, and the other a model of immodesty, decked out in trousers which were rucked up into high boots. The brakeman, imperturbable, laying eyes on me without much of a blink, ushered us into the forward compartment as if it were his front parlor. “Ye’ll be cold standing out there. Come in to the stove.”
The car was stuffy, with a prevailing odor of smoke and leather cushions and grease. The coal bin was built up from the floor of the caboose close beside the long-necked, clubfooted
stove. A shovel stood in the coal, and an iron washstand in the corner amidst a litter of soap and soiled towels. Boots with thick worn soles dangled from a hook on one short wall, and a yellow oilskin coat on the opposite wall. We sat on the benches and put our bags behind our shoes.
There was a great deal of shunting from the mills to the station before the conductor and brakeman finally climbed to their high chairs, opposite to each other in the turret of the coach; and at last the engine made up a little steam and bore away from Yacolt. For the first short while, the rails ran past little farms whose few acres have been hewn from the forest. These tracts were once thickly set with trees that rose three hundred feet to the sky and shut out the sun like a lid; now the pale sunrise fell glittery and tender through the haze of mill smoke, and between the stumps in the hop fields, bare winter poles stood as much as twelve feet, and thin as the bones of Longshanks.
Soon the little carved-out fields gave way, and on either side of the tracks stood a desolation of burnt and cutover forests, with the occasional forlorn spar left behind due to puniness or rot, and then unburnt jungly stands, all of it the twenty- and thirty-year-old stump growth and weedy alder that has sprung up where the old hand-loggers cleared out the big trees with ox teams in days long past.
Melba had been fidgeting with her hands and finally she put her head over and confided something to the young girl, after which she lifted her head and declared to the man who had brought her, “You won’t let her wander off into the woods,” as if this fell in the middle of an intimate correspondence. He was not very taken aback. “I won’t. I sure won’t,” he said with a slight smile, and he gently petted the girl’s knee.
“They’s a girl took by a orang-utan up in the mountains this
week,” the conductor called down from on high, which was apparently not news to anyone in the car. A short, interested conversation followed, consisting almost entirely of old rumors and woods-ape stories of years past, and sober speculation among the three men present. I left it to Melba to reveal us or keep still, and she flattened her mouth and kept still, looking straight down to her clasped hands, even while hearing of miners found dead with their heads bitten off. Afterward, when they had gone on to talking of other things, I looked and found her eyes were fixed out the window, her hands loosed from each other, resting separately on her knees.
At Amboy junction the train slacked speed, and the man and his daughter went off there. They walked the ties a short way and then crossed over through the shadow of a small woodlot and took a cross-planked road that pierced the green hills toward the northwest. Once onto the road, the girl began a little skip, and the man swung off his hat and beat it lightly against her stockinged legs; her laugh carried across the air as if it were a bell chiming.
A man I took to be an agent for the Twin Falls Logging Company, or I suppose a little company accountant or surveyor or saw seller, got on board, gripping his bag and carrying in the other hand a yellow novel. He promptly took out the novel and began to read it, and after some minutes of distant and negligent study of the wrapper, I determined that it was not one of mine.
While the caboose sat waiting for the return of the engine, which evidently had gone up the short way to Amboy, a little crowd began to gather. A man carrying homemade prune wine in a pail came out of the nearby pastures, and boys with dogs appeared from somewhere and climbed over the high steps
of the caboose, and a shaky old man wandered forth from a building that might have been a brothel, or a saloon, or a café. There was a friendly exchange of information—what price for the wine, what’s to be made of this unseasonable sunny weather, and of course some speculation and newsmongering as regards the “orang-utan” who had stolen off with a child in the backwoods—and when the train pulled out, the little boys ran alongside and shouted good-byes quite as if we were all old acquaintances, and even the Twin Falls man looked up from his reading to wave a hand to those left behind. His book, I saw, was The Ghostly Galleon: A Tale of the Steel-Arm Detective.
In certain seasons of the year there are shallow-draft steamboats as can make it up the North Fork of the Lewis River as far as Etna and Speelyei, and therefore Chelatchie Prairie is a town older than Yacolt by some few years, having been settled by Finns and Swedes who put dairy cows on the natural pasture and in years past took their produce the short way north to Speelyei and thence to the Outside. But the logging show has made Yacolt the center of its universe, and Chelatchie Prairie therefore has become a pitiful little town without the look of progress or prosperity about it, the only new buildings being a mill and a railroad station. We loitered on the platform, as pathetic as hobos, before hitching a ride with a little Shay engine going out the short spur line to Camp 6. Spur lines being temporary, they are no more than light rails fastened to flimsy ties on loose and fickle roadbeds, and though a Shay can hunker down and climb a tree if it receives the order, and turn a curve so sharp as to shine the headlight right back over the engineers shoulder into the log trucks hauling behind, it is not the Union Pacific: we were invited to sit on a flatcar, or cling to the bell rope on the forward part of the Shay. We rode the flatcar past
the Chelatchie millpond and around the steep north side of a mountain with the Indian spirit-name Tumtum, and so on through the shattered and cutover woods well up the Canyon Creek.
I suppose there are some camps where the little Shay would go puffing in with great drama, rolling straight up to the landing with the sound of axes ringing on every side and the thunderclap of falling trees and the thudding donkey engines rocking the sky, but it is more often the case to find the train has stopped on a level stretch of track where a branch road joins and a few houses show in the distance; and if you’re not to waste hours going up the spur to load wood before coming down to the landing, you’re advised to jump off into the mud at the side of the track and walk a mile over ties to the camp buildings, where your arrival goes unnoticed and you find all the great woods activity is a distant mutter of sound and fury, off behind a ridge littered with the wreckage of last summer’s logging.
Melba wouldn’t complain but huffed and wheezed alarmingly as she went up the ties toward Camp 6, and her usual short-legged rocking stride quickly became a sailor’s roll. She shifted her duffel from the left hand to the right and back to the left and cast a glance without quite lifting her head from its low-set bulldog stance. “What are those houses there? Have we got to it? I should have thought there’d be more buildings.” There were a few houses upon a slight rise standing well apart from the other collected buildings of the camp, which I took for the private houses of the manager and his fellows.
“The camp is up the way yet, Melba. Here, sit down, find a stump. Put down your bag and sit.” She was eventually persuaded, and we leant against high old stumps until she had
caught her breath enough to peer down the rails and find the buildings that comprised Camp 6.
“Well, there it is,” she said with a little cluck of satisfaction.
It was a highballing twentieth-century camp: not an ox to be found, but a shed for storing piles of heavy chains and coils of wire cable under cover, and a great long machine shop where men were mightily engaged keeping the mechanical devices and enginery in working order. In other respects a camp entirely ordinary for its size: the commissariat fifty feet in length; the cookhouse and dining room perhaps ten feet longer than the store, and wide in proportion; five bunkhouses with accommodations each for twenty-five or thirty; to say nothing of meat house, oil house, smithy, stables, filing house, and a tent church of the Northwest Lumbermen’s Evangelical Society. Dozens of tents and shacks stood at the perimeter, homes of men who valued solitude or men whose families were with them in camp. I had known of a camp on the lower Columbia boasting rose hedges and walnut trees, as well as a Swiss gardener, but admit to its rarity. Round the buildings of Camp 6, in the more usual way, were desolate stumps of trees and the great litter and disorder of splintered tree limbs and tops, empty casks and tin cans, soiled straw, broken tools, abandoned railroad grades.
A woman stood out from one of the houses in that separate little community of boss places and called to us in a shrill voice, “My dears, are you lost, or looking for work?” which struck me wrong, and I called back, “My dear, we are looking for the rose garden.” She stood a moment in silence and then retreated.
“You have a wicked, rude mouth,” Melba said, which was delivered as a kind of shocked announcement, and which I did not deny.
We went on leaning upon stumps until Melba had sufficiently
recovered her breath, and then minutes more while she fidgeted and pursed her mouth, which is a habit of hers, and a warning and portent of coming commotion. In my experience she is at such moments often preparing herself to make some troublesome petition, or to lodge some vicious complaint against me or my children or the arduous conditions under which she is made to labor in our home.
“He can be dirty mean, you know,” was what she finally brought out, and her slight look, as it passed over me, seemed composed equally of embarrassment and insinuation. Since I didn’t know what to make of this, I should have made the safest answer, which is silence, but my own habit is always to toss something out. I believe I said, “Then he’s only true to the form,” without knowing in the slightest which man we were condemning. Melba knows my radical opinions and the general disrespect with which I like to speak of the male sex, but her round face colored to a fine pink. She said, “Well, most men as I’ve known were decent to their wives and their children. And I know you don’t like to speak of it, but Wesley Drummond was a good husband who never laid a hand on you nor none of the boys, that I ever seen.” She nodded tightly as if to draw a line beneath these words, and then said, “Which is more than I can say for Homer, and that’s all I wanted to say.”
I took this to mean there was a good deal more she wished to say, but though I pressed her, could get nothing further. What was I supposed to make of such dark hinting as this? The worst of several possibilities occurred to me: that Homer had killed his own daughter through beating her too hard, and had buried her in the woods. I don’t put this past a man of a certain temperament, and therefore cannot entirely rule it out, but I have got hold of my imagination by now and believe I know what
Melba was getting at, which is only that she blames Homer’s harsh ways for causing Harriet to run off and get lost.
We trudged on to the office, where we were received with surprise and courtesy—the orang-utan—horrible business—hope yet—innocent child—and made to understand the way up to Camp 8 was a turrible slog fur a lady—with a pitying look at poor Melba. Would we like to pack a lunch from the dining room? We would. Have a lie-down until the cook’s flunky brought it round? Most obliged. We were then let into quarters at the rear of the store where there were three beds, evidently used by traveling timber cruisers and Twin Falls Company men. One of the beds was in disarray, and upon another lay a man’s open shaving kit, as well as soiled socks and underdrawers. This seemed to give our host a moment of fluster, though he recovered in good order and swept the offending articles under his arm as he backed out and left us to our privacy.
Melba sank to the one neat bed as if we’d finished up a trek over the mountains of Tibet. Her face was scarlet, the sleeves and collar of her shirtwaist wilted and wrinkled from damp sweating, her breath a dangerous rale. She lies there now, snoring, while I sit upon the other bed and write these words. I said to her bluntly, “The way from here will be all mud and hills and entirely afoot, seven miles or more, which ought to be all the argument necessary why you’re not fit to go on.” Her idea of physical conditioning lies in a weekly scrubbing of the kitchen floors and a quarterly beating of the parlor rugs. In recent years I believe she’s seldom been called on to walk farther than from one Astoria shop to the next, and the boat that ferries her around Skamokawa is often as not rowed by Stuband or one of my sons, all of which has left her legs sinewless and her lungs enfeebled. She is a stubborn hen, though, and had to be worn
down and led by the wattles before finally granting my point. She then argued for waiting on at Camp 6, until made to see that it wouldn’t help the cause. We agreed, finally, that I would go on alone, and after lunch and a rest she would take the Shay back to Yacolt and keep a vigil with Florence, which of course had been my original idea; and though I had a keen wish to remind her of this, the set of her face warned me from it. Melba, as I have come to know, can be steered but never driven.
“Why are inferior novels sometimes very widely read?” P. G. B.
Because a good many readers of novels do not know the difference between good and bad work; as a good many people do not know the difference between good and bad architecture, and build ugly houses when they might build beautiful ones. Because crudely written novels often deal with subjects in which people are deeply interested at the moment. Because novels of inferior quality sometimes have considerable narrative interest; there appear from time to time men and women who have the gift of telling a story but no feeling for the art of writing. Because tales of inferior quality are occasionally illuminated by knowledge of character and by humor. Not all inferior novels are hopelessly bad. It must be added that there are some popular novels the success of which is inexplicable; they are cheap in style, clumsily constructed and untrue to life. In the reading public,
as in every other public, there appears to be a residuum of natural depravity in matters of taste and intelligence.
HAMILTON W. MABIE, “MR. MABIE ANSWERS SOME QUESTIONS,”
Ladies Home Journal, November 1905
The woman clapped the sleeve iron to the shirt front and ran the heavy narrow nose along the gathered pleat that overlapped the buttonholes, and then the next pleat and the next, polishing the tucks to the seams, and she then snatched a hot sadiron from the stove and smoothed the shirt across the back in broad strokes, and turned the shirt and pressed the yoke, and turning again ran across the seams at the caps of the sleeves and pressed the narrow selvage of the collar band and flattened the lower sleeves and the buttonhole band, then placed the seven-pound iron on the stove again and took the little sleeve iron and pushed into the gathers of the sleeve caps and smoothed the cuffs flat, turning the tip of the iron delicately into the small pleats at the wrist.
She was accustomed to the ironing board, which sat the floor imperfectly and shifted its weight from end to end with the shifting weight of the iron. She stood before the board with her hips wide, shifting her own weight from foot to foot without consciousness of it any more than she was conscious of the shifting board and the slight complaint of the wooden braces. The irons were nickel plated and polished, three heavy sadirons and the little sleeve iron ground by perfect machinery, every iron true, face-shaped, double pointed, though the detachable
wood handle sometimes would release an iron without warning, and always would wobble in her hand, a loose motion on the stroke and again on the pull, which she was no longer conscious of after so many years, the same irons, the same board, every Tuesday the ironing and mending, the women’s shirtwaists and then the boys’ overalls, the stockings and vests and the boys’ blouses and shifts and plain shirts, and the women’s skirts, the man’s collarless work shirts.
On Mondays she washed and churned. On Wednesdays and again on Saturdays she scrubbed the white pine kitchen floor with a brush, sand, and soap she had made herself of hog fat, lye, and wood ashes. The boards in that floor didn’t fit together as tightly as she would have liked, and the cracks were inclined to accumulate dirt and old crumbs of crackers and the dust of flour and cornmeal, which if it wasn’t gotten up quickly would bring ants and mice; and as she sat on her shoes spreading a thin lake of water and brushing it hard across the boards and down into the cracks, she sometimes would think of the boys, the youngest two crawling on that floor as babies, how they liked to lick the crumbs from the cracks. Thursdays or Fridays she baked bread and pies, and on the other days or in other hours, and according to the season, sewed curtains, cushions, and lamp shades, made carpet from rags, tended to sick neighbors, took up and beat carpet, cooked the meals, made jell, cider, pickles, and preserves, cut stove wood, blacked the stove, painted the rain barrel, oiled the woodwork, planted and weeded the garden.
For some of these chores she had the help of one boy or another, but she considered the children in her care more trouble than relief. In truth, she had grown too set in her ways to turn over the work to clumsy hands. Her own child, a daughter, was
long since grown, and though she was fond of the boys, the little boys especially, she tired of them readily and found her greatest comfort in the long quiet of schooldays, alone in the house. She was accustomed to the lonely and monotonous nature of housework, as she was accustomed to the loose handle of the iron, and seldom remarked on it.
The entire of her adult life had been lived in remote whereabouts, and inconvenience was something she took also as a matter of course. That women Outside enjoyed gaslights, municipal water, domestic plumbing, commercial ice, coal furnaces, steam radiators—this seemed to her quite unrelated to her own situation. Telephone lines had been brought to Chinook and Ilwaco; at Brookfield, she had heard, the Meglers had an Edison graphophone with wax disc records and a morning-glory horn; in Grays River there was a bowling alley; at Altoona, Hans Peterson ran about the mouth of the river in a gasoline launch. That such things might make their way to her, here at the ragged edge of the Frontier, she found an interesting though airy hope, rather like a Utopist vision, something to be looked forward to in a vague way but not to be counted on. She had little confidence and less interest in the idea of Progress, not having noticed much improvement in people’s happiness with the improvement of machinery.
She was fifty-two, with graying hair and weak eyes, a ready temper, and an implacable need for orderliness, both in her surroundings and in the daily and seasonal round of her work. The smell of clean pressed laundry, suggestive of starch and heat and soap, satisfied her in a way she could never have articulated.
She carried the bundles of shirts and overalls off to rooms in the house furnished with bureaus and dressers, and afterward, it being Tuesday, she retired to her attic room for a half-holiday.
Her employer was a supporter of the eight-hour workday but had not made the leap from the general to the particular; the woman’s work as a housekeeper and child-minder ended at seven o’clock in the evening, with Sundays and half-Tuesdays to spend at her discretion. Her secret habit, of a Tuesday, was to read the newspaper through and through while reclining upon her bed without stockings or corset.
While she read of a cap-makers’ strike in New York, and of the prominent evangelists holding revival meetings in Portland, and of a rich woman in dread of being poisoned, the pressed and folded clothes took up the smell of the cedar shavings lying in white-waisting sachets in the dresser drawers. It was of course unknown to her that the smell of cedar carried in clean clothes would years afterward have the power to spark off long wordless flutters of memory in the boys—this woman who had once been their caregiver returning to them and streaming away from them as live coals will blow suddenly across the darkness on a flaw of wind.
Afternoon of 3rd (top of the flume)
I am continually amazed at the paucity of imagination where the loggers’ naming of landforms is concerned, but Canyon Creek is a plain and apt call, the creek brawling down through a narrow basalt gorge and Camp 6 lying just where the gorge flattens somewhat and takes a wider stance. They have cleared out the trees on the near and easy ground, and now take their logs from five miles up the reach of the canyon and send them down to the camp through an arrangement of flumes not much less pretentious than a Roman aqueduct. At the catch basin, hallooing over the roar and spout of logs plunging off the end
of the slideway, the men told me I should have trouble walking the flume, as the eight-inch catwalk is a precarious path even for a man, and in dirty weathers a flume tender will slip off every now and then and be killed or crippled. I told them even a woman may slip and be killed, but she would never tolerate dirty weather, and I climbed up to the walk and set off while their brains still scrambled for purchase. When they had got their gears moving, however, they sent a man climbing up after me, doubtless instructed to escort the helpless woman the entire five miles of the catwalk with an intent to ensure her safety, which of course had the effect of endangering it, as I then had to step out briskly to keep up appearances.
Logging of my acquaintance on the Skamokawa sloughs and creeks relies on the splash dam and the spring freshet to move sawlogs downhill, which has kept me from much experience of flumes, but I became acquainted in a hurry. The flume follows the creeks winding course, but being a man-made and wooden river, it clings by a miracle of modern technology to the high wall of the canyon, and the little plank catwalk follows the flume in such a way that the steep rushing trough is always at your hip, the water slipping by with the unremitting thump and scrape of sawlogs caroming hell-for-leather downstream, while catwalk and flume together bridge and rebridge the creek and its shoots, offering at every hand giddy views down to the white rope of the mountain river, and ahead to spindling timbers supporting the next terrible spiderweb of trestle, the next oncoming curve leaping out over the abyss. Walking a flume is just the sort of brisk living as draws the blood right out of my head, and this of course raises Melba’s old question: What could have possessed Homer to bring his Harriet up this high-way?
The fellow sent after me had the gaunt and sorrowful face, the pasty complexion of a Russian. I used up my supply of Russian on him and then, clinging to the flume, took a careful look behind in order to collect my reply. He stood at his ease on the skinny catwalk, his long arms clasped behind him on the handle of his peavey hook and his sorrowful gaze going past me, and at length said in plain English, “I don’t follow, ma’am, but if you’re swearing at me, then I ought to say this wasn’t none of my idea.”
He was a flume tender, he said when we had made up our quarrel. He had the work of patrolling the lower half of the catwalk looking for jams or leaks, the bane of flume operators, and of clearing the jams or signaling if there was a break. A log will take a curve too fast and leap right out of the trough, he said, or jam up and divert the following logs over the edge of the flume and down; a turn of logs will pile up on a curve, and the weight of wood and dammed water will cause a flume box to stove in, in which case all the water and wood arriving from above goes spilling down in the canyon until the gap is discovered and the flume rebuilt.
This news of logs flying through the air did nothing to stiffen my manly nerve, but the flume tender himself, following along persistently behind me, was an unexpected comfort. He began by helpfully pointing out waste wood along the route of the flume, which I could glimpse for myself and which led to a tedious redundancy, inasmuch as there was sufficient lost lumber below us to build a dozen miles of trestle or an entire mill town complete with several dining halls and a dance pavilion. In any case I am accustomed to the waste of timber, as the creek banks below the splash dams of the lower Columbia are a tangle of stranded logs which must lie there until a bigger splash moves
them along, or until such time as someone invents new machinery to lift them out.
But having a considerate nature, and having evidently guessed or been told the point of my errand, he soon turned to encouraging tales of miraculous rescues and escapes: a baby which fell from its father’s arms and flashed down on the flume, where it was snatched up safe in the hands of the surprised flume tender; a runaway train bearing nineteen loads of logs which came down the main line into Yacolt and, going off the end of the track, slid straight on down the county road, traveling fast and upright and gradually coming to rest without encountering a single dog, woman, child, or baby carriage. He supposed I would be relieved and comforted to hear that flumes transport not only the ordinary lumber and sawlogs and shingle bolts but every sort of article from crates of groceries to catches of fish, as well as the occasional injured party borne out to the hospital. Of course, if Harriet must be carried out of the woods with a broken leg, I will hope that she’s also catatonic and senseless, for although the Canyon Creek flume is a short five-mile slide downhill at better than a mile a minute and the trail otherwise is a tedious and hard roundabout, I believe, for myself, if I fell on my axe, I should rather take my chances with gangrene and a slow painful jostle carried out on the backs of my fellowmen, than plunge down the flume in a boat having the shape and velocity of a sawlog.
We came at last to the flume tender at the upper end, who, when he’d gotten over his surprise at seeing a woman climbing up the catwalk, scrambled down like a monkey into the complicated geometry of the trestle and hung there while we passed single file over his head. The two men exchanged the most casual of greetings and lengthy summaries amounting to an All’s Clear
At Both Ends, and after we had passed by him, the monkey clambered up to the catwalk again and sauntered off downhill, giving the occasional drift-log a cautionary jab with his peavey hook.
My own dear flume tender, as I discovered from a chance remark, was a reader of newspapers, and when I heard this I turned our talk away from close shaves and perilous lifeboats—entirely away from the lurking but unspoken business of a child lost in the deepwoods. We enlivened the air with our fair knowledge of the world’s doings and our opinions of how things were being conducted. We argued over the future of capitalism and prospects for the end of the Russo-Jap war, as well as the possibility that as men are more knowledgeable and more advantaged by technology, they may become more rational, and whether this transformation—together with radium power—might bring about the millennium.
We had a vigorous discussion of the mind of the educated woman. Under the old regime, I told him, a woman would pledge her housekeeping and baby-tending services to a man, along with certain social gains and regular sexual relations, all in exchange for economic security. But intellectual development renders a woman less dependent on marriage for her physical support (which I have proven in my own life), and as women are permitted to read Herbert Spencer and work with calculus, there may come an end to their sewing on buttons and embroidering pillow-slips.
I would not have been surprised if a rough and whiskered flume tender living way back in the wilderness had objected most strenuously to such an idea. The vast majority of men, even in these modern times, still require a lisping, clinging creature with a willingness to worship the masculine form. I have
no doubt that such men as Homer Coffee or Melba’s drunkard husband, Henry Pelton, fear women’s access to higher education will create a race of monsters—unsexed creatures with clubbed hair and a blighting power. But the flume tender gave way before my arguments and offered his own mild opinion that a woman with a complete understanding of the clockworkings of the universe is a woman in closer touch with nature.
I wondered then, as I do now, if he might have been a man hiding his lamp under a basket, so to speak. It’s well known that the remote logging camps are scattered with educated men—lawyers, doctors, teachers, men who have held important positions in business—who have turned to the hermit life after legal or personal calamity of one kind or another. I asked him nothing of that kind and offered him nothing of my own history: such is the Western way.
I sit now at the top of the flume—having shaken his hand and seen him back down the catwalk—refreshing myself with an apple and sandwich on a stump well apart from the furor of the logging, while I bring events up to date on these pages. On another sheet I have scribbled down the outline of a little story in which the hero is a flume tender of knightly attributes, driven into the wild West by tragic circumstances in the civilized East, and whose heroine is a pretty though stalwart girl, forced to cross miles of precarious and collapsing catwalk in order to save the life of her wounded beloved.
If I were writing in a serious vein, I should worry that the literary value and aesthetic considerations of “women’s writing” has never been seriously addressed at all. Women with a literary vocation have in times past been banished to the periphery, where they were encouraged
to focus upon letter-writing and the intimate diary. But writing is a profession which is now said to be thoroughly compatible with the modern understanding of a woman’s role: the “authorine,” after all, may work at home out of the public eye, close to the nursery, the sickroom, the parlor, the kitchen, and thus bring into the family a modest income which does not challenge the idea that a woman’s first duty is to her husband and children. That she must write, or try to, between visits, dinners, housework, sewing, and so on is understood.
Of course, while we are told that writing is one of the few careers now open to women on equal terms with men, women who wish to write are relegated to special fields where we will not disturb or occupy the space designated for the male Artist. In men’s literature, of course, there may be Human Beings in all their terrible contradictions and distress: men and women who struggle with their ignorance, their doubt; men and women who are overwhelmed and exhausted by their circumstances but who, despite bleakness of landscape, refuse to be overcome by the violence, cruelty, and apparent hopelessness of their societies. Women, on the other hand, should write only about other women and the domestic issues of love and nurturing (and nothing else); in women’s literature, women must be incapable of committing evil deeds or even imagining them; in women’s novels, heroines should always be good and generous, and when they are unjustly overpowered or attacked, they must seek a male champion.
And since women are rarely mentioned in articles and other works of literary criticism that present a history of literature, these omissions are compensated for by including separate chapters dedicated to “women who write” and preparing collections of stories and essays just for women (that in general are not read by men). One can presume the literary standards in such a “one-eyed, blinking sort o’ place” must suffer accordingly.
Of course, I am not great myself—cannot take myself seriously as
an Artist. I write Romance, certainly, full of action and a wild, fierce life—stories without much more than a glimpse of the shop or the town, stories in which there are frozen landscapes and fiery interiors, wild mountains, rivers whose sources have never been hunted out—but my writing is frankly “light” and does not try to be anything else: the lower forms of cloak-and-sword, without a glimpse of the Truth.
As to plot, I am in substantial agreement with Haggard: there must be a sacred stone, and in front of the altar a trapdoor under which burns a constant fire into which condemned prisoners are thrown. There may very well be a gigantic volcano beneath which lies a vast limestone cavern illuminated by columns of fire or electrical light from a mysterious source. I am fond of colliding planets, invisible airships, elixirs that confer immortality, and crumbling temples guarded by ancient snares and pitfalls. In my stories, mystics and villains enter a drugged trance, leave their bodies, and travel through the world on a spiritual plane. I am a devotee, like Verne, of the possibilities of science and engineering: bulletproof vests, lie-detector chairs, electrocution machines, artificial men of steam and iron, as well as a proliferation of high-speed comfortable trains fitted up like hotels.
I am, however, no fan of Haggard’s priestesses and empresses, who seem to me symbols of the Woman-Monster whom men worship and fear—Vampyres who would suck the vital strength from Men. On the other hand, although domestic novels are useful weapons in women’s undeclared war against male society, and while I am sympathetic to plots involving husbands who drink, gamble, and chase, as well as runaway daughters and sons who stray, sickness, poverty, insecurity, and so forth, I would never write them myself. I am thoroughly tired of the Loose Woman, Handsome Seducer, Sick Husband, Other Woman, Brave Wife, Tortured Hero, Tubercular Child, and Martyred Indian Maiden who seem to live upon every page of the magazines women favor—Godey’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, the Casket, et al.—and in
so very many of the cheap novels to be found in women’s hands. It is my feeling that the one thing worth doing as a writer is to dwell upon things that arouse the imagination—upon swords and gabled cities and ancient forests, upon temples and palaces, giant apes in their revolt, and imprisoned princesses in their unhappiness.
As a thoroughgoing Feminist and a woman who has herself thrown over the traces of domestication as much as can be done without risking arrest, I do my best to swim against the tide. For heroine of a scientific romance, I will always choose the scientifically inclined daughter or sister of a world-renowned anthropologist; and for the western romance, look for a girl who can ride and shoot, a ranch girl born and raised in the West (though of course not in a trapper’s shack—it must be a wealthy ranch, a minor island of culture possessed of cupboards of books, fine furniture, and a piano); and—it will turn out—she has been to boarding school in the East: the cultivated heroine aglow with the strength of the wilderness.
I am, of course, driven by the marketplace. My thoroughly unrepentant, ungenteel tomboys and Amazons must be killed saving the hero’s life. And my lovely girl hero, who may exhibit composure, courage, self-reliance, and practical competence until five pages from the end, must ultimately be propelled off the range and into the ranch house—the running of her life given over to a man.
I bore from within as much as may be: in courtship, the dear girl never falls into a romantic swoon but keeps a clear head about her—chooses her husband for his qualities as a companion—and keeps her spunky spirit unto The End. I hope it may be inferred of my girls they would never take mistreatment from a man—would rather pack up the children and move to Alaska, where they would all pan for gold and live in a tent.
C. B. D.
C. B. D. (1905; unpublished)
TATOOSH OF THE SEE-AH-TIKS; OR,
A GIRL’S ADVENTURES AMONG MOUNTAIN GIANTS
CHAPTER TWO: THE HORRIBLE SIGHT
A fearful encounter—Helena cast into darkness—
A message sent by invisible means—Helena bravely poses a question—
Journey across the mountains
Having the habit and inclination of a scientist, the brave girl bent her attention to a close observation of this abomination of nature, even as she stood in dire peril from it. Though erect of posture and in other ways resembling a man, the creature towered above the forest floor to a hideously unnatural stature of more than seven feet, its monstrous physique covered thickly with short, black, coarse hair, which had the effect of transforming its appearance to that of a hitherto unknown species of giant ape or gorilla. Its huge, swarthy head was placed low upon immense sloping shoulders, and a thick, bearded chest gave upon a narrowing waist. Its feet were wide and flat, with toes all of a length, and seemingly not possessing the gripping strength of the known great apes of Africa and Asia. Further, there was no prehensile tail. Its hands, while huge, were delicately formed and possessed of fully opposable thumbs. Although Science would have it that no such creature lives in the vast Cascadian forests, nor ever has, the creature’s conduct was entirely natural, as though it was native to these environs.
In its upright and naked condition, the creature’s masculinity was manifestly disclosed, and though Miss Reed was a seasoned explorer, the sight struck her with such force that a small gasp of abhorrence was wrung from her lips. The monster, which might otherwise have remained unaware of our young
adventurer, chanced to hear the telltale sound, and at once it laid flashing black eyes upon her. She glimpsed rows of glittering yellow teeth in a hideously wide red mouth, and the world, in that moment, spun about her in a kaleidoscope of colors. Though she resisted with every fiber of her strength, she was relentlessly drawn down into the helpless darkness of oblivion.
For an indeterminate time, no sound came to her ears, but then she began to hear a musical murmuring voice which filled her with an uncommon sense of peace and tranquillity. “Have I awakened unto Death?” she wondered, without the least sense of fear or foreboding.
“No,” she was told by the most euphonious of voices, as if she had spoken her thought aloud. “You are quite alive, safe, and unharmed.” The words entered into her very being, in the manner of melodious bells being rung at a distance too far to perceive save in the vibrations of one’s soul. She might have believed that she had entered upon Heaven, had she not become suddenly aware of her earthly body. Her eyes opened at last, upon a view of the crystalline blue sky and the overarching verdure of the great forest. It was only when she became aware of the hideous mountain giant, its face now but inches from her, that she recalled all with a rush of apprehension. “Do not be afraid,” the magical, musical voice reassured her once again, and as a peaceful quietude reentered her mind, she beheld the deep-set black eyes of the forest beast gazing upon her with something approaching tenderness and innocence.
Realizing she was unharmed, she sat up resolutely and looked about her. Her knapsack had fallen open when she had swooned, and its contents were arrayed on the mossy forest floor: dry stockings and foot plasters, compass and watch, sandwich, strong twine, minnow netting and a folder of trout
flies, two-bladed jack-knife, rubber blanket, strike-anywhere matches, and a large tinned coffee cup. When she returned her attention to the mountain giant, its voice—for she had by now realized that the invisible words indeed emanated from the creature before her—spoke once again as if within her very brain: “From the items in your sack I should judge you to be a ready adventurer, and perhaps quite used to startling discoveries and frightful sights such as I must be to you.”
Only her father, the renowned explorer James Reed, had ever supported her in her chosen vocation, and she had become sadly accustomed to amusement and doubt arising from both men and women when they first learned of her intention to become the first woman accepted for full membership in the National Geographical Society. Indeed, those who heard of her experiences in Java and Africa were likely to respond with disapproval, even revulsion, as if a woman adventurer were an abhorrent and unnatural thing. The creature’s frank and immediate faith in her abilities was both satisfying and unexpected. “Indeed, I am not usually given to such swoons,” she said in dismay, and was immediately, though wordlessly, reassured that the swoon was not due to her own weakness, but to an arcane art of the creature before her. What relief!
She now betook herself to stand, and having regained her feet and her aplomb, she spoke again to her monstrous companion: “I have heard certain tales from the native tribes in these regions, describing just such creatures as yourself. In the legends of the Kwakiutls, I believe, there is a hairy giant known as Tzooniquaw, and among the Tsinuks the name given is Hoquiam.”
The giant replied in the musical telepathy to which Helena had by now become accustomed: “Among the Indian people,
our names are many: Skoocoom, Swalalahist, Om-mah, Sa-sa-katch. Among certain of the Cowelits Indians we are known as See-Ah-Tiks, which in the Cowelits language has the meaning People of the Forest.”
Helena, by means of the creatures unspoken words, understood that this appellation pleased him, and she resolved henceforth to address the hairy giants, in word or thought, as the See-Ah-Tiks, the Forest People.
He continued: “I am myself called Tatoosh, which in your language might be said as the Scented Flower.” “Tatoosh” seemed completely unaware of the irony of a creature of such masculine girth and strength as himself, bearing such a feminine and pacific name.
“Dear Mr. Tatoosh, I am known as Miss Helena Reed,” she replied, and taking a shuddering breath of determination, offered her small hand to the animal. Though he at first seemed without understanding of this human gesture, a mental image may have passed from Helena’s mind to his, for he soon took her hand tenderly in his huge fist. The ape’s palm was smooth and quite hairless, manlike in every way but for its size.
She had already become quite used to the See-Ah-Tik’s animal-like appearance, and with this familiarity had come the realization that what had heretofore seemed horrific and monstrous was in fact well disposed and benign. Indeed, the See-Ah-Tik’s teeth, on closer inspection, were the blunt molars of a vegetarian, and his sunken, glittering black eyes were round as a child’s and fringed with thick lashes. His huge, delicately formed hands were expressive and gentle in the manner of a refined man of breeding. Most interesting to Helena Reed, his overall demeanor demonstrated neither the animosity of the feral animal to the human, nor the dominion of male over female, but
a respectful equality as between two beings of correspondent rank. From what sort of race had this creature come? she wondered. What habits of his culture had encouraged this respect for other species, and indeed for the opposite sex? She became curious to observe the See-Ah-Tiks in their native intercourse, males and females together.
“Are there many such as you?” Helena inquired. “I’m made to wonder why none other than Indians have recorded the existence of a race of such uncommon size and appearance as yourself.”
The creature beheld her with a sorrowful smile. “We are not so many as in past times. As your people have advanced upon the forests, we have been driven to smaller and smaller precincts, and though we keep within our own borders as much as possible, there are certain pharmaceuticals which can be supplied only by venturing out.” He lifted and showed her a black box-shaped container formed of an unnaturally smooth, indeterminate material, into which he had been gathering leaves of thimbleberry and hairy manzanita. “Inevitably there have been encounters between your people and mine, but our powers of hypnotism have, for the most part, kept us safe from human memory.” Again he smiled, with all the poignancy of someone who accepts a bitter destiny. “If one day our hiding place is revealed, we will doubtless be driven to extinction as so many among the species of Indians and of animals have been, and perhaps then we shall live only in your legends.”
As a scientist unswayed by sentimentalism, she recognized the bitter truth in what he said. Helena then made what many would think a rash proposition. “Might I return with you to your See-Ah-Tik home in the forest?” she asked the giant earnestly. “May I undertake to examine and record your customs, ceremonies, and usages? If your extraordinary powers of hypnotism
are as you describe them, then you shall be as safe from human discovery as you wish to be, for I cannot share the knowledge and memory I will gain, unless with your approval. Indeed, you are wise to be fearful of the White Race of humans, and on that ground I must accept any such restrictions. But it may be that a written record of your society could benefit the future of your race, or of mine, and surely it would be desirable to prepare this record while there is yet a living society to record.”
Her gravely ardent face studied Tatoosh for some sign of his sympathies, but the giant’s face was a secret mask. At long last he solemnly replied, “It is not in my power alone to make such a decision. But you may return with me to the Gate of See-Ah-Tik, where the Council of Five will discuss the matter and come to a determination.”
Our adventurer thus was satisfied. She had every confidence that the rational power of her argument would persuade the so-called Council of Five to allow her to enter the occult society of See-Ah-Tik.
As she hurriedly gathered the contents of her knapsack, her active young mind leapt upon a multitude of questions: Was telepathy their only means of communication, or did they also, among themselves, make use of oral language? On the matter of sexual community, did they recognize marriage and arrange themselves into families? What were their food resources and what the state of their industrial and scientific development?
Tatoosh beckoned her to follow him as he strode purposefully through the trees. The stalwart girl’s years of physical conditioning served her well; inured to long tramps across deserts and jungles, she was in good wind, with but little flesh on her bones and her muscles well strung, and had no fear of getting tired. Though the See-Ah-Tik’s long, effortless stride equaled
three of Helena’s, and though he made no apparent effort to slacken his pace for the sake of his young companion, she did not flag but maintained a steady, tireless jog across the rough terrain of hills and valleys, ever keeping the giant ape close before her. Acting against the opinion of some members of civilized society, she had adopted the custom when in the forest of dressing in a man’s jumper and boots, and thus was saved the added effort of struggling through the shrubbery with full skirts a-billow More than once she uttered a self-satisfied cry of vindication as her strong young legs, clad sensibly in double-twist blue denim, conducted her with ease through a tangle of brambles or bore her trimly down a steep and rocky slope.
Nevertheless, the distance they covered was considerable, and our noble girl had nearly reached the limit of her endurance when at last the See-Ah-Tik moderated his pace and indicated with a gesture of his long, shaggy arm that they had reached their destination. They had come by a gradual and roundabout route onto the shoulder of a basalt mountain, and Helena was startled to realize that here, amid the impenetrable forest, the mountain had been scored as if with an invisible knife. The resultant ravine just at their feet was so abrupt and steep that the branches of the trees on either side almost touched and concealed it, in such a way that it was impossible to gauge its depth from above.
Though not a word had entered upon the air, she understood beyond question that this was the Gate of See-Ah-Tik, and her brave heart trembled with a sudden, awful misgiving.
Camp 8 (deepwoods), midnight of the 3rd
I cannot sleep; and since I wrote in these pages twice today, yet failed to bring the day to its close, I will write a third installment.
I should first report that the camp boss at the head of the flume (Camp 7) was a short Englishman with an impressive scar upon his cheek and a plug-tobacco habit that had stained his lower lip and chin. He had suffered three or four of his crew flying off to the search, he said, and the news that had come back was all of shootings and shouting; as for word of that lost child, he had none. He made me the offer of a trail guide, which I refused, having heard from the flume tender that the way up the canyon to Camp 8 was pretty well beaten in. He walked me as far as the trailhead, though, across a wilderness of windfalls, tall butts, sawed-off tops and branches, roots turned toes-up and looming fifteen feet in the air.
Before we shook hands and parted, we stood at the edge of the logging ground together and watched the donkey engine yard in a log, which is something I’ve seen before but never will get accustomed to. The donkey engine is a pathetic little thing to look at, a boiler, a furnace, pistons underneath, and the two drums worked by the pistons, drums for winding up the wire cables, which is little enough for a machine to do; but the whole thing is bolted on a great heavy wood sleigh and often moored, besides, by guy ropes into the trees; and when the whistle blows and the donkey puncher winds the lead line taut on the drum and then lets in the steam, and the engine bucks and rises up on its skids like a beast, well, then you begin to see the need for chaining it down.
“?’Ere ’e comes now,” the Englishman said to me happily, and spat beside his boot. There was a startling uproar in the woods—the sound of a cataclysm—and a log came charging out of the brush from a thousand feet off, hurling stones and earth before it, smashing and gouging its own pathway, bumping and battering over stumps and windfalls. It is quite something to
see a log of that size, six feet through, seventy long, hurtling over the ground, lunging for the little donkey as the slavering Grendel after his Beowulf; and then the donkey rocks back and the poor log fetches up at its feet and you see who has the iron hand.
I should have covered the two miles of twisty trail before dusk but was slowed by the corruptible spring weather. It rotted away to the west before I had fairly gotten clear of the log operation, and the clabbering front which overtook me brought a dismal rain and a spate of hail. My lovely ramble through the bright woods, as I had been fooling myself, gave itself over to the sober truth: became a slippery footslog through the gloom, on a mission of dread and torment. I dug out my corduroy jacket and my hat from the meager outfit on my back, and put my head down.
That trail following Canyon Creek is involuted as the streets of Constantinople, and a steep climb followed by a steep downhill followed by the next climb and the next fall, and so on, with the latter in my opinion always much the worse. The path both going up and coming down was mud and runnels, for which reason, being alone, I made my way with caution and deliberation. I crossed over the two miles in something around an hour and a half, which, considering the circumstances was a decent clip. Nevertheless, the daylight went before me, and I blundered the last mile through gathering darkness, searching out the trail every little while with an Everready flashlight of the very latest design: no wires, no chemicals, no oil, smoke, or odor, but a battery in a cylinder made of heavy cardboard and covered with imitation morocco, which lights an electric lamp when the ring on the side is pressed against the ferrule.
My search light and I made out the buildings at Camp
8 precisely as the men came out from their dinner, and they streamed by me in a swearing, bawdy horde without notice at all of one more trousered man standing there in the darkness. I have resolved to give up the little courtesies men tender to women, in exchange for my independence and self-respect; but I was wet and cold by then and yearning for hot supper and a bed, which shamefully weakened my firmness of mind. I plucked at the sleeve of a man pausing to light his pipe and said, “I have just walked up from Chelatchie Prairie,” as if this genuinely pathetic lament in the soprano of a well-bred Gentlewoman should be all the information he needed. As indeed it was. In astonished silence he led me round to the boss logger, who led me round to the dining-hall, where the boys cleaning up from dinner beheld in wonder the woman drinking her coffee and tucking away a chop and a plate of eggs.
The boss at Camp 8 is a tall, lank, and athletic-looking fellow by the name of Bill Boyce. He took me through the dark rain to his office at the back of the storeroom and roused up the little stove and unfolded a cot from under the bench and gave me directions to the privy and the pump, and a key so as to lock myself into the office. “They’re good men, though,” he said. “They won’t give you a bit of trouble,” which was said in a quiet and sure way that I approved of.
“I should be glad to speak to Homer Coffee,” I said.
“Well, I’ll see if I can turn him up, but it may be he spent the night out in the woods. There’s parties all around, you see, searching for her, and by now they’ve got far enough out so they don’t come in at night. A search party will get tired or short on provision, and then they straggle to camp and other ones go out. Things are in some confusion, with so many hunting, and I don’t keep perfect track of who’s in and who’s out.”
I made a trip to the privy and carried back water, made my toilet, and laid out my bed. Then I sat down in my damp clothes and thoroughly cleaned the mud from under my nails and combed loose my hair, which occupied me until Bill Boyce returned without Homer. “He’s evidently up around the lava beds,” he said to me, while averting his eyes from the improper sight of a woman’s hair hanging upon her shoulders. “They’re fixing to search the caves up there.”
He described this country for me, which is not the Big Lava Bed of general renown, lying some dozen or more miles farther east, but several narrow ridges of hardened magma and hollow tubes of old lava scattered amongst the forestland, extruded in the same manner as the Big Lava Bed, through pipes in the volcanic system, mayhap from St. Helens Mountain, twenty miles to the north. Then, as he turned from the doorway of the little office, I asked him, “What is the prospect of finding her, do you think?” He had impressed me as a steady-minded man, thoughtful and careful and thorough.
He turned to me again and considered it. Then he said, “She could be lying up someplace, she could have found her a good spot in a rotted-out tree or something like that, and stayed pretty dry and kept herself from freezing. There’s some edibles she might know about, cow parsnip and so on. We could still get her out. But it’s not as likely as it was that first day. It’s been five nights, you see, and though we had a lucky spell of dry weather, there was frost that first night, and now we’ve got rain. And as it continues on to rain, I’m afraid the prospects will get worse.” He briefly shifted his look into the darker corners of the room, so that I felt I had glimpsed his true feeling. Then, when he had considered his audience again, he said in a darker voice, “After this much time, there is not a good deal of hope of
finding her—not alive, at any rate, though I guess it would be some small comfort to her mother, just to recover the child’s body.” I had felt myself prepared for this honest assessment—indeed quite expected it—but the words themselves brought a strange flutter to my heart.
He had up to then said nothing of orang-utans or mountain beasts, but finally he did. “We got men swears they have seen her in the arms of what snatched her, but their testimony is suspect as far as I’m concerned. There is something called a skookum, you know, that Indians and maybe some loggers have seen, and I don’t know what it is, but I guess I’ve heard a screech sometimes that is straight from the devil, so I can’t entirely discount the idea. If a skookum took her, well then I’m afraid she must be dead, or would wish to be.” He petted the doorjamb. “So my hope is that she just went off and got lost, which is easy to do around here.” He pointed. “That’s probably a pretty handy little device,” meaning the fold-up rubber camp basin in which I’d washed my face and brushed my teeth.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
As soon as I was left alone, I hung up my damp clothes over the stove and soaked my feet and rubbed my heels and toes with coconut oil and went to bed in my cotton vest and drawers. The rain had quit but there was a wind that had come up, and it searched along the floor and under the eaves, as well as through the tops of the trees circling the edge of the cutting ground, which is a sound very like a moaning, a lamentation of regret. I began to turn over in my mind what Melba had said to me about Homer, his meanness, and this led to an unfortunate train of thought. So now I sit upon Bill Boyce’s cot with my flash light illuminating this page, writing, writing, which is a better occupation for my mind.
No, that demon, that dark death-shadow,
leapt out upon young and old alike,
a hideous ambush! In darkness he held
the misty moors. Men cannot know
whither such hell-wights bend their ways!
Of course, I have become accustomed to thoroughly governing my own affairs and the affairs of my children, and I suppose I should have some trouble ever turning them over to a man again. And a woman who is believed to have been abandoned by a man is freed from certain concerns: public opinion, fixed by the unalterable fact of the desertion, becomes charmingly irrelevant. I am in those respects well content with my condition. But I never have conquered loneliness. I find as I grow older that its dominion becomes narrower, but there has always been a moment as I am climbing the stairs to bed when I begin to be mindful of my situation and to suffer from it; and in recent months, of course, I have felt this much more keenly than in the past. The lascivious will doubtless think of “the beast with two backs,” but I believe what I miss foremost is something less particular, and less definable.
There is a relief in getting your hair unbound at the end of the day, and when I have escaped the confines of my clothes and put on a loose nightgown, I like to take the pins from my hair and let it out onto my shoulders, put my hands into the thick tangle and pull my fingers through along the scalp until the whole mass of it is loose. I have an ivory comb with wide teeth which will get through thick snarls rather better than a hairbrush, and I sit at my dressing table and comb and comb with slow care until I’ve got all the day’s knots out. Then I take at my head with the brush. I know some women will brush their hair one hundred times or five hundred, with a religious fervor, but I am
too impatient to keep on with such a habit. I brush my hair vigorously from the roots until the brush crackles and my scalp burns, and that must be enough. Then I brush my teeth and wash my face, my hands, and my feet, before taking myself to bed. These are habits of years’ standing, my accustomed practices carried out in the same order, always, at the end of every day. In recent years it has become also a sort of ritual habit to indulge in self-pity and dreariness while carrying them out. In the daylight I seldom think of the husband I have lost. But I remember him nostalgically at the end of day—dressing for bed, brushing his teeth, carefully soaping his face and scraping away the day’s beard with his razor.
And of course, I miss not only the indefinable comfort of ritual nighttime ablutions carried out in each another’s presence but the weight of another on the mattress with me, the heat of that person against my spine, the simple solace of another body in my bed. And in these modern days when life is so material and so rushed and there is less and less time for real talks or real thought, I miss especially the murmured words that a husband and wife exchange in their bedroom at the end of the day.
I suppose if I marry again, it will be for this; and not, as I once thought, for the reason that Feminists should hold up their egalitarian marriages as models before the public. (It is spring; even the birds all have mates.)
C. B. D.
In the log camp (deepwoods), morning of the 4th
A party is forming, which I’ve been invited to join, but they are slow in their preparations, so I sit and write while waiting to head off into the wilderness. Whether I’m to be gone for
one night or several remains to be seen—there are apparently half a dozen named and nameless branches of Canyon Creek, arranged in a succession of narrow gorges and elevations, and Bill Boyce has been methodically sending his men up one and down another until they have combed them all.
He rose at 4:30 when I heard the faint clatter of the cook’s helpers beginning their preparations for breakfast, went in, and cadged from them the first cup of coffee. The cook is a big fellow with a walrus mustache and small eyes resembling those of a pig, which he turned on me with disapproval, but his helpers, who are George’s age or a little more, were solicitous and kind, imagining, I suppose, that I might be their mother. I sat out of their way while drinking my coffee and gave the cook as good as ever I got.
If the camp had been working, the dinner gong would doubtless have been rung by 5:00 and the men breakfasted by 6:00 and walking out through the darkness to their jobs in the woods. But as it is, tired men wandered into the dining hall at intervals, which of course made more work for the cook and may have accounted for his ill nature. Bill Boyce came in shortly past 5:30, and seeing I was alone, he politely sat opposite me. “Have you ate?” he said, and though I had done so I ate again, which was only well mannered. I am not an easy talker before I’ve had my third cup of coffee, which Boyce before long surmised, so we ate in much of a silence save for the scrape of forks on plates and the quiet chewing of hind teeth. “It’s been a while since I’ve been reminded of the little bit a lady eats,” he did say at one point, which I suppose was meant to compliment. I had earlier put away hash and ham, a mess of greens, hotcakes, and oatmeal, as well as bread and doughnuts, and upon this second plate had made a dainty arrangement of bacon and potatoes and
stewed fruit. My mind briefly turned over the question of how a Feminist ought to answer such a falsity. “I’ve never suffered the lack of an appetite,” I said in the end, which at least was true and might, under the circumstances, be considered neutral.
When we sat over our plates washing all down with our third and fourth cups of coffee, and my eyelids had risen somewhat, he said to me, “Now, what are your intentions, Mrs. Drummond?”
And I replied in the straightest way possible: “I intend to learn whatever details are to be learned about the way Harriet disappeared, and the progress of the search, and to send that complete information by letter back to her mother and grandmother, who are waiting in Yacolt with only rumors and vagueness to comfort them. And I intend to go out looking for her myself.”
He bent his head to his coffee cup. It’s rare to see a logger without a soup strainer, but he is clean shaven, his sideburns trimmed short and beginning to gray. A small scar in the shape of a crescent moon decorates his naked chin, the skin of which is leathery and thick in the way of men who work out of doors. When he raised his head from studying the bottom of his cup, he said, “Well, as to the first part, here is what I know: Homer Coffee brought his girl up to this camp on Monday morning, which a father will do, you see, to give his child a little adventure, and to show her off a bit, or maybe show himself off. A log operation is a dangerous place, and I wouldn’t bring a child of mine here if I had one, but though I discourage it as much as I can, I don’t outright forbid them from it. Well, his donkey crew set her on a windfall a ways up the steep hill behind them, which is the safest place, I guess, though no place is truly safe, and the men say she was good as gold, not scared by the noise or the sled bucking when a log comes up jammed behind a stump
or a rock, which it will do. And at lunch Coffee took her out to the edge of the cut woods, to where there is a little crick and a glade, and which is out of harm’s way, and they ate their lunch together and he watched while she played in the crick, and then he brung her back to her lookout perch on the hill, where she sat all afternoon without a peep. Which was Monday, and the same on Tuesday. On Wednesday, after they’d had their picnic in the woods, she evidently whined and told her daddy she was tired of watching the same dread work over and over, which I don’t doubt, so he left her there at the crick to go on playing, and he says he give instruction for her not to leave the glade. But at the end of the day, when he went out for her, she wasn’t in the same place.
“He looked awhile, I don’t know how long it was, and when he was walking back to get others to help him look, he evidently had a glimpse of something going off through the trees, which was considerable bigger than his girl, as he says, but even so, he followed after it; and when he finally give up and yelled to the others of his crew, the daylight was going in a hurry. They shortly come back here and we all lit lanterns and looked through the night without finding his girl nor the thing he’d seen, which could have been elk, or bear, or I don’t know. What was found next day after the sun come up was one of her little shoes, which was about one hundred feet into the trees, and some long tracks going up the slope from the crick about a quarter of a mile farther along, which might only be men’s boot prints run together and wore away by rain. We had had a Special Agent up that way the week before, surveying the trees, and they could have been his prints, you see, where he slid a bit, and then much rained-upon. There was no blood and no sign from a bear or a coyote or any of that kind in the grass where Coffee left her, and her
own prints was hard to make out from all the tramping through there looking for her.
“Since then we’ve had more than fifty men out looking, most of which will swear they’re looking for a giant orang-utan that ripped her out of her daddy’s arms. I don’t know your opinion of Homer Coffee, Mrs. Drummond, and this isn’t meant to speak ill of him, but he has become as sure as any fool, by now, and is swearing it was a giant wildman or ape that he saw, though he didn’t get much of a look that I ever heard about, and at the time it happened couldn’t say what it was. What we have found so far, for all our hunting, is just a lot of tracks too muddy to make sense of, and stories too excitable to credit, and men with too little sense to keep from shooting at each other in the woods. But we’re still looking and will go on awhile yet, until I’m told by the Company that we ought to get back to work. And that’s what I know of the circumstances, pretty nearly all of it.”
He lifted his arms from the table so as to permit the cook’s boy to take away his plate and wipe the oilcloth clean. Then he said, resting his arms again, “As for the second thing, I wouldn’t recommend you to strike off on your own, so I wonder if you mean to attach yourself to a search party that’s heading out, or perhaps join up with Homer Coffee in the lava beds?”
Since this was direct and not patronizing, I said, “I frankly don’t know. It was just my idea that I’d make myself useful.” This was the truth, though not all of it. Here is another part: I had imagined I might find Harriet myself, in some little corner overlooked by others.
Bill Boyce took me to see the place Harriet had gone lost from—the little “crick and glade.” We walked out to it through a damp, cold grayness, a morning as featureless as an unlicked
lamb. The fog lying along the ground hid a good deal of the logging mess, the tops and trimmings, old cables and broken tools, but the waste hemlocks that had been left behind on the cutover fields rose up singly from the smoking ground and brought to my mind skinny gray pilings standing in a slough. At the edge of the uncut woods we jumped a piddling little stream, and Boyce led me a short tramp under the eave of the forest to the channel of a wider creek, or perhaps it was the main thoroughfare of the piddle. Here had been a burn fifty or sixty years earlier, for there were slender trees and brush growing beneath a dead superstructure of enormous whitened trunks. I confess those great skinned limbs pale as bone gave me a qualm, which I attribute to lack of sleep and to melancholy.
The clearing where Harriet and Homer had eaten their lunch must receive the sun when the sun consents to shine, and the industrious browsing of elk and deer had worn the shrubbery down to nubbins and left a jade-green field of vanilla-leaf and miner’s lettuce, now much trampled upon and disturbed; of course, there was nothing of Harriet’s to indicate she ever was there. We followed the margin of the creek into the primeval forest until the trees standing about us were giants thick as the Washington Monument and surely standing well grown when Columbus crossed the Atlantic. Such trees as these were common around Skamokawa in my childhood but long since gone to lumber, and I suppose I began to suffer a bit from a feeling of puniness and anxiety, which must be the human response to such supernatural forests. We have become too domesticated—imagining a forest should resemble a park, with a few judiciously spaced trees whose dead branches have been pruned away, flowers in weeded beds, grass neatly mown. Here, the shrubbery was meager from want of sunlight but great
carcasses of windthrown timber lay about in unequal progress toward decay, with infant trees shooting up Indian file along the nurse-logs; and in damp, dark hollows yellow flower spikes of skunk cabbage were all abloom, which gaudy brilliance in the gray light served, contrariwise, to darken my mood more than raise it. There is something about those great fleshy leaves and spathes that always has struck me as repellent, loathsome; and in my low state I imagined them a teratogenic flower garden tended by monsters. Everything was wild. Of course, that is the meaning of forests, that they are wild.
Mr. Boyce pointed out the muddy bank where he said the big rain-slurried prints had been found, but there were no identifiable marks by this time, and the phantom-orchids growing along the edge of the mud were already beginning to make their recovery from a trampling by boots or the feet of giants. We stood and looked a moment and then faced about and made like cowards for the open ground. On the cutover field, the fog having ebbed off, it was possible to see the shape of the bare ground, knobby as an Irish wold, though entirely brown and much torn up, studded with stumps, cut through by the muddy creek; and this view, even though rough and unsightly, I found a great comfort after the dark and supernatural woods.
Where the creek narrowed between high banks, I made out the distant prospect of a splash dam, which is a structure familiar to me from operations on the lower Columbia, where they sit on every little coastal stream, and must have been employed here due to remoteness and lack of a railroad spur line. The usual thing is to yard up your logs behind the dam until the pond is full, and then pull away the spill gate and let the freshet wash the whole show downstream, so I said to Boyce, “I suppose logs splashed down this creek must eventually arrive at Camp 7.” My
knowledge of splash dams had sparked in me the usual glimmer of self-importance, which I will always advertise.
He gave me an admiring look of surprise—oh, a considerable satisfaction—and allowed as how his logs washed downstream to the pond at Camp 7, where they were gathered up and sent down the flume. When I told him the source of my unwomanly knowledge was merely to have lived most of my life on the lower Columbia, he said to me with a lively interest, “So you’re an old pioneer, are you? In this part of the country, I find not many people have been in one place longer than last week.”
“Last week I was in Skamokawa, amongst all the other latecomers, but my mother’s family was among the first to settle up the Grays River, if you know that part of the woods, and my mother was born and raised there, which doubtless makes her an Old Pioneer.”
“I do know Grays River, Mrs. Drummond. We never got up that far, but we scouted some timber on Crooked Creek, which I know is in that direction.”
“There’s now a post office on Crooked Creek, which some fool has named Eden.”
“Is that right? There was nothing much but trees in that country when I went through.”
“They’re making every effort to cut them all down, in the evident belief that Eden was a stump garden. At the present rate of logging, and considering the improvements to machinery, I don’t wonder that all the trees in the West, with the exception of Roosevelt’s reservations, will soon be cut to the ground. They have brought a steam falling-saw and a crawling tractor powered by gasoline into the Columbia River woods, you know, and at the mouth of the Wallace Slough they are laying a floating cradle which, when finished, will form an
ocean-going log raft one thousand feet long. The world is spinning fast, Mr. Boyce, and you fellows in logging are doing what you can to keep up.”
He took this impersonally. “Well, we’re in a land of logging, Mrs. Drummond; and I recall from my Bible that Eden is a garden, all right, and no mention of a forest.”
This was something I could not deny. Muir and the preservationists would have the ancient deepwoods unaltered by man, but I suppose Harriet would not now be lost if these woods were a tamed and beneficent park. In any case, I am a woman who most admires the wilderness from the comfort of her civilized home, and in point of practice my Utopist fantasies will every time bring forth a cultivated, pastoral nature, with ripe fruit dropping from every bough, and not a giant wild tree in sight.
We had by now come into near view of the camp, which, being way back in the deepwoods with no milled lumber at hand, is made of cedar slabs with the bark left on, and roof shakes thick as a man’s fist. The lamps in the windows were lighted, for it was still dark inside at half past seven, and the shaggy buildings sitting amongst the usual black stumps and rubbish piles and outhouses had the appearance of a comforting cloister. I was struck by this, a pang somewhat resembling nostalgia, and quoted seriously to Boyce, “Home is home, though it be never so homely.”
He skipped a look in my direction, evidently wondering if there was sarcasm involved—we had just then come within range of the fragrant hog pens. But his reply, when he delivered it, was sentimental as a cheap romance novel. “Well, it’s a consolation, Mrs. Drummond, how lamplight and chimney smoke will give the worst place a cheerful aspect.”
I have written these words down, and expect to place them in the mouth of one romantic character or another as soon as I recognize the appropriate moment in my story.
Our national forest reserves are still to a large extent in a wild, natural state, and it will be many years, in fact, before they shall have become impressed with the stamp of artificiality. Fire-scarred and over-grazed as many of them are, careful treatment can but improve the appearance which large areas in the reserves present to-day. And yet there are corners and ridges and valleys in these reserves that would retain a higher scenic value by being left untouched, if such a sacrifice were possible. Would it not be possible to combine in each of the proposed special reservations the silvicultural aims and the aesthetic ones?
AMERICAN FORESTRY ASSOCIATION,
Forestry and Irrigation, June 1905
C. B. D. (1905; unpublished)
from TATOOSH OF THE SEE-AH-TIKS
By means of that precariously narrow flight of stairs, the party descended to a hidden cleft in the rock, and thence into a labyrinth of dark passageways and narrow lanes, which after some time unwound onto a broad level road paved with bituminized wood and illuminated by electrical lamps. Helena had nearly despaired of reaching their destination when the road
at last gave on a splendid gateway of fluted and twisted pillars, beyond which could be seen an immense domed cavern lit not only by clefts in the mountainous roof, through which poured an abundance of sunlight, but also by the phosphorescence of the volcanic stone itself, which caught the sun and mirrored it. The road, after passing through the gateway, sloped downward into a wide valley, the whole of which could be seen from that high outlook. At the center was a circular city built around a vast central piazza, with streets radiating outward, extending into a land of tranquil lakes, open parklands, and neatly groomed orchards. On the lakes were gondolas of a swan design, powered by some unknown means; and on the footpaths, which were paved with stone, strolled a population of See-Ah-Tiks, the naked men and women alike ornamented with bright and colorful jewelry. The roofs of the city, which were adorned with elaborate flower gardens, struck the eye, from this high vantage, as a bright and intricate Egyptian mosaic. It was altogether a startling and resplendent sight.
This is morning and I am writing to you from the dining hall of a log camp away back in the deepwoods, while Melba is keeping Florence company in Yacolt. You have never seen such large trees as grow here. If one of you—even George—were to hide behind the trunk of one, even though his arms were outspread, you other boys could not see him from the opposite side. You know the stump behind Horace Stuband’s milking shed where Lightning hid her kittens last litter but one? With its rooster tail of fern and huckleberry? The trees they
are cutting here will leave stumps such as that—such as I saw on the Deep River Divide as a child. I must get this note off to you quickly—not to frighten you with such haste, but I am setting off directly with a search party, and by tonight shall be in the black lava caves far up in the mountains, where we are all hoping to find Harriet hiding, safe and sound. We will see one another soon. With all the love I can send you,
In the lava fields (morning) 5 Apr
One of my fortunes is a resilient constitution—I have had but five hours of sleep, which has thoroughly restored me—and one of my deficiencies a smallish bladder, which is to blame for my awakening this morning before the crack of dawn. After a private toilet in the woods, and finding myself reconstituted, I now sit in a cold gray light, writing of yesterday’s events while the men are still moving sluggish and rolling their blankets.
My letter to Melba and Florence was a breathless flurry of particulars and minor facts which may yet conceal the scrupulous omission of Hope. I sent it by way of a colored man who was forced to quit the search—evidently he broke his collarbone, and in the nonchalant way of loggers with regard to injuries, his friends bound his arm tight to his body and have sent him afoot and alone over the trail and the flume to Camp 6, and thence over the spur to Chelatchie Prairie and the rails to Yacolt, where there is a doctor.
I saw him away with my letter—oh, it was two letters, as I also wrote to the boys, and asked Melba to see it posted from Yacolt—and promptly afterward made off into the woods with six men and two horses, who are taking the search farther up
Canyon Creek and then along one of the many local stream courses to an outbreak of lava which evidently stretches away in a high ridge toward the southeast.
My own particular intent is to put myself in the way of meeting up with Homer, and this is a party that will likely bring me into his locality; we should end up, I was told, joining ourselves to other search parties among the black caves and casts, which terrain the men look upon as the suspected haunt of monsters and orang-utans.
We struck off south-by-east from Camp 8 across the logged-over field and skirting around Harriet’s little glade, until shortly we were under the old trees. After my walk at dawn with Bill Boyce, the dark, eldritch woods had gotten more ordinary; or I had gotten over my spurt of unholy dread; or there were now sufficient numbers of us to foster a feeling of safety. I followed the boots of the man before me, tramping stolidly through a common daylight forest whose trees, though tall as the trees of Brobdingnag, had become the barely noticed frame for hard work.
This was ground that had been thoroughly searched in the first days and therefore could be passed through without much attention. We climbed by means of switchbacks, a seemingly circular route, until I was sure we were headed north-by-west and must soon come down again onto the cutting ground at Camp 8. I was grateful for the horses, who suffered under the weight of the greater part of our provender and carried also the heavy tents, which otherwise would have had to be parceled out to the shoulders of the seven hikers, and to my own puny shoulders in particular. In the rainy months this country is generally inhospitable to horses, as the deep ruts, mud holes, and steep embankments will bring on a condition of swelled ankles which some
people have colorfully named “mud fever.” The two horses in our party, though, are hammer-nosed, short-legged, sorrowful-looking creatures, whose thick ankles are frankly due to inelegant breeding and whose coarseness serves them well, I suppose, in the matter of standing continually in muddy conditions.
They were brought to the search by the three Pierce brothers, whose cinnabar mine lies situated somewhere in these hills around Camp 8. Besides the brothers, and the audacious woman, our party includes a peeler and a faller from Bill Boyce’s crew and, lastly, a photographist named Earl Norris, carrying on his back an 11 x 14 Eastman view camera and a high-extension tripod. He has been making his living by photographing every operation in every phase of West Coast logging, and selling his photographs to loggers and lumbermen to enshrine their place in the fast-disappearing Glory Days of Logging. I’m told he came up the flume from Chelatchie just hours ahead of me, and I don’t doubt he joined the search in the hope of finding his own glory: a photograph of a genuine Wild Man of the Woods might be expected to make a man’s fortune, and, failing that, a gruesome photograph of a lost child’s body should butter his bread for weeks.
“The boys” are a rough class but, as is the usual way in this country, would not fail in respect to a lady. While we climbed through the wet shrubbery, I fell into conversation with the youngest of the brothers, who proved to be desperately anxious to talk once he had been spoken to. We batted the shuttle back and forth: I told a fishing tale to do with a flock of geese flying into a boat cabin and shut in by the quick-thinking captain, who served them for supper; he returned with a mining story of fellows who had blown their own house to shreds while drying explosives in their kitchen stove. I then recommended several
books to him, Verne in particular, whose work is principally aimed at the working class and the young; he had not heard of Verne but said he would seek him out, on my good advice. Once the ice was broken—and here I suppose I was encouraged by my earlier success with the flume tender—I pressed on him several arguments for women to have the vote, and the sensibleness of trousers when a woman goes tramping in the woods. This drew from him a circumspect nod which I took to be an admission of the validity of certain of my arguments, and afterward a complete silence. It was necessary for the peeler, a Finn named Peter Mer, to rescue us all with an account of a bear who liked to eat tallow off the logs of a skid road.
When we’d gained a certain elevation, our way straightened and became, as I thought, an ordinary matter of following the course of Canyon Creek, which was occasionally visible as a pale glimpse in the draw below us. But the path was confined to a narrow ridge with a precipitous fall on either hand, and I did take a slip—came up handsomely against a tumulus of rock and earth at the uttermost edge of the yawning chasm—and survived only by luck. In my brief flight I made no sound, though some of the boys shrieked; and afterward, having lain a moment on the ground taking survey of my health, I sprang up with a wild joy and shouted out, “Nothing broken—not hurt at all!” and felt about for my hat. It was only afterward, when the boys sat me on a stone and gave me a look-over, and when I peered once again down into the canyon, that the thought of what could have happened came in a rush, and I very nearly was brought to tears over it. (Of course, now that the experience is safely over, it is interesting to think about—my lack of fear, and how Death might have taken me off just that quickly, without notice or warning. I think of Montaigne: “If you know not how
to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care for it.”)
Shortly we were headed downhill again, very steep into the gorge, until reaching the trough of a nameless little tributary, which we turned up, and thereafter became more earnest in our mission. The log faller, a stringy, big-eared fellow named E. B. Johnson, being the senior man present, gave us our direction: we were to distribute ourselves along both steep banks of the creek and beat our way methodically upstream through the brush. Every little while, he said, it wouldn’t hurt to send a halloo into the trees.
The boys said I should be placed along the ridge with the horses—that is, at the top of the pitch to the creek, where the going was least troublesome—but I stupidly refused this offer out of an excess of female hubris, and made off down into the gully, where I took a spot between the peeler and the photographist, on the steep starboard flank of the creek. From there I set to work along my strip of ground, hallooing for Harriet every little while and whacking a stick through the underbrush, looking for a scrap of cloth, or a footprint, or the child herself, dead or catatonic.
I believe I began with an irrational sense of hopefulness, as if I did actually expect to be the one to find her, and—even more irrationally—expected it to happen within the first hours. But the day was passed by clambering over and under the tangled, matted wreckage of hundreds of years of windthrown logs, slipping and stumbling around rocks and crevices, falling breast high into brush and tree limbs and the sharp, piercing spines of devil’s club. It was impossible to keep footing on the plunging, muddy incline. I floundered along, trying to look as if I was
getting across the ground on easy terms, trying to keep the idea of womanly weakness out of the boys’ heads, and my own; and they scrambled along on either side of me, whether with ease or difficulty, damned if I knew, but quick enough and steady enough to make me long passionately for a respite. Gradually the reality of the search, the formidability of it, found its way into my body and brain, and the work became leaden, as if I dragged a pointless weight—as if a logger’s heavy blocks and hooks and wire tackle were fouling behind me in the brush.
The rain held off, which was the only grace given to us; the air was cold and damp, and at intervals an icy wind brought down spatters of wet from the sodden trees. We stopped once, to light a fire and restore feeling to our fingers and feet. E. B. Johnson took a seat beside me. A faller is the man with whom all logging begins—the fellow who cuts down the trees. In general, such men are known for a certain cleverness and patience, and for stamina—a tree with a hundred-foot girth is not unusual in these precincts, and is the labor of several days. Our E. B. has been in on the search from the beginning, but if he is worn down, shows it not at all. As to his feelings in regard to orang-utans, I have only the evidence of all our hallooing, which, if he believed in savage ape-men, he might have advised us against, for fear of giving the creatures fair warning.
“Say, Mrs. Drummond,” he said to me in a sorrowful, slow Swedish drawl, “yur sure holdin’ up fine,” which I took to mean I was not.
When we had eaten a lunch of ham sandwiches and apples, we began again our seemingly useless and dismal searching, until we had finally climbed above the stream entirely and into the high forest, which country collects rain and snowmelt and sends it downhill to the stream, and is no less steep, and clotted with
green shrubbery which must be painstakingly beaten through. And so was the day passed. By dusk I was lagging far to the rear of our chain, which was a fortunate circumstance or I might have been in poor Earl Norris’s place. A commotion made its way back to me, and it was plain that some of the boys thought something terrifically funny had happened. Evidently the photographist had flung up an arm and pedaled backward, defending himself from a dark, monstrous hulk among the trees, which proved to be a lava cast at the edge of an escarpment of old black magma. By the time I straggled up to the front of the line, I was quite inoculated against the shapes of mountain beasts rearing up around us in the dimness. My principal shock was in realizing it was still daylight in regions with access to the horizon: a whitish field had begun to be visible behind the lacework of trees—open sky, a rare creature in these thick woods—and it had become evident that this field of sky lay above outriggers of basalt—ground that supported few trees, and those stunted and misshapen.
At the edge of the pillars and spurs and cobbles of stone, E. B. Johnson located a grotto in the talus, paved with bearberry and strewn with lodgepole pines, which was a campground familiar to him from numerous Sunday hunting expeditions and which other parties had made use of in the weeks and months previous: trees had been felled to make way for tents, and the ground layer was much beaten down and muddied. There was an elaborate lava-rock fire pit whitened by heat, in which discarded tins and jars lay unburied. “There is a sinkhole back in here,” E. B. said, seeming to mean a lightless shaft among the rocks, and seeming to mean we should get our water from it.
As the packs came off the horses, the middle of the three Pierce brothers said to the general population, “Here, I got corned beef and sauerkraut,” which was evidently an offer to
take on the duties of cook, that is to say an offer to open tin cans and heat the named foodstuffs. This relieved me of a woman’s natural work, and in any case I had by now fairly given in to my fatigue; my legs and arms were weak, shuddering, and would not hold against any force. While one of the boys set about gathering dead thicket and dragging the sticks to camp, I made a pretense of holding this rope or that picket stake while letting the others manhandle the canvas and raise the ridgepole of the tent. When the tent sides were spread and pegged down and personal belongings stowed within, I sank to a stone and waited stuporously to be fed. When finally we crowded into the tent, it was without washing, without brushing teeth; I stretched out in my blankets like a cataleptic, rigid of limb, insensible of lying among the stinking bodies of six men. And oh! what a blessed relief it was.
This morning the boys have—
The wilderness, I believe, is dear to every man though some are afraid of it. People load themselves with unnecessary fears, as if there were nothing in the wilderness but snakes and bears who, like the Devil, are going restlessly about seeking whom they may devour. The few creatures there are really mind their own business, and rather shun humans as their greatest enemies. But men are like children afraid of their mother, like the man who, going out on a mist morning, saw a monster who proved to be his own brother.
ERNEST THOMPSON SETON,
Lives of the Hunted (1901)
In the lava, night of the 5th
This morning I was interrupted in my report by the breathless news of another party camped near to ours (though it is not Homer’s, which is said to have gone farther up Canyon Creek, toward its head). This ridge of basalt with its high, violent disarray of stone is in places half a mile wide, and evidently streams away to the south and east, piled high in middens and long wicked drifts among the trees for five miles or more. Such is the size and complexity of the rivers of magma, our camp was pitched along the verge of the lava field no more than two hundred yards from another tent, and our separate groups might have remained ignorant of each other save one of ours encountered one of theirs, each shyly looking for a private place to move his bowels.
They are an odd lot of five people, including three loggers such as one sees everywhere in the woods: argumentative, tale-spinning, superstitious, stand-alone fellows, who must be sprawling, noisy drunks when in Town but apply themselves seriously to their backbreaking work while in Camp. The other two are a Special Agent of the government and, lo! a woman, though the boys do not seem to regard her as much of a one. I admit there are few differences between Gracie Spear and any of the boys: she is built like a stevedore, thick armed and broad through the shoulders, wears overalls and a plaid Kilmarnock bonnet, parts her hair along the side, and wears it chopped short around the ears. She has been working as a peeler on a hand-logging crew at the farther end of Pelvey Creek, where, the boys tell me, she holds up her end as well as any man, and therefore is looked upon with respect, though evidently also as something of a freakish monster.
Now. Special Agent Hank Willard is a tall and strongly
built man of the variety that warrants attention. He and his fellows have charge of investigating homestead and forest claims for possibilities of fraud. I have followed this forestry scandal somewhat, as any bona fide Westerner is obliged to do. When a new Forest Reserve is declared, homesteaders whose claims lie inside the boundary are offered swaps, for “in lieu” claims elsewhere. Bribery of government officials, surveyors, and so forth, to gain advance notice of new Reserves, has of course been rampant. Land-grabbers pay people to take out land claims of dubious merit in the soon-to-be-named district and “sell” to the speculator immediately; then, as soon as a Reserve is declared, these low rollers hurry to the Government Land Office and announce they were living on the claim at the time the Reserve was created—though they have not seen the land, nor lived within fifty miles of the township, and the land in question most usually is hanging upon a cliff. Once the useless claim has been swapped for more valuable land Outside, the speculator’s usual course is to sell his fraudulently acquired piece of the public domain to a logging company for the removal of all standing timber; which company in turn sells the stump patch to foolable homesteaders, claiming it to be “agricultural” land, or cuts the timber and lets the land revert to the state without taxes being paid.
The slew of Forest Reserves Mr. Roosevelt has set aside in recent years has attracted criminals at all levels—Land Office receivers, recorders, inspectors, surveyors, attorneys general, as well as the odd congressman and senator. However, these Special Agents report directly to Pinchot and are said to be a select and dedicated breed. They have largely kept themselves in good repute; if any have succumbed to bribery, the news has not made it into the papers. I cannot vouch for his rectitude,
but Hank Willard, in the manner of a dime-novel hero, carries a pistol in a leather holster—land-grabbers have been known to put up a fight—and wears an Army Duck Dryback coat.
He is, further, the sort of man around whom a crowd gathers: we made our two parties over into one, and E. B. Johnson implicitly gave up the helm to him. The Special Agent promptly divided his party of twelve into pairs—this being rugged, disorienting terrain in which a false step can lead to shattered bones—and dispersed us along the front of the lava so as to thoroughly scour and range over the entire rocky ridge; we were instructed to visit, insofar as possible, every dark tunnel and gallery in the black rocks—any that might hold a child. And pointing ahead a mile or two or three through the thicket of lodgepoles to a particular formation standing dimly against the overcast, he proposed that we should all regather at the end of the day at the foot of those rocks, resembling, to an active imagination, a high-backed Mexican saddle.
The youngest Pierce brother, named Almon, brought up the problem of bringing the horses through the lava field, which led to Willard appointing Almon to pack our two camps and lead the overburdened beasts a safe way around the rocks to our new camping place below the Mexican saddle. Almon’s withdrawal left our numbers uneven, but Special Agent Willard, who is used to working alone, said he would fire his pistol three times if he broke an ankle or fell into a sinkhole.
I was partnered to another of the Pierce brothers, the middle one, who is thirty or thereabouts and whose name is Martin, a man with some whiskers and some girth, who likes liquor and changes his shirt on the first day of the month. I have known such men all my life, and stayed away from them.
Once we had gone into the rocks there was seldom
opportunity for seeing the horizon nor the Special Agents landmark, and the rough terrain was dislocating. I brought out my explorers compass and demonstrated it for Pierce, so as to encourage his following my lead; but the principle was lost on him, or he was stubborn as regards the proper roles of men and women. Though he agreed we ought to keep each other in view while working roughly twenty feet apart, he struck out directly and kept to his own course, rejecting the reading of magnetic bearings in favor of personal instinct. It soon became my chief task, trailing Pierce to prevent his being lost and left behind in the lava.
Keeping one’s partner in view is about all one can manage; peering into chasms looking for a huddled child is a matter of wretched difficulty. That broken field of clinkers and boulders and lava mounds is much covered over with lichen and vines, so the careful placing of one’s feet becomes the entire center of one’s nerves. And the terrain, which is an otherworldly landscape of stone swags and festoons, gaping black hollows, and picturesque columns of basalt, is further complicated by a dense understory of shrubs, viny maples, and small pines, as well as various members of the fern family. Here is the desolate truth, though no one speaks it: a child could find a cavity in the rocks, of which there are thousands, climb into it, and be hidden for a millennium.