O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather

Part III. Winter Memories

I

Winter has settled down over the Divide again; the season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring. The birds have gone. The teeming life that goes on down in the long grass is exterminated. The prairie-dog keeps his hole. The rabbits run shivering from one frozen garden patch to another and are hard put to it to find frost-bitten cabbage-stalks. At night the coyotes roam the wintry waste, howling for food. The variegated fields are all one color now; the pastures, the stubble, the roads, the sky are the same leaden gray. The hedgerows and trees are scarcely perceptible against the bare earth, whose slaty hue they have taken on. The ground is frozen so hard that it bruises the foot to walk in the roads or in the ploughed fields. It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.

Alexandra has settled back into her old routine. There are weekly letters from Emil. Lou and Oscar she has not seen since Carl went away. To avoid awkward encounters in the presence of curious spectators, she has stopped going to the Norwegian Church and drives up to the Reform Church at Hanover, or goes with Marie Shabata to the Catholic Church, locally known as “the French Church.” She has not told Marie about Carl, or her differences with her brothers. She was never very communicative about her own affairs, and when she came to the point, an instinct told her that about such things she and Marie would not understand one another.

Old Mrs. Lee had been afraid that family misunderstandings might deprive her of her yearly visit to Alexandra. But on the first day of December Alexandra telephoned Annie that tomorrow she would send Ivar over for her mother, and the next day the old lady arrived with her bundles. For twelve years Mrs. Lee had always entered Alexandra’s sitting-room with the same exclamation, “Now we be yust-a like old times!” She enjoyed the liberty Alexandra gave her, and hearing her own language about her all day long. Here she could wear her nightcap and sleep with all her windows shut, listen to Ivar reading the Bible, and here she could run about among the stables in a pair of Emil’s old boots. Though she was bent almost double, she was as spry as a gopher. Her face was as brown as if it had been varnished, and as full of wrinkles as a washerwoman’s hands. She had three jolly old teeth left in the front of her mouth, and when she grinned she looked very knowing, as if when you found out how to take it, life wasn’t half bad. While she and Alexandra patched and pieced and quilted, she talked incessantly about stories she read in a Swedish family paper, telling the plots in great detail; or about her life on a dairy farm in Gottland when she was a girl. Sometimes she forgot which were the printed stories and which were the real stories, it all seemed so far away. She loved to take a little brandy, with hot water and sugar, before she went to bed, and Alexandra always had it ready for her. “It sends good dreams,” she would say with a twinkle in her eye.

When Mrs. Lee had been with Alexandra for a week, Marie Shabata telephoned one morning to say that Frank had gone to town for the day, and she would like them to come over for coffee in the afternoon. Mrs. Lee hurried to wash out and iron her new cross-stitched apron, which she had finished only the night before; a checked gingham apron worked with a design ten inches broad across the bottom; a hunting scene, with fir trees and a stag and dogs and huntsmen. Mrs. Lee was firm with herself at dinner, and refused a second helping of apple dumplings. “I ta-ank I save up,” she said with a giggle.

At two o’clock in the afternoon Alexandra’s cart drove up to the Shabatas’ gate, and Marie saw Mrs. Lee’s red shawl come bobbing up the path. She ran to the door and pulled the old woman into the house with a hug, helping her to take off her wraps while Alexandra blanketed the horse outside. Mrs. Lee had put on her best black satine dress — she abominated woolen stuffs, even in winter — and a crocheted collar, fastened with a big pale gold pin, containing faded daguerreotypes of her father and mother. She had not worn her apron for fear of rumpling it, and now she shook it out and tied it round her waist with a conscious air. Marie drew back and threw up her hands, exclaiming, “Oh, what a beauty! I’ve never seen this one before, have I, Mrs. Lee?”

The old woman giggled and ducked her head. “No, yust las’ night I ma-ake. See dis tread; verra strong, no wa-ash out, no fade. My sister send from Sveden. I yust-a ta-ank you like dis.”

Marie ran to the door again. “Come in, Alexandra. I have been looking at Mrs. Lee’s apron. Do stop on your way home and show it to Mrs. Hiller. She’s crazy about cross-stitch.”

While Alexandra removed her hat and veil, Mrs. Lee went out to the kitchen and settled herself in a wooden rocking-chair by the stove, looking with great interest at the table, set for three, with a white cloth, and a pot of pink geraniums in the middle. “My, a-an’t you gotta fine plants; such-a much flower. How you keep from freeze?”

She pointed to the window-shelves, full of blooming fuchsias and geraniums.

“I keep the fire all night, Mrs. Lee, and when it’s very cold I put them all on the table, in the middle of the room. Other nights I only put newspapers behind them. Frank laughs at me for fussing, but when they don’t bloom he says, ‘What’s the matter with the darned things?’ — What do you hear from Carl, Alexandra?”

“He got to Dawson before the river froze, and now I suppose I won’t hear any more until spring. Before he left California he sent me a box of orange flowers, but they didn’t keep very well. I have brought a bunch of Emil’s letters for you.” Alexandra came out from the sitting-room and pinched Marie’s cheek playfully. “You don’t look as if the weather ever froze you up. Never have colds, do you? That’s a good girl. She had dark red cheeks like this when she was a little girl, Mrs. Lee. She looked like some queer foreign kind of a doll. I’ve never forgot the first time I saw you in Mieklejohn’s store, Marie, the time father was lying sick. Carl and I were talking about that before he went away.”

“I remember, and Emil had his kitten along. When are you going to send Emil’s Christmas box?”

“It ought to have gone before this. I’ll have to send it by mail now, to get it there in time.”

Marie pulled a dark purple silk necktie from her workbasket. “I knit this for him. It’s a good color, don’t you think? Will you please put it in with your things and tell him it’s from me, to wear when he goes serenading.”

Alexandra laughed. “I don’t believe he goes serenading much. He says in one letter that the Mexican ladies are said to be very beautiful, but that don’t seem to me very warm praise.”

Marie tossed her head. “Emil can’t fool me. If he’s bought a guitar, he goes serenading. Who wouldn’t, with all those Spanish girls dropping flowers down from their windows! I’d sing to them every night, wouldn’t you, Mrs. Lee?”

The old lady chuckled. Her eyes lit up as Marie bent down and opened the oven door. A delicious hot fragrance blew out into the tidy kitchen. “My, somet’ing smell good!” She turned to Alexandra with a wink, her three yellow teeth making a brave show, “I ta-ank dat stop my yaw from ache no more!” she said contentedly.

Marie took out a pan of delicate little rolls, stuffed with stewed apricots, and began to dust them over with powdered sugar. “I hope you’ll like these, Mrs. Lee; Alexandra does. The Bohemians always like them with their coffee. But if you don’t, I have a coffee-cake with nuts and poppy seeds. Alexandra, will you get the cream jug? I put it in the window to keep cool.”

“The Bohemians,” said Alexandra, as they drew up to the table, “certainly know how to make more kinds of bread than any other people in the world. Old Mrs. Hiller told me once at the church supper that she could make seven kinds of fancy bread, but Marie could make a dozen.”

Mrs. Lee held up one of the apricot rolls between her brown thumb and forefinger and weighed it critically. “Yust like-a fedders,” she pronounced with satisfaction. “My, a-an’t dis nice!” she exclaimed as she stirred her coffee. “I yust ta-ake a liddle yelly now, too, I ta-ank.”

Alexandra and Marie laughed at her forehandedness, and fell to talking of their own affairs. “I was afraid you had a cold when I talked to you over the telephone the other night, Marie. What was the matter, had you been crying?”

“Maybe I had,” Marie smiled guiltily. “Frank was out late that night. Don’t you get lonely sometimes in the winter, when everybody has gone away?”

“I thought it was something like that. If I hadn’t had company, I’d have run over to see for myself. If you get down-hearted, what will become of the rest of us?” Alexandra asked.

“I don’t, very often. There’s Mrs. Lee without any coffee!”

Later, when Mrs. Lee declared that her powers were spent, Marie and Alexandra went upstairs to look for some crochet patterns the old lady wanted to borrow. “Better put on your coat, Alexandra. It’s cold up there, and I have no idea where those patterns are. I may have to look through my old trunks.” Marie caught up a shawl and opened the stair door, running up the steps ahead of her guest. “While I go through the bureau drawers, you might look in those hat-boxes on the closet-shelf, over where Frank’s clothes hang. There are a lot of odds and ends in them.”

She began tossing over the contents of the drawers, and Alexandra went into the clothes-closet. Presently she came back, holding a slender elastic yellow stick in her hand.

“What in the world is this, Marie? You don’t mean to tell me Frank ever carried such a thing?”

Marie blinked at it with astonishment and sat down on the floor. “Where did you find it? I didn’t know he had kept it. I haven’t seen it for years.”

“It really is a cane, then?”

“Yes. One he brought from the old country. He used to carry it when I first knew him. Isn’t it foolish? Poor Frank!”

Alexandra twirled the stick in her fingers and laughed. “He must have looked funny!”

Marie was thoughtful. “No, he didn’t, really. It didn’t seem out of place. He used to be awfully gay like that when he was a young man. I guess people always get what’s hardest for them, Alexandra.” Marie gathered the shawl closer about her and still looked hard at the cane. “Frank would be all right in the right place,” she said reflectively. “He ought to have a different kind of wife, for one thing. Do you know, Alexandra, I could pick out exactly the right sort of woman for Frank — now. The trouble is you almost have to marry a man before you can find out the sort of wife he needs; and usually it’s exactly the sort you are not. Then what are you going to do about it?” she asked candidly.

Alexandra confessed she didn’t know. “However,” she added, “it seems to me that you get along with Frank about as well as any woman I’ve ever seen or heard of could.”

Marie shook her head, pursing her lips and blowing her warm breath softly out into the frosty air. “No; I was spoiled at home. I like my own way, and I have a quick tongue. When Frank brags, I say sharp things, and he never forgets. He goes over and over it in his mind; I can feel him. Then I’m too giddy. Frank’s wife ought to be timid, and she ought not to care about another living thing in the world but just Frank! I didn’t, when I married him, but I suppose I was too young to stay like that.” Marie sighed.

Alexandra had never heard Marie speak so frankly about her husband before, and she felt that it was wiser not to encourage her. No good, she reasoned, ever came from talking about such things, and while Marie was thinking aloud, Alexandra had been steadily searching the hat-boxes. “Aren’t these the patterns, Maria?”

Maria sprang up from the floor. “Sure enough, we were looking for patterns, weren’t we? I’d forgot about everything but Frank’s other wife. I’ll put that away.”

She poked the cane behind Frank’s Sunday clothes, and though she laughed, Alexandra saw there were tears in her eyes.

When they went back to the kitchen, the snow had begun to fall, and Marie’s visitors thought they must be getting home. She went out to the cart with them, and tucked the robes about old Mrs. Lee while Alexandra took the blanket off her horse. As they drove away, Marie turned and went slowly back to the house. She took up the package of letters Alexandra had brought, but she did not read them. She turned them over and looked at the foreign stamps, and then sat watching the flying snow while the dusk deepened in the kitchen and the stove sent out a red glow.

Marie knew perfectly well that Emil’s letters were written more for her than for Alexandra. They were not the sort of letters that a young man writes to his sister. They were both more personal and more painstaking; full of descriptions of the gay life in the old Mexican capital in the days when the strong hand of Porfirio Diaz was still strong. He told about bull-fights and cock-fights, churches and FIESTAS, the flower-markets and the fountains, the music and dancing, the people of all nations he met in the Italian restaurants on San Francisco Street. In short, they were the kind of letters a young man writes to a woman when he wishes himself and his life to seem interesting to her, when he wishes to enlist her imagination in his behalf.

Marie, when she was alone or when she sat sewing in the evening, often thought about what it must be like down there where Emil was; where there were flowers and street bands everywhere, and carriages rattling up and down, and where there was a little blind boot-black in front of the cathedral who could play any tune you asked for by dropping the lids of blacking-boxes on the stone steps. When everything is done and over for one at twenty-three, it is pleasant to let the mind wander forth and follow a young adventurer who has life before him. “And if it had not been for me,” she thought, “Frank might still be free like that, and having a good time making people admire him. Poor Frank, getting married wasn’t very good for him either. I’m afraid I do set people against him, as he says. I seem, somehow, to give him away all the time. Perhaps he would try to be agreeable to people again, if I were not around. It seems as if I always make him just as bad as he can be.”

Later in the winter, Alexandra looked back upon that afternoon as the last satisfactory visit she had had with Marie. After that day the younger woman seemed to shrink more and more into herself. When she was with Alexandra she was not spontaneous and frank as she used to be. She seemed to be brooding over something, and holding something back. The weather had a good deal to do with their seeing less of each other than usual. There had not been such snowstorms in twenty years, and the path across the fields was drifted deep from Christmas until March. When the two neighbors went to see each other, they had to go round by the wagon-road, which was twice as far. They telephoned each other almost every night, though in January there was a stretch of three weeks when the wires were down, and when the postman did not come at all.

Marie often ran in to see her nearest neighbor, old Mrs. Hiller, who was crippled with rheumatism and had only her son, the lame shoemaker, to take care of her; and she went to the French Church, whatever the weather. She was a sincerely devout girl. She prayed for herself and for Frank, and for Emil, among the temptations of that gay, corrupt old city. She found more comfort in the Church that winter than ever before. It seemed to come closer to her, and to fill an emptiness that ached in her heart. She tried to be patient with her husband. He and his hired man usually played California Jack in the evening. Marie sat sewing or crocheting and tried to take a friendly interest in the game, but she was always thinking about the wide fields outside, where the snow was drifting over the fences; and about the orchard, where the snow was falling and packing, crust over crust. When she went out into the dark kitchen to fix her plants for the night, she used to stand by the window and look out at the white fields, or watch the currents of snow whirling over the orchard. She seemed to feel the weight of all the snow that lay down there. The branches had become so hard that they wounded your hand if you but tried to break a twig. And yet, down under the frozen crusts, at the roots of the trees, the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart; and the spring would come again! Oh, it would come again!

II

If Alexandra had had much imagination she might have guessed what was going on in Marie’s mind, and she would have seen long before what was going on in Emil’s. But that, as Emil himself had more than once reflected, was Alexandra’s blind side, and her life had not been of the kind to sharpen her vision. Her training had all been toward the end of making her proficient in what she had undertaken to do. Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields. Nevertheless, the underground stream was there, and it was because she had so much personality to put into her enterprises and succeeded in putting it into them so completely, that her affairs prospered better than those of her neighbors.

There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil. There were days, too, which she and Emil had spent together, upon which she loved to look back. There had been such a day when they were down on the river in the dry year, looking over the land. They had made an early start one morning and had driven a long way before noon. When Emil said he was hungry, they drew back from the road, gave Brigham his oats among the bushes, and climbed up to the top of a grassy bluff to eat their lunch under the shade of some little elm trees. The river was clear there, and shallow, since there had been no rain, and it ran in ripples over the sparkling sand. Under the overhanging willows of the opposite bank there was an inlet where the water was deeper and flowed so slowly that it seemed to sleep in the sun. In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade. They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck. Emil must have felt about it as she did, for afterward, when they were at home, he used sometimes to say, “Sister, you know our duck down there — ” Alexandra remembered that day as one of the happiest in her life. Years afterward she thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change.

Most of Alexandra’s happy memories were as impersonal as this one; yet to her they were very personal. Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times.

There was one fancy indeed, which persisted through her girlhood. It most often came to her on Sunday mornings, the one day in the week when she lay late abed listening to the familiar morning sounds; the windmill singing in the brisk breeze, Emil whistling as he blacked his boots down by the kitchen door. Sometimes, as she lay thus luxuriously idle, her eyes closed, she used to have an illusion of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat. She never saw him, but, with eyes closed, she could feel that he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him. She could feel him approach, bend over her and lift her, and then she could feel herself being carried swiftly off across the fields. After such a reverie she would rise hastily, angry with herself, and go down to the bath-house that was partitioned off the kitchen shed. There she would stand in a tin tub and prosecute her bath with vigor, finishing it by pouring buckets of cold well-water over her gleaming white body which no man on the Divide could have carried very far.

As she grew older, this fancy more often came to her when she was tired than when she was fresh and strong. Sometimes, after she had been in the open all day, overseeing the branding of the cattle or the loading of the pigs, she would come in chilled, take a concoction of spices and warm home-made wine, and go to bed with her body actually aching with fatigue. Then, just before she went to sleep, she had the old sensation of being lifted and carried by a strong being who took from her all her bodily weariness.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30