Authors: Thomas Maltman
CHOOL STARTED EARLY
that summer since so little remained of our fields. The only thing that thrived were the bullheads—an ugly fish with a mean, wolfish snout—that prospered in summers when thick swarms of locusts drowned in the Waraju River. With the river running so low we could stand in the shallows and spear them from the muddy banks with pronged jigs. I spent mornings at school in Mr. Simons’s classroom and afternoons fishing and trying to make up to my family for what I’d done.
Papa went alone to Silas Easton’s Indian watchtower, but no more Dakota came through the county that year.
A week into school a letter arrived from the town of St. Peter. Papa was still away that day. I came home after a luckless fishing expedition to find Ma holding the envelope close to a candle, trying to fathom the contents. Her thin face looked crimped and worried. When I came through the door she set the letter down on the table and stepped away from it. “Asa, who in the world do you think your Papa knows in St. Peter?”
I shook my head. Papa had traveled east the two previous summers after the crops were destroyed to work as a hired hand on other men’s land, those who had been spared by the locusts.
My mother had aged these past few years, the gold in her hair dimming to a muted straw color. The hands that held the letter were nut-brown and wrinkled. “Set yourself down,” she told me. “I’ll fetch us some sarsaparilla tea and then I want you to read me this letter. You don’t think he’ll mind, do you?”
“I don’t know.”
“No, he’ll consider it a favor. Don’t that handwriting look pretty to you? I do wonder who he knows in St. Peter.” She ground sarsaparilla root into two bone china cups and poured hot water over this, her afternoon constitutional. Sometimes, she spooned a dose of laudanum into her own cup and passed a few hours rocking in a chair, her eyelids fluttering while she dreamed. I drank tea with her, though in the summertime a hot drink was the last thing I wanted. On school days she fixed a cup for each of us and then asked me to tell her about what I’d learned. Mr. Simons kept a map of our country with flags marking famous battles during the War Between the States. His lectures were dry recitations of battle movements, generals present, faceless numbers of the wounded and the dead. This history I carried back to my mother and sometimes embellished—spinning fibs about the men there, great and small, their secret fears and hopes— and because she had only two years of learning herself she would nod, saying, “Isn’t that something?” She had learned just enough to cipher the city that an envelope came from, and guess that the hand that wrote it was either “educated” or “feminine.”
The letter lay between us while we sipped our tea. I saw her continue to glance toward it, her blue eyes watery. Halfway into our ritual she reached for it with a trembling hand and said, “Why don’t you open it now?”
“Ma’am? You think maybe you should be the one?”
“Oh no. We’ll tell him you were practicing your ciphering.”
I figured things couldn’t get much worse with my papa and so used a long, dirty fingernail to hook open the envelope and shake the letter out on the table. Ma stood up, hands behind her back, and paced the room. “My, that’s a passel of writing there,” she said. “You go ahead now and read it.”
I have located your name from the Brown County Census of 1874.
To my knowledge you are the only Senger family in all of Minnesota. I
am writing you on behalf of one of the patients here at the St. Peter Hospital for the Insane. According to our records she has been with us for over a decade because of a nervous condition called epilepsy. Her name is Hazel Senger and while she refuses to talk or cooperate with most of the medical staff, I believe she may be of some relation to you. The reason for my writing is first to inform you of recent medical advances pertaining to the treatment of seizures and fits of apoplexy. Namely, we have had some success with a powder called bromide and said patient has not suffered a seizure in over a year. Due to overcrowding at this facility, I believe the time has come to release her back into the world.
She seems to have developed a closeness with one of our staff doctors, a certain Alastor Wright, who has managed to get her speaking again and put her to work in the laundry department. While his methods have proven to be unorthodox, one cannot argue with results. In recent weeks he has begun to spend an inordinate amount of time in her presence—to the detriment, I fear, of his other duties.
I believe that his successes should now bear fruit. In light of our situation, Hazel Senger will be released from St. Peter on Wednesday June 19th with an ample supply of the bromide. The state has provided for her care for long enough. If you are indeed a relation of this woman and care about her well-being, you should be at the entrance of our hospital at nine in the morning when we will release her along with a number of other patients who no longer need our care. Such charity cases, after all, are the province of the family and not the state.
Dr. Wendell Frietz
Chief Medical Officer
“Why don’t you hand me that letter, Asa?” she asked when I was done reading it. I gave it over without comment. She held it up in the greasy light coming through the window panes, her lips mouthing the words like a child. Then she walked over, opened up the wood stove, and tossed the letter inside. It happened so quickly. Without knowing what I was doing, I overturned the chair and sprang across the room. Tongues of fire licked at the edges of the letter. My mother stood there watching it burn. The oven door was open so I reached inside and plucked the letter out, singeing my fingertips. Black flakes came away. Ashes. But you could still read the heart of the letter. “You put that back in the fire,” mother said. “Do as your mother tells you.”
The front door opened. Papa was back from his time at the watchtower, the rifle slung over his shoulder.
I lay on the floor of the loft room that night listening to them argue with my ear pressed to the boards. My mother had not cooked any dinner and I knew that I wouldn’t be getting any. Somehow that didn’t matter.
“I won’t have that woman in my house,” she said.
“She’s my blood relation.”
“I’m your wife.”
“Blood’s thicker than water. I won’t have that argument used against me in this lifetime. Once was enough.”
A long silence. I knew she was crying now. “But your momma said she died. Your momma said she didn’t survive childbirth.” Her voice quavered.
“Ma never did or said a thing that wasn’t in her own best interest. Truth only mattered if it suited her. No, she intended this to happen all along.”
“It will change things if you bring her here. Our boy,” she said. I pressed my ear closer, straining to catch the next words. What did I have to do with any of this? I was disappointed when she continued. “We barely have enough to feed the boy now. No crop in four years. How will I feed another mouth?”
“We’ll find a way.”
“Your mind is set, then?”
“By God, yes. We’ll take the steamboat to New Ulm and walk from there.”
“After all these years,” my mother said. “And I thought that letter was from a sweetheart. Now I only wish to God you had a sweetheart.”
“You’re a curious woman.” I moved again, straining for a better position near a knothole. The boards creaked. Papa, sensing me listening, shushed her. “This house has grown ears,” he said. “We’ve said enough tonight.”
Long after the wicks were turned down I lay awake thinking on this news. Aunt Hazel, who had shamed the family by getting pregnant while a captive of the Dakota, was alive. She was supposed to have died in Mankato, mourning her Indian lover who got hanged. She and the baby died in the following spring of 1863, and that was all I knew. My head spun with this news. And now she was coming here, released from an asylum.
When I was seven years old, a severe winter storm had barricaded us in the cabin. Howling winds piled drifts as high as the roof. While waiting for the snow to melt, Papa passed time drawing stories for me on a long ream of butcher paper he had left over because he spared the life of our aging sow the past harvest season. I sat for hours watching. I marveled that such large, gnarled hands could hold a pencil so lightly and summon shapes and shadows to fill the page. He set words down, too, though he was a poor speller. He did not speak and became agitated if I asked questions about the story. After three days the wind down died down and Papa rolled the ream of butcher paper up, tied it with a leather cord, and handed it to me before stepping outside to dig his way to the barn. I have been puzzling over that story he drew for me ever since, for I kenned that he was telling me about the past in a way he couldn’t out loud.
Papa’s drawings illustrated a tale of two children, a boy and his baby sister, who are lost in the woods. Throughout, there are hints of something terrible that has happened to leave these children orphans. They shelter in an oak tree hollowed out by lightning. Night after night they hide there, conjuring monsters out of ordinary things that pass their tree in the dark. The baby girl begins to starve. Just when the boy is losing hope, a talking crow tells him of a nearby farm. The boy makes a sling of his muslin shirt and carries the baby in it behind him, like a papoose. He journeys through the woods, following the crow as it flits from branch to branch. At a nearby farm they find a goat the boy milks to feed his sister.
My favorite illustration comes right before this scene, where the children first emerge out of the woods into the clearing of the farm. If you look closely, near a stump of an old tree you will make out the shape of a woman’s horned feet as she lies prone in the grass. I knew with a child’s prescience that the woman in the picture had died in some awful way my papa never bothered to explain. The story ends curiously; the boy finds his way to a town and hands the child he has carried for so long to a woman whose face is shadowed by a bonnet. Then Papa ran out of paper as well as patience. Who were the boy and girl of the story? I understood that Papa knew them and that the true ending had been too painful for him to tell.
There were other mysteries when you studied on the pictures closely. Now it occurred to me that questions I had wondered about for years might finally be answered. I lay back on my bed thinking these things over and didn’t sleep a wink that night.
“You don’t look crazy,” were the first words my mother said to Aunt Hazel.
“It’s good to see you, too,” my aunt responded.
“What I mean is, you don’t look how I thought you would.” My mother was one of those people known for speaking her mind, which is what they usually say about people with bad manners. But it was true. You don’t expect a woman who you thought was dead all these years— but really was just in an insane asylum undergoing torturous treatments— to look hale and hearty.
Nine days after Pa left to retrieve her from St. Peter, Aunt Hazel came to our house wearing a girlish yellow-print dress, her face freckled from walking in the open sun. She had clear green eyes and dark brown hair. And there was something elfin in her smile.
“This is the one,” she said to me. She was carrying a carpet bag that held all her worldly belongings. She set it down, saying, “Come closer.”
I hesitated, thinking on the bits of information I’d managed to wheedle from my mother over the last nine days. That Aunt Hazel “knew things a Christian woman ought not to,” her way of implying the woman was a witch. That Aunt Hazel hadn’t resisted when taken captive, had wanted it even. Now this woman stood before me and she was not the wispy, white-haired vision I had imagined. Not a woman with faraway eyes and long yellow fingernails, but one who looked you straight in the face and saw the fears you hid in your underbelly and smelled the regret on your skin. To tell the truth, she frightened me. But despite certain recent lapses, I was an obedient child and so went to her and let her put her hands on my cheeks until I looked up into her eyes and tried to still the quivering in my stomach. Only a woman does a thing like that: takes you into her hands like she held a sparrow and was divining its lifespan, the good and bad. Men are keen about other things, but not very often about people. Aunt Hazel didn’t say anything about what she saw in my eyes, not at that time.
We cooked one of the pullets that had quit laying, the hen either sick or obstinate, and had a dinner of baked chicken and potatoes, a rare treat. The adults talked about the trip, and the territory west of St. Peter. “Did it surprise you to see the land?” Mother wanted to know. “It looks like the end of the world outside, the Lord have mercy.”
“It did make me sad,” Aunt Hazel said. “But I wasn’t surprised. I read about the locusts in the paper. At St. Peter there’s many a farm wife, worn out from her travails. This prairie never was all that fond of settlers.” While she spoke she moved her food around the plate but didn’t eat any.