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Authors: Molly Gloss

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BOOK: Wild Life
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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 sun-porch, 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 mountainscapes 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.”

BOOK: Wild Life
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