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Authors: Molly Gloss

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BOOK: Wild Life
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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 log jam 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.

S
AMUEL
B
UTLER

 

Thurs p.m.—

Mother—

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 be 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.

Your daughter—

Florence

 

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.

BOOK: Wild Life
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