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Authors: Molly Gloss

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BOOK: Wild Life
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“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 put 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 one's 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 Harriet'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.

BOOK: Wild Life
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