Horse Heaven Hills

What made her go on? Another woman would stay in the house, would chop wood and wait, would make do until the storm had passed.

 

 


Snowed-in door

 

I WAS driving my aunt's sun-faded tank of a Volvo through the dry sagebrush and deep ravines of eastern Washington when out of nowhere she announced, "We just passed the Horse Heaven Hills." Instantly I pictured a sloping hillside of tall grasses where a band of horses grazed, their long tails swishing side to side -- a place all horses would escape to if they could.

"Really?" I said, full of curiosity.

"No," she said. "I lied."

My matron aunt didn't lie. We laughed so hard she couldn't finish for a while. "We passed them some time back," she said, "but we were talking, and I couldn't stop. I knew you'd like that name, so I just threw it in, a little late."

My pear-shaped, sharp-eyed aunt --the liar -- and I were driving back to North Dakota. She had been telling me about the winters there -- so severe that a farmer could be lost between the house and the barn. She was my father's younger sister, but he had left home at fifteen to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, and she was the one who kept the family history.

She had been widowed for many years, and I was single; both of us were schoolteachers. Because my parents had divorced when I was young, this was the only chance I'd ever had to see where my father had been raised. I was raised in cities, but even as a small child I had loved all zoos and farms and open country. Though both my North Dakota grandparents had died by then, to me this first trip felt like a return.

At dusk we stopped in Miles City, Montana, and tried to find the center of town, but we kept passing the same railroad tracks and cattle yards. We settled for the one motel we saw, and all evening we kept making jokes about how we might decide to get dressed up and "do" the town if we could find it.

The next day, in North Dakota, south of Minot, my aunt drove us through small, nearly abandoned towns and out into the farm country where she and my dad had lived as children. Thick black-green trees followed the dusty roads, and more than once we caught sight of deer gliding in the shadows.

"I don't remember deer," my aunt told me. "I don't think the windbreak trees were big enough to shelter deer back then."

Where I had expected miles of flat and empty prairie, the land rolled away in riffling swales of deep green wheat, fields of golden sunflowers, and pools of pale blue flax. Most of the homestead farms had been sold, consumed by vast wheat operations; the houses were moved, torn down, or burned.

When we passed a certain farm, a two-story white house with no front porch or adornment, she said, "That's where cousin Margarete lived. She lived there by herself and farmed."


M ARGARETE'S kitchen smelled of flour and yeast and scalded milk, the milk smell like burned sugar. The baby, sleeping in a basket on a chair, had the round, tight plumpness of bread rising in a bowl. Wind shrieked under the eaves.

Margarete had come to dread the wind. She heard it as she lay in bed at night, the incessant rush of yards and yards of silk drawn through a knothole. She felt the whole house shudder in the wind, a house anchored to rock and built of thick-sawn wooden planks and plaster.

A blizzard had blown up in the night, and when she awakened, sheets of thin ice glistened on the inside of the windowpanes. Her husband rose from bed, a dim shadow at the outskirts of her dream. He let her sleep while he went down to light the stove and heat the kitchen for her and the baby.

Friedrich was always gone out to his chores before she came downstairs. As she worked in the kitchen, kneading bread, she longed for him to come back. On winter mornings he followed a stout rope strung from the house to the barn, where he fed his stock and milked. He would return hot, sweating under woolen shirts, his cheeks red and his beard tinkling with ice. His coveralls came off in a shower of snow and wet hay chaff.

Theirs was not a common marriage. Each had parents who had sailed from German colonies in Russia. Friedrich had farmed for his father and had not married until late in life. When he did marry, he chose a woman no one thought of as a bride. Margarete was tall and large-boned, her broad figure shaped like two whisk brooms set stump to stump upon each other. She wore long dresses and linen aprons washed to the softness of thick pressed paper. With her knuckled feet in stout leather boots and her dark hair drawn back in a bun, she stood like a monolith. Even in the brief high color of her youth, children had run from her.

Margarete had been born into a strict patriarchal family, where her father dominated everyone. She had been the oldest of nine living children. In her new family, in her own house, in her own kitchen, she seldom smiled, but contentment surprised her, rising in her body like warm water.

That morning she went about assembling breakfast: sweet kuchen and pale sausages, pickled watermelon rind and golden jellies from the cellar, strong-tasting butter she had churned herself, and cheese. She fed the baby, heated water, and bathed the small girl in a basin.

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