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.
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.
She did not know when to expect her husband. After he milked the cow each day, small emergencies arose -- the cow had kicked down a board in her stall; mice had gnawed through harness; one of the oxen had rubbed its hind leg raw. Sometimes he needed her to help, and she awoke to an urgency that drew her without complaint into the black, frozen morning.
The wind rose like an inhalation, sucking at the doors. The sheets of blue ice shrank away from the windows, but snowdrifts covered all the lower panes. Above, snow drove past in horizontal lines. She could not see the barn at all, and the wind tormented her, like an alarm she couldn't answer, or a kettle screaming on the stove, or a window banging in the night.
Just before noon she began to feel angry. Disappointment dropped inside her, a falling of her spirits and her hopes. She had arranged the table for breakfast in her yellow-and-white kitchen, the floor scrubbed and shining, the bread baked and cooling on the stove. The baby had begun to fuss and wince in her sleep, as if in her dreams she'd tasted bitter food.
Margarete pulled on a second pair of woolen stockings and strapped the baby to her chest with a shawl crossed in front of her and tied behind. Over this she buttoned a heavy coat, and she wrapped a knitted scarf around her head.
At first she couldn't force the door. The wind had sucked it closed in a tight seal. She shouldered it open and grasped the back-porch post, feeling up and down its length for the guide rope. When she had it in her gloves, she yanked on it with all her strength. It was so weighted with snow and ice that it hung as if anchored in the sea. It scarcely gave at all.
She hesitated. To go was to disappear into the snow and wind. She thought she should take the baby back -- leave her in the basket, safe. But if Friedrich was hurt, she'd want the baby with her. In a few more hours the snow would be too deep for her to return to the house. She wasn't sure she could go on without the small weight of the child resting on her chest.
She took a step into the snow and sank up to her thighs. Hauling on the rope, she took another step. Already the heat of her breath steamed her cheeks and fogged her vision. She was deaf and blind. When she stopped to listen, tears formed in her eyes and froze along her cheeks.
But she was a large woman, and strong. She forced another step, and another. The track behind her vanished under drifting snow. 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, and then find her husband in the barn, stranded there but safe.
But Friedrich had chosen Margarete because he saw in her strength. He loved her for her size, her very bulk. In their bed at night he could balance his entire narrow body on her body while she held him in her arms. She would have liked to have been born small and delicate, willowy and thin; she would like to be the soft, protected one. But his love was a physical truth to her -- almost a location. She took comfort in it; she was unafraid.
She fought on toward the barn. The baby, as if she meant to rejoin her mother's body, lay silent, burrowing. Margarete stopped to make sure the baby had air to breathe and then went on, following the rope.
When it disappeared under the snow, she sank down to her knees and forced her hands to grip. She stood and set her bones against the pull. She pulled beyond her strength until the rope began to creak and give. Slowly she drew from the snow the frayed end of the line, encased in a rock of ice. It no longer reached the barn. The frozen rope hurt her hands, but she could not let it drop. She subsided in the snow, her wet skirts frozen now, and rising up around her like a black umbrella.
Fear made the blood throb in her face and neck. Fear shimmered in her veins, and she seemed able to see and feel and hear more. Her thoughts ran fast. In her mind she traced the way back and the way ahead. But the fear was like a paralyzing drug. It turned her limbs to bags of grain. If she went ahead without the rope, she would never find her way back to the house.
She heard the voice of her papa, commanding her to work harder, to stay indoors and not show herself. She heard him pray, and order all books out of the house.
The wind died down, and for a moment she thought she could see the barn. Then she could hear one broken cry -- the cow. She stood and took a step forward, and then another step. The friction of the wind had iced the snow into a solid crust. She stumbled forward, as if rushing past a dark and frightening place at night. As if speed would bring the danger sooner, and it would be over with.
Her shoulder collided with the barn, and she bounced back into the snow, protecting the baby with her body. When she could rise, she felt along the siding of the barn until she found the doorway, frozen shut.
When she couldn't push it open, she cried in frustration. To come so far. She banged on the door and heard the cow inside. She gripped the edge of the sliding door and shoved it in and out until the ice began to crack. She pried it open just enough to twist in sideways.
She called out for Friedrich in the dark. The barn felt no warmer than outside, but away from the wind her face began to thaw and burn. Her eyes adjusted to the shadows. She could feel the baby's heartbeat and a damp breath wetting her blouse. The milk cow shuffled, nervous in her stall, and at the far end of the barn Margarete saw the bulk of the two oxen, tethered side by side.
She searched each stall and corner, calling. Friedrich might have been kicked, or might have fallen from the loft. She climbed up the narrow wooden stairs, tripping on her frozen skirts. When she realized that Friedrich was not in the hayloft, she sank to her knees in the straw, stunned almost beyond thought.
Such events were not unknown. In this place men were hurt and died. They rolled under wagons or were kicked by horses. They drowned in swiftly rising waters or fell through thinning ice. Two years before, a snowstorm had come with no warning, so fast that there was no time to herd the stock to safety. The wind drove the snow so thick that cattle suffocated in the fields. When the sky cleared, farmers shoveled out their cows and calves -- still standing, frozen stiff.
If Friedrich had lost his way out in the wind, she did not know how to find him. If the wind subsided, if the snow stopped, she could go out with the pitchfork and probe with its wooden handle. Even if the storm died down just a little, she would go out, keeping one hand on the barn, and call.
She realized the cow was bellowing in pain, its teats swollen with milk. Friedrich had never reached the barn. Margarete found a dirty bucket and wiped it out with straw. She drew up the stool and milked the cow, her cheek against the cow's taut hide.
She survived out in the barn for two weeks and a day. She had no fire, no way to melt the snow for water. The oxen fed on snow, but in the cold and darkness the cow began to fail.
Margarete and the child kept from freezing by sleeping with the cow. Margarete threw down hay and straw, and made a deep nest in the stall, and when the milk cow bedded down, she slept against its flank. In the night she dreamed the cow was Friedrich, his strong, smooth back against her back in sleep. She dreamed the baby suckling was her husband, searching for his life.
With her shoulder aching, Margarete gathered snow and urged the cow to swallow, but each day the animal grew weaker and finally refused to eat at all. When it went dry, Margarete found an awl and pierced its throat. She tried to catch the blood in the milk bucket, but the cow, betrayed, flung its head from side to side and lived just long enough to make the stall look like a slaughterhouse.
Margarete drank what blood she caught to make milk for the child, but the child cried until the only sound that came from her was a small, dry barking. Without the cow they could not stop shivering. The oxen were too young and wild, too unpredictable, to go near. But after two weeks in the cold Margarete had no choice. She laid the baby in the straw and yoked and harnessed the oxen. Her hands bled working with the stiff and frozen traces.
When she thought morning had come, when the dark seemed luminous, she strapped the baby to her breast again and led the oxen to the door. Even after she managed to work the door open, the oxen balked at going out. A low wall of glistening ice had formed against the barn. Beyond it Margarete saw only looming drifts and swirling snow.
Day after day in autumn the oxen hauled wagons of threshed grain to the mill. The mill and granaries stood at the railroad siding at the edge of town. Margarete thought, If I let them go, they will take us to the mill.
And so she stumbled behind the oxen. They broke a trail with their broad chests and twice-shod cloven hooves. They lowered their huge horns and pushed ahead.
Margarete did not know where they were going. She walked on, her head down, following the track. No one knows how long she walked. When the men found her, the oxen had stopped at the loading docks, just as if they'd brought a load of grain, and had pawed down to dry grass. Margarete was found curled up in the snow like a child napping in a closet or a secret place, her clothes and face stained dark with blood. She slept there so deeply they thought at first that she was dead. Friedrich was found later, not three feet from the barn.
THE last time I saw Margarete," my aunt said, "was at Uncle Frank's funeral. She came in an old housedress, buttoned down the front. It drooped around her ankles, and I remember she had on men's work boots with no socks, and her hands hung almost to her knees."
When we drove again past Margarete's house, far away from any other farm, my aunt told me, "When I was a girl, we always wondered about that place. We believed she slept out in the barn with the farm animals. But now I'm not sure anybody knew that for a fact. She lived out there alone and farmed. Never wanted help or asked for any."
"How do you know so much about her, then?"
My aunt paused, giving me a "Just hold on" look. "During the Depression she fed my mother and your dad and me. Brought us produce from the farm. Chickens and sausage and ham. I remember strawberries. I've never tasted sweetness like that again. And striped green watermelons, so ripe they split open on their own. She brought food to other widows, but my mother was her only friend.
"In 1934, when your grandfather died, she came and sat with Mother. Sometime in the night she told her the whole story."
"What happened to the baby?" That's all I wanted to know. "Did the baby live?"
"I think so," my aunt said. "But I don't know for sure. I can't remember."
"Isn't there somebody you can ask?"
My aunt gave me a sideways look, as if I had a lot to learn, and said, "There might be, somewhere. But I don't know. Most of our relatives are gone, and nobody really knew Margarete. She kept to herself."
My aunt was quiet for a while.
"I have a letter someplace," she told me. "When I get home, I'll look for it."
Later that summer the letter came. Along with more of Margarete's story.
DURING the weeks in the barn, when keeping her-self and the child alive was a flame she kindled and guarded, a small fire she could not let go out, Margarete had with her a letter. According to my aunt, she kept it with her always. When a thinning of dark told her it was day, she unfolded the letter from her pocket and read it aloud. Though the script was dim and in German, she knew it by heart.
It was a letter Friedrich had given her the night they were married, a very old letter even then. It had been written by his grandfather to his father, who had sailed from Russia in dark days. His father and his mother, a young woman with a coronet of braids, had homesteaded this farm and built the first house out of sod. Margarete held the thin paper close to her eyes and read.
Margarete folded the letter and placed it inside her clothing, where it felt like warmth. The words in German were so sweet, and these people, who endured so much in Russia, were so innocent with love. She thought, I will hold this letter close, and it will keep me. We will make a home in this country, where there will always be enough to eat, and our children will travel from far away to be with us at Christmas and at Easter.
And so, my aunt told me, in the long years of solitude and hard work, her hands chafed and hardened with calluses, Margarete farmed. In her house, or maybe in the barn, she slept well and she dreamed.
MY aunt had tried to warn me, to tell me how the memories and the stories can just disappear. I always meant to ask her more about Margarete, to find out about the baby. But a year ago my aunt died suddenly, without ever growing old. I wanted to go see her, but she wouldn't let me come. I should remember her, she said, the way she was.
Since that trip to North Dakota my remaining family has scattered and lost touch. I still teach school. I live alone and think about my aunt in her determined, cheerful widowhood. Though her eyes were black and sharp with light, no one thought my aunt was beautiful. I knew her husband briefly. He was a handsome, vital man with a deep, ironic laugh. He was one of those loved teachers who brought half his students home.
I always thought I would move to the country, but I live now in a high-rise city building. In winter the wind blows hard against the glass and steel. Lying in my bed at night, I think of Margarete's letter. I imagine summer -- red strawberries and the smell of watermelon lifting on the air, like the smell of rain on dusty sidewalks.
I wonder what it would be like to have a love like Margarete's. A love so warm and right that though it lasted only a short time, it kept her all her life. Sometimes when the wind shrieks so that I can't sleep, I pretend I have a daughter. I fold her small girl's body in the quilts with me and rest my face against her hair. It smells of sun and hay. We drift to sleep out in the barn, among the animals.
Illustrations by Susan Saelig Gallagher
The Atlantic Monthly; November, 1996; Horse Heaven Hills; Volume 278, No. 5; pages 81-87.