Saturday, February 10, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal Chapter 4

Two sons were born, Philomelus and Plutus, who were never on good terms, for Plutus, who was richer, gave nothing of his wealth to his brother. Philomelus, however, compelled by necessity, bought two oxen with what he had, and became the inventor of the wagon. So, by plowing and cultivating the fields, he supported himself. His mother, admiring his invention, represented him plowing among the stars, and called him Bootes. –Hyginus Astronomica 2.4

Boots was there to greet the two women on the train platform, looking earnest as he always did. He had brought two men to deal with the trunks but handed his mother and Cate into a fine brougham with a pair of high-stepping horses. They were happy to leave the surging mass of the depot quickly and to arrive at Boots’ calm home at the edge of town where his wife welcomed them warmly, though she was just the least bit intimidated by her mother-in-law.

A real wash-up, a wholesome supper and a good night’s sleep later, the two women were ready to tackle the open prairie. Boots’ wife shook her head. No one would ever catch her going off into the wilderness like that, even if one of her children was at stake. That sulky dark Pers had no business going out there in the first place. She’d told Boots that at the time and reminded him now.

But he paid no attention. He was delighted to be equipping his mother from his fine collection of stock and vehicles. Instead of a buckboard, which would soon be pounded to bits on the rough trail, he chose for his mother a springwagon, pulled by a fine team of Belgians called “Rye” and “Barley.” Indeed, their grain-colored hides shone in the sun while their manes and tails, fine and white as pounded out flax fiber, riffled in the stirring air. The baggage went into the back, including a watertight box his mother would not discuss, and barrels of good water. For Cate there was a black mare, strong and attentive, named “Crossroads.” She liked the horse at once and picked out large canvas panniers to go behind her saddle, rather than leather saddlebags. In Boots’ office the two women went over some maps, but all agreed they would be of little use in finding the man in black and his captive.

Boots was anxious to persuade the women, especially his mother, of the huge importance steam engines would have out on what some were calling the “ocean of grass.” How deeply they could plow, how quickly they could thrash, going from one homestead to another on their huge iron cleated wheels. But Demeter had little taste for machinery. Cate thought of the people -- what about the men and women who used to make a little cushion of wages for the winter by working on the harvest? Surely it was very hard work, but still hard work was better than none and there was plenty of good company, singing, and, well, a bit of fun. The huge steam thrashing machines would end that.

On the last night in town Demeter lay awake, thinking of Boots’ father. The Reverend Jason Christianson -- what a wonder he was! He came to their town as an evangelist, not the Puritanical sort of preacher they were used to, but a shining vision of a new life! He had baptized dozens of folks down by the stream and all crowded to take Communion from his hands. He handled the materials so beautifully, with never a false move, never bumping the wine decanter against the polished chalice or making crumbs when he snapped the wafer above the platen. “My body, broken for you,” he cried, but she never heard past “my body.” And she didn’t think of Jesus, only of Jason and his smooth body.

That spring they were both at the traditional beginning of the plowing season -- three furrows across the rich earth, three bands of darkness in the stubble field. When everyone had gone home, they came back under the moon and lay in the furrows to make a son, Plutos. A son who would be rich as the earth, who would make others wealthy as well. Jason made her believe that prosperity was the product of virtue, that diligence would always be rewarded by God with happiness and safety.

They had intended to marry. Before they could, there was a summer storm that endangered the ships belonging to the island village. People went up to the top of the cliff to watch through the wind-driven rain, as though that might bring the ships more quickly and safely. They asked Jason to pray for their seamen and so he did. Standing up there with his golden hair whipped by the wind, his cossack knotting around his legs, he raised up his arms and prayed mightily, half-singing, defying the storm. That’s when the lightning struck him dead as though the sky were jealous. The next day the ships came into harbor safely, including the ship belonging to Jason’s brother Dan. There were no funerals for sailors, but only one for the evangelical preacher who had brought them such assurance and grace for a while. Did he sacrifice himself for them, offering himself in place of their men? Or had he angered God by asking for more than the people were entitled to, refusing the tithe the sea had always demanded?

When the ships came in again again, Demeter had lived for months with her now fatherless boy, Plutos, and her dark but red-cheeked little daughter, Persephone, before she had felt the need for a new beginning and had gone along on Dan’s ship. Somewhere along the way, in an act of mutual consolation, they had conceived Boots. They married in Halifax. Cory had come later. By the time Dan’s ship went down, he had amassed a major fortune which Demeter managed carefully, mostly investing in agricultural land. That’s what she knew best and that’s what she loved most. Her family knew this dimly and did not ordinarily expect her help, especially after Dan was lost at sea. In a while she emigrated to Boston. By then all the children had found lives of their own except Pers.

Soon after dawn the Belgians leaned into their jingling harnesses and hardly felt the spring wagon that rolled along behind them. They were far beyond the horsepower necessary to move the light wagon, but possibly it would be a long trip and if one were lamed -- or worse -- along the way, one horse could pull the wagon. “Crossroads” stepped out lightly, willing to undertake the role of out-rider, going along the ridges and covering many miles by circling ahead to scout the trail. Cate had made herself a bonnet with a deep brim and a wide skirt so as to protect her freckled skin from sunburn. Her bony face looked a little strange in the shadowed tunnel of the bonnet with a bow tied under her chin, but no one dared comment. Demeter clapped on a broad-brimmed straw hat with a black grosgrain band and a strip of black elastic to hold the hat on in case of wind. Otherwise, they wore their traveling clothes, dusters over shirtwaists and skirts, full enough for Cate to drape her shins decently.

At first they passed along on a road that was well-traveled, passing houses with porches and yards, then farmsteads with chicken-houses and fields, finally the tarpaper shacks of the newcomers trying to scrape enough of a living to qualify for a free government-granted homestead. Everywhere were sheets of grain, growing as high as their shoulders, bowing in the wind. The corn was so high that they could only see over it because they were on horseback. By the end of the day they had passed most of the habitation and weren’t seeing fences anymore. At sunset they camped by a small stream, clearly a place where others had stopped earlier so that they had to cast around a bit for grass long enough to graze.

Demeter opened her box and laid out some things she hadn’t wanted her daughter-in-law or the townspeople to see. Split skirts with leather reinforced seats for each of them. Knee-high lace-up boots with caulked soles and riding heels. And a pistol for each to tuck away somewhere on her person. Clothing for adventures, for action.

After their supper Cate walked along the stream and then back farther, outside the clustered trees and along some hills. Here and there she stooped to gather an herb to thrust into her deep apron pockets. When she was back by the firelight, she sorted them, and laid some on hot stones near the fire to dry. Then she settled with her corncob pipe to smoke and think about what she had found.
Though Cate spoke about the wild plants aloud, Demeter only half paid attention. She valued domestic plants: fields, gardens and orchards. First peas in the spring. Peaches in August. And the golden grain threshed and safe in bins for the winter.

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