Monday, February 19, 2007


By now Demeter had a good sense of what the unfolding weather would bring and could feel that a serious blizzard was on the way. Sometimes she’d been able to find shelter in small towns or abandoned farmhouses -- a few times even with families, though most seemed to have been driven out by the drought. The first stray flakes of snow were swirling around her when she spotted a fairly solid-looking house with smoke coming from the chimney. She knew what a mixture of amazement and alarm she must cause when she knocked on the door, but was surprised to have to pound hard for quite a while.

She was thinking of just breaking in when the door cracked open and a small boy peered out, calling over his shoulder, “Pa, it’s an old woman. Not Indians.”

She couldn’t hear the reply but the boy opened the door wide enough for her to come in. The interior was dark and smoky. She could see at once that the boy, his father, and several other children were torpid with flushed faces and knew what the matter was. Their massive cast-iron stove was not properly drafting and the place was full of carbon monoxide. They were being killed by the very fire that had been keeping them warm and alive.

Pushing back the door against the boy, so that he staggered away, she hurried to the stove and adjusted the air intake and the draft control in the stove pipe. When she lifted the lids of the stovetop, she was puzzled by the fire for a minute, until she realized this was not a wood fire, but a coal fire. With the extra air, the red coals flared up and the dangerous smoldering stopped. She boiled water and the boy, who seemed to be the least affected, showed her a small supply of coffee beans and the grinder. Before long the air was renewed.

Later, when the family had normalized, Demeter realized no woman was present. “Where is your wife?” she asked, nearly afraid to find out.

“Come with me,” the man growled and led her through the now swirling snow to a shed in the yard. Inside was a small supply of wood and a generously filled coal bin. On a high shelf over it was a woman-sized bundle wrapped in a quilt. “There she is. Ground is too hard to bury her.” On the way back both carried more fuel for the fire.

As it turned out, the family was much luckier than most. They had a good supply of wheat from the crop that went unsold. “If there were only a railroad,” the man said, “We could have gotten it to market. But the horses died and everyone cleared out so I couldn’t even hire a wagon. We were stranded. I couldn’t walk away with all these small children and no transportation.” They had been using the coffee grinder to crack wheat for mush.

The man, who was from Appalachia, knew coal and when he had found a seam of the stuff a couple of miles away, he dug a small “coyote mine,” and working single-handed with the boy stationed outside his hand-dug hole to go for help in case of a collapse, he had dug quite a bit of the coal. He was lucky -- a half-dozen men in the area had been crushed and buried this way. But the family had been devastated by the loss of the mother -- paralyzed and unable to think properly. They had only the dimmest idea why she had died.

Demeter soon had the household reorganized, cleaned and on schedule. Her bottomless box produced a hand-cranked flour mill that clamped to the edge of the table. While the smaller children gaped, the boy turned the handle until there was a bowl of flour which Demeter made into bread, having found an old sprouty potato which she boiled and cooled to ferment for yeast. A bit of honey left from the destruction of the beehives, and the little family actually produced a few glimmering smiles. Human beings need bread and sweetness.

Snow was now piling into drifts as the wind drove hard around the buildings. Then the wind stopped and the temperature dropped. At some point Demeter went to throw out wash water and saw the black dot-eyes of rabbits clustered around the bases of the buildings. As the cold hardened, they had come to huddle in the faint shelter of house and sheds. Going back out to her box, she found a slingshot, a powerful one she used on small game to save ammunition. (She thought it better that no one realize she had a revolver and cartridges with her.) The small boy wasn’t strong enough to pull it and aim at the same time, but the father could. It took him a while to develop enough skill to nail a few rabbits, but he neatly skinned and cleaned them while they were still warm. Then there was stew.

The blizzard lasted quite a while, days -- then a couple of weeks. Drifts piled up in the lee of the buildings while snow was completely scoured from the windward sides. The temperature went even lower. Nailheads in the walls acquired a white fur of frost. If they went outdoors, their noses stung and their eyes watered. At night they sat in the dark for lack of kerosene or candles, but never lacked for warmth or food. There were five children, including the least, a little boy barely a year old. The three middle children were girls.

The coal supply sank low, but when there was a relative break in the pounding wind, the father took Demeter’s cart to bring more from his coyote mine. When she unloaded her box off the cart, she brought it into the house to look at the depleted interior without shaking from the cold. Not much was left. A mouth organ. She gave it to the older boy. Some ribbons which she gave to the girls. One dose of smallpox vaccine.

That night as they sat around the stove in the dimness, she proposed to the father that she vaccinate the baby. “Absolutely not!” he shouted, suddenly irate. “That hocus-pocus back-East stuff is no good at all! It’s poison, is what it is! We left to get away from it!” She tried to explain but he became even more upset. “God wills who should live or die! We have no control! If I had any control, would I have let my wife die? Let alone the little ones buried out back?” The living children began to cry. The boy tried to hide his feelings by working at the slingshot, straining to manage the hard pull of the rubber. The father said, “They can just catch smallpox and survive it the same way I did. If they don’t survive, it’s because God wills it.”

“Or maybe it’s because you’ve brought your family out to this Godforsaken part of the world where there are no doctors or hospitals,” retorted Demeter, but her remarks had no impact.

The father slung aside the ragged blanket hanging over the door to the shed room of the house, where he slept, and did not return. The children climbed the ladder up to the loft, which was a little warmer than the downstairs, and rolled into their pallets. Demeter had been sleeping on a pile of rag rugs by the stove and the baby boy had gotten into the habit of sleeping with her, cradled against her belly. She had grown very fond of him and didn’t mind his tufty white-blonde hair tickling her chin. She often dreamt he was Pers, a quiet baby who loved to sleep with her mother, unlike Cory who kicked in her sleep. Now and then she roused to check the fire.

In the darkest of the night she woke resolved to save this child whether his father liked it or not. The little boy didn’t stir when she slid out from the blankets. Removing one of the stove lids and putting in a bit of kindling so there would be light enough to quietly get the vaccine from her box, she moved slowly. Despite her carefulness, because she had her hands full, the wooden lid came back down a bit too hard and made a small noise. It was different from the stove noises which had grown familiar to everyone because she checked the fire so often in the night. For a moment she held her breath and listened, but no one seemed to stir. Laying out the needle and vial of serum beside her, she pulled away the blanket to bare the chubby little arm and prickled it in a small dot as preparation that didn’t even wake the baby. Blood welled up in dots like red Indian beads. She waited another moment.

That was her mistake. A big hand grabbed the serum vial just as she reached for it, swept it away from her and into the open stove hole. “I said you will NOT!” hissed the father. “And as soon as it’s light, you will LEAVE.” The baby woke then and wailed desperately at the sound of angry voices.

The father meant what he said. By now the sun had come out and the temperatures were rising. Wind had cleared the tops of the ridges so that it was not impossible to travel, though too difficult for a cart since the ground was becoming spongy. Demeter’s box was empty now and her belongings fit into a pack, so she left the cart with the family. They could use it for hauling coal, maybe even to move back East. The empty box, she knew, was likely to become a coffin for the small boy when people began to move around the prairie in another month and brought contagion to the family. At least he would have a decent burial. His mother would have no such civilized burial, but she would be with her children. Some of them.

One last delve into what was now her pack yielded a felt hat with a wide brim and some smoked glasses to protect her eyes from the near-spring sun now dazzling the broad land. The older boy brought her a wrapped packet of food. The father began to object and then went into his shed-room.

Shading their eyes with cupped hands, the children watched in front of the house as her figure became smaller and smaller in the distance. The girls were wearing their ribbons, weeping. The boy went off to be alone, in case he shed tears, and work at learning his mouth organ. The baby bawled and bawled, untended.

Demeter considered the snow with shrewd eyes. She figured there would be enough moisture in the ground this spring to get the seeds started -- if all the seeds hadn’t been eaten for food -- but unless there was steady spring rain, the sprouts would shrivel in the ground. The family would either leave or starve. God had less to do with it than nature.

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