Chapter One: Winter Psalm
Jean Horwath James, 1929
I amuse myself by staring at the Idaho snow blowing sideways past the mouth of the cave. It has a hypnotizing quality to it, the glare of moving whiteness; when I close my eyes I can see the echo left behind, a blue hole that looks striated and furry. It’s bad for my eyes, I’m sure, but there’s nothing to do right now but think or sleep. Thinking brings regret—mostly over winding up in this cave—and sleep brings dreaming.
Often I dream of the grandbabies or my Billy as a baby, holding him and smelling his hair, but today I dreamt of my father. Dreams of him have never been the sort that come as a comfort, though I suppose they could be worse. Usually they are quite dull; he makes a comment about the weather or says nothing at all and just stands around in the half-dark being my father, being a fact I could never do anything about. This time I dreamt I was getting married—to Lord knows who; there was no groom in sight—in a big church full of candles and dark pews and cut-marble statues. Every person I had met from A to izzard was there, and I was at the back of the church waiting to walk down the aisle. My father stood a few feet off, talking to Franklin James—my mother’s second husband. They were dressed in their regular clothes, frayed shirts and dirty overalls, and Franklin James was holding his greasy derby in one hand and patting my father’s shoulder with the other. I heard my father say, “Well, how do you think I feel? I’m her father.” Commiserating, just like pals. The thought of either of them standing beside me in a church makes my skin itch.
In the dream, my father was just as real as this bear hide and the rocky ground where I sit freezing my sorry ass. Why shouldn’t I be blessed with visions of that man, stuck here, sneezing my head off, and watching the snow fly? Two days I’ve been in this cave, after two days riding. I chose this route home after my awful visit to the Hawley place, needing the soothing beauty of these hills—the granite columns that stand like sentinels above the sage, and the antelope browsing in clusters and wandering down through frozen stands of willow. All I wanted was a little solace, and here came this storm. If I had pushed on, I would be home on Stony Creek right now; but I felt a chill, and I was lazy. The wind started blowing a perfect hurricane, and then came the snow, plus I had thoughts of poor Lyssa Hawley and those motherless children. I thought I’d just stop and warm up. And now look at me. A couple of poor decisions, and it’s shit creek. Even the injun ghosts that haunt these hills are sorry for me. The pleasure of their company is a delight from which I’d rather excuse myself, but after all that’s happened, well, of course there would be injun ghosts on top of it. I always thought spirits were inclined to indifference when they weren’t angry, and who could blame them, but there’s an old squaw here with a chuffy round face and a bright red skirt who is so perfectly sweet and kind that it’s frightening.
The last time I actually saw my father he was splayed out on the floor, sleeping like a baby. It was August, 1891. With his red cheeks and his face all peaceful, it occurred to me for the first time that he had been somebody’s baby once—innocent, helpless, even sweet. I’d never laid eyes on my grandparents, and so I wondered what kind of woman his mother must have been to have raised a person like that. My mother told me that her father-in-law had the beating habit and it took all the self-purpose out of my father and his siblings and his mother too, but she also once told me that no man does to a woman what she hasn’t already done to him, so I didn’t know what to think about that. While my father was unconscious, my mother tied his hands behind his back with twine, and I suggested we tie his feet too, but Mother was afraid he might die in that case, if nobody came by, and she didn’t want it on her conscience, even though he deserved it, she said. I saw her as compassionate then, and tortured, being made to choose me over him—but she never wanted him dead. Not ever. Not really.
When we loaded up the food stuffs that day, I saw she’d been planning our departure for several weeks. I couldn’t believe she was taking me with her, after watching her ride off alone all my life, always going to tend someone’s birth or broken bones or just to check on people; there are always sick ones. Now that I was going with her, I thought I might float my horse right off the ground. I wanted everyone to see us together: Doc Knef and her daughter. I wish I could have had a picture of us that day. But Mother cried the whole time, sad to be leaving Greenville and our house and I guess even my father, too, but especially her garden. I say “garden,” but that doesn’t describe what it was or what it meant to her. When she was home, that’s where she was. An orderly jungle of plants and shrubs and hanging vines that looked enchanted and forbidding. She collected cuttings and starts and even mail-ordered; she coaxed and studied them and knew the story of each one. It was a living apothecary, and now it was all ransacked from packing. I knew she blamed me, though she never spoke the words—I heard it when she heaved herself up on her horse and when she lowered her hat against the sun, and even her back said it as I rode behind her, watching her arm move to wipe her nose or her eyes. Those were long weeks we rode to Rocky Bar. I suppose she was crying for a whole lot of reasons, but I was barely thirteen then and had a misunderstanding of most things.
Maybe misunderstanding is in my nature, but when it comes to dreams, you can only go two ways: either a spirit is trying to tell you something, or it’s your own mind trying to convince you—and both of those choices are equally vexing right now. It seems my nature is to complain, and though the habit has never served me, I do it anyways. My challenge is to remember what I’ve got. Practically speaking, I am lucky to have a good supply of jerky in my bags and, at the moment, some wild cherry and marshmallow tea. This fever was a gift from Johnny Hawley by way of sneezing in my face, and if it turns to coughing, which it seems to want to, I’ve got some Oregon grape and horehound too. I should cut some more sage to burn before the snow piles up any more.
Those Hawleys. I told Chuck two years ago, in no uncertain terms, to leave his wife alone because one more child was going to break that woman in two—she was about as strong as applesauce down there, her womb slipping already. But he didn’t listen. When I set out this time she was still six weeks out, and I wanted to make sure he would take her to the hospital. But the baby came early, wouldn’t you know. He said she’d been taking the shepherd’s purse, but apparently she was beyond it. There’s no satisfaction in knowing that a thing so easily prevented will come to pass despite your warnings; such knowledge is nothing but a pall. I think Chuck Hawley, grieved as he was, would have just built a fire for Lyssa and the baby, so I told him the snow was not so deep as to prevent proper graves, and he and the bigger boys took their shovels and a pick axe and got to it. Time is the only better poultice for grief than the work of a burial, I’ve found.
I don’t know that my mother would have done any different in this case. I’ve often imagined her counsel, although I know her methods well enough. They were like the snowstorm I’m enjoying right now: swift, single-minded, and unapologetic. She was very fond of purgatives, especially May apple and bindweed, and she found a use for pulverized charcoal in nearly every patient. She would try new things when she got the chance. I remember she experimented on Franklin James with St. John’s wort and kudzu for his drinking, but with no positive effects. I doubt they would have made a dent in my father’s habits either.
When I was younger I didn’t want to be like my mother; I wanted to be exactly like her. She was the world to me, and the world consists of heaven and hell, that’s true, but it’s mostly this place in between, this green and brown sphere of secrets, of plants and animals and water and dust. It was all her. She held a knowledge of the natural world second only to that of its creator. What I learned from her would fill more books than ought to be written about the subject. She was a conjurer and an encyclopaedia. She was life and death. It’s little wonder, really, why she should fill my thoughts just now.
When I was old enough to wonder why she or anyone would marry two men like that, the second being better than the first by exactly one whisker of a dead cat, I knew it was for the same reason that she’d taken up doctoring. In many ways, she was about as complicated as melting snow. But many years and a lot of mystery went by before I figured that out. She managed quite well, with her long absences, to keep anybody from knowing her too well or why she did what she did. But she loved to be needed. She needed to be needed, by everyone and anyone but me.
I remember when we rode away from Greenville and my father, it was two or three days before she resumed speaking. I hadn’t noticed her packing a little brown jug, but I knew she was favored to it once in a while—not like my father, who never drank except when he was awake. The jug seemed to loosen my mother’s tongue, and when she started talking it took a little while to realize she wasn’t talking to herself but to me.
The human body knows more about life and death than the human brain can grasp, she said. The first thing she learned about childbirth was that the less she interfered, the better. The female body can care for a foetus without the woman thinking twice about it until her confinement is through, and even that is something the body decides without her. Mother said she reckoned my time would be in eight to twelve weeks, but it was hard to tell because I was very small. I was so dumb that I still didn’t know what she was talking about. Later, when I found out there was a life growing inside my body, I fell plumb in love with it. What Mother called “simple biology” I saw as nothing less than a pure, full-blown miracle. I knew that the heart and mind had more to do with it than Mother believed, because when Billy was born I didn’t feel a single pain, not one stab of anything but joy. Mother told me I must have been out of my head for it not to hurt me, but in the years since I’ve seen this on three other occasions with two different women; I call it ecstatic birth.
Lyssa Hawley was not among them.
Over the last two days, I’ve eaten so much garlic and rubbed it on my chest so often I think I may start to sprout. Boneset might help my fever, but with all the sweating I wonder if it’s really the right course, given that it’s so hard to keep warm. I wish I had some vinegar towels for my feet.
When I woke today, I crawled to the mouth of the cave and saw Jigsaw standing with the everlasting wind blowing snow at his rump. I gave him the last of the grain I’d brought and clucked at him the way he likes, and he gave as near a smile as any beast can make. Blessed creature. If this fever would break or the snow slow down, I’m sure we could make the day’s ride home. As it is, no one will think it strange if they find me not at home, and no one will know where to look for me. If I leave now, it will be pneumonia for sure. This weather is something Job has never seen. So the gamble is on. Franklin James would salivate like a dog over a bet like this. A three-day fever wouldn’t worry me if I were home, and I can hole up here for another week anyways, and hope I don’t get worse. But blessed or not, by later today or tomorrow, when I look out there that horse will be gone.
I traded for Jigsaw off a man who fell on a knife his friend was holding. This was outside a saloon in Digger Creek—which is its own special circle of hell. He had a little dust for payment, but I spotted that horse when I came in, and a finer specimen I’ve yet to see. He said he was glad to be rid of him because he was a devil and no amount of flogging would mend him. I never cease to wonder why so many men are like that, how they ever get the idea that force equals rightness. Sometimes I wonder who was the first; in what ancient serfdom, in what exotic Babylon or civilized Rome, did the first man decide that he was strong enough and mean enough to make any beast or woman or child bend to his wants, and see it as right and true? How in the world does that happen except in a world with no God?
I heard later of two men out at that same saloon who died with their boots on, and one of them was supposed to be called Dutch Frank, which is what they called my father because he was German. He might have been up that way placer-mining; that’s something he might have done. It was too long after the event that I heard about it, though, and I certainly wouldn’t stump for digging him up just to satisfy my curiosity—I believe the dead have enough problems of their own; one look at these injun ghosts would convince anyone. Mother would have done it, though, not only to disturb his rest but to slake her thirst for seeing him again, even dead. She had a sickness for that man that she never did shake off.
All my life, everywhere we went, Mother always kept an eye and an ear out for news of my father. We left Rocky Bar after Billy was born and lived in Corral, and what a nice spot it was. The only other doctor was in Hailey, which was a twelve- or fourteen-hour ride away, so Mother was plenty busy. There was a school on Corral Creek for a few months in the winter, and they had church there whenever a preacher came through. I’d always loved school in Greenville, mostly because it let me get away from my father for a bit each day, but in Corral I just wanted to stay home with Billy. That baby was so dear to me that I cried every time Mother made me leave him. She said you should never kiss a baby on the face, but I’d near to smother him when she wasn’t looking, and it always made him smile. She made me keep a bonnet on him so his ears wouldn’t be deformed. But she couldn’t stand staying home herself, of course, so I didn’t have to go to school. Those first years with Billy were the happiest of my life.
Mother married Franklin James in ’94, and looking back I imagine that the gentle stirrings of her heart had more to do with sending me away than with that man’s romantic allure—though I could be wrong about that; her choice of men certainly left one in a world of wonder. I thought it a black coincidence that his name was also Frank, though my father was a Francis, not a Franklin, and later I realized that they looked alike too. People remarked to me that a man like that needed a woman like my mother to keep him in check; they said it would benefit him to no end. They never knew my father. Whatever benefits passed between them surely escaped my notice. So now she had Franklin James to watch Billy when she was gone, and she took me to the train in Geary and packed me off to the School for Nurses in St. Louis. I don’t want to think about how sad I was that day.
They made a big fuss about me in St. Louis when I told them my mother was a prairie doctor—it always sounds so grand and unbelievable. The open range, the pioneer spirit, boom towns, gold mines. They have no idea what kind of person it takes to live the way my mother lived; lunacy is so unbecoming in a woman, and it’s unlooked for in a mother, not to mention a doctor. I was just starting to understand this myself. I can’t say I did well in my studies; I don’t like books so much, but I do like people.
I was afraid Billy might forget me, but he didn’t. He was five years old when I got back, and the spitting image of my father—Mother always hoped he’d outgrow it, but he never did. He looked like me and like her too, so when people said he resembled his mother I never had to lie and I never had to tell the truth. My sweet Billy. He was a happy, strong, sensitive child. I thank the Lord that Franklin James ran off early enough not to ruin him. If it had taken three times the money I’ve given that man over the years to stay away from my son, it would be worth it.
My Billy has given me nothing but joy since the day he was born…but I wish my son could call me Mother. I wish I could tell him that his being born saved my life and revealed to me the heart of the mystery. Nothing I’ve done or could ever do in my life could be better than watching that child grow into an honorable man and father. There was never a moment when I was anything but proud of him, except perhaps when he named his own son “Frank.” But you can hardly blame a person for such a mistake, especially with its intended veneration. Or maybe that makes it worse. Oh, Lord, I’m too tired to tell any more.
That chuffy-faced squaw comes often now and sits with me. Her dead hand feels cool and soothing on my cheek. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but I see now that I should have lit out of here as soon as those ghosts showed up. Kindly intended or not, the sympathy of ghosts is a bad omen.
I once asked Mother about heaven, and she said when we died our bodies decayed and nourished the soil in which we lay, and that was a greater privilege than anyone could hope for. She believed caskets only impeded the process, and I gave her that respect when I buried her, after the flu in ’19. I almost gave her a crown of henbane, but I knew if I did she’d haunt me for sure.
I wonder if Johnny Hawley is faring any better than me. I gave them some mint and prickly ash tea—one of my favorites—for the general household, but who knows if they drank it.
I would have liked to see my Billy, his sweet Edith, and my lovely grandchildren once more. They’re a fine family unto themselves, and though they may miss their Aunt Jean, I expect they’ll thrive just as happily all the same. When I saw them last, little Frank showed me a poem that said Timor mortis conturbat me. That child is forever reading something extraordinary.
My fever has spiked in a way I recognize. It competes with the Bowie in my spine and the pleuritic stabs in my side as my crowning distraction. I listen to the rales in my chest, and when I close my eyes I swear I can see them crackling and popping with every ragged breath, like small explosions of fire. I can’t hold up my head. Lord, I do love to complain. Will I somehow manage for such words not to be the last on my lips? Can I require something finer from myself for once in my life?
The chuffy-faced squaw kneels by the mouth of the cave. Sometimes I think she is singing something. I don’t wish to end my days in this cave, but I don’t know how I’d get back to Stony Creek, if my life depended on it.
Now there’s a phrase that makes me smile.
My novel centers on people living in small towns in southern Idaho, from the late 1800s to near the present day. The chapters hopscotch back and forth through time, revealing the stories of several families and the physical and emotional history of the landscape they inhabit. As the stories connect and intersect, they come together as a patchwork of family dynamics amid the realities of the rural west. I believe this pastiche framework uniquely suits the region, where the dichotomous and paradoxical elements of the past and present exist alongside those features that appear more logical and similar. As I write later in another character’s story, “Pale dirt roads stamped from a government grid lay in square-mile segments, partitioning the land through an effort of enforced anonymity—laid out, checked off, disremembered—though that country was full of ambiguities just below its hard and dusty surface.”
A frontier nurse reflects on her life as she faces what may be a fatal snowstorm; a young boy wrestles the good and evil he sees in the world and in himself; an emotionally aloof farmwife recalls her lost love when she discovers that her teenage daughter is pregnant; a sexist, racist, hard-working sub-contractor tries to unravel the confusion of grief; a Japanese-American widow interned during WWII copes with depression after the war. Shopkeepers, farmers, the lost, and the determined all have a voice here. Through varying points of view, my intention is to honor this region and its people—pioneering, flawed, homey, quirky, kind, strange, and 100% Western American.
Megan Vorm is a fiction writer, poet, and editor living in Sun Valley, Idaho. She holds an MFA from Bennington College.
Embark, Issue 6, October 2018