TUESDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2009
The mail order bride had turned out better than he had really expected. She was neat, healthy, and hard-working. Pleasant looking, really, though not fancy. But there was a little part of him, left over from his youth, that had hoped for a bit of a love affair and there was none of that. Sex, of course, because they both wanted children, but he had to be the aggressor. She simply allowed him. There was only one bed so they had to sleep together.
The first time he evidently woke her up. He’d been lying awake, thinking about her back to him, which was the way she always slept, and had developed a powerful hard-on. So he just took her from behind. She almost leapt away from him, but she was next to the wall since he was the one to get up to tend the fire or investigate noises outdoors. Once pinned, she didn’t resist but didn’t cooperate either. Afterwards, she crawled over him and went into the corner where she’d set up a screen so she could tend to herself in privacy. There was only one room so far. She didn’t come back to bed but sat up in a chair, wrapped in an afghan she’d brought from whereever she’d come from. She never talked about that place. Months went by but she did not become pregnant.
The blizzard came down on the little sod house with what appeared to be no warning at all. The tundra swans had not come through on the way south yet, and people said they were the first of the big migratory waterfowl to go through ahead of the snow season. She still had flowers, a kind of pink snapdragon she had brought from Indiana, growing on the south side of the house where a series of Indian summer golden days had brought new leaves on them. Walter Hill had so much confidence in the weather that he’d ridden for town on their only horse. (There had been two, but one broke its leg in a badger hole.)
She enjoyed being alone. There was very little time to think but thinking was a little dangerous anyway. Still, she was constantly planning, trying to figure out ways to do things that were a little more efficient, that made the little soddie more livable, and then there was the immense luxury of planning for the future. It was a future with many hazards, but if things went right, she might achieve children, a real house, and the knowledge that she had fulfilled the destiny of a woman in this world. Much of it depended on Mr. Hill.
She hardly knew Mr. Hill, in spite of living with him all summer. When she became Mrs. Hill, they’d exchanged basic facts and he seemed to be a good man, but they didn’t really know each other. This was not a country that encouraged romance or even chit-chat. Life was short and brutal without either intentions or virtue being any kind of guarantee. People didn’t ask for happiness — they only hoped for children who would be happier than themselves.
Mr. Hill was a huge dark shape in her life to whom she was bonded by law and obligated to obey. This was to her in the nature of things, just as her father and mother had been tied together until her mother died. They never made a fuss about it. In fact, her father made no show of emotion when her mother died. One’s duty in life was to accept and go on, no matter what. She was constantly alert to what the man wanted and where he was. If he called for help, she responded at once. Everything depended upon his ability to work, to plan accurately, to do good business. If he were hurt, both of them would be in trouble. There was no margin for error on a homestead. In fact, one could be remarkable in effort and virtue, only to have it all wiped away by locusts, drought, wind. Rightfully, Mr. Hill took up most of the space, the food, the decisions.
When he left for town this time, she was both relieved and a little wary about being alone, feeling the extra responsibility. In fact, when the grasses began to hiss under cold wind, she went out to check on the cow and chickens, that they were under cover and things were secured. It wasn’t until she realized how quickly the snow shelf of clouds was building behind the mountains and rising into the sky that she realized a serious piece of weather was on the way. Birds were scudding on the wind, low to the ground, looking for patches of brush where they could hang on with a little protection.
When the blizzard really hit, it was a bit of a relief. Surely Mr. Hill would have seen this and have taken cover somewhere, either not have started back from town at all or have stopped with neighbors. He would not be back tonight. She could indulge herself a bit.
Under the bed was her trousseau trunk where her good black dress lay carefully folded. In the bottom was the last bit of a bar of French-milled soap her sister had given her when she left. Scraping the trunk out from under the bed, she could smell that soap as soon as she lifted the lid. It smelled like . . . luxury. Wild extravagance. It took a bit of feeling around until she found it, re-wrapped in the flowered paper it had come in. She would bathe with it in the old tin tub. She would boil enough water in the laundry copper to get the bath really hot, instead of the second-hand lukewarm bath she normally got after Mr. Hill had washed. Not that she was sorry to have him bathe, since it usually meant a conjugal obligation would be fulfilled that night and it was more pleasant with a clean man. Bad enough that his big, dark, hard-muscled shape came down on her without him reeking of sweat besides. Smells were just smells and one couldn’t be fussy in an environment full of animals, but she tried to keep standards.
And so she argued with herself as the wind rose and hard crystals of snow sanded the front of the soddy where the door and only window were exposed from the hill that, dug out, formed three walls. This provided effective insulation. At least the roof was tar-papered and hardly leaked. And there was glass in the window though it showed only black with scratches of white tracing the snow trajectories in their millions.
The boiling water made the air humid, gentling her skin and curling her hair into tendrils. She laid aside her clothes, put the towel over the back of a straight chair with the soap on the seat in a dish. Her nightgown hung on the bedstead. She laughed at her sense of comfort, safety in the midst of threat, and felt a little thrill at being so daring without fear of anyone, even her husband, arriving in the middle of her little ceremony.
Then there was a clunking noise outside, barely audible through the storm. Did something blow over? Did a door come unlatched? She stood immobile, waiting for more clues. None came.
Stepping into the water, fancying herself as the illustration from some book about nymphs, she shuddered with pleasure even as her thighs stung with heat. The soap lathered well. Her shoulders were glistening in the lamplight. Should she wash her hair? She bent over to soak it in front of her.
A louder noise and the door sprang open, banging against the wall. The dark hulk of her husband stood in the opening, as soaked as she was, his face as red from the snow biting it as her thighs were from hot water. He said nothing for a long moment.
“For God’s sake will you close the door?”
He did, by falling against it. He stared, trying to comprehend. His lips could hardly move, but he blurted, “Came back . . . you afraid alone.”
“I’m not a child,” she snapped, not guarding her tongue. Then he fell to the floor. Kneeling by him, she asked, “Is the horse put away?” He nodded vaguely, his eyes closed. His face was crusted with ice.
He had to be gotten warm quickly. The cold was paralyzing him. Heedless of her nakedness, she began to strip off his clothes, throwing them to the side to get them off the rag rug. They had been stiffened into ice but were quickly melting. When they were all off, she dipped her washrag in the bath water and rubbed him hard, smoothing back his hair, but it wasn’t enough. The only way she could drag him into the bath was to get behind him, step in, then pull him with her, holding him between her knees.
When he grew warm enough to think again and even talk, he said, “It smells like spring.”
“My soap.” Her heart loosened at his recovery. She cradled him like a child in front of her and, heedless of using up the precious soap, she gently washed him. For the first time she really felt his skin, the shape of his neck, the strength of his shoulders. He reached back with both hands to hold her legs against his sides.
That was the night marriage made them one and they began their family.