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Authors: Gloria Whelan

The Wanigan

BOOK: The Wanigan
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The Wanigan

Gloria Whelan

For Alyse,

whose great-great-grandfather

was a lumberjack


On This Home by Horror Haunted

Lone Waters, Lone and Dead

This Haunted Woodland

In the Month of June

Mountains Toppling Evermore

All We Seek to Keep Hath Flown

The Mossy Banks

The Waves Have Now a Redder Glow

The Weary, Way-worn Wanderer

Author's Note

About the Author


I will be forced to live in low circumstances. The crude shack in which I will dwell will have no resting place but will move continually. I will not be where I was the day before or where I'll be the next day. All around me will be nothing but the river, the logs, and the wanigan.

I don't blame Mama and Papa. They are victims of tragic circumstances. Three years ago, in the year of our Lord 1875, when I was but eight years old, Papa bought a farm in the northern part of Michigan. Until then we had lived in Detroit, where Papa had worked as a wheelwright, making wheels for wagons and barrows.

When he and Mama heard of land for sale, they spread out a map of Michigan. They showed me how all of northern Michigan was a lovely green color.

“Green to grow things on,” Papa said. “The gentleman who wants to sell the farm tells of land that is hungry for a plow. He says a man can own more acres than he could walk over in a day. He promises wild berries in the meadows, game in the forests, and fish in the rivers, all there for the taking. The price of land is cheap,” Papa said. “Why shouldn't we have our bit of it?”

We had a selling-up of our house in Detroit. Someone walked through it, poking into the cupboards and corners, owning it before they bought it. The auctioneer came and sang all our furniture away. People carried off Mama's rocker and my bed. They took away the china, thin as eggshell, that Grandma had left us. It was like a merciless wind blowing through our home. “Papa,” I wailed, “they're stealing everything.” Papa had to explain to me what was happening.

I was relieved to see Mama hang on to our best dresses and keep back her books and Grandma's tea set from the auction. I imagined that on our new land I would sit beside a stream and would read my favorite poems.

Mama says that like her, I have a delicate and tender nature. Every day I improve my mind by learning some lines from one of the great poets in Mama's book of poems. My favorite poet is Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. My name is Annabel Lee, just like the name of one of Mr. Poe's poems. Mr. Poe wrote these words:

From childhood's hour I have not been

As others were
I have not seen

As others saw.

I think that is very lovely. His words are true of me for I am always watching out for things of beauty. Unhappily, where we are now, there are few things of beauty.

We left Detroit with high hopes. Papa had the look on him of someone who has opened a book he can't wait to be reading. He said we'd grow potatoes big as pumpkins and pumpkins too big to get your arms around. Mama was all plans. She had a bolt of cloth for curtains and chair covers. She said our rooms would be filled with wildflowers from the woods.

With many kisses and promises of writing to one another, I said farewell to my best friend, Mary. The only thing that kept me from shedding tears was my dream of our new home, with me picking roses from our garden and gathering apples from our orchard.

I sat in the wagon holding on to my small dog. I called him Bandit because the black fur around his eyes made him look like he was wearing a mask. I told him soon he would be running through the woods making friends with all the wild animals.

Papa was badly cheated. Our house was only a cabin. The snow crept through the chinking as if it meant to bury us. There wasn't a soul around for miles to admire Mama's curtains. The land was all sand. It grew nothing but rocks. Our crops wilted and our cow died.

On the worst day of all, Bandit was out in the yard gnawing on a venison bone. The bone was left over from a deer Papa had shot to keep food on the table. We heard a terrible howl like a scream. Then more snarling howls. Papa ran outside. Mama hung on to me and wouldn't let me go after Papa. Bandit had gotten into a fight with a coyote.

The winter ground was too hard to bury Bandit, so Papa made a wooden box. Mama lined it with warm flannel. When spring came and the ground softened, we buried Bandit and I planted daisies on his grave.

That summer the well where we got our water dried up. Every ear of corn we shucked was ugly and useless with corn borers. At last we gave up. Papa got a poor price for our farm. To put bread in our mouths, he took a job as a lumberjack. Mama, though unused to such hard work, assisted the camp cook.

It was a sad two days' journey from the farm to the lumber camp. The camp was very rough. The men were loud and coarse. Papa, Mama, and I had a little room, which Mama made as tidy and comfortable as she could. Papa made a shelf for her books and Mama set out Grandma's tea set. Unfortunately, our room was next to the kitchen, so some days it smelled like sauerkraut and some days it smelled like dried codfish.

In the bunk rooms the men slept upon straw, which they called marsh feathers. They chewed tobacco and did not care where they spit. They slept in their clothes with their heads resting on “turkeys,” sackcloth bags that held their extra clothes. Nothing got washed until Sunday, which was called, most inelegantly, boil-up day. The rest of the time their dirty, wet socks were draped over the rafters of the bunk room to dry.

In spite of their coarseness, Mama was friendly to all the men. If they forgot their manners and spit in her presence, she pulled in her skirts and looked the other way.

Mama was never too tired to school me. When she was only eighteen, her parents had died of typhoid fever and she had been left to make her own way in the world. She became a teacher. Numbers and spelling were old friends to her. Together we did sums and read from Mama's books of poems. Though Mama encouraged me to turn to more cheerful poems, I always chose Mr. Poe because his poems were so melancholy. I was sure he could have turned our unhappy experiences into a lovely, sad poem that would bring tears to the eyes of all who read it.

Each afternoon Mama set the kettle to boil, put a spoonful of tea leaves into Grandma's teapot, and poured us a cup of tea. While we drank from the dainty cups, Mama told me stories of the house she had lived in as a girl. It had a big front porch with a swing. “And a lawn, Annabel, with beautiful green grass.”

As she spoke, I looked around the camp. Since there was little there of beauty, Mama's stories and Mr. Poe's poems were a great comfort. Still, I was sure I was not meant to waste away in such unrefined company and in so uncivilized a place.

I did all that I could to raise myself above my sad surroundings. I kept my clothes neat, and I tied up my hair each night in rags so that it curled in a pretty way. I shined my boots, and before I went to bed I rubbed a bit of lard into my hands to keep them soft. Nothing I did could rid my hair or my clothes of the odor of the pine trees. The smell of pine was everywhere. We breathed it and ate it and slept with it.

I drew up a calendar and counted off the days until the winter would be over. I kept myself apart from the men and had nothing whatsoever to do with the chore boy, Jimmy.

It appeared to me that the only purpose in life for the men was to see how many trees they could cut down. All day long I heard the cry “Timber” as the giant pine trees fell. The choppers cut nicks in the trees. The sawyers cut the trees down. The swampers lopped off the bgranches. The sprinkling wagons laid down a layer of water, which turned to ice in the freezing Michigan winter. The skidders slid the logs over the ice to the sleighs. The loaders put them on the sleighs, and the teamsters hitched up the ox team and pulled the sleighs over the ice to the river. There along the river bank the logs were stacked into great wooden walls awaiting spring.

At last the snow melted, the spring rains came, and the river rose. In winter the river had minded its own business. Now, suddenly, it was flooding onto the banks.

With much excitement the men placed a charge of dynamite amongst the logs. There was a terrible boom and a great roar. I put my hands over my ears and hid under the bed. The men shouted and cheered. The logs came crashing down into the water to begin their float down the Au Sable River to Oscoda and Lake Huron and the sawmills at the river's mouth. The journey through miles of wilderness would take three months.

I was glad to see those logs go. I hoped that now that it was spring, we would return to Detroit and civilization. With a sigh Mama explained that we didn't have enough money. I had to bite my lip to keep from crying.

“Papa and four other men will follow the logs as they float down the river,” Mama said. “You should be proud of your father, Annabel. Only the best of the loggers are chosen. Their job will be to rescue any logs belonging to our company that are hung up on the shore. At night your papa and the other men will sleep on a floating bunkhouse that will trail down the river behind the wanigan.”

“The wanigan, Mama?”

“The wanigan is a little floating house where I will do the cooking and where you and I will sleep for the three months it will take the logs to make their way down the river.”

I imagined the wanigan would be something like our dear little white house in Detroit, with its small sitting room and my little bedroom. I even hoped there would be a porch with chairs where Mama and Papa and I could sit and watch the river. It was not to be.

Imagine my disappointment as I stood shivering at the river's edge watching the camp's carpenters fling rough, worn boards every which way to build two ugly shacks upon two ugly scows.

“But, Mama,” I said, “the carpenters must have made a mistake. There is only one room in the wanigan.”

BOOK: The Wanigan
4.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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