Authors: Carole Estby Dagg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Boston New York 2011
215 Park Avenue South
New York, New York 10003
Text copyright Â© 2011 by Carole Estby Dagg
The text of this book is set in Centaur MT.
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce
selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York,
New York 10003.
Clarion Books is an imprint of
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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To Clara and Helga
Fame is a bee.
It has a songâ
It has a stingâ
Ah, too, it has a wing.
âEmily Dickinson, "Fame is a bee"
THE FIRST SEVENTEEN YEARS
and three months of my life were so ordinary, they would not be worth the telling. And last May when I came home from high school in Spokane to help Ma, I thought fate had yanked me back to Mica Creek and I would be stuck there on the farm, helping out one more time and one more time until I was buried in the Mica Creek cemetery alongside my brother Henry. I had prayed that I would find a way to get out of Mica Creek. I forgot to stipulate that I would like to get out of Mica Creek without the constant company of my mother and by some means other than my own two feet.
But then, because of Ma, I was briefly famous. Sketches of us appeared in the
New York World
twice: our "before" picture in black silk dresses with leg-o'-mutton sleeves; and our "after" picture in ankle-baring skirts and brandishing guns and daggers. Because of the way our adventure ended, we couldn't talk about it afterward. But I kept my journal. Sometimes, late at night, I would rummage through to the bottom of my hope chest and find my journal. I would read it and remind myself of that life-changing year.
a dozen winter-blooming Johnny-jump-ups in a tall pill bottle and set them on a tray along with three biscuits and coffee in Ma's best teacup. As if it might bite, I took a deep breath and lifted the letter by one corner and laid it across the top of the tray.
I nudged open the door to Ma and Pa's bedroom with my knee. "
Ma! Good morning!" I crossed the room to hold the tray close enough for her to smell hot biscuits and coffee.
Ma groaned and turned to face the wall. "No breakfast. Sleep."
I set the tray on the bedside table and tapped one corner of the envelope against Ma's hand, the one clutching the bedclothes as protection against the real world. "It's another letter from the treasurer. Do you want me to read it to you?"
Ma drew up her knees as if she were making herself a smaller target for bad news.
With the knife from the tray, I slit open the envelope. The treasurer's seal glared out from the top of the letter. It reminded me of the eye of a dead fish. "You are hereby notified that on January 2, 1897, the property in township..."
Eyes still closed, Ma flung her arm to brush the unwelcome words away and instead bumped the tray, spilling the coffee and soaking the biscuits. She covered her ears.
"Ma, you have to listen!"
As if in league with my intent to rouse Ma from bed today, Marmee jumped on the bed to lick Ma's cheek and purr into her ear. Ma swiped Marmee's paw away from her face.
I lifted the cat off the bed so I'd have a place to sit. "Refusing to listen to this letter isn't going to make it disappear. Since Pa doesn't read English, he leaves all the business to you, and we are a sheriff's auction away from losing this house and everything in it."
Ma still played possum, so I crossed the room and jerked the window shade cord, letting the shade snap to the top, and opened the window as far as it would go.
She turned her back to the light and pulled the quilt over her head. "Cold," she said.
"Refreshing," I countered.
She forced a cough. "I can't get up," she said. "I have consumption."
"Half of Mica Creek has a cough this winter, Ma. I don't think it's consumption. And even if it is, fresh air and exercise are the best things for it."
"And it's not just consumption. You don't understand what it's like to have a sensitive spirit."
I pictured Henry in his coffin: eleven years old, hands gnarled like an old man's by the childhood arthritis that had spread through his body and stopped his heart. "We all miss Henry," I said, smoothing the coverlet over Ma's shoulder, "but keeping busy is the best cure for sadness. You have to get out of bed sometime. Are you going to wait until the farm is auctioned off and Pa carries you off on the mattress?"
Ma burrowed deeper into the covers. So much for rousing her today.
I carried the puddled tray with soggy biscuits back to the kitchen so I could get on with the rest of my choresâmore accurately, Ma's chores, which she had been leaving to me for the last two months. But first I'd drink what was left in her cup. She always said coffee would stunt my growth, but I didn't care. I was already taller than half the boys my age.
Three loaves of bread dough had risen an inch above the rim of their pans; while they baked, I'd scrub the sink and the table, spot clean the floor, and refill the wood box. By the time everyone else was out of bed and had run through their chores, the bread would be ready.
Hot air from the oven flushed my cheeks as I slid the first two pans into the wood stove. Making room for the third pan, I burned my knuckles.
" I let the oven door slam and blew on my hand as I crossed the room to put the backs of my burned fingers against the ice in the corner of the window. The heat of my fingers melted through the frost. Past the orchard, dormant wheat fields were tucked under six inches of powdery snow. I felt like the winter wheat, holed up and hibernating, waiting for my time to sprout. If you planted wheat, you got wheat, but what was I meant to grow into?
I splayed the palm of my good hand against the frost on the window. I was seventeen years old, but lye soap and kitchen, laundry, and garden chores had given me the hands of a forty-year-old. Piece by piece my parents' farm in Mica Creek was turning me into someone I did not want to be.
I scratched my initial in the thinning ice toward the middle of the pane.
Clever enough to stay at the top of my high school classes, even while working at least twenty hours a week for my room and board in Spokane, but not clever enough to think of a way to save the farm. Ice collected under my fingernail as I sketched a kindergarten-style oblong house on the window, then huffed on the frost and wiped it out.
I looked back at the kitchen: the water pump handle where our hands had worn off the red paint; the marks on the door frame where Marmee scratched to be let out; our heights recorded each year on our birthdays on the wall next to Ma and Pa's bedroom ... If we didn't get money soon, we'd have to leave it all behind. Even though I wanted to leave Mica Creek and go away to college, I had always assumed this house would be here forever, to come back to.
It was quiet ... all I could hear was the ticking of the regulator clock. Time was running out.
I heard the thunks of something heavy hitting each plank of the back porch steps, I wiped my floury hands on my apron and dashed toward the door just in time to open it for Ma. She was lugging in the stepladder from the barn. Since she had not stirred from bed for nearly three months, I was amazed to see her not only up, but dressed and apparently ready to start some project that involved a ladder. But that was Maâweighted down in misery for weeks and then, with no preamble, up and bustling again.
"What are you doing up so early, Ma?"
Ma grinned. "Spring cleaning! Just look at that soot on the ceiling above the wood stove."
"I know it's dirty, but why don't we wait until everyone's had breakfast and the kids are off to school?"
"If you wait for the perfect time to clean, it doesn't get done; you just have to jump in and do it."
"You're a fine one to lecture after spending months in bed," I said. As Ma raised her eyebrows, I reached out for a hug. "Never mind," I said. "I'm glad to see you up. Truly."
"Well then. Let's fill the kettle and get going."
Pa shuffled out of the bedroom, rubbing his eyes. "I thought I heard you up, Mrs. Estby!" His eyes glowed with a tenderness that made me blush. I hoped someone besides Erick Iverson looked at me that way someday.
After Pa went to the barn for milking, I pumped water into the copper wash kettle and lugged it to the wood stove. Between batches of biscuits, I refilled Ma's buckets and wiped up her spills. She had moved the ladder several times and scrubbed half the ceiling before the kids started trailing downstairs for breakfast.
As usual, the boys were first. Olaf, Johnny, Arthur, and William clomped slowly down the stairs until they saw Ma; then they rushed to be first for a hug. Johnny slipped on water that had dripped down from the ceiling, and stumbled into the ladder. In a flying leap, I caught the ladder in time to save Ma from a fall, but the pail balanced on the top of the ladder slid off, dumping dirty scrub water on the floorâand me. William and Arthur started to laugh, but smothered their chuckles when I gave them my sternest big-sister glare.
I was still wringing out my apron at the sink when Ida entered the kitchen carrying baby Lillian. Bertha lagged several steps behind her. "Ma's up?" she said, as if she could scarcely credit the evidence of her own eyes.
"Ma's up!" the boys chorused. Once they had certified that fact, they surrounded me to ask what we were having for breakfast.
"No sit-down breakfast this morning," I snapped. "There are biscuits and I'll boil eggs." Marmee attempted figure eights around my shins as I took the pot to the pump for water, then went back to the stove, found eggs in the larder, and slid each into the water to boil.
Fifteen minutes later, Ida set to buttering biscuits and peeling eggs. Everyone stood around eating and dropping crumbs and morsels of egg yolk on the floor.
I sliced bread and cheese for lunches and lined up lunch pails. Ma gave each child another hug as he or she went out the door to cross the orchard toward the school. I sent William and Marmee back to the barn with Pa and set Lillian up with canning jar lids and a basket of spools in Ma's room, leaving the door open so I could keep an eye on her.
I offered to take over on the ceiling, but Ma said she liked seeing how much difference she was making. She sang and hummed as she cleaned. There wasn't a tidy way to wash a ceiling, but Ma's exuberant flourishes with the cleaning rags sent even more water dripping down the walls and onto the floor than usual. I followed behind, mopping up.
"I wish you'd worry more about saving the farm than cleaning soot off the ceiling. We won't have a ceiling to wash if we don't pay off our back taxes and mortgage."
"I can do more than one thing at once," Ma said, wringing out another cleaning rag and splashing more water on the floor.
"So what ideas are you coming up with?" I said.
From the length of time she stalled, I wasn't sure she'd been thinking about our debts at all until I prodded her.
She looked down from the ladder. "They're still finding gold in Colorado. I couldn't get Pa to go two years ago, but maybe he would go now that we have to come up with money quickly."
"I think most of the good mining sites are already taken, Ma."
"Or how about drilling for oil again? I'm sure it's there somewhere; those wildcatters just didn't know where to drill."
"The rest of Mica Creek is still laughing about that one, Ma." The skeleton of a rig still stood on the northeast corner of our wheat fields and a pair of hawks surveyed their territory from its height.
"If you don't like my ideas, come up with your own, then." Ma got down long enough to move the ladder and get a fresh pail of hot water.
I had been thinking for months, but all my ideas were as fanciful or worthless as Ma's. Pa's back still pained him from when he fell off a roof carpentering in Spokane, so he wouldn't be earning much between now and next January. Most women didn't get paid more than a dollar a day with factory work, washing clothes, or even teaching. We needed more than a thousand dollars.
As Ma climbed the ladder with her bucket, she said, "Jenny Lind sang her way across two continents and probably earned five dollars every time she opened her mouth."