This is the forest primeval.
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW: EVANGELINE
When Jamie was home, May Rose felt safe. Saturday afternoons he jumped from the log train as it slowed down the grade in front of their cabin. Sunday evenings he caught the train back to Logging Camp Number Six, where he lived through the week.
This Saturday he walked from the train as if dragged down. His eyelids drooped at the outside corners, bits of dust in his thick brown lashes. His sun-dark face bore new scratches, like his hands, scarred by twigs and briars. In the week since she’d seen him, he’d grown a thin, rust-colored moustache.
He pulled his suspenders from his shoulders as he came through the door, stepped out of his trousers and kicked them to a dusty heap. His bath was ready, the washtub partly filled beside the table, crowding their one-room cabin. Kettles of water steamed on the cook stove in the corner. She handed him his drink and added water to the tub.
At the stove, she poked a fork into the rooster that simmered with noodles in yellow broth. Its flesh fell away from the bones. In camp, Jamie ate meat three times a day, had fruit pies and light bread with butter instead of lard.
She did not speak of her week or her new suspicion until he slid down into the water and his face relaxed. She scrubbed his back with a soapy cloth. “I think someone has been stealing the eggs.” She did not mean to complain, but he needed to know. He sold and traded eggs for tobacco and moonshine.
“Harder,” he said.
She dug her fingers into the cloth and rubbed up, down, and sideways, leaving red marks in his skin, along his wide shoulders, wetting hair that curled on his neck. He drained the jar and pushed it into her hand. “Keep the chicken coop shut up and snakes won’t get the eggs.”
The thief was no snake. She barred the chicken coop door every night, and even in the day, after she turned the chickens out.
She refilled his jar, letting him see how much liquor she added. Later she might get away with mixing in more water, then somewhere between his first and last jars he’d forget his disgust, and he’d sing to her and maybe ask her to read to him, like she used to do, Evangeline, or The Song of Solomon.
Dirt lay in a scum on his bathwater. He hated being dirty, complained of his dirty job, but he loved to talk about it, and he was gifted with words. In his stories she saw the muscled arms and quick hands of swampers, sawyers, and grab-drivers. She heard the thunder of trees falling to earth and logs skidding down to the railroad landings, the snorting of horses, sixteen hooves stomping the ground, chains rattling, undergrowth crackling. He made her laugh at the peculiarities and failings of the seventy men in Camp Number Six. Wood hicks, the loggers called themselves, proud to take the strains of such work, proud to be young and tough.
He had opinions and ambitions–as soon as he saved up, they’d go to California, maybe Texas. Anywhere, if she could have him home at the end of every day. Away from brutal work, surely he’d be more himself.
“I saw somebody last night,” she said. “And this morning, the eggs were gone.”
“You saw somebody? Did they come to the door?”
“I saw someone at the edge of the woods, near dark.”
He set his jar on the floor and rubbed his hands through his hair. Bits of leaves and bark fell into the water. “Who’d come all the way up here? And at night?”
Nobody up to anything good. They had no road, just the railroad track and the trail, a tortuous walk through the woods. The Winkler Company had covered up the old road with the railroad to the camp and log landing. When they’d moved here, Jamie had brought their goods up on the train that supplied the camps.
“Give me that cloth,” he said.
She soaped the cloth and set it in his hand. Deep in her belly she felt the start of cramps. Again, no child. Soon the century would turn over to nineteen hundred, and she’d be twenty-one. Jamie said he’d lost track of his age.
No matter what he said, last night someone had run along the trail, a shadow in the trees, not deer, not a bear, a thin, swift-moving shadow with arms. She’d come inside and barred the door, blown out the lamp, and watched from the cabin’s one window. From there she had a view of the western sky and the railroad track, but everything else was behind the cabin–the head of the trail, the chicken coop and other sheds. She’d kept her shotgun near, ready to run outside and shoot if she heard a pig squeal or chicken cackle. They’d not been alarmed, yet someone had stolen the eggs.
Jamie rubbed the cloth over his face and scrubbed his armpits. She longed to see him smile. He didn’t have to sing, only smile and say he was glad to be home.
When they were newly married, he’d come home every third evening, riding down with the logs and rising from bed in the middle of the night to walk back, because work began at dawn, well before the morning train. He’d chosen this place because it was closer to his camp. She wouldn’t like the town, he said, a dirty, noisy place. This was better. With his arms wrapped around her, of course it was.
Today she’d carried water from the springhouse, first for her bath, later for his. She’d brushed and scrubbed her stained hands and freshened them in dried wildflowers, sat cross-legged in sunshine and frowned into her hand mirror at hair that seemed less golden, lips and cheeks less full, the rest of her shrunk to knobs and angles.
She found no resemblance to herself two years ago, when she’d been courted by men as old as her uncle and boys not long out of short pants. From this confusion of suitors, Jamie had stood out as most handsome and most happy, and he’d won her with stories and songs and the lightness of his hand at her waist when they danced. Last winter, snow had kept him in camp weeks at a time. Shut up in the little cabin, she’d brought to mind those happy days and danced again under a starlit sky and laughed in the bosom of her family. For company, she’d brought Nellie, the sow, inside.
Nellie and passing trains kept her steady. Every work day two trains chugged through the clearing, one in the morning hauling supplies to the camps, and the one in the afternoon pulling logs down from the mountain. She always waved, and had come to know the faces of the engineers, firemen, and brakemen who waved back. The company doctor waved when he passed by on the speeder, a little gas-powered railroad cart. She knew his name, Dr. Hennig.
Yesterday, she’d worried because there were too many trains.
She spread Jamie’s clean clothes on the bed. “Did something happen yesterday? I saw a special train, and the speeder, twice.
He grunted. “Man got himself killed. Potts, a teamster. His logs got to running down the skid, pushing him and the horses.” Jamie dropped the cloth into the water. “What a sight. Dumb old shit didn’t hook his logs proper. He pulled his team off the skid into a J-hole, but the logs didn’t uncouple like they do when they’re fastened right. The logs swung around and busted into him, horses too. Fine horses, two dead, and the other two had to be shot on the spot.”
He gagged, coughed, cupped water in his hand and rinsed his face. “Guess who got to clean all that up?”
“Let’s sell out,” she said. “Go somewhere else.”
He tilted his head, squinted. “There’ll be a place for a new teamster. I plan to be that man.” As a swamper, Jamie made a dollar fifty a day, half as much as the highest paid men in camp, though it was not the low pay but the low regard for the job that irked him. Swampers cleared logs, stumps, and brush to make roads for skidding timber. They also made the escape ramps, the J-holes. He said any idiot could do it.
She scooped a cup through the water and rinsed his back. It wasn’t something he’d believe, and nothing she would say, but the very thing she loved most about him—his high spirit–made him a poor man with horses. When he wasn’t worn down like this, he craved excitement, and he had no patience. She’d seen it in St. Louis, how he confused and agitated her uncle’s team.
“Enough,” Jamie said. “This water’s cold.”
She wrapped a potholder around the handle of the iron kettle and lifted it with both hands. “Are you ready for me to pour?”
“Just do it.”
She held the pot at arms’ length. “Can you move your knees to the left?”
He moved his legs to the right edge of the tub. She carried the kettle to the other side, paused to make sure he was watching, then trickled the steaming water into a spot where his skin would not catch it first. She swished her hand through it to mix hot with cold. “Are you ready for me to wash your hair?”
“Make it quick.”
She touched his chin and tipped his head back, flexed her hands through his hair and pushed the suds up his neck, resisting the desire to pull his wet head to her breast and run her hands over him in the water, never certain he’d like it.
As she poured the first scoop of rinse, he leaned forward to lift his jar, and soapy water ran over his face. He jolted upright, grabbed the bed sheet set out for him to dry, and dabbed at his eyes. “You stupid farmer. I didn’t give you leave to blind me with lye soap.” He threw the sheet on the floor and splashed down in the tub. “Rinse, and be quick.”
She steadied herself with a hand on a chair. Good times seemed easier to remember when he wasn’t there.
When she bent and picked up the sheet, he said, “Look at yourself. You’re pitiful.”
Nauseous now with cramps, she did not need his words to know her heavy bleeding had soaked through. While he ate, she dipped a bucket of bathwater for her soiled dress and set his work clothes to soak in the washtub. He ate and drank without talking, his eyes growing dull.
After supper, she rubbed soap into his underclothes and set them to boil on the stove. He dozed, tipped back in his chair with legs stretched under the table, one hand on his jar, his mouth open. With her laundry stick she lifted the scalding cloth into rinse water, humming softly, as she did most days, to keep herself going. On the porch, she wrapped the legs of his pants around a roof post, stood back, and twisted each piece till no more water dripped out. Then she hung them on a line near the stove. Jamie sprawled across their bed, face down. She knelt beside it, touched his arm with her forehead, and inhaled his scent, like new-sawn wood.
Sunday, Jamie slept, got up to eat and drink, and slept again. On happier Sundays, she’d led him around to show all she’d done while he was gone–spring greens found–corn sprouted, hoed, harvested–cabbage planted, cut, salted. The pigs, how they’d grown.
Sunday evening when they heard the train coming, he bent and pecked her lips. He stopped her on the porch as the train came into view, flat cars with wood hicks sitting on crates and barrels, supplies for the camp. “Get back inside,” he said. “There’s no need to be showing yourself to this bunch.”
The next Saturday Jamie did not come home. She watched the log train from the cabin window. From a distance, any of the young men astride the logs of the flatcars might have been him. They all wore hobnail boots, loose gray pants, broad suspenders, and had shaggy hair under every sort of hat, a few with shapely brims, like his. She held the edge of the curtain until the caboose passed, the rumble faded, and the black smoke dissolved in the air, because sometimes he jumped off on the other side of the track. Then she sat at the table beside the tub of water and pulled petals from the jar of purple asters while the cabin filled with the aroma of beans baked with molasses.
She pushed through her evening tasks, humming to hold herself together, mumbling a verse of scripture: whatsoever things are lovely…and of good report…think on these things. But that night she lay on the mattress tick stuffed with fresh corn husks and remembered a long-ago neighbor whose man had gone west without her, and another whose husband had left with no warning. Anything could happen.
Sunday evening when the train carried men back to camp, she waited behind the scarecrow in tall garden weeds where the wood hicks would not see her. Weary-looking young men sprawled on wooden cartons and bales of hay or sat with legs hanging over the edges, some looking toward the cabin, none of them Jamie. There was a familiar hat on one who faced the other way, though Jamie didn’t own a red shirt.
At dusk she dragged the porch stool and the shotgun to the middle of the clearing and watched the dark spaces between the trees to prove she had nothing to fear. A tract of thick virgin timber, saved from the logging company by a surveyor’s mistake, surrounded the clearing on all but the west side. There the railroad track passed at the edge of the sky. Her ears tuned to sounds of leaf whisper and high cricket drone. Hawks drifted in circles above and below her line of sight. This, like dawn, was the clean time, when the earth did not tremble with far-off crash of trees, and passing trains did not smother the air.
The better parts of two years with Jamie begged to be remembered. They might be as much as anyone had. They might be more. She closed her eyes and saw how his face transformed when he smiled, how the edge of his lip turned up. She remembered the rhythm of his work songs, how she shivered when his hands stopped her in the garden or at the stove. She felt his lips on her neck and the length of him against her those Saturday nights, when he took her breath–those Sundays, when they knew what mattered.
Maybe because she’d grown up among Ohio’s flat fields, the clearing felt like a perch on the side of the mountain. Just beyond the railroad, the land dropped down in a rockslide, and as far as she could see, mountains sloped toward each other like laced fingers. Soon color would break out like a last, fervent wish. Then snow. He claimed there was twelve years of work here. She prayed they would not see it. The man who’d built their cabin had moved on, an old settler who said rich men were destroying creation for toothpicks and clothespins.
The clearing grew bright as the lowering sun lit the gap in the leafy wall. Just beyond the light, a shadow passed from tree to tree and blended with the night. Her breath stopped between excitement and fear. She picked up the shotgun, moved her stool to the edge of the cabin porch, braced the stock of the gun between arm and hip, and pulled back the hammers with soft clicks.
Her heart drummed. She searched the night sounds for something different–a footstep, the squawk of a kidnapped chicken, a whisper in the dark. Bats swished in and out of moonlight.
The shotgun was heavy as a stack of iron skillets, but she held it until her neck and arms stiffened and her eyelids ached. The silhouette of a fox streaked past, head lifted, a rabbit in its jaws. Able to watch no more, she carried the gun to her bed.