As far back as she could remember Helena’s world was thicket, elm, and pine. The forest stretched its wooden limbs across her understanding only to squeeze her in tight, like succumbing to the embrace of a drunken circus bear. She had no interest in living in the wide expansive prairie, or settling in the wormy den of a Montana dugout. Even a covered wagon weeviled with wood beetles held no allure for Helena. The woods made the ideal home. There were places to hide in, places to climb on, and places to stumble over. For a pioneer child there was no better playmate. It was the perfect homestead. Unless one wanted to live a long and prosperous life, that is. For the woods held secret things in knothole and bramble and briar patch. It whispered esoteric mysteries that humans had forgotten to hear. And it brooded over plans unfinished.
Ma had wanted to leave the forest, to flee and stay clear of its inexplicable power. She worried her hands over their predicament until her fingers bled. Something dark waited in lonely, shifting pools filled with shadow and despair. It watched her family as prey and Ma knew that her own prayers did little good against a force so ancient and evil that folk with half a brain knew enough to live outside its influence in towns of their own making. Had it not been for those two simple words she swore to Pa at the altar, had it not been for the first child, then the second, had it not been for the excuse to see the world, to escape a petty life of milking cows back east and churning her childhood dreams into a white ball of bitterness, she could have avoided her fate. But the woods held Ma, as they held her brood, as they held all people innocent enough to ignore providence.
That same power held Pa, too, for a spell. He ignored his wife’s complaint. The woods were as much a part of him as his ankle or left pinky finger. Like Helena, he loved the isolation of the woods. He enjoyed the primitive existence of ‘wrassling nature’ until it conceded the pin. He liked to think of himself a brute champion taming chaos, a regular Hercules or longhaired Samson. His heart filled to its brim with fear and uncertainty—traits best left untapped in a pioneer’s soul. He thought anything the forest could toss at him, he would handle. He had handled bear attacks, and wolves clawing at the turf before his front door. He weathered rain and rockslide and storm. He wrangled his children and Ma’s unpredictable mood swings into the semblance of domesticity. He had been blind and came to see again—all because he steadfastly refused to abandon the woods.
As soon as Helena and her family had tried to escape, something had dragged them back to this very spot—their home—for some specific, if unknown, reason.
Pa concluded that Ma’s dream of a better life in a golden city was best left forgotten. They had nearly divorced over the issue. But despite the hardships and frequent tragedy that visited them like an unwanted in-law, the family had returned safely. Pa had survived and Ma had survived and even, to Helena’s consternation and bewilderment, her brother Will had survived. Melissa, the family’s Belgian mare had survived, too, although she hung her heavy equine head sadly over the barnyard gate and dreamed of blood and promises not kept. All summer and autumn, for many, many days they had traveled. The bumping wheels and the rocking wagon bed, movement that had prevailed for weeks without end, wormed into Helena’s posture so that she could neither stand up straight nor walk in a direct line without tipping over or throwing up. Wagon tracks went no further than her own front door. She was home again. It felt good finally to rest.
Pioneer life is not for everyone. A pirate, for instance, would find very little joy in this kind of existence. So, too, would a computer engineer, a librarian, or a gas station attendant. In fact, most people from the twenty-first century would not find pioneer life to their liking.
Some might say this is because folks today have grown soft. These are romantic fools and should not be listened to.
The pioneer’s way of life is best forgotten. We have learned to live without unnecessary toil. Humans have progressed. Pioneers did not have the conveniences we know as our due right. Pioneers used pinecones and corn-cobs instead of toilet paper. Running water was mostly found swirling in rivers, slapping on stinky beaches befouled by fish and half-gnawed bird carcasses, or bubbling from springs where animals bathed and rutted. And there would be no hot tap unless you lived over an erupting volcano. No cars, no Internet, no bowling alleys. Frozen dinners and pre-packaged snacks? Unheard of. Email and overnight packages were delivered by slow donkey and took up to a year to arrive, depending on the education of the donkey and what kind of weather or road you sent him off on.
Expediency was unknown to the Pioneer. Convenience had likely not even been invented yet—not by the poor and downtrodden anyway. The truth is that had Helena been born two centuries after fate plunked her down in this godforsaken wilderness, she would have decided that pioneer life was not all it was romanticized to be, what with the wolves, random bear attacks, and dysentery.
But Helena made the best of a complicated situation. For snacks Helena ate tasteless rutabagas grown in Ma’s garden. For correspondence Helena made up imaginary friends like the eminent Lord Billingswain, a roguish and mysterious baron, who wrote illegibly on crisp white paper and signed his name with curlicues and grand loops. Although she had barely learned to read, these private fancies kept her busy during idle minutes. The rest of her day Helena slaved away working around the homestead. Laundry needed mangling, wood needed gathering, jars needed pickling, livestock needed milking, meat needed chewing, tea needed boiling, quilts needed sewing, floors needed scrubbing, butter needed churning, fences needed mending, wool needed spinning, flax needed flaxing, water needed collecting, hay needed baling, and all these chores needed doing before lunch. For music Helena listened to the howling of wolves under her window. Their serenades were strange and made her appreciate Pa’s scratchy fiddle playing with its dissonant pizzicato and arpeggio runs plucked to various renditions of “Shoo Fly” and “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Even without the wolves skulking outside, the dark forest filled with noise.
The trees made their own ethereal sounds. To Helena the willows whispered provocative sayings. The wise old oaks threatened to smother her with leaves, and the lonely pines often romanticized by cowboys, whined to poke her in uncomfortable places.
The animals were worse. Out of spite rabbits nibbled fence posts to nubbins. Skunks sprayed their musk on clothes drying passively on a line. And badgers would drown in a well just to flavor the water with a gamey taste.
It was the wolves, though, that pestered Helena’s family most. They devoured everything they could tear into. No hunk of meat or sausage was safe with the wolves prowling the grounds. Whatever Pa shot with his rifle the wolves would consume within seconds if he did not practice the necessary precautions. Even inedible rutabagas and tomatoes were not off the menu. Wagon wheels and bales of straw, rain barrels and plows, weathervanes and washing boards. The wolves left nothing unshredded or ungnawed. They remained troublesome neighbors, but Helena neither minded them, nor worried herself over their trespasses. They were like a furry family of second cousins to her. Noisome and rude. A kin to her own.
Their presence made the loss of her family pets more tragic. Mary the cow had been butchered and presented to her as a tray of deli-meat. Black Joe the dog had been shot behind the woodshed. Snuffles the pig had been devoured. Jehovah the horse had tumbled to his death down a slippery incline. Poor Pook the cat had either been drowned or lost in the forest—his fuzzy feline body never found. Doctor Taupe and his large wife—while not one of her pets—had both been mauled by a random bear. Helena hoped there was good narrative reason for this.
Upstairs in her trundle bed, Helena thought about her recent travels and snuggled deeper into the scratchy down comforter. The bedclothes smelled slightly of Will’s flatulence. But this reminded her of home in the dark woods. Downstairs, over the hearth, Ma was busy cooking rutabagas for supper. In the corner, while the stew bubbled, Ma’s spinning wheel whirred. She had been busy all week mindlessly cutting patterns from the curtains, sewing then unstitching the pattern. She finally settled on making a cozy for the butter churn. Helena heard Pa outside chopping wood. The thud, thud, thud eventually put her into a dreamless, worried sleep.
…Helena raised her head and took in the full view of the brittle red and yellow spotted leaves of the maples sur-rounding the chapel on the Billingswain estate. Grey clouds like dirty mashed potatoes piled languidly across the sky. She stretched her neck out and sniffed. The earth had been broken here among the stones and pine boxes lined along the walkway. There a man in black, a gardener she figured, with narrow gathered sleeves tied back with a black band, raised a shovelful of earth and tossed it in place, tamping the dirt tightly into a now filled hole. Helena had arrived for a funeral.
The deceased, whoever it was, had drawn a sizeable crowd of mourners. The stable boy and milkmaid held pink, raw hands and sniffled pathetically. The nurse, the one with the goiter, tugged on her braids and dabbed at her eyes with a soiled handkerchief. The hostler and carpenter and tinker of the village looked on the scene soberly and cleared their throats a lot. Even Ms. Honeydew, the defrocked tutor, had tears in her piggish eyes.
A clod of dirt rolled from the vigorous effort of the garden-er’s shovel, and covered Helena’s boots. She covered her face with her hands and said a prayer under her breath. The priest, a skeletal man with a scabby beard and marked with what was probably syphilis, went up to Helena and led her out of the cemetery.
“But who?” Helena spoke. “Who is buried here?”
The question dangled in the air like motes of dust.
The priest’s mouth twisted severely. “Oh, do not ask. Do not ask,” he said.
Helena spent the night in one of the monastery rooms. It had turned very cold. She expected Lord Billingswain to come to her, as he often threatened to do. The pane of win-dow glass frosted with a diamond sheen as flakes of snow began to descend wearily from the dark heavens. He will most certainly be at the train station by now, Helena thought. His trip to Siberia cancelled. The train ticket would be refunded, but his luggage would be tied up and standing at the gate. The wind whistled and sounded like the cry of an engine maneuvering through the dark.
Since she could not sleep, she rose from her bed and wrapped her winter robes around her shoulders. She slipped on her boots and descended the stairs to the kitchen where a vase of lilies wilted on the serving board. Someone had been buried that afternoon. She needed to know who.
Stealing into the night, her nightdress fluttering in the chill, Helena made her way to the churchyard. The mound of earth had been disturbed. Perhaps the wolves had been busy digging up the grave, but no. On closer inspection Helena found the tell tale signs of a human hand struggling, probably to escape the burial pit. Yes, the imprint of a tiny hand marked the freezing earth. Here, the body must have dragged itself up, crawling toward the manor house. The sight of a small footprint led Helena to a freshly carved headstone. She was terrified to look. She could not bear to think of Lord Billingswain dead—not he! The air stung her ankles where her nightdress flapped in the breeze. The snow continued to fall, and Helena stretched out her cold, white hand toward the carven name in the stone.
The clouds shifted to show a full moon. Its feeble light was just bright enough to read by, but did she dare? Could she succumb to the sorrow of Lord Billingswain’s untimely repose? Yes. She must dare to look.
The intake of cold air shocked her with its clarity. Its heady rush made her reel back. Not his name upon the grave marker! She recognized her own—chiseled neatly in perfect script: Helena—beloved. In pace requiescat!...
When Helena woke from her daily nightmare, she found Will’s arms folded across her face. His snores almost drowned out the sound of cold rain splattering on the roof. She shifted position, escaping her brother’s splayed limbs. She moved sleepily to the window and watched the rain in the dark harden into small pellets of sleet. Winter was coming. The tell tale signs haunted the dark woods.
In the quiet morning, just before the sun peaked its eye over the tree line of the forest, Helena was up and dressed. She was excited to make snow angels in the yard. Even before Ma and Pa stirred from the forbidden room, Helena tugged on her boots and twisted her scarf around her neck and launched herself out the door. She skidded down the walkway, tripped over a rock, and fell face first into a patch of slick mud.
The air was still as ice. Helena lay crushed on the ground. No snow had fallen yet. Only mud and mud and more mud. When she finally lifted herself up and returned to the drafty kitchen to warm by the fire, Ma greeted her with slap on her bottom and told her to go bring in more firewood. When she returned with the wood, she was slapped for dragging mud into the house. Ma sent her out again with a bucket to draw clean water, and when she returned Helena was slapped again for getting so dirty and ripping her petticoat.
“It’s not as though I’ve told you children a thousand times not to get your clothes filthy!” Ma slapped Pa when he came back from the outhouse without the corncob, and slapped Will for chewing porridge with his mouth open. “Haven’t I taught you all manners? Are we no better than the wallow-ing beasts in the forest?”
Now, before Ma is judged unfairly, it is important to note that all pioneer mothers beat their children, and a lot harder than Ma slapped Helena for making a mess of her clothes. The golden rule Ma always quoted, particularly when she was visited by the ladies auxiliary league from town, was this: a spoiled child is one who is spared a good sharp slap once in a while. She had learnt it good from the Bible, in fact, and would have gone on slapping to her heart’s content, until one Sunday after a powerful slap at Pa that resulted in a black eye—drunk though he was and scratching himself in rude places during communion—he forced her to show him the verse where she got the idea that slugging people was tantamount to Christian charity. Since she could not find the exact quote, Ma apologized and promised she would stop hitting people.
“I’ll reserve my punishment for more serious things,” she said. “Like criticizing the neighbors.”
Pa approved, nodding, “That’s the Christian thing to do after all.”
It was time for the family’s monthly bath!
The little house had become rather ripe, as it always did a day or two after bath night. Helena thought that she smelled like a rose, but it was more of a wilting rose. Will always smelled like ragweed and something a pig slept in. Ma sprinkled herself with lavender water occasionally, and the lye she used to wash the clothes stayed with her for days. She smelled like Parisian wood smoke burning through a layer of lard, which then one might spread over a patch of desiccated lavender.
But Pa stank like hard work. His brown shirts, Ma said, had once been white as cotton. If you rolled in a manure pile and then tried to make cheese from the remains of a milk jug that slumped around on the porch in the sun for awhile, you might get close to the smell that wafted from Pa’s under-arms. That did not include, of course, his feet, or other parts of him either.
When Helena mucked out Melissa’s stall, she often thought fondly of Pa.
“It’s the smell of health,” Pa would say.
Helena wondered what sickness would smell like, given the alternative.
In the summer, they bathed in the little black river a half-mile away, down stream from where they drew water. Ma would give Helena and Will a cake of soap and tell them to rub it all over their bodies, and then go jump in a lake.
By lake, she meant river.
The summer river water was cool, but not unpleasant; in the wintertime, when the days got shorter and the nights colder, Pa would lug the washtub out back and pile an armful or two of snow into it. Sometimes he got the snow near the barn and this was not as pure as the snow that fell from the purple sky. Then he placed the snow-filled tub near the cook stove and, as Ma boiled her tasteless roots, the snow would melt.
Ma hung a blanket over her drying line to afford some privacy and washed Will in the tub first. Will would grab his toy harpoon, and splash Ma in the eye with the white pearly suds. He would pretend that he was a whaling ship, full of seamen. Ma would help him play by shouting out, “Thar she blows!”
It was their own game.
After Will’s bath, Helena had her turn. Ma used the same water, so the bath was a little bit of a disappointment. The water always cooled considerably and there was usually a film floating on the surface. Ma would scrub her hard with the scouring brush, the one used for the cast iron skillet. The water puckered Helena’s skin, and Ma’s scouring would redden already pinkened parts.
After soaking, Helena raced around the cabin naked until her hair dried. Ma would tap her foot agitatedly then hold out Helena’s nightgown and she would wriggle into it. Helena would kiss her Pa on the lips and her Ma on her cheek, and then climb the ladder to the loft. She would slip into the space beside Will, where he sprawled in bed tugging on his slingshot.
After the children had their baths and gone to bed, Pa always emptied the bath water and scrubbed the basin clean with snow. He would fill the tub up again, and Ma would have her bath. She would sing sometimes, her voice lilting, lifting the rafters with musical arpeggios and vibrant scales. Helena would listen to her sing until her eyes grew heavy. Even with Will’s grunting and snoring, she eventually found blessed sleep.
Pa also had his bath behind the private blanket. He would scrub the basin out once more, mumbling a curse in a low voice, only to fill up the tub with more snow. Sometimes he would not heat it, and other times he would.
“Gives a man a reason to drink,” he would slur.
Pa made a big ordeal about unbuttoning his shirt and unbuttoning his suspenders. He would crawl from under the clinging undershirt and remove his pants, like pulling off a wad of taffy from underneath a church pew.
While this was occurring, Ma knitted scarves and gloves with whatever remnants she scraped together. As Pa splashed away in the cold water, she counted her stitches and rocked in her chair before the dying fire, imagining things that could not be.