IN WHICH A COFFIN IS A BED BUT AN OX IS NOT A COFFIN

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fiction by Brenda K. Marshall

The winter of 1881 found Frances Bingham reluctantly arrang­ing for her move from the spacious comfort of her father­-in­-law’s bonanza farm on the Dakota prairie to her almost­ com­pleted new home six miles away in Fargo. The arrangement that had suited both Percy and Frances since she had joined him in Dakota three years earlier—in which Percy insisted that he would soon leave his job as a newspaperman for the Fargo Argus to make a new start back east, and Frances, in turn, rea­soned that it made no sense for her and their son, Houghton, to move to Percy’s two rooms above the Argus in the meantime—had come to an end with Percy’s newfound respectability as Fargo’s delegate to the upcoming Fifteenth General Assembly of Dakota Territory. A man with a promising political career, Percy now insisted, must have his own home in Fargo, and his wife must live in that home with him, and not with his sister and father-­in­-law nearby.

Frances could not disagree, of course. That she had married Percy not for the opportunity to live with him but to be near his sister, Anna, was logic she was unlikely to share, no matter that her plans, her patience, her desire had come to naught. An incautious advance, the slightest pressure of Frances’s lips and a tightening embrace during a good­night kiss of over a year ago had changed in a moment the easy friendship between the women. Where once Frances had dreamed of heat and passion, of sinking into the very being of Anna, of moving past clothes and skin until she had claimed spirit and soul, these days she would have been satisfied with a little warmth. What she en­countered as she reached out, however, was less a reserve than the ghostly chill of absence.

And then there was the young Norwegian housekeeper, Kirsten, whose warmth and spirit seemed to grow in direct pro­portion to the waning of Anna’s, and who, upon entering a room, was certain to search for Frances, only to become sud­denly unable to meet the older woman’s eyes. So Kirsten went about her business, blushing all the while, entering, retreating, and discovering soon thereafter another reason to be near Frances, which drew from Anna yet another sigh. Sometimes the complicated algebra of emotions, the looks and the looking away and the sighs and the silence drove Frances from the pas­sive dramatics of the house to the bustling farmyard, to Little Carl’s cookhouse, to Jack Shaw in the machine shed, to the barn to stand among beasts whose only longing was for hay. And so, despite her indifference to her appointment in Fargo with Ferdinand Luger regarding a final furniture order, Frances was grateful for a reason to be outside, breathing air unencumbered by sentiment or passion or memory or expecta­tion or hope.

She was pulling out of the second barn in the carriage, her favorite bay, Raleigh, in the harness, when Little Carl stepped out of the door of the crew cook house with his hand raised to stop her.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.

The presumption of the question, Frances knew, was her own fault. She had been admonished several times by Percy for her readiness to mix with the farm help, but Percy was rarely around, and Frances had grown fond of the odd little cook.

“I fail to see how that is your concern, Carl, but since you have asked so politely, I am on my way to Fargo to conduct some business at the Luger Furniture Company.”

“You don’t want to do that.”

Frances looked down at Little Carl from her upholstered seat. As a matter of fact, she was very little interested in fur­nishing the house in Fargo (and every bit of it on credit, at that), but even Little Carl, whose powers of perception Frances had found at times to be disconcerting, would not have pre­sumed to speak to her quite so personally.

“And why is that, pray tell?”

“Weather.”

“Carl,” Frances said, completing her unspoken thought with a sweep of her arm that took in a dozen outbuildings and the field beyond where several head of cattle had been turned out to graze upon the remnants of the cornstalks there. An overnight dusting of snow lay lightly upon the frozen ground. It was a gray February day, but in no way threatening.

“Miss Frances, every bit of me hurts today. I can’t barely move my neck, and that is as sure a sign as any that a storm’s coming.”

“I am sorry for your discomfort, but my neck feels fine, and the sooner I get going the sooner I can return. Now, I am cer­tain that you have something better to do than . . .”

A call across the yard from Jack Shaw to “wait only,” inter­rupted Frances. Silently, Frances and Little Carl watched him hurry toward them. Here was “that Jew, Jack Shaw,” a figure far more offensive to Percy than the cook, no matter that he was one of the most valuable workers on the place, a genius with machin­ery. More importantly to Frances, he was a man with a ready store of tales of a life and a land far away. Silently pleased with the trust that had grown between them, she spent hours in the machine shed watching Shaw move from plow to harrow to binder with his tools as he talked about the young man who had left Russia as Yitzchok Chavinitz, arrived in New York City as Isaac Chavinitz, but stepped off the train in Fargo as Jack Shaw.

“Are you going to town?” Shaw asked.

“No.”

“Yes.”

Shaw looked from Little Carl to Frances before he said, “If the answer is yes, Mrs. Bingham, maybe you will make it for me a little easier and take instead the wagon. A shaft is out on the well pump. If you could only pick up the part from Hender­son’s?”

“Of course,” Frances said, turning an arch smile on Little Carl.

“Only wait a minute and I will get the wagon hitched up,” Shaw said, turning to go.

“Give us Dan,” Little Carl called after Shaw, who stopped and looked up at the sky for a moment before nodding and striding on.

“Us?” Frances asked.

When they reached the furniture store on the corner of Broadway and NP Avenue, Little Carl helped Frances out of the wagon and then got back in for the short trip across the street to Henderson’s Hardware. He would pick up the pump shaft there and then move on to Goodman and Yerxa’s for the other supplies that he had suddenly remembered needing back in the Bingham headquarters farmyard. He was to pick Frances up at the home of Dr. and Lydia Harkness in three hours. In the meantime Frances and Ferdinand Luger would visit the new house to take some final measurements, after which Luger would drop Frances off for her visit with Lydia Harkness.

But Frances had been in the company of the doctor’s wife for less than thirty minutes when her friend rose to answer a knock on the door, returning almost immediately to inform Frances that there was a diminutive man bearing a singular re­semblance to a rabbit who was insisting that Mrs. Bingham “get her things and get to going right now.” And indeed, when Frances went to the door, Little Carl was standing there with his nose twitching in the air, looking as if he were about to thump a boot against the porch floorboards to warn of impend­ing danger. For a moment Frances considered instructing him to wait for her in the wagon while she returned to the parlor to finish her tea, but she knew that the thought of the little man huddled out there in the cold would be too disconcerting. So she accepted her astrakhan coat and hat from Lydia Harkness, and after an apology for such a short visit, followed Little Carl to the wagon. The day had darkened and the wind had a new bite to it, but not one snowflake fell from the sky.

“I am sorry if your aches have increased, Carl,” Frances said as he set Dan on his way. “But I really must insist that in the future you hold to the schedule we have agreed upon. Your cau­tion is misplaced and your insistence impertinent.”

“Mrs. Bingham,” Little Carl said, the formality of address telling Frances that his mood had not improved while in town, “I hope that’s exactly what you’re still thinking when we get home. If it is, I’ll say my sorrys then. Here.” He reached under the seat for the buffalo robe there.

Frances did not speak for the first half hour of the drive home, at first because she did not want Little Carl to think that she took lightly his presumption, and then because she realized that the day was too quickly falling into dark, the air had grown heavy, and Dan had begun to toss his head and snort in concern.

“Get up, Dan,” Little Carl said. “Here it comes.”

It came dramatically, with huge flakes dumped upon their shoulders, as if a chute had opened from the sodden air above, releasing the moisture it was no longer able to hold. Within minutes Little Carl’s rabbit fur cap had collected enough snow to make it appear doubled in size. Frances pulled her hat fur­ther down over her ears and the buffalo robe up to her neck. Her eyelashes were thick with snow. The world had become white, the sky and the land distinguished by texture only. Com­ing into the trees along the Sheyenne, Frances realized by the temporary protection they offered the extent to which the wind had picked up. Even here the road was getting harder to distin­guish from the space around it, and they were almost upon the bridge before they saw it before them. Still, Frances felt a surge of relief to know that the bulk of the trip was behind them and there remained no more than two miles yet to travel.

A blizzard may be described objectively by references to wind, to snow, and to dropping temperatures. A man or woman caught outdoors gauges its progress and severity in the gut. The snow that had been driving directly into the face of Dan and the wagon seemed to begin to swirl, and what once was north Frances thought could be just as easily west, or maybe south. Frances swallowed back the panic of vertigo and looked hard toward the ground to her side of the wagon. She thought she could see where the taller tufts of dried grass by the side of the tracks formed a darker shadow. Holding fast to this image Frances felt her dizziness recede.

Twice Frances heard Little Carl call out a hoarse “gee” to Dan and felt the wagon shift to the right, although neither time had Frances lost the shadow that she had believed were the snow­mounded grasses beside her. She did not know that the wagon had stopped completely until Little Carl yelled some­thing at her, but even though she was sitting close enough to him to feel his body next to hers, she could not catch his words before the wind carried them away.

“What?” she turned and yelled back.

“He’s losing the road.” Frances felt Little Carl’s breath against her chin as he shouted. “I got to get down and lead.”

Little Carl did not wait for Frances’s reply and in a minute was lost beside the moving dark before her that was Dan. Frances closed her eyes. Her toes and fingers burned, and she tried to wiggle them within her boots and mittens. Bending over her lap to point the top of her hat into the wind, Frances reached up to give her nose a squeeze under her muffler, and was grateful to feel it sting. For several minutes Frances rode like that, eyes shut, almost completely covered by the buffalo robe, aware that there was not one thing that she could do that would change her situation.

And then something felt different. Sickened now with panic, Frances lifted her head from the buffalo robe and squinted into the dark that was alive with swirling razors of ice and snow. It took her a moment to catch her breath against the wind. She could see nothing. No light remained in the day, no shadow below her promised that she still was upon the road, no body beside her said that she was not alone. There was only the as­sault of the blizzard and the sound of her own voice, tiny against the storm, yelling, “Carl! Carl! Carl!” It wasn’t until she felt the wagon seat tilt beneath her that she realized that the wagon had come to a stop and Little Carl was yelling into her ear. They had lost the road. He had no idea where they were. He was giving Dan his head and hoping that the horse could sense his way back to the barn. “Just hang on,” he yelled. Frances felt Little Carl lift his arms and bring the reins hard down upon Dan’s rump. The wagon jerked forward once again. The robe lifted away from her side, and Frances felt Little Carl climb under its protection. Together they rode on, directionless, inside a freezing tent of darkness.

The disorientation in space lent itself to a similar confusion in time, and Frances could not have said whether it was an hour or several hours later when Little Carl stirred next to her. For a moment she was alone again under the robe, and then Little Carl was back, shouting that she needed to get down. Ex­hilaration and gratitude surged through Frances. It did not matter that she was in pain, her fingers and toes numb, her back aching from leaning close to her knees to stay warmer. Soon she would be in her bed, with Kirsten placing warmed bricks at her feet and Anna gently chafing her hands.

Trying to help Frances down from the wagon, Little Carl stumbled and they both fell to the ground. Despite the deep cushion of snow the fall was jolting and hard, their bodies too cold to absorb the shock. Frances was the first to regain her feet. Turning in a full circle she looked for the lights that surely must be burning in the Bingham house, or in the supervisor’s house, or in the bunkhouses. But all was dark. She felt Little Carl grab her around the waist, and move her toward an insub­stantial shape before her, and then she was inside a pitch­black space no warmer than the wagon, but sheltered from the force of the wind, if not its howl, exaggerated now by whistling and creaking. She could sense Little Carl moving nearby.

“Carl?” she asked, surprised to find that her mouth refused to properly shape the word.

“Just a second,” Carl slurred. “Got matches. Just can’t . . .”

“What?” Frances said when Little Carl did not finish his sen­tence and then did not speak at all.

“Can’t get my fingers to work. Hold on,” and then there was a tiny light and Frances could see a pair of small, disembodied hands moving away from her before the room returned to dark­ness. A small thud told her that something had fallen to the ground. The clink of metal upon metal indicated that Little Carl had found a cabinet. Then again there was a tiny light, and then more, and then there was Little Carl’s face behind the candle that he held in his hands.

“Where are we?” Frances asked, an involuntary shudder punctuating her question.

“Hold this,” Little Carl said, handing Frances the shaking candle while lighting another from its flame. “Over here. Hold it up.”

Turning in a circle in unison with Little Carl, Frances could see that they were in a claim shanty not quite half the size of her sitting room. Newspaper­-lined walls heaved and fluttered. The floor was packed dirt. There were two handmade chairs of twisted saplings and board odds and ends. A three-­legged stool. A table of three separate rough planks resting on two sawhorses. Two wooden crates nailed to shiplap served as a cupboard. On another crate sitting upended beside the stool there was a kerosene lamp with no kerosene. A small cook stove stood at the opposite end of the shanty. The wood box nearby was empty. And in the corner, where Frances expected to find a bed, there was a long, deep, pine box.

“Old Andy Cooligan. I’ll be damned.”

“Who? What? Carl, where are we?”

Instead of answering her question, Little Carl asked one of his own, speaking slowly to keep his words recognizable. “Don’t reckon Dan would fit through the door, do you? Probably be OK up against the shanty out of the wind, but we could use his heat. Here, hold this. Careful, don’t drop it. Got to get him un­hitched at least. See if you can get a fire started.”

Everything that happened in the next hour should have taken ten minutes. Unhitched, Dan would not be led away from the small space out of the direct force of the wind that he had found against the shack, and Little Carl had little faith that the clumsy knot he tied would hold the horse to the wagon should he decide to wander off later in the night. Hugging his way against the shanty so that he would not lose his way back to the door, Little Carl returned to find that Frances had not started a fire.

“There’s newspaper to get it started,” Frances moved her arms toward the walls, “but not a stick of kindling. I tried and tried to break apart those chairs, but . . .”

“But you didn’t have a proper tool,” Little Carl said, lifting the pump shaft that he had dragged in behind him.

With the cupboard crates, the wood box, and the three-­legged stool broken up and the stove lit, Frances began to feel safer, if not warmer. Little Carl, she noticed, could not stop the shiver­ing that had begun the moment he first entered the cabin. His face was wet, as was the top of his undershirt, whether from melting snow or perspiration Frances did not know.

“You look like you are soaked to the skin, Carl,” Frances said. “I think it might be wise to take off your inside clothes and let them dry next to the stove. You can roll yourself up in the buf­falo robe in the meantime.”

The look of horror that met this suggestion almost kept Frances from repeating it, but the man was visibly shaking and could not stop his teeth from chattering.

“I am serious. I think that given the situation we may relax proprieties for the night.”

“Wh­wh­what makes you think we’ll be going anywhere t­t­tomorrow?”

The thought that this blizzard would extend beyond the morning had not occurred to Frances, although she had grown accustomed to storms lasting much longer. Once again she took careful stock of their situation. The shanty clearly had not been inhabited for a while, and there was no food or water there, al­though there was snow aplenty to melt, and there were several bags of flour and cornmeal under a tarp in the wagon, as well as a tub of syrup, another of molasses, and a crate of tinned fruit. Much more frightening was the limited supply of burn­able wood. Then Frances realized that Little Carl had turned her from the topic.

“It won’t help anything to have you come down with a fever from sitting in wet clothes.”

At this Little Carl stood and shrugged out of his winter coat and laid it by Frances’s boots and mittens next to the stove. Then he reached for the tattered blanket that they had found at the bottom of the long homemade box in the corner.

“I don’t know what good that does, Carl. You’re still shiver­ing. At least take the robe. It’s so much warmer. Give me the blanket.”

“Blanket’s liable to be pretty l­l­lively,” Carl answered.

Had Little Carl’s refusal had to do with warmth, Frances would have continued to argue. Instead she said, “How do you know that this is Cooligan’s claim shanty? Where is he? Where are we?”

Little Carl nodded toward the corner where the large box sat. “Cooligan m­m­mucks out stalls at Hadley’s Livery in Fargo during the winter in exchange for a place to sleep. He proved up the claim a couple of y­y­years ago so he don’t have to live here between harvesting and planting. I guess he just ain’t got ’round to putting up something more permanent. He’s the only settler I know said to sleep in a c­c­coffin. Didn’t believe the sto­ries myself, but there it is. That puts us . . .” Little Carl’s sen­tence was interrupted by a violent shivering fit, after which he seemed to forget that he had been speaking.

“Are you all right?”

“Chilled through is all.”

“That puts us where?” Frances prompted Carl.

“We must a’ got turned around pretty soon after crossing the bridge. We’re over a mile north and still east of the farm. No wonder Dan kept trying to get left on me.”

“It isn’t much,” Frances said, looking around at the walls that continued to shudder in the storm, “but we were lucky to find it. Thank you, Carl.” It was meant as an apology.

“Thank Dan,” Little Carl said. “There’s going to be more than one frozen soul thawed out in hell after this storm. It c­c­come on about as fast as any I’ve seen. Stand up for a minute, Miss Frances, so I can bust up that chair. Then you can help me drag that box over here. Inside that box, next to the stove, and under the buffalo robe, and you’ll be fine for the night.”

“What will you do?”

“I’m going to bust up those planks and saw horses and then s­s­sit on this here chair and hope they keep the fire going for a good long time.”

With the coffin arranged next to the stove, Frances was about to step in, but hesitated.

“You’ll f­f­forget where you are once you’re asleep.” Little Carl paused before adding, “I promise not to put the l­l­lid on.”

It was the first smile that Little Carl had bothered with all day, and it allowed Frances to admit why she was hesitating. “I was actually wondering how . . . Well, it doesn’t seem quite pos­sible to . . . Oh, dear,” Frances looked away from Little Carl, “we are indeed thrown into a rather intimate situation here, and, well, perhaps it would be safe for me to just step outside for a moment.”

“It would not, so don’t even think about it.”

“But . . .”

“Here.” Little Carl stood and walked the two feet with his candle to where the crates had hung, returning with a tin cof­feepot. “I better go check one more time on Dan. I won’t let loose of the wall.” Shrugging back into his wet coat, Little Carl stepped to the door and opened it just wide enough to let him­self through, but even that was enough to raise the tenor of the wind’s howl from a roar to a shriek. When he returned Frances had arranged herself in the coffin with the buffalo robe tucked around her. She was still cold but no longer frightened. She had been silent for quite some time before suddenly asking, “Why does he sleep in a pine box?”

“Never heard. Maybe ‘cause you never know when you’re going to d­d­d. . . .” Another convulsive shudder interrupted Lit­tle Carl. “Die,” he finished.

Frances did not believe that she would fall asleep in a coffin on an earthen floor in front of a cook stove in a homestead shanty with the wind wailing and the walls threatening to come down around her at any moment. When she woke she didn’t know if she had slept for hours or simply dozed off for a moment. Sitting up she could just make out Little Carl in sil­houette, rocking in the blanket on the keg chair next to the stove. An involuntary shudder that shook his entire frame re­leased a small groan, almost feminine in its pathos. One candle remained lit next to him.

“I am almost too warm here, Carl, with my coat and the buf­falo robe as well.”

Little Carl started at Frances’s voice, and sat up on his chair.

“Which do you want?” Frances spoke again.

“I’m fine.”

“No you’re not, and you will do me no favors if you get sick on me here. I am counting on you to get us home. Please.” Frances stood within the coffin and moved as if to hand the buffalo robe to Little Carl.

“Just hand me the coat, then, and get back under that robe.”

Frances slept fitfully after that, her dreams filled with won­dering whether she were asleep or awake. Often she believed herself to be watching Little Carl as he softly stroked the lamb collar of her coat as he continued to rock. Only when she real­ized that she expected to open her eyes upon Kirsten and Anna sitting before her was Frances sure that she had been sleeping. It was the sound of Little Carl bringing the pump shaft down upon the coffin lid in the corner that had awakened her.

The morning brought very little light to the windowless shanty, while outside the storm continued, undiminished. De­spite Little Carl’s warning the night before, Frances realized by her disappointment that she had expected the worst to be over. Little Carl had already emptied the coffee pot, fed Dan from one of the cornmeal sacks, and now was fashioning hard cakes of cornbread, flour, and water. Throughout the day, Frances at­tempted to engage Little Carl in conversation to help the time pass, but the forced intimacy of space was slowly lessening the ease that had developed between them over the years in the cookhouse. When Little Carl did talk it was to tell stories of past blizzards he had lived through, complete with details of how those who had not been so fortunate had met their deaths. Several of his tales were about men and women who were found in snow banks within feet of their houses, having fallen down and given up without knowing that they were so near to safety. Then there was the story of the entire herd of cows that had frozen to death standing up, and had remained standing in the subfreezing winter weather for two more months until they thawed and dropped one by one in the spring. Most disconcert­ing to Frances was Little Carl’s account of a settler near Fort Thompson who, stranded unprepared in his claim shanty dur­ing a five­day blizzard, had slowly begun tearing down the studs of his home to burn, and was discovered after the storm huddled frozen into the northwest corner that was all that re­mained of his shack. This is when Frances learned that Carl was about to begin breaking boards from the wagon, now that there remained nothing inside Cooligan’s shack to burn except the pine coffin. Despite Frances’s insistence that she, too, could sleep wrapped in the buffalo robe next to the stove, Little Carl appeared to have taken it as a matter of personal pride that she not.

Not long after a second meal of cornmeal and flour cakes, while Little Carl dozed before the stove wrapped tightly in the blanket that had become pungent with the stove’s heat, Frances lifted her head from her arms where she had been sit­ting in her box, aware that the sound of the storm had changed. She was about to speak, but then decided not to wake Little Carl, who had settled into a series of regular whimpers while asleep, but no longer shivered. A thump and scrape against the side of the shanty brought Frances to her feet and to the door. It opened inward, revealing a waist­-high hard bank of snow. The snow had stopped and the wind had subsided dramatically and Frances looked out upon an ex­panse of frozen waves of white. Another loud thud from the other side of the shanty sent Frances scrambling over the bank in front of the door and around the corner, where Dan was doing his best to get free of the wagon. She had just taken Dan by the head when Little Carl appeared. Although he was smiling, the past twenty-­four hours had taken a toll on his strength, and he did not argue when Frances offered to help lift the harness onto Dan.

The smiles quickly faded when it became clear that the horse simply could not gain sufficient purchase in the banks that had swirled around the leeward side of the shanty to pull the wagon free.

“If it were Raleigh, we could ride double,” Frances said.

“If it was Raleigh we’d be dead about now,” Little Carl an­swered, and then added, “and Dan don’t strike me as being so particular. We can get on from the wagon. Do you want front or back? I ain’t particular myself.”

It was slow going for the big workhorse through the deep drifts, and it didn’t take long before he was covered in sweat de­spite the freezing temperature. Within minutes of the ride Frances’s fingers and toes were once again numb. Behind her she could feel Little Carl shiver. And then they were within sight of the big Bingham house, a towering square set into an island of outbuildings, surrounded by an undulating yet mo­tionless ocean of snow. Slowly they moved closer, Dan now straining harder against the drifts, and only then did Frances allow herself think about how miserable and cold and terrified she was. She thought she could make out tiny sparkles in each of the house windows, and wondered what they could be, shin­ing into the whiteness of the day that was all light with nothing illuminated. A sudden half­-start by Dan almost unsettled his riders, and Frances looked down upon a frozen ox lying on its side, half­-buried in the snow, a lead rope around its neck.

“What was it doing out here?” Frances asked, and felt Little Carl shrug behind her in answer. Both knew that the real ques­tion had to do with what had become of the man or woman at the other end of the lead rope. They were almost past the frozen beast when it spoke.

Frances and Little Carl put their heels against the sides of Dan in surprise, starting the horse again. Then the frozen ox spoke again, in what Frances had come to understand was a Yiddish accent. “Mein Gott,” came the voice, “Is it a person?”

“Who’s there?” Frances shouted, and then added, “Where?”

The words that came back were muffled. “In here! Give only a look!”

“In where? Oh, my God, Carl. It’s Jack. He’s inside the ox. Jack, are you all right?”

“Can’t move.”

Little Carl spoke quietly into Frances’s ear. “I’m half froze. If I get down, I’ll never get back up. We need to leave him here and send someone back. Nothing we can do.”

Shaw could not have heard Little Carl, and yet he spoke as if to answer.

“No time.”

marshall_fig_2

Then the frozen ox spoke again, in what Frances had come to understand was a Yiddish accent. “Mein Gott,” came the voice, “Is it a person?” Illustration by Megan Eckman

Frances slid off Dan, doing her best not to knock Little Carl off in the process, but needing to reach up to steady him upon the horse’s wide back nonetheless. Breaking through snow past her knees, she made her way to the side of the ox. She could see now that its throat had been cut and its belly slit. A frozen mound of snow­-capped entrails lay nearby in the space sheltered from the wind by the ox’s belly. Bending to the inci­sion that gaped open three to four inches, Frances searched for a face within, but could see nothing but snow and a crusted black ice. She explained that she and Little Carl were on Dan, but that they did not have the wagon to tie the ox to. She would send someone out to rescue him as soon as they reached the farmyard. When Shaw did not answer, Frances called out his name. This time Shaw replied, but his words were difficult to make out and she had to ask him to speak again. He had to explain to her twice how to cross the thick wagon reins over Dan’s chest, cross them again over his back, and then attach them to the rope around the ox’s neck. “Only chance,” he said. Again, what should have taken a few minutes seemed inter­minable. Frances had no feeling in her fingers and was using her two hands together like a single pincer. She had no confi­dence that the fat knot she had managed to tie in the reins would hold against the weight of the ox, even if the lead rope did not break.

And then there was nothing to do but to tell Little Carl to hold on, to give Dan another slap on his haunches, and to trudge behind the path flattened by the ox’s carcass, for there was no way to get back onto the horse.

They were within fifty yards of the farmyard when Frances saw a handful of men plunging as fast as they could through the drifts toward them, and she dropped to her knees. She did not know which of the hired men picked her up and carried her to the house. Seeing the candles burning in every window, faint gleams in the early dusk, she wondered for a moment if it were Christmas. Over her bearer’s shoulder Frances saw another man carrying Little Carl in precisely the same fashion, al­though he was struggling to be set back down. He seemed so small in the stock hand’s arms that she wanted to call out to the man to be careful. Perhaps she did. A third man was lead­ing Dan and his burden toward the barn while calling out to a fourth to bring a saw from the blacksmith shop. At the door of the Bingham house, Kirsten waited, gesturing and calling to Frances’s carrier to hurry, and then saying something to him in Norwegian. The warmth of the house hit Frances at once, re­leasing her from consciousness.

The last thing she saw before she fainted was Anna asleep in the parlor, her head resting against the back of the sofa where she sat.

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This is a featured article from the Summer 2010 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. For purchase information, or to learn more about the contents of this issue, click here.

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