Ten Days of Winter, 1892
I wrote this piece of fiction for Vermont Stage Company and its 7-performance show, Winter Tales, Dec. 6-10, 2017 at FlynnSpace in Burlington, VT.
The story grew out of a real journal I was given in 1999, and subsequent research I conducted on life and conditions in 1892 in Northeast Kingdom, Vermont, which is, to this day, one of the most rural locations on the East Coast. This 3,100 word piece represents a small slice of a large novel that has been growing in my brain. Though I have not yet determined the best format and structure for the larger story. I chose journal form for this piece because it allowed me to work the text in such a way that it would lend itself to the spoken word, to a presentation piece. I hope that some of you will actually read this through to the end and give me some feedback. Thanks.
I am deeply appreciative of -- and honored by -- Shea Dunlop, a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School who presented this character and story on stage. She brought to it her skill as an actress -- she played "Joan" in a recent Vermont Stage production of "Fun Home." And she was able to find aspects to the character that even I didn't know about. Thank you, Shea.
Friday, Jan. 1, 1892, 4 below, cloudy
The boys was up in the woods today cutting mill logs. Took both teams and the long saws. I baked five meat pies, two apple pies and fried some donuts. Cleaned, trimmed and filled the lanterns. Swept the kitchen and parlor. I checked on the animals; the horses were restless. Ma stayed in bed again today. Seems like she’s not getting any better, if anything she’s worse.
It’s the new year so I decided to start my journal in this new book Ernest gave me for Christmas. God bless him. I love the nice leather cover, with its fancy tie, and soft, fresh paper. He fashioned a new quill for me out of a goose feather. Writes smooth. He got me a new bottle of ink, too. It thrilled my heart when he came with it, my only present.
I should say that my name is Carrie Alice Bickford. I am 17. I live in Lyndon, Vermont, up the mountain from the ville and not too far from the forks of the Passumpsic River. I stopped going to school two years ago when Ma first started getting her spells. At least that’s what she calls them. Pa said she got consumption when she went down near St. Johnsbury to help her cousin. He says she’s lucky; could have been worse, but she’s never quite been the same.
There are seven of us in this house, Ma, Pa, my four brothers – three older and one younger -- and me, though sometimes, when the boys get into the cider and get all up with their cunning jokes and speeches and all, it feels like 60 of us crammed in here. They spend most of their time in the woods or in the fields or in the yard cutting or splitting logs or going to town to the mill or to sell stuff or do whatever it is they do down there.
It’s nice that they’re out of the house most of the time. Quiet. And every once in a while, I can sneak a little time to read one of the books Ola brings me home from school, and I get to imagine, just for a moment, what a life would be in England or Italy, or down south on the Mississippi. I like novels best, but poetry sings to me. Sometimes stanzas of Dickinson just leap into my mind:
"Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need."
How’s a woman who never ventures out of her home write like that?
We got two teams of oxen, horses, some sheep, chickens and a cow who’s a good milker when she’s fresh. We grow hay, oats and eating corn, potatoes and root vegetables, berries and a summer garden of greens, even a row of flowers. Mostly it’s me that does the garden and house chores now that Ma’s not well, but sometimes I can get the boys to weed the potatoes or pick the beans or sort for the market. But mostly it’s just me. And these endless chores.
Saturday, Jan. 2, 1892, 10 above, cloudy
Ernest came to visit today. Oh, joyous heart, he lifts me so. He came up about half past 4 and stayed through supper. The boys and Ma like him. Pa doesn’t say much one way or another. Ernest and I first met as strangers in October but now I hope never to part. I wonder if he can say of me as much. Maybe. I think so. I hope so. His family is new to town, from Derby, raise work horses in the valley. They graze some of them up near here. Or so I learned this fall.
I was scrubbing the floors one day and looked up and saw three brown mares near the garden. I ran out and got the lead into the barn. Had to use an apple but it worked. The others followed her in. Not long after, I seen him come up the road standing, proud-like, on his wagon, the reins gently in his hands. He was beautiful, no two ways about it, standing there, wind blowin’ his hair.
“Seen three horses around here?” he asked when he pulled right up in the yard. I took him to the barn. He was surprised I’d been able to get them inside. “No need to be surprised,” I told him, though I was so flustered I couldn’t even look him in the eye.
We didn’t say much as he hitched them single file to the back of the wagon and started to head out. He then turned and asked if he could come calling some evening. He didn’t wait for my answer.
Sunday, Jan. 3, 1892, 20 above. Snowing.
The snow began early this morning, before dawn. I was up getting stove wood, and it came in fine, fine flakes, like it was going to last forever, and it made the whole world go quiet. I stood, logs in my arms, and put my face up to the sky. It felt nice, kind of tickled.
After breakfast, I got Ma settled and then we took the wagon down to church. I love church. Not sure I’m all that religious and what, but it sure is nice getting out and seeing some folks. I keep hoping to see Ernest, but he don’t come. Just not his thing, he says. I’ve tried to talk him into coming anyways, just so we can see each other, but he says he just doesn’t like it. Besides, he usually gets some outside work on Sundays, and his Pa says he can save some of the cash he earns.
Monday, January 4, 1892, 18 above, cloudy.
We got about 10-12 inches of snow before it stopped early this morning. Boys were lagging so I went to the barn, milked, fed the animals, collected some eggs. The horses were a lot calmer. I think they get all worked up when the weather comes.
Pa and the boys went back up to the woods today. Ola stayed back. They were breaking out a new road to a stand steep on the ridge. Said they was worried he might not move fast enough if he had to. Ma slept off and on today. Made her some tea -- chamomile. rosehips and lemon balm with a little peppermint; Ma swears by it. I had to hold her head up so she could drink some. Seems like she’s hotter than she was. And she’s not eating. Says her head aches so much she about can’t stand it.
I was halfway down the stairs when it just overcame me. I leaned up against the wall and felt everything pour over me, like how can I bear this, how can I bear it if she leaves us? Oh, God, I’m not supposed to think this way, it’s you that decides these things, but I don’t know what I will do if she leaves us. I mean even when I’m in the kitchen or the barn or in the garden, even when she’s up here, I can feel her, I can feel her keep me going.
I was glad Ola was in the house. I helped him with his spelling and reading. He was fussing over a booklet of Dickinson’s poems, same book I had, and I told him she was magical and he should listen to her words. I read him some.
Ola’s the only one still schooling. He complains about it, but I miss it. It got me out of the house. I had friends. Like Liza and Clara and Tessa. I don’t ever see them anymore. I used to imagine myself going to normal school to become a teacher in St. Johnsbury or Burlington, or, maybe, even go to the university like Joanna did. Is there something out there for me still? Got to be. Got to be.
After lunch Ola helped me dress out one of the lambs. Skinned it, butchered it, wrapped it all into nice packages and set them in the ice house under the sawdust. Ola’s first lamb, though I had to do the killing. But he did good. He’ll know the next time. Saved a haunch for a stew later. Potatoes, beans and carrots are holding up. Firm. Dry. No mold. House was so quiet today even with Ola. He’s the quiet one, the sweet one. Out the windows the world is white, a blanket of white as far as you can see. Oh, I wish dear Ernest would come.
Tuesday, January 5, 1892 10 above, lovely.
Ola had to go back to school today. He was none too happy about it. Boys didn’t make it any easier on him, them acting so special and all, like, who needs it? Pa gave them what for and told Ola to get a move on if he was going to make it down the hill in time.
The rest went on up to cut more logs up the ridge. Ma seems worse today. Kept as quiet as I could and did the washing and mopped the kitchen floor. Spent time sewing up the boys’ clothes. Don’t know how they get so many rips. Don’t seem like they pay it no mind, like I got nothing else to do. Made two dried apple pies and baked six loaves of hard bread. Came out good.
I feel tired tonight. My hands are so sore I can barely hold the quill. And I got so many thoughts wandering around my mind. Ma. Those cunning boys always wanting this and that. Ola. Pa saying nothing about anything, why doesn’t he talk to me? Sometimes I just feel like grabbing my coat and running out the house and down the hill and into the ville to hop some coach somewhere and get out of here. I love them all, God knows, and I know my duty, but just, just, just once can I take a deep breath? Can I see something new? Can I be me? Would Ernest come with me?
Wednesday, January 6, 1892, 20 above, snowing.
Ma was worse this morning. I heard her coughing during the night and got up. Came down to find Pa rumbling around the stove. Told him I’d take care of it. Made tea, eggs, grilled some bread, pulled out some strawberry preserves. Pa ate, but Ma was having none of it. Pa said he’d go down and get Doc Abrams if she wasn’t better tomorrow.
Oh, I wish Ernest would come visit. Good Lord, I wish he’d come.
Thursday, January 7, 1892. 15 above, clear.
Came down this morning to find Pa staring out the window into the darkness. Pa has a way of saying things without words, and I could feel the sadness, even a little fear, in his eyes. I made him some eggs and warmed some meat pie. Wrapped him up some hard bread, jerky and dried apples and helped him out the door to make the trip for Doc. He turned and gave me a hug. I couldn’t remember when he last did that.
The boys was all quiet when they came down. They seemed to know. Ola was all dressed, which was something of a miracle; that boy can’t find two shoes even when they’re right in front of him. He was out the door before the boys could even get a go at him. Charlie told me he’d be driving the main team with Manny and Vernon, that they’d be nearby going after house wood.
Pa returned with Doc Abrams near 1 o’clock. Said Doc had been way over on the other side of East Burke at widow Harrington. Doc is a sweet man and gave me a smile when he come in, but there was an edge to it, a little worry. He took off his coat and boots, put on some house shoes and went on up to see Ma.
Pa went out to the barn said he’d attend to the chores. When Doc came back down he told me she probably has the gripp, which was not good given the consumption she battles. He asked me how I was feeling. “Fine,” I told him. “I’ve been fine. Just blue, that’s all. Just blue.” He smiled. “I am sure that, dear.”
I fixed him some coffee, and he asked me to go get Pa. He told us we all had to make sure we washed our hands and the dishware extra. He said this bug was nothing to be trifled at and that we needed to see an improvement in next day or so. I was set to take her some tea, but Pa said he’d do it. And that was that. Doc gave me a packet of powders, said they should help, and I should continue to give her the herbals. “Get plenty of water in her,” he said, “and she needs some broth, too. Fresh broth.”
Pa came back down and the two left for the Millers’ down in the ville. My friend Liza was overdue. I hope everything goes alright. Still can’t believe she’s married and now about to have a child. My Liza. I miss her.
I went to the barn and got one of the chickens hanging, skinned it and brought it in for soup. I kept quiet as I could and checked in on Ma several times. She was sleeping. That was good. Set to more of the sewing. It was near 3 when I saw Ola coming up the road a smile on his face. Staring out the window, I felt such a sadness that I couldn’t understand and tears just rolled out.
Friday, January 8, 1892. 22 above, changeable.
My prayers were answered. Half past 3 there came Ernest riding up in his sleigh wagon. We went on up the road to the clearing on the mountain. We stayed past sunset. I knew we shouldn’t stay so long, the boys would be hungry, and he knew, too, but I talked him into it. Seems like I feel so different with him, like everything is in control, like a weight off my shoulder. Things seem possible. I told him I want to go back to school. I want to learn and learn. I want to do something. I don’t know what, but something. And he tells me that he wants to move to the city, maybe all the way to Burlington, open a shop, do some of his leather work, but live where there’s people. And music and theater and dancing. “Imagine that,” he said. “Imagine that.”
In the clear, crisp dusk, we watched a hawk circle above us, and the sky turn all deep blue with just an orange slit in the west, we two all snug in our hearts under the wool and the hides. We didn’t even feel the cold as we made our way back home everything so bright, white, blue.
The boys was right ornery and plagued me with their talk and snickers. I told ‘em, “How hard is it to move the stew pot from the pantry to the stove? How hard is it to put a few logs in the fire box?” I went out to get the stew and saw Pa, holding the lantern, standing beside Ernest’s wagon, talking, but talking at him. Ernest turned and got back up on the wagon, snapped the reins and was off. Pa came in. “Ernest won’t be staying for supper.” It’s all he said. Made me so mad, I thought I was going to bust. Boys had sense enough to keep quiet, and we ate in silence. And even with them all around me, I felt loneliest I’d ever felt, and the magic of the sunset was gone. All gone.
Saturday, January 9, 1892. 30 above, clear.
I got up early Pa came down filled with sleep, still in his bedshirt. “Fever broke,” he said, touching my arm and giving me a hint of a smile. “Fever broke.” Boys came down one by one just as normal. Ola said he didn’t want to go to school no more, the boys asked if they could just work half the day, and Pa just stared at them. “Learnin’ to be done,” he said. “More logs to pull.” And out they went.
I swept the floors. Cleared the ice from the cistern. At lunch time, I warmed some tea and soup and took it up to Ma. She was awake, sitting up. She even used a spoon herself.
After a bit, she turned and told me she was proud of all that I had done. “I wish I was healthy again,” she said, “wouldn’t be such a burden on you, doing all that you’re doing.” I wanted to tell her how I was feeling, how desperate I was for her to get well and free me, how guilty I felt for feeling that way, but, I don’t know why, I just couldn’t tell her that, like something had changed between us.
But then she said, “Don’t worry no more, Carrie.”
I told her I wouldn’t, that I was glad she was better, that we all had been worried.
“I don’t mean that,” she said. “No I mean, don’t worry about Ernest. Your Pa will come around. And don’t worry about all these chores and your schooling and where you’re headed, girl. I’ll be back up. You’ll see. I’ll be back up. Bless you, child.”
I melted into her arms. Oh, be it so, be it so.
Sunday, January 10, 1892. 42 degrees, partly cloudy.
Sometime in the night, the warm breeze brought the thaw. The yard was all a mess of mud. After breakfast, I took some tea to Ma and then we piled onto the hay wagon to go down to church.
As we pulled up, the sun came out, for a moment, all spring-like, and we made our way in. I wasn’t even noticing until I sat down and there he was, just two pews up. Ernest turned and smiled, all confident and warm and his bright green eyes all watery and then he turned back, I guess not wanting to make a spectacle of it all.
Geoffrey Gevalt. gg, is a writer, journalist and founder of Young Writers Project.