The Big Woods
Pa brings over a tub of water and sets it in front of Ma. “Take your time with the washing, Caroline. We’re not going anywhere for a while. For years and years at least, I’d say.” Ma scrubs sheets until her hands are raw and chapped. The sky is as blue as a blue bird.
Pa walks away from the house with his gun slung over his shoulder—off into the great abyss of leafy trees, where it’s quiet. “I’ll be back soon, girls,” he says. Ma looks around at Laura, Mary, baby Carrie, and the stack of dishes and dirty laundry piled next to the cook-stove. Laura pushes Mary. Mary cries. Laura cries. Baby Carrie cries. Ma cries, and does the washing, and the mending. She tends the garden on her knees. Pa returns at dusk with a rabbit slung over his shoulder, a tobacco pipe between his lips. “Where have you been all day, Charles?” Ma asks. “Working,” he says, and sets the rabbit before her. He walks inside toward his fiddle. “When do you think dinner will ready?” he calls. “Will it be very soon?”
The Dance at Grandpa’s
Ma cinches her corset as tight as she can. She’s been cooking all day, but Pa will break out his fiddle soon, and the world will be awash in his lovely music. She calls for Laura and Mary. The girls love to help her into her old dress. She hands them each the ribbons that will bind her and commands them to pull. “Tighter girls,” she says. “As tight as it will go. Make me tiny. Make me smaller. Miniscule. Microscopic. Pull harder, girls! Make me disappear.”
Pa returns from the town of Pepin with gifts—brown calico for Ma’s new dress, and a stick of peppermint each for Laura and Mary. “Really, Charles,” Ma says, and sighs. “The best you could do was brown?”
The Move West
Baby Carrie, Laura, and Mary cry out in panic. The wagon sways violently from side to side when it hits the river’s sharp current. Ma takes the reigns of the wagon from Pa, while simultaneously comforting everyone—doing the usual emotional lifting. Pa jumps in the water to help guide the horses across the water. Once on shore the girls hail Pa as hero. Ma cooks dinner and cleans up dinner and knits new hats for everyone, while Pa plays the fiddle and sings songs with racial undertones. Laura and Mary sit idly by adoring him. Ma walks to the back of the covered wagon and screams.
Pa points at nothing and says, “This is home.” At first Ma wonders if he is joking, but soon she is helping him build the cabin and it is very, very real. Pa slips and drops a felled log on her ankle and she’s all banged up below the knee. Sure, he boils water for her to soak her swollen foot in, but she still has to hobble around on it later fixing dinner. And wouldn’t cold river water have been better? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? Wouldn’t that have kept the swelling down so that her leg did not darken to what now looked like a rotting tree limb? But Ma has mind enough to know women should be seen and not heard. She keeps her mouth shut. Or wait! Was that just the rule for the children? For her small girls? For her three mini-mes? The long trip West has exhausted Ma into a state of sheer confusion, and for the life of her she cannot remember.
Around the Hearth
Ma hands Laura a precious stick of peppermint. “Don’t bite it, Laura,” she says. “Make it last. There is not another store in which to buy this kind of happiness for another hundred miles.” “Forty miles,” Pa corrects. “The next town is forty miles from here.” Ma swallows hard and continues mending, and cooking, and cleaning and weaving, and knitting, and sitting. She stokes the fire burning in her head.
On the Prairie
Ma spends the afternoon scrubbing Pa’s undershirts until they are white as teeth. She lights a fire and prepares dinner. She does the dishes before rocking baby Carrie while attaching new golden buttons to Pa’s best hunting jacket. The girls fold tiny paper dresses around tiny paper dolls—flat little figures Ma has snipped into being. Pa plays the fiddle and sings songs with racial overtones. Laura and Mary sit idly by adoring him. Ma walks around to the back of the cabin and screams.
Pa circles Ma, slashing the brittle yellow grasses that stand tall around her with a scythe. The summer has been uncommonly dry, but she has found herself a quiet place to attach buttons to things. She’s been hidden in her prairie fortress growing fierce and hot with her constant mending. She watches as that’s all stripped away. She sits in the center of a dirt circle, her face the red of rage. “Whatever are you doing Charles?” she asks. “Creating a barrier,” he says. “It’s safer this way. The tiniest ember could send this place alight.”