The Beloved Wild – Melissa Ostrom

A March wind roared and dipped down the chimney to tease the flames. I welcomed its frigid breath. The fire, combined with the activities of nine people, made an oven of the house. I regretted wearing the winter longies under my skirt. This was no night for woolen flannel. In preparation for the sugaring, my father and brothers, along with our neighbor Mr. Long, had turned the industry of spile making into a contest, and a continuous shower of sumac shavings fell around the hearth. We would need at least five hundred of these spouts to tap into the maples. I divided my time between helping Mama clean up after supper and returning to the fireside bustle to sweep the floor, deliver mead, collect spiles out of the dust, and turn the metal rods on the coals so they stayed hot, ready to burn out the spouts’ centers. Betsy and Grace, instead of making life easier by lending a hand, added to my labors. Greatly overestimating my interest in their latest skirmish, my two sisters followed me. Before I could sidle away again, Betsy grabbed my arm. Her glare, however, was all for Grace. “Last week it was the headache. The week before that she whined about her blood feeling tired.

Whoever heard of an eleven-year-old with tired blood? Ha.” Betsy, who was two years older than Grace, stared accusingly at the youngest. “Too weak to do her chores but not so ill to refuse the last cake. She’s not remotely sick.” Grace, languishing against my shoulder, contradicted her with a series of honking coughs. “A slight chill is all,” Betsy insisted, speaking louder to drown the hacking. “I caught the liar pinching her cheeks right before Papa returned, hoping to give herself a consumptive air.” “A talebearer and an actress: Who’s worse?” I swatted Betsy’s leg with the broom. She’d stepped right in my dust pile. Stumbling out of the way, she said in a vicious rush, “I know what she’s about.

She wants Papa to pity her so he’ll let her have her pick of Mitten’s pups.” “That’s not his way.” I returned the broom to the closet, confronted the maple-sugar buckets strewn by the back door, and began stacking them. “He wouldn’t single her out for a spaniel.” “But he might let her name them, and she’ll choose stupid names again.” Betsy shot Grace a scornful look. “Mitten. Next we’ll have a Boot and a Pretty Coat and a Sock and—and—a whole trousseau of foolish titles.” Grace coughed. “You’re so cruel to me.

You’ll be sorry about that when I’m dead.” A call for more mead interrupted Betsy’s retort. I detached my sleeve from her fingers and turned to the Invalid. “Don’t be a goose. You are getting devilish tedious.” Wrinkling my nose, I filled the mead pitcher. “Plus you reek.” Grace gave her arm a tentative sniff. “Mama rubbed me down with sulfur and molasses.” “That explains it.

” I picked up the pitcher. “Now move.” The girls shuffled out of my way. Mama had joined the gathering, her round face rosy and hands placidly folded in her lap. Her small feet kicked back the rocker, and as I turned from Luke’s replenished cup to fill our neighbor’s tankard, she gave me an approving smile. “Harriet’s a great help to me, Mr. Long. She made the bread we ate at supper—always does now, in fact. How she manages such a fine crumb and glossy crust, I don’t know. And she makes that mead at strawberry time.

Good, isn’t it?” Our neighbor took an obliging sip. “Very good.” “Almost as good as her ginger beer,” Mama added with a meaningful wink and a hand brandished in my direction, like a peddler advertising a shiny pot. I narrowed my eyes at her. Mr. Long picked up the spile he’d started. “I think I remember that beer being uncommonly delicious.” “If inebriation’s your aim,” I said, “you’re in the right company.” Indeed, except for Gideon, my favorite brother and also the only sensible one, the boys looked well on their way to gross drunkenness. “Mead, beer, currant wine”—I topped off Matthew’s drink—“I could run a tavern.

” “Harriet,” Mama scolded. Mr. Long merely smiled and finished his spout. Passing her on my way to the kitchen, I answered her reproving expression with a grimace. Mama had abandoned every effort of subtlety. We’d always seen a lot of Mr. Long. He was our nearest neighbor, not yet the age of my oldest brother but already the sole proprietor of a farm larger than our own. His parents had died of influenza almost three years ago. An only child, he’d escaped the contagion’s deadly clutches and, afterward, somehow managed his grief and the family farm at the same time.

More than managed. The property had thrived under his care. He was still my brothers’ close friend, but his greater responsibilities set him apart, made him seem older. Before he’d turned seventeen last year, my mother had stopped calling him Danny and started addressing him as Mr. Long. “You don’t call an accomplished gentleman Danny,” she’d explained when I had questioned the change. Her deference irked me because she expected me to share it—and because, in recent months, she’d decided to make him her son-in-law with or without my endorsement. She was the one who had invited him to dinner, surely hoping an evening involving whittling spouts would give him the chance to shine, for everyone in Middleton, New Hampshire, knew that Daniel Uriah Long had a special genius for carving wood. It would be impossible not to know this. Each thing he built, from the topmost rafter of his house to the armrest he fashioned for the end of his meetinghouse pew, bore his initials and a date: D.

U.L. 1808, D.U.L. 1806, D.U.L. 1809. There was nothing specifically wrong with Daniel Uriah Long.

I’d be the first to admit that he was an excellent farmer. And yes, he boasted a strong frame capable of handling the most arduous task, a handsome if reticent face, and expressive gray eyes that showed an appreciation for the absurd even when his unsmiling mouth didn’t. As for his initialing, I really couldn’t accuse him of vanity, since, in all fairness, most men of my acquaintance signed their handiwork. In fact, south of us, one whole side of Ebenezer Felde’s barn sported, in large letters, his entire last name. Daniel Long was simply a great one for puttering with wood. This, of course, resulted in a surplus of initials. And those initials, shy of one letter, said it all. His every aspect lacked impetuosity, mystery, devilment. It was difficult to work up a romantic passion for Mr. D.

U.L. Yet, inexplicably, he’d managed to stir within his plodding heart an interest in me. It was no secret in Middleton that the man hoped, in the near future, to fix me with his tedious initials. Just the thought of this expectation raised my hackles. After I finally folded the towel in the kitchen and joined the fireside circle, now raucous with my brothers’ ditties, I was feeling particularly mulish and shook my head when Papa requested a song. The scent of singed sumac hung in the air. Plenty of spiles filled the few maple-sugar buckets between Matthew and Gideon, but Mr. Long continued to whittle away at one, from time to time answering a question or sharing a brief observation, usually without looking up. In the reddish light, I could see that along the spout he’d carved a tiny but intricate leafy vine.

“Rather fancy for a spout, isn’t it, Danny?” My father frowned at my waspish tone, but Mr. Long nodded. “Habit.” His mildness goaded me to add, “You forgot to etch in your initials.” Quick as a snap, his eyes met mine. “So I did.” He rectified the omission and held out the spout. “For you.” Surprised by the gesture, I didn’t immediately take it. Then, just as I leaned forward to accept the gift, he retrieved it, leaving my hand dangling stupidly.

His mouth quivered. He suppressed the smile and murmured, “Perhaps I ought to carve your initials in it as well, since it will be yours.” He raised his eyebrows expectantly. I folded my arms. “I doubt there’s room for anything else on the little thing.” “I’ll squeeze them in. It’s H then…?” “S,” I offered grudgingly. “H.S.W.

, Harriet S. Winter,” he said evenly as he carved. “What is the S for? Sarah? Sally?” I tightened my mouth and shook my head. I despised my middle name. If only the S did stand for Sarah or Sally. Betsy the Tattler, sitting at Papa’s feet, offered, “Submit. That’s what it stands for.” For the first time that night, Mr. Long laughed. “Submit.

Oh, that’s rich.” As he presented the spout, he asked, still grinning, “And do you?” I took it with a slow, ungracious show of disinterest but answered curtly and quickly enough: “No. Never.” CHAPTER TWO I woke early the next morning. Dawn began to drift into the loft, reversing the darkness, like a tea unsteeping itself. Sliding out from under the quilts, I took care not to disturb my sisters’ slumber, then made use of the chamber pot and broke the ice in the pitcher to wash my hands and face. The brisk water swiped away the vestiges of sleep. With a shiver, I hurried out of my nightdress, slipped speedily into my clothes, and climbed down the ladder plank to the keeping room. My father, kneeling by the hearth, was kindling the fire. He smiled at me over his shoulder.

“Morning, kitten.” I greeted him with a kiss on his bristled cheek. Mama glanced up from the potatoes she was chopping. “At least two of our six rise to work in this house, David.” Papa stood and dusted his knees. “The boys likely wore themselves out looking to the fences yesterday.” I sniffed. Looking to the fences. Was that cant for drinking oneself into a stupor? I plucked my apron from its hook and pulled it over my head. A wet snore erupted from the borning room, where Matthew and Luke slept.

Mama and I grinned at each other. “They’re pretty well knocked up,” she murmured, scooping handfuls of potatoes and transferring them to the soup pot. “But Gideon’s out and making ready to haul the dead hickory that fell by the pond. Want to eat and take him his breakfast?” “Certainly.” We could have the chance to talk. My brother seemed distracted lately. I wondered why. “I’ll take mine and have it with him.” “Don’t linger.” Mama gave the pot a stir.

“You didn’t finish your Latin yesterday.” I made a face. We lived too far from town to attend school, so our mother educated us, which I didn’t mind when the subject was geometry, history, logic, or literature. Latin was another matter. I hated it. Sighing, I tied the apron strings at my waist and, without bothering to repair my braid, hurriedly wrapped a half-dozen warm biscuits in a towel and donned my cape. A cold westerly wind whipped me the second I stepped outside. After tucking the bundled biscuits against my stomach, I tightened the cape around me with my free hand and made my way toward the pond. The straggly remains of Mama’s kitchen garden occupied the yard closest to the door, but along the rotting ropes of squash vines, snowdrops bloomed: harbingers of spring. I stooped to admire the little white bells before continuing, first circling the well sweep, then passing the shed.

Only small patches of snow dotted the property, but frost furred the ground. Under my boots, the matted grass crunched and, all the way to the stand of uncut timber, gleamed like silver in the early sunlight. I passed the barn and climbed over the stone fence. Gideon stood far beyond the pond, near the burial place. He was a familiar figure even from this distance, with his peculiar forward slouch, like a man always heading into an impossible wind. Overhead, pink edged the clouds, and, encircling us, mountains towered like blue giants curled in sleep, great guardians of whatever fantastical lands and seas rippled out on their other sides. I inhaled deeply, glad to escape the house, liking the brisk air that stung my lungs. It was a glorious morning. I tossed him a biscuit half by way of hello. He caught it with his left hand.

“Thank you”—he wrinkled his nose at the honey on his palm—“for making me sticky.” Smiling, I perched on the toppled hickory he’d already trimmed for hauling. “So what’s the problem? You’ve been moping all week.” He shrugged and ate the biscuit half in two bites. “Not moping. Just thinking.” He wiped his palm on his trousers; then, with the ease of practice, he sank his ax into a stump before sitting next to me, shoving his dusky fringe from his forehead, and inhaling appreciatively. “Here.” The biscuits were still warm, their split centers luscious with melted butter and golden honey. Gideon groaned as he bit into another one.

“Thinking about what?” “The Genesee Valley.” I stilled. I’d heard about the Genesee Valley. Its wilderness. Its availability for purchase. After hazarding a peek my way, he gazed around at the beautiful morning. “If this were all mine, Harry, I’d never go. But it isn’t. Plenty of New Englanders are already emigrating, pushing the bounds of civilization and improving the territories in western New York. And why not? Farms have crowded this area.

The soil is thin, the forests gone, wild game rare. Out that way, land—fertile, forested land—is selling cheap. Prodigiously cheap. I can save enough money in less than a year to purchase a hundred acres from the Holland Land Company.” His vehemence astonished me. When I recovered, I demanded, “What good are a hundred acres of friendless, strange wilderness?” “Sounds like heaven,” he answered bluntly. “A land thick with virgin forest, all species of wood, and mine, mine, mine: completely mine, not a single brother to work for or share my parcel with.” “‘All species of wood,’” I muttered. “You sound like our whittling neighbor.” Gideon grinned.

“Daniel Long undoubtedly would appreciate the rich variety of so many trees. I wonder if he’d sell his farm and commence a pioneer life with me.” “You’d make a lovely couple.” I shoved the biscuit bundle into his arms and stood. My mind whirled. I replayed his words, sensibly argued but nevertheless impossible for me to process. His enthusiastic reasoning so thoroughly twisted my expectations, what I understood to be my past, present, and future, that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the cardinal on the hemlock overhead suddenly took flight upside down. Gid was my best friend. Home meant Gid. Where would I be without him? I wandered to the burial plot and leaned against a post.

Without turning, I said, “I guess you’ve made up your mind.” With no thought to my feelings. He must have heard the hurt in my voice because he said in a cajoling way, “What can a youngest son hope for here? The rockiest, scantest portion of a mountain? A stretch of bog and clay? Should I try my hand at preaching to earn a living?” He appeared at my side and frowned over the fence. “I don’t belong in a place if there’s no room for me there.” “You belong with your family, and family always makes room.” He grunted and folded his arms. Opposite the fence, two dozen grave markers faced us like grim pages in an unfinished book. The inscribed names reflected my ancestors, not Gideon’s. By blood we weren’t siblings or even half siblings. I was the single product of my father’s first marriage, and Gideon the youngest of his mother’s.

Only Grace and Betsy could call our current parents their own. By long habit, my eyes immediately found my birth mother’s marker: MRS. SUBMIT FAITHFUL WINTER, WIFE TO MR. DAVID WINTER, DEC’D OCT’R 10 1792 IN YE 18 OF HER AGE. I had been taught little more about my mother than what these shallowly inscribed details provided. My father, while far from coldhearted, was not sentimental. He never led me to believe he still mourned his loss and certainly didn’t wallow in romantic recollections. Plus, his second wife, hardworking, cheerful, handy in the kitchen, and quick with the needle, well pleased him, as she did all of us. She was the only mother I’d ever known, and I loved her as if she were the one who’d borne me. But I frequently wondered about this Submit Faithful Winter.

The handful of letters and numbers, encircled with a scroll border and topped with a winged skull and crossed bones, told a sad story. The most telling detail, of course, was her death date. It coincided precisely with my birthday. The other headstones looked similar to hers, all jutting out of the winter-ravaged ground, as if this ragged oval plot were the mouth of the earth, baring its teeth. The predominant surname was Knowles, my birth mother’s maiden name. She had been the last Knowles in these parts, and my father, having married and outlived her, had inherited her home: the land, the house, and this, all that was left of her family’s remains. More females than males occupied the lot, since many a Knowles man had lived to enjoy two, even three, wives in succession. The women’s names, especially Patience, Thankful, Mercy, and Temperance, either amused or piqued me, depending on my mood. Today I found them thoroughly irritating. Every man got to be himself, a plain Richard or a regular Edward.

These women, however, had to grow up lugging around the weighty expectations tied to whatever names their parents had chosen for them. “‘Mrs. Hope, wife to Mr. James Knowles, deceased June 17, 1775, aged nineteen years.’ That was my mother’s mother. Hope.” I sniffed. “All these women could play a part in an allegory.” “An ironic one, considering when your grandmother passed away. Hope died fast.

” “They all do.” I scanned the markers. Hardly a woman buried here lived to see her twenty-first year. “A stranger might gather each married a bluebeard.” With his best Scottish burr, Gideon sang softly, “‘Loup off the steed,’ says false Sir John. ‘Your bridal bed you see. For I have drowned seven young ladies. The eighth one you shall be.’” “Very nice. Of course, in the tale, the last bride’s brother gallops to the castle to rescue her and dispatches the monster in the process.

I suppose, since my favorite brother plans to pioneer in the wilds of the Genesee Valley, I’ll end up like all the others in here: young and dead.” I shot him a sour look. “Perhaps you’ll return for a visit after your first great harvest. You can rest a pumpkin on my little plot as a token of remembrance.” He nodded and took a step back, resting a heel on his sleigh. “You are excessively fond of pumpkin pie. Ouch.” He rubbed his arm where I pinched him. “Don’t be dramatic, Harry. Chances are you won’t marry a wife killer.

” He waved an airy hand to indicate the crowded little lot. “Disease probably scotched most of the unfortunates here.” “Note their ages, stupid. The women obviously died giving birth to their babes.” “Well, you can’t blame the poor husbands for that.” “Who else would I blame?” He looked stumped for a moment. “A drunk midwife?” “No.” I slowly shook my head. “Childbirth’s a common way for a woman to die.” I eyed the excess of female appellations on the markers and added dryly, “Particularly in my family.

According to Old Nancy in the village, my birth mother was very slight, not made for easy birthing.” He gave my back a brisk pat and, as one determined to look on the bright side, said, “But she was also a noted beauty.” I grunted. If there was one thing I had learned about Submit Faithful Winter, it was that. Among family and acquaintances, I’d frequently heard about the Knowles women’s famous beauty. Apparently, it was inheritable. Until I came along. I was a typical Winter: spare, pale, and lanky. “Cheer up, Harry. I can’t see you suffering the same fate.

You’re almost as tall as me—certainly no slip of a girl.” I tapped the top of his head. “Almost? I’m just as tall.” “But with more bones than skin, as Papa says.” He smirked. “He makes me sound like a walking skeleton.” “Yes. Rather. But you’ve got a lot of yellow hair and an interesting face,” he said before ruining the already-tepid compliment with “though your mouth is too wide and your eyes too big. And you could better mind that sharp tongue of yours if you tried.

” He grinned. “Otherwise, though, I think you’re perfect.” I snorted. “So does Daniel Long.”


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