Lillian is serious like her father. She may be round and pink as a rosebud, but she learned solemnity from him. She learned to contain herself. It will serve her well later, but of course, she doesn’t know that yet.
What does she know? The wagon shudders violently. Land that appears flat as an unblemished Lake Michigan contains unforgiving rivets and knots, hidden beneath the whispering grasses. Does Lillian sense how much light we’ve lost since Chicago, how the night skies out here are coated with an impenetrable, thick tar? I could ask her if she’s afraid, but if she’s not, then I will be suggesting that she should be, and that would be the beginning of the end. We must focus on the stars, not the infinite blackness.
It’s comforting to cut through morning sunlight, to know that we have hours before we must face the dark again. On the bench across from me, she is compressed against the bodies of other children, the Milton spawn. Their parents reproduced with abandon despite their apparent difficulty feeding themselves. I suppose they thank Jesus each time Mrs. Milton’s belly swells. Another miracle, Pa! I feel sorry for them, but they might feel sorry for me, too. The widow. As marked by bad fortune as their children are by freckles. Just as well. The same route is taking us to separate destinations. They were baited by the romance of wild space and the economy of cheap land in limitless supply. For Lillian and me, it has less to do with what awaits us, and everything to do with the Chicago skins that no longer suit us.
All of our cramped, unwashed bodies mingle with the oxen’s musk. I don’t advertise it, but even this is preferable to the pungent incense of William’s funeral. It followed me for days. I could let the steam of earl gray waft over my face, or remove biscuits from the oven, and still smell nothing but the incense of loss. Like our neighbors and our priest, it would not allow me to forget that I was – am – a woman grieving.
“May, I pray for you every day,” Father Gregory said. I said nothing. Why should I thank him for something that I do not need and did not ask for?
Lillian is wrapped in a heavy sleep, her cocker spaniel ringlets spilling onto the shoulder of the larger child next to her. My body aches from its prolonged stillness. How strange, to undertake an epic journey, only to have the scenery march by outside the wagon’s walls. I watch the driver’s back, bouncing gently with the uneven terrain.
I approach the small window that opens from the wagon’s body to the driver’s seat. “Sir,” I say, “Would it be at all possible for me to sit next to you? It’s just unbearable in here. Surely you sympathize.” He’s roughly my age, mustached and red from endless days in the cruel July sun. I don’t mind if he considers me improper; this relationship is transitory and transactional. Then again, that’s what I thought about William when he first asked me to fit him for shoes at Father’s shop. The finest black leather and the thickest soles. He always had such a precise vision of what he wanted.
The driver does not meet my eyes. “If you wish, Ma’am. It would not trouble me.”
Let the Miltons watch me climb through the window! How futile it seems to respect decorum outside the role of wife. Without the duty to protect someone else’s integrity, I lack the motivation to uphold my own. The oxen are only moving at the pace that Lillian toddles along, but I’m unsteady as I stand. I forget what it feels like not to be in constant motion. A surreal thing, to carry on living with no fixed location, no sturdy ground. In between homes, in between certainties.
Everything is more acute on the frontier. We can’t distract ourselves like we can in the city. I settle down on the bench next to the driver, and I am reminded that out here, there are fewer colors – just green and blue, wrapped over the horizon and God knows how much farther. There are no buffers cushioning the land from the sky, as there is nothing protecting us from each other. We must accept it as we accept the rocking of the wagon and the hunger pains that make Lillian cry out at night.
My childhood friends were all nervous when they got engaged. They fretted over their dresses, their figures, their believability as wives and mothers-to-be. Elizabeth stopped eating and cried over the Tribune; Caroline refused to leave her mother’s house, worried that the sun would give her the appearance of a farmer bride – a fate worse than death! Their anxieties trailed them like an unshakable pack of stray dogs. They would not have guessed that engagement was the most immense and perfect relief that I had ever experienced.
When William told Father that he would have the Italian leather shoes and me, he couldn’t have known that I had vomited for the fourth morning in a row. I had run out of the shop “to run an errand,” which actually entailed keeling over in an alley and shielding my face from passersby. Just another day. The stitching on my dress was strained, ready to pop like champagne, eager to betray my secret. William said I looked “riper than a peach,” deliciously unaware that the fruit was long spoiled. What did it matter, as long as it was packaged nicely? I could charge the same price. The dressmaker wasn’t going to pat down my abdomen before sewing a modest white gown.
I always wondered if Lillian had an intuitive sense of it all. William repelled her; his embraces made her squirm and clutch at me. The truth eventually claws its way out into the open, doesn’t it?
Today, we all walk alongside the wagon. If we did this every day, our feet would blister and bleed. But on the gentlest, balmiest days, it’s a small pleasure we allow ourselves. Lillian plucks wildflowers out of the ground and squeals with ecstasy at every prairie dog sighting. The Milton children chase after each other and brandish sticks, as undisciplined as the land itself. Mrs. Milton holds up the rear with me, as if motherhood gave us common ground and an obligation to befriend one another. I can hardly see her face for the grove of freckles that obscures it.
“You’re off to join your husband, I assume?” she says. Her lilting voice suggests that her parents were immigrants. Of course an Irishman’s daughter would have little to keep her in Chicago. William had probably seen her pockled husband on the street and called him a “white nigger” under his breath.
“Emmet, my oldest brother, actually. He came out here a year ago, and him and his wife could use some help with the children. While they tend to the land.”
“Oh dear. So you’re husband is no longer with us, I take it.” Why she feels compelled to clarify that, I couldn’t know.
“Yes, we had some lovely years. A gambler will inevitably make enemies, though.”
“Oh, Lord! That’s quite terrible.”
“I appreciate your sympathies, but I can hardly stand to mourn anymore.”
“You must be a very strong woman.”
“Dear, you really are too kind to me.” This is why I prefer Lillian’s company. She feels no need to make sense of it all. She doesn’t need to be comforted, and she’s too young to try to comfort me.
Lillian rushes over to us, grasping a little bouquet of indigo wildflowers. They’re more beautiful than any token William ever bought me. Certainly more honest. She beams with pride, foolish pride that she will eventually need to learn to reign in. But for now, it is contagious.
“When will we see the Injuns, Mama?”
“Who told you we would, my love?” With the virgin land stretching infinite around us, it’s hard to believe that we will encounter any other human souls, white or Indian.
Emmet left home after brushing sleeves with Father at his preferred brothel. I suppose Mother was closing the shop, or roasting a pork loin, while her husband selected the most appetizing prostitute in the whorehouse’s tarnished candlelight. Emmet was unmarried, twenty-one, and unlike Father, never claimed to be any kind of exceptional Catholic. He could forgive himself, but not the man who had thumped his Bible over our infant prams. He no longer had any interest in the shop that funded Father’s cunt-buying habit. So he went West, into territory too fresh to be so rife with hypocrisy.
Emmet’s departure left an acid sting in my life. He had taken me by the hand through adolescence and through Chicago. I saw it all through the eyes of someone too protected to fear the desperation that seeped into the alleys. We strolled by a man pissing into a bucket in lurid sunlight, and Emmet tugged me away before I could protest. Without my brother for the first time at eighteen, I felt unmoored in a way I had never known. Then Emmet’s friends began to approach me in a way I had never known. Then I experienced pleasures I had never known. The slide was as natural as snow slipping off a rooftop, plopping on the ground without consequence – until I vomited in the street and popped a seam in my work dress.
Horizon ablaze with the sunset, we eat cured pork so salty it burns. I’m starved for fresh fruit and pillowy white bread; my whole body is sagging from this limited diet. My bones are pushing through my skin. I can’t help but wonder if this journey will stunt Lillian from becoming as strong and tall as she could. I wonder if she’ll resent me for it when she’s a hunchbacked old woman chasing after her grandchildren. She hops onto my lap, but refuses her portion of pork. She cries when I insist she eat it, and not for the first time, I feel useless.
When the darkness begins to set in, we lay our bedrolls on the grass. I haven’t slept through the night since we left the city twenty-one days ago. I dread the intermittent awakenings that fill the cursed hours. Every night, the blackness feels thicker and more oppressive; all I want is for sleep to shield me from it, but it’s asking too much. These are the only times I think about Jesus. I picture him on the cross, screaming, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And I think yes, perhaps he does understand after all.
Unsurprisingly, I wake while the moon is still high in the sky. I don’t assume any cause other than a cricket’s piercing song, but I soon detect some movement in the grass. Something other than the wind raking its fingers through the prairie. I don’t want to move too suddenly, so I let my eyes rove around without moving my head. I catch the silhouette of a tall, muscular man with long braids like a woman’s. My first instinct is to scream, but something about his body language is disarming. He’s in no hurry; he has no weapon. All I detect is… curiosity, slow and childlike. As if we were a unique breed of rabbit or a grove of sunflowers. I remember that we are the invaders, not him, and pretend to sleep. No one need know about this but me.
When I wake to the sun, I can’t sift reality from fever dream. The space around us is as absolutely empty as it seemed before. But I suspect now that the stasis is an illusion; this prairie is teeming with life and with movement. We just aren’t conscious of it all.
I neither loved nor hated William. He was a fact of my life, not unlike a newspaper article or encyclopedia entry. He was the man who chose me, and in so doing, saved me. I had a debt to him that I couldn’t deny, and so I considered it my duty to please him. I learned how to replicate my mother’s recipes for him. I let him consume my body with impatience, greed. I pressed his suits and polished his shoes, content to be like a servant – well, there’s not much difference between a servant and a wife, is there?
We had three years together. Mother told me I had every reason to be grateful, and I could not disagree. When the sheriff knocked on my door and removed his hat in deference, expressing his “most sincere condolences” with beer on his breath, I felt rather like I did when Emmet told me he was going West – like a candle that had been extinguished, I suppose. Like I had to start over again, like security was as mercurial as a summer storm.
That was when the West began to whisper to me. I realized that the unclaimed earth was no more or less volatile than a charmed marriage blessed with a gorgeous, golden-haired child. Here or there, safety was not guaranteed.
The driver estimates seven more days. Mrs. Milton nearly keels over upon hearing. In the wagon, it’s easy to feel that another hour will be the end of us, let alone another week. “Lord almighty, when this is all over, I will never travel again. Mark my words!”
The lady does grate on me, but it is a charming picture, her litter of children romping in their own little corner of the territory. “What will your lodgings be?”
“Seamus has built us a sod house. It will be cramped, no doubt about that, but I would do anything for a roof over my head at this point.” She reclines on the bench, but the wagon rattles, and her head smacks against the wall.
“Yes, I’ll take a roof and a lukewarm bath.”
“This would hardly be so grueling if my Seamus was here with me.” As soon as the words slip out, she slaps her hand over her mouth. “My goodness, I could not be more dense! I suppose that was terribly insensitive.” She looks at me with the intense pity I thought I had left behind in the city, and I feel myself flush from thwarted pride.
“I’m no fabrigé egg, Mrs. Milton. You can speak of your darling husband without crushing me.” She looks pained – like she’s in labor yet again! – but I cannot soften. “In fact, it may shock you to hear this, Mrs. Milton, but the fact that your husband is alive does not render you more fortunate than I. Perhaps I am the fortunate one, Mrs. Milton. Perhaps I have everything I want!”
“My Lord, I did stir your grief! You must forgive me.”
“You all think that every word I say is burned black with grief. Is it so impossible to think that William was not my sun and my stars and my universe?”
Lillian begins to cry, swatting the flies that prey on her fair skin. If we don’t get out of the wagon and into the breeze, I might sob, too. I ask the driver to slow down so that we might hop out. He scowls; we need disruptions as much as we need a bout of dysentery. One of the Milton children howls at me. “Why is the angry lady making us stop?”
“Because your mother is an unbearable cunt!” I’ll only regret saying it if Lillian picks it up and starts tossing the word around.
After we exit the wagon, the driver spurs the oxen to a faster pace than usual, certainly to spite me. Deservedly so. I take Lillian’s hand, but she wiggles it free. She does hate it when I yell. I let her trot ahead of me, indignant, punishing. I question whether I still possess the drive to make it out to Emmet’s property. Seven more days of this? Seven years, seven eternities. What’s the difference?
There must be an Indian colony around here, judging by the previous night’s moonlit visitor. I imagine my own hair in braids like his. We have no common language, but maybe words aren’t the most important thing. Maybe words aren’t even where communication takes place. I surrender myself to nostalgia – for a thing I do not know.
The only force that could pull me from a fantasy so rich is Lillian’s shrieking. “Mama! Mama!”
She’s twenty paces ahead of me, and she’s still as a sunflower. I see nothing in the immediate space around her, and for a fraction of a second, I think I imagined her yelp. But I see the grass shifting irregularly; a creature low to the ground slithers away. When I get close enough, I hear its distinctive rattle, and I know that it is finished. It is all over.
I was half-asleep during my last conversation with William. Exhausted from another day wrangling Lillian with no adult companionship, I turned in without him. He followed me, but made no indication that would be join me under the quilts. He sat lightly on the edge of the bed, stroking my cheek. I stirred; he usually reserved his touches for sloppy, whiskey-scented sex. He was sober then, and fully clothed. “You’re alright, May?”
“Why is that so hard for me to believe?”
I could have said, I’m so tired, I could sleep for years. Or everything about you is unsatisfactory. Or why do you want me to pretend that I need you? I could have said anything in that moment. For the first and last time, he wanted me to. Yet, anything I could have said would have been wind over the prairie – the grasses shuffling and trembling, but as firmly rooted in the ground as ever. So I said, “Good night, my love, please be safe.”
We bury her by a grove of indigo wildflowers. Mrs. Milton sobs as if she had incubated Lillian in her own womb. Her children seem bored, as does the driver, who has certainly buried little girls before. He delivers a tidy prayer in monotone, and then it is time to carry on. But I stay kneeling by Lillian’s makeshift grave, its earth loose and fresh.
“Please, ma’am, we cannot delay any longer.” I half-expect the driver to whip me like one of the oxen.
“You may go.”
“Ma’am, I know you must be hysterical after such loss. Please come with me.”
“I could not be any less hysterical. You may go, all of you. Mrs. Milton may have my belongings.”
He looks at me with unadulterated contempt. “I would prefer not to use force, Mrs. Ashbury!”
“My name is May, and if you touch me, I swear on my baby girl’s grave that I will poison you in your sleep.”
He turns his back, and I’ve never been so relieved. I watch them all crowd into the wagon and creak along. When they have disappeared over the horizon, I let a few tears dampen the patch of earth. When my eyes dry, I stand and brush off my dress. The Indian colony must be close. I have some time before the sun falls.
BIO: Abigail Grosse is finishing her undergraduate degree and waiting tables in Minnesota.