SEVENTH DAUGHTER OF A SEVENTH DAUGHTER, born with a caul over her face, Ulla Evers knew the strength of the sun in any season by the crispness of the shadow it cast. And though her family lived in the woods, up the Indian trail and well away from the flats of Warrenton and its network of sloughs, she could detect the exact moment the sloughs took on the smell of rotten fish, that moment signaling the change of tides.
She could see what others couldn’t: shades and spirits, though she knew well enough not to talk about it. In the lines and creases of her people’s palms she could read stories, likely outcomes, interruptions. Once, when Ulla was fifteen, she and Lisl, Pastor Hettinga’s daughter, slipped out of the Easter Sunday service. In the graveyard behind the church they leaned against the wet stones. Lisl thrust her palm in Ulla’s face. “What do you see?”
Ulla bit her lip. Death. As sure as a day on a calendar. That’s what she saw. Instead, she forced her gaze to the rain-studded daffodils. “You need to trim your nails,” Ulla said, deciding then and there never again to look at her best friend’s hand.
At sixteen Ulla began dowsing. They were water sharps, not witches, a point her parents had to clarify so often for Deacon Juha and a few other brethren that in time the Evers family stopped attending the clapboard pioneer church. “As a weathervane shews which way the wind listeth, the rod shows where the water runs,” her father explained to Pastor Hettinga, come up the trail on Sunday afternoon to their hut on account of new and even more troubling gossip: they were keeping congress with the devil. This was why they could find the sweet and fresh water when others couldn’t.
Her father threw his head back and laughed so heartily the silver fillings in his molars flashed. “Hold these.” Her father handed Hettinga his trusted dowsing rods so that Pastor could feel for himself how common and ordinary were the two L-shaped hazel sticks. “They dip in the presence of water or metal. There’s no magic in it, just magnetism,” her father explained.
“But you’ve got your Bible and you’re reading it regular like?” Hettinga couldn’t get the sticks out of his hands fast enough and remounted his horse.
Now it was Ulla’s mother’s turn to laugh. “We’ve got need and use for only two books, Pastor. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and my mother’s King James Bible.” And Ulla stood in a line with her six sisters, nodding their heads at the retreating form of Hettinga and his horse. They could tell both books forward and back, entry by entry, verse by verse. What they knew: All of creation lives and breathes by water. Not a single saint or prophet, not one of those desert fathers of old could manage in the wilds without it, for the wilderness belongs to the devil, and what little water there is the devil fouls by flying over it with his leathern wings. This is why, before she picked up her Y-shaped stick of yew, she prayed. Then she’d hold her breath and wait for a tremor to find its way from the tip of the slim, forked stick to her fingers. A tremor meant life, meant water.
There was no special power to her stick; it only told her if she was walking in the right direction. She’d tell this to the homesteaders come up the trail from Warrenton so they would understand the time and care it took to walk the wide circles, slowly collapsing like a seiner’s net pulled tight to a point in the center. “Then let me talk to your mother or your father,” they’d say. And her father, leaning in the doorway of their ramshackle house, one hand hooked up on the jamb, smiled at their impatience, their folly. “We charge twice what she does,” he’d say.
In spring, fever struck the north coast, ravaged town and outlying homesteads. No one could remember sickness this bad; it was worse, some said, than the intermittent fever of 1830 that had taken so many Clatsop Indians. The sickness started with a dry cough and burning fever. Open, running sores and the shakes. Death came with a rattle and gasp. To cough, the saying went, was to inherit a coffin. There were many hasty funerals, even hastier bonfires. With ox-gall, stains could be rubbed out of the fevered bedclothes, but never the smell. Best to douse those flimsy reminders with kerosene, burn and send them off in ashen-blue spirals of smoke.
Ulla’s sisters, being fine and fragile, quickly contracted fever. A glance at their palms, those unfinished lines a map of their undoing, foretold the speed with which they would unravel thread and stitch, bolt and bone. One and two, she dug their graves. Three and four. She burned their clothes. Five and six. She said prayers. Then her father passed. That made seven. Her spirits having been most thoroughly broken, her mother gave up the ghost. That made eight. Anger burned bright and fierce inside of her. Why does God take all that he gives? Ulla would have liked to ask Pastor Hettinga, but the two-mile walk down the narrow trail into town revealed two tendrils of blue rising from behind the parsonage.
Ulla would have turned back had not Marja, now Widow Hettinga, seen her. Marja greeted her, plucked Ulla’s hand from her side, just as Lisl had, pressed Ulla’s hand to her creased cheek. “My girl, my only girl,” Marja whispered. And Ulla understood then that in part and parcel she had taken Lisl’s place. And where a daughter had lost her mother and a mother her daughter, they now had each other.
Ulla kept on at her family’s place. With the exception of an oval glass window set like a sleepy eye in the siding and the wide porch, the hut might have been made of the dark earth itself. She watched over the graves of her sisters, mother, father. Sometimes she slept beside them. Mud and marl, so much the better. Thorn and thistle, better still. For every sharp and hurting thing, something stronger knuckles through. With the winds tuneless, tireless roaring through the trees and rain lashing at the window, what need had she for conversation, fellowship? What need for others had a woman comfortable in her grief, wrapped in solitude spun thick and complete and of her own making?
She knew the rumors: she had succumbed to despair, which is to say she’d turned her back on God. And to turn one’s back on the good Lord was to court a curse. This is why when people—the farmers and homesteaders, the tanner and cannery boss—came to her, fear lining the fur of their tongues, they brought gifts: flour, oil, candles. Sometimes carts full of wood. She told them what she told everyone: water speaks to those who listen. The surveyors and speculators, always in a hurry, wanted her to dowse over their maps, circle with a finger here and here the location of water. She listened to the water and told them what she knew: the Clatsop lowlands were too boggy for a railway spur.
A year passed. Then two and three. Four and five. Ulla counted the years with hash marks on the porch. The days she measured in work. Bucking the fallen spruce and fir, chopping rounds into wedges, limbs into kindling. Cord after cord. She liked the tidy look of a stack, wet and green and smelling of cure. She liked knowing that she could build fires that scalded the fog, pushed back the damp that wanted to settle in every bone and joint. If she wasn’t chopping wood, she was tending the pots. It took eight pots of hot water to fill a copper tub, four copper tubs to properly wash. Two for soaking, one for bluing, one for rinsing. She took in laundry for the Crown Zellerbach men at a nearby logging camp. The work provided steady percussion. Whip of the sheet through air, slap of the fabric on the scouring board: one shirt, two shirts, trousers. Each thud was her way of scoring the wind’s ragged hymn, her way of pushing against the fog’s steady encroachment.
And beside her, working, Marja. In the last few years a hump on her back had driven her chin to her chest, and sometimes Marja called Ulla by Lisl’s name. They often hung geese or salted fish in the outbuilding or did washing by the woodpile. Ulla wore her hair down, dark and wild to match her eyes, angry and haunted. She had the look of a woman who’d walked through fire, and then turned around and walked through it again.
“At least pull a comb through that hair,” Marja clucked at her from time to time.
“What comb large enough to tame it?” Ulla asked Marja one day. Ulla was talking about the wind’s howling, a wildness she had come to love. Marja was thinking about Ulla’s broom-thin body. She was still young. If she ate more, she could still have children.
Marja, bent over the washtub, slowly straightened. “You ought to have a man.”
Ulla hung the last of the geese by its feet from the rafters, glared at the fog. “What would I do with a man?” Ulla said, glaring at the fog.
“Love him,” Marja said.
So she did. Some women confuse bride with bridle, love with servitude. Not Ulla. She loved Rollie. He came for water and stayed for her. And he was lucky. He had not known fever, had not known loss. Untainted, untarnished, he’d been sent to Ulla as some token, a sign of life. He fished Monday through Saturday on a gillnetter. On Sundays he came for her with his horse, whose lively step on the path was like her heart beating light and strong in her chest. They rode the trails. Talked, made plans. He was saving for a plot of land. He would have Holsteins and Angus. Cows and grass enough to feed them, a silo for hay. He’d do this and more, and she’d never have to wash other men’s shirts again. His words were a net, a veil of all that was good and beautiful and possible. He talked, earnest and honest and full of enough energy for both of them, and she wore his words as a blessing, a prophecy. That was as good as courting, and what old Deacon Juha, Pastor Hettinga’s replacement, had to say about it, she didn’t care. Without a chaperone they’d ride the narrow trail up to her father’s house, and he’d dismount, lift her off the horse and onto the wide wooden porch. She’d make him tea. Everything proper, proper. Though she did not attend services, she still read her mother’s Bible, she still prayed, because that was right and decent living.
And when Deacon Juha came up the trail to tell her that as fire is jealous, so is our God, who shall have no others before him, she said, “Amen, Deacon, and don’t I know it.”
“You do still love the Lord your maker?” Juha inquired, his somber gaze trained on her oversize copper tubs.
“In my own fashion,” Ulla replied.
“I hope for your own sake it is so,” Juha said, urging his horse down the trail.
A month later they posted marriage banns, to Deacon Juha’s reluctant approval. Rollie was in high spirits. They were drinking tea. He juggled cubes of sugar. He sang a sea shanty. He spied her dowsing stick.
“Would you come find me if I got lost?” Rollie teased, holding the yew stick just out of her reach. He smelled of wet sod, salt, of men’s work.
“I will never let you get lost,” Ulla said, jumping, laughing.
“But if I were at sea, all that water. Can your stick discern water from water, a body lost within a body?”
“I would pray extra hard; I would find you,” she said, as certain of that as she was that blood flowed red in her veins.
Ulla lunged for her stick. Fell and was caught in Rollie’s arms, stayed in Rollie’s arms all that night and into the morning.
Did not God come to cast fire on the earth, and what would he but that it be kindled? And fire being jealous, it shows neither mercy nor deference. So said Juha, come up the trail to offer kindly advices. “And jealous to reclaim what is his.” She had misplaced her affection and devotion. What belonged to God she’d given to man, Juha implied. “God’s jealousy is like a fire that roams and rages, seeking to purify.”
She could correct him; nowhere in scripture is that written. He had, as was his privilege, taken words and wrung meaning from them not meant. But she understood well his lesson about love that contained no love in it. She loved Rollie more than she loved God, and she and Deacon Juha both knew that right well.
“You will be punished.” Juha flattened his mouth into a grim line and turned for the trail.
Ulla’s gaze slid to the gravestones of her sisters. Whom, she wanted to ask him, had they loved so much they needed to be punished?
The next morning fire came. Not fire. Fever. Her punishment. It gouged holes in her eyes. Her tongue swelled. A furnace raged inside her head. She saw God, a consuming fire separating wheat and chaff. She fell from the winnowing room, through hot air to hard floor, waking with a shout. That night fever woke her from sleep. Sweat rolled between her shoulder blades, between her breasts. Through fog rolling up from the lake, gloving trees, she walked. Through a trembling shroud of sky, a veil humming with light, she stumbled, fell. Before her was an elk bedded in fern. It neither rose nor ran, did not bellow at her approach. A slow deliberate quiver started at the hindquarters and crawled over its haunches, back, shoulder, as if thread and needle pulled at the skin. It turned its rheumy eyes upon her, lowered its head, its sides heaving. Opened its mouth. Spoke. Ulla. Where art thou? Rollie’s round baritone. Rollie heaving, suffering.
She drew nearer. Here, my lord. An incalculable weight, excess of sky pressed her flat as a stone into the mud. How long she lay there, arms outstretched, palms upturned, she could not know. How heavy that fog she could not measure. No part of her was untouched. Is this God? Her lips worked to form the question. Is God pressing against me, thrumming with his own interior light? Ulla groped through the fog, her hands latching onto thistle and devil’s club, wet and stinging.
“Ulla! Ulla, where are you?”
Not an elk. Just Marja calling and calling, come to tell her what she knew already. Fog this thick meant unlucky waters. Fog this thick meant boats had been lost. Her Rollie was gone.
There was talk again about the railroad spur from Portland to Astoria, from Astoria across the bay to Warrenton. Talk of a bridge and even a highway. Surveyors trolled the woods. Geologists. Speculators. She kept on with her laundering for the loggers up the trail. Few ever gave her the fast eye, and if they did, she’d return their clothes unwashed.
It was foolish to think she’d find Rollie, but from time to time she held her yew, said a prayer. Found herself at the top of a mountain’s dark tarn, shallow enough for her to dredge. Another time she found a small freshet. But never Rollie. So, she put the dowsing sticks in her mother’s cedar-planked hutch. Locked them up good. People still came up the trail for the water. She’d tell them her gift had been burned out of her. They’d look at her sideways. Was she a liar? Or a lunatic? How could she live in the woods without proper industry or a man to keep her?
Such were the questions put to her by her most recent visitor, a speculator. He did not eat the bread of anxious toil. She knew it on account of his drooping mustache, his felt hat and fussy shirt lined with too many small mother-of-pearl buttons. He tied his horse to the listing cedar and stepped onto the porch.
Wouldn’t she be better off living in town? The money she’d make would allow creature comforts she’d never permitted herself: running water, electricity. It being the age of progressive engineering, the railway would pay handsomely for any help she could render. Particularly if she’d dowse over their maps. Her talents would save months of guesswork, and they’d be most appreciative. Like water his words flowed, searching for the path of least resistance.
Over the wooden porch he unrolled a large survey map of the Skipanon River, Cullaby Lake, and the land in between and around those waters. She could feel him measuring her with his hard copper-colored eyes, gauging her width, breadth, height, strength.
“I am comfortable-fine,” Ulla said, wringing a shirt.
His gaze swept the small outbuilding, the rafters, the planked floor, the bundles of clothing. “So which is it: you can’t or won’t dowse?”
Ulla tipped her head, her gaze on the survey. “Can’t and won’t.”
She didn’t see his fist clip her chin. Didn’t see the next punch, the one that broke her nose. Knee on her belly, he yanked at her hand, cut a deep X in her palm with a knife. Dumbfounded, she watched as he squeezed her palm and made an X on her porch in drops of blood. When he was finished doing that and more, he left her there, a woman unraveled.
Had not Marja, faithful as fog on water, found Ulla, naked and bleeding on the porch, Ulla would have died. That red X, they both had a go at it with bee balm and bluing, but nothing faded its bright herald. They never talked about the X-shaped scar on her palm. There were no words. If she had any, then long ago she’d have screamed them into the wind. Better to turn her hand to what she could fix, make, clean—work being the only way to beat back madness. Girls learned from their mothers how steady work pushed back that darkness that knocked at the ribs, knocked at the door. How she longed to open that door, walk though. If not for Marja, she would have.
She visited once a week now, Marja did, riding a horse almost as bowed and bent as she was. Marja’s back curved so sharply, it was with great difficulty that she could lift her gaze from her feet. How she managed to get on the horse, Ulla couldn’t figure, but Ulla always lifted her down. Made tea. Fed Marja crushed willow bark for her aching bones. Fed the fire. Listened to her news about the man from Montana who had put up the money for a spur that would run right through Ulla’s property. Then there was the news about parishioners, who had or lost a baby, and Pastor Juha’s sad, sad crossing the veil into glory. But his replacement, such a fine young man! The parishioners adored him. He could preach around the glass, could sermonize for an hour without stopping.
“You should come and hear him,” Marja said, blinking at the fire. “Telling of a world beyond this world that only people who have stared death in the face can fathom. And can he sing!”
Ulla jabbed at the fire with a long stick. “What does he know about death?”
Marja’s gaze flicked over Ulla’s pock-marked face, the crooked nose. “He has walked the valley of the shadow. His wife was taken by fever, poor man. And his girl—only eight years old. She died not two months ago.”
Light hoof-falls on the path. Though ten years had passed since she’d last heard it, she knew this gait. And the shape emerging, growing larger and darker, Rollie’s horse. Rollie. His name pulled at her lips.
A man dismounted, cautiously picking his way through the cow parsley and nettle that separated trail from house. Not Rollie. A trick of the fog’s distortion. But a man, certainly. Dark brush of hair, thick and wiry. Bigger in the shoulders than her Rollie.
“Miss Ulla Evers?” That voice. A rich baritone, like her Rollie’s.
Ulla swallowed. “Yep.”
He took a few steps toward her, nodded toward the bundle behind the saddle. “I was told you take in laundry. I’d do it myself, but I’m to carry the mail Mondays through Saturdays and preach on Sundays.” Color crept up his neck as he spoke. “And I was told you work fast and well.” This last bit he said as if in apology, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Who told you?”
“Widow Hettinga. I’m Arne Swensen. I’m lodged in the parsonage.”
He did not look like a preacher, not with that crooked nose, not with all that hair. So thick a bullet couldn’t pass through it. He should cut it, lose that volatile look of a back-country prophet. Ulla wiped her hands on her skirt. “All right.”
He pulled the bundle off the horse, bent to place it on the porch and stumbled. The porch groaned. He blushed, looked at his hands. “Sorry,” Arne said. Now the color had crept from cheeks to forehead.
Ulla lifted the bundle, judged it to be about twenty pounds. She set it next to a tub. “Ten cents,” she said, a hand open. Arne placed a ten-cent piece in her palm, and on top of the coin he placed a piece of mail, an eggshell-blue envelope.
His fingers grazed hers. An accident, but Ulla’s breath drew in sharply.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered.
Ulla smelled his grief on his breath, particulate and grainy like freshly crushed chalk. Her nose twitched. “I’ll have your laundry ready in two days,” she said, her voice cutting to a whisper.
A soiled blanket, sheets, linens—the things a man might not know how to launder—these items she figured he’d bring. A surprise then to find men’s dress shirts, a small yellow dress dotted with bluebells and a large brown stain, a child’s pair of stockings. Ulla buried her nose in the fabric, smelled his grief. And fever. Its lingering vicissitudes, an odor not unlike apple vinegar, she readily identified. A mistake to do this, to touch the clothing. To make Arne’s grief hers, his haunting her haunting.
A cough. A wrinkle in the quiet.
“If you’re here for water, I can’t help.” Ulla flung a dress shirt into the water.
Ulla straightened. A girl in a gray pinafore stood at her porch. Towheaded, translucent as paper. Her skin was not freckled, not full of beauty marks. No, it was gouged, as if someone had taken a pencil’s nib and poked holes in her. Fever. She’d had it, this girl. Her hands clutched at her stomach. “You hungry?” Ulla waved the girl into the house, to the wooden table where Ulla set out bread, clabbered milk, pork lard. The girl sat cautiously as if she were a horse easily spooked.
Ulla set a spoon before the girl. The pile of blue envelopes, always from the Astoria and Columbia River Company, she pushed to the side. She knew well enough they were offers on her father’s property. They burnt well on the fire.
The girl’s gaze roamed about the small room, the fire crackling in the hearth, the cedar-planked hutch.
“They say you can make the hidden plain, the lost found.” The girl slathered lard on a hunk of bread and started chewing.
“Used to do. But I got quit of that.”
The girl turned her gaze upon Ulla. Such eyes. Silver green like the lichen holding down the coastal shale. “I’m looking for my mother.”
“No. She’s hidden,” the girl said, “in God’s merciful bosom.”
“God’s merciful bosom.” Ulla’s mouth twisted into a grimace.
“You don’t like God,” the girl observed.
Ulla studied the pockmarks on the girl’s face. “I don’t have much use for God.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “I have to go,” she said, tucking more bread into the pocket of her dress and slipping out the open door.
The yellow dress confounded her utterly, defied her every attempt with ox-gall, bluing. Though it burned her hands to use it, she rubbed lye on the fabric. She tried everything, even cursed the clothing, calling it every foul thing she could think of. She could ask Arne, why keep it? But she understood grief’s tortured logic. He cannot part with this cloth, it being the last thing to touch his daughter. Didn’t she keep letters penned in Rollie’s neat hand, his bright words tucked in the cedar hutch? Weren’t they her talisman, a deep interior murmur of memory?
With such vigor Ulla slapped the thin cloth against the washboard that she failed to hear hoof-falls on the trail. The snap of twigs, the creak of the saddle during dismount, no, none of this could compete with the slaps of fabric on the ribbed board and Ulla’s curses: Christ Almighty! A hand, gripping her shoulder sure and firm, shot electricity from point of shoulder to her heels. “Miss Evers? Are you well?”
Arne. Ulla sank to her haunches.
Without a word, Arne set an eggshell-blue envelope on the topmost step. He ran a finger over the red X.
“What happened here?”
Ulla touched her nose. “Accident.” She pointed at Arne’s lumpy nose. “What happened there?”
Arne grimaced. “I used to fight. Bare-knuckle. Portland, Seattle. Once in Anchorage.”
“No,” Ulla gasped, stifling a laugh. Then quiet, quiet: “No.”
Arne rolled up his sleeve, exposed his forearm. It had been broken and poorly mended, the skin around the break mottled.
“But you quit,” she said.
Arne unrolled his sleeve. “It was no life for a family.”
Family. The word was an awl gouging her skin.
Arne removed a bundle from his pocket. Carefully, carefully he set his trembling offering over the purple X-shaped scar of her palm, a small photo set in glass. This is why women love men, she decided. Not for their strength, but for their weakness. And she could see why he moved with such tenderness. The woman in the photo, her fragile and fine features marked her as a lady. “My wife,” Arne whispered. Pale as quartz, spectral as moon. Not a woman who’d beat laundry against a washboard.
Ulla cleared her throat. “I finished your laundry—all but the girl’s dress and stockings.”
Arne blanched. “There wasn’t any child’s clothing.”
Ulla hooked her chin toward the line where the yellow dress fluttered and the stockings kicked.
Arne blinked, once, twice, three times. “There wasn’t any child’s clothing,” he repeated.
Confusion she knows. It comes with unexpected loss. Loss dulls the senses. Grief of losing her family and Rollie has made her deaf to water. His grief has made him blind to his own girl, whom Ulla often perceives trailing the horse, flitting from one ragged cedar tree to another.
A shade, a shift of light. Smudges of ink against gathering darkness. The girl is all these. And more. Bone, breath, hunger. Following her everywhere. Touching things. Her father’s window. The dowsing sticks. And eating. A rasher of lard in a single sitting. A pound of bacon. All while offering advice. Her father didn’t like too much starch on his collars and cuffs, the girl told Ulla. When her mother laundered his shirts, she put a pinch of salt in the water. When she ironed them, she used ten-pound irons heated on a stove. Her mother’s name was Katrine and she could play the piano. They used to have a small black dog named Pepper.
“And what is your name?” Ulla asked from time to time. The girl smiled slyly, offering nursery rhymes or hymns instead. One day they worked the pots, the girl hunkered next to the fire, her hands outstretched.
“My name is graven on God’s hand,” the girl sang the old hymn, her voice thin paper curling in the fog. Now the girl had her palms pressed flat on the coals.
Ulla yanked her by the elbows. “What is wrong with you?” she demanded.
“It doesn’t hurt.” The girl blinked, fighting back tears. She rolled her wrists and showed Ulla her palms. “See.”
Ulla studied her palms. Nothing. No burns. Not a single line, crack, or crease. As if she’d never lived a day.
Twice a week Arne visited. He came on the mail horse, Old Cinder, a solid beast whose steady, assured plodding Ulla learned to recognize. He’d invite her to Sunday services. She told him she could not keep Sabbath in a proper way, being a single woman inclined to work. She said this without shame or guilt. Then they’d exchange dirty for clean laundry. It was a game with Arne’s girl, the laundry. Into the tidy stack of clean, pressed shirts, she’d slip her yellow dress. He’d take the stack home, discover the dress, lock it in a cupboard. “But every time he puts it in the same place,” the girl confided. “I always find it!”
Ulla wanted to ask Arne about the dress, but that struck her as an unnecessary cruelty. She played games, too. “Don’t give me those,” she said each time he brought another eggshell-colored envelope. “I’ll just burn them.” But he’d insist and recite the postal carrier’s creed to deliver with celerity, certainty, and accuracy as he pressed the envelopes flat on her palm. This was what she liked about Arne. His hands. For all the abuse they had taken and given, his hands were steady, sure, warm. As if he had the sun inside his skin.
It being winter, and Marja unable to ride the trail, Ulla moved her into the hut. Put her on a cot beside the fire. The girl sat beside Marja and combed the woman’s wisping hair. Marja called the girl Lisl, taught her sums on a small blackboard. If it struck Marja as odd that her pupil couldn’t grasp the idea of numbers or that she ate beyond measure or proportion, Marja never let on. Just laughed as the girl ate and said, never in my life! Then went on to tell of the rail spur, how the company line had only to secure a few rights before starting the grading.
Ulla let those comments pass. The girl held her attention fully. Nothing was sacred. The girl had taken Rollie’s letters, nibbled on the corners of the paper, pronounced them stale as communion wafers. She danced the yew stick all through the yard, pretending to dowse, then left it on the porch where anyone could see it, step on it, break it. A willful child, nothing Ulla said or did deterred her.
When Marja crossed the veil, Ulla and Arne laid her to rest beside her beloved daughter and husband. On account of Ulla and Marja’s close friendship, few parishioners attended the funeral. Those who did laid sword fern or shiny green salal on the wooden coffin, leaving before Ulla could thank them.
Arne stood glaring into the fog and lodged a series of rhetorical questions. “Who hath begotten the dew? Who provideth rain in the time of latter rain?”
Ulla knew the answers; she had the entire book of Job up by heart and most of the words of the minor prophets. “Death, where is thy sting?” he shouted to the moss-gloved cedars. How she wanted to jump to her feet and point to her ragged heart and say, here and here. Arne whirled in Ulla’s direction and demanded: “Do you believe in life after death?”
Ulla set her eye on him dead and level. “I most assuredly do. I see it and feed it most every day,” she said. For standing beside her was his girl, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She’d just cleaned out the parsonage pantry, and her roving eyes indicated she was far from sated.
So many people on the trails these days. The loggers with their mules and workhorses, the many skids they set, that was their business. They didn’t bother her, except for the exchange of laundry, and she didn’t bother them. The surveyors, geologists, the curious, she paid no mind. Let them take their measurements. The speculators—let them speak their nonsense. She told the girl this, about the folly of human endeavor for the sake of progress, but the girl didn’t listen. She seemed to bear a grudge against Ulla. She drew stick figures on the glass pane, hung the yew from the eaves. Built fires, put them out. Sat at the table eating in a slow, mechanical manner. This she was doing one afternoon while Ulla fed the fire beneath a pot another blue envelope.
“Now shouldn’t you read those letters before you burn them?” A man’s voice cut through the fog, an amused lilt behind his words suggesting this life and everything in it were a joke to be shared.
Ulla whirled, wiped her hands on her skirt, squinted fiercely. “Do I know you?”
The man slid from the saddle, stood taller than she expected, crossed the yard in four long-legged steps. He waved a blue envelope at her. “You oughter. I’m putting up the money for the new railway spurs.” He climbed the porch, unrolled a survey, held it over her father’s window. “This here is the Columbia River, this here the Skipanon. This here’s the proposed route of the Astoria-Tillamook spur.” She squinted at the map, curvy lines for waterways, straight for the roads. His finger traced a line that dissected her property.
“You stand to make a killing, being’s how you’re a water sharp. The railroad will pay mighty well to know where the seasonal springs and freshets, where the sloughs.”
Ulla frowned. “I don’t dowse no more.”
“You are a singular woman,” he said, rolling up the map. “I see your dowsing stick setting there on that chair. Now, that would lead me to believe that you are telling me a small fib.” He stretched his mouth into something like a smile, but there was no warmth in his eyes.
A flash of white hair, the girl running for the woodpile. This was what enraged her: that a stranger, this trespasser, could so easily scare the girl. Dry hatred, old and familiar roiled up the flue of her throat, her open mouth. “I don’t tell lies,” Ulla said, stepping backward, thinking she’d learned to read the quick movements of men. Such a surprise that he’d rush her, bury his head between her ribs. Throw her against her copper tub of water.
“Who do you think you are?” he said, spinning her around, then plunging her head beneath the water.
Ulla, where art thou?
Here, my Lord. In this dark heat, in this water.
How long she was held under, she could not say. But at the sound of her name—Ulla!—the pressure on her neck lifted. She whipped her head from the water, gasped at the cool sweet dry air. Gasped at the sight of two men fighting in her yard.
Arne straddled the man, pounded his face with his fist. One and two, three and four. Arne landed punch after punch. Ulla watched and counted. She was glad for Arne’s anger. Glad to know that he was like her, a body full of rage. She was glad to have seen that rage break forth. How else can a woman know what a man is like if she hasn’t seen him angry, true and fully angry?
Arne nudged the man’s foot with the toe of his boot, then moved slowly to where Ulla sat on the porch. He dropped into the chair beside her, his chest heaving. The speculator lay sprawled in the yard. Like as not he would be there for some time. She could hear the man breathing, the occasional moan. They’d have to pack him up on his horse and send horse and man down the trail. Later.
Arne lifted his hand. It hung sideways.
“I killed a man in the ring once. I promised my wife I’d never raise my hand in a fist.” With his good hand Arne dug in his coat pocket, withdrew that picture. The tiny glass pane had shattered. “I break everything I touch and every promise I make,” he said, resting the picture on the arm of the chair.
Water dripped from the ends of Ulla’s hair to the boards. “I lose everyone I love,” she replied, hoisting herself from the chair. She followed the sound of the girl’s teeth chattering to the woodpile where the girl sat, the yellow dress clutched to her chest. Ulla pulled the girl, bone and cold, to her own bosom, bone and cold. “We will keep each other warm,” she whispered into the girl’s paper-white hair. “We will keep each other.”
“No,” the girl said. “I’m hungry and it hurts.” She pushed the yellow dress to Ulla’s chest. “I just want my mother,” she said.
Inside the house Ulla built a fire in the grate. Set a pan of ice before Arne. The yellow dress she draped over a chair. The girl, now on the porch, peered through the window.
“What was her name?” Ulla asked, nodding at the dress.
Arne winced. “Adele. She was only eight years old when fever took her.”
“I know,” Ulla said, glancing at the window.
Then Ulla told him what else she knew: those blue veins in the girl’s translucent cheeks and eyelids, the blood whispering through it was the shape and substance of his pain. Real and not real, this girl was grief’s cruel trick. And, like all illusions, impossible to maintain. The girl, so weary now, could barely stand. Her hunger, which was another name for his grief, was too heavy for a girl so thin to bear. Better to let her go, Ulla said, her words a veil, a net, a smooth cadence wrapping even, calm sound about him. Arne leaned forward in the chair. His shoulders heaved in a silent, muscular working of sorrow.
After a minute Arne wiped at his face with his good hand. And then he told her what he knew. Not a sermon, this. No pontificating, no shouting to the trees. Just a man thanking straw for sopping blood and cold for stanching it. Thanking cold for showing our breath as it hovers around us, for wrapping us in scarves that say we are alive. Thanking the pain of a broken bone for reminding us of our weakness and our fragility.
Arne’s gaze turned to the grate, to the flames leaping. Arne held the dress above the fire, dropped it. How eager that heat, melting fabric. How hungry for more! How willing to turn to ash all they thought they needed. Into the fire went her Rollie’s letters. The black swags on the crosses of her sisters, these, too, fed the flames.
And the planks with her blood on them? A few yanks with a crowbar and they were up and in. The dowsing sticks, too, they agreed should go. It’s a kind of love to feed a fire. It’s a kind of love to consume. Doesn’t a fire, good and hot, burn back into a wound until there’s nothing left for it to do but heal? Yes, they agreed. And they agreed that they should thank the fire for the love it shows wood. Thank kindling, blue envelopes, and hurting things for turning to heat by which we warm ourselves, turning to light by which we see. Thank it for translating a girl, from breath and ash ghosting to fog itself, to a light sufficient unto itself, whistling up into a divided dark.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.