Little House in the Big Woods (Chapter 10)
Little House in the Big Woods
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Now it was summertime, and people went visiting. Sometimes Uncle Henry, or Uncle George, or Grandpa, came riding out of the Big Woods to see Pa. Ma would come to the door and ask how all the folks were, and she would say:
“Charles is in the clearing.”
Then she would cook more dinner than usual, and dinner time would be longer. Pa and Ma and the visitor would sit talking a little while before they went back to work.
Sometimes Ma let Laura and Mary go across the road and down the hill, to see Mrs. Peterson. The Petersons had just moved in. Their house was new, and always very neat, because Mrs. Peterson had no little girls to muss it up. She was a Swede and she let Laura and Mary look at the pretty things she had brought from Sweden—laces, and colored embroideries, and china.
Mrs. Peterson talked Swedish to them, and they talked English to her, and they understood each other perfectly. She always gave them each a cookie when they left, and they nibbled the cookies very slowly while they walked home.
Laura nibbled away exactly half of hers, and Mary nibbled exactly half of hers, and the other halves they saved for Baby Carrie. Then when they got home, Carrie had two half-cookies, and that was a whole cookie.
This wasn’t right. All they wanted to do was to divide the cookies fairly with Carrie. Still, if Mary saved half her cookie, while Laura ate the whole of hers, or if Laura saved half, and Mary ate her whole cookies, that wouldn’t be fair, either.
They didn’t know what to do. So each saved half, and gave it to Baby Carrie. But they always felt that somehow that wasn’t quite fair.
Sometimes a neighbor sent word that the family was coming to spend the day. Then Ma did extra cleaning and cooking, and opened the package of store sugar. And on the day set, a wagon would come driving up to the gate in the morning and there would be strange children to play with.
When Mr. and Mrs. Huleatt came, they brought Eva and Clarence with them. Eva was a pretty girl, with dark eyes and black curls. She played carefully and kept her dress clean and smooth. Mary liked that, but Laura liked better to play with Clarence.
Clarence was red-headed and freckled, and always laughing. His clothes were pretty, too. He wore a blue suit buttoned all the way up the front with bright gilt buttons, and trimmed with braid, and he had copper-toed shoes.
The strips of copper across the toes were so glittering bright that Laura wished she were a boy. Little girls didn’t wear copper-toes.
Laura and Clarence ran and shouted and climbed trees, while Mary and Eva walked nicely together and talked. Ma and Mrs. Huleatt visited and looked at a Godey’s Lady’s Book which Mrs. Huleatt had brought, and Pa and Mr. Huleatt looked at the horses and the crops and smoked their pipes.
Once Aunt Lotty came to spend the day. That morning Laura had to stand still a long time while Ma unwound her hair from the cloth strings and combed it into long curls. Mary was all ready, sitting primly on a chair, with her golden curls shining and her china-blue dress fresh and crisp.
Laura liked her own red dress. But Ma pulled her hair dreadfully, and it was brown instead of golden, so that no one noticed it. Everyone noticed and admired Mary’s.
“There!” Ma said at last. “Your hair is curled beautifully, and Lotty is coming. Run meet her, both of you, and ask her which she likes best, brown curls or golden curls.”
Laura and Mary ran out of the door and down the path, for Aunt Lotty was already at the gate. Aunt Lotty was a big girl, much taller than Mary. Her dress was a beautiful pink and she was swinging a pink sunbonnet by one string.
“Which do you like best, Aunt Lotty,” Mary asked, “brown curls, or golden curls?” Ma had told them to ask that, and Mary was a very good little girl who always did exactly as she was told.
Laura waited to hear what Aunt Lotty would say, and she felt miserable.
“I like both kinds best,” Aunt Lotty said, smiling. She took Laura and Mary by the hand, one on either side, and they danced along to the door where Ma stood.
The sunshine came streaming through the windows into the house, and everything was so neat and pretty. The table was covered with a red cloth, and the cookstove was polished shining black. Through the bedroom door Laura could see the trundle bed in its place under the big bed. The pantry door stood wide open, giving the sight and smell of goodies on the shelves, and Black Susan came purring down the stairs from the attic, where she had been taking a nap.
It was all so pleasant, and Laura felt so gay and good that no one would ever have thought she could be as naughty as she was that evening.
Aunt Lotty had gone, and Laura and Mary were tired and cross. They were at the woodpile, gathering a pan of chips to kindle the fire in the morning. They always hated to pick up chips, but every day they had to do it. Tonight they hated it more than ever.
Laura grabbed the biggest chip, and Mary said:
“I don’t care. Aunt Lotty likes my hair best, anyway. Golden hair is lots prettier than brown.”
Laura’s throat swelled tight, and she could not speak. She knew golden hair was prettier than brown. She couldn’t speak, so she reached out quickly and slapped Mary’s face.
Then she heard Pa say, “Come here, Laura.”
She went slowly, dragging her feet. Pa was sitting just inside the door. He had seen her slap Mary.
“You remember,” Pa said, “I told you girls you must never strike each other.”
Laura began, “But Mary said—”
“That makes no difference,” said Pa. “It is what I say that you must mind.”
Then he took down a strap from the wall, he whipped Laura with the strap.
Laura sat on a chair in the corner and sobbed. When she stopped sobbing, she sulked. The only thing in the whole world to be glad about was that Mary had to fill the chip pan all by herself.
At last, when it was getting dark, Pa said again, “Come here, Laura.” His voice was kind, and when Laura came he took her on his knee and hugged her close. She sat in the crook of his arm, her head against his shoulder and his long brown whiskers partly covering her eyes, and everything was all right again.
She told Pa all about it, and she asked him, “You don’t like golden hair better than brown, do you?”
Pa’s blue eyes shone down at her, and he said, “Well, Laura, my hair is brown.”
She had not thought of that. Pa’s hair was brown, and his whiskers were brown, and she thought brown was a lovely color. But she was glad that Mary had had to gather all the chips.
In the summer evenings Pa did not tell stories or play the fiddle. Summer days were long, and he was tired after he had worked hard all day in the fields.
Ma was busy, too. Laura and Mary helped her weed the garden, and they helped her feed the calves and the hens. They gathered the eggs, and they helped make cheese.
When the grass was tall and thick in the woods and the cows were giving plenty of milk, that was the time to make cheese.
Somebody must kill a calf, for cheese could not be made without rennet, and rennet is the lining of a young calf’s stomach. The calf must be very young, so that it had never eaten anything but milk.
Laura was afraid that Pa must kill one of the little calves in the barn. They were so sweet. One was fawn-colored and one was red, and their hair was so soft and their large eyes so wondering. Laura’s heart beat fast when Ma talked to Pa about making cheese.
Pa would not kill either of his calves, because they were heifers and would grow into cows. He went to Grandpa’s and to Uncle Henry’s, to talk about the cheese-making, and Uncle Henry said he would kill one of his calves. There would be enough rennet for Aunt Polly and Grandma and Ma.
So Pa went again to Uncle Henry’s, and came back with a piece of the little calf’s stomach. It was like a piece of soft, grayish-white leather, all ridged and rough on one side.
When the cows were milked at night, Ma set the milk away in pans. In the morning she skimmed off the cream to make into butter later. Then when the morning’s milk had cooled, she mixed it with the skimmed milk and set it all on the stove to heat.
A bit of the rennet, tied in a cloth, was soaking in warm water.
When the milk was heated enough, Ma squeezed every drop of water from the rennet in the cloth, and she poured the water into the milk. She stirred it well and left it in a warm place by the stove. In a little while it thickened into a smooth, quivery mass.
With a long knife Ma cut this mass into little squares, and let it stand while the curd separated from the whey. Then she poured it all into a cloth and let the thin, yellowish whey drain out.
When no more whey dripped from the cloth, Ma emptied the curd into a big pan and salted it turning and mixing it well.
Laura and Mary were always there, helping all they could. They loved to eat bits of the curd when Ma was salting it. It squeaked in their teeth.
Under the cherry tree outside the back door Pa had put up the board to press the cheese on. He had cut two grooves the length of the board, and laid the board on blocks, one end a little higher than the other. Under the lower end stood an empty pail.
Ma put her wooden cheese hoop on the board, spread a clean, wet cloth all over the inside of it, and filled it heaping full of the chunks of salted curd. She covered this with another clean, wet cloth, and laid on top of it a round board, cut small enough to go inside the cheese hoop. Then she lifted a heavy rock on top of the board.
All day long the round board settled slowly under the weight of the rock, and whey pressed out and ran down the grooves of the board into the pail.
Next morning, Ma would take out the round, pale yellow cheese, as large as a milk pan. Then she made more curd, and filled the cheese hoop again.
Every morning she took the new cheese out of the press, and trimmed it smooth. She sewed a cloth tightly around it, and rubbed the cloth all over with fresh butter. Then she put the cheese on a shelf in the pantry.
Every day she wiped every cheese carefully with a wet cloth, then rubbed it all over with fresh butter once more, and laid it down on its other side. After a great many days, the cheese was ripe, and there was a hard rind all over it.
Then Ma wrapped each cheese in paper and laid it away on the high shelf. There was nothing more to do with it but eat it.
Laura and Mary liked cheese-making. They liked to eat the curd that squeaked in their teeth and they liked to eat the edges Ma pared off the big, round, yellow cheeses to make them smooth, before she sewed them up in cloth.
Ma laughed at them for eating green cheese.
“The moon is made of green cheese, some people say,” she told them.
The new cheese did look like the round moon when it came up behind the trees. But it was not green; it was yellow, like the moon.
“It’s green,” Ma said, “because it isn’t ripened yet. When it’s cured and ripened, it won’t be a green cheese.”
“Is the moon really made of green cheese?” Laura asked, and Ma laughed.
“I think people say that, because it looks like a green cheese,” she said. “But appearances are deceiving.” Then while she wiped all the green cheeses and rubbed them with butter, she told them about the dead, cold moon that is like a little world on which nothing grows.
The first day Ma made cheese, Laura tasted the whey. She tasted it without saying anything to Ma, and when Ma turned around and saw her face, Ma laughed. That night while she was washing the supper dishes and Mary and Laura were wiping them, Ma told Pa that Laura had tasted the whey and didn’t like it.
“You wouldn’t starve to death on Ma’s whey, like old Grimes did on his wife’s,” Pa said.
Laura begged him to tell her about Old Grimes. So, though Pa was tired, he took his fiddle out of its box and played and sang for Laura:
“Old Grimes is dead, that good old man,
We ne’er shall see him more,
He used to wear an old gray coat,
All buttoned down before.
“Old Grimeses’ wife made skim-milk cheese,
Old Grimes, he drank the whey,
There came an east wind from the west,
And blew Old Grimes away.”
“There you have it!” said Pa. “She was a mean, tight-fisted woman. If she hadn’t skimmed all the milk, a little cream would have run off in the whey, and Old Grimes might have staggered along.
“But she skimmed off every bit of cream, and poor Old Grimes got so thin the wind blew him away. Plumb starved to death.”
Then Pa looked at Ma and said, “Nobody’d starve to death when you were around, Caroline.”
“Well, no,” Ma said. “No, Charles, not if you were there to provide for us.”
Pa was pleased. It was all so pleasant, the doors and windows wide open to the summer evening, the dishes making little cheerful sounds together as Ma washed them and Mary and Laura wiped, and Pa putting away the fiddle and smiling and whistling softly to himself.
After awhile he said, “I’m going over to Henry’s tomorrow morning, Caroline, to borrow his grubbing hoe. Those sprouts are getting waist-high around the stumps in the wheat-field. A man just has to keep everlasting at it, or the woods’ll take back the place.”
Early next morning he started to walk to Uncle Henry’s. But before long he came hurrying back, hitched the horses to the wagon, threw in his ax, the two washtubs, the wash-boiler and all the pails and wooden buckets there were.
“I don’t know if I’ll need em all, Caroline,” he said, “but I’d hate to want em and not have em.”
“Oh, what is it? What is it?” Laura asked, jumping up and down with excitement.
“Pa’s found a bee tree,” Ma said. “Maybe he’ll bring us some honey.”
It was noon before Pa came driving home. Laura had been watching for him, and she ran out to the wagon as soon as it stopped by the barnyard. But she could not see into it.
Pa called, “Caroline, if you’ll come take this pail of honey, I’ll go unhitch.”
Ma came out to the wagon, disappointed. She said:
“Well, Charles, even a pail of honey is something.” Then she looked into the wagon and threw up her hands. Pa laughed.
All the pails and buckets were heaping full of dripping, golden honeycomb. Both tubs were piled full, and so was the wash-boiler.
Pa and Ma went back and forth, carrying the two loaded tubs and the wash-boiler and all the buckets and pails into the house. Ma heaped a plate high with the golden pieces, and covered all the rest neatly with cloths.
For dinner they all had as much of the delicious honey as they could eat, and Pa told them how he found the bee tree.
“I didn’t take my gun,” he said, “because I wasn’t hunting, and now it’s summer there wasn’t much danger of meeting trouble. Panthers and bears are so fat, this time of year, that they’re lazy and good-natured.
“Well, I took a short cut through the woods, and I nearly ran into a big bear. I came around a clump of underbrush, and there he was, not as far from me as across this room.
“He looked around at me, and I guess he saw I didn’t have a gun. Anyway, he didn’t pay any more attention to me.
“He was standing at the foot of a big tree, and bees were buzzing all around him. They couldn’t sting through his thick fur, and he kept brushing them away from his head with one paw.
“I stood there watching him, and he put the other paw into a hole in the tree and drew it out all dripping with honey. He licked the honey off his paw and reached in for more. But by that time I had found me a club. I wanted that honey myself.
“So I made a great racket, banging the club against a tree and yelling. The bear was so fat and so full of honey that he just dropped on all fours and waddled off among the trees. I chased him some distance and got him going fast, away from the bee tree, and then I came back for the wagon.”
Laura asked him how he got the honey away from the bees.
“That was easy,” Pa said. “I left the horses back in the woods, where they wouldn’t get stung, and then I chopped the tree down and split it open.”
“Didn’t the bees sting you?”
“No,” said Pa. “Bees never sting me.
“The whole tree was hollow, and filled from top to bottom with honey. The bees must have been storing honey there for years. Some of it was old and dark, but I guess I got enough good clean honey to last us a long time.”
Laura was sorry for the poor bees. She said: “They worked so hard, and now they won’t have any honey.”
But Pa said there was lots of honey left for the bees, and there was another large, hollow tree near by, into which they could move. He said it was time they had a clean, new home.
They would take the old honey he had left in the old tree, make it into fresh, new honey, and store it in their new house. They would save every drop of the spilled honey and put it away, and they would have plenty of honey again, long before winter came.