Farmer Boy (Chapter 7)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
That night was Saturday night. All day long Mother had been baking, and when Almanzo went into the kitchen for the milk-pails, she was still
frying doughnuts. The place was full of their hot, brown smell, and the wheaty smell of new bread, the spicy smell of cakes, and the syrupy smell of pies.
Almanzo took the biggest doughnut from the pan and bit off its crisp end. Mother was rolling out the golden dough, slashing it into long strips, rolling and doubling and twisting the strips. Her fingers flew; you could hardly see them. The strips seemed to twist themselves under her hands, and to leap into the big copper kettle of swirling hot fat.
Plump! they went to the bottom, sending up bubbles. Then quickly they came popping up, to float and slowly swell, till they rolled themselves over, their pale golden backs going into the fat and their plump brown bellies rising
out of it.
They rolled over, Mother said, because they were twisted. Some women made a new-fangled shape, round, with a hole in the middle. But round doughnuts wouldn’t turn themselves over. Mother didn’t have time to waste turning doughnuts; it was quicker to twist them.
Almanzo liked baking-day. But he didn’t like Saturday night. On Saturday night there was no cosy evening by the heater, with apples, popcorn, and cider. Saturday night was bath night.
After supper Almanzo and Royal again put on their coats and caps and mufflers and mittens. They carried a tub from the washtub outdoors to the rain-water barrel.
Everything was ghostly with snow. The stars were frosty in the sky, and only a little faint light came from the candle in the kitchen.
The inside of the rain-water barrel was coated thick with ice, and in the center, where the ice was chopped every day to keep the barrel from bursting, the hole had grown smaller and smaller. Royal chopped at it, and when his hatchet went through with an oosy thud, the water welled up quickly, because the ice was squeezing it from all sides.
It’s odd that water swells when it freezes. Everything else gets smaller in the cold.
Almanzo began dipping water and floating pieces of ice into the washtub. It was cold, slow work, dipping through the small hole, and he had an idea. Long icicles hung from the kitchen eaves. At the top they were a solid piece of ice, then their pointed tips hung down almost to the snow. Almanzo took hold of one and jerked, but only the tip broke off.
The hatchet had frozen to the porch floor where Royal had laid it, but Almanzo tugged it loose. He lifted it up in both hands and hit the icicles. An avalanche of ice came down with a splintering crash. It was a glorious noise.
“Hi, gimme!” Royal said, but Almanzo hit the icicles again; the noise was louder than before.
“You’re bigger than I be; you hit ’em with your fists,” Almanzo said. So Royal hit the icicles with both his fists; Almanzo hit them again with the hatchet. The noise was immense.
Almanzo yelled and Royal yelled and they hit more and more icicles. Big pieces of ice were flying all over the porch floor, and flying pieces pitted the snow. Along the eaves there was a gap as though the roof had lost some teeth.
Mother flung open the kitchen door.
“Mercy on us!” she cried. “Royal, Almanzo! Be you hurt?”
“No, Mother,” Almanzo said, meekly.
“What is it? What be you doing?”
Almanzo felt guilty. But they had not really been playing when they had work to do.
“Getting ice for the bath water, Mother,” he said.
“My land! Such a racket I never heard! Must you yell like Comanches?”
“No, Mother,” Almanzo said.
Mother’s teeth chattered in the cold, and she shut the door. Almanzo and Royal silently picked up the fallen icicles and silently filled the tub. It was so heavy they staggered when they carried it, and Father had to lift it onto the kitchen stove.
The ice melted while Almanzo greased his moccasins and Royal greased his boots. In the pantry Mother was filling the six-quart pan with boiled beans, putting in onions and peppers and the piece of fat pork, and pouring scrolls of molasses over all. Then Almanzo saw her open the flour barrels.
She flung rye flour and cornmeal into the big yellow crock, and stirred in milk and eggs and things, and poured the big baking-pan full of the yellow-gray rye ’n’ injun dough.
“You fetch the rye ’n’ injun, Almanzo; don’t spill it,” she said. She snatched up the pan of beans and Almanzo followed more slowly with the heavy pan of rye ’n’ injun. Father opened the big doors of the oven in the heater, and Mother slid the beans and the bread inside. They would slowly bake there, till Sunday dinner-time.
Then Almanzo was left alone in the kitchen, to take his bath. His clean underwear was hanging on a chair-back to air and warm. The washcloth and towel and the small wooden pannikin of soft-soap were on another chair. He brought another washtub from the woodshed and put it on the floor in front of the open oven-door.
He took off his waist and one pair of socks and his pants. Then he dipped some warm water from the tub on the stove into the tub on the floor. He took off his other pair of socks and his underwear, and his bare skin felt good in the heat from the oven. He toasted in the heat, and he thought he might just put on his clean underwear and not take a bath at all. But Mother would look, when he went into the dining-room.
So he stepped into the water. It covered his feet. With his fingers he dug some of the brown, slimy soft-soap from the pannikin and smeared it on the washcloth. Then he scrubbed himself well all over.
The water was warm around his toes, but it felt cold on his body. His wet belly steamed in the heat from the oven, but his wet back shivered. And when he turned around, his back seemed to blister, but his front was very cold. So he washed as quickly as he could, and he dried himself and got into his warm underwaist and his woolly long drawers, and he put on his long woolen nightshirt.
Then he remembered his ears. He took the washcloth again, and he scrubbed his ears and the back of his neck. He put on his nightcap.
He felt very clean and good, and his skin felt sleek in the fresh, warm clothes. It was the Saturday-night feeling.
It was pleasant, but Almanzo didn’t like it well enough to take a bath for it. If he could have had his way, he wouldn’t have taken a bath till spring.
He did not have to empty his tub, because if he went outdoors after taking a bath he would catch cold. Alice would empty the tub and wash it before she bathed in it. Then Eliza Jane would empty Alice’s, and Royal would empty Eliza Jane’s, and Mother would empty Royal’s. Late at night, Father would empty Mother’s and take his bath, and the next morning he would empty the tub for the last time.
Almanzo went into the dining-room in his clean, creamy-white underwear and socks and night-shirt and cap. Mother looked at him, and he went to her to be inspected.
She laid down her knitting and she looked at his ears and the back of his neck and she looked at his soapy-clean face, and she gave him a hug and a squeeze. “There! Run along with you to bed!”
He lighted a candle and he padded quickly up the cold stairs and blew out the candle and jumped into the soft, cold feather-bed. He began to say his prayers, but went to sleep before he finished them.