By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chapter 12)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Wings Over Silver Lake
The weather grew colder and the sky was full of wings and great birds flying. From east to west, from north to south, and as far up into the blue sky as eyes could see, were birds and birds and birds sailing on beating wings.
At evening down they came endlessly from the sky, sliding down long slopes of air to rest on the water of Silver Lake.
There were great, gray geese. There were smaller, snow-white brant that looked like snow at the water’s edge. There were ducks of many kinds; the large mallards with a shimmering of purple and green on their wings, the redheads, the bluebills, the canvasbacks, and teals and many others whose names Pa did not know. There were herons, and pelicans, and cranes. There were little mudhens, and the small hell-divers that peppered the water thickly with their little black bodies. When a shot cracked, hell-divers up-ended and vanished quicker than winking. They went far down in the water and stayed there a long time.
At sunset the whole large lake was covered with birds of all kinds speaking in every kind of bird’s voice to each other before they went to sleep for a night of rest on their long journey from north to south. The winter was driving them; the winter was coming behind them from the north. They knew it and started early so that they could rest on the way. All night they rested, comfortable on the water that held them so softly and when dawn came, up they rose again to swim onward in the high air with their rested, strong wings.
One day Pa came from hunting, bringing a great, snow-white bird.
“I’m sorry, Caroline,” he said soberly. “I would not have done it if I’d known. I’ve shot a swan. It was too beautiful to kill. But I had no idea it was a swan. I never saw one flying before.”
“It can’t be helped now, Charles,” Ma told him. They all stood looking sorrowfully at the beautiful, snowy bird that would never fly again. “Come,” said Ma. “I’ll pluck its feathers and you skin it. We’ll cure the skin with the swan’s-down on.”
“It’s bigger than I am,” Carrie said. The swan was so large that Pa measured it. Its feathery white wings measured eight feet from tip to tip.
Another day Pa brought a pelican to the shanty to show Ma what it was like. He opened the long bill and dead fish fell out of the pouch of skin underneath it. Ma snatched up her apron and pressed it to her face, and Carrie and Grace held their noses.
“Take it away, Charles, quick!” said Ma through the apron. Some of those fish were fresh, and some were fish that had been dead a long, long time. Pelicans were not fit to eat. Even their feathers smelled so strongly of rotten fish that Ma could not save them for pillows.
Pa shot all the ducks and geese that they could eat, but he shot nothing else except hawks. Sometimes he shot a hawk because hawks kill other birds. Every day Laura and Ma plucked feathers from the scalded skins of the ducks and geese that Pa shot for dinner.
“We’ll soon have enough for another feather bed,” said Ma. “Then you and Mary can sleep in feathers this winter.”
All those golden autumn days the sky was full of wings. Wings beating low over the blue water of Silver Lake, wings beating high in the blue air far above it. Wings of geese, of brant, of ducks and pelicans and cranes and heron and swans and gulls, bearing them all away to green fields in the south.
The wings and the golden weather and the tang of frost in the mornings made Laura want to go somewhere. She did not know where. She wanted only to go.
“Let’s go west,” she said one night after supper. “Pa, can’t we go west when Uncle Henry does?”
Uncle Henry and Louisa and Charley had earned money enough to go west. They were going back to the Big Woods to sell their farm, and in the spring, with Aunt Polly, they were all driving west to Montana.
“Why can’t we?” Laura said. “There’s all the money you’ve earned Pa; three hundred dollars. And we’ve got the team and wagon. Oh, Pa, let’s go on west!”
“Mercy, Laura!” Ma said. “Whatever—” She could not go on.
“I know, little Half-Pint,” said Pa, and his voice was very kind. “You and I want to fly like the birds. But long ago I promised your Ma that you girls should go to school. You can’t go to school and go west. When this town is built there’ll be a school here. I’m going to get a homestead, Laura, and you girls are going to school.”
Laura looked at Ma, and then again at Pa, and she saw that it must happen; Pa would stay on a homestead, and she would go to school.
“You’ll thank me some day, Laura. And you too, Charles,” Ma said gently.
“Just so you’re content, Caroline, I’m satisfied,” said Pa. That was true, but he did want to go west. Laura turned back to the dishpan and went on washing the supper dishes.
“Another thing, Laura,” said Pa. “You know Ma was a teacher, and her mother before her. Ma’s heart is set on one of you girls teaching school, and I guess it will have to be you. So you see you must have your schooling.”
Laura’s heart jerked, and then she seemed to feel it falling, far, far down. She did not say anything. She knew that Pa and Ma, and Mary too, had thought that Mary would be a teacher. Now Mary couldn’t teach, and—“Oh, I won’t! I won’t!” Laura thought. “I don’t want to! I can’t.” Then she said to herself, “You must.”
She could not disappoint Ma. She must do as Pa said. So she had to be a school teacher when she grew up. Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money.