The Long Winter (Chaprer 12)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
On Saturday the sun was shining and the wind was blowing softly from the south. Pa was hauling hay from the homestead, for the cow and the horses must eat a great deal of hay to keep themselves warm in cold weather.
In the sunshine from the western windows Mary rocked gently, and Laura’s steel knitting needles flashed. Laura was knitting lace, of fine white thread, to trim a petticoat. She sat close to the window and watched the street, for she was expecting Mary Power and Minnie Johnson. They were coming to spend the afternoon, bringing their crocheting.
Mary was talking about the college that perhaps someday she could go to.
“I am keeping up with you in your lessons, Laura,” she said. “I do wish, if I do go to college, that you could go, too.”
“I suppose I’ll be teaching school,” Laura said, “so I couldn’t go anyway. And I guess you care more about it than I do.”
“Oh, I do care about it!” Mary softly exclaimed. “I want it more than anything. There’s so much to learn, I always wanted to go studying on and on. And to think that I can, if we can save the money, even now that I’m blind. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Yes, it is,” Laura agreed soberly. She did hope that somehow Mary could go. “Oh, bother! I’ve miscounted the stitches!” she exclaimed. She unraveled the row and began to pick the tiny stitches up again on the fine needle.
“Well,” she said, “‘The Lord helps them that help themselves’ and you surely will go to college, Mary, if…” She forgot what she was saying. The little loops of thread were dimming before her eyes as if she were going blind. She could not see them. The spool of thread dropped from her lap and rolled away on the floor as she jumped up.
“What’s the matter?” Mary cried out.
“The light’s gone!” Laura said. There was no sunshine. The air was gray and the note of the wind was rising. Ma came hurrying in from the kitchen.
“It’s storming, girls!” she had time to say, then the house shook as the storm struck it. The darkening store fronts across the street disappeared in a whirl of snow. “Oh, I wish Charles had got home!” Ma said.
Laura turned from the window. She drew Mary’s chair over to the heater, and from the coal hod she shoveled more coal on the fire. Suddenly the storm wind howled into the kitchen. The back door slammed hard and Pa came in, snowy and laughing.
“I beat the blizzard to the stable by the width of a gnat’s eyebrow!” he laughed. “Sam and David stretched out and came lickety-split! We made it just in the nick of time! This is one blizzard that got fooled!”
Ma took his coat and folded it to carry the snow out to the lean-to. “Just so you’re here, Charles,” she murmured.
Pa sat down and leaned to the heater, holding out his hands to warm them. But he was uneasily listening to the wind. Before long he started up from his chair.
“I’m going to do the chores before this gets any worse,” he said. “It may take me some time but don’t worry, Caroline. Your clothesline’ll hold and get me back all right.”
He was gone till dark and longer. Supper was waiting when he came in, stamping his feet and rubbing his ears.
“Gosh all hemlock! but it’s growing cold fast!” he exclaimed. “The snow strikes like buckshot. And listen to that wind howl!”
“I suppose this is blocking the trains?” Ma said.
“Well, we’ve lived without a railroad,” Pa answered cheerfully, but he gave Ma the look that warned her to say no more about it while the girls were listening. “We’re snug and warm, as we’ve been before without even the people and the stores,” he went on. “Now let’s have that hot supper!”
“And after supper, Pa, you’ll play the fiddle, won’t you?” Laura said. “Please.”
So after supper Pa called for his fiddle and Laura brought it to him. But when he had tuned the strings and rosined the bow he played a strange melody. The fiddle moaned a deep, rushing undertone and wild notes flickered high above it, rising until they thinned away in nothingness, only to come wailing back, the same notes but not quite the same, as if they had been changed while out of hearing.
Queer shivers tingled up Laura’s backbone and prickled over her scalp, and still the wild, changing melody came from the fiddle till she couldn’t bear it and cried, “What is it, Pa? Oh, what is that tune?”
“Listen.” Pa stopped playing and held his bow still, above the strings. “The tune is outdoors. I was only following it.”
They all listened to the winds playing that tune until Ma said, “We will likely hear enough of that without your playing it, Charles.”
“We’ll have something different, then,” Pa agreed. “What’ll it be?”
“Something to warm us up,” Laura asked, and the fiddle, gay and bright, began to warm them up. Pa played and sang, “Little Annie Rooney Is My Sweetheart!” and “The Old Gray Mare, She Ain’t What She Used to Be,” till even Ma’s toes were keeping time to it. He played the Highland Fling, and Irish jigs, and out on the clickety-clattering floor Laura and Carrie danced till their breath was gone.
When Pa laid the fiddle in the box he meant that now was bedtime.
It was hard to leave the warm room and go upstairs. Laura knew that in the cold up there every nail-point that came through the roof was fuzzy with frost. The downstairs windows were thickly covered with it, but somehow those frosty nails made her feel much colder.
She wrapped the two hot flatirons in their flannels and led the way. Mary and Carrie followed. Upstairs the air was so cold that it shriveled the insides of their noses, while they unbuttoned and dropped their shoes and shivered out of their dresses.
“God will hear us if we say our prayers under the covers,” Mary chattered, and she crawled between the cold blankets. There had not been time for the hot irons to warm the beds. In the still cold under the frosty-nailed roof, Laura could feel the quivering of the bedsteads that Mary and Carrie were shaking in. The deep roar and the shrill wild cries of the winds were all around that little space of stillness.
“What in the world are you doing, Laura?” Mary called. “Hurry and come help warm the bed!”
Laura could not answer without unclenching her teeth to rattle. She stood at the window in her nightdress and stocking-feet. She had scraped away the frost from a place on the glass and she was trying to look through it. She cupped her hands beside her eyes to shield them from the glimmer of lamplight that came up from the stairway. But still she could see nothing. In the roaring night outside, there was not one speck of light.
At last she crawled in beside Mary and curled up tightly, pressing her feet against the warm flatiron.
“I was trying to see a light,” she explained. “There must be a light in some house.”
“Didn’t you?” Mary asked.
“No,” Laura said. She had not been able even to see the light from the window downstairs where she knew the lamp was shining.
Carrie was quiet in her bed by the stovepipe that came up from the hot stove below. It helped to warm her and she had a hot flatiron too. She was fast asleep when Ma came up to tuck Grace in beside her.
“Are you warm enough, girls?” Ma whispered, bending over the bed and snuggling the covers more closely around them.
“We’re getting warm, Ma,” Laura answered.
“Then goodnight and sweet dreams.”
But even after Laura was warm she lay awake listening to the wind’s wild tune and thinking of each little house, in town, alone in the whirling snow with not even a light from the next house shining through. And the little town was alone on the wide prairie. Town and prairie were lost in the wild storm which was neither earth nor sky, nothing but fierce winds and a blank whiteness.
For the storm was white. In the night, long after the sun had gone and the last daylight could not possibly be there, the blizzard was whirling white.
A lamp could shine out through the blackest darkness and a shout could be heard a long way, but no light and no cry could reach through a storm that had wild voices and an unnatural light of its own. The blankets were warm and Laura was no longer cold but she shivered.