The Long Winter (Chaprer 13)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
We’ll Weather the Blast
Mixed with those wild voices, Laura heard the clatter of stove lids and Pa’s singing, “Oh, I am as happy as a big sunflower that nods and bends in the breezes, Oh!”
“Caroline!” Pa called up the stairs, “the fires will be going good by the time you get down here. I’m going to the stable.”
Laura heard Ma stirring. “Lie still, girls,” she said. “No need for you to get up till the house is warmer.”
It was terribly cold outside the bedcovers. But the roaring and shrilling of the storm would not let Laura sleep again. The frosted nails in the roof above her were like white teeth. She lay under them only a few minutes before she followed Ma downstairs.
The fire was burning brightly in the cookstove, and in the front room the heater’s side was red-hot, but still the rooms were cold and so dark that it did not seem to be daytime.
Laura broke the ice on the water in the water pail. She filled the washbasin and set it on the stove. Then she and Ma waited, shivering, for the water to warm so that they could wash their faces. Laura had begun to like living in town but this was the same old winter-time.
When Pa came in, his whiskers were blown full of snow and his nose and ears were cherry-red.
“Jerusalem crickets! This is a humdinger!” he exclaimed. “Good thing the stable is tight. I had to dig my way into it. Snow was packed as high as the door. Lucky I put your clothesline where I did, Caroline. I had to come back to the lean-to to get the shovel, but there was the clothesline to hang on to. Hot pancakes and fried pork look good to me! I’m hungry as a wolf.”
The water was warm in the washbasin for him, and while he washed and combed his hair at the bench by the door, Laura set the chairs to the table and Ma poured the fragrant tea.
The hot cakes were good, with crisped slices of fat pork and the brown-and-amber grease from the pan, and dried-apple sauce and sugar syrup besides. There was no butter, for Ellen was nearly dry, and Ma divided last night’s milk between Grace’s cup and Carrie’s.
“Let’s be thankful for the little milk we have,” she said, “because there’ll be less before there’s more.”
They were chilly at the table so, after breakfast, they all gathered around the heater. In silence they listened to the winds and the sound of snow driven against the walls and the windows. Ma roused herself with a little shake.
“Come, Laura. Let’s get the work done. Then we can sit by the fire with an easy conscience.”
In that well-built house it was strange that the fire did not warm the kitchen. While Ma put the beans to parboil and Laura washed the dishes, they wondered how cold it was now in the claim shanty. Ma put more coal on the fire and took the broom and Laura shivered at the foot of the stairs. She must go up to make the beds, but the cold came down the stairs and went through her woolen dress and petticoats and red flannels as if she were standing there in her bare skin.
“We’ll leave the beds open to air, Laura,” said Ma. “They’re upstairs out of sight and you can do them when the house warms up.”
She finished sweeping and the kitchen work was done. They went back to the front room and sitting down they put their cold feet on the footrest of the heater to warm.
Pa went into the kitchen and came back in his big coat and muffler, his cap in his hand.
“I’m going across the street to Fuller’s to hear the news,” he said.
“Must you, Charles?” Ma asked him.
“Somebody may be lost,” he answered. Putting on his cap he went to the door, but paused to say, “Don’t worry about me! I know how many steps it takes to cross the street, and if I don’t strike a building then, I’ll go no farther away till I do find one.” He shut the door behind him.
Laura stood at the window. She had cleared a peephole through the frost but she saw only blank whiteness. She could not see Pa at the door nor tell when he left it. She went slowly back to the heater. Mary sat silently rocking Grace. Laura and Carrie just sat.
“Now, girls!” Ma said. “A storm outdoors is no reason for gloom in the house.”
“What good is it to be in town?” Laura said. “We’re just as much by ourselves as if there wasn’t any town.”
“I hope you don’t expect to depend on anybody else, Laura.” Ma was shocked. “A body can’t do that.”
“But if we weren’t in town Pa wouldn’t have to go out in this blizzard to find out if somebody else is lost.”
“Be that as it may be,” Ma said firmly, “it is time for our Sunday school lessons. We will each say the verse we learned this week and then we’ll see how many of the old lessons we remember.”
First Grace, then Carrie, then Laura and Mary, and Ma repeated their verses.
“Now Mary,” Ma said, “you tell us a verse, then Laura will do the same, and then Carrie. See which one can keep on longest.”
“Oh, Mary will beat,” Carrie said, discouraged before she began.
“Come on! I’ll help you,” Laura urged.
“Two against one isn’t fair,” Mary objected.
“It is too fair!” Laura contradicted. “Isn’t it, Ma? When Mary’s been learning Bible verses so much longer than Carrie has.”
“Yes,” Ma decided. “I think it is fair enough but Laura must only prompt Carrie.”
So they began, went on and on until Carrie could remember no more even when Laura prompted her. Then Mary and Laura went on, against each other, until at last Laura had to give up.
She hated to admit that she was beaten, but she had to. “You beat me, Mary. I can’t remember another one.”
“Mary beat! Mary beat!” Grace cried, clapping her hands and Ma said, smiling, to Mary, “That’s my bright girl.”
They all looked at Mary who was looking at nothing with her large, beautiful blue eyes that had no sight in them. She smiled with joy when Ma praised her and then her face changed as the light does when a blizzard comes. For a minute she looked as she used to look when she could see, and she and Laura were quarreling. She never would give up to Laura because she was the older and the boss.
Then her whole face blushed pink and in a low voice she said, “I didn’t beat you, Laura. We’re even. I can’t remember another verse, either.”
Laura was ashamed. She had tried so hard to beat Mary at a game, but no matter how hard she tried she could never be as good as Mary was. Mary was truly good. Then for the first time Laura wanted to be a schoolteacher so that she could make the money to send Mary to college. She thought, “Mary is going to college, no matter how hard I have to work to send her.”
At that moment the clock struck eleven times. “My goodness, the dinner!” Ma exclaimed. She hurried into the kitchen to stir up the fire and season the bean soup. “Better put more coal in the heater, Laura,” she called. “Seems like the house hasn’t warmed up like it should have.”
It was noon when Pa came in. He came in quietly and went to the heater where he took off his coat and cap. “Hang these up for me, will you, Laura? I’m pretty cold.”
“I’m sorry, Charles,” Ma said from the kitchen. “I can’t seem to get the house warm.”
“No wonder,” Pa answered. “It’s forty degrees below zero and this wind is driving the cold in. This is the worst storm yet, but luckily everyone is accounted for. Nobody’s lost from town.”
After dinner Pa played hymn tunes on his fiddle, and all the afternoon they sang. They sang:
“There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar…”
“Jesus is a rock in a weary land,
A weary land, a weary land,
Jesus is a rock in a weary land,
A shelter in the time of storm.”
They sang Ma’s favorite, “There Is a Happy Land, Far, Far Away.” And just before Pa laid the fiddle in its box because the time had come when he must get to the stable and take care of the stock, he played a gallant, challenging tune that brought them all to their feet, and they all sang lustily,
“Then let the hurricane roar!
It will the sooner be o’er.
We’ll weather the blast
And land at last
On Canaan’s happy shore!”
The hurricane was roaring, the icy snow as hard as buckshot and fine as sand was whirling, swirling, beating upon the house.