The Long Winter (Chapter 22)

The Long Winter

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 22
Cold and Dark

That blizzard seemed never to end. It paused sometimes, only to roar again quickly and more furiously out of the northwest. Three days and nights of yelling shrill winds and roaring fury beat at the dark, cold house and ceaselessly scoured it with ice-sand. Then the sun shone out, from morning till noon perhaps, and the dark anger of winds and icy snow came again.

Sometimes in the night, half-awake and cold, Laura half-dreamed that the roof was scoured thin. Horribly the great blizzard, large as the sky, bent over it and scoured with an enormous invisible cloth, round and round on the paper-thin roof, till a hole wore through and squealing, chuckling, laughing a deep Ha! Ha! the blizzard whirled in. Barely in time to save herself, Laura jumped awake.

Then she did not dare to sleep again. She lay still and small in the dark, and all around her the black darkness of night, that had always been restful and kind to her, was now a horror. She had never been afraid of the dark. “I am not afraid of the dark,” she said to herself over and over, but she felt that the dark would catch her with claws and teeth if it could hear her move or breathe. Inside the walls, under the roof where the nails were clumps of frost, even under the covers where she huddled, the dark was crouched and listening.

Daytimes were not so bad as the nights. The dark was thinner then and ordinary things were in it. A dark twilight filled the kitchen and the lean-to. Mary and Carrie took turns at the coffee mill that must never stop grinding. Ma made the bread and swept and cleaned and fed the fire. In the lean-to Laura and Pa twisted hay till their cold hands could not hold the hay to twist it and must be warmed at the stove.

The hay-fire could not keep the cold out of the kitchen but close to the stove the air was warm. Mary’s place was in front of the oven with Grace in her lap. Carrie stood behind the stovepipe and Ma’s chair was on the other side of the stove. Pa and Laura leaned over the stove hearth into the warmth that rose upward.

Their hands were red and swollen, the skin was cold, and covered with cuts made by the sharp slough hay. The hay was cutting away the cloth of their coats on the left side and along the underneath of their left coat sleeves. Ma patched the worn places, but the hay cut away the patches.

For breakfast there was brown bread. Ma toasted it crisp and hot in the oven and she let them dip it in their tea.

“It was thoughtful of you, Charles, to lay in such a supply of tea,” she said. There was still plenty of tea and there was still sugar for it.

For the second meal of the day she boiled twelve potatoes in their jackets. Little Grace needed only one, the others had two apiece, and Ma insisted that Pa take the extra one. “They’re not big potatoes, Charles,” she argued, “and you must keep up your strength. Anyway, eat it to save it. We don’t want it, do we, girls?”

“No, Ma,” they all said. “No, thank you, Pa, truly I don’t want it.” This was true. They were not really hungry. Pa was hungry. His eyes looked eagerly at the brown bread and the steaming potatoes when he came from struggling along the clothesline in the storm. But the others were only tired, tired of the winds and the cold and the dark, tired of brown bread and potatoes, tired and listless and dull.

Every day Laura found time to study a little. When enough hay was twisted to last for an hour, she sat down by Mary, between the stove and the table, and opened the school-books. But she felt dull and stupid. She could not remember history and she leaned her head on her hand and looked at a problem on her slate without seeing how to solve it or wanting to.

“Come, come, girls! We must not mope,” Ma said. “Straighten up, Laura and Carrie! Do your lessons briskly and then we’ll have an entertainment.”

“How, Ma?” Carrie asked.

“Get your lessons first,” said Ma.

When study time was over, Ma took the Independent Fifth Reader. “Now,” she said, “let’s see how much you can repeat from memory. You first, Mary. What shall it be?”

“The Speech of Regulus,” said Mary. Ma turned the leaves until she found it and Mary began.

“‘Ye doubtless thought—for ye judge of Roman virtue by your own—that I would break my plighted oath rather than, returning, brook your vengeance!’” Mary could repeat the whole of that splendid defiance. “‘Here in your capital do I defy you! Have I not conquered your armies, fired your towns, and dragged your generals at my chariot wheels, since first my youthful arms could wield a spear?’”

The kitchen seemed to grow larger and warmer. The blizzard winds were not as strong as those words.

“You did that perfectly, Mary,” Ma praised her. “Now, Laura?”

“Old Tubal Cain,” Laura began, and the verses lifted her to her feet. You had to stand up and let your voice ring out with the hammer strokes of old Tubal Cain.

“Old Tubal Cain was a man of might,
In the days when the earth was young.
By the fierce red light of his furnace bright,
The strokes of his hammer rung…”

Pa came in before Laura reached the end. “Go on, go on,” he said. “That warms me as much as the fire.” So Laura went on, while Pa got out of his coat that was white and stiff with snow driven into it, and leaned over the fire to melt the snow frozen in his eyebrows.

“And sang, ‘Hurrah for Tubal Cain!
Our staunch good friend is he;
And for the plowshare and the plow
To him our praise shall be.
But while oppression lifts its head

On a tyrant would be lord,

Though we may thank him for the plow,
We will not forget the sword.’”

You remembered every word correctly, Laura,” Ma said, shutting the book. “Carrie and Grace shall have their turns tomorrow.”

It was time then to twist more hay but while Laura shivered and twisted the sharp stuff in the cold she thought of more verses. Tomorrow afternoon was something to look forward to. The Fifth Reader was full of beautiful speeches and poems and she wanted to remember perfectly as many of them as Mary remembered.

The blizzard stopped sometimes. The whirling winds straightened out and steadied, the air cleared above blowing snow, and Pa set out to haul hay.

Then Laura and Ma worked quickly to do the washing and hang it out in the cold to freeze dry. No one knew how soon the blizzard would come again. At any moment the cloud might rise and come faster than any horses could run. Pa was not safe out on the prairie away from the town.

Sometimes the blizzard stopped for half a day. Sometimes the sun shone from morning to sunset and the blizzard came back with the dark. On such days, Pa hauled three loads of hay. Until he came back and put David in the stable Laura and Ma worked hard and silently, looking often at the sky and listening to the wind, and Carrie silently watched the northwest through the peephole that she made on the window.

Pa often said that he could not have managed without David. “He is such a good horse,” Pa said. “I did not know a horse could be so good and patient.” When David fell through the snow, he always stood still until Pa shoveled him out. Then quickly and patiently he hauled the sled around the hole and went on until he fell through the snow crust again. “I wish I had some oats or corn to give him,” Pa said.

When the roaring and shrieking winds came back and the scouring snow whirled again, Pa said, “Well, there’s hay enough to last awhile, thanks to David.”

The clothesline was there to guide him to the stable and back. There was hay and still some wheat and potatoes, and while the stormwinds blew Pa was safe at home. And in the afternoons Mary and Laura and Carrie recited. Even Grace knew “Mary’s Little Lamb,” and “Bo-peep Has Lost Her Sheep.”

Laura liked to see Grace’s blue eyes and Carrie’s shine with excitement when she told them:

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year…”

She and Carrie both loved to repeat, in concert, “The Swan’s Nest”:

“Little Ellie sits alone
’Mid the beeches of a meadow,
By a stream side, on the grass,
And the trees are showering down
Doubles of their leaves in shadow
On her shining hair and face…”

The air was warm and quiet there, the grass was warm in the sunshine, the clear water sang its song to itself, and the leaves softly murmured. The meadow’s insects drowsily hummed. While they were there with little Ellie, Laura and Carrie almost forgot the cold. They hardly heard the winds and the whirling hard snow scouring the walls.

One still morning, Laura came downstairs to find Ma looking surprised and Pa laughing. “Go look out the back door!” he told Laura.

She ran through the lean-to and opened the back door. There was a rough, low tunnel going into shadows in gray-white snow. Its walls and its floor were snow and its snow roof solidly filled the top of the doorway.

“I had to gopher my way to the stable this morning,” Pa explained.

“But what did you do with the snow?” Laura asked.

“Oh, I made the tunnel as low as I could get through. I dug the snow out and pushed it back of me and up through a hole that I blocked with the last of it. There’s nothing like snow for keeping out wind!” Pa rejoiced. “As long as that snowbank stands, I can do my chores in comfort.”

“How deep is the snow?” Ma wanted to know.

“I can’t say. It’s piled up considerably deeper than the lean-to roof,” Pa answered.

“You don’t mean to say this house is buried in snow!” Ma exclaimed.

“A good thing if it is,” Pa replied. “You notice the kitchen is warmer than it has been this winter?”

Laura ran upstairs. She scratched a peephole on the window and put her eyes to it. She could hardly believe them. Main Street was level with her eyes. Across the glittering snow she could see the blank, square top of Harthorn’s false front sticking up like a short piece of solid board fence.

She heard a gay shout and then she saw horses’ hoofs trotting rapidly before her eyes. Eight gray hoofs, with slender brown ankles swiftly bending and straightening, passed quickly by, and then a long sled with two pairs of boots standing on it. She crouched down, to look upward through the peephole, but the sled was gone. She saw only the sky sharp with sunlight that stabbed her eyes. She ran down to the warm kitchen to tell what she had seen.

“The Wilder boys,” Pa said. “They’re hauling hay.”

“How do you know, Pa?” Laura asked him. “I only saw the horses’ feet, and boots.”

“There’s no one in town but those two, and me, that dares go out of town,” said Pa. “Folks are afraid a blizzard’ll come up. Those Wilder boys are hauling in all their slough hay from Big Slough and selling it for three dollars a load to burn.”

“Three dollars!” Ma exclaimed.

“Yes, and fair enough for the risk they take. They’re making a good thing out of it. Wish I could. But they’ve got coal to burn. I’ll be glad if we have enough hay to last us through. I wasn’t counting on it for our winter’s fuel.”

“They went by as high as the houses!” Laura exclaimed. She was still excited. It was strange to see horses’ hoofs and a sled and boots in front of your eyes, as a little animal, a gopher, for instance, might see them.

“It’s a wonder they don’t sink in the drifts,” Ma said.

“Oh, no.” Pa was wolfing his toast and drinking his tea rapidly. “They won’t sink. These winds pack the snow as hard as a rock. David’s shoes don’t even make tracks on it. The only trouble’s where the grass is lodged and loose underneath.”

He got into his wraps in a hurry. “Those boys have got the start of me this morning. I was digging the tunnel. Now I’ve got to dig David out of the stable. Got to haul hay while the sun shines!” he joked, as he shut the door behind him.

“He’s feeling chipper because he’s got that tunnel,” said Ma. “It’s a blessing he can do the chores in some comfort, out of the wind.”

That day they could not watch the sky from the kitchen window. So little cold came through the snow that Laura led Mary into the lean-to and taught her how to twist hay. Mary had wanted to learn but the lean-to had been too cold. It took her some time because she could not see how Laura twisted and held the strands and tucked in the ends, but at last she did it well. They stopped to warm themselves only a few times while they twisted the whole day’s supply of hay sticks.

Then the kitchen was so warm that they need not crowd around the stove. The house was very still. The only sounds were the little sounds of Ma and Mary rocking, the slate pencil on the slate, the teakettle’s pleasant hum, and their own low voices speaking.

“What a blessing this deep snowdrift is,” Ma said.

But they could not watch the sky. Watching it did no good. If the low gray cloud was swiftly rising, they could not stop it. They could not help Pa. He would see the cloud and reach shelter as quickly as he could. Laura thought this many times, but just the same she hurried upstairs through the cold to peep from the window.

Ma and Carrie looked at her quickly when she came down, and she always answered them out loud so that Mary would know. “The sky’s clear and not a thing is stirring but millions of glitters on the snow. I don’t believe there’s a breath of wind.”

That afternoon Pa dragged hay through the tunnel to cram the lean-to full. He had dug the tunnel past the stable door so that David could get out, and beyond the stable he had turned the tunnel at an angle, to check the winds that might blow into it.

“I never saw such weather,” he said. “It must be all of forty degrees below zero and not a breath of air stirring. The whole world seems frozen solid. I hope this cold holds. Going through that tunnel it’s no chore at all to do the chores.”

Next day was exactly the same. The stillness and the dusk and the warmth seemed to be a changeless dream going on forever the same, like the clock’s ticking. Laura jumped in her chair when the clock cleared its throat before it struck.

“Don’t be so nervous, Laura,” Ma murmured as if she were half-asleep. They did not recite that day. They did not do anything. They just sat.

The night was still, too. But morning woke them with a howling fury. The winds had come again and the lashing whirl of snow.

“Well, the tunnel’s going fast,” Pa said, when he came into breakfast. His eyebrows were frozen white with snow again and his wraps were stiff with it. Cold was pressing the warmth back again to the stove. “I did hope my tunnel would last through one of these onslaughts, anyway. Gosh dang this blizzard! It only lets go long enough to spit on its hands.”

“Don’t swear, Charles!” Ma snapped at him. She clapped her hand to her mouth in horror. “Oh, Charles, I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. But this wind, blowing and blowing…” Her voice died away and she stood listening.

“I know, Caroline,” Pa answered. “I know just how it makes you feel. It tires you out. I’ll tell you what, after breakfast we’ll read for a while about Livingston’s Africa.”

“It’s too bad I’ve burned so much hay this morning, Charles,” Ma said. “I’ve had to burn more, trying to get the place warm.”

“Never mind, it’s no trick to twist more,” Pa replied.

“I’ll help, Pa,” Laura offered.

“We’ve got all day for it,” Pa said. “Everything is snug at the stable till night. We’ll twist hay first, then we’ll read.”

Grace began to whimper. “My feet’s cold.”

“For shame, Grace! A big girl like you! Go warm your feet,” Laura told her.

“Come sit on my lap and warm them,” Mary said, feeling her way to her rocking chair before the oven.

After Laura and Pa had twisted a great pile of hay sticks and stacked them by the stove, Carrie brought Pa his big green book.

“Please read about the lions, Pa,” she asked him. “We can play the wind is lions roaring.”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to have a light, Caroline,” Pa said. “This print is small.” Ma lighted the button lamp and set it by him. “Now,” he said, “this is a jungle night in Africa. The flickering light here is from our campfire. Wild animals are all around us, yowling and squealing and roaring, lions and tigers and hyenas and I guess a hippopotamus or two. They won’t come anywhere near us because they’re afraid of the fire. You hear big leaves rasping, too, and queer birds squawking. It’s a thick, black, hot night with big stars overhead. Now I’m going to read what happens.” He began to read.

Laura tried to listen but she felt stupid and numb. Pa’s voice slid away into the ceaseless noises of the storm. She felt that the blizzard must stop before she could do anything, before she could even listen or think, but it would never stop. It had been blowing forever.

She was tired. She was tired of the cold and the dark, tired of brown bread and potatoes, tired of twisting hay and grinding wheat, filling the stove and washing dishes and making beds and going to sleep and waking up. She was tired of the blizzard winds. There was no tune in them any more, only a confusion of sound beating on her ears.

“Pa,” she spoke suddenly, interrupting his reading, “won’t you play the fiddle?”

Pa looked at her in surprise. Then he laid down the book. “Why yes, Laura,” he said. “If you want to hear the fiddle, I’ll play it.”

He opened and shut his hands and rubbed the fingers while Laura brought the fiddle-box from its warm shelter on the floor behind the stove.

Pa rosined the bow, tucked the fiddle under his chin, and touched the strings. He looked at Laura.

“Play ‘Bonnie Doon,’” Laura said, and Pa played and sang:

“Ye banks and braes of Bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?”

But every note from the fiddle was a very little wrong. Pa’s fingers were clumsy. The music dragged and a fiddle string snapped.

“My fingers are too stiff and thick from being out in the cold so much, I can’t play,” Pa spoke as if he were ashamed. He laid the fiddle in its box. “Put it away, Laura, until some other time,” he said.

“I wish you’d help me, anyway, Charles,” Ma said. She took the coffee mill from Mary and emptied the ground wheat from its little drawer. She filled the small hopper with kernels and handed the mill to Pa. “I’ll need another grinding to make the bread for dinner,” she told him.

Ma took the covered dish of souring from its warm place under the stove. She stirred it briskly, then measured two cupfuls into a pan, added salt and saleratus, and the flour that Mary and Carrie had ground. Then she took the mill from Pa and added the flour he had made.

“That’s just enough,” she said. “Thank you, Charles.”

“I’d better be doing the chores now before it gets too dark,” Pa said.

“I’ll have a hot meal ready and waiting by the time you come in,” Ma reminded him. He put on his wraps and went out into the storm.

Laura listened to the winds while she stared at the blank window without seeing it. The worst thing that had happened was that Pa could not play the fiddle. If she had not asked him to play it, he might not have known that he could not do it.

Ma, with Carrie crowded in beside her, sat in her rocking chair by the stove, opposite Mary. She held Grace in her arms and rocked slowly, softly singing to her:

“I will sing you a song of that beautiful land,
The far away home of the soul
Where no storms ever beat on that glittering strand
While the years of eternity roll.”

The wailing hymn blended with the wail of the winds while night settled down, deepening the dusk of whirling snow.

 

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