Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 9)

Little Town on the Prairie

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 9
Blackbirds

In August, the days were so hot that Laura and Mary took their walks in the early mornings before the sun had risen far. The air still had some freshness then and it was not too hot to be pleasant. But every walk seemed like a little bit of the last walk they would have together, for soon Mary was going away.

She was really going to college, that fall. They had looked forward so long to her going, that now when she really was going, it did not seem possible. It was hard to imagine, too, because none of them knew what college would be like; they had never seen one. But Pa had earned nearly a hundred dollars that spring; the garden and the oats and the corn were growing marvelously; and Mary really could go to college.

Coming back from their walk one morning, Laura noticed several grasses sticking to Mary’s skirt. She tried to pull them off, but they would not come loose.

“Ma!” she called. “Come look at this funny grass.” Ma had never seen a grass like it. The grass heads were like barley beards, except that they were twisted, and they ended in a seed pod an inch long, with a point as fine and hard as a needle, and a shaft covered with stiff hairs pointing backward. Like real needles, the points had sewed themselves into Mary’s dress. The stiff hair followed the needle-point easily, but kept it from being pulled back, and the four-inch-long, screw-like beard followed, twisting and pushing the needle-point farther in.

“Ouch! something bit me!” Mary exclaimed. Just above her shoetop, one of the strange grasses had pierced her stocking and was screwing itself into her flesh.

“I declare this beats all,” said Ma. “What next will we encounter on this homestead?”

When Pa came in at noon, they showed him the strange grass. He said it was Spanish needle grass. When it got in the mouths of horses or cattle, it must be cut out of their lips and tongues. It worked through sheep’s wool and into the sheep’s bodies, often killing them.

“Where did you girls find it?” he asked, and he was glad that Laura could not tell him. “If you didn’t notice it, there can’t be much of it. It grows in patches, and spreads. Exactly where did you go walking?”

Laura could tell him that. He said he would attend to that grass. “Some say it can be killed by burning it over, green,” he told them. “I’ll burn it now, to kill as many seeds as I can, and next spring I’ll be on the lookout and burn it, green.”

There were little new potatoes for dinner, creamed with green peas, and there were string beans and green onions. And by every plate was a saucer full of sliced tomatoes, to be eaten with sugar and cream.

“Well, we’ve got good things to eat, and plenty of them,” said Pa, taking a second helping of potatoes and peas.

“Yes,” Ma said happily; “nowadays we can all eat enough to make up for what we couldn’t have last winter.”

She was proud of the garden; it was growing so well. “I shall begin salting down cucumbers tomorrow, little ones are thick under all those vines. And the potato tops are thriving so, I can hardly find the hills underneath them, to scrabble.”

“If nothing happens to them, we’ll have plenty of potatoes this winter!” Pa rejoiced.

“We’ll have roasting ears soon, too,” Ma announced. “I noticed, this morning, some of the corn silks are beginning to darken.”

“I never saw a better corn crop,” said Pa. “We’ve got that to depend on.”

“And the oats,” said Ma. Then she asked, “What’s wrong with the oats, Charles?”

“Well, blackbirds are getting most of them,” Pa told her. “I no sooner set up a shock than it’s covered thick with the pests. They’re eating all the grain they can get at, and not leaving much but the straw.”

Ma’s cheerful face dimmed, but Pa went on. “Never mind, there’s a good crop of straw, and soon as I get the oats cut and shocked I’ll clear out the blackbirds with a shotgun.”

That afternoon, looking up from her sewing to thread her needle, Laura saw a wisp of smoke wavering in the heat waves from the prairie. Pa had taken time from his work in the oatfield to cut a swath around the patch of Spanish needles and set fire to those vicious grasses.

“The prairie looks so beautiful and gentle,” she said. “But I wonder what it will do next. Seems like we have to fight it all the time.”

“This earthly life is a battle,” said Ma. “If it isn’t one thing to contend with, it’s another. It always has been so, and it always will be. The sooner you make up your mind to that, the better off you are, and the more thankful for your pleasures. Now Mary, I’m ready to fit the bodice.”

They were making Mary’s best winter dress, for college. In the hot room, with the sun blazing on the thin board walls and roof, the lapfuls of wool cashmere almost smothered them. Ma was nervous about this best dress. She had made the summer dresses first, for practice with the patterns.

She had cut the patterns from newspaper, using her dressmaker’s chart of thin cardboard as a guide. Lines and figures for all different sizes were printed on it. The trouble was that nobody was exactly any of the sizes on the chart. After Ma had measured Mary, and figured and marked the size of every sleeve and skirt and bodice piece on the chart, and cut the patterns, and cut and basted the dress lining, then when she tried the lining on Mary she had to make changes all along the seams.

Laura had never before known that Ma hated sewing. Her gentle face did not show it now, and her voice was never exasperated. But her patience was so tight around her mouth that Laura knew she hated sewing as much as Laura did.

They were worried, too, because while they were buying the dress goods Mrs. White had told them that she had heard from her sister in Iowa that hoop skirts were coming back, in New York. There were no hoops yet to be bought in town, but Mr. Clancy was thinking of ordering some.

“I declare, I don’t know,” Ma said, worrying about hoop skirts. Mrs. Boast had had a Godey’s Lady’s Book last year. If she had one now, it would decide the question. But Pa must cut the oats and the hay; they were all too tired on Sundays to make the long, hot trip to the Boasts’ claim. When at last Pa saw Mr. Boast in town one Saturday, he said that Mrs. Boast did not have a new Godey’s Lady’s Book.

“We’ll just make the skirts wide enough, so if hoops do come back, Mary can buy some in Iowa and wear them,” Ma decided. “Meanwhile, her petticoats can hold the skirts out full.”

They had made four new petticoats for Mary, two of unbleached muslin, one of bleached muslin, and one of fine white cambric. Around the bottom of the fine cambric one, Laura had sewed with careful, tiny stitches the six yards of knitted lace that she had given Mary for Christmas.

They had made for her two gray flannel petticoats and three red flannel union suits. Around the top of the petticoats’ hems, Laura made a row of catch-stitching in bright, red yarn. It was pretty on the gray flannel. She back-stitched all the seams of the petticoats and the long red flannel union suits, and around the necks and the wrists of the long red sleeves she catch-stitched a trimming of blue yarn.

She was using all the pretty yarns that had come in last winter’s Christmas barrel, but she was glad to do it. Not one of the girls in college would have prettier underwear than Mary’s.

When Ma had back-stitched the seams of Mary’s dresses and carefully ironed them flat, Laura sewed the whalebone stays onto the underarm seams and dart-seams of the basques. She took great pains to sew them evenly on both edges without making the tiniest wrinkle in the seams, so that the basque would fit trimly and smoothly on the outside. This was such anxious work that it made the back of her neck ache.

Now the basque of Mary’s best dress was ready to try on for the last time. It was brown cashmere, lined with brown cambric. Small brown buttons buttoned it down the front, and on either side of the buttons and around the bottom Ma had trimmed it with a narrow, shirred strip of brown-and-blue plaid, with red threads and golden threads running through it. A high collar of the plaid was sewed on, and Ma held in her hand a gathered length of white machine-made lace. The lace was to be fitted inside the collar, so that it would fall a little over the top.

“Oh, Mary, it’s beautiful. The back fits without a wrinkle, and so do the shoulders,” Laura told her. “And the sleeves look absolutely skin tight to the elbows.”

“They are,” Mary said. “I don’t know if I can button—”

Laura went around in front. “Hold your breath, Mary. Breathe out, and hold it,” she advised anxiously. “It’s too tight,” Ma said in despair. Some of the buttons strained in the buttonholes, some could not be buttoned at all.

“Don’t breathe, Mary! Don’t breathe!” Laura said frantically, and quickly she unbuttoned the straining buttons. “Now you can.” Mary breathed, outbursting from the open bodice.

“Oh, how ever did I make such a mistake,” Ma said. “That bodice fitted well enough last week.”

Laura had a sudden thought. “It’s Mary’s corsets! It must be. The corset strings must have stretched.”

It was so. When Mary held her breath again and Laura pulled tight the corset strings, the bodice buttoned, and it fitted beautifully.

“I’m glad I don’t have to wear corsets yet,” said Carrie.

“Be glad while you can be,” said Laura. “You’ll have to wear them pretty soon.” Her corsets were a sad affliction to her, from the time she put them on in the morning until she took them off at night. But when girls pinned up their hair and wore skirts down to their shoetops, they must wear corsets.

“You should wear them all night,” Ma said. Mary did, but Laura could not bear at night the torment of the steels that would not let her draw a deep breath. Always before she could get to sleep, she had to take off her corsets.

“What your figure will be, goodness knows,” Ma warned her. “When I was married, your Pa could span my waist with his two hands.”

“He can’t now,” Laura answered, a little saucily. “And he seems to like you.”

“You must not be saucy, Laura,” Ma reproved her, but Ma’s cheeks flushed pink and she could not help smiling.

Now she fitted the white lace into Mary’s collar and pinned it so that it fell gracefully over the collar’s edge and made a full cascade between the collar’s ends in front.

They all stood back to admire. The gored skirt of brown cashmere was smooth and rather tight in front, but gathered full around the sides and back, so that it would be ample for hoops. In front it touched the floor evenly, in back it swept into a graceful short train that swished when Mary turned. All around the bottom was a pleated flounce.

The overskirt was of the brown-and-blue plaid. It was shirred in front, it was draped up at the sides to show more of the skirt beneath, and at the back it fell in rich, full puffs, caught up above the flounced train.

Above all this, Mary’s waist rose slim in the tight, smooth bodice. The neat little buttons ran up to the soft white lace cascading under Mary’s chin. The brown cashmere was smooth as paint over her sloping shoulders and down to her elbows; then the sleeves widened. A shirring of the plaid curved around them, and the wide wrists fell open, showing the lining of white lace ruffles that set off Mary’s slender hands.

Mary was beautiful in that beautiful dress. Her hair was silkier and more golden than the golden silk threads in the plaid. Her blind eyes were bluer than the blue in it. Her cheeks were pink, and her figure was so stylish.

“Oh, Mary,” Laura said. “You look exactly as if you’d stepped out of a fashion plate. There won’t be, there just can’t be, one single girl in college who can hold a candle to you.”

“Do I really look so well, Ma?” Mary asked timidly, and she flushed pinker.

For once Ma did not guard against vanity. “Yes, Mary, you do,” she said. “You are not only as stylish as can be, you are beautiful. No matter where you go, you will be a pleasure to every eye that sees you. And, I am thankful to say, you may be sure your clothes are equal to any occasion.”

They could not look at her longer. She was almost fainting from the heat, in that woolen dress. They laid it carefully away, done at last, and a great success. There were only a few more things to be done now. Ma must make Mary a winter hat of velvet, and knit some stockings for her, and Laura was knitting her a pair of mitts, of brown silk thread.

“I can finish them in spare time,” Laura said. “We’re through with the sewing, in time for me to help Pa make hay.”

She liked working with Pa, and she liked working outdoors in the sun and wind. Besides, secretly she was hoping to leave off her corsets while she worked in the haying.

“I suppose you may help to load the hay,” Ma agreed reluctantly, “but it will be stacked in town.”

“Oh, Ma, no! Do we have to move to town again?” Laura cried.

“Modulate your voice, Laura,” Ma said gently. “Remember, ‘Her voice was ever gentle, low, and soft, an excellent thing in woman.’”

“Do we have to go to town?” Laura murmured.

“Your Pa and I think best not to risk a winter in this house until he can make it more weatherproof,” said Ma. “You know that we could not have lived through last winter here.”

“Maybe this winter won’t be so bad,” Laura pleaded.

“We must not tempt Providence,” Ma said firmly. Laura knew it was decided; they had to live in town again next winter, and she must make the best of it.

That evening when the flock of happy blackbirds was swirling at play in the sunset air above the oatfield, Pa took out his shotgun and shot them. He did not like to do it, and in the house no one liked to hear the shots, but they knew it must be done. Pa must protect the crops. The horses and Ellen and her calves would live on hay that winter, but the oats and the corn were cash crops. They would sell for money to pay taxes and buy coal.

As soon as the dew was off the grass next morning, Pa went out to cut it with the mowing machine. In the house Ma began to make Mary’s velvet hat, and Laura busily knitted a brown silk mitt. At eleven o’clock Ma said, “Mercy, it’s time to start dinner already. Run out, Laura, and see if you can find a mess of roasting ears to boil.”

The corn was taller than Laura now, a lavish sight to see, with its long leaves rustling thickly and its nodding tasseled tops. As Laura went in between the rows, a great black swirl of birds rose up and whirled above her. The noise of their wings was louder than the rustling of all the long leaves. The birds were so many that they made a shadow like a cloud. It passed swiftly over the corn tops and the crowd of birds settled again.

The ears of corn were plentiful. Nearly every stalk had two ears on it, some had three. The tassels were dry, only a little pollen was still flying and the cornsilks hung like thick, green hair from the tips of the green cornhusks. Here and there a tuft of cornsilk was turning brown, and the ear felt full in the husk when Laura gently pinched it. To make sure, before she tore it from the stalk, she parted the husks to see the rows of milky kernels.

Blackbirds kept flying up around her. Suddenly she stood stock-still. The blackbirds were eating the corn!

Here and there she saw bare tips of ears. The husks were stripped back, and kernels were gone from the cobs. While she stood there, blackbirds settled around her. Their claws clung to the ears, their sharp beaks ripped away the husks, and quickly pecking they swallowed the kernels.

Silently, desperately, Laura ran at them. She felt as if she were screaming. She beat at the birds with her sunbonnet. They rose up swirling on noisy wings and settled again to the corn, before her, behind her, all around her. They swung clinging to the ears, ripping away the husks, swallowing the corn crop. She could do nothing against so many.

She took a few ears in her apron and went to the house. Her heart was beating fast and her wrists and knees trembled. When Ma asked what was the matter, she did not like to answer. “The blackbirds are in the corn,” she said. “Oughtn’t I to tell Pa?”

“Blackbirds always eat a little corn, I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Ma. “You might take him a cold drink.”

In the hayfield, Pa was not much troubled about the blackbirds. He said he had about cleaned them out of the oats, he had shot a hundred or more. “Likely they’ll do some harm to the corn, but that can’t be helped,” he said.

“There are so many of them,” Laura said. “Pa, if you don’t get a corn crop, can—can Mary go to college?”

Pa looked bleak. “You think it’s as bad as that?”

“There’s so many of them,” said Laura.

Pa glanced at the sun. “Well, another hour can’t make much difference. I’ll see about it when I come to dinner.”

At noon he took his shotgun to the cornfield. He walked between the corn rows and shot into the cloud of blackbirds as it rose. Every shot brought down a hail of dead birds, but the black cloud settled into the corn again. When he had shot away all his cartridges, the swirl of wings seemed no thinner.

There was not a blackbird in the oatfield. They had left it. But they had eaten every kernel of oats that could be dug out of the shocks. Only straw was left.

Ma thought that she and the girls could keep them away from the corn. They tried to do it. Even Grace ran up and down the rows, screeching and waving her little sunbonnet. The blackbirds only swirled around them and settled again to the ears of corn, tearing the husks and pecking away the kernels.

“You’ll wear yourselves out for nothing, Caroline,” said Pa. “I’ll go to town and buy more cartridges.”

When he had gone, Ma said, “Let’s see if we can’t keep them off till he gets back.”

They ran up and down, in the sun and heat, stumbling over the rough sods, screeching and shouting and waving their arms. Sweat ran down their faces and their backs, the sharp cornleaves cut their hands and cheeks. Their throats ached from yelling. And always the swirling wings rose and settled again. Always scores of blackbirds were clinging to the ears, and sharp beaks were tearing and pecking.

At last Ma stopped. “It’s no use, girls,” she said.

Pa came with more cartridges. All that afternoon he shot blackbirds. They were so thick that every pellet of shot brought down a bird. It seemed that the more he shot, the more there were. It seemed that all the blackbirds in the Territory were hurrying to that feast of corn.

At first there were only common blackbirds. Then came larger, yellow-headed blackbirds, and blackbirds with red heads and a spot of red on each wing. Hundreds of them came.

In the morning a dark spray of blackbirds rose and fell above the cornfield. After breakfast Pa came to the house, bringing both hands full of birds he had shot.

“I never heard of anyone’s eating blackbirds,” he said, “but these must be good meat, and they’re as fat as butter.”

“Dress them, Laura, and we’ll have them fried for dinner,” said Ma. “There’s no great loss without some small gain.”

Laura dressed the birds, and at noon Ma heated the frying-pan and laid them in it. They fried in their own fat, and at dinner everyone agreed that they were the tenderest, most delicious meat that had ever been on that table.

After dinner, Pa brought another armful of blackbirds and an armful of corn.

“We might as well figure that the crop’s gone,” he said. “This corn’s a little too green, but we’d better eat what we can of it before the blackbirds get it all.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner!” Ma exclaimed. “Laura and Carrie, hurry and pick every ear that’s possibly old enough to make dried corn. Surely we can save a little, to eat next winter.”

Laura knew why Ma had not thought of that sooner; she was too distracted. The corn crop was gone. Pa would have to take from his savings to pay taxes and buy coal. Then how could they manage to send Mary to college this fall?

The blackbirds were so thick now that between the corn rows their wings beat rough against Laura’s arms and battered her sunbonnet. She felt sharp little blows on her head, and Carrie cried out that the birds were pecking her. They seemed to feel that the corn was theirs, and to be fighting for it. They rose up harsh at Laura’s face and Carrie’s, and flew scolding and pecking at their sunbonnets.

Not much corn was left. Even the youngest ears, on which the kernels were hardly more than blisters, had been stripped and pecked at. But Laura and Carrie several times filled their aprons with ears only partly eaten.

When Laura looked for the blackbirds, to dress them for dinner, she could not find them and Ma would not say where they were.

“Wait and see,” Ma answered mysteriously. “Meantime, we’ll boil this corn, and cut it off the cobs, to dry.”

There is a knack to cutting corn from a cob. The knife must slice evenly, the whole length of the rows, cutting deep enough to get almost the whole kernel, but not so deep as to cut even an edge from the sharp pocket in which each kernel grows. The kernels fall away in milky slabs, moist and sticky.

Ma spread these on a clean, old tablecloth laid outdoors in the sunshine, and she covered them with another cloth, to keep away the blackbirds and the chickens and the flies. The hot sun would dry the corn, and next winter, soaked and boiled, it would be good eating.

“That’s an Indian idea,” Pa remarked, when he came to dinner. “You’ll admit yet, Caroline, there’s something to be said for Indians.”

“If there is,” Ma replied, “you’ve already said it, many’s the time, so I needn’t.” Ma hated Indians, but now she was brimming with some secret. Laura guessed that it must be the missing blackbirds. “Comb your hair and sit up to the table, Charles,” Ma said.

She opened the oven door, and took out the tin milk pan. It was full of something covered thickly over with delicately browned biscuit crust. She set it before Pa and he looked at it amazed. “Chicken pie!”

“‘Sing a song of sixpence—’” said Ma.

Laura went on from there, and so did Carrie and Mary and even Grace.

“A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie!
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing.
Was not that a dainty dish
To set before the king?”

“Well, I’ll be switched!” said Pa. He cut into the pie’s crust with a big spoon, and turned over a big chunk of it onto a plate. The underside was steamed and fluffy. Over it he poured spoonfuls of thin brown gravy, and beside it he laid half a blackbird, browned, and so tender that the meat was slipping from the bones. He handed that first plate across the table to Ma.

The scent of that opened pie was making all their mouths water so that they had to swallow again and again while they waited for their portions, and under the table the kitty curved against their legs, her hungry purring running into anxious miows.

“The pan held twelve birds,” said Ma. “Just two apiece, but one is all that Grace can possibly eat, so that leaves three for you, Charles.”

“It takes you to think up a chicken pie, a year before there’s chickens to make it with,” Pa said. He ate a mouthful and said, “This beats a chicken pie all hollow.”

They all agreed that blackbird pie was even better than chicken pie. There were, besides, new potatoes and peas, and sliced cucumbers, and young boiled carrots that Ma had thinned from the rows, and creamy cottage cheese. And the day was not even Sunday. As long as the blackbirds lasted, and the garden was green, they could eat like this every day.

Laura thought, “Ma is right, there is always something to be thankful for.” Still, her heart was heavy. The oats and the corn crop were gone. She did not know how Mary could go to college now. The beautiful new dress, the two other new dresses, and the pretty underwear, must be laid away until next year. It was a cruel disappointment to Mary.

Pa ate the last spoonful of pink, sugary cream from his saucer of tomatoes, and drank his tea. Dinner was over. He got up and took his hat from its nail and he said to Ma, “Tomorrow’s Saturday. If you’ll plan to go to town with me, we can pick out Mary’s trunk.”

Mary gasped. Laura cried out, “Is Mary going to college?”

Pa was astonished. He asked, “What’s the matter with you, Laura?”

“How can she?” Laura asked him. “There isn’t any corn, or any oats.”

“I didn’t realize you’re old enough to be worrying,” said Pa. “I’m going to sell the heifer calf.”

Mary cried out, “Oh no! Not the heifer!”

In another year the heifer would be a cow. Then they would have had two cows. Then they would have had milk and butter all the year around. Now, if Pa sold the heifer, they would have to wait two more years for the little calf to grow up.

“Selling her will help out,” said Pa. “I ought to get all of fifteen dollars for her.”

“Don’t worry about it, girls,” said Ma. “We must cut our coat to fit the cloth.”

“Oh, Pa, it sets you back a whole year,” Mary mourned.

“Never mind, Mary,” said Pa. “It’s time you were going to college, and now we’ve made up our minds you’re going. A flock of pesky blackbirds can’t stop us.”

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