The wood-spoked wheels of the old Crow-Elkhart began sinking in the soft mud along the shoulder of Route 9W almost as soon as I stopped the car. I had just pulled off the macadam in a panic, at the sharp command of my father. Aunt Alma protested that she was alright, but she was looking rather pale, from what little I could see of her. A towering stack of luggage, all her worldly possessions, filled most of the back-seat, squeezing her against the side door of my family's overloaded touring sedan. We had just moved her out of the farmhouse outside of Poughkeepsie that morning, in the spring of 1931, only a month or two after Uncle Ami had passed. We were on our way to Rennselaer, where her widowed sister had agreed to take her in after the bank had foreclosed on the old white country house she and Uncle Ami had lived in for the past fifty-three years.
I felt the car continue to slowly and ominously lean over to the right, as the narrow tires were sucked into the soft mud alongside the two-lane road to Saugerties. This was the first trip I had been allowed to take the wheel of the old Crow, having just turned seventeen, and my father had been nervously rubber-necking all afternoon between my inexperienced driving and my mother's poor old aunt, wedged in the narrow space directly behind my father, in the back seat. The berm where I had pulled over looked mushy, even as I had eased the car off the narrow highway, but when my father gave me an order, it was always best to obey it immediately and without question, lest I suffer his withering admonishment. He was kneeling over the back of the bench-seat, checking on Aunt Alma, while she fanned herself ineffectually with an antimacassar from the back of the seat upon which she was sitting.
I was fumbling to unfold the road-map to see how much farther up the Hudson River we had to journey, wondering whether father had the faintest inkling that the car was still canting over precariously towards the embankment. Fretting over the necessity of having to point out the situation to him, I remained nervously silent. My father was notoriously single-minded when he had his attention occupied on something, often to the exclusion of such practical matters as our top-heavy motorcar tipping over. I pulled up on my door handle, but the weight of the door was already too heavy to push it open, as the angle of our leaning vehicle continued to steepen precariously. It wasn't until the mountain of luggage started shifting in the backseat that father realized the danger, but unfortunately, too late. Aunt Alma disappeared almost completely, as the heavy piles of storage boxes and satchels toppled over on top of her. Only the bottom of her calico dress, hanging halfway down her spider-veined calves, was still visible as we heard her muffled cries for help.
Before anything could be done to avert the disaster, the car teetered past its tipping point and suddenly lurched over. With springs squeaking under the shifting load, it fell the last few feet, coming to rest on its side, angled upon the steep embankment rising from the ditch next to the berm. I couldn't hold on to the steering wheel any longer and began sliding down the sloping front seat, grasping desperately for anything within reach to catch myself before falling headfirst into my bewildered father. In a moment, we were jumbled together into an awkward pile, with my father's shoulder jammed against the indented isinglass window-curtain, which had come un-snapped from the door frame with the impact of his wiry body. The cut-glass bud-vase on the door-post had been jarred out of its holder, and the small bouquet of cut flowers Aunt Alma had tucked into it before we left, was now strewn haphazardly around father's neck like an Hawaiian lei. The water, spilled from the vase, was even now soaking through his stiff, starched collar, and the straw boater which he always wore was cocked off the side of his head, partly crushed against the window.
"Margaret!" he shouted, "What in blazes have you done, girl?"
This was just like him, of course. I didn't dare defend myself, for I had become accustomed to accepting the blame for nearly everything that went wrong in our family, and out of habit, very nearly believed that it must be true. I reached for the gear-shift lever that had caught under my knee as I slid past it, and stretched farther to grab the steering wheel to pull myself away from my flustered father, as he sputtered and plucked wet peonies from around his shoulders. A minute later, I was folded halfway out the driver's door window, grasping for anything that might extricate the rest of me from the upended car. I looked down the road and saw a bicycle coasting towards our wreck. I waggled my arms, frantically trying to attract the attention of whoever was approaching, but abruptly stopped when I felt myself slipping back into the car.
As I clung to the window ledge, nearly out of breath, I saw the bicycle hurriedly laid aside, and a boy with rosy red complexion run up and grab my arms before I disappeared back into oblivion. I pedaled against the seat cushion as he pulled me out the window and onto the running board. By this time, father was frantically tugging luggage from the backseat over into the front, so Aunt Alma could at least breathe, and when he had most of her exhumed, he struggled to climb over the pile of luggage to reach the same exit route from which I had escaped. With the help of my young Samaritan, we managed to pull open the door and drag my poor father from the car. He brushed his trousers and regained his composure before addressing the stranger who had come to our rescue.
"Thank you, young man!" my father said, half out of breath. "Are you alright, Margaret Alice?"
I nodded, even though I was fairly certain my ribs would be pretty badly bruised from the struggle to get out the window. Father shook his head at the sight of the old Crow, its left-side wheels dangling in mid-air a foot or two off the ground.
"I'm sorry, Aunt Alma!" I shouted. "We'll get you out of there!"
A muffled cry could be heard weakly from inside the car as my father tried to peer over the door frame, now elevated up beyond his reach. He was a short, frail man, and I knew he was at a loss to figure out how to right this mess. But our new friend offered to ride his bicycle home to get his grandfather's plow-team of draft-horses to pull us out of the ditch, and my father graciously accepted the offer, seeing no alternative. While we waited along the roadside, a few cars passed, slowing down as their occupants looked on at our predicament and shook their heads. They drove on without stopping. My father took the opportunity to give me a stern lecture on obeying his instructions while using some common sense in their execution, and I nodded dutifully each time he asked if I understood.
As the afternoon sun lowered beneath the tops of the trees along the side of the road, our young friend could be seen a ways off up the hill, approaching us with four trotting horses, teamed together by two double-trees bobbing behind a four-up hitch. He guided the jingling team into position in front of our car and threw a chain around the bumper. With the traction of the draft-horses, straining to haul the car out of the ditch, we were soon tipped upright and on the road again. My dad asked the young man his name and then inquired if any tourist homes were to be found nearby where we could spend the night, as our accident had put us so far behind schedule.
I was waiting for my father to start fidgeting about how much to reward our rescuer, as monetary transactions were something he meticulously parsed before prying open his money-purse. To say he was a parsimonious man was putting it mildly, but he was also fair-minded when he needed to be, even when it practically killed him to pay out funds he hadn't carefully budgeted out in advance for every leg of our interstate trip. When the boy refused to take any remuneration, I was almost afraid my father would consider the matter settled without a second thought, but to my surprise, he stuffed two dollars into the boy's shirt-pocket, and wouldn't take no for an answer.
Aunt Alma was sitting on a worn-out, up-ended valise alongside the road, while our poor Crow-Elkhart was unceremoniously dragged out of the ditch. Before the team was hitched onto the car, we had formed a human chain to pull her up and out of the steeply-pitched rear-seat, just in case the towing went badly, and the car wound up in an even more precarious position. She had a picnic basket open on her scrawny lap, and was rummaging through it in search of something to eat, as her blood-sugar was becoming an issue after our unexpected delay. She offered a smoked-tongue sandwich to any of us who were hungry, and our teamster, Charlie, hungrily accepted.
My father was chagrined to learn that we were miles from any tourist-camp, as the Crow's bent fender was rubbing the shoulder of the tire now, and we couldn't travel far without repairs. Charlie wedged a pry-bar between the bumper and the tip of the front fender so the wheel would turn freely in a straight line, but any sharp turns would knock it loose, freezing up the wheel again. Father re-loaded the car and resolved to follow Charlie to his grandfather's farm, where tools were available to pry out the collapsed fender, but it was already nearing night-fall. We got under way and followed Charlie and his team up the road in first-gear, and in a while, we were winding our way up a dirt road to an old farmstead in the wooded hills above the Hudson.
It was nearly dark when we arrived at the old, run-down farm. The front tire on the car had been squealing the last few hundred yards, as the bumpy dirt road up the hill had jarred loose Charlie's make-shift repair to our fender. It was now rubbing quite noisily against the wheel. I had been leaning out the passenger-side window, watching the rubber begin to smoke from the friction, and feeling very much responsible for our whole predicament, although father had not said anything further about my driving skills. I knew that he was uncomfortable having to rely on strangers for anything, especially when the country was now so full of people in desperate financial straits.
Charlie was unhitching the team near the open barn door, under the illumination of our head lamps. I glanced over at my father in the growing shadow of the evening twilight. The car had long since come to a stop, but he kept his steely grip on the steering wheel with an unsettled expression on his face, and it filled me with a sudden and implacable melancholy. He had always been an independent and self-reliant man, even if in stature he was a frail and unassuming figure, and it shook my confidence to see him unsure about anything. He was full of quirks, my father, but I admired his intelligence, which I couldn't stake any claim to genetically, having been adopted—still, I considered myself fortunate. Father was an engineering draftsman with a good position in an economy where many had no position at all.
Charlie's folks may be among those many unfortunates, I decided, looking around the dilapidated farm where we were now apparently stranded for the night. No one but Charlie seemed to be around, and I was beginning to wonder if we'd be sleeping in the car. Aunt Alma was already asleep, scrunched up against some pillows which father had interposed between her and the tall piles of luggage on the seat beside her, lest she once again become an avalanche victim. Father had moved two of the suitcases into the front seat and wedged them between us to mitigate that possibility. I was anxious to get out and look around but glanced over at father for his approval, as he still seemed glued to the driver's seat. I knew he was deep in thought, and as curious as I was to know what he was pondering, I always kept silent when he was like this.
After bedding down the horses, Charlie came back and told us we could stay in the old cabin up the hillside path which wound into the woods behind the farmhouse. While father roused Aunt Alma, Charlie led me up to the old log cabin, toting some of the luggage we would need overnight under each arm. We climbed the gentle slope which was bordered on each side with lush mountain laurel, still visible under the moonlight, and soon we were at the rustic old shack, bearded with moss. Charlie pushed the wooden door open with his foot and lit a couple of coal oil lamps after laying the luggage down at the foot of one of two bunk-beds in the single-room cottage. While I looked around the cramped little cabin, Charlie went down the hill to help father and Alma.
In the oily, yellow light the two lamps cast through their sooty, glass chimneys, the sparse interior of the cabin was overlaid with a wan glow. As I waited for the others to trudge up the hill, I sat in eerie silence, looking around at my strange surroundings. The cabin appeared to be an ancient and lonely place, with gaps in the chinking between the logs, where crumbling mortar had long since dislodged. There was one window, glazed with panes of wavy glass, pocked with irregularities and an occasional bubble, like the glass in the antique corner cupboard in our parlor back home. On the back of the door hung a wide hoop, laced with an irregular pattern of strings, from which three brightly colored feathers hung.
The three feathers bounced suddenly, and then the door flung open, as Charlie shouldered his way in, laden with more of our luggage. Father followed, with Aunt Alma in tow. She looked exhausted, and father guided her to one of the beds, where he intended she and I would retire for the night, while he camped out on the porch-swing, just outside. Papa had me unlace her shoes, and he had barely pulled the coverlet over her before she was dozing off again. Charlie excused himself to bring water to fill the big porcelain pitcher, nestled in a plain white bowl sitting on the night stand between the beds. I asked father if I could help Charlie fetch the water, and together, we trotted down the porch steps onto the path leading back down the hill.
With only a little light left in the evening sky, I stumbled my way down the hill, tripping on roots and crackling sticks as I walked, but Charlie barely made a sound as he padded along in front of me. I stopped and listened as he continued on, and his footsteps were almost completely inaudible. He turned and asked what I was waiting for.
"How do you do that?" I asked.
"How do you walk without making a sound?" I replied, resuming my footsteps and crunching along down the sloped path to catch up with him.
"We l'arn that real young, or we used to, 'fore they shipped so many of us off to those schools," he answered. "My grandfather taught me stuff, and keeps me away from those places."
"What places?" I asked, puzzled.
"Carlisle, and them other boarding schools for Indians." He turned and resumed his march down the hillside, and I followed, watching how he walked, one foot in front of the other, always landing on the ball of his foot rather than clomping down heel-first as I did. I tried to emulate his stride, now very conscious of how much noise I usually made while walking. I was curious why this boy seemed in every way more graceful, more (I was grudgingly thinking) ladylike than me.
We cut through some trees to an old shed behind the main barn, and after a moment, Charlie emerged from the dark doorway and handed me a metal bucket. He carried another wooden bucket, swinging it in wide arcs at his side. I followed him along a path which bordered the woods until we reached a sharp notch in the hillside, out of which a pipe emerged from the steeper wall of the notch. I heard water trickling, and Charlie bent over and hung his bucket over the end of the pipe.
"It's an old Artesian well. Been here forever," he explained, as he reached for the bucket in my hand. He sat down on a ledge of stone on the far side of the notch and motioned for me to sit across from him on another stone seat by the well-pipe. I listened to the water slowly filling the wooden pail, and reached out to catch a handful of water to splash on my face, which was sweating from our hike down from the cabin. It was colder than I expected and felt wonderful on my hot skin.
"Where are you from?" he asked, tipping the bucket with his foot to see how full it was.
"Ohio—a small town, forty miles in from the lake, south of Toledo. Have you lived here all your life?"
"Mostly, 'cept when I was little. My folks brought me here real young to stay with my grandparents, so I'd be safe from the Injun agents. When ya leave, please don't tell anyone about me. Grandad has been hiding me from the BIA agents all my life, lest they come and take me off to them schools. My folks wanted me to learn from my grand folks about the old ways."
"Agents? Who are they? Why do they want to take you away?" I asked, completely puzzled.
"They take all the Native Americans away, to educate them, they say. But they really want to break us of our old ways, give us English names, and make us forget our old customs, our old tales."
I didn't think this sounded right at all, but I had never actually met any real Indians before. In school, we learned about the great westward expansion, and how it opened up the country to settlers with the development of canals and railroads. I'd read in American History about Custer and the Indian Wars out west. It had never occurred to me to wonder what happened to the Indians who had to get out of the way of the white man's Manifest Destiny.
"Where did you learn English? Have you never gone to school?" I asked incredulously. School for me was basically my whole life up to that point. I had one year left before graduation, and a year from now I would matriculate at Heidelberg College in my home town. Education was everything to my parents. My father said we'd be in the bread-lines like so many others, if not for his college education.
Charlie shrugged his shoulders and said his grandfather had taught him everything he needed to know. He got up and walked a few steps away, while I tipped the bucket slightly and noticed it was nearly full. I had to stand to lift the heavy pail off the pipe, and as I grabbed the other bucket to replace it, I looked up to see Charlie standing no more than fifteen feet away, urinating on the hillside. I'd seen vagrants back home do this in alleys and parks, but I'd never been close enough to actually see their penis hanging out of their pants.
"Charlie!" I shouted. I turned to look away but found myself sneaking a look back to the shocking sight. At seventeen, I had never before seen a penis, although my best friend Alice had gone to great lengths to tell me about her boyfriend John's! Alice was infamous in our junior class because she had slept with her boyfriend and even told us they ran naked together out in her father's cornfield. Charlie shook the last droplets off his floppy member and tucked it away, even as I sat there strangely compelled to stare.
I glanced around, fearing my father may have come traipsing down the hill looking for me, but Charlie seemed to take no notice of my discomfiture at what he'd just done. I began to feel an ache in my rib-cage and remembered how they'd been raked over the sill of the car door when Charlie had dragged me out of the car. Lifting the first bucket of water off the pipe had apparently aggravated the injury, and through my shirt, I felt along the hard ridges of my ribcage below my breasts to locate exactly where I was sore.
Charlie was looking at me as my hands forced my breasts up, feeling for the ribs underneath. I must have flushed red in the face, but it was too dark for him to see. He picked up both water-pails and gave a sharp whistle through his lips. At first, I thought it was for my breasts, tugged up full under my shirt, but I soon heard the sounds of an animal running towards us through the underbrush. A dog raced into the clearing around the well-head, and circled round and round him a couple of times before Charlie heeled him to his side and began the trek back up the hill to the old cabin.
I folded my arms around my chest and trailed after them.
"Who's your frisky friend?" I asked.
"That's old Redjack," Charlie replied. I stooped down, extending my hands, and the friendly dog twirled around at my feet, waiting for my attention. I tossed his floppy ears as I petted his neck, and I had a new friend. He followed close at my heels all the way back to the cabin.
Papa was emerging from the front door as we approached, and in the pale light of the oil lantern he held out at arms-length, we saw him put his finger to his mouth so we wouldn't disturb Aunt Alma, whom he'd just laid down for the night. Charlie set the pales of fresh water on the porch, asked if we needed anything else, and with a call to Redjack, they disappeared down the path into the gloom of the surrounding woods. My father handed me the lantern while he carried the water inside to fill the pitcher.
I kept myself between the light and Aunt Alma's bed so as not to wake her, and turned the wick down low before setting it on the stand. I gave my father a goodnight hug and nearly winced in pain from my sore ribs. After the door closed behind him, I suddenly felt the loneliness of this remote shack as the darkness closed in around me. After undressing down to my slip, I slid the straps off my shoulders to examine my aching ribs, but the light was too dim to see any bruising. I covered my breasts again and crawled into the narrow rope bed, wiggling into the feather tick to find a spot without any lumps pressing into my ribcage. The tree toads outside in the darkness were all I heard except for my strained breathing into the musty pillow.
I woke to a sharp noise behind me and heard glass clinking. It was still dark, and I rolled over to see Aunt Alma struggling to get out of bed, silhouetted in the moonlight streaming through the window. I realized she was trying to light the coal oil lamp and had almost tipped it over in the darkness. I helped her to sit up on the edge of the bed while I fumbled for the matches on the nightstand. She mumbled about having to go to the bathroom, but an odor of urine from her bedding told me she had already lost control of her weak bladder. It occurred to me then that we didn't even have a chamber pot in the room, nor did we know where the outhouse was. I remembered I had boxed up a porcelain chamber pot at her house before we left the preceding morning, and realized that was most likely our only recourse before morning.
Papa was shivering under a blanket on the porch swing, sound asleep until I woke him by stepping on a squeaky floorboard just outside the door. I knew I had to tell him Aunt Alma needed a chamber pot or he would have just told me to hold it until morning. We walked down the grassy path which was now covered in heavy dew, arriving back at the car with our feet soaking wet. We both rummaged through boxes of Aunt Alma's things looking for her porcelain Jerry, with only the moonlight to search under. Father found it in one of the boxes he had flung over the front seat when he rescued her from the avalanche.
On the way back up the hill, he asked me if I liked 'the boy.' My father was always careful about broaching the subject of boys with me, knowing I was at that notorious age of adolescence when both parents and offspring became uncomfortable learning how much the other knew about the embarrassing subject of sex and dating. I had not really dated anyone yet, in no small part because my adopted father was a notorious oddball around our little town, prone to giving friend and stranger alike lengthy and unsolicited opinions about national politics and the scourge of the international banking cartel. Poor mother would try to shush him when he launched into a tirade, but usually to no effect. She had pleaded with him before we left not to subject her bereaved aunt with his controversial polemics, knowing that he generally took no account of whether his audience was even remotely interested in his opinions.
I knew my father was concerned over the state of my innocence regarding boys ever since the rumors of my friend Alice's escapades in the cornfield reached his ears. Ours was a very small town after all, and these stories traveled fast, particularly when they contained a salacious aspect. Whether or not I had been corrupted by my association with Alice Buskirk was a matter I felt was being too closely monitored by both my parents. At seventeen, I was woefully uneducated in the area of romance and were it not for Alice; I might not at this late stage even know what a boy looked like under his trousers. Drawings passed surreptitiously under the school desk were subject to confiscation, but what I saw with my own eyes tonight at the well would stick with me a good long while!
Aunt Alma was sound asleep when I returned with her chamber pot, and I wasn't inclined to check her bedding to see if she still needed one. I snuggled back into bed, but too many things filled my mind to allow me to fall asleep right away. I was still blaming myself for the unfortunate events that led to our current predicament, and I felt bad for my father, for whom anything unplanned, particularly so far from home, was very unsettling. I hadn't experienced many adventures in my life due to the cautious conventionality of my adopted parents, but finding myself in the middle of this unexpected detour was turning into quite a learning experience. Predictability had its comfortable aspects, but here I was, in a strange bed in a dilapidated little cabin in the woods, and our young host was altogether an enigma.
The most startling part of this day had been learning about Charlie being a fugitive from the rest of civilization. How he had managed to elude not only the local truant officers but any institutions of formal education whatsoever, was a talent some of my schoolmates back home would love to have acquired. And yet, Charlie didn't seem in any way stupid. Many of my friends had been raised on farms around the outskirts of my hometown, and many of them felt schooling was rather unnecessary, especially when job prospects in any other fields had suddenly evaporated. During the Depression, they were among the few who were readily supplied with fresh meat and vegetables, and not just the offerings of the local soup kitchens and bread lines.
I heard my father snoring out on the porch, and that somehow comforted me enough to fall back to sleep in this strange bed. Before dozing off, I wondered how we might notify my mother of our delay. She had stayed behind in Rennselaer with Aunt Alma's sister, getting a room prepared for her widowed and dispossessed aunt. She had dispatched father and me down the river to fetch my great aunt to her new home. It was the first time I'd ever remembered them not being together, which by itself was a bad omen. The return trip should have taken no more than a few hours, but Aunt Alma hadn't quite finished packing everything, and we got off to a late start.
The screeching sound of the tree toads closed in around the remote log cabin, and my last waking sight was the yellow twinkling of fireflies flickering outside through the old clouded glass window panes. I had strange dreams, but I did not remember them after waking up early the next morning.
(c) 2017 - Bethany Ariel Frasier