Read an Excerpt
Bright Shining Light
August 1841, French Prairie, Oregon Country
Marie let loose her daughter’s hand, then stepped behind her, gently guiding her into the darkness. “Maintenant,” she said in French. “We go now.” She placed her hands on the young woman’s cedar-caped shoulders, inhaled the wood scent of her hair. They were nearly the same height, one of the few things they shared in common–that and a worry over whether they’d be enough.
“We don’t have time for this, Mother,” Marguerite protested. But she allowed Marie to prod her to an area of prairie grass where Marie motioned her daughter to sit.
“We need to make time for this,” Marie said. “Lie down.” She patted the grass.
A vast darkness arched over her and her oldest daughter. The women’s heads touched, as though they were two logs reaching out from a center post. The air felt moist. The moon would rise late tonight. The dry grasses tickled her ankles. She should have put on leggings before convincing her oldest daughter to walk a distance from their log home to feel the night air breathe in the dark sky. Getting Marguerite to come with her at all had taken convincing. Dozens of tasks waited finishing before the big event tomorrow. “There will never be another night like this one, not ever,” Marie told her daughter. Marie meant to savor it.
She’d begun to cherish these feathers of peaceful moments floating into her life, even when it took effort. It still took such effort to name the good in her days. Learning new ways, she found, both stimulated and strained her. This was a happy occasion. She refused to let worry scar it,
and so she controlled her troublesome thoughts, even now, when they pushed like a bullish child elbowing his way in uninvited.
“Did you see that?” Marie asked. She pointed. “That light? There’s a special prize for the one who sees the first star.”
Marguerite shook her head, rubbing Marie’s hair as she did. “Papa
Jean’s spectacles must let you see something I can’t. It’s still just dark sky to me, Mother. Where did you see it?”
“East,” Marie said. She adjusted the lenses given her as a gift by her husband just weeks before. “Toward Hood’s Mountain. An arc of light.
“I don’t see them. Maybe they’re coming to find us with the lanterns.” Marguerite said. “Maybe they think I’ve changed my mind and have run away.”
Did her daughter warn her of worries? The man was twenty years her daughter’s senior. He had sons already. Maybe Marguerite wished more time before she committed to this man Jean Baptiste Gobin.
Does a mother encourage her daughter to walk through the uncertainty of marriage, promising her that peace will come, or does she make a safe place for a daughter to turn around, to reconsider her heart’s future?
What was right for a mother to do? was always Marie’s question.
Ripe gooseberries scented the August air. An owl hooted in the big cedar tree in the center of the timbered section that marked the border of their land. Prairie wolves howled in the distance, a sound distinct from the larger wolves that roamed in packs. Marie took in a deep breath. There were more blessings here than dangers; that’s what she must concentrate on, encourage her daughter to think this too. New ways took time. Her friend Sarah had told her that long years before,
and Sarah was seldom wrong. Unlike Marie, who was a mother named by her errors.
She took another deep breath. She would count her blessings like the beads of her rosary, designed, orderly, and obvious, the way the priests said God revealed himself in the created world. Hadn’t her husband of many years become her friend, someone with whom she preferred to spend her time? That must have been part of a grand design.
Wasn’t this prairie land they’d found to live in ripe with promise, predictable with seasons of planting and harvest? Hadn’t she found a quiet way to ease the ache of a lost and troubled son, soothe the disappointment of rarely seeing distant friends, survive the deaths of a child and two husbands? The landscape, her newly forming faith, and her family promised peace. These were the life threads that she wove into a healing robe of comfort.
Memory, too, served her. It brought the conversations she’d had with her friend Sacagawea to mind whenever she wished. Memory reminded her of what she had endured in her fifty summers. Even
Kilakotah she called neighbor now, though to touch her fingers to her friend’s cheeks meant a three-day ride to the horse ranch of Tom McKay.
Still, the two would see each other more now, when they gathered at the parish church on the Willamette River when the priests traveled south for Mass. And in between, she had the memories of those who brushed against her and changed her life forever.
She had troubling memories too, but surely she deserved now a time to set those aside, cut those ties. Her friend Sacagawea would tell her to expect kindness in life. This she would do, especially tonight.
After all, she was a mother whose children told her their secrets and honored her with their questions. What mother didn’t want to be known for her careful tongue and modest wisdom? Her husband, Jean,
tolerated her many wonderings over varying views of faith of native people, of Presbyterians, Catholics, and Methodists who populated this prairie area. Perhaps he understood that her baptism was a beginning of another questioning journey and not one simply ending with acceptance as it had been for him.
Marie questioned. It was part of who she was.
Marie blinked again. She’d seen the pinpricks sometimes even in the daylight, when she stood too quickly or when she first awoke. Their presence interrupted her sleep, too, and she’d awake with a start, a gasp that would wake her husband and stir the household trying to sleep in the upper loft.
Perhaps her eyes were learning new things even while she slept. She had spectacles to wear during the day, to stop the squinting that had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember. Yes, that was probably all it was, her eyes adjusting to the dark and daylight, seeing clearly with spectacles.
This piercing light tonight was likely just the first sign of the stars filling the night sky. Nothing to be alarmed about.
“Will this always be my home?” Marguerite asked then. Her voice had changed to wistfulness.
“You’ll always have a place with us, but you’ll have your own home after tomorrow.” Her daughter took in a sharp breath, and her breathing quickened. Marie heard discomfort in the sound. “This is your choice, oui? ” Marie asked. “To marry this man?”
“I’m glad we moved here with Papa Jean,” Marguerite said.
Hadn’t her daughter heard her? Or did she deliberately avoid?
“You might not have met your JB if we hadn’t.”
“There are more French Canadians here,” Marguerite said.
“More people like your papa.”
“There’s one,” Marguerite said, lifting her hand quickly to point.
Marie felt rather than saw her daughter’s arm reach up. “In the northern sky.”
“I see it too. Bon. You receive the treasure. You have the first star in your basket,” Marie told her.
“What’s my prize?”
“It comes to you later.”
“You made that up, Mother. There’s no ‘first prize’ for seeing the first star of a night sky.”
“You’ll see,” she said and smiled.
Marie had coaxed her daughter away from the cheek bread pans,
those rounded tins that resembled a baby’s bottom when the dough rose. She drew her from the chatter of Marguerite’s younger brother and sister so she could rest a bit before taking on the role of a bride. A
peaceful moment was her daughter’s treasure. A new wife had few of them after the wedding, and Marie wanted her daughter to have the memory of a special evening before the days filled up with the work of living.
Marie would have a prize too: a memory of a last quiet time with her oldest daughter alone, a moment of hanging on to a daughter before
Marguerite became a wife.
Marie thought to offer sage advice, to say something to sustain her daughter in this time of transformation when a woman became a bride.
Words failed her at times, even French words, her first language. Marie thought of her mother. What might her own mother have spoken if she had lived to see Marie’s marriage day when, as a young girl, she had committed herself to Pierre Dorion? Would she have been proud that her daughter chose a man affiliated, however briefly, with the Corps of
Discovery? Or might she have stepped in to intervene, suggested that she was too young to wed?
No way to know. Her mother had died before Marie spoke marriage vows.
Marie was pleased her daughter had waited until she was twentytwo to marry. And her youngest girl, Marianne, while fifteen, showed little interest in boys. A blessing. Marie touched the beads around her neck, ran her hand over the smooth metal cross that her friend Sarah had given her. Blessings. Count the blessings.
“What are you thinking about, Mother?” Marguerite asked. The girl had a gravelly voice, husky almost, her throat scorched perhaps from leaning over the cook fires. Marie imagined the tiny wrinkles that flowed like rivers toward the pools of her daughter’s dark eyes, eyes that tonight looked tired even before the wedding plans consumed her. As a child, Marguerite had been known by the French Canadians for her thick eyebrows lifting in question and by her firm lips reserving expression for rare occasions. Even with impending joy so close, Marguerite’s full round face hadn’t eased often into a smile. Marie wished something different for Marguerite.
“Remembering,” Marie said. “It’s what a mother does on a day before her daughter weds. A bride-to-be should have stars in her basket,
Marguerite said, “To light the darkness she finds there?”
“You worry over darkness?” Marie said.
“Just a rule of thumb,” Marguerite said.
Marie shivered. Such a phrase. Could this JB Gobin be a man who used the rod against his wife? Had she missed some rumor about him?
Why otherwise had her daughter chosen the term rule of thumb, the legal size of a rod allowed by a husband to strike his wife?
“Does he hurt you, this Gobin? You do not need to marry him,
then.” Marie sat up. Her daughter was asking for a way out.
“No. No.” Marguerite answered quickly, pulled her mother back. “I
only meant I’m just a little worried, a slender worry, the size of a rod.
“Do your thoughts go to someone else? to Richard?”
Marguerite laughed. “That Nez Perce boy? No. He was just a friend.” Her voice sounded light, as though she coaxed a child to eat her porridge. “No.” Marguerite hesitated now. “I think of Paul,” she said.
Marie felt a chill go through her. “The day before your wedding you think of your half-brother?” Marie moved her head, felt the hair at the back of her neck bristle.
“Didn’t he run away on the day Baptiste married Older Sister?”
“It was the first wedding I remember, and it ended in sadness. Papa never came back. Paul never came back. Even Baptiste left, and before he returned Older Sister died.”
“Leave those hard thoughts behind now, Marguerite.”
“They never even said good-bye to me. None of them,” Marguerite said.
“This is what you think of when you prepare to marry?” Marie said.
“Non. This is not good. You were little then. You should think of other things. You shouldn’t think of a sad time. See, there’s another star. This will be a full sky night.”
“Don’t you wonder where Paul is?”
Another light, as tiny as a pinprick, flashed before her eyes. Marie blinked, and the glimmer broke into flickers and disappeared. She felt no pain, but uneasiness snaked though the tiny hole as though the opening might rip into something larger that could consume her. When had they started, these flickering lights, tearing at the fabric of memory and mind? She lived in safety, surrounded by family and friends. Why did the uneasiness pierce her now?
Marie held her jaws together, made herself breathe in through her nose. “I have put my thoughts of Paul in a past place, to make room for new joys, like my daughter’s wedding.”
Marie could hear voices in the distance. Marianne’s girlish pitches poked into her husband’s and her son’s low tones. Someone would be calling them back soon.
“What do you think really happened to Paul? And to Papa?” Marguerite asked. She sat up now. “They’re linked together for me, their disappearances.”
“They happened years apart,” Marie said. “Our memories tell tall tales to us sometimes.”
“Not for me. I wonder about the stories I should tell my children about their grandfather.”
“Papa Jean was more a part of your life. Tell your children of him.”
Moments passed, and Marguerite sat so silent that Marie thought she might have fallen asleep. Marie imagined her daughter’s long eyelashes closed against her cheeks; she reached to touch the bone beneath her daughter’s left eye, a bone left flattened when a horse raised its head to Marguerite’s and cracked it long years before. Maybe Marguerite worried about injury or death, this young woman on the eve of new living.
Marie was no femme sensé; she had no explanations. Her baptism weeks before had answered some questions but added even more.
“I want to tell my children stories of Papa,” Marguerite said, her fingers clutching her mother’s now. “So they’ll know about a good father. He was good, n’est-ce pas? He had scars in his fingers. I remember that. And he sang, didn’t he?”
“Oui. He loved music and he sewed with me. Even with his fingers that would break open in icy water. Tiny stitches we used.”
“Sometimes I think that Paul…”
“What? What do you think?”
“Nothing,” Marguerite said. She let loose her mother’s hand. “It is a never-mind thought.”
For Marie, stories of Paul arrived on an arc of pain that hit new marks each time they were spoken as words. She wanted to forget that wound, put it away as she’d put other painful times behind her, times that were better tucked away as forgotten thoughts, not brought into present memory. “Tell your children of the good your stepfather brought to your life. Don’t dwell on the death of your father or the disappearance of Paul or the death of your sister-in-law,” Marie said.
“Baptiste married a woman he loved. Remember that. And he is happy now. He did come back. Not all who leave stay gone. Papa Jean lived away for months trapping, but he always returned.”
“Older Sister lost her life…giving birth,” Marguerite said. Her voice was so low the words sounded like the hum of bees.
Marie put her arm around her daughter. “You’re worried over childbirth?”
Why hadn’t she thought of that? Of course. What kind of mother was she not to know a daughter would be concerned over such things?
“To have something and then lose it,” Marguerite whispered. “It might be better not to have it at all.”
“Look around this French Prairie. See how many children run here and there. Babies are a natural thing. You’ll see. This is an orderly world created for us. A peaceful world. Baptiste loved again. I loved again, after two husband’s deaths. Our hearts are large enough to love more than once, to fill the empty places of those who leave or are even sent away.”
Had Marie gifted her daughter with a mind that always worried rather than one that reveled? Was that the legacy she would leave this child on the eve of her wedding night? Not one of hopeful joy but of the weave of worry?
“This match frightens you because JB was wedded before,” Marie said. “I understand this now.”
“Non,” Marguerite said. Too quickly. “It is not the marriage that frightens.” Marie imagined Marguerite’s obsidian eyes piercing the darkness,
could almost see her daughter smooth her hair back, the lovely widow’s peak marking the center of her high forehead. “It’s the unanswered questions that trouble me. We need to go inside. We have bread to bake while the night is cool.”
This was not the conversation Marie wanted to have with her daughter. She wanted to tell her of the joys of companionship, about light shed upon a marriage journey that moves two people back and forth across the bridge of separate and together. She wanted to tell her not to stay as unbending as her mother had. “I loved your father. The uncertainties of his death still haunt me, but I can find no answers when
I search there.”
“It is hard to move to a new place in my life while old questions still hold a claim. What about Paul? Is his disappearance related to–”
“Don’t wait as long as I did to cherish good gifts, daughter,” Marie said. “Desire met is more than longing for past pleasures. Desire attained is as sweet as molasses. Think about such sweetness instead of all that might be unfinished in a life.”
Marguerite moved to stand into the darkness.
What could Marie say that would be supportive, encouraging, kind?
“You can change your mind,” Marie said. As her daughter reached to pull her up, Marie grunted with the effort. She held Marguerite’s wide palm,
squeezed her long, slender fingers. “Even now. At this moment. Though the banns have been read, you can still decide to wait. JB will wait. The guests will understand. What you wish is what matters most.”
Am I saying the right thing? Am I suggesting caution where it needn’t be?
“It’s just…there, see that one? Oh, it has a tail as it falls through the sky. A falling etoile.” Marguerite sighed, and Marie knew that a moment of opportunity had passed, that she hadn’t comforted her daughter.
She hadn’t given her the gift of peace the day before her marriage. They hadn’t even had words Marguerite might someday wish to tell her daughter on her marriage day. She couldn’t say, “My mother told me this wise thing the day before I married your Papa, and now I tell it to you.” Her daughter was apparently as good as her mother at slipping good things into worries and intended affection into distraction. It was not the legacy Marie had hoped to give her daughter.
“Come, Mother.” Marguerite squeezed Marie’s hand now. “I have a garland still to weave for my hair. We’ve lain around enough.” She slipped her hand from her mother’s and walked on ahead, alone.