Like tufts of cottonwood seeds fluffed by winds beside a stream, the tiny dots of white nibbled over the purple hyacinth hills. My hills, Eva Cora Thompson thinks. Those are my hills. She hears a distant crying, raises her eyes to her father in question. “Sheep,” her father says and points to the white tufts. “Motherless lambs you’re hearing. They make a mournful sound.” Eva leans forward, brushing her face against her father’s woolen vest. He smells of whiskey and soap. Her mother’s cool hand pats Eva’s. A large bird whistles above them, dancing with the wind, its shadow a reminder that they aren’t alone.
Eva shivers in the icy April breeze despite her sheltered position on the buckboard between her parents. Her father puts his arm around her mother’s shoulders, tugging both her and Eva toward him. Chin raised in pride, he pronounces: “Those hills are where we’ll make our mark in this grand landscape. The land will help us do that, Cora,” her father says. “The land and that Muddy Creek that cuts it and the John Day River that furls like a ribbon along it.”
He slaps the reins against the mules’ backs, and the wagon totters down the stage road into the valley below. Eva smells the glycerin her mother presses against her lips before running the pasty gel over Eva’s. “The air’s so dry,” her mother complains. Eva hasn’t noticed. So much to see, to hear, to feel.
“Who’s that?” Eva asks. Her father pulls up the reins and stops.
“Good eyes,” he says. “Looks like root diggers. Hahn said the Indians move through here. It’s that time of year. We’ll have to find out which roots are edible. Supplement our supper.”
“Wild roots?” Eva’s mother asks. “Is that safe?”
“They’re eating them. First fruits of the land.” He smacks his lips to urge the mules on, and the wagon rolls closer to the small gathering.
An old brown woman with a colorful neckerchief wrapped around her head straightens at their approach. She leans against a stick. Each or her children holds a small stick too.
“So many children,” Eva’s mother whispers. Eva counts: one, two, three, five, seven.
“Hahn says when a parent dies of consumption or meets some other untimely death, aunties and uncles and grandparents fluff the Indian children under their wings.”
“I guess they never have any orphans that way.”
Her father taps his fingers to his hat. “Morning.”
The woman clusters the children around her like a hen her chicks. “Looks like a good morning for digging,” her father says.
The woman hesitates, then opens up her waist bag. She pulls out stringy-looking roots and offers a handful, open palm, to Eva.
“Go ahead,” her father says when Eva looks up at him. “It’s a gift of the earth.”
Eva takes the roots. She watches the eyes of the children. She looks at the shining faces of her parents. Here are friends and food and family in the shadow of purple hills. She’s never felt so safe or loved.
It is not a feeling that will last.
From the Trade Paperback edition.