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Wild Life

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In her highly original new novel, Molly Gloss delivers a rare blend of “heady cerebral satisfactions, gorgeous prose, and page-turning adventure” (Karen Joy Fowler). Set among lava sinkholes and logging camps at the fringe of the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s, WILD LIFE charts the life—both real and imagined—of the free-thinking, cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing Charlotte Bridger Drummond, who pens popular women’s adventure stories. One day, when a little girl gets lost in the woods, Charlotte anxiously ...

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Overview

In her highly original new novel, Molly Gloss delivers a rare blend of “heady cerebral satisfactions, gorgeous prose, and page-turning adventure” (Karen Joy Fowler). Set among lava sinkholes and logging camps at the fringe of the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s, WILD LIFE charts the life—both real and imagined—of the free-thinking, cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing Charlotte Bridger Drummond, who pens popular women’s adventure stories. One day, when a little girl gets lost in the woods, Charlotte anxiously joins the search and embarks on an adventure all her own. With great assurance and skill, Molly Gloss quickly transforms what at first seems to be pitch-perfect historical fiction into a kind of wild and woolly mystery story, as Charlotte herself becomes lost in the dark and tangled woods and falls into the company of an elusive band of mountain giants. Putting a surprising and revitalizing feminist spin on the classic legend of Tarzan and other wild-man sagas, Gloss takes us from the wilds of the western frontier to the wilds of the human heart. “Never has there been a more authentic, persuasive, or moving evocation of this elusive legend: WILD LIFE is a masterpiece” (Kirkus Reviews).

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gloss twines just enough intellectual fiber around the sleek cord of a great adventure story to offer up a truly satisfying read. Presented as the 1905 journal of the fictional dime novelist Charlotte Bridger Drummond, Gloss's third novel (after The Jump-Off Creek and The Dazzle of Day) tells the tale of a self-avowed feminist and Freethinker and her sojourn in the wilderness of Washington's Cascade mountains. Abandoned by her husband, Charlotte supports her five boys and her housekeeper, Melba, by churning out "romantic tales of girl-heroes who are both brave and desirable." When Melba's granddaughter goes missing in the woods, Charlotte sets out, as would her heroines, to join the search party. But after days of searching, Charlotte finds herself last, for weeks managing to survive only by insinuating herself into a family of "apes or erect bears of immense size." Knowingly, Gloss plays with one of our deepest fears--lost in the wilderness, will we be saved?--and the myths that have grown from it. Interleaved between Charlotte's notebook entries are passages she has clipped from journals (e.g., of Samuel Butler, Willa Cather, Oscar Wilde) and excerpts from her published and unpublished fiction. Inserted among these are brief scenes--portraits, really--that could be construed as Charlotte's most serious attempts to write, or as Gloss telling us what Charlotte cannot. While Gloss generates heat and humor from the friction between early 20th-century and early 21st-century attitudes, her prose is most satisfying when she describes Charlotte's housekeeper ironing or Charlotte's patient suitor batting a homemade baseball. Deep into the book, Charlotte describes the "lowbrow scientific romances" she fancies: "[M]y preference is for the writer whose language is gorgeous, whose characters are real as life, and whose stories take my poor little assumptions and give them back to me transformed." Gloss couldn't have written a better description of her own novel: the writing is gorgeous, the characters real and vivid, and the story transforming. Agent, Wendy Weil. (June) FYI: Gloss received a 1996 Whiting Award, as well as the PEN Center West Fiction Prize. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In her third novel, Whiting Award winner Gloss (The Dazzle of Day) tackles frontier life in the turn-of-the-century Pacific Northwest. Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a young widow with five sons, struggles to find time to write the potboilers that feed her family. When her housekeeper's granddaughter Harriet disappears in remote logging country, Charlotte decides that tracking her down would be a good adventure. After all, she's a gutsy, independent woman, and the trip might provide some good research material. Charlotte's strength and determination are put to the test, however, when she herself becomes lost in the woods. Written in journal format with occasional sidebars and epigraphs, this novel both entertains and engages the reader. Without moralizing, Gloss explores the deeper meaning of what it really is to be human. Strongly recommended for large public libraries.--Laurel Bliss, Sterling Memorial Lib., New Haven, CT Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
Cigar-smoking, feminist writer of dime-store adventure novels for women meets Bigfoot in 1905: from the author of The Jump-off Creek (1989) and The Dazzle of Day (1997). Freethinking widowed mother-of-five Charlotte Bridger Drummond lives in Washington State by the shores of the Columbia River. A prolific diarist and successful writer, Charlotte's devastated to learn of Jules Verne's death. Her housekeeper, Melba, has a sickly daughter, Florence, whose violence-prone logger husband, Homer, decides to take their daughter Harriet with him to the logging camp. Harriet subsequently disappears, amid reported sightings of strange, huge, shaggy humanoids who, the searchers surmise, may have carried the girl off. Days later, the hunt has produced no sign of Harriet, and Charlotte decides to help. Indifferent at first to the exclusively male ambiance of the logging camp—the sole other female looks and acts like one of the boys—Charlotte, unsettled by an attempted sexual assault, learns to carry a big knife. The search area is difficult country, volcanic and precipitous, riddled with lava tubes, and in bad weather Charlotte becomes separated from her search partner. Thoroughly lost, Charlotte flees from a terrifying storm, abandoning matches, boots, food. Starving and desperate, she encounters a group of huge, hairy humanoids. These gentle, shy, intelligent creatures gradually accept her presence, helping her find food as she forages alongside them, permitting her to sleep with them in the fetid warmth of their dens; she comes to share their terror of humans and the reason for that terror. Eventually, Charlotte returns home, her outlook profoundly altered: discarding trashyfantasy, shewrites beautiful, intense, profound stories. Never has there been a more authentic, persuasive, or moving evocation of this elusive legend: a masterpiece.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618131570
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST MARINE
  • Pages: 274
  • Sales rank: 900,569
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

MOLLY GLOSS is the best-selling author The Hearts of Horses, The Jump-Off Creek , winner of both the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Oregon Book Award, The Dazzle of Day, winner of the PEN Center West Fiction Prize, and Wild Life, winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award.

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Read an Excerpt

The death of Jules Verne was reported in the morning papers—a great
loss to France and to the world. When I read this news, I confess I was
briefly startled into tears—just had to sit down and cry. Generally I
am not much of a one for tears, and so my youngest son, named Jules for
that very man, came and climbed on me, pulling at my hair and whining
the way children will do, and dogs the same way, they'll climb on you
and lick your eyes because they want things to go on being
understandable, they don't want you to sit down suddenly in a kitchen
chair crying.
I won't tolerate having my hair pulled, which my children know very
well, so I stood up and tumbled my son right out of my lap.
"Don't grab on my hair," I said, and discovered, upon sitting down
again, that I was already finished with crying. There followed a
theatrical burst of sobbing from Jules where he lay on the floor at my
feet, but as quickly done with—a long wet sigh—when I pulled him onto
my knee. He settled his bony little spine against my bosom and began to
twist a forelock of his own hair around his pointy finger while I held
the newspaper out in front of us and read:

Death Relieves Jules Verne
Calmly Foresaw His End and Discussed It with His Family
He had suffered from cataracts and deafness and diabetes, this was
something I knew. And seventy-seven. Well, it shouldn't have been a
surprise; I don't suppose it was. But something about it was
unexpected, a jolt. Indeed, he leaves large work, long years of
glorious writing; and now is dead. The world is changing, he told us,
and in my strong opinion Verne predicted very nearly every one of the
major mechanical developments of this century; his ideas have obtained
a kind of technological immortality. The world is changing but people
go on dying in the usual ways, is somewhere near what I was thinking,
now that the prophet himself had arrived at the limits of personal
mortality.
"Bird of six weeks kills her self with gas," my son read solemnly. My
children all are smart as whips, which I have written in these pages
many times, but this last one an uncommon case: not yet five years old,
but for more than a year he has been copying his letters from books and
reading to me the captions of the daily newspaper.
I looked where he pointed. "Bride," I said. "Bride of six weeks."
"What's a bride?"
"A woman with a romantic inclination which has led her into reckless
behavior."
This answer might have seemed sensible to him if he hadn't taken up
from his older brothers a mistrust of anything I am likely to say about
women. And my children are parlor artists, every one of them: he
breathed out in a dramatical fashion and tipped his head backward
against my breast, staring upward with the expectation of a revised
reply.
"A woman newly married," I said.
"What's married?"
"Enslaved to a man," I told him truthfully. At four years of age he has
no appreciation of scrupulous truthfulness nor understanding of irony,
and withal has learned from his brothers to question anything I am
likely to say about men. "Ma!" he said, in the particular way of all my
children, exasperated and demanding.
I said into his turned-up face, "When a man and a woman decide to live
as husband and wife, that's marriage. Like Otto and Edith."
He considered the idea, studying upward with his eyes evidently fixed
on the little dark caves of my nose; then he said seriously, "Like
Jules and Charlotte."
Well, boys are prone to confuse the mother with the wife; in fact,
husbands are prone to this same thing. So I only said, "No, not like
you and me. We are mother and son."
I expected him to follow this line of questioning to its next natural
point—to ask me if I had a husband, and who was he, which is related
to, but not the same as, Do I have a father, and where is he? (heard
and answered many times); but his mind does not work like mine and
shortly he had circled round again to another issue. "Why'd the bride
kill herself with gas?"
With a child as young as Jules there is not much point in carrying
scrupulous truthfulness to the edge of the abyss. "I don't know," I
said. "It may just be she was very, very sad." Both of us considered
this poor sad bride for a moment. The world is changing but people go
on dying in the usual ways. Then I said, "Get up now, I have work. So
do you. I want you to find the dog and a scissors and cut the hair away
from his eyes, but not too short, and don't poke his face nor yours,
and put the scissors away after."
This was something he had attempted without instruction on two
occasions in the recent past, for which reason I had hidden the
scissors thoroughly and cautioned the dog against cooperation. But I
had lately been wondering if Permission would cut the desirability
right out of that particular adventure, and in any case Horace Stuband
would be rowing Melba up the slough by this time, and it might be, if
Jules went on searching out the scissors for a quarter of an hour,
Melba would be standing in my kitchen tying on her apron and I'd be
locked away in the shed when the matter came to a climax.
Jules popped out of my lap with a little shout and went off at a
gallop, calling for the dog.
"Ma!" Frank said from the very air aloft. "Lightning's hid her kitties
up here, Ma, there's a hidey-hole under the eave. Look!"
Someone has taught that cat to count, is my belief, for she has never
failed to notice when we have sneaked off with the weaklings and the
crooked-born of her kittens, and she has become more and more wily with
each successive litter, determined to raise them all, runts and mutants
all, in a behavior that to my mind must be proof of the basic tenets of
Darwin, or disproof; which, I cannot as yet decide. For more than a
week my children have been looking for Lightning's new litter in places
as unlikely as sugar bowls, desk drawers, and rooftops.
"Where?" I called to Frank, and went out in the mud of the yard to see
where he was pointing from his slippery toehold on the gable of the
kitchen porch. "Oh my Lord, Frank. Can you see them? How many are in
there?"
"She's in there with them. I ain't reaching in. It smells like puke and
she'll bite a hole in me and I'll bleed to death."
I school my children as to the rules of absolute construction,
agreement of the participle, and placement of copulative conjunctions,
but ignore the colloquial as a matter of principle. Ignore, as well,
certain subjects of interest to Frank, whose inclination is to direct
people's attention toward blood, purulence, and excrement. I said,
"Just look in there, Frank, for heaven's sake. Count them."
"I don't want to put my face up there! She'll tear my eyes out and I'll
be blind."
Parlor artists, every one of them—which is something their departed
father unjustly blamed on me. "Well, then, come down from the roof and
go look for Lewis; he's left the woodpile in a jumble. Let Lightning
keep her mutant, godforsaken children, only I won't be held responsible
for what comes to pass. It's inevitable, I suppose, that a Cat Monster
will someday take over the earth."
I shook the newspaper as interjection, but having given up for now any
hope of reading the dying words of Jules Verne, I returned the paper to
the parlor, to the teetery stack at the end of the davenport bed. If
I'm to follow what is happening in the world, and what's being said
about this writer or that book, and the details not only of the book
industry but of biology and archaeology, chemistry and medicine, the
latest debates over the conceptions of Schopenhauer and
Nietzsche, and arguments to do with socialism, feminism, evolution,
eugenics, insanity, disease, not to mention what it was exactly that
Jules Verne said to his family before he died, and if I'm to go on
living three thousand miles from the centers of science and politics
and publishing, it always will be necessary to rely on a barrowload of
subscriptions to publications of all sorts, and books through the
mails. It's a very lot of reading, and for four days of each and every
month there's no keeping up, as Melba never can be persuaded away from
making a monthly visit to her daughter, Florence, in Yacolt, leaving my
children and me to manage the household without her; and since the U.S.
Post Office continues to bring my mail to the dock at Skamokawa every
day with the flood tide, the stack of unread newspapers and periodicals
always will build up during my housekeeper's monthly absence, until by
the fourth and last day it slides off the arm of the davenport bed into
a loose mountain on the floor beside it: a direct result of Melba's
stubbornness and the continuing inability of my children to manage
their lives without subvention and stewardship.
As if in perfect demonstration of this truth, I discovered Jules in the
kitchen standing on his toes on a high stool so as to peer through the
deep dust along the top of the Wilson cabinet, while his brother stood
below, jiggling the stool legs beneath him.
"Oscar, quit that. Jules, climb down from there. You won't find the
scissors in this kitchen, Jules, I've looked myself and I know for a
fact they are not here. Look out in the potato cellar for them, that
would be my advice. And failing that, try along the garden fence;
someone may have left them lying on the grass there."
"I never did," Oscar said in a righteously aggrieved way.
"Did too," Jules told him automatically, and the two of them fell to
wrestling on the kitchen floor. Oscar, at barely seven, is small enough
to present Jules, who is big for his age, with a challenging but not
impossible opponent. They wrestle daily over important matters, such as
whose arrow came nearest killing a particular Indian or slavering wolf,
and trivial matters such as who wiped whose snot on whose trousers.
"I haven't said that Oscar left the scissors out by the garden fence; I
said you ought to go look there. In fact, both of you ought to head for
the garden straightaway and search the fence line thoroughly."
I stepped around their thrashing arms and legs and began to clear away
these last four days of table scrapings. My personal belief is that a
woman's worth doesn't lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the
commencement of each of Melba's absences I always am determined, on
principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba's belief,
though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity
more horrible than Frankenstein's monster, and on her return there is a
particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder. I believe
it's dread of that look that sometimes moves me at the last moment
toward a cursory sweep of the carpet, a symbolic neatening of dirty
plates.
"Ma, I can't find Lewis." Frank was breathless, roseate. "I think he's
disappeared. There's tracks and blood. I think he was maybe captured by
Indians."
"I wouldn't be surprised. But if Lewis has disappeared, Frank, it'll
fall on you, as his twin, to neaten the woodpile."
"Ma!"
I school my children as to the rules of absolute construction,
agreement of the participle, and placement of copulative conjunctions,
but ignore the colloquial as a matter of principle. Ignore, as well,
certain subjects of interest to Frank, whose inclination is to direct
people's attention toward blood, purulence, and excrement. I said,
"Just look in there, Frank, for heaven's sake. Count them."
"I don't want to put my face up there! She'll tear my eyes out and I'll
be blind."
Parlor artists, every one of them—which is something their departed
father unjustly blamed on me. "Well, then, come down from the roof and
go look for Lewis; he's left the woodpile in a jumble. Let Lightning
keep her mutant, godforsaken children, only I won't be held responsible
for what comes to pass. It's inevitable, I suppose, that a Cat Monster
will someday take over the earth."
I shook the newspaper as interjection, but having given up for now any
hope of reading the dying words of Jules Verne, I returned the paper to
the parlor, to the teetery stack at the end of the davenport bed. If
I'm to follow what is happening in the world, and what's being said
about this writer or that book, and the details not only of the book
industry but of biology and archaeology, chemistry and medicine, the
latest debates over the conceptions of Schopenhauer and
Nietzsche, and arguments to do with socialism, feminism, evolution,
eugenics, insanity, disease, not to mention what it was exactly that
Jules Verne said to his family before he died, and if I'm to go on
living three thousand miles from the centers of science and politics
and publishing, it always will be necessary to rely on a barrowload of
subscriptions to publications of all sorts, and books through the
mails. It's a very lot of reading, and for four days of each and every
month there's no keeping up, as Melba never can be persuaded away from
making a monthly visit to her daughter, Florence, in Yacolt, leaving my
children and me to manage the household without her; and since the U.S.
Post Office continues to bring my mail to the dock at Skamokawa every
day with the flood tide, the stack of unread newspapers and periodicals
always will build up during my housekeeper's monthly absence, until by
the fourth and last day it slides off the arm of the davenport bed into
a loose mountain on the floor beside it: a direct result of Melba's
stubbornness and the continuing inability of my children to manage
their lives without subvention and stewardship.
As if in perfect demonstration of this truth, I discovered Jules in the
kitchen standing on his toes on a high stool so as to peer through the
deep dust along the top of the Wilson cabinet, while his brother stood
below, jiggling the stool legs beneath him.
"Oscar, quit that. Jules, climb down from there. You won't find the
scissors in this kitchen, Jules, I've looked myself and I know for a
fact they are not here. Look out in the potato cellar for them, that
would be my advice. And failing that, try along the garden fence;
someone may have left them lying on the grass there."
"I never did," Oscar said in a righteously aggrieved way.
"Did too," Jules told him automatically, and the two of them fell to
wrestling on the kitchen floor. Oscar, at barely seven, is small enough
to present Jules, who is big for his age, with a challenging but not
impossible opponent. They wrestle daily over important matters, such as
whose arrow came nearest killing a particular Indian or slavering wolf,
and trivial matters such as who wiped whose snot on whose trousers.
"I haven't said that Oscar left the scissors out by the garden fence; I
said you ought to go look there. In fact, both of you ought to head for
the garden straightaway and search the fence line thoroughly."
I stepped around their thrashing arms and legs and began to clear away
these last four days of table scrapings. My personal belief is that a
woman's worth doesn't lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the
commencement of each of Melba's absences I always am determined, on
principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba's belief,
though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity
more horrible than Frankenstein's monster, and on her return there is a
particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder. I believe
it's dread of that look that sometimes moves me at the last moment
toward a cursory sweep of the carpet, a symbolic neatening of dirty
plates.
"Ma, I can't find Lewis." Frank was breathless, roseate. "I think he's
disappeared. There's tracks and blood. I think he was maybe captured by
Indians."
"I wouldn't be surprised. But if Lewis has disappeared, Frank, it'll
fall on you, as his twin, to neaten the woodpile."
"Ma!"
"Go and ask any Indians you see skulking about whether they have seen
your brother. Look in all the mine shafts and secret caves. Follow the
blood trail. I'm serious, Frank. I want you to find Lewis and I want
Lewis to put straight the woodpile."
"Ma! He won't do it, Ma! He's out in the woods digging a bear trap and
he says he won't come."
"Go tell Lewis I'm giving his clothes to the orphans in Panama and his
pocket-knife to Oscar. Tell Lewis, since he's got bear meat to eat, he
surely won't be needing a place set for him at the supper table. And
tell Lewis that Melba is in a fine temper; if she sees the woodpile
like that, she'll box his ears off and he'll bleed to death."
Frank's face brightened; he went off to deliver these warnings to
Lewis. Oscar went off to claim Lewis's pocket-knife. Jules went off to
look for scissors in the deep grass along the garden fence. I stood
briefly in an empty room.
Just as Samuel Butler is said to have stopped everywhere and anywhere
to write down his notes, it is my habit to snatch up every moment of
quiet and solitariness for myself, to sit right down in these
circumstances and turn out a few lines, a paragraph of deathless prose,
while none of my children are underfoot: I keep a little notebook in
the pocket of every apron and wrapper for just such momentary
occasions. But I expected Melba; and I am as liable to be governed by
my housekeeper as any woman. I went on scraping the plates bitterly and
carried the pail out to Buster, who has taken up the prudent doggy
habit of hiding under the floor of the toolshed whenever summoned by a
child below a certain age.
The shores of the Columbia River at this lower end are crowded with
small and flat islands divided from one another by the narrow
slackwater of the sloughs—that is to say, by the river's back alleys as
it finds its slow way round and among the islands. Price Island and
Tenasillahe are so low lying as to be barely suitable for fish-seining
sites, but this island (having no name, and therefore just the Island)
is a great wedge of rolling pastureland and arable fields, as well as
woodlots of black cottonwood and red alder, engirt by the Steamboat,
Alger, and Ellison Sloughs. I should be surprised if the highest
hillock on the Island stands ten feet above the flood tide of an
average spring freshet, for which reason this house and several of its
outbuildings perch upon high stone piers in the hope (usually vain) of
getting through our periodic out-of-the-ordinary tides with merely
draggled skirts.
When Buster scooted out for the pail of scraps, I peered into the great
muddy vacancy beneath the shed and called, "George," for my oldest sat
in the dim dampness there, with his back reclined to the rocks of a
corner pier and his head not visible to me unless I bothered to circle
around to another corner and lean in. He said, "What," in a flat and
sullen way as if it were a reply.
"What are you doing under there? Reading a book? Consulting the stars?"
George, having the advantage of years, has long since reached an
understanding of irony, but continues without any appreciation for it.
"Ma," he said, from the very mountaintop of Impatience, "will you leave
me be."
He has gotten to be fourteen with no encouragement from me. I believe
the perfect age for any son is a certain week in his eleventh year when
he balances briefly at the triangular intersection of self-sufficiency,
unconditional love, and eagerness to please. If Science is to be
believed, nothing in the universe actually ceases to exist, but I have
begun to wonder: Whatever happens to all that affection, those years of
motherly
attachment, when a son determines to discard them?
"I'll do exactly that," I told him, and I removed the empty pail from
under Buster's nose and carried it back to the house.
At this time of year the path between the kitchen and the shed is
always a perfect trench of mud, for which reason I had gone over there
barefooted and with my hem pulled up into my belt. I've read that the
Wahkiakum and Kathlamet Indians of this coast never wore a shoe, and
the sensibleness of that has stayed with me ever since. While I stood
at the kitchen door stroking the bottoms of my muddy feet along the rag
rug, I discovered Melba standing in the front hall taking stock of the
clutter. Horace Stuband had delivered her and silently rowed himself
home.
Her look went round the rooms while her hat came off and then her
gloves. "I see you've left all the work to pile up for me," she said in
her usual way, which is Aggrieved.
Melba has failed to age well and suffers from an unlovely overbite as
well as an unsympathetic nature, but I believe I understand why men
once found her attractive. She is a small woman, under five feet in her
shoes, generous of bosom, with a waist that suggests it once was narrow
as a boy's; it would be in a man's nature to consider a woman's figure
ahead of her character. But she has made unlucky choices: two husbands
have died young, and the third, Henry, is a terrible drunkard and a
womanizer. Unlucky, too, has been her experience of childbearing: a
miscarriage, then a stillborn son, then a daughter borne hard and born
early, and a surgeon's hysterical removal of her womb. Then, I suppose,
Melba's daughter married and left the house before Melba felt herself
quite finished with raising her up; this would account for the way in
which she goes on trying to direct Florence's life from afar, in daily
letters shored up by these monthly visitations.
There is an approach I have learned from the dog, who will always pass
by a warlike cat by pretending not to notice her. "Frank has found
Lightning," was what I briskly announced. "It seems she's been hiding
her kittens in the eave of the kitchen porch roof." Melba, catlike,
received my information with a certain narrowing of the eyes and a
throaty, wordless warning; but her coat then came briskly off and was
hung upon the hook, after which she brought down her apron and tied up
the strings. So if she was briefly distracted from my insufficiencies
as a housekeeper, my purpose was served. "Frank is searching for Lewis,
who may have been killed by Indians," I said. "Oscar is in the house
playing with knives. Jules is in the garden looking for scissors.
George is lying under the shed with the dog." I went about the business
of gathering up my newspapers and digests while I delivered this
household report to Melba; and while she was still standing in the
front hall gathering up her dander, I was carrying my armload out the
kitchen door and through the mud to the shed.
Every writer needs a time and place in which to work. When some or all
of my children were yet unborn, there had been space in this house for
me to claim as my own: an unused bedroom, a sunporch, the rib-roofed
third-floor attic. But it has been a terrible task to write books
underneath the same roof with five irrepressible boys; this house is
full as a tick and peaceless. When push came to shove, I was forced to
look to other buildings for a room of my own.
When her own children were young, it had been my mother's habit to lock
herself in the outhouse with her embroidery, and in certain seasons of
the year when the deer were likely to come down into the yard to browse
the tender lawn with our cow, Mother kept a rifle with her and
developed a deadly aim from two hundred yards. I never did consider
following my mother's example, for our two-holer stands like a bastion
upon its high stone foundation and is a favorite stronghold of my
continually warring sons; they have made a particular science of
scaling its ramparts, from which vantage they ambush their unsuspecting
brothers with missiles of various kinds, or fire on their enemies with
wooden guns. I briefly gave thought to the little barn the cow stands
in to get relief from the rain, but refused it on the grounds that it's
three-sided (open to weather from the south), frequently lies in flood,
and is home to certain of Lightning's misconceived offspring. When I
first looked to the shed, it was full up with stove wood and tools and
broken things waiting there for repair, but numbered its walls at four
and had a door that would shut and latch. I instructed the boys to
bring the stove wood outside, where it was a-rowed between the stone
footings under cover of the shed floor, and our broken things out to
the yard, to rust or rot or be made over by one boy or another into a
steam launch or a cannon; and then the tools and I were able to come to
an amicable division of space. When I had fitted a lock to the inside
of the door, the place became proof against my children. Horace
Stuband, when he saw what I was doing, took it on himself to reboard
the floor against mice and mud and reshake the roof against rain and
draught. I have forty acres for no good reason except Wes had a
childish notion of himself as a Gentleman Farmer; and with Wes gone, I
have leased the greater part of these acres to my neighbor for his
cows. Of course, Stuband long has conducted himself as no mere
neighbor, instead a prospective husband, which I don't encourage; but I
accept the tangible tokens of his courtship with a sensible and silent
gratitude.
The shed is windowless and dark, hot or cold with the weather, but if
cold, Melba will send one of the boys over every long while with a
heated brick for my feet to rest on, and if hot, a cake of ice. As for
the lack of outlook, I consider I am driven inward to fanciful
mountainscapes and lost continents, and no worse for it, though in
certain weathers I find I must take a breath when I go in the little
dark room, in the manner, I suppose, of a hard-rock miner going down in
the shaft; and sometimes, coming out, I am surprised by the light, by
the absolute green of Stuband's pastures, or a sky unexpectedly huge
and blowsy with cloud, or the receding purplish ridges of the Nehalem
Mountains. This, I imagine, must be the surprise felt by someone who
comes up from years in a dungeon; or by Mountain Mary, returning from
the black heart of a volcano where she has discovered blind pygmies
living in a secret civilization.
On the other hand, I rather like the rain striking the roof of the
shed, the unpatterned drumming, and on those days there is comfort in
lantern light, the little room become snug and golden. Inasmuch as rain
is what we commonly have for weather, I am able to get along.
I climbed up the ladder to the high doorsill and while I scraped my
soles free of mud I said to George or the dog, "Don't thump around down
there while I'm at work," and someone, George or the dog, made a sound
of grievance. I toppled my papers and periodicals onto the maple
secretary which once was my husband's, lit the lamp, locked the door,
and put the chair under me. The dying words of Jules Verne
notwithstanding, it's my habit when I can escape to this study to keep
my morning hours for reading, my afternoons for writing. Being as it
was already (though barely) afternoon, I dipped the pen in the ink pot
and drove the nib across the page with a pent-up fury. "The horrible
sight," I wrote, "so clouded her mind and bound up the winds of reason
that she nearly cried quits with Fate and gave up the battle of Life."
Melba always has complained of her son-in-law, Homer, that he torments
his daughter in a man's careless way by bringing down with him from the
log camps horrid tales of Wild Men of the Woods, and so forth. I don't
believe a child is spoiled by the telling of monster stories; I've told
them myself, in such a way as to make the boys jump. But Homer will
swear every story is true, and that he has been a witness of great
barefooted tracks in the mud, twenty inches from toe to heel, and night
screaming of a bestial sort which is not the roaring of bears or lions,
which he claims he would recognize. He brings to his family gruesome
accounts of monstrous hairy men stepping forth from the shrub-wood to
crush an empty oil barrel, or bend back the iron top of a donkey
engine, or brandish an uprooted tree, and long recountings of stories
other men have told him, of women captured from sylvan picnics and
toted miles across the mountains on the shoulders of stinking man-
beasts. (Such is the nature of men, I am sure in their own camps,
outside the earshot of wives and children, these timbermen tell one
another the lascivious details of the ways in which these creatures
force their sexual attentions on captive women.)
Melba, I'm sure, wishes that her son-in-law would bring home to his
wife and daughter gentler tales of the sort she told her own young
child: St. Augustine's fables of men whose ears are large enough to
sleep in, and fanciful tales of griffins and centaurs. The Wild Man of
the Woods strikes her as altogether too near to the real, and
consequently dreadful. It is a discredited feeling in civilized
nations, but I believe we are all still afraid of the dark, and here in
this land of dark forests the very air is imbued with such stories;
indeed, the loggers had the tales first from the Indians. The realness
of them is another matter. As the woods are daylighted, and wilderness
gives way to modern advances in education and technology, I expect to
see the end of the Wild Man, exactly as faeries and gnomes disappeared
with the encroaching of the cities in Europe.
I also frankly wonder why Homer's stories remind me of certain of the
white man's fearful fictions of other races. It seems to me men always
have endowed the Indian, the Negro, the Hottentot with savagery and a
strong reek, with apelike looks and movements, and with a taste for
white women, and my own belief is that it's not a matter of other races
but a matter of fear. There is a bestial side to human nature, basic
and primitive impulses in the bodies of men which clamor for
satisfaction, and it must be a Christian comfort to ascribe such things
not to oneself or one's tribe but to hairy giants and savages. It may
be the Wild Man of the Woods is but a ghost of the wild man within.
I am forgiving of poor, dull Homer, though, inasmuch as I'm always on
the lookout for the seeds of my novels and have begun to make these
wild-man tales over, turn them quite on their backs and fill the shells
with my own turtle stew: the brave Helena Reed, Girl Adventurer, has
come face-to-face with a secret race of hairy mountain giants, and in
particular with a single example, the great and fearful Tatoosh of the
See-Ah-Tiks (whose civilization, of course, will prove more enlightened
than our own).
Today I wrote straight through—brought the dear girl to the very gates
of their great secret cavern—2,000 words in rather more than five and a
half hours. Of course, by then it was long since dark. If it suits
Melba, she will sometimes send one of my sons down with a sandwich at
midday, but she never will bring my supper to the shed; she's
stubbornly of the opinion I should quit my work as the night falls,
whether I've got to a stopping place or not. So when I went up the path
to the house, I discovered Stuband sitting with my children at the
supper table. Melba is determined that he should have a wife, and I'm
determined that it never will be me, but standing on the porch looking
through the kitchen window to the sight of my sons happily plying their
forks, and sweet, sad Horace Stuband sitting with them, neatly tipping
a glass of milk to his mustache, I admit I was pierced with loneliness.
There is something about a lighted room when you are standing outside
it in the cold night.
His hair has gone gray early, his whiskers gray, and his lean, pensive
face just short of pleasing to the eye. He is indulgent of my children
and kind with his cows, a man largely self-educated, and I believe he's
a bit in awe of me; in fact he seldom looks at me when he speaks, which
I suppose is due to abject fear; all of which may very well be good
qualities in a husband. And any woman might wish to console him for a
sad life: years ago, his baby son drowned in the bath and his wife
afterward fell into a long melancholia from which no one, least of all
Stuband, could deliver her. When a second child died on the day of its
birth, the poor woman began a habit of walking the fields and pastures
all night and falling to sleep outdoors in the daylight, very often
lying on the graves of her babies. One day she lay down in Hume
Sandersen's hay field, asleep or not, and the blades of Sandersen's new
reaping and binding machine passed over her. It always has struck me
that the woman was careful not to lay herself down in her own husband's
hay field; and that Sandersen is well known as a man of cold feeling.
People say he cleaned out his machine and went back to work the same
day.
But it's marriage I mean to avoid, not poor Stuband.
While I wiped my feet at the kitchen door I said, "Hello, boys, it's
gotten cold as hell," which was true, the mud on the path having gone
hard and glazed. Melba, standing at the stove with a pancake lifter
held up like a scepter, clicked her teeth in irritation. She objects to
my cursing, on the grounds that women should defend the purity of
children's minds. It's my argument that a child's happiness and well-
being decreases in direct proportion to the degree of his civilization.
"Snow, Ma?" This from Oscar and Jules both at once, raising their faces
to me hopefully.
We are always more likely to get rain in this quarter of the world than
snow, and I have seen winters pass here with no more than a brief
flurry in January, but Stuband, who is as childish in that way as any
of my sons, gave back the boys' eagerness. "I've seen it snow this late
in the year," he said. "Look here, boys, I've seen it snow in May. In
ninety-two, we were skating on the sloughs and driving wagons out on
the bosom of the river, it was that froze."
I placed myself on the bit of bench between the twins and lifted a
finger of mashed potatoes from Lewis's plate. "I believe you've missed
the question, Stuband," I said. "The boys want to know if there's snow
in this particular bit of cold weather, and since the sky has now gone
clear as a windowpane, I should think the likeliest answer is No."
Stuband is used to my glibness, I suppose, or might have pitched me a
crestfallen look. It was Melba, deliberately serving the boys' coconut
hermits ahead of my cold supper, who rattled the plate warningly with
the edge of her spatula.
I said to the boys, "In any case, if you're yearning for snow, you
should yearn for it on a day of the week when it will do you some
good."
"What's 'yearn'?" Jules whispered to Stuband, and Stuband, who is an
amateur reader and has taught himself the rudiments of vocabulary,
said, "It's to pray after something." George corrected him mildly. "Ma
doesn't pray. She's a Freethinker." Stuband then said, "It's to set
your heart for it," and got to the real point: "School's called off if
it snows."
This brought a light into the faces of the two youngest, quite as if
the news pertained to the moment, though an entire Sunday divides them
from their next possible encounter with the schoolhouse. In these
isolated precincts the school term is intermittent at best, commencing
when a teacher can be found and ceasing when one cannot, so my sons
have become more than a little spoiled from home schooling. When the
six of us are left to our own devices, I teach the children Thucydides
& Co. in the mornings, and then—having encouraged them to form museums,
to collect fossils and butterflies and to dissect worms—I let them run
wild in the woods and fields for the rest of the day while I scribble,
which is, more or less, the curriculum famously advocated by Seton and
his fellow Woodcrafters as being advantageous to the active minds and
bodies of the young.
Melba at last brought round my plate, and while I bolted down the cold
roast and mashed potatoes, the lima beans, the new bread and butter,
the boys brought up memorable snowfalls and then memorable teachers.
The Island School, having lost a string of teachers to the custody of
lonely bachelors, has lately taken to hiring girls whose principal
qualification is their seeming unsuitableness as brides—hard-featured
and repellent girls of vicious disposition and shiftless intelligence.
I expect my sons to become wise through teaching one another the canny
sufferance of inept teachers.
Stuband kept out of this discussion—he has a quiet center, which I
suppose is due to the difficulties of his life—but then he cleared his
throat and made an attempt to speak across the boys to me. "I'm glad to
see the sky clear off some," he said. "There's no good to plow while
this rain keeps up." He said this in an interested way, but one of his
shortcomings is a notable lack of conversational themes. The boys were
arguing about whether Miss Parrish kept a thumbscrew in her desk
drawer, and whether the little vial in the deep pocket of her duster
contained itching powder or arsenic, and I'm afraid my ear must have
been taking this in with somewhat more attention than poor Stuband's
weather talk. He went a few words further, seeming to speak to the fork
as he pushed it along the edge of his empty plate; and then reversing
his fork to travel the opposite way around the china, the poor man
lapsed silent.
In the following silence—well, not silence, as the older boys began to
give the younger an elaborate account of a girl whose fingernails had
turned black from a teacher's hammering them with a handy piece of
stove wood—I studied the shape of Stuband's big gray mustache, a
smoothly down-turned and pleated crescent very like the horns of an
Arctic musk ox, and when he became aware of this, he looked up. There
are times when I feel under his scrutiny: as if he has taken me into
his hands like a book and is studying the pages.
I was driven to say, "You know, Stuband, there are some very strange
things going on in the world today, and the world is flying forward
just as fast as it can." His look became startled, so that I was freed
to plow ahead. "Encke's comet," I said. "Blindness cured by a
miraculous drug. Moons circling Jupiter. A tunnel under the Hudson
River. We shall soon be piping natural gas from the sloughs into our
houses for lights and for cooking." I then began at some length on the
future of agriculture: in our lifetime, plants rendered microbe-proof;
farmers raising isinglass roofs over their fields, just as if they were
circus tents—but miles in expanse—and growing their crops under those
transparent covers without the suffering of bad weather.
I suppose I thought this would leave him fazed. He is always dim and
earnest with respect to my knowledge of the future and of the advances
of Science; it is principally for this reason I suffer Melba's practice
of asking him in for dinner. But when he had considered things—drawing
one horn of his mustache up into his mouth thoughtfully—he said, "I
wonder the wind wouldn't take hold of such a roof, Mrs. Drummond. A
circus tent won't stand much wind, I know that."
Finding that our interview had turned suddenly interesting again, Oscar
said, "I saw the roof fly off the Renegade Queen's Wild West Fair and
Bavarian Exposition!" On the instant, the other boys pushed in with
their own recollections of that memorable event, when we all had stood
in the streets of Astoria and watched the striped and flounced pavilion
of the Renegade Queen sail over the roofs of town and flatten quietly
on the backs of thirteen sheep, who were caught by surprise standing
dreamily in their own field. It was Frank who remembered: those ewes
had gone into a kind of nervous prostration from which they never had
recovered, and word had reached us afterward that the farmer had been
forced to slaughter every one of them to relieve them of their anxiety.
I kept to the point of my argument: "Not isinglass," I told Stuband,
"which I meant only as a similitude. We should expect to see the
invention of an artificial resin, clear as glass but plastic in its
consistency, like putty or wax, which will therefore hold up to the
wind and keep out every kind of scourge from cutworms to rabbits. The
world is in a terrific flux, Stuband, and astonishing things are in the
air all around us."
The boys by then had gone on from talk of slaughtered sheep to other
memorable and bloody animal encounters: a hog that had run amok in the
neighborhood with the butcher's knife stuck in its throat; a dog whose
eye was pierced with a porcupine quill; a drowned gopher found
inexplicably high in the crotch of a hemlock tree. Finally they had
come round to arguments about the length of time a headless chicken
might go on running around a yard spurting blood from its Melba at last
brought round my plate, and while I bolted down the cold roast and
mashed potatoes, the lima beans, the new bread and butter, the boys
brought up memorable snowfalls and then memorable teachers. The Island
School, having lost a string of teachers to the custody of lonely
bachelors, has lately taken to hiring girls whose principal
qualification is their seeming unsuitableness as brides—hard-featured
and repellent girls of vicious disposition and shiftless intelligence.
I expect my sons to become wise through teaching one another the canny
sufferance of inept teachers.
Stuband kept out of this discussion—he has a quiet center, which I
suppose is due to the difficulties of his life—but then he cleared his
throat and made an attempt to speak across the boys to me. "I'm glad to
see the sky clear off some," he said. "There's no good to plow while
this rain keeps up." He said this in an interested way, but one of his
shortcomings is a notable lack of conversational themes. The boys were
arguing about whether Miss Parrish kept a thumbscrew in her desk
drawer, and whether the little vial in the deep pocket of her duster
contained itching powder or arsenic, and I'm afraid my ear must have
been taking this in with somewhat more attention than poor Stuband's
weather talk. He went a few words further, seeming to speak to the fork
as he pushed it along the edge of his empty plate; and then reversing
his fork to travel the opposite way around the china, the poor man
lapsed silent.
In the following silence—well, not silence, as the older boys began to
give the younger an elaborate account of a girl whose fingernails had
turned black from a teacher's hammering them with a handy piece of
stove wood—I studied the shape of Stuband's big gray mustache, a
smoothly down-turned and pleated crescent very like the horns of an
Arctic musk ox, and when he became aware of this, he looked up. There
are times when I feel under his scrutiny: as if he has taken me into
his hands like a book and is studying the pages.
I was driven to say, "You know, Stuband, there are some very strange
things going on in the world today, and the world is flying forward
just as fast as it can." His look became startled, so that I was freed
to plow ahead. "Encke's comet," I said. "Blindness cured by a
miraculous drug. Moons circling Jupiter. A tunnel under the Hudson
River. We shall soon be piping natural gas from the sloughs into our
houses for lights and for cooking." I then began at some length on the
future of agriculture: in our lifetime, plants rendered microbe-proof;
farmers raising isinglass roofs over their fields, just as if they were
circus tents—but miles in expanse—and growing their crops under those
transparent covers without the suffering of bad weather.
I suppose I thought this would leave him fazed. He is always dim and
earnest with respect to my knowledge of the future and of the advances
of Science; it is principally for this reason I suffer Melba's practice
of asking him in for dinner. But when he had considered things—drawing
one horn of his mustache up into his mouth thoughtfully—he said, "I
wonder the wind wouldn't take hold of such a roof, Mrs. Drummond. A
circus tent won't stand much wind, I know that."
Finding that our interview had turned suddenly interesting again, Oscar
said, "I saw the roof fly off the Renegade Queen's Wild West Fair and
Bavarian Exposition!" On the instant, the other boys pushed in with
their own recollections of that memorable event, when we all had stood
in the streets of Astoria and watched the striped and flounced pavilion
of the Renegade Queen sail over the roofs of town and flatten quietly
on the backs of thirteen sheep, who were caught by surprise standing
dreamily in their own field. It was Frank who remembered: those ewes
had gone into a kind of nervous prostration from which they never had
recovered, and word had reached us afterward that the farmer had been
forced to slaughter every one of them to relieve them of their anxiety.
I kept to the point of my argument: "Not isinglass," I told Stuband,
"which I meant only as a similitude. We should expect to see the
invention of an artificial resin, clear as glass but plastic in its
consistency, like putty or wax, which will therefore hold up to the
wind and keep out every kind of scourge from cutworms to rabbits. The
world is in a terrific flux, Stuband, and astonishing things are in the
air all around us."
The boys by then had gone on from talk of slaughtered sheep to other
memorable and bloody animal encounters: a hog that had run amok in the
neighborhood with the butcher's knife stuck in its throat; a dog whose
eye was pierced with a porcupine quill; a drowned gopher found
inexplicably high in the crotch of a hemlock tree. Finally they had
come round to arguments about the length of time a headless chicken
might go on running around a yard spurting blood from its neck hole,
and plans were being made to conduct a scientific test of the question.
"I believe you must be right about that, Mrs. Drummond," Stuband said
to me, and he spread his mouth again so the edge of his teeth parted
the mustache in an abstracted smile. "I never have felt so in a flat
spin."

Copyright © 2000 by Molly Gloss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.
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First Chapter

Alone in the deepwoods, night of the 6th What is it, I wonder, that has haunted this whole enterprise?

I had expected to spend this night lying awake in my blankets, clutching a knife to my breast -- on guard against another assault -- but here I lie alone in the woods with only my coat for a covering and I am on guard against other sorts of monsters -- there have been screeches nearby, which must be owls, I suppose, or lions. I've built up a fire and backed it with a rotten log, and the sticks are burning well. With Willard's big knife I've cut hemlock boughs for a bed in front of the long line of fire, and recline here now writing and munching upon dried apricots. My clothes have mostly dried upon me, and I suppose I'll spend the night not uncomfortably so long as the rain holds off, and be reunited with my party in the morning. But I am low in mood, weary from worrying and from overexertion. I believe I have heard guns signaling into the darkness, but impossible to tell from which direction.

This morning we took our search away from the lava tableland, bearing off steeply downhill through the brush and trees in slipping wet boots, in a pouring rain, until we had come down upon thickly wooded, flatter ground -- not a great expanse of it, but several outspread fingers and tongues hedged in by the numberless ridges. Willard's idea was that a child wandering lost would stick to the low valleys, the flattish ground, and would not be found upon the steep slopes, which idea wore a certain logic; or we had been made receptive to it by virtue of our own exhaustion. Our tents were brought downhill and pitched along the footings of the lavaridge (lying more or less at the palm while we searched up the several fingers of the glove), and the sorry horses were freed of their enormous swaying burdens and left to munch the scant grass at camp while we two-footed fools set off with our rucksacks and ditties, holding such lunch as we had need of, and little else (which of course I now have reason to regret).

Being by this time old hands at the search, we scattered ourselves wordlessly through the trees. I kept as near to Gracie Spear as could be privately accomplished and beat about the brush without any hope of finding Harriet alive or dead. I confess I had in mind only getting through the day without breaking any bones, and speedily tomorrow returning to dry clothes and stove heat and my own house, my own dear children.

The rain went on until we were thoroughly wringing wet and our boots sloppy; until every depression in the ground, every bunker in the rocks, every hollow among tree roots was inches deep with muddy water and floating detritus. Then the sky lightened to Quaker gray, and steam began to rise from the ground -- a startling illusion of vulcanism -- and it was the end of rain for the time being. (Why do you suppose one feels the clamminess of clothes more miserably when the rain has stopped than while it is still falling?)

Then occurred an extraordinary adventure.

There is a certain science to the spying out of larger holes and caves in a lava field, certain signs and markers I had become alert to while in the field yesterday, and though we had left the lava behind us, such awareness had not deserted me; in the late morning, after the rain had quit, I was drawn to examine a particular hemlock growing oddly askew, which investigation found the tree tilted over a cavernous sinkhole. I am still agile, or as much as can be expected at middle age, and did not hesitate to shinny along the tree trunk to a point that allowed a short drop to a sloping rock ledge, which then allowed of a careful descent, tossing pebbles ahead as I groped into darkness by the insignificant flare of matches. Quickly it was clear: this was a reverberating, pitch-black passage of huge proportions.

My first thought was that we should be prevented from a thorough search of the cave, my Ever Ready batteries being exhausted and the materials for a pitchy torch not easily to hand in this country of sodden wood. But I nevertheless went after the next-nearest person, which of course was Gracie, and when I had explained the point -- cave too large, lacking sufficient light -- she made a little happy chirrup and said, "I got just the thing." With a self-satisfied flourish she brought from her lunch sack a kerosene oil lamp no more than five or six inches tall, which I recognized, with a glad thrill of commonality, as a bicycle headlamp. (It was a false trail. "Oh, I ain't never rode one of those things," she told me, her mannish face rosy and artless; she had only admired and coveted the lamp's miniature stature.)

So after all, we investigated. I went ahead of her, snaking out on the tree again and jumping down to the slanted ledge, after which she reached the lamp down to me and followed my example. I should guess her to be twenty-five, and of course very strong, but built too thick and low to the ground for nimbleness: she sat astride the tree trunk and leant forward to embrace it, then dragged herself along it by inches, which got her to the necessary place for jumping down. I held the lamp before us as we began a slow progress down the slippery stone chute.

This entrance proved to be a small lava sink littered with rock rubble, which after one hundred feet or so let into the sidewall of a very long, high-ceilinged throughway grooved with flow marks and a whole succession of shallow ledges. At other places in the lava field there had, of course, been open gullies and intermittent stone bridgework, which must be the skylighted leavings and minor versions of such caves; but this one was a considerable size -- entirely intact. I am no spelunker but have read enough to know: they are formed by rivers of lava which, cooling, forms a thick top crust and simultaneously eats away the ground beneath its molten stream, so that when the eruption is finished and the lava drains away, what is left is a through tunnel. The small light cast by the bicycle lantern made a circle of dim illumination that allowed us to see the tube stretching away in both directions for an indeterminate length, and the ceiling twice higher than hand's reach. I have read of tunnels thousands of feet long: Ole Peterson's Mount St. Helens Lava Cave, which cannot be more than a dozen miles from here, is a modestly famous international destination for tourists and speleologists.

Inarguably, no human child would choose to shelter herself in such a place -- the vast, echoing chamber seemed, even to me, a gateway to the underworld. But the cave air was somewhat warmer than the chilly daylight, and dry despite the hard rain overnight and this morning; I could imagine a wild creature -- bear or wolf, if not orang-utan -- happily choosing such a cave for winter quarters.

Gracie Spear, while saying nothing of apes nor the unlikelihood of a child hiding so deep underground, seemed loath to advance any farther within. For my part, I have seen more evidence of the savagery of men than of savage ape-men, which on the one hand frees me from fear of cave monsters. On the other hand, if no phantasmal beast had dragged Harriet to its den inside, what could be the point of looking for her there? I cannot, even now, divine the answer, but something of a wordless compulsion came over me. I said to Gracie, "We shouldn't let this cave go unexplored," and gave her a firm look.

I have always felt occultism to be the realm of fools and natural idiots; perhaps it wasn't any glimmer of intuition or clairvoyance that impelled me into the depths of the cave, perhaps it was my scientific bent and natural curiosity. (Lava tubes are nothing like the limestone caves in France, of course, but they have their own interest; and a large, dry stone room holds none of the terrors of the lava rimrock, its small tunnels and chasms doubtless home to crawling creatures of slime and tentacles.) What I should report is only that something -- something -- drew me in. And in the event, though we didn't find Harriet hiding in the black cave, and no giant orang-utans leaped upon us from the darkness, we were certainly led to a discovery.

The left-hand of the tunnel was blocked after some two hundred feet by the rocks and rubble of its broken-down walls and ceiling. The right-hand, though, went on for as much as a thousand feet, with a sandy floor of volcanic ash and pumice, and dark walls glazed and shiny as glass from the excessive heat of the lava. The walls narrowed gradually, and the ceiling lowered until we were made to crouch, but then opened suddenly to a roundish vaulted room like the cupola of a house -- it was the furthermost reach of the tunnel, sealed by the breakdown rubble of the ceiling -- and when we rose erect inside this space and lifted the lamp, I was seized with wonder.

There were husks of empty nuts and fir cones on the floor, and a frightening smell which I took to be feral, but the furnishings of long-absent tenants, scattered in disarray, were specifically human artifacts: chipped and flaked bits of stoneware; fragments of carven or heat-shaped wood; a broken strand of twisted leather strung with shells or bone; the unknit remains of what had once been woven strips of cedar bark; moldering feathers fallen into pieces, which one could imagine had been joined into a sort of cape or blanket, though many were now incorporated into a wild animal's artfully arranged nest on a high ledge at the rear of the room.

Gracie, perhaps seeing only that we had reached a blind alley, snuffled through her broad nose and said, "Shee-it, what a stink."

I rate highly any woman who will freely swear and say the word "stink," but on this occasion I would rather have had a woman with an appreciation for ancient relics and mysterious rooms hidden in the deeps of forbidding caves. I held up for her a piece of flaked obsidian which she might reasonably have been expected to recognize as a spearhead, and in the other hand a bit of bone carved into something like a button. "Someone lived in this cave, Gracie -- aboriginal peoples. These things are of great age, and valuable to Science."

She retreated a step and arranged her face in a disapproving frown. "They don't look old to me, only wore out; we better not go poking around in here."

I chided her for the foolishness of her reluctance -- "Believe me, no one is returning to cook their supper in this room" -- but when this did nothing to persuade her, I took another tack. "We have a duty to gather these artifacts and get them into the hands of Anthropology," I said. She took a dim view of this idea as well, and went on standing over me with her reproving look while I took out my knapsack and began to collect into it the partly intact pieces of implements and tools, stone spearheads and arrowheads, and twisted cords tied to bits of carved ornamentation. There were astonishing finds -- a well-formed cylindrical stone pipe! -- an intact, finely made awl! -- and I should still be sailing on the excitement of these discoveries except for the last one, which somewhat capsized me. At the very rear of the room, in the darkness where the stone shelved away in a series of ledges, behind that neat feather bed some animal or other had made, I lifted a fragment of matting or basketry and found lying beneath it a human skeleton.

For one irrational moment I believed it was Harriet, and my heart lurched. But of course, the bones were ancient, and identified by their Indian accoutrements. "Oh, lordy, what's that you've got there?" Gracie said, and brought the lantern. It was the bones of a small person or an older child, short of leg, with the wizened rabbit-fur moccasins still on its feet; and amid the little pyramid which was the piled-up bones of both hands, a fetish of sticks and feathers which had evidently been clasped to its breast.

I am sometimes forced to admit that my childhood inclination toward romanticism remains stronger in me than my adult study of the sciences; and this was one of those occasions. As we two women stood and looked on those bones in silence, I believed I could feel a very old sorrow creep into the room. The arrangement of the body, lying undisturbed on the basalt bench, had a touching posture of peace, and I was struck by the realization that this rock room was no longer someone's dwelling place but had become someone's tomb; I'm afraid my enthusiasm for collecting the ethnological scraps and fragments of a person's life began, in those moments, to desert me.

"I never have heard of the Klickitats, the Cowlitz, and them burying their dead people in caves," Gracie said in a low, somewhat affronted tone. (It's the Western way to pretend a serious acquaintance with local Indian custom.)

"No, I never have heard of it," I said, being Western myself, and also on the firmer ground of scholarly knowledge.

This opened the door to several speculations -- the sort of thing at which I am particularly adept. I told Gracie: These could very well be the bones of a suitor who had been traveling with his entire dowry to the village of his betrothed -- he had sought shelter from an ancient volcanic eruption -- had composed himself to die alone from horrid wounds received in the showers of flaming rock. Or the only survivor of an ancient tribe decimated by disease -- her desperate parents had sequestered her in the deep cave, safe from wolves and weather and their own horrid plague -- had furnished her with every tool necessary for her survival -- she'd lived alone for months or years until at last succumbing to loneliness. Or a feral boy raised by bears -- he'd later been killed by an arrow from his own human tribe, but his mother, recognizing her long-lost son, had tenderly returned his body to the bear den for interment, along with certain items for his use on the spirit-journey.

Gracie received these possibilities eagerly and supported them, one after the other, with an embroidery of her own details -- a desirable tendency in a companion. When we had thoroughly satisfied ourselves that the anomalous cave burial was capable of explanation, we considered what we should do with our discovery -- a brief and agreeable discussion which led to our leaving the bones exactly as we had found them, except that I placed on the stone ledge beside the body a respectful array of the artifacts I had gathered into my sack.

I suppose I should consider this a loss to Science, and a foolish surrender to sentimentality. Had I been with Pierce, or Willard, or especially Norris, the photographist, I don't doubt I would have behaved differently. But we were two women -- they are disgracefully sentimental creatures, after all -- and Gracie, having her own particular devotion to privacy and the natural rights of ownership (even as regards the dead), may have been an undue influence. I find it difficult, now that I'm removed from the moment, to explain or defend my performance. At the time, not only did I feel in a particularly weakened emotional state due to recent events, but I felt myself inhabited by a strange and intimate awareness of the ancient past as it related to the present -- something of a spiritual nature -- something which does not readily yield itself to words. If related to my gender, I shall hope it was not womanish sentimentality but intuitive reason, which Science allows is a woman's natural and creditable inheritance. And I should say, as well, that my mind had made a kind of premonitory leap from the bones in the cave to what must be Harriet's dire fate; I blame this on an inclination toward literary metaphor.

When we came out of the lava tube into the daylight -- no resumption of rain, as yet, but a cold overcast and an ill wind -- we resumed our search without remarking on the futility of it, simply tramping on through the deepwood, zigzagging around the ruins of logs and poking into thickets of hawthorn and thimbleberry.

Shortly we sat to eat our lunch in a lightly forested glen where some others of our party were already stopped. Earl Norris fussed and fiddled with his camera and tripod from the vantage of a mossy rockfall, while Almon Pierce and E. B. Johnson and an old ox logger by the name of Edward Stanley huddled in gloom around a smoky bonfire which had not even the advantage of rain cover from overhanging evergreen boughs; they chewed dry crusts of bread and hard jerked meat while submitting to their photograph.

It occurred to me that Gracie and I had made no decision as to whether we would share our news -- our discovery of the lava-tube cave and its furnishings -- with the men. I suppose if Gracie had blurted out the story, I'd have readily joined in; but she did not. I held off, myself, from an indefinable reservation, and perhaps also from grudgingness -- not wishing to share our sentimental, private knowledge with the villain in our midst. In any case, due to the general mood of the day, hardly a one of them gave us the benefit of a greeting.

Gracie and I carried our lunches off somewhat from the others and ate together in silence. Our association was transformed, of course, to one of friendship -- we were easy in each other's company -- but the truth is, I was not in a conversational frame of mind, and our differences are profound. While we sat together eating our crackers and cheese and washing all down with the liquor from Gracie's tin of peaches, we exchanged only a few private words on the subject of the local distilled spirits (the Amboy prune brandy, which by now I thoroughly lamented not buying) and, of course, the weather, which is always a safe topic. I was briefly troubled by a wish to confide in her the specific events of the night before, but I suppose such things are best dealt with sub rosa; and in any case, no occasion for intimacy arose from our discussion of fruit wines and rain.

We did discover a common habit: Gracie, having finished off her lunch, brought forth a twisted black pigtail from her shirt pocket, carved a thumbnail-sized plug, and deliberately seated it in her cheek; which encouraged me to do the same. While half reclined against our respective blowdowns, we each gazed upon the other's vile and un-ladylike tobaccoism with solemn, if unvoiced, admiration. (And inasmuch as spitting women are evidently newsworthy, we were hurriedly made the object of Norris's yellow-journal picture taking.)

In the afternoon, having suffered through a resumption of showery weather and a rising westerly wind, I became much in the mood to quit the search, but slogged on -- I admit -- for the sole reason that the others were seemingly unremitting, and I would not be the one to suggest our discreditable surrender. My affrighted need to keep Gracie in my sight gradually subsided (I blame increasing lethargy), and though I glimpsed one or another of my party or heard them hallooing to Harriet in a hoarse monotone through the long afternoon, I often labored alone and in silence. I peered into the dank shade along the corpses of old trees and climbed onto the thrones of their rotted stumps; from time to time I poked a stick into a thicket of wild raspberries. But I'm afraid I became more and more perfunctory, doing as little as could be managed without seeming to have given up the search entirely.

I am not as a rule a startlish person, but may have been brought to timidity and trepidation by recent events; I cannot, otherwise, explain what occurred -- two events within minutes of each other, and in large part to blame for my present situation. In the mid-afternoon, after I had not seen or heard others of my party for a good interval, Almon Pierce arose suddenly from the brush behind me, which provoked me to a wild-Indian yelp and my constitutional defense against surprise, which is a malicious glare. This astounded and mortified the boy more than might have been expected -- his face flashed crimson, and he was gone -- had turned and fled into the wet shrubbery before I had quite recovered my poise. I confess, I stood for some little while afterward in frozen apprehension -- knew instinctively and utterly that Almon Pierce had been my midnight assailant and that I had just saved myself from a further assault. I cannot account for this now except to plead the overwrought mind of a beleaguered and exhausted woman.

Which must also be blamed for what followed. Having recovered myself (so it seemed), I went on through the trees some few hundred yards, examining the root flares of thousand-year-old cedar trees, and simply became aware, with absolute and sudden certainty -- the heaving over of my heart in my breast -- that evil eyes were upon me; became sure of the presence of someone else glimpsed only as a shadow, a heaviness, a shape behind the trees, which vanished as I turned my head. I am half ashamed to admit I took out Special Agent Willard's deer-foot-handled knife and brandished it in the air, while fiercely calling out, "Halloo, damn you, who is there?" to which I received in reply the faint resounding of my own rabbity tremolo. Here is the truth, which can only be told in the privacy of these pages: I quite lost courage, believing someone was there -- Almon Pierce again, or a beast, and in either case breathing death; and I plunged off through the deepwoods like a deer.

It is humiliating to realize one's base fear lies so near to the surface.

When I had got over my blind flight (not long) and got hold of my senses, I surrendered to a weaker impulse and made off directly for camp, with every hope of finding at least one or two of the others waiting (shameful if I should be the first to call it quits), and the comfort of hot soup, as well as a tent to get in out of the rain. It was at that time just past two o'clock.

In the neighborhood of four o'clock, having struck no sign of camp nor indeed of the lava ridge, and no glimpse of Gracie nor any of the men, I began to fall prey to a certain anxiety and restlessness. I had been holding the terrain lightly in my mind, which is a coherent enough map, and I am usually unerring in the matter of orientation; but we had been keeping to the flattish troughs, and the whole of our traverse was gradually uphill, which I suppose had led me into a kind of complacency regarding which way was "back" -- that is to say, downhill. I may also have gotten turned around somewhat, while bolting from shadows. Further, this is a jumbled country, no less so than the lava tableland -- a muddle of ravines and gullies and ridges which give upon one another in a confusing way. In any case, subsequent hours were spent casting back and forth deliberately along the low ground until I became aware that, in the darkening shadows, injury was ever more likely.

I am not worried in the slightest -- have certainly spent many nights alone in the woods and have sufficient flesh on my bones to stand the loss of one meal (or two, I suppose, in case I do not find my fellows in time for breakfast; but I have hardtack and cheese in my pockets). And here is an adventure, after all, and a story to embellish for the boys when I have regained them as an audience.


On the Columbia River I have found evidence of the former existence of inhabitants much superior to the Indians at present there, and of which no tradition remains. Among many stone carvings which I saw there were a number of heads which so strongly resembled those of apes that the likeness at once suggests itself. Whence came these sculptures, and by whom were they made?

-- James Terry,
Sculptured Anthropoid Ape Heads, Found in or Near the Valley of the John Day River, a Tributary of the Columbia River, Oregon (1891)

Copyright © 2000 by Molly Gloss

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