In my seventeenth year, 1879, I fell in love with Anders Ostergren. He was a son of the land.
In Wisconsin, I often spent Sunday afternoons with my best friend Helga. We sang children’s songs, walking home from early worship together. After helping Mama with dinner, we washed the dishes together. It took us over an hour as we played more than we worked and ended up with wet aprons. We hung the aprons on the clothesline to dry. We lifted an old quilt one, two, three times to create a cool breeze, then smoothed it over a thick bed of grass. In the shade of fragrant linden trees, we planned our lives as wives and mothers.
“If you marry first, you must tell me about what happens in the dark,” Helga whispered.
I promised to reveal all on a Sunday afternoon on that very quilt under a tree beside my new home. I asked for her promise, too. “If you have the first baby, you will spare no detail about the ‘agony followed by joy.’ That is all Mama will tell me on the subject.”
Helga promised. We guessed and speculated and dreamed about our future lives. The one certainty was our vow to drink the cup of life together. Always together.
I sat with Anders on my father's porch one evening before our wedding. I wrapped a thick shawl around my shoulders where the early spring air tried to chill me. The sky was starless. Clouds from the late spring rains would not allow any light to peek through the night lace. Now and then, a drop from a light rain fell from the leaves and landed with a quiet plop on the porch railing.
Anders sat beside me, under a lantern hanging over the front door. He was reading a little book as if preparing to take an examination over its contents. I felt ignored, so I broke the silence. “Are you finding what you are looking for in those pages?” I asked.
“I’m looking for where we shall live after our wedding,” he said.
“We shall build a little house on my parents’ property, or yours,” I declared.
“We are going to homestead. The government is giving free land to those strong enough to build a home and a farm.”
“Where do you expect to find your free land?” I asked.
“I want to be close to Sioux Falls, but not too close,” he said.
“Where is that?” I asked.
“The Dakota Territory.”
“The land is good there say relatives who write from there,” he said.
“What do you know about Dakota?" I asked. "What is the land like? What do they grow there? What about the Indians? At the limestone quarry, they pay you ten dollars every week. That is plenty of money for starting a family right here in Waukesha County.”
Anders rose from his chair. He folded the Emigrant Guide in half and stuffed it in his breast pocket. "Everything we need to know is in the Guide."
He crossed the porch and sat on the railing across from my chair. “You’ll get wet sitting here,” I fussed.
“Listen to me,” Anders said. “Every morning I climb down, down into the quarry. All day, I work inside high walls of white limestone. The sun burns the top of my head and my back. Light reflects off the stone walls into my eyes until I think I am in a snowstorm at sea. It is a tomb I work in, but even the dead in their graves are not scorched.”
I reached out my hands to Anders. He sounded miserable, like a boy who hates to go to school where he is bullied and disciplined harshly. “You need a hat,” I said, “With a wide brim to protect you from the sun. Like farmers wear.”
Anders shook my hands and laughed. “So, you agree it is better to be a farmer than a stonecutter?”
“I agree. It is better to wear a hat in the sun.” I laughed back at Anders. He withdrew his hands and straightened his back. I counted the raindrops falling on the rail beside him. Ten fell before he spoke.
“Smell the earth, Marta. The rain releases its fragrance. From that earth comes corn and sweet alfalfa grass. Imagine fall corn around our little house. Can you not sell the sweet cut grass? I want to climb out of the stone pit. I want to set my own pace with the seasons, not the watch in a foreman's hand. I want to make such a happy life for you and for our children."
I looked down at my hands clasped together in my lap. Anders leaned close to me and covered my hands with his own. "These rough hands will work hard for your. Your warm, gentle hands will give order, kindness and love to the wild country."
"I will go with you," I said. In an instant, he lifted me out of my chair. Anders held me in his strong arms while my feet fluttered in the air.
Anders traveled alone in early to the Dakota territory to search for our home. I stayed behind sewing aprons and bonnets, towels and a wedding quilt. Anders planned his trip carefully, using the geographical notes in the Emigrants Guide. “All the landmarks are clearly described,” he assured me. “The rivers and streams, valleys and outcroppings. I will find a high, level place near a quick flowing stream, in sight of a good stand of trees,” he said.
“Near a lake, please,” I said.
“So you can stare at it? Oh no, you’ll be too busy for water-watching,” Anders teased.
Anders wrote me beautiful letters all along his trip to the Dakota Territory. He wrote something every day and posted the long letters whenever he came to a town. I shared the letters with Helga on Sunday afternoons.
Arrived by train in Chicago. Streets are a muddy soup. Hired livery and rode west, always west. In Iowa, the land is good, and farmers boast of big harvests of corn. I will plant a small orchard for us. Apples and pears. I discovered a new fruit here. They call them paw-paws. Sweet yellow pulp.
Not as sweet as you, my dear. You are my joy.
Your most devoted, Anders
When I finished reading, Helga caressed my blushing cheek and then pinched it hard. We laughed and read letter after letter full of words of discovery, hope, and love. “A man expresses only half of his heart,” Helga said with a certainty she had no right to yet. Anders was not a poet, but his words poured over me like sunshine or a gentle rain.
We arrived in Dakota Territory in early May. Fields of wild grass still wore a light frost early in the morning. The fields surrounded our wagon like a ship becalmed. An ox pulled us through the grass as it bowed and rose around us like lapping waves. Walking through the grass, I was no longer the young girl sailing under her father's or uncle's strong hands. I was alone, lost, without sail or rudder with no horizon in sight.
We stayed close to the Missouri river as it was our map. The river took its time, in no hurry. The warm weather coming soon woke it with the sound of bumping ice islets. As I sat beside Anders on the high wagon seat, I thought about our wedding. So many guests. Good food and drink. Dancing under the moon. Sitting high above the endless prairie, I struggled to deny my fear. I held so tightly to my husband that he had to shake his arms to free them so he could dismount and prepare our evening camp.
I boiled our coffee and boiled our dinner. I baked biscuits on a tin plate on top of our boiling rabbit or quail with wild onions. In the morning, I boiled porridge in the same pot, and scrubbed it clean with a cup of water from our barrel or from a stream, or with sand from a nearby dry creek bed.
Anders was a master traveler. He named the plants and landmarks for me. He made the oxen pull the wagon up a hill far off the trail to show me a herd of buffalo. When they ran, the ground shook. Anders said they were only a small number of what remained of once great herds. “What a racket they must have made,” I said.
When the summer storms came, Anders and I sat in the wagon, huddled together among the crates and boxes that made up our home. I had sewn pockets on the inside of the canvas covering our wagon. In them, I kept things we needed along the way: spoons, needle and thread, paper packets of herbs for stomach and head, my mirror and hairbrush. As the wind raged around our wagon or rain blew in sheets, Anders brushed my hair by the light of a flickering lantern. I sang Norwegian songs my grandmother taught me. The songs I would sing to my own children one day.
The river led us to Sioux Falls. When the buildings came into sight, Anders pulled our wagon to a stop. He stood and lifted me onto the wagon seat for a better view.
"Our new home," I whispered.
Anders pinched my waist and turned me around with a laugh. "Yonder is your home," he said, pointing west. "There is the richest land on Earth. We will rest for a while in town, but our journey is not yet finished."
I looked up to the sky. I hoped Anders would think the bright sunlight caused my tears. But it was the beginning of a loneliness that would become my only companion. Our home, once we built it, would be an island.
We rested overnight in the town by the river. I listened to the water rushing over rocks that gave the town its name. Anders registered his claim, and we refreshed ourselves briefly. I bought a sun bonnet. Anders laughed when I first put on the floppy, calico covering. "You will need this," the woman who sold it told me. "There is little shade on the prairie."
A long day's ride later, Anders stopped at the three homesteads of the Schaller family. The two sons- and daughters-in-law of Hermann Schaller lived side by side. They shared a barn, a smokehouse, and an enormous coop for dozens of chickens and geese. Behind each house, the families’ land spread out like pieces of a pie.
Mr. and Mrs. Schaller welcomed us and fed us. We drank the beer the sons brewed and talked through the night. The family community was so welcoming, the young wives full of laughter. I followed the wives like a pup, asking question after question about making a prairie home. I learned what to use for fire fuel in a treeless land. I would never have guessed the answer. "Buffalo chips," they laughed. "When the wind howls you won't care what makes your fire."
In Mrs. Schaller's kitchen, we kneaded dough together for dumplings.
"Your home is so clean and warm," I said.
“I have many hands to help me," she said.
Mrs. Schaller knew I was frightened. She patted my arm with her dough-covered hands. “Life is hard here for a woman. But do not be afraid. When you make a good life for your children, all the hardship is forgotten.” When we left the little community, Mrs. Schaller gave me four chickens and a pair of goslings, for eggs and down, and meat at Christmas.
“We are to live in the dirt?” I whimpered.
“A sod house, yes. Made from the earth with the tight roots of ancient grass holding everything together.”
“The Schallers have wooden houses.”
“They started out in a sod house just like this one. The sons helped me build it, so it is strong and will keep us warm when winter comes. Trees are precious on the prairie. A proper house will come in time.”
Whatever the reasons for our sod house, however I tried to hide my disappointment. The darkness, the damp, and the smell of the sod walls overcame me. I cried. “Have you brought me all this way to bury me in a house of dirt?” I cried.
“People have lived in caves, and in tents. I’ve heard of people in very cold places who make their houses of ice,” said Anders. He tried to tell me how cool the house would be in hot summer and how warm in winter. “The sod will dry, and I will whitewash it for you,” he said.
I went to bed without cooking dinner. My pride as a wife deserted me and I felt ashamed. All the night, with Anders’ strong body next to me, I shivered. I imagined insects and worms falling out of the walls onto the quilt Helga gifted us so long ago.
“I don’t want to live in a grave,” I whispered.
Our house faced east. The walls were two feet thick. Anders had set a frame for one window facing east, by the door. It would catch the first light in the morning. The second window faced south. "We can watch the moon rising as we lie in bed," he teased.
Two window frames were all the wood Anders could spare. There was no glass in the frames. That luxury also had to wait. "I promise before winter, you will have glass windows," Anders said.
I had the idea to cut a feed sack into two squares to stand in for the glass in the windows. The muslin let in light on only the brightest days, but there were many such days as the summer neared. Anders praised my ingenuity. “A prairie wife learns to make do and try different ways,” he said.
In the late afternoons, the muslin windows let in a diffused light. The cloth squares seemed to glow as if the sun’s light had trapped in the threads. The light through the faded colors printed on the feed sacks reminded me of an old church in Milwaukee. The soft light fell on my hands as I knitted a small blanket.
In late summer, powdery dust fell from the walls onto the floor, the table where we ate, and the bed where we slept. At night, insects chattered softly in the walls. The cabin was dark as any tomb. Tiny slivers of moonlight slid through chinks in the blocks of sod onto the planks of the wooden door. Each morning, I brushed crumbs of plant roots from my hair. I shook the bedding and spread it out in the sun. When it rained, I struggled to breathe for the smell of rotting plant roots over my head.
On the worst nights, I slept alone in the empty bed of our wagon. Anders laughed at me. “Mrs. Schaller lived in a sod house for years.”
“She’s an old woman,” I whimpered.
“She puts up with a little discomfort for the benefit of her family. Good wives do,” said Anders.
Where was my humility? My loyalty to my husband? I wrote my heart to Helga while dinner boiled inside the cabin, or our clothes soaked in a washtub in the sun.
Always the wind blew. I listened to the voices in the wind: bird songs, the shush of the waving grain, the snapping of clothes flapping on a line. But I did not speak the language of the prairie, so what I heard was unkind criticism of my work, my fears, and my crushing loneliness.
Anders worked until the last light. I was alone in the house or the garden or with the animals for hours on end. Still, I fought my sorrow with his work. Readying our home for winter filled my hands and mind. We found, cut, and stored wood to feed the fire through the cold months. I preserved every kind of food we grew or found. I canned a sweet sauce made from paw-paws for pancakes. Anders built a lean-to for smoking meat and a shelter for the ox and my geese.
The days grew shorter and colder. Wind screamed through snow-filled valleys. Then, the snow muffled all sound. The sod walls froze on the outside and a blanket of snow covered the roof. With the silence came darkness. I left the house only for bodily necessities or to ladle snow into a bucket to melt on the stove. Washing became an inside job and something had to be washed nearly every day. My muslin curtained windows gave little cheer after Anders covered them with double-folded pieces of canvas cut from the wagon's cover. The wind tamed, but the darkness grew.
When I woke in the mornings, I blinked my eyes to know if they were open or closed. I thought I might not be breathing and gasped like a fish floundering on the deck of a boat until Anders moved and I remembered where I was. The dark and the silence amplified the slightest sound to great alarm. A pop of an ember, or a rattle of the door hinges startled me like the trumpets of Armageddon. Smoke from the kerosene lamp stung our eyes. We ate by the light of a single candle and the flickering light from the hearth fire.
We spent Christmas with the Schaller family. There was no money for a train ticket home. Shortly after the New Year, a rise of bile into my throat pulled me from slumber. Anders cradled my face in his hands, checking for fever. “Stick out your tongue,” he said, holding a candle over my head.
“Don’t fuss,” I said, pushing his hands away.
“Are you sure?”
“A baby is not a sickness,” I said.
Anders hesitated, then hugged the breath out of me. I pushed him out of the door to his work. After supper, I teased him. "Do you remember the night you planted the seed for this little one?”
“Of course. It was when I returned from Sioux Falls from selling potatoes and onions.”
“It was the first time I was completely alone here,” I said.
“You were not alone. One of the Schaller boys rode by every other day to check on you,” Anders said.
“If they did, I didn’t see them.”
“Naturally, they would not want to be seen visiting a married woman when her husband was not home,” Anders laughed.
“Who would have seen them? The trees, the geese, the cow?”
“Yes, and they would have reported everything to me.” We laughed and Anders danced a jig all by himself in front of me.
In late March, the ceiling of the cabin dripped droplets of mud. Anders climbed on the roof and swept away what remained of the snow. I ran from bed to table and back all day. A cat chases a mouse or a butterfly. I chased black rings of water until my wiping rag was mud- soaked.
When Anders came down from the roof, he announced. “The roof should dry up quickly now.” He spoke with such confidence. How my husband had grown into his calling as a farmer. I hoped would grow into my calling as a mother. For now, I wanted to show Anders he could depend on me as I depended on him. After cleaning up the dishes, I scrubbed hearthstones with a brush. When I finally stopped to rest, the baby was quiet inside me. Usually when I worked, he kicked and squirmed like he thought he was helping me.
That evening, I wrote letters to Mama and Helga with news of the baby. “They will scold me for waiting so long to tell them,” I said. “Will you go to Sioux Falls tomorrow and post the letters? I need more paraffin for canning, and we should have plenty of kerosene for the lantern when the baby comes. I can’t be falling in the dark when I get up at night to feed him.”
Anders was reluctant to leave me. “The baby isn’t coming for weeks yet. We could have more snow. Mr. Schaller said he's seen it snow on Easter morning.”
“Then you should go now before the next snow comes. It’s a sin to waste warm March days.”
Anders packed the horse quickly. He intended to make a fast trip and be home in two days. He brought buckets of water from the creek two at a time and filled every container we had. “I don’t want you walking around the creek. There are icy patches still, and I can’t worry about you falling,” he said.
“Why don't you go on to Sioux Falls? I need paraffin, and maybe some nice tea to help settle my jitters,” I said.
“No need for jitters. Mrs. Schaller and I worked out a signal for when the baby is coming.”
“What’s the signal, even though I won’t need it?”
“Two shots with the Springfield under the bed. Wait a minute and fire twice more. Oh, I forgot to tell you, I might be an extra day if the weather holds. I want to put money down on a pig when it’s born in the spring. Over by the old Yankton trail road. We’ll fatten the little fellow up to butcher for Christmas. We can have Christmas here and invite the Schallers.” Without saying “Goodbye,” he was off.
The day could not have been more beautiful. Sunny with only a slight breeze. I took a walk to the creek and gather some little pine twigs. The lovely smell of pine in the hearth would be so nice.
I picked up a few sprigs of needles and a handful of pinecones from the melting snow. I wanted one more little branch, fresh from the tree. I pulled with all my might but could not get a good angle to twist off the twig. I moved my feet and pulled again. I felt a sharp pain under my belly ran all around to my back. I waited a moment before pulling once more on stubborn little pine twig.
My ankles felt wet. Had I stepping into the creek? I looked down at my blood covered shoes. A wispy trail of red swam away from me into the creek.
I shuffled slowly away from the creek. When I reached the animal pen, I grasped the fence rails and pulled myself hand over hand along the rough surface. Between the pen and the house, I stumbled twice. My middle felt like a pair of giant hands were squeezing me, trying to take my breath.
I cleaned myself the best I could from a bucket of water in front of the house. I pulled a feed sack towel from its hook and pushed it up under my skirt. I pushed aside the bedding and laid on the bed ropes in case the flow of blood returned. Rest was what I needed.
“Now, quiet down,” I whispered to the baby. “We can’t celebrate your birthday today. Not without your papa.”
The strong hands gripped me again. Then, I must have slept. When I awoke, I tried to stand or even to sit up but could not. I turned on the bed. I slowly rolled myself onto the floor beside the bed. The Springfield was under the bed.
How long it took me to crawl with the gun to the cabin door I do not know. I opened the door, but how could I shoot into the air without standing or even rising onto my knees? I upset the pail of ashes beside the door. Anders had forgotten to remove them in his haste to leave. With the rifle propped unsteadily on the pail, I shot twice as high as I could into the air. After counting to ten, I fired once more. My strength was exhausted. The Springfield fell from my hands. “Mrs. Schaller, please hear the signal. I could only fire three times. I need you!” I cried aloud.
I made it back to the bed and threw myself on it. I was so tired I did not move even a finger. I thought the baby must be tired too. He had not moved since the morning, so long ago.
The moldy smell of the dirt became a taste I could not swallow. Where were the angels to carry me to heaven?
I heard knocking. Was someone nailing my coffin lid shut?
Did you know there is no time without light? In the darkness, underground, no new day arrives.
Did Anders know where they buried me? I tried to call to him, but my mouth was full of dirt.
Slowly, I became aware of my body. My legs twitched under a mound of heavy quilts. I could not push them away or turn under the weight. My night dress was stiff from the salt left when my fever sweat evaporated.
When I opened my eyes, the brightness of the room startled me. I turned away and then opened them slowly. Across the cabin was a blue square on the east wall. I knew that color. It was the winter sky. A little brown bird flew across the sky. He stopped to rest outside the window frame. His head cocked left, then right. I was as unexpected a sight to him as he was to me. “Where is your baby?” he asked. Then he flew away.
“Wait,” I called. My voice was brittle from thirst.
“What is this place?” I asked the voice.
“Our home, my dearest.”
“Yes, yes. You were gone from me so long. Mrs. Schaller has been here. She took care of you throughout it. Your fever finally broke just last night.”
He was my husband, then? Yes, I remembered Anders.
“Was I sick?”
“Very sick. You lost so much blood,” he said through tears and a smile at the same time.
“There was someone else here. For a moment,” I said.
“The baby. Our tiny son. No bigger than a baby rabbit. He could not live. Mrs. Schaller swaddled him tight, and we laid him next to you on the bed. When you stirred, I moved him into his coffin. It’s just a crate, but I planed it good and sanded it.”
Mrs. Schaller moved close to me and stroked my hair. "He would be proud of the beautiful bed his papa made for him."
Anders’ voice broke as I had never heard it do before. "We couldn't wait to bury him, you see?"
“I want to see the grave,” I was as surprised by the strength of my voice as was Anders.
“You can see it from the window,” he said.
I felt Anders' hands under my back and legs. I tried to reach out my arms to him, but they refused to rise. Anders carried me to the window. I touched the glass, so smooth and cool. Beyond the garden, lay a tiny mound of turned earth under a wild rose bush. “The Schallers were all here. I'll build a little fence around it to keep animals away and paint it white."
“What did you name him?” I asked.
“I waited for you, my darling. His mother should help choose his name.”
“We will call him Johan,” I said.
Anders carried me back to bed. Mrs. Schaller helped me drink warm milk from a spoon.
“Thank you for my window,” I said.
“Soon you’ll feel strong enough to sit and watch the animals and the wind on the corn.”
I turned to Mrs. Schaller. “When the breeze flies over the hayfield, it looks like the gentle waves of a beautiful lake.”
“Yes, it does,” she whispered.
The milk made me sleepy. Anders covered me with Helga's quilt. In my dream, I saw the water of all the lakes and creeks flowing outside my beautiful window.
In the morning I rose and made coffee for my husband. I saw a folded paper on the window frame.
I am sorry you had to wait so long for your windows. When you feel better, we will go to Sioux Falls to order lumber for your new house. You are my joy.
Love from your husband, Anders
It was the love letter I had so craved from Anders since we were married. The phrases were far from poetic, but a man’s love is sometimes clumsy. I read the letter many times, so I could keep the words in my heart in case there was not another.
Watching the beautiful sky through my window healed me more quickly than any medicine. I sewed a cloud pattern quilt though I had never seen one. My creation. I dozed and woke all morning. Every time I woke, I saw the clouds sweep the blue sky, revealing the sun, steadfast and promising.