Every Good Woman Has an Ax
July 15, 2013
Someone said the day Isla Corlett married The Great Cullion of the West, all the winter boxelder came unfurled. That bitches whelped unfinished pups, that Pumpkin Creek spilled its banks. Over a single April night, foggy and damp, the snow drew itself back, and the hard buds split. Magpies turned away from their eggs, so went the story. Clouds of bees, clouds of birds. The smell of plow horses and dead elk steamed from the ground.
But there was no red moon, nor fish-headed babies born. It was only a dry wind blowing, a simoom thawing the cold earth a little.
Idle people did love to talk.
It might have been, in the end, the marvel of the trains. Screaming through the early mornings, carrying glass from Minneapolis, silk on fabric wheels and stout bags of grain piled seven cars across. Novel enough that if you heard train-whistle or breath, felt its heartbeat through the ground, you went out to watch for it.
You might believe anything was coming.
Mama, snow was purling that morning we went into town. I know that you remember.
We were each of us carrying a portmanteau, and you had balanced a thick brown parcel like a hen against your breast. The horses followed us down Fort Street with their eyes at first, turning, finally, their bodies. We weren’t going far, nowhere our legs couldn’t take us. Told Oona to watch the cat didn’t follow.
With our heads down, our heavy feet clotted with snow, we looked like mourners walking the wet boards to MacQueen House. I took your arm to keep you from slipping, and you smiled a little on one side of your face. Said you were stiff, rheumy when you woke that morning.
Daddy had arranged our lodging a month before. Paid for it in advance, walked on to the place, poked his head up the stairs to see what we might expect. A real kind lady with bad teeth told him she’d see to our room, he said. Real kind. Wished him congratulations for the bride, he said.
A family took a room before a wedding. It was what the daughters in his family had always done, his sisters and the aunts, all the way back into memory. It was proper for a daughter to leave the family house before she entered the marriage bed. For a father and mother, it was one last night to look at your girl, her hair plaited down her back.
“A daughter’s heart is small in its innocence,” what Daddy said as we walked into the snow. “Takes a husband to grow it.”
Four blocks away at MacQueen House, the sheets had been washed with lye soap. Two narrow beds were pressed flush with the walls, and a splintered oak dresser leaned forward on uneven legs. On the dresser, a blue bowl and pitcher, both veined with cracks. There was a single window big enough for one person to see out of, over the North Prairie, all the way to the Big Sheep Mountains.
Red curtains reached from the windows.
The next morning, we would rise early and walk the length of Bridge Street to the Church of the Little Virgin of Big Rock, where I would marry him.
In Miles City those days, people liked to tell a story of a remittance man who laid claim to a room at MacQueen House after killing his family. He locked the door, pushed furniture against it. Men took turns trying to coax him out. As they broke the lock, the remittance man began shouting prayers at the top of his lungs. By the time they pushed their way in, he had kicked through the window. They found him below with his neck twisted, as if he’d just realized someone was calling his name.
Mama, you remember that story.
When we arrived, Daddy’s real kind lady stood in front, beating a carpet with a besom broom. Without speaking, she stopped her work and led us up the stairs to our room, papered with mallards and ponderosas. On the bed she placed a small basket of pink soaps, each one a different shell of the sea. They seemed strange, like roots a child might dig up using his fingers.
That kind lady was watching me, so I nodded.
“Almost a bride, aren’t you,” she said, smiling, snaggle-toothed. “Only eight hunnerd miles to the ocean. Hope you can swim.”
You handed back the soap. “We ain’t here but tonight,” you said.
In the evening, we took our dinner downstairs among strangers, clattering dishes and dull knives sawing, the blue haze of smoke and loud talk hanging upon our heads. We ate quickly. Daddy was the first to push back his chair and say “Well,” start us back through the low doorway and up the stairs that seemed to breathe as we passed over them.
While we ate, the rooms had been opened and altered by the washerwoman, and I stopped and looked inside while you and Daddy lingered in the hall, admiring another boarder’s luggage that very nearly blocked the way. In our absence, the pitchers had been refilled, the sheets folded down. Three pairs of boots crowded in a corner. Downstairs everyone was still at it, and I imagined them creaking their way up as we had done, warm with food. Bodies side by side like pegs in the narrow rooms. Maybe if I put my hand to the wall, I thought, I’d feel them at night, moving their arms and legs and lips, saying their goodbyes to their daughters, to whoever it was might soon disappear.
In the room next to ours was a surprise, a child who had not taken his dinner. Yellow hair stretched fine over his skull. He leaned over the bed, studying the floor.
“Somebody forget their boy?” I asked him.
When he saw me, he blinked, blue eyes sparking, and rose to stare.
“She didn’t mean nothing,” you said, tugging me along. You were always apologizing, for others and yourself.
I didn’t want to leave him alone in the room, but I think we all together was scary to him, looking at him that way, such that he seemed braced against us.
“Boys younger than that run a ranch,” you said. “Toddler can ride a horse if you train him right. Ask Daddy.”
The boy’s breathing was raspy through his mouth, moving the hairs on his head. “Goodnight,” you told him, “and goodnight to your Mama. Whoever, wherever,” and then we closed ourselves in our room.
Dinner staggered on below, and we were not sure what to do with ourselves. All this time, we’d only thought of the wedding. Had we been home, Oona and I might have played Round the World with Nellie Bly on the floor, shooing Lester when he tried to walk across the board. You and Daddy would read through advertisements for things you’d never purchase, invitations to events you’d never attend. Bon-Ton Needle & Toilet Pin Case. Smoker’s Concert, with a skeleton dancing in hell. There will be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight (Warmer Than Last Year).
You went to work brushing my hair out of my head, saying we’d soon enough drive each other crazy in this room. It was Daddy’s plan; what did his sisters do, or his aunts?
Daddy shrugged. Eventually he eased himself on the bed and smoked. He might well have been in his own house, his own bedroom, you said. He wiggled his toes.
Outside, it was snowing over the moon. Our mouths fogged, and I said I would have to go down later for another blanket.
“That would be the first smart thing you done all day,” you said, smoothing the quilt with your skinny fingers. “Isn’t it late in the day for the bride to go getting smart?”
Someone was walking in the room above us, each step deliberate as a ceremony. By now you were unpacking, putting everything came with us in a drawer, even the kid-and-cloth boots.
“Think Oona’s put something down for Lester?” I asked. “If she starves him, he’ll squeeze through her legs. Go hunting for song birds and rip out their hearts.”
“Oona provide for that cat. Worry about your wedding, you want to worry about something.”
“You ladies is looking at it wrong,” Daddy said then, under a column of smoke. “Lester’s only loyalty is to his master. You ain’t ever wondered why that cat follows me all the way to Christ’s crick?”
“Poor judgment,” you said.
“Come. Knows a true friend what he sees one.”
For once, Daddy was telling the truth. I had watched Lester follow him, sharp white whiskers brushing his boots, dew glassing the tops of Lester’s paws. Fastidious, highstepped along and washed his white legs first thing he got home. I’d seen the cat snake around under Mr. Christ’s cows, mouth their tits for milk. I had followed Daddy and Mr. Christ more than once, dodging the gorging cows, nothing better to do.
“Probably longfaced,” Daddy said. “Mewling over me.”
“All the good ones do,” you said.
I asked if you thought I should bring some food to that boy in the next room. You just looked at me. The Lord will provide, you were thinking, or his parents. Whichever is paying attention.
I kept going to the window to look outside. By now he’d be here, I thought, bedded down somewhere below our window.
Fergus would sleep outside that night, our wedding night, sprawled on the frozen ground. Snow falling. The bright moon lit up the edges of things, fences and the backs of animals. Men’s hats as they came from the saloons in town.
Fergus would make a fire, even though he didn’t need it. Snuff it, scrape away the ashes, cover the warm earth with steaming hemlock boughs. He’d take off his coat and roll on his stomach over the warm branches.
He told me later about that night. That night in his dreams? He was chasing a bruin, hock dangling in a trap. He followed the blood, picked up a missing toe on the way. By the time he got to that tree, put his hands on to steady himself, his head fell back. Just then, he was looking up at two brown eyes like berries on a branch.
Said it was me he was chasing.
At bedtime, Alice Smaby, who knew you somehow, knocked, offering congratulations through the door. “Couldn’t of picked no better day,” she hollered, and, “I ain’t never met the bridegroom. Heard some about him, never met him.”
I think you would agree we all of us had a poor opinion of Mrs. Smaby. She was the kind to get an idea and follow it long past good sense. Had one of them hook noses over a hook chin, such like her face was eating itself. Daddy said she had been on about getting Mr. Smaby to shutter the saloons. “How does our New City look in the Lord’s eyes?” one would hear her beseeching anyone who might listen. Before that, she wanted the men to build a wall around Miles City, or at least the part of the city near the Smaby house, where she felt vulnerable to the winds and the moribund Indians. She had an odd click in her mouth when she spoke, the hook chin perhaps, like maybe the clucking that most women do in private could not quite wait for privacy.
“Many thanks for your kindness, Mrs. Smaby,” I called to her. “If you’ve heard anything about my husband, it was probably someone who never met him.”
You nearly sniffed yourself off the chair. “No reason for any of us get our noses out of joint over Fergus,” as if you might once have had an entirely different conversation with Alice Smaby over the subject of your almost son-in-law. “The girl is marrying who she’s marrying. I guess her father and I made the point.”
“I guess you did,” I said. “And I don’t guess it’s much of Mrs. Smaby’s business either way.”
“Come,” Daddy sighed, and we three sat listening to Alice Smaby’s feet going their way down the hall.
“Your daughter’s right,” you said, looking at Daddy. “It ain’t no one’s business but bride and groom,” and then you turned, you owl, to me. “Just be sure to mention that fact in your thank you’s for all them nice gifts.”
I hung my wedding dress high in the closet, a common dress, simple calico over a princess slip. My bonnet I had starched in potato water. We had fought viciously, you and I, both of us wild with tears and sulk. In our family, you would say, these weren’t ladylike times.
You hoped I might import some vanward fashion. A gigot-sleeved bodice shipped from Marshall Fields in Chicago, fifteen ivory buttons down a heavy candlelight satin, a gored skirt. Daddy took in a good haul for letting white-faced Texas cattle graze his and Shorty Christ’s land and certainly could afford his daughter finery. But it was I who insisted on wearing plain clothes, worked by my own hand.
Better luck that way. That’s what I thought. Don’t you make your own good in life?
“Fergus won’t care,” I said. “Why should I bother over it?”
Daddy found me crying in the barn after our fight, told me he hoped I wouldn’t make an embarrassment to you and him. My streak, he said, would come through some day, a silver shock in my hair. “The mean ones is always the ones what go white first,” he declared. But he was laughing, a smile starting up in his eyes when he said it.
It was snowing hard by then and we none of us could go to sleep in MacQueen House. I was looking out that little window.
Daddy sat on the edge of the bed, among the papered mallards, blowing his nose into a handkerchief. “It’s a Jed-blasted thing,” he said. By which he could have meant the wedding or the weather or any number of things. You remember how frequently he was amazed.
You said that from birth, I shared with my father a cluster of ugly brown moles near my ear. That my eyes were shaped like the eyes of the mirthful, though I was a serious girl. Oona said she could imagine me walking down the aisle with spit curls, slight wrists, and a thick envelope of Daddy’s money tucked into my bodice.
And indeed Daddy had given me money, two oxen besides. You were both always so kind to me.
Having no family, Fergus would arrive with four nuisance Indian dogs and a staghound, which he would tether to a flagpole behind the Little Virgin of Big Rock. He might clean up well, Daddy said, for what he was. A trapper, hunter and trader of furs. A cullion, Daddy called him, for his sharp tongue, his head lice and soft teeth. A toper, for his bitter appetites. During the last fight over the dress, which was really a fight about Fergus, if we’re telling the truth, you said he was a loathsome, fiendish character.
“He makes more money than most,” I told you. In a good year, he had promised he might make $3,000 off wolves alone, but he couldn’t even write his own name. That last part, you never knew.
You had our wedding invitations made up in cream vellum.
Mr. and Mrs. H.R. Corlett request the pleasure of the company of ___________ on the occasion of the marriage of their daughter Isla Clare Corlett to Clarence Lloyd Fergus in the Church of the Little Virgin of Big Rock, 17 Orr St., Miles City, Montana, on Saturday, April 23rd, 1898 at 10:30 a.m. and afterwards at the Palace Restaurant.
Everyone was in such a hurry to leave after the ceremony, they forgot about the Palace Restaurant.
The fashion of the time was for ladies to marry at home, a migration toward the informal. Long lace tables and glittering punch bowls, an assembly of the bride’s girlfriends. But I had already said goodbye to my girlfriends. I had already said goodbye to Miles City itself, to our drafty house on Fort Street. Lester sprawled over my ankles, the clean pink of his toes. Oona’s Sunday rump roast, with crescents of red potatoes and lumpy gravy.
Nineteen years. Magpies and church bells and large men outside Tivoli Saloon. The maple tree in the front yard I used to fear as a child, knobby roots pushing out of the ground like bones. I had never been particularly smart, neither particularly pretty, but I was solidly built and well-behaved for a while, not knowing what else to be. I pried books down from Daddy’s study, read them in a halo of dust in the bay window, my legs curled under.
Stayed away from you after my baby brother died, when you were something to be stayed away from, run from even, so hurt you only wanted to hurt.
Your sideways smile started then. But that I know you remember.
I grew up wandering into rooms, hearing Daddy talk about Indians and cow prices and the old military bridge swept away by ice. The latter during the night, when everyone was asleep, the timbers sucked swiftly into the churn of the Tongue River. An entire bridge, just gone, like someone had set to work re-imagining the city.
One year Milestown became Miles City, with no warning. You said people couldn’t remember at first and kept on writing Milestown on their letters, drawing jagged lines through it. Daddy talked about the town being incorporated, but I didn’t understand what that meant, and when I asked you, you told me not to get on worrying about it and yanked down the hem of my dress that wanted to climb above my knees.
When I asked you what Daddy did, why he never seemed to be as dirty or absent as most fathers, you said things like, “Dumb luck. Remember that.” When I finally figured out for myself that he made his money from letting other people’s cows eat his grass, I was astonished it was something so benign, already having spent years imagining him committing minor crimes.
If you missed Duxbury, you didn’t say. And you never said a thing about Miles City one way or another. I don’t believe it ever occurred to you to form a judgment about a place, no matter how muddy, no matter how rheumy its seasons made you. Those sad eyed horses standing around, watching everything from the side of their heads.
No one thought Miles City rough. The next big city of the West. They were counting on it. It had the railroad, which meant it had some money and the novelty of a Great Dane that carried rich women’s portmanteaux to the MacQueen House for them, free of charge. There was more than one saloon, and in those saloons, men who strayed as if the Lord were pulling them by the arm. Concerned citizens who became polite drunks in the late afternoons and something more unseemly later, staggering out, loud and childish, as if the Lord were pulling them now by the leg.
Daddy had gotten himself into some such predicament. A late afternoon drink or a late afternoon drinker, I don’t suppose it’s my place to say.
It was Fergus brought him home. Fergus who broke up the fight, looking a little ashamed through it all, according to Alice Smaby’s husband, lurking about on his mission to do God’s will. People said that Daddy was feeling pretty good. Nearly flew out the door, a dust devil of colorful words around him.
Fergus had given Daddy’s fist its fair shot before he got his arms around him, galumphed Daddy back up Fort St. to what they told him was our home. Any injury to Daddy, he did to himself, or suffered at the legs of the barstool. Fergus arrived with a split chin and his eye purpling like a cabbage. A new little face, it seemed like.
I saw him then. From the first, he wasn’t a stranger to me.
Oona didn’t want to let him in, being how he was one of the undesirables. I took him in the bedroom and stitched him up, slapped away Oona when she tried to do it for me. Even with the window open, he stunk like something rotten.
I told him he’d need to keep his face clean, but he only flinched a little, the needle going in. “You don’t believe in infection?”
“Meat stays good in the mountains,” what he said.
We didn’t talk about much, my face so close to his. I pulled the black thread in and out, making butterflies on his chin. Sometime I asked him to hold one end of the stitching thread, and he did. His hands were nearly black with castoreum. He told me his name was Fergus, and I told him I was Isla Corlett, and in addition – you can tell how embarrassed I was – I told him my father was an honorable man. Told him anyone who thought otherwise, even in a moment in their heart, would hear it from me.
I hoped he wouldn’t take up an argument, and bless him, he didn’t.
When I asked him where he lived, he said that not all places have names. What it was was rough and wild and it promised good meat. He was building his own cabin below the mountains. Taking him longer than he thought, bringing it up pole by pole. Stacking a chimney with river stones. That time, he slept outside next to the fire, got up in the morning, top blanket frozen, and rolled out of the ashes.
“You’d be surprised, the way I live,” he said. “Fancy Milestown and whatall.”
He’d been away so long, he didn’t even know it was Miles City now. Talk to him five minutes, you could tell what he thought of the cities.
I’m sorry, Mama, but I plain loved him.
When you first met the man I was to marry, I put him on your chair in the bedroom and stitched his face closed. A trapper, the trash and detritus of the civilized West. I was careful about the blood, but Oona kept bringing me rags and water.
I’d had to shave him at first. My hands wanting to shake over the sound of it, that blade of Daddy’s sliding over the bump of his jaw.
I don’t know what you and Daddy talked about in his study, if Daddy was even making any sense by then. He was fairly still sloshing. But I know how hard it was for you. Sweet old Mama.
I’ve learned a lot since then.
“Bless, bless,” Oona said, when she learned I was to marry. Oona was Irish; you said she had certain beliefs. Said it again when Fergus came to the house not wearing his buckskin and castoreum but a clean brown vest. I couldn’t hear over you and Daddy talking, the horses outside; I just saw Oona’s mouth making the word. Two deep lines ran from the corners of her mouth to her chin. When she’d eat, she would wipe the length of them with her thumb and middle finger after each bite.
Bless, bless. She was blessing me to keep me, but I felt like we were already gone.
Whatever was waiting for us beyond the divide? I tried to imagine. Iced over rivers and beds of bear flower.
I had been born a healthy child, thanks to you, and plump, and I stayed that way. When I was a child, you remember, if I wasn’t careful embracing you and Daddy, my shoulders split like green beans through my cap sleeves.
What kind of wife was I? What kind of life would it be?
In Wise River, Fergus’s cabin sat waiting, unfinished, a log box dug into the Pioneer Mountains. In my mind’s eye, the entrance was more a door than the hoghole Fergus had warned me of. It was low, such that you’d have to duck until you were inside, but you didn’t have to be on all fours. Anyway, it didn’t have to be anything but ours.
The night before the wedding, I slept in a bed next to you and Daddy in MacQueen House, listening to you moan inside a nightmare. After a couple of hours, Daddy woke and lit a cigarette, never saying a word, the blue smoke turning against the ceiling.
In a few hours, that snaggle-toothed woman would bring us eggs on a plate. We would go out into the city, purple light settling over. I couldn’t stop thinking of the cabin, Mama, inside the wrinkle of mountains. Pots and pans on the walls. A broad door with a single word carved above. Welcome.
You would try to get me to eat those eggs, and I knew I’d tell you I wasn’t hungry. But I was hungry.
I was thinking of our house on Fort Street, the song of the hinges. Nineteen years. No matter how far I traveled, those things would not break off. Following Daddy, grass across my knees. You gave birth to me in Duxbury, Massachusetts, but I remembered none of that. I had been another parcel in your arms, closed up and blind. Unopened until Miles City. What I knew of the East, what I had always known of it, came in pieces, on trains, loud and forever announcing itself.
I was glad I was going into the woods. Welcome.
I didn’t think of you, alone with Oona, the cows, the books. You would grow older, smaller. What would you do?
I thought of what I might have forgotten. A mitt. My comb. The inevitability of whatever it was under my desk or deep under the bed, unloved.
Finally, I went down the hall, wiped moisture from the window with my hand, and looked out for him. Fergus. Even then, I called him that, the way I would always think of him, like a plant, a blooming Fergus, an ivy that came crawling over boulders.
Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the forthcoming story collection, Hibernate, for which she was awarded the 2013 Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction, and the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus, 2010). Her essays, short stories, and travel writing have appeared most recently in The Rumpus, The Literary Review, Michigan Quarterly Review and The Sun, and her work is featured in the anthologies Tremors: New Fiction By Iranian American Writers and Writing Off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema. She currently teaches in the MFA Program at Manhattanville College.
What motivates her to create:
“My motivation comes from reading other writers, reading work that moves me, wanting desperately to make a reader feel what that writer has made me feel. When you read something potent, it’s not pretty. We say some writing is “beautiful,” but what we really mean is that it wrecked us. If I read something I love, I am an open wound for a long time after. You must be awed by that power, to wish for a little of that conjurer’s magic for yourself. Like a surgeon, or a cardiologist, your finger against the pulse of a heart.
“I also find that I’m a better writer if I try to apply a writerly scrutiny to life itself. My husband is an art historian, and I’ve learned so much from how he looks at art, one corner of a painting for hours sometimes. The best writers are always looking at the world closely. You can have a conversation and see their eyes flitting, finding another layer under your words or gestures. The amount of information they absorb in a simple conversation is double or triple what the rest of us discern. That’s something I want to work at. The better I can see, the more I want to write.”