SEEDBEDS: 1838

Lisa Alther

     
   

            Daniel’s mare plodded down the cart path alongside the Otter Creek, which led to the Martins’ farm at the foot of Silver Valley.  The forests on either hand were flaring with ivory, coral, and mauve blossoms.  Spring had exploded like a fatal fever.  Daniel had closed his school for the planting season.

            Some Martin brothers were helping him convert Tom Hill’s forge on the main street of Couchtown into a house for Abigail and himself after their wedding.  He would have only to cross the street to get to his classroom at the trading post.

            In return, Daniel was working on the Martins’ farm.  Abner was busy at the store.  Joshua was building a cabin near Tocaru for his wife and baby.  Joshua’s wife’s family had finally relented and accepted him into their family once the baby arrived.  Reuben now spent most of his time in a rocking chair on the porch, surveying the flocks and fields he could no longer tend.  The twins, Gideon and Elijah, who were married to twin Reeves sisters, lived in adjacent cabins in the meadow most distant from their parents’ house.  The twins and their many double-first cousin children worked the fields that stretched below the mouth of the cave and alongside the marsh over which the ancient burial mound towered.

            That left Isaac, Galicia, Barbary, and Nathan to run the main farm.  Hired men were in short supply during planting season, and the Martins couldn’t afford slaves, and opposed the practice in any case.  So Daniel, however inept at farm chores, would have to do.  He already ached all over from planting Mrs. Reeves’ kitchen garden and from helping to transplant the Martins’ tobacco seedlings.  But it seemed a healthful ache, one that promised new muscles and improved posture.  The best part was that he was so exhausted by day’s end that he fell into a dreamless sleep that allowed no room for fantasies about faceless women with loose morals and looser limbs. 

            Abigail wanted to come see Couchtown before their marriage.  Mr. and Mrs. Perkins were both too frail now to ride for two days in the mountains, but they didn’t want Abigail to make the journey unaccompanied.  Daniel was trying to find a time when he could go get her, bring her to Couchtown, and then take her back home.  But her parents weren’t enthusiastic about their being alone together for that long without a chaperone and were encouraging Daniel just to continue his visits to them as he was able.  This suited Daniel fine because he wasn’t that confident either about his behavior if left alone with Abigail for several days.  To be a young man with no outlets for the urges normal to a young man was not a fate he would wish on his worst enemy, if he had had one.

            Passing a rail-fenced pasture owned by Peter Reeves, Daniel spotted a bay stallion mounting a piebald mare.  She struggled to buck him off as he diligently pumped her full of seed.  Across the fence from the horses a low-slung black bull with swollen testicles was bellowing at some bored-looking Holsteins.  A buzzing swarm of bees had clumped like a burl on the branch of a dead oak on the creek bank.  All nature appeared to be involved in a plot to remind him constantly of the act of procreation that he himself wasn’t yet allowed to perform.

            Daniel smiled, remembering that Galicia would be serving him lunch.  He had learned just to enjoy her presence without wanting more.  In less than eighteen months he and Abigail would be living in the renovated forge in Couchtown.  No doubt his path would cross Galicia’s now and then, and perhaps his heart would still misfire and his palms prickle.  But that was all there was—or ever would be -- to it.  He had negotiated a truce between his higher and lower selves.  The only fatality had been his burgeoning fascination with Galicia, which he had buried in an unmarked grave deep in his heart.  He thought she sometimes looked at him reproachfully.  But he knew this was the only sensible solution for them both.

            Upon reaching the Martins’ courtyard, Daniel stabled his mare, picked up his burlap seed sack, and ambled out to the cornfield, where Gideon was already plowing behind the lop-eared mule.  Isaac, Elijah, Nathan, and several of the twins’ sons whom Daniel couldn’t tell apart were scuttling like crabs along the furrows, inserting and tamping down kernels from their sacks.

            Slinging his bag over his shoulder, Daniel stumbled through the clods beneath the morning sun, as moisture steamed up from the freshly turned earth.  Flocks of rust-breasted robins hovered overhead, poised to swoop down and peck up insect eggs, or to drag exposed worms wiggling from their upended burrows.

            When the sun reached its apex, all the men and boys were soaked with sweat.  Hobbling the mule in the shade by the pasture’s edge with a nosebag full of oats, they removed their seed sacks and headed back to the house.  After splashing themselves cool and clean at the well, they went inside to a table loaded down with baked ham, fried chicken, roasted venison, half a dozen vegetable dishes, cornbread, and three varieties of fruit cobbler oozing with thick yellow cream.

            Barbary, Galicia, the twins’ wives, Anna and Hannah, and some of the twins’ daughters served the men and boys, standing behind them and replenishing their plates as bare spots appeared.  They themselves would eat whatever was left over once the satiated males moved out to the porch for a smoke and a nap.

            As he sprawled on the sagging porch floor with an uncomfortably full belly, Daniel reflected that he loved this hard manual labor.  By dusk the cornfield would be planted.  Come autumn, the corn, dried on its stalks, would be harvested.  All winter long the Martins would eat breads and stews concocted from it.  In spring they would drag out the mule, braying protests, and start all over again.  He looked forward to the day when he, like the Martin sons and grandsons, would know every dip and rise of these fields as intimately as his hands would then know the landscape of Abigail’s body.

            Daniel opened his eyes to discover Galicia sitting on the floor beside him, back against the wall, legs stretched out before her.  She was wearing the loose homespun dress she slipped on when she joined them in the fields after lunch.

            Smiling, he murmured, “Delicious meal, Galicia.”

            “I make special dishes when I know you’re coming,” she said in a voice lowered so that no one else could hear.

            “Thank you.”  He felt the familiar catch to his heartbeat, like a horse stumbling in mid-trot.

            She smiled at him, her eyes the rich brown of a newly turned furrow.

            Back in the cornfield the women destroyed the careful rows the men had sown, surrounding the corn kernels with those of beans, squashes, gourds, pumpkins, and sunflowers, shaken from their apron pockets and stamped into place by their bare feet.

            In the golden light of late afternoon they all jumped into the Otter Creek fully clothed. Some otters lounging on a sun-struck log slithered into the water and disappeared downstream.  Nathan splashed Daniel and pushed down on his shoulders to dunk him, while Daniel struggled to throw him off his back.  He noticed Galicia watching their scuffle with a wistful smile, and he felt a moment of sadness.  If he were not committed elsewhere, he would have liked nothing better than to be the father Nathan had never had and wanted so much.

            Back at the house they supped on lunch leftovers on the porch floor, cooled by their damp clothing.  Gideon and Elijah serenaded them with a mournful banjo and fiddle duet called The Banks of the Bloody Otter, about a girl who cut out her boyfriend’s heart while he slept and fed it to the dogs because he had married someone else.  As Daniel’s stomach turned at the gruesome details, he made a mental note that these people took their love matches seriously.  Forgiveness was not a quality they admired or even considered.  Thank God he had had the good sense to renounce Galicia before they had gone too far to turn back.  She hadn’t hesitated to shoot a man who had harmed her son.  Who knew what she might do to a man who harmed her own heart?

     
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Lisa Altheris the bestselling author of six novels. The first five are Kinflicks, Original Sins, Other Women, Bedrock and Five Minutes in Heaven, all translated into over fifteen languages  and three chosen for featured selections by Book-of-the-Month Club. Alther's reviews and articles have appeared in many periodicals, including the New York Times, Art and Antiques, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, San Francsico Chronicle, Natural History, New Society and the Guardian.   “Seedbeds: 1838” is an excerpt from Lisa Alther’s three-part novel Washed in the Blood, published October 2011 by Mercer University Press. A collection of short stories called Stormy Weather and Other Stories is due in 2012 and also a history of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Alther divides her time, living in Vermont, New York City, and East Tennessee.