from Phoebe’s Heron, by Winnie Anderson (Crispin Books, Feb. 2018)
It is almost nightfall before I finally see the cabin. The horses snort. Their heads shake and droop with exhaustion. They are on their last tether. That’s no wonder. This final leg of our journey has been steep, twisty, and all uphill. A real climb. My nose crinkles at the sweet-sharp smell of horse sweat. Nurse Daisy doesn’t like it when I do that: she calls it my “rabbit-twitch,” but she isn’t looking at me.
We are silent, all of us, father in the front with the driver, and Mother, Daisy, Paulie, asleep in her lap, and me wedged in the back seat. Wide-eyed. The only noise is the rattle-creek of our straining stagecoach, the jingling of leather harnesses, and the horses slow plod. I pull my laprobe tighter around me. Our open stage with only a flat canopy top does nothing to keep out the wind and cold.
A minute later we are at the top. The rough road levels out. A sense of relief at having made it washes over me. Before the driver comes to a complete stop, Father hops down onto the ground. “Quick, Phoebs, I want to show you the cabin’s walls,” he says. I untangle myself from under the lap robes as fast as I can and jump into his embrace.
I love seeing Father so high-spirited and full of ginger. He’s been grim-faced for most of our trip. It’s because of Mother. She’s sick. That is why we are moving to the mountains. Her doctor says the cold, dry air will heal her lungs.
More than anything else I want Mother to get well. Father, Paulie, and I will do everything and then some to make that happen. And so will Nurse Daisy. I feel a little bad for thinking this, but I miss Denver, my best friend Lisbeth, and the way things were before Mother got sick. All of our lives have been turned upside down since we began planning this move to the mountains.
Trouble is I’ve come to expect that this overcast sky that is always above us these days will burst open and pour down a needle-hard rain. Nurse Daisy doesn’t stand for that way of thinking. She says the sun is stronger than any old buckshot-colored cloud. When its mind is set the sun can burn through even the darkest gloom.
Daisy always adds an exclamation point to her arguments. And by the way, Phoebe, she’ll add, since you’ve lived in Colorado your whole life haven’t you figured out that the sun shines here most days.
Yes Daisy, I know that. It’s why so many sick people are coming to Colorado. Daisy is smart and never misses a trick. I imagine she will hug me too. It’s her way of saying she understands what I mean. Sunny days don’t mean much when someone you love is sick.
Father catches me in his strong arms. Paulie is still sleeping in Daisy’s lap. How a three-year-old can sleep through the bumpiest bone-rattling stage ride up a mountain is a mystery. Or it’s because Daisy’s lap is as soft as a pillow. She probably wouldn’t like her lap being described in that way, so I’ll keep that thought to myself.
Mother is quiet and awake, but tired from the journey. Father cushioned and padded her with thick lap robes so carefully snug and tight that she probably didn’t feel the lurch and jolt of the ride that the rest of us did. Not that anyone complained. That is how is should be, Mother’s comfort first. He could have put an egg in there with her and I doubt it would’ve broke.
Father takes the lantern from the stage and carries me to the front door of our newly built cabin. His step is sure-footed. He puts me down. We are standing at 8,100 feet above sea level, he says. The cabin sits on a headland that juts out like the prow of a ship. Steps away from where we are standing are rock cliffs that drop hundreds of feet to the valley below. Even though Father has had a fence built to prevent missteps, being so high and so close to the cliff’s edge sets the butterflies in my stomach fluttering.
Supposedly we have a clear view of Columbine Lake from here. Although it is a rare occurrence, according to Father, who has been here many times as the cabin was being built, the clouds have sunk so low that they now fill the valley beneath us. We are on ground that is higher than the clouds.
A dark, snake-like, wavy line in the distance marks foothills behind the lake. Light is fading fast. It is the first time since early this morning that I’m not sitting on something moving, either the train or the horse-drawn stage. With the butterflies in my stomach from being so close to a steep drop-off, and the clouds below me, all of a sudden my legs are wobbling. Father puts a hand on my shoulder to steady me.
“Sea legs, Phoebe. You’ve got sea legs.”
According to the map of the United States hanging in my classroom at school, Colorado is thousands of miles from both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. I must look puzzled because Father explains. “When a man’s been at sea for a long time and then finds himself on land again, the ground, for a while at least, seems to pitch and roll underneath him, like it does for a newcomer on a ship.”
He is beaming. Obviously the ground beneath him isn’t churning. I want my land legs back.
Father lifts his lantern and pushes it close to the cabin’s walls. A moon of golden light illuminates the massive logs. They have a warm reddish tint. “Look,” he says, “hand-adzed logs chinked with mud, sand, and the secret ingredient.” He looks down at me as if waiting for me to tell him that that is.
I shrug. Absolutely no idea.
“Honey? Why not molasses or maple syrup?” I ask. Mother’s relatives from New York always send us Vermont maple syrup each spring.
Father laughs. “Why not indeed. Both would probably work, but don’t you think we ought to save the maple syrup for Daisy’s flapjacks?”
I nod. He’s right about that. Daisy’s flapjacks are full moon perfect.
Father runs his hand over the logs. I do too. They are bumpy and yet smooth. “Nary a tendril of wind can get through. As tight as can be,” he says.
In the stage Mother coughs. The sound is faint. Most people – had there been any around – wouldn’t have heard anything. Or, if they had, they wouldn’t have given it a second’s thought. To us the cough is as loud as the roar of the train. The lines around Father’s cheeks deepen. The corners of his mouth turn down. His good mood is gone as fast as it appeared. Paulie has woken up now too and is beginning to fuss. Father rushes to the stage to help everyone out.
I should follow. At twelve years old I’m expected to help. Instead I stand alone in the thickening twilight. I face the valley and stare into the clouds stirring beneath me. The wind has picked up. Darkness presses down fast and hard in the mountains.
Mother just has to get better. The doctor thinks this is the best place for her. He had better be right.
A lonely sigh of wind blows frigid air into me, as if I were hollow. A wisp of cloud curls itself around me. I close my arms around my chest, but it is too late. The cold has become trapped inside, making me shiver.
from Phoebe’s Heron, by Winnie Anderson (Crispin Books, Feb. 2018)
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