It’s surprising when the last person you ever expected to look at your blog actually looks at it and then complains that “you never post to that thing”. That’s what graduate school does to you, though–drops you down into a dark cavern and holds you away from the light until you forget that things were ever any other way. In other words, shit happens.
Until the other week, that is. I had an assignment for an undergraduate level class: imagine you live in 1812. What is your world like? What technologies do you use? Describe it in about 1000 words.
The following is the (extremely) brief essay I composed in response to the aforementioned requirements. It was the first truly creative writing I’ve done in a very, very long time. I’d forgotten how much fun writing for fun can be–and it was fun!
And so I’m posting it here. No, I’m not any great writer. I don’t think I’m trying to be. But, I would like to be able to start an idea and finish the damned thing at some point. Which reminds me, I’ve still to complete “the Rufus Method” postings and I’ve yet to write the Story of Aunt Nina King’s Cane. I assure you, Rufus Swan, I’ve forgotten neither and fully intend to finish them both–although how timely that may be, your guess is as good as mine.
Without further ado, here is A View of 1812:
They wake me in each early predawn with their clattering, heaving noises. Up from the straw-stuffed mattress laid over the wood and rope bed frame, she staggers over to the fireplace and pokes at the embers, adding wood, swinging the noisy iron arm that holds the kettle over the fire. I hate that sound, but at the same time it’s comforting. It means another day has started. I stretch out against the quilt and blink, debating whether or not to rouse myself—perhaps not. I’ll sleep a bit longer.
When I open my eyes next, she has the dutchman (I think it’s really called a dutch oven, but she calls it The Dutch Man) settled into coals, several small shovelfuls of coals glowing dimly on top, too. Biscuits. Again.
She rakes even more coals over to one side and sets the big skillet on top. Ham. Again. But the water in the kettle is boiling so she grabs a rag, swings the iron arm outside of the fireplace where it’s cool and takes the big kettle. Water into the coffeepot, which then goes onto some more coals, and water into the big basin on the table.
The man begins to stir under the covers. He sits up and climbs out of the bed, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He reaches for his clothes hanging from the pegs set into the logs next to the bed and dresses. Simple, sturdy buckskin pants and a wool shirt, wool socks. He slips on tall deerskin boots. He made them himself. I had watched him take extra care with some buffalo hide he’d traded for with an Indian; it wasn’t much hide, but it was already tanned smooth and oiled slick—perfect for the soles of boots. He tells her, “back in a minute” and heads out the door.
Apparently, we live on what’s called The Frontier in the Illinois Territory, whatever that means. For me, it means that I look out the door or the windows of the log cabin onto woods, rising hills, and some bottomland next to a clear river. I think they call it The Missouri. The river, I mean. I don’t particularly like the river. I’m always afraid I’ll fall in and be swept away. But there is always something that leads me down to it and, later, I have to make my way back to the cabin with my feet wet. I hate getting my feet wet. Wet feet causes dust from the man’s plowed rows to stick to them and the woman fusses at me when I come inside with dirty feet. Which makes no sense whatsoever since the floor is dirt anyway. But, I suppose, it is her dirt floor—hard packed and smooth, she takes great care to sweep it at least once a day with the broom he made for her. Usually I stop by the barn to clean myself up first.
While he’s gone she gets dressed. From their conversations I’ve gleaned that her buckskin pants would “horrify” her family “back East”. But, here, obviously, they’re practical. She spends almost as much time out-of-doors and in the dirt as the man; and I’ve seen her going-to-Town clothing. I suspect the hem of that skirt would get in the way—a lot—when cutting wood or putting seeds in the little rows of her House Garden or while hollering “gee!” and “haw!” at the mule when she takes a turn at the plow. Unlike the man, she wears a flax blouse and some sort of “bloomers” inside of her buckskins. Like the man she wears wool socks, and tall deerskin boots that he made for her.
By the time she’s dressed the ham is cooked. She takes it out of the big skillet and puts it on a plate. She gives me a warning look when she sets it down on the table. She knows I like ham hot out of the fire. Then she takes some eggs from the basket hanging from the wall by the fireplace. She cracks each one open, dropping the insides into the skillet and quickly whisks them around with a big wooden fork. The eggs cook quickly and she dumps them out of the skillet onto the plate with the ham.
The man comes back inside and they sit for breakfast. He’s brought in a pail of milk from the nanny goat. They add some to their chicory coffee and get down to the important business of feeding their bellies. I, of course, patiently await my turn. I always eat last—I don’t mind. Most times her cooking tastes better cold, anyway.
Once breakfast is eaten he’s up again and headed out the door. He grabs his hat and says, “Ok, see ya in a bit” with a wink and a smile and heads for the barn. She takes the remaining biscuits, cracks them open and fills them with the leftover ham. She wraps them in a towel and puts them in a tin pail with a lid; lunch will be a picnic today. It usually is when there’s plowing or sowing to be done. Then she gives me my breakfast of ham, egg, and milk.
She covers the pail of goat milk with another towel and lifts the rock off the top of the keeper in the floor next to the fireplace. She pulls out the old pail and places the fresh pail inside, covering the keeper back up with the rock. She uses the warm water in the basin to clean the plates and puts them on their shelf and does the same with the cups. With everything tidy she adds more wood to the fire, fills the big pot with the last of the water from the kettle and places it on the iron arm and swings it over the fire. She gets a couple of onions and some carrots, rutabaga, and beans from the dry sink and slices a chunk off of the salt pork hanging from the ceiling. The chunk goes into the pot and she cuts up the vegetables and tosses them into the pot as well. A couple of pinches of salt and wisp and twig from the various dried plants hanging from the ceiling and the lid goes on the pot. Stew for dinner tonight. Again.
With that she grabs her bonnet from its peg by the door, puts it on, picks up the lunch tin and heads outside. This time, I get up and head into the sunshine, following her.
The man has the mule rigged into its harness for the plow. It’s an odd wooden contraption with a big piece of metal at the bottom for cutting the dirt into rows. The mule always looks miserable to me. Even when it’s eating. The man is leaning on the mule, looking at the barn. They had had a long conversation about the wisdom of building a barn with Real Sawn Timber before building a Real House. They’d both agreed that a good barn, a Real Barn, would be best. The little cabin was fine, for now. Until the Little Ones showed up. I don’t know if I like the idea of Little Ones, I’m not sure what they are, but the man and woman always seem pleased when they discuss the prospect.
The man takes the two gate logs down from the fence and leads the mule through. I clamber up to the top rail and watch the woman put one of the logs back. They’re in for a long day of hard work. She’ll walk behind the man, picking up the big and little stones and rocks as they plow a new field next to the wheat. I look around from my perch at the little farm. The nice Real Barn. The chicken coop made from the rocks they pulled out of the old field the first year they plowed it. The quiet river at the edge of the bottom land. The little House Garden with its corn and tomatoes and wonderful places to hide. The well with its little roof and almost complete rock wall surrounding it.
It’s a nice place to live. And I like watching them work from my perch on the top rail. If I could figure out a way to help them, I would. But I can’t. I’m a cat. Instead, I take a bath.