Written by Branden Boyer-White
Published at A Room of Her Own Foundation
When Clara first saw him Virgil reminded her of a horse. He was tall, two hands above the other men in the street; he wore his working life on his body in the strength of his upright back, the stomp of his gait. Wind and sun marked the skin of his cheeks.
The War was over, the Union had won and men were returning from the battlefields ready to make a life. But this man was not a soldier. He had a wagon that Clara watched him hitch to a post. She trailed him, into Nearcy’s Grocer where he bought whiskey and matches and salt, and then to the hotel on Second Avenue. She caught him on the front porch.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
Virgil looked. The girl before him was tall and held her chin high. Hair dark as dogwood. She had strode up him in her laces and stays from the frills of the Madison city crowd: men in trousers, women with parasols and pearls on their ears.
It hit him then. Virgil had the sudden sense he had just seen the girl step out of a river and all of this, the city, flowed back and fell away from her, dripping down—her skin naked and her hair loose and wet. He blinked and it was gone.
He answered her question. “I’m going West.”
“Yes.” She waited, pressing him with her waiting.
“Are you a farmer?”
Virgil turned his head and spit into the street. He wondered briefly what it would be like to kiss her. “Trapper. That’s mountain land.”
“Clara,” he repeated. Men like Virgil came East in the spring to sell and buy—crops, fur, provisions, wives. They posted ads, stayed in hotels and found girls looking for a place to travel to. They hoped for daughters with ruined names and unmarried women nearing thirty.
Clara already had several prospects. She would have a home and children and the comfort of a husband’s business, her own match set of everything she had ever known. She looked at the man in front of her. Clara knew that if he could carry her, away from there to someplace else, she could hold on.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
They married the next day and went West.
Virgil’s cabin sat in a clearing in a valley. Clara imagined the valley was how the bowl of the sea would appear if you emptied it: impossibly wide and re-flooding with sky. The air smelled clean, cold and dry. The grass in the clearing waved thigh-high and the pines on the mountains were so green they were black. The mountains themselves set Clara’s breath on fire. They were the tallest thing she had seen in her life.
The closest neighbor was a half a day’s ride away. She and Virgil were alone.
He struck her once. Throughout the afternoon, doing the necessary work around the cabin she felt the ache of his hand lying over her cheekbone. She made dinner and while he was eating it she went to the shed and got his longest gun, carried it into the house, and pointed the black barrel across the table at his eyes. “If you want to hit me again you’ll have to kill me afterward, or I’ll kill you.”
Virgil nodded. That night in their bed he didn’t turn to her as usual. But she surprised him by climbing on top of him, her fingers tangling in the hair on his chest until he was sunk her full depth. He closed his eyes to hear her feral sounds and it was then, when he was pinned, tied, and blind, that she slapped him hard across his face.
In Wyoming Clara discovered that there were stars behind the stars. If she looked long at a dark place in the sky dim points of light bloomed into view. She could feel their heat on her skin.
Some mornings the plains of Clara’s body were covered with small red marks. Virgil couldn’t understand her skin—his own wife. “I laid out,” she would say. Virgil knew she meant outside with no clothes on, her body spread over a wooly blanket she dragged from the house. He worried about this “lying out.” Maybe the outdoors affected the skin of a woman in ways he didn’t know. He barely remembered his sister and didn’t often think of his mother. The worry made him touch things harder and he slammed his cup onto the breakfast table, chopped wood until his palms blistered open.
Clara knew the marks on her skin were burns, the same a body got from being in the sun for too long. She could trace their patterns and find the constellations on her body—Sagittarius on her thigh, the Great Bear on her breast over her heartbeat. In Wyoming she laid out and took on the staining burns of starlight.
The first winter passed. When the snow began to melt trapping season began and Virgil disappeared into the mountains for days or weeks. He returned with poles of strung, limp animals that he skinned and cured in the shed.
Clara kept the house while he was gone. When she couldn’t stand to work any longer she roamed the woods and tasted snow off different surfaces—the black soil, the bark of a tree.
“Where do you sleep when you’re in the mountains?” she asked Virgil a night that he was home. Her fingers dragged at a skein of wool. She had spent her day mending clothes.
Virgil felt his voice like a stuck door in his throat forcing open. They were not in the habit of talking much. “Camps. Have a couple of shelters built up there. Simple but enough to keep warm and dry.”
Clara thought of it, a place in the woods. She wound the wool round her finger until her skin stung with the blood trapped in it.
When Clara first saw him the bear reminded her of nothing. She had seen nothing so beautiful, nor had wanted to be a thing with the furious tugging she felt in her chest at that moment. She wanted to be the bear.
The bear was standing thigh-deep in the quickening water of a river. His body was the color of rust. When he used his arm his muscles flowed from his shoulder and down his back. Every so often a trout bounded from the water and in one graceful motion the bear would lunge and grab it from the air with his jaws. Even his killing movements looked easy.
Breathless, Clara called from the shore. “Teach me how to do that.” The bear turned his head and looked at her with black eyes.
Another trout bulleted from the water, metallic in the springtime sun: the bear swung his head forward and caught it and made his way over to Clara. He was big as a boulder. He held the fish out to her in his snout. She took it, felt the massiveness of his breath on her fingers.
“Teach me,” she asked again.
The bear shook his head. “I can’t,” he said. Clara could feel his voice in her spine like it had always been there, waiting to hear its echo in this other creature.
In her hands lay the fish. She parted the skin where the bear’s teeth had made a cut and gently bit into the fleshy meat. She tasted the quicksilver of blood.
The bear watched her. Clara dropped the fish and stepped forward. She laid her hands around his jaw and ran her nose and lips and the tip of her tongue up the broad plain between his eyes. He growled, and she knew it was the sound of assent.
In the summer Clara was gone into the woods from daybreak until the moon rose. Virgil had long ago given up his worry for her—she always came back, and he knew the look that crossed her face on the days she had to stay in the house to can food, to make a batch of soap, was more danger to her than anything that could come off the mountains. He knew the look of a creature trapped, about to will itself to death.
In the winter Virgil was gone up the mountains. Clara envied him his dens in the forest. In her core she ached for the bear, who was sleeping through the snow with the plants, who was frozen still as the ponds.
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” the bear would say to her as he stroked her neck with his face.
“I don’t know what that means,” Clara would answer, because it was true. She had no theories about the order of forms or the alchemy of spirits. What she did know was that the dawn looked different when she watched it with the bear, that the sunlight had variations as it crawled up the height of a tree. Walking together, she witnessed him suddenly turn his head just before a bird shot out of a bush. She followed him and soon she, too, could hear the birds before they moved, could hear an animal’s intentions.
Her body fit well with his, though she had known it would even that first time she pulled him to her, her back against an edifice of stone, her dress in a tangle in the dirt at their feet. Their textures played together: his calloused paw rasping over the length of her smooth arm. When she closed her eyes she saw his great dark form, soft and wild-looking, and her laced around him. Saw her white thigh about his rounded haunch, slashing brilliant as lightning through the dusk of his fur. Her back a lean curve under him.
His nose was damp and cold on her belly and searching between her thighs. As he breathed she felt the sensation of being read and recognized through the hundred different details of her scent. He noticed all of her. Clara hungered for this sense of having every pore and droplet and shiver of herself caught and devoured—it was the sense of existing so much.
Her skin still spoke in strange marks. Scrapes on her shoulder blades, bruises that looked like the kind a body gets when it’s kissed too hard. Virgil knew it was unlikely she was meeting someone in the woods but it wasn’t impossible. Towns had crept closer to the valley as more people spread Westward, closing the distances between neighbors. There could be other trappers or hunters coming into his territory. Or an Indian—Clara had no decency like that. She forgot what was properly human and what wasn’t, including her own self.
Virgil began to look at everything too hard. He would catch himself staring at the sunlight on the strands of a cobweb in the shed and then curse himself as foolish. At night he swallowed glasses of whiskey until sleep dragged him in. In the morning things would look the way they should, the way they actually were.
In April there was a Rendezvous: the fur companies had sent the word out and set a meeting place on the plains, and the white trappers and Indian trappers from every corner of Wyoming gathered to trade that season’s hides in exchange for the goods of the East—cloth, guns and knives, good tobacco and coffee, as well as things wives missed like jewelry or insensible fabrics or a mirror.
Virgil returned with the wagon full of all they would need for the next eighteen months. He had been gone three weeks and that night when he drew Clara’s shift off and pulled her body to him, he felt what her day clothes had concealed: the small, firm bulge of her belly. Of course Clara had said nothing.
All the time Virgil had spent in the mountains rained into his brain like hornets. It was true that he had taken his husband’s rights whenever he had been home—but that didn’t mean everything. He pulled away from her body with a grunt. “Is it mine?”
Clara got out of bed. He could hear her footsteps move through the dark of the cabin, and then the front door open and slam closed again.
Clara began to feel the baby’s kicking with the onset of thunderstorm season, as though the new life took energy from the electricity in the air. Her body swelled huge with wetness like the thick clouds on the horizon. She walked slower.
By midsummer Virgil’s rage had eaten a hole into his stomach so that he lost his breakfast in back of the house while working. He couldn’t sleep at night for thinking that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
The night of a great storm he lay next to Clara and tried to hear past her breathing, trying to hear instead the growl of thunder in the distance. He was burning up at the edges fast as paper, wondering how to stop it all, at how easy it would be to put a hand to her throat.
“What are you thinking about?” a voice next to him in the bed asked. Virgil choked on his breath. It wasn’t Clara’s voice.
It came again. “Tell me what you’re thinking about. You feel so hot.” Virgil knew whose voice it was. He let himself be carried off on the knowledge, sure as a current.
“I was thinking about you,” he whispered.
Every night after that, while Clara slept still as death, Virgil and the baby talked. The baby’s voice reminded him of something he didn’t hear anymore but could faintly remember—music like a piano, like a lady’s wind-up jewelry box. The baby was a girl.
Virgil did the needed things. He cut and sanded wood for the cradle; he made trips to the nearest homesteads to ask which of the wives and older daughters would help when the time came.
He liked the baby’s voice though it scared him at times—how smart she seemed, like he might not have anything to teach her, so that his hands felt empty. Then he would think of all that could go wrong which she would be helpless against, the animals and blizzards and sicknesses, and it seemed like he had too much to have to give.
At night Clara found she couldn’t dream, as if her self wandered away and left her body behind in the dark for other beings to shelter in. During the day she lay in the clearing on a cot Virgil built for her, its stretched canvas bowing under the heavy curve of her body. There in the sunny wind and smell of the dirt and plants she could dream about the baby. A girl with eyes black and shiny as obsidian, with a broad, flat plain for a nose and powerful shoulders. Hair the color of rust and blood and with nails on her hands like flint. Clara dreamt and couldn’t wait to watch her daughter—a young girl who could stand in the river and learn to pluck fish from the air with her father.
“I know she’s yours,” she told the bear, her belly hovering between them.
“She is. Why wouldn’t she be?”
“What does she sound like inside?” Virgil asked the baby as Clara’s body slumbered next to him.
“Like the trees in the wind during a storm. Like every tiny part of her is crashing into the other parts. It’s very noisy in here.”
Virgil knew this was right. His wife was like trees: if left alone through the ages she would never stop overtaking her own height.
“What are you?” he asked the baby. “Are you made of trees? Or rain, or snow?”
“No, nothing like that. I’m more like lace. Woven. Something man-made—”
Virgil felt his heart skip as she finished—
“You made me, remember?”
The infant had a nose as tiny as a kitten’s and bleary blue eyes. Virgil touched the baby’s fingers amazed that human bones could come so small. He wondered if her hair would be the same shade as his, before it had started to gray.
Clara had said nothing when the attending women rested the squalling infant on her breast. She mutely nursed her daughter, hands cupping the tiny head like it was bird’s egg. Her silence had started the moment she laid eyes on the baby.
The cabin was empty now but for the three of them. “I’d like to name her,” Virgil told his wife as he smoothed a hand over her hair. “Lydia.”
Clara turned her face to the window and sniffed at the moonlight.
Virgil didn’t hear Lydia’s voice again for four years as she graduated from first words to the struggle with sentences and then, there it was, sweet and clear as he remembered. When she fell asleep on him evenings Virgil wouldn’t leave his chair. The weight of her small body anchored him to the floor so he felt how solid a home he built.
Clara’s hair grew into its own thicket, a tangle the pattern of bramble. She found clusters of blackberries in her hair and didn’t know whether she had lain in a bush or if they had grown from her body’s own materials.
The news in town was that the railroad was coming to Wyoming, next year or someday—no one knew for sure. At the Rendezvous Virgil bought bullets and sugar, blankets, and a haircomb for Lydia’s April-light hair that made him think of his sister’s. The man who traded the comb to him said it got its shine from the inside of seashells, which was something Virgil would surely tell Lyddie when he gave it to her.
The first time Virgil said it Lydia was seven. “We might think of moving to town. We need a school. I could get steadier work.”
Clara’s voice was a warning. “We have everything we need here.”
Virgil looked at Clara. She had dirt between her fingers and a bobcat’s sharp eyes. “I think about later,” he said. “When I’m not around. She needs other people, Clara. To find a man who can give her a good life someday. One who’s learned things. Respect.”
That afternoon as the bear moved in her Clara cried into his fur. His paw fit all the way around the back of her head. He licked the tears off her chin, picking out the salty taste of an animal peeled raw. He had never seen a creature cry but on Clara he knew what it meant.
Clara liked her daughter best when she was running. She would take Lydia into the clearing and spot things for them to chase: passing butterflies, dandelions whose soft skeletons they blew apart. They ran and Clara would laugh and then stop, to watch Lyddie keep going on her own—her baby’s steps turned into a toddler’s bounce into a child’s lope—Clara could see them all at once, these steps taking her daughter away from her. One day Lydia reached the other end of the clearing and turned back, and in one swing of her hair and rise of her chest, Clara saw her daughter grow up.
“Where did you get my name, Papa?”
“Lydia was my mother’s name. She died a long time before you were born, trying to have me another sister.”
“And where did your mother get your name?”
“From a book, I think. Funny that I remember that.”
“Which book? What is it about?”
“Hell if I know, Lyddie. I haven’t touched a book since I was shorter than you.”
“I’d like to read it.”
Virgil looked at his daughter. She was thirteen. Her eyelashes were golden. “I would like that for you, too.”
Virgil left for town suddenly. He didn’t explain himself and Clara didn’t ask him to. When he returned he found her in the yard.
“I talked with Jack O’Rourke,” Virgil told her. “He says there’s jobs in the cities with the railroad come through. I could get in the slaughterhouses. I know that kind of work.”
“So that’s what Jack says.”
“I’m moving to Laramie before the winter, Clara. I’d like you to come with me.” He gathered every remaining word he had stored in his body. “I know I’ve never been able to make you do a thing you didn’t already want to do. So I’m asking you.”
Clara squinted into the clearing and saw a blur of tones. It was growing harder to see things—the stitches in the sewing, the eyes of potatoes that needed cutting out. She inhaled instead, and her nose identified the earth wet with last night’s rain, the new summer grass that would soon dry to gold in the heat. She smelled the year turning, the way it always was.
“Virgil, I want to stay here.”
Virgil exhaled. He leaned in, took Clara’s lips between his for a moment, and let her go. “Fine. I’m taking Lydia with me.”
These were the things that Lydia tried to pack into her mind so carefully before they moved: the sight of the cabin against the bluebell sky. The sound of the pond in spring drinking from the snow runoff. Her mother’s low voice as she talked to the plants and bugs in the garden. Her mother’s hands in her hair, fingers flowing through and making Lydia feel like she was made of water. Her mother’s quick turn of the head just before a rabbit darted across the clearing. Her mother’s smile when Lydia showed her something wonderful she had found—a bird’s nest, a dragonfly’s stained-glass wing. Her mother’s smile. Her mother’s smile.
Clara didn’t ration the food in the cabin or the cellar, even as November crushed the sunlight hours shorter and colder. Instead she ate everything in a matter of days: baked the last of the flour into bread, opened every can and bag of vegetable. She felt her new weight strong around her bones but also dimmer, her senses fading with the winter twilight.
Virgil had taken only what he and Lydia would need to get started. In the name of a new beginning he had left every piece of his trapper’s life. The curing supplies and traps were still in the shed, as were his maps of the mountain, marked with the trails to his shelters.
She gathered a map and one wooly blanket. She put out all the lamps. When Clara left the cabin she didn’t shut the front door. Let whatever wanted to get inside, in.
The shelter she found was as humble as Virgil had promised years before. Three wooden walls against a sturdy slope. When Clara shoved open the door she saw that he had dug a room-sized hole into the slope to make a deep, warm space inside. She knew this: Virgil was good at making things.
She heard the crunch of snow at her back and then a shadow overtook the doorway. She turned.
Clara and the bear looked at each other. “I’m here,” he said, but she had already known.
She was so tired, ready to sleep until spring shook off the winter. The bear lay down his heavy form at the back of the shelter. Clara shut the door and in the shade folded herself against his body, pulling the blanket tight to her. She closed her eyes. She knew that if she slept long and deep enough, she would begin to dream, real as waking life, about a young girl with hair and eyes the color of April arriving for the first time in the bustle of a city—a young girl arriving like wading into a river, ready to watch the fast- speeding miracle of trains roar past.