Sunday, September 19, 2010

Prairie Promises

Here's my winning entry, Prairie Promises, based on an actual event from 1870 when my great-grandparents lived in a small cabin on the shore of Horse Head Lake near Parkers Paririe in Otter Tail County.  Notes from our family history show that Charls and Carolina Veden had staked a claim on eighty acres, across the lake from another family whose short time as settlers on the Minnesota prairie ended in tragedy that winter...

               Prairie Promises

        A strange noise stirs me, but my bones are simply too tired to move. I drift back to my dream…I am still in Sweden and we have yet to make our long journey to America. Elot is sitting beside me, holding my hand in his, My sweet Corena, we will have a wonderful life in America, I promise. Here we have no hope. In America there is so much land, even a poor soul like myself can own his own farm…
       The crackling sounds come again. Our cabin creaks routinely as it settles, especially on such cold winter nights. The grand white farmhouse with a pillared front porch that Elot promised is for now a primitive cabin. We have cupboards for a kitchen, a private room for Elot and I, and a loft for the older children. I sense Elot turning over and his movements awaken me further. No doubt it is time to add wood to the stove. The past seven days have been colder than I thought possible, even living in Sweden. It’s our first winter at Horse Head Lake and min godhet, we burn wood nonstop, day and night.
         A waft of smoke strikes my nose and I sniff. Smoke.
         In an instant my eyes open, senses alert. I sit up in bed. “Elot!” I grab his shoulders and shake hard. “There’s smoke!”
         “Ja? Vad är det?”
         “I smell smoke, Elot! Hurry!” My bare feet hit the floorboards and I turn to the cradle next to our bed. I snatch Sadie into my arms and grab her blanket. Elot opens the bedroom door and a thunderous burst of brightness fills my view. Orange and yellow flames dance across the width of the cabin, blocking the cupboards and only door. The log wall behind the stove is engulfed in a fiery glow that roars back with danger.
         I cling to the bedroom doorway, shaking, protectively pressing Sadie’s face into my bosom. Elot rushes to the ladder and scrambles halfway up. “Hans! Louisa! Wake up!”
         The terror in his voice pierces my eardrums, sending me into a panic. The heat is intense, tall flames pulsate in rapid, rhythmic motions forming a barricade to our only way out. “Elot! What do we do?!”
         Hans and Louisa climb down the ladder and stand behind Elot. “Pa!” Hans cries. “How do we get out?”
        Stricken with fear Louisa’s cries turn to screams, her blue eyes glisten with tears.
        “We have to run through the flames to the door,” Elot shouts. “It’s the only way!”
        “No!” screams Louisa. “No! I can’t!”
        “We can’t wait, it’s too late…” Elot says, watching the fire consume our handbuilt home.
         The baby wakes, and sensing danger begins to cry. “Shhh,” I say between sobs, trying to calm her when I know the logs are too thick…the few windows too small.
         Elot’s whiskered face is covered in sweat and fear. He looks much older than his thirty-three years. “I’ll take Hans and Louisa through first,” he says, “and then I’ll come back for you and the baby.”
         Louisa clings to Elot, all the while screaming, “No, Pa!” Nine-year-old Hans tries to be brave, but the raging fire is too intense and all I see is my frightened little boy.
         “Give me the quilt,” Elot shouts between coughs.
         I reach for the wool quilt on our bed. Ma gave it to us the day we said our vows, May 1, 1861. Elot puts it around them, Hans on one side, Louisa on the other. “We must go quickly,” he shouts above the fire. “Now!”
        Barefoot they race into the flames. I cover my face, unable to watch. Sobs overtake me as I clutch the doorframe. Seconds later Elot is at my side, the handstitched quilt singed black. “Corena!” He grabs my arm and throws the quilt over us. “Now!”
        Elot leads me forward. The heat is powerful. Instinctively I pull back. “Hold your breath!” Elot puts one arm behind me and pushes. The floorboards burn my feet. I can’t hold my breath and smoke fills my lungs. I cough, blinded from the heavy quilt, burning now on top of us. Elot pushes me again and I collapse into the snow next to Hans and Louisa. The burnt remnants of our wedding quilt hisses against the snowbank.
        Icy air fills my lungs, stinging deep inside my chest. I turn to the children, crying and shaking in the frigid night air. Elot falls to his knees, gasping for breath between gut-wrenching coughs.
        “What do we do, Elot?” I ask, watching our dreams vanish into billowing smoke. All our possessions are inside, everything we lovingly carried with us to America.
        “We must…walk to…Charls and Carolina…the lake.”
        “Across the lake? We are barefoot!” I say. “The snow is too deep. My feet have burns.”
        “We will freeze, Corena, we must get help.” Elot struggles to stand. “Hans, Louisa, come. We must walk to Vedens, across the lake. Carolina will have the stove going…warm quilts for us. Hurry now.”
        Elot takes a few steps toward the lake. He cries out in pain and leans into a tree for support.
        “Elot, what’s wrong?”
        He turns away from the children. “My feet…are burned too.”
        Light from the fire show the blisters on Elot’s feet and my gut wrenches. I try to calm the children. “Listen, listen…Pa will lead the way for us. Hans, you follow and hold Louisa’s hand. I will be right behind you. Go now, follow Papa.”
        Moonlight illuminates the surrounding prairie in a bluish haze. We near the shoreline where the lake has frozen and thawed and then froze again. Jagged shards of ice cut my tender flesh. Snowdrifts rise and fall like white ribbons. Beneath us the ice creaks in an eerie moan, momentarily halting the children’s wimpers. In the distance a wolf howls, followed by the rushing wind across the open lake.
       Sadie fights me, wanting down. It takes all my strength to keep her in my arms. Louisa’s shawl slips from her shoulders and I pull it up. Our thin cotton gowns are no match for the frigid January night.
       The lake is long and narrow. We cross where it is the shortest distance, yet on this night it seems too far. I look back, the glow visible through the trees. Above us, heaven’s stars hang in intricate lace patterns. I can no longer feel my feet or legs. Each step is difficult, laborious. Panting and breathless, the children fall and I help them up. Elot can barely walk. I can make out the darkened shape of the Veden cabin, see the smoke coming from their chimney.
       One more step, Corena.
       Keep going.
       My mind plays tricks on me. I realize now Louisa and Hans are helping Elot. He cannot walk on his own. We reach the shore and struggle to climb over the piles of snow.
        “Louisa, run to the cabin for help! Hans, help Papa!” I try to shout, but the words float softly from my throat.
        Soon I hear voices. “Ǻ kär Gud i himmel!” Oh, dear God in heaven!
        Ah, our Swedish friend, Charls Veden. We are saved.
                                    * * *

       I think of the pretty flowers that filled the wild prairie our first summer at Horse Head Lake. Elot was so proud to own land. Eighty acres, he said to me, just like I promised. He took me to the site he’d chosen for our cabin. Already a new life was fashioning within me. I picked a handful of flowers; purple ones, others pale pink, tall yellow ones, like droplets of sunshine, imagining our life in this land called Min-ne-sota. Elot cut the thickest trees to use for the logs, to keep us warm in the harsh winter, he said. We stayed with Elot’s cousin Josephine in Parkers Prairie until our cabin was built. A difficult woman at best, she bossed me around like a servant. At first I was afraid to move to the wilderness. I heard stories of Indians attacking settlers and the great uprising in ’62. But after a summer living under Josephine’s thumb, Elot couldn’t finish the cabin soon enough.
        My own cries wake me. Elot passed first. Charls hitched up his team and went to town to fetch Doc Hanson but it was too late. The gangrene set in and there was no chance. Charls crossed the lake the morning after the fire. In hushed voices I heard him say he followed a trail of flesh the whole way.
       Hans and Louisa lay still in the other bed. The doctor says their suffering is nearly over. Charls will make the coffins. Only little Sadie will live to see spring come. I hear her bubbly laugh with Carolina in the rocker. So young, so innocent. A midwife, Carolina came for the birthing. She will care for Sadie until my sister comes. Until the wild flowers fill the prairie once again.
                                   * * *

I remember going with my parents to visit the Veden homestead on Horse Head Lake as a young girl, and hearing the story that day, how my great-grandfather Veden had to build all the coffins for the family.  Even then, as a young girl I tried to imagine what it must have been like to walk across the frozen lake after escaping the fire, barefoot, in the darkness of a winter night, wearing only thin night clothes.  Had the husband promised the wife a better life if she came with him to America? 

As with most immigrants, they came despite the many dangers...

...and I wonder, would I have had the courage to come, as a young mother with little ones? 


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