In 1975, Steffi Smith, twenty-five, journeys from Georgia to Oregon in search of a new life. There, a friend tells her about a unique way for her to make a living: joining a forestry services co-operative, whose members live a gypsy existence amid the mountains and rivers of the great Northwest. The rest follows.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Chapter Eighteen


JANA TURNS up at Steffi's shoulder just as the moonlight starts coming back. "Y'wanna come over? We'll give you a place to sleep. Just a rug and a cowhide, but nice, you'll see."
    Steffi's up for that; so much party, she's bone tired. "Let's go."
    They don't need to feel around with their feet; it's after midnight with a full moon and their eyes have been fully adjusted for hours. Steffi sees silvered maples and silvery fir trees with silver-fingered sword ferns at their feet. From the openings she sees silver-lined mountains; they cross a tiny log bridge over a singing silver brook. The last clearing opens before them; there's a canvas tipi, eighteen feet tall, and it's bright orange, like a smoky sunrise. It's lit from within by no more than a bit of flame, yet illumines the clearing.
    Jana lifts aside the flap. "C'mon in."
    As Steffi's dilated eyes iris down in the interior's brightness, she finds she's facing, across a small firepit, a small woman sitting cross-legged. She looks a lot like Jana, but younger and rounder, and she's holding a sleeping baby. The younger woman speaks. "Threw some twigs on, so you could find your way home."
    "Lots of light out there," replies Jana. "Miryam, this is Stephanie."
    "Hiya.Heard lots about you. Settle in."
    Heard lots? Steffi knows, with her stiff body, she's not going to manage the cross-legged thing, so she kneels, sitting on her heels Japanese fashion, to Miryam's left. 
    Jana drops into place  on Miryam's right, cross-legged, easy as you please, and reaches for the baby. "Miryam's my sister," she says to Steffi, "Visiting from Columbia." 
    Miryam grins at Steffi's moment of hesitation. "Not the country, the college."
    "University," says Jana, checking the baby's diaper.
    "College to me. I'm testing out of everything I can, and plan to be out of there as soon as possible. I have one year down. One to go."
    "It will take you two," says Jana, looking in disgust at the slumbering infant's bottom. "There are only so many credits you can challenge. Want to hand over that pail?"
    Steffi casts about, not seeing anything at first in the stark and flickering shadows. It's a squarish plastic cat litter bucket, half filled with dried moss. She reaches it to Miryam, who hands it around the firepit to Jana. 
    Jana puts the bucket down and looks at Steffi. "Put about three pine cones on the fire so I don't stick Aaron, 'k? They're behind you." She grins, then puts two big diaper pins in her mouth.
    Steffi does so, admiring the procedure. Ponderosa pine cones. Seasoned and lightweight. They must be gathered specifically for this purpose, as she's seen none of the trees around here.
    In the bright light from the cones, Jana changes Aaron's moss. The baby cranks up, and Steffi feels a tightening in her middle -- she's sensitive to any noise she can't control. Half ready to bolt, she concentrates on Jana's hands. Line the diaper with moss, fold the outside edges in, almost meeting in the middle, fold the leading edge about half way to the middle, place Aaron with his bottom lined up with the fold, pull the front and back corners together and hold with one hand, take pin from mouth with the other, swipe it on your hair, stick it through the diaper, just missing Aaron, repeat on other side, done.
    Steffi's fascinated in spite of Aaron's goings on, which surprises her. "Wow."
    Jana smiles, but Miryam laughs outright, then covers her mouth with her hand, glancing at Jana from the corner of her eye. She sees she's not in trouble and returns her bright gaze to Steffi. "New at this?" 
    "Kinda. I've only seen the paper ones."
    "Well, we like cloth. When he's big enough to run around, he'll get bottomless pants until he's got himself under control. Our washer is the river, and the sun, when it's around, is the dryer. Otherwise we hang everything in here."
    Steffi knows some of this; there were kids, known as Hoebabies, in the work camps, but she's missed out on a lot of details by holing herself up in the Ritz. "What was that with your hair?"
    "Mm? Oh, it oils the pin, makes it a lot safer for the kid 'cuz it just slides right through the cotton."
    Aaron is really squalling now, so Jana ups her tee and offers him a breast. He roots, panicked and shivery, for a long moment, then latches on, gurgling and smacking.
    Miryam uncrosses her legs and pulls her knees up to her chin. She pokes at the embers with a twig, and they all watch as sparks rise, circle once or twice at the apex of the tipi, then find their way out through the smoke-hole. There are stars. "There's corn on the cob and potatoes under the fire, in aluminum foil," says Miryam to Steffi. "Have some for breakfast."
    "You still look a little puzzled."
    "Sure. My big sister's married, he's the guy that met you all at the landing."
    Jana smiles again, but says nothing. It's kind of a sad-looking smile.
    Miryam glances at Jana again, checking, and goes on. "They're kind of in a strain, so, like, they've got separate -- umm -- "
    "Domiciles," says Jana, looking into the fire.
    " -- domiciles, for now."
    Steffi actually knows what this is like. Should she tell them? Nahhh. Not yet, anyway.
    Jana lies down and pulls a woolen blanket over herself and little Aaron, whose noises are diminishing. Miryam rises on her knees and reaches for a rolled cowskin. "Here. Nice big Holstein, pretty soft really. You can sleep under it hair side up or down, suit yourself. Use a couple of my sweatshirts over there for a pillow."
    The carpeted floor is amazingly comfy. There's a dip right where Steffi's hip wants to go, and whatever is underneath -- sand from the river? -- yields better than expected. She's out before she finishes punching up her "pillow."


Rolling over, Steffi pulls the cow-robe down from her closed eyes and wishes she hadn't. A whole lot of morning gets into a tipi, and all of it seems bent on giving her a headache.
    No one's around. She's up, embarrassed to realize she's slept in her clothes, shoes and all, as a guest. Reflexively, she runs for the bushes for her monring business, then gets halfway out of the clearing when she remembers the corn and potatoes. Heading back to the sun-bright, steaming tipi. she roots through the ashes and finds the two packets left for her, still hot. 
    Outside, nothing seems to be doing, neither activity nor voices. Steffi, finding the air chill so near the river, moves to a steaming stump, soaking up sun and carbohydrates.
    She's brushing away potato flakes when Janna, with Aaron on a cradleboard, appears along the trail from the main house. "You're up! Go for a walk?"
    "Umm," says Steffi, wiping the back of her hand with her sleeve. She folds the foil pieces and pockets them for later re-use, then follows Aaron, who looks stolidly back at her from his mother's shoulders.
    They're on another trail, one that leads deeper into the canyon. At first, little sunlight reaches the ground, most of it blocked by green and glistening cliffs. Here there are maiden-hair ferns, late trilliums still in bloom, false-Solomon's seal, and even wild ginger.
    Jana walks on, touching the trunks of the Douglas firs as she passes. Aaron, jouncing along, grows heavy-lidded and nods. Steffi shares the feeling. She's missing her morning coffee.
    They come to a place more brightly lit, and Steffi realizes the canyon has opened up a bit. No, a lot. It's a hidden valley. Stone Creek must rise back in here somewhere. If so, it must be small; she hears no water. The trees are smaller here, like a precommercial thinning unit -- yet the ground is nearly flat, and looks as if, cleared, it might be decent farm land. She's reminded of the loblolly pine plantations of South Georgia. 
    Jana leaves the trail, which is faint now in any case, and, holding aside a hazel branch for Steffi, leads the way to a rising slope on which sits a strange sight: a house, many roomed, many-gabled, with windows of every shape looking in every direction. 
    It's a beautiful thing, and utterly ruined. Cedar shakes have fallen from the walls and roof, and already young alders are growing through in half a dozen places.
    "W-what?" Steffi stammers.
    "This was our house. This was Stone Creek. We had the horses here, we had our gardens. It's where we all came after the Sixties, to start over. And we almost did -- our Eden."
    "It's -- it's a wonderful place. So why did you move down by the river?"
    Jana turns to face Steffi. "There's a property line. We didn't know. Our eighty acres stops about three hundred feet back. Timberlands came by and said to get out. We got out."
    "Oh." Steffi looks at the house again. There are alder leaves on the nearest windowsill . Inside. "Wow, so that's why the houses are right by the river."
    "Yeah. We know we're taking a chance. Here in the Coast Range, the peak flow can be one hundred thousand times the minimum. But we'll just have to go with it. That's why the cable car is up so high."
    A distant crow caws, somehow reminding Steffi of brownies.
    Jana listens to the crow too, and comments. "That was an agreement. Crow says, "everything changes." You make plans, they fall through. Then you meet a guy, you get a baby. But that's not bad. I was a good tree planter, but I dunno if I could do it now. I mean, my sister'll go back to school, but everyone would watch the kid, my man would pitch in -- he's all right, I just can't stand being in the same house with him. But it's like, if I went back to it I'd be going back to it -- backwards is what it would be. Aaron is forwards. My tipi and the next house -- my own house -- forwards."
     Steffi can see that. Her body is getting harder to move in the mornings after a day's planting, or fire, or especially the saw work. She's all ears.
    Jana starts toward the trail without looking back at the house. "And, you, you think you're gonna plant forever?"
    "Well, umm, I thought maybe another year, then see what happens?"
    Jana does that smile again. "Uh-huh. So, I heard -- you were married? You got divorced?"
    Deep breath. Out with it.
    "Three divorces. No Mr. Right." Too many jerks. Think Mr. and Mrs. is a one way ticket.
    Jana stops in her tracks, swings around, and grins. "Oh, that's -- that's great."
    Steffi knits up her brows. "It is?"
    "Yeah, it means you believe in the institution."
    "And that's great because ... "
    "Oh, time will tell. Have you seen all the houses yet?"
    Where did all that come from?
    Jana bends down to the ground, tilting the snoozing Aaron skyward. "Oh, good. Look here."
   "This was my herb bed. There's still plenty of apple mint." Jana pulls up a handful, with dirt. "Here, take some. We'll pot it up back home -- two pots. Some for you, and we'll take some over to Rod's."