Sometimes now I hear the voice of my great-grandmother, Agnes. It floats toward me like a soft breeze through an open window.
“The house is crying,” I said to her as steam ran down the walls. The cooking stove heated the house. Windows were frozen over with white feathers and ferns.
Bush said the house could withstand it. She had black hair then, beautiful and soft. She stepped out into the cold and brought in an armload of wood. I caught the sweet odor of it and a wind of cold air as she brushed by me. She placed a log in the stove. It was still damp and when the flame grabbed it, the wood spat and hissed.
I didn’t for a minute believe the house could withstand it. I knew already it was going to collapse. It was a wooden house, dark inside, and spare. The floors creaked as she swept about. The branches of trees scraped against the windows like they were trying to get in. Perhaps they protested the fire and what it lived on.
Bush unjointed the oxtails and browned them in suet. She worked so slowly, you would have thought it was swamp balm, not fat and backbone, that she touched. I thought of the old days when the oxen arrived in black train cars from the dark, flat fields of Kansas, diseased beasts that had been yoked together in burden. All the land, even our lost land, was shaped by them and by the hated thing that held them together as rain and sunlight and snow fell on their toiling backs.
The shadows of fish floated in the sink. Bush did her own hunting then, and she had a bag of poor, thin winter rabbits. She removed their fur the way you’d take off a stocking. She dredged them in flour. In the kitchen, their lives rose up in steam.
Day and night she worked. In her nightclothes, she boiled roots that still held the taste of mud. She stirred a black kettle and two pots. In her dark skirt, she cut onions. I didn’t understand, until it was over, what it was she had to do. I didn’t know what had taken hold of her and to what lengths she must go in order to escape its grip.
She folded blankets and clothing and placed them on the floor in the center of that one dark room. She took down the curtains, shook out the dust, washed them in the sink, and hung