Frontierland by Nora Piehl

Pa did not like a country so old and worn out that the hunting was poor. He wanted to go west. For two years he had wanted to go west and take a homestead, but Ma did not want to leave the settled country.
--Laura Ingalls Wilder, By The Shores of Silver Lake

Carl found a condo with a view of the Empire State Building, but imagined bunking down under the stars. He fell asleep each night to a recording of wind rustling prairie grasses, crickets marking time, coyotes ominously keeping watch, their distant howls drowning out the cab horns and the guy who stood outside the Herald Square Hotel screamingly exhorting tourists to turn back, repent before it was too late. Sometimes Carl fancied the buses cruising down Lexington were prairie schooners under sail, on their way to boroughs yet unknown.

He discovered Charlotte at Whole Foods. Her basket held New Jersey tomatoes and organic onions, whole-wheat flour, brown rice, a basil plant to place on a sunny windowsill. She studied a shrink-wrapped package of mushrooms, turned to him as casually as if they had been shopping together for years. “These come from Pennsylvania," she said. “Do you think that’s okay?" He knew exactly what she meant, even before she spoke again. “I want to make my own spaghetti sauce," she said, “but there’s no such thing as a locally-grown mushroom, not here, anyways." Her freckled face shone pale under her broad sun hat.

The replica cabin was a rest area by the side of the Wisconsin highway, an afterthought for most, a convenient place for passersby to empty the McDonald’s wrappers from their car, to buy a pop, take a crap, and oh yeah to snap a picture in front of that first Little House. Charlotte remembered wondering why they even bothered. There were no Big Woods, not anymo just a bunch of SUVs lined up like a wagon train, ready to move on to somewhere bigger, more exciting. In her parents’ case, it was the Mall of America. On that roll of film, her nine-year-old self appear squinting in front of Laura’s tiny home and later swallowed by the country’s largest mall, her sunbonnet and long braids marking her as a denizen of an earlier time even as she rides the roller coaster and collapses, exhausted, on a bench in front of Cinnabon, the smell of cinnamon and fat making her sick with desire.

He had a pasta maker, he said, the hand-cranked kind. Maybe they could make dinner, talk about the evils of Big Food, picture the stars hiding behind the city glow. She surprised him by saying yes. They made tagliatelle with portabella Bolognese sauce, drank red wine from tumblers. She wrapped her long brown braid kitchen, on his sofa, in his bed, that he asked her never to leave. She had few things of her own, just a violin, some dresses she’ d made herself, a bookcase worth of novels and cookbooks, a china shepherdess tucked inside a basket of yarn for safekeeping. “Every time I move, I worry this’ll be the time she’ll break," she said as she placed the dainty woman on a high shelf.“Maybe I’ll stay put for a while this time.. He could give her almost everything else, and what they didn’t have already, they’d make, they decided. They sold the television, banished the computers to distant offices, danced to oldies played on a scratchy hand-cranked radio.

They spent all summer provisioning for winter, shopping for peppers, tomatoes, corn, and squash at the Union Square farmers’ market, making ratatouille and beef stew, loaves of bread, split-pea soup, half-pints of pesto, pizza sauce. She filled dresser drawers with acorn squashes, hung braids of garlic from the empty curtain rods. They gazed on their freezer as the fall winds blew cold through their open windows. It was a thing of beauty, a city of Tupperware towers, all they’d need until May. Or February at least.

Plum Creek was even more of a letdown, she decided when they went to Minnesota the next summer. The dugout ofher imagination was so romantic, the way the cattle had grazed on top ofit, the terrifying day one ofthe ox’s hooves had broken through the clover and grass and into the dirt ceiling, raining turfonto the clean, whitewashed surfaces below. The way Laura, that first day, hadn’t even known it was there until she found the unexpected door in the ground. Now, decades later, the dugout was just another tiny dip interrupting the relentless horizontal plain ofthe prairie, just another bu falo wallow like all the rest, the home collapsed under the weight of a thousand pilgrims’ footsteps. Charlotte tried wading into the creek, to see if she could attract bloodsuckers the way Laura had, but even that had dwindled to little more than a drip in the late August heat.

He broke their rules for a good reason, spent a whole November weekend online, researching the best place to order the materials made from recycled brown paper grocery bags, he noted proudly learning how to create the patterns that would replace the seats of his grandmother’s old kitchen chairs. Stained with decades of dribbled juices and dropped crumbs from deep-fried doughnuts, the chairs were still worth saving, he said. When the fiber cord arrived, a huge coil in a broken-down box, they gleefully took utility knives to the greasy old seats, shredding his past before weaving a future together. He laughed at Charlotte’s impatient e forts with the cord, told her to play her violin instead, to provide background music for his own hypnotic cadence, as he wrapped the fibers around each leg in turn, over and under, around and through. She interrupted him most often, whispering in his ear, disrupting his practiced rhythm to create a new one of their own. “I want to wrap myself around you," she whispered, as they traveled from sofa to bedstead, from floor to mattress.

“You already did, the first time I met you," he said, recalling her twined hair, his helpless arm. Her body was slim and so soft, legs, usually hidden under flowing skirts, bared white and grasping, her face a mystery as he clasped her slender waist with his fiber-roughened fingers, watched her hair, unbraided, cascade over pale breasts, wondered where her mind traveled when she closed her eyes and leaned away from him, why he couldn’ t join her there as elsewhere.

Her sunbonnet, made by her grandma, was perfect of course; even the white blouse her mom had found at Target looked authentic enough from a distance. But the skirt, the one part Charlotte had insisted on making herself, was an unmitigated disaster. She’d spent weeks wrestling with the ancient green sewing machine in the 4-H room, trying her best to turn the gray-and-red sprigged gingham into the pioneer skirt ofher dreams, hoping that the sad-looking garment she stuck in her suitcase for the trip to Independence would magically transform itselfunder the brilliant rays ofmthe summer Kansas sun.

They’d planned all spring to visit for Prairie Days in June. Her dad had called ahead to register Charlotte for the costume contest. That morning, they got up early at the hotel. Her mom braided Charlotte’s hair tightly and tied red ribbons on the ends. They ironed the blouse and skirt, and even though they’d packed lace-up black leather boots, she insisted on going barefoot, digging her toes into the warm powdery dirt outside, because that’s what Laura would have done. The dust stuck to the fine hairs on her ankles, turning her winter-white legs tawny for a time.

When she saw the other girls’ costumes, special ordered from catalogs or custom- made by seamstresses, she knew she’d lost. There she was, in her gray skirt, with its saggy elastic and wavy seams, with the hem that covered one knee but left the other bare, dressed in farm clothes while the others wore their Sunday best. Like Laura, though, she was stubborn. She walked anyway, wobbling chin held high, clutching the china shepherdess her mom had bought in the gift shop for good luck, leaving her mark on the black satin runner, dusty footprints on a makeshift runway.

Carl felt guilty when her basil plant died despite her ministrations, bought her a lemon tree and an ornamental pepper to compensate, but they didn’t fare much better, leaves dropping, inedible fruit withering on the stalk. “Not enough light." Even the south facing windows failed to get enough sun, the nearby skyscrapers blocking its rays by mid- afternoon.

“We could get an apartment higher up," he suggested. “I think there’s a place for sale on the 32nd floor. It might be better." But that wasn’t what she wanted, and he knew it.

“I want a garden," Charlotte said as they strolled through the park in late March. She bent to pull weeds from a bed of da fodils, her face hidden from him by the brim of her hat. He used to think she wore them just to protect her freckled face from the sun, to safeguard her vanity. But lately he wasn’t so sure.

“Do you want to leave the city, then?" he asked, imagining a life defined by train schedules and tunnel tolls.

“Not yet," she answered, pulling more weeds, wandering away from him down the path to the next bed, never turning to see if he followed.

Burr Oak was Charlotte’s secret, the place casual fans, those dilettantes who only watched the Melissa Gilbert travesty, would never even know about. The place Laura herself erased from her stories because it was just too sad. ˛o one else wanted to hear about Laura’s little brother dying, Pa and Ma working part-time in a hotel to make ends meet, the whole family living in a basement, the girls put to work doing odd jobs for travelers. But Charlotte wanted to see it, wanted to understand what might make someone turn their back on a journey, to put down roots for a little while, especially in such a miserable little Iowa town. She stood outside the hotel, imagined Pa doing what he thought was right but longing to escape, counting the days until he’d saved enough money to put the cover back on the wagon and move on. The Ingallses stayed for a year in Burr Oak. Charlotte stayed an afternoon, kept traveling West.

The pickled eggs had gone bad. Charlotte retched into the kitchen sink while Carl ran down the hall with armloads of Mason jars, throwing them down the garbage chute, saying silent prayers for the maintenance men down below. Discovering the moldy strawberry-rhubarb jam was less dramatic, but the dozen pint jars still had to be thrown away, and Charlotte, sobbing over the wasted food and hours, her own disappointment in herself, still had to be consoled.

One day at work, Carl ordered her a cheese-making kit online. The testimonials were earnest and inspiring: “I’ll never buy cheese from the supermarket again!" Carl imagined caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes, homemade mozzarella. Basil from the farmers’ market would do for now.

She seemed pleased when the kit arrived, as they pored over the instructions, went together to buy the milk and cream. But he came home from work the next evening to a nearly silent apartment; no oldies on the radio as she cooked, no fiddling to pass the time. Just the quiet dripping of watery not-cheese through cloth and down the drain, stubbornly refusing to coalesce. She huddled under the down comforter, inconsolable. He tried to joke, offered to run down to Manganaro’s to get mozzarella for their dinner. Charlotte didn’t laugh, just burrowed deeper, wallowing in her own failure.

De Smet was where the Ingallses landed at last, and where every true pioneer alighted, too, sooner or later. Who would think South Dakota could have so many tourist attractions?The Black Hills, Wall Drug, the Badlands, the Corn Palace. The only one that really mattered to her, though, was De Smet. She begged to stay a week, not just to see the pageant and walk the main street, but to remember that long winter when Laura’s hands bled from twisting hay for fuel, to trace the route a handsome young Almanzo Wilder took when he was courting Laura. Charlotte was the same age now Laura was then. Sixteen, old enough, her parents said. They bought her a room in the town’s one bed and breakfast, made sure she had money for picnic lunches, repacked the car, and headed for their own pilgrimage to gaze at dead presidents carved in a mountainside.

There wasn’t really anything to do in De Smet, but that didn’t matter to Charlotte. Each night she walked out to the western edge oftown, looking out over cornfields, past the treeless landscape to the shadowy horizon beyond. What made them stop? she wondered. Why was this place, of all those on their journey, good enough for Pa? There was a lot ofWest left beyond eastern South Dakota. Did he hear a whisper, see a sign? Or did he just get weary and decide that this little railroad town was a fertile enough spot to put down roots for good? A place to settle down, or just settle?

He knew as soon as he got home that October afternoon, saw that the china shepherdess no longer occupied pride of place on the living room bookcase. Carl rested his hand there for a while, on the shiny circle where no dust lay yet, his fresh fingerprints obscuring the spot where she’d stood for over a year.

He stayed there, the autumn day’s long shadows tracing new patterns on the walls, the October sunset turning his white shirt ruddy. He smiled a little to think of her traveling westwards, across the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey perhaps, to encounter other pioneers on the Turnpike, to claim her forty acres in the parking lot of some suburban mall.

The sun dipped low then, behind the skyscrapers, and Carl made his way to the kitchen. There was no note, of course. Just a fresh row of canned tomatoes, glowing in their jars like rubies on the windowsill, catching the last westering rays of the sun, sealing its promise like so much summer.

It was late, and he had to eat after all. He opened the freezer and considered. Lentil soup? Chicken stew? Or chili? The freezer was full of hope, enough to last him until May. Or February at least.

Norah's short fiction has appeared in The Legendary, Literary Mama, and Shaking Like a Mountain

All Rights Reserved--2007-2024