The Image of a Hinge
A quiet surf oozed around our wooden shoes as we inhaled the salt and sea
of Washington’s Willapa Bay. Beyond swirled the Pacific. I pulled my skirt
up between my legs and tucked the hem into the waistline of my Sunday
After months of having our days and nights and futures directed by Herr
Keil, formerly of Bethel, Missouri, and now of…somewhere far away, I
found that his departure from Willapa left a tear in our family’s fabric. That
surprised me. I suppose when one devotes outrage and anger toward a person
and then they leave, well, then one has pent-up steam to let off. We must
find new things to fill the space, or so I told my husband.
That’s what we’d done this spring of 1856 in Washington Territory.
“What do we do first?” I asked our partner, Joe Knight. Joe, a former
religious scout, had spent a year already in Bruceport on the Bay finding out
about how one nurtured and protected oysters from starfish or drills or human
“Begin to see with new eyes. There,” Joe said. He pointed with his finger.
“Those red alder saplings I placed in the water. That marks our bed.” He
looked down at my clog-clad feet and shook his head. “You need boots,” he
said. “And you’ll need to study the mud and sand. As the tide goes out, the
mud can suck a grown man right in if he’s not careful. Someone little as you
are, or the children…ja, well, they could sink to Beijing.” He grinned, and
might’ve been teasing, but I stepped back, putting my feet on solid wet sand.
“Nein,” my husband told him. “She’s no need of boots. She’s going up
the Willapa River where she’ll be safe.”
“I could learn oystering,” I defended.
“Emma, you agreed to remain with my parents until we build our
house,” my husband, Christian Giesy, said. I stared at piles of oysters in the
distant sea. They reminded me of cobbled dirt in dark fields back in Missouri.
“Indeed, Liebchen, that was a primary condition of my considering the
possibilities in oystering, that you and the children will be safe.”
I pouted, dug at the sand with my toes. I could see Indian women separating
oysters in culling beds. The green crown of leaves topping their alder
stakes fluttered in the breeze. It was May and no one was allowed to harvest
again until September, but clumps of oysters still had to be broken apart so
they could grow larger, stronger. “I just thought I could help,” I said.
“You want to avoid living with my parents,” he told me. He knows me
Joe interjected then with oyster talk. The salty air brushed against my
face as I listened, still holding my Kate. Our two-year-old Andy slapped at
shoalwater pools with his hand and looked so sweet. “His hand is already tan
as walnuts,” Christian said, when I pointed with my chin toward our son.
“Same color as your eyes and your hair. I’ll miss seeing those every day.”
“Ja, me too.”
Joe cleared his throat. He spoke mostly English now, having learned it
from his time in San Francisco. My husband bent his head to catch Joe’s
words over the loud calling of the seagulls fighting over clams or waiting for
us to throw dried bread up to them.
“Charlie?” Andy pointed. I shook my head.
“During spawning,” Joe continued, “the water’ll be milky with the eggs
and sperm of oyster beds. They’re a saucy creature, they are.” He looked at
me, and I thought he blushed.
I surely didn’t. These were necessary discussions of the natural way of
things. Why was a woman expected to be protected from the lusts of life?
Herr Keil, our former religious leader, came to mind. In spite of his own
prolific family-building....he has several children....he advises lives of celibacy
for the rest of us. This complicates, I think, his view that women are saved
from damnation only when they bear children and have to endure the pain
of Eve’s sin. I doubt he’s thought of that contradiction as yet.
Ach, I must not let every thought come back to Keil!
I took a deep breath that pushed against my Kate. I rested my chin
lightly on her bonneted head and watched an old woman scrub at the mud
of an oyster in her lap. She wore a scarf around her full brown face that
marked her as a Chinook or Shoalwater or even a Chehalis native. Something
in the way she held herself promised strength if not wisdom too. Both were
necessary to survive on this Bay.
Andy squatted at the tide pool, pulled at a starfish. He laughed as he
plopped back onto the mud.
“There are four tides a day on this Pacific,” Joe said. “Our work is dependent
on being out there on the flats when the tide goes out and exposes the
oysters. We break up the clusters. If there’s an oyster ship awaiting, we pick
the larger ones, toss them into baskets or bags and sail them out, and we’ve
earned our wages. There are more oysters out farther, have to reach them by
boat and bring them in closer to seed our beds. In the winter, you’ll be working
in darkness, so you best get that lantern of yours ready.”
“Indeed,” Christian said. “I’ve been meaning to make a tin cover for
Emma’s lamp, one where the wind can’t ever blow out the light.” He smiled
at me, then brushed a wayward hair strand beneath my bonnet. Both the act
and the look he gave me told me I was cherished.
I wanted to live with them in Bruceport, though it would mean close
quarters along the beachfront, huddled in huts made of driftwood or maybe
out on stilts built over the oyster beds. But I could cook for Joe and Christian
and the children. Our family would be together. That’s what I wanted.
But I had compromised. Anything to avoid going to Oregon with Herr Keil.
I’d agreed to stay with the children miles away with the remainder of Christian’s
kin and the scouts. My in-laws would “look after me” as Christian put
it. One day on the Willapa River, once we built it, I’d have a home to call our
own. This was my desire, a home without a dozen other people in it. A
dwelling, safe, filled with my family and only the things I treasured, safe from
others telling us what to do or think.
“Best you ready yourself for the boat,” Christian told us. Andy began
dragging a very long double fork-like tool, scraping it across the beach as
though it was a boat in tow. Christian lifted it from him and the tongs stood
on end at least two times the height of my husband, who was over six feet
tall. The tool had a hinge to open the two forks.
“Works like a pincher, ja?” Joe said, as he reached with his thumb and
middle finger to pretend to pinch at Andy’s nose. My son giggled. “You’ll get
skilled enough using those tongs, Christian,” Joe said. “As I steer our oyster
boat, you’ll stand on the bow and with the tongs feel the bottom like you
were searching for treasure. When you feel a clump, you close the hinge and
pull them up and drop them in the basket in the boat.”
Christian tried to open and close the long oyster tongs. “Like fishing in
the dark,” Christian said. He was awkward on land and both he and Joe
“It’ll come to you in time,” Joe said. “Worst part will be learning to stand
on the bow without slipping yourself into the Bay, though a salty bath will
wake you up.”
“Perhaps I should learn how to swim,” Christian said. Joe hesitated but
then chuckled, clapping Christian on the back.
“That’s a good one,” Joe said. “Ja, that’s a good one.”
I’d remember that day later; hold it to me like a hug that time permits to
bring one warmth. My husband and I began a new adventure, one not sanctioned
by the infamous Herr Keil. The tools of our new trade were long tongs
and sailboats. It was a new way of tendering through life’s storms, and I was
hopeful despite my disappointment.
“We’ve weathered the biggest storm of 1856,” Christian told me as we
walked back toward the shoreline. His arm wrapped around me while tidewater
unveiled its treasures. Wet sand clung to our wooden shoes. Our son
chased after quick-footed birds. A skiff of wind lifted our son’s little flat hat,
and Christian took two steps in his brogans to retrieve it. “I’m not a rich oysterman
yet, Junge,” he told Andy, tapping the hat onto his head. “So hold
My husband’s reference to the storm referred not to the great western
winds that blustered in off the Pacific Ocean and toppled trees, leaving them
crisscrossed on the forest floor. My Swiss-born husband wasn’t even talking
about the martial law imposed in the Territory by Governor Stevens, meant
to protect us from the Indians. No, my husband referred to the turbulence
that brewed and bubbled then settled after it tore our colony of Christian
believers in two and nearly splintered our marriage as well. It was the “bread
of adversity” and “the water of affliction” as Scripture notes it that Christian
and I, Emma Wagner Giesy, his wife, had weathered.
My husband, a tall man (I barely come up to his chest) has a compassionate
heart and once shared in the leadership of our colony of one thousand
Missouri Bethelites who planned to move the settlement to the Washington
Territory. Instead, earlier this spring we severed our relationship with the
mostly German members of the Bethel colony who ventured west. The former
scouts and many of my husband’s fourteen brothers and sisters and their
families stayed here. After our terrible winter when Keil refused us the use of
ammunition to hunt, wanting it saved for “protection,” Keil ordered many of
the colonists not to come north from Portland. So I never even saw my
brother, though he rode in Keil’s wagon train. Keil barked his orders and the
colony split. It was like chopping willows at the root base.
A few noncolonists choose to settle in our Willapa Hills and Valley. A family
named Wagonblast had joined up with Keil at St. Joseph, Missouri, and
remained at the Willapa, their young children right now probably playing
“jack stones” oblivious to the anxieties of their elders. Karl Ruge, an old teacher
who’d been faithful to Herr Keil though he remained a Lutheran, stayed. I was
glad for it. I found comfort watching Karl smoke his three-foot-long clay pipe
with its wide bowl that curved up like an elbow. The smoke swirled around his
stringy beard, lifting like mist to the cedars above. Karl loved words and read
books without apologizing, so at the very least, our children would have an
education beyond Herr Keil’s Bible or teaching of practical things, “useful reading”
Keil called it. Karl’s presence gave me reason to hope such education
would include my daughter Kate one day, and not only my son. Without the
colony rules to shape us, everything would be new. Or so I hoped.
One other Giesy named Big Jack, a distant cousin of my husband’s, traveled
around the Isthmus of Panama to settle here too, where the timber towers
and the blackberry brush tangles. Big Jack chose the Giesy name I’m told,
to start anew. His arrival in Willapa caused a storm. But that’s a story better
left for later.
I loaded the children onto the mail boat going upriver with the incoming
tide. We’d been apart before in our marriage, when my husband recruited
for new colony members. But I’d grown accustomed to his snores, his pushing-
ups each morning, his mustached-covered kisses smelling of earth and
onion every day, and I would miss him. Keil is the fault of all this separation.
Ach! My life must not always come back to Keil.
But perhaps once one has given their all, foolishly even, as Herr Keil
would put it, to a grand dream, then abandoning what we’d done here and
turning back would be…a violation of that pioneering spirit. To “listen to
reason” as our colony leader said, and follow him to Oregon would remind
us always of the months and years we put into readying this place for others,
believing we were in the palm of God’s hand. To leave would make us ever
regretful. Or so we told ourselves that spring.
It takes time for the mind to swing upon a different hinge.
We’re a hopeful people, we Swiss and Germans, and faithful and perhaps
dreamers too, or we never would have journeyed west at all. We heeded the
Sehnsucht, that great yearning, rather than remain in the warmth of our brick
Bethel houses with readied fireplaces and streets with sturdy names like King
and Elm. We gave up living close to bustling cities like Hannibal and Independence.
Instead, we live isolated....fifteen river miles from the vast Pacific
It was my plan that convinced my husband to try oystering. It was a kind
of farming, though of the sea instead of land. Farming was something we
knew about. Christian had been a tinsmith and recruiter, but in the colony
we all set aside our various tasks to help with planting or weeding or harvest.
We knew that farming required focus and effort. Risk pervaded farming, too,
but with many hands helping, we could bring in a good harvest if the locusts
or hail storms didn’t get it first. But in Bethel, even if we lost the harvest or it
was poor, we would still be fed. For whatever anyone earned making gloves
or wagons or cloth or preserves went into a common fund. Then whatever
we needed we were allowed to take out. We cared for others, served up the
Diamond Rule, making others’ lives better than our own. But we owned not
a thing in our names. It was all in Keil’s name. I think that’s one of the things
that turned Keil off of Willapa: he wanted all land to be his.
Here, because of donation land claims, Christian and I had land in our
names, as did his parents and brothers. But we didn’t have the security that if
a crop failed we might still eat, unless we leaned on our neighbors or found
some other way to live.
Our leader said we’d made him broke almost, buying up land claims
when we could have gotten free land in a more forgiving landscape. Worse,
he claimed we’d been unfaithful, hadn’t listened to the calling of our God,
and that was why we’d had such a trial here attempting to build our homes,
clear ground, survive the wailing winters.
I think that hurt my husband most, the suggestion that his faith wasn’t
strong enough to stave off suffering and loss. I remembered once Keil saying
Brother John Will back in Bethel lacked faith enough for Keil to heal his tailor’s
arm. In the church, Keil upbraided him for this weakness. That very day,
Brother Will hanged himself for failing Keil, and our leader chastised him
even then, saying his arm could not sew but it could work well enough to
bring on his death. I feared such might happen to my husband if we had
stayed in the shadow of Keil.
We’d been sent to find a place of isolation so that our children would not
be influenced by the outside un-Christian world; to find timber and a place
where one could sell our produce, our furniture, our milk and cheese, and
our wagons to others as we had in Bethel. Our choices required a delicate balance,
weighing safety and isolation with survival and success through commerce
with the outside world.
I’d found my place in this Willapa country. I recognized wild celery now
and knew how to prepare it. I located wapato, Indian potatoes, and knew
how to cook them. While at the beach, I watched as the Shoalwater people
collected clams, raking at the sandy dimples that signaled a clam’s presence.
They dug pits and heated stones until the rocks glowed, then laid the clams
on top the stones, covered them with mats of weeds and grass, and watched
the steam as the clam juice filtered down onto the hot rocks, the sizzle offering
up a scent like the blacksmith’s cooling of hot iron.
My friend Sarah Woodard, who lived with her husband at the landing,
showed me how to strip wild raspberry roots to find that center as tender and
tasty as a cucumber. We learned much from those outsiders, if we listened,
watched. Keil didn’t see this. He let the light of insight illuminate few of his
Perhaps that’s why in the end my husband agreed to try oystering. We
hoped to prove that challenges are not necessarily God’s punishment for disobedience.
They do not mean one has erred. If we forge ahead, we’ll still find
blessings and new paths. That’s what I told myself as I waved good-bye to
him that day.
As I write this, years later, my youngest daughter, Ida, works at her school
books. She asks me to explain the word hinge, using English. I’m not sure
when she decided to speak just English, but it pleases me as a mark of her
independence. I press my hand upon the circle of braids she wears at the top
of her head and inhale the sweetness of her. I tell her first that a hinge is the
thing that keeps the two sides of the oyster shell together, so what is inside
may stay alive. She frowns. “It’s the little piece of flesh that opens and closes,
allowing the two sides to be a whole.” Then I show her the top of Christian’s
lantern, how the hinge lets it open and close. She nods, returns to her writing,
leaving me to ponder still.
A hinge is so much more. It divides two sides of a story. It is what separates
mourning from joy; belief from aimlessness, surrender from independence.
It’s what holds those halves together. “A hinge is a circumstance upon
which later events depend,” I add more for me than for Ida. Who could have
known that day on the river how I’d soon long for the hinge of faith, and
with it the hope that I’d once again find home.