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A Tendering in the Storm
by Jane Kirkpatrick
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CHAPTER ONE

Emma
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 apron.

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 thieves.

“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 so well.

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 laughed.

“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 onto this.”

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 Ocean.

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 dark thoughts.

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.



Meet the author:
Jane Kirkpatrick


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