Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Snowstorm (ix)

What was clear was that they weren't leaving the schoolhouse. But then, what could she do? She had to keep them occupied. . .

What was surprising is that no one had come through that door. She couldn’t imagine why not, why worried parents hadn’t hitched up the team to the sleigh or wagon or whatever to pick up the children. Was the blizzard that horrible?--and if it was, were they themselves in danger here? 

Then again maybe they had. Maybe some had determined to come and didn’t make it. She dismissed that thought out of hand, wouldn't let herself think the blizzard could be a killer.

She drew the children in a circle about the stove and had them begin singing, not just the old standard psalms and hymns, but any song they wanted, some American, some old Dutch favorites. When they slowly tired of that, she started them on Christmas carols and filled another half hour.

"Miss Baarman, I'm hungry," someone said. It was not the first request for whatever was left of their lunches, and it wouldn't be the last. It seemed hours ago that she’d told them to save a bite or two because they might get hungry later on.

“Can you wait awhile yet?” she said, smiling—everything with a smile, “--it's not quite time for supper." That was a lie, but she had no idea how long they’d be here, alone in the storm. Surely it would be overnight now, but how long after that? Everything had to be measured. Why didn't anyone come?

When voices trailed away, and all interest in singing died away, she knew she had to try something new, something that would keep them from realizing where they were and what kind of danger they were seemingly in. She asked the boys to gather all the chairs and stack them together at the back of the room. 

All her requests had been honored in a moment since she’d picked up that hot marble. The children were all on her side it seemed now, and among the most ready was Johnny Mulder, who took four chairs himself and directed the younger boys where to put theirs. He didn't smile. Even though he was, she thought, admirably restrained, she remained wary. 

“Now listen very closely,” she said, gathering them around her once again. “I’m going to let you do something very naughty for a while, but I want to explain it first.” Always a bright smile, she told herself. The children looked each other almost guiltily. 

It was now dark, completely dark outside. That no one—that none of their parents had come in through the door—scared her, made her hands shake again. Someone should have come. At home, their parents must have been encountering their own similar problems. No one was moving. The wind howled.

“Arrange the tables any way you like and play games right here inside the schoolhouse,” she said, then raised a hand and a finger. “Go on and rough-house, but be careful no one gets hurt or nothing gets broken."

The children were thrilled. They all turned to Johnny Mulder, who looked at her as if to ask permission. She nodded. He seemed to understand, looked around the room as if assessing what was there for them to use, and then started laying down rules for some kind of game.

Soon, the desks snaked all around. Johnny had them grab their coats and pile them up at the end of the line, a huge pillow on the floor so that, one after another, each of them could race down the crooked runway and dive into the cushion of coats. He kept watch. He didn’t try it himself, and neither did a few of the younger girls. Instead, he stayed at the end, fluffing up the coats and nursing a sore knee or skinned hand.

Emma faked an injury. The kids loved it as he paid special attention to her, pretending he was doctor. Emma loved it too. Mary Boersma rolled her eyes.

Then it was "leap frog" over the desks, and an improvised kind of "tag," and even an inside version of "pom­pom-pullaway." Soon enough, the windows were completely steamed. One by one, when the younger children began to tire they’d pick up their coats and find a place somewhere at her side. She hoped she had enough oil in the lanterns, enough candles if she needed more.

But the games continued. Nick fell on the floor and was kicked, accidentally, by Henry. A trickle of blood fell from his lower lip. Johnny told him to be a man, but that didn't seem to help so he brought little Nick to her, said nothing, didn’t even look at her. She pulled Nick into her lap. Soon enough he was giggling at the party going on all around.

"I think I want to go home," Nick told her, almost out of nowhere.

"Soon enough," she said, smiling, pulling his hair back around his ear. "Soon enough." 

She tried her best to keep that smile bright, but she couldn’t help wonder how things were going to turn out, why parents hadn’t come to pick up their children, whether she’d made the right decision to stay, and what the children were going to eat. What she feared was panic, which could happen, she knew, because it could happen even within her. The power of the sharp, icy wind and the press of the dangerous cold outside made the little schoolhouse seem so terribly vulnerable that she didn’t allow herself to imagine what might happen, what could. 

One by one the children tired, took a seat by her side, or sat quietly, watching the others. Soon they were exhausted. Johnny turned the tables on edge and made a circle around the old stove, a trick he learned, he said, from some prairie birds. There they sat within, a fort of desks around them. The coats on the floor in the circle created a wide bed, and in a short time, the littlest kids were off to sleep in the laps of the older ones, far away from the schoolhouse and the dangerous menace all around.

Katharine sat with her back against one of the tables, resting comfortably now, with only the older children still awake. The worst, for tonight anyway, was over. The youngest children, those who would have felt most fear at being away from their own families and homes, were already fast asleep. They lay all around her, on her lap, propped against her side, leaning against her, asleep in the warmth of the inner circle.

It was probably an hour or two more before the rest were sleeping. For a while, quietly, they had all told their favorite stories--of Indians, of the big ships, of the old country-then, slowly, they too began to drop off to sleep to the sound of the wind. 

Twenty children were lying peacefully before her, all bundled together the way cattle in the fields bundled in the face of a storm. Her own eyes, weary with the burdens she had carried for too many hours, grew heavy and misty. Her back against a table, she fell asleep, the blizzard gales howling like wolves just outside the door.


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