Thousands of white pine and tamarack logs were hung up, crisscrossed, and tangled to form a dam as tight as a sinner’s fingers on the St. Croix River. North of the logjam, the surface of the great river shimmered and reflected the sun, haloing the town of Stillwater so that its citizens shielded their eyes as they watched rivulets creep toward their homes and stores. A dry spring had depleted the water level, and an easterly crook in the riverbed caught the trunks, one after another, until they stretched shore to shore. The usual roar of the St. Croix was eerily quiet, and stagnant pools sat rank among the logs. The backed-up water breached Main Street, flooding the lower roads, the railroad tracks, and the basement of the state prison.
The women of Stillwater walked from one side of town to the other on boards men had thrown over the miry roads. Mud dangled like lace along skirt hems. A young woman, laden with rattraps, tripped and fell and was nearly hit by the wheels of a passing wagon, but Mr. Barton Hatterby, a local politician, grabbed her wrist and pulled her into his own arms just in time. Her heart beat hard. Mr. Hatterby was handsome and had more than once charmed a young lass out of her knickers. Everyone in Stillwater said his wife, Millicent Hatterby, was “touched” and, worse, had been a poor mother to their daughter, Angel. When Millicent Hatterby heard about her husband’s good deed, she flew into another jealous fit and threatened to throw herself down the stairs. Mr. Hatterby tied her to the bedpost and sent for the priest.
Father Paul, from St. Mary’s Basilica, who’d been overseeing the building of a clay berm to hold water back from his church, rushed away to pray over the affected woman. While he was gone administering extreme unction, the laborers he’d hired skulked into the warm church and stared up at a ceiling fresco of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Heart until they fell asleep upon the dry padded pews. While they slept, the river water poured over the berm and rippled down the marble stairs into the church basement, destroying relics such as a wood sliver from Christ’s cross, a bone chip from the apostle James, and a thread from Judas’s hanging rope.
Stillwater horses found themselves stuck in the sludge up to their bellies. One fought so fiercely against the sticky matter that he worked himself into a heart attack and died where he stood. The rest of the horses looked as though they wore thigh-high stockings of grime. On the outskirts of town, Beaver Jean’s hogs, drowned when the waters overcame their pen, floated, their legs up and bellies bloated. Beaver Jean’s two wives lassoed the carcasses together, pulled them to dry land, and disemboweled the animals. The women hadn’t seen Beaver Jean in days. But they were content in each other’s company, with or without him.
On the north end of Stillwater town, the whores of the Red Swan Saloon waved colorful handkerchiefs and whistled to prospective clients from the safety of the dry balcony. They ordered the hot-footed men to leave their dirty boots on the stairs. And rather than visit each woman individually, Father Paul stood on the bottom steps and threw general absolutions up to all the doves at once. He came to hear their confessions weekly, yelling, “For your fornications say a decade of the rosary and sin no more!” The women crossed themselves. They giggled and shouted down, “We won’t!”
Mr. Hatterby, who liked to wear his boots in every situation, bought an extra pair, which he kept on the third stair and would exchange for his sodden ones before he ascended to the room of Miss Daisy, the best whore at the Red Swan as far as he was concerned. Mr. Hatterby showed no shame as he passed Father Paul on the stairs. The politician had promised in his will to bequeath a great gift upon St. Mary’s Basilica, and so Father Paul prayed forgiveness for the politician’s lust and adultery too, even though the man’s shadow had never graced a confessional.
Mother St. John, headmistress of Stillwater Home for Orphans and Infirmed, sent her children out with pails. Frogs teemed from every corner of the earth, as if sent forth in a biblical plague. The children captured them, knocked them out against rocks, and brought them to Mother St. John, who butchered them, then floured and fried the legs in hot grease. After the frog-leg feasts, prayers, and bedtime, Mother St. John’s helper, Big Waters, lifted her feet for Mother St. John to tend. The withered old things were drenched, wrinkled, pale, bleeding, and dropping skin in leaves. Big Waters was called “The Beggar” in town for her frequent trips to the backdoors of the wealthy, appealing for pennies for the orphans. Big Waters had the tale of the north in her. She knew the story of the place all the way back to creation if anyone cared to ask, which no one ever did.
Stillwater children squealed with delight and were head-to-toe wet from frolicking in the water during the day. But many of them took sick with fever and chills at night. Thomas and Angel Lawrence’s youngest daughter, Goldenrod, caught a chill and would suffer a cough for the rest of her short life. Thomas Lawrence was heir to and operator of the largest timber outfit in the entire north. He spent little time at home, though his wife, Angel, was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in Stillwater. Some said, though, that if you looked near enough, you could see that her eyes were too close together and pitch-black and that her nose and chin were too pinched to be considered beautiful. Everyone agreed that she had strange ways, like her mother, Millicent Hatterby, and kept suspect company. There was something about a hidden affair with an army deserter, some gossip about a Negro lover, and more speculation about an illegitimate child kept hidden in the basement of the Lawrences’ mansion. And some said she wasn’t even a natural child, that she’d been abandoned by one of those prairie mothers who every year popped out a baby she couldn’t feed and was then adopted by the Hatterbys when she was but a few days old. Some said her rich husband, whose Lawrence lineage went all the way back to French aristocrats, would never have married Angel Hatterby if he’d known the truth. Some said that if he found out now, he’d divorce her and disown the children and marry someone more suitable, and there were plenty of willing prospects in Stillwater. Some of the women from other prominent families of Stillwater had a good mind to send Thomas Lawrence an anonymous note. Angel Hatterby Lawrence never saw a friendly female face in Stillwater.
After three weeks of the logjam, the whole town stunk of wet wood, rotting foliage, overflowing outhouses, drowned animals, and moldy potatoes and onions. Insects of every miserable biting and stinging kind proliferated by the millions and hung over the town in a buzzing fog. Workers from Lawrence’s company and all available men from the woods, the riverboats, the farmlands, the businesses, and the mills ran to the river with picks and shovels. They jabbed at logs. Everyone had a stake in it. The freedom of the river affected the livelihood of all. The mayor demanded that the logjam be freed. “Blow it up,” he said. “Get that river going again.” He picked at his ear, where a malarial mosquito had bitten, as he watched a thin man hack at a log near the front of the jam.