PrefaceFame is a bee.It has a song —It has a sting —Ah, too, it has a wing.
— Emily Dickinson, "Fame is a bee"The first seventeen years and three months of my life were so ordinary, they would not be worth the telling. And last May when I came home from high school in Spokane to helpMa, I thought fate had yanked me back to Mica Creek and I would be stuck there on the farm, helping out one more time and one more time until I was buried in the Mica Creek cemetery alongside my brother Henry. I had prayed that I would find a way to get out of Mica Creek. I forgot to stipulate that I would like to get out of Mica Creek without the constant company of my mother and by some means other than my own two feet.But then, because of Ma, I was briefly famous. Sketches of us appeared in the New York World
twice: our "before" picture in black silk dresses with leg-o’-mutton sleeves; and our "after" picture in ankle-baring skirts and brandishing guns and daggers. Because of the way our adventure ended, we couldn’t talk about it afterward. But I kept my journal. Sometimes, late at night, I would rummage through to the bottom of my hope chest and find my journal. I would read it and remind myself of that life-changing year.*****Mica Creek
February 28, 1896I arranged a dozen winter-blooming Johnny-jump-ups in a tall pill bottle and set them on a tray along with three biscuits and coffee in Ma’s best teacup. As if it might bite, I took a deep breath and lifted the letter by one corner and laid it across the top of the tray.I nudged open the door to Ma and Pa’s bedroom with my knee. "God morgen,
Ma! Good morning!" I crossed the room to hold the tray close enough for her to smell hot biscuits and coffee.Ma groaned and turned to face the wall. "No breakfast. Sleep."I set the tray on the bedside table and tapped one corner of the envelope against Ma’s hand, the one clutching the bedclothes as protection against the real world. "It’s another letter from the treasurer. Do you want me to read it to you?"Ma drew up her knees as if she were making herself a smaller target for bad news.With the knife from the tray, I slit open the envelope. The treasurer’s seal glared out from the top of the letter. It reminded me of the eye of a dead fish. "You are hereby notified that on January 2, 1897, the property in township . . ."Eyes still closed, Ma flung her arm to brush the unwelcome words away and instead bumped the tray, spilling the coffee and soaking the biscuits. She covered her ears."Ma, you have to listen!"As if in league with my intent to rouse Ma from bed today, Marmee jumped on the bed to lick Ma’s cheek and purr into her ear. Ma swiped Marmee’s paw away from her face.I lifted the cat off the bed so I’d have a place to sit. "Refusing to listen to this letter isn’t going to make it disappear. Since Pa doesn’t read English, he leaves all the business to you, and we are a sheriff’s auction away from losing this house and everything in it."Ma still played possum, so I crossed the room and jerked the window shade cord, letting the shade snap to the top, and opened the window as far as it would go. She turned her back to the light and pulled the quilt over her head. "Cold," she said."Refreshing," I countered.She forced a cough. "I can’t get up," she said. "I have consumption.""Half of Mica Creek has a cough this winter, Ma. I don’t think it’s consumption. And even if it is, fresh air and exercise are the best things for it.""And it’s not just consumption. You don’t understand what it’s like to have a sensitive spirit."I pictured Henry in his coffin: eleven years old, hands gnarled like an old man’s by the childhood arthritis that had spread through his body and stopped his heart. "We all miss Henry," I said, smoothing the coverlet over Ma’s shoulder, "but keeping busy is the best cure for sadness. You have to get out of bed sometime. Are you going to wait until the farm is auctioned off and Pa carries you off on the mattress?"Ma burrowed deeper into the covers. So much for rousing her today.I carried the puddled tray with soggy biscuits back to the kitchen so I could get on with the rest of my chores — more accurately, Ma’s chores, which she had been leaving to me for the last two months. But first I’d drink what was left in her cup. She always said coffee would stunt my growth, but I didn’t care. I was already taller than half the boys my age.Three loaves of bread dough had risen an inch above the rim of their pans; while they baked, I’d scrub the sink and the table, spot clean the floor, and refill the wood box. By the time everyone else was out of bed and had run through their chores, the bread would be ready.Hot air from the oven flushed my cheeks as I slid the first two pans into the wood stove. Making room for the third pan, I burned my knuckles."Uff da!"
I let the oven door slam and blew on my hand as I crossed the room to put the backs of my burned fingers against the ice in the corner of the window. The heat of my fingers melted through the frost. Past the orchard, dormant wheat fields were tucked under six inches of powdery snow. I felt like the winter wheat, holed up and hibernating, waiting for my time to sprout. If you planted wheat, you got wheat, but what was I meant to grow into?I splayed the palm of my good hand against the frost on the window. I was seventeen years old, but lye soap and kitchen, laundry, and garden chores had given me the hands of a forty-year-old. Piece by piece my parents’ farm in Mica Creek was turning me into someone I did not want to be.I scratched my initial in the thinning ice toward the middle of the pane. C
for Clara. C
? Clever enough to stay at the top of my high school classes, even while working at least twenty hours a week for my room and board in Spokane, but not clever enough to think of a way to save the farm. Ice collected under my fingernail as I sketched a kindergarten-style oblong house on the window, then huffed on the frost and wiped it out.I looked back at the kitchen: the water pump handle where our hands had worn off the red paint; the marks on the door frame where Marmee scratched to be let out; our heights recorded each year on our birthdays on the wall next to Ma and Pa’s bedroom . . . If we didn’t get money soon, we’d have to leave it all behind. Even though I wanted to leave Mica Creek and go away to college, I had always assumed this house would be here forever, to come back to.It was quiet . . . all I could hear was the ticking of the regulator clock. Time was running out.