Overland Wedding: May 21, 1850
Such a chivaree we gave them that night.
By the time I’d found a husband of my own
seven months later, we had no such foolery
left in us, nothing but dumb astonishment.
Yet I am blessed to be alive, even here
in Nevada City, where my Jason gazes
at the far hills and the green valley, praising
the “beauty uncivilized” of California,
a metal gleam in the brown pools of his eyes.
The only woman here, I mostly see
mouths—my children’s and the miners’—open
in my mind’s eye like baby birds’, and none
but me to fill them.
Such a chivaree…
It was early in the passage: half a year,
nearly, before we rode, pinching our nostrils,
through the last carcass field—wagons abandoned
beside the parched, starved hulks that had hauled them
as far as they were able; months before
we passed the Dutchman prodding his overbrimming
wheelbarrow westward through the desert heat,
his bare hands redder than any Indian’s;
before we scratched our names with charred stick-ends
on Independence Rock, or traded hard bread
for soft Sioux moccasins; before the hail
battered us or the bloody flux slowed us
or cholera winnowed us; weeks before
the plains to the far horizon blackened and smoldered
with buffalo; before we ate buffalo steak
or tongue, or baked buffalo marrow in coals
of buffalo chips; before I learned to shoot,
in case the savages, who more than once
would save us from ourselves, turned truly savage;
and one week to the day before we found
the fresh grave, still preserved by rough-hewn pickets
against the wolves, of Isaac Davis, a schoolmate,
whose clear voice, when he sang, would carry through
the still Wisconsin evenings to our porch,
a splendid voice...
Such a chivaree—
enough, I thought, to rouse the Seven Sleepers.
The couple, after their vows, got in a wagon,
men tugged the tongue, we shouldered from behind,
rolling them, all of us laughing, half a mile
into the prairie. We blew flutes and fiddled,
banged cans and shot revolvers till midnight,
then left them there alone with just the sound
of God’s breath rushing through the bowing grasses.
Well after dawn, they shambled into camp,
smiling and shy, to a charmed ruckus of cheers.
The sugared hope that fattened our spirits then
would prove, for some of us, enough to live on.