Morning poured through the seams of the shutters. Magda was up, had been for who knows how long. She had opened the kitchen shutters and sat at the scarred work table, hunched over and writing furiously. It was quite a picture; the light from the window fell in one hard beam right at the top of her bent head, on to her shoulders, throwing a stark black shadow on the wall behind her.
I studied her intense face. It was sparkling with tears. My breath caught. I had never felt a sense of, what do you call it, awe? A sense of being in a holy place or a holy moment, but I guess this is what it feels like. A tattered Bible lay splayed open beside her, among balled up handkerchiefs. I guess I wasn’t the only one having a boo-hoo recently.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to intrude, bladder screaming though it was. I must have fallen back to sleep, because the next time my eyes opened all the shutters were opened and Magda was gone. I stepped to the open door and breathed in the pine scent. I saw her then, out hanging up all those handkerchiefs on the line, the washboard and soap tucked under her arm. Like she was trying to clean up her brokenness, wash it out and hang it up to dry. I scampered off to the outhouse and then down to the stream to splash some water on my face. You could see why she loved it here, why she thrived amid all this beauty.
Coming into the cabin, I was not prepared to see the deer on her work table. Skinned and raw and real. I have no idea how that slight woman managed to heft him in without my help.
“Good morning!”, she smiled, smiled as bright as someone who was just crying their heart out a few hours ago could. “I know you need to go today, but I wondered if you could help me stuff some sausage before you leave. It’s a two-person job.”
I was surprised to find myself glad to delay my departure. “Sure.”
She busied herself hacking hunks of the deer off with a menacing-looking steel cleaver. Ah, no wonder the table was so marred. She directed me to chop the pieces into smaller chunks to be fed into the meat grinder. Yeah, oh sure, I do this all the time…not. The closest I get to touching raw meat is splitting open a package of ground beef with scissors and carefully tipping it into a skillet without having to come into contact with it. That is step one, step two is pouring canned spaghetti sauce over it. “Homemade spaghetti”…yeah right.
I set about cutting up real, honest-to-goodness flesh meat. “Magda, how long have you lived here?”
She barely paused in her butchering to consult the rafters for the answer, “Hmm, I guess it’s been fifteen years now. This was my grandmother’s place, and I came here after I left prostitution at the age of seventeen.”
My knife slipped out of my hands and flew down at my feet. I jumped back as it clattered to rest on the floor. Magda smiled.
“I needed to be away from people; I had a lot of healing to do. My grandmother knew how to bring me to the Healer, Jesus. Don’t get all skittish now.”
I must have made a face. I can’t help it; whenever someone talks about “Jesus” changing them, I feel repulsed. I can’t explain it.
I cleaned off the knife in the dish pail and apologized with my eyes. She smiled.
“I fought my demons right here in this cabin while my grandmother set about healing my venereal diseases herb by herb. My mother had long since rejected my grandmother; she had fled this cabin at fifteen years old, lived wild, got pregnant with me, and kept on with her ways. When I was thirteen she sold my virginity to a man I strive not to hate every day.”
I realized I hadn’t cut any meat for a while. I was frozen in place.
Tears poured out of her over-full eyes. “I hated men, I hated women, I hated myself. For four years I lived a dying life; I was a shell, a walking corpse. My grandmother came to see my mother, just showed up at our filthy little apartment looking like a wild mountain woman, which she certainly was. My mother raged at her, told her to leave, but she saw me, over my mother’s shoulder, past my mother’s angry wall of words. She saw me and Hell itself couldn’t have stopped her from coming to me. She strode across the apartment’s littered floor, crouched down before me where I was lounging dejectedly on a worn-out couch. She knew what I was, wearing a tiny tube top and nothing-to-the-imagination shorty shorts.
‘You are precious’, she said. I’ll always remember how she said those words. ‘You are loved and cherished and I didn’t know you even existed but God did, and oh dear one, He loves you.’
My mom kept screaming in the background but Grandma wasn’t swayed by all her noise. Turning to her she said firmly, “Kathleen, I’m taking my granddaughter home. I would bring you over my shoulder if I thought it would help, but it won’t. I love you and I’ll be waiting for your visit. Please do come.’ She reached out to touch my mother’s angry face, but was rewarded with a slap across her own. Shaking with sobs she took me by the hand and walked me right out that door, barefoot, and into a glaring-bright day, my mother seething in rage but somehow rendered powerless. That was the last time I saw her. She died in a fire a week later, cigarette rolled onto the carpet.”
She paused with her cleaver in the air, swallowed down a knot in her throat, and closed her eyes. “We didn’t stop from the time we left the apartment except for one quick trip to a fabric store where she bought a huge, heavy bolt of linen. Then right on to a bus to the trailhead. I think she was scared that my mom would track us down and she was probably right…when I walked out there went half her income. I was still barefoot, so Grandma put her own shoes on me and we hiked all the way here. I’d never been in the mountains before, I’d hardly even been outside of our apartment and the public school down the block. I felt the first happiness I can remember.
She lugged that bolt of linen all the way up the mountain, singing in a breathless, happy way. I remember blood stains on the rocks as she clambered over them. Her feet took a beating that day while my own were protected by her shoes.
I was worn out when we finally reached this place. She told me to strip down and go lay in the creek. That was the beginning, the beginning of joy in me. I’d never felt such a delightful thing. Glory.”
I looked down at the deer carcass and was shocked to find it nearly all pieced-out. She disappeared up the ladder and came down with bags of coarse salt, which she poured into a crock. Several hunks of meat went directly into that, some set aside for cooking, and the rest we chopped up together.
“She made me dresses, these ones we’re wearing now. She made everything we needed out of that bolt of linen. Linen lasts and lasts. She taught me, educated me right here in the cabin. She was a wonderful teacher…”
We cut meat, she talked and talked, we fed the meat into a hand-crank grinder until we had buckets and buckets of it. She showed me how to rehydrate hog intestines and how to load them on to the stuffer attachment on the grinder. We mixed great handfuls of spices into the meat, along with generous globs of pure white lard that she kept in a “refrigerator” down in the stream (a five-gallon bucket, half submerged in the water and chained in place). Magda cranked the meat through while I “caught” and twisted the sausages into links. She took me to a pile of hardwood chips she had dried and showed me how to soak them for smoking. We lit a fire in her small adobe smokehouse and she taught me how to recognize when the coals are ready. We hung the sausages inside and put the wet chips atop and closed the little wooden door with pioneer-ish satisfaction.
In all my corporate and academic and economic achievements I had never learned something so very intrinsically necessary to survival as this. I turned with a smile to Magda, a woman I found I now loved with a heart made lighter and better. But Magda wasn’t smiling, her face had gone white and tense. I followed her eyes. A bear had come.
to be continued…