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[From the Archive]

All the Nothing

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Maggie had nothing in the world but Mike and the twins and the other two little boys, none of whom could be considered anything of an asset. Mike had landed in that barren valley ten years previously with her and the twins and a cash balance of fifty dollars. They worked on the ranches when they could get work, bought a bit of stock here and there, and finally got enough toge­ther to settle on a homestead.

When I went to live with them after I was mercilessly evicted, they had got around to building everything but the house. They had been living in the local schoolhouse, but when school began, of course, they had to move out, and Mike put a temporary floor in the barn, and there they settled down, all cozy, with sliding window sashes instead of doorknobs.

I walked in with my suitcase and announced: “I’ve come to live with you. Mrs. Garrison bounced me out.”

“Well, come into the parlor,” said Maggie, “where we can talk it over.” To ask you to step into the parlor was Maggie’s favorite waggery, the divisions of her cabin being purely imaginary. You might think a one-room house would be inconvenient, but it is amazing with what decorum and modesty people can live in one.

Mike, that very afternoon, brought in lumber and boarded off a stall to make a room for me; and Maggie lined it from top to bottom with clean flour sacks, so it shone out spotless and fair; and they dragged in the skin of the calf that had blown into the creek the winter before, to serve as a rug. And, in the course of time, Mike built me a table and a chair, and I had wool comforters and linen sheets and clean towels and wash things.

Never was there so sweet and ­dainty a room; and most cozy and companionable it was, too. If I did not drop to sleep immediately when I crawled in at half past eight, I could start up a conversation with the ones who were sleeping in the hayloft.

One night, for example, just as I was cuddling down between my mail-order catalogues and flatirons, I heard a shriek of laughter from one of the boys in the hayloft.

“What’s the matter up there?” I inquired.

The little boy’s chuckles left him gasping for breath. “Oo-ee!” he chortled. “I was going to lay my head on the pillow and I hit a pile of snow!”

We have magnificent winter weather, starry white at night and Wedgwood blue by day; but the fall, before the winter settles down, is apt to be trying, on account of blizzards and high winds. I had the wool comforters, as I said, and I had a good wool bathrobe and socks and mittens, and I put all those on to go to bed and took two hot flatirons and two heavy mail-order catalogues, and so kept pretty warm. The catalogues were my own discovery, and a welcome one it was. You put them into the oven before supper and by bedtime they are heated through. Then you put your feet between the leaves and you can turn pages all night, finding warm ones as you go along.

The wind shrieked about the cabin for three days with no pause, except when it changed direction, and when those curious calms came we would laugh to find ourselves screaming at one another in the effort to be heard. Bill had fed the milk cows out of gunnysacks because the wind blew the hay off the forks, and he had made dangerous trips to the creek for water; otherwise nobody left the house. The little boys rolled on the floor with the lamb and the puppy and the cats and the visiting dog; Maggie shoveled snow from the hayloft; I moved from corner to corner with my embroidery.

For three days we lived in an agony of noise and discomfort and cold. And then, at some unknown hour of the night, we suddenly ceased tossing, and knew nothing until the sun shone on us through the cracks and a celestial hush circled us round about, and when we looked from the door we saw a world like a Portland vase: dark blue, light blue, and glistening piles of white. Every atom of everything had been swept out of the air, and you could see all the Nothing in the world, and hear it too.

From “Trails to Tiny Towns,” which appeared serially in Harper’s Magazine in 1923. 


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August 2019