“The Oregon Trail Diary of Willa Porter” is a collection of diary entries from Willa Porter’s journey west with her family, into territory which gets stranger and stranger.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Noa Wheeler.
May 1, 1846
The camp smells like dung. Oxen and cattle are filthy things. So are people.
I have decided to take up smoking because it gets Aunt Horseface’s goat every time Uncle Barkface lights up one of his twiggy cigars. If I cannot become a scandal in the next month I will consider this new life a failure.
Today I picked my way along a bluff at the edge of camp to see if anybody had left some tobacco laying around. I got to thinking about Mama and Papa, which I have been trying to resist, because what good is it? Both the sanatorium and the jail are back in St. Louis. I am in the care of Horseface and Barkface and my cousin Sara Jane Pinchface and there is nothing I can do about it.
It was actually pleasing for a moment to let a thousand smells stew in the air around me. Dung was one of them, of course, but linseed oil and cook fires aren’t bad. Unwashed bodies are. Some of our number have been on the trail a month just to get here to Independence, Missouri.
I was thinking of Mama and Papa because a couple at the edge of the camp caught my attention. The woman was frying bacon. She wore a blue checked dress like something Mama would wear. The man shuffled through a stack of papers. I wondered if he was a lawyer like Papa. I almost warned him to avoid DISGRACE at all costs if he doesn’t want his wife to have such a bad case of nerves that their daughter will have to go west with some horsey aunt and barky uncle and pinchy cousin, but I refrained.
Gazing across the camp, it seemed like we were too many. Too many people, too many wagons. The Willamette Valley (no relation to me) must be a big place if we’re all going to homestead there. The sun was setting when I got back to our wagon because I was held up again and again by the unyoked oxen and badly behaved cattle of the easterners, which convinced me once and for all that we were too many. I said as much to Barkface, who looked at me funny, chewing the inside of his cheek, before answering that by the time we reach the banks of the Columbia River, we will no doubt be too few.
Counted one hundred and forty-three graves at the edge of town, passing time as we stalled while everyone tried to leave in a great all-together rush. Horseface refused to look in their direction. Being stupid, she has a powerful fear of omens. I do not see how she and Mama can be sisters. At Christmas, when our family joins
Aunt Martha Horseface’s, they barely speak. It is uncomfortable to huddle together, sharing the book of Christmas Carols Ancient & Modern—purchased in London, as Barkface never fails to remind us. The evening is always the same: we harmonize badly and my cousin has a fit.
Already I could swear that walking is all I have ever done in my sixteen years of life. Pinchface complains all the time that her feet hurt. Her mosquito voice makes me want to clamp my mouth shut and bear any kind of pain that comes my way so as not to sound like her—even though my feet feel like they are being stabbed every time I take a step.
Before we boarded the steamship in St. Louis I had imagined riding and bedding down in the wagon, but it is cluttered with possessions. Hardly any are my possessions, of course.
Reached Alcove Spring in full. Had preaching from warty Pastor Kemple and all the fresh water we could drink. Those already too tired and footsore (Pinchface and friends) will not stop chattering about ending the journey here and making a go of homesteading not two hundred miles from Independence. So much for Pastor Kemple’s diviiiiiiiiine imperative to civiliiiize the heathens—a phrase he cannot possibly get through even the shortest bit of sermonizing without harping on endlessly. As the normal people among us crave a hot supper, Kemple drools at the idea of giving Bibles to Indians.
In grudging fairness to Pinchface, this is an agreeable location, with grassy plains sloping to make a narrow brook fed by a waterfall. Mama would call it idyllic. But to give up so soon would be more than Barkface could bear. My uncle seems to fancy himself a true frontiersman, though he is a banker from St. Louis.
Since I am now overflowing with grudging fairness, I will admit that Barkface did make me smile today. There are twins who are always running up and down the line, a boy and a girl, pale as milk. Here come the Swedish ghosts, he said, which was exactly like something Papa would say.
And now with a heavy heart I feel I must complete this circle of kindness. Horseface is not entirely stupid. Here is a list of things she is clever at:
Mending bonnets. You can never have too many bonnets on a trip like this.
It turns out that I love tobacco. First it is harsh on the throat and feels like dry spiced air in the lungs and then and then AND THEN! The dizziness takes me on a little journey. I feel content and relaxed but not weary. I will not say who gave me the cheroot in case someone reads this, as I do not want him to catch the wrath of the council that has emerged to take charge and make the men feel like they’re doing more than just following a well-worn trail across wide-open flatlands. Barkface is on it, of course.
My cousin’s face and demeanor match those of a weasel. And she takes every opportunity to let the older boys and younger men of our party hear her buzzing insect voice sing—naturally—“Blue Tail Fly”and other songs well outside of her range. The worst of it is that they seem to listen with rapt attention as if she were actually blessed with the ability to carry a tune. I can’t imagine why—she is not pretty to begin with and anyway, the trail does none of us any favors.
I am thinking of asking the council for a change in guardianship. Surely Barkface will see that this is to both our benefits.
In happier news, every family that packed the contents of their entire house into their wagon has had to lighten their load. For us this meant abandoning a ridiculous cast-iron stove and a thousand other things from Horseface’s kitchen in St. Louis. I was mostly bored by the whole affair but perked up when I watched her pull a basket of fine porcelain dolls from Pinchy’s hands and deposit them alongside the trail.
By the time I was twelve, dolls were no longer special to me, and every Christmas I learned to compose my face in such a way as to fake my surprise and delight at unwrapping another one. I had always thought my cousin to be practicing the very same kind of pretending. But it seems that I was wrong.
What is she still doing with them? And so many? We could have been sleeping in the wagon this whole time.
Following the Platte River is tiresome. It should not be too great an effort to relieve the dullness of the trail by traveling a few miles out of our way to get a better look at the magnificent rocks in the distance, but the last two days have been nothing but rain, rain, rain.
It began with a prickly tingling against our skin. I say “our” because I was walking a few steps behind Horseface and Pinchy, and I could see them scratching their arms, the banker’s dainty wife and daughter, clawing away like dogs with fleas. I fought the urge to do the same by clasping my wrist behind my back. There was a general stoppage of movement, as the oxen seemed all at once to curl up and cower. I am not overly familiar with the habits of oxen, but surely they do not usually act so craven? By this time everyone was gazing upward, so I did as well.
It looked as if a great spike were being driven into the sky from some hidden place, its sharp point stretching the blue expanse until the pressure became too great and broke the skin of the air. Pop! Dark clouds squeezed through the hole and poured like oil across the sky. What had been blue not a minute before was now a sea of gray. Without thunder or lightning (without preamble, Mama would say) the rain began to fall.
We had summer storms in St. Louis, of course, but nothing like this.
Sketches I have seen of Chimney Rock make it look as if God pinched a great stone with His fingers and dragged it up from the earth to form a giant anthill. But even through the rain, which has been falling all day and all night, I can see that drawings do not truthfully capture it.
The top of the rock is not at all shaped like a chimney. It is leaning over, as if the hand of God has tapped it and left it to sit in the earth at an angle. I wonder how all the sketches could be wrong? Perhaps we are simply looking at it from too great a distance.
Landmarks along the trail make me think of a great and never ending circle of people winding their way around the earth. I feel a strange kind of sadness for all those who have seen it before us and jealousy for all those who are coming after us (hopefully Mama and Papa, soon enough). Pinchface and I have planned a trip to Chimney Rock when the rain lets up. So great is my desire to be close to it that I have agreed to accompany my cousin on an outing (along with the three or four boys who have taken to following her everywhere). We are going to carve our names.
When the rain lets up—
The words I wrote yesterday have become a joke. When the rain lets up we shall go to see Chimney Rock. When the rain lets up we shall have something hot to eat. When the rain lets up we shall be able to walk up and down the line, and by separating, once more tolerate each other’s company. The storm has forced a dismal togetherness upon us all.
Nebraska is a dreary place.
June 7, night
No one can sleep. I write in the damp, dark closeness of the wagon. The storm is too much for even the most well-oiled coverings, and our belongings are soaked. There is surely not a dry inch anywhere in our party. Barkface bails out our little home with a bucket, as if it is a sinking rowboat rather than a wagon. The trail is mud along the banks of the Platte, and progress has been slowed by terrified oxen and broken axles. God has so far spared our wagon but, oddly enough, Pastor Kemple’s was not so lucky. Fort Laramie is still weeks away. I am as anxious as I was during the DISGRACE, and find that writing my feelings does nothing to soothe my nerves. Complaining at length about everything seems to work wonders for Pinchy—I should try that for a while, as it is trouble enough to keep these pages from smearing. I have started keeping this diary inside an empty tobacco pouch, which at least helps a little bit. If the storm does not end tomorrow, I do not know what we will do.
Overnight we have become a city of wagons stuck in the mud. The buffalo have begun to venture close. They are suffering from some sickness that we could not see from a distance. Staggering like fat hairy drunkards on all fours, they mill about the edge of our stalled party. Hundreds of them turning this way and that, butting heads in a swarm, their movements more like bees than lumbering beasts.
Maybe Kemple should distribute his Bibles to them—someone has to civilize the creatures, or at least drive them away.
Bright side: my blistered feet are getting a rest.
God help us.
We are surrounded by dead birds. They are falling from the sky.
Pinchface Sara Jane woke to a stone-dead hawk inches from her face and has not stopped shaking. Impossible as it sounds, I believe the storm is getting worse. Barkface Uncle John believes it too, I can tell from his manner. For the first time on this journey I believe I am seeing him scared.
I have passed beyond soaking into some other place where I cannot remember what being dry feels like. My hair is stuck to my scalp and my dress itches and the wagon smells of rot, or else the rain itself does.
I hope to salvage these pages. Eventually the storm will let up and we will move, and when we reach Oregon I will be glad for this account. What a story to tell Mama and Papa one day, sitting around the warm hearth of our new home, hot cocoa steaming in our mugs.
The buffalo loll about our mud city. Some nose around our wagons with a sort of meek curiosity. One was tame enough for
Pinc Sara Jane to pet the matted fur on his head. The big oxen are frail and unwilling to move. The horses have run off. Some people are following their lead and digging out to turn back east, or just abandoning their wagons altogether to trudge away. I am growing accustomed to the rain and the strange behavior of the animals and the dread that has crept into everyone’s voices. Only a fool would be in good spirits, but there is a newfound excitement inside me that I cannot seem to quell. At least we are not dying of thirst.
Uncle John talks of Laramie as if it is right around the bend and not two weeks’ hard travel in good weather. He does this to comfort Aunt Martha, who has a rash on her chest and neck and must be kept dry above all else.
I have been sitting with Sara Jane to take her mind off her mother’s condition for as long as I can but our bodies huddled in the damp wagon are more than I can bear for very long. Still, I try, for she is suddenly in a bad way and needs company. The thoughts that run through my head are ugly spirals that I cannot seem to push away: Where are your admirers now, Sara Jane? Go ahead and sing, and see if they come rushing out of their own wagons! Are we to be friends now because there is no one else? In Oregon will you pretend not to know who I am?
The whole time we huddled, her eyes looked right through me to somewhere very far away, St. Louis or the Willamette Valley or a place known only to her. Then she began to scratch at her arm, digging her nails into her skin until I held her fast.
A tangled nest of vines appeared overnight at the river’s edge, and has started creeping into our camp to overtake the wheels of the stalled wagons, twisting and braiding through the spokes. I believe the stinking rain is nourishing the plants.
The marks in Sara Jane’s skin where she dug with her nails are sprouting tough fibers like a potato left too long in a cupboard. They are raw and bleed when picked at. She rocks back and forth.
A confession: I lied. Sara Jane has always been beautiful. Now her bright blue eyes are dull, and the perfect little ringlets of brown hair that bounced so daintily along her shoulders are limp and sodden. My straight hair fares much better. God forgive me: I cannot stop these thoughts. When I comfort my cousin I swear I am not being false. It is not the same as unwrapping a doll and beaming with a smile I have practiced in the mirror. I want to tell Uncle John and Aunt Martha that I am doing the best I can. I want to tell them that I know they have been doing their best for me. But instead I write it down.
I wish I could see my face. I know something inside me is wrong.
June 12, later
Our wagon is changing. What few possessions we have not thrown out have been taken up by it. A yellow blouse of Aunt Martha’s is becoming part of the wooden planks of the floor and the wood grain has, in turn, infected the blouse. Rapping my knuckles against the soft fabric is like knocking on a door. Sara Jane is changing too, though I tell her she looks fine and mask my horror as best I can (now I unwrap the doll). Brown fur is springing up around the fleshy potato buds on her arm. She moans and thrashes in her sleep. The vines grow so fast.
Sara Jane’s eyes are two black pools. Uncle John says he will go find help. The camp is silent but for the drumming of the rain. Uncle John never goes anywhere. He never stops holding Aunt Martha’s hand.
Eating soaked pork and drenched bacon has soured our stomachs, except for Sara Jane, who does not eat. I can barely bring myself to look at her arm, which is furry and matted with blood from the constant picking. Her eyes are dark mirrors. There is no more white, no more blue. They never close. They watch me.
Earlier I stepped down from our wagon to look for food and saw that the spokes of the wheels were braided with vines like Mama’s garden trellis. One glimpse at our oxen and I turned away, sickened. I tried to will myself to become as thin as the air. This was my poisoned thinking: if I could flit between the drops, and by this wispy movement stay dry, I could avoid the fate of the oxen. But the rain was everywhere, blanketing the plains, and I remained in my body, helpless to escape it. I swear at that moment I could feel the particular splash of each tiny droplet, and the sensation drove me mad. I could not deny the urge any longer. I scratched and scratched.
I began to scream for Mama and Papa. Of course no one answered. Buffalo drifted between wagons overtaken by vines. The world was made of gray and black smears. I had never before realized the power of a sunny day to give shape to things. I begged God to make the rain stop and promised never to take His days for granted again.
Hunger drove me onward. Inside an empty wagon I found a dry loaf wrapped in oilcloth. Back in our own wagon Uncle John and I ate, and even Aunt Martha had a little bit. I tried to share mine with Sara Jane but she had taken to mumbling to herself and digging at her scalp. Her hair is falling out in great bunches now.
In St. Louis, Mama and I had a window box full of geraniums. When it rained we would give each flower a voice. There was one she did, a proper Englishwoman’s accent (“Why yes, jolly good rain . . .”) that would send me into hysterics. That is the only thing I can think of to lift our spirits, and yet I cannot bring myself to say a word.
One of the buffalo crashed through our wagon, splintering wood and shredding vines. A great monster, its head massive and snorting, its horns deadly sharp and swinging, was suddenly in our midst. The tumbling and the noise and the terror made the event a haze, but I saw John and Martha fall through the ruined floor, unwilling or unable to disentangle themselves by letting go of each other’s hands. There was no way I could get to them. The monster was between us. I
did not had no choice but to abandon them turn my attention to my cousin.
Sara Jane gazed at the animal gently, her big black eyes old and sad and beastly, while the buffalo looked back at her with small girlish eyes as blue as the summer sky. The creature had a hint of a bonnet atop its head, gingham patterns among matted fur, and
hanging flaps of more grotesque changes I cannot bring myself to set down. I grabbed my cousin with both arms and pulled her away from the collapsing entrance.
We spilled into the muck—it was as if the riverbank had spread for miles beneath the camp, so swampy was the earth. My terror was mindless enough for me to hoist us both to our feet without a second thought and drag Sara Jane in blind flight away from the wagon. I steered us past dark clumps of vines and the shadowed forms of beasts until we stumbled and slid and fell and landed next to a gray ox that had fared even worse than the others. It was as if the poor animal’s head had been picked apart by a knitting needle from the inside out. Brains and bits of skull were still attached, but by the thinnest of threads. As I struggled to find purchase in the mud for both of us, the animal’s dangling eyes stared up from their place next to its tongue and regarded me.
Once I had found my footing it did not take me but a second to pull Sara Jane into the nearest wagon. This shelter was dangerously tilted and halfway implanted into the ground, but at least it gave me some kind of relief from those eyes. Sara Jane let out a soft contented breath, as if she had just arrived home after a long day’s work.
June 15, later
At first I failed to notice the dark wooden crucifixes that seem to have bled into the grain of the wood, else I might have recognized the wagon right away as Pastor Kemple’s. He was nowhere to be found. His stack of Bibles had formed a soft clump of mushy pages. The bindings squiggled like blue veins through the soaked canvas.
After we caught our breath I examined Sara Jane. Her face was blanched as if by the sun. Her eyes had shrunk to little glass marbles. In her furry arms she held one of her dolls, which had leached its alabaster coloring into her skin. I recognized it as the gift Mama and I had given her last Christmas. Sara Jane had been hoarding it close to her body, hiding it from Aunt Martha. The doll’s own fine dress hung in rags, thin strips that had wormed their way into Sara Jane’s flesh. Plaid patterns swam beneath her skin. The top of the doll’s head disappeared into her chest like the point of an Indian spear. Little bare feet dangled in her lap.
Sara Jane began to move her bloodless lips but no words came forth. I did not know if she could even see me, but I knew what it was like to have your parents taken away and I (truly!) did not want her to feel that she was alone. I put my arms around her, and without thinking admitted that I was kissed once in St. Louis by Jack Dreiser and feared he was going to ask me to marry him. I told her stories about the DISGRACE that I had never told anybody else: how they took Papa away in shackles and how Mama broke the picture frames in the parlor.
Sara Jane began to whisper in a peculiar rhythm. At first I thought she was praying, but there was a lilt to her words. A melody struggled through. I strained to hear, and recognized a line from our caroling: oh tidings of comfort and joy.
Spent the night in Pastor Kemple’s wagon, clutching this diary. At first light (which is now barely a lifting of the darkness) I woke to find it attached to my left hand, its leather binding stuck fast to my palm. I was afraid of it creeping farther into my body but I was also afraid of prying it off lest it tear open a wound. So I let it be. It does not hurt. Now I write these words on paper and skin—I cannot tell the difference. It all simply feels like me.
I assured Sara Jane that we would find her parents and that we would walk to Oregon if we had to. I felt possessed with a fierce and unfamiliar desire to make it to the Willamette Valley. I talked of the Oregon boys we would meet.
I believe that Sara Jane has gone blind. Whenever she falls silent, I ask her to sing for us, and she does.
Pastor Kemple was well provisioned with dry goods in sealed containers that have not warped too badly. He has tobacco but of course there is no way to make a flame. The vines have overtaken many of the neighboring wagons whole. The rain is dense and rotten. I cannot find Uncle John and Aunt Martha. If no one else is going to lead us out of here then we will do it, Sara Jane and I, side by side. I will build her a cart if I have to and we will go to Chimney Rock first. I write this on my stomach and up under my left arm. We are leaving. Tomorrow is our day. My heart feels like it will burst. Tomorrow we will carve our names in Chimney Rock. Tomorrow we go west.
I woke to a world as bright as I had ever seen it and crawled outside, where the shock of the light was such that I sank to the ground. I do not believe that I really fell unconscious, as my heart was pounding with excitement. And yet for a moment I dreamt of the sun streaming in through the curtains of my bedroom in Oregon, a bedroom that did not yet exist. A summer morning! Time enough to lay in bed. I was trying to make myself get up, to go outside and feel the sun, because nothing lasts forever. And Sara Jane too—she was supposed to go outside with me. But I could not move from my bed. The sheets were warm and dry and clean. I burrowed under the covers and when I finally did open my eyes, I had calmed down and could take stock of my surroundings. I was sitting in the sun-baked mud. My back was against the spokes of the wagon wheel. In the distance Chimney Rock stood straight up like it appears in the drawings, nudged back into place.
Examining myself in the glare of the sunlight brings the damage of the rain into focus. Along my entire left side it is not clear where the pages of this diary end and my skin begins. The leather binding has spread from the tips of my fingers to my shoulders. Words snake around my body like the tattoos of a sailor.
Our ruined camp sits drying and steaming in the sun. People are beginning to move about. Men are already hacking at vines. If we are all of us changed then so be it. We will make our home in Oregon just like anyone else. And if our new neighbors in the Willamette Valley wish to know what happened to us, they need only ask, and I will offer myself up for the reading.
“The Oregon Trail Diary of Willa Porter” copyright © 2013 by Andy Marino
Art copyright © 2013 by Wesley Allsbrook