Orchids in the Snow
By Rosa Lee Lloyd
Synopsis: Sharon Haskell marries Sam Wynter, an engineer, and plans to go with him to make their home in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the wedding reception Sharon’s Aunt Jewel catches the bride’s bouquet.
It was almost noon when Sharry and Sam arrived in Anchorage the following Wednesday. The airport was buzzing with activity as they left the luxurious nonstop airliner that had brought them from Seattle in less than seven hours.
The transparent blue-spring darkness had faded, and the sun loomed brilliantly above the eastern summits.
Today was June fifteenth, the beginning of summer in Alaska. Every living thing seemed vital and full of energy.
Sharry noticed how friendly the people were, smiling and greeting passengers with “Hi, there, fellow, glad you’re home again.”
“They’re just like us!” she said to Sam. “Some wear hats and some don’t. Oh, look! There’s an Eskimo.”
“Why, sure!” Sam laughed back. “You can see anything up here. Remember McFarland told us that it’s high time we people from the United States should be informed about the real Alaska. It’s a great, big, fabulous, lovable country, and well worth the seven million dollars we paid for it in 1867.”
“Look at the dogs!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never seen so many dogs anywhere.”
Who takes care of them, she wondered, watching a little blond wirehair with swollen eyes limp forsakenly past them as though looking for someone.
Sam had already made arrangements for their flight to Fairbanks, but there was time to eat before their plane left.
She held Sam’s arm tightly as they walked toward the Big Hand Cafe that Angus McFarland, one of the airplane passengers, had told them about. She felt safe and secure when she was near Sam. Yes, even though Alaska was just as fascinating as McFarland said it was, there was also something strange about this far north country that almost frightened her. Maybe it was because she hadn’t been away from home before except on summer vacations with her family.
“I wish we had invited McFarland to have luncheon with us,” she said, thinking of the tall lean man who had asked them to drop the “Mister” and call him McFarland. “He is so friendly and humorous. And his position as manager of that big salmon company in Bristol Bay interests me. He knows so much about the faraway places of Alaska. And yet he’s just like one of us.”
“He surely is,” Sam agreed. “He’s a fine man. But he must be lonely up there. His daughter is grown up now, and his wife died when she was only three years old.”
Sharry said, “She’s twenty-one now. My age. He expects her to fly in from Fairbanks to meet him here for a visit. She’s taking home economics at the University there. I surely want to meet her. I must make new friends – now that I’ve left all my old ones.”
Sharry hadn’t meant to let her voice drop wistfully. She didn’t want Sam to know she was homesick already.
He did not speak for a moment.
“I mean – I’ll bet she is a nice girl,” she added quickly.
“McFarland adores her. You can see that when he tells what a good student she is.”
“I wonder why he hasn’t married again, Sam?” she asked him. “He’s a good Latter-day Saint. He goes to Utah twice a year for conference. You’d think he’d meet someone he’d like to marry.”
Sam nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe he hasn’t met the right one,” he said. “Meeting girls at church or parties, dancing and having fun is all right, but asking someone to marry you and live in a place like Bristol Village is quite a different story. It means a woman has to love a man above all others. It means sacrifice and privation and loneliness for the life she has been used to and the dear ones she has left behind. McFarland told me a little about himself and his work – enough so I can fit the pieces together. I’m just lucky, Sharry, to have you – love me – enough.”
His voice stumbled and Sharry pressed his arm close to her side.
“I do love you, Sam. Enough for anything. But Fairbanks isn’t like Bristol Bay up there in the Aleutian Islands. McFarland says Bristol Village is the tailpiece of the world – the storybook land of Gulliver’s Travels. Its population is mostly Aleuts and Eskimos with very few white people. That’s different from Fairbanks,” she assured him, confidently.
Sam did not answer. Suddenly he quickened his step.
“Look! There’s McFarland on the corner. Let’s ask him to eat with us.”
McFarland was standing on the curb as though waiting for someone. He was holding a small dog in his arms. It was the little blond wirehair that Sharry had noticed before.
He accepted their invitation gladly, on one condition.
“I’ll pay for my own meal,” he laughed. “You kids will have to learn to go Dutch. Everybody in Alaska totes his own load. I learned that when I came here as a boy in 1930. Anchorage was just a little railroad town then. Now it’s the hub of aviation up here.”
His eyes went over the crowds of people on the sidewalks, the busy taxicabs, the up-to-date automobiles.
“Anchorage has plane schedules to all parts of the country. These crowds will get worse, now that we’re a State. Watch the country grow.”
He looked tenderly at the little dog he was carrying.
“I’ll park this little fellow and get him some chow while we’re having dinner. Most of these cafes have accommodations for your dog for about ten per cent of what they charge people. Are you sure you want to eat at the Big Hand?” he questioned. “Anchorage has some real ritzy eating places – everything from wild hen under glass to finger bowls. How about one of those places?”
Sharry shook her head. “Let’s try the Big Hand,” she said, thinking that would please Sam. She noticed that he was looking carefully at the little dog, then back at McFarland, whose pine-green eyes had a pensive yearning look this morning as he watched Sam and Sharry.
He was a good-looking man in his middle forties; his face was long, with high, bony planes and his shoulders were strong and loose and strained his black woolen shirt. His hair was still dark, with sprinkles of gray at his temples. There was a hunger and loneliness about him that touched Sharry’s heart.
“Is this your dog?” Sam asked him as they neared the café.
“No, just picked him up,” McFarland answered. “Poor little guy looked lonesome and homesick. So I guess he’s mine if nobody claims him. My daughter Marie loves dogs. Her plane is due soon. She’ll come to the Big Hand.”
“The dog’s eyes need attention,” Sam said in his straightforward way. “And that bite on his throat does, too.”
“Yes, he’s been in a fight,” McFarland agreed. “These little fellows have it tough up here unless they belong to someone. Dogs are just like people. They have to belong to someone to be happy. I’ll ask them to clean him up before he gets his grub.”
Sharry looked at Sam, happy that she belonged to him. She had so much to be grateful for, she was almost ashamed of the homesickness that nagged at her every time she remember how far away she was from home.
Suddenly she felt something warm and wet on her cheek. The little dog in McFarland’s arms had bent his head toward her and touched her cheek with his tongue.
“Well! What about that!” McFarland laughed. “He’s taken a shine to you, Sharry.”
She stopped and cuddled him in her arms. He nuzzled down contentedly.
“Let’s name him Nuzzle,” she said. “It just suits him.”
“It sure does!” he agreed. “Nuzzle it is!”
Sam was watching with an indulgent grin.
The café was crowded when they entered. People were waiting for tables, so while McFarland parked the dog, Sharry and Sam held a place in line.
“Smells good in here,” McFarland said when he came back to them. “This place is noted for broiled muskrat and all wild game meals. You should try some, Sharry. Get used to it. It’s one of the main meat dishes up there in Fairbanks and all through that country where you’ll be working, Sam. Most beef is too high-priced for ordinary use, unless you’re a millionaire.”
Sharry pulled a face. She would rather starve, she thought.
“It’s as tender as young pork,” McFarland went on. “Delicate flavor, too. That’s what they’re cooking now on the broiler.”
Sam touched her hand, understandingly. “There will be other kinds of food,” he told her.
But when they were seated and she looked at the menu, she wasn’t so sure about it.
“How about some caribou or reindeer or porcupine?” he suggested, teasing her.
“Porcupine is a luxury up here,” McFarland told them. “We save them for the fellow who is stranded. We don’t hunt them commercially or just for sport. Porcupine meat saved my life one time. I was stranded alone in the Talkeetas without firearms or a knife of any kind. I had to find something I could kill with my snowshoe and a porcupine was the only thing. So I value them.”’
Sam asked the waitress if they had anything as ordinary as ham and eggs, explaining that his wife didn’t like wild game.
“I’d like grapefruit, too,” Sharry added.
“We have ham and eggs but no grapefruit,” she replied. “We can’t get it often and when we do it’s airborne from outside. We have to charge high prices for it. Our wild berries are very good, though.”
And they are very good, Sharry thought later as she ate the luscious, crunchy berries that reminded her of Utah blueberries with a dash of spice. Sam had ordered a caribou steak and seemed to be enjoying it.
They were nearly finished when McFarland, looking surprised, stood up, excused himself, and hurried toward a small, oldish woman who had just entered the café. She seemed lost and bewildered until she saw him, then her weatherbeaten face crinkled into a luminous smile, as though she had found what she had been searching for.
“Is she a native?” Sharry whispered to Sam. “Her hair is still black, although her face is very old.”
Sam looked puzzled.
“No – I think she’s a white woman. But I’m not sure.”
Sharry was fascinated with her appearance. Her hair was parted in the middle with a single braid down her back. She wore a skirt made of white hide with white mukluks to match. Her blouse was a loose parka of the same material, heavily beaded, and was, no doubt, Sharry concluded, her very best dress. Everything about her, even the white mukluks, was spotlessly clean.
McFarland, after a short conversation with her, escorted her to their table with his arm protectingly around her shoulders.
“This is my dear friend Susan Elge from Bristol Village,” he said to them. “She flew here last week to bring her husband to the hospital.”
“I have looked here for you every day at noon,” she told him. “Herman asks for you. He needs your encouragement, your prayers.”
McFarland patted her shoulder, consolingly. “I’m sorry I’ve been away so long, Susan. I meant to return right after April conference, but I got tied up with a big salmon deal in Seattle.”
Susan said, “It is good you are here now. You will stay in Anchorage – until we know …?”
“I will stay, Susan,” he answered, simply.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
Sharry felt a vibrant courage in Susan’s voice, although her thin, toilworn hands were laced together, and her dark eyes were stricken with anxiety.
“You must eat,” McFarland said, kindly.
“Only soup. Reindeer soup. Will you order for me while I wash my hands?”
After she had left the table, McFarland told them about Susan. She had been born in Alaska of white parents but had been to college in California. There she had met a Swedish fisherman, Herman Elge, married him, and gone with him to brave the wild frozen barrenness of Bristol Village. They had reared one daughter, Zora, and a son, Swenson, who was now in New York studying to be a doctor. Herman and Susan and several other white people in the village were loyal Latter-day Saints, meeting together in each others’ homes. For many years Susan had been an angel of mercy to everyone who needed her. It was Susan who had helped McFarland rear his baby girl, Marie, after the death of her mother, and it was Susan who had nursed McFarland through pneumonia after he was stranded in a boat for three hours in a violent storm on the Bay.
“Her daughter lives in Sitka since her marriage,” he went on. “Her son has six months longer in his residency before he can come home. Susan wonders if he will want to live in Bristol Village after New York. Alaskans always worry about that when their children go outside for any length of time. Susan has given much to make life easier for others.” His voice was very gentle. “Now she needs our love and our help. Herman is very ill – lung surgery – tomorrow …”
* * *
Sharry saw a young girl hurrying toward them, her eyes shining.
“Daddy!” she called gaily. “Oh, Daddy, you’re here!”
“Baby!” McFarland folded her in his big arms, lifting her off her feet. “Look, dear, meet my new friends, Sam and Sharry Wynter. They’re going to live in Fairbanks. This is my daughter Marie.”
“Oh, hello!” she laughed, and Sharry thought she had never seen a jollier girl. Although she was not pretty, she was bright and wholesome, and her laugh bubbled with joy. Her straight, plain, brown hair was cut short like a boy’s, and her face was splashed with freckles. She brought the sunshine with her. It was in her clear blue eyes, on her freckled skin, in her voice. Sharry liked her at once. She wore a straight, dark blue skirt with a white collarless blouse. A light blue sweater hung carelessly from her shoulders. The way the girls dress at home, Sharry thought, feeling overdressed in her light gray linen traveling suit that was part of her trousseau. Her own elegant little hat seemed pretentious in the presence of this natural-looking, bare-headed girl.
“I wanted to meet you at the airport,” Marie said to McFarland, “but my plane was twenty minutes late on account of the head wind. Then I had to check my bag and park my dog before I came here.”
McFarland explained that he had bought Marie a small plane of her own, which was not uncommon in Alaska.
“Airplanes are the best way to travel up here,” he went on. “There are more airplanes in Alaska, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Everyone uses them, even the primitive people in remote regions like Bristol Village where I live.”
Sharry winced. Coming up here by air had been a new and bewildering experience for her. How would she ever accustom herself to air travel?
When the waitress brought Susan’s soup and put it on the table before her empty chair, McFarland answered Marie’s questioning eyes. Quietly he told her that Susan Elge was here in Anchorage and of her trouble.
“Dear Mama Sue,” Marie said, lovingly. “Uncle Herman must get well, Daddy. He has always been so strong – the strongest man in the village, except you – and Swen. Uncle Herman loves music and good books. We all need him …”
Her head came up with a little jerk. “Mama Sue must send for Swen,” she said. “He is a doctor now – a new doctor with all the newest methods.”
McFarland shook his head. “You let Mama Sue decide that, Marie,” he said firmly. “We will just stand by when she needs us.”
“But we must help her the way she helped us!” she remonstrated.
“I know, dear, but not with advice until we are asked,” he said, resolutely.
When the waitress came again, Marie ordered a caribouger and French fries. McFarland smiled at Sharry.
“They are like your hamburgers, only made of ground caribou meat. Very good. You’ll like them.”
Sharry did not answer. Sam was looking at her, and she read the message in his eyes: they should leave before Susan returned so they would not intrude.
“Our plane leaves in fifteen minutes,” Sam said, standing up. “We’re mighty glad we met you fine people, our first friends in Alaska. Be sure to look us up in Fairbanks, Marie, as soon as you return. We’ll stay at the Brideway Hotel until we get a house.”
Marie’s eyes widened in surprise as she looked up at them.
“You mean you don’t already have a house to go to? Oh, no! Don’t tell me that! Fairbanks is running over with people. They’re living in tents and wanigans, even under old bridges. They should have warned you!”
Sharry felt her throat tighten. She looked at Sam. His jaw had squared off, determinedly.
“We’ll be okay,” he said, steadily. “Sharry and I will be okay anywhere in the world together, even if we do have to live under a bridge!”
Sharry heard the honk and hum of the traffic outside, the whirr of a huge plane in the sky overhead, the bark of a dog in the distance, and the quickened beat of her own heart. This was Alaska, thousands of miles from home.
“Take my key!” Marie was opening her bag, writing on a piece of paper. “Here’s my address. Use my apartment – please do!”