Orchids in the Snow
By Rosa Lee Lloyd
Synopsis: Sharry and Sam Wynter, newlyweds, on their way to Fairbanks, Alaska, meet Angus McFarland, a widower from Bristol Bay in the Aleutian Islands. In Anchorage they are introduced to McFarland’s daughter Marie, and also to Susan Elge of Bristol Bay who has brought her husband Herman to Anchorage for an operation. Arriving in Fairbanks, Sharon meets Sister Jensen, President of the branch Relief Society, who shows them her log cabin that is for rent.
Sharry and Sam moved into the cabin one week later. Rachel Jensen stood in the doorway, looking from one corner to the other with a kindly, satisfied smile.
“It’s a miracle,” she said. “As though someone had touched a magic wand. Only I know how hard you two have worked. Where did you get that lounge cover? I’ve never seen a crazy quilt look so elegant before.”
“Mama sent it air express,” Sharry said. “She thought it was worth a little extra postage to get it here for our first day in the cabin. Mama is like that. She knows just when to give and when to save.”
“It brightens the whole place,” Sister Jensen said. “It’s just perfect with those pale green walls and the black lacquered furniture. I haven’t seen a quilt like this for years. I had forgotten how unique they are.”
She touched the colorful triangles of fabric feather-stitched together with pale blue twist.
“My grandmother designed it,” Sharry explained. “Mama and Aunt Jewel helped her. Every piece is a memory. This cream-colored brocade was mama’s wedding dress – this heavy white linen piece was Aunt Jewel’s first nursing cap. The red velvet was my first formal – it was such a darling dress – and here’s Kenny’s Scout shirt and Daddy’s blue striped tie …”
Her voice trembled and she bit her lip.
“I’m ashamed now that I see it’s such a colorful treasure – I really didn’t appreciate how much love and effort went into it when I was growing up. I thought it was out-of-date – sort of old-fashioned.”
Sister Jensen nodded.
“I know, dear. Sometimes we’re so close to all the really precious things of life we take them for granted. But we must learn to appreciate every little thing as we go along. Each day I ask God to help men see the beauty all around me, not to waste my time wishing for something different. I refuse to be a woman who wishes her life away. There’s plenty to be done right where the Lord has placed us.”
She stood up, smoothing her fresh linen dress.
“This is my visiting day, Sharry. Will you come with me?”
“There’s so much to do here,” Sharry objected. “Maybe next week.”
“A change will do you good,” Sister Jensen said. “You and Sam have worked like beavers – scrubbing, painting, patching cracks. I’m so proud of you. I want you to meet the people in the branch who are shut-ins. We can spare an hour or two for them.”
“But dinner!” Sharry protested. “I have to build a fire in the range. Sam gets so hungry.”
“Have dinner with Oscar and me,” she coaxed. “I planned on it. Oscar brought a roast home – a real beef pot roast. He knows you aren’t used to our wild game yet.”
Sharry smiled. “You’ve been so nice to us,” she said. “I told Mama in my last letter how much you have helped me and encouraged me. I’m so truly grateful to you. I couldn’t stay out here alone all day if I didn’t know you were in the house across the bridge.”
“We help each other,” she answered gently. “I am lonely for my daughter. Having you and Sam here has been a blessing.”
Sharry looked at the clock on the shelf above the old rock fireplace. Almost noon.
“I’ll fix us a sandwich,” she said. “Then we’ll go.”
Sister Jensen’s car was a bright salmon pink with a white top. Sharry was delighted with it.
“I told Oscar I wanted something gay,” she laughed as they drove away. “He agreed with me. I’m so fond of color. Look at the flowers, Sharry. Everything is in bloom this time of year. Flowers and vegetables of all kinds – even lettuce and radishes. We really have to make hay while the sun shines in this country. There isn’t a moment to lose in June or July. We preserve and can and store away carrots, parsnips, and potatoes. It’s our busy time.”
“But the winter,” Sharry said. “I dread the winter when there isn’t any sunshine. How can you live in the long darkness?”
Sister Jensen didn’t answer. She was busy parking the car in front of a little frame house. Most of the houses in Fairbanks were frame and small, Sharry had noticed.
“This is where the Billings live,” Sister Jensen said as she rang the doorbell. “You’ll like Mary Billings.”
Minutes went by before the door was opened by a slender, fragile-looking woman with the loveliest hair Sharry had ever seen. It was a white cloud around her face.
“Is it Rachel?” she asked. “I’ve been hoping you would come today, Rachel. Come in.”
“I’ve brought a friend,” Rachel said. “Sharon Wynter, the little bride who is living in our cabin.”
“The bride!” Sister Billings said as she led the way carefully into the living room. “Tell me, Rachel, what does she look like. Describe her for me. I want to know everything.”
Sharry caught her breath. Mary Billings was blind!
“Well, now,” Sister Jensen laughed as she sat down in a rocker opposite Sharry. “She’s not very tall, Mary. About five three, I’d say. Her measurements might be thirty-three, thirty-two, thirty-five. Her hair is black and her eyes are brown. She has a sweet mouth – especially when she smiles. I like her smile – it’s like a light turned on.”
Sharry’s lips curved. Was Rachel going to mention that she pouted, too?
“How is she dressed?” Mary wanted to know.
“In a blue linen skirt and a white blouse,” Rachel answered.
“No sweater!” Mary exclaimed. “She’ll freeze, even if it is June. You take a sweater with you, Sharon. Wherever you go in this country you need a sweater. The least breeze brings the bitter cold off the glaciers. Oh, Rachel, I was thinking today about Ada Hammond’s garden. She took me over there yesterday. Her yard is a picture. I did enjoy it.”
Sharry and Rachel looked at each other. Mary spoke as if she had actually seen the garden.
She went on, “Ada has a Talisman rose her niece sent air express from Portland. She planted it on the sunny side of her porch. And those bulbs she planted last year have bloomed on each side of the path, red and yellow. I love the summer with the fresh leafy smell of growing things. The air is so rich with flavor of beauty you can almost sip it.”
There was a breathless pause. “You know me, Rachel,” Mary said at last. “I love the winter, too. The frosty air has a certain tang you can’t find anywhere else in the world. As I told my husband George, life is so interesting.”
Mary turned in her chair so she could face Sharry.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said. “What have you done to that old cabin?”
Sharry described everything in detail so Mary could picture it.
“My husband is a mining engineer,” she added. “He is always looking for pretty rocks and stones; even pebbles under water interest him. So last night he built a corner cabinet, then he lacquered it black like the table and chairs. It’s real attractive. My mother sent a beautiful old quilt to cover the lounge. It’s quite colorful.”
“I’m sure it is!” Mary agreed. “I can imagine how pretty it is. As soon as George has time we’ll be over. But carpenters like George are really busy with all the building that’s going on. They work night and day this time of year.”
“We’ll love to have you,” Sharry said. “Anytime.”
When she and Rachel were back in the car, Sharry asked wonderingly, “How does she keep so cheerful and so interesting when she can’t see a thing?”
“She sees with her soul and her heart,” Rachel answered. “She even sees more than the rest of us do because she is so aware of everything and so appreciative of life itself. That’s why I wanted you to meet her before I answered your question about our long winters. Everyone goes through a long winter one way or another. Mary has overcome hers in a wonderful way.”
“She talks like a poet,” Sharry murmured. “I love to listen to her. How long has she lived in Alaska?”
“She came here as a girl,” Rachel answered. “About thirty years ago, I guess. She taught school in a little place way up north of here where the gas fields are now. Then she met George Billings, a young carpenter. After their marriage they traveled with a building crew from one end of Alaska to another. They were in that awful fire outside of Anchorage, in the wooded section, the one where smoke was a dark blanket for miles and lingered for almost a year. There are still traces of it. Engineers were called in to protect the mines. Mary and George were there. She went out to help the injured while George was fighting fire. She was caught in a dynamite explosion. Her sight was destroyed.”
Rachel drew a long breath.
“There isn’t anyone I admire more than Mary Billings,” she continued in a low voice. “She is a light that shines for everyone who knows her. Living in Alaska is not easy for anyone. Women here must be spiritually strong and bravely courageous, as all pioneers have been, and must always be. They are the women who have faith enough to look for orchids in the snow.”
Sharry couldn’t speak because of the lump in her throat. Was she the kind of woman who could live in Alaska, she asked herself, or was she secretly planning to ask Sam not to sign his contract in the spring?
She bent her head because she could not meet Rachel Jensen’s eyes.
“I want you to see this house.” Rachel parked the car in front of a half-finished brick house. They got out of the car and picked their way across the tumbly yard. Building debris was heaped in forsaken piles: bricks, piles of sand, even boxes of window panes.
“This place bothers me,” Rachel said. “I wish they would get the estate settled so they could sell it. So many people need a home. This one is extra nice because it’s brick. Most of our homes are frame, but Milly Cartwright wanted a brick home. Fred had promised her one when they came to Fairbanks from Denver. He was coach at the University before the accident this spring on Harding Lake. the whole family was drowned. Milly and Fred and their three little girls!”
“How terrible!” Sharry gasped, staring at the half-completed house, a symbol of broken lives.
Rachel said, “Everyone in Fairbanks will be happy when this house is finished and people are living in it. It was meant for a happy family.”
“There must be hundreds of people who would buy it,” Sharry said. “Who owns it now?”
Rachel’s brows drew together. “I’m not sure,” she said. “There is some legal controversy because there isn’t a will. Let’s go in. I want you to see it. Milly had such good taste and unusual ideas about a house.”
It was very different from other homes Sharry had seen in Fairbanks.
“This is where the picture window will be,” Rachel explained. “Milly loved to watch the mountains and the sky in wintertime. There is a lovely deep blue haunting magic in the morning. It doesn’t get really dark until after three in the afternoon. Even then it’s beautiful. Milly loved it after she got used to it. She wanted a double fireplace, right here, between this long living room and the den, one on each side of this brick partition. The kitchen and dinette were planned for comfort and utility. These French windows open onto a terrace with a sandpile below for children.”
“It’s just charming!” Sharry said, thinking how perfect a home like this would be for Sam and her. Only she wouldn’t want a permanent home in Alaska, so far away from her folks. And she couldn’t live through months and months without sunshine. They would live on in the cabin until they left Alaska, she firmly decided.
“Shall we go, dear?” Rachel asked, interrupting her reverie.
“Oh, yes,” Sharry answered, following her to the car. “I enjoyed seeing the house. I really did.”
The next month was a busy time for Sharry. She was asked to be organist in the Sunday School and she and Sam were invited on hiking trips and Church picnics. They went to baseball games at night and swam in Harding Lake under the amber light of the midnight sun.
One morning in September, there was no sunshine when Sharry awakened. The world was a somber battleship gray. She ran to the window, trying to penetrate the pale, weird mist. Summer was gone. She could feel the new chill in the air, she could almost taste the frost in the icy wind from the mountains.
She crawled back in bed, trembling, wishing Sam was home. He had been gone three days on an expedition. He couldn’t tell her where he was going.
Sister Jensen was in Nome for a visit with Betty and her husband.
Now it was winter and it was only September, Sharry thought with a heavy sigh. This was full-moon time in Utah. Harvest time. Homesickness was a weight around her heart.
Resolutely she sat up, swinging her feet to the floor. There was no use feeling sorry for herself. She had work to do and she had promised Rachel she would feed and water her canaries every day. She must write to her mother.
Her head came up like a frightened deer as she heard the loud bark of a dog on the porch. Or was it a coyote? Or a wolf, she wondered with sickening dread?
Sharry heard another bark. This time she was sure it was a dog’s bark. Someone was pounding on the front door.
She got to her feet. Fear tightened her throat. Who could it be? Who knew she was alone in this awful darkness?
Trembling, she started for the door.Whatever it was, she had to face it as bravely as she could.