Orchids in the Snow
By Rosa Lee Lloyd
Synopsis: Sharon and Sam Wynter, newlyweds, on their way to Fairbanks, Alaska, from Utah, make many friends, including Angus McFarland, a widower, his daughter Marie, and Susan Elge from 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 rents her a log cabin. Sister Jensen also takes Sharon to visit Mary Billings who is blind. Marie McFarland visits Sharon in Fairbanks, and when Sharon becomes ill and finds that she is expecting a child, she sends to Utah for her Aunt Jewel, a nurse. McFarland brings Jewel in his plane from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
Three weeks later Sharry was feeling so much better she was up and dressed most of the time. Sam was expected home from his trip into the icy Northland.
“Dr. Fillmore thinks you have done remarkably well,” Jewel said, as they sat together in the living room sewing on a fluffy baby quilt.
“It’s because of your good care,” Sharry answered.
“Give Dr. Fillmore credit, too,” Jewel said. “He is an excellent doctor.”
“Oh, he is,” Sharry agreed, her brown eyes twinkling. “And he thinks I have a super excellent nurse. That’s why he comes so often – to see my nurse.”
Jewel’s cheeks pinked up.
“I’m glad he’s been so nice to you,” Sharry went on. “He’s taken you to the best places in Fairbanks. Marie says his home is one of the finest in Central Alaska. Any woman who can interest Dr. Fillmore is real lucky, Marie says.”
Jewel was silent as she stood up, smoothing her apron. Her eyes were sea-green.
“I’ll have to hurry,” she said. “I’m going to luncheon with him today.”
“But it’s only eleven o’clock,” Sharry said, looking at the clock. “There’s loads of time.”
“I want to brush your hair before I leave,” Jewel explained. “You must look your prettiest for Sam. You really need a hair trim. We’ll go up to the beauty shop next week, now that you’re strong enough to go places. In the meantime, I’ll do the trimming job.”
It was a very good job, Sharry thought as she looked in the mirror after Jewel had gone with Dr. Fillmore. Sam would be pleased because she wasn’t so pale and wispy as when he went away. Jewel had brushed her black hair in a shining halo around her face and she was wearing the white quilted robe that Sam liked best. She sat in the big chair before the fireplace with Nuzzle in her lap, as she waited for Sam. The little dog had been a great comfort to her during these long weeks while she had been ill. Sam had remade the doghouse, but Sharry wanted Nuzzle inside the cabin most of the time.
Suddenly Nuzzle lifted his head and barked. Then his tail began to wag as he ran sniffing to the door. A minute later Sam stepped on the porch.
“Anybody home?” he called out gaily.
Sharry ran to meet him, throwing her arms around him. He held her as though he would never let go of her again.
“It’s been a thousand years!” he whispered against her cheek. “A thousand frozen white years!”
“Was it a hard trip?” she questioned.
“Lonesome,” he answered. “I could stand the freezing weather and the job was interesting, but I was so lonesome for you – it seemed forever. Now …” he held her off at arm’s length, looking her over, “you’re up and dressed. You look right perky.”
“I feel well, too,” she assured him.
Sam stooped to pick up Nuzzle, who was whimpering for attention. Then he looked around the cabin with a grateful smile.
“I love this place,” he said. “It’s been great fun to make it livable. I haven’t had a real home before this one. Dad was an engineer, Mother died when I was six. I lived in boarding schools, boys’ clubs, fraternity houses. Then I became an engineer, too, living here and there, any old place.”
He patted Nuzzle, who had cuddled in his arms.
“I’ve never owned a dog before,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve had a real home.”
Sharry swallowed hard. This was Sam’s real home, and she was homesick for another home in a faraway city. What kind of wife was she? she asked herself. She loved him with all her heart, and yet she could not tell him she would make Alaska her real home. Whenever he mentioned the unfinished Gilmore house and how he hoped to save money enough for a down payment when the estate was settled, she always changed the subject.
“Are you hungry?” Sharry asked.
He shook his head.
“I can wait till dinner. Where is everybody?”
He took off his parka and fur cap. His red hair bushed up. Sam’s hair was always a delight to Sharry. All the men he worked with had crew-cuts. So Sam had his crew-cut before he left, but now it had grown into red waves again. She hoped their baby would have Sam’s red hair.
“Aunt Jewel has gone to luncheon with Dr. Fillmore,” she told him.
“Again?” he asked, one eyebrow above the other. “What about McFarland? Or is it true that absence makes the heart grow fonder for the other fellow?”
“She had letters from McFarland every day or two,” Sharry answered.
“You women!” Sam said. “A fellow never knows how he rates. Even when he’s married he wonders what she’s thinking – if she’s happy – what more he can do.”
Sharry followed him to the kitchen where he hung his parka on a hook near the range.
“Sam …” she touched his arm, “you know I love you – and you have made me happy. You’ve done everything you could.”
Sam was facing the wall. She could not see his face. There was a long pause, then he asked, “Did your guitar arrive?”
“Oh, yes. We can both play a little. Marie has a good voice – not trained or anything, but rich and full of life. She’s such fun, Sam. I’m so glad she’s here in Fairbanks.”
“So am I,” he said. “She’s good for you. Let’s get the guitar. I feel like a song, too.”
Sam loved to sing. He and Sharry had worked out a duet by the time Jewel returned at four o’clock. She came breezing in as though she had enjoyed herself. She was having more fun now than she had ever had before.
“It’s almost dark out there,” Jewel laughed. “All the children on their way home from school were romping and playing. They don’t even miss the sunshine.”
“Why should they?” Sam asked. “Kids are kids in any climate. They’re used to the dark.”
“That’s right,” Jewel agreed. “We passed an electric lighted football field, and Dr. Fillmore says that skating on the frozen lakes in this weird darkness is one of the greatest sports up here from freeze-up in the fall to breakup in the spring.”
There was a loud thumping at the door. Nuzzle barked and wagged his tail. Marie came in, laughing and waving a telegram over her head.
“I’ve got a message!’ she called out. “My Dad wants us all to come to Bristol for a visit. We can fly to Anchorage in my plane– he’ll have a special plane take us to Bristol from there.”
“What fun!” Sharry said. ‘Oh, Sam– please – I want to go.”
“Sounds great!” he said. “I think I can get a few days off. How about it, Jewel? Can Sharry ride that far?
Jewel’s cheeks were a rosy pink. “We’ll ask Dr. Fillmore,” she said. “I hope he’ll say yes. It sounds wonderful.”
Marie said, “Uncle Herman is eager to hear us play our guitars. He’s starved for music. Big Joe plays the harmonica for him, but he lives way up the coast.”
“Stay for dinner, Marie,” Sharry coaxed. “We’re having beef stew – real beef Dr. Fillmore got from Matanuska Valley. And biscuits.”
Marie shook her head.
“I can’t – I promised Oscar I’d go skating at Harding Lake. The northern lights are bright in the sky tonight. It’s magic.”
A dog growled outside.
“Fudge is with me,” Marie explained. “He wants Nuzzle to come out.”
“Nuzzle …” Sharry looked at Sam. “Where will we leave Nuzzle?”
“Oscar will take him,” Marie said. “I asked him. So it’s all set, if Dr. Fillmore says okay. I’ll radio Daddy soon as we know. He’ll go up to the schoolhouse in the morning for my message. See you after the skate.”
Sharry was so excited about the trip that Jewel suggested she go to bed when she had eaten her dinner.
“Take it easy, dear,” she coaxed. “Dr. Fillmore said the trip would be good for you, if you don’t get too excited or too tired.”
Sharry’s eyes were star-bright.
“Just imagine!” she said, “I’ll have Sam for a whole week, day and night. I love him terribly, Aunt Jewel. I want him near me every minute.”
Jewel put an extra quilt over her, then she sat down on the side of the bed.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “Dr. Fillmore told me today that the Gilmore estate is settled. He has his bid in for it. He thinks it’s a good investment. I have some money saved, Sharry. I want to lend it to you and Sam for a down payment. I think Dr. Fillmore will help us get it. That will be a perfect home for you and Sam – with the baby.”
The stars blinked out of Sharry’s eyes. She did not want a home in Alaska, even the Gilmore home with its view of Mt. McKinley from the picture window. She could not bear another long dark winter away up here.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Please, Aunt Jewel, I’m not ungrateful – I love you for offering, but – I don’t want it. Don’t tell Sam about it…”
Jewel’s eyes darkened with unbelief. The usual sweet curve of her lips faded away.
“I – didn’t know – how you felt,” she said. “I’m sorry, dear.”
She shut the door quietly behind her. Sharry turned her face toward the wall and wept.
Kenny was right, she thought brokenly. Sam was married to a doll baby. She could not measure up to what was expected of a wife.
* * *
They arrived in Anchorage at noon the next day.
“Marie, you’re some pilot,” Sam said, as they ate their luncheon at the Big Hand Café. “That was a real smooth ride down here.”
“Thanks to the weather,” Marie answered. “The ride to Bristol may be something else again. But we’ll have a good bush pilot – Dad will see to that. So hold on tight.”
But the ride in the violet light of midday was so magically beautiful that they didn’t notice it was rough.
“The farther north you go in Alaska, the more daylight in the summer and the more darkness in the winter,” Sam explained to Sharry. “It’s not so dark here, as we’re much further south than Fairbanks.”
The earth beneath the plane was in shadow as they flew over the heavily wooded country. The mountains loomed ahead, huge jagged peaks in the deep turquoise darkness like silent sentinels.
“Look now,” Marie called from the seat across the aisle which she shared with Jewel. “We’re flying over the treeless tundra. Those dun-colored spots on the snow are caribou. What a huge migration! Maybe five thousand. That means food for many people. It’s a tragedy up here when we don’t have caribou on the march!”
“That must be reindeer over there,” Sam said, “and moose.”
The pilot lowered the plane and roared full-throttle over the herd so everyone could get a closer look at them.
It was a new and thrilling experience for Sharry. But soon the coloring of the sky and the shimmering tundra beneath them made her drowsy and she slept against Sam’s shoulder.
The swooping of the plane and the sound of excited voices awakened her, as the pilot set the plane down carefully on the long white landing field, near the salmon factories on the coast of Bristol Bay.
Marie was the first one out of the plane.
“Button up, Sharry!” she called back. “There’s a stiff wind.”
“Hello! hello!” McFarland said to everyone, smiling down from his great height. His parka and fur cap made him look like a giant. Sharry watched closely as he greeted Jewel. He held her hands in both of his, looking at her searchingly from fur cap to boots.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said in a special voice for her.
“Come on, you two,” Marie yelled gaily. “We’re riding sled. May I drive, Daddy?”
McFarland shook his head.
“This lead dog is stubborn,” he told her. “It’ll take a man who is more stubborn to handle him. You should learn to drive while you’re up here, Sam.”
Sam laughed. “I’ll learn to ride this thing first,” he said. “I feel as if I’m sitting on the ground.”
After they were seated, McFarland tucked a bearskin robe around each of them. Then he unwrapped a bundle of gay colored woolen scarves.
“Susan made these,” he said. “Wrap them over your cap, then across your face like this. This wind is full of ice splinters. We only ride two miles, but we go fast.
“That’s our home,” he said, “the big frame house on the hill. The smaller house nearby belongs to Mama Sue and Uncle Herman.
“Look around a minute before we start,” he said. “Those low flat buildings over there are the canneries. The Bay opens into the Bering Sea and it’s loaded with salmon. Most of the salmon you have home comes from up here. That higher building with the tall chimney is where we smoke salmon. That little square building is my office.”
He turned and faced inland. “All those houses are built alike, facing the bay. Each one has a kennel for dogs.”
He called to the lead dog. They moved forward in a flutter of snow. The wind beat against them. Sharry hung on with both hands.
Susan was in the doorway when they arrived. The house was warm, and the inviting odor of baking fish greeted them.
“Salmon roasted,” Marie called out. “You’ll love it, Sharry.”
“I know I will,” Sharry said. she had decided to try everything they served no matter what it was.
She liked the dinner Susan had prepared. The table was set in the large living room before the fireplace; the cloth was a heavy woven tan material with golden threads in it and the knives and forks had bone handles. The dishes were yellow pottery.
Sharry noticed the potatoes were extra white and fluffy. Susan mentioned how grateful the people were now that they could buy potatoes in powdered form.
“We couldn’t have them very often because they froze,” she said.
“But not the biscuits,” McFarland chimed in. “Susan’s biscuits are made from the bottom up.”
Herman, who was lying on the lounge, had his dinner on a tray.
“They are the very best,” he said.
Marie took him another, dripping with butter.
“We brought our guitars, Uncle Herman,” she said.
“I’m ready any time,” he said. “I’ve been longing for music.”
Sharry loved the dessert, although she could not tell what the ingredients were. Marie watched her as she ate another spoonful.
“Good, huh?” she questioned. “This is my very favorite.”
Sharry tasted it thoughtfully. It was iced and rich with some kind of fruit.
“We call it agrootuk,” Susan said. “It’s a native dish. Any child can make it. It’s preserved berries, melted fat, sugar, and snow.”
“Sounds simple,” Marie laughed. “But it’s tricky to make. Mine doesn’t taste like Susan’s!”
Susan was bright with pleasure at their praise.
Dogs barked outside. McFarland lifted his head, listening.
“Not my dogs,” he said, puzzled. He got to his feet to open the door.
A young man in his early twenties greeted him. His face was beet-red beneath his cap.
“Johnny Forbes! Come in. Come in.”
McFarland introduced him to his guests.
“You look half frozen, John. Here, take off your parka. You know better than to go near that fire. Thaw out gently, boy. What brought you in on a night like this?”
“My wife,” he said, his voice tightening. “She’s awful sick. I’ve come for Susan.”
No one spoke. The wood in the fireplace crackled and shot flame. Everyone looked at Susan. The brightness had faded from her face.
“Katie has a lot of faith in Susan,” Johnny said. “She pulled her through last winter. Remember, Susan?”
Susan nodded. Her dark eyes went to Herman, and Johnny followed her glance. The expectancy went out of his face. He could see that Herman was ill. Susan would not leave him for anyone.
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” she said, her voice ready to break like a dry twig. “I wish I could help you. …”
“I can help you, Johnny.”
Jewel’s voice was calm in the quiet room. “I am a professional nurse. Please – take me to your wife.”
“But it’s ten miles away!” Marie said. “Clear up to Silver Fish Point. Jewel is a stranger up here. It’s dangerous in this wind.”
“I’m a nurse,” Jewel said. “I want to help you, Johnny.”
“I’ll take her myself!” McFarland said in his commanding voice. “Marie, fix John some dinner while I get the dogs out. Susan, see that Jewel wears some of your long underwear. Sam, you can help me with the dogs.”
Sharry sat in shocked silence watching the preparations. Aunt Jewel was making a trek into an icy wilderness. Her face was calm, and her eyes were clear and steady as she patted Sharry’s shoulder, then followed Johnny out into the wind-swept night.
Marie closed the door against the wind and leaned back against it.
“There is a storm brewing on the bay,” she said. “The trail will be snow-covered.”
“McFarland will get there,” Susan said. “He always gets where he wants to go.”