Taking Care of the Girls

LIVING without electricity in an isolated part of the valley, the girls were fiercely proud of what they had. You could say they were living backwoods like the outlaws that their father had once ridden with in the old days in the mountains of New Mexico. He had forsaken that; the band was once chased by federal helicopters searching for a high-ranking government official's daughter who chose to ride with them in the '60s.

He once explained to me that he broke ranks with them on a moral point and then rode north to this valley where I live. He saw this valley's unseen beauty from the road and cantered back to Santa Fe to court the children's mother, Maggie, who worked there as a waitress. He brought her here. They had three girls, the first two in a teepee, and now they had the cabin on land, where Michael kept horses.

He was now away after winning a trail-building contract in Telluride, Colo., and so Maggie could go with him, I was at the cabin keeping the chores going so the girls could go to school.

`Ada, get dressed,'' I said, poking my head through the loft, her half-day of afternoon school nearing. She was lying on the floor of the loft in a pool of sunlight like a fawn in the forest. She was dreaming naked in the cheerful warmth, singing to herself; alone and imaginary as ``Christina's World'' by Andrew Wyeth. She was five or six. Nearby on the floor were three mattresses, where the girls slept; by each a cardboard carton with each child's clothes, folded down to underwear and socks.

``Yes, master,'' she said. ``My father wouldn't yell at me ...''

Uriah, the oldest girl, had just come in from the school bus, and we had decided to walk to see fall wildflowers. Uriah had been named after the army captain their father felt sympathy for - who King David had put in the fore of battle in order to marry Bathsheba. Except Uriah had turned out a girl. Ada came down the ladder in a mother's sewn dress with lace, and hiking boots, second-handers, in hand. As I sat in the sprung armchair to wait for her to lace up, Emily, the littlest, informed me, ``That's my dad's chair.'' Uriah said, ``He can sit there, till Dad comes back.''

They were missing their parents, especially a mother who had always been with them - where were funds to go anywhere? - and Emily woke up crying at night. Emily, the exuberant tail end of the family, could be the fiercest, ``That's my sister you're talking to!'' she'd say if I spoke to them about anything.

They were mad I wasn't getting all the routines right. At dishwashing were three big pots to be filled with water that Michael pumped from the creek into a tank outside. It had to be heated. Then three stools had to be placed, like for mama bear, papa bear, and baby bear, that the girls stood on to help wash. I dried and put away, usually in wrong places. ``Do you like eating our food?'' Ada asked me. ``I'm here so your mother and father can ... Oh, let's play a game.''

``OK.''

``I don't want to.''

``My heart hurts,'' said Uriah, missing her dad.

``What's in your heart?'' I tried to get them to talk. They thought.

``In my heart,'' said Ada, ``is gold and silver bracelets.''

``I don't know what's in mine,'' said Uriah, helplessly.

``In mine,'' said littlest Emily brightly, ``is a frog!'' They all laughed.

``You all have good hearts. I know you miss your parents.''

``And in yours. Is rain. Cold, cold rain,'' said lightning-swift Ada - my naked sunlit conscience.

But she usually changed her mind at bedtime, with Aladdin lanterns lit. The girls, washed by wet cloths, dried by clean towels, nightgowns on, sat with me on the big bed built into the wall before going up to the loft. I told them the fairy tale ``The North Wind.'' They made me go over and over the part where the boy receives a magic tablecloth, and says, ``Table provide!'' I repeated all the good things that suddenly appeared. Emily would say: ``And jelly beans too.''

Ada: ``And gold candlesticks and ice cream.''

Uriah: ``And my dad would have anything he wanted.''

IT was full-time getting the girls up in the dark by dim firelight, finding Emily's mittens (for it was cold out), dressing her, while the others made toast on the stoked woodstove; then taking them out down the frozen mud-rutted road to the dirt road where the schoolbus picked them up. The two girls held Emily between them to keep her warm. Then I went back to clean up, sweep, do laundry, hang out yards of it, chop pinyon, haul water, make beds. Their mother had her hands full. How would I ever get the order back of things she had worked out here over the years? When she came back would it still be a break for her?

I noticed the fences Michael had built to keep horses from eating paint off the cars, old ones he switched parts on. I noticed his plowing, the garden, his tools in the outbuilding; his books on every subject in the world.

Everywhere were signs of order and intelligence and being ``content with such things as ye have.'' They were living in an economy that had betrayed them; and although they lived decorously, it was not the decoration of the ``normal'' world. The girls were sometimes painfully aware of their patched parkas and sewn dresses at school.

``The girl who sits in front of me is so cute,'' said Ada. ``She has a this-kind of doll. They have TV. I saw it at her house.''

``My girls are real girls,'' said Michael when he came home. ``I'm giving them the best chance I can,'' said the ex-outlaw. ``They know it.''

``How do you do it all?'' I asked their mother.

The next time I saw Maggie she was counting tea bags in a local tea factory, one of the few small businesses started up in our valley. Ada and Emily were seated on a stool by her.

``You do this too?'' I asked.

``I've always wanted a job,'' quipped Maggie.

Ada, my sweet conscience, looked at me shyly.

``What's in your heart today, Ada?'' I asked, expecting more ``bracelets.''

``Green peppermint tea,'' she said. ``Smell.''

Emily remarked, smiling, her mom by her, ``You took care of us.''

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