Back North

By Sarah Dunster

IT COULD BE SAID OF Magdalena Chabert (and many in Provo did say it) that she was an old woman in a young girl’s body. She looked at you as sharply and unapologetically as a woman who had lived through three or four generations. She didn’t say much, and when she did, you got the feeling that she didn’t mean it. Sarcasm, she saved for those she knew well enough, and those chosen few got far more of it than they could have any use for. And there were times when she moved as if she had the rheumatic limbs of an eighty-year-old woman, and not the supple legs of a fifteen-year-old girl.

On this morning, Maggie didn’t feel especially supple or sarcastic. She stood in the crowd that spilled over the edges of the block of town square, careful to touch as few people as possible. It was a fine morning—refreshing and cool, though later in the day the sun would blaze high in the sky and scorch through calicos and flannels. For now, the jagged shape of Squaw Peak loomed above the crowd, hiding the sun and providing welcome shade. Maggie glanced up at the mountain and thought what it would be like to stand at the tip. She could spread her arms and maybe even lean out over the thousand-foot fall, held back from the edge by wind alone.


Ma and Pa Alden had decided to stay home from the town gathering this time.Why? Maggie had to wonder. Everybody knew that when Brigham sent his people around with a summons to the bowery, it meant a big announcement. Likely it meant the war was over; that Buchanan had come through for them. The whole town had been talking about the pardon letter from the President.

You can’t hide big things in a small town. Maggie chuckled at the thought. Wouldn’t Ma Alden be over the moon? Now everybody could go back to Salt Lake City or Sugar City or wherever north they had slunk on down from.

But then, Ma Alden had avoided big gatherings of late.

“I reckon Brother Brigham’s gotten long-winded over something.” Henry Clegg’s twangy voice cut into her awareness.

She turned and squinted at him. “Reckon that’s not unusual.”

Henry chuckled and edged into her space. “Like as not he’s gone on about the proper thickness of bread crusts again.”

Maggie nodded. She rose onto her toes and craned her neck, but it was useless, as she had known it would be. She was at least two heads shorter than everyone in front of her.

“You want a lift? I could get you up on my shoulders.”

Maggie offered Henry a freezing smile—the sort that often sent people far older than Henry away without further comment.

He grinned back at her, unfazed. “Fine, then. Can’t say I didn’t try to be a gentleman.”

Maggie snorted appreciatively. “Very fine manners—hoisting a young lady of fifteen up t’your shoulders so a hundred people can count out the holes in her stockings.”

The crowd around them was growing restless. The buzz of muttering meant Maggie couldn’t even hear a dim echo of what the prophet was saying.

Suddenly the whispers increased in volume all around them. Maggie stood straighter and craned her neck; it was like the air was charged, heavy with the feeling of thunderclouds full of rain about to burst.

“What’s he sayin’?” she whispered to Henry.

“They’re all headed back north, then.” It was Lizzie Bell’s voice, to her right. “Just as you thought, George.”

George Bell stroked his smooth chin, his face unusually solemn. He didn’t glance at his wife, but squinted through the crowd as if it would let him hear better.

“Brigham himself said it. Said he’s going to head out this morning and everybody else can go home too, far as he’s concerned,” Lizzie continued. “Soon it’ll only be us natives left in Provo. Not sure how I feel about that.”

“I admit I’m feeling relief,” Betsy Clegg said, leaning behind Henry and Maggie so that she could see her friend. “It’s been exciting, but it’ll be good to have our space back again for grazing. David’s been worrying lately how to get the sheep fattened with wagons camped out on his best pasture.”

“It’ll be sad to see some go,” Lizzie replied.

Shedrick made a hushing noise, and put a hand on his wife’s shoulder.

Maggie felt something like an iron band, tightening around her heart.

Her friend Mariah was going home. Likely, that was what kept her this morning. Likely, she already knew and was spending the morning packing. There were privileges that came from having the prophet as a stepfather.

The crowd began to break up and disperse, bodies pressing through and against each other as everyone found their direction.

“Brother Brigham says he’s packing up and going today,” Brother Clegg said, coming

through the crowd. “Johnston’s got his thousand men across the lake on the other side of the mountains.”

“Doesn’t mean they’ll stay there,” Brother Bell remarked.

“Buchanan made it pretty clear he wasn’t to stir up trouble. And Governor Cummings is on our side, President Young is fair certain. I’ve already seen some wagons start down main street toward the canyon way.”

Maggie felt her heart sink still further. She stepped quickly through the crowd, leaving Henry with his mother and father. When she got enough space, she began to run toward town square, but soon had to slow again, waiting for animals and carts to pass. Center Street was already busier than she could ever remember it being: people running and walking, shouting out orders, saddling animals as they stood by the side of the road, loading up wagons.

They’re ready to shake the dust of this place clear off their feet, Maggie thought.


Maggie turned and saw her sister, Giovanna, elbowing her way through the crowd. “Ma says you’re to come home, and no stopping to chat,” she said. “Got some chores for you.”

“Of course she does,” Maggie muttered. “I’ll take the long way home.”

She made her way through the crowd and Giovanna scurried off in another direction.

Probably to find her friend Lizzie Twelves, Maggie thought. The little hypocrite.

The streets were already packed. Had been since dawn, in anticipation of the prophet’s announcement. Maggie stayed off the road, walking through the packed-dirt yards, past the line of wagons, carts, carriages, and every moving contraption there was known to man. Tongue to tailgate they lined Seventh Street all the way east, to the rough road that led up along the benches past Provo and Battle Creek and Evansville, all the way past the point of the mountain to Great Salt Lake City. The line moved slowly, stirring up plumes of dust that looked almost like smoke.

At least it’s not muddy, Maggie thought. She stopped running. She gave a stiff little nod to Cindy Holden as she passed her fenced-in front yard. A half-dozen red-headed children played there around Cindy, while she knelt weeding the carrot patch.

Maggie slowed her pace as she turned into the Alden’s drive.

I hope Mother Alden’s not very cross, she thought. I’m not really of a mood to be filled full of sharp words right now.

She pulled the door open carefully, so it wouldn’t bang, and stepped over the threshold of the Alden’s two-story adobe home.

Mother Alden and her two natural daughters, Patience and Etta, sat in chairs around the pile of mending in the middle of the main room, while Father Alden and Uncle Forth, Ma Alden’s brother, sat on the hearth as usual, fiddling with bits of repair.

In the corner by the door was Jed, Uncle Forth’s son. He grimaced at Maggie. She gave him her best cold glare.

“Bodyguards,” Father Forth was saying. “Always has them around now. I think ol’ Brigham’s relieved to have it all resolved, to be able to move everybody back up and pretend like none of this ever happened.” He made a harrumphing noise, something between clearing a throat and harsh laughter.

Maggie hated that noise. She hated it, and the talk. When Father Forth was around, there was plenty to be had of it.

The main room of the Alden’s home was an airy, pleasant place during the day. At nighttime, when the furniture was pushed to the walls and the straw ticks were laid out on the floor, it also served as the four girls’ bedroom. It could get drafty in the cold of winter. The girls would sometimes take the blankets from their beds and huddle up together next to the fire that Father Alden kept banked in the stove for their warmth.

Maggie moved to sit in the remaining empty chair, but Mother Alden made a shooing motion with her hand. “We’re hemming linens. I don’t trust your stitches. Change the ticks and air them out, if you please, Maggie.”

Maggie nodded. “Upstairs, too?”

Mother Alden paused, then nodded. “Yes, the bed up there needs to be turned over. You’ll find the clean linens on the line outside. Got some good washing in this morning; nobody else up at the crick.”

“They’re all packing to leave,” Patience added. “Did you get to say goodbye to your friends, Maggie?”

“Streets choked with contraptions and dusty, hot as hell,” Father Forth said, to nobody in particular. “That was some bit of planning ol’ Brigham did, wasn’t it?”

Father Alden looked up from the bit he was working on. Seeing that no answer was required of him, he offered none, and went back to his mending.

Maggie shrugged and glanced at Ma Alden, who was watching her brother with a frown and knitted brow.

“Canyon road’s going to be nigh untravelable for weeks on end,” Father Forth added,

glaring at Maggie as if she had caused it all.

Maggie stared at him for a moment, then turned and dashed up the stairs.

She stood at the top, waiting for her emotions to ebb once more, and looked the bed over. She had never turned the mattress by herself. She was generally clumsy, too. She’d have to be careful to move mother Alden’s lamp, which sat on the big chest at the foot of the bed, before she tried to maneuver anything so big and awkward as a mattress. More likely than not, the lamp would end up shattered along the floor.

Grunting, she tugged the heavy cedar chest away from the foot of the bed. She ran her fingers over the smooth lacquer of its surface. All of Mother Alden’s prized possessions were in there. They were the things from the Aldens’ previous life in New York, before they joined the Saints and had to leave most things behind, not once, not twice, but three times.

She could hear the words in Mother Alden’s voice. Mother Alden always said it like that: “Not once, not twice…”

Maggie kept her mind filled with inane thoughts such as this in order to keep the more painful ones at bay. She went about the work, pulling the quilt off and clumsily folding it. She pulled off the dirty sheets and piled them on top of the quilt. Then she bent, steeling herself to lift the floppy, heavy canvas-and-horsehair mattress.

Suddenly she froze. She stared down at the mattress, her knees bent ready to lift, her arms underneath it, ready to heave it over onto its other side, and felt her mouth go dry and her heart flutter against her ribs like a bird in its cage.

What was this?
“Magdalena Chabert,” she whispered, reading the writing along the seam of the mattress. It was faded—only a shadow on the yellow canvas. But the hand was neat and flowing. Vaguely familiar. And the name was her own. What was her name doing on this mattress? Would Mother Alden have some reason for writing Maggie’s name on the upstairs bed?

And then the shock came.

Her mother. Maggie was named after her mother. The name was her mother’s—did her mother write it? Had this mattress belonged to her?

Maggie stared at it, her back aching from her awkward position. Slowly, she lifted the mattress. She pushed it until it fell against the wall, then stood on the bed and flipped it the rest of the way over, straightening it.

She stared at the bed for another long moment, then bent and lifted the edge of the mattress again. The words were upside down in her view this time, but—Magdalena Chabert. It was unmistakable.

When Maggie had asked, Mother Alden told her that all her parents’ things were gone. She had said . . . What had she said? Sold. All the things the Chaberts had owned, had brought across on the boat with so much care, were sold at one of the forts to pay for Papa’s medical bills.

The pitcher with the yellow flowers. The old, worn bible with its leather cover—these objects swam into Maggie’s vision, murky with the wear of memory.

Mother Alden lied.

Had she lied?

This mattress was Maggie’s mother’s, and obviously hadn’t been sold. A horsehair mattress such as this one, with a fine, sturdy canvas cover—this should have brought some money, at least, if the debt had been so high as Ma Alden implied.

Wouldn’t it have been sold? Wouldn’t it fetch a better price than an old, worn family Bible would? And if the Bible was still around somewhere, or the china, perhaps . . .

Maggie’s mind was as mixed up as winter stew. It was too much.

Almost savagely, she grabbed the dirty sheets off the floor and threw them over the mattress. She shoved them down inside the bed frame, bruising her knuckles. She didn’t even notice; she was numb, numb from the neck down, from the neck up, mentally and physically numb. Her body took her down the stairs in a jerky stride that nearly sent her sprawling at the bottom.

“Where are you going?” Mother Alden called out to her as she headed for the door.

“Digging segos.” The words came unprompted to her lips, and she dashed toward the door.

Etta Mae frowned at her over her knitting. “But Maggie—”

Maggie didn’t wait to hear Etta Mae’s protest. She knew it wasn’t the right time of year for segos.
She ran around the back of the house to the barn and saw someone harnessing the mule to the cart. When she was close enough to see it was Jed, Maggie nearly doubled back toward the Aldens’. But her need was too great. “You going out to the sheep?” she asked, warily approaching the cart.

Jed nodded.
“I’ve got to go get some segos from the riverbanks.”

Jed squinted at her. “They’ll be stringy and bitter this time of year.”

Maggie breathed out slowly. If Jed was talking, he couldn’t be in too much of a mood. “There’s no arguing with Mother Alden,” she offered.

Jed shrugged. “Hop up, then. Go on, now, quick.”

Maggie quickly grabbed the edge of the wagon and hoisted herself up. She had learned, long ago, to keep away from Jed’s bad side.

The rocky road and the rickety wheels of the cart made Maggie’s teeth chatter. It was a welcome distraction. She tried to forget, to fill her mind with nothing but the heat cooking her shoulders through her bodice, and the pungent, whiney smell of cottonwoods. Jed drove out of the press of moving bodies and wagons as fast as he could, making a circuitous route that avoided both Main and West Main, and the roads that led off to the canyon way, which were now so packed nothing could move more than a few feet at a time.

They passed old fort field. Maggie swatted mosquitoes away from her face. She didn’t really see it there: the bare foundations and the little hill of earth, where the cannon first sat when the settlers came. There were other images flashing through her mind, flooding her vision. Too much to see, too much to feel. That was why Maggie had put these memories away for good, in a dark corner of her mind. And here they were, all summoned at once because of a line of faded handwriting.

Jed turned the wagon and began to head west, to where the Aldens’ pastures lay on the south side of the river. When they stopped by the pasture fence, Maggie dropped heavily to the ground and walked to the water. She found a broad-trunked cottonwood and sat against it, watching the water rush over the long roots that stretched into the stream. She pulled out the little journal given to her as a birthday gift from Sister Clegg. It was homemade: leather, tanned from one of the Cleggs’ calves, the pages carefully cut and saved from any papers lying about that seemed decent enough and had blank backs. She could only write on one side. The other sides of the pages mostly contained newsprint. One had an address on it. The carefully smoothed-out paper had once been a thick mailing envelope.

It was a tiny book with pitifully few pages—precious space, not to be wasted.

If Maggie hadn’t found the mattress, she would have slowly and painstakingly written a line or two of remarks about the stir of the town moving back north. She would likely have written about people she might miss a little, how she had stood outside the bowery to hear the prophet speak.

But finding the mattress was so much to write about. There were no words, even if she had them all at her disposal, even if she could write as swiftly as Patience or Etta. There were no tears, either. She was so stuffed full of oddness and hurt and fear, so blocked up with it all bucking and rearing inside of her, it was like there was no room for even one tear to ooze out of her.

So she leaned there in the tree roots with the journal resting face-up on her lap, and looked up at the pieces of blue sky that shone through the leafy greenness of cottonwoods. She hoped that perhaps, if she lay still enough, everything inside of her would slow down, ease up a little. And then perhaps she’d cry. Perhaps all of her mixed up feelings could ooze out of her, watering the ground as readily as any rain shower.

Or maybe the stream could rise and rush over her, carrying it all away.

A few minutes of quiet did seem to help things settle a bit, at least. And a sort of funny thought suddenly came to Maggie, bringing with it a little bit of relief.

She sat up slowly and put pencil to the page.

“It’s shir od,” she wrote. “Of all tyms Ive put lynins on that old matris and never I seen it before.”

Then she shut the journal with a resounding slap of leather on parchment, and tucked it back into her bodice.

Guess that’s all, she thought to herself.

But it wasn’t.

Though her memory was foggy, Maggie could recall many of the details of what had happened to her family when they had crossed the plains four years ago. The Campbell Company, it had been.

Most of the journey had been fine. Good going and plenty of feed for the animals, and enough for all the people, too, right up until the end when the winter weather and scarcity of food began to complicate matters. But the Chaberts had still gotten along fine. Mother somehow made the food stretch to keep everyone in good enough spirits and energy to do what they had to, to keep on going.

And then there had been Papa’s injury. It had happened during a crossing; she couldn’t recall which. Crossings were the most dangerous times. He’d broken his thigh bone when the wagon box began to slide off the ferry. He braced it unintentionally with his leg. The wagon survived; he didn’t.
Maggie had a few clear memories of that time after the crossing. Her mother, ungainly with her large belly, sat wrapped in a woolen shawl tending the campfire. Her father lay

in the wagon, his legs bound up from hip to knee. The bone didn’t set right, and he started fevering. First Mother had nursed him. Then her cough, which she had never quite got over from the boat ride, overtook her body, and so it was two parents who lay in the shallow wagon box those last weeks. Father went first, and then Mother a few days later, after a particularly cold September morning. And it had been the Aldens who had taken in Maggie and her sister Giovanna, who was four at the time. Maggie’s older brother Samuel, who had been twelve, had worked his hardest to keep the wagon in repair and food to their plates and a fire for them to sit around. In the end, he’d also been taken in by someone. “Apprenticed,” Mother Alden had said on the few occasions Maggie got up the courage to ask. “Can’t recall the name. Folks living somewhere over by the lake, or over the lake, or somethin’.”

What was odd were the things Maggie could not remember. It seemed as if Samuel had just suddenly disappeared from their life. She couldn’t even remember what his face looked like. And when she thought back on those several months of travel—leaving their little mountain village in Italy, the boat, and the few months by wagon—it all seemed one jumbled mess of events, places, and people. She had known very little English at the time. It had been so much for her ten-year-old mind to take in.

Before today, she had believed Mother Alden’s account in every particular. She had ached with the loss of the porcelain her mother had so lovingly tended. She had a very clear memory of the pitcher, decorated with yellow flowers and gilded along its rim and handle, and the way her mother carefully packed and moved it around throughout the trip to keep it from breaking. There were six cups, too; round, with little round handles.

And of course, the family Bible, which Papa read out of every day, even on the frostiest mornings. He pulled the mitten off his hand and turned the thin pages delicately, with his bare fingertips.

Suddenly she remembered her father’s face on the day he died. His face—the strange, skeleton calm of his features. He had told her, as he had every day she nursed him, what a good girl she was. She had read to him from the Bible then, skipping over or guessing at words too long for her to sound out, turning the pages as carefully as she could with her clumsy, stiff fingers. These were her family’s treasures, brought all the way from their little brick home in the mountains in Italy. They were small, and not much weight to carry. She knew that a few of them at least had made it as far as her parents did; Mama had passed with one of the little cups close by her hand, as if she were remembering some better times back home before they left.

This was too painful, though, to think on for very long. Maggie allowed the picture of her mother’s sallow, lined face—it had held such an expression of worry as she looked at her two daughters—to fade.

But why in heaven’s name would Mother Alden lie about a mattress? Had it indeed been a lie, or had the leftover mattress been such a pittance that she hadn’t thought to mention it to Maggie when the subject had come up those few times? Had she perhaps lied about more than the mattress?

Had she lied about Samuel, too?

Samuel, Maggie thought, trying to summon up his features. She couldn’t—her mind was blank. She saw dark hair, the too-slender limbs of his twelve-year-old body. Where is he?

Suddenly, she felt a shock course through her system.

Could it be he came south? Could it be he was in Provo all these months? And now, heading to Great Salt Lake without us, without even seeing me and Giovanna? Does he know where we are, or are we lost to each other?

Samson’s barking brought Maggie back to the riverbank, to the trunk of the cottonwood digging into her back. Jed came over the hill and pointed imperiously at the wagon. “Get up. Mother’s going to be in a fuss if we don’t get going.” He looked around, then at her with some confusion. “Where’s the segos?”

Maggie shrugged. “Couldn’t find any worth digging. Are you all coming over tonight?” she asked.

“Dunno. Likely, I guess.” Jed climbed into the wagon.

Maggie settled herself into the back of the wagon and he clucked to the horses, not bothering to glance behind and see that she’d settled herself properly. Maggie held on tightly to the side as the contraption rattled down the winding little path that led off the bench and back down toward the valley where the little town nestled. From up here, the streets were like seams of delicate stitching—the houses lined up along main street, cunning little buttons.

“Looks like the canyon road’s about cleared out. It’ll be full again tomorrow.”

Maggie nodded, but of course he couldn’t see her from where he sat.

The Seminary Building and Redfield Hotel stood tall, and the scattering of buildings along Center, which had been teeming with trade all the spring and summer, seemed forlorn. Town Square was empty, too. The long, narrow lean-to buildings that had housed Brother Brigham’s large family were still there, but he was gone. They were no longer the gathering place. They were once more a mere settlement, Fort Provo, looking hopefully north toward the Great Salt Lake for information and counsel, and anything else of consequence.

She looked at the rutted mess of the road, at the wagons that still choked them, at people going to and fro, loading them up for departure the next day.

Samuel. The thought made her sick—she wanted to leap out of the wagon and run, pulling up dust covers, screaming his name along the street. Don’t leave without finding us, Samuel!

It was like this name on a mattress was some kind of proof, some kind of tangible evidence that Maggie had been a part of a different family once. It cut through all the haze of painful, suppressed memories, and reminded her of things that were real.

I had a brother. His name was Samuel. His name is Samuel.

When they pulled into the Aldens’ yard, Maggie felt as if her heart might burst clear from her ribcage. She tripped as she descended from the wagon, landing on all fours on the ground.

Jed snorted.

Maggie blinked her eyes free of moisture and rose slowly to her feet. As she walked toward the Aldens’ front door she felt like someone else’s feet carried her.

“Hello, Maggie.” Patience smiled at her as she entered.

She didn’t smile back. She turned her gaze on Ma Alden, who still sat in the corner with her mending. “Where is my brother?” It came out hoarse, almost a whisper.

Everyone in the room froze. Giovanna, who was playing on the hearth, turned to gaze at Maggie. Pa Alden looked up from his whittling, his eyes dark with some strong emotion. As Maggie met his gaze, he looked away.

“You’re brother’s up it the city,” Ma Alden said. “I’ve told you before, he’s been apprenticed. What’s . . . ?” she shook her head. “Why you digging up dirt all of a sudden?”

“What d’you mean by that?”

“By what?” Ma Alden’s lips thinned out, and her eyes got a look in them that Maggie knew meant trouble.

“You hiding something from me? About Samuel?” Maggie’s voice rose. “About my family?”

Ma Alden rose from her chair. She set her mending in the seat. “Those are some uppity questions, coming from the girl whose back I clothed and whose belly I’ve filled these last four years.” Her mouth shook.

Etta, rocking in her corner, made a tutting sound.

Patience rose and put a hand on Ma Alden’s arm. “It was so long ago, Maggie. Don’t worry over it. You’re here now.” She smiled. “You’ve got a family—us.”

Maggie nodded, but she didn’t sit. She watched all of them settle back into their places—

Ma Alden in the middle, Patience and Etta next to her, Giovanna on the hearth with Pa Alden, who sat, silently whittling, as if nothing were happening.

She watched her sister, the way the firelight brought out the red in her dark hair, the paleness of her face, her large, dark eyes.

Mother. She looks like mother. 

Maggie touched Pa Alden’s hammer where it lay on the table. She wrapped her fingers around the handle.

She walked upstairs. She stood at the foot of the bed, her shins against Ma Alden’s old trunk. She saw the mattress with linens tucked around it. Ma Alden’s linens, and her quilt neatly spread over the top, Maggie thought bitterly.

The lacquer surface of the trunk looked hard. Ugly all of a sudden. It seemed full of secrets. If she hid things, she’d hide them here, Maggie thought. The iron lock and bracings seemed like they held Maggie prisoner.

She lifted the hammer and paused for a moment, thinking of the family downstairs, chatting, mending, whittling.

She brought the hammer down in one quick, savage blow.

About Sarah Dunster

Sarah Dunster has published poetry in many online and print journals. She has won local, statewide, and national awards for her writing. She keeps busy driving around her nine children, gardening in her attached greenhouse, collecting and raising butterflies, singing in all the local musicals, and cleaning up all the messes those things entail. She is preparing to launch two novel series independently in the summer of 2017. 

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