My current theme with this story is to show each of the couples growing closer during that long, snowed-in winter. This chapter is inspired by Ephraim and Liza's scene in the "Spring, Spring, Spring" musical number, which features them standing in a meadow full of flowers while Liza sings, "Every field wears a bonnet with some spring daisies on it." I wanted to write about their first visit to that same meadow.
March comes in like a lion, what else?
Liza heaved a heavy sigh as she and Ephraim walked through the snowy meadow behind the house. It was now March, but there was still not one sign of spring on the Pontipee farm. The snow that had looked so pretty to Liza back in November, lying over the world like a clean white blanket, was now ugly and tinged gray like dirty laundry. Worst of all, it still wasn't melting, and more of it was still falling almost every day.
Ephraim had finished his farm chores early that evening and then knocked on the front door of the house to ask Millie's permission to take Liza on a walk. Liza had forgiven him for what he'd done on the night of the avalanche, and she'd been eager to go out on a walk with him in the falling twilight. But now, with the dirty snow on their boots and the cold wind biting through their coats, her mood was shifting into despair. She was so tired of this endless winter, and she missed her family terribly. She wasn't angry at Ephraim anymore, but she'd decided that as soon as the snows melted and the mountain pass cleared, she was going straight home and never setting foot on this wretched farm ever again.
Perhaps Ephraim could sense her bleak mood, because just then, he took her gloved hand in his and gestured out to the meadow with his other hand. "You might not believe it now, but when spring comes, there'll be so many daisies 'round here, you'll be sick of 'em," he said cheerfully, trying to raise her spirits.
"If spring ever comes," Liza answered gloomily, sighing again.
"I know winters seem longer out here, but there's only a month or two left of it now, Liza." An especially cold gust of wind blew just then, as if to prove him wrong, and he pulled his cap down lower over his red hair. Liza had knitted that cap herself – a sort of makeup gift for Ephraim after she'd poured cold water on him one day when she was still mad at him – and she was touched that he wore it so often. "That's what I always tell myself when it gets 'round to my birthday," he went on, "just two months left till spring."
Liza's brown eyes had been downcast, but at this, she looked up, smiling and bright-eyed. "Is your birthday comin' 'round soon, Ephraim?" she asked, her brows lifting in surprise. "When is it?"
Ephraim gave a little shrug and said carelessly, "Today."
"Today!" Liza exclaimed. She stopped walking and gave him a light slap on the shoulder. "And today's almost over! Oh, Ephraim, why didn't you tell me? I would've..." But Liza didn't finish. What would she have done if she had known about Ephraim's birthday in advance? She couldn't go into town and buy him anything, of course, and she probably couldn't cook him anything special, either. None of them were going hungry, but their storages of food were carefully rationed to last through the winter.
"Aw, you don't need to do anything, Liza," Ephraim said, shrugging again. "A birthday ain't nothin' to fuss over."
If one of her suitors in town had said this, Liza would've suspected that he wanted her to feel sorry for him. But Ephraim's tone and posture were so matter-of-fact that she knew that he wasn't trying to manipulate her, just stating a simple fact. Her heart twisted in pity for him – had he ever celebrated his birthday once in his life?
"Well, for my birthdays, my ma always baked a pie or a little cake," Liza said. She and Ephraim were still walking through the meadow, and her pace grew brisker as she remembered all the happy birthday parties of her girlhood. "And I'd invite the other girls over for games – you know, pin the tail on the donkey and things like that. My ma always says that livin' out way here in the wilderness, we oughtta find any excuse we can to celebrate and have a good time."
Even in the dim evening light, Liza could see the surprise on Ephraim's face. She realized too late that she might've hurt his feelings, talking about her birthday parties when he'd never even had one. But then he smiled and shook his head.
"Well, gee," he said, chuckling softly, "would you know, my ma always said that livin' way out here in the wilderness, it was blessin' enough just to be alive, without needin' to celebrate the day you started livin'."
Liza smiled, too. The Pontipee farm wasn't too far from town, but it seemed like her and Ephraim's childhoods had been so different that they might as well have grown up on opposite sides of the country.
They were nearing the trees now, and still hand-in-hand, they turned to walk back across the meadow to the house. But when Liza turned, she gasped and froze in place, and Ephraim smiled. In the darkness, Liza hadn't noticed that the meadow was on a slight slope and that as they'd walked, they'd also been climbing. Now, as she turned around, she was greeted with a wide view of the entire farm. There, spread out before them, was the house and the barn, the chicken coop and the woodshed, all frosted with snow that gleamed in the starlight. Millie hadn't yet closed the shutters, so the lit windows of the house shone like cozy squares of gold. The bare tree branches were black against the dark blue sky, and in the distance beyond the farm, the mountains rose up like giants. The whole scene looked like a painting, and Liza just stood there for a moment, breathless and speechless, taking it all in.
Ephraim looked at her, then out at the view, grinning. "Real pretty, ain't it?" he asked softly, not wanting to break the magic spell that seemed to have fallen over them. "This spot's my favorite place on the whole homestead, just for this view. I reckoned you ain't seen it from here yet."
"No," Liza answered just as quietly, finding her voice again. In those awful days right after the avalanche, she hadn't left the house at all; she and the other girls stayed inside, crying and wallowing in their misery. Liza had been leaving the house more lately, but she still hadn't ventured very far from it until now. She tore her eyes from the view to look at Ephraim, and despite the cold, she felt her cheeks growing warm. "The place sure looks different from here," she added.
And it did look different. This farm that seemed cursed with an endless winter, this farm that she'd hated since the night she was dragged here kicking and screaming, this farm that she'd wanted to leave as soon as the snows melted – now, for the first time, she saw it through Ephraim's eyes. The rough farm suddenly seemed like quite a romantic place, and goosebumps rose on Liza's skin, shivery from cold and excitement.
"When my folks first claimed this homestead, you could've never gotten a view like this." Ephraim gestured to the wide, sloping space of this meadow, and Liza tried to picture it full of daisies and green grass, like Ephraim had promised it would be in spring. "This here was still all forest then. It took my pa and brothers and me years to clear the trees out. I remember when I was a boy, the trees still came right up to the house, and at night, we could the wolves howlin' practically in our ears."
Liza gasped. She could sometimes hear wolves howling in the distance from her house in town at night, and the sound was quite frightening enough from far away. She couldn't imagine the fear of being a child and hearing it so close. Nor could she imagine how many years of back-breaking work it must've taken to clear this meadow of trees.
Ephraim and Liza fell into silence as they walked back to the house, but it was a comfortable silence. It was fully dark now, and whenever they breathed, their breaths stood out from the blackness in silvery puffs. Liza had seen the farm in a new light, and it had cast a new light onto the man who held her hand, too. On the night of the avalanche, Ephraim had actually frightened her – he'd seemed so fierce and wild, nothing at all like the tall, handsome man that she'd met at the barn-raising. What he'd done that night was wrong, of course, but now, imagining him as a boy with wolves howling in his ear, never celebrating a birthday party, she thought that maybe she could understand why he'd done it.
All too soon, they had reached the house again, and their lovely twilight walk was over. Millie had left a lantern burning on the front porch for them, but they knew better than to linger there for too long. Neither one of them wanted to make her suspicious.
"Well, goodnight, Ephraim," Liza said, as she unwrapped the scarf that she'd borrowed from Ruth as slowly as she could, stalling for more time with him. "I sure enjoyed walkin' with you. And happy birthday," she added, grinning coyly.
Liza didn't miss how Ephraim's eyes flicked down to her lips, and she hoped that her cheeks were still rosy from the cold. She could tell that he wanted to kiss her goodnight, but didn't want to risk Millie catching them. He took a deep breath, reigning in his urges, then said politely, "Thank you, Liza, and thanks for the gift you gave me."
"The gift?" Liza repeated, bewildered. "But... I didn't give you anythin'."
"Aw, sure you did." Liza waited for him to explain, but he just said, "Goodnight," then grinned, nodded, and turned away towards the barn. The night was so dark now that as soon as he left the little flickering circle of light cast by the lantern, Liza lost sight of him. But as he walked across the farmyard, he began whistling a cheerful tone. When the melody reached her ears, the spring thaw didn't seem so far away at all, for Liza could swear that despite the heavy winter snows around her, she smelled fresh spring daisies.