On my thirteenth birthday everything changed.
I was up and out early to check my trap lines. The air was full of the sounds and smells of spring: the sweet scent of Ma’s favorite purple lilacs, the sing-song warble of mating orioles. My overalls were soaked to the knees from walking through the hay field to the woods, my bare feet squished in the cool muddy soil. On any other day I would be thinking about my catch, mentally tallying the money I’d earn from selling the pelts, but today was the day I’d been waiting for forever.
My insides fluttered in anticipation of my birthday celebration. I hummed a made-up birthday song as I danced down the path to the creek. Ma would make my favorite dinner and cake, and if I was lucky she might let me have my best friend Emma over to spend the night.
What would thirteen be like? I mentally inventoried my body, trying to discover where I might feel the changes brought by such an important age. Everything felt the same. I didn’t seem any taller nor feel any wiser but, according to local custom, I was a woman. I wasn’t sure exactly what came with that status, but it made me feel very grown up.
In the Adirondack Mountains of the nineteen-aughts, life was a scrabble. Our customs were conservative, our economy slow. We were among the last to see improvements like electricity and indoor plumbing. And although gossip carried the local events, outside news generally took its time finding us. Like many other women in our community, my mother had lost nearly as many babies as she’d borne. That was the way of childbirth then: there were no promises.
I was the only girl and they named me Hope. I was born too soon, a frail and tiny child, and hope was all they could give me. I was not full witness to the event, but even so, I have heard the tale so often that I can imagine myself in the midst of it. I was tiny, but I grew and I thrived. With four older brothers I had little choice.
It never came to me that I couldn’t do everything my brothers could. They might now and then complain I was too little to play with them, but they never excluded me because I was a girl. I learned to wrestle with my brothers, to hunt and fish with my Da and Grandda. But most of all I loved trapping. It was something I could do by myself—setting and baiting traps, dressing my catch, tanning the pelts—and that made me proud.
Cookie trotted alongside me on my way to the trap lines. She was part deer hound and part beagle with long, drooping ears, tall legs, and a pointy nose. When we returned she would carry the fresh kill in her mouth, as if she’d landed it all on her own. She knew it wasn’t hers to eat, but when I gutted and skinned the rabbits I rewarded her with bits of flesh.
An hour later, four fresh pelts hung in the barn. I smelled of wet fur and rabbit guts, my overalls covered in grime as I came into the kitchen where Ma was cooking up breakfast.
“Happy Birthday, Hope,” she said, kissing my forehead. “Chicken and dumplings for supper, right?”
“And spice cake for dessert,” I answered. “With penuche frosting.” I filled a glass with water from the pump at the kitchen sink. I took a long drink, feeling the delicious cold as it ran down my throat and into my stomach.
“I can’t believe I’m finally thirteen.” I straightened my shoulders and puffed out my chest as if that would make me seem more of an adult.
Ma looked me over so intently I wondered if I’d done something wrong. Her eyebrows tilted up and her eyes narrowed. Her mouth was tight and tense. I couldn’t tell if she was ready to laugh or cry; or maybe she was mad at me.
“That you are,” she said at last. “Hope, go wash up and come set with me for a bit.”
When I returned, she beckoned me to the kitchen table, the place where all serious conversations took place. Although I’d washed off the grime and put on fresh overalls, she frowned as I sat.
“Are you mad at me, Ma?”
“No,” she said, “but I need to talk to you about your overalls.”
“Why?” I inspected the bib and pockets, looking for signs of dirt or stains. “They’re clean.”
“That’s not it, Hope.” Ma’s face was set––not stern, but decisive. “You’re getting too old to be a tomboy.”
“What do you mean?” My hands flew to my chest, testing the buckles on my overalls as if they might have evaporated with my new status. “I can’t wear overalls anymore?” It was true they weren’t made to fit my developing body, but they were as much a part of me as my red curls and freckles. I wasn’t Hope without my overalls.
“I want you to start wearing dresses,” Ma said, “even at home. It’s not proper for a young woman to wear dungarees and act like a boy. You need to leave those things to your brothers.”
“Even when I’m checking traps?” I could do it, but I doubted Ma wanted me getting a dress all wet and muddy. Surely she’d want me to wear my overalls when I was skinning pelts.
“That has to stop too.”
My heart stopped. I had to give up my favorite thing?
“What?” I scowled, trying to unscramble my confusion. “Why?”
Ma reached out and touched my shoulder, her lips pinched as tight as the fence line. “Trapping is a man’s job. So is hunting. Most girls would be happy to let the men do it.”
“Why can’t women do it too?” I knew one day I’d become a wife and mother, just like every other girl in Fischer’s Landing. I looked forward to it; I couldn’t wait to have babies. But why should I have to give up the things I loved most?
“A respectable woman doesn’t.” She shook her head in disapproval.
Her eyes were so sad. Wasn’t I good enough for her? That shamed me. Then it made me mad. How could she do this to me?
My cheeks blazed, tears burned against my eyes. “I don’t understand why I can’t be a good wife who hunts and traps.” I crossed my arms. “I’m not going to give that up, no matter what you say. And I won’t wear a dress!” I stomped out of the kitchen, not waiting for her response.
I ran to the barn, climbing the worn wooden ladder to the loft. The sweet scent of fresh-cut timothy softened my anger and soothed my tears. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me I would one day have to act like other girls, but surely Da would speak for me. He’d tell Ma how different I was.
Just then the barn door creaked open, accompanied by long streaks of sun and the tall shadow of my Da. The heavy thump of his footsteps was unmistakable.
Although I was small-framed like my Ma’s side, I inherited Da’s Scots features: his deep emerald eyes and auburn curls. My father declared I looked like a tiny ball of flames as I streaked across the barnyard, my bright red hair flying behind me.
“How’s my Fireball?” he’d tease, coming into the house at dinnertime. He had an easy smile when it came, one that seemed to make his whole face glow.
“Hope?” When he didn’t call me Fireball, I knew I was in trouble.
I peered over the edge of the loft and scowled. “What?”
“Come down here so we can talk.”
I scrambled down the ladder and rushed to him, throwing my arms around his waist. When I was little, I loved to crawl into his lap and nuzzle my face into his rough, hairy chest. I craved the smell of him. It was earthy but pleasant: the scent of hard work and honest living.
“Ma says I can’t hunt and trap any more. She says I have to wear dresses and I told her I won’t. You’ll tell her, won’t you?” My words came out in a tumble as if saying them fast enough might make it so.
“Hope,” he pulled my arms away and smiled sadly. Da’s smiles were rare, but I took every ounce of love he could spare and shined it right back on him. “Your Ma is right. You can’t act like your brothers any more. And you can’t come to me with your troubles. It’s your Ma’s job to teach you and it’s not for me to get in her way. Most girls would rather be with their Ma anyway.”
“I’m not most girls!” I stamped my bare feet against the hardwood floor, raising bits of dust and chaff. I put on my fiercest scowl. I wanted him to know I was good and mad.
“I want to be with you and Grandda!”
“But you can’t,” he said, taking my arm and pushing me toward the door. “Go talk to your Ma.”
Ma was still at the kitchen table where I’d left her. I guess she knew I’d be back. It surprised me to see her face blotched with red, her eyes puffy and sad. She looked more miserable than I felt.
I wasn’t giving up yet. I stood in front of her, my arms crossed against my chest.
“Da’s on your side, so I suppose you expect I’ll give in,” I said, giving her my most defiant glare.
“There’s no giving in about it.” Her face was stern now, determined. “You’ll do as you’re told.”
I’d forgotten Ma could be as stubborn as I—there was no point in arguing. I felt guilty for disappointing her; God must surely have disapproved.
“You won’t make me stop fishing with Grandda?” I kept my voice quiet, meek. “Please?”
“That’ll be your Grandda’s decision. Now go put on a dress.”
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