Tamsen Donner

by Danica Colic

“One of the death-stricken at Donner Lake may have said, with tremulous voice: ‘Look! There, just above us, is a beautiful house.'”

                  —C.F. McGlashan, History of the Donner Party


Dear Sister, our house is made of hides
lashed to branches; it tips in the gusts
and down come the Bible and ladle,

four tea cups, the children's stiff rag dolls, all
from the mantle of ice, and up again

when the wind dies and I set it to rights
and turn back to kettle and coaxing the fire,

pouring the endless weak brew gone
half-cold before it meets their blue lips.

How quickly the warmth is snuffed out of all things,

how grateful we are for our chores.

The children progress in their lessons.
At daybreak, the fine winter sun
lights the veins in the walls
and their faces, crept over by frost.


In the first fortnight, Dear Sister, I dreamt the farm and cursed our guts and in moments of fugue would hum in the pantry while taking down foodstuffs, for instance, or sweeping the floor. I would hear the scratching of its straws, so real was the sensation. Or, I would rush through the front rooms, turning the shutter-cranks to drive out the cold. Then know myself as suddenly to be kneeling on the hardened snow, writing the children's lesson in a steady hand.

I Wake in the Night

Dearest, it is lightless without hope
of wick or flint, and so brutal
the cold that I am quite senseless of their bodies
beside mine—mine?
Mine is constant and discarnate. Are these blankets?
Are these my children, their seizing breaths
evidence of my own form?

On the Death of Our Trusted Dog, Uno

My only S., it was one of the drivers who asked—
he came to me ashamed—Ma'am, he said—what sort of name is that

for a creature as myself—when I had thought of it, myself—first
two weeks ago?—The only decorum I requested:—In the woods,
where the children do not venture, and away
from their ears—He was allowed, at home, to sprawl
before the hearth—The wedding china from Boston,
the full-blown roses.

Sister, Keep My Memory in Your House

What am I to you but nearly forgotten—the reflection of your skirts
on the polished floor— you roam the halls with purpose, the ring of keys
at your waist— The girl in the kitchen in your mended blue—

her eyes are narrow, covetous
—take care.

Our lessons, our hoops, our tightly woven hair—Sundays
bent over embroidery and verse after verse—

There was a time we imagined it—the girls and the boys in their
rough quarters—the girls in our mended dresses, the girls and their boys
in the fields

although we never spoke it, although we lay as near to one flesh
beneath the quilts in winter, the lamp oil singeing the glassed air.

The Skeleton

My witness. It was all was left
after we scraped the hair from the hides
and tore them in stripes
and boiled them to paste

—a tracery of branches useless
against the snow. We wake at night
and shake ourselves and sleep and wake
to grind the skins between our teeth.

Do you recall our meager girlhood?
The dull winters, the coarse meal
bubbling long on the fire,
somewhere in the pot a dice of bacon
chased by the long-handled spoon?

How do we swallow now?
We eat the skins; the last a lap-robe
with rot in the fringe; it had been the door.

No door, no roof, no sound but snow,
no light but from the coals
beneath the kettle, no souls but these,
fed by the hide, shaking within the house of sticks
that is no shelter.


It is our impulse, Sister,
to curl around what ember remains,
unlike these creatures
so brave of the cold and
all through the ordeal fearless of us,

yipping on the rocks
above our heads, their ribs
girded in ice, these beauties
who look me in the eye,
unlike the reverend who blushed when
I confessed the feeling of spirit
leaving body during certain hymns,
and you laughed at me in the
carriage home because I was
too thin and given to strong
emotion and you couldn't fathom
the desire to leave
your plump trappings—

and the mornings I rose
early and walked the fields
where the foxes knew to fear us and
I wanted keenly to touch them,
to be fox or wind or long grass, not
a human girl—and how

it grieves me now to think of rising
and pinning my hair, the heavy
oak bedstead, our thick flannel gowns
and the piano alone in the parlor because
it was not only that spectral line
that tied me, but these things, your dear face
grumbling inside your tilted bonnet
about the long cold service, our steaming
feet by the fire and

there was never, truly, the wish
to leave entirely, only
to be nearer
those things that escaped me,