Darlings

by Jenny Lederer


Henderson Luelling, horticulturist,
journeyed west in 1846
from Sioux City
with his pretty daughters
Eliza and Annabel,
and three covered wagons,
two full of budding saplings—
apple, cherry, pear, plum, and black walnut—
planted in rich Iowan dirt,
their branches waving like hands
through holes cut in the canvas covering:
a rolling orchard, wondrous to see.

Luelling, a pious and industrious man,
prayed over his little trees at night
and watered them by day
with a porcelain amphora.
His girls tended to the teams of oxen
and cooked porridge and bacon over fires
fueled by discs of dried buffalo dung.

Forty miles from Fort Bridger
an axle broke—black soil
spilled onto the hard-packed trail,
exposed the naked, reaching roots.
The girls gathered as much of the dirt
as they could in their skirts. Two wagons
now. A mouthful of water that tasted of iron.
Rawboned rabbits cooked on spits. At night
they could hear their father
murmuring to his trees, my darlings—

In the desert called Craters of the Moon,
their eyes grew feverbright with cholera.
The night Annabel died, Eliza dreamed
she birthed a pile of plums,
that they slid out of her slick
and purple as bruises.

Henderson Luelling, orchardist, pioneer,
the first to plant grapes in Oregon,
buried his daughter beside the trail
in the gray sand of the Snake River.
Bad soil, he said, wiping grit from his hands,
still looking west
where the fertile green Grande Ronde valley
lay just beyond the mountains.


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