Monstrous Femme

Tamsen knew, in her heart, that she had died days ago, but the locomotion of her body would not stop. The electric signals from her brain to her muscles kept going until her husband finally perished.

When George drew his last breath, clicking and shuddering in his chest like so many broken gears, she thought that she would feel something. Sorrow, grief, even relief that her ordeal was over. But when it was done, she felt nothing. She, of course, was already gone, the last spark of life leaving her when she watched the backs of her daughters disappear into the frosted wilderness, gone from her forever. The children that she had grown in her womb, that she fed with her blood and milk, the children that were pieces of her, finally gone from that ashen, frozen hell. The tether of her love for them stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and the tenterhooks of it must have been what was holding her together even if the filaments of that love were so thin and distant that she couldn’t feel them anymore.

She had given all of herself. God, how she had given it all.

In April 1846, the Donner Party left Illinois, wagons full and hearts set on another life. She seldom slept, head full of anticipated lungfuls of salty air, smoky fire on her skin imagined instead as the bright California sun.

Her daughter’s cheek would redden, and their hair would grow blond and windswept. George would tell her that her bronzed complexion suited her well, and in the dark warmth of their new home, he would worship the lines where her color faded from nut-brown to ivory—right below her collarbone, above the swell of her breasts.

So she walked, and she rode on the backs of the horses, and she tended to the leg cramps and scraped knees of the children. She taught them in the center of the curled wagons at night, letters and arithmetic, and the wheeling shapes of the stars above.

It was hard, but it would be worth it for a new life.

And then, a letter that might as well have been written in blood. From Lansford Hasting, telling of a new path–quicker, easier. George and the other men believed it, and they drove their wagon train over the vast salt flats toward the Sierra Nevada.

She thought she knew heat. She thought she knew thirst. But nothing compared to the dust-fine salt and sand pulling moisture from every bit of her until her arms brushing against her skirts sounded like the husks of corn.

It was misery, but it might have been worth it. She spread the fat from the cooking fire of the peeling, raw redness of the children’s lips, and she wrapped her feet enough to ignore the blisters during the endless miles, and she endured.

Like women for all of time, she endured.

They trudged, the line of wagons getting longer and more disjointed. They weathered attacks, foodless and sleepless nights, and watched as the starving, dehydrated animals wrestled their way from their halters and fled into the distance. But finally, finally, there was green on the horizon.

Hastings had cost them weeks, but George promised they were still ahead of the snow. He cut his hand to the bone fixing the wagon wheel, and suddenly the snow mattered so much less to Tamsen. She just wanted a settlement and a doctor to stave off infection.

They did not beat the snow. They did not find a doctor.

Once within the Sierra Nevadas, there was hope that the trials were done. Near Alder Creek, they pitched ragged tents and slept the exhausted sleep of travelers. In the morning, they were buried.

The snow fell, and it fell, and it fell—eight feet deep in some places. The party was separated, half near Alder Creek and half further back near a ramshackle cabin they had managed to find. George’s hand was already festering, and it was all Tamsen could do to cut wood for them, so there was no cabin. Just the tents against the horrible cold. And so began her frozen vigil.

Days passed, and she did not sleep. Tamsen had three daughters and two older girls that George had brought to their marriage from his first. In the dark of the night, she let them sleep against her, their small hands finding the flesh of her belly and back in an attempt to keep warm. She gave them her heat, a vessel once more.

The rations were short, hard tack and horse meat once they butchered the last of the beasts. Then the mice that would crawl into the tent, seeking the warmth of their fire, squeaking and biting at her fingers as she shoved them into the cookpot, guts and all.

When she did sleep, in fits and starts and stolen seconds, she dreamt of another life. Young and beautiful, with hair the color of churned butter. A new husband, years before George. In those dreams, she birthed her first son, and her first daughter, and watched them die over and over again in a macabre loop. Or burying her first husband, sweet and timid Tully Dozier, her belly still soft and empty from the girl child that came too soon. She lost them all–her son in September, her daughter in November, and her husband in December. In those nightmares, her little ones were in the coffin with Tully, and she was able to crawl within and join them, closing the lid behind her as the first shovelful of dirt fell. In the moldering darkness, she would feel them touching her, those two babies and her first husband.

And when she would wake, it would be her three living girls instead. Tamsen rejoiced that they lived, and in the same breath, mourned the hell they were trapped within.

But she would be damned if God or fate or the endless snow would take the rest of her children. She would bedamned.

Then there was George, and his hand, mottled and purple and smelling of death. Tamsen boiled the snow to clean it, listening to him moan with pain as the infection crept up his arm. George’s brother would beg, daily, to amputate the thing, but George refused.

The day they started boiling the hides to eat, the strongest among them gathered to depart, hoping to make it to Sutter’s Fort and find help. Her stepdaughters would go, women in their own right, and Tamsen felt numb as she watched them. Her little ones clutched at her skirt, and George wept through the night.

Hides would boil down to a paste, so thick that she would scrape it from the pot with her fingers, scooping it into her girl’s waiting mouths like a mother bird. It was disgusting, almost unbearable to eat, but it filled the empty holes of the belly and gave them another cursed day in the tent camp.

When the others began to die off, there was no hope of burial, with the snow deeper than the height of a man. They would be dragged out of the shelters, covered with blankets, and left. More snow would fall, and when Tamsen would exit to get firewood, she’d see the fingers and toes and nose tips sticking up out of the whiteness.

The hollows of her ribs grew deeper, her daughter’s faces grew gaunter, and the hunger became a gnawing ache that transcended her stomach, instead eating at her very soul. Tamsen starved, and she froze, and still she woke every morning to suffer another day. She would wash George’s red and weeping hand, boil hide into paste, and yearn for a death that never came.

The makeshift graveyard grew, and each time she caught a tiny mouse between her trembling fingers and felt the hot lifeblood of it against her tongue, she wondered.

They all wondered. The graying skin of their deceased companions didn’t look all that different from the hides they had been eating. Maybe the meat would look similar, too.

George knew before Tamsen even spoke the words, and commanded that they never eat the remains of the fallen, that it would ensure that they would all spend eternity in hell. Tamsen loved her husband, tended to him, and never left his side, but they were already in hell as far as she was concerned. Watching his blood poison the rest of him, and watching her girls starve . . .

Seven members of the seventeen that had left for help survived. It was supposed to take a week, but it was thirty-three days before they made it to civilization. The help that came back for them was sparse, nearly starving themselves and only able to bring a few back with them. They promised that more help would come, and most importantly of all, that Geroge’s two older daughters had survived.

The First Relief wouldn’t take her daughters with them, even when she begged. And when they were gone, with the few members of the party that they could afford to bring along, a fervor seemed to come over the camp.

It was the madness of hope. If they could just survive long enough to be rescued . . .

Tamsen wrapped her bare hands in tattered leather and dug the corpse from the snow in the early hours of the morning, when there was still enough darkness to hide her sins from both man and God alike. His name was Joseph Reindhart, hired on the road to tend the cattle. She barely knew him, and when she uncovered the horrible rictus of his dead, frozen face, he was even more unfamiliar than before.

Her cooking knife was dull, and she had to start at where the skin was thinnest, there at the apex of his groin moving upwards. Joseph had long since iced over, and no blood flowed as she worked the cold, thick, clammy skin away from his musculature in jerking yanks. The sound of it was foul, a meaty ripping, and all the while he watched her with dead eyes and desiccated lips.

Tamsen had been without for so long that she didn’t throw the skin out but buried it further in the snow in case she needed it later. She pulled his intestines from the gut, hand over hand, like hauling an anchor from the depths. She might not have bothered–the slippery tubes were empty. It’s not like Joseph had anything to eat before he died, either.

He came apart in strips, then, that she piled next to her in an ever-growing heap of gristle and gore. She felt the breath pulling into her lungs, cold and crisp, as she cut at his, and felt the pounding of her heart as she sliced his heart from the body and added it to her collection. For a wild second, she held the thing, smaller than an apple but impossibly heavy, to her lips, and wrapped her teeth around it, tasting congealed, coppery blood.

It would have been better had she gagged. Instead, it took every bit of willpower not to eat the heart right there, next to the butchered body of her traveling companion, raw and cold. With shaking hands, she put it down, holding on to at least a sliver of her humanity for a moment longer.

Tamsen didn’t weep until she saw how much she pulled from the dead man–enough to sustain them all for a few days. Her babies would go to bed with full bellies, as would she.

George would know what she had done, and refuse. All she could hope was that he would keep quiet and let her feed the girls.

Later, the children would be the ones to weep, reverently putting the cooked flesh into their mouths, tears falling because it was the most delicious thing they had ever eaten.

No one asked where it came from. Tamsen would have lied, anyway. And, God help her, when the first morsel of charred human meat was crushed between her molars, she knew that she would butcher the dead again and again, if she had to.

In the dead of night, she returned to Joseph, and cut his tongue from his skull, swallowing it down her throat and wondering what the last words it spoke were. It didn’t matter, though. Wordless and nearly rotten, the tongue stopped the gnawing inside of her, at least for a little while.

When she laid down next to her husband that night, ignoring the miasma of death that surrounded him, he whispered into her filthy hair, “You have damned us all, my love.”

Tamsen closed her eyes and remembered George signing the contracts that would set them onto their doomed western path, and thought that it was George that had damned them. But she loved him too much to leave him, anyway.

No one said a thing when they saw others in camp digging up the makeshift graves or smelled the cookfires. And when the Second Relief was spotted in the distance, they did what they could to cover the evidence of their crimes.

George didn’t wake that day when the Second Relief came, and Tamsen knew it wouldn’t be long. She had no intention of leaving the camp as long as he drew breath, but there was a violent fervor in her to get the girls free. The Second Relief had no room for them either, and once the small party was gone, she plied a few of the men who stayed behind with silver to take the children out. What did it matter if they were destitute? Better that than death.

Days later, she heard through whispers at the camp that the men she had paid abandoned her girls at one of the cabins closer to the lake. For the first time, she left George to collect her children, heartsick that she had almost lost them.

It wasn’t until the Third Relief arrived that she was able to send them to safety once and for all.

Telling them goodbye was harder than anything. She cupped their precious, beloved faces in her hands, and said their names over and over again like a prayer. Frances, Eliza, Georgia. Her loves. Her heart. Tamsen kissed their hollowed cheeks and gently untangled their fingers from her skirt and hair. She told them she loved them, again and again and again. It wasn’t enough, it never would be. When they disappeared into the pines, it was the last bit of life in her. With the Third Relief, they would reach safety.

George died, finally, while Tamsen begged him to stay with her. She wept and screamed, and when her grief turned to rage, and then to nothingness, she sat beside his body for three days, and stared at the sky.

Tamsen kept drawing breath, but she knew she was dead. Both of her families were gone, and again she was left standing alone. That, in and of itself, was a sort of death.

She would not be leaving this camp—not now, not ever.

She would stay, and watch the world turn, and listen to the whispers of the dead.

She hoped, at least, that the girls wouldn’t always remember her starving and frozen and half-mad with delirium. Before it all, she was bright and alive, a mother who loved her daughters. A teacher. A wife.

And now she would be nothing.

The sun rose and set, the stars wheeled, and the wind blew.

Her husband didn’t rot–it was too damned cold.

And one day, she got up and left him, a shambling ghoul, the last living soul left at her camp. Tamsen covered George in a sheet, kissed his face, and remembered the first husband she had buried all those years ago. Tamsen–window twice over.

There was one more person alive, miles away at the lake camp, and she meant to find him. Lewis Keseberg.

Tamsen knew there was no rescue coming. No salvation. No redemption. She was dead, and the world would forget her, and that was just as well. She was not afraid of death, and she was not afraid of Keseberg.

She found the man in the cabin, alone like her, a stockpot full of all-too-familiar bones. This time smaller, bird-like. Childlike.

His mouth smeared with grease, he turned.

And then their eyes met.

“You are the same as me,” he said, and it was not a lie.

Tamsen told that man where their gold and silver were buried, and told him to take it to her girls once he was reduced. He said he was near death, but she offered him everything that was left of her, just to keep him alive long enough to make it out.

And then, and then, and then…

And then she waited.

He didn’t take her life. With her last request given, with her husband dead and her children gone, Tamsen sank to the floor of the cabin. Her agony, her exhaustion, ferocious and fatal, did the work for him.

God, was it good to finally rest.

It was he who pulled her remaining shreds of humanity, placing her above himself, within himself. The very fact that she cared for her children meant that she was loved. It was evident in the way that she had tended to them. The way that she had placed their happiness, their livelihood, before her own. It was the least he could do to adhere to her final wishes. Tamsen was a good woman.

Lewis took care of her, of what became of her.

Her children would gain from her misfortune. Her family.

And when he would leave, with her dried skin on his hatband, and her bones and muscle in the satchel on his back, Tamsen was at peace, waiting in the darkness and the endless snow.

She would be remembered, and her children would inherit from her, carry on her blood and her story.

It was, maybe, enough.