Tamsen Donner Commits Horrid Acts with Her Husband
“…the cabins, by order of Major Swords, were fired, and with them everything connected with this horrid and melancholy tragedy were consumed…”
- Edwin Bryant, with the Eastward-bound army
after conquering California, 1847
The tent, canvas from the wagon,
a pebbly texture sagging with ice, crackling
in the cold night air.
Wind’s monologue. Dead-cold trees.
Tamsen and her dying husband
watched the layer of canvas
fearing its failure,
the loss of that distinction
between inside and outside.
Storms lasted ten days at a time.
bones show through
into a new shape of the person.
Now the body is the shape of what’s inside.
After he died,
she stroked his body, the bones
and the tendons like wrapping twine
around his femur,
his radius and ulna.
She dressed him. Then
she undressed him
to use his clothing to warm herself.
He lay naked, under a threadbare quilt
(midwest quilting socials, bills sewn
into the squares,
that hope like
scent of freshly cut grass).
She removed the blanket and
wrapped herself in it,
gazing and not
gazing. Was she still
the woman who married him?
the man she married?
Tamsen licked his wrist, remembering.
She used her teeth,
as when he used to bite
little purple marks into her neck.
She nibbled along
the inside of his arm - she felt most familiar
with this part of him, what was visible
as he worked,
what touched her
when he held her face
to kiss her. Most familiar
and most proprietary.
A penknife was all that was needed
here to slice out a piece
like the curve of pink melon from its rind.
The axe was used later
maybe, to cut
the bones. Her tongue
ran across the inside
of the inside of his arm.
Its damp baby-pink
surprising beneath the brown
paper bag skin
as if here
was the man she married. Here
was the untouched
part. She savored
the hope of him,
in the hard white desert of winter -
his release from the packaging of his body,
and for her, a surrender
to the inside, the outside layers collapsing
tent walls sagging.
upon her. She chewed slowly
to make him last, the soft
pink arm, her eyes closed