Meet Narcissa: Chap1, Scene A

Narcissa Prentiss House

The day I met Dr. Whitman, a heavy bank of silver cloud threatened snowfall, pressing low over the house Father had built for us on the forest edge outside Amity, Allegany County, Western New York State. A house similar to the one he'd built in Prattsburg, where I'd grown up. He in fact used the same blueprints, giving a sensation of new—yet old and familiar. White clapboard. Green shutters. A narrow porch along the front. A house so new the floorboards had yet to complain. Indoors, fires crackled behind their hearths—parlor excepted. This was being cleaned. But on its mantle and throughout the house lamplight flickered a happy yellow. In the kitchen, heavy condensation beaded the muntins of Mother’s twelve-pane window positioned above the sink while my bread, divided into six loaf pans, fluffed under tea towels atop the cast iron stove. More than the regular baking had to be done today. Prayer concert was at our house tonight and all was a flurry. Dr. Whitman would be here.

I had mixed feelings about the affair and staggered up from the cellar with an apron of apples beginning to whither, gently tumbling them into the tin sink. I was curious to meet him, of course. Everyone was. But I was also jealous, a new sensation for me. I’m not by nature a jealous woman. But I wanted to go to Oregon. I had for some time. “Mother, have you seen my knife?" I asked. I pushed aside the sugar bowl, lifted the tea towel. "I don’t understand. I just had it.”

Mother was a large but stately woman with silky, cinnamon hair, worn today in a careless wind up the back of her head and skewered to the top by an exquisite ivory comb—her one concession to vanity. Busy rolling pastry at the kitchen table, she used her chin to point to the pile of newspapers we kept stacked by the back door.

I had to laugh. “Who would have thought?”

“You put it there yourself, Daughter.”

“I did?”

“Yes. When you went to fetch a paper for your apples.”

“I did!” I confessed with sudden clarity. I’d gotten distracted by the article on Dr. Whitman. “I sometimes wonder where my head is at, Mother.”

“Scheming your own way to the Oregon, I'm sure.”

She didn't mind me being a missionary. She thought it God's highest call. She just didn't like the idea of me going to Oregon. China, yes, a civilized country. India. But Oregon? A savage country from which few came back. I could hardly blame her and went to the table to give her a kiss.

"Umph," she grunted, flipping the pastry over and going at it again with her rolling pin, quick hard jabs.

“Mother, short of cropping my hair and sneaking off in a pair of Father’s coveralls, there’s nothing I can do to change the Board's mind. I am a woman. Feeble. Delicate."

That got a laugh out of her. She wagged the rolling pin at me. "Being a woman has nothing to do with it. It's being a single woman."

“But if by some miracle?” I cajoled.  “And if God should intervene?”

“He already said no.”

“The Board said no.”


“Have either of you seen Edward?”

“Father!" I gasped, his sudden presence in the kitchen door startling me. "How long have you been standing there?”

"Long enough." People called him Judge Prentiss, even here in Amity, out of respect for his one term on the Bench. He was, however, a master builder with a gristmill and sawmill back home in Prattsburg, now under management of my older brothers. A year ago, we’d moved to this rustic village sixty miles to the southwest so Father could take advantage of the country’s restless crawl west. He'd built a second sawmill and was now providing lumber for both Alleghany and Steuben Counties. Amity's log houses were giving way to substantial homes, beginning with the church manse last summer—though he’d taken no money for it. Like Mother, he was big—solid as oak, sturdy in a storm. He gave me a smile. He understood completely my frustration.

“Mother,” he said. “I could use Edward’s help with that wagon of shingles."

“He’s cleaning the parlor fireplace. You can have him when he’s finished.”

Soon his voice and my younger brothers drifted down the hall in comfortable duet. I went over to the newspaper pile to fetch my knife; sister Jane kicked in the back door. My favorite sister. She lurched across the threshold with an armful of frozen bedsheets plucked from the clothesline. Cold curled along the floor like snakes at my ankles, and I leapt back.

“Smells good in here!” she mumbled, twenty-three years old to my twenty-six, trying to get a better grip on the stiffened sheets even while kicking a heel to the door and giving it a good slam. She angled through the kitchen to the hallway where Father had just been.

A younger sister, Mary—twenty-one years old, blue-eyed and cinnamon-haired like Mother—appeared the minute Jane passed through. She leaned against the jamb, arms crossed, and eyed Mother’s chore list tacked to the wall. “I’m finished the dusting, Mother. Anything in particular you’d like me to do next?”

“The pie plates need greasing. Edward!” Mother straightened, fists to her hips. “Don’t you dare drop that ash on my floor!”

Fifteen years old and youngest of us all (nine total), Edward pushed past Mary with his last bucket of slag, charcoal and ash daring the brim.

“Did you take out the andirons? Did you sweep?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Mind your tone.”

“I’m just sick of all these chores. Where’s Jonas anyway? Why isn’t he doing anything?”

“He’s at the mill,” said Mother. “As well you know.”

Edward shifted the pail into both hands and staggered to the back door. “It’s just a prayer concert. Hardly the King of England.”

“Aren’t you going to put your coat on?” I asked.

“Don’t need it.”

Mary tut-tutted and heaved herself from the jamb to go shut the back door behind him.

“Take him his coat,” said Mother. “He’ll catch his death.”

Mary flashed me a smile, dimples delightful, before disappearing down the cellar stairs, leaving a hollow ring of her steps as she descended. From the top down, Father had pounded in nine masonry nails—coat pegs for each of us: himself, Mother, me, Jonas, Jane, Mary, Lissa, Harriet, Edward at the bottom. At our old house, there’d been eleven, the extra two for Stephen and Harvey.

“While you’re at it,” said Mother when Mary reappeared, coat on, Edward’s in hand, “take some of that newspaper out to the privy.”

“I thought you wanted the pie plates greased.”

“Harriett can do it.”

“I can do what?” The youngest of us girls flounced into the kitchen to stand before Mother’s list. Seventeen years old, flamboyant, copper hair and luminous blue eyes, she could sometimes get on Mother’s nerves. I understood the irritation but personally adored the girl. “Tidy the study,” she read. “Done!” She crossed it off with a flourish.

“I need you to grease pie plates,” said Mother.

“But I was going to start the ironing.”

“Grease the plates, Hattie,” said Mary, stuffing newspapers under her arm, “while your sadirons heat. Is that so hard to figure out? Really, Hattie, you do weary Mother.” She headed outdoors, the cold snaking in again with a wicked hiss.

Hattie snorted. “Do I, Mother?”

“You do.”

I fetched my knife and turned my attention to the apples. If we were lucky, we’d get three pies, and I fell into rhythm, turning each apple in hand, snapping my wrist to drop the curling peels onto the sheets I’d spread by the sink. I watched them first wet, then cover, the headline announcing Dr. Whitman’s appearance. No headline necessary. His upcoming journey to the Oregon with Rev. Parker was a matter of national chatter. Three years ago, Indians from behind the Rocky Mountains had come east to ask Gen. Clark of Lewis and Clark fame for teachers and the white man’s Book of Heaven—a story so eerily similar to the apostle Paul’s vision of a Macedonian calling for the gospel that it begged comparison. The Methodist Communicator had done just that when it broke the story two years ago last May. THE MACEDONIAN CALL. Goosebumps had skittered my skin to see the headline. Reading the story, my body buzzed. Forever I'd wanted to be a missionary, waiting on Providence to lead. Here it was, the Macedonian call I would heed. I put in my application to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. "No need for single women," they wrote back, ink hardly dry. 

They did approve an exploratory trip to Oregon. Now, after weeks of stumping for funds and making plans, Dr. Whitman and Rev. Parker were ready to embark on this transcontinental quest—first to see if the story was true, then to locate a mission site. For safety, they'd travel with a fur trading company headed West to the Rocky Mountains and annual Rendezvous, where trappers and Indians gathered to swap a year's worth of animal furs for hatchets, guns, and ammunition. Whiskey, too, I’m sure. Trading over, the caravan would head back to St. Louis, but the doctor and reverend would keep going on their own, farther West, deeper into Oregon country, of which so little is known. If all went well, they'd meet the caravan at next year's Rendezvous—and hitch a ride back home. All in all, a daring-do. Newspapers everywhere were dubbing the journey plucky, naïve, intrepid. Dangerous even. No trail, tricky river crossings, hostile Pawnee and Sioux. “The dark side of the moon,” wrote the New York Herald. To this darkness I wanted to go. I had to go. This darkness needed the light of God’s love. The last apple peeled, cored, and sliced, I folded in the newspaper corners and carefully dropped the soggy lump of seeds and peelings into the bin. Jane popped her head into the kitchen.

“Cissy, can you help me get the hall rug outside?” Cissy was the name she’d given me when we were small; universally adopted.

“Oh, let's do." 

Jane was the only real redhead among us, without temper, the kindest and sweetest person I knew. We knelt and knee-crawled our way to the front door, spooling the rug as we went. More awkward than heavy, we managed to tip the floppy roll on its end and somersault it out the front door, onto the porch, and over a rope Father had strung between two pillars for just this kind of thing. I went back in for two rug beaters.

What seemed like hours later—rug back in the hall; windows washed, upstairs and down; chamber pots emptied, scalded, put back under the beds; dresses ironed, Father’s shirt, his trousers; a bowl of soup in my stomach—I gave another look at the never-ending list. Nineteen-year-old Lissa arrived and held up a pair of boots. 

“I have the blacking. Want to help?”

Named for our mother Clarissa, Lissa as we called her, was as fair-haired as I; and of the nine we looked the most alike. At times, it was like looking into a mirror to speak with her. Though I lacked her freckles, she my cleft chin. “Do you have rags?” I asked. She pulled two or three from an apron pocket. "I’ll get the shoes," I said, "and meet you in the cellar.”

At the bottom of Father's "Kitchen in a Box," which Mother called a "Kitchen Queen," I found the flour sacks folded in with the tea towels, plucked one to my liking, and went about the house, checking armoires and under beds, tossing shoes into the bag as I found them. A headache had been building, now weariness, and I let the burlap bag drop against each step as I descended, upstairs to down. Thump, thump. Down another flight into the cellar. Thump, thump, thump. “Scoot over,” I said.

On the bottom step, Lissa scooted, and in the thin, gray light falling through a high window surrounded by stone, I dropped the bag onto the dirt floor in front of us.

“You’ve been fretting all morning about going to the Oregon, haven’t you?” she said.

Not going to the Oregon,” I corrected, dropping into place beside her and reaching into the sack. I pulled out one of Jane’s turquoise kid leather pumps. Small black heel, brass buckle over the toe. I held it up to the light and gave it a turn. “What do you think? Polish the buckle? It’s looking a bit briny.”

“If you stain that turquoise, look out.”

“I could put a bit of newspaper between the leather and clasp.”

“Just do the heel. Let Jane worry about the buckle if she wants.”

I rubbed a spot of blacking into the heel stump. “The thought occurred to me," I said, "while looking for the shoes, that maybe God doesn’t want me to be a missionary. Maybe I’ve misunderstood. Maybe I’m motivated by an intense and grandiose sense of adventure.”

“Oh, stop it. You’ve wanted to be a missionary half my life. You’re letting this trip discourage you. Write the Board again. Be the widow in the parable. You know, badgering the judge until he gave in out of sheer weariness. Keep badgering, Cissy. Badger the Board into submission.”

“I have been badgering. I talked to Rev. Parker last fall, remember? Fat lot of good that did me.”

“Oh, I remember.”

We'd all gone, squeezing, shivering into a back bench of Amity Congregational, a log house with no windows or Carron stove. He'd come stumping for funds and to explain the two-year trip. One year out, one year back. Staring at his snowy white hair and penetrating blue eyes, I'd asked myself...If an old man could go, why not a woman?

“I’m telling you, Cissy, badger the Board. Every month, write them. I mean it.”

I allowed myself a minute to imagine consent. “It would be an unheard-of journey for a woman, wouldn’t it?” 

"You'd be famous."


"Have you ever heard of a woman walking clear across the continent, New York to Oregon?"


Thirty minutes later we crossed “polish shoes” off the list. I heard the clock on the other side the wall bong three on the hour. My headache had settled into a steady throb, my weariness weighted me. The list seemed manageable. “Lissa, I’m going to run up for twenty winks. Don’t worry, I’ll be down to do the silver.”