Etta Mae’s Valentine


by Karla Fetrow

There’s them that believe, even dream about it some; that all it takes for a man to truly be happy in the wilderness, is to find a little woman who’s willing to share your cabin home. The truth of the matter is, those blamed women who grow up so wild and independent like themselves carry around a few ideas of their own. It wasn’t long before Etta Mae was traipsing back down the trail three or four times a week to train Sophie’s sled dogs. There was a bit of gossip in the community about this for Sophie was known as a free-hearted woman and there were at least a few who speculated on the wisdom of a man who would allow his gal to spend so much time with Sophie without some accompaniment. Those who knew Etta well, knew there wasn’t no real allowing. Etta did what she was going to do and you just accepted this or minded your own business.

Even among the most critical, there was a general agreement she was a damned good dog trainer. With the first cracking light of dawn, bleeding along a yellow horizon, she was out there, the team galloping over smooth snow covered tundra as fast as their legs would carry them, their tongues grinning from their mouths in happy excitement. Tall, solidly built, she almost seemed to be a man, her heavy parka, thick fur trim and shapeless snow pants covering any indication of femininity. She glided behind the sled, rarely riding the runners, her touch on the handle bars as light yet firm as a mother’s hand on a child’s head. She was part of the team, or they are a part of her. When the returned to Sophie’s property, they lounged about her adoringly, their big, rolling eyes pleading for an approving word, a pat, or the greatest of awards; a good scratch behind the ears. Etta awarded each dog according to its merits.

Sophie was the opposite. She believed they were all good dogs and deserved the same amount of attention. She slobbered over them, rolling them around and rubbing their bellies. “You’ll only spoil them that way,” Etta reproved. “They’ll think they don’t have to do nothin’ to win your approval. They won’t respect you.”

“Well, Etta,” said Sophie. “You do the disciplining. I think it’s probably good for them to think someone loves them no matter what.”

“They ain’t gonna win no races that way.”

“Sure they are because you’re the one they want to please. I’m just a grandma figure for them. Someone to make them all cozy and happy when they get home.”

It was a well known fact that Sophie could make a person feel cozy and happy. Walking into her home during the motionless bitterness of mid-winter was like walking into an oasis. Her wooden floors were always waxed and polished. Her wood burning stove cackled generously. Her kitchen, bright with electric lights and yellow paint deepened with the scent of something always cooking on the burner and fresh baked breads and pastries. She wasn’t that big an eater herself. Her dusty skin blushed to the very edge of plumpness without actually delivering out any extra pounds. Her spangled wrists hovered over her delicacies; rarely touching them; usually contenting herself with a bit of bread and soup.

She was the way lay station of the young and lonely, the home sick longing for a home cooked meal, the working mothers who had no time to bake for her children. She filled the cold stomachs with soups and stews, beans and rice. She sent her visitors home with bread and fresh baked cookies. If there was a bit of gossip about Sophie’s list of clientele, it was always concluded that Sophie was at least, a good hearted woman.

It was this coziness that drew Etta over and over in the dark winter months, to return to Sophie’s place, usually spending the night and waiting for the next few hours of scattered daylight to trudge back to Trapper Jim’s cabin. February came with increased sunlight, and still she found excuses for the evening to overtake her before she had finished her chores. She followed Sophie into the kitchen where some caribou ribs, freshly basted in the oven, lay spread out on the counter, along with some steamed broccoli and biscuits. The table was completely clear except a sparkling white table cloth, a fountain of springing red roses and a brand new blender. Etta’s eye went from the dinner to the table and remained there.

“Aren’t they lovely?” Said Sophie, beaming happily and fluffing the roses. She inhaled deeply. They came from Chris Pettigrew, you know; that young insurance agent that lives just on the outside of town. He goes to church every Sunday.” She laughed. “I suppose that’s how he gets his clients. People who go to church like to have a little insurance. That’s what they’re there for.”

She stopped primping the roses and plugged in the blender. She filled it with ice cubes. “Anyway,” she went on, “he came over this morning, before it was full daylight yet, all stammering and blushing. Why, it made me give a good blush or two myself. He stayed a good hour or two, not once talking about insurance until near the end. I reminded him that if he tried to sell me a policy, I wouldn’t give him the last of my snickerdoodles, and he began stammering and blushing again. To be a good sport, I gave him the last of my cookies and warned him you’d be over soon to train the dogs. That hurried him on his way, but I don’t think I’ve seen the last of him.”

“I thought Clint was your sweetheart.”

“Hmm,” answered Sophie busily, pulling a bottle of tequila from a shelf. “Have you ever had a Margarita?”

“Be as it may look, I never did feel a desire for women,” Protested Etta Mae quickly.

“No, I mean a drink, silly. I learned them in a fancy bar in Fairbanks. They’re really good. After one or two, I finally got the bartender to show me how it’s done.”

Sophie twirled the mix in her blender viciously, then poured it into two chilled and salted glasses. Etta took an experimental sip. “Now that’s good. That’s what I call a high class drink. I expect I should be wearing dangling earrings and high heels to be drinking this.”

“There ain’t no need for that. There’s only you and me and there’s a blizzard springing up, so I don’t expect no company coming over.” She settled in a chair opposite of Etta, her drink in her hand. “Now, about your question,” she said seriously. “You’re a one man woman and I respect you for it. There are men that need one man women and I don’t be no judge of character but I do believe Trapper Jim be one of them.

It’s a very fine way to be, but in a place where so many men are hankering for a bit of female company, it gets a little sad. Clint ain’t one to spend a great deal of time with no woman, do you see? For a woman who wants him to be there for her all the time, it just ain’t gonna work. He needs a woman like me, one who can’t make up her mind who she likes to be with best. When we are together, it’s only just him. It’s every minute a delight for being with him. But when he’s gone; and he’s gone more often than not; then I am a single woman enjoying the company of friends. Clint is the one with his foot in the door. The others are waiting in line. And I think,” said Sophie showing her soft smile, “Chris bumped up a couple of places.”

“Well, just as long as he don’t bump Clint out of the way,” grumbled Etta Mae. “He’s my friend too, you know, and I don’t want no broken hearts crying on my shoulder.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” laughed Sophie. “Do you remember how you were saying to treat dogs? That you should give them only as much affection as they deserve? That’s how men are. Some get a pat on the head, a scratch behind the ear, but only Clint has been deserving of the belly rub.”

The alcohol warmed Etta. She joined Sophie’s laughter, adding her own observations of male characteristics, blissfully naive of their aspects in regard to relationships. This discrepancy in knowledge didn’t bother Etta. After a couple of drinks, she had decided to take Sophie into her confidence. “I been wonderin’ and wonderin’ something but haven’t quite figured how to spit it out.”

“Why, just come right out and say it,” encouraged Sophie.

“I been wondering how you get a guy to give you a gift. Not just any ole gift, mind you, but one you been wantin’ and hankerin’ for. Them special gifts.”

“Special gifts?” Sophie fingered the roses. “Special gifts come as a surprise sometimes, but when there’s something I want, something I’m hankering for, I usually lay it out in teeny suggestions, trying to make him think it’s all his idea. But when nothing else works, why I just write a little message in lipstick on the mirror.”

“In lipstick on the mirror!” Exclaimed Etta in astonishment. “Why I ain’t even got a lipstick. Do you reckon I’ll have to be going down and buying one?”

“Lipstick can be very romantic. Secretly, men are romantic, Etta. There is something about stockings, lace and lipstick that excites them. Something about perfume and candle light. If your man can’t figure out what you want any other way, leave it in lipstick on the mirror.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re telling me this.”

“Have you been having problems with Trapper Jim?”

“Problems? Problems no. We had a pretty good Christmas, you know. I believe we celebrated it exactly right. We went out and chopped down a little tree; not one so big or nice that the other trees might make a fuss; and decorated it up with tin foil ornaments. It was right pretty to look at. We drank a bottle of Jack Daniels. I presented Jim with a quilt I’d be secretly making and he gave me a new smoking pipe.”

“A new smoking pipe! What kind of gift is that?”

“A right practical one. We use up more tobacco by rolling it into cigarettes, so with a nice tobacco pipe we can stretch things out. It wasn’t even a corn cob one, but genuine cherry wood. But now you see, there’s Valentine Day’s coming up and there’s a gift I think I’ve been a-wanting.”

“And what could you be wanting, Etta?”

Etta Mae only smiled secretively. “Best I not be telling because the walls have ears. The sprites might do something mischievous to make me ashamed telling you. Let’s see if this lace and perfume thing actually works or if I’ll have to take to lipstick.”

Etta Mae’s behavior was markedly changed when she returned to Trapper Jim’s cabin. She fretted that she had no lace curtains to put in the windows although it hadn’t bothered her before. She sighed in Trapper Jim’s presence and wrung her hands. She began half sentences, stopping helplessly and shaking her head. Trapper Jim, not being all that accustomed to constant human relationships in the first place, finally lost his temper in exasperation. “Tarnations, woman!” He shouted. “If there’s something going on in your head, why don’t you just come out and tell me?”

“Well, there’s some things a woman can’t easily tell a man. There are these cravings she gets and she don’t know how to express them.”

“You can’t tell me? I’m supposed to guess at it? Are you craving to go back to that woman’s house? That Sophie? Is you wanting your freedom?”

“I already have my freedom. I ain’t bound and chained to you. Oh, I be wanting something much different than that.”

“Well then tell me so I can be satisfied it won’t drive me crazy.”

“I want a gift for Valentine’s Day; a very special gift. I saw it on Sophie’s table. I want a gift like that.”

“Then I’m supposing I will have to go down to Sophie’s and look at her table.”

“I’m supposing you will.”

Trapper Jim pulled up his bunny boots and strapped on his snow shoes sighing. “I’ll never understand a woman. Ask her a simple question and she’ll send you three miles down the road for the answer. What were they given mouths for? I don’t know. It would be easier if they were just made to gape like baby birds when they’re hungry, and dispense with all the rest since they never really say what they’re thinking anyhow.”

His grumbling afforded him no good. While he fretted and muttered about a woman’s inability to articulate herself, Etta just nodded and sent him out the door. While he was gone, she made some preparations of her own. She cleaned the house and bathed. She made a fresh pot of rabbit stew. She set out candles, waiting for dusk to light them. She even put on a dress, but after fifteen minutes, began to feel uncomfortable. Deciding this was too extreme, she changed back into her overalls.

When Trapper Jim came back, he was amazed. His immediate question was, “did we run out of kerosene?”

“Why no,” said Etta, “but I thought candles would give us a nice atmosphere.”

He sniffed the air. “Did someone die? It smells like a whole bottle of toilet water got spilt in here.”

“I thought it wouldn’t hurt to have the cabin smelling like something other than skinned hides and doggy sweat for a change.”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with a little doggy sweat,” said Trapper Jim, then looked down at his favorite companion. “Why looky here. You even have Mutt Head all excited.”

It was a little exaggerated to say Mutt Head was excited, but he sat attentively on his haunches, his eyes following his quivering snout, which pointed in Etta Mae’s direction. “The only perfume that excites Mutt head is a dead fish smell. What’s rotten to us is good to him and what smells good to us is worse than a good scrubbing. Did you bring my present?”

“Ah ha.” Trapper Jim fished inside his coat. “I couldn’t see how I could bring a dozen roses without them all dying in the cold before I got back, so I brought you some silk roses.” He flourished them triumphantly.

Etta Mae took them a little dubiously and found a clean mayonnaise jar to place them in. “Silk roses,” she sighed. “What’s done is done.” She said no more about the roses, but somehow between their cheery setting, the good rabbit stew and a bottle of vodka, she began to feel a little romantic. She suggested they retire to the bedroom a little earlier than usual. Inside the tiny alcove, Trapper Jim received another surprise. “Why, Etta Mae! Have you been doing laundry? You’ve got your bloomers and your woolies spread all over the place!”

“That was meant to be suggestive.”

“You’re suggesting things!” He nuzzled her face with his great black beard, and tickled the lobe of her ear.

She blushed. “Why Jim! You’re flirting with me!”

They went to bed to do all the things their flirtations usually led them to doing, and for awhile Etta forgot about silk roses. However, long after Trapper Jim had fallen asleep, Etta lay with her eyes wide open. “I’m going to have to use the lipstick,” she decided. Slipping out carefully so as not to disturb him, she went to a drawer and brought out the lipstick she had borrowed from Sophie. She scrawled her message on the small, square mirror tacked above their water basin.

When Trapper Jim woke in the morning and went to the basin to groom himself, he hardly knew what to do. He wondered if he should clear the message so he could see himself, and finally decided to clear a circle in the middle and peer through the letters while he examined his teeth.

He had risen early, planning to do a bit of trapping, but now realized he had other pressing commitments. He would have to visit Clint and ask for his advice. Carrying a few traps, he called up Mutt Head, then ambled down the trail. Mutt Head was his seeing nose dog. His nose knew everything. Wherever his nose burrowed deeply, while whimpers bubbled up inside his throat, Trapper Jim laid a trap. By the time he reached his neighbor’s house, he had a small line strung out and was satisfied he’d done something productive for the day.

Clint was very surprised to see him. “A little early in the year to be getting cabin fever,” he remarked.

“It’s that dad-blamed woman,” complained Trapper Jim. “She wants a valentine present. And before you say something, I’ll tell you, silk roses won’t do. I already bought them.”

Clint stepped aside for Trapper Jim to come in and make himself comfortable. He brought out his tobacco can and rolled them each a fat cigarette. “What does Etta be hankering?”

“She wants a blender.”

“A blender!” Said Clint with astonishment. “For that, you’ll be needing electricity.”

“That’s the confounded part of it. Electricity can be evil. It’s an unnatural thing. It buzzes through your walls with all kinds of wiggling, squirming creatures and gets right inside of you. It zaps inside your head and makes you crazy. Them that live with electricity are all going to go crazy one day. You mark my word on this.”

“I heard from reliable sources that this is probably true. Electricity makes all these excited molecules that dance around, maybe splitting apart and maybe colliding against each other, going boom so subtly that only a dog’s ears can hear it, but you still have it all crackling up there in you sub-conscious. It can’t be healthy.”

They fell silent as they pondered their serious problem. “I’ve got it!” Said Clint after awhile. I have a small generator I been using to power up some electric tools out in the garage. I got a bigger one not so long ago. I’m thinkin’ of opening a mechanic’s shop, but all that hand-crankin’ can wear a fella out, so I’ve been doing a bit of renovating.”

Clint certainly had been doing a bit of renovating. Many of his old tools sat piled and rusting in a corner, while shiny new power drills, saws and drivers took their places on the shelves. A large generator hummed and twirled its rubber belts. “I’m powering up now to work on a neighbor’s truck,” he explained. “Gotta get to the transmission and every one of them bolts is in so tight, you’d think they’d fused together.

He rummaged through his junk pile, and brushed away the dust that had started accumulating an ugly, green, clumsy box-like affair. “She ain’t much to look at I know, but she’ll still fire up a car battery. With a few wires running here and there, Etta Mae could use her blender.”

It was a marvelous idea, but not a very easy one to execute. It may have been a small generator, but it was still too big for a man to haul along on snow shoes. They would have to borrow some of Sophie’s dogs and a sled. They would also have to enlist Sophie’s help in buying a blender.

Sophie was also surprised to see Clint and Trapper Jim so early in the year, but when they explained their problem, she was understanding. If Etta Mae wanted a blender, than she should get a blender. They spent the entire day fitting together a contraption that would work, then finally had it for the sled by evening.

By the time he got back to the cabin, Etta Mae was growing anxious. She looked suspiciously at the sled outside her door and the dogs being taken off their leads to be tied to fence posts. “You been out shopping?” She sniffed after he’d given each one a bowl of water, a few nuggets of dried dog food and a pat on the head.

“Yep,” he answered, smiling mischievously.

“Well, you might have told me. I might have wanted to come along.”

“That would spoil the surprise now, wouldn’t it? You run along now and get into that new flannel night gown your aunty sent you. Take your time about it. I’ve got something to do.”

Peeking through the crack she’d left in the door to the bedroom, she watched Trapper Jim bring in, first the horridly ugly box, rusting at its corners, then a car battery, complete with an assortment of wires. “What in the name of the almighty is he up to this time?” She wondered. She quickly changed into her full-length plaid nightgown, while he hummed and whistled over his new gadget.

“There!” He said, when she reappeared. With a flourish, he revealed what had been in his coat; a blender tied to the wires of the battery that attached itself to the generator. He set it carefully on the table. “Try it out.”

Etta Mae crept up to the table and pushed a button. “Why, it even works!” She said as she watched the blades spin busily inside the bowl.

“What are you going to blend?” Asked Trapper Jim.

“Why I don’t know. Those margarita’s were good, but a little fancy for my tastes. But isn’t this the prettiest thing?”

It’s not known if Etta Mae ever actually used her blender, although she liked to demonstrate its wonderful whirling. She kept it as clean and polished as the first day she received it and showed it to everyone who came over, declaring it was the most beautiful table ornament she’d ever been given the privileged grace to see.