1800’s Polygamy Strain: A Short Story

Written by: Pam Backlund

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  Read aloud at https://youtu.be/4IB-IgTnpdE

Milo knows he will die.  He is so scared of “how” it will all end, that it is driving his three wives and ten children crazy.  They live on the Lipan Flat area near San Angelo at a time when the frontier is still quite rough. 

Due to Milo’s fancy, the entire family lives in a sod home with several rooms added for comfort.  The children are homeschooled as this is the 1800’s out in the wild.  Mostly everyone learns through trial and error as time goes by. 

Milo says, “Time is a good teacher, but it ‘kills’ all its students.”  No one laughs at the joke.

Milo can’t get ‘death’ off of his mind.   Oh, he is a good father to his offspring and he certainly made a fine home for all fourteen in the family.  He even designed the habitation so that the prevailing south summer wind would funnel through the main rooms from the back door to the front door.  The home stays cool in the summer and stays strong against adversaries.

For instance, the Comanches and the buffalo make a big commotion when they come through the prairie.  Becoming invisible to them is the strategy.  So everyone in the clan hides of course.  Then after a while they get tired of waiting.  Milo has acute hearing so he can ascertain when it is safe to exit the home. 

He might give the ‘go-ahead’ to his group.

But that doesn’t prevent his frightened kid, Arnie from encouraging Milo to stick his head out the door to see if it is clear.  Arnie is famous for saying, “Stay calm and don’t lose your head!”

Because of that remark and others like it, Milo knows why some animals eat their young.

But his ‘ten kids’ aren’t the only sources of agitation in his life. 

Wife #1(Sue) is notorious for wanting him to babysit the young ones even though he doesn’t have any milk for them.  Babies just eat, sleep and poop all day and night.  Wanting him to watch them during the sleeping and pooping time of the schedule is not something he likes to do.

“I’m the patriarch of this family, for heaven’s sake! Don’t ask me to be a nurse,” he says.

He did have to admit that the wives were excellent at gathering food for their vegetarian diet while he babysat.  But during one exceptional year, the wives could find no food. A swarm of locusts had come down upon the prairie leaving very little crop for the family. 

Wife #2 (Ann) says, “Let us eat the grasshoppers, as there is nothing left to have.  It is OK to eat the creatures that have eaten our vegetation.”

Milo responds, “But I don’t like eating insects.  They give me indigestion.  You wives need to venture further out from our land and find some roots and grain for me to eat.”

Wife #3 (Mary) argues, “It is not our job to secure ALL of the food for this family.  You are the male.  You should at least hunt for adequate bugs for us, even if you refuse to eat them yourself!”

And so he did.

He wondered if the magnificent buffalo and Comanches would eat grasshoppers in the ‘starving-to-death’ situation of that year.  He still had ‘death’ on his mind. 

“My life’s a poorly written book because in the end, I will ‘die’,” he thinks philosophically. With paranoia of his own mortality, Milo fails to remember that the Comanche and the buffalo perish, too. 

He tries, though.  He doesn’t want to be a worrier.  He sincerely wants to be a better father figure.  He is still the patriarch.  But he leaves a lot to be desired.

Nonetheless his mood remains glum as one seventh of his life is spent on Mondays…the day of cleaning debris out of the home.  “What happened to my adventurous young life?” he thinks. “I used to fight other males for the reward of a wife.  I scouted for danger.  Now in my older years, I still live, but only for the sake of my offspring, it seems.”

“And half of fatherhood is shutting up,” whispers Milo to himself when everyone thinks he is sleeping.  No one wants to hear his morbid opinions.

He doesn’t shut up when he guards the children playing outside, though. He keeps vocal. Milo reflects on the evil kidnapper of the neighborhood, “I call him Red for the feathers he wears.”

Red has been known to snatch up playing children as entertainment.  And yes, some say he eats the children. But that would be as vicious a character as the witch in Hansel and Gretel.  And who believes that fairy tale?  Nevertheless the sad thing is when the children come missing, they remain lost for eternity. 

Therefore Milo sends out loud warnings so that the kids get into the home when Red appears out of nowhere.

And he does more than guard duty for the family!

There’s maintenance on the home that has to be done.  You see when you have roof and walls made of dirt; there is a constant need to tamp it compactly.  Water leaks easily into a sod home.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.  It seems to Milo that the tamping and repair shouldn’t lie only on his shoulders.  He does have three wives!

Why just a month ago, Sue complained that water was leaking onto her while she slept during a rainstorm. 

“You should just fix it yourself,” Milo replied.  “It’s on your side of the room!”

And then there are the freeloaders that took up residence in one of his rooms.   Jack and his small family became houseguests when they were incapable of digging their own home.  They have overstayed their welcome, for sure. 

One day Jack went missing while the children were napping.  Word is that he was killed by his enemies.  “Around here, the number one cause of death is NOT too many birthdays,” he told the orphans. 

“One day a stuttering guy like your dad is out in the open, and he gets killed before he can finish his sentence. That’s life and death on this prairie,” he continued.

Fortunately the kids were weaned and able to basically fend for themselves; and luckily they were vegetarians as well.  They also tolerated the loud barking in the neighborhood, better than Milo’s own family.

If it’s not the kids or guests, it’s something else getting Milo down.

Milo loses sleep at night for various reasons.  But one thing bothers him very much. So much in fact, that if a neighborhood apocalypse happened; his survival plan is to die quickly. 

You see there in the proximity of his land for his three wives and ten children are others living in THEIR sod homes.  It is rather crowded, actually.

Property lines have never been formally drawn by surveyors so there is frequent quarreling about what land belongs to whom.  No fences have ever been erected and probably never will.  “Maybe when hell freezes over,” remarks Milo.

The boundaries between homes are fluid, as erosion and plant growth take over the prairie. 

Conflicts arise from simple mistakes. Once a room at Milo’s, caved in.  And it was easier to build another on the other side of the home, than to repair it.  Milo’s extension overflowed into a neighbor’s supposed land.  Gosh, sparks flew! 

The amount of land per neighbor is so constrained by competition that there is a need for an ambassador within each family for keeping peace in the colony. 

The males make poor envoys as they are too inclined to fight with another male and claim the loser’s wives as his own.  So females become emissaries.

I know this might sound archaic…polygamy and tight-knit neighborhoods; but this is how Milo’s culture has always been.  When they gradually moved to this spot on Lipan Flat, they knew what they were getting into. 

Being so collective comes in handy when it is time for courtship and group safety.  But it does require that a female from each coterie become brazen enough to venture.  Milo’s near-adult daughter, Bridgett, filled that vacancy this year. 

When I say near-adult, I mean Bridgett is something of a teenager who is on the verge of courtship.

But she is also a spy.  She must go to a possible enemy’s home and greet them all (both male and female) with a kiss.   After they kiss her and receive hers, they will either accept her into their territory or run her off at a high speed.   If she gets run off, apparently that family is Milo’s rival.

Sometimes Bridgett is greeted with an aggressive tussle.  Fortunately, usually a friendly visit occurs.  Gossip is shared.  Living situations are ascertained.  And somewhere in the conversation, Bridgett finds out if the patriarch there is (a) looking for another wife, or (b) about to die.

Upon returning from her diplomatic missions, she repeats what she has heard to the family.  They evaluate the situations and make decisions.

Of course, Milo’s family is visited by representatives, too.  Everyone wants to know each other’s trade.  Some of the most pressing business is how to distribute the males.

Juvenile males; (Milo calls them juvenile delinquents,) must either overtake their father’s patriarchy or move on to a “new to them” home.  They must fight for a wife (or wives) and figure out what to do with mother and aunts.  So communication is vital.

A lot of decisions are made before winter arrives. 

Milo was sure to tell each delegate that he has no plans of retiring.  “Retirement kills more than, ‘hard work’ ever did,” quotes Milo.

“As if he really works hard,” his three wives chime in chorus.

Milo has slowed down with his abilities; everyone knows he is pushing close to the end of his lifespan.  But, he is still an important part of the family, no doubt.

Milo’s son, Doug, has been trying to figure out his life situation since he is one of the ‘juvenile delinquents.’

Doug has gone so far as to map out in the dirt, the “dying trail” for his dad. 

Doug says, “Someday you’ll take this path to a land we’ve never seen.  And it is there that you will pass on.  It is part of our culture to end life this way.  All of us will walk the ‘dying trail’ too, some day.”

Milo had grown used to this kind of chatter.  Doug wasn’t his first juvenile son, nor would he be his last.

“It is embarrassing to have you bring up that trail right now.  I treat each day as my last, and one day I’ll be right,” he countered.  “But don’t tell me I’m going away exactly now, because I’m not!”

With that he left the safety of the home and wandered to the head of the deer trail that everyone in the colony knew to be the ‘dying trail’.  Clouds were beginning to darken overhead as his mood got more and more somber. 

By comparison, Eskimo elderly walk off into the cold, to freeze in their sleep when they are a detriment to their group as a whole. 

In a similar way a severely injured colonist would not put the society in danger by remaining on the premises…hence, the ‘Trail.’

That day, Doug and his juvenile brothers were the ones to lose the war of this property ownership.  “War doesn’t determine who is right, only who is left,” muttered Milo under his breath.  “I will be left standing with my goods!  No one is running me off!”

A torrential rain began to fall on Milo.  He went back to his dirty home.  Hard rain was rough on the home he’d made.  The lowest rooms, some as deep as three yards below ground level would fill up fast because of this storm.  Everyone would need to huddle in the mid-level rooms.

But the rain did not relent.  It rained heavily for days.  The large family moved to the upper level rooms as the halls and rooms below were captured by brown flooding water.  The ceilings were leaking from water soaking in. 

The whole family tried to tap the ceiling with their noses to make a waterproof film but to no avail. 

The jackrabbit family shuddered in the coldness with the prairie dogs.  All of the other colonists were also undergoing the same catastrophe…some with their boarders of snakes, burrowing owls and cottontails.

A verdict needed to be ready; one that only the prairie dog patriarch was qualified to make.  “The cover of the river trees would be better than our being out in the open.  This home is about to collapse.  Red-Tailed Hawk will get us,” Milo decided.

He and the other prairie dogs followed the ‘dying path.’

Little did they know that the path led to a wonderful new habitat for the surviving prairie dogs. 

There would be less competition in the new land and Milo could continue to ponder death with his wives and children.

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