Jim shivered and straightened in the chair. It was the
day-dream again, it always ended like this. Janet's death had seemed the
end of everything, the shock from which there was no recovery; as the
pulling of a vine from a wall sometimes wrecked the wall, so his very life
had been threatened by the separation. Only an instinct for
self-preservation had saved him: only by pushing the memory into the
background and keeping it there, by losing himself in work or in some
other interest, had he managed to survive.
He settled back in the chair again. It was so foolish,
he thought, to dwell on this one scene, the tragic one, the end of their
time together on earth. They were not the only ones; most married lives
ended in something like this. There were Dan and Agnes MacDonald - now
both gone - who died a few years apart. They had loved each other too.
What good times they had had together, the four of them, and how many good
things had come about through the years. His head sank to his chest. The
bees hummed in the morning-glory blossoms. It was pleasant at this hour
before the heat became intense.
"Aha Jim, there you are leading the life of Riley. How
I wish I could sleep like that at ten o'clock in the morning. You old
gaffers do have it easy."
Jim woke with a start. It was Elmer Watt, the milkman.
Jim tried to rally his thoughts and come back to the present. The daydream
had seemed so real.
"You're a bit late aren't you, Elmer? I just dozed off
a minute waiting for the milk; and who are you to talk about old gaffers,
you're no chicken yourself."
"I keep circulating though, Jim. Up at five in the
morning and it will be dark when I finish tonight. No rest on an easy
chair for the downtrodden; but I can't stand here blathering. See you."
Elmer was already on the step of the canopied wagon
clucking to the horse before Jim could think of an answer. Elmer was a bit
hard to take. It was a temptation to give him a sharp answer to jar his
self-importance, but in the village, where you met people every day, you
could not do this. Jim tolerated their oddities because it was just
possible he might have some of his own. He got up stiffly from the chair.
Certainly it wouldn't do to sleep at ten in the morning, and it wouldn't
do to sit and mope either. He went inside and got his hat and coat from
"I'm going out to the farm, Elspeth," he called. "It's
a good harvest day and there must be something I can do to help out
"Will you be home for supper then?"
"Most likely. If not I'll phone you."
Elspeth made no comment. That was not unusual. She
avoided conversation. After Janet's death she had spoken only in
monosyllables for weeks. She had grieved, there was no doubt of that, but
she had grieved silently, as an animal does. Never again would anyone get
close to Elspeth.
Jim left without another word. What was the use? At the
little barn he got a halter and a pan of oats and walked the short block
to Sam Fraser's house where his horse pastured on Sam's grass lot. He was
old now, eighteen past, and a little heavy and wind-broken. But he looked
with interest at the halter and oats coming and accepted them graciously,
slobbering some on the ground because his teeth were not all they had
been. Jim hitched him to the buggy and mounted to the seat. He seized the
lines and cracked the whip alarmingly.
"Come on, Sandy, get out of here."
They rattled past the house and down the street and
then settled down to the steady jog which was Sandy's pace now, and Jim's
too for that matter.
The harvest had started; the oats were nodding ripe on
their stalks. John's Alec McPherson was cutting a field by the road, and
his son, Alec's John, was stooping the sheaves. The stooks wandered in
thick rows across the field. Jim stopped to talk to Alec's John.
"I see your father has got himself one of those new
sheaf carriers for the binder."
"I told him he had to. Who wants to trail sheaves all
over the place? I made him get a hayloader, too, this year. I said I'd
leave and go west if he didn't get more things to work with."
"You young fellows are scared to bend your backs now,"
said Jim scathingly. "Come on, Sandy." Out of hearing, he spoke his mind
to the horse, "Made him do this, made him do that, what is the world
A cloud of dust appeared down the road, and Sandy
pricked his ears. He slowed and prepared ostentatiously for trouble.
"Come on, you damned old fool, you know that car won't
The car approached rapidly. Windy Willy Millar was
behind the wheel. Sandy bucked and pranced, managing to get both front
feet well into the air at once - no small feat at his age. In a few
sideways leaps he worked off the frustration of days in old Sam's pasture.
Then he felt the whip crack on his rear and straightened out for a burst
of his old-time speed. It was most refreshing. They both felt the better
The old farm came in sight. Sandy and Jim turned in at
the gate and drove between the rows of poplars on one side and maples on
the other. They were still young trees. He and Janet had planted them.
Sandy slowed and clopped along contentedly. Jim looked through the poplars
to where the house stood with the spruce trees on the windward side. They
had planted the spruce too. Shep the collie came to meet them, white feet
flashing. He made a token leap at Sandy's head, then wheeled and escorted
them to the lawn gate.
"Hello Grampa, hello. We didn't know you were coming.
Can I unhitch Sandy? Can I take him to the barn, can I?" This was young
Rory, aged six, a nucleus of energy, a fountain of words, and the apple of
"Careful now that he don't step on your bare feet. Yes,
you can unhitch him, but don't stand under him. Unhook the hold-backs
first and then the tugs like I showed you."
Jim got down stiffly and oversaw the operation. The
tugs were tucked in the breeching and Sandy stepped ahead in the shafts.
They proceeded to the barn. Rory proudly held the reins and did much
unnecessary steering. Sandy could have walked to the barn blind-folded.
"Can I unharness him, Grampa, and rub him down? I'll be
"There's no need, boy; I'll be going home the night."
"I can harness him again for you, Grampa. He wants to
be cleaned up."
Sandy hadn't worked up any noticeable sweat. He needed
a rubdown as much as he needed a fifth leg, but it was hard to say no to
"If you must, you must, laddie. But for heaven's sake,
watch your bare feet."
Rory already had the harness off. Jim guessed it was
safe to leave them. Sandy would be careful, and if the boy used any
judgment at all he would be safe. Jim went toward the house and thought of
the difference between Rory and John. John had been diffident, slow and
shy about doing new things. Rory rushed in confidently. `The boy might do
well if he ! could be kept out of the taverns. He remembered the other
Katie met him at the door. A smudge of flour was on her
nose and her face was flushed with the heat of the cooking fire. "Good
morning to you, Dad." She reached up the hand that was free of flour,
grabbed him by one ear, and pulled his head down to where she could kiss
him. Jim looked at this distractingly pretty young woman and wondered
again whatever she had seen in John to marry him.
"I left Rory at the barn. He was bound to curry the
horse. I hope he'll come to no harm."
"Not likely; the angels look after the boy, I think,
either that or the old one himself. Since Molly came I've given up
He went over to where Molly lay in the cradle. It was
the wooden cradle made from the big pine that had stood at the road gate.
John had used the same tree for the kitchen cupboard and the table as
well. And there were still wide pine boards stored in the hay
Molly looked at him gravely. She was named for Katie's
mother, but she looked like Janet. He put out a finger for her to clutch.
She took it, but refused to smile.
"The bairn's a serious one; she doesn't take up with
"She's a snooty one for sure," said Katie. "That's the
Scotch in her."
"What's John doing? I came to help him." He had come
for many reasons, but there was no need to go into that.
"He's stooking in the field behind the orchard, but you
don't have to go rushing out there. Sit yourself down and I'll make
coffee. There's a bit of rum left in the bottle and we'll just have a spot
of that in the coffee, too."
Jim sat down without argument. He loved Katie's brand
of coffee. There was a beverage made in Bruce County that was called
coffee, but it wasn't like what Katie made. As they sat at the kitchen
table Jim thought how easy it was to talk to this girl, this woman, his
son's wife. For sure she chattered a lot, but mostly it made sense, and
how pleasant it was to laugh or sit in silence without embarrassment. It
might be that the Scotch had a lot to learn from the Irish, at least from
the womenfolk, though the men were a palavering lot to be sure.
He started guiltily. "I must go and help John. The
morn's fair gone and nothing done."
"Och man, sit yourself back down now. John can very
well do his own stooking. Tell me the news of the town while I get the
potatoes on for dinner. It's starved I am for a bit of gossip."
Jim was not one for gossip, but he did his best. He
told her about Elspeth's strange silence. He talked about the condition of
his garden and of Emil Weber's onions. He spoke at length about the new
McPherson sheaf carrier and of the brashness of Alec's John and of the
general disrespect shown by the younger generation. The rum was warming
"It amazes me, Katie, how I can sit here and blather so
to you. Now that Janet's gone you are the only body I can talk to and say
what is in me to say. With John and Elspeth I'm like a frozen turnip. It's
terrible with Elspeth in the house in town. We tighten up and scare each
other and can't talk. But I doubt you'll know what I'm meaning, lass."
"Indeed and I do, Dad. John's like that too. It's the
damned Scotch pride in you all. There never was a race of people so set
upon themselves and so full of conceit. You all do need a kick on the
behind at times, especially my John, and who gives it to him? Why Katie
"You're laughing at me now, woman, but there's much in
what you say. I'm worried about Elspeth with no woman to talk to and me
only a bother to her."
"You just leave her, Dad. Elspeth's a grown woman, and
people choose their own way. If they let themselves get stiff with fear
and hide behind their pride, then that is their own doing, for sure. But
get up now and go and find Rory before Sandy eats him. I have to set the
Rory was sitting on a box watching Sandy eat his hay.
The horse's roan coat shone with the brushing and combing. A good six
inches of straw had been spread for bedding.
"I gave him a pail of water, Grampa, and his hay. And
after dinner I'll give him his oats."
"That's the boy, you'll be a horseman yet. We'll go now
and find your father. He'll think we're poor help coming by so late."
The day went well. The sun beat down hot, the stubble
rustled dry under foot, and the sheaves were heavy with good grain in
them. Jim, Rory, and John set up the stooks. They all talked, with Rory
easing the restraint between father and son much as Janet had used to do.
It was a peaceful, happy time. When night came, Jim was tired, the muscles
were old now.
"You'll stay the night, Father, and we'll finish
stooking in the morn." Crafty John, he knew that gave Jim a good excuse to
"Elspeth won't mind, and we all can have a bit of a
He slept in his old room, his and Janet's, the room
with the stovepipe in it. There was a straw tick that seemed prickly and
uncomfortable after the mattress in town. His muscles ached, and he slept
fitfully, finally lying fully awake. He tried not to give in to this new
trouble that had come upon him lately, a bothersome, humiliating thing.
But finally he gave up and went quietly down the stairs. There was a
chamber pot under the bed, but that was for women and old men. As he went
out into the cool morning air on the porch, Shep thumped his tail in
welcome, got up politely, and flopped down again with a rattle of bones on
the hard floor.
Jim went out on the lawn and did what was necessary.
The morning August mist lay thick all about. It blanketed everything up to
ten feet in height, and the trees rose out of this sea of white. The barn
loomed dimly in the starlight. All this was familiar. The trees he had
planted, the house and the barn he had built, the very sky with the
familiar stars overhead seemed to belong to him. He sat on the lawn seat
in the summer house damp with the dew. The summer house and the seat he
had made long ago of birch saplings from the swamp. He felt the seat and
shook it. It was still firm and strong and the bark was smooth. It was odd
how birch bark lasted forever.
He thought about how he soon would leave all this and
go he knew not where. Perhaps Janet would be there, and his mother, but
not old Rory. He grinned to himself. No, Rory would be telling the Devil
himself how to direct his affairs. Or, perhaps there was no place to go,
and no God and no Devil as well.