A VOICE for CHRISTMAS
The Kid knew what he wanted most for Christmas and, blizzard or no blizzard, Jake knew how to get it
W. O. MITCHELL
MA YELLED at me from the kitchen, but I right out the back door; I wasn’t waiting to put on my scarf, or coat, or toque, not till I’d told Jake. Just the way I was I ran—snow to my knees, the whole yard staring with it, deep, the soft kind you get when she’s been an open winter saving it all up for a few weeks before Christmas.
The other side of the blacksmith shop I could see our barn kind of like a real red cake with thick white icing that wasn’t put on so careful. It was Christmas snow, sparkly as anything; there were a million stars caught in the roof of our henhouse alone.
She wasn’t so bright in the blacksmith shop where Jake was working over the forge. He was turning the handle on the old cream separator he had made into a blower, and bending over the coals the way he was made his face sort of blush up a soft orange, like a sunset. Jake’s our hired man; him and me run our quarter while my Dad fights over in England where he’s in the South Saskatchewan. Jake and me feel the same way about this war as my Dad does; only reason Jake isn’t in it, he’s too old.
Looking at Jake a person wouldn’t guess right off how much he’s done for his country. He didn’t do so bad in the Boor war; and Jake was at Viniy Ridge. He even keeps trying to get into this war. Last time was his tenth try, when he (larked his hair before he went into Crocus. The fellows that take on the soldiers turned him down again. Jake says he might have known they’d smell the shoe polish some.
I’m fussy about Jake.
He looked around when I came into the blacksmith shop.
“You ought a hear, Jake!”
“Hear what?” He reached down a pair of tongs from the wall.
“About the radio. We gotta ”
“Ain’t int’rested,” Jake cut in on me. “You know dang fine.” He stood there with the tongs hanging from his hand; he’d forgot all about the crowbar lying in the coals. “Why, if they was to take ev’ry —”
“But, Jake, we got a letter from the ” “—squawkin’ radio in this here country, and lay ’em end to end, and give me a holt of a axe—” “But we got a letter from ”
“No wonder they ain’t bin a decent crop in years —them there radio waves ripplin’ and skitterin’ around. The rain ain’t had a chanct to fall. That’s—”
“But this’s all about the Christmas program where—”
“Don’t tell me about no programs. Lookit what they done to that poor fella last year—went right inta his house, broadcast what everybuddy said round the table. Couldn’t let ’em eat their own Christmas dinner in peace.”
“But, Jake, you don’t—”
“Interference, they call it. It’s interference, all right. Take this here winter—a sorta long skinny fall, that’s all she is. Any snow? Not till last week. Blizzards? Nosiree bob; and there ain’t gonna be none neither, not with them radios—”
“Why, I never fergit the winter of ’o six. So cold you could see jack rabbits clear acrosst the prairie —froze. Froze in the middle of the air, height about two foot off of the ground where they leapt and got froze. One day I seen a jack kinda squatted over a rose apple bush, about three feet behind him a coyote with his feet drawed up right under him ready to spring on the jack. Come spring the jack he unfroze first; gotta head start on the coyote that way and—”
“Jake, it’s about my—”
“Same winter the Fister boys caught them a young coyote; trained him to howl tenor so’s he could carry the harmony while—”
“Jake, it’s about my Dad !”
“Huh? What about yer Dad?”
“We’re gonna talk with him, Christmas Day, like —remember how they went clear acrosst Canada so’s kids and their folks could talk with their fathers that’s overseas?”
“But you ain’t—”
“I sure am, Jake. I got the letter right here saying about what we gotta do.”
Jake grabbed the letter right out of my hand. He looked at her a minute. “We gotta be in that there stoodio four o’clock Christmas?”
“And we’re gonna hear yer Dad?”
“Talk with him?”
1 said yes with my head.
UP TILL we got. that letter I’d figured on getting tube skates and a hockey stick for Christmas. When I knew I was going to talk with my Dad in England. I didn’t care if 1 used bob skates till I was as old as Jake. And Ma—take that night when I asked for another piece of bread and butter and peanut butter; she just looked across the kitchen table at me, her dark eyes starey and wide. I figured for a minute the coal oil lamp was doing things to her mouth - flickering like a yellow moth’s wing, making her mouth like that. Then her chin went, sort of, and she out the kitchen.
Jake he looked up from where he was hunched over his saskatoon pie.
“I didn’t do nothing,” I said.
“Wimmen is kinda soft.”
“But, why did she hafta?”
“Wasn’t nothin’ you done; the peanut butter done it.”
Kind of absent-minded Jake had his eye on the butter dish. “Hayin’ time or harvest she always brung lunch out to me an’ yer Dad. Yer Dad was always fussy about peanut butter sanwiches.”
A purple saskatoon berry out of his pie was jiggling in the stubble at the corner of Jake’s mouth. While he fumbled with his knife, he stared down at the oilcloth. “Always had to bring three or four extry fer yore Dad.” He pushed the butter dish nearer him with his knife, next his pie platr, “Wimmen always gotta blow the little things up twicet their size ain’t the stuff in wimmen they is in men. Not like— like in us, Kid.” He’d finished buttering his pie; I never knew Jake to eat butter on pie before; I never knew anyone to eat butter on saskatoon pie.
Next day after we got the letter telling about talking to my Dad, I could hardly wait to see Violet and the other kids; Violet she’s from England, and stays with Mrs. Tincher till this war is over. I was dressing fast as I could by the kitchen stove, and it cracking its knuckles to beat anything. Jake was coming in and out while he did the morning chores; Ma making pancakes. I never wanted to get to school so much in all my life. Nobody in our district was ever broadcasters before.
I was so excited I almost forgot to go out and feed Milk. Milk she’s what you call a squirt cat; all the time she sits next to Jake when he’s milking, and she waits for him to send her a squirt—so she’s a squirt cat. She’s grey, and death on gophers in summer, and was going to have some kittens. I’m fussy about Milk; my Dad gave her to me just before he went to fight, and he said to take good care of her. Her going to have kittens would be just like getting a bunch of presents from my Dad, and him way over in England—Christmas kittens.
After I’d fed Milk, I headed for school, Mr. Churchill Two ahead of me. It was his first snow, and he sure liked it—bouncy he went, the way Jake says he saw a jack go. I guess he figured it made him go faster. He’d stick his nose deep in the snow, and push her along, then lift his head and chew like anything, and shake his head, and come running back to me. He was fussy about the prairie in winter; anybody would be, with her all lard-white the way she was, stretching wide to where the sky started, soft grey the way it is in winter. You could hardly tell where the prairie quit; I never heard her so still —clean, cold, still.
Coming home from school I noticed it wasn’t so still; she’d turned whisper,y with the wind that had started lier smoking—thin snow smoke breathing off the drifts here and there across the prairie. Over the horizon the sky wasn’t soft grey any more. Dark.
That was when I began to get worried for fear something might turn up to keep us from talking with my Dad. What if it came a bad blizzard and we couldn’t get into town with the roads all snowed up?
I ASKED Jake about it later on, after supper.
“Don’t you worry about no blizzards,” Jake said. “They ain’t gonna be no more blizzards like we useta have. Take ’o six— there was the year fer blizzards. Old Man Froomby dang near went west that year. Stormin’ so bad he strung a rope from his back shed to the barn so’s he wouldn’t lose hisself goin’ from the shack to the barn to feed the stock. He folla’d the rope all rightgot hisself lost when he let go the rope and stepped inside the barn.”
“How come, Jake?”
“Wasn’t no barn; wind took her right offa the door and blowed her clear inta the next township.
Old Man Froomby froze so bad before they found him the doc had to lop off his right leg.”
“What if she blows up another like that, between now and Christmas, Jake?”
“But what if—?”
“Look,” he said, “don’t you worry none. Ye’re gonna talk with yer Dad if me and you and yer Ma gotta pile onto Baldy’s back to git into Crocus fer that there train. I tell you she’ll never be like she was in ’o six.”
I guess she was awful in ’o six.
Jake was right, in a way; we had some real fine weather. But about three days before Milk’s Christmas kittens were born was when Jake started being wrong.
This time the sky along the horizon didn’t clear up; the thermometer started going down, and she kept going down. The wind, first she was just long soft sound you couldn’t tell exactly where from, and each day she was yelling a little longer and a little louder. Three days before Christmas she was telling everybody across the prairies they weren’t going to live forever, crying like anything in the weather stripping of our storm door, licking up the snow and firing it in your face so hard you had to shut your eyes when you were facing into it. Ma
wouldn’t let me go to school the last day before Christmas holidays. Jake kept right on saying she’d never be like she was in ’o six.
Nights I listened to the wind howling around our eaves; it didn’t look to me like we were going to make her in to take that train in Crocus, even if Jake said we would—not if she got worse.
And she did; the thermometer in our back shed sæd fifty below just before I went to bed the night before Christmas Eve.
I lay there with my eyes right open in the dark. I couldn’t sleep, thinking how we might not be able to get into town ; I couldn’t have slept anyway with the wind grabbing my bed and shaking it to beat anything, and the whole house creaking loud, and Jake in his room next to me. High over the blizzard I could hear Jake’s snore, just the part where somebody grabs his throat, and he can’t get his breath out.
It was Jake’s snore started me thinking about Mdk. Jake’s snore always starts out sort of purry. I got to thinking about Milk and her kittens, just born. With that blizzard on, they could easy freeze to death up in our loft; it was full of cracks for the wind to get at them. My Father told me to look after everything while he was away, help Jake with the stock, keep the trough full, give Jake a hand
with unharnessing at night. Dad, he gave me Milk; she was stock too; she was special stock. I'd liate to have her kittens freeze while I lay in a warm bed. My Dad never ever let stock shift for themselves.
I got up.
In the kitchen Mr. Churchill Two came out from behind the stove and jumped all over me while I got the coal scuttle and the lantern. He was too young for blizzards yet.
The wind slammed both me and the shed door against the back of the house. I couldn’t get it shut again. The lantern flickered, nearly went out; I stuck it in the scuttle and headed for the barn.
Even with the wind at my back it was hard to get any breath; she was choking cold, kind of grabbing at the back of your throat the way an icicle sticks to a person’s fingers. Between the house and the barn I only fell down once, but I got right up with snow down my neck, and up my sleeves. The lantern was still going.
I MADE her to the barn, got the peg turned in the door and opened her just enough to slip inside. I never thought I could be so fussy about a barn’s inside. She was friendly warm, and sparkling something fierce with the frost growing everywhere;
the walls and stalls and rafters winked and blinked and twinkled in the lantern light; some places on the roof she hung two inches thick, tufted — diamond grass. The nobs on Baldy’s hames, the horsehair hanging on a nail by his stall, were crusted white with it; Eglantine and Baldy really had Christmas decorations.
Baldy didn’t look round at me; Eglantine was down, she didn’t pay any attention to me.
Up in the loft Milk raised her head, and stared green at me, without blinking. She didn’t kick any while I put her kittens in the scuttle; they hardly moved at all. I didn’t put Milk in till I got down from the loft; she’d follow me if I had her kittens.
The blizzard wind got me right by the throat, grabbed my nose, needled my eyes; going back to the house I was going to have to walk into her. It’d be real handy, I was thinking, if a person had their eyes and mouth in the back of their head. With the snow way past my knees 1 couldn’t walk backward; all I could do was squeeze my eyes tight, put my head down, and try and get my breath with that wind doing its best to blind me and choke me.
Every once in a while I’d stop, turn around, and get my eyes opened. The lantern was out. I didn’t care; all it could do was show me that stingy snow,
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A Voice for Christmas
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alive with the wind lifting it and driving it against me, around me, down on me.
I wasn’t getting worried any, not seeing the house yet; Jake always says she seems twice as far when you can’t tell how close you’re getting to where you’re headed for. Only thing got me bothered some was the way my legs were getting heavier all the time; a person wouldn’t think taking a walk between a house and a barn in a blizzard could be such hard work.
It wasn’t till the second time I stumbled, and the snow threw me, that I got het up. Pushing into the snow with my mitt, I hit something hard, and long. I took another feel at her, then felt some more in the drift around. There were all kinds of them.
I stood still, the wind pushing hard on my back with both hands. I was by our wood pile. Our wood pile’s on the other side cf our house to what
the barn is. I was feeling sort of scairt.
I was lost.
I lit out again, and I was thinking about how Old Man Froomby lost his leg in ’o six. I was thinking how a person’s feet and hands get cold even when they got shoe-packs and mitts on and are mostly warm from exercise like I was.
She was taking too long to get to the house; I wasn’t getting any nearer I was sure. I stopped. I took my mitt off, felt in the coal scuttle to see how Milk and her kittens were. I stuck my mitt on quick so I wouldn’t lose it.
I didn’t know till later why I couldn’t feel Milk and her kittens.
My legs were sinking right up to my knees in snow and I headed into her again. For all I knew now I was walking right through that black stinging blizzard, out onto the baldheaded prairie where Ma and Jake would find me in the morning—
maybe not till next spring when the snow melted off.
It wasn’t because I was tired I sat down. The reason 1 sat down, 1 wanted to sit down, so I sat down. I thought I’d have a little rest before I took another try at her, so I sat down for a little rest. My legs were sure glad I did it, and once I was sitting, I all of a sudden wasn’t so cold any more; I’d got my second warmth.
They ought to sell snow instead of those hard mattresses; they ought to rig up some way to get the wind to sing people asleep. Lying in snow is just like in bed on a Saturday morning; just like after measles when you : don’t have to fight the wallpaper . and the door knob and the quilt any more. Blizzards in these days wasn’t I so cold, Jake had said, and Jake was ; right.
In ’o six she really was cold.
AFTER awhile I was hearing Jake’s voice.
“—the year of the blue snow. Some 1 folks claim you always git a blue shadow in snow when she’s got a deep I enough hole in her. That wasn’t why she was blue in ’o six; she was blue with cold in ’o six. All the jacks Í acrosstthe—”
‘‘Just watch he doesn’t get on those feet for a couple of days.” That was Doctor Fotheringham from Crocus, and what was he doing in our house? From the foot of the bed I heard a couple of mews—big ones—then a lot of little mewings. “He’ll be all right. They’ll all be all right.”
My Ma was beside me, and she was kissing me. Women are kind of soft.
After Ma had gone out with Doctor Fotheringham, Jake stayed at the foot of the bed, looking down at me.
“Well, you sure done her, didn’t I you?”
“My feet and hands, Jake, they—” “Hurt like blue blazes.”
“Yeah. I—they—I’m gonna—” “Oh no you ain’t. They just bin i froze some. How’s yer face?”
“You ain’t gonna lose nothin’— not like Old Man Froomby done. Doc thought he might take a little off of yer nose. I wouldn’t let him.” “Thanks—Jake.”
“I told ’m he oughta take off the head—round about the neck.”
A person can always tell when Jake’s kidding.
“What’d you hafta do her fer ! anyway?”
“I went out to get Milk and her I kittens.”
“You went out to git Milk and her kittens, and if it hadn’t bin for Mr. Churchill Two you’d be stiffer’n a froze quarter of beef.”
“Heard him whimperin’ and yappin’, and come down. Kitchen door was blowed open, and him runnin’ to it and back again. We found you and them cats—’bout as far as I could spit from the back shed door.” “Well, anyway it’s turned out all right, Jake.” He didn’t answer me. “What’s wrong, Jake?”
“Well, you—We ain’t—” Jake quit.
“Jake, what is it?”
“I never did have no use fer them dang radios—”
“Doc said you had to stay off of them feet. We—”
“Jake, I’m gonna talk to my Dad'”
“Ain’t nothin’ we kin do about her, Kid. Doc said we could carry you downstairs fer Christmas dinner tomorra. That’s all.”
I didn’t even turn my head away. Jake could see me all he liked. He went out.
I could see right out the bedroom window Christmas morning; Jake cleaned the frost off for me to look out. I could see our whole yard drifted with snow, the buildings bare, huddling around the edge; the windmill black against the sky. I could even see the rack, bare naked after the blizzard, wheels snow to the hubs. I wished I was dead.
I could hear them downstairs, getting dinner ready. For a while there were people going in and out the front door. I could hear them talking, but I wasn’t interested; I didn’t care. In the log cabin quilt Ma threw over me I counted the blue strips—faded blue; my Dad’s old work pants.
Mr. Churchill Two came into my room, jumped up on the bed, stood on my stomach with his head on one side, looking at me. He kissed at my nose, tried to push his face between my neck and the pillow. It didn’t do any good.
I wasn’t going to talk to my Dad over in England.
“Merry Christmas!” Jake looked like he’d et a sunset. I said Merry Christmas too; I’d already said it to him four times.
“Git yer socks on. We’re goin’ down.”
“I don’t feel so much like—”
“Oh yes you do. You wanta hear yer Dad, don’t you?”
“All right, put yer arm over my shoulder.”
Jake’s strong; he lifted me like I was a light oat bundle; we started down the stairs
Just before we got in the front room Jake stopped. “Now take her easy, Kid,” he said.
THERE was a kitchen chair by the geraniums; there was a fellow I never saw before, sitting in it. He had earphones on him ; he was sitting in front of our kitchen table; he was fiddling with the front of a big black box full of dials like on a radio. He was saying:
“Three - four - hello. Hungerdunger of Hungerdunger—Hungerdunger—Hungerdunger and MacCormack. One two three fourtesting. One two three fourtesting.”
Jake told me afterward how he’d done it. He got on our phone the morning after I got lost in the blizzard; he phoned to the radio in the city, and he asked them why didn’t they come to our place and broadcast like they did with that Christmas dinner program last year. The fellow at the other end said no. Jake he argued, and the fellow said no again. That was when central told Jake he couldn’t use language like that through her switchboard.
Jake said he was sorry, and then he told the fellow how I’d gone out into the blizzard to get a cat my Father gave me before he went overseas. The fellow said that was too bad, that it would make a real good story for over the air—he said something about humans—but he still didn’t think they could do her.
Central told Jake to be careful again, and Jake said he would, and he asked the fellow why they couldn’t send down a rig for broadcasting from our place, and the fellow said even if they wanted to they couldn’t, on account of the roads being snowed up so they couldn’t get through from town. Jake didn’t get a chance to say anything right away with Mrs. Abercrombie cutting in to tell the radio fellow how her son-in-law took his wife in to have a baby in Crocus, and he made it all right with a bob sleigh and team.
Old Man Gatenby, listening in too on the party line, he said sure they could get through; he did her to bring back the Christmas tree he forgot. Mrs. Pete Springer said Pete could easy meet the train and help them get their stuff out to our place. Jake said you could hardly think for all those people on our party line, making suggestions.
When he could get a word in edgewise, Jake said what if I mightn’t pull through unless I heard my Father’s voice, and talked with him? And if they didn’t send down the broadcasting rig my death would be on their head.
That was when Central chimed in and said they ought to be ashamed of themselves around that radio station if they didn’t do something to save my life. The fellow said all right, you win—all of you.
There isn’t anybody anywhere else in the world like Jake, or my Dad, or my Ma—or the folks on our party line.
We came right after the ones from Regina, and the announcer said all
about’me going out in the blizzard to get Milk and her kittens, and he said about Mr. Churchill Two, and I sat there with my stomach the size of my fist only tighter, and my throat getting wobblier and wobblier, waiting to hear my Father. Jake he was on the edge of his chair, leaning forward; he had a hold of the chair hard; I could see the veins standing out—blue earthworms crawling over the backs of his hands. I never saw Ma’s eyes look the way they were looking then.
The announcer quit. For a minute all you could hear was a sort of beating, wavv sound out of the radio.
My insides just run to him like rain water down a spout.
“You all right, Son?”
“I—I’m fine. You—hello Dad! It —Milk’s fine too.
“Jake he—oh Dad!”
“You looking after your Mother?”
I couldn’t say anything; all I could do was listen while my Ma talked to him, and he told her he’d got his parcels. And then he said:
Jake’s mouth was part open; his eyes looked real tired—old tiredlike they’d been looking against prairie sun too long.
Jake’s mouth came shut. “Me? Why, shore, I—”
“You looking after those folks of mine?”
“Yore damn pertootin’ I am !” The fellow with the earphones dug Jake in the side. “Huh? Oh—guess a fella ain’t sposed to say, ‘y?r damn per—’ All right—all right.”
“Understand you’ve had a rough winter.”
“Hell no,” Jake bust out without paying any attention to the radio fellow. “Little touch of wind odd times—some snow. Nothin’ atall.
She ain’t bin a patch on ’o six. She’ll never be like she was in ’o six agin.”