FICTION

ELBOW ROOM

W. O. MITCHELL September 15 1942
FICTION

ELBOW ROOM

W. O. MITCHELL September 15 1942

ELBOW ROOM

The Nazi went back to the prison camp, but his soul had found a freedom on the Canadian prairie no barbed wire could contain

W. O. MITCHELL

THE Crocus Breeze wasn’t the only paper told about our stooker and how he turned out to be a Nazzy prisoner escaped from the Broken Shell camp. All the city papers had it too, but they didn’t tell everything; they didn’t say a thing about my Little Daisy twenty-two rifle, and I’m going to tell it right, so I’m going to tell about that twentytwo.

The first time I saw it was last spring in MacTaggart’s general store, the day I went to town with my mother. I always help her take the eggs in and get groceries ever since my father joined up. He’s in England now. The gun was in the window, spang between the gopher poison and the harness, sort of leaned up against a cream separator. The separator was pretty all right, with the sun glinty on its sides, hut it wasn’t a patch on that twentytwo. You can’t touch off a gopher with a cream separator.

The trouble was, there isn’t so much money hanging around a farm at seeding time. So my mother said I could have it, but not till after harvest. It sure was a long time to wait.

As soon as the snow melted and left the summer fallow bare naked and steamy under the sun, Jake got the tractor out and I rode behind him with the crows calling after us all over the south quarter. Jake’s our hired man and not very big but soople and spry as anything. He’s the only man ever threw Looie Riel three times in a row. And when Looie said Jake didn’t wrassle fair, Jake didn’t say a word, just tied his hand behind his back and took Looie on again. It’s a funny thing, but every time I tell Jake about somebody in Canadian history, Jake always knows a lot more than Miss Henchbaw told us. Miss Henchbaw says Jake doesn’t stick to the facts. She says Looie Riel was hung about the time Jake was born, but I believe Jake before I believe her. She’s a dick-tater, Jake says. Like Hitler. Jake says Hitler’s a pretty bad potato.

Well, after we got the crop in, we watched the green sort of blush up—first in the slough spots. There’s a pretty thing for you! All summer, we

watched the sky, and whenever our wheat needed rain, the popcorn clouds got out of the way for the fat, grey-bellied ones that knew how to rain. Halfway through August she really got hot. Hot and still. So still the gophers squeaking sounded not right — like people whispering in church. Jake got out the binder and started cutting on the twenty-five acre field. If only she didn’t hail before we got her cut. My twentytwo was in that crop !

The third day Jake was on the binder, I took his lunch out to him, and after he ate, he said he had time for just one game. This game we had was a good one I and Jake made up ourselves and called Night Patrol.

Jake gave me a hundred. I lit out over the stubble, ducked under the barb wire, got through thewindbreak, and dived into the tall ditch grass beside the road. I rolled over and lay there getting my wind back, listening to Jake counting far away hardly louder than the wind whispering in the grass around me.

A person feels very sort of peaceful lying on their back under a whole lot of sky. I could hear the wind going like when you blow on tissue paper— somewhere a gopher squeaked—a meadow lark let go a few notes. But the gopher and the meadow lark sounded funny; they didn’t sound real—not alongside all that quiet. She was kind of numb out there, like the prairie bumped its funny bone.

I couldn’t hear Jake counting any more. I rolled over careful onto my stomach.

I up out of there like a scared jack rabbit. I wasn’t fussy about lying near any dead man ! There he was, lying awful still with his head on the crook of his arm. I guess I was so excited about our game 1 flopped in the ditch without seeing him. I might have lit on top of him ! I yelled for Jake.

I met Jake the other side of the windbreak.

“What’s wrong! You sound like you run across a grizzly!”

“There’s a dead man in the ditch!” Jake he didn’t wait a minute—nothing scares Jake. He started for the road with me behind him.

“This ain’t no corpus delicious,” Jake said. The body had rolled over to his side and was up on one elbow getting sleep out of his eyes. “Some harvester takin’ a nap. Save me goin’ to town fer a stooker.”

And that was how we got our stooker.

AT FIRST Jake figured he made a mistake hiring - a stooker right off the bat out of a ditch. He was a greenhorn. He didn’t have a roll with him; no blankets, or razor, or gloves, or anything—just the scuffed, brown jacket and black pants and other stuff he had on. He wasn’t so husky either, but Jake said it. wasn’t tallow, it was knack that counted. Jake found that out when he had trouble with “Chief Poundmaker”; the chief had fifty pounds on Jake.

And that’s another thing Jake and Miss Henchbaw don’t agree on. She says the history book doesn’t say a thing about Jake capturing Poundmaker. How does she know? She wasn’t there like Jake was. I can see easy how it happened with Poundmaker not knowing joo jitsy the way Jake does.

I hate to think what Jake’d do if he ever got his hands on Hitler. He wants to but they won’t let him. Twenty-three times he’s been in Crocus to join up, but they keep right on telling him he’s too old. Jake’d make a good soldier. He’s been in two wars already and he’s a dandy with a twenty-two. Before he sold his so he could buy more war savings stamps, there wasn’t a crow or a gopher or a tin can was safe with Jake around.

But like I say, our stooker sure didn’t act like a harvester. We thought he was an Englishman, he talked so careful and polite. You should’ve seen his table manners. I used to think Jake was the neatest eater I’d ever seen, the way he hunches over his plate so he won’t drop anything on the oilcloth, and instead of using a spoon on his pie, cuts it careful in pieces with his knife and fork. But our stooker had Jake skinned a mile at the dinner table.

If he was only half as good at stooking, he’d been Canadian champion easy. But he wasn’t; the whole first day all he set up was one skimpy corner. He went to bed right after supper.

It was my night to write my father and tell him how things were getting along, so I got out a pencil and paper. So did Jake. Mother was out in the shed; we could hear the click-a-ting of the cream separator and it purring to beat anything.

I couldn’t seem to get my letter started, the way my mind kept hopping like a frog from one thing to another, thinking things like: the coal oil lamp flame was a butterfly’s wing, the sticks in the stove were cracking their knuckles. You can’t put that kind of stuff in a letter.

I took another try at her. Jake’s nose was whistling—not loud, soft like through your teeth.

“How many pints in a quart?” he said.

“Two,” I said.

“How many quarts in a gallon?”

“Four.”

His head went down again.

Then was when I remembered about the egg I found in the manger Sunday morning. It was a white Wine Dot egg and spang in the centre of the big end it had a “V.” My father would sure be glad to know we had a “V for Victory” hen at home now. I wrote my head off.

“Twenty-seven five-hunnerd-gallon bar’ls!”

“What of?” I said.

“Tea.”

“Tea!”

“Yep. I figgered her out. If yer Ma’s fifty now, and she started up when she was fourteen, she’s drunk twenty-seven five-hunnerd-gallon bar’ls of tea. ’Noug’n to fill the cow pasture slough.”

Jake’s smart. He’s always figuring things. You’d think they’d let him fight.

While I was putting my father’s name on the

envelope, Jake said, “What you think of the stooker?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Awful quiet. When I stop the binder near him he ain’t sociable a-tall. You’d think after a fellow’s bin alone with all them stooks he’d want to talk to somebody. Does he act snooty with you?”

“I haven’t been around him so much,” I said. “Except fer bein’ so close, he seems like a nice fellow. Guess it ain’t so easy to be sociable when yer back’s givin’ you hell.”

“Going to keep him, Jake?”

“I dunno,” Jake said. “See how he does tomorra. I’ll take some time off after morning chores and show him a few tricks.”

After Jake showed him, the stooker didn’t do so bad the next day. He wouldn’t make any contract stooker, but he sure was a bear for punishment. You should have seen what the twine did to his hands. But he stuck her all the same. I guess it was the way he acted about those blisters made Jake keep him on. He didn’t let on they hurt him at all.

BUT he still acted funny. He’d answer you all right with that English accent of his, real slow like he was thinking over every word before he said it. Only you could easy see there was something bothering him inside. Sometimes, Jake said, he’d stop stooking and stand in the field, bareheaded with a bundle under each arm, staring out over the

stooks to where the sky dropped over the horizon. Jake said he looked kind of lost sometimes, like he never saw prairie before and it scared him. I knew how he felt; prairie makes me scarey sometimes. Prairie’s funny.

But like I say he didn’t say so much—up till the second week he was with us.

The way I always did, I took him and Jake’s lunch down to them. Jake was stooking too because all the cutting was done. They’d nearly set up the field. There’s nothing prettier than a stooked field, that I know of anyway—rows marching straight across land flatter’n a platter. Wherever you looked from, there was a different pattern.

W'ay above without a cloud to bother him, a Gosh hawk drifted lazy and loose—I bet our field looked funny to him, like a checkerboard and stooks for yellow checkers. While I watched he lifted higher and higher. He went right to a pin point.

I sat with Jake and the stooker while they ate their lunch. After his cake, Jake reached for the tea jar, took a couple of swigs, and handed it to the stooker. Jake wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“She’s sure a hot one this afternoon,” he said. “Reminds me of the day I got throwed from my horse—durin’ the boor war. 1 lay there on the baldheaded prairie — felt, they called it — without food ner water; cou'dn’t move. Busted my eg when I got throwed, you see. And say! 1 got thirsty. My tongue swole up and cracked .ike

summer fallow after four years drought. Then one day I see a crick I didn’t see before and I starts crawlin’ toward her and when I got no furder away than that there stook, 1 see a dead boor but I keeps right on goin’ till I gets to the crick. I fill my hat and I’m just goin’ to have my first drink in two weeks when this boor I thought was dead, lifts up his head and hollers, ‘Water— water.’ 1 crawls over to him with my hat full of water and I says, ‘Here,’ I says, ‘git this into you. You need it worse’n me.’ ” That’s Jake for you. Just like Sir Phillip Sidney in our fourth grade reader. But the stooker was saying something.

“In 1902 that was?”

“Yep,” Jake said, “she was in ’02 all right.”

The stooker got up, and he had the funniest look on his face, like he had some joke inside him he wouldn’t let out. His left eye dickered at me— not much—you couldn’t swear it was a wink. He clicked his heels together, and bowed at Jake sitting there gawping up at him from the stubble.

“I am charmed to meet you again,” he said, “I was that wounded Boer.” He said it like it was “boar.”

For a minute Jake stared at the stooker, then he turned to me. “You better take that jug back and get it filled. Take it down to the barley—we’re movin’ there in an hour.”

After that wherever we’d be I noticed Jake kept looking at the stooker. He seemed kind of mud about the stooker pretending to be that wounded

boor. He asked me if the stooker ever said much to me and I told him that he did talk more than lie used to; about the prairie mostly, and how spacious it was. I asked Jake what spacious meant and Jake said elbow room was what it meant.

In a couple of days Jake got over being mad at the stooker for pulling his leg. Jake can never stay mad long. Live and let live, he always says. Jake can take a joke. But there was still something bothering the stooker. Jake and I couldn’t figure it out till one night by the pump house.

AT FIRST there was just me me and the ground and the night sky spangly with stars. Little things seem to get lost at night on the prairie, and she gets so quiet you feel left dangling, like you were the only person in the whole world, listening to the night wind lapping in tin* poplar’s leaves. Over in the henhouse a rooster let half a crow out of him, then shut up. Way out on the prairie a coyote howled because they don’t go in packs like timber wolves and he was lonely. His howl was lonely too — it grabbed up the prairie st illness around itself. 1 heard a clinking.

The stooker was getting a drink at f lu» well, and it was the tin cup on a chain made the noise. He said, “Good evening,” and I said, “Hello.” I couldn’t see him so well. I watched a torn cloud slipping across the moon. In the fall the moon looks like» a yellow tiddlywink a harvest moon. Just as the cloud finished wiping off the moon’s face, the stooker said :

“Such nights we do not have whore I come from. To stand here it When I was a boy, my uncle had a paperweight crystal a fly was in the centre.”

“Was it alive?” I asked him.

“No,” he said, “in the crystal it was fixed. When I was a boy I too wondered that, but now of course I know it was dead.” He didn’t say anything for a minute. I thought it was kind of funny anybody talking about a dead fly like it hurt them.

All the same I’d sure hate to have been that fly if it was alive. Just when I was thinking that was when he said the craziest thing. He said:

“All my life I have that fly been.”

I felt kind of sorry for him.

“That’s just the way night on the prairie makes you feel,” I said. “It. makes me feel funny too.”

“ ’Nough to scare a dog from a garbage can.” That was Jake. “She was a still night like this— except there wasn’t any moon— before1 Vimy. 1 remember a fellow come up to me and said ” He stopped, and I could see him look at the stooker. “Say,” he said, “you wasn’t at Vimy too, was you?”

The stooker didn’t answer him right away. “You Canadians at Vimy Ridge did well,” he said.

“We sure did,” Jake said, “Canadians is fighters.”

“My father’s in England now,”

I said. “He’s a sergeant in the S.S.R. They got a gold antelope on their hats.”

“What is this antelope?”

“Like a deer, only it’s got short horns,” I said. “They got a white patch on their pants and can run like anything. They belong to the prairie.”

“The prairie,” he said. “I do not imagine that they—that All this space they like, do they not?” “Never got a chance to ask one,” Jake said. “Canada has much—much openness.”

“Elbow room,” Jake said.

“And horizon it has too.”

“But no room fer dick-taters,” Jake said. “Nobody lines up Canadians like they was stooks in a field.”

“Miss Henchbaw does,” 1 said.

“She is a dictator?” the stooker said.

“My teacher and real bossy.”

“T also think this prairie has not got room for dictators. Before tonight I would not believe it possible that such a difference elbow room could make. In this world there is no room for dictators. You in Canada know this—it is not so clear to some who have never known the prairie, and the friendship it breeds. Before I came here, I did not know, I did not believe it possible that—that a country could create in its people a generosity of spirit limitless as its prairie.”

'ROM then on our stooker was the same as anybody else. And hi1 was fun. I told him all about the Little Daisy twenty-two. I wrote my father all about him. He played Night Patrol with I and Jake all the time.

And then one morning just at the end of stooking, my mother sent me over to Tinchers’ to borrow Mrs. Tincher’s flatiron.

I felt pretty good going down the highway and it stretching out ahead of me, thinning to where someone squeezed it out of a tooth paste tube without jiggling their hand. Between our place and Tinchers’ I shot two gophers, a magpie, a Gosh hawk, and twenty-five glass knobs off of telephone pole crosspieces. Five times, going to Tinchers’, my throat plugged up, just thinking about having that gun. What’d it be like when I. really had her!

Olga, Tinchers’ hired girl, let me in, and when I got in the kitchen it was dinnertime, and Mr. and Mrs. Tincher and the boys were sitting around their radio, listening to the news.

We can’t afford a radio at our place. That was why we hadn’t heard about the three Nazzies escaping from Broken Shell camp two and a half weeks ago. The announcer said they caught two of

them but the third one, who was a count or something with a long loopy name, was still loose. He could speak good English and was wearing a brown leather jacket and dark pants and had grey eyes and was slight and five feet eight. Then the announcer started saying to save gasoline for the war and he was through, and Mr. Tincher got up and snicked off the radio and I didn’t feel so good.

Mrs. Tincher asked me to stay for dinner but I wasn’t interested in any dinner, not with my whole throat aching like it was doing. 1 wanted out of there and I left without even asking for the flatiron. I felt sick.

Our stooker was a Nazzy !

As soon as I got in our gate I heard Jake behind the house, sawing birch chunks and the red bucksaw going wheee-haw, sort of impatient with what it was sawing. Jake didn’t see me come around the house.

“Jake,” I said, and he looked over his shoulder, then straightened up and stood there with one hand on the bucksaw, wiping the sweat off of his forehead. “Jake,” I said, “I found out something awful.”

“Did ye now !”

“Our stooker’s a Nazzy !”

“Sure he is, and I’m Churchill but you kin call me Winston fer short.”

“Honest, Jake! I just heard it on Tincher’s radio. Three of them got away from Broken Shell camp and the Mounties caught two but the third one’s still loose and he’s our stooker!”

“They wouldn’t learn him to speak the kind of English he speaks, in a camp.”

“The announcer said he could speak English so you couldn’t tell he was a German hardly. He’s our stooker, Jake.”

While Jake looked at me, a hen walked past us, lifting her feet careful, like she had an elastic stretched between her ankles. “Yeah,” Jake said, “I guess it’s our stooker all right.” Like he was bunged out of a slingshot, a grasshopper looped through the air and lit at Jake’s feet. “Ever since I heard the way he said ‘boar’ for ‘boor,’ I figgered he wasn’t no Englishman.” Jake looked away from me and stared off beyond the woodpile where wind off the prairie was bending soft waves through the grass. “I felt her in my bones,” Jake said, “but I didn’t dare say nothing fer fear she was true. Now we know, but what the hell are we gonna do?” I could see the grasshopper good in front of Jake’s feet, with his shanks all bulgy and his knees stuck up ready for another jump.

“She’s gotta be did,” Jake said. “I don’t know when I met a nicer fellow, but she’s gotta be did. We gotta turn him in.”

“But he isn’t like a real Nazzy, Jake. He doesn’t—”

“He’s one of the enemy and he’s ”

“But Jake! What about that night by the pump house—what about what he said—he said there wasn’t any room for dick-taters. You heard him !”

“Sure I heard him. But he’s still a—”

“It’s different now he isn’t a dead fly any more. We can’t turn him in. Why can’t we keep him here and — ”

“I don’t see how we kin do it. She’s gotta be did and that’s all there is to it. We gotta do what’s right. I only wish it wasn’t us had to do it—that’s all.”

“But ”

“Sometimes when two persons cannot make a decision a third can help.”

I

AND JAKE stood there by the woodpile and you could’ve heard a pin drop. Here we’d been shouting our heads off about the stooker and not thinking where he was. Jake’s mouth snapped shut like a gopher trap.

“Mebbe you got something there,” he said. “I and the kid have got us into a jackpot.”

“Yes?” the stooker said.

“Supposing you knew a fellow and supposing this fellow was a uh—well—a lot like a dog that’s all the time tied up—mean, tricky. You couldn’t turn yer back on him fer fear he’d go after you.”

“And this man of whom you speak—he also has been tied up?”

“Yep. Where he hailed from there wasn’t no elbow room —it was real stuffy and he didn’t get a chance to breathe right. But he got away from there where nobody had a chance to think fer them-

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selves. And he got himself a job stookin’—and out there on the prairie with all that horizon and all them stooks under all that sky, he started in to wonderin’. Fer the first time in his life, he got a chance to take a look at himself and he wasn’t so fussy about what he seen. He felt pretty sick about the way he’d been knucklin’ down all his life. He felt so sick he wished he never been born a-tall.”

Jake stopped for a minute and we just stood there with the sun kissing the back of our necks. Then Jake started talking again.

“Then one night when the chores was done and the pigs had quit hollerin’ and she was real quiet the way prairies gets, this fellow did some more thinkin’. From that night on he ain’t been the same fellow. He ain’t been like a dog that’s all the time tied up. Me and the kid don’t know when we met a nicer fellow.”

For a minute Jake looked at the stooker. He looked without winking his eyes a bit. I never noticed till then how foggy they were—not bright blue like I thought, more like old skim milk. Then Jake was talking again.

“Trouble is now, there’s some other fellows that don’t know about what happened to the stooker. They figger he’s still the same way he was. I and the kid we know we oughta turn the stooker in, but we hate to do it. And that’s how she is.”

“That is your—jackpot?”

“Yep,” Jake said.

“I do not think it is such a bad jackpot from which to get out. These men who want this stooker, they will take him away and he will be put in a camp.”

“Yep.” .

“But the camp will not change this stooker. It will not be the same man who goes back to the camp. It will be one who has found out the meaning of elbow room—who no longer could be satisfied with being a—a stook fixed in a row. This man has freed himself from an imprisonment of which he was not even aware until he saw more horizon flung round him than he had believed existed. He is not—he never will be the same man.”

“That the way you got her figgered out?”

“It is only what I think.”

“Well, that’s good enough fer us,” Jake said.

And when Jake had gone in the house to phone, and the stooker went back to the barley field, I thought it over. I still hated to see him go, but

after what he said I figured it was the only thing to do.

It only took the Mounties about fifteen minutes to get to our place after Jake phoned. They piled out of their car and they had guns. 1 didn’t see what happened. Mother wouldn’t let me go with them.

There wasn’t any shooting. I listened at the kitchen door but I didn’t hear a thing. Afterward, Jake told me the stooker saw them coming and dropped the bundle he was holding and bowed to them kind of and said good afternoon like they were crop inspectors and he was a farmer waiting for them to come take a look at his crop. He had handcuffs on when they brought him back to the house.

Looking at those handcuffs I didn’t feel so sure we did the right thing in turning him in. I only saw him through the kitchen window but it made me feel awful funny in the stomach. All gone kind of. For a minute I thought of running out and asking them to let him stay with us.

I figured maybe if I told them about his uncle’s paperweight they might let him stay.

Only I didn’t do it. I just watched through the kitchen window. Jake got in the front seat of the car and leaned back to the stooker between two Mounties in the back. He handed the stooker some money—stooking wages, he told me after. Then the car started up.

Jake didn’t come back till just before supper—he got a ride out with Magnus Peterson. I was by the back stoop, washing up for supper, and I saw him come in the gate. He wasn’t walking so spry, his knees were half bent the way they always are when he walks. He had a parcel under his arm.

When he got up to me, he stopped. He didn’t seem to know what to say. He just stood there with his shoulders kind of saggy under that old coat he wears whenever he goes to town. I could see the furrows •plowing down past his mouth and the silver stubble all over his face. I guess in Crocus where they hire on soldiers, they’re right.

Jake held out the parcel he had. ¡

“Here,” he said. “Here’s your Little Daisy.”

He knew how I felt when I saw j the handcuffs and he’d got me that j twenty-two so I wouldn’t feel so i bad. “Thanks,” I said. “Thanks for ge ting it for me, Jake.”

“I didn’t,” Jake said. “Our stooker ; did.”

I felt kind of sick again.—The End. I