FICTION

"Gettin' Born"

Between gettin’ born and gettin’ dead they jist ain’t no comparison

W. O. MITCHELL May 1 1943
FICTION

"Gettin' Born"

Between gettin’ born and gettin’ dead they jist ain’t no comparison

W. O. MITCHELL May 1 1943

WITH HIM sitting in the pew in front I could see Mr. Tincher’s neck good, and it was all creased crisscross like somebody pressed chicken wire up against her real hard. Jake has the same kind of a neck; she’s what you might call a prairie neck. By looking across Ma I could see Jake kind of hunched down in his seat, with his chin down on his chest. Every once in a while his head would go like somebody yanked her with a piece of binder twine. She isn’t so easy to keep awake when you can smell the spring slipping in through the church windows, and Mr. Stoddard’s going on up and down, up and down. He has what you might call a bumble voice.

But I wasn’t having any trouble to keep my eyes open. I’d got to thinking about my down-east Aunt Margaret that’s married to Jim Matthews, and the reason I’d got to thinking about her was the way Mr. Stoddard was going on about the flesh like he always does. Every time he gets to the flesh I think of people getting born or dying. This time it reminded me about Steve Kiziw that sits behind me out at Rabbit Hill. His Mother died when he was born. He told me. I’d just as soon he hadn’t because I’d already heard Ma telling Mrs. Tincher over our phone about how my Aunt Margaret was going to have a baby.

So there was me sitting in church, thinking about how come Steve’s Ma died, and about my Aunt that might too, and I wasn’t so glad about having any new cousin. I’m fussy about my Aunt Margaret.

Right in the middle of me thinking about my Aunt Margaret going to have a baby, Mr. Stoddard said about being born again. I never heard that one before. I never even heard Jake say anything about it. Take Jake; he’s our hired man at the end of the pew, and he’s getting on some. You’d think if somebody was going to get born again she’d be Jake, with those fellows in Crocus keeping telling him he’s too old to fight. If there was any way for Jake to get himself younger he’d be right over there with the South Saskatchewans and my Dad. I figured I better ask Jake about it after church.

From outside the church a meadowlark sang. I started counting; he let me get to nineteen. I started over; on twenty he tar-tar-tickely-boo’ed.

Next time she was twenty-seven. I didn’t get another chance to try him, because Mr. Stoddard had quit, and I had to find Two-four-two for Ma.

I saw Jake didn’t have hold of any hymn book so I grabbed another from the back of the pew to see if I could find the place before they got singing. I beat them to it. Jake he looked kind of startled when I handed him the opened book, but he took it, and when the singing had started I saw his head sort of bobbing, and his chin going.

After Mr. Stoddard let down both his arms from spreading them out over everybody Ma leaned forward with her head in her hands for a minute. She always does that just before we leave church. It’s about my Dad. She never told me but I know. Her eyes are some different after she straightens up.

Outside the church Jake and me headed for Baldy and the democrat, and I was still squeezing my eyes shut till the sun wouldn’t be so bright, when Jake said:

“If she’s all the same to you, Kid, never mind findin’ me no place in no hymn book. I don’t figger to do so much singin’.”

“You was singin’, Jake.”

“Nope. I try real hard, only my throat gits kinda taunt. Them there notes keeps right on pilin’ up so by time church’s out I got three four hymns harled up agin my Adam’s apple.”

I guess singing’s about the only thing Jake can’t do. He can play the mandolin real sweet; he’s a two-war veteran; it was him took care of Looie Riel and Chief Poundmaker when she looked so black for Canada in the early days. Miss Henchbaw she says if there was many more like Jake loose it couldn’t look any blacker for Canada right now. She says Jake’s careless with his history. Jake he says she wasn’t history when he did her; that came later when some fellow wrote her up in a book— wrote her up all wrong.

IT WAS while Jake was taking off Baldy’s nose bag, I remembered.

“Jake,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“How does a—how could a person get born twice?”

“Huh!”

“You know, what Mr. Stoddard was saying about?”

“Guess I musta missed that there part.”

“Well—have—did you ever run across anybody like that?”

“Why, I—” Jake didn’t seem so tickled about what we were talking about.

“Would he have the same folks?”

“Mebbe—if he was fussy about ’em.”

Then was when I remembered about the runt pig I fed so he wouldn’t get hit over the head with a hammer out of a medicine dropper. “Take that there runt pig, Jake. He oughta had another chance. Will he get born over again?”

Jake stood there with his arm lying over Baldy’s neck and he looked down at me. He looked real serious. He said:

“She’s a hard one to answer, Kid.”

“Doesn’t seem to make so much sense.”

“Not right off,” Jake said. “Look—you fellas playin’ agates yet?”

“Yeah.”

“What kind?”

“Chase, plunks, poison.”

“Ever takin’ aim, an’ somebody sorta jiggled yer elbow?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t go exac’ly the way you figgered?”

“No, it—”

“Could call her a runt-shot, huh?”

In his head Jake thinks a lot like I do. I’m fussy about Jake.

Only I should have told Jake about what happened to Steve’s Ma, and got Aunt Margaret straightened out too. I didn’t, because of the way they acted whenever I started in talking about her. I could tell I wasn’t supposed to know about her going to have a baby from the way they always looked at each other, and that made it worse knowing about Steve’s Ma. Getting born must be awful if they won’t even talk about it.

Riding home in the democrat with Ma and Jake, I didn’t do so much thinking. When she’s spring it isn’t so easy for a person to think anything but goofy thoughts—like wondering what she’d be like to bounce off clouds. Over top of us the sky was what you might call a luke-blue. All alongside the road the fields were green with new wheat—funny, green hair they had, like on the back of a person’s neck after they’ve got a hair cut—bright green like to yell at a person. There isn’t any green like young-wheat-green stretching out spang to the horizon. Looking back I could see the Crocus elevators with their shoulders flat against the sky.

She was spring all right, with gophers sitting up to watch us go by, and millions of crocuses along the ditches, and a real soft spring sort of teasing a person, making the back of Ma’s Sunday dress go out just like a balloon.

Spring has winter skinned a mile. In spring look what there is; colts with their tails, maybe a calf with a wet nose, baby chicks, and catching gophers; little pigs are something else. Spring has a lot of things that never lived before.

Just when we got to our place, and I was holding open the gate while Jake drove the democrat through, I heard Ma say not to unharness so he could go over to get Aunt Margaret. I asked why was she coming over, and Ma said she wasn’t feeling so well and Jim was going to eat at our place while Margaret stayed with us. I pretended like I didn’t know, and I said:

“What’s the matter with her?”

“She’ll be better after a while.”

“Is she sick bad?”

“Not very,” Ma said.

“What’s she got?” Ma didn’t say anything. “Do you figure she might die?”

“She—look! A gopher—over there. See him?”

In our front yard there’s always a whole slew of gophers playing, winking their tails to you as they go down their holes. You’d think Ma’d saw a badger the way she pointed him out. I was wishing Steve hadn’t told me about his Mother.

I GUESSED the only thing to do was talk to Jake, and a couple of days after Aunt Margaret came over, I did. It wasn’t any use. Jake he wouldn’t say anything either, and when I kept on he said to get.

He doesn’t say to get very often, so I knew Aunt Margaret wasn’t doing so well. When Ma told Jake that Doctor Fotheringham was coming out to see her, I was sure.

There was only one thing to do, and I did it. While Doctor Fotheringham was up seeing Aunt Margaret, I hung around the kitchen. Ma was still upstairs when he came down. He said hello, and so did I. He said I was getting to be big, and I said I guessed he was around when a lot of babies were born. He said yes he guessed he did happen to be there. He’s got a way of chewing all the time so his mustache gets to moving, and he looked down at me, and his mustache was moving from chewing. I said:

“Do you often have them not turn out so good?” I could see the rusty streaks in his mustache, and smell his bitter smell. He looks a lot like an old collie. He said:

“Just one.”

“What happened?”

“Nine or ten years ago—boy—not so sure that it was my fault.”

“What happened?”

“As soon as he was born, he started to grow—he kept right on.”

“Aw—”

“Of course with his father a sergeant in the S.S.R. overseas—have to have a man around the farm.”

He’s a Parliament member, and I was sure glad I talked with him. If he wasn’t het up, then there wasn’t likely any reason for me to worry about it.

But I did. I started in worrying the next Saturday when me and Mr. Churchill Two went out after gophers. Mr. Churchill Two’s my red and white fox terrier Jake gave me after Mr. Churchill One got lost, and that Saturday all the time I was doing noon chores he kept jumping up on me. That meant only one thing—going after gophers.

But while we headed for the south pasture I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea; she looked like rain; she was a funny sky, full of cloud stuff that went black along the horizon. Over top of us Somebody had stuck Their Finger through, and yanked one long, ragged, blue rip in her.

She was real still in all that empty prairie—lonely still. Every once in a while, in the high grass, the wind took a notion to whisper some but not like she really meant to. A meadow lark dropped some of his notes off of a straw stack; the prairie quiet grabbed them up like a blotter does with ink. She wasn’t letting anything spoil her quiet.

I stood still for a minute to listen for a gopher squeak. Mr. Churchill Two he sat down with his neck bent proud, and his ears standing right up except where they flopped at the ends.

I guess I’m not so fussy about the prairie when she’s still before a rain; she’s too much like in school when Miss Henchbaw looks up, and you don’t know who’s in for it—before-the-strap quiet.

Mr. Churchill Two was making like little crying sounds in his throat; he up and lit for a clump of rose-apple bushes. I waited to see where he’d chase the gopher, only he came running back. Then he off again with a pale butterfly blinking its wings over top of him. I followed.

It was a gopher we’d killed a couple of days before; I’d left him there after I took off his tail for the municipal office where they give you three cents. Just as I got up to him, a black cloud of flies lifted up off of him real quick.

He had his paws held out ahead of him like when a person prays. His eyes were open; they were more like dead black beads. I didn’t feel so good.

I WAS remembering about a train I had once—the kind that winds up with a key—and how she wouldn’t go after I bust the spring. I couldn’t make her move at all till Jake fixed her with some solder. That was a funny thing for a person to think about when he was looking at a dead gopher. A person sees a lot of dead gophers.

Only this one he was different. He was dead, and the prairie wind was whispering careless, and another gopher hidden off somewhere was squeaking like he didn’t care either.

She wasn’t any agate game, and slip-shots, and Somebody jiggling Somebody’s Elbow. Jake, he couldn’t solder this.

I wished my Aunt Margaret wasn’t going to have any baby.

Something hit the back of my neck; another one spanked itself against my nose. Rain. I hit for home.

In the barn I waited for Jake to come in from the field. After he showed up and I was helping him unharness, I said:

“Jake, what—which is the worst, getting born or dead?”

“Huh?”

“Which one would you say was the —well, would you say one of ’em was more important?”

“I don’t git you.”

“If you had your choice—which one?”

“They ain’t no comparison.” “What’s that?”

“Jist they ain’t no comparison.” “Do people send flowers when a person gets born?”

“I guess a person might.”

“Well, take the way she is with spring and winter. Which, if you had your pick—?”

“How the hell could you die if you wasn’t born—er—how could you git born if you wasn’t gonna die?”

“But just—”

“Look.” Jake held out the end of Baldy’s belly band. “Them buckle holes—what makes ’em? The leather, or the ain’t-leather?”

And that was all I got out of Jake. I didn’t even say about Steve Kiziw’s Ma, or getting born again.

I wondered whether I should maybe talk with Aunt Margaret’s husband, Jim, about it. But the way he hung around the house with his eyes looking sort of sick, and asking Ma was there anything he could do to help, I knew I better not. When I came home after school I’d get him to help with my chores, and at nights after homework we played rummy on the kitchen table. A person’s wife going to have a baby can sure spoil their rummy game.

All the next week she kept right on raining, just as bad as two years ago when Mr. Ricky made enough to pay for seeding his crop out of that low stretch of gumbo that runs past his front forty. Mr. Ricky he’s fussy about money; most folks in our district they wouldn’t charge a nickel to pull a person out of the mud.

Every night when I went to sleep I could hear the rain noisy on our roof, gurgling loud down the rain spout at the corner of the house. Rain is a sad thing even if she is good for the crops.

And one night about a week after she’d started in raining, Jake and Ma weren’t looking so glad either. Jake he didn’t do the chores, and we had our supper early, and that was funny. Jim Matthews he just sat there at the table with his great big hands lying in front of him, and his shoulders kind of slumped, and he didn’t eat at all.

THREE times while we were eating Ma got up and went to the phone. She was phoning Crocus for Doctor Fotheringham. She wasn’t getting any answer, because he’s a bachelor doctor, and central said Mrs. Sawyer that keeps house for him had gone to Broomhead so her daughter could have a baby, and the doctor must be out on a call.

Jake he got up from the table after supper, and he reached down his coat and cap from the wall, and he said he guessed he’d take Queen and the democrat and go into town and bring out the doctor, and for Ma to keep on phoning.

Ma she said for Jake to take Jim with him, and Jim he said maybe he better stay. Ma said for goodness sake to go with Jake so as not to be under her feet all the time. Jim went.

“Why didn’t they wait,” I asked Ma, “till she clears up?”

“Doctor Fotheringham has to come tonight,” Mu said. ‘‘With those roads the way they are now, he won’t be able to get his car through.” Ma’s mouth was a tight line across her face.

All the time I did arithmetic and spelling on the kitchen table Ma was either upstairs or on the phone. No wonder I got eight wrong, especially the way I kept thinking about Steve’s Ma, and that gopher, and my Aunt Margaret.

When I’d finished my homework I didn’t feel so much like going to bed; I just sat there and watched the rain drops sliding down the window slow at first, then crazy fast.

The phone rang two long and a short. That was us. I grabbed her. It was Jake. He was phoning from Rickys’.

He was stuck. He was stuck, and when he unharnessed, Queen bolted. He said he phoned so we wouldn’t worry while him and.Mr. Ricky went out to catch a horse, and it would take a while because the horses had been out all winter and they were kind of wild.

When I told Ma her mouth got straighter than ever. She said I better go to bed, and I said maybe I better stick by the phone and keep on calling. She looked at me a minute and then she said all right.

But I didn't get any answer out of Doctor Fotheringham. I kept her up till Jake phoned the second time. Him and Mr. Ricky couldn’t catch a horse; he was going to walk her to Tincher’s and try and get one there. I figured there wasn’t any use telling Ma about that.

About twelve Ma came downstairs and told me I better get to bed. I just started out of the kitchen and our ring came again. Ma listened for a minute, then hung up.

It had been Jake, and all the Tincher’s horses were over at Wingham’s where they were seeding because Mr. Wingham lost all his from the sleeping sickness last fall. Jake was on his way to Gatenby’s.

Then was when Ma told me to go saddle Baldy.

As I went out the back door Ma was talking with Jake again, telling him she was sending me in, and for him to come back in case she needed him.

She’d let up raining, and the sky wasn’t dark any more. Behind some torn black clouds I could see a big, pale, tiddlywink moon. Like they do after a rainstorm frogs way off in the night were singing in their sloughs. The air smelled cool and washed.

I didn’t bother with no saddle and I didn’t go by Government road. Straight across the prairie I headed Baldy at a full canter bareback and him going whumph-whump-whumph, under me, and me thinking how pretty my Aunt Margaret was, and how nice she smelled with the soap she uses, and about Steve’s Ma, and that gopher lying there on the prairie.

And other things I thought; the time Jake had to shoot Duke; the way Jake’s knees don’t kink so much in the spring when he walks; the way he used to get me to plant wheat seed in tin cans then Easter morning tell me it was the Easter rabbit had nipped the sprouts off.

And about hatching chicks in the stove oven, and the big grape and red colored window in our church, the one with Jesus carrying a baby lamb with all its legs hanging down. There wasn’t any sense to what I thought except about Steve’s Ma, and that dead gopher, and my Aunt Margaret going to die if Doctor Fotheringham didn’t get to her.

IN CROCUS I turned Baldy round the Baptist church corner and headed for Doctor Fotheringham’s.

With my legs tingling like they weren’t my own, I ran up the front steps, and I knocked a lot but nobody came. It was when I turned around I saw the car lights come along the street.

They were Doctor Fotheringham’s, and he’d been out to Forbes’ so their baby could come. When I told him how the roads were our way he made me get in the car and we started for the livery barn. We woke Pete up, and he said there wasn’t any rig around, but there was the big paint that belonged to the Hershel boy only there was no saddle because he was still buying the horse off of Cam Secord, and he only made two dollars a week delivering for MacTaggarts’ so he hadn’t got around to buying a saddle.

As soon as we got started bareback I knew why the doctor said for me to come with him on the paint, and why he told Pete to throw me up in front instead of behind. Every time the paint lifted, Doctor Fotheringham bounced, and between bounces he jerked out that he hadn’t ridden since he was twelve. So I told him to kind of grip his legs, and roll his backbone kind of so he wouldn’t get her so bad.

The Hershel boy sure didn’t get stung on that paint.

At our gate the doctor he sort of fell off and he lit pointed for the house, and running with his satchel in his hand. As I took the paint to Baldy’s stall, I heard Mr. Churchill Two whimpering over by the house.

I hated to leave that barn; I hated to go find out what happened. And walking back with the old-time lantern that we most always left in the barn, to where the house windows let yellow squares of light through the dark, I’d’ve given anything to forget about that dead gopher.

Mr. Churchill Two went again— louder.

I wondered if I’d brought the doctor in time, and about the belly band of Baldy’s harness.

The henhouse, the hog pens, the old rack, the pumphouse, were born into the lantern light as I went past them. They died right away out of it.

Mr. Churchill Two whined some more.

At night a lantern’s a magic lantern making things come and disappear where she melts into the dark, and you’re all alone in your light cave.

Mr. Churchill Two went louder, real strong from inside our home; only it wasn’t Mr. Churchill Two like I thought. He didn’t have like hiccups when he cried. This was different. It wasn’t anything I ever heard before. It was new—like spring wheat, and calves, and colts, and everything else in spring! It was thin, and it quit, then went again, and it came right through the walls of our house!

I lit out running . . .

Jake was in the kitchen.

“Jake! Is—did—?”

Jake he just took his hand and sort of brushed at his face, and he was looking straight ahead. “She’s all right,” he said.

“What—?”

“Boy,” Jake said. I could see by the coal-oil lamp flame he was sweating, and his face showed how she was all creased like baked drought land gets. “Remember that there question, Kid?”

I said yes with my head.

“Gettin’ born’s got the other beat a mile. I can’t say her so good, but if anybody should ask you, you tell ’em she’s what yer old man’s fightin’ fer in England. Spring, he’s fightin’ fer, an’ she’s the opposite of winter. Gettin’ born; an’ that’s the opposite of gettin’ dead.

“An’ mebbe they’s gonna be a lotta winter before they’s any spring, but she’s worth it. There’s a whole shaganappy world gonna git born agin—an’ born right.”

From upstairs I heard my cousin cry again.