The Power and the Glouy
The story of a Christmas Glengarry will never forget
OLD CEDAR rails split down the middle have a smell you can never forget. That smell always puts me in mind of Big Jim Brawn and the cedar chest I made for my mother one Christmas when I was a boy.
It was midsummer when I first saw Big Jim. There were three of us walking toward the swimming hole back of his little Glengarry farm— Albert MacDonald, who was 16 and almost as big as a man, his younger brother, Gordon, and myself. Albert was the first to notice, and he held up his hand the way we read the Indians used to do. Then he swung his arm down hard, and the three of us flopped to our bellies in the long ditch grass. We lay there breathing excitedly.
Down the tree-lined road from the back acres came a man, singing. And as he sang he ran. He did both with the easy freedom of power. We were still young enough to play at Indians, and here in this strange blond giant was a hero.
Jim Brawn’s a savage,” my father had said
often in the weeks since Jim had come to Glengarry. Then he would add, with that odd sideways tilt to his head, ‘‘But perhaps a good man at that.”
‘‘Crazy’s a coot,” said old Angus MacMillan. ‘‘Living back there in the bush, never seein’ anyone, eatin’ berries and potatoes and God only knows what else. Queer’s what he is.”
To the three of us lying in the ditch it wasn’t very clear whether he was queer or just wonderful. He had red-blond hair, wavy and stiff, that didn’t even move when he ran. His face was big and golden-tanned, clean-shaven; and he had very blue eyes. #
Even when he was close up to us we could see no sign of exertion from his running. The sleeves of his blue denim work shirt were rolled and his powerful arms swung in easy rhythm. The only thing that took away from the sheer animal grace
of him was the big dubbined boots that pounded hard on the dirt road. A small trail of dust followed him.
We squirmed lower in the long grass while he passed us, then our heads popped up like inquisitive loons. The fence was four feet high, solid cedar rails snaked so that each section supported the next. Between the fence and the road was the ditch we were hiding in. Almost without altering his pace the big man suddenly left the road, cleared the ditch, tilted his body slightly as he passed over the top rail, all in the one leap, and landed running.
‘‘Jerusalem!” muttered Albert in a hoarse whisper. He was our leader in most things, and since that was the strongest expletive any of us ever used we knew we had really seen something.
That night at supper I was too full of Brawn to contain it all. Continued on page 8
Continued on page 8
Continued from page 7
“I saw Jim Brawn today,” I said. “He jumped the fence back on the little back road. Must be over your head, Paw.” Now Paw was a stickler for truth, and normally I guess he would have corrected me for that, but it reminded him of something else, and he turned to Maw with a quick smile.
“Brawn’s got a wife,” he said, waiting till she showed her surprise.
“A wife?” Maw was never one to disappoint anyone. She was surprised and she put on a good show of amazement. Then she said, “Who told you?”
“Well, it’s a long story.” Paw launched into it with relish. Perhaps men don’t gossip as much as women, but give them a story where they can show some deductive reasoning, and they’ll stand teetering on every point until the whole thing has sunk in. So Paw cocked his head on one side like a listening sparrow, the way he always did when considering something.
“Remember when Jim came to the little place, didn’t have enough money to buy those scrub heifers from Angus Katie?” Everything we knew about Jim Brawn had come from his dealings with people. He never told anyone anything himself.
“I don’t know what he’s been feeding them, but they’ve been milkin’, and Saturday, when he got his cheque for milk, first thing he did was go into Alexandria — not the village, mind you—but Alexandria, and blast the whole darned cheque on a woman’s bed jacket.”
Bed jackets were not the kind of tomfoolery farm women in our district ever indulged in. He stopped long enough to let his news sink in, but as usual took it away again just at the point where Maw might have made a comment.
“Silk,” he said, mentally rubbing his hands. “Charters green, the clerk told me, with lace wherever there was an edge.”
I looked at Maw, because often we didn’t have the full value of a subject until she had had her say. I thought I saw her blush a little, then she said, “He must love her very much.” She looked into her plate, then asked Paw if he’d have some more potatoes.
IT’S FUNNY how small boys get information and how little they miss. My parents never once said anything about Jim Brawn’s church habits —but the MacDonalds must have turned it over at table. Anyway, here’s the way I got it from Gordon.
As soon as Mr. McLeod, the minister, heard that Jim had a wife in the shack, he took Mrs. McLeod and drove back there to welcome them to the parish. Of course no one had any way of knowing what church Jim belonged to, but since everybody thought his own church was the best, it was felt only fair to offer everybody an open door.
Back at the shack, though, they didn’t get the kind of reception they expected. When Jim saw them tying the horse to the tree in front of his place he came out alone, wished the minister a cool good day, nodded to Mrs. McLeod, talked a bit about crops, told as little as he could about his own business, and began edging away toward the house. He didn’t even ask Mrs. McLeod to come down from the rig.
Things were getting a little uncomfortable, so the minister decided on a direct throw.
“Mr. Brawn,” he said, “we have a fine congregation. We’d be very happy to have you join us this Sabbath.” He looked nervously at Mrs. McLeod, who smiled back her encouragement, then turned the full warmth of her welcome on Jim Brawn.
She might have smiled at a post for all of Jim. “Mr. McLeod,” he replied, “I came here because I wanted to be left alone. If I go to your church,
I must accept your people. I’ve learned that people are cruel—cruel and heartless. I’ve a mind to stay by myself.”
Mr. McLeod said quietly, “Mr. Brawn, you can’t cut yourself off from people—and from God! Is it fair to your wife?” Continued on page 36
Continued on page 36
Continued from page 8
Brawn’s lips became a thin line. “I’ll have none of people,” he repeated, “and I’ll look after my wife in my own way. My property and my ideas are my own, Mr. McLeod. I’ll thank you to respect them both.”
“I’m sorry,” said the minister. “Good day, Mr. Brawn.”
“Good day to you, sir,” said Jim, ■still polite. He nodded to Mrs. McLeod, then turned toward the door of the shack. He didn’t once turn around.
This incident, of course, increased our interest in the strange man whom nobody knew. There were men in our parish who would argue with old Angus Katie. Roderick MacMillan was known to stand up once in court and tell a lawyer and a judge just what he thought. But no one, at least no one that we knew about, had ever spoken that way to Mr. McLeod. It was like talking back to the Almighty Himself, and when you looked into the kind blue eyes of the minister, with his erect six feet and his pink bald head, you forgot your anger and your self-righteousness, and you were a little humble.
Because Jim Brawn had dared to break one of the unwritten rules by which we lived, we began to distrust him. Because our parents disapproved, we did too. We had not yet learned to hate him for our own reasons. That was to come.
WERE vaguely aware that our swimming hole—the “mud hole” we called it—was on Jim’s acres, but the fact wasn’t really driven home to us until the day we went back to spy on him.
It was Sunday, and on Sunday our parents didn’t expect much of us. After I had got the cows from the pasture for the evening milking I met my two chums and we hiked the mile and a half back to the little concession road that divided Jim’s place from my father’s. We looked about carefully, scaled the fence and crouched like Indians as we half crept, half ran toward the little lime-chinked shack. At the side of the shack was a small grove of spruce, and we gained the cover of these and found ourselves looking directly at the Brawn windows.
Newly bleached washing hung on the clothesline. Sheets, men’s shirts, and women’s things hung lightly in the quiet sunny air. But the place was disappointingly quiet.
Fifteen minutes later we heard a singing down the road; we perked up our ears and craned our necks. It wasn’t long before the big blond man jumped the front fence and slowed to a walk as he got to the front door. Then there was another disappointing silence for 20 minutes. We were stiff from lying in the same spot, and we squirmed about carelessly.
Suddenly we were very still. The back door opened and Brawn came round to the clothesline, which was on our side of the house.
When he started to take the clothes off the line, Albert and I exchanged amused glances. In Glengarry washing was definitely a woman’s job— men would as soon knit. He took the pins off first, stuffed them in his pocket, and laid the clothes carefully over his arm. It was when they were almost all off the line that I noticed the green housecoat. Jim stopped when he got there, took the folds of cloth in his great hands, ran his fingers down the soft material a couple of times, then quite definitely pressed the garment to his face. I nudged Gordon in the ribs, then I immediately felt ashamed of it.
Jim’s back was toward us, and, apart from being quiet, we made no attempt to keep from moving. I turned my glance to the house, and for the first time I noticed that the curtains were drawn. In the window I could see a woman—and she could see me! I know now that she was small, and as dark as Jim was fair. She was very slender, and looked almost frail. I could tell she was sitting down. Her face looked as though it might have been very sweet, but in that moment it held a dread that I could not understand. When she took her eyes away from me and looked at Jim she seemed to be beseeching him.
Then Jim looked up, and I saw him stiffen. He raised his free hand in a gesture I had never seen before, and the girl at the window gestured back. It wasn’t a single movement, but a series of movements with both hands, and suddenly I knew that she was talking to him. The mystery of Jim Brawn’s wife, which had baffled everybody for weeks, was solved. She was deaf and dumb!
Before I had had time to digest this Jim turned in our direction, took a quick look and strode to the house. I knew he’d be back, and I didn’t want to be around.
“Come on!” I whispered, urgently, and the boys didn’t need to be urged. It was still broad daylight—we couldn’t hide in the woods. Our only hope lay in speed, and with Jim Brawn behind us that wasn’t much hope. We hadn’t gone a hundred paces before we could feel the big man coming. I glanced behind once, and there he was closing up the gap between us with deadly speed. Albert could have run faster than Gordon and I, but he stayed with us, urging us forward by keeping a pace ahead. We didn’t need it. The devil himself couldn’t have speeded our feet faster.
Then suddenly I heard Albert suck in his breath hard. He came to a stop, a springy, cushioned stop as though he had run into a giant spider’s web. Gordon and I stopped too. Big Jim had Albert by the collar of his shirt, and big though he was, his feet just dangled on the ground. Then Jim let him down and said, “Don’t run.
“You’re not on my property any more,” Jim Brawn said, without any noticeable lack of breath; and I noticed that he didn’t have the same accent everyone else in Glengarry used. “You’re free, and I won’t hurt you. But I warn you to stay away. People are cruel and nosy. Boys are particularly nosy. If I ever catch you on my land again, I’ll use a horsewhip on you. You know where my line fence is. I’ve let you come on the place to swim, but from now on you stay away.”
At first I had an idea that the three of us could lick him, but that idea soon faded. First, he was much too big for that. And second, now that we were face to face with him, we found a peculiar quality of authority in him. It wasn’t the same thing the minister had, but you would have as soon struck Mr. McLeod. Jim Brawn had a stature that had nothing to do with his great frame. When he told us to go we went quietly, glad to be free of those piercing blue eyes.
WE KNEW a few of the elementary dumb symbols, and on the way home, when we had recovered from our scare, we took turns at putting our hands together in ridiculous gestures, and laughed heartily when a pose struck us as being particularly funny. I decided right there to try one of them on big Jim the first time I could do it with safety.
Somehow I managed to contain my secret for days. Then, when Brawn’s
name came up in the house, I blurted it, and without thinking I made a quick, exaggerated gesture with my hands. “Big Jim’s wife is deaf and dumb.”
Paw picked it up at once. Turning to Maw he said, “Do you think, maybe, that is why Jim stays in hiding like he does?”
“Surely he wouldn’t believe that could make any difference!” she said, her eyes puzzled. “If he would only give us a chance—unbend just once—he would see. The Morrison girls are as happy as anyone.”
People always marvelled at the wonder of the Morrison twins, who were born deaf but whose nimble fingers and vivacious smiles made them welcome everywhere.
“Do you think,” said Maw, “that where they came from people could have been so heartless that they’d mock the poor girl? People aren’t always considerate . . .”
I had stayed around to catch all I could of this talk, and I think my eyes were on my fingers. Instantly I realized my error. Maw paused and looked atme, and I must have turned beet red. “I think there’s a trimming coming to this boy,” she said to Paw, and it was almost a command. Her eyes were terrible to look at. I turned away, m\r face burning, my hands twisting behind my back.
“How did you find this out, boy?” asked Paw, reaching for the small strap. I didn’t answer.
“Go to the woodshed then,” he commanded. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Maw take the small strap from him and give him the big whip— softhearted Maw—and I knew I had done something terribly wrong. I got whipped till I cried—that’s the only way Paw knew when he had given me enough. Every blow was something to be avenged on Jim Brawn. If I would only grow up before Jim was too old to lick!
I SUPPOSE it was natural that boys so close to nature should take to hunting. I know it is true that no man dared leave an inner tube where we could find it, because, good or bad, we would have it slit into slingshot strips as soon as he was out of sight. We could kill squirrels and birds at 100 feet; ground hogs, rabbits and crows were our special game.
One day in early autumn we were wandering back in the woods after school was out, and we caught sight of a cottontail which immediately took flight. I saw him about to enter a clump of scrub spruce and I let fly. The stone must have caught him somewhere in the hind quarters, because he kept jumping, but very limply, until he was out of sight. We hadn’t realized that we were on Jim Brawn’s place, but as we rushed forward, shouting, to get our quarry, he suddenly appeared as if from nowhere, and we almost tumbled óver each other in our hurry to reverse.
We retreated to the opposite side of the road, off the Brawn property, and waited to see if Jim would come after us. But he didn’t even look our way. He walked over to the clump of bushes, reached in a long arm and came out with the injured rabbit in his hands. The animal didn’t even kick. Jim cradled it in the crook of his big arm, and with his left hand felt the injured leg. Then he turned in the direction of his house.
“That’s our rabbit,” Albert shouted at him, with more temerity than I thought wise. “We winged him.” “That’s God’s rabbit,” Jim said, turning round, but with his eyes still fixed on the animal.
“Who are you to talk about God?” said Albert. “You don’t even go to church.”
Jim Brawn ignored the remark. He seemed deep in thought. “Boys are cruel,” he said. “Wherever you go boys are the same. This is God’s animal. I’m going to give it back to God.” He turned away again and broke into the dogtrot he always used.
“You’re going to eat it,” accused Albert, which was what we had intended to do. He raised his slingshot at Jim’s retreating back, then lowered it.
“He’ll eat it,” he repeated, but without conviction, and we agreed, but equally without conviction. If that rabbit did not become well again, it would be no fault of Jim Brawn’s, but in our position it was hard to see that. All we could think of was revenge.
OUR opportunity’ came Hallowe’en night. Under cover of darkness and a mask small boys of Glengarry have always settled scores for real or fancied injuries on Hallowe’en. We often got away scot-free on that night with pranks for which ordinarily we would have been severely punished. We donned our masks, collected such equipment as we needed, and after dark slipped quietly back to Jim’s place.
In my pocket was a large spool which had once contained cobbler’s thread. With a knife we had cut notches all round the edge of the flanges. We slipped a large nail through the hole and wound a long string round the spool. After a cautious 10 minutes j to make sure Jim wasn’t outside, I slipped up to what I thought would be the bedroom window, and held the nail so the spool was against the windowpane. Gordon took the string and ran with it.
In the dark quiet the sound was more terrifying than even we had expected. Then we raced back behind Jim’s shed, because we knew he’d look for us in the direction of the road.
The seconds moved slowly by, and nothing happened. We waited—Jim probably was waiting to catch us when we made our next move. But the patience of boys is not enduring. We decided to try something else.
Albert crept up to the same window and struck a thumb tack in the wood above the lower panes of glass. Attached to the tack was a long black thread with a small bolt hanging below the tack so that when the thread was pulled and relaxed the bolt fell against the glass, Causing a sharp, irritating sound. He rigged the string round a small cherry tree so that he could come back behind the shed with us. Then began a long period of pulling and dropping the bolt. This surely should bring some reaction from Jim. Suddenly there was a flutter of the curtains; Albert pulled the string so that the bolt would not be visible.
The curtains spread, and instead of Jim’s angry face, we saw his wife. Her face looked thinner than before, completely bloodless in the pale moonlight, and below it was a white nightdress. We held our breaths. Had we not seen her in daylight we would have sworn it was a ghost. A terrified ghost. Somehow her terror seemed to come across the darkness to us. The night felt colder. We realized that Jim wasn’t at home. His wife, deaf and dumb, and alone-in a strange wilder! ness of people, was scared. And we were more scared than she was when she j turned and looked at the very spot where we stood in the dark. She couldn’t have seen us, any more than she could have heard the sound on the window, but she knew. We started slowly, almost hesitantly, but once we struck the road, I doubt if even Jim Brawn could have caught us.
Next day we heard that Jim was away for a week—so we buried our Continued on page 40
Continued on page 40
Continued from page 37
Continued from page 37 guilt and our frustration, and kept alive only our resentment.
WITH the coming of winter weather we turned our interest to new things. There was no swimming, so we had no occasion to go near Jim Brawn’s place. He must have welcomed the weeks of peace. As usual in the fall our sehoolwork took up a lot of our time; the rest of the evenings we spent in woodworking, drawing, and waiting for Christmas.
My father encouraged us with tools, and we spent many hours at his workbench. I decided to make Maw something for a Christmas present, and Gordon helped me. After looking over the selection of odd bits we had available, we decided to make a small chest.
For our wood we used old rails from Paw’s kindling pile. Out of these we cut small boards, with the cedar smell still fragrant in them, planed them down carefully, mortised the ends, and fitted them together to make a quite respectable-looking box. Pieces of harness leather made bindings for the corners—we pared it down, polished it till it shone, and nailed it on with brass studs. We varnished the outside and waxed over the varnish. With my small summer savings I bought a small brass lock and hinges. We lined the inside with cotton wool, and covered it over with black silk from an old dress we found in the attic. Carefully pegged into place, the silk gave the chest the rich, finished look we wanted.
The afternoon of the day before Christmas Paw came to the cellar, and ran approving fingers over the finish. It was a work of love, and we all knew it. It would be Maw’s nicest gift. I was filled with a rich glow of anticipation. How proud I would be!
Then Paw said, “Billy, I’m going to ask something very fine and very big of you.”
We gaped at him.
“I want you to take this chest up to Mrs. Brawn so she’ll have it for Christmas Eve.”
We were dumfounded. If he had suggested carrying out the ashes in it, we would have been less surprised.
“But, Paw, it’s for Maw.” I said. “She won’t even know we made it for her!”
“She’ll know, Billy,” he said, and I knew the hurt disappointment which I couldn’t keep out of my voice and eyes wasn’t lost on him.
“She wants you to give it to Mrs. Brawn.”
“But why, Paw?” I asked.
“Because Jim’s wife needs it more.” “All that work wasted!” Gordon said. “He’ll break it up for firewood.” “I don’t think so,” said Paw. He spoke to me directly again. “When you give something like this to your Maw, you know you’ll get something nice in return. That isn’t giving. Jim Brawn won’t be giving you a Christmas gift. Do you see?”
I’m afraid we didn’t see, but we agreed. The sunshine was gone from Christmas. The snow outside the high window was grey, the dark shadows of the bam and granary were harsh and angular. Out in the barn the cows bawled as they always had. but it sounded ugly.
Sadly, Gordon and I took the little box up from the cellar workshop and put it on the big kitchen table. Maw gave a little gasp of delight when she saw it. Her hands went immediately inside and felt the silk lining, with the neat little buttons all in rows. Then she went to the drawer where she kept her finest linens. These she used
a dozen times. She took out a great lace table cover that our grandma had taken months to make. Eight little napkins went with it. And she folded them carefully and put them in the chest, wrapped about with tissue paper. On top she put a little card. It said, “Wishing you a very merry Christmas, from Gordon MacDonald and Billy Cameron.”
All this-time she hadn’t once looked straight at me. Now she did. She raised her eyes from the little chest, and I noticed that they were wet at the corners. I didn’t know whether she was sad about giving away her linens, or whether the tears were because she knew what the whole thing meant to me. But when she came round the corner of the table to tuck in an edge of paper that she could have done from the other side, and she stood close to me, I moved close to her the way I hadn’t done for a long time, and just stood there with my shoulder touching her arm. I didn’t cry, but I wanted to.
“Take it now,” she said, “and come right back for church.”
WE PUT on our winter coats and Gordon and I walked back in silence along the snowy open lane where the summer road had been. It was almost dark when we got there, and we put the box down on the little step.
Gordon said, “Do you want to knock, Billy?”
I said, “No, do you?” He shook his head.
Then we turned to the door and knocked quickly, both at once, then grinned at each other and walked right away. Once we got over the initial hurt, I think we were both feeling much better.
Gordon went to his home and I went back to mine. Supper was a quick meal, because everybody had to hurry. Church was pretty important in our lives in Glengarry. There was a great scrubbing of ears, and a shining of shoes, and we got into our newest and most uncomfortable clothes. My father brought the horse and cutter around and we all bundled tight in the seat, with a heavy buffalo robe pulled up to cut the sharp wind. We were gay enough at first, but as we got nearer the church my father’s conversation lagged, and we all grew solemn. Clothed in quiet and dignified piety we walked into the brightly lighted old church and took our seats.-
Soon after we were seated the MacDonald family came in, Albert and Gordon looking strained and too clean in their Sunday best. Their eyes passed over me, but showed no recognition. They walked ahead of their parents and took a seat quite a way in front of us.
Had our minister been a gambler he would have played a fine game of poker. Usually, from the time he walked in his face never changed. He conducted his service with the solemnity which everybody felt was due in the house of God. Now, for the first time in my life, I saw a change in him. When he came to the announcements his face had a pinched look. He had a slip of paper in his hands, and he turned it over a few times before he said anything. Then quite simply he announced: “Mrs. James Brawn gave birth to a baby boy two days ago, in the afternoon. The baby died.”
I looked at the back of Gordon’s head, and he did the unpärdonable sin of turning to look at me. I can’t describe what was in his eyes, but I knew what was happening to his soul, because I could feel the same thing crowding into my forehead and filling my chest. The minister dropped his Continued on page 42
Continued on page 42
Continued from page 40
head and the light from the big chanldelier shone on his bald skull. Whether ;r there was anything else on that paper ?r we never knew. He didn’t say any y more for a minute, then he announced d the hymn. People opened their hymnbooks, then n held them in hands that hung by y their sides. They were not needed. “Silent night—Holy night—” Softly at first, then gathering power ■r with the organ the sweet cadence e mounted. “All is calm, all is—” There was a sweetness in it, and d a crying melancholy. Women’s voices s wavered and stopped. Purses clicked d open, and handkerchiefs moved upward d with dignity and sadness. At first I thought I detected a a draught of cold air on my neck, but t 1 didn’t turn until I heard a sudden n swelling in the deep voices. A voice e stronger than any that had ever r sounded in that church blended in suddenly with the others, and as one man n the congregation turned their eyes s toward the door. Jim Brawn was there, s, and never had he looked more like a :i lion. A short mackinaw coat covered :1 his denims. Its fur collar was up and :1 thrown back loosely from his neck. His head was bare and his hair glis;-
tened with snow. His chin was held high, but in his face there was neither pride nor humility, but only a great need. He paused only a second at the door; then he moved forward. The hymn went on, and there was an even greater power in it. “ Round yon Virgin—” The rafters of that old building had never resounded as they did to that mighty outpouring of emotion. Jim Brawn walked slowly up the aisle; sometimes he would lift his hand and drop it lightly on the edge of a pew as he passed. When he reached the front he turned toward the pulpit, placed both hands on the edge of the front pew and sang until near the end of the hymn. Then he turned, and with bowed head he walked slowly to the rear again. I wanted to cry, but I held it back, When I looked at Big Jim’s face I suddenly was glad all over. So glad I did cry. My present wasn’t a little chest. I had given him a whole community — friends and understanding . . .“Sleep in Heavenly peace, Sleep in Heavenly peace—” Again I felt the draught of the open door, his great voice faded, and we could hear it dying as he moved away into the snow and the darkness. ir