With the first day of winter officially arriving earlier this week (on Dec. 21) , East Toronto resident Robert Garrison has shared the story below for Beach Metro Community News readers to enjoy.
MY WINTERS OF DISCONTENT
BY R0BERT GARRISON
I’d stacked my wood, the truck’s rad was brimming with anti-freeze, last year’s dog-haired filter wasn’t going to gag the furnace, snow shovels were on standby. Seasoned vet, stalwart and winter-ready, I was armed to face the stormy solstice. Man against nature; nature against man. Archetypal hero…. elemental force.
December has just howled icily in and not an official event yet, winter’s already got the upper hand. And it took me by surprise again. Not the scalpel winds debriding my face, not the sudden snow, not even the quick cryogenic plummeting of mercury. I’m insulated against thermal assault. No, it’s something else.
It’s the half-dark daylight that hovers a few lugubrious hours between indefinite dawns and ambiguous dusks.
It’s the gloom.
And the mocking half-weathers that fill it. Suicidal snows melting to slurry on turned earth, indecisive rains splashing slush, shaking fists of storms unfolding into bland patches of empty sky, morning’s white blanket, afternoon’s mud. Wolfish winds threatening danger, circling, turning tail, vanishing under cloud cover, but driving me behind barricades, inner voices whispering words with windchill factors of their own … black ice, hail, cold snap, whiteout, sleet.
I was warned long ago about winter’s withering and capricious arsenal of melancholies and weathers. How could I forget?
My grandfather was chopping wood well into his eighties, still wearing his frayed engineer’s cap and the leathered hands he wore every day of his life. “It’s a hell of a country where you spend half of it gettin’ ready for the other,” he noted without rancour, thick arms knotted around his load of split maple as he headed for the house. He’d earned the right to say that.
Shoulder to the plow at ten years old, just south of nineteen hundred, he stayed there for seventy-eight more years, one eye on the furrow, the other on the weather. He never had time to ruminate about the rude injustices visited upon him by climate and circumstance, not when he had to cut factory cordwood in the depression for a buck a ten-hour day, not even when the farm he’d taken forty years to pay the mortgage off on was bulldozed in the name of progress. He just sold off his stock and machinery, moved to a few acres out of the way of highways and highhoes, tossed his bucksaw and axe into the Dodge and got to work again.
Winter was always coming.
His father emerged from the festering bowels of a transport ship “with a pit in his stomach and Gaelic in his mouth” feeding on winter freedom, the warmth of an axe in his hands, clearing the land and stocking the woodpile while his wife, her infant in a crude cradle at her side, plucked down ticking from a mound of goose feathers. Their son might have to stumble in the young and crooked furrows of his boyhood, man-reigns hanging over small shoulders, but his resolve would never wane. He might not make it past grade six at the country school back in Thurlow, but he knew the classic plots all the same and in this country that was the man-nature story, so he studied on being ready. The weather teaches hard lessons well.
He wasn’t to die with his boots on but he would have wanted to. If he could just have unbuckled his restraining jacket and clambered over the bars of his hospital bed, he would have been out bucking hardwood or hitching his team to a stoneboat. Narrowing tunnels in his brain were kindly dimming the ambient clamour of bedpans and trolley wheels, disinterring the buried memories of his life’s labours, kindling the fading flame of survival. But not enough. Waiting for the world forever faded to return, he was mostly forlorn there in the hospital’s geriatric wing, his last dim sunset in a strange land.
A woodstove could’ve eased his passage. The savoury smell of burning oak, the pop of knots in the belly of the beast, the melody of singing tongues of flame would have voiced triumph and peace, the soothing powers of warmth and comfort.
During his time, malodorous space heaters and oil furnaces were recruited against the cold but my grandfather steadfastly refused to accept the obsolescence of the noble McCaulay woodrange with its ovens and “reservoy”, and the rocking chair beside it.
If winter was the enemy, the stove was an iron horse to ride against it. It consumed wood and it was fed all it wanted because it breathed sweet smoke and whickered and snorted and kept the fire in the belly blazing and a man could go back outside for another skirmish knowing it was there and working. If winter was a battle, the kitchen was a bunker he returned to with bread baking and iced socks thawing and chew of Napoleon tobacco and the thermometer declaring colder, colder; then back to the sleepy barn to ease the aching udders of complaining cows, and dozing while you leaned against their creature warmth, the splash of milk in the pail your only lullaby.
Colder meant paralysis of everything except the will to rise up out of the cocoon of a feather bed in the dark of a blustery morning, breath crystallizing in the kitchen air, and to grind the night’s coals down through the grate, feed in an arm of kindling, then throw open the draft to resume the war. Out through a small hole scratched in window ice, the world was besieged by an army of militant snows, and had surrendered unequivocally overnight.
There was a trail to break to the barn and ice to crack in the water barrel when he got there and the cold cows glad of him and the bowls of grist he poured them to stoke their bovine stoves. Weaning calves snorted clouds of mist and guzzled bubbling pails of milk, and the workhorses stomped the floor demanding their wages of oats and hay, and he dug in with his dipper and pitchfork because last spring he’d plowed and planted, knowing all along through the harvest and the naked trees shivering in the fall rains, knowing that this would come and he’d be ready or perish.
Colder meant the whip of the wind driving the scalding snow at his face, sweeping the roads away and leaving only mailboxes to mark where they’d been and the drifts declared there’d be no milk truck for a day or two and last night’s work might go to the pigs. And to the north, the neighbour’s farm had blown so far away in the storm that it was another county, distant and impenetrable. The ice-caked sheepdog, nothing to herd but him, drove him back to the house like a hostage, a polar bear snorting at his heels. And as the cold comet of the sun burned a glowing trail through the grey sky, the only thing still moving outside was the re-assuring shadow of smoke from the tin chimney and him with arms full of wood trying to kick open the woodhouse door but it was as frozen as his feet. The path he’d blazed to the barn had filled with snow and vanished as if no one had ever been there.
She kept the home fire burning and when he took the steaming mug of tea she’d brewed in his hands, they thawed and he could undo the frozen bootlaces, and if there were eggs, she got them boiled, still wearing her cap and nothing to say because there was no use complaining. They had their health and bread and porridge and a hard day ahead.
After food, she followed him to the barn to milk because if they didn’t the cows would nag, and though they weren’t laying much, the chickens squawked when they weren’t fed, still hysterical about the weasel that got in and killed three prime hens in the night. And he had to patch the hole in the chicken house but this time he wasn’t prepared and the loose lumber was buried deep in a drift at the back of the barn and too hard for nails to go in but they finally did.
She came back from her haymow rounds with only six eggs but it was enough, it would get them through another supper what with the rest of Sunday’s roast bird and the preserves. And he knew that when he could crank the Dodge Terraplane into its stuttering start and the roads were almost clear, they could get to town to market and the A&P for groceries.
The darkness never really left, just hunkered behind the barn and before the afternoon had begun it was over. Night came back like a shroud and there were the cows again and the never-ending freezing wind and just a hurricane lantern and their will against it.
Will and the glowing woodstove with warm water in the reservoy to wash up when he got back, and the rocking chair beside it waiting, and she had her cap off finally and her hair combed and she was humming something because they’d made it through another day of the winter siege.
As I said, I should’ve been ready. I was warned.
Which is likely why I chop and stack wood and willingly combat the frigid dark with my little Vermont stove, the high-efficiency gas furnace the basement notwithstanding. The enemy is mortal and I take up arms against it, fighting its insidiously toxic glooms and crippling cold with the light and heat my labours generate and the soothing sibilance of firesounds inside the glowing iron stallion.
Husbanding fire, I stoke away the impending gloom with bites of birch and elm, my weather eye waiting for a shaft of sun to strike the crazed window frost and shatter winter’s pervading grey eminence into lucent shards of silver, to polish the dusky snow to shining, to illuminate the earth’s gem-bright indifference and teasing promise of better days ahead. And if there is no light, if the sun can’t break the siege, I conjure up the serene ceremony of flame in the chapel of my stove.
Husbands or children of fire, gnostics gathered at random shrines of flame, we religiously give thanks for the primal spark still flickering in these singing tongues, chanting mystic melodies, their shadows dancing on the walls of winter. We give thanks for spark and match and candle, all sources of fire, all fireplaces, bonfires, and hearths that draw us like sweatered moths to light and warmth and the relief of promises, draw us like chattering cavemen moving to the glimmering coals of a charred tree, and when they discovered it was fire, groaned pleasure, dark wolves puzzled, prowling in the dancing shadows.
Not to the surrendered earth, laid waste by frost, do we follow bears and other beasts to sleep away the gloom in misty caves, nor to the nest of ants nor to the gelid repose of bee. Half-awake with haunting memories of wood and smoke and heat, we roam the snow and light where nothing grows, driven by a strong and silent gene to gather winter fuel.
Axe-handles are not strangers in my son’s hands either, nor is a hardwood cord stacked for airflow, nor the kindling of the first fall fire. Axehead arcing to the crack of a struck blow, the scream of wrent elm and the thud of split wood on the hard earth, the stockpile a ragged pyramid and him sweating gladly in the sharp air saying, “It’s a hell of a country where you spend one half of it gettin’ ready for the other,” his thick arms knotted around the load of maple heading for the house.
The last time I saw my grandfather, he was delirious and near the end. He was strapped to his bed in the ward but no longer there… he was a young man at a country auction somewhere back in time and bidding on a horse. His face was momentarily young and fervent, an urgency in his voice, as if he had to be back to his fields, back at work.
“Thirty-Six dollars for the chestnut mare,” he shouted, straining in his canvas harness as his nurse’s mute eyes moistened. “Thirty-Six and a half!”
I had to turn away. Outside his ward window, the grey gloom of a lowering sky.
“Thirty-Seven!” my grandfather shouted, “Thirty-Seven dollars!” He wanted the horse badly. I hope he got it. He still had a lot of furrows to plough, a lot of wood to haul and chop.
Winter was coming.
— By Robert Garrison (all rights reserved).