Heading Home is (ostensibly) about a ten-year-old boy walking home from school in the dead of winter, in the early 1930’s. The time notwithstanding, perhaps those of you from the prairies can relate.
by CW Lovatt
All things considered, as far as the cold went, young Davy Patterson reckoned that although today might not be a record, the difference was pretty much negligible.
He was cutting across country, taking the short cut from school just outside of town. Davy never hesitated making tracks from that place of misery at the best of times, but today the steep dip in the thermometer demanded an even fresher pace before reaching his home, almost a mile away, on the far side of the snow-covered field.
As he tramped along, frost formed on his eyelashes, giving them an oddly beautiful, feminine grace of which - had he but known - he would have vigorously disapproved. But not knowing - instead he bowed his head into the wind, his breath frosting into a circle on the muffler covering his face. The gusts were not overly heavy, and would scarcely be noticed at any other season, but when the mercury dropped to thirty below like it was today, it cut like a knife (“Like a Pure-D-Jeezer,” as Grandpa put it). Then every breath became a trial, and exposed skin froze in less than a minute.
The thought of his grandpa prompted a vision of his ancient face, which in turn, conjured a smile under the red scarf his mother had knit him for Christmas. The old man had a collection of cuss words for every occasion, all of which drew an exasperated frown from Davy’s mother, although that was usually the extent of her disapproval; she had long since given up any hope that there would ever be a reformation. Like he’d heard her say more than once, “A body has only so much energy,” and would usually add with a sigh, “No point wasting it on something that can’t be changed.”
Davy stopped, his smile slowly fading, to be replaced by a puzzled frown. Something about that image of his grandfather wasn’t right – close but not…what? He knit his brow, the frost accenting the arches while he considered.
However, a rogue gust of wind chose that moment to pierce through his overcoat and three sweaters like they were so much tissue paper, dragging him from his thoughts before he could reach a conclusion. Shivering, he dismissed the subject and pulled his toque well down over his ears before starting forward again.
Christ-On-A-Hot-Plate, but it was cold! This was another one of Grandpa’s homilies, and if his mother ever heard him repeating it, she would tan his backside for him, good and proper. Davy figured that the energy put into tanning his backside was something his ma still believed worthwhile and, accordingly, took pains to be careful whenever he was within her reach.
Be that as it may, home was still a mile off, so he’d best get to it. He hoped Ma would have a mug of cocoa waiting for him - that and some fresh biscuits, and there might even be some honey left in the crock, too. Fresh biscuits and honey - Jesus-Darling-Christ! - was there ever anything in the world that tasted half as good! He adjusted the shoulder strap of his book bag, feeling the weight cut through the layers of clothing, and continued on, his boots crunching, unnaturally loud, in the frozen stillness. Something warm inside would make all the difference before going out again to help Grandpa with the evening chores.
There it was again - the image of that wrinkled old face, smiling that same toothless way he had whenever spinning one of his yarns. Usually those were about the time he’d gone off to South Africa to set folks (he called them ‘Boers’) straight, back at the turn of the century some thirty years earlier; but sometimes he’d tell stories about a place called Batoche, too, and something that was known as the ‘Northwest Rebellion’ - which was a site further back, when he was – apparently - just a young man. Notwithstanding that those stories were as exciting as all the others, Davy usually took them with a grain of salt; not that he didn’t believe what he was told – at least some of it might be true - but mostly he could never bring himself to accept that his grandfather could ever have been anything other than old.
Yet all that aside, there was something…not wrong, exactly…not really, just something that wasn’t right. That was the best Davy could put it. That image was his grandfather in every way, but…
His foot stubbed into a frozen clod, jerking him back to the present. Christly-Gabriel-The-Blue-Balled-Angel! So much time had been spent wool-gathering that he hadn’t noticed the cold working its way into his feet – even with three pairs of wool socks under his winter boots. Today was a Black-Hearted-Whore if ever there was, so it was best to keep his mind in the moment, else he’d be frozen solid in no time flat.
Davy stomped his feet to warm them, but his stomach gave an uneasy lurch when he felt a sort of numb ‘thrum’ in his toes. That wasn’t good; he hadn’t been paying attention, and could be headed for trouble. If he showed up at home with frostbit toes there’d be hell to pay.
Well no, he allowed, not really hell, but his ma would make a fuss, and that’d prompt Grandpa to recollect that, “Jesus-Snot-Pickin’-Christ! Think that’s bad? Why, t’was ten times worse lying out in the open that night at Paardeburg; what with those Mauser rounds buzzin’ by our ears! Lord’s-Stinkin’-Arsehole! This ain’t nothin’ but a iddy-biddy flea bite compared to that!”
Davy was old enough to know that that epic moment had become the yardstick his grandfather used to take the measure of the world. Davy also suspected that the old man was purposely over-liberal with its employment sometimes, because his eyes would always twinkle so whenever he brought the subject up (and of course he brought it up often). It didn’t seem to matter what it was: the cold, the heat, the noise, the quiet – it just didn’t matter – that night at Paardeburg was always ten times worse than anything else that ever was, or could ever be.
Davy continued to stamp his feet as he made his way along, drumming his hands against his shoulders to get the blood pumping again. He ground his teeth against the pain as it circulated through his toes, chasing the numbness away, but he couldn’t stop his eyes from tearing. Large droplets overflowed down both cheeks, freezing to icicles in seconds.
But it wasn’t until he felt the tingle starting in his fingertips that he actually began to worry.
He flexed his hands inside his wool-lined leather mitts, stuffing his thumbs into the main pockets to share what little warmth there was with the rest of his fingers. Sure enough, the tingle gradually switched to that agonizing thrum as the blood brought traumatized nerve-endings back to life, and he began to cry in earnest.
Close to panic now, he started to jog, tucking his hands protectively under his arms. The extra exertion made his heart beat faster, and soon he was sobbing aloud when his extremities really started to throb. The agony shooting up his limbs was so bad it felt like his whole world was one giant toothache.
Lord-Love-A-Pox-Ridden-Doxy! If he could just hold on and keep the blood pumping for another minute, he’d start to thaw and be right as rain in no time. But Holy-Jeezly-Crow, by now both hands and feet felt like they’d been set on an anvil, and smashed to a pulp with a sledgehammer. All he wanted was to curl up in a ball and nurse his hurt like their dog, Trixie, nursed the litter of newborn pups she kept tucked away in the barn.
Regardless of that desire, however, Davy forced himself to keep running, even when the pain reached the pit of his stomach and settled in like it was fixing to stake out a homestead. His eyes teared until the world became one great big frozen blur, making it a foregone conclusion that he should trip over another furrow and go sprawling.
When he hit the ground, the sudden jar brought the pain surging up from his stomach until he thought his head would explode. The force of the impact shoved the sleeves of his overcoat halfway up his forearms, driving snow deep into the cuffs, and more down his chest. The iron-hard earth scoured exposed wrists like a rasp, scraping one forearm to the elbow, and he lay there bawling his lungs out like the biggest suck ever born.
He lay there for the better part of a minute, but it wasn’t so much an instinct for survival, nor was it the humiliation of knowing he was lying there like an overgrown bawl-baby that eventually got him back to his feet. It was the sudden rush of gratitude when he realized that, somewhere in the interim, the pain had reached its climax and, as foreseen, had miraculously begun to recede. In fact, in as little time as it took to marvel at the change, it had disappeared altogether.
He gave his hands a cautious flex but felt nothing that was in any way disagreeable. To tell the truth, with the easing of tension, it was just the opposite. The world around him had suddenly become a much better place, as if he was looking at it through a pane of rose-coloured glass. He’d had an almighty scare, maybe the greatest in his young life, but as was the way with the young, once recuperation set in, his gratitude began to wane, and he was already shrugging the episode off as of little consequence. Feeling much better now, his mind was free to concentrate on other things.
He stopped to consider; roughly figuring, he should be close to halfway home by now. He dashed the tears from his eyes, and peered out across the prairie, squinting into the glare from the sun-reflected snow. Pretty soon he should be coming to that boulder he and Grandpa had pried out of the ground last fall.
Christ-On-A-Candlestick, but that mother had been huge! It had taken the better part of a day, prying with crowbars and hauling with the team, and using every trick in the book just to bring it to the surface. But once they’d hauled it out, even those powerful draft horses, Babe and Rudy, hadn’t been able to drag that bastard any sort of distance worth mentioning. So after all that effort, in the end they’d had to leave it sitting in the middle of the field like the world’s biggest milestone, marking the halfway point between the school and his own front door.
Yet when Davy searched that frigid landscape he began to sense new threads of tension. He recognized the spot where the giant rock should have been, all right, but as much as his willpower was trying to make it otherwise, it just wasn’t there.
That was when he started to get nervous as hell.
“Course it’s not there,” he heard a reassuring old voice chiding inside his head and, at the same time imagined that wizened face smiling as he spoke. “Don’t you recollect dragging that Christly thing off with the Minneapolis-Moline back in ‘66? Broke two logging chains before making it to that bluff yonder.”
Davy stared as if the old man was actually beside him, pointing to a clump of skeletal willows off in the distance. He could make out a large snow-covered mound verging on the edge that just might possibly be hiding a very large boulder.
Of course! The memory came with a surge of relief. It had been an unseasonably warm spring day - near the end of March it was; he remembered towing it off with the tractor, and how he’d ducked each time those chains had snapped on account of he’d been scared stiff of getting caught in the whiplash!
Still, as welcome as that recollection was, the suspicion that something wasn’t right about that face remained anchored in his mind and could not be shaken.
Then he was standing very still, his confusion blocking out the cold, chasing away his relief so suddenly it was like it had never been. What replaced it were steely fingers creeping up his spine, pulling the skin taught to his scalp. If anything, this new chill was far, far worse than anything winter was currently dishing out.
Slowly – too slowly – he began to come back to himself.
He spoke aloud, “But Grandpa, you died in the winter of ‘42.”
The silence that followed was broken only by the moan of the ground-hugging wind creeping across the prairie, unchecked for as far as the mind could imagine.
He remembered now. He remembered his grandfather, lying there looking so peaceful in his old fashioned suit, before they’d closed the lid on the casket and taken him out to the cemetery. He remembered standing bareheaded by the grave while the minister led them in prayer, thinking that it was somehow wrong to be putting him into such cold ground. Later, he’d discovered that his ears were so badly frozen they’d peeled for weeks afterward.
He remembered all of it.
His brow tried to knit, but his forehead had become stiff like cardboard and would no longer oblige. Maybe if his mind hadn’t been so completely at sea, he would have noticed.
But it was at sea. It was so completely foundered on shoals outside of logic that there seemed no way of returning.
Notwithstanding that this was the month of January, in the year of nineteen hundred and thirty-two (over two years after what folks were still calling ‘Black Tuesday’ of the great stock market crash of ‘29), he had two vivid memories: of his grandfather’s funeral, and of dragging that boulder off the field – both of which took place in an impossibly distant future! These events on their own would have been enough to be the foremost challenge to reason, but they weren’t - not even close. In fact, they were impatiently pushed to the back of his mind while he cogitated on what had to be recognized as the real stumbling block to his sanity.
He could see his grandfather lying in that coffin, that great handlebar moustache looking unnaturally dark across the paleness of his face. It had been his one and only vanity for all the years that Davy knew him.
Although it was the same in every other aspect, the face he’d been imagining did not have a moustache.
Davy’s mind reeled with confusion, rending great tears in the fabric of the rational world. He shivered, trying to piece it all together, but this was far beyond anything he was capable of dealing with. With the absence of answers, worms of panic crept in to fill the void. He had to get home! He had to…
But then he experienced something new that, in its way, was so strange as to supplant everything else. It was as though he’d dived deep into the dark waters of a lake, and having reached the bottom, was gradually returning to the light as he approached the surface. Everything was beginning to move toward clarity.
He heard another voice – a woman’s this time, unnaturally loud, like in the way folks had when speaking to the very old.
“Mr. Patterson! It’s time for your shave!”
And this too was strange; he could actually feel the lotion being applied – feel the scrape of the razor rasping down his cheeks, and later, even the soft buffing of the towel on his face. Then there was a pretty young blond in a nurse’s uniform smiling at him and saying, “Now doesn’t that look nice! I swear you’re as handsome as you were at twenty! Here, I’ll let you see for yourself!”
Then the mirror! Oh-Christly-Pimply-Assed-Jesus! The mirror!
He could sense some part of himself trying desperately to block that moment from his mind, but it was coming on in waves, overwhelming him in a deluge of memory that would no longer be denied. He couldn’t help but see.
There it was, that wrinkled old face - the face he’d imagined - grinning at her ridiculous compliment, wobbling ever so slightly when she adjusted the glass.
His own face!
Goose bumps broke out over his body; his hair prickled like static on his scalp, and he thought he was going to be sick to his stomach, right then and there.
This couldn’t be! Why, he was only ten years old, on his way home from school, with nothing more on his mind than hot cocoa and maybe some fresh biscuits and honey! How was any of this possible?
He held up his hands, maybe to ward the insanity away. Yet, when they caught his eye, a low groan escaped from deep inside his chest.
There were his gnarled old fingers sticking out of the sleeves of his blue cotton robe, knuckles badly swollen with arthritis, thin veins tracing spider webs under parchment skin. So shocking was this in itself that it took quite a bit longer to notice they were frozen, a horrible fish-belly white.
Then there was the nurse’s voice again - part of an unrelenting sequence on his way to the surface - its very realness an inescapable torment. This time she was speaking in a normal tone to someone else, apparently forgetting that his ears worked just fine. “We’ll have to watch him. Poor old thing might get confused and wander off.”
The nausea reasserted itself, and this time he was sick – spewing up everything in his stomach without warning. He heaved and heaved for an eternity until nothing but green bile was left to join the steaming mess on the ground – a multi-coloured splatter that stood out in stark contrast to the virgin white of the snow. But when he finished, as dire and immediate as that reaction had been, his only acknowledgement was to wipe his mouth on his sleeve before turning around, ever so slowly, like in a nightmare, when he knew that a monster was lurking behind him, poised to strike.
And there it was.
The nursing home stood an impossible distance away, smoke wafting down from the chimney, unable to rise in the bitter cold. A single set of footprints emerged from its grounds, meandering to and fro, in a nonsensical pattern, until they finally arrived at the spot where he was standing.
As the present came ever closer to the surface, yet another memory reappeared. This Home had been built on the same land where the old school had been, before it was torn down sometime in the late fifties.
As snow crystals hissed along the ground in a hush of ghost-whisper, the truth settled into his mind, bringing with it an inevitable transformation. He likened it to frost settling onto a corpse, and even managed a grim smile. Bitter though it was, his levity was a remarkable reaction, yet in a way he understood. The truth had given him freedom; what few choices were available would now be made by him and no one else, least of all by a ten year old boy. This was a nightmare, to be sure, but he was old – maybe too old to be frightened by monsters anymore. Maybe it wasn’t such a surprise to find he could stare this one in the eye…and in the end, accept.
The pain had long since gone from his hands and feet; in fact, there was no longer any sensation in them at all. While his mind had been struggling to resolve his confusion, he hadn’t noticed how increasingly wooden his movements had become.
He cast one last look (scarcely more than a disinterested glance) at the Home, and suddenly felt very tired. In fact he yearned for sleep like nothing else in this world.
Bending awkwardly on stiff-jointed knees, he managed to lie down without being too clumsy; this was the final grace left him, and it seemed important to get it right. He pillowed his head on his hands, then drawing his legs up to his stomach, closed his eyes, aware that he could no longer feel the frozen ground beneath his body - in fact, could feel very little of anything at all.
Composed at last, he waited…
“Why you Christly-Buck-Toothed-Little-Fart! What in the Devil’s-Unholy-Hell d’you think you’re playin’ at!”
His eyes popped open like a fluttering blind when the voice reached him, thin over the frozen air, as though from a distance.
“Well, I’ll be a Jeezly-Motherfarking-Donkey’s-Uncle!”
Sitting up now, he could make out a lean figure maybe fifty yards away, standing in silhouette of the lowering sun. But even in the failing light, he couldn’t help but see the ends of a magnificent moustache spiking out either side of the shadowed face.
Davy wiped his streaming nose, the leather from his mitt feeling hard as a plank against his cheek.
“C’mon boy, quit your lolly-gaggin’.” The old voice was gruff with humour - the anger mere pretence.
“Jesus-Mary-And-Cuckholded-Joseph! This ain’t no time for play!” Yet the tone suggested otherwise.
Davy struggled to his feet, feeling as if he’d just woken from a dream. “I wasn’t playin’, I…”
“Now don’t you give me no horse puck about the cold!” The abrupt interruption refused any excuse, the words laughing their way to his ears. “Why this ain’t nothin’ but a few degrees short of balmy!” Then, without pause, “I ever tell you ‘bout that night in South Africa – out front o’the trenches?”
And Davy realized that he was starting to feel warm again - that it was, in fact, “a few degrees short of balmy” - and wasn’t the least surprised. He managed a sleep-tousled grin, “Uh huh, must be a million times, maybe more.” He still couldn’t see very much, with the sun in his face, but he could well imagine those old eyes all atwinkle.
“Ten times worse than this!”
Now Davy laughed outright. “At least ten,” he agreed.
Then he experienced something so strong that it threatened to defy description. Yet if he had to give it a stab, he’d guess that maybe it was a sense of being where he ought to be – of being where he belonged. He realized that, at that moment, he wouldn’t trade places with anyone else in the whole wide world, not even for all the tea in China.
“Come along lad,” now cajoling, the voice was fading to a low whisper, “let’s head for home,” and finished with what might have been, “your ma’s waitin’.”
Then, having said his piece, the figure turned and started across the field, his strides long and confident, as though aware that the biting cold could never touch him.
Joyful, without hesitation, Davy followed.