15, Number 86, August/September 2012 WINNER OF THE CREATIVE NON-FICTION: PEARL WEARMOUTH PRIZE It's Time by Harold Studholme
Vera stood quietly behind him for a long time, her hands resting gently on his broad shoulders, not quite sure in her mind how to broach the subject. She had waited until they had enjoyed their mid morning ritual together: strong black tea, his liberally laced with sugar and milk, hers,‘untainted’ as she would put it, both in the same old mugs they had always used, chipped and stained by a multitude of fills with tea, but big enough to satisfy their love of the brew. A pair of miss-matched saucers completed the tableau, dusted liberally with the crumbs of Vera’s homemade rye bread, toasted black, Lawrence’s favourite. As usual, she had scolded him for the way he had slathered his toast with butter and a huge dollop of her wild blackberry jam, but with a wry smirk and a little grunt, he had gone ahead anyway, just as he did every morning.
Vera and Lawrence married late in life, both having lost their first spouses many years past. It was a union of convenience at first, but it grew into a strong, genuine, mutual affection as time went by. Together they farmed a barely productive three hundred acres. The farm had been Lawrence’s inheritance, passed down to him from grandfather and father. It was deep in his soul, something Vera recognized as a trait she appreciated. Always a believer in the old Protestant work ethic, she had no trouble sharing the load of farm life. Lawrence’s workplace focused on the farm and outbuildings and, of course, the workable acreage itself. The old barn was a classic, ‘T- shaped’ and built into a hill. Its layout offered easy access to the upper hay lofts, and the stables and cow byres had the shelter of the hill itself on the lower level. The rest of the outbuildings housed a drive shed for the machinery and Lawrence’s ‘36 Ford, a hen house, and an ice house. There were no motorized vehicles other than the car on the farm. Lawrence had never graduated from horse- drawn implements, firmly believing in the strength and loyalty of horses over an impersonal machine. By this time in life, the horses were long gone, tho’ he often visited their stalls and stood with a wistful look on his face, remembering other times and his beloved Clydesdales.
On the other hand, Vera’s domain was the house, the kitchen garden and because she cleaned it and kept it supplied with Eaton’s catalogues, the ‘outdoor facility.’ The house was large with a front parlour (never used unless guests called, a very rare event), a huge interior living room that was the primary living space in cold months, and two upstairs bedrooms. Around three sides of the exterior was a wonderful open porch that ended, on the remaining side, in a large mostly glassed in summer kitchen.
It was mid September and although the days had definitely begun to shorten, they were still using the summer kitchen. There was a strong hint of fall in the draughts that seeped under the door to the north porch, but they hung onto the hope of a few more days of warm, late season sun. The house itself had many such draughts. They were a sign of its age and heritage, now more than a century old. Yet, neither he nor Vera could dream of living anywhere else. Though they were both in their late seventies and farm life had for some time now shown its wear and tear on their bodies, their spirits were still strongly fixed in the land and their minds could not contemplate any other life situation. Somehow, without ever voicing it, they shared the firm opinion that they would ‘go out together,’ as Lawrence would probably express it. Life apart was never considered an option.
Vera watched as Lawrence reached across the big oak table, itself as old as the house, and took up his battered briar pipe. A gift from his nephew many summers past, it was now nearly burnt out, but he was reluctant to retire it even though he had others in better condition. Somehow, he told Vera, when he lit the sweet Pic-o-Bac tobacco he tamped into it, it brought back memories of good times with a young city lad who had carved a place in the old man’s heart. Lawrence went through the ritual of lighting the briar, a generous pinch of tobacco firmly packed, the pouch reclosed to keep the remainder fresh, a long Eddy match, tugged from an overall pocket, struck under the table, and the bright flame drawn down until the aroma of the kindled mixture filled the room. To Vera, the pipe and her husband were one.
They both sat, savouring the last of their tea, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun now streaming into the room. The first chores were done, such as they were, the two remaining cows milked, feed scattered for the hens and a half dozen eggs retrieved, and scraps from last night’s meal and a bowl of water put under the edge of the porch for Kayo, the dog. They were what city folk would call at retirement age, but that didn’t have the same meaning on a farm no matter how many years had passed. Lawrence still would rise at 5:30 AM and go to the barn to muck out and then head to the drive shed and tinker with the ancient binder and mower stored there. And Vera would clean up the few breakfast dishes and then scrub out the milk pails and wash down the separator as she had done every morning for decades. Today she might even bake a pie for Lawrence. There were plenty of those ripe berries left in the ice fridge out back. It wasn’t Sunday, when she insisted they go to the little church down the road. It was just another day like so many others. Yet, it wasn’t.
Vera squared her shoulders as if she was preparing to begin a lesson for the students of her one room school where she taught as a young woman so many years ago. It’s now or never she said to herself.
Giving his shoulders a squeeze she said, “Lawrence, dear, it’s time.”
“Uhm,” he answered, “I know, it’s time.”
But he sat there for another few moments, gathering himself. He tamped out his pipe in the ashtray, picked up the tobacco pouch and match box and walked to the clothes rack by the door. He slowly pulled on the old worn Carhartt jacket and reaching up over the lintel took down his 22 Winchester rifle. He went to the cupboard near the door and took out a box of shells from the top shelf, dropping it into his coat pocket. Before he went out to the stoop to get his barn boots, Vera slipped up behind him and gave him a hug. It surprised him because she wasn’t big on hugs, but he appreciated it and reaching back, gave her a pat on the hip.
Vera stood at the window of the summer kitchen. After a minute or two, Lawrence emerged from the stoop, his boots smeared with mud and other things from the barn. Of course, he had on that ugly old grey slouch hat he always wore, pulled down snuggly on his grey head. There must have been a cool wind coming down from the high pasture as he had turned up his coat collar as he walked slowly around to the porch steps.
“Yo Kay,” he called. “Up boy, get the girls.”
To the old dog, Kayo, “the girls” meant the cows. Retrieving the small herd of dairy cows from pasture twice a day was a ritual the dog lived for, especially if it also included Lawrence in the journey. He would happily go with Vera or the hired hand of summers past, but Lawrence was his one and only “Master.”
Vera could almost feel the pain herself as she watched the dog struggle out from under the porch where he had made his home, summer and winter these fifteen years. The vet said Kayo had severe arthritis in his hips. He advised putting him down as an act of mercy and offered the service at no charge. But Lawrence wouldn’t hear of it and brought Kayo home. The dog got an extra helping of Lawrence’s own supper that night and a good long scratch behind the ears. That was two weeks ago.
One part of Kayo’s old body didn’t seem to be affected by the arthritis. His tail, or rather his whole hind end, greeted Lawrence’s summons. That must hurt, Vera thought, but man and dog, they were best friends and Lawrence sat down for a moment on the porch steps and returned the greeting with an extra rub and some of his kindest words.
The two partners began an almost majestic walk down the yard past the kitchen garden and the ice house. Lawrence set a leisurely pace that allowed the dog to keep up, but just barely. The old man kept a check on his companion and adjusted his stride and even stopped once when Kayo slowed to a halt. Vera watched them as they passed through the gate at the foot of the yard, crossed the road to the barn and waded the small creek at the edge of the near pasture. There was a copse of birch trees about fifty yards on and after that a small clearing that would be sunlit by now. The dog and his master often stopped there in their mutual duties around the farm, Lawrence for a pipe and Kayo for a bit of dried meat from the old man’s pocket. There they would share a quiet time together, Lawrence sitting on a big boulder and Kayo at his feet.
Kayo was part sheep dog and several other things. Vera called him a ‘Heintz.’ But he had the keen sense of that herding breed and guided his charges masterfully along the path, picking up the young calves that strayed and pacing proudly behind the herd as they passed through the gate and into the barnyard. His duty done, if Lawrence was there, the dog obviously relished the praise Lawrence gave so freely.
Vera could imagine the scene in the clearing. On a few occasions she had walked with Lawrence and the dog on the pretext of picking berries. Lawrence knew better as the best berries were on the path to the south pasture. Even Kayo knew that and likely could have showed her the way.
Though she always had a sense of intruding on something very private, she just wanted to share a moment of that special time when master and friend rested and communed.
It was late afternoon and the shadows growing long before Lawrence came back. At first Vera had been worried, but then she understood they needed their last time together. Trudging even more slowly than on the trip out, Lawrence mounted the rise to the house. Without the dog by his side he seemed somehow incomplete. The rifle hung from his left hand, almost dragging in the grass, and the slouch hat was missing. He had probably left it on the rock that he placed as a marker for the grave, she thought, we’ll get it tomorrow. As he entered the kitchen she didn’t mention that he still had his boots on. He just walked to his chair at the table and sat down. He pulled out his pipe but didn’t light it, just resting there staring out the window until Vera set a cup of tea before him and sat beside him, taking his hand.
“Loved that old dog,” he said, rubbing his hand over his eyes.
“I know,” she said. “I know.”
Through the kitchen window the sky had begun to darken but there was a line of clouds just above the horizon that was washed in purples and deep reds. The sun’s last rays gave a glow to their faces, for a moment, erasing the deep lines time had etched there.
“That sky, kind of a nice good-bye don’t you think?” she said softly.