I don’t remember the original old log house. The one that caught fire when sparks from the chimney ignited the tarpaper roof.
I don’t remember a neighbor rapping at the door that bitter-cold winter morning while bellowing, “Your house in on fire! Your house is on fire! And I don’t remember that, when Mother answered the door, he repeated that phrase one last time then immediately climbed back on his sled, whipped his team smartly, and drove away.
I also don’t remember happily setting out tea things for my doll, while my mother was mixing bread. And in response to the shocking announcement at the door, I don’t remember my elder sister roughly shoving my brother and I into jackets, wrapping us in a blanket, and literally firing both of us into a snow bank out in the yard.
I don’t remember, my brother and I rapidly disengaging the tangled blanket and scurrying back into the burning house. Still, they later said, that is what we did.
I don’t remember the second time we were cast into the snow bank either. This time my sister and Mother knotted scarves of some sort around our feet and left us floundering there in the cold while they ran back to the house.
I don’t remember the boom and huge flare of fire that burst through the ceiling when the heat of the initial flames exploded the jerry cans of coal oil hung in the attic for convenience and to prevent thievery of that precious commodity.
I don’t remember any of this either – my Mother screaming “My new washing machine! Help me get the washing machine!” as she pushed, pulled, and dragged it on the rough board floors to the door. But the washing machine got stuck in the doorway and held fast. And that ended selvage. It was now too late, the fire too intense, to risk any attempt to extract anything more.
By then flames were licking long tongues of fire through the drafty doorway and around the washing machine and the door struts. There was nothing for it. Mother and the three older girls backed away from the flames to a safe distance in the yard and while the fire completely devoured all that we had, they threw hopeless arms around each other and wept.
Looking at what they managed to save, it was precious little. A few wooden chairs, a dish pan with an assortment of dirty dishes, a few blankets, a sewing machine, and some winter clothing hastily donned at the outset.
And with Father and the older boys away at a distant logging camp, there was nothing more they could do but hitch up the old horse and go to The Man’s home for shelter. The same Man who quickly announced the fire and then as quickly abandoned us without lending a hand.
Mother was heartbroken but being humble, which she always and forever was, she found no great cutting pain in asking for lodging at The Man’s house, despite the extreme unkindness and utter rejection shown to her in a time of need.
Thankfully, The Man’s wife was everything her husband was not. Friendly, jolly, sympathetic, and caring. She welcomed our mother and her five children with open arms and a flood of tears for our predicament. She herded us all into her warm kitchen with reassurances in broken English that we would stay. Eat there, sleep there, as long as we needed to in order to get back on our feet. And what do I remember about that? Only that she was kind.
I am the youngest in the family, and my brother, a year older. Four and five at the time, maybe even three and four – I don’t remember. But I do remember how thoroughly frightened I was of The Man, who always sat removed from the table and removed from the clutch of despairing souls in his kitchen. He clung to the edges and far corner of the room.
He sat in the corner in a rounded slouch on a chair with his hat pulled well down over a face of darkness with furtive eyes. Eyes that peered through narrow slits at invisible things at a great distance. Well past any occupants or activity in the room. And at dinner time while the rest of us ate at the table and chatted easily with his wife, he ate in his corner, curled over a plate held in his lap that his wife prepared for him.
After dinner, during a brief moment of silence, The Man spoke for the first time. I remember seeing his head turn towards us and then he spoke.
“Come here, you two, I want to show you something.” My brother and I dared not disregard the cold commanding voice. We clung to each other in shivering fear as we looked to each other for courage.
What need to fear? We knew we had been so quiet, so out-of-anyone’s-way, so well-behaved. Sitting in the quietness of a real and present dread of the presence pressed against a wall in the far corner of the kitchen. We had sat with quiet diligence on kitchen chairs for hours together, trying not to fidget. Twisting our legs and hands together to quiet them while examining flowers on the wallpaper and searching for the likeness of angels, or wings, or a cross—in light rays on the floor, tea leaves in cups, the frost on the windows, that would show a sign that our Mother’s protective God that walked among us every minute of every day was here to rescue us from the horrid presence of The Man.
We now stood facing him, clinging together. Distant but not as safely distanced as we wanted to be.
“Closer, come closer, my dears,” said the expressionless face and so we crept in hesitant steps a bit closer. Still with one hand he beckoned us nearer while looking past us and now we were almost touching his knees. That’s when he slowly pressed a tightly-closed down-turned fist on his leg and pushed it towards us. “Guess what I have here?” he said. “Can you guess?”
Maybe it was a game. Maybe we had just misunderstood his ominous appearance and actions and way of speaking. Maybe it was all a gross misjudgment. It was beginning to sound like a game and games are usually fun. Thinking that it might be a game, my brother and I mustered a weak smile as we both said in unison, “I don’t know.”
He flipped his hand over with a startling jerk and opened his palm. “Have a look then. Do you know what this is?” he said.
I remember how we stared in stricken terror, as he revealed a pocket knife and expertly snapped it open with one hand. We were rooted to the floor with surprise and fear. Unable to run, unable to scream.
“It is my knife,” he said. “It’s very sharp.”
I clearly remember how he slashed the blade through the air in a menacing move. And now he said, snatching at one of my feet. “I’m going to cut off all your toes.”
I remember how in one wild screaming bound my brother and I landed in our Mother’s lap together and how we twined ourselves frantically around her neck. And as we breathed together in gasping, shuddering sobs, I remember the evil chuckle that came from the far corner of the room.
I don’t remember the fire. I don’t remember the flames. I don’t remember my Mother’s wail about her new washing machine or the sudden cold shock of being tossed into a snow bank.
But I do remember, and will always remember – The Man and the knife.
In my lifetime I’ve met a lot of people of different sorts. I know there are those that know how to engage themselves in children’s hearts in open trusting ways like The Man’s wife. But I’ve also met a lot of people that don’t know how to make friends with a young child though they desperately want to.
And so, as I rummage though these different personalities, with their various perspectives, and I end up wondering if perhaps The Man wanted to be our friend but just didn’t know how to do it.
That is possible. Life has given me enough wisdom that I could make that concession. But how can I find an explanation for why he would have alerted us to the danger the day of the fire and then promptly drove away.
Could his inability to look at others and his inability to socialize be a sign of such a shy and timorous nature, that his own fear sent him scurrying. Is that a possibility?
As hard as it is to understand would that kind of fear make a person do that?