Tuesday Open Thread ~ I'll Take Potpourri for $100
“It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night clolour. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass. The whole of the night scene came together in a clear, tranquil harmony.”
~ Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country
Welcome to Tuesday's Open Thread. Apologies for running out on all of you today but a friend of mine is visiting from New York and we decided to take a little road trip to Joshua Tree National Park. So, while I will be hiking the arid trails of the Mojave desert, the rest of you will most likely be looking out on snowy landscapes. Hence the theme for today. Will try to check in later but in the meantime, I will leave you with a winter poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, a delightfully droll depiction of Sinterklaas by David Sedaris, and a chilly ghost story by Edith Wharton.
When the Year Grows Old
When the year grows old—
How she disliked the cold!
She used to watch the swallows
Go down across the sky,
And turn from the window
With a little sharp sigh.
And often when the brown leaves
Were brittle on the ground,
And the wind in the chimney
Made a melancholy sound,
She had a look about her
That I wish I could forget—
The look of a scared thing
Sitting in a net!
Oh, beautiful at nightfall
The soft spitting snow!
And beautiful the bare boughs
Rubbing to and fro!
But the roaring of the fire,
And the warmth of fur,
And the boiling of the kettle
Were beautiful to her!
I cannot but remember
When the year grows old—
How she disliked the cold!
Six To Eight Black Men
I've never been much for guidebooks, so when trying to get my bearings in some strange American city, I normally start by asking the cabdriver or hotel clerk some silly question regarding the latest census figures. I say silly because I don't really care how many people live in Olympia, Washington or Columbus, Ohio. They're nice enough places, but the numbers mean nothing to me. My second question might have to do with the average annual rainfall, which, again, doesn't tell me anything about the people who have chosen to call this place home.
What really interests me are the local gun laws. Can I carry a concealed weapon and, if so, under what circumstances? What's the waiting period for a tommy gun? Could I buy a Glock 17 if I were recently divorced or fired from my job? I've learned from experience that its best to lead into this subject as delicately as possible, especially if you and the local citizen are alone and enclosed in a relatively small area. Bide your time, though, and you can walk away with some excellent stories. I've learned, for example, that the blind can legally hunt in both Texas and Michigan. In Texas they must be accompanied by a sighted companion, but I heard that in Michigan they're allowed to go it alone, which raises the question: How do they find whatever it is they just shot? In addition to that, how do they get it home? Are the Michigan blind allowed to drive as well? I ask about guns not because I want one of my own but because the answers vary so widely from state to state. In a country that's become increasingly homogeneous, I'm reassured by these last charming touches of regionalism.
Firearms aren't really an issue in Europe, so when travelling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. "What do your roosters say?" is a good ice breaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark "vow vow" and both the frog and the duck say "quack," the roosters crow "kiri-a-kee," and in France they scream "coco-rico," which sounds like one of those horrible pre-mixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says, "cock-a-doodle-doo," my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.
"When do you open your Christmas presents?" is another good conversation starter, as I think it explains a lot about national character. People who traditionally open gifts on Christmas Eve seem a bit more pious and family-oriented than those who wait until Christmas morning. They go to Mass, open presents, eat a late meal, return to church the following morning, and devote the rest of the day to eating another big meal. Gifts are generally reserved for children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. Its nothing I'd want for myself, but I suppose its fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value.
In France and Germany gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in the Netherlands the children open their presents on December 5, in celebration of St. Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.
Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as the bishop of Turkey.
"I'm sorry," I said, "but could you repeat that?"
One doesn't want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn't do anything. He's not retired and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. Its too dangerous there and the people wouldn't appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true. Though he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No one can spy on him, and he doesn't have to worry about people coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in that outfit he'd most certainly be recognized. On top of that, aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn't speak Spanish. "Hello. How are you? Can I get you some candy?" Fine. He knows enough to get by, but he's not fluent and he certainly doesn't eat tapas.
While our Santa flies on a sled, the Dutch version arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I'm not sure if there's a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out asking people what they want.
"Is it just him alone?" I asked. "Or does he come with some backup?"
Oscar's English was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement.
"Helpers," I said. "Does he have any elves?"
Maybe I'm overly sensitive, but I couldn't help but feel personally insulted when Oscar denounced the very idea as grotesque and unrealistic. "Elves," he said. "They are just so silly."
The words were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicolas travels with what was consistently described as six to eight black men. I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always six to eight, which seems strange, seeing as they've had hundreds of years to get an accurate head count.
The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid 1950s, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think that history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in the Netherlands, but rather than duking it out amongst themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as the small branch of a tree.
"Yes," he said, "That's it. They'd kick him and beat him with a switch. Then if the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in a sack and take him back to Spain."
"Saint Nicholas would?"
"Well, not anymore," Oscar said. "Now he just pretends to kick you."
He considered this to be progressive, but in a way I think it's almost more perverse than the original punishment. "I'm going to hurt you but not really." How many times have we fallen for that line? The fake slap invariably makes contact, adding the elements of shock and betrayal to what had previously been plain old-fashioned fear. What kind of a Santa spends his time pretending to kick people before stuffing them into a canvas sack? Then, of course, you've got the six to eight former slaves who could potentially go off at any moment. This, I think, is the greatest difference between us and the Dutch. While a certain segment of our population might be perfectly happy with the arrangement, if you told the average white American that six to eight nameless black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the night, he would barricade the doors and arm himself with whatever he could get his hands on.
In the years before central heating, Dutch children would leave their shoes by the fireplace, the promise being that unless they planned to beat you, kick you, or stuff you into a sack, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would fill your clogs with presents. Aside from the threats of violence and kidnapping, it's not much different than hanging your stockings from the mantel. Now that so few people actually have a working fireplace, Dutch children are instructed to leave their shoes beside the radiator, furnace, or space heater. Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men arrive on horses, which jump from the yard onto the roof. At this point I guess they either jump back down and use the door or stay put and vaporize through pipes and electrical cords. Oscar wasn't too clear about the particulars, but really, who can blame him? We have the same problem with our Santa. He's supposed to use the chimney, but if you don't have one, he still manages to get in. It's best not to think about it too hard.
While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively dull. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year travelling around the world. If you're bad, he leaves you coal. If you're good and live in America, he'll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly harrier story to relate, telling his children, "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared."
This is the reward for living in the Netherlands. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution - so what's not to love about being Dutch?
Oscar finished his story just as we arrived at the station. He was a polite and interesting guy - very good company but when he offered to wait until my train arrived I begged off, claiming I had some calls to make. Sitting alone in the vast, vibrant terminal, surrounded by thousands of polite, seemingly interesting Dutch people, I couldn't help but feel second-rate. Yes, the Netherlands was a small country, but it had six to eight black men and a really good bedtime story. Being a fairly competitive person, I felt jealous, then bitter. I was edging toward hostile when I remembered the blind hunter tramping off alone into the Michigan forest. He may bag a deer, or he may happily shoot a camper in the stomach. He may find his way back to the car, or he may wander around for a week or two before stumbling through your back door. We don't know for sure, but in pinning that license to his chest, he inspires the sort of narrative that ultimately makes me proud to be an American.
Here and Beyond
- I -
THE snow was still falling thickly when Orrin Bosworth, who farmed the land south of Lone-top, drove up in his cutter to Saul Rutledge’s gate. He was surprised to see two other cutters ahead of him. From them descended two muffled figures. Bosworth, with increasing surprise, recognized Deacon Hibben, from North Ashmore, and Sylvester Brand, the widower, from the old Bearcliff farm on the way to Lonetop.
It was not often that anybody in Hemlock County entered Saul Rutledge’s gate; least of all in the dead of winter, and summoned (as Bosworth, at any rate, had been) by Mrs. Rutledge, who passed, even in that unsocial region, for a woman of cold manners and solitary character. The situation was enough to excite the curiosity of a less imaginative man than Orrin Bosworth.
As he drove in between the broken-down white gate-posts topped by fluted urns the two men ahead of him were leading their horses to the adjoining shed. Bosworth followed, and hitched his horse to a post. Then the three tossed off the snow from their shoulders, clapped their numb hands together, and greeted each other.
“Well, well, Orrin — .” They shook hands.
“‘Day, Bosworth,” said Sylvester Brand, with a brief nod. He seldom put any cordiality into his manner, and on this occasion he was still busy about his horse’s bridle and blanket.
Orrin Bosworth, the youngest and most communicative of the three, turned back to Deacon Hibben, whose long face, queerly blotched and mouldy-looking, with blinking peering eyes, was yet less forbidding than Brand’s heavily-hewn countenance.
“Queer, our all meeting here this way. Mrs. Rutledge sent me a message to come,” Bosworth volunteered.
The Deacon nodded. “I got a word from her too — Andy Pond come with it yesterday noon. I hope there’s no trouble here — ”
He glanced through the thickening fall of snow at the desolate front of the Rutledge house, the more melancholy in its present neglected state because, like the gate-posts, it kept traces of former elegance. Bosworth had often wondered how such a house had come to be built in that lonely stretch between North Ashmore and Cold Corners. People said there had once been other houses like it, forming a little township called Ashmore, a sort of mountain colony created by the caprice of an English Royalist officer, one Colonel Ashmore, who had been murdered by the Indians, with all his family, long before the Revolution. This tale was confirmed by the fact that the ruined cellars of several smaller houses were still to be discovered under the wild growth of the adjoining slopes, and that the Communion plate of the moribund Episcopal church of Cold Corners was engraved with the name of Colonel Ashmore, who had given it to the church of Ashmore in the year 1723. Of the church itself no traces remained. Doubtless it had been a modest wooden edifice, built on piles, and the conflagration which had burnt the other houses to the ground’s edge had reduced it utterly to ashes. The whole place, even in summer, wore a mournful solitary air, and people wondered why Saul Rutledge’s father had gone there to settle.
“I never knew a place,” Deacon Hibben said, “as seemed as far away from humanity. And yet it ain’t so in miles.”
“Miles ain’t the only distance,” Orrin Bosworth answered; and the two men, followed by Sylvester Brand, walked across the drive to the front door. People in Hemlock County did not usually come and go by their front doors, but all three men seemed to feel that, on an occasion which appeared to be so exceptional, the usual and more familiar approach by the kitchen would not be suitable.
They had judged rightly; the Deacon had hardly lifted the knocker when the door opened and Mrs. Rutledge stood before them.
“Walk right in,” she said in her usual dead-level tone; and Bosworth, as he followed the others, thought to himself; “Whatever’s happened, she’s not going to let it show in her face.”
It was doubtful, indeed, if anything unwonted could be made to show in Prudence Rutledge’s face, so limited was its scope, so fixed were its features. She was dressed for the occasion in a black calico with white spots, a collar of crochet-lace fastened by a gold brooch, and a gray woollen shawl crossed under her arms and tied at the back. In her small narrow head the only marked prominence was that of the brow projecting roundly over pale spectacled eyes. Her dark hair, parted above this prominence, passed tight and fiat over the tips of her ears into a small braided coil at the nape; and her contracted head looked still narrower from being perched on a long hollow neck with cord-like throat-muscles. Her eyes were of a pale cold gray, her complexion was an even white. Her age might have been anywhere from thirty-five to sixty.
The room into which she led the three men had probably been the dining-room of the Ashmore house. It was now used as a front parlour, and a black stove planted on a sheet of zinc stuck out from the delicately fluted panels of an old wooden mantel. A newly-lit fire smouldered reluctantly, and the room was at once close and bitterly cold.
“Andy Pond,” Mrs. Rutledge cried to some one at the back of the house, “step out and call Mr. Rutledge. You’ll likely find him in the wood-shed, or round the barn somewheres.” She rejoined her visitors. “Please suit yourselves to seats,” she said.
The three men, with an increasing air of constraint, took the chairs she pointed out, and Mrs. Rutledge sat stiffly down upon a fourth, behind a rickety bead-work table. She glanced from one to the other of her visitors.
“I presume you folks are wondering what it is I asked you to come here for,” she said in her dead-level voice. Orrin Bosworth and Deacon Hibben murmured an assent; Sylvester Brand sat silent, his eyes, under their great thicket of eyebrows, fixed on the huge boot-tip swinging before him.
“Well, I allow you didn’t expect it was for a party,” continued Mrs. Rutledge.
No one ventured to respond to this chill pleasantry, and she continued: “We’re in trouble here, and that’s the fact. And we need advice — Mr. Rutledge and myself do.” She cleared her throat, and added in a lower tone, her pitilessly clear eyes looking straight before her: “There’s a spell been cast over Mr. Rutledge.”
The Deacon looked up sharply, an incredulous smile pinching his thin lips. “A spell?”
“That’s what I said: he’s bewitched.”
(to finish story, click on link below)