That morning my father was sitting at the head of the table. He drank his orange juice and told us what he’d heard about Henry from our neighbor, Mr. Nichol. “It’s amazing he lived this long,” he said took and another slow drink before he continued. “The doctors can’t believe he survived this far into his seventies.” He talked as if his two sons were adults.
“Why wasn’t he at the shelter?” my mother wondered out loud as she stared out a frozen window pane above the sink. Her hands were folding dish clothes as if they were strips of bandage while hot water poured over our breakfast dishes. It looked as though her eyes were focusing on a massive pine in our front yard as she spoke. The top of the tree could not be seen from the inside of the house. Thick layers of snow outlined the pattern of branches like fragile brushstrokes.
Mr. Nichol also told my father that a funeral service for Henry had already been scheduled for later that evening. Henry’s death fell on the same day of an annual ceremony held outdoors at the Catholic Church’s cemetery. I can’t remember a year when our town didn’t meet to light candles, sing verses, and remember the dead. Upon hearing the news, Father Whalen had decided to speak on Henry’s behalf.
Andrew, my younger brother, groaned at my mother’s suggestion that we all attend the funeral mass and say a prayer for Henry. “This whole town just feels sorry for itself,” he said. “Why is everyone so caring after he dies?” He spoke without looking up from his empty bowl.
“Don’t talk like that!” my father shouted. He rose from his chair. “He had the shelter and the church always gave him lots of food and clothes too.” There was a silence observed at our table—a forced moment of contemplation. My mother turned away from the sink, placed a hand on my father’s shoulder and convinced him to sit back down. She breathed deeply, exhaled, and then looked across the table at Andrew.
“We are all going to be there tomorrow night,” she said. No one sitting at the table questioned the finality of those words. “Now get ready for school. You’re going to miss the bus again.” We were told to clear the table before we left. I dropped my bowl into the hot water. It disappeared into a thick layer of varicolored and luminous bubbles.
Andrew and I could barely tolerate the January air as we waited with the Nichol’s children at the end of our driveway. Their daughter was Andrews’ age and their son, Caleb was a year older than me. For over a decade we had met there every morning and kicked our boots into the snow, or sand depending on the season, while we anticipated the arrival of the bus. I wondered if they had heard about Henry. Caleb only talked about the hockey game we had played the previous evening. His sister ignored us and listened to her walkman. It seemed as though we would always be there. The four of us were always standing in our irregular circle, breathing in the crystalline air and watching the road for our escape.
Finally the bus came down the hill and we rushed to the edge of the road, pushing against each other in anticipation. Our driver, a young woman who wore sunglasses through all four seasons, smiled as we boarded and pulled the door enthusiastically behind us. I noticed that some of the older kids, mostly the ones in high school, were talking about Henry. I took my usual seat, glanced out the window, and waited for the familiar landmarks to emerge.
We crossed a bridge and I could see the rapids moving below us. The rest of the lake was frozen of course but here it was always exposed. I’m not sure if it occurred to me at time, but I associate that memory with Henry’s body. One could choose to only see his wind-scarred face or see further into his grey eyes. The waters that raged below the frozen lake remained hidden to my eyes even though I knew they existed. I looked through the frosted window pane and imagined, for the first time, what it must have felt like to sleep on the streets throughout an entire winter.
Police officers were changing shifts and talking to one another in the parking lot of the station house. Most of them were young men and women who’d only lived in our town for a few years before moving back to their respective cities. I fabricated conversations from their postures. Each officer would take a turn recalling the time he brought Henry in for the night. “He was all right, not that much trouble now that I think about it.”
Our bus rounded a long corner and sped past the hospital. Inside, the nurses would be starting their morning routine of wake-up calls and breakfast delivery. My mother once told me that throughout his lifetime, Henry may have slept in every room on both nursing wards. He spent many nights recovering from alcohol poisoning or frostbitten ears if the police officers didn’t hold him overnight. My parents talked about Henry as if he were a medical oddity. As if he was afflicted with the disease of preservation.
We drove for a few minutes before I could see the homeless shelter I had volunteered at in order to graduate high school. During the afternoons I would help the program director wash sheets and clean out the soup cauldrons. The night workers welcomed the homeless people into the shelter while I only cleaned what they left behind. Henry had a bed reserved there every night. Its sheets were tightly bound and without a crease that morning.
A fleet of yellow buses idled outside the high school as we pulled into the high school’s circular driveway. Each one would pull up to the main platform and begin to release the students in waves. We took our place behind the last one and then filed out into a cloud of condensation and diesel exhaust. The bitter sting of wind hit my face. I sprinted up a flight of stairs and entered the light brown hallways once again. Once inside I caught my breath. Everyone moved around me and further into the halls. It seemed as though life inside the school had not been affected by Henry’s death.
The expression on one man’s face forced me to reconsider this immediate sense of assurance. Our home room teacher, Mr. Tait, fought back tears as he told us about his good friend Henry. “Try not to remember him at his worst. Henry wasn’t always like that,” he said to the front row of students. “Henry lived in this town his whole life.” Mr. Tait took his glasses off and placed them on the desk. “He loved this place. He truly did.” His voice was interrupted by the morning announcements. A predictable itinerary of sporting events and fundraisers rattled through the antique speakers, followed by the national anthem. After the final mumbled line of ‘stand on guard for thee’ we all fell back into our chairs and waited for another day of instruction.
Instead of Mr. Tait’s baritone voice we listened carefully as the second hand clicked solemnly and passed around the clock for two minutes. The other class rooms most likely went directly into the day’s lesson plan while our teacher was clearly not going to be starting his class immediately. I glanced around the room. I studied the map of Canada, noticing the shape of Baffin Island, perpetually crashing into the northern shore. Most of the students stared down at their desks while others seemed to be looking through Mr. Tait and into the next classroom. I traced blue lines into the deep grooves worn into my desk by the pens of countless students before me.
I have been reminded of Henry’s death every winter. It usually happens the first morning the lake freezes over and the season can no longer be ignored. Through the distance of years I can see him clearly. For my entire childhood, Henry was a legendary character in our town’s story. Everyone knew his name and could create a unique fiction to describe Henry’s life. Some said that he played for the Maple Leafs in his youth. Others claimed he never left this town his entire life. He certainly liked to drink; that part of the story was never in question. Thankfully, Henry was rarely violent. He would only shout and wave his arms when we passed each other on the sidewalk. I would simply shake my head as if to say, sorry, I can’t help you. We no longer hear his hoarse voice booming down Main Street.
I can only recall seeing Henry sober on one occasion. He was leaning against a stone monument dedicated to World War One veterans at the town beach. It was summer and several children were throwing themselves off the dock and screaming loudly. I could see that he was looking across the lake at a train crossing the bridge. As I approached the monument a familiar melody became audible. The foreign words danced mysteriously inside my ears as strange syllables. Henry’s native Ojibwe language resisted against my memory of a popular radio single. The English words became translated into one man’s lamentation. I could not sense what he had lost. I had only known the trivial comforts of my own life.
Every winter the lake freezes over and an image of Henry skating over its surface appears to me. I can hear the sound of his blades carving into the ice. Then, I am once again thinking of his funeral. The ceremony begins once again. Stars reform and take their position in the heavens.
That night, after the mass, we all met at the top of a hill which looked over the tombstones and statues. Our path leading from the church was lined on both sides with cylindrical blocks of ice, each one with a candle burning inside. The path led to the door of a large, square cement building. Bodies to be buried in the warmer months were stored behind the colorless walls. The earth beneath our feet was too frigid for burial. Henry’s body would have to wait for spring to be buried.
It seemed as though over a thousand people were gathered there. The mothers and fathers in the crowd held each other’s hands in the night and kept their children close to their sides. People gathered together in small groups until others arrived. They joined together to form a congregation as the newcomers filled in the empty spaces. Some held candles and tried to protect the flame from the wind, a force that overcame the voice of the priest several times during the mass.
This was our sacrifice for the dead, and for Henry. We suffered through the cold night. Wind-burnt faces and frozen limbs signified our humanity. Everyone around me seemed to lift their chin a centimeter higher each time the wind returned. The snow had stopped falling hours earlier.
Father Whalen read the Prayer for the Dead while the northern stars blazed above in the clear sky. It’s possible that no one in the crowd knew Henry before he became an alcoholic. Some of the people there would have only lived in the town for a few years. Though Henry’s death must have affected everyone present in some way, most of their thoughts and prayers would have been for those already buried in that field. As Father Whalen read from his prayer book I recalled the face of Henry’s brother. He followed Henry, always one or two steps behind, along the same battered sidewalks. I wondered where he was that night and if he even knew that Henry had died.
An elderly friend of the family stood alongside us during the ceremony. As the final words escaped from the priest’s mouth she blew out her candle. The ceremony was over. My father did the same. He watched as the vapors poured out from his lips and overtook the feeble flame. “Did you come alone Helen?” The tone of his voice was imbued with considerable concern, gained through an hour of reflection.
“Yes dear, Neil stayed in. It’s much too cold for him tonight.” She looked down and smiled at Andrew. I could barely see her eyes through the clouded glasses. “Hope you boys are warm. I’m going home.” I watched as she awkwardly made her way down the hill as younger guests politely moved around her towards their waiting vehicles.
Three elders from the community began walking up the candle lit path after the service had ended. They passed us as we walked back to our car. Two of them carried small hand drums while the other, the one who led them, came empty-handed. Father Whalen nodded his head as the elders came up the hill. They moved their heads in response and continued walking. Even though they performed their own rituals I believe they respected what the church and priest had provided. I could hear them singing a distinct song of mourning behind us. The two drums began beating a slow rhythm across the vacant cemetery.
As our feet crunched the brittle snow, I thought of what my brother said that morning at breakfast. The town was definitely moved that day. Towards guilt or genuine sympathy I could not decide, perhaps both. Henry’s life ended with pain, he left this world alone and cold. I remember sitting in the car as my mother tried to turn over the engine. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Henry in a warm place the last night he was alive. Instead of waiting alone at the train station he was sitting inside the lobby of our local arena. In my mind, Henry sipped on hot chocolate and cheered for the players wearing blue jerseys.
Afterwards, Father Whalen retired to the priest’s residence as everyone else returned to heated homes scattered across the northern town. The men left their wives to retire at the Legion. They toasted their beers to a man that would never be welcome in that establishment. Only in death was his presence allowed. My father was among them. Probably playing darts and singing the old songs till closing time. The sound of his truck pulling into the driveway woke me early in the morning. I could not fall back asleep and listened to music until falling unconscious again. Within an hour the snow began to fall again.
Henry’s story was immortalized in the town’s newspaper. I’ve kept the fading edition in an old box along with ticket stubs from movies and concerts. The editor wrote a one page memorial and an anonymous poet penned an ode for Henry. The untitled poem was ten lines long and ran at the end of the editor’s piece. A photograph discovered in the arena’s storage room was printed on the front page. Twelve skaters on a frozen lake were captured on a bright spring day, probably weeks before the ice thawed. Henry, the tallest of the dozen, had his stick resting under a cheerful expression. Two words were printed below as a farewell caption: miinawaa gi-ga-waabamin. The words were chosen by the editor and loosely translated to: we’ll miss you, in English. This gesture, given towards the aboriginal people of the town, probably only confused those who didn’t speak the language and offended those that did. Their attempt to understand his death through words failed.
The following year I graduated from high school and considered moving to the nearest city. I decided to stay and live here for a few more years. The memory of his death has lasted through six winters. I always thought that if I had left the people here would live on much the same without me. I would never be remembered, only forgotten in a way Henry would never be. He was a stranger to me until the day he died. Since then I found myself learning more about him through my memories and the stories that continue to be told about his life. Henry was one of the oldest and well known citizens of our town—yet no one helped him in death.
On the night of his memorial I realized that decades of abuse reduced his exterior to a bitter shell though his insides surely bled and suffered every day. His body was like the flame inside those frozen candle holders. Faintly burning before the wind grew too fierce and rushed over the top, into the heart. What remains of Henry is the collective impression left on an entire town, the echo of his spirit still walking down Main Street. I only knew the physical structure that defined Henry. A thin frame barely held together and his long hair that danced in the cold air.
Michael Laverty is studying Creative Writing as a graduate student at the University of Windsor. He completed a seven-month writing course offered through Humber College’s School for Writers with his mentor Sarah Sheard in April 2009. Michael hails from Northwestern Ontario and has written several stories about his hometown of Sioux Lookout.