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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesThe Legend of 'Sir John A' -- a John Dunn story

The Legend of ‘Sir John A’ — a John Dunn story

A small word of information: readers will see a reference to “the slide bridge”. This is the second of the two bridges which connect the Island to the mainland. It’s the smaller of the two and is curved like a parabola. It’s name comes from a huge, long log slide that ran from the upper falls down to Gemmill’s Bay. It’s route crossed Mill Street beside the VIctorian Woolen Mill and, seeing as how it existed before the construction of the mill, is one of the reasons for the odd 5 sided building. Part II next month.

Part I

And thus it came to pass after January disappeared from the calendar that one of the sons of Adam and a daughter of Eve sat down to breakfast on the morning of the second day of the second month.  February.  The kitchen was warm and friendly, the porridge hot, and the coffee pot burbled contentedly within arm’s reach.  Altogether a picture of marital bliss.

Who could have predicted a deceitful enemy would slither inside the gates to wreak havoc in this latter-day Eden, shatter the peace and contentment of the kitchen, and project a crisis of faith!

A crisis of faith?

Aye, just that.

It started innocently enough.  “I wonder what the temperature is this morning,” she spoke in a low voice.

No need for him to answer: the radio intercepted the question to announce “The temperature at this time on Groundhog Day stands at minus 25 degrees Celsius.”

“Think you the groundhog would dare appear on a day the thermometer reads minus 25 degrees?” she, a paragon of preparedness, then asked.

“Of course,” came his reply, with emphasis.

“Nonsense,” she responded.  “He’d die of fright if the frost didn’t hit him with the icy staggers first.”

“No way.  Today is Groundhog Day, February 2nd, and out he comes,” declaimed the son of Adam.  “It’s been that way since the groundhog first came into this country, and that was long before my time.  Today the groundhog comes out of the burrow.”

“How can you be so sure?” demanded the paragon, a trace of scorn for my prehistoric authority salting her question.

“No one disputes the legends of the Ottawa Valley,” he declared.  “From time immemorial, the groundhog appears on this day, come frost or fire.  So say all true believers.”

“Nonsense again!  Nobody could expect us in this twentieth century to believe all that old hokum.  Legend, my foot!  Surely you don’t expect to look out the window at the Rosetta farmhouse and see mister groundhog stagger out from a comfy den, and get his ears stung by frost anywhere between twenty and twenty-five below!  Now, really!”

“It’s been one of the Valley legends for hundreds of years.  It’s got mountains of credibility in it, even though proof’s scarce.  To true believers, proof is no handicap to faith.  Still, for the sake of the unredeemed, when I go out for the compulsory walk later in the day, you can bet I’ll be on the lookout for signs of mister groundhog’s return.  Proof of it!”

“I can’t wait to hear,” said she of lesser faith.

“St. Paul’s on your side,” proclaimed the TB, “Faith cometh by hearing.”

At four o’clock that afternoon a prehistoric creature in thick parka stepped out the door on Cameron Street, paused on the step to glance at the thermometer, and muttered “Twenty-two below!”  Eyes behind the fur-fringed parka closed down to mere slits as his insulated boots crunched snow, one following the other into the tag end of Groundhog Day.

Except for the sudden scream of a blue jay that darted across his path near the end of Union Street, the prehistoric figure in the parka could have been as remote from this world as the man in the moon: a solitary figure was he.

A wilderness world, all whitened and mounded with snow dunes faced him at the end of Union Street.  Into that wilderness his eyes roamed, scanning the dunes, seeking a small mound, earthen-coloured, a brown stain on the overall white.

Something moved!  He jerked alert, slitted eyelids peering into dying shreds of daylight to recapture movement. Whatever it was disappeared, and then reappeared, skilfully using ground, manoeuvring to keep from skylining itself, following folds in the ground.  Clearly, movements and habits of fox.

Stealthily, Reynard moved towards the high bank overlooking the river where, deep in the clay bank, facing south, the watcher knew there’d be a den.  Those acres where fox now strolled would become the hunting swath of vixen and pups in months to come.

Well, well.  Was this, then, the purpose behind creation of groundhog on that astounding Day Six?  To be target of choice for fox?  Was this the only good attached to the unlovely, squat, brown-furred, blunt-nosed creature that Eve had discovered in first Eden?  The one that was molesting her rhubarb and asparagus?  Was it for that misdemeanour that groundhog was banished from Eden to the Ottawa Valley, condemned there to be food for foxes?

No.  There just had to be something more.

With an about turn to put the fury of the west wind on his back, the parka monster set course deeper into the frost-fringed mystery, searching out proof for the legend of Groundhog Day.

Nearing the high school the word “legend” kicked at his mind, and up popped the Latin root — ‘legenda’, neuter plural of the gerund from the verb ‘legere’, “to read”.  Legenda, then, “things appointed to be read”.

An image uprose: when the great silence prevailed at noontime in refectories of the Cistercian monasteries of the West as the monks appeased hunger with bread and soup, the duty monk read ‘legenda’ for the edification of the chapter, extracts from the lives of the saints, tales of persons renowned for piety, stories of good works and self-denial.

Three hundred years later many of those stories got little credence:  many smiled at them from under supercilious eyebrows and dismissed them for their naivete as pure fiction.

The legend of the groundhog’s return on February 2nd could not be surrendered to the disdain of a faithless age: the struggle must go on.

At the foot of Mill Street, preparing to cross the Slide Bridge, he was struck by the fortress-like accumulation of ice that held the power house in a vise.  Comfort, however, followed: in two months’ time ice would be loosening in Gleason’s Bay, wild geese on the wing overhead would be returning to celebrate a new spring, and the first robins’ chirping rouse the chorus of  New Life in the countryside.

Better than all those in evidence of spring was another, the very first harbinger of spring, the lowly groundhog’s return, in spite of twenty-two below zero temperature.  Where then find proof to support the legend?

At the north end of the Back Bridge he stopped to lean over the railing to watch a beaver slide up and out of the frigid Mississippi on to ice below a willow tree.  The beaver stood erect on a wide paddle tail and casually bit off shoots.  The paddletail’s confidence seemed supreme: it inspired a rush of heritage conservation in the watcher.

Across the river a cave lay just under the lip of rock at the first falls of the Mississippi, and there, in summertime lived a famous oracle of the Mississippi.  An oracle’s word would surely carry weight, strengthen the faith, offer hard facts proving the groundhog returns on this day.  In the face of difficulties ancient Greeks consulted their famous oracle at Delphi: the times demanded an oracle, a wise oracle.

But hold on!  Out there in Pakenham lived a famous oracle, known throughout the township as a true speaker, one whose utterances had never passed over a forked tongue.  He too, like his father and his grandfather and the majority of Pakenham’s True Believers had been born on the Pakenham mountain.

Two distinct peoples lived in the township in those days, those up on the mountain, known as the upper class, and those on the flats alongside the river, called the plane people.  The oracle came into the world of the upper class on Pakenham mountain, and emigrated later to live amongst the planes as postmaster and township clerk, positions of uncommon trust, and limitless profundities.  His name, for those gifted with his acquaintance was John, a four-letter word throughout the township.

Though the subject of the Groundhog’s Return involved great faith or greater folly, timing for consultation was way off. Consultation with the Pakenham oracle would have to wait for five months, to a morning when toasted raisin bread drenched with new comb honey would start a summer’s day, a seasonal replacement for winter’s porridge, and a boost in grace for True Believers.




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