© Mary M. Cushnie-Mansour
Mr. Macintyre stood at the front of the class with a sombre look on his face as he told the students about the old hobo, Yegor, who had been found frozen under the bridge the day after Christmas. He noticed the tears in one girl’s eyes and decided not to intervene when she fetched her coat and headed out the door of the one-room schoolhouse…
The snow stung Thelma’s cheeks as she headed for home. Her tears, which were meant to flood the pain in her heart, froze on her skin. Even though her feet felt like frozen pails of ice, it didn’t take long to reach the narrow lake road where she lived. Frigid waves pounded against the forbidden snow banks.
As she ran toward the house, she noticed two sets of foot tracks heading out–– good, both mother and dad were at the barn. Thelma ran inside; the smell of bread baking in the wood cook stove greeted her. That meant mother wouldn’t long. She headed up to her room, taking the stairs two at a time and threw herself on the big bed she shared with her little sister, Donna.
The warmth of the goose-down comforter melted her tears, but the pain in Thelma’s heart didn’t dissipate. Why Yegor? Some of her classmates made fun of him––his name, the way he dressed, his accent, the fact that he lived under the bridge––but she knew better––he was her friend. Thelma glanced over at the two wooden figures on her dresser and dreamed back to the day she’d first seen him…
She had been ten that summer and was in the front field picking strawberries with her sister Francis. Donna, under the watchful eyes of big sisters, was playing with her doll under the walnut tree. Thelma saw him first. He was ever so tall and wispy thin. His scraggly grey beard and hair blew wildly in the summer breeze. His faded clothes were covered with patches, and he wore no shoes. A wooden stick, with a sparsely bulging burlap sack attached to it, rested on his left shoulder.
“Francis, look,” Thelma pointed to the hobo.
Francis looked up just as the hobo turned into their lane. She’d sprung into action. “You get Donna and head to the house,” she ordered. “I’ll run to the orchard and tell dad.”
Thelma had dropped her berry basket, raced to where Donna was, grabbed her hand and headed for the house. Donna’s doll was left behind. Mother had been startled by their hurried entrance.
“What’s going on?” she’d asked. “And why is your sister crying, Thelma?”
Thelma’s words had gurgled out: “An old hobo is coming up the laneway. He looks scary. Francis ran to get dad.”
Bertha had peaked out the window. “It’s okay girls. That is Yegor. Your dad met him in Vineland yesterday. Since Marvin left to nurse his sick wife, dad needed to hire someone. Most farm workers have already found positions by this time of year; we were lucky to get him.”
“But he looks so old,” Thelma had protested.
“I believe he is,” her mother had agreed; “but, apparently he knows a lot about farming.”
“That’s a funny name––Yegor,” Thelma had wrinkled her brow.
“It’s a Russian name,” her mother informed. Bertha had headed for the door. “Thelma, take your sister to get her doll; I’ll direct Yegor to the orchard.”
Thelma hadn’t actually met Yegor personally until a few days later. One morning, as she was exiting the barn, her head down, being watchful of the apron full of eggs, she bumped into him.
“Oh, I am so sorry sir,” she’d stuttered.
He’d smiled as he quickly caught an egg trying to escape the apron. He placed it gently back with its friends. Thelma had noticed how knurled his fingers were and wondered how he could work with them.
“Thank you, sir.” Thelma had been shaking scared.
“Name is Yegor,” his voice was gentle.
“I know, sir.”
“You may call me that,” he’d smiled again, and Thelma noticed his white teeth––strange––she’d thought they would be broken and brown like the hobos in one of her books. She smiled back.
A few days later, Thelma had been in the orchard picking up the fallen cherries when Yegor jumped out of one of the trees and startled her. She’d stepped back, tripped over a tree root and landed on her behind! He’d laughed–– a soft laugh––not mocking.
“Be careful little Miss,” he’d said as he helped her up.
“My name is Thelma!” she’d answered.
They had stood staring at each other. Thelma noticed how startling blue his eyes were beneath the bushy, black eyebrows. Then they’d burst laughing, and the bond of friendship began.
Thelma followed Yegor around for three summers, helping him and learning from him. He’d told her his Russian name translated to George in English and that it meant farmer or earth worker and that he had always worked on the land, even in his beloved Russia. He’d told her he’d come to Canada with his wife, Katia and daughter, Klara when he was 30. Klara had been ten and Thelma reminded him a lot of her. Tears seared his words as he told her how his beloveds had died of a horrible fever, two winters after their arrival in the new country, shattering his heart.
Yegor had shown her how to prune fruit trees and grape vines; how to stack hay on the wagon so it wouldn’t slip over the side; how to hold the reins so as not to tug too hard on the horses’ mouths, while still maintaining control; how to hoe earth around vegetables so the sun wouldn’t burn the roots; how to pick delicate fruits so as not to bruise them; how to carve beautiful things from wood; and oh so much more.
She remembered the extra cold nights when he would sometimes sleep in their haymow and how she had snuck treats out to him and then he would tell her stories. Thelma loved his stories, especially “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice.” Her favourite part was where the Nutcracker turned into a Prince and took Clara on a journey to the Land of Snow, an enchanted forest. Yegor would then hum a song as he showed her how to waltz.
Yegor was proud of the Russian connections to the story––A. Vsevolozsky, a director of the Imperial Russian Theaters, who commissioned chief ballet master, Marius Petipa to choreograph a ballet. He, in turn, commissioned Peter Tchaikovsky to write the musical score and then when Marius took ill, his assistant; Lev Ivanov took over the choreography. The Nutcracker had premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892…
Thelma got up and retrieved the two wooden figurines to her bed. Gently, she ran her fingers over the smooth curves of the carved wood. Sobs wretched their way to the surface once again as she remembered the past Christmas…
Dad had let Yegor and her take the team and sleigh to go cut the Christmas tree. She had put the harness with the Christmas bells on the horses and had held the reins just right as they headed across the fields towards the woods at the far end of the farm. They knew which one they wanted––having discovered it during one of their Sunday summer walks.
Thelma had frowned as Yegor coughed while cutting down the juniper. She worried even more on the return home, for his cough worsened, and when she glanced back at the tracks, she noticed a trail of blood. She’d made sure to tell her mother, and she, in turn, had insisted that Yegor spend the holiday time with the family.
“After all, you are like family now,” she’d said; “I insist.”
Yegor had smiled, but it was a weary smile––and Thelma could tell something was dreadfully wrong with her friend. He’d helped her; Francis and Donna decorate the tree, especially the upper branches and then he’d pulled a wooden angel from his coat pocket and set it on the uppermost peak before leaving for the barn. Thelma had headed up to her room to finish colouring his Christmas present; a picture of the Nutcracker Prince and Clara dancing in a barn. She had drawn a hole in the roof allowing star-shaped snowflakes to fall all around them.
A snowstorm blew in on Christmas Eve. Bertha had made a delicious chicken soup for supper that night, saying that they would feast on Christmas day. But Thelma suspected her real reason for making the soup––Yegor’s cough had worsened over the week. The family had sat around the table after supper and sung Christmas carols while Bertha played the Hawaiian guitar. Yegor had just sat in the old rocker by the cook stove, smiling at the joy around him.
“Well children,” their dad had stood up when the clock struck 9:00, “off to bed or Santa may not come!”
The girls hugged their parents, and then Francis and Donna headed upstairs. Thelma lingered a moment longer to give her friend a hug. “You will be here tomorrow won’t you?” she’d questioned, looking deep into his eyes.
Yegor had taken her small hands in his and kissed the back of each like a prince would do to a princess. “Of course,” his voice was raspy. As he hugged her, Thelma could hear the rattle in his chest.
Before getting into bed, she looked at the picture she had finished for Yegor and just knew he was going to love it. But, Christmas Eve was the last time Thelma had seen Yegor. He hadn’t shown up on Christmas morning, afternoon, or evening. He had just disappeared. However, there had been an extra present under the tree for Thelma on Christmas morning. Two painted wooden carvings––the Nutcracker Prince and Clara.
A gentle knock came on the door, and Thelma’s mother entered. She saw the state her daughter was in, sat down on the edge of the bed and drew her into her arms. “They are beautiful,” she whispered into her hair.
Thelma nodded. Then she got up, went to her dresser and opened the top drawer. “I didn’t get to give this to him,” she sniffled, handing her mother the picture.
Bertha smiled. “This is beautiful Thelma. How say we talk to dad and see what we can do about making sure Yegor gets his gift?
That day, after lunch, Thelma’s dad hooked up the team, and they drove into Vineland. He pulled up in front of the funeral parlour. Thelma looked at him, wonderingly.
“The funeral is today,” her dad said.
They were the only ones there besides the funeral director and the Anglican minister. Yegor lay asleep in a plain wooden casket. Thelma approached him, her dad following close behind. She stepped up on the box provided for children and peered down at her friend, noticing the recent lines of worry had all disappeared. Carefully she took the picture out from inside her coat, leaned over, and placed it gently beside her friend.
“Merry Christmas, Yegor,” she breathed into the silence. A tear fell onto the old man’s hand. “And thank you for your gift; I shall treasure it always.”