This story is by Kim Belesky and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Legend of Ugly Ed
The wind came in as a gust, bringing with it swirls of snow which blew across the wood planked floor, chilling our bare feet. We sat huddled beside the woodstove, my brothers, my sister, and me. Four young children fresh out of the bath, our hair still damp, dressed in our flannel pajamas. We had been allowed to stay up late that night to wait for him.
We sat as close to the woodstove as shivering with cold and anticipation, the birch and hickory wood snapping and popping as the fire jumped up to consume it. The orange light from the flames barely visible through the small soot-stained window of the big black stove.
We had watched him all that summer before from our hiding spot behind the wood pile, as he effortlessly swung the big axe time and time again. Watched as the wood pile grew through those long hot days of summer, as his brown skin turned a rich mahogany, his muscled body slick with sweat as he worked each day. We spied on him from a distance, afraid to get too close, afraid he would notice us and yell in his deep voice, “You kids get away from there.” For then we would have to run into the woods that surrounded the house, then circle back and watch him from the tree line. Watch as the heat rose in waves from his body as he split and stacked, split, and stacked.
It was a contrast from that night, down into the minus thirties. The unforgiving northern Ontario winter blowing in through the open cabin door. He stepped forward, his over six-foot body filling the framework of the doorway. The light from the porch and blowing snow was barely visible behind him. He had walked to the creek and back, hauling water for the week. Pails of it on the homemade sled, its wooden skids packed with frozen snow, the rope handle coated with ice from the water that had sloshed out and froze on the trip back. He made several trips out the door to bring in buckets of icy water, the snow on his back and shoulders beginning to melt as he labored away. When he was done, he walked towards us, winter gear in hand that he then hung on a rack to dry. The axe he had used to chop wood the summer before was now the winter axe for making holes in the frozen creek, this he propped against the wall behind us, perhaps noticing us for the first time. He leant down, melted snow dripping from his patchy beard, his nostrils like tiny little ice caves. Us four owlets looking wide eyed up at him. “It’s late, go to bed.” he said with icy breath.
Off we ran to the bunkbeds set into the small alcove off the kitchen. The boys scurried up to the top bunk while my little sister and I climbed onto the bottom. Snuggling close, our legs tangling together as we tried to get warm, holding hands as we drifted off to sleep, dreaming of ice monsters and a brave axe wielding guardian.
We spent a lifetime hearing stories, learning of him through bits and pieces. There were basic facts we knew, like his birth story. How he was born in a teepee to an Ojibway mother, who would die a few years later giving birth to his baby sister. The sister would be taken and raised by the nuns, while he and his two brothers would later be abandoned by their stepmother after the death of their father. He was a strong baby born en caul with clear blue eyes and jet-black hair. It is believed by some that those born with a veil are given the gift of clairvoyance and can travel between worlds. I know at times his dreams told of the future and warned of hardships to come. He did not like the gift, and, in the end, he refused to use it as it brought heartache to those around him.
There were stories that told of his bravery, like how as a young boy he became ill and walked the tracks to the train station. There he slept on the stairs till morning when he was found and taken to a hospital miles away. He stayed there for weeks, alone, recovering from a ruptured appendix. Another story showed his physical and emotional strength when he and his brother had to pull their brother from the lake after he had fallen through the ice and drowned. He would carry the guilt of having heard him yell out but not having gone back for him for the rest of his life. Together they carried their brother back to the cabin where they laid him out on their kitchen table by the fire to thaw. Once they were able to get him into a supine position, they wrapped him in a tarp and put him out into the cold till the authorities could be notified of his death. Yet another tale tells the heartbreaking story of when these young brothers were taken by the Canadian government and put into a residential school. Their courage and resiliency again displayed as they did what they needed to do to survive. When he did speak of this time, which was not often, he said they were lucky unlike many of the others, for them it was the hunger that was the worst part. At night they would sneak out to where the trash was kept and scavenge through, looking for discarded food scrapes to eat, until one night a Russian cook caught them and started leaving the scrapes outside of the cans for them. “So, we had it pretty good,” he would say.
Like most legends there are exaggerations weaved in with the truths. I was not witness to any of those stories. However, I was witness to the man who was the result of them, a man of integrity and kindness, who endured and triumphed. I once overheard my brother telling my nephews how one day, he witnessed him pluck a grape off the vine and throw it high into the air striking an eagle. The eagle fell to its death where he proceeded to take the feathers and make a beautiful headdress which he wore to the Pow Wows and danced in celebration. I know a different version of this story, for unlike my brother I was there that day, sitting at the table having tea with him. There was a ruckus in the yard, when we looked, we saw a crow attacking the cat. He snatched an apple from the bowl that sat on the table and threw it out into the yard to scare away the crow. To our surprise he had hit the bird and killed it. Then, I watched as the mighty warrior wrapped the bird in the “good” tea towel and buried it under the plum tree in the back yard, mourning it for weeks after.
I guess really, I am no different than my brother, I have had my own take on a story. I accompanied him many times to the emergency room, the doctors asking about his health history and a scar he had. He would proceed to tell them of his diagnosis of tuberculosis, his stay in the sanitarium and the subsequent surgery to remove part of his lung. The surgery left an angry scar that ran from the center of his chest down and around his flank to the middle of his back. The skin healed jagged and pocked, parts discolored and puckered, rough to the touch. Surgery? No, that scar is from when he fought a bear that surprised him in the woods when he was working. The bear he fought with his bare hands till he was able to unsheathe his knife and kill him. The bear whose claws he made into a windchime which he hung from a tree to ward off evil spirits. That is the version I know and will continue to tell.
On that final day when I sat by his bedside and held his hand and watched as life left his milky blue eyes, I knew that it was my duty and an honor as his daughter to continue to tell the stories of the legend of the beautiful and brave Ojibway warrior.