Winter’s Tales by James Reaney, 1949

James Reaney's birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario, February 1954.
James Reaney’s birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario, February 1954.

Winter’s Tales

As planets love an ancient star
And move in far dances round its fire
So the farmer and his children sit
About their stove whose flamey wit
Giggles in red and yellow laughter
Like a small sun caught in iron armour.
When outside the winter winds are loud
Close by their summery stove they crowd.

Through the windows they may see
The cold wind herd a river of snow
Beneath the moon, across the land
All locked in Winter’s frog-cold hand.
And sometimes the wind does shove
Between the window sill and window
Beneath the door and across the floor
White whisks and brooms of snow.
Through every little crack
At the front door and the back
Came the soft white hands of snow
That, with its heat, the stove does smash
Into a harmless flat thin splash.
Then down the chimney the wind came
Till the fire seemed somewhat lame
Until someone poked at it
Or put on another stick
And it blazed up again.
The wind, the cold snow and the rain
Could not put that stove out
But in a furious dance
They kept a safe distance
Always beyond the window pane
So that the farmer and his children
By the stove sitting tight
Only heard the wind and never felt
Its sharp cold bite.
Then the farmer told them stories
That his father had told him
Of the massacre at Lucan
Where the neighbours killed all of the McKilligans dead
Except one little boy who crawled under a bed;
Of the little boy carried off by a bear
And, “a ball of fire leaped out of the earth
At him and vanished into thin air.
Your grandmother saw
Tecumseh’s head on a pole;
Had also dined with him once
And when she looked into her soup
At the bottom of the bowl
She saw a groundhog’s paw.
And Indian Sal who picked flax
And drank vinegar and had attacks
And Granny Crack
Who wandered the countryside
With seven petticoats to her back.
And Towser Smith who
When it rained for five days in a row
Went out and shook his fist at the sky,
His fist at God in the sky.
And how when I was a child
You stood at the table
And ate off a pie-tin
Not sit on chairs and eat off a plate
As you do now.
And how bricks and mortar
Couldn’t keep her from marrying him.”

Then the farmer and his children grow drowsy
With the heat of the fire so blowsy
And the stories their father tells them
Of the good and bad old days
Grow shorter and shorter
Till the fire alone seems to talk.
Its ripening red now seeming
A massive convulsive giant’s heart
A Robin’s red breast.
A sunset in summer,
The rising and large Harvest Moon
When she walks out of the east, –
All these things seems the fire
Which, with their father’s stories
Will long be remembered
And protect them from growing old.
Winter’s tales that like gold
In the purses of their hearts
Will ring and shine forever
Warming them in the long winter’s cold.

James Reaney, 1949

This poem first appeared in Contemporary Verse, 30, Winter 1949.

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