Friday, August 14, 2009


This is a story I submitted to a magazine and it actually got published! Of course it was a magazine that no one gets paid for stories in but still... someone liked it enough to publish it. We were given a picture and asked to write a story about it. My imagination goes nuts when I'm challenged like that so here's what I came up with.


In August the news of Qiqirn’s death (pronounced Kewkern) reached Robert. It had been twenty years since his bush pilot days when the scheduled route included the settlement at Igloolik. Each time they stopped, he’d visit Qiqirn and watch soapstone being sculpted into pieces of art. First it was given shape using a piece of shale. Loving hands smoothed the stone with water, and finally the point of his knife was used to add the finer details. Robert had once brought him a stylus, but Qiqirn continued to work with his knife. He liked the old ways. He shared many Inuit legends as he worked.

On Labour Day a truck pulled up to Robert’s Ottawa home and a large block of stone was placed on the lawn. A note from Qiqirn’s wife was handed to him.

“It was Qirqirn’s wish that you have this stone. He sensed it holds something you will understand.”

Robert ran his hands across the sides of the cool stone. He felt nothing, but trusted that the mystique Qirqirn spoke of would eventually be revealed.

On Tuesday morning a red-faced Robert stormed into the house. “Someone knocked the corners off my stone during the night!”

He took a piece of his roughest sandpaper and smoothed the edges of the broken corners, then rubbed them with water as he had seen Qirqirn do.

Each morning when Robert went out he’d find more damage to the stone. He sat up one night in his darkened living room waiting for the culprit to show but saw no one.

One morning he found a smoothly carved featureless head sitting atop the stone.

He felt relief that the stone was not being maliciously damaged, but was still angry that someone dared to take a chisel to it. How would he ever discover the meaning of Qiqirn’s message?

Each day more was being revealed. He started to look forward to the mornings, anxious to see what had transpired during the night.

After a week the right arm and most of the torso appeared. A smooth rock was held securely in the right hand. But the head of the statue was looking down to the left. What was hiding in the stone?

Saturday Robert slept late. He awoke with a start and ran outside to see what change he would find. In the bright sunshine he saw that the left hand had appeared. In the hand was a carver’s tool fashioned from shale.

Features had been added to the face. He gasped as he recognized the image of his old friend. Qiqirn had told him of the Inuit belief that everything on earth holds a spirit (anirniq in Inuktitut).

Robert now understood that in a weakened state Qiqirn had felt a part of his own spirit in the stone. He knew no artist would come to free him. If he didn’t sculpt himself his spirit would be locked in stone forever.

Now Qiqirn’s spirit was freed and he could rest.

NOTE: I know that the Inuit believe that all living things have a spirit, I can't say that they believe stone does but I used writer's license for interests sake.

Copyright Shirleymac April 2007

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Journey to Magnetawan

This is a photo of my grandfather Woodward and my great grandfather Langford. It's not a great photo, my great grandfather was much more handsome than this, but that grandfather is his son-in-law, not his son and I imagine he was not pleased about having to have his picture taken with him. His daughter (my grandmother) not only eloped but through doing genealogy I found that she was pregnant when they eloped. The baby was born too premature and lived only a few hours. That's why I'd never heard of him.

Anyway, I chose this photo because I wanted to show how very tiny a man my great grandfather was. My grandmother was 5'2" and this grandfather she married was perhaps 5'4". From this picture you can see that if James Langford was 5' it wouldn't be stretching it (no pun intended *LOL*).

I found a letter in my aunt's belongings that was written to my great grandmother Langford by James. I couldn't figure out where the heck South River was and once I did I couldn't figure out what the heck he was doing there. I did some research and discovered that locks were built near there at Magnetawan during the same time period as James travelled there. Since he was a farmer on the 1881 Census and a Stone Mason on the 1891 Census this explains a lot.

Because I was taking a writing course I had to add twists and turns to make the story interesting. I'm going to print the story first and then the typed version of his letter to his wife Rachel, complete with his spelling and with a couple of words missing that I couldn't read.



As the January moon began to dip below the western horizon a lone figure made his way across the frozen Ottawa River. Small in stature and wearing dark clothing, his slow forward movement was the only thing that distinguished him from the colourless sky and the sleeping leafless trees that flanked either side of the river. His arms were wrapped tightly around a hand made knapsack and a hunting rifle was slung over his shoulder .

The greyness that surrounded him matched the struggle going on within. He wanted to offer Rachel and the baby more than a country existence. But the thought of being separated from them weighed heavy on his heart. Yet wasn’t attaining his goal for their life in the long term worth doing what he needed to do in the short term? How he wished someone could assure him that his choice was the right one.

He stepped onto a path worn through the brush. Hearing the howl of a wolf in the distance he felt for the rifle hanging at his side. He tensed as he realized how difficult it would be to reload the rifle with cold fingers if there were several wolves in the pack.

Emerging onto the road near MacLaren’s Landing, he noticed smoke rising from the chimney at the McLean farm and quickened his pace.

Mrs. McLean opened the door to welcome him.

“Come in James. Good Lord, you look half frozen.”

After hot tea and some time by the fire with Martha McLean James was ready to move on once again.

“It’s time to get on the road. Where’s Hugh?”

“Och! I’ve been dreading having to tell you James. Hughie isn’t going. You’ll need to take charge of two teams of horses and three other men.”

With blanched face he looked at Martha to see whether he’d heard right. The small wrinkle of her brow told him he had.

“Brown and MacDonald are good men as long as you keep the whiskey bottle away from them.” she continued “Alex Sharpe won’t give you any problems.”

With a resigned breath James gazed into the fire. How he longed to be in front of the hearth with Rachel.

Martha broke into his thoughts. “The men and horses are in Arnprior - I’ll take you over in the sleigh. The train leaves at six o’clock.”

James hesitated. Hugh knew that James wasn’t a leader. His size and gentle nature made it difficult to be taken seriously. He didn’t feel capable but if he didn’t go he would be breaking the contract he’d signed with the Dominion Government. A lock was to be built at Magnetawan in Parry Sound. It was his dream to become a stone mason. This job would move him forward. Not going could end his dream.

As the sleigh slid over the snow covered road James heard the sounds of cattle in the barns. He envied the farmers following their daily routines.

In Arnprior, as expected, he found the men in the saloon. He pulled himself up to his full five foot height and approached their table.

“Hello fellas, I’m Jim Langford.” he started “Hugh MacLean sent me.”

A scruffily dressed man stood up. At six feet he had the muscular body of a manual labourer. His dark receding hair was tousled and an out of control mustache and beard covered most of his pockmarked face.

“You’re the one who’s in charge of us?” he laughed. “Hell, my ma gave birth to babies bigger ‘n you.”

“Sit down Brown.” Another man chided. “Mr. Langford’s only following orders.”

“So you’re Aaron Brown. And you must be Alex Sharpe.” he said to the second man - who appeared not so inebriated and better groomed than the other two at the table.

Brown sat down. “You must be real educated to figure that out.” he sneered. “That scoundrel over there is George MacDonald.”

James nodded towards MacDonald who simply stared back. The sunken eyes on his deeply chiseled face gave him a fiendish look. A tuft of hair stood straight up at the crown strangely located near the front of his scalp.

“Our passage has been arranged. The train leaves at six. I need you there at five to get the horses loaded.”

Without further comment James turned and left.

The recent amalgamation of Canada Central Railway with Canadian Pacific Railway was evident from the new signs painted on the 22 year old cars. The men managed with some difficulty to get the four nervous horses up the ramp into a freight car.

On seeing the inside of the passenger car James was glad he’d arranged for sleeping berths. Given the size of Brown, in particular, sleeping in the cramped day seats for two nights would be difficult and uncomfortable.

After a few grunts and puffs of smoke the train jerked forward and soon settled into a rattling rhythm.

“Try that once more and I’ll whoop you good!” came a booming voice.

James looked up to see MacDonald and Brown standing nose to nose.

“Break it up you two. MacDonald, get your stuff and move back. The last thing we need is to get kicked off this train for fighting.” James was relieved that there was no smell of fresh whiskey emanating from the men.

The train rolled northwest along the Ottawa River to Sand Point and then turned inland towards Renfrew. From Renfrew the tracks led to the river again and followed it’s path to Pembroke.

At ten in the morning on the second day they pulled into Pembroke Station. James had a number of errands to run and left the horses in the care of the men. Finding what he needed would be difficult. In Eardley there was a General Store. Here there were a number of different establishments he had to visit.

It was mid afternoon when James went in search of the men. He found Sharpe at the blacksmith’s feeding the horses.

“Where’s Brown and MacDonald?” James asked when he got Sharpe’s attention.

“Don’t know. Said something ‘bout the saloon but I ain’t seen them since.”

A feeling of unease crept over James as he walked through the streets. Eventually he came across MacDonald sitting on the steps of a public building nursing a large purplish bruise beneath his right eye.

“What’s happened here? Where’s Brown?”

MacDonald pointed behind him without turning around. “Sobering up. Got in a fight over a poker game.”

“Why aren’t you in there too?”

“Ran out the back when I saw the police come in.”

Taking a deep breath James climbed the steps of the building that was home to Pembroke City Hall, Jail and Morgue. He found the cells in the basement.

“Yep, he’s here. Won’t be leaving for a while though. Overnight should do it.”

“We haven’t got overnight. Our train leaves in a few hours. I’ll pay what he owes and take responsibility for him. He’ll be out of town by seven o’clock tonight.”

“Can’t let him go right now – too much of a troublemaker. Try again at six.”

James didn’t like the sound of that. It was already four o’clock. Two hours didn’t leave much time for Brown to sober up.

It took some doing for three men to get the four blindfolded horses into the freight car. James then headed down one block to City Hall arriving precisely at six o’clock.

“Back already? Not much has changed.”

“What’ll it take to get him out?” James was getting concerned. They couldn’t all be held back because of Brown’s misdeeds. But how would he explain Brown’s absence once they reached South River?

“S’pose you could pay the fine now and the Chief can see him onto the train at seven. No guarantees though.”

“Done.” James paid the two-dollar fine plus another three for damages.

The Chief appeared at the station with Brown at six forty five. James had acted on faith and purchased four passenger tickets allowing them to board right away.

Over the clattering noise a surprisingly meek Brown finally spoke. “Thanks Jim, I sure appreciate you getting me out.”

Was that a touch of respect that James was hearing? Maybe McLean was right. Maybe he could handle this responsibility

“I’m glad I was able to. It took the money for the sleeping car though.”

The trip to Chalk River and inland north of Algonquin Park was uneventful. Brown and MacDonald behaved themselves and no one complained about having to sleep slouched down in the seats.

Twenty miles from Mattawa the train jolted to a stop flinging the men forward.

“What the?” they all said in unison.

Snow blown across the next quarter mile of track blocked the train’s path. It would take all the volunteers that could be found to clear it. Three hours later the shivering men returned to their seats and the train moved on.

After stopping at Mattawa the train headed cross-country to Callander Station. There was no sign of Josiah Booth who was to meet them and provide a place to spend the night. Being a small village, the stationmaster was able to give James directions and soon the men were having their first home cooked meal in three days.

By dawn the next day they were traveling south along the Colonization Road. It would take another two days to reach South River on roads that were mostly snow-covered gravel with sections that were simple trails through the bush.

The plan to overnight in a tent changed when they reached a Dutch colony and gratefully accepted the offer of overnight accommodation..

The next morning as they were hitching the teams for the last leg of their journey James realized he’d been too busy the last few days to think about his decision and realized he was beginning to feel more comfortable with it.

The sleigh shushed quickly over snow-covered road and they arrived at South River by one o’clock where Joe Stewart, foreman of the project, was waiting. Joe wasn’t much taller than James but was stockier. Prominent laugh lines wrinkled the beard- rimmed face, however when he spoke his no-nonsense attitude was evident.

“You fellas are lucky to be working the winter shift,” said Joe. “Summers up here are humid and the men’ll be plagued by mosquitoes and Black flies.

James was skeptical. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than the bitter cold of the dead of winter.

“I’m glad to see them horses.” Joe continued. “Need 'em to haul stone to fill the cribwork. Now let’s get you settled in the shanty.”

It was another twenty-mile ride north of Bernard Lake to Magnetawan on the north shore of Ahmic Lake. Along the way Joe outlined the plan for the lock. When finished it would be 128 feet long, twenty-eight feet wide, and would raise or lower steamers ten feet to allow travel between Ahmic Harbour and Burk’s Falls for the first time.

As James stepped through the canvas door into the rustic shanty he felt the warmth coming from a potbellied stove in the center of the structure. The stove would be used for cooking as well as heat. A table and chairs sat nearby and bunks, each with a Hudson’s Bay blanket, lined the outside walls.

That evening James found himself sitting alone at the table. He was missing Rachel, but was proud of his accomplishments. He’d successfully brought the men and horses on an eight-day trip to the work site. He’d solved unforeseen problems along the way. He’d felt respect and was now feeling completely confident that this was where he needed to be in order to fulfill his dreams.

He picked up a pencil and began to write:
“January 7th, 1883
Dear Rachel ….”

Half an hour later he stoked the fire, put out the lantern and lay down on the bunk he’d call home until June.

The End

Now here is the letter I found that James had written to Rachel. It's what I based my story on.

January 7th, 1883
South River

Dear Rachel

I suppose you will be looking for a leter from me every day so I am taking the first opportunety to wright to you for the sooner I wright the sooner I will hear from you.

I was lonsom starting away from Georges Sunday night but did not feel so bad after I got on the road. I left McLanes Monday morning. there was four teams in the gang and the worst of it was I had to take charge of them all the way up for McLane did not come with us.

It took too days to get to Pembrook and we was there all day Wednesday. I had a lot of running (around?) getting stuff and getting the carrs and getting the teams and we did not start till after dark and was on the carrs all night and got off about too oclock the next day at what is called Calander Station about forty miles above the Matawa and then drove till night before feeding our horses and ourselves unless a few bisket. we stayed at Booths (?) that night and the next day we was into a settlement of dutch and stopped at a dutchmans that night and later that day got into the shanty. I cannot tell you much about it yet. our shanty is in Parresound districkt (Parry Sound District) north of Mawcaka. when you wright or rather answer this as soon as you get it and let me know how you are and my little man is and all the rest. I suppose you never think of the little house behind the big mountain. tell me what Aleck and Silas is doing. Colie of corse is chore boy. Tell me what George is doing if you know.

I think I must close so good night and take care of your selfe and Harrie

NOTE: The Dutch settlement that James spoke of was really a German settlement. In those days each nationality/religion kept to themselves and lived in pockets of their own kind, so to speak. They knew very little of the world outside their own little communities.