LAST night a January wind was ripping at the shingles over our house and whistling a wolf song under the eaves.
I sat in a leather rocker and read to a six-year-old girl the Browning poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.
And her eyes had the haze of autumn hills and it was beautiful to her and she could not understand.
A man is crossing a big prairie, says the poem, and nothing happensâ€”and he goes on and onâ€”and itâ€™s all lonesome and empty and nobody home.
And he goes on and onâ€”and nothing happensâ€”and he comes on a horseâ€™s skull, dry bones of a dead horseâ€”and you know more than ever itâ€™s all lonesome and empty and nobody home.
And the man raises a horn to his lips and blowsâ€”he fixes a proud neck and forehead toward the empty sky and the empty landâ€”and blows one last wonder-cry.
And as the shuttling automatic memory of man clicks off its results willy-nilly and inevitable as the snick of a mouse-trap or the trajectory of a 42-centimeter projectile,
I flash to the form of a man to his hips in snow drifts of Manitoba and Minnesotaâ€”in the sled derby run from Winnipeg to Minneapolis.
He is beaten in the race the first day out of Winnipegâ€”the lead dog is eaten by four team matesâ€”and the man goes on and onâ€”running while the other racers rideâ€”running while the other racers sleepâ€”
Lost in a blizzard twenty-four hours, repeating a circle of travel hour after hourâ€”fighting the dogs who dig holes in the snow and whimper for sleepâ€”pushing onâ€”running and walking five hundred miles to the end of the raceâ€”almost a winnerâ€”one toe frozen, feet blistered and frost-bitten.
And I know why a thousand young men of the Northwest meet him in the finishing miles and yell cheersâ€”I know why judges of the race call him a winner and give him a special prize even though he is a loser.
I know he kept under his shirt and around his thudding heart amid the blizzards of five hundred miles that one last wonder-cry of Childe Rolandâ€”and I told the six-year-old girl all about it.
And while the January wind was ripping at the shingles and whistling a wolf song under the eaves, her eyes had the haze of autumn hills and it was beautiful to her and she could not understand.