Manitoba Childe Roland
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 happens—and he goes on and on—and it’s all lonesome and empty and nobody home.
And he goes on and on—and nothing happens—and he comes on a horse’s skull, dry bones of a dead horse—and you know more than ever it’s all lonesome and empty and nobody home.
And the man raises a horn to his lips and blows—he fixes a proud neck and forehead toward the empty sky and the empty land—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 Minnesota—in the sled derby run from Winnipeg to Minneapolis.
He is beaten in the race the first day out of Winnipeg—the lead dog is eaten by four team mates—and the man goes on and on—running while the other racers ride—running while the other racers sleep—
Lost in a blizzard twenty-four hours, repeating a circle of travel hour after hour—fighting the dogs who dig holes in the snow and whimper for sleep—pushing on—running and walking five hundred miles to the end of the race—almost a winner—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 cheers—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 Roland—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.