The Christmas muskrat in Branch
It is strange how preparations for the Christmas season cause the most remote memories to come to the surface. Maybe at a certain stage in your life, you keep probing deeper in an attempt to regain a little of your childhood. Although I have not seen a muskrat up close for many years, a short time ago this incident popped into my mind. It has kept coming back so often that I feel compelled to sit at my computer and describe it in print.
Henry John Curtis was well known in the outport community of Branch, St. Mary’s Bay in the 1950s. He lived in a little house situated to itself in the Easter’ Cove of the community. For weeks at a time (and maybe even months), he was a hermit, a recluse, a loner. He would retreat to his simple abode and remain there until the spirit moved him to reappear. His moods were unpredictable. At times, he would go about the community quietly; at other times, he was overactive, shouting strange sayings and pretending to chase young girls. I was petrified of Henry John when he was in this hyperactive mood and at such times, I steered clear of him.
On Henry John’s frequent visits to our house, he acted the perfect gentleman. He discussed the weather conditions or the scarcity of rabbits. Sometimes, to amuse us, he would sing a lively verse or two of Me Old Ragadoo. My mother always offered him a mugup, which he accepted graciously, sitting quietly at the table with his cap placed on the floor. I often wondered how he could be so quiet at our house and so odd and scary in a different environment.
I remember one year when I was seven or eight years old, and it was a few days before Christmas. It was around dusk, the weather was cold and there was a bit of snow on the ground. I remember Henry John coming in and saying, for the benefit of my siblings and me, “Santy Claus will get here this year because we are going to have a big fall of snow.”
I can still picture him sitting at the end of the table, enjoying his cup of tea with a thick slice of sweet bread. When Mommy gave him a piece of fruit cake, he was more than thankful, and I think it was at this point that he was overcome by the Christmas spirit. Getting up from the table, saying that he had a “Christmas box” for us, he darted out through the porch. I waited with the excited anticipation that all children feel when they know a surprise is near. Mommy was protesting, telling him that there was no need to give us a present, and I was trying to “shush” her. I sure wanted to see Henry John’s gift.
In he came a few minutes later with a reddish-brown muskrat skin (with the head still on) attached to a large board. Having never seen such a rodent before, at first I was cautious, then I was curious. Later, I was fascinated by the soft fur, the poppy eyes and the whiskers. Needless to say, Mommy did not keep Henry John’s muskrat pelt. She knew he wanted to sell it and that he needed the few dollars it would fetch. She expressed deep gratitude for his generosity, and he said he would bring us a brace of rabbits later in the year, which I am sure he did.
Thinking about this muskrat story now warms my heart in a way that all the yuletide glitter and hype in these modern times cannot accomplish. Henry John had so little to offer, but the animal skin meant a lot to him. I realize now, that in his simple, downto-earth way, he was saying “Merry Christmas and thank-you for your hospitality.”
I know now that he taught me a valuable lesson in the practice of giving from one’s heart.