Made of Wood, Charged with Electricity*

Years ago, I found some ancient faded photographs in a pale red, water-stained, photograph album that had been in my parent's basement for many years. The bindings had become unglued and the photos had slipped from their places on the page. When I handled them, they smelled like ancient paper, dust, and mildew, cigars and silver fish.

Some of the photographs were from the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Some has been taken in Copenhagen, with Danish writing on them, and some were set in Winnipeg, Canada, still with Danish writing on them. A number of them were completely faded like old dreams, with notations written long ago in pencil, smudged and partially erased.

The album had belonged to a great-uncle, a stepbrother to my Danish grandmother. His name was Jens. In the early 1900s, when he first arrived in Canada as a Danish immigrant, he thought himself a modern man. He was fascinated by the new inventions pertaining to electricity and the transmission of sound. He closely followed the works of Edison and Bell.

Jens liked to explore the integral parts of electrical devices, machines, and small instruments. He liked things to be functional. He easily became adept at transforming electrical energy into mechanical motion and he quickly gained word in the new country setting out routes for electric streetcars, and avoiding electrocution. He was a proud, self-taught, electrical engineer, on track in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Jens soon purchased an Edison phonograph and cylinder rolls to play on it. He had a radio.

In 1908, Jens was accused of being a witch by one of his neighbours who had recently immigrated to Canada from Italy. The police were called because of great-uncle Jens' suspicious activities. He had “a box” in the attic of his rented house that had voices emanating from it. The officers reassured the neighbours, although the police were a little dubious of the origins of the voices themselves.

Jens' neighbours never got over it though. The whole family would quickly walk across to the other side of the street, crossing themselves repeatedly, whenever he came into sight. Ah, Winnipeg.

Jens soon had a wife from Denmark, a young daughter, and a new house in a different part of town. He found a dog for his daughter ad a fast bay horse for himself. He wore a uniform and he was looking good.

In Winnipeg the land is prairie flat. After a few years, it seemed to Jens that everything around him had started to exist as flat lines. His life became flat in the present, but appeared to still be somewhat electric if he thought about the future.

To Jens, the bay horse had started to appear almost translucent, transformed by the prairie light. He could see endless electric lines and railway tracks under its skin. Then the electric trams got stuck on their tracks. The timing and the schedules started to become undone. His gold watch, chained to side, didn't keep time anymore.

Jens suddenly left Winnipeg. He left wife and daughter in the house. The dog ran after him and never came back. Neither did Jens. He changed his name and became Mr. West, since West was the direction he was going anyway. He took the train of course.

He felt like an immigrant again. First he had left the flat, little country of Denmark. Then, before the 1920s, he left the flat, vast prairies of Manitoba. He left it all behind, the family, the house, the radio, the horse, the prairies, all of them fading into the twilight.

He got off the train in the Rockies, just west of Lake Louise. The only things he carried were the phonograph, a few cylinder records, his clothes, a broken gold watch and a sharp knife. He loved mountains.

One day when he was out hiking he found a wooden heart growing out of the side of a spruce tree. He carefully cut the heart off and carried it home with him, to his little shack near the town of Banff. He sanded and polished the heart and left it sitting on his kitchen table.

Later he carried the wooden heart and his few possessions out to the west coast. He had decided to visit his stepsister, may grandmother, who had homesteaded near a small Scandinavian town with her husband and family.

Mr. West decided to stay on the coast, close to the ocean. He kept that wooden heart with him until the day he died. Along with the photo album, it ended up in my parent's basement, stuck in the floor joists of the rooms above.

No, he never left the coast. He never returned to the east or to his prairie family. It was like his heart too, had become a piece of wood and electricity never charged it again.

Image et texte de Rita Rasmussen
February 2012
La NRM  n°30 - Été 2012

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