'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
Click here to buy the paperback or download the ebook for free.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Wrenboys

We had a heavy frost yesterday morning, so it was a white Christmas of sorts. Santa brought his usual selection of presents. My great-grandfather refused to accept any presents, unless they came in a bottle. He claimed he once found the meaning of life, but a monkey took it and he had to shoot the monkey. All presents seemed like an anti-climax after that. It's Saint Stephen's Day today, so we're expecting a visit from the wrenboys, who go out hunting the wren (which involves dressing up in costumes and going from house to house looking for money).

My uncle Cyril told me a story about the wrenboys who called to his house one Stephen's Day. There were two of them. One was small and one was tall. The tall man was dressed as a member of the gentry and the small one was dressed as a peasant. When Cyril opened the door they started acting out a sketch. The small one said to the tall one, "This little story is about a toe, sir."

"About a toe, you say?" the tall one said.

"Yes sir, a toe."

"Like the ones you find on your feet?"

"Yes sir, them ones precisely, like the ones most people have on their feet, but this one wasn't on a foot. It was in a matchbox."

"If it was in a matchbox, would it be fair to infer that it was a small toe? Or a big toe from a small person, perhaps a child?"

"No, indeed not, sir. A child's severed toe would be a dark place for a story to dwell, especially at this time of year. Especially if the toe was no longer in the child's possession."

"You mean to say that if the child was carrying the toe around in a matchbox, that wouldn't be as dark as an eventuality in which someone else had the toe?"

"Goes without saying. If the child had the toe in a matchbox, that would suggest he's proud of it. He'd show it to people. He'd use it to frighten girls, and he'd take his shoe and sock off on a regular basis to show off his stump."

"That's assuming the child is a boy. I can't imagine a girl being proud of a severed toe."

"Imagining these things is exactly what you're doing, sir. Children's toes have nothing to do with this story. This particular toe was the small toe of a grown man. He wasn't proud of the toe itself because it wasn't much to look at. He was proud of his dogs because they were so good at retrieving the ducks he shot, but the toe couldn't do anything like that. It was just a symbol of his suffering and that's what he was proud of."

"How did he lose it?"

"He didn't lose it at all, sir. He kept it in a matchbox."

"No, I mean how did it become separated from his foot? It was once attached to his foot, wasn't it?"

"You're quite correct in making that assumption, sir. Although I know a man who kept a bit of someone else's finger in his pocket, as a symbol of this other fella's suffering. And he was proud because he had inflicted that suffering. But in this case, yes, the toe had once been attached to the foot of the man who carried it around in a matchbox. The toe would have been much happier in the matchbox rather than being stuck in one of his socks with all those other toes. It was probably glad to be liberated in such dramatic circumstances. This story involves a woman who had a wooden leg, and she nailed five wooden toes onto it."

"Someone once told me that if you add 'toe' to 'woman' you get 'woe to man'."

"That's very true, but having toes without any woman wouldn't be an ideal state of affairs either. Toes are no substitute for a woman."

"I suppose that depends on the woman."

"Quite possibly, sir, but this one was a fine woman. She could be as imposing as a marble statue high up on a pedestal, and she could be as gentle as a flower dancing in a light breeze. She carved her own toes. She thought they looked dull and lifeless when they were just plain old toes, so she carved faces, and she made sure they were ugly faces because that made it easier to nail them to a wooden leg. They resembled gargoyles. The man at the centre of this story entered the proceedings in the pub one night when someone dared him to steal one of her toes. This involved breaking into her bedroom in the middle of the night while she slept. He had no qualms about doing such things. In fact he had something other than qualms, but that's another story. He broke into her bedroom without waking her up, and he removed one of the toes with a claw hammer. He made his getaway, and when he was walking home in the light of the moon he looked at the toe. He saw a face looking back at him. It seemed as if the face was in pain. While he was focussing all of his attention on the toe, he didn't look where he was going, and he stepped into a snare. This is how he lost his toe. He screamed in agony, and when he looked at the wooden toe again, the face on it was laughing."

The small man looked at Cyril and held out a collection box. Cyril normally gave them buttons, but he felt he had to give them money after they had given up so much of their time while he stood there watching. He could have closed the door. He wished he had closed the door shortly after opening it, but they made sure to get the mention of the severed toe in early, and he had to hear the rest of the story after that. It worked on everyone. Cyril thought he was ready for them on the following year. He was just about to close the door when they mentioned a nose that fell off, and he had to hear the rest of that story too.

The moose's head over the fireplace looks very content with a pipe in his mouth and a Santa hat on his antlers. Apparently he got them from the man himself early on Christmas morning. The dog ate his Santa hat. The wife tried to get him to wear it. She got the idea from one of the neighbours, who didn't bother putting up decorations -- he just got a lamb instead. The idea of living decorations could catch on because they're more environmentally friendly.