My father’s cousin grew up on a grain farm with his big sister and their parents, who were two generations off the boat from Sweden. They named him Harle.
When he was a teenager, his father Joe died. His sister had already married and moved away. He stayed and farmed the family’s acres and took care of his mother for the rest of his life. Their small white-frame house got wired for electricity 20 years later than the neighbors’, but they never conceded to indoor plumbing. Even in bitter cold, they would trudge to the outhouse. Harle would draw buckets of icy metallic-tasting water from the old well and set them in the dry sink every morning. In the summers as a child I would run indoors, sweaty from playing with the barn cats, and pour cool rivers of water down my throat out of the bent tin dipper.
Harle never married. I don’t think he ever even dated. My mother said once, her voice filled with pity, that she thought he “had a crush” on her after she married my father, but nothing was ever said of it. He was drafted to fight in Korea, then came home to the farm and worked there until he died, just a few years ago, of lung cancer.
Some machinery accident had split one of his fingers at the tip, and left him with a blackened nail tapered like a claw. He would use it to tamp down his pipe tobacco. We girl cousins would stare at it, repelled and fascinated, while he joked with us and laughed in his odd, high-pitched giggle.
On Christmas Eve, our family would travel the two miles of gravel road to Harle’s house and have a big dinner with his family. While some of the adults washed dishes in tubs filled with boiling water from the stove, others would tack a blanket over the arched entrance between the dining room and the living room.
We children would sit at the dining room table in an agony of suspense. After an eternity we would hear “ho ho ho!” and the tinkle of sleigh bells outside in the yard and our hair would stand on end. Then the blanket would be taken down to reveal the Christmas tree, now half-buried in gifts.
While we waited, fidgeting in our chairs, often Harle would wander up behind one of us girls. Every one of us had long hair (it was the ‘70s), and we would feel his presence a few seconds before his fingers touched our hair.
He would lift it from our shoulders and pet it, tug it gently, careful never to touch our necks or our shoulders. He would separate it into plaits as though he intended to braid it, then simply let it trickle through his fingers and begin the process again.
For the two or three minutes he was behind us, we would sit bolt upright, faces frozen into neutral expressions, I suppose unconsciously mimicking the features of our parents as they looked at us and then looked away. We all knew better than to pull away, or squirm, or say a word. Somehow we knew we were the only outlet there ever was or ever would be for Harle’s untouched body, his fallow heart.