I learned about “The Hanging Judge” in grade six, watching the National Film Board of Canada documentary. But I never dreamed that one day I would own a piece of the 165 acres Matthew Baillie Begbie purchased in West Saanich in 1859. Until I spotted his name, in a slanted old fashioned hand, right there on the table-sized Saanich Peninsula map at the local historical society.
I already knew that before it became a neighbourhood of hobby farms in “rural Saanich”, our valley had been home to a sawmill, then a large farm. The lumber used to build the Royal Oak Hotel was apparently milled here. Our valley has history!
Located conveniently right beside the railway tracks (dismantled in 1923 and now a road named for the rail line) stands a spar tree that might have been used to lever bundles of lumber onto train cars. Topped more than once and otherwise shaped by human hands, then left to grow wildly for many years, today it is our beloved Tarzan Tree, a natural treehouse festooned with ropes and tire swings plus a long metal slide.
Our place was built in 1972, and our barn the following year. And we arrived in 1998 with three small children, the proud third owners of our slightly tired family home. It’s no romantic old country estate full of mystery, but we have seen one or two strange things over the years.
Our oldest, although not generally given to flights of fancy, swears that one night ten years ago she saw, in the gap between the open fridge door and the floor, a pair of small feet in old style brown leather shoes. When she jumped up to look, there was nobody there. She named her apparition “little brown shoes” and still insists she saw what she saw.
I haven’t seen any house elves myself, not once in twenty years, but I do see something puzzling every day, out in the tack room in the barn.
An alder pole structure with thick cedar plank walls and a hard dirt floor, the barn’s east wall is two thirds open with a couple big walk out stalls, and the last third enclosed. The double barn doors on the north wall open to a rough tack room with a bench, a cabinet, the loft ladder and a wood pallet where we stack a few bales of hay so we don’t have to climb into the loft at every feeding. The dirt floor is always well covered in the myriad bits of hay that escape each time we grab a flake, except for one area about the size of a kitchen chair. This almost circular spot is always completely, utterly, bare. As if a tiny tornado lives there.
It’s the breeze, some might say, whistling in under the barn door, whisking the floor clean. But some days, most days really, we have no breeze in our sheltered valley bottom. And it’s just that spot. Every single time I heave open the barn door and look, that one spot is as clean as if licked by a transparent giant, scrubbed bare by invisible hands, polished hard and shiny by a whirling dervish.
And in my mind’s eye, I imagine a little girl about four years old, dressed in a wispy cream dress and with her arms folded across her chest, pale brown hair obscuring her face entirely, dancing, spinning, faster than any real little girl ever could. Maybe wearing little brown shoes?
I can never…quite…tell.