Bright Angels and Familiars
by Eugene England, Editor

Chapter 1
Where Nothing Is Long Ago
Virginia Sorensen

[1] “You’ll probably remember Brother Tolsen and that awful thing that happened when you were a little girl,” my mother wrote me recently. Her fat script traveled the whole way around the photograph and obituary she had clipped from our Mormon newspaper. “The killing wasn’t even mentioned at his funeral. All the speakers just said what a good man he always was.”

Remember Brother Tolsen? I looked at his square jaw and his steady eyes, and it was as if I had seen him yesterday. Well, I thought, another one is gone; soon there won’t be a real Danish accent left in that whole valley. Mormon converts from Denmark came to Utah by the thousands during the second half of the nineteenth century. Now there were only a few survivors. Not long before, it had been old Bishop Petersen himself who had died.

I was with Bishop Petersen, in his garden, the morning the Tolsen trouble happened. My mother thought I had a morbid interest in the affair, and I guess I had. It was the summer I was nine, and I was morbid about almost everything. I was absolutely certain for years afterward that two piles of bloody rabbits’ ears I saw on the courthouse lawn at the time of Brother Tolsen’s trial had something to do with the killing he was being tried for. They [2] hadn’t. They were merely tokens of the fact that the annual county rabbit hunt had gone off according to schedule.

Mother, who loves accuracy, often complains about the peculiar quality of my memories, and likely she’s right. The Tolsen case, for instance, tends to get mixed in my mind with other water-thief murders I’ve heard of. My mother sent me a clipping about one in Utah Valley, near Provo, just last year. This man was killed with a gun, however, instead of a shovel—as Brother Tolsen killed his thief—and then the killer turned the gun on himself. Mother wrote on that latest clipping, “Dad and I don’t see why he had to shoot himself, too. Do you?”

That’s a very Western query. A poem written by Thomas Hornsby Ferril begins: “Here in America nothing is long ago …” and that’s very Western, too. People out West remember when important things were settled violently, and they remember the wide, dry wastes before the mountain water was captured and put to use. Even now, the dry spaces, where the jack rabbits hop through the brush as thick as mites on a hen, are always there, waiting to take over; dryness hugs the green fields, pushing in, only the irrigation ditches keeping it at bay.

 

July was when the Tolsen trouble happened. In Utah, that’s when the dry heat is most intense. Our whole valley floor is like a spot on a piece of paper when you focus the sun on it through a glass; you feel as if, any second, it is going to brown and then smoke and then burst into flame. Around it there are the quiet mountains, cool and blue, but long, dusty roads and scrubby hills lie between them and the simmering town. The river is the single link, flowing down between dusty-leaved cottonwoods from the mountains to the people in the valley.

Not that I minded heat in those days. There was no need to be hot when, on either side of the wide streets, there was cold water, brought from the river by the town’s main ditch and diverted into smaller channels that ran along the sidewalks. It rushed constantly there, between banks lined with mint and grass. Wearing huge black bloomers and white pantywaists with the garters off, I spent most [3] of my summer days in the ditches. Main Ditch was deep and lined with stones; when I skated along it in wintertime, I could hardly see over its banks. The ditches leading from it along the streets were shallow, having perhaps a foot of water in them at the peak of the spring supply.

Each household in town had its own dam—often nothing more than a couple of broad boards with a short handle nailed to them—and its own water turn when the dam was put to use. Set across the streams in the street-side ditches, and packed in with wet turf, these dams were sufficient to turn the water onto lawns and gardens, and nothing short of a calamity could prevent a householder from putting in his dam at the proper time. Every spring, the Water Master—an official of great importance in a Utah town—provided each family with a list of Water Turns, carefully worked out. We always kept our list tacked inside the door of the kitchen cupboard.

We children followed the water like pioneers, finding what dams were in and wading in the ditches where the water was highest. We kept ourselves rosy and crisp with it. Sometimes my grandmother would go with us and put her feet into the water to cool off. I recall her saying many times that Brigham Young must have been a true prophet, because he had said that Utah was The Place right in the middle of July, when nobody would think, to look at it without water, that it would ever grow a respectable bean. It was on the twenty-fourth of July that Brigham Young made his historic pronouncement, and as far as I know not a drop of rain has ever fallen to spoil the parades, the fireworks, and the pageants that take place every year on that day.

 

The Tolsen trouble must have been on the twenty-fifth of July, because I remember Mother’s saying I couldn’t wade in the grass, which was about to be flooded, unless I first collected every burned-out sparkler that had been left on the ground the night before. So, early that morning, I was busily searching the grass for wires when I saw Bishop Petersen, whose dam was in, working with the water in his garden next door. The full stream was running into [4] it, as it would presently run into ours, for our turn followed his. His garden, like every other one in Utah, had a series of shallow furrows between the rows of vegetables, and he was damming them with chunks of turf and opening one or two at a time, so that each, in turn, received the stream. It was beautiful to see the tall green vegetables in precise lines and the moving water twinkling between them.

In half a minute, I was paddling alongside Bishop Petersen. The water in the furrows was warmer than that in the ditches, and it was glorious to feel the soft mud between my toes. And I loved to hear Bishop Petersen tell about Denmark, from which he had come as a young man. I asked him all sorts of questions to keep him talking, for his odd accent and his laughter pleased me. I recall how the robins sang and hopped down into the furrows as water darkened them and lured out long, fat worms.

Bishop Petersen said that to leave the lovely land of Denmark one had to be very certain it was to God’s Kingdom he was coming. He himself had been sure of it when he heard about the mountain water, so pure, so shining, so cold, so free. Whenever his turn came to speak at Testimony Meeting, which followed Sunday school on the first Sunday of every month, he spoke about the water. It was to him, next to the Gospel itself, the unmistakable sign of the Kingdom.

That twenty-fifth of July, he talked as usual, his white beard wobbling like an elf’s, and now and then I had to turn my back to prevent him from seeing that I was smiling. He thought that, as one descended from Danes myself, I ought to know that the crisp peas I was picking and eating were ualmindelig god (unusually good). He wanted me to repeat the phrase, but I couldn’t. The very sound of most Danish words made me giggle until I was weak. The language bristled with “g’s” and “k’s” exactly the way Bishop Petersen bristled with white whiskers. Yet goodness and kindness and excellent husbandry went along with all the things about him that made me laugh. I loved him dearly, as my parents did, and to most of us to be Danish—as to be Mormon—meant to be virtuous, kind, and of good report.

Mother came out to call me for breakfast, and she stood awhile, [5] leaning on the fence, to talk. What she said and what Bishop Petersen replied is lost to me now, but while they talked, I saw Brother Tolsen coming. He ran into the yard with so urgent and desperate a look on his usually cheerful face that even I knew at once that he was in bad trouble. “Come in now,” Mother said sharply to me. “The eggs will be cold already.”

 

By suppertime, it was known all over town that Brother Tolsen had killed a man.

“But why did he hit him like that?” Mother asked my father. “It’s not like Brother Tolsen to strike anybody. Such a gentle man!”

“Twice he had turned Brother Tolsen’s water off his fields in the night. Twice!” My father spoke with the patience of a man obliged to explain violence to a woman. “Brother Tolsen says he had no notion of hitting so hard, but he hit him with a shovel, after all. From what I hear, it struck on the edge and went over the forehead, and one eye came—”

“Finish your supper and go out to play,” Mother said to me severely, and to my father, “Is it necessary to go into those terrible details in front of the children? It’s enough to curdle their souls, the way you men tell it—as if you enjoyed it!”

It may seem an odd thing to remember, but I do remember that I was eating cottage cheese that night. It was made by my mother on the back of the stove and served in great bowls. Cream was poured over it, and there was a great, lovely red blob of jelly in the middle of it, from which one took a little chip of a jewel with every bite, eating one curd of the cheese at a time. It was a common summer supper. I also had a bowl of fresh lettuce, with cream and sugar, and I ate that slowly too, leaf by leaf.

My parents said no more about Brother Tolsen until I had finished and gone outside, but I lingered on the porch in the shadows of the Virginia creepers. I heard my father say how big my ears were—”… as big as soup ladles. She never misses a thing”—but he laughed when he said it. It was a family joke about me and my big ears, and how I was as deaf as a post when it suited me. Presently, they were talking about the killing again—how the victim’s head had [6] been bashed in and he had been found in a pool of blood near Brother Tolsen’s dam.

I remember sitting there on the porch and holding my hands up against the setting sun. Sunset was huge and red and terribly intense in July, over the western hills. Against it, I could see my own blood shining red through my skin. Heads were brimful of blood, too—I knew that from nosebleed and from teeth coming out, and from the time I hit a stump and went over the handlebars of my bicycle square onto my skull. The man Brother Tolsen had killed was not very well known to me, probably because, as Grandmother remarked, he had “fallen away from the faith” and didn’t often come to church. Now, losing the faith, I knew, was one of the greatest of sins, but murder was worse; it was the greatest sin of them all. And Brother Tolsen I knew very well indeed. He was important in our ward of the church, and I had often heard his testimony at meeting, just as I had heard Bishop Petersen’s, and in the same delightful accent. In fact, he was so good a speaker that I had heard him more than once making sermons at funerals.

I liked funerals very much then, and I find them rather stimulating now. The philosophy I learned as a child made death more fascinating than terrible. The first corpse I ever saw was the mother of one of my grade-school friends. She had died in childbirth. I had received fresh cookies from her hands a day or so before, but now she lay exactly like Snow White, like one dreaming in a lovely bed, with an infinitely small and doll-like child in the crook of her arm. I stood and gazed at her with awe and admiration.

After that I went to every funeral remotely connected with anybody I knew. They were never forbidden to me. The corpses of men and women alike were always dressed in pure white, with bright-green aprons cheerfully embroidered to look like the fig leaves of the Garden of Eden. It was perfectly reasonable to me to believe that, as I was assured, they had just stepped “through the veil between earth and heaven.” It seemed to me that they were always much handsomer than they had ever been in life, in their common house aprons or in their overalls stained with manure. I pictured them, in their clean new clothes, walking slowly westward [7] with the sun and vanishing in a tremendous scarlet smile of sunset. I had even seen something like that in the movies, so I suspected that the miracle happened not only in Utah but also in California.

When Mother told me I could not go to the funeral of the man Brother Tolsen had killed, I was devastated, especially because there were rumors that Brother Tolsen himself would attend. He had been in jail a few hours and then had been released to attend to his work until the trial. He had a big family and a farm, and goodness only knew, people said, what would happen to them if he had to spend the rest of the summer in the jail.

“But Mother—” I cried, over and over.

“No! Absolutely not!” she said each time. She knew full well, of course, that I had a morbid interest in seeing a corpse with its head bashed in, and also that I wanted to enjoy the spectacle of a man going to the funeral of someone he had knocked headlong “through the veil” with a shovel.

In the end, I was not only forbidden to go, I was even given a neighbor’s baby to tend, and in agony of spirit I saw Mother and Dad and Grandmother and just about everybody else in town go marching off to the dead man’s house. No sooner were they gone, however, than I bundled the baby into his buggy and pushed him rapidly to that street. There I could at least see all the people standing around in the yard silent and serious, and I thought I might catch a glimpse of Brother Tolsen coming or going. Back and forth I walked, back and forth, pushing the buggy in the heat, envying the people as they filed slowly into the house and slowly out again after viewing the remains.

And then I really did see Brother Tolsen. Walking with his wife and oldest son, he passed so close to me on the sidewalk that he would have brushed against me if I had not drawn the buggy quickly off onto the grass. He nodded to me but did not smile, and I thought he appeared much as he always did when he went to church. People looked down at their shoes as he entered the dead man’s gate, but when he moved along the walk toward the house, many stepped forward and greeted him. Between the gate and the porch, he must have stopped to shake hands twenty times. The front door opened [8] and he went inside, and I found myself standing with my stomach pressed against the fence to watch. I could hear a breeze of comment among the people nearest me.

“It won’t be easy for him to see Lena today.”

“She knows it was an accident.”

“But how can she believe her own husband would steal water?”

Presently, Brother Tolsen and his wife and son came out of the house. This time he did not pause to shake the hand of anyone but walked quickly from the yard. Then the door of the house remained closed for a while, and most of the people started toward the church, a few blocks away. When Mother and Dad and Grandmother came out of the yard, I began to push the buggy toward home, but I turned back as soon as they were out of sight. The hearse and a leading car, filled with flowers, were waiting in front of the house, and nobody was going to deny me a sight of the coffin.

I heard someone say “Poor Lena!” and the door opened again. Lena is still, to me, a vision of total sorrow. She leaned forward as she walked after the coffin, doubled over like a person with a violent stomachache. She was dressed in heavy black, with a black veil, and I think now how hot she must have been on that blistering day. After she had been carried off in a car that followed the hearse, the people who were left went away, and the whole house and yard looked empty and bedraggled. I walked back and forth, staring in. On the path, just inside the gate, lay one red rose, but I only looked at it. I wouldn’t any more have touched it than I would have stirred my finger in a pool of blood.

Poor Lena! I knew that since her husband had fallen away from the faith she could never get much glory in the next world. Even if he had not been a water-thief, he wouldn’t have done her much good in heaven. In the Mormon church, every man can aspire to some sort of ordination—every small boy of any virtue whatever is a Deacon and can go on to be a Priest and an Elder and a Teacher and a High Priest and all sorts of important-sounding things. But a woman has no Priesthood and must depend on her husband to take her to The Highest Degree. I visualized dazzling marble steps stretching up and up to the throne of God himself, with winged [9] people arranged thereon according to their just deserts.

Not once, as I recall, did I think Poor Brother Tolsen! The two figures are clear in my mind. Brother Tolsen had looked sad but very straight and dignified as he walked into the house where the corpse lay, shaking hands with his Brethren as he went. Sister Lena, stooping and wild, had hidden her face in her handkerchief as she was led away. Later, I heard some talk of “poor Lena,” who was “young yet, after all” and “should marry a real believer,” but after the funeral I never laid eyes on her again, though I often rode my bicycle past her house, and looked and looked.

The next thing I remember about the Tolsen case is walking after school with my best friend, Carol. We went past the courthouse, where we knew the jury was being selected, and there were those great piles of bloody rabbits’ ears on the courthouse lawn, being counted. The hunters were always divided into two teams, and the losers had to give the winners what was called a Rabbit Supper. I learned later, with relief, that they did not eat the ears, or even the jack rabbits, but had chicken pies at the church, cooked by the women of the Relief Society. Nevertheless, those piles of ears I see to this day.

That night there was talk at our supper table, and on the porch afterward, about how difficult it had been to find jurors “without prejudice.” The trial itself lasted only three short afternoons. At home, it was discussed freely, and the talk consisted mostly of repeating what character witnesses had said. There had been no witness to the killing itself, and Brother Tolsen had given up at once to the authorities: first to his bishop, which was entirely proper in all eyes, and then—in company with Bishop Petersen—to the sheriff. As for Lena, she did not come to the trial at all, but was said to have disappeared into that vast place where there were yellow streetcars, blue-coated policemen, a shining capitol building, and a merry-goround in Liberty Park—Great Salt Lake City.

 

Almost all that was left to be done after the character witnesses were through was to hear the simple story told by Brother Tolsen himself and repeated in the town with nods of understanding and [10] respect. His friends and neighbors considered him innocent of any real wrongdoing, and in this the jury soon concurred. I remember Dad repeating the words of somebody who had been very important at the trial—probably Brother Tolsen’s lawyer. “If a thief enters a man’s own house in the night and means to rob him of all he has, all his clothing and all his food, thereby meaning to take the very lives of his wife and his little children—then what shall that householder do? Would his actions be judged as malice aforethought? Is it not true that he who steals water is stealing life itself?”

It was a joyful thing for Brother Tolsen’s friends to see him at home again, and they have all been safer because of him. There has been no water-stealing that I have heard of in that valley since.

One other memory remains. I recall an evening, months after the trial was over, when my parents and I were driving along the road where his fields lay and saw Brother Tolsen working with the little streams that were running among his young corn. Dad and Mother waved and called to him. He lifted an arm to answer, and I saw that he held a shovel in the other hand. “I wonder if he bought a new shovel,” I said suddenly.

For a minute, the air seemed to have gone dead about us, in the peculiar way it sometimes can, which is so puzzling to a child. Then Mother turned to me angrily. “Don’t you ever let me hear you say a thing like that again!” she said. “Brother Tolsen is a good, kind man!”

So until this very hour I never have.