Laxness Flees to France

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After I described my meeting with Ulga, Valdi said, “I had another daughter. “ She was killed in a car accident. It’s her daughter who is at university in Saskatchewan.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I never knew what to say when faced with people’s tragedies. I’m sorry seemed so inadequate. “I lost my handkerchief.” I’m sorry. “I lost my entire family in a car accident.” I’m sorry. There just aren’t gradations that express the enormity of people’s loss. Trivial, tragic, the response is all the same. “What happened?”

“Drunk driver coming from a stag. Head on.”

Now that he mentioned it, I remembered my mother telling me about it over the phone. But I was busy at the time, taking a course, teaching, being married, helping with extra-curricular activities, trying to do research and write, attending fiction and poetry readings to make connections. It was a long time ago. Valdi was a friend of my parents because he’d been a friend of my grandparents. He occasionally dropped by my parents’ place for coffee on a weekend. He was big, opinionated and loud. And entertaining. In reply to the news, I said something like “That’s too bad.” My mother said, “We’ll put your name on the sympathy card.” When she hung up, I went off to give a reading with three other aspiring writers. I wasn’t being callous. I hardly knew Valdi and I’d never met his daughter.

Valdi heard from my parents that I was trying to get published. My parents had said that I should talk to him if I wanted to know about the history of the area. I’d made a note of their suggestion but then my life went to hell with my wife deciding to find herself. She’d started taking a Women’s Study course about the subjugation of women. She took it personally. Even though she had her own car, her own job and we already split the housekeeping and yard work.

She’d announced that she wasn’t going wash dishes anymore. It was a mark of subjugation. We had negotiations worthy of the United Nations before we got to washing dishes on alternate weeks. The first week I loaded the dishwasher and unloaded it. When her week came up, she arrived from Walmart with a supply of foam dishes that could be used once and thrown out. She wasn’t into the environment yet. The Great Bear Rainforest was still to come. We washed our own clothes. The sheets were a problem. We settled on my washing the top sheet and her washing the bottom sheet. Her major function in life, I discovered, was to avoid being exploited.

She’d come home and belabour the fact that women in some country in Africa spent six hours a day pounding maize into flour for lazy husbands who sat around drinking beer. That girls in some Muslim countries were forced to get married at six. That women in India were gang raped. I was appalled by what I heard. I agreed, there was a war on women but I wasn’t one of the enemy soldiers. She got really wound up about these things and lectured me about them, shouted the information, made it sound like I was a lazy husband drinking beer instead of a high school teacher coping with classes that were too large, problem students, extra-curricular supervision, grading essays, a principal who shuffled around trying to placate any complaining student. His favorite words were, “We’ll find a solution.” He repeated it so much that the students and faculty called him We’ll Find A Solution Joe.

She gnashed her teeth, glared at me, even pounded her fist on the kitchen table so hard it made the morning coffee spill. She dropped our friends and brought new ones home. Her new friends all wore blue jeans, had studs, spiky hair and demanded to know why she was sleeping with the enemy. Some afternoons when I got home after supervising football, she and her friends would be sitting in the back yard in a circle around the BBQ beating tom toms. They chanted. I thought they were mocking Hollywood Indians. When I said so, I thought her arms and legs would fly off. They were, she informed me, finding their true spirit, their primitive selves. They were, I said, beating tom toms in a suburban back yard and annoying the hell out of our neighbours. Get enough complaints and our landlord would kick us out.

I tried to explain this to Valdi but he didn’t understand. He and his wife ran the farm together. She drove the grain truck sixteen hours a day during harvest. He drove the threshing machine. Sometimes she drove the threshing machine. He drove the truck. They worked like buggers. Neither was a slacker, nor a theorizer. Neither of them sat in the Student Union Building and pontificated over glasses of wine. When prices for wheat fell, they decided to change to beans and spices. They each owned half the farm because it was half their blood, sweat and tears went into it.

“A good marriage,” he said, “means you work together for a common goal. No competing, no trying to slack off so the other person has more work to do. No taking advantage of kindness. You put the other person first. You watch out for them, protect them. If necessary, die for them.”

“You were older when you got married.” I was feeling like a failure.

“It helps,” he replied. “When you are making important decisions, it’s good to be grown up. When you’re young, it’s all tits and ass.”

“You said,” I reminded him, “that a buck doesn’t check out a doe’s IQ when he’s chasing her across a field.”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “It’s true. But after six months, you’ve tried all the positions you can think of. From then on it is going to be a lot of repetition. She wakes up one morning and you’re asleep and she looks at you and thinks who is this? You are snoring, you haven’t shaved, brushed your hair or teeth. And she realizes she has no idea who you are. It happens to everyone. Mary said six months after we got married, she woke up, looked at me and thought I looked like a mistake. It’s like you have to get married all over again. To the real person. Did you get married to the real person?”

I squirmed. I’d seen Jasmine at a folk dance. She was wearing a loose, flimsy dress from some exotic place, Bulgaria or Serbia or something. It was a warm summer’s evening. She and a group she was with were dancing to some guy playing a flute. He had a red bandana wrapped around his head and was wearing a black vest. A young woman with him was beating a large drum. She was in a billowy green dress with an embroidered vest. Every so often she’d blow a whistle that she held between her lips. The dancers had their arms linked and were doing a coordinated shuffle. Every third beat, they’d shout. Jasmine was the last in the line. As she went past, she reached out and grabbed my hand and the next thing I knew I was shuffling along, watching her feet, trying to move my feet in time to hers. We were doing a simple, village dance but it didn’t feel simple to me. Side, over, step, bend, stand up, shout.

Jasmine’s hand was hot and sweaty. She wasn’t wearing a bra and her breasts swayed as we moved. Her nipples pressed against the cloth of her bodice. She might or might not have been wearing panties under her dress. She had a dancer’s body. Lithe, quick, and when the temp of the dance quickened and she pulled my hand down so that our shoulders were pressed together, I could smell lilac. I’m a sucker for lilac. My mother had lilacs growing at the bottom of the front steps. The smell when they were blooming was erotic, exotic, full of sunshine and summer.

The next dance was too fast for someone who didn’t know the steps. The dancers raced in circles in a line, their feet a blur of motion. The music stopped and the musicians took a break. I’d watched Jasmine jiggle and bounce her way through the dance and thought I want some of that. I was like Valdi’s buck chasing a doe. I didn’t know her IQ and didn’t care. It wasn’t the outlines of her IQ that I was looking at through her dress.

I was teaching high school. The grade twelve girls were serious trouble. They flirted. They knew what they were doing. They didn’t want anything to happen but they were at that age when sexual power consumed them. Watch me wiggle. Watch me bend over. Watch me. Watch me. Instead, I looked at the blackboard, the ceiling, never let my eyes go lower than their chins.

Jasmine came over and said, “Hi. I haven’t seen you around before. There are some slow dances coming up. Join the line and watch the feet of the person beside you.” Then she wandered away to talk to the other dancers and have a drink.

I tried six more dances before the party was over. We were in the city square and I thought maybe she would walk away by herself and I could slip in beside her, chat to her as she walked home. Instead, when the music stopped, she said, “If you want to folk dance, come to the Y on Mondays. There’s a class we all go to.” Then she skipped away, joined her friends and they raced down the street. Folk dancers, I thought, never walk. They’re too revved up.

Mondays. The Y. Folk dance lessons. I sat in my truck outside the Y trying to decide whether or not to go inside. I remembered what Jasmine looked like as she danced. Bounce, bounce, shimmy, shimmy. I was ready to chase her across any field. Pretty, blonde, shorter than me, blue eyes. Lilac scent. I went inside, paid the fee. There were fifteen students and a male instructor. It was all business. The instructor stood with his back to us. Watched us in the mirror in front of him. He showed us how to do a step called a grapevine. We went through it to the right, to the left, back to the right. Here’s a tough one, he said. Skip, hop. We all laughed. Jasmine obviously knew all the steps. She was wearing a peasant blouse and skirt.

She smiled at me. When we took a break, I went over and said, “Hi.” And she said, “You decided to come.” I blushed and didn’t know what to say so I retreated to a drink machine and got myself a cold pop.

At the end of the class, she said, “We’re going to a restaurant to dance to a live band. Why don’t you come with us.”

I was being included. That was a start. Sometimes a chase is filled with stops and starts, changes of direction.

We went, I danced any dance slow enough for me to follow. For the first time in my life, I held men’s hands as I danced. When I felt myself tighten up, I said to myself, I guess I am a bit homophobic even though I sometimes sat with the gay physics teacher in the staff room. A girlfriend would protect me from any speculation.

I tried to dance my way into Jasmine’s bed. I asked her to help me with complicated steps. I gave her a stake in my success. She finally invited me to her apartment to practice one of the few dances that was a couple’s dance. Most were line dances, circle dances. Her apartment was small, definitely alternative, posters of Balkan cities, camel bags. It was one room with a bathroom. The brass had peeled off parts of her brass bed. She was a university student. We worked at the dance. It was the kind where you had your leg between your partner’s legs, where you held your partner pressed against you, where thirty seconds into the first step you couldn’t  help but have an erection. Then we practiced some Greek hisopiko because after class the coming week our group was going for supper and dancing at a Greek café.

We sweated. I kept drying my hands by rubbing my palms on the sides of my pants. Jasmine microwaved frozen lasagna and poured bagged salad into two bowls. That should have been a warning but the dancing had shut off all my circuit breakers. “I don’t do food,” she said. We ate sitting on the two stools in front of her arborite covered counter. “I don’t type. I don’t make coffee. I don’t want to be anybody’s slave.”

When we had finished, she said, “Do you want to fuck me?” She was scooping ice cream into two red plastic bowls.

I was struck dumb When she handed me my ice cream with a plastic spoon she had scooped from Tim Horton’s, I said, “Yes.”

“Why?” she asked.

That stumped me. It was what I felt, not what I thought. What a question. How do you answer it? “Because you are very sexy. When you move, I want to grab hold of you.”

“Just once or lots of times? Lots of guys want to do it once and then they get scared and run away.”

“Lots,” I said. She licked ice cream off her spoon. Her tongue was a pale pink and her pale blue eyes never left my face.

“Do you want to feel my breasts?”

Under the interrogation I had been starting to lose my erection. It wasn’t gone but it was at half-mast. She was wearing a blue flowered gauzy blouse with blue buttons. It was cinched by the belt of her skirt. She undid the buttons and pulled the blouse to either side of her breasts. I missed my mouth with my plastic spoon and stabbed my upper lip. She leaned over and licked the ice cream off my upper lip. I would have put my hands on her breasts but I was still holding the spoon and dish. I put them onto the counter.

We went to her bed and lay on top of the quilt. She wasn’t wearing any panties. The phone rang. She reached over and picked it up. She rolled toward the phone. “That bastard,” she said. “I’ll be right there.” She stood up, shook down her skirt, buttoned her blouse. “My sister. That bastard of a husband. Men are pricks.”

I was standing on the front door step in just over a minute. “Thanks for the dance lesson,” I yelled after her.

I told Valdi some of this. I held my head in my hands part of the time.

“Three weeks later, after her sister had moved out and left her husband  she asked me back for another dance lesson. She microwaved lasagna. I brought a home made salad. Fresh red pepper, baby spinach, avocado, English cucumber, oil and vinegar dressing in a container. It was an omen but I wasn’t watching.”

“Laxness got a farm girl pregnant,” Valdi said.  “He abandoned her. He fledt to France. I think that’s why he decided to become Catholic. She was six years older than him but he’d chased her around the farm yard until he caught her. He decided to go into a monastery. What a good place to hide if you’ve knocked up a girl. The monks told him that he wasn’t responsible for what happened.”

I squirmed because as Valdi told me this, I was remembering that my father had, after I became an adolescent, constantly repeated if I got a girl pregnant I had to marry her. That was what had happened to him. I was the constant reminder of  his mistake. He hadn’t had an abbey to hide in. Jasmine was finishing a master’s degree in sociology, had a prescription for birth control pills, was not absent minded so when she informed me she was pregnant, I’d said, “You can’t be. Are you sure? Can’t you take the after-morning pill?”

“Too late,” she’d said. “That after-morning was some time ago.”

“An abortion?”

“Don’t be a jerk. Are you saying, I’m good enough to hump but not good enough to marry?”

I should have found an abbey. I should have retreated to some place to sleep and eat and pray and forget about how Jasmine looked when she shimmied in a harem outfit. Instead, we had a small civil wedding. My mother was disappointed. My father said good, no big wedding, now we can afford to go to Hawaii for a holiday like we’d planned.  He gave me two thousand dollars and patted me on the shoulder. Jasmine’s parents sent a Dollar Store card and a fifty dollar Starbuck’s card from Fredericton. We had a folk dance party at a local restaurant.

I discovered this doe was smart, had an IQ off the Richter Scale, liked to play chess on Saturday mornings. “I eat microwave,” she said. “I haven’t got time to cook. You want Mom, go back home.” We settled on each of us cooking for ourself. Dancing was good, sex was good, hiking was good. Going to movies was good. She ate meals if I made enough for two but I didn’t do it regularly because I didn’t want to be used, either. I, too, ate microwaved food as a defense against domestic slavery.

“Maybe you should become a Catholic like Laxness,” Valdi said. “You want to write. You go into a monastery. You’re not getting any sex anyway. A room, three meals a day. No charge. Every so often, you join the monks in prayer. You’re always saying you have no time to write. Too much grading to do, too many lesson plans, too many parent-teacher nights.”

“After I’ve collected all the material,” I countered. “I’ll apply for a Canada Council grant.”

“Kiljan would never have sacrificed his writing. He was a real writer.”

Kiljan. His name was Halldor, with an accent over the o but when he was baptized a Catholic in 1923, he chose the name Kiljan Marie Pierre Laxness. Kiljan. An Irish saint’s name. Nice name, more musical than Halldor. He was that kind of person. Went out and reinvented himself. He admired Irish writers. I admired Russian writers: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol, but I couldn’t imagine giving myself a Russian name. The Interlake was thick with Ukrainians. In spite of the RCMP and CIA being unable to tell the difference, there was no love lost between them. With a Russian name, I’d get no invitation to dinner when I visited a Ukrainian farm. No perogis for me.

“You said you didn’t have a kid together.”

“We were married a month when she had a miscarriage.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Valkyrie disses Laxness

 

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Hulga turned up at my door looking like a Valkyrie. Five foot six maybe, brunette hair going gray, eyes like flashing lights and a tightness of the skin under her nose that presaged unpleasant things to come. If Valdi was now close to 90, his daughter would be around fifty four.

If I remembered correctly, he said Mary had their daughter a year after they got married. There wasn’t any hanky panky wtih Mary in the hay before the trip to the altar. Given Valdi’s predilection for hot babes, I was surprised but he’d explained it by saying that after he’d gone to the drugstore six times to ask Mary for help in locating items, she’d said yes to going with him to the local Icelandic dinner and dance but she was not going with him to his hayloft or the back of his pickup truck or to his bedroom. He had a reputation. She said if he wasn’t serious to quit wasting her time because she had lots of other offers.

She was, Valdi told me, gorgeous, fantastic, and while she worked there, the drug store had an unusual number of single men and some married ones wanting her help and advice. She mostly played it straight, never indicating there might be any ulterior motive in their wanting to know where the toothpaste was shelved. Stunning, voluptuous, he said, and he put his hands out as if to cup them around her breasts.

“Was she smart?” I asked.

“Smart? Smart! I wasn’t’ interested in smart. Do you think a bee asks if a flower is smart? Do you think a buck chasing a doe across the field wants the doe to take an IQ test?”

“She wasn’t interested unless you were serious, if you were serious, you could end up living with her for the rest of your life. What if she was as dumb as a post?”

“You think too much,” he said, and shook his head. “No wonder you are single.”

“Separated.”

“Are you spending any time in your wife’s bed?”

“No,” I replied somewhat testily.

“Single. Have you got a girlfriend?”

“If I had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t have time to come to visit you and to do research for my book.”

“There is more to life than writing a book.”

“Once is enough. “

“I didn’t give up farming just because sometimes my crop got hailed out.”

Anyway, the result of Mary’s agreeing to hanky pank once they were married was standing in front of me. Librarians were supposed to be modest, self-effacing, quiet. She said, in a loud voice, angrily, “You could have killed my father. You lame brained idiot. Taking a man in a wheelchair into the countryside in winter.”

I was torn. I was embarrassed that everyone on my floor could hear her because she was in the hallway. She would be muted by if she were in my apartment but I wasn’t sure that I wanted her in my apartment. She settled the question by brushing past me. If I hadn’t stepped aside, she’d have knocked me over.  Head down ready for a head butt, shoulders braced, she reminded me of nothing so much as a snowplough. She stopped at the end of the short hallway, now that she’d charged past me, not sure where to go.

I didn’t offer her a seat. Not that it would have mattered. If she’d wanted to sit, she’d have sat. “You, you,” she said, exasperated, jabbing an index finger at me, “how dare you? I don’t know what you think you are doing but whatever it is, quit. Quit pestering my father. I’ve told the people at the nursing home, you are not allowed to see him.”

“I’m just doing research,” I said but I might as well not have said anything.

She clasped and unclasped her hands and I thought she was going to take a run at me. I looked to the side to see if I could grab a cushion off the couch so I could fend her off without hitting her. It was an IKEA couch. It didn’t have any cushions. It had a futon that folded up and down depending on whether one was sitting on it or lying down on it.

“Research! What kind of research? Two idiots in a van on a country side road in December. Taking a ninety year old man on a Skidoo.”

“That wasn’t me,” I protested.

“Don’t deny it. If you hadn’t decided to take him exploring this wouldn’t have happened. Who do you think your are, the Franklin Expedition?”

“Laxness,” I said in my own defence. “He called me. He said…”

She cut me off with a look of fury. “Laxness. I don’t want to  hear any more about Laxness. A two bit writer from a country so small that it’s not even the size of a suburb.”

“You’re Icelandic.” I was outraged. Iceland may have a small population but it punches way over its weight.

“I am not.” She pointed her finger at me again and pressed her lips together. “I am fourth generation Canadian. I was born in Canada. I don’t even make vinarterta.”

There are some things you can say and some things you can’t. Vinarterta is to people of Icelandic descent what peroghis are to Ukrainians. Vinarterta is a seven layered prune torte that is a symbol of all things Icelandic. Well, not Icelandic in the sense of Iceland today. In Iceland, they’d quit making, forgot what it was, but in the Icelandic Canadian communities, it was revered. No social occasion could be a success without it. Even men learned to make it. There were vinarterta baking bees. Vinarterta were auctioned off at fund raisers. No good hostess would consider serving coffee without a plateful of sliced vinarterta.

I restrained myself. After all, she was Valdi’s daughter. “That’s your loss,” I said. “Would you like some coffee and kliener?”

“Kliener,” she yelled as if I’d stuck her with a sharp object. I backed up. “Kleiner. Icelandic donuts. Is that all you  people think about are your stomachs? Grossly overweight, potbellied vinarterta, kleiner, rullupylsa gobblers.”

“I’m not overweight,” I said sharply.

She looked me up and down and found nothing to approve of. “You’re young. You’ll soon by like all the others. A few more vinartertas and no one will be able to tell you from a seal.”

“I run every day. I go to the gym twice a week. You aren’t exactly slim.”

She was used to dishing it out. She obviously didn’t spend much time looking in the mirror. Her fury had undone her hair so it had started to stick out in places.  He face turned purple at my mention of her not being slim.

“You will not get the farm. You will not trick a poor old man with dementia into signing over everything he owns.”

I didn’t know which I was more enraged about, the describing Valdi as a poor old man with dementia or me as a horrible person trying to take advantage of him.

Even though she was old enough to be my mother, I shouted, “Out. That does it. Out.” And I stepped toward her and put my hands in front of me as if to push her. I didn’t touch her but she backed up and once I got her moving, I kept her moving . She kept trying to say something but her rage made her sputter and I kept shouting out, out and pushed forward until she turned around and fled out the door. In the hallway, she stopped, turned around to face me.

“I’ll go to the police,” she yelled. “Elder abuse.”

I shut the door and locked it. Then I fell onto the couch. I had no allies. Valdi had a granddaughter but she was in Saskatchewan at university. If she was like her aunt, there was no point asking for her help. I realized that my heart was beating faster than usual. I felt like I’d just survived an accident. His daughter was wicked, he’d warned me, but I’d thought he exaggerated. Hell on wheels, he’d said, the devil in bloomers, although she didn’t appear to be the bloomers type.

This book I was working on was important. It was my path to freedom. I had been teaching high school for eleven years. My hair was thinning and my nerves were frayed. No discipline was allowed and everyone got passing grades. If students complained, they got an A. The principal had recently explained that even if a student turned in no work, they still should pass the course. He’d taken down the large framed picture where our top students were honored. There were to be no distinctions made because distinctions hurt people’s feelings. However, he didn’t mind making distinctions among the teachers. It wasn’t do your own thing there, like come late, don’t bother to teach a class, be rude. If he’d had his way, we’d have lined up outside the front door every morning and kissed the students’ asses as they wandered in. Since some were still wandering in half way through the morning, we would have needed knee pads.

The book. The portal to a better life. There might be the opportunity to teach non-fiction at a local college but a scrapbook of articles wasn’t enough. It was good. But I needed a book. A book would bring the program prestige. It would give me credibility. A friend of mine taught in the English department there and acted as my spy. He fed me inside information. He was a nerd, had hair that always looked frightened, wore a suit jacket that was two sizes too big but which he’d got for a great price on sale, pants that folded over his shoes but they hadn’t hired him as a fashion statement. He had a book of short stories and a novel published. They were with a local publisher but that didn’t matter. It gave him the bona fides. People took his pronouncements seriously.

Instead of thirty hours a week of teaching with classes of thirty to thirty-five students, it was impossible to know for sure how many students in a class because students wandered in and out at will and the class lists were always being changed as the students shopped for the most entertaining teacher. The male students gravitated to classes given by young, attractive female teachers. They did not describe their classes as Chemistry or Physics or English but as Hot, Hotter and Hottest. They were at the age where they followed their dicks everywhere. Some of those who were in a relationship necked with their girlfriends at the back of the room. The girls were into their friendships. Packs of them rotated in and out of the washroom, putting on makeup, gossiping, smoking some dope. When going past you needed industrial earmuffs to protect your hearing from all the squealing.

I was trying to teach Pride and Prejudice, the humor of it, the intricate structure, the themes, the different kinds of marriages demonstrated and some blonde with too much makeup, her hair bright green, no bra and platform shoes that looked like stilts, raised her hand and said, “Mr. Kristjansson (that’s me) do you think Elizabeth was frigid?”

I’d resorted to pills. White pills, then blue pills, then white pills again. One before I left in the morning, one at noon and one before I went to bed at night. On a really bad day when someone threw a television through a window because he’d learned his girlfriend was getting it on with one of his friends, I took a pill right then and there. These kids drove Porches, Mercedes, the kind of cars the teachers couldn’t afford. They wouldn’t go to a college. They were destined for university. They were destined to become CEOs, political leaders.

Laxness would give me an edge. There would be other contenders for this job, if and when it was advertised. There were other people writing non-fiction books. None of them would have a chapter on a Nobel Prize winner. Maybe, just maybe, because of the connection, the book would get translated into Icelandic. That would carry clout, would draw admiring glances, would promote sales. I would have published in a foreign language.

I sometimes lay on my bed at night fantasizing about the book being accepted. “Mr. Kristjansson, this is a brilliant book. We have a contract all made up. We’ll start looking for co-publishers right away.” Sometimes this fantasy publisher would say “immediately” instead of “right away.” I saw myself receiving an award and me, modestly, accepting it. I saw myself teaching fifteen hours a week to workshops of fifteen students who wanted to learn to write, who chose to be in the class. Sometimes, I stared at the ceiling and said out loud, as if God needed things said out loud, “It’s not so much to ask.”

I wished I hadn’t got off on the wrong foot with Valdi’s daughter, Hulga or Ulga. I wasn’t sure of her name. When I’d mentioned Laxness, she’d reacted. That meant she knew who he was, she had heard stories about him. Maybe if, in a few days, I called her to apologize, to say I was sorry, that I had no idea the road would be so bad, maybe I could sneak out of her what she had heard about Laxness. I should not, I told myself, think of her as Valdi’s daughter but as a source.  Writers did absurd things to get information from their sources.  They flattered, they bribed, they eavesdropped, they manipulated. I cringed and blushed with embarrassment. I stared at the ceiling and thought about how badly I wanted to change jobs.

When I went to the nursing home, Valdi said, “Hell on Wheels.” His adventure had perked him up. He was using a walker. He’d refused to use a walker until now. It was, he said, the humiliation of being old. It was a step down from a cane, even from the wheelchair. He was making compromises, something he wasn’t good at, but when you want something badly enough, you made deals with the devil. He figured if he could use the walker, he could go back to the farm once the snow was gone. His walker needed to be taller so he didn’t have to bend over it.

“It’s got moveable feet,” I said. “Sit down.”

I turned the walker upside down. There were holes in the legs and pins that fitted into the holes. I pushed the pin in, moved the leg down as far as it would go, then did the same with the other three legs.  I gave him back the walker and he was able to stand up straight.

“Thanks,” he said. That made me suspicious. He had a hard time saying thanks. If I did something for him, it was usually acknowledged with a grunt.

“She thinks I’m sucking up to you so you’ll sign your property over to me. I’ll get your bank accounts. The whole shmear.”

“Not a chance,” he said. “You’ve got a job. Even if your wife ran you through the wringer, you’ve got a paycheck coming in every month. Work ten months and get paid for twelve.”

“The payment,” I said, “is for ten months work. We just agreed to spread it over twelve months because some people aren’t good at saving and come July and August, they have no money.”

“Nobody paid me when I didn’t work,” he said, then he veered back to his daughter. “I know Mary didn’t cheat on me so either the devil slipped into bed during the night or Ulga is  a throwback to some earlier ancestor.”

“I’m not trying to get your farm or your money. I teach school. I write. I’ve been asking you to help me with information. Do you want that information to die when you kick the bucket?”

I had him there. He’d heard that I was working on a book about the area and had contacted me. He was a Wickipedia of the Interlake, that vast area in Manitoba between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. Much of it was marginal land. A lot was swamp that grew nothing but cattails. There were sections of good soil deposited by the glaciers as they melted. They also left behind stones, vast fields of stones that had to be picked up and moved to the side of a field so they wouldn’t dull or break a plough. The job was never ending. A field was cleared and the next winter, the frost would force up more stones so the whole job would have to be done again. Every farm had piles of stones, brought from who knows what distance. Every person who’d grown up in the area had stone boat stories, endless days of following a horse or a tractor pulling a wooden sled onto which they put stones. A lot of these stones, pink, white, grey, red, black, were boulders requiring two people to lift them. Lifting stones was like a hard-labour sentence for some unknown crime. As soon as they were old enough, most of the kids fled to the city.

Valdi had parceled out his information. He knew about families, about feuds, about scandals, about deals, about crimes, about triumphs, about love affairs. He hadn’t written it down. It was all in his large head  with its shaggy white hair. He knew about Laxness. He had the inside dope. I’d realized, after a time, that he was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want to reveal any secrets but on the other hand he was afraid that he’d die and no one would ever  know the passion and the pain that had existed in these isolated places.

We were having coffee in the dining room. Coffee and cookies or cake were available all day long. A lot of the residents were Icelandic and Icelanders were notoriously addicted to their coffee. Coffee came to Iceland in 1703. It was as much part of their self-image as vinarterta. I’d brought a plate of cookies to the table, filled two cups, found a metal creamer with some cream left in it, and set it down in between us. In the hallway, some of the residents were bowling. An attendant had set up pins in the hallway and another was helping individuals to roll a ball down the hallway to knock down the pins. It was a good nursing home. The staff worked hard at keeping the residents entertained. They hugged them a lot.

“She said I mustn’t visit you,” I said. “She told the staff I’m not to bother you.”

“I’m still all here,” he said. “When I’m not, I want you to take me to the harbour and push me down a loading chute. Drowning’s not a bad way to go.” He was, I knew, more afraid of that, of becoming like many of the residents, no longer knowing where they were, or who they were. There was a woman in the home whom he’d admired for her writing. She’d been a historian. She walked up and down the halls holding onto a book she’d written. When he’d say hello to her, she’d say, “I’m carrying this book around but I don’t know why.” She was always cold and even in summer, she wore a red toque. No one ever came to see her. His large hand enclosed the coffee cup in front of him. He had a mug in his room that held two cups of coffee but we’d forgotten it. I thought he might tighten his hand and crush the cup. Instead, he took his hand away and picked up the cup between his thumb and index finger and raised his pinky in mock politeness. “You come whenever you want. She’s not my keeper.”

 

 

 

Laxness nearly remembered

laxness3

Chapter 4

Valdi had sung with the area choir as long as his knees held out but when it became too painful to stand, he left the choir to join the audience. The choir master would have arranged a chair for him so that he only had to stand when he was singing but Valdi said no, there’s a time when you have to let an old bull go to pasture. At the nursing home, he was willing to join the motley crew that turned up on Saturday nights to entertain. He’d stand with one hand on the arm of his wheel chair. There was a thrill among the residents when one of their own stood up to perform.

His interests were unashamedly local. He might occasionally watch an NHL game but he took no great pleasure in it. Instead, he preferred to attend local hockey games where he knew the grandfathers and fathers of the players. He would much rather have talked about the local players, discussing their skating and stick handling, than some over paid person he knew nothing about. A player on the Midget hockey team was of more interest to him than the star forward of the Winnipeg Jets. He only followed the NHL closely during the years when Reggie Leach, the Riverton Rifle, was playing in the big leagues.

I visited Gimli in the winter but not as often as in the summer. The highways were often blurred with drifting snow, there was ice, cars frequently stuck in the roadside snowbanks, temperatures that with wind chill were minus forty.

He had my phone number and, from time to time, he’d phone me. “Are you coming to Gimli?” he’d demand.

“The roads are bad,” I’d say.

“You’ve got snow tires. What’s the use of paying to have snow tires if you don’t use them?”

“The RCMP have issued a weather warning.”

“It’s a good day for chess. Besides, that cute nurse that flirted with you last time is going to be on duty. You know, the one who plaits her hair.”

“She did not flirt with me.”

“She did. She did everything but pat your bum. She’s separated, she’s hot. A real man would invite her over to the hotel for a drink. It’s just across the street. There are lots of empty rooms. They don’t cost much. Don’t be cheap.”

I waited to hear why he was trying to tempt me to risk my life driving sixty miles when the RCMP were saying stay off the highways.

“The Wolves are playing tonight. I haven’t been out of this bloody prison for three weeks. You need to get out. There’s more to life than lesson plans and correcting papers.”

“The game will be canceled. The other team won’t come.”

“They’re here,” he replied. “They’re not wimps.”

“If they go into the ditch, they can pick up the car and carry it back onto the road.”

“I remembered some things about Laxness.”

“It can wait.”

“I’ll forget. My memory is getting very bad.”

Sometimes, I went in spite of the weather. I knew when he called like that he was pretty desperate. He and I would go to the hockey game and he’d watch from behind the glass and wire windows but I knew that something had happened, he’d got bad news from his doctor or his daughter had phoned.  Or both. Other times when he called, he’d want me to drive him out to the farm. His longing for the farm was like an ache that couldn’t be cured.

He’d sold off his animals but he refused to sell the farm. In spite of everything he held onto the buildings and the land. His daughter had tried to persuade him, even threatened to take over as Power of Attorney and sell it in spite of him but he’d fought back, enlisted his lawyer, insisted on taking a mental competency test. As he said, failing knees and failing kidneys didn’t mean a failing mind.  Although it made no sense, he still hoped for a miracle. His daughter went back to her library in a huff.

The house sat empty. He paid for the grass to be cut, allowed a neighbour to use the garden, rented out his fields. The barn and toolshed still housed his equipment.  At first when we’d go to the farm, he’d asked for my help getting onto the tractor, the combine, the grain truck but in the last few visits, he hadn’t attempted  climbing up. When we visited, I usually stayed near the door as he moved around the shed using a cane, talking to the machines as if they were animals, patted them,  ran his hand lovingly along them. When we visited his shop, he touched the welder, the lathe, the saw, stood beside them lost in thought. We never went in the house. That had been his wife’s domain.

I drove a ten year old Ford van. It worked out just fine.  He could get into the passenger seat. I could put his wheelchair in the back.

When I was in Gimli and stayed overnight, I usually stayed with friends who had a single bed in one corner of the basement.  Most of the time it was covered in boxes and clothes. I just moved them onto the floor and went to sleep. In spite of Valdi’s saying the hotel wasn’t expensive, it was, at least on my salary. It was meant for holidaying tourists with open wallets, not a high school teacher collecting early immigrant stories for what he hoped would become a book.

I didn’t go the day he called so he had to play checkers with a resident who wasn’t suffering from dementia. Shortly after he’d got to Betel, he’d said, “It’s no fun playing against someone whose brain has gone off the tracks.” Most of the residents had brains that had gone off the tracks and some of them had brains that were complete train wrecks. Their heads leaned to one side and their mouths  hung open. What was painful for him was that he’d known many of these people all his life.

I did go a week later. It was cold but there was no wind, the highways had been ploughed, the sky was a bright blue. It was 35 below but inside the van, with the heater ramped up, it was too warm for wearing mukluks and thermal  long underwear so I turned the heat down and drifted down the dark channel created by the ploughed drifts on either side of the highway.  The poplar forests behind the barbed wire fences that were buried in snow had snow piled so high that their tops might have been a forest of bushes. The shadows were shades of blue. It was deceptive, this artificial warmth inside the van where my feet sweated and I’d had to shrug off my parka. If the van stalled or slid off the road, I’d have to wrap mysel f in my down parka, pull on my deer hide gauntlets that came nearly to my elbows, pull the flaps of my sheep’s hide helmet down and tie them under my chin, and wrap a scarf around my face.  In this weather you could die within a quarter of a mile and if you were stupid enough to try to cross an area of unploughed snow, you’d become exhausted and die standing up, your legs frozen into the snow up to your crotch.

I thought we’d play checkers or chess or discuss the latest idiocies of the Canadian government or the Icelandic government. He had on his wall two metal  scales. I don’t know their original purpose but he used them to express his disgust with both governments. He called them his stupidity scales. He moved the marker up or down as news of government actions warrented. The markers slid up and down in a vertical slot and could be put into short horizontal slots marked from zero to twenty. He bemoaned that the scales didn’t go to a hundred, particularly during the years of the kreppa, the financial crash in Iceland. “There are stupider politicians than in Canada and Iceland,” I said. “I don’t care what they do in in North Korea or Malaya,” he snapped.

I tried to talk him out of going to the farm but it was hopeless. He hadn’t been there since November. It was now Christmas holidays. “You might as well take me to the farm,” he said. “You’re living off my tax money for doing nothing. You lollygag about your place, sleep in, watch TV, eat spaghetti out of tins and fart.”

I did nothing of the sort. I graded papers, made up lesson plans, did research at the archives and the Icelandic library at the University of Manitoba. I seldom watched TV and I hadn’t eaten spaghetti out of a tin since I was twelve. As for farting, I avoided garbanzo beans even though I liked eating them curried. Besides, one of the freedoms of living alone is that one can fart as often and loud as one wants and no one complains.

An attendant helped Valdi get dressed for winter, clucked her tongue at our going out,  blamed me for the idea. Valdi had told her that I wanted to take some pictures of the farm in winter. The attendant had taken it as gospel. The staff had all seen that I carried a camera around most of the time.

The town had nearly disappeared under the snow. Snow banks were as high as the eaves where the north wind got to sweep in unobstructed from the lake. The road west was clear, the road north was clear, but when we turned west again onto a country road, there were small drifts that ran from shoulder to shoulder. We could see where vehicles had come through. By the time we got to Valdi’s farm the snow had narrowed the road to one lane. The farmer who rented Valdi’s land also checked periodically on the house. However, he didn’t bother to plough the driveway. We could see snowmobile tracks that went to the side door and circled the house. He’d shoveled the snow away from the side door but the front steps were buried. The drifts spread away over the fields so it was like looking at a white ocean. What had been thick, unrelenting forest when Valdi had bought the land had been reduced to the occasional tree that stood black against the snow.

We sat there, looking at the house and the barn and work shed. There was a large three sided structure that had been used to store hay. The three metal silos reflected the sun. A jack rabbit appeared. White on white, we wouldn’t have seen it except for its movement. It must have been forty pounds. It paused to study us.

“I used to hunt those buggers,” Valdi said. “Hardly ever got one. Bush bunnies are easy. Whistle, they stop, you shoot them in the head.” Valdi reached out and hit the horn. It blared and the jack rabbit bounded away in a frantic zig zag path meant to throw off eagles or wolves.

A snow devil appeared on a drift beside us. It looked like a small tornado.  It appeared and disappeared. It was a first warning of wind starting up. If we got drifted in, as close as the house was, there was no way of getting Valdi from the truck to the house. I wondered if I could make my way there.

“We’d better be going,” I said. I put the van into gear and wished the farmer who rented the land had cleared part of the driveway so it would be easy to turn around.

“Go straight,” Valdi said, “turn at the next cross road. It’s just half a mile from here.”

I looked ahead and didn’t like the narrow trail that had been pushed open by vehicles traveling over the road. Unless I shoveled out a spot on the driveway to the house there was no place to turn around. I had a shovel in the back of the van but the drifts were over three feet high and the constant wind and cold had made the surface hard. I decided to back up. I figured with the wheels in the ruts, I’d follow them with no problem. I lowered the window and eased the van backward.

“Don’t you think you should go forward?” Valdi asked.

“The cross road may not be open, then we’ll be a mile in and if we get stuck, I’ll have a mile to walk to the highway. “ Two more snow devils whirled and disappeared.

I got back about a hundred feet when the van slipped sideways off the hard packed snow and the left back wheel  dropped. “Shit, shit, shit,” I said. It wasn’t a creative response but it was appropriate. I got out, took out my shovel and began to dig around the back wheel. I chipped away at the hard packed snow.  I got back into the van, tried to pull forward, the tires spun, I backed slightly, rocked the van a number of times, and when the tires caught, I was running the motor too fast and we shot across the road and both front wheels went into the snow bank.

“Better call the tow truck,” Valdi said.

I didn’t know the local number for a tow truck so I decided to call the nursing home. I’d explain our predicament and ask them to send a tow truck. I had a service plan. It cost 118.00 a year. I took out my cell phone, went to punch in the number and realized the battery was dead. I hadn’t used the phone for some time.

I looked back toward the highway. At this time of day, at this time of year, there might not be a vehicle going by for hours.

“There’s a toboggan in the work shed. You could pull me on that,” Valdi said. “Here’s the key. Don’t drop it. I’ve a key for the house and the house is heated, the electricity works and the phone is working.”

I looked at the gas gage and decided that we couldn’t spend the night in the van. It would be dark soon and nobody, if they actually noticed a vehicle on the side road, was going to come to see if everything was all right. A toboggan! Down the road, over the snowbanks. At least the side door had been shoveled free.

I wrapped myself in my parka, helmet, scarf, pulled on my deerskin gauntlets, pulled up my mukluks and tightened the drawstring at the top. The wind was becoming more persistent. I could see loose snow lifting over the fields. If it persisted, there could be a white out. People got lost and froze to death going from a house to a barn, never mind trying to find a house set back an eighth of a mile.

The road was treacherous. The surface was slippery and uneven.  I walked with my arms spread. When I got to the beginning of the driveway, I had to kick into the snow to make a step, then heave myself onto the surface of the drifts. The first few steps were easy. The snow was hard and held my weight. I didn’t lift my feet but skidded forward. That is, I skidded forward until I broke through and my left leg sank up to my knee.  I had to lie forward and pull so the force of getting the one leg free didn’t make the other one break through the surface. It went like that the whole way. Hard, hard, soft, hard, hard, hard, hard, soft.  Fortunately, the shed door opened inward.  I climbed over the drift that was piled up against it.

The toboggan was hanging on the wall. I stopped to rest, then took it down. I shut the door behind me and retraced my steps or, I should say, tried not to retrace them , avoiding soft spots.

When Valdi lay down on his back on the toboggan, his feet hung over the end, I gave him the shovel to hold. He grasped it to his chest. I pulled him along the road. The wind was steadier and even though only my eyes were uncovered, it was cold. I pulled Valdi to the beginning of the driveway. There was no way I could get him up onto the snowbank.

I took the shovel and cut a narrow inclined path for about nine feet. I then packed down the snow. At the top, I turned around, got on my knees and pulled the toboggan hand over hand as I backed up, all the time hoping my weight wouldn’t break through the glazed surface.

Valdi was now face down, holding onto the curved front of the toboggan. The surface of the snow was as difficult as the first time I crossed it. I didn’t dare go off the driveway because there was a ditch that fronted the property and if I sank into that I might never get out. In places, I crawled.

Darkness comes early in December in Manitoba and it obliterates everything unless there is a moon. Thank God a moon rose up, enough of a moon, so that light reflected off the snow. The world turned purple.

Valdi gave me the key to the house. I got the storm door open, then the inside door. I helped him sit up, then he put his arms around my shoulders and we did a kind of crazy, drunken dance up the steps, me hanging onto the railing, backing into the house, him struggling to get his feet up the steps and over the lintel. The door opened into the kitchen and I was able to walk him to a rocking chair beside the kitchen table.  He fell into it and I caught his knees so he didn’t go over backwards.

I was breathing too hard to say anything. I shut the two doors, then turned up the heat and thought, thank God, when I heard the furnace start. The house was too cold for us to take off our parkas so he rocked in his rocking chair and I paced back and forth thinking of everything that could go wrong, like the furnace running out of oil.

“Give me the phone,” he said. There was an old fashioned phone on the counter. It had a long cord. I gave it to him. He rang a number.  There was no answer.  He tried two more times. “They must be out,” he said. “Probably curling. They curl.”

“We can call the tow truck,” I said. I was annoyed. We were marooned in a vast ocean of snow and ice.

“No point,” he answered. “He can get the car out but he’s not going to get us out of here. You want to make that trip back to the road? Just wait. They’ll get home soon enough.”

He put down the phone and said, “There’s bowls in the cupboard, a can opener over there, lots of canned soup in that cupboard, there’s bread in the freezer and a toaster to toast it.” He was struggling with his parka. I helped him take it off. “Good thing I’m prepared for the worst. Be prepared, that’s what the Boy Scouts say.”

“You need to get back to the nursing home to take your medication,” I said. He might think it was a great adventure but I didn’t.

He fished in his parka pocket and pulled out three pill bottles. “I never go anywhere without these.”

I heated up tomato soup in the microwave, made a pile of toast, made coffee and discovered some whitener and sugar for the coffee.

“Isn’t this great?” he said. It was obvious that he saw it as a great adventure. After being confined to his poky room in the nursing home, I expect it was. However, I wasn’t in a mood to be generous. I had planned on spending the night at my friend’s place. They were going to have a few people over, eat BBQ ribs, drink a few beer, have a few laughs. It had been a heavy term and I needed a few laughs.

“I loved it in weather like this. Nothing to do in the winter except read and relax. Take a look at the living room. There’s a fireplace. There might even be some wood. Catherine and I used to have a fire on days like this. It’s a great feeling. Get a fire going and we can sit in there. No TV but lots to read.”

He put his arm over my shoulders and we struggled to the living room. He sat in his leather armchair like he was king of the world. There was, as he’d said, kindling and birch slabs. I found some paper and matches and started a fire. Three walls of the room had bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. Shelves were taken up with books about Iceland, many of them in Icelandic, quite a few in English. There were books of poetry in Icelandic. I flipped one open. It had been printed in Winnipeg in 1898. I took out another one. It had been printed in Gimli in 1901. I ran a finger over the spines. He had an early Madame Pfeiffer, A Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway  and a reprint of Olafsson and Palsson’s 1752-1757 Travels in Iceland.  I worked my way along one shelf and then started on another.

“What are you going to do with these?” I asked. I’d taken down a copy of the Almanak from 1875. Someone had bound it with tape to the Almanak for 1876.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Hard to say. Maybe the person who buys the house will want them.”

“They should go to the Icelandic library at the university.”

“Now you sound like my daughter. That’s all she can think of. Books should be in libraries. They sit there gathering dust and after they’re copied digitally, they’re tossed out.”

“Why don’t you call Joe again?”

“Yes,” he sighed. “Bring me the phone.”

He called and this time Joe answered. “Joe,” he said, “Valdi here. I’m at the farm. We slipped off the road. Yeah, we got in fine. Could you come and get us? After you’re finished with the cows? That’s fine. We’ve got all we need here.”

We played cribbage until we heard the sound of a skidoo, two skidoos, actually. Joe and his wife, Alice, each had a skidoo. They raced over the snow and stopped at the kitchen door. They came in, took off their helmets, shook hands, and Valdi insisted on their having coffee.

“It’s like old times,” he said and I imagined that they’d had dozens or hundreds of evenings around the kitchen table.

We got dressed for the outdoors. I got on behind Alice and Valdi got behind Joe and off went, racing through the night, up and down drifts, around trees and stopped at their back door. We had to go inside, take off our winter gear, have more coffee, then Joe said, “We’d better be getting you back. We got into his Ford Ram with the big tires, he took us down a mile, across a mile, out onto the highway, then pulled the van onto the road and waited to be sure I got the motor started, then that I got the van onto the highway. He helped me get Valdi into the van and flashed his lights and beeped his horn when we drove away.

“We could have stayed the night,” Valdi said. “There’s three bedrooms. It was built for a family.”

The wind was blowing steadily now, the highway was blurred by drifting snow, fingers of snow were starting to reach across the pavement.

“You were going to tell me something about Laxness,” I said.

“I forgot,” he replied, “in all the excitement caused by your not being able to stay on the road.” I glared at him. He had a way of shifting blame that was very annoying. “I figured we’d just stop for a look at the farm in the snow, then go further down the highway to a place I know. It’s got a Laxness connection.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

“No point, unless you can see it. What do you think of the house?”

“House?” I said, I was torn between being annoyed at having tomato soup and toast instead of BBQ ribs and not hearing something new about Laxness. Besides, if his librarian daughter heard about this adventure, I’d be hearing from her. She reminded me of some teachers I’d had in public school. I did not remember them fondly.

 

 

 

Laxness: hypothermia in the Interlake

laxnessberet

Chapter 3

After Valdi told me about the desperate night on the road after Laxness’s reading, I wasn’t able to come back to the nursing home for two weeks. I’d had time to make notes and think over what he’d revealed. I asked him but he wouldn’t tell me the name of the farmer’s wife.

“She was,” he said, “blonde and slightly plump in a good way, a healthy way, the kind of way that makes a man want to hold onto a woman.”

“But were they, you know, are you sure…”

“Maybe, maybe not. Laxness was far gone. He wasn’t a robust man. The wet and cold had made him hypothermic. She spooned potato soup broth into him. He was shaking with cold. It was not unknown in Iceland in those circumstances, for a woman, even two of them, one on each side to get into bed with a man in hope of saving his life. In Iceland, they didn’t have electric blankets or even stoves. They survived the winter on body heat, theirs and their animals. You use what you’ve got. You know that in Iceland, if a traveler came to your house, your eldest daughter undressed him, got his soaking wet clothes off, helped dry him. It was just the way things were done. Who knows what they did in Germany? She was Catholic German. When she heard him chanting  a Latin prayer she thought an angel had fallen from heaven. She may just have been rubbing his hands and feet, trying to get circulation into them.”

“And this driver?” I said. “How reliable was he?”

“When he wasn’t drinking, he was very reliable. If you don’t believe my sources, then don’t ask. There’s no point in my telling you anything.”

“The story is incredible.”

“So is the story of Hjalmar getting lost on Lake Winnipeg in a storm and his legs freezing solid and his walking on them all night. I guess you don’t want to believe that either because teachers have cushy jobs and if someone does something they can’t, they refuse to believe it.”

“I know about Hjalmar,” I protested. “I’ve heard how he had his legs amputated and then cleared his land on his knees.”

“People like you,” he always said people like you when he was annoyed, “would have been whining and applying for disability benefits and expecting someone else to come and clear your land.”

He’d said this before but I still got huffy. “Just because I teach school doesn’t mean I’m a whiner. Everybody can’t be a farmer.”

“The Chinese had it right when they ordered all the teachers to work on pig farms during the summer.”

I looked at my watch even though there was a large clock on the wall of his room. “I guess I’d better be going,” I said.

“There’s no need to be like that,” he replied. “I could use a cigarette.”

“Your daughter says you are not to smoke,” I said.

His daughter was a librarian who lived in Brandon, Manitoba. She had married, divorced, remarried, divorced and went to Hawaii when she had the opportunity. Hawaii was a lot more attractive than Gimli, she said, especially in winter. It was about a five hour drive from Brandon to Gimli. “That’s quite a distance,” I once said to Valdi. “Not distant enough,” he replied. “I keep hoping she’ll retire to the Okanagan.”

When she appeared at the nursing home, the staff found jobs to do in distant parts of the building. You would have thought Valdi would have looked forward to her visits but they inevitable turned into shouting matches.

He was lonely. There was no doubt about that. I think that’s why he put up with me. That, and the fact that I brought him cigarettes and, sometimes, a bottle of brandy.

“Don’t be a prick,” he answered. “I can see the package in your pocket.”

I pushed him down to the dock. There was no point in trying to have a conversation while we were moving. For one thing, he was too busy checking out the tourist babes going in and out of Tergesen’s store. “There must be a terrible shortage of cloth,” he said as he admired a couple of women in shorts.

He wanted an ice cream cone so we stopped at the restaurant on the corner and I bought him a strawberry cone. “Babelicious,” he said between licks. “Oh, to have two good kidneys and two good legs. Life isn’t fair.” He was studying some of the women going by. “By the time you learn the moves, there’s no point in making them.”

“There’s no volleyball today,” I said. I could see where his mind was going.

“Too bad,” he said, “we’ll have to make do with what’s available.”

We got settled beside the fountain at the foot of the dock.

“Laxness was the greatest writer Iceland has ever had,” I said.

“Snorri Sturlusson was better,” he replied. “No contest.”

“We know Laxness wrote his books. We’re just guessing at who wrote Egil’s Saga.” Egil’s Saga, at least a fragment of it, goes back to 1240. The saga is about the life of Egil Skallagrimmson, an Icelandic farmer who is also a poet. The family is known to be shape shifters, crafty and violent. Egil kills his first person when he is seven years old. It’s that kind of a story. Valdi thought it was much better than Pride and Prejudice or even Romeo and Juliet, both of which I taught. Literature for wimps, he called them. Chick lit. No wonder boys don’t want to read, he often said when we discussed education. Give them Vikings and raiding and pillaging and they’ll eat it up.”

He licked the ice cream drips off his fingers. “I need a smoke,” he said. “I can’t concentrate when my brain is craving a smoke.”

I reluctantly took out the cigarette package. There were people with children gathered around the fountain. The mothers narrowed their eyes at me. I could hear what they were thinking. Giving that poor old man in the wheel chair cigarettes to hasten his death. I kept waiting for someone to come over and give me a lecture.

I refused to put the cigarette into my mouth and light it. I’d quit years before and I wasn’t going to start again. Instead, I put it in his mouth and lit it with his purple plastic lighter that I was afraid was going to one day burst into flames in my pants’ pocket.

Valdi Vigfusson knew he had me by the short hairs. He knew that the writing I most admired was that of Halldor Laxness. Laxness was Iceland’s most famous writer. Laxness had received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 for his novel, Independent People. However, I thought he should have received the Nobel Prize a number of times, for books like Christianity Under Glacier and Iceland’s Bell. The novels are brilliant and brave. Living in a country with a tiny population, around 100,000, related to a large number of people, he risked satirizing Christians, farmers, and Vikings. Iceland’s official religion is Lutheranism, its major occupation was farming and its most treasured memory were the glory days of the Vikings.

As Iceland’s only Nobel prize winner, Laxness has had his life written about many times. Every detail is known. Except for his visit to New Iceland, Manitoba. Here, there was the possibility of writing something new, of filling in part of his life.

Iceland has had a peculiar history. There were no native people living there when disgruntled Norwegians and Danes left Europe and settled. There were some Irish priests; however, they fled before the onslaught of pagans. The Little Ice Age hadn’t started yet and it was possible to grow grain crops. Enough grain that some was exported to Europe. Some of the early settlers said there was butter dripping from the grass. Misleading advertising isn’t new.

There was no paper around so when the oral tales of Viking derring do and feuding were written down in Iceland in the 1300s, vellum, treated cow hide, was used. Those tales, the sagas, became one of the foundations of Western Literature. Then nothing. It’s not that people quit telling stories but most of the stories, if not folk tales about the huldufolk or trolls, were a retelling of Viking tales from the Golden Age.

Icelanders gave up their independence voluntarily. They couldn’t stop fighting among themselves and so asked the Norwegian king to be in charge. Big mistake. The chieftans kept swearing their loyalty to the Norwegian kings in return for appointments and gold until the independence for which they’d sailed to Iceland was gone. And then Denmark conquered Norway and got Iceland as a bonus. Iceland didn’t shrug off Danish control until 1918 and didn’t become a republic until 1944. Centuries had passed. In the meantime, except for a few wealthy and powerful families well connected to Denmark everyone lived in abject poverty. They were indentured servants, cheap labour.

And then, for no particular reason, Halldor Laxness appeared. He started writing at the age of seven.  Later, when he published his novels, a lot of Icelanders didn’t like his writing because it affronted their dignity. He made fun of their state church, of their precious, romanticized Vikings that the Nazis had also latched onto to promote their racial superiority. He mocked the Icelanders who had gone abroad to Utah to become Mormons. When he won the Nobel Prize, a lot of Icelanders, particularly those in power, were torn. They didn’t like this Lutheran turned Catholic turned Communist turned God knows what. At the same time, they couldn’t help but be proud. They’d have preferred it if one of their social and economic elite had been recognized. They were so used to their entitled positions and their belief that they were superior to everyone else that they were dismayed that someone from the lower class could receive more recognition than them.

When Laxness came to New Iceland, he hadn’t won the Nobel prize. His life and career were largely ahead of him. His writing, because it did not romanticize Icelandic history offended many. And then, to make matters worse, he chose to read the short story, New Iceland, to the assembled multitude.

A cone of silence, a conspiracy of muteness, descended over Laxness’s visit to New Iceland. Although he came to Gimli, Manitoba, and stayed for a time, I never heard his name mentioned. Not once. His books weren’t in the school library.

So, Valdi Vigfusson from Vidir was important, not just important, but critical, because he had knowledge, not first hand, but directly second hand from his mother and father, about the reading and the visit.

If you want a warm reception, you need to tell people what they want to hear and, what they want to hear, is how wonderful they and their ancestors are. They want to be reassured. Instead, Laxness told people that their  Lutheranism was a fraud, their Vikings were a bunch of brainless galoots, and the local elite were charlatans.

I liked Valdi from Vidir. He was grouchy at times, sarcastic, difficult, but not without reason. His parents came from Iceland because they were no better than serfs. Iceland never went through the Industrial Revolution. There were no roads and no wheeled vehicles in Iceland until the early 1900s. People lived on isolated farms. Many never saw a foreigner in their entire lives. On their immigration papers, they called themselves farmers. There were no farmers in Iceland. They planted nothing. Grain wouldn’t ripen and vegetable crops were limited to some root vegetables that were planted at the insistence of the Danes. The only crop was hay. There were no trees. They came to Manitoba and found themselves isolated in heavy bush. Valdi’s father, Gudmundur, did not know how to use an axe. He’d built a house in Iceland from lava blocks and turf. There were no lava blocks and turf in Manitoba. There were trees. Lots of trees. They lived in a hole in the ground with a roof over it through a hellish winter while he learned to chop down trees. The land wasn’t much good for growing grain but he didn’t know that.

They had a quarter section of land and eventually got a cow, a couple of sheep, then another cow, and learned to eat rabbits and squirrels. They figured out where they could grow oats, rye, barley, wheat, flax. They raised pigs.

And Laxness was right when he said that the wives of the Icelanders had to work as domestics. They weren’t independent. There were times when Gudmundur and Gudni went out to work for wages. He worked on the railway and she worked as a domestic in Winnipeg. Those were hard times. But they persevered and had something they would never have had in Iceland, their own land. In Iceland, in times when the weather was good, they  might have had a piece of marginal land on the edge of the lava desert, they’d have paid a killing interest rate on the mortgage and with no money to pay the mortgage would have been share croppers, giving the landlord and the church part of everything they produced. They would have paid a ridiculous amount to rent cows and sheep, and would have lived in a turf and rock cave without any heat. There’d be no heat because there were no stoves, there were no stoves because there was hardly any fuel except poor quality turf and, in some locations, brown coal that also burned poorly, gave lots of smoke and not much heat.

Valdi had numerous jobs as he was growing up, learned farming from his parents and, eventually, bought a farm with better land than his parents. He raised beef cattle and grain and hay the rest of  his life. He farmed until he was eighty-five. Until then he’d only been in a hospital once in his life and that was because his arm was broken when hay bales fell on him. He resented his failing kidneys, spoke harshly about them and to them and, if his kidneys were in reasonable shape, would have had knee replacements. He did not want to die in a bed in a nursing home. He wanted to die on his farm in the cab of his combine.

His daughter threatened to have him tested for Alzheimer’s but it wouldn’t have done any good. He hadn’t made her Power of Attorney or Executor. He’d had the same lawyer all his life until the lawyer died and now the lawyer’s son was his POA and Executor. They had a good relationship. The lawyer’s son called him Uncle Valdi and sent him Christmas and birthday cards.

“She wants the money,” he said. “She wants me to retire so she can retire. She wants to go on cruises. If she wants the farm, she can come and work the farm.”

She thought he was crazy to be living alone on a place five miles from town. “Sell the farm, sell the farm,” she’d yelled. “People ten years younger than you are retired.” That was when he was seventy-five. She was still yelling the same thing when he was eighty-five. He moved into the nursing home when he was eighty-eight. He refused to sell the farm.

He’d never got to go beyond grade eight except for some short term agricultural courses in winter. However, he read both Icelandic and English and spoke some Ukrainian. Although, by any measure, the people in Iceland were poor, many of them poverty stricken, living on isolated farms, they were literate. Children were schooled at home, learning to read from both the divine and profane, the Bible and the sagas, plus anything else that managed to find its way from farm to farm. The tradition had followed the settlers to Canada. People read and discussed what they read in the evening while everyone worked at necessary tasks. The rooms at Betel, the nursing home,  aren’t very big but he’d sacrificed the clothes dresser for a book case that reached the ceiling, filled it with some of his books from the farm, and bought himself a come-to-me, a device with which he could reach up, grasp a book and pull it down. From time to time, a book would fall onto him. He kept the larger, weightier books on the bottom shelves. Which was good because some local histories weighed more than five pounds.In good weather, he also visited the local library which was just over a block away.

He had a good voice. He’d always sung with a couple of local choirs and on Saturday evenings, he’d joined a local group to sing at the nursing home. He’d driven in from the farm except when the harvest was on. He sang English songs with the choir but solos in Icelandic. Now that he’d had to leave the farm for the nursing home, he rolled down the hallway to the entertainment room where the choir performed.

He’d married later than many, probably around thirty-five. It had taken him that long to save up a down payment, buy a farm, get it running properly but even so he’d taken work with the municipality while it was available. His wife drove a school bus. She played the piano and they often had people over for supper and a sing-along.

His parents’ owned the section immediately east of him. It worked out well. They could help each other when the cattle were calving and at harvest time. If they wanted to go for a holiday during the winter, it was easy to pop over in the truck or on a snowmobile and do the necessary chores for a couple of weeks. When they died, he took over their property.

I’d known him to see him but not well enough to do more than say hello or nod as we passed on the street in or in the hardware store. He’d been friends with my grandparents and my parents. I sometimes saw him at church, although that was years before when I still lived in town. His wife was still alive then. I vaguely remember her as an attractive,  somewhat overweight woman who wore large hats. My parents had told me the courtship and marriage had taken the community by surprise. Valdi had already been designated a determined bachelor and his wife, Gudny, a spinster. Before they had married, she had worked for years as a clerk at the local drugstore.

I first went to see him in the nursing home because I was working on an article on farming in the area. I explained who I was and he’d eyed me rather suspiciously. He’d been a reluctant and grumpy source. He’d only recently moved into the nursing home and he hadn’t totally adjusted to the idea. “Pasta,” he complained to me, “Pasta, pasta. What do they think,  this is an Italian nursing home? Icelanders eat fish and potatoes. Meat and potatoes.” They’d had macaroni and cheese for supper that evening.

“There’s a restaurant just down the hall at the other end of the building,” I said. It was not a good way to start our relationship.

“Do you know what I’m paying to stay here for a month? It’s more than I earned in a year when I started working. Pasta is for peewees and Filipinos.”

“Filipinos don’t eat pasta,” I replied. “They eat rice.”

Silence descended. He glowered from under his bushy eyebrows. He had eyebrows like shelves and deep set eyes.

“Icelanders eat rullupylsa, brown bread, hakarl, dried cod, mutton soup. Rice!” he ended contemptuously.

“I was raised on rice pudding with raisins in it,” I said.

“Your mother was Irish,” he replied. “I knew her. She boiled her beef.”

My mother was Irish. She did not boil her beef. She was an excellent cook. One of the best cooks I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. She made beef stew with dumplings that was to die for. Valdi was lying through his teeth about the rice pudding. One of the biggest imports into Iceland in the 1800s was rice. They boiled it with milk. People in Gimli ate it regularly, cooked with raisins and with cinnamon sprinkled on top.

I wasn’t going to argue with him about my mother’s cooking. I said, “I heard that your father cut his first crops with a scythe. I want to know what that was like.”

“He bought the first swather in the district.”

“I want to know about the scythes.”

“Icelandic or Ukrainian? Straight or crooked?”

“Both,” I answered. “And if you happen to have some pictures of people scything, I’d appreciate it if I could have copies. You’ll get credit for them. It will say Photographs permission of Valdi Vigfusson.”

“From Vidir,” he said. “There are half a dozen Valdi Vigfussons around.”

 

New Year’s Eve, Kiev

kievn_winter

New Year’s morning, I was up early. There’d been no babushka at the desk on this floor and nobody in the hallways. Normally there were Cubans or Vietnamese hanging around the foyer outside the restaurant. Today it was empty. I went inside and thought there was no one here either but then a waitress appeared. The tables were still covered with dirty dishes and bottles and she was slowly picking them up and putting them on a trolley. I sat down at my usual table beside the wall. She ignored me and after a few minutes I got up and went over to where she was working.

 

“Can I get breakfast?” I asked.

 

She shook her head, not meaning no but meaning she didn’t understand because with it she shrugged held her hands open in front of her.

 

“Breakfast,” I repeated slowly.

 

She shook her head again and I looked around for someone who could speak English. There was still just the two of us. I couldn’t think of the word in Ukrainian or Russian so I said petite dejeuner, remembering it from grade ten French and she said, Ah, oui, petite dejeuner and I nodded and said, oui, petite dejeuner. She said non and swung her right arm slowly in a half circle indicating the shambles from the night before. Pain, I said, fromage, kubisa, chi, pointing at a buffet table which still had some food on it. She nodded, then winced as if her head hurt. She went and got me a plate of bread which curled a bit at the edges and stale cheese and sliced meat and a large cup of tea. I said, “Possibe.” and she disappeared through the doors which led to the kitchen and didn’t come back.

 

Ivan met me for lunch. By that time the restaurant seemed itself again, rigidly organized with clean tablecloths and china and cutlery. All the staff seemed to whisper and walk on their toes. Ivan ordered a carafe of brandy. We toasted each other’s health until the decanter was empty. When we left, I was glad to get out into the cool air. We wandered down Kreschatik and caught a streetcar.

 

“You don’t mind,” Ivan said. “Today, no drivers.”

 

“I’m not American,” I said. I wondered if he actually believed that Americans and Canadians were different. After all, if someone had said to me, I’m not Russian, I’m Albanian or Azerbijani, it wouldn’t have meant anything. All my life I’d been taught they were Russian, that Russia and the Soviet Union were one and the same. They all wore fur hats and spent every waking moment of their lives plotting the downfall of democracy and replacing it with godless Communism.

 

That’s why the market shocked me. It was one large room in a huge building. Inside the government sold its goods at tables along the walls. In the Centre there were private sales.

 

“See these apples,” Ivan said, showing me piles of small, bruised apples. “These, the farmers provide to the state. Eighty kopeks a kilo.” At the Centre stalls the apples were red, unbruised, large, grade A. “These are the farmers’ share. Five rubles a kilo. Who says we shot all the capitalists?”

 

The tables held carrots, potatoes, beets, spices, bunches of high bush cranberries dried o the stem, whole dried fruit, pomegranates, mandarin oranges. The sellers didn’t look Russian or Ukrainian but oriental, part of the Eastern Empire beyond Moscow. These, I thought, were the ancestors of the invaders who’d worn the magnificent embroidered clothes in Moscow’s museums. These were not warriors behind the tables but farmers with broad brows and slanted eyes and dusky yellow skin. They had persimmons for sale that were overripe.

 

Ivan noticed me staring at them.

 

“Fifteen republics,” he said, “and over two hundred languages.”

 

We took the streetcar to the Museum of the great Patriotic War. We bought tickets for five kopecks and Ivan showed me how to cancel my own ticket in the automatic machine. We passed the Army Officer’s Mess, the Communist Party headquarters, new apartment blocks and old houses with orange roofs.

 

Before we reached the museum, I could see the statue on the roof. One hundred and thirty meters tall, it is made of stainless steel. It holds aloft a sword. Ivan asked, “Do you think it is in bad taste?” I shrugged because I’d never thought of memorials that way, as if their major function was to be in fashion.

 

Inside, we left our coats and hats with a babushka. She’d looked at my coat, trying to find the chain or loop of cloth by which to hang it. When she couldn’t she shook her head and looked at me disapprovingly. Ivan explained that I was a Canadian comrade. She relented, nodding as if to indicate that one couldn’t expect any more of a foreigner, comrade or not.

 

The building was a circle divided into pie-shaped rooms and each room was dedicated to a hero city. I only knew about Moscow and Leningrad. I didn’t know about the agony of the others. Every room had a diorama and sculpture. The display cases and walls held photographs and diaries, personal effects, letters, weapons dug up and identified. Everywhere there was a determination to not let death be impersonal.. The figures of the dead were so large, they were beyond conceiving, beyond imagining. In one room there was a guillotine. It wasn’t what I’d expected. A Tale of Two Cities had made me think of the guillotine as massive, as imposing, but this one was small and simple, made of steel, easily assembled, easily taken down so it could be moved from place to place.

 

“For killing people,” Ivan said. “Hitler was angry with Kiev. It delayed him. After he captured the city, the Nazis murdered two hundred thousand people in two years.” He turned away from me but I saw the muscles in his face tighten and the fingers of his right hand clench. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.

 

I shook my head. We were looking at something I thought might have been a cement mixer.

 

“For crushing bones. After they were raked out of the ovens.”

 

At the end of the tour we came to a room with glass topped display cases. Ivan whispered Afghanistan. These displays were like the others but visiting soldieries were standing at them, very quiet, not that they had been noisy before, but here they stood unmoving, staring at the displays, not bending down to look more closely,  just standing like they were never going to move. Ivan tugged at my sleeve and led me away. “Soon it will be over. Gorbachev will get us out. It’s no use trying to give people what they don’t want.”

 

Outside, we stood on the parapet overlooking the Dneiper.

 

“When the Red Army liberated Kiev, they had to cross here,” Ivan said.

 

Although it was not late, because the clouds hung low in the sky, it was already starting to turn dark. Before we’d gone into the museum, the river ice had been dotted with fishermen. Now they were all gone. Further out the river was open, then there was another strip of white ice and beyond that the river bank. As I watched, lights started going on. As I stood there, I tried t imagine what it was like. The Germans dug in where I was standing and the Red Army on the far bank, crawling over the dead to get at the enemy. I knew about Iow Jima and Bataan but the Americans couldn’t claim to have won this battle so Hollywood  hadn’t made a movie about it.

 

The darkness was like a fine mist, gradually erasing the far shore, softening the stainless steel woman who loomed above us. It was turning cold and I was glad of m y heavy coat and my fleece lined boots.

The evening before, New Year’s Eve, Ivan had taken me to the Cultural Palace. We’d gone on the subway. I was crowded and people were laughing and talking. Because it was called a palace, I thought it would be an old building with turrets and suits of armor but it was a modern theater with floors of glass windows and carpeted foyers in which there was courtly dancing, a fashion show, chamber music. When we went inside, I might have been in any North American theater, except for all the elderly men and women wearing green blazers and rows of medals.

 

I’d expected folk dancing, village costumes,  nostalgia. Instead, we got five rock bands from Riga and Moscow. Rock bands in outrageous clothes taken from American televisions. The musicians jumped and pranced across the stage, swinging their long hair and pounding out the amps. The audience was very polite in that formal, rather distant way audiences have when something exotic and incomprehensible is presented. Now standing on the ramparts with the riverbank fading away and the drizzle staring again, and thinking of the numbers of the dead and how wide the river was, I wondered what they thought, what they really thought, the veterans who were at the concert, the veterans who had stormed up this hill, other hills, across this river, across endless rivers. If the Rockers from Riga were the result, was it all worth it?

 

 

 

Uzgorod, Ukraine

 

wooden church in uzhgorod

 

The hills were gently rolling. There were patches of snow in the woods. In the open, the snow had melted and the grass was the yellow of old ivory. Just after it started to become light we crossed a stream and the sound of the train changed, becoming momentarily deeper. While we’d been traveling, I’d grown used to the steady clicking of the rails, the creaking of the car, the slight chatter of the metal parts underneath us.

 

The water was running green with the melt, faster and higher than normal. I could tell this because the water poured white like thick, twisting cords over and around obstructions. If it had run at that height for a long time the obstructions would have been worn down or carried away and surface wouldn’t have been so turbulent.

 

We’d left Kiev the night before. We had fallen asleep right after having left and now Ivan, who usually stayed awake taking care of details, checking and rechecking our travel plans a minimum of three times, was still not awake. In Kiev, Natasha, the Intourist guide, had called him Vanya and fussed a little over him, scolding him gently, explaining to me that I never had to worry, that Ivan was known for endlessly checking details, for never letting anything go wrong. He had blushed and looked away but it was easy to see that he was pleased. Now he was asleep in that utterly exhausted way one usually sees only in children. He was sprawled on his back, his mouth open, the muscles in his face loose and relaxed.

 

During the night, I had wakened when the train stopped at Chop. There was a great deal of coming and going and I thought it might be more soldiers getting on but when I raised the blind and looked out, it was skiers. They were lining up with their equipment before getting onto the train. Daily life goes on, I thought, remembering the displays in the Museum of the great Patriotic War, the tables of medals and letters and personal effects and the pictures of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Ivan whispering “Only since Gorbachev. Before that nothing. Not even to ask.” Later, outside the museum, he said “Soon it will be over,” but it wasn’t over yet.

 

As the skiers were getting onto the train, someone else far away was being shot at or shooting at someone, or lying in a hospital or being buried. It had been like that in the USA during Vietnam and it made people crazy. Soldiers in a fire fight, all around them people being wounded, killed, and then they’d get on a plane and a day later they’d be walking down the street in Dallas or Los Angles or Boston and the war didn’t exist. Everybody was shopping or eating burgers or getting laid or doing drugs. At the same time the soldiers knew their buddies were in the jungle trying to stay alive.

 

In the first pale light, we passed houses that might have been from my childhood in Manitoba. Wooden houses plastered with mud and whitewashed. When the track was higher than the houses, I saw that woodpiles and outbuildings enclosed a muddy courtyard with chickens and the occasional pig. With the melting snow, the roads had turned to mud. I remembered mud like that in the Interlake, mud clinging to my boots, mud on my mittens, mud underfoot as I slipped and slid. We’d lived like that, before the roads were paved and everyone could afford a car.

 

Outside a small woods, I saw a father and son who had been cutting hay in a ditch. They’d piled the loose hay into a sheet which lay on the ground, had pulled the four corners together, and, as I watched, the father expertly flipped the load onto his back. The son was carrying two hand sickles. I was glad Ivan was asleep. He wouldn’t have wanted me to see this father and son. He’d be embarrassed. He wants everything to be the best, the newest, the way we did when Formica and polyester were the touchstones of progress.

 

In Kiev, Ivan had been proudest of the new apartment blocks. The hills had been scraped clear and the red earth looked flayed. The blocks were narrow, anonymous buildings. Beyond the buildings there were untouched hills, hills covered in trees, and then a cluster of houses from old Kiev, houses with tile roofs and patchwork fences and fruit trees. I’d recognized them as surely as if I’d lived in t hem. I’d felt I could get off the streetcar we were riding and walk to them, certain that when I opened a gate and entered a yard and said dobra dene, the face and the hand turned toward me would be a hand and face I knew.

 

“New homes,” Ivan had said proudly of the apartment blocks. “For the people.” When I asked him about the cutting down of the trees, about the ecology of the area, he looked confused. “We have just started to think about that,” he said. “There is much discussion.”

 

It doesn’t matter where you go, communist, capitalist, developers are all the same. If you put them in the same room, they’d share all the same complaints, the same problems–councils who made too many restrictions, people who protested change, fools who didn’t understand the need for housing–and they’d discover that they were not enemies but that they had a common enemy, the public, the unappreciative blockheads for whom they were trying to do so much.

 

Natasha had told me that I was lucky to be going to Uzgorod. The best coffee in the USSR was served there. It was true. The Turks had conquered here and though they were gone, the taste for strong coffee lingered. We drank it in the hotel and it was better than any I had drunk in a long time. I was staying in a hotel which had been built by Finns and Hungarians. My table had a Canadian flag. The first night when we had supper, the Canadian flag was there again. I wondered if it was to warn others off or if it was a matter of pride, an expression of solidarity.

 

Early in the day, I visited a Pioneer Palace. One of the instructors had lingered in the hall, inviting me to visit him after supper. The three of us, Irena, the president of the committee for foreign visitors, and Ivan and I had strolled through the dark, walking to a concrete apartment like the ones in Kiev. We were met at the doorway by Gregory.

 

“No lights yet,” he said in Ukrainian and Ivan translated automatically. Gregory opened the outer door. “No glass for windows either.” The windows were covered with pieces of plywood. He clenched his fist as if grasping something. “Peristroika,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to order glass from anywhere we want. No more ordering and waiting. With peristroika we can do anything.”

 

Gregory’s wife was dressed in pink and his daughter was in a white party dress. On the table were cream filled pastries and a dish of walnuts and a sliced orange. I gave them chocolates I’d brought from Canada. Gregory and his wife were engineers but that was not where their hearts were.  His wife was a poet and he was an artist. His art was not well understood, Ivan said. We went to look at Gregory’s art. He made pictures from copper. There were fifteen or twenty pieces on the wall. They were carefully done and beautifully framed. Gregory had thought up the idea himself, made the tools, developed his technique, used his engineering skills to gild the surface with touches of silver. He had become so involved with his art that he’d given up his engineering job and taken a teaching position. Once Peristroika was complete he thought there’d be a chance of tourists coming to Uzgorod and buying his work.

 

We drank Red Rooster. We made toasts of friendship, of brotherly love. The raspberry liqueur was so strong that it paralyzed my mouth. Gregory’s wife turned off the lights and lit a candle and read her poetry. For once, Ivan didn’t translate. She had a manuscript in front of her but she didn’t need it. She knew her poems by heart. Her voice, passionate, pleading, demanding as the lights on the New Year’s tree glowed and reflected off the gifts underneath. All the time she read, I kept thinking about the copper pictures, the tools and the techniques and the dedication which had produced them and the years it had taken and the fact that all these were known, had been known for years in North America and was regarded not as art but as a craft, a hobby, and when peristroika came to Uzgorod it wouldn’t all be glass or tourists but, perhaps, shock and disappointment.

 

 

The Black House (Lviv)

 

 lviv

Tonight we stay in a Soviet hotel,” Ivan said.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“A Dneister hotel in Lviv. With Soviet people. No Intourist. This is okay?”

 

“It’ll be like home,” I said. I was sprawled on my bunk writ in my diary. We’d left Uzgorod late and with the dark and the rain there was nothing to see from the window of the train.

 

“We had left before super but Ivan promised we wouldn’t starve. He had slipped into the kitchen and now he took a package of lox, bread, cheese and two bottles of local beer out of his coat pockets.

 

“A picnic,” he said. “Is that right?”

 

There was a tablecloth with Ukrainian stitching and a vase with dried flowers. Ivan was busy dividing the salmon and the bread. We had no plates so he tore the paper in half and put the food on each piece. He opened his pocket knife and stuck it into the cheese.”

“Yes,” I said, “a picnic.

I wished it were daylight. I would have liked to see the countryside. I’d heard about Lviv all  my life. Every immigrant said, at some time in his story, “When we got to Lviv…” It was from here that the trip to Germany began and from there to North America. It was in Lviv they said good-bye to the Ukraine, to their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

 

The salmon and the bread were good. The cheese was old and strong. The bottles of beer were large, a quart maybe.

 

After we’d eaten, Ivan said, help me with my English. We were sitting together on the lower bunk when the conductress brought the tea. Ivan was reading out loud from Saturday Night. I was watching the page, correcting his pronunciation. The article was on Aides and after he’d finished it, he said, I didn’t know it was so serious. We haven’t heard. I’m sorry. I just joke about the women. I talk lots. I don’t do anything. I felt sorry for him, the way I felt sorry for myself when the information had first sunk in, that nothing was going to be the way it was ever again, like after somebody has died and at firsts you think nothing will change but it does and one day you finally accept it.

 

We arrived at midnight. Ivan made me get my suitcase and stand in the door well between the coaches. “No car tonight,” he said. “We take taxi.”

 

We hurried along the platform and down the broad steps to the taxi stand but there was already a line up. In front of us was a fashionably dressed woman with a tiny dog.

 

“Wait here,” Ivan said, “I go check.” When I started to wander away to look at some sculpture, he said, “Watch the luggage., These are good people but watch anyway.”

 

“Why do you say Dneister is home?” He had a habit of doing that, waiting for an hour or maybe a day before asking about something I had said, as if first he had to give it a great deal of serious thought.

 

I was busy looking out the window, trying to see everything that went by. “Because at home there is the Dneister district and the Dneister school and Dneister everything. Everyone came from Halychena. They settled in the swamp. Berlo and Frazerwood and Silver and Winnipeg Beach and Malonton and Dneister. Everybody knows Dneister.”

 

The next morning I fell in love with Lviv. The entire city was a museum. I loved the cannonballs hung in chains as punishment for striking the cathedral. I loved the black house stained with walnut juice. I loved the causal way my guide Pasha said, in the town square, “There is the house of Count Dracula.”

 

“What do you want to see?” Pasha asked.

 

“All of it. Every stone.”

 

Pasha laughed. “Have you a year and we go out every day. Maybe not every stone but the most important things. That takes a month. How much time do you have?”

 

“A day.”

 

“A day! A day!” He threw his arms in the air.

 

“Show me what you want,” I said. “It’s your city.”

 

“We’ll take the car.”

 

“No, no car, no driver. We walk.”

 

We went through the ritual of my not being American but Canadian  and how Canadians love to walk. Pasha gave the driver a package of Canadian cigarettes and told him to meet us later. We toured the square and looked at the building Ukrainian prisoners were forced to build. The day it was completed, they were executed. Then we went to the cemetery. Here Pasha told me stories of bodies buried in the graves of others until it was safe to re-bury them under their own names. There were tombs, centuries of tombs, all with stories, and endless, haphazard gravestones and plinths, a jumble of history and necessity, not at all like the orderly precise graves of Sweden with their carefully raked gravel beds, but chaotic and full of emotion.

 

I was still separate from it, untouched, somehow, until we were leaving and I saw a stone pillar and on it, flowers. I went to look and the flowers were in a beer can. The simplicity of it touched me. I stood there for a long time, not wanting to ever forget the flowers or the can or the pillar or the way I felt at that moment.

 

It was a crazy day, a day like no other, as if we were both frenzied, both wanting me to see, to feel, to be imprinted with Lviv. We went through a Gothic passageway into a courtyard which contained a statue of a man and woman joined back to back. Here, Pasha said, adulterers had been tied to display the shame of their unfaithfulness. Because of the perfect acoustics, music was played  here in summer and people stood around the balconies but it was not this Pasha had brought me to see, but an opening in the pavement and steps leading down.

 

“They have only recently found these tunnels under the city,” Pasha said. “They are very old and no one knows where all of them go. It is good to see them but if we go down here there will be no time for anything else.”

 

I was torn between the two but chose to see more of the city. The sight of the tunnel raised memories of the catacombs of Kiev, of glass-topped coffins, of bodies in white shrouds, their faces covered with purple cloth embroidered with silver an gold. I’d had enough of that, of claustrophobia and death.

 

Instead, we went to a cathedral and chanced upon the city symphony practicing. Like the flowers in the beer can there was something appropriate about it, something better than having come dressed for the finished performance. We stood on the edge of a large crowd, listening to Bach, among a flock of gilt angels which hovered about the walls. In the center of the room a massive plumb hung suspend from the cupola and swung endlessly back and forth. I was overawed b the beauty, by the magnificence of the carvings, by the size of the building. Everywhere I turned there was something worth seeing. Now I understood what Pasha meant by my having to stay for a year to see everything. This building alone, to be seen, not looked at, but truly seen, needed a day to itself.

 

We went to a second cathedral and here there was no symphony, no spectators, only worshippers, nearly all old women in black clothes, lying flat on the stone floor or walking on their knees, repeatedly stopping and crossing themselves, fingering their beads, asking who knew what favour or forgiveness. The room was filled with the light and space of the New Testament. The pastel columns soared toward a glory of stained glass. But then I crossed the room to the entrance of the old cathedral which was Gothic, heavy, filled with shadows and fear, a place suitable to worship an avenging God. I deliberately placed myself where the two interiors met and stretched out my arms to either side.

 

“I did not intend to make this a day of cathedrals,” Pasha said “but this is on the way.”

 

We stopped at what had been an Albanian ghetto to look at a church which had sunk many feet into the gourd so that it seemed more like a s hip foundering than a building. The gate was fastened with a chain and lock. “Lviv is built on marsh. Everything looks solid but it sinks. It is a problem.”

 

We stopped in a sixteenth century street. The buildings were a solid wall which came right to the edge of the cobblestones on either side. There were no signs. No people. If I had been alone, I would have walked by without stopping. Pasha opened a door and we were immediately in a small room crammed with people eating cake and drinking coffee. The conversation paused when we entered, then began again. I went with Pasha to the counter to pick out cake and to watch the coffee being made. The man behind the counter took a small metal pot and carefully measured out coffee for it and water. Then he set the pot in a bed of hot sand. When he brought the coffee to our table, it came in tiny cups. It was strong and black and like nothing I’d ever drunk before.

 

“Just time for one more place,” Pasha said.

 

The car was waiting for us. We went to a hill overlooking the city. They got out beside a tour bus and climbed the h ill. There were lots of trees and the ground was covered in last year’s leaves. We stopped at the wall of an old castle. Stone steps wound upward and children ran past, chasing each other and laughing. When we reached the crest there was no one else there. The wind was cold and nearly blew my cap off.

 

“Is it always like this? I asked.

 

“Worse,” Pasha said. “But it is worth it.”

 

Lviv was spread out before us. A vast sweep of trees and buildings and endless golden domes and steeples. Above us there was endless blue sky and scudding clouds.

 

“Magnificent!” I exclaimed. The golden buildings spread out in all t heir glory, like something from Arabian nights. Everywhere I looked as we circle the hill were steeples and cupolas,  like the risen Christ, I thought, like hosannas in brick and metal, a golden city built on faith.

 

“Yes,” Pasha agreed. “Magnificent. To keep this one running,” he sighted along his arm and I leaned close so that I was looking at the right building, “took the taxes of fifteen thousand peasants every year.”

 

Later, when I was back on the train, writing in my diary, I tried to remember the names, the endless names, and the dates, but t hey ran together. I remembered instead, the tombs stained black with walnut juice and the black house and the coffee and Pasha saying that when the Americans came they wanted to argue about everything, even if they knew no history no politics, and I wrote it all down, except for  how magnificent the cathedrals were, writing down, instead, fifteen thousand, and trying t imagine it in Canada. A city the size of Lethbridge or Brandon and fifteen thousand families every year forced to pay their income tax to keep one local church running. I had intended to write a story about the cathedrals. Instead, I wrote about the stone column and the bouquet of flowers in a beer can.

Laxness in the Interlake (chapter 2)

laxnesssock

My conversations with Valdimar Vigfusson from Vidir took place over a long period of time. I was often away, he was often not feeling well, sometimes he was just feeling stubborn and unappreciated. I couldn’t help being away and I couldn’t blame him for feeling out of sorts. He’d been a large, strong man, a successful farmer, missed his wife who had died some years before, and hated being in the nursing home in Gimli, Manitoba.

He didn’t yell or swear, at least not a lot. He mostly sulked and if I turned up and he was feeling resentful or unhappy over the food, he hated pasta and the nursing home served it quite often, he just jerked his thumb at the door. I might manage to mollify him by asking him if he wanted a cigarette.

His daughter had said that he was not to have any cigarettes so he was always trying cadge one. He had smoked all his life and the fingers of his right hand were stained dark yellow. If the staff chastised him for smoking, he replied by saying that when he died he hoped he’d go to hell because there’d always be a light available for his fag.

After he’d told me about the reading where Laxness had been chased down the road out of town, I was puzzled at his saying that they’d made it back to Gimli that night. Gimli was a good thirty miles from where the reading was held. I knew what those country roads were like when they were wet, not just wet but saturated, their surface sticky Manitoba clay.

There was no use pussy footing about it. If I was subtle, he’d brush me off so I said, “You couldn’t have made it back to Gimli that night. It was impossible. Where did you spend the night?”

He half-smiled, tipped his head back and looked at a painting on his wall of a farm yard with some granaries in it. The staff sometimes described him as a devil. Not an evil devil but a mischievous devil, more like an imp.

“Of course we made it to Gimli, didn’t I say so?”

“Give me a break. I’ve been thinking about it. You’d have had a hard time making it even if you’d been in a buggy with two good horses, never mind a car.”

“Maybe I’ll have a cigarette,” he said so I unlocked the brake on his wheelchair and rolled him out the front door. There was nothing wrong with his mind except a little forgetfulness now and again and he knew the combination. He could let himself in and out whenever he wanted. He had no bracelet on his wrist or ankle that would lock the door anytime he came close. Sometimes when he wanted to go out, there’d be other residents gathered close to the door and some of them had bracelets so the door was locked. He’d start shouting, “Out, out, get out of here.” and they’d scatter like a flock of crippled chickens with their walkers and canes.

He was the envy of many because even though he was in a wheelchair, he was able to go and come as he pleased. There were no farms nearby but the harbour was a block and a half away and he’d wheel himself down there to sit on the dock and watch the boats and the tourists. He always took a tea cup with him and found someone, often one of the kids who hung around the harbour, to get him a cup of cold artesian water from the fountain. “No damned chlorine in it,” he’d declare.

He had an eye for the ladies and along with studying the boats, he watched the women in their shorts and bikinis. Sometimes, he’d say to me, “Let’s go ogle the babes.” I’d push him down to the dock, then along the boardwalk that fronted the beach for a quarter of a mile. He particularly liked to watch the beach volleyball and was quite vocal about how much better life would have been if they’d have had beach volleyball when he was a boy.

“”You’re an old bugger,”” I’d say to him sometimes. He never denied it. “Yeah,” he’d say with some satisfaction. “I am.'”

He had two cigarettes before he was willing to talk. We were on the artificial hill beside the nursing home. It gave a clear view of the south part of the bay. Flat, pale blue water, warm sun, the small dock where the commercial fishermen tied up their boats.

“Laxness,” I said.

“I’m the only person alive who knows this stuff,” he said. “The guy won the Nobel prize. The inside dope should be worth more than two cigarettes.”

I took the package of Export out of my pocket. They didn’t just cost me serious money but looks of disapproval from the grocery clerks and customers in the lineup at the cashiers. The process of buying the cigarettes had become quite furtive, the cigarettes locked up as if they were some evil talisman, the cashier at SuperA scurrying to unlock the cabinet and then holding them so as few people as possible could see what I was buying, slipping them across the counter and my jamming them into my pant’s pocket. Even so I’d had women, always women, standing behind me say things like cancer in a shocked, disapproving voice. I got lectures.

When this happened, I wanted to turn around and say, I don’t smoke. This is in pursuit of precious knowledge that could be lost at any moment. I’ve never been good at handling criticism.

I put a cigarette in his mouth and lit it with a bright purple lighter.

“My memory slips sometimes,” he said. He took a big drag and blew three circles of smoke. He was proud of his smoke circles. The most he’d ever managed was five and if he’d had his way everyone in the nursing home would have been smoking and practicing blowing circles. When anyone protested at his idea, he said, “They’re all going to die shortly anyway. They might as well accomplish something in the meantime.”

“You’re right, now that I think of it, we’d didn’t make it home that night. I dunno. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything. In respect for his wife.”

“Laxness’s wife?”

“No,” Valdi said. “The farmer’s wife.”

I waited. I’d learned that there was no point in trying to push him. He told his stories at his own pace and in his own time. If I tried to hurry him, he’d jerk his thumb and it would be off to the nursing home and I wouldn’t see him again for a week, maybe two. We watched one of the fishermen coming in with his catch. He throttled down when he got close to the dock, swung the skiff around, then slipped expertly into his berth.

“They didn’t make it back to Gimli that night. You’re right. They were axel deep in mud at times. The stuff was slippery. They slipped and slid. It was still pouring rain. Pouring rain,” he repeated to emphasize the point. “Coming down in sheets. You know that road. You could end up in the river or a ditch. Part of the time, they drove with the doors open so they could jump out.”

“The lightening was still coming down like something from hell, here, there, all around them. Everything would be pitch black, then everything would be lit up so they could see every detail. A wind was blowing so that the rain went across the windshield in waves.”

“Normally, the driver would have stopped at a farmhouse but the farmhouses were all Icelandic and that meant the people probably were at the reading. There’d be the story which had insulted them, the tar and feathers that had spread over all sorts of suits and dresses, the drenching of people who’d come in wagons, the terrible road they’d traveled. None of these promised a happy reception.”

“They traveled, if you can call it traveling when you are moving at less speed than a good walk. The driver did well, pulling the car out of skids, getting it through holes and ruts filled with water. I should say it wasn’t warm out. The rain was cold and they were both soaked to the skin.”

“They had turned south when the car started to spin. There was nothing the driver could do about it. There was a bit of a slope to the road and the car did a pirouette.” Valdi made a circle with the cigarette to demonstrate a pirouette. “It ended nose down in a ditch. It wasn’t a deep ditch but it was deep enough. Laxness got out and staggered through the mud and water, waded into the water filled ditch, his good lace up shoes were beyond redemption now, plunged his hands into the water and while the driver tried to back up, he pushed. They made a number of attempts but it was obviously hopeless.”

“If it hadn’t been getting cold, they’d have stayed with the car but they had no dry clothes and no blankets, there was no way to make a fire. They started to walk on a section of road where there were  few houses. Saying they walked really isn’t accurate. They staggered, they dragged their feet, they wrenched their way from one footstep to another. The driver, as I said, was a big man, strong, and when Laxness fell down for the last time and couldn’t get to his feet, the driver picked him up, put him over his shoulder and staggered forward. He’d seen a light and that kept him going.”

“When he got close to the light, lightening flashed and he could see there was a house and a barn. He made it across the bridge over the ditch, through a gate, slid Laxness off his shoulder and leaned him up against the door. The door had a peephole built into it so the farmer could look out to see who had come . The peephole took Laxness back to his years in in the Abbey of St. Maurice. Fear and anxiety had taken him to the Abbey and now, in the blinding rain and cold, fear and anxiety took him back there again. He had abandoned Lutheranism and was baptized a Catholic. You know, he disowned being Lutheran and joined a group that prayed for Iceland to go back to being Catholic.”

“The driver knocked, then banged and finally kicked on the door and, at last, mercifully, the peep hole opened and an eye looked out at them. The driver asked, then begged that they be let in but to no avail. The woman on the other side of the door was young, German, the wife of a German farmer who was away and she wasn’t going to let two strange men on a stormy night into her home. She didn’t understand Icelandic and she had only a rudimentary grasp of English.”

‘The peep hole and Laxness’s memory, loosened from reality by his ordeal, taking him back to the monastery door, prompted him to begin singing a Catholic hymn in Latin. The woman on the other side of the door, believing that some figure from God had arrived, pulled back the bolt that held the door shut and Laxness fell onto her floor. He lay there singing in Latin. The driver grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him into the house so the woman could shut the door against the wind and rain.

“Where have you come from?” she cried.

“From God,” Laxness said and she clapped her hands to her face. “Help me, help me,” she said and began to pull off his muddy, soaking wet clothes. Between the two of them, they undressed Laxness and she washed him with warm water from the container on the side of the wood stove and dried him with a large cloth, then wrapped him in a blanket. The driver put him in a chair in front of the wood stove and the housewife, a sturdy, handsome woman, heated some potato soup, left the driver to serve himself, but fed Laxness. Once he’d eaten the soup, she put her hands under one of his arms and helped him into the other room (there only were two) and put him to bed. She didn’t want the driver picking him up because the driver was still covered in mud. “He has to warm up,” she said. “He’s shivering.”

“The driver, like many Icelanders, had a rudimentary grasp of German. “Gone,” she shouted at the driver and he thought she meant that he should go but he when he got up, she shook her head, pointed at herself, then at a man’s jacket hanging on a peg on the wall, then at the window. “My husband,” she said. “Away.” The driver nodded to her back and helped himself to another bowl of soup.”

“She shut the door to the bedroom and the driver was left to himself. There was a military type rifle on the wall, some metal traps, some religious icons but there was just the small table at which he was sitting, two chairs and some cupboards.”

“The house was quite small so he couldn’t help but hear her get into bed and in a little while there was some rhythmic noise.”

“What kind of rhythmic noise?” I asked Valdi.

“Rhythmic, you know. I’m not saying they were doing anything they shouldn’t. She was worried that he might have hypothermia and was helping him warm up.”

“After a while, he heard them whispering in German. Laxness spoke German very well.”

“At some point in the night, she came out to look through the window. The driver had fallen asleep sitting up. He woke and she said, “He comes from God. He prays in Latin. He speaks German. You watch here. You call me if anyone is coming.”

“She went back into the bedroom and she helped him to get warm again. The driver fell asleep and when he woke up the rain had stopped. He went to the door and looked down the road. He saw someone coming on a horse. He ran back inside, barged into the bedroom and said he’s coming.”

“The wife panicked. She jumped out of bed. It was too late for them to go out the front door. There was no back door but there was a window in the bedroom. Laxness got out of bed and climbed out the window. She threw his clothes after him and said hide there and pointed to a pig barn that was about four feet high. “Not the cow barn.”

“She shut the window, grabbed the driver who was too big to go through the window, dragged him to the chair at the table. “You sit here.” She ran back into the bedroom, got dressed, pulled the comforter into place and opened the door for her husband who was as large as the driver and in a foul mood after having traveled through terrible weather and over horrible roads.”

“He came looking for help,” she said. “His car is somewhere there,” she pointed further along the road. “It is a good chance to make a few dollars off these Icelanders.”

“It was obvious that there’d been no fooling around with the driver. He was in his mud soaked clothes. The only thing he’d taken off were his mud caked boots. The husband looked around the room, went to the door of the bedroom, then came back.”

“Hitch up your horse,” she said. “We can use a few dollars.”

“The pigs are squealing,” he said. “Has a weasel got in with them?”

“I’ll look,” she replied. “You take care of him.”

“She went out to the pig barn and opened the door. Laxness was bent over inside. He’d managed to get his clothes on. “My sock,” he said. “I left one of my socks.” She threw some feed to the pigs to calm them down. “You go down that way,” she said and hide in the bush. Your friend will pick you up. Don’t go until I tell you.”

“Her husband and the driver left and she looked for Laxness’s sock but couldn’t find it. She rushed back out and told him to leave. He fled around the back of the barn where he wouldn’t leave footprints in the bush and thrashed his way along edge of the road. The housewife pulled the comforter off the bed and then the sheets but couldn’t find the missing sock. It would have been a disaster if her husband had seen it. It was an Icelandic sock, not a German sock. There would be no explaining its presence.”

“The farmer and the driver went down the road with the horse and managed to drag the car out of the ditch. The driver forked over two dollars and started off down the road. He wasn’t sure what had happened to Laxness but he kept his eyes open and couldn’t drive quickly anyway. Laxness suddenly appeared from out of a stand of poplars, opened the door and threw himself onto the front passenger seat. He smelled of pigs.“

Valdi stopped with that and pointed toward the cigarette package in my pocket. I reluctantly took out a cigarette for him but I didn’t light it.

“What happened to the sock?” I asked.

“It was stuck inside Laxness’s trousers,” he said. “He felt a lump there and reached in and pulled it out. There was no way to tell the farm wife. There was no reasonable excuse for the driver to return to the farm. The farm wife searched the bedroom many times, searched the main room, searched outside, thought maybe one of the pigs had eaten it and worried that when a pig was killed and gutted that the sock might appear in its stomach. It would be impossible to explain.”

“The driver was in town a year or so later. He saw the housewife at Gunnar Johnson’s livery stable. There was no sign of her husband. She told the driver what had happened to her. She said, ‘The sock?” and he said, “In his pants.” And she nearly collapsed with relief. They both looked over their shoulders and he went out one end of the livery stable and she went out the other.”

 

 

 

The Oranges of Peristroika

kiev

Moscow station. Moscow station, I kept thinking It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. It was beyond anything I’d ever imagined. A maelstrom of people

 

Ivan had said, “Say right behind me. Don’t lose sight of me.” Then we’d plunged into a turbulence of bodies and suitcases and boxes tied with rope. The noise was overwhelming. Afghanistan was not finished then and not since my childhood had I seen so many soldiers. I’d been born the year W.W.II started. There’d been an air base two mile south of town where they were training plots for the Battle of Britain so I’d grown up with all these men in uniform being around. But it hadn’t been like this. I was shocked by how young the soldiers were. Some still had the smooth faces of children, the gangly, disjointed bodies of adolescence.

 

The station was filled with darkness. The dark, heavy coats, the dark chapkas, the dark shoes. Here and there a red babushka glowed like a poppy in a dark field. Then all of a sudden there were the oranges, a pyramid of colour, crates of Egyptian oranges piled high. At home I took oranges for granted, stuffing a few into a plastic bag, without thinking about it. But here they glowed a bright as the golden domes of the cathedrals, brighter even, a mass of golden colour.

 

“Peristroika, “ Ivan said. “Before it was the black market, now it is being a good citizen.”

 

“They don’t work for the government?”

 

Ivan shook his head. “Free enterprise. The new capitalists.”

 

“Stay here, “ Ivan said, dropping his luggage beside a wall. Then he disappeared, swallowed up in the fierce current of bodies. All around the pile of oranges people eddied. Soldiers bought one or two before hurrying off to their trains. Ivan suddenly reappeared, a paper bag in his hand. He grabbed  his suitcase and said, “Come, come, we have to hurry!”

 

Frightened at the thought of being left behind or of losing sight of Ivan’s small, round figure, I rushed after him, pushing through the crowd until we came out on a train platform.

 

There, we paused, put down our bags for a moment’s rest. It was like something out of a movie, I thought. It was night and everywhere, Red Army uniforms, soldiers climbing onto trains, civilians lining up to get onto the cars, the platform in constant turmoil, and then two women went by, red arm bands on their coats.

 

“Who are they?” I asked and Ivan wrinkled  his face in distaste.

 

“Nobody anymore. Pretty soon over.” He cut the air with his hand to signify finality. “Busybodies checking on everybody else’s business. Nothing better to do.”

 

The compartment was nicer than I expected. There was a single bed on each side with a table in the Centre against the wall under the window. I hadn’t slept since leaving Canada and now, overwhelmed with tiredness, I took off my shoes and lay down. My body ached as if I’d been beaten. The shock of the day was still with me. St. Basil’s with its expression of Christianity beyond my understanding. The Kremlin with its high red walls. The eternal flame and its piles of fresh flowers.

 

The train jerked. Then jerked again and there was the sound of metal on metal and then the slow forward motion and tired as I was I had to look out the window. I didn’t want to miss anything. I sat at the table. Ivan opened a bottle of soda water. I’ll have to remember that, I thought, the bottle opener is under the table.

 

By the time we reached the outskirts of Moscow, the night had deepened and the brilliant white snow was now purple and gold. The stained buildings had given way to stretches of fresh snow and dachas surrounded by picket fences and scatterings of trees and empty, unused roads. The conductress had knocked and brought tea in glasses held with metal holders. The tea was strong and served with large hard lumps of sugar and biscuits. She had been stunningly beautiful, the way I knew Russian women could be, with blonde curly hair to her shoulders, a wedge blue cap on her head, a peasant blouse, a blue skirt and leather boots. I wished I could say something to her, something in Russian, something kind and not stupid. Like most North Americans though I was trapped in English by my arrogance and all I knew was da and nyet and possibe and chapka and chi. so I said possibe when she handed me my tea. Then, unable to think of anything else, I dug in my handbag and took out a box of Purdy’s chocolates and opened it and held it out and was delighted by her pleasure. When she took one, I urged her to take another After she was gone and we were sitting at the table, sipping their tea, I thought nothing could be better than this, I’d never forget this, the Army officers in their uniforms, the sound of the train, the snow covered dachas, the tea, the beautiful conductress. When I woke in the morning, still in my clothes, with a blanket thrown over me, Ivan was saying, “William, wake up, wake up, we are at Kiev soon.”

 

We took a car to the hotel. When I was in my room, I started to say something and Ivan held up one finger to stop me. Then he turned on the television so it was quite loud.

 

Just before he left, he took the paper bag out of his suitcase. In it were four oranges. One for his wife, one for his son, one for himself. He took out the fourth orange and gave it to me. I didn’t want to take it because I guessed at what it must have cost but I knew I couldn’t say no without it being misunderstood so I took it and kept it and didn’t eat it until three days later when I was sitting in the park with the statue of Taras Tschevchenko. I took a long time eating it, using my pen knife to make thin slices, eating all of it, even the  bitter rind.

 

Snowing in Moscow

 

St. Basils

 

When I arrived, It was snowing in Moscow. Big flakes, as big as my thumbnail. As we stood in the lamplight at Shermatyvo, waiting for our car, the flakes spiraled like endless  small birds through the pools of light. The women were wearing bulky coats and the men long cloth coats or heavy jackets. Although it was nearly the end of December, the winter clothes weren’t needed. The air was warm, the way that only winter air can be, as if it were soft to the touch, and underfoot the snow was turning to slush so that I was glad I’d bought waterproof boots at Sears before I’d left.

 

“Taxi, you want a taxi,” a man said in heavily accented English.

 

“Good capitalists,” Ivan said, laughing and waving him away. “He has a car and wanst to make a few rubles. Gorbachev’s New Man.”

 

Our car arrived and once I was sitting down, I realized how tired I was. It was dark out so there wasn’t much to see, snow and darkened buildings and , sometimes, a high fence. It wasn’t the way I had imagined it. The idea surprised me because I hadn’t realized I’d expected anything.

 

“You’ve been traveling a long time?” Ivan asked.

 

“Twenty-four hours,” I answered, wondering if it were true, confused by the lack of sleep, the eleven hour time change, the shifting images of airports, the surprise I always feel at having arrived somewhere distant after a long trip.

 

“We’ll be at the hotel s shortly. You’ll sleep then.”

 

But I didn’t sleep. Instead, I spent the night alternating between lying on my bed and standing in the window, watching the street. For most of the night the street was empty, then a city crew appeared,  noisily scraping away the snow and some time after that a woman unlocked the doors to the building opposite the hotel.  She went inside and a minute later a light went on and I could see that she was in some kind of office. Then, gradually, although it was still dark, people began to appear in two’s and three’s and enter the buildings. Lights began to go on here and there.

 

Standing there I had a sense of deja vu and this time I knew what it was that I’d experienced at the airport. The first time I felt quite small, as if I were a child again, waiting at a bus stop in Winnipeg with my grandmother and now, I felt like a young man, standing at a window of the Royal Alex Hotel. There was the same winter darkness, the same bulky, dark clothed figures scurrying through the cold, that same intensity of light from the windows. The hotel room with its high ceiling and the bathroom with its black and white tiles had something elegant and practical about it at the same time, the way CN hotels always made me feel.

 

At breakfast, I was disappointed by the samovar. I’d always thought they were filled with tea but discovered it contained only hot water. There was a buffet of cheese and bread and sliced meat and cold vegetables. I wasn’t hungry but I drank four cups of chi. I learned to say chi right away. It was my first Russian word. There were others I knew because they’d become English words. Words like czar and commissar but this one would always be special to me, the way the first word learned in a foreign place is always special.

 

“Today,” Ivan said, “you go sightseeing with Olga. Very good English.  Very pretty. You take car. You brought camera? You can take pictures anywhere. Ask anything. Glasnost is here.”

 

But the car didn’t arrive. Ivan sent me to shop in the Berioshka while he telephoned about the car. Outside, the snow had quit falling and the day was clear and cold. When Ivan found me among the marushkas, he was apologetic about the car but shrugged his shoulders signifying nothing could be done. Later, Olga apologized twice more. It told  her I was glad someone else had taken the car because it meant we could walk. The day was colder than the previous one and the freshly frozen ice crunching under our feet and our breath rising in plumes reminded me of being twenty in Winnipeg. There was the delicious feeling of being warm inside my clothes and walking beside a pretty woman to somewhere interesting.

 

On the way to the Kremlin I suddenly felt that strange disorientation I sometimes feel when I encounter something totally unexpected in a foreign place. City crews were hanging snowmen and bunting and signs saying Happy New Year on the lamp standards. The streets were thick with people dressed in the same motley of  jogging suits and American parkas that you’d see in Regina or Edmonton. Waiting at a red light, I was overcome with black and white images I’d repeatedly seen on World At War. It was like I kept expecting bombed out buildings and people struggling through the snow, pulling the dead on sleighs.

 

We waited in line for a ticket to the Cathedrals. The domes were surrounded by scaffolding. The new gold leaf shimmered in the clear winter sky, filling the air with yellow light. Before I left Canada, one of my friends said, “Moscow is an Eastern city. There you will know you are not in the West.” but as I stood in line, looking at the multiple onion domes and crooked crosses, instead of everything seeming foreign and mysterious, it made me think of Winnipeg and small prairie towns.

 

There were a hundred people ahead of us waiting for tickets. We shuffled forward for half an hour before we reached the booth. It had three windows. Although it was a holiday and the city was filled with visitors, two of the windows were shut. The one that was open was small, no more than a  hand’s width and so low that everyone had to bow down to ask for tickets.

 

After seeing the glory of the cathedrals from the outside, the interiors were a disappointment. They felt closed in, cramped, heavy, more like caves for the dead than entrances to the Resurrection. I could imagine centuries of worshippers crowded together in their dark clothes, holding candles,  hoping to get a glimpse of the icons which rose from floor to ceiling, barbaric, full of vanity and authority, promising everything which was unobtainable on earth.

 

“Here are icons,” Olga said. I could hardly have missed them. The paintings were in rows from floor to ceiling. “We are not religious but these are our heritage, our history, so we must preserve them.”

 

She said it with all the feeling of a tape recorder. Intrigued, I began to watch her out of the corner of my eye, wondering it would be possible for an honest moment to emerge, when she might say something she had not repeated a thousand or ten thousand times before. I’d heard that voice in other places, wherever there were tourists. Tour guides on buses talked like this. Except when I was in Hamburg. In Hamburg it had been different. The guide, even after he’d been told, could not grasp that we were Canadians. He would be describing some  historical building,  his voice running in a worn groove and then, as if he’d had a short circuit in  his program, he’d suddenly and bitterly describe  how the area had been bombed by Americans and how women and children and old people had to sleep in the snow and rain. These accusations would appear suddenly and disappear as suddenly, nearly incoherent fragments of some nightmare world.

 

“Here are more icons,” Olga said as we rounded a pillar. “You are Christian. You  must like icons.” There was a flicker of emotion in her voice. Concern, I thought. As if she were worried that I was not reacting correctly, that my interest had not been properly calculated.

 

I thought I might try to explain to her about Christians, about the difference between Catholic and Protestant, about Martin Luther and graven images, about the splintered and splintering Catholic church, about Jimmy Swaggert, about people who kiss snakes to get close to God, about a religion so full of permutations it can preach forgiveness and love and yet manifest itself as a bumper sticker imploring every passerby to kill a Commie for Christ. Instead, I followed her down the narrow stone steps and into the sunlight and was happy with the crowds of children, the clusters of tourists, the Russians on holiday and wondered as she led me to see Napoleon’s cannon what she would look like without her large coat and her chapka, what she would wear if it were a warm day in June. Ivan had said over breakfast that she was a single mother and now I wondered if she had a lover, if when she went home at night, she spoke to him with anger or passion or fear or love, with something in her voice other than the practiced neutrality of memorization and then I remembered the stories about eight people sharing a two or three room apartment and wondered instead if this, then, showing me about the city, was not what she escaped from but what she escaped to.

 

After the debris of Napoleon’s defeat, we looked at the Czar’s bell and the czar’s cannon. The czar’s cannon had never been fired and his bell had never been lifted from the ground. They had been built too big to actually be used. Now, they were  just curiosities, concrete examples of ambition gone mad.

 

Olga left me at the hotel but after lunch she returned with the missing car. We rode out to a brown and white castle that looked like it had been made of iced chocolate cake. She told me it had been used to  house ex-czarinas. The idea took me by surprise. It had never occurred to me that one had to do something with left over czarinas. In America the divorced and widowed wives of the rich and powerful married someone who could afford to keep them and faded into an obscurity broken only by scandal or death. Like the cathedrals, the neglected castle was surrounded by scaffolding.

 

“Are they planning on having more czarinas?” I joked, pointing at the repairs.

 

“Peristroika. For tourists to look at.”

 

“And glasnost?”

 

“We can say what we wish. There are demonstrations nearly every day on Red Square.”

 

She showed me Moscow University, then we went to the Lenin Hills  Here, because of the view, we got out of the car. I asked about the ski jump. She told me  how high it was, the amount of materials in it, how long it took to build, how fast the skiers traveled. I said, thinking that even for a guide she knew an exceptional number of facts, “Does you son use the ski jump?”

 

She turned sharply toward me and blurted out, like someone else had suggested the same thing before me, “Never, never, would I let him do this. It’s much too dangerous.”

 

The chauffeur had got out and was smoking a Canadian cigarette a little ways away. She glanced at him, then added, “Of course, if he showed talent and, if he could bring honour to the Soviet Union and if he was needed, I wouldn’t keep him from doing what was best for the country.”