Laxness in the Kitchen

laxnessbowtie

Chapter 10

I’d spent the night at my parents’ house and, after breakfast, I’d driven to the Romanyuk’s. I’d just taken off my winter clothes and put them away. Dmytro was doing something in the barn. He’d waved from the door. Natalie had taken the cabbages out of the freezer earlier in the morning. The cabbages were thawed. I put them on a tray on the kitchen counter.

“That’s a lot of cabbages,” I said.

“We’re going to make extra so you can take some home with you.” Natalie was putting on a large pot of rice. There was a pound of bacon on a cutting board. “Here, you start slicing up this bacon fine. When you get that done, you mince these onions. Did you see Valdi this morning?”

“No, it’s his morning to have a bath and have his hair washed.”

“Does he need help bathing?”

“No, just getting into and out of the shower. They like him to sit in a chair. It’s like a factory. Washing all those people. You say no and you don’t get a bath for another week.”

“I can see he can’t get out of a tub anymore but out of a shower? If he was at home, he could get into and out of the shower. He’s got a handrail.”

I’d washed my hands and was slicing the bacon. “Fry it in there.” Natalie pointed at a large cast iron pan. She was cutting the cores out of the cabbages. “He has a good farm. You know his people were the first Icelanders to clear land in that area. They weren’t farmers. All they knew was planting potatoes.”

I felt, for a second, that I was being criticized or my great great great grandparents were being criticized. “In Iceland they didn’t plant crops. They just put fertilizer on their home fields. Grass for dairy cows and sheep.”

“This Laxness you care so much about, was he a farmer?”

“His father was a farmer. He tried to get Halldor interested but all he wanted to do was write. He started writing at seven.”

“I’ve read this Independent People about this stubborn farmer in Iceland. We have lots like that. Work and work and lose money. Lots of bankruptcy auctions in the Interlake. Lots of people have big mortgages, big loans and work for the bank. They should all wear those bank sports jackets.”

“Valdi thinks it is the best life in the world.”

I was putting the thin bacon shreds into the pan. “You need to keep stirring them,” she said. “You want to cook them enough but not too much.”

“Are the kids coming home for Christmas?” I asked. In the hallway, I’d looked at all the family pictures.

“Joseph and Sandra and their kids, yes. Barbara and Colin, no. They live in California and it is too far away and too expensive. Besides, they have no winter clothes anymore.”

“Joseph and Sandra live where?”

“Calgary. Doesn’t everyone live there now? The oil sands pay lots of money.”

I started mincing the onion and throwing it in with the bacon. They were large Spanish onions with golden skins. The knife was sharp and I was able to make thin, translucent slices, then dice them.

“You like to cook?” Natalie asked. I nodded. “Maybe you should become a chef?”

“Then it is work. Chefs have bad hours, bad working conditions, they get varicose veins from standing. I have a friend who is a chef,” I said.  “Not every chef has a TV program and a chain of restaurants.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “For one year when the crops were not good, I cooked for one of the restaurants. It was hard work.”

“Can you make a living from the farm?”

“Yes, but everything has to be big. Lots of land, always big equipment, loans from the bank. It is not enough to know how to farm. You have to be a businessman. You have to watch the price of crops, the weather, the price of fertilizer. I spend lots of time on the computer. It’s not three cows, two pigs and some chickens anymore.”

I stirred the bacon shreds, turned off the heat. The onion was golden I wondered how many thousands of hollopchi, how many perogis Natalie had made, how many cakes she had baked. Would she, if there was a place in heaven for people like her, say to St. Peter, I deserve to be in heaven because I made nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand hollopchis.

When I’d got to my parents the night before, I looked in the bedside table for the Bible that was never used. It had a fake red leather cover with a cross imprinted on it and the edge of the pages was painted gold. I realized that I had no idea where to find a reference to a camel and a rich man so I turned on my laptop and typed in rich man camel and up popped Mathew 19:24. Sunday school had left me with vague traces of Christianity. At least enough that I could do internet searches if I didn’t have to be too specific. I wondered where all that memorizing I’d done for Confirmation had disappeared. Mathew 19:24 said, “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

It was rich people who paid for the large churches of Winnipeg, not the wretches working in the rich people’s factories. I wondered how the ministers handled that. Would they slice the truth thin like I had done with the onion? Some rich men can’t get into heaven but, you, our regular, generous donors will have no problem. Christ wasn’t talking about good people like you. Diplomacy was important in getting donations. The Lutheran ministers were not, in my experience, like the black maggots of Natalie’s grandparent’s time. Usually, they also were wretches, badly paid, overworked, regularly abused by the wives of the elders or by the elders themselves. In the early days a number of ministers came from Iceland but never stayed long. Even my father talked about ministers’ wives being bossed about by the elders’ wives, censured for wearing shorts on a hot Manitoba summer day. Every detail about their lives observed and criticized.

Right from when Iceland became Christian, there was never any question about who the local ministers worked for. They served at the pleasure of the local chieftan, the Godi. The Godi was the political master and it was the minister’s job to help him keep the peasants in line. Terrify the peasants with the Godi’s sword and the minister’s God. The ministers, even after Iceland became Catholic were allowed to have concubines, wives in all but name. They had lots of children. People who do genealogy are often shocked. They say, how can my family tree go back to the last Catholic bishop in Iceland? When that last Catholic bishop and two of his seven sons were beheaded and Iceland became Lutheran living conditions didn’t suddenly change.

Think about it. You are a young priest, you are assigned to some godforsaken isolated piece of turf and lava, given some sheep and a cow. There’s lava desert, there are ice cold rivers from the glaciers, there are glaciers, there are mountains, your parishioners are spread over the wasteland. If you want to see someone, you have to get on a horse—if you’ve got a horse—and ride for hours. If you don’t have a horse, you walk. There is no radio, no TV, no movies. You probably have a few religious books. You take care of the sheep and the cow, hire some pathetic older crone to cook, make butter and beat dried fish with a stone hammer so it can be eaten—the dried fish that is. Entertainment consists of church, when the weather allows, and when the hay isn’t being harvested, so you draw it out, make it last, swigging cheap brandy from a flask, snorting snuff while the choir sings. You hope for the possibility of a farmer dying, leaving an older woman in need of a younger man. If she’s really over the hill, you have sex with the young girls who work as indentured servants (serfs). If you get one pregnant, you use some of your wife’s money to buy them a husband and give them a ramshackle sod and lava hut on the edge of the desert. If no well-to-do farmer conveniently dies, you marry some younger woman and live together in poverty as your evening entertainment produces a kid every year.

Ministers, although useful for conducting marriages and funerals, unless they were well connected to the ruling Danes, were given pathetically small allowances plus a piece of land and some animals and expected to support themselves and their family on their sheep or dairy cows. Many lived in hovels of turf and lava like the peasants. It wasn’t because they were mortifying their flesh to serve God. It was because they were paid a pittance and given lousy land. Their only hope of improving themselves was to suck up to the Danes. To do that they needed to get to one of the two bishoprics. Not much chance of that. Most of them were stuck in some lava field that God had forgotten. As much as they might want to, they weren’t going to get to hobnob with the big shots. The Icelanders had got rid of the Catholic church but they hadn’t got rid of the system.

Black maggots. I liked that. I’d written it down. It was a great image. I’d seen priests in their black outfits. Maggot hadn’t jumped to mind when I saw them but then I hadn’t seen them eating. The words raised images of a Ukrainian farmer lying on a table and six priests sitting around him gnawing at his various parts. The image made me feel guilty because I’d known a priest. I’d met him at a summer school, knew him for weeks before he mentioned that he was a priest. He was really smart, well mannered, easy to talk to. I liked him. I couldn’t imagine him sitting down to dine on some Ukraine farmer’s kid. He came from a wealthy Montreal family and was used to caviar. He was more the kind of priest with whom Laxness liked to discuss religious theory.

I hadn’t given much thought about religion in my hoped-to-be book. The conversation the night before had stirred that up, Natalie saying that Domka and Peter had told Laxness that he should be ashamed for becoming a Catholic, that it was nothing to be proud of. Both Domka and Peter’s families had been better off than many of the other settlers. Domka’s father had been to school in Lviv. Peter’s father had been one of the few serfs who had managed to get household work and had learned to read and to master Russian, Polish and German. He’d planned his escape well. With the first stories he heard about North America he began to learn English. Because of that when he got to Canada, he’d been a leader in the community with people coming to him to ask him to explain the law, translate documents, help them deal with disputes with the English. The immigrants needed all the help they could get. Not being able to read or speak English, they were cheated at every turn. Land they should have had for ten dollars for homesteading, they were charged one or two thousand dollars for. They were fleeced, Valdi told me, like sheep, and those doing the fleecing were the English but sometimes they were the Icelanders who had arrived twenty-five years earlier. The fist fights weren’t always about girls.

Natalie was showing me how to roll the cabbage leaves around the rice, onion and bacon mixture so that it made a tight package.

“You don’t put any ground meat into the mix,” I said.

She shrugged. “That’s Hungarian, Polish. Here we didn’t have meat. Just rice, a little bit of pork, onion. Poor people’s hollopchi. It’s what you get used to.”

“Were people really so poor?” I asked. The stories I’d heard seemed exaggerated, yet there were so many of them. I read them at the library and in the local histories that I collected. The problem was that it was now fourth or fifth hand. There were photographs of people and farms and at Winnipeg Beach there was a Ukrainian park with an outdoor oven. My grandmother remembered going to a farm that had kept its oven. She said when the bread was put into it, the women used tough outer cabbage leaves instead of pans and when the bread came out of the oven, the bottom had the pattern of the cabbage leaf. But even then baking bread this way was really just a curiosity. Why bake bread in an oven you have to heat with wood, then pull out the ashes and slide the dough inside when you can turn on the electric stove? I’d asked her about it more than once but she’d been a little girl and didn’t remember anything more except that the bread had been very good. They’d eaten it with freshly churned butter.

“It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?” Natalie said. “Electric light. Electric heat. Just push the switch. Drive to town in half an hour. When I was a girl they were still using a horse with a caboose to take us to school in winter. Not for long. Just the first few grades. Then there was a car.”

I’d seen pictures of these cabooses on a sleigh with the kids lined up in front for a picture. They were in the Archives and in family photo albums. I wished that I could smell these days, hear them, touch them, not just look at a black and white photograph.

“Teachers do an important job,” she said. “A good teacher is always remembered.”

I wondered what Valdi had told her. “Yes, but it is not like it used to be. It is difficult.”

“We made sure our children behaved. There are lots of hard jobs for people with no education. Life is much better for an engineer and a nurse.”

“Not everyone feels that way. Parents come and they scream and yell and swear because their child doesn’t have A plus. No one has to learn. They complain and they are asked to choose what grade they think they deserve?”

“Some people make sacrifices, go to jail, get beaten, get killed so others have opportunities but that is forgotten,” Natalie said. “People think their car, their house, their food, their clothes, everything just is there because it is supposed to be. No one had to fight for good wages, good working conditions, medical. Like it just dropped down from the sky.”

As we talked, her hands moved automatically, scooping filling onto the cabbage leaves, rolling them half way, turning in the edges, rolling them the rest of the way. I’d put the outer tough leaves into the roasting pan. We lined up hollopchi on them. She took a ladle of crushed tomatoes and poured it over the first layer. I put another layer of cabbage leaves over them so we could put in a second layer.

“Did your wife make hollopchi?” she asked.

“She didn’t believe in cooking or cleaning house. These were slavery.”

“I don’t feel like a slave,” she said. “She wanted to feel like a slave, she should drive a truck during harvest. From dawn to dark and if the weather is good, after dark. We have no choice. No one knows what the weather will do.”

I’d read about what the weather could do. In the early days women planting and tending a large garden, enough food to get them through the winter and a hard frost killed everything: beets, potatoes, cabbage, kolrabi, carrots. Everything. A good crop of barley, flax and wheat and then hail suddenly appeared, beating down and destroying a nearly ripe crop. A year’s work gone. All in a matter of minutes. Hail would appear like the white sword of the devil and race over the fields, sometimes bigger than golf balls, piling up and then it would be gone. It would sweep past and everything would be destroyed in its wake. The sun and rain promising everything. Wind and storms taking it away. There was just another hungry winter.

“Life is too short,” Natalie said. “Dmytro tried working in the city. In a warehouse. The pay was good. The boss was fair. Dmytro hated it. Driving the front end loader. Loading trucks. Checking bills of lading. Unload the boxcars, load the trucks. He came home one day and said I can’t do this anymore. I want to go home.”

“Was this home?”

“His parents owned this farm, it wasn’t so big then. They wanted to retire. They moved into a house in town. They could come here any time they wanted.”

“It’s hard work.”

“It’s harder work when you don’t like what you are doing? You don’t like teaching. How hard is it to go every day?”

“Sometimes I take pills for my nerves.”

“Valdi says you could be a good farmer. You have to work hard on your crops but then you have the winter to write. What would be so bad about that?”

“Me? A farmer?” I stopped rolling a hollopchi and it fell apart. I scooped the filling back into place. “I haven’t got any money. I’m nearly divorced. My ex-wife has been a student most of the time. She’s working now and paying off her debts.” The thought was terrifying. Admittedly, all my research for my book was in the past when conditions were terrible, but all I read and heard about farming was people going hungry, suffering, losing everything, having to start over again. A job at the college meant fewer hours, more mature students, tenure in a few years, working in a nice warm building. A pay cheque like a miracle every month. There were clanking noises coming from the barn. In the cold air sound traveled. Dmytro was doing something with a grain auger that wasn’t working properly. “I don’t even know wheat from barley,” I said. “I’m twenty-seven. I’m twenty-eight in May. I spent five years at university to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree and a teaching certificate. I can’t just start over. Like I’m a teacher and now I’m a farmer.”

The roaster was full. Natalie poured more tomato sauce over it, put a cover on it and put it in the oven. She glanced at the clock. “We’ll do the second roaster, then we’ll stop for tea. You are starting over. You got married, now you are ending it. You will not stay single forever. You will start again.”

“Once is enough,” I replied. I was feeling panic. I didn’t like talking about these things. I was twenty-seven and I already was a failure.

“Valdi has told me your wife was very pretty. Is that why you married her?”

I squirmed. I’d shown Valdi some pictures of Jasmine in her belly dancing outfit. Cymbals on her fingers, her hands raised above her head, looking seductively into the camera.

Natalie laughed at my embarrassment but not in a mean way. She shook her head as if to say “Men.” “Before you made this investment in your life, did you ask if she was kind? Or honest? Or fair? Or generous? Or loving? Did you make a check list that said this is what I want in a wife? Did you know she didn’t want to cook or clean house?”

“Yes,” I said. “I knew she didn’t want to cook or clean house.”

“Did you think she would change? Did you ask her about money? Couples fight about money. Lots of people we know have got divorced over money.”

“We liked dancing, hiking, going to movies and other stuff.”

“She was pretty. Did you think that was enough?”

I didn’t think, that was the problem. I was infatuated, in love, in lust, at first I thought about nothing but sex. It was a hot, noisy bed, showers together, having sex in every room, on the beach, just off the hiking trails. At first nothing else mattered and then she was pregnant and we were married and it was a greased slide and then she lost the baby and then the rest of our lives reasserted ourselves. Small things but things that mattered. I picked spiders up on a piece of paper and put them outdoors. When she asked why, I said they were working hard for us. They, too, had the right to live. She squashed them. Bad karma, I thought. She said when you are young you need to spend money and have a good time. Saving was for middle age. I wanted to save money in a TFSA so I could take a year off teaching. Not a lot of bottles of wine now, not so many restaurant meals now because I wanted to take a year off. I worried about how we’d save enough to buy a house. You worry too much, she said. She wanted to change the world. I just wanted to change my life. We fought silently, resentfully, sometimes noisily, not agreeing on much of anything and she spent more and more time at the university with people like herself and then she said she was in love with one of the women in her tom tom group and was splitting. There wasn’t much to divide. She packed up her stuff and I was sitting by myself in the living room on an IKEA couch with my feet on a cube. We had rented the house on a month to month basis. I needed to start looking for an apartment.

When I told my folks, my mother was sympathetic but my father said, “Boy, am I glad we didn’t spring for a big wedding. Money down the drain.”

While I was thinking this, I must have looked pretty sad because Natalie put her hand on mine and said, “This Laxness. His story might help you get this job?” I nodded. “I’ll try to remember any details.”

Laxness and the Holdomor

laxnessyoung

Chapter 9

When I was a kid, my father took us to Seven Sister’s Falls. There’s the hydro dam, the river, islands, we went for a hike, had a picnic lunch, but what I remembered most about that trip was that because it had rained heavily the previous two days, there was a lot of erosion on the trail on which we walked. My father, never one to miss a chance at educating us, stooped down, signaled with his finger for us to squat beside him to study something on the ground. It was a fragment of pottery.

“Aboriginal,” he said. He picked it up, turned it over in his hand, then gave it to us to hold. He told us not to move. Where there was one piece of broken pottery, there would be more. We squatted there, studying the eroded trail and quickly found half-a-dozen pieces. Before we were finished looking we had pockets full of shards. “Black Duck pottery,” he explained. “This was a major trading spot. Lots went on here.”

When we got home, we managed to fit some of the pieces together. We Crazy Glued them together and I wished that we had searched for more, enough that we could actually see what the pot had looked like. Later, when I had my driver’s license, I went back and added to my stash of shards, always trying to get enough to see the vessel’s shape and the pattern that had been cut into the clay.

In my investigations, I also found ten stone arrowheads. I mounted those in a shallow box.

When I’d bring the pieces home, my father would nod and smile but always ask, “What do they tell you? What information do they contain?” What information do things contain? What can we learn about native culture from the fragments left behind? Objects aren’t just objects, he’d say. They contain large amounts of information. He taught me the same about writing. If you put a brass ring or a gold ring in your poem what story does it tell? Any time I showed him a story, a poem or an article, he always hi-lighted the objects. Beside them he’d add “Connotation? What is the story of this object?”

I used this advice in looking for stories for my book. A large, circular stone on a farm, something I hadn’t seen before, turned out to have been used for grinding grain. It now sat on the ground, nearly hidden by grass and weeds but, after asking, discovered it had been so precious that the original farmer carried it on his back for thirty miles. Not all at once but because it was so heavy, a little at time. It meant his wife could grind their grain without their having to go all the way to town and pay to have the grain ground.

A straight handled scythe nearly hidden in the corner of an unused barn had a blade brought from Bukovina, had been carried by foot, by train, by ship, by train again, by wagon, to sixty acres of bush in the Interlake. It’s handle was made from local ash. A pole cut from birch with a handmade chisel head lay in a shed on what had been an Icelandic farm close to the lake. The chisel head had been pounded into shape by a blacksmith’s hammer. The blows of the hammer could be seen in the metal. Winter fishing, before motors, before automatic drills, required men to chisel through four feet or more of ice. When the Icelanders came to the Interlake, they had no experience fishing through the ice. They had fished the ocean for cod. Everything had to be learned, everything had to be imagined and made. The owner of the chisel had taken a dog sled of frozen fish to Gimli, traded them to a blacksmith who fashioned the heads of three different kinds of chisels, then took his dog sled along the lake, around cracks and pressure ridges.

My father was right. Every object, no matter how humble, had a story. Kings and Queens, the rich, the one percent, kept gold, diamonds, precious jewels, art by famous artists. The people of the Interlake, at one time the second poorest area in Canada next to Newfoundland, found different items precious.

Dmytro brought out a squirrel skin and put it on the table. I picked it up. The skin was like parchment.

“It is a reminder,” he said. “When we get too proud, we bring it out. When the children used to complain about not having something, we’d bring it out.”

I put the squirrel skin back on the table. Dmytro picked it up in his left hand and gently stroked it with his right.

“When my great grandparents came, there was no help in desperate times. English people could get welfare but if you were an alien and you asked for the five dollars a month, you would be deported. Your children were crying with hunger but you did not dare ask for help because you would be shipped back to Ukraine. Cows and horses could feed themselves on grass. Why not Ukrianians?”

He ran his hand gently over the fur.

“Every time I see a squirrel, I say thank you,” he said. “When there was nothing, my great grandfather borrowed a twenty-two single shot. He managed to buy some bullets. He’d heard that the store would buy squirrel skins. He’d been in the army and was a good shot. He and his brother shot squirrels all winter. They ate the squirrels and sold the furs. The price of squirrel skins went up all that winter. They paid for groceries and lamp oil and shoes.”

“Did they show Laxness this squirrel skin?” I asked.

“No,” Dmytro said, “it was Natalie’s family who had Laxness as a guest. They showed him something else.”

Dmytro took away the squirrel skin and when he returned, he was carrying a baseball bat. I thought I would hear a story about how popular baseball had been locally. I’d seen pictures of the local teams. They had a league and walked or rode in wagons from village to village. Schools had baseball diamonds. Teams played baseball at community picnics.

Dmytro laid the baseball bat on the table.  It lay there, it’s wood gray with age.

“These were special baseball bats,” Natalie said. “The rich people in Winnipeg gave them to the special police they hired to beat the strikers in Winnipeg.”

I had been going to pick up the bat but I stopped, withdrew my hand, and clenched my fingers. The bat suddenly felt that it might have been made of poison oak.

“During the war, there was a shortage of men to work in the factories. Swift Meatpacking advertised for men. Peter walked to Winnipeg. It was a hard job but it meant regular money. When the soldiers came back, they thought they would be heroes. They had lived through hell in the trenches. The war was over. The war factories were shutting down. There was lots of unemployment. The soldiers said it was the fault of the aliens, the bohunks, the Bolsheviks. They marched to the Swift plant and demanded that the aliens be fired. They attacked businesses run by Europeans. They smashed their equipment. They burnt the piano and the books from the socialist office.” She stopped and took a deep breath. The baseball bat lay like a dark stain on the table. It had been passed down four generations.

Valdi had sat silent. Now, he looked up from the bat and said, “You will need to read lots about this. It is not just a Winnipeg story. It affected everybody.” He shook himself like he was awakening. “The strike was between the English workers and the English rich people who owned businesses. The English workers rebelled at being paid badly, treated badly. Inflation had suddenly gone crazy and people were seeing everything they made being stolen at the cash register. Goods up forty, fifty, sixty percent.”

“Like now,” Natalie said. “I wanted to make stuffed peppers. Peppers used to be ninety-eight cents a pound. Now, they are three dollars and ninety-eight cents. A chocolate bar is the same price but is twenty-five percent smaller.”

“The rich English in Silver Heights controlled everything. Thirty thousand people went on strike. Telephone operators. Electricians. The police didn’t go on strike but they wouldn’t sign an agreement saying they wouldn’t so they were fired. The rich panicked. They hired eighteen hundred thugs and gave them baseball bats like this. They attacked men and women. The Mounties were on horses. You want a raise? You want better working conditions? You want to be treated with respect? We will give you a lesson with these baseball bats.,” Dmytro said. “The mounties had guns. They shot and killed two men. We know who they work for.”

Natalie had been listening, watching him, her face concerned. Now, she added, “Peter was downtown. He’d gone to see what was going on. But he had to be careful. If the veterans noticed he was an alien, they would hit him and threaten him. They’d make him get on his knees and crawl and pledge allegiance to the Queen. Suddenly, the mounties attacked and the special police who weren’t police at all but criminals, many hired from Minneapolis. They attacked the protestors, hitting them with baseball bats. They drove people into sidestreets and trapped them there so they couldn’t escape. Then they beat them. Broken bones, broken heads. One attacked Peter. My great grandfather wasn’t big but he was strong. He got this baseball bat away from this special constable and used it on him. The others saw him with a bat and thought he was one of them. He gave them a surprise. He broke some of their heads before he got away.”

“You think there is much difference between those rich English in Winnipeg and the oligarchs in Russia today? Did you watch the Olympics in Sochi?” I said I did and Natalie, said, “Did you see the Cossacks beating the women in Pussy Riot? Do you think rich people in Winnipeg in nineteen nineteen and Russia today are any different? Oligarchs yesterday were no different than oligarchs today.”

I was staring at the baseball bat. If it had turned into a rattlesnake and raised its head to strike, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

“Did they show Laxness this baseball bat?” I asked.

“Yes,” Natalie said. “They gave it to him to hold. They described the peaceful strikers, no violence. The strikers even arranged for bread and milk to continue to be delivered. They asked the police to remain on duty. They told him about the two men shot and killed. Twenty-eight more wounded. Why? Because they didn’t come to Canada to work fourteen and sixteen hour days for not enough money to live on.”

“And us aliens,” Dmytro said, and it was like he spit out the word, “the capitalist owners hated us, the strikers hated us, the soldiers hated us. The railways wanted us so the owners could get rich but they wanted us to make them rich in silence. No complaining. Many who protested against the way they were treated were deported.”

“Like the Chinese,” Valdi added. “Except for them, it was worse.”

“Yes,” Dmytro said with a bitter smile. “It is good we have the Chinese. It’s always good to know you were not treated the worst.”

We were sitting in the Romanyuk’s kitchen under a picture of Natalie’s great great grandmother. Her photograph had been taken at the railway station in Selkirk, Manitoba. She is standing with two other women, a young man and two children. There is a stack of trunks, bags and bedrolls. The women are wearing babushkas, blouses with wide sleeves, long, dark skirts but it is impossible to say what color they are because the picture is in black and white. One of the women is wearing a long, embroidered vest. They are all laughing.

After Dmytro’s statement about the Chinese, we were silent. It was like a barrier had gone up, no one could talk about the baseball bat on the table anymore. Dmytro stood up, took the bat and said, “Years later it was used for baseball. When they hit the ball, they pretended it was the head of a special constable.”

As he went to put the bat away, I asked about the picture of Domka. I could see why the photographer would have taken her picture. She was young, beautiful, laughing, exotic. Natalie said it had been published in a newspaper and someone had given Domka a copy. It had been passed down the family along with the story that her great great grandmother, when she was in her eighties, had said when they looked at the picture, “This was the last time I laughed for many years.” Domka had not yet gone by boat to Gimli, not yet walked through the agony of black clouds of mosquitoes, not waded through swamps and hiked over gravel ridges to a dugout with a roof made of saplings and bulrushes.

Years later when Laxness and Valdi’s father had stumbled through the door of Domka and Peter’s house, there was a door to stumble through, whitewashed walls, a stove, benches for sitting and sleeping on, a shanty barn for the stock, chickens, a garden that was in the process of being drowned by days of relentless rain.

“This Laxness was unhappy that his clothes were ruined with mud. He said he didn’t mind being wet. In Iceland, he was always wet,” Natalie said.

“Clothes were very important to him. He would spend money on expensive clothes even if he then had nothing to eat,” I said.

“He was fortunate,” Dmytro added as he came back into the room, “because the hens were laying. They were able to give him two eggs for his breakfast and the end of a loaf of bread. A few years before he would have got some rabbit bones to suck on.”

“He was going to be a big shot in the movies,” Natalie said. “Rich in Hollywood. Did he become rich in Hollywood?”

“No,” I answered. “Many Icelanders went to Hollywood. Everybody wanted to be a movie star. Most became carpenters or chauffeurs or unemployed. It was dream city.”

“Ukrainians, too. Broken dream city,”Dmytro said and I thought about my own dreams, dreams I didn’t talk about, dreams beyond getting a better teaching job, dreams of writing successful novels, having them turned into movies, making enough money to live on, being a star instead of a high school teacher who was publishing stories and articles in magazines that didn’t pay anything except two copies of the magazine. You can’t eat magazines, not even with lots of catsup my wife, Jasmine, had said. She thought we should spend all our spare time dancing. You work all the time, she said. The ant and the grasshopper, she said, don’t make a happy couple.

“Why did he come here?” Natalie asked.

“No one knows for sure,” I answered. “Maye he thought he could borrow money from these immigrants who had come to the land of plenty. He borrowed money everywhere. He didn’t think of it as a loan to be paid back. It was an investment in his talent. His job was to write and it was up to others to support him.”

“It was a strange place to come for money,” Dmytro said, shaking his head. “Everyone here was poor. Many farmers lived in shacks. They raised their crops. The fishermen lived in shacks. They caught fish. When my father was a boy, the fishermen used to come with sacks of frozen fish in winter. They wanted to trade for anything the farmers had. Cream, butter, eggs, vegetables, meat. He remembered them coming to the door. Frost on their beards and moustaches. Wrapped in coats and scarves, coming with a horse and sleigh. He remembered them saying to his mother, ‘Missus, you want to trade for fish?’ Sometimes my father had a quarter of a deer to trade. They sometimes had scurvy because they didn’t know to eat vegetables.”

We all fell silent again. We sipped our coffee and tea. I helped myself to another piece of poppy seed cake with white icing. I wondered if Natalie might offer to give me a slice to take home. My ex-wife would never have made a poppy seed cake. It would mean she was being exploited. I had negotiated some things with her, if you do this, I’ll do that. It proved to be too aggravating. It was easier for me to do t hem myself. I hadn’t made poppy seed cake but I knew how to make chocolate cake and bundt cake. Jasmine had not objection to eating t hem after I’d made them. As she chowed down on a third slice of bundt cake, she didn’t say, see you’ve just allowed yourself to be exploited. However, I think when she went to bed at night and while she was lying in the dark, she added up all her points for the day to see if she’d won. After a while I began to feel exploited, and I was less interested in watching her dance in her harem pants. Who would have thought bundt cake could get in the way of sex?

“The Winnipeg General Strike,” Valdi said. It was like we had tried to put away the topic with the baseball bat. Left to ourselves, we would probably have talked about hockey or farming.

“War isn’t bad for everybody,” Dmytro said. “Poor people’s husbands and sons get the front line. They get killed. The smart guys, the connected guys, the guys with friends in Ottawa don’t get killed. They make lots of money. In Winnipeg, the factory owners loved the war. They never wanted it to stop. They got rich on government contracts. The government helped them get rich. They passed a law against pay raises but not against raising the price of what they made. More and more profits as they raised prices with no more expenses. Good Anglicans who went to church every Sunday.”

“Now, the same kind of people move their factories to other countries where there are no laws protecting their workers. It is the same thing over again. Fourteen, sixteen hour days, dangerous working conditions, starvation wages. The next time you go shopping for clothes look to see where they are made. If you ask one of these company executives, will he tell the truth, will he say, our factory is in Bangladesh or Vietnam because that is where we can abuse workers the most?”

“The Bible says the poor will always be with us,” Valdi interjected. “It should say that the one percent who exploits them is always with us. The one percent in Iceland were hogging all the good land, making deals with the Danish authorities, betraying their fellow Icelanders, charging outrageous interest on mortgages. If someone managed to buy a small farm, he had to have sheep or milk cows. The rich farmer who sold him the farm leased him the animals and charged big interest, maybe sixteen percent. The rich farmers took care of each other. They made the law so they stayed in control. They beggared the people and then they punished them for being beggars.”

“Thomas, you need to read lots about this,” Dmytro said. “The Russian Revolution was over in 1917. Two years later when the workers in Winnipeg said they wanted raises and better working conditions, the rich people who controlled the government in Winnipeg screamed Bolsheviks. Bolsheviks, what Bolsheviks? They were just ordinary people, firemen, policemen, telephone operators, electricians, steel workers. They wanted to be properly paid.” He slapped the palm of his hand onto the table.

“Dmytro, maybe you shouldn’t talk about this anymore. You have to watch your blood pressure.” Natalie turned to me and said, “Have another piece of cake, Thomas.” She said it as if it were Toe-mass and I liked that. It made me feel that my boring name had a slightly exotic aura to it. “We are not bankrupt yet. Even if the one percent are stealing most of the money. We can afford another piece. You are too thin. You need a wife to keep an eye on you.”

“I am not such a bad cook,” I said, “but I would like to know how to make hollopchi. I don’t like deli hollopchi.” Cooking was my defence against being dependent. I’d seen too many of my friends get married because they didn’t know how to cook or do much of anything else. They needed to go from Mom to Wife. One of the Phys Ed teachers had split from his wife, had moved into a one room apartment and discovered that he didn’t know  how to do anything but heat food in the microwave. He lasted two months, then crawled back home defeated, humiliated, rumpled, hungry, prepared to put up with a bossy, demanding, snarky wife who know how to cook a roast and how to sort laundry.

“I will show you,” Natalie promised. “It just takes patience rolling the cabbage leaves. I put my cabbage in the freezer to wilt the leaves. It’s easier than boiling.”

“Did Laxness eat the hollopchi Domka gave  him?”

“He must have,” Natalie replied. “It’s not like there was a menu.”

“Never mind hollopchi,” Dmytro said impatiently. He wanted to talk about the Winnipeg General Strike, not hollopchi.

“You can come tomorrow, Thomas. I am making hollopchi. You can learn.”

“The police refused to say that they would not strike so they were all fired. There was no violence. The rich people panicked. They kept screaming Bolsheviks,” Dmytro said.

“Were there any Bolsheviks? I asked.

“A few,” Dmytro answered. “Not enough to fill up a Mennonite van.” He rubbed his jaw with the knuckle of his index finger. He named the Bolsheviks and with each name he held up a finger. “Paul Krat, Popowich, Shatulsky, Ferley, the Narodowtsy group. Robochy Narod was their paper. You see today, even though we are all Slavs, the Russians and Ukrainians do not get along so good. We came to Canada to escape the Czar. We were happy to see him deposed. That did not make us happy to see the Russians take over. Hysterical English rich people who knew no history! They thought Russians and Ukrainians were the same.” Dmytro looked disgusted. He added, “The Mounties arrested ten leaders and took them to Stony Mountain penitentiary. Not many people supported Popowich, Naviziwski or Lototski but when they dressed up as tourists and took the train to Gimli and hid out on the farms, a lot of people thought it was a good joke.”

“I need to check that I have enough rice,” Natalie said, trying to change the conversation. Dmytro’s face had become red. “If not, you will have to bring me some, Thomas.” She got up and went to the cupboard and took out what was left of a twenty-five pound sack. “There’s enough for tomorrow but, Dmytro, we  have to buy another sack next time at Costco.”

“Hollopchi! We are talking about history. Can you only think about cabbage rolls?” Dmytro asked.

“At supper time tomorrow, if I serve you history for supper, you will not be very happy.”

“Do you know that Laxness became a Communist?” I asked. “Hard core. Laxness made speeches supporting communism and he traveled to Moscow many times. My research says that he became a communist because of Upton Sinclair, the American writer.”

Natalie was looking through her cupboard, taking out utensils she would need the next day. She stopped and faced us with one hand on her hip. “Yes, your Laxness gave up praying with the black maggots. It was good because after the strike the black maggots were against unions. Maybe Domka and Peter helped him with that. Dmytro, I can’t reach the roasting pans. You have to take them down.”

Dmytro got up and reached own three blue roasting pans and put them on the cupboard. “I have done this all my life,” Natalie said, “this making hollopchi. Ever since I was before going to school. I like doing it. I hope I can make hollopchi after I’m dead.”

“There were lots of Icelandic communists in the Interlake,” Valdi said. I turned to look at him. My grandfather had mentioned a woman who often stood at the well and handed out communist literature but he’d never said anything about there being lots of Icelandic communists in the Interlake. I knew there were enough communists in Iceland for there to be an organization. “Laxness wasn’t alone in loving communism.”

“He made lots of speeches about how wonderful communism was,” I replied. “Lots of ideals and propaganda about a worker’s paradise in Russia but he refused to look at what was happening right in front of him. Even when his friend Vera Hertzsch was arrested when he was in her apartment in Moscow, he refused to see what was happening. He wanted his books published and his getting published made him choose to be blind.”

“It is a disease that hasn’t been cured,” Valdi replied. “What do you think the CEOs of our Canadian companies in Russia refuse to see?”

“Our people fled from the Czar,” Dmytro said. “They cheered when he was defeated. Why not? They thought now Ukraine will be free. Instead, everything turned into a personality cult. The Russians didn’t understand democracy. They still don’t. They make oligarchs today. They think Putin is the new Czar. They do not understand freedom. Everyone celebrated their new freedom when the Czar was deposed and then Stalin made the Holmodor.”

Natalie turned sharply toward him. “Do not say that word in this house.”

“What will one call it? Eight million Ukrainians deliberately starved to death. This was their freedom. And on the news recently, the newscasters who have never heard anything about this genocide talk about Russia invading Ukraine as if it was going to be a friendly visit.”

Valdi looked at his watch. “Tom, I think we need to be going. At the nursing home they’ll be sure I’ve become lost again. They don’t like their residents getting lost. They don’t want them dying outside of God’s Waiting Room. They worry about being sued by the relatives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laxness and the Black Maggots

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When I got to the nursing home, the residents were having dinner. They sat four to a table but one of the people who usually sat at Valdi’s table was confined to her room because of a virus. I hesitated when I saw that there were five empty chairs in the dining room  but it was too late. I’d touched the door handles, I’d breathed the air. However, none of the staff were wearing masks. I took that as a sign there wasn’t a full-fledged outbreak of the kind of bugs that wreak havoc in nursing homes.

I sat down in the empty chair opposite Valdi. The woman on my right was having a difficult time getting her spoon to her mouth. Her hand kept shaking. Her meal had been ground up. Mashed potatoes, mashed peas, ground meat, lots of gravy. There was a dish of stewed mashed prunes for dessert. She didn’t have any teeth. I took her spoon and lifted a spoonful of meat and gravy. She opened her mouth. I put the spoon part way in, she closed her mouth and I pulled the spoon away. She swallowed and opened her mouth. I had got myself a job.

“Do you want some dinner?” one of the aides asked. “We’ve got lots. Some people aren’t eating.”

Valdi’s meal was peas not ground up, mashed potatoes, a hamburger steak with gravy. “Sure,” I said, “just skip the prunes.”

“Never one to miss a meal,” Valdi said.

“The pizza place is closed, the hotel has a new chef who turns hamburgers to charcoal and the pickerel place is shut down for the winter. The last time I ate with you it was canned soup. I’ve got to start keeping classier company.”

The aide put a plate of food in front of me. I alternated feeding the woman with my right hand and feeding myself with my left. It was good I was ambidextrous. She kept opening her mouth like a baby bird.

“If you don’t want prunes, you can ask for ice cream,” the aide said. She stood and admired my feeding rhythm. She left, tapped another aide on the shoulder and pointed to my coordinated feeding effort. They both laughed.

“You called,” I said. I didn’t want to talk because I didn’t want the gravy to congeal on my plate. Hot, it was good, cold, not so much. Besides, the meal was reasonable and I didn’t feel like cooking. My parents were out gallivanting. My mother wouldn’t be making dinner and, even if my father were home, he wouldn’t know how. Thirty-five years married and all he could do was make toast and boil an egg. He also hadn’t mastered the dishwasher, the clothes washer, the dryer, or the vacuum. He did know how to use the channel changer but my mother had to make the popcorn when they watched hockey or football. Because I’d lived alone for a number of years and didn’t want to eat spaghetti or beans out of tins or deli crap, I’d learned to cook. It made me feel superior.

I could tell Valdi was furious about Ulga’s having blocked my earlier visit, not yelling, screaming, swearing furious. His fury was more like the lake after a raging storm and the thunder and lightning have died down, the wind has abated, but the waves are still huge and crash on the shore. I wondered what the scene had been like when the head nurse had been called in even though she was off duty. She was a tough cookie but she was fair. She had to regularly make hard decisions, some of them life and death decisions. She didn’t suffer fools gladly. I wouldn’t want to have been the person in charge who let Ulga bully her into keeping Valdi and me from meeting.

When Valdi and I finished eating, I left the woman on my right to fend for herself with the prunes. Even as I got up and walked away with Valdi she was still opening and closing her mouth and I felt guilty.

“We were having tea,” I said to Valdi. “Natalie was telling me about serfs.”

“I want to be there.”

“I just ate a hamburger steak, mashed potatoes and peas. If I’d stayed at the Romanyuks, they would have asked me to have dinner with them. Potato-cottage-cheese perogis fried in butter with onions, served with sour cream, a piece of red ribbon kubisa.”

“Cry me a river,” Valdi snapped. “I eat this stuff every day, seven days a week. Except the pasta. I won’t eat the pasta.”

“I’ll have to make another appointment with the Romanyuks.”

“We’ve got an appointment,” Valdi said. “We’re leaving as soon as I have a crap.”

And so we did. I helped Valdi get his winter clothes on, then got him into the van. He insisted on using his walker but I put his wheelchair into the van just in case. All I could think of was what if they change their minds, what if they decide I should wait until we can sit in the great grandparent’s house, what if aliens abduct them? I worry a lot.

When we got to the Romanyuk’s, Valdi struggled with the walker. Dmytro had shoveled all the snow away from the steps, swept them clear, helped Valdi inside, yelled to me to plug in the van and pointed to the electrical cord. It was thirty below. Anything more than eighteen below and you had to hook up the block heater.

When Valdi was seated at the kitchen table, Dmytro said, “So, you escaped. You keep breaking out.”

“If Mary was still alive, I’d be at home,” Valdi replied. “Between us we could manage.”

“Yes,” Natalie said as she set a cup of coffee in front of him, “it is very bad to be alone. It is bad in an apartment in town but it is worse bad out in the country. You got two, you look after each other.”

“What will you grow this year,” Valdi asked and the question was tinged with sadness because he would like to have been planting his own crops.

“Flax,” Dmytro said. “Organic. There’s lots of demand from the young people. They want organic. I can sell the straw for bedding. Canola. Beans. Maybe a small amount of corn.”

Natalie shook her head. “Too far north for corn,” she said.

“It’s a new variety. It doesn’t need so many days to ripen. Just a test.”

“Tom says you were telling him about the serfs,” Valdi said, shifting the direction of the conversation.

“I didn’t tell him about the first year, my great grandparents did not live in the little house. They dug a hole in the ground. Put a roof over it.  My great grandmother,” Natalie explained, “her name was Domka,  said to my great grandfather, Peter, “You did not say we were going to live in a grave when we came to Canada.”

“It is hard,” Dmytro said, “to explain everything so you will understand. In Ukrainian history there are Tartars, Polish nobility, Germans, Russians, wars, wars, always wars in this story. Ukraine has always been fought over. Someone always wanted the land.”

“It would take a year in the little house telling stories for you to really understand. Let us just say that serfs in Ukraine were worse off than slaves in America. They were owned by the land and the land was owned by the rich land owners. If you were a serf and someone bought the land, they bought you, too. Just think if someone came to the bank and bought your mortgage and then he owned you and your wife and your children. In Galecia, only 1500 families owned 42% of the land.”

“Just like it is becoming now,” Valdi broke in. “Ten percent of Americans have seventy-five percent of the wealth. That means ninety percent have only twenty-five percent.”

Dmytro broke in. “The nobles could do anything. They could beat, rape, take anything. Serfs were like their animals. It was not a crime to do anything to a pig, even roast it alive.”

“But,” I said, “serfdom was abolished in 1861. I think I read that.”

“Do you think the nobles paid any attention? In any case the owners of the serfs were given lots of money to compensate them for losing their serfs. Then the serfs had to pay big taxes to the government to cover the debt.”

“The same was done in England,” I said. “The slaves didn’t get any compensation for being slaves. The owners were compensated because they lost their free workers.”

“Some rich land owners owned tens of thousands of slaves. They had huge estates,” Dmytro said.

Obork, barshchina,” Natalie said. “If you are a serf, you pay the land owner obork, money, and work for free so many days a week, barshchina. And,” she waved her finger at me, “it was not just the nobility. The state owned large numbers of serfs. The church, those servants of God, owned large numbers of serfs.”

“Sometimes serfs were used in card games. I will bet five serfs. I will raise you ten serfs,” Dmytro said. “One of our ancestors was owned this way.”

Natalie noticed that Valdi’s cup was empty. She filled it and topped up mine. “They told this Laxness some of these things. He said he’d become a Catholic. He acted as if he was proud of it. Peter said the priests were parasites. They came to live off everyone else’s work. Come and pay me and I’ll forgive you. They were parasites in the old country. They were parasites here. Domka and Peter gave them nothing. Not even water. Your Laxness thought being a priest was all about discussing philosophy and singing hymns. They told him he should be ashamed of himself. Being a priest was about making people afraid and taking their money. The priests came and wanted Canada to be like the Old Country. They said our people had to give free labor, free food. Our people needed their labor for themselves. Their children were crying from hunger. They lived on rabbits and squirrels. When they got some money, they bought four x flour.”

“Four x flour?” I asked.

“The poorest quality,” Dmytro said. “When my great grandfather carried it ten miles from the store, he was ashamed. He hoped no one would see him.”

Natalie was worked up. She clenched her teeth, the flesh around her eyes pulled together. “The men walked sometimes forty miles to find work harvesting or working on the railway. They worked fourteen, sometimes sixteen hours a day. The women went to work in the laundries in Winnipeg, they worked taking care of children. Seven days a week. They got three hours free to go to church on Sunday. Seven dollars a month. My great grandmother walked to Winnipeg, got a job working taking care of children. After three months she wanted to go home. Her English employer refused to pay her. She said her work was not good enough. She gave her a loaf of stale bread and some butter for her walk back.”

Natalie paused, looked straight ahead staring into the distance, then she turned and glared so fiercely into my eyes that I flinched. “Proud!” she repeated. “Your Laxness lived in these palaces for priests and monks. Where did he think the money came from? He should have been ashamed of himself. Eating food taken from the plates of hungry children. Domka said to him, you go to Ukraine some day, open your eyes.”

“He said that he had prayed with some other people so that Iceland would be Catholic again. Was he a fool? These black maggots lived off the bodies of the peasants. I will tell you how it was here. The priest said you have to give me food to save your soul from hell. People had nothing but still they brought him bread. He ate some and he gave the rest to feed his pigs.”

When I first came to the Romanyuk’s, I had expected there to be pictures of Jesus, crosses, The Last Supper, all the traditional Urkainian stuff on the walls but now I understood why not and why the Romanyuks were at home all day on a Sunday.

“My family fed Laxness borscht,” Natalie said. “He didn’t know borscht. They gave him hollopchi. Times were improved. They had food to share. They had chickens, pigs, a few sheep, three cows. The first dugout was now a root cellar. They were growing their own grain and taking it to Gimli to be ground. A precentage for the miller for grinding, some more for staying in the miller’s cabin overnight. There was no cash.”

“But this was not the most important,” Valdi said. “It was the second day and evening that mattered.” He had heard these stories many times before. He wanted to keep everything on track.

Silence fell over us. What Natalie and Dmytro had been telling me had stirred up the Romanyuks’ feelings, memories and I wished now that I had listened to my parents years before when I was just beginning to write when they said that I should talk to people like this, that their family stories that went back generations, back to the time of the settlement of the Interlake, to the time of immigration, to the time before that in Ukraine, were beyond anything I could invent. These were stories that had been passed down from one generation to the other, stories that tied them to the past and to the land.

“Fiction,” my father had said, “is fun. But there are stories in the Interlake that are beyond imagining. If you want tragedy and triumph, it is all there.”

I had ignored him. I wanted to write about exotic things, about events and people in distant places, places I’d never been and knew nothing about. I didn’t want to write about farmers, truck drivers, fishermen grubbing a living. I wanted to write about palaces in India, princes in Dubai, sexy chicks in the South of France, the kind of eye candy people loved. Not that it would be trivial or anything. There’d be big themes, socially significant events. Yes, I had images of waterskiing beauties and yachts. Straight from TV which was already six times removed from reality.

None of it got published, of course. There was a tsunami of schlock already out there. In any case how much schlock do you get to hobnob with in Gimli or Winnipeg, Manitoba, especially when you are tied down by teaching high school English? A night out was having a few beers on Friday with colleagues and sitting around bitching about the students, the principal and the custodians, mostly the custodians. The custodians were a law unto themselves.

As we sat in the Romanyuk’s kitchen, a round plate of sugar cookies in the centre of the round table like a wheel inside a wheel, I wished I had been at those days and evenings in the little house, crowded together with Natalie and Dmytro and their neighbours, listening, the way someone who wants to be a writer should do, not talking, because in talking all  you do is hear what you already know, listening, hoping that stories would get told time and again so that they get imprinted, laid down in the writer’s brain so they are there forever, ready to appear when they are needed. I imagined the bodies crowded close as everyone squeezed in, bringing stools with them, sitting on boxes, and then someone beginning, “My great grandfather was a Cossack.” or “My great grandparents third child was four years old when he became ill. There was no doctor.” Or, “What do you do when a bear comes to steal your honey and you have no gun?” I already had stories like this on my tape recorder, in my notebooks.

Voices and silences, group therapy, group grief, group pride. As I’d sought out stories for my little book to satisfy my little ambition, to help me to a better job, to make me feel that I was doing something that mattered, I’d stood at forgotten graves beside tumble down houses. Graves for people who had died before there was a graveyard, or who died when the harvest was taking place or when the weather was so dreadful no one could travel, who died when a husband was away working on the railway and the grave had to be dug by a grieving mother, maybe with the help of her father who was too old to walk ten or twenty or forty miles to find work. A grave that was dug with grief and love in every shovel full of earth. One woman said to me, “My great grandmother dug her child’s grave with a spoon.”

“I’ll make fresh coffee,” Natalie said. She took our cups and washed them out, dried them, set them back on the table. She put water in the electric kettle, then turned to Valdi and said, “We don’t make coffee in an old sock,” and we all smiled at the joke. It was a familiar joke, the kind to be shared among friends. Coffee came to Iceland in 1703. Only the wealthy could taste it. At first it was only drunk at Skaholt, the bishopric where the powerful elite lived. Then the rich landowners drank it, for here, in this distant, isolated island, although they had different names for slavery, the few rich landowners made the laws, ruled with an iron fist, and could afford coffee beans brought from distant lands while the serfs ate seaweed and fish heads. At one time Ukrainian serfs had been allowed a two week period every year when they could move to another master. In Iceland, the indentured servants (serfs) had one day a year when they could move to another farm. Gradually, coffee had spread to the furthest, most isolated farms. People roasted and ground their precious green beans.

In Canada, they learned to make coffee with an old sock. My mother still made coffee with an old sock. My father preferred it that way.

It was not actually an old sock, but a copper wire loop with a handle.My father made the loop and handle. My mother took a piece of flannel and sewed it to the loop to make a basket. Most people had changed to a cone and filters but my parents excused themselves by saying that having a poki helped preserve the environment. After each use, it was washed and dried.

What was remarkable about this gentle joke of Natalie’s was that it was being made by someone who was Ukrainian-Canadian to two guests who were Icelandic-Canadian. Immigration had not been easy. The Icelanders got to the Interlake first in 1875. They settled along the shore of Lake Winnipeg and became fishermen. The Ukrainians came later, in the late 1890s. They were farmers and they waded through waist deep swamps toward the West looking for land, land with lots of wood on it for in Ukraine they were not allowed to touch wood in the landlord’s forests, not even if they were dying of cold.

The Icelanders were Lutheran. The Ukrainians were Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic. The Icelanders although desperately poor, were literate because of a home schooling system that taught nearly everyone to read and write. The Danes who ruled Iceland never tried to keep the Icelanders illiterate. They never banned the use of Icelandic. On the other hand, every effort of the Ukrainians to educate their children had been thwarted by the Russians and Poles who wanted beasts of burden not fellow citizens. The Russians banned the Ukrainian language in schools in Eastern Ukraine. Schools were closed down. Ukrainian books were banned. Russia feared a Ukraine with an identity of its own would want independence. The Icelandic immigrants knew no Ukrainian history and so regarded their illiteracy with contempt, instead of with sympathy.

I had heard stories of the first encounters between the Icelanders and Ukrainians. Both peoples living in a hostile environment, desperately struggling to get enough to eat. Sometimes there was hostility, even violence when men came together but, gradually, a few learned to speak the other’s language, to survive they needed to do business with each other, both groups learned to speak English, learned to trade cabbage for fish. When Laxness stumbled into Natalie’s great grandparent’s little house there was still suspicion, conflict, clenched fists, bloody knuckles so it was very much like the story of the Good Samaritan. It was not just that they helped someone in need, they helped someone from a different tribe, a tribe that often treated them with contempt for being illiterate, for being Catholic, for being Ukrainian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning to unravel Kiljan’s Mystery

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Chapter 7

“Ulga was here,” the receptionist said as I tried to slip past to Valdi’s room. “She says you are trying to take advantage of her father.”

“I am not,” I replied. “Valdi’s got all  his marbles.”

“I’ll have to check with the head nurse. Ulga’s his next of kin.”

“What’s there to check? You know me. You know Valdi.”

“Paper work,” she said. “Rules. No visit today.”

I tipped back my head. The ceiling needed painting. I’d driven from Winnipeg. The weather was crappy. It was cold, there was packed snow and ice on the highway. My friends were out of town so I’d have to stay with my parents which would mean my father would press  his hand to his chest and look strained and my mother would panic and say, “Oh, Bob. Have you chest pain?” And my father, the scammer, would hold his chest and make his way uncertainly to his living room chair while my mother hovered, her face pale. Half her friends were widows. Husbands were becoming a scarce commodity and, thus, more valuable. The widows line danced together. It was like being back in junior high except they were wrinkled.

I’d end up getting the shovel from the garage and shoveling out their driveway, their sidewalk to the front door, around the side, the back steps and staggering into the house, but before I could take my thermal boots off, she’d say, “Honey, can you just shovel off Mabel’s walk? Herbert died and she can’t shovel snow. Ostereoperosis.”

I’d plunge out into the screaming wind, the blowing snow, the shoulder  high drifts and shovel until I could barely lift my arms. Mabel would come to the door and opening it a crack would say in a high, squeaky voice, “Would  you like a cup of hot cocoa, dear?” What I needed was two ounces of rum straight. That’s what Herbert had drunk. Dark navy rum. He’d left behind six bottles but she’d never opened them.

“When’s the head nurse coming in next?” I asked the receptionist, hoping she wasn’t on holidays in the Bahamas.

“Tomorrow morning.”

I punched the numbers on the security pad and let myself out. I went to my car, drove half a block away, then walked back. Valdi’s room was near the end of the wing on the main floor. I waded through knee deep snow to his window. He never lowered his blind. He said it gave him claustrophobia. He was sitting in his wheelchair reading a book. I tapped on the window. He didn’t pay any attention. I tapped harder. He looked up, looked around. I tapped a third time. He wheeled over to the window. The window had a slider at the bottom, two of them. He pushed the first one open easily enough but the second one was frozen. He searched and found a pen and dug at the accumulated ice. It didn’t work. I used my bare finger to write U L G A in the frost on the window. He nodded his understanding, took the pen and started writing in a notebook. My legs were slowly freezing into place.  When he finished, he pointed toward the lobby. I struggled out of the snow, made my way back by stepping in the holes I’d made earlier. I went to the front door. Valdi was lurking inside. There were the inside glass doors, then a small lobby, then the outside glass doors. A woman in a wheel chair came toward Valdi to see what he was looking at. She was wearing an ankle bracelet that automatically locked the doors. He waved his fist at her. She scooted away. I punched the code into the outside pad, the doors opened. Valdi shot forward, handed me the piece of paper he’d been writing on, backed up, I turned around and bolted out the door while the receptionist was just looking up to see what had caused the draft.

I turned on the heater in the car and looked at the sheet of paper Valdi had thrust at me. On one side was a map. On the other side were two names. Dmytro and Natalie Romanyuk. “Ask them about Kiljan. Don’t lie. Tell the truth. No tape recorder.”

I turned the paper over, held it at different angles. I wondered if there was any secret code on it but since I’d watched him draw and write, I had to accept that what I got was all there was.

There is something lonely about pulling onto a Manitoba highway in winter. The clouds press down, keeping out the sun. The wind blows snow in waves across the blacktop. The cottage yards are drifted snow. There are feet of snow on the roofs. Windows are dark. You feel like there is no one else in the world. There are empty fields, white desert until, in the distance, there is a dark line of trees. It is no wonder that people made sacrifices to appease the gods, to bribe them to bring back the sun. They wouldn’t have had to kill people and eaten their hearts if they could just have flown to Arizona.

The silence must have driven the settlers mad. No wonder they walked for hours to get to a party or dance, stayed until dawn, rediscovering the sounds of voices and music. I turned on the radio, was comforted by the sound of an announcer reading the news. Nowadays, in the city, it was all noise, all the time. Cars, trucks, buses, airplanes overhead, construction, radios, TVs, Ipads, laptops, noise, black and threatening, replacing the silence but not leaving us any less lonely. Everyone ignoring everyone else in the food court as they texted someone else, somewhere else. But here, at this moment, there was just the car motor, the faint whine of the wind. I turned off the radio, began to pay attention to Valdi’s map and the landmarks he’d noted.

I found the turnoff, watched the mileage so I didn’t miss the next turn, turned again, passed a farm with a red barn and two grain storage sheds, found a driveway on my left with a red pickup and a blue car.

I didn’t have to knock. Dmytro opened the door. “Tom?” he said but it was more a statement than a question. “Valdi called.”

“He would like to have come,” I answered. “Ulga.”

“Children can be a problem,” he replied. He obviously knew Ulga.

Natalie came down the hallway. She took my parka and toque, my gloves. I pulled off my boots and set them on the rubber mat so snow wouldn’t melt onto the floor. “Here,” she said, “and handed me a whisk. Do your pants.”

The Romanyuks were older than my parents. Late sixties, probably early seventies. Dmytro was dark from being outside a lot. He was thin, looked like he might be made of leather. Natalie was short, plump, had her hair pulled back in a loose braid. I followed them into their kitchen. We sat at the table.

“Valdi asked us to talk to you,” Natalie said. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Halldor Kiljan Laxness,” I said. I couldn’t imagine what they could possibly have to do with Laxness. They were Ukrainian to the core. There were framed photos of kids in Ukrainian dance costumes on the wall over the table. I assumed they were their grandchildren. There was a wooden bowl filled with pysanka, Ukrainian Easter eggs. On the wall were two hearts woven from wheat stalks. I looked for a crèche or a cross but there weren’t any.

If the Romanyuks were still here, their family probably came to the area in the 1890s. The men in sheepskin coats spreading across Western Canada. The government and the railways wanted them to fill up the wilderness, turn it into farmland, ship grain on the railway, order goods from Eastern Canada, keep the Americans from flooding north of the fifty-fourth parallel, make the railway owners rich.

“Why?” Dmytro asked.

I remembered Valdi’s note. Tell the truth. “I teach high school. I want to be a published writer. If I get a book published about the Interlake, I may be able to get a job at Red River College.” I didn’t know what they’d think of that. No great goal, no setting the world on fire. I was embarrassed and looked at the table. The salt and pepper shakers were skunks with their tails up. “My mother has a pair of these,” I said.

Natalie got up. “Tea or coffee,” she asked. “You Icelanders like coffee.”

“No, tea is fine. It’s easier on my stomach.”

She put on the electric kettle, took some saran wrap off a plate and put the plate onto the table. There was poppy seed cake, snow cap cookies, and apple cake. Dmytro had gone outside. He came back in, stamping his feet.

“I plugged in your van,” he said. “You got stuck at Valdi’s.”

I admitted it. It was obvious that our adventure at Valdi’s farm was known throughout the district. Any news at the nursing home travelled far and wide. Very little happened so news was a precious commodity, eagerly spread to family and friends, who then passed it on.

Natalie sat down with us, pushed the desserts at me, filled my cup with tea. Dmytro and Natalie looked at each other. They were still trying to decide what to say.

“It was a long time ago,” Dmytro said. “Everybody is dead. Maybe we should just let them sleep.”

“I am not just writing about Laxness’s visit. I’m writing about the people of the Interlake. There are a lot of them in the ground. I go searching and I find graveyards, sometimes just one or two graves where a farmhouse used to be and I ask myself, what is their story? Why should they be forgotten as if they don’t matter?”

We sipped our tea. I ate a piece of poppy seed cake. Natalie pushed another piece at me. It was very good. I hadn’t had poppy seed cake for some time.

“She is a good cook,” Dmytro said. “She knows how to bake. You should taste her varenyky.” He put his hand over hers and squeezed it and she smiled with pleasure at the compliment.

“Rich people have books written about them all the time. Even if they are not very interesting, they can afford to have their story written to show how important they are. Ordinary people maybe do more, are braver, work harder, suffer more, take bigger risks but no one writes their story. So, rich people get remembered and ordinary people get forgotten.”

“It is not my story to tell,” Dmytro said. “It is Natalie’s. If she forgets something, I can help her.”

Natalie gave him an exasperated look and he smiled and I realized he was teasing her. “Maybe we should move to the living room,” Natalie said as if I wasn’t being treated formally enough.

“No,” I said. “Here it is easier to reach the cake.” They both laughed and relaxed more. The kitchen was the centre of the house, the place where everything happened. The living room had the big TV but the kitchen had a small TV and I guessed that the big TV didn’t get turned on very often, maybe for hockey or football or something special. Natalie would work in the kitchen, keeping one eye on the TV when her favorite shows were on.

“First, you should see this,” Natalie said. She got up and motioned for me to follow her. Dmytro came with us. She led me to the guest bedroom. We stood at the window. There was a small hut with plastered whitewashed walls. It had a shingle roof but I guessed that originally the roof would have been thatch. It would be over a  hundred years old. The snow was up past the windows. It might have been ten by twelve feet. Under the outside plaster there would be squared timbers. The inside would also be plastered and whitewashed. I’d seen many places like this but most of them were falling down.

“Sometimes, in the summer,” Natalie said, “we go out there and sit and talk about our parents and grandparents. About stories they told us. About things we have read.”

“This Kiljan you are interested in, he and Valdi’s father walked here, through the mud and slept on the floor. Their car took a horse and an ox to pull it out of the mud. They had been stuck once already. This time they were up to the axel.” She paused and studied the little house. “My great grandfather built this. They lived in it for the first years while they cleared the land. His brother and wife came and they lived with them until they could build their own place. Family takes care of family.”

We went back into the kitchen. “My people came from Bukovina. There we said with pride we were from Bukovina. Here, we were called Bohunks. Everyone thought they were superior to us. The English, the Icelanders, everyone.”

“Before there was that little cabin, there was a lean to. They slept under the lean to with a smudge in front to keep off the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were in clouds. Do you know Kamarno?” Yes, I said, I knew Kamarno. I had been there. It was a few houses beside the railway line. At one time it had been important because it was there farmers could take cordwood to ship to Winnipeg. That was when there was a cordwood economy. Cordwood provided credit at the store. Then the railway was pushed through over the swamp to the Icelandic community of Gimli, the Icelandic settlement of fishermen. Kamarno gradually faded away. “There is hardly anything left there. There is a big mosquito sculpture. Komarno means mosquito. Here, they ate us alive but we didn’t make a monument to the mosquitoes.”

“We should be sitting in your grandparent’s house for this,” Dmytro said.

“Yes, but there are many stories, many questions, many answers. Maybe Thomas will come when the snow is gone and we will sit in the old house and remember the old people.”

“I would like that very much,” I said. For a moment, my heart had sunk into my socks for I thought they were going to say for me to come back in the summer. Now, my heart nearly leaped out of my chest because they were offering to share their story telling.

“Everything in Ukraine was farms. Everything was done by hand. For that you need lots of serfs. You could sell the land and the peasants were sold with it. At one time three million serfs were owned by around fourteen hundred landlords. Some nobles sold serfs without land. It was a system based on slavery. Serfs could be conscripted for the army. One of the punishments for serfs was to be put into the army. They were treated so brutally that some committed suicide to escape.”

“You have to understand this to understand what happened when your Kiljan came and was trapped in this little house for two days.” Natalie saw that my cup was empty and automatically filled it with tea.

“He and Vidar’s father had walked for more than five miles. It had been raining for days. The roads were clay. They slipped and slid. They fell. My grandmother, when she mentioned them, called them The Mud Men.”

“Laxness was a dandy. He always wore expensive clothes, even when he was broke,” I said. “He thought it was important to associate with wealthy people. They make the decisions.”

“He wore spats,” Dmytro said. “No one here had seen spats.”

“My grandmother sent them to wash in the pond. It was raining but not really cold. Besides, people who come from a place called Iceland shouldn’t worry about the cold.” When she said this Natalie looked at me out of the corner of her eyes to see how I reacted.

“It’s not so cold,” I protested. “It’s wet a lot of them time and lots of wind.”

“We know,” Dmyrto said. “We visited Iceland for three days when we were coming back from Lviv.  We swam in the Blue Lagoon.”

“Conditions in Ukraine were desperate,” Natalie continued. “The landowners could do anything they wanted. They were in charge of the police, they were the judges. Imagine if tomorrow you woke up and you had no rights and someone came and said, I own you. What would life be like?” As she said this, her voice stopped being soft and the words had anger in them even though she was talking about a long time in the past.

“The old people told this. They sold the little bit of land and animals they owned. Even though they were serfs they had two acres from which they had to feed themselves. They had a small house. The landlord was angry. He did not want his cheap labor leaving. His people were like his pigs and horses. They should stay to be eaten and ridden. He fined them even though they had done nothing wrong and he took part of their money. Making the landlord angry was a crime.”

“They took the train, then had to walk three days to Hamburg. They took a ship to Liverpool. We visited Hamburg and Liverpool. We wanted to see these places, walk where they walked. They took a freighter to Quebec City. They still had some money so they were able to take the train to Winnipeg.”

The phone rang startling the three of us. Dmytro jumped up and answered the call. He hung up. “Valdi has spoken to the head nurse. I expect he has been raising hell. He got things straightened out. He needs you to come back right away.”