“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.
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.”