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

prayingpriest2

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.”

 

 

 

The Valkyrie disses Laxness

 

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

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

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

“Was she smart?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Separated.”

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

“No,” I replied somewhat testily.

“Single. Have you got a girlfriend?”

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

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

“Once is enough. “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That wasn’t me,” I protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not overweight,” I said sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Laxness: hypothermia in the Interlake

laxnessberet

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The story is incredible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He bought the first swather in the district.”

“I want to know about the scythes.”

“Icelandic or Ukrainian? Straight or crooked?”

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

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

 

Laxness in the Interlake (chapter 2)

laxnesssock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Laxness,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Laxness’s wife?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where have you come from?” she cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to the sock?” I asked.

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

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

 

 

 

Laxness in the Interlake

Laxnessinterlake

I was visiting Valdi Vigfusson in the nursing home in Gimli, Manitoba, and mentioned that I was reading one of Laxness’s novels. “I saw him once,” he said.  “He came to give a reading.”

Valdi came from a farm in the Interlake of Manitoba. The area was settled by Icelandic immigrants around the turn of the century. His parent’s farm was on marginal land so life was hard scrabble for them and since he’d been an only child and had inherited their farm, life was hardscrabble for him, too. In other areas, the land was good and many of the farmers had prospered, at least much more than those who had stayed in the swamps around Lake Winnipeg or among the gravel ridges.

Although the settlers were all related by blood or marriage, there was quite a bit of rivalry and not a little resentment toward those who were doing better than others.  When Valdi told me stories about the communities, I always had to take that into account. Many of his stories seemed impossible. Men walking all night on legs frozen solid. Men, after having their legs amputated, clearing their land on their knees. Sturgeon so big their heads were at the bow of a skiff and the tail at the stern.  However,  time and again, my research confirmed what he said.

Valdi’s hand shook as he took the cup of coffee I’d brought him. He used his left hand to steady his right wrist. He’d sold his parent’s farm and bought one on land along the Icelandic River. The Icelandic River, originally called the White Mud river,  ran all the way from west  through the municipality of Bifrost to Lake Winnipeg.  At one time, Valdi had been a big, strapping man, broad shouldered from a life-time of heavy work, his skin darkened by sun and wind. Now, he sat hunched in his wheelchair. His hair had turned grey and his skin was yellow. “Kidney’s are going,” he said.

“Laxness, in the Interlake?” I said skeptically. From time to time, I’d heard rumours of Laxness coming to the Interlake, but when I’d tried to find out any details of his visit, I me with silence. The closest I got to something specific was that Laxness had stayed for a time in my home town of Gimli. But who he stayed with, how long he stayed, what he did was unknown or, at least, not to be shared.

Valdi sipped  his coffee, then put the cup down. The ripples on the top of the cup went over the rim. I pulled a Kleenex out of a box and mopped up the coffee. “Lousy way to die,” he said. “I shoulda had a heart attack while I was threshing.”

“Laxness?” I prompted him.

“I dunno if I should say anything.”  He took hold of his right wrist and lifted up the cup. I wanted to suggest that he use a straw but knowing him that would be the end of the visit. He’d jerk his thumb at the door. I’d be persona non grata for a week. He managed to get the cup down without spilling any coffee on himself or the table. “There was a sort of understanding. Nothing formal.  No taking of oaths or anything. You just knew you weren’t to talk about it.”

“It was a long time ago,” I said.

He sighed. We both knew that there were a lot of secrets  that went to the grave unspoken. I have my own but those are personal failures, mistakes, misunderstandings. This was a public event that included  a writer who would win the Nobel Prize in literature. Besides, Valdi loved to talk. He was happiest when he had an audience.

I thought about the town where I’d been told the event that no one talked about was supposed to have happened. It was a prosperous farming community. A main street lined with stores, a hotel, nicer houses than a lot of the surrounding communities had. It had prospered while other communities had faded away. I remembered being there for an athletic day.  Most of the school had gone there to participate. However, a visit by Laxness would  have to have been a couple of decades earlier, when the town was less formed, more isolated, more Icelandic.  I was particularly interested in this possible story about Laxness coming to the wilderness of Manitoba because I’d been to Iceland, visited  his home after his death, spent an afternoon with his widow, sat at  his desk, looked out his window at the landscape that spread out before him as he wrote his amazing books. I’d asked her for details about his visit and while she talked freely about his time Hollywood, she claimed to know nothing about his trip north.

Sometimes, silence is the best response to uncertainty. It allows the owner of a secret to unlock the door from inside, to peek out, to see if there is anything threatening. I sat and drank my coffee and studied the half-dozen Icelandic books on Valdi’s bedside table.

“I need a smoke,” he said.

I looked at him and didn’t say anything. He knew I didn’t approve of his smoking.

“My lungs will still be working when my kidneys quit,” he said.

I pushed his wheelchair to the door, punched in the numbers on the lock, then wheeled him through the door and parked him beside a bench where the smokers sat even in the coldest weather. There was a rusted coffee can for discarded butts.

Valdi fumbled a package of cigarettes and a matchbook folder out of his pocket. By pressing the cigarette package onto his lap with his left  hand, he managed to get a cigarette out. His hand vibrated as he got the cigarette to his lips. He moved it over to one side with his tongue. He kept his lips nearly closed when he said, “I can’t light a match.”

I picked up the matches, pulled one loose and held the flame to his cigarette. He sucked in the smoke, then breathed it out.

“Laxness,” I said.

He looked away, past the right side of my head. I thought he was dismissing my question but, instead, he was remembering. It was too  hard for him to take the cigarette out of his mouth so he kept it firmly in the corner of the left side. It waved up and down as he talked.

I was surprised that Laxness would go to the trouble of making the trip to Manitoba. In Iceland the emigrants had been called traitors, weaklings, cowards who ran away because times were hard. They even taught that in the schools.

“All right but you can’t mention the name of the town and you can’t tell anyone until I’ve been dead for ten years,” Valdi said. He butted out his cigarette. “The hall was full. People had to stand. I was just a kid. I went there with my parents.”

I imagined that country hall with its wooden benches, men and women dressed in their best, packed together, the overflow standing along the walls. Farmers in their good dark jackets and pants, their wives in long dresses.

Laxness was fifteen minutes late. The road was Manitoba clay with a sprinkling of gravel. It had been raining off and on for days and the roads were deeply rutted. To get from one town to another, you put your car wheels into the ruts and followed them just like they were a set of railway tracks.

Laxness followed his driver into the room. He was rather nattily dressed, with a vest and bow tie. The audience had been talking about the rain and flooding and whether the cattle were going to suffer from hoof rot. Hoof rot was on everyone’s mind. The hall fell silent as Laxness came in. He went straight to the stage. There was the sound of shuffling as people took their seats.

There was a brief introduction by the driver, then Laxness started to read from his story, “New Iceland”. It wasn’t a good choice. There were still bitter feelings over the emigration, times had been hard, a lot of people had died on the trip over and in New Iceland. Laxness’s short  story was about how the emigrants had failed, how they were going to keep failing and how they should have stayed in Iceland, how the men had disgraced themselves by allowing their wives go out to work as domestics. The audience already had heard rumours about the story. Laxness never got to the end of it. The local farmers had overcome huge obstacles, made tremendous sacrifices and many of them already had successful farms. In Iceland, as indentured servants working for some wealthy farmer or as tenant farmers, they’d have had nothing and would have been living in hovels made with rock and turf. The injustice of the accusations in the story were infuriating.  Even Valdi’s parent’s hardscrabble farm was better than anything they would have had in Iceland.

Three quarters of the way through, a farmer jumped up and yelled, “Get the tar and feathers.” Pandemonium broke out. People rushed for the door. People climbing over the benches knocked them over. On one of the wagons there was a metal tub full of tar and some bags of chicken feathers. People were jammed in the door. A few men, unable to get outside, after milling about for a few moments, turned and charged the stage.

Before he’d started reading, Laxness had checked the back door to be sure it was unlocked. He’d had unappreciative audiences before. When the farmer jumped up and yelled, “Get the tar and feathers,” Laxness bolted for the door, his driver behind him. Because of the rain, the door had swollen and it jammed.  However, they both got out and his driver held the door shut. Their car was parked at the front of the hall. It was a strategic mistake. It would have been better to have parked at the back with the car pointed to the road but Laxness had wanted to make a grand entrance. Laxness sloshed his way across the yard to the road that led out of town. It was pitch black, rain was pouring down. Lightning lit up the sky.

The farmers at the back door, frustrated at being unable to get it open, turned and ran to the front door just as the tub of tar and the sacks of feathers were being brought in. They collided with the group coming in. The tub went flying, the tar rose up in a black wave, drenching everyone in its path. Trying to avoid the tar, people tripped over the benches. Others slipped in the tar. Chicken feathers filled the air. Some women who were knocked over started screaming as they lay on the floor. Those inside were yelling stop, stop but it did no good. The crowd coming in the front door kept forcing its way in, pushing people backwards so more tripped over the benches and fell onto the tar.

“He’s outside,” one of the men who had been on the stage shouted and the crowd turned back toward the front door and, slipping and sliding in the tar, staggered and tripped down the front steps. A bolt of lightning revealed Laxness slogging down the mud road. “He’s there,” someone shouted but the next moment all was darkness.

A group of men waded through the water and mud and started along the road. Another bolt of lightning showed them Laxness struggling through the wet clay. Running was impossible. Manitoba clay clung to everything. Feet came up with a sucking sound. Men tripped in the ruts and fell and had a devil of a time to get up.  Some farmers had brought torches. They lit them and joined the others on the road. A few had taken pitchforks from their wagons.

“Put those down,” Gisur from Geyser yelled. “You’ll kill somebody.”

It was true. The men with the pitchforks were waving them wildly as they tried to keep their balance

There’d been enough time for the farmers to gather. With the aid of the torches that burned for a while in spite of the rain, they started out as a group. Lightening revealed Laxness well ahead of them but not so far that they couldn’t catch him. However, with the tar spread over the floor of the hall and over a good many of the audience and the women who’d rolled in the tar then been covered with the feathers, what good catching him would do was unclear. Still, the blood lust of the hunt was up.

The race was in slow motion. The clay clung to farmer’s feet until the pursuers were lifting large, heavy clumps of mud. They sank up to their ankles and when they pulled their feet up, their shoes stayed behind. Boots remained in place so that the owners walked out of them, then sank into the mud in their sock feet. Instead of making progress, more and more of the pursuers were demanding that those with torches come and help them find their shoes. Still, the pursuit continued. There were lightning bolts and thunder overhead. With each bolt of lightning, they could see Laxness and the fact that he wasn’t moving any faster than they were.  Sometimes, he had to put both hands under a leg to pull his foot out of the mud. Then the lightning stopped for a bit. When another bolt struck, Laxness was nowhere to be seen. The crowd surged forward, first shoeless, then sockless as the mud first took shoes, then socks. The clay didn’t stick as much to bare feet so those with one shoe and sock lost took the others off. Those with torches still lit, led the way.

Laxness, for his part, had reached the bridge at the edge of town. His shoes had been tightly laced so he still had them but they would never be the same. He was exhausted from lifting feet three times their normal size. When he came to the bridge, he slid down the embankment of the Icelandic River, then crawled along until he was well under the bridge. Overhead, he heard the farmers yelling and cursing. There had been the danger that someone might look under the bridge but, by then, all the torches had been doused by the rain.

Laxness lay there, his heart pounding, his breath rasping in his chest, waiting until he was certain that all his pursuers had left. He could hear their departing vehicles crossing the bridge.  Then he crawled back onto the bank and up to the road.  In an attempt to get the mud off, he first stood under a small waterfall where a ditch emptied into the river.

When he got back to the car, his driver was waiting for him. Laxness opened the back door and threw himself inside.

“Would you like some coffee?” the driver asked.

There was supposed to have been a reception. The ladies had brought food. In the confusion, in despair over tar on their dresses, on their faces, in their hair, they left their food behind.  The driver, who was a big man with a good appetite, all through the pursuit, had been in the hall, working his way through the sandwiches, the vinarterta, the klienar, the rullupylsa on brown bread, the butter tarts. He’d been washing it down with excellent coffee from a large urn.

He went into the hall, piled two plates with sandwiches and desserts. He then went back for the urn and two cups. He and Laxness sat there in the car, eating the sandwiches and desserts and drinking the coffee. Laxness tried not to drip on his sandwiches.

“The local ladies are known to be good cooks,” the driver said as he finished off his sixth piece of vinarterta. Then he started the car and drove them back the way they had come. In spite of all that had happened, Laxness still had his bow tie.

For three days, Laxness recuperated in Gimli. “It was a good story,” he said to his host over breakfast the first morning, “but a hard audience.”