Rams–Movie Review

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There isn’t a lot of money in Iceland to finance the making of movies. No big costume dramas, no casts of thousands, no endless special effects because they all cost a lot of money. That means Icelandic movies are inclined to be dramas about the daily lives of people in Iceland. In spite of the financial limitations, Icelandic movies have regularly won prizes in Europe but they seldom make much money because the audience is limited.

Rams, by Grímur Hákonarson, will break this pattern. It is set in Iceland and it is about the daily life of Icelandic people. The main characters are two elderly brothers, Kiddi and Gummi, living in an isolated valley on adjacent sheep farms. Old animosities have meant the brothers haven´t spoken for forty years. They are the quintessential Icelandic sheep farmer-bachelors: independent, argumentative, difficult to get along with, and proud. Anyone who knows his Icelandic literature, on seeing the brothers as the movie begins, can’t help but think of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People. And Grímur said in his comments on the night the movie was shown at the Victoria Film Festival that he had read Halldor Laxness´s Independent People five times so it is not surprising when similarities to Bjartur appear.

The film opens with one of the brothers in a field with farm buildings and houses in the distance. The opening is admirable for its use of imagery rather than dialogue to establish the basic elements of the narrative. It places the story in an isolated valley with more sheep than people. The farmer is walking toward the sheep. He stops to tighten the fence between the farms. He also stops to rub the head of a ram. In this largely silent landscape, the major elements of the story, the farmer, the sheep, the separation of the two farms, is laid out. This is a film filled with significant but unobtrusive detail. The attention to detail in every frame comes from Grimur’s experience in making documentary films.

Then the focus shifts to a sheep that has something wrong with it. The farmer picks it up and carries back toward the buildings. It is the first hint that something might be wrong in this bucolic landscape. It also is the beginning of a plot in which small details that seem insignificant will begin to turn the story toward the final outcome. In a successful plot, every event must cause another event. There should never just be a series of events without causality. Rams with its subtleties, its hints and suggestions, carefully fits the causes of each coming event into everyday life so that what happens is both logical and necessary but not obvious.

The use of silence emphasizes the importance of the sparse dialogue, makes the audience pay attention to every word that is spoken. It also forces the audience to pay close attention to actions, whether it is one of the brothers eating mutton soup or a prize ram impregnating a group of ewes.

A central scene is a local sheep competition in which Kiddi‘s prize sheep edges out Gummi‘s. Although this is only an annual local event to determine the best sheep, it provides opportunities to demonstrate how important it is to the participants. Gummi‘s reaction to his prize sheep being relegated to second place makes clear the intensity of the competition. The story line moves slowly because this is a story of local, personal values that the viewer must come to understand. For the film to work, a non-Icelandic audience has to understand the role of the sheep in the lives of the local people.The precipitating incident is the discovery of the disease scrapie. It attacks the spine and brain of sheep and there is no cure. With careful layering of scenes, the film prepares the audience  to understand how serious an event this is and validates the behaviour of the brothers.

Since there is no cure for scrapie, the local veterinarian decrees that all the sheep in the valley must be killed. When that happens, it not only means that the valley’s sheep farmers will lose their livelihood but it will be the end of a breed of sheep that has existed back to Iceland´s earliest history. Anyone who knows Icelandic history knows that sheep made the continued habitation of Iceland possible. In a country with only one possible crop, hay, the sheep provided milk, wool, and meat for both local consumption and trade goods. Although Iceland has urbanized, its rural traditions are still strong. The end of sheep farming in the valley is emblematic because it is not just the end of a way to make a living but the end of a way of life.

In a different context, the conflict of the two brothers might have seemed trivial; the scheming and planning to defy the order to kill the sheep, absurd. However, in the context of the film, the events move the narrative toward tragedy. With sparse dialogue and no large physical events, the intense focus of the film is on the two brothers. Gradually, although the viewer is shown many rams, it becomes clear that the rams in the title are the two brothers. At loggerheads over some long distant conflict only hinted at when it is revealed that both farms are in Gummi’s name because their father didn’t trust Kiddi’s judgement.

The movie has a solemnity about it. The landscape, the conflict, the seriousness of the situation for the local people all contribute to the mood. However, the film is shot through with wry Icelandic humour. Although the brothers haven’t spoken to each other for forty years, they do communicate by a collie that carries messages back and forth between them. There is also an unusual use of a front end loader that brought startled laughter. This stage business is amusing and enjoyable. At the same time the humour is more than stage business. The situation of the brothers is, in some ways, ridiculous and the ridiculous can be amusing, but Grimur takes some of his directorial cues from the sagas where a bleak humour is often mixed with  the most horrific events.

The stars are Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodor Júlíusson. With their ferocious beards and weathered faces, they might be Viking chieftains during the time of the great conflict of the Sturlungs. Much is demanded of them as actors because so much focus is on their physical expression rather than their dialogue. They began preparing for their roles a year and a half before the film was made. Grimur developed back stories for them, that is the lives of their characters before the time of the film, so that their character’s actions would be logical and consistent with their current lives as elderly sheep farmers.

The attention to detail in the visual images and in the characters, the fitting together of the incidents that comprise the plot, unifies and intensifies the film. Grimur spent three years writing the script. His attention to detail in all the film’s aspects–characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, and theme–give the film the sense of reality that might be found in a documentary while, at the same time, create a narrative voice that can be trusted.

Because of the intense local rendering, in less adept hands, the film might have been parochial. Instead, the story takes on universal implications. It is about men and sheep at one level, about rural displacement at another level, but at the most important level, it is about the fierce family resentments between brothers. The film explores the forces that separate us but also those that bind us.

When Rams was shown at Cannes, it won the Un Certain Regard prize. It has been selected for the 2016 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. The film has been sold to more than forty countries. It has the distinction of being an Icelandic film that not only will garner prestigious prizes but might actually be commercially successful.

Shown at the Victoria Film Festival, sponsored by the Richard and Margaret Beck Lecture series, and introduced by Helga Thorson, the head of Germanic and Slavic studies, Rams played to a sold-out house.

Movie Review”: Of Horses and Men

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You usually know that when people start praising the landscape in a movie, that the movie is terrible and they’re desperately trying to find something good to say. Or when people say, weren’t the giraffes, lions, gazelles, porpoises, horses wonderful, you know they’re talking about a turkey. The amazing thing about the movie, Of Horses and Men, that the Icelanders of Victoria watched this afternoon at the University of Victoria is that one can honestly say wasn’t the landscape fantastic, weren’t the horses gorgeous and while both are true, one can also say “What a good movie.”

Benedikt Erlingsson, the director, deserves a great deal of praise for this understated narrative of rural Iceland that is riven through with the unexpected, the tragic and the comic.

Erlingsson obviously understands how to tell a story visually. Easy to say, hard to do. Many directors simply do not understand how powerful subtle visual narrative can be. They burden a movie with dialogue.

Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), the main male character in this movie whose disrupted courting provides a unifying thread for the middle aged love story, has a white mare that he treasures. She is difficult and it takes some effort for him to get a halter onto her. That the importance of the journey Kobeinn is going to take is made clear by the fact that he has a button come off his good jacket and he stops to sew it back on. He is dressed very much as the rural Icelandic gentleman. Waiting for him on a neighbouring farm is a middle-aged Solveig (Charlotte Boving), her young son, and Solveig’s mother.

The importance of this courting coffee visit is made clear in glances, expressions, body movements and that formality is nicely counterpointed with something as simple as Solveig’s son taking off the horse’s saddle and putting it on the steps.

Packed into this beginning of man, horse, romantic interest, is imagery that is repeated to great effect all through the movie. That is the reality of everyone in the valley knowing everyone else’s business and watching for Kolbeinn to ride over to Solveig’s farm. They do this through binoculars and spy glasses and everyone knows that everyone is watching from the reflection of the sun on the instruments. As a device, it works well for it helps to capture the small, intensely personal quality of the community.

Because there are a number of deaths, this could have been a dark tragedy like Zorba the Greek or a tale filled with great sacrifice such as Babette’s Feast but Erlingsson threads through the narrative’s darkness, human absurdities that make us shake our head or laugh. For example, the motif of the spy glasses, close to the end of the film, are used by two women to observe our hero, Kolbeinn, and our heroine, Solveig, making love on the grass when they should be gathering in horses at the annual horse roundup.

The film opens at Kolbeinn’s house and the camera pans more than once over the wall on which a shotgun is mounted. I immediately thought, the writer knows his Chekov. Chekov famously said, and I taught for years, that if at the beginning you show a rifle hanging on the wall, then you have got to have it used later in the story. Otherwise it is a red herring. I wondered who would get shot. It turns out it was Kolbeinn’s beloved white mare.

The reason Kolbeinn shoots his horse is because when he is leaving his coffee-flirting date with Solveig, a black stallion of Solveig’s has broken free. The white mare, in heat, stops and won’t move. The black stallion, with Kolbeinn on the mare’s back, mounts her. All this is seen by the various residents of the valley who are watching through their binoculars. Kolbeinn, because he is humiliated, shoots the white mare.

It is here where the logic of the film comes apart for me. Not that a vain man couldn’t or wouldn’t shoot his beloved horse if he’d felt humiliated. Rather, that having done something so irrational and vicious, that the rather attractive Solveig would, through the rest of the narrative, continue to pursue him. Is she in desperate financial circumstances? Can she not manage the farm by herself? Would he, I wondered, if she looked like she might stray, shoot her?

The film is broken up into vignettes about various people in the valley with two males being killed. Vernharður (Steinn Armann Magnusson) rides his horse into the ocean to a trawler where he can buy alcohol, then rides back to shore, seemingly none the worse for the freezing cold of the North Atlantic. The sailors have warned him that they are selling him pure alcohol, not vodka, but he drinks the alcohol straight from the containers, falls from his horse, vomits and dies.Since I had to follow the movie through English subtitles, this wasn’t clear to me.

The scenes of Vernharður riding his horse through the ocean waves and then, astoundingly, riding back to shore, are quite amazing. I immediately thought of Independent People (Laxness) and Bjartur of Summerhouses riding a reindeer across a river in winter.

The second death occurs when Grimur (Kjartan Ragnarsson) cuts down a barbed wire fence that Egill (Helgi Bjornsson) has built. The fence blocks what should be a public through way. In the ensuing pursui9t, Grimur is blinded in one eye by barbed wire and Egill, in his desire for revenge, rides his tractor over a cliff.

The deaths create two rather attractive widows who become competition for Solveig. However, she is determined to have Kolbeinn for a husband. When the locals gather for the annual horse roundup, there is some very nice visual sexual competition as the women try to take their place beside him. There are shared flasks of whiskey as they ride and jockeying for position. Solveig is determined to take charge. Rather than waiting for Kolbeinn to make up his mind, she insists on being his partner in exploring an isolated nook. There, she takes off her rain pants, then her long underwear and pulls down Kolbein’s pants and tells him to get the rest of his underclothes off. They do the same as the horses did at the beginning of the movie but I hoped that Kolbeinn wasn’t going to go for his shotgun afterwards.

The movie ends in marvelous scenes of the gathered horses being driven to the pen where they will be sorted out by their owners. The best images of Kolbeinn and Solveig in the movie are in the horse pen. They are obviously happy and Solveig, in spite of our not getting to know her very well, tugs at our heart for we hope that all works out well. And Kolbeinn? I hope he treats her better than his beloved mare.

So, there you have it. A romantic comedy filled with vignettes that end in tragedy or near tragedy, a strange mix that could have been a Bergman but isn’t, could have been a Monty Python, but isn’t. The horses are wonderful. The countryside is wonderful. And I’m not saying that because I have nothing good to say about the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I recommend seeing it. The acting is good. The directing is good. The cinematography is good. David Thor Jonsson’s music is strange, surprising and highly effective. I just wish I knew what someone as attractive as Solveig sees in Kolbeinn.

 

Hofsos Hunts West

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Pictures on display at today’s coffee reception. These pictures provide evidence that families like those of Wayne Johnson still exist locally and have the materials that will  help create a permanent history of Icelanders on the West Coast.

Just like the pioneers who started off in Iceland, traveled to North America, settled for a time, at least in New Iceland, then began the long, slow process of moving West looking for good land, Valgeir of Hofsos has come west. His friend Bob Fridriksson is with him. They aren’t looking for land but for stories, family histories, letters, artifacts, evidence of those who, like Árni Mýrdal, as a child, survived the small pox in New Iceland. The land in New Iceland was swampy and provided only marginal farming. Not until a drainage system was developed was some of the best land available for farming. As well, most of the land was covered in dense bush. His parents, like many other Icelandic settlers, moved again, this time south to Pembina. From there they went to Victoria. This might have been a final stop but like many people, he moved to Point Roberts. Victoria drew immigrants and a good sized community developed but then a small pox epidemic and a recession caused people to leave. The railway and government brochures promised the best land imaginable. For many immigrants, finding that land took years and endless moves.
‘Arni did not travel alone. His wife, Sigríður, traveled with him.

Or they might try to find the descendants Pétur Ó. Hansen. Pétur emigrated in 1876 to Nova Scotia. Sive years later he moved to Winnipeg. From Wnnipeg to Hallson, North Dakota. He lived north of Hallson for 20 to 30 years. He then live din Mountain, North Dakota. In 1913 he moved to Blaine. His wife was Guðlaug Guðmundsdóttir. She came from Rangárvallarsýsla. They might find some descendants but it will be difficult because Guðlaug had three daughters so tracing their names may be impossible.

Valgeir and Bob say that they are not going to tackle the job from the past to the present but from the present to the past. They´re going to track down the living and work backward toward the dead. It sounds like a good plan. That´s what Valgeir´s presentation was about today.

The Icelanders of Victoria had a coffee reception for Valgeir Thorvaldsson and Thorhildur Bjarnadóttir today at the Tally Ho. Our president, Fred Bjarnason, is a chef at the Tally Ho and we get to use their banquet room. Having a chef for president has many advantages. Fred even made gluten free asta bollur for me. I ate four. What a great president! Twenty-two people turned up. Many of them I had not seen before. People like Susanna Helgason and Sian Hoff. They´ll be a great addition to our club.

Valgeir showed slides about Hofsos and told us its history. It was his dream to have an immigration museum. This harbor that was very busy at one time had fallen into disuse. He showed us pictures of the houses. Many were wrecks. He began by salvaging a house that was historically important. It was built in 1772. That alone should get him a mention in the history books and a public service award for rescuing an important part of Iceland’s history. It has obviously been a struggle to get people to accept the importance of the project and to provide the necessary funding but Valgeir has prevailed. There were pictures of more restored buildings and new buildings. There were pictures of Valgeir with Vigdis. Someone in the audience pointed out that he was thinner then but so were we all.

One difficulty that Valgeir will face is that many of us in the clubs have no family history on the West Coast. I, for example, grew up in Gimli. My family history there goes back to 1876. It is in the Gimli Saga. The other problem, as I mentioned, is the North American system of naming. Women who marry disappear. My son is Valgardson. My daughter is Hayman. How would anyone know about her Icelandic background? The other problem that I’ve noticed in my own research is that there are many references to Icelandic settlers or their immediate family leaving the Pacific North West and moving to California. It is obvious from the biography of Halldor Laxness, The Islander, by Halldór Guðmundsson, that a lot of Icelanders were drawn to Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandmother, Blanche was a playwright and harbored dreams of writing movies. Although she lived in Gimli, she corresponded with an Icelander who had made a bit of a name for himself in the movies. Also, I know of an Icelandic actor in Winnipeg who moved on to Hollywood. It wasn´t just Laxness who hoped to make it big in Hollywood. There was an Icelander in Hollywood who was making a fortune in construction and provided Laxness with an apartment.

The good side is that there are people whose families have been in Victoria for generations. They not only can provide their family histories but information about other families. Also, there are at least three important books. Icelanders of the Pacific West Coast from which I’ve taken my information about the early settlers. Ben Sizertz’s three volume tome on his father, mother and himself. The third book is Memories of Osland about the amazing but now forgotten Icelandic settlement on Hunter Island in the mouth of the Skeena.

There are, of course, families with a long history on the West Coast. It is these people who may provide photographs, diaries, letters, anecdotes of life back through the generations.
I wish Valgeir the best in this new search to find the forgotten Icelanders, those who moved West and West and West until they could move no further and settled to fish for salmon, or work in canning factories, or in the lumber industry, or raise sheep. It is the life of those of whom I sometimes write, those who left New Iceland for better land, greater opportunities, the same things that had caused them to leave Iceland, those who make up what I call the Icelandic Diaspora.

Icelandic Migration to Salt Lake City

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When I was at the INL convention in Seattle, I heard Prof. Fred E. Woods give a talk on the emigration of Icelanders to Utah in the 1800s. I was fascinated because I had read Laxness’s novel Paradise Reclaimed in which an Icelandic farmer starts out on a journey to Denmark but ends up in Utah. He then returns to his farm in Iceland only to find it in ruins.

In his talk for the Richard and Margret Beck Trust on September 21st, Prof. Woods said people know about Steinar of Hlidar and his journey but they don’t know about the people who went to Utah and remained.

It is Prof. Woods plan to collect all the information possible about the people who stayed and to that end he has been gathering letters, diaries, photographs, articles both in North America and in Iceland. In Utah, he has been borrowing material, copying it and returning it to the owners. His photographs showed what were family treasure troves. He emphasized that Mormon culture encouraged the keeping of diaries. Mormon beliefs included the idea that everyone in the human race was connected, that family was the primary building block of society and, so, the keeping of family histories has been encouraged.

In Iceland, he is working with Kári Bjarnason, director of the library in Vestmannaeyjar. The connection is important because more than half of the emigrants came from Vestmannaeyar. Dr. Woods became interested in the migration of Icelandic Mormons in 1999. Although he has no Icelandic background, he began to work with the Icelandic Association of Utah.

In emigration there are always push pull factors. For example, emigration from Iceland to North America was nearly impossible because there was no regular transport to England and Scotland which, in turn, would allow emigrants to board ships for North America. Sailing ships only came to Iceland from Denmark during the summer months. The difficulty of reaching North America was such that it was surprising that as many took a chance on emigrating as they did. At the same time, conditions in Iceland, always harsh, had been deteriorating with cold weather, volcanic eruptions and no opportunities since Iceland was still rural and the small amount of grazing land was owned by wealthier farmers or by the church. Prof. Woods, in his lecture, emphasized the pull factor in the appearance of Mormon converts who spread both knowledge of and belief in the Mormon faith.

As with all religious movements, this one had to start with someone who was converted and who returned to spread the word of both religion and opportunity. That one person, Gudmunder Gudmundsson had moved to Denmark to become a goldsmith. He and a childhood friend who was in Denmark, Þórarinn Hafliðason, became the first Mormon missionaries to proselytize in Iceland. Prof. Wood mentioned, a number of times, how through his research he’s been able to document the truth of the early missionary’s accounts of their experience in Iceland. They were met with a great deal of hostility which isn’t surprising. Iceland’s state religion was Lutheranism. Rooted in Catholicism and, before that, paganism, in which religious and secular power were inextricably linked, the preaching of a new religion with new loyalties and ideas—Luther wanted to graft new branches on the church tree; Mormonism thought the tree dead and wanted to grow a new one—threatened the age-old order. Also, Iceland was a homogeneous country with a tiny population so that new lines of authority were a threat in a way that they wouldn’t be in a country with a large population.

Part of Mormon tradition is the persecution of its proselytizers. Evidence of such persecution is dramatized in Paradise Reclaimed. The Mormon bishop is treated badly. Icelandic documents confirm officialdom was hostile. In spite of that hostility and the tremendous difficulty of travel, a few people emigrated anyway. From the material Prof. Woods presented, I would be inclined to believe that the small number of people who left for Utah in spite of local conditions in Iceland was the result of a variety of conditions. In the 1850s, little was known of America, the beliefs preached by the Mormons was very different from Icelandic Lutheranism, and Iceland’s small population shared a history and culture built on personal family ties. By the 1870s, when conditions had deteriorated even more, the migration of twenty percent of the population for economic reasons to North America also was met with tremendous hostility by those who stayed behind. That hostility didn’t stop people from emigrating. However, the push effect had become much greater as economic conditions had deteriorated and the pull factor had become greater with the possibility of taking ships to England and Scotland and from there to Quebec.

The Mormon migration, because it involved such small numbers (only 16 Icelanders emigrated to Utah between 1855-60), and because there had been such hostility toward those who left, was largely forgotten. Ultimately, slightly less than four hundred Icelanders converted and moved to Utah. Although the descendants of the Mormon emigrants kept up their Icelandic traditions and treasured their family histories, and in spite of the fact that a group moved to Alberta, I heard nothing of them in New Iceland. This part of the emigration story had been forgotten. It was only with the advent of the internet and, particularly, Facebook, that I began to hear from individuals wanting to know if we were related because we shared the same last name

I welcome and applaud Prof. Woods research and publications about these “lost” Icelanders. Because he is making his materials available on the internet, knowledge about this part of our history is now available. Prof. Woods material can be accessed at http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/fire-ice-story-icelandic-latter-day-saints-home-and-abroad/appendix-icelandic-immigrants. Or you can simply Google Icelandic immigration Utah.
Prof. Woods is an entertaining and informative lecturer. His talk was well attended.

Laxness as a client

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Chapter 11

“You! A farmer!” Connor laughed uproariously. He nearly fell off his chair. We were at my parents’. When we are at my parents’, he immediately reverts to his adolescent self.

Connor is my older brother. He is big. He tried out for the Blue Bombers but didn’t make it. He bashes into things. Ever since I can remember, he’s bashed into me. When we were little, say two and four or four and six, I’d be standing in the yard and he’d make a run for me and send me flying. He thought how-far-can-I-knock-Tom was a game.

“It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t suggest it.”

“The old guy’s getting Alzheimer’s,” Connor said. He was rocking around in his chair with hilarity. “That place of his must be worth over a million dollars. Even if you knew the difference between wheat and barley, you wouldn’t have a down payment. You want to buy big stuff, you’ve got to get a real job, make real money.” Connor was a stock broker. His specialty seemed to be putting lipstick on pigs and making them fly. He was always trying to get me interested in some penny mining stock no one else had ever heard of. Flow through shares of gold companies in places I’d never heard of seemed to come up regularly. He leased a Lexus ES 350. Before he’d become a stock broker, he’d sold used cars. He’s always on the edge of making a fortune. He should have been the fiction writer.

“Are you going to see Valdi today,” my mother asked. She was making cinnamon buns. Connor loved cinnamon buns. He could eat a dozen without pausing. His stomach hung over his belt.

“They’re in lockdown,” I said. The flu had got worse. The staff were run off their feet feeding people in their rooms, cleaning up after people threw up, taking temperatures. I’d gone to the front door and the dreaded sign was up. “Quarantine. Do not enter.” I backed away and went to Tergesen’s book store to see if they had any new self-published books or new local histories. You could find things there you couldn’t find anywhere else. There was a book on commercial fishing. I thumbed through it, noted the information on fishing stations, amounts of fish caught over the years and paid for it at the front counter where there was a stack of plastic Viking helmets with horns.

The town of Gimli was a mistake. It was settled in eighteen seventy-five because a bunch of Icelandic immigrants were being towed north on Lake Winnipeg on barges to the Whitemud River. A storm came up, the captain of the steam ship cut the barges loose and left the immigrants to fend for themselves. They landed on a sandbar that was exposed to winds from Hudson Bay, where the forest was scruffy and scabby and anyone with a lick of sense would have immediately left and moved onto higher ground with thick forest, preferably sheltered by spruce trees that kept the drifting snow back. Unfortunately, these people had been raised on the story of the settlement of Iceland.  Ingolfur Arnarson, the first Icelandic settler, chucked his high seat pillars overboard, let the gods of wind and wave take them, and when they were found, settled there. The immigrants to Canada, like the high seat pillars, were cast off, drifted ashore and they assumed, since settling where things drifted ashore worked for Ingolfur, it would work for them.

The land was lousy. What looked like hay meadows were actually swamps but they thought they were hay fields because it was a dry year. The next year wasn’t dry. The water came back. There were only two kinds of ground in the local area: swampy and more swampy. The immigrants knew how to raise sheep and dairy cows and how to fish in the North Atlantic. Swamps are lousy places to try to raise sheep and dairy cows and the ocean fishing equipment didn’t work in a fresh water lake. The following summer a large group of Icelandic immigrants arrived to share the misery of the first arrivals. To make matters worse, there was a smallpox epidemic. Entire families died. Nobody likes to talk about the cause of the deaths, but when you are researching a book you keep coming across embarrassing facts. One hundred and three people died. Nobody should have died. Small pox inoculations had been known for a long time in Iceland. English explorers had brought cowpox scabs and taught the local priests how to inoculate people. The problem was that the majority of the immigrants were dreadfully poor indentured servants and the local well-to-do farmers couldn’t be bothered to have them innoculated. There were, after all, way too many poor people living on a kind of welfare system that required rich people to pay a poor tax. It was cheaper to bury poor people than to feed them.

To give Laxness his due with regard to his short story, “New Iceland”, that had so infuriated people that they had chased him through the night in an attempt to tar and feather him, the Icelandic immigrants’ story from the time they left Iceland until Laxness turned up in the late 1920s, was pretty bad. The earliest ships to the UK were transporting horses for the mines. Icelandic horses are small so they fit into the mine shafts. The ship owners from England and Scotland, not seeing much difference in the horses and the would-be immigrants, simply ran a partition down the centre of the ship’s hold. Horses, horse piss and shit on one side, men, women and children on the other. Actions speak louder than words and the action in this case made it clear the immigrants were beasts of burden. It wasn’t just the Ukrainian’s under Polish and Russian rule who were considered nothing but expendable animals.

The Industrial Revolution never came to Iceland. When other countries had roads and railways, Iceland still had horse trails and horses. There were no wheeled vehicles. The invention of steam ships meant regular scheduled travel replaced the inconsistency of sailing ships and those poverty stricken Icelandic peasants who could manage to pay the fare, could take a ship to England or Scotland and, from there, another ship to Quebec City. The poor people that the rich farmers never quit bitching about having to feed and clothe started leaving and the farmers, seeing their cheap labor disappear went on a rampage to stop them. Unlike the English slave owners and the Russian serf owners, the land owning farmers in Iceland weren’t going to get compensated for losing their indentured servants and share croppers.

Although the rich farmers treated the Icelandic un-landed peasants as disposable and valueless, once they started to crowd down to the harbors to get onto ships, the landed farmers thought this scruff was so valuable that they hired men to disrupt information meetings being held for the potential emigrants. The disrupters made so much noise that the emigration agents couldn’t be heard. That, in itself, was an acknowledgement that it was the share croppers who, by paying outrageous mortgages on their farms, paying outrageous interest on their leased sheep and cattle, provided the rich farmers with their wealth. The indentured servants who were paid as little as two dollars a year plus room and board and a piece of clothing a year, the fishermen who went to sea with nothing to eat from morning to night, who lived in stone huts often with no fuel for cooking, who drowned in vast numbers in terrible weather and poor boats, it was these people who created the rich farmers’ wealth. No rich farmer could take care of his own dairy cows, his own sheep or go fishing by himself. The game was rigged. The rich made laws that benefited the rich and then believed they were rich because they were superior to the serfs living in squalor.

My brother, Connor, aspired to be the modern equivalent of one of those wealthy landowners. He wanted minions to do his bidding. He made life hell for people who worked under him and kissed the ass of anyone above him. It was, he said, the natural order of things. Life was competitive, survival of the fittest, eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, the cream rose to the top. His cream didn’t rise to the top when he was trying out for the Blue Bombers. It was more like he was skim milk. He made the most of it, though. He got as many autographed photographs as possible with him in his uniform standing beside Blue Bomber stars. He papered his office wall with them. He let prospective clients assume that he had been on the team. He even had a replica Grey Cup on one shelf but if you looked closely it was a popcorn popper.

When we were kids, he used to beat me at Monopoly but he cheated. Cheating was fair, he claimed, it was just adding creativity to games. The point was to out cheat each other. He developed a philosophy about cheating. The rich got rich because they were the experts at cheating. Politicians spent most of their time figuring out ways to cheat. He was always pointing out articles in the paper about politicians cheating to get a nomination, cheating at raising money, cheating at the ballot box, cheating on expenses. There wasn’t anything they did that they didn’t cheat at. When Connor was playing midget hockey for the provincial title, he went so far as to slip into the visiting team’s dressing room and run a sharpening stone along their star player’s skates. Except he wasn’t sharpening the skates, he was dulling the edges. In spite of that effort, Connor’s team lost. He shrugged and said, “I did my best. You can’t win them all.”

My mother was very proud of him because he dressed well and he was good at greeting all her friends with hugs and handshakes. He made them feel special. Fortunately, for most of them, they didn’t have enough money for him to put his hand in their pockets. When the boom was on in Iceland, he suddenly became interested in his Icelandic heritage. When the Icelandic bankers turned up, he was all over them. He wanted a piece of the action. They weren’t interested in anyone who didn’t have a million dollars to invest. He wanted to show them opportunities in penny mining stocks that were going to go to dollars. They weren’t interested because they already had their own scam.

He had his Lexus, a house, a wife and two kids and a mega mortgage and line of credit. I had the beginning of a pension and ten thousand in a TFSA. I was fortunate that Jasmine had worked and saved before she went to university and, while there, had obtained scholarships. The split didn’t cost me anything but aggravation. The only thing I had that was worth anything was my van. I’d bought my van second hand, a hundred and thirty thousand kilometers on it. I had a complete set of the sagas and my laptop.

At the moment, I had a precious roaster full of hollopchi. Connor, if he knew they existed, wouldn’t have been able to keep his hands off them. I’d slipped my hollopchi into the house without anyone noticing and put them in the freezer downstairs under eight packages of waffles. My father liked store bought waffles he could pop into the toaster. Otherwise, Connor would have eaten the hollopchi at one sitting. He wouldn’t even have said thank you or expressed remorse. He’d have belched and rubbed his gut.

“How’s the Bookster doing?” Connor asked. He’d started calling me the Bookster back in high school because I read books from beginning to end. I don’t think he’d actually ever read any of the English course books. He’d got summary notes for them, read the summaries and after he’d passed the course said, see, there’s efficient and there’s inefficient. Get the grades and have time for other things. “You still working on that tome?”

I don’t think he hated me. I’d just always been there to torment. When he wasn’t calling me The Bookster, he called me Commie Tom. That was because I occasionally expressed concern about homeless people, the mentally ill, the treatment of military personnel, those sorts of people. “If they have to buy their toilet paper at Walmart, you don’t want to know them,” he said. “Don’t waste your time thinking about people who can’t afford to buy their sardines at Sobey’s for full price.” I wasn’t impressed. He and his wife dumped the kids on my folks last Christmas and used a HELOC to go to Mexico. This year my folks beat him to the punch. They were going on a Christmas cruise. It was booked, paid for and couldn’t be canceled.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m still working on that tome.”

“You figure you’ll get a million dollar advance? I read in the paper someone got a million bucks for scribbling something. There’s always somebody getting a million bucks for doing nothing. You make big money, I’ll manage it for you. One percent a year.”

“Tom’s working hard at that book,” my mother said. “He’s interviewing lots of people. I’m sure it’ll be a success.”

“The bloom is off the rose,” Connor said. He never thought negative thoughts so I was surprised. “People are putting too much money into buying houses. They haven’t got money for stocks. However, all is not lost. I noticed at church last week a lot of grey hair and bald heads. Those people need financial advice. I’ve decided to change my speciality to financial advisor for the elderly. You have to move with the times. You hear that Bookster? You have to adapt or die. Just like the birds and reptiles. Except you’ve got to do it faster.”

Connor didn’t believe in God. He thought Jesus was a fraud. He thought church was a social club that could be mined for prospects. He claimed that church was a way to get people to trust you. You were in church, you must be good, you must be trustworthy, you shared the same values, you got to talk to people who wouldn’t have let you into their house if you’d just knocked at their door. In every pew there were opportunities. The problem was that most of the parishioners were older women who weren’t interested in speculative mining stocks. They were, however, in need of someone to look after the insurance their dead husbands had left them.

“You, Bookster, are another possible source. You’re going around interviewing all these people for this book. You’ve got the key to their front door. You could introduce me. If I get a contract to manage their account, you get a finder’s fee. Some of these farmers must be worth a bundle. What’s the name of this guy you’ve been researching lately?”

“Laxness. He’s dead. He lived in Iceland. He’s not a prospect.”

“Icelanders,” he said and took two cinnamon buns out of the pan my mother had just pulled out of the oven. He flipped them from one hand to the other because the sugar was hot. He kept saying ow, ow, ow but he wouldn’t put them down.

“They’re still hot inside,” my mother said. “Wait for a couple of minutes. Get a cold glass of milk just in case you burn yourself.”

Connor went to the fridge for milk. “Icelanders,” he repeated. “They had it all. The world was their oyster. Their timing was off. When the bankers were here, I tried to tell them, buy Canadian, do it through a trust in the Bahamas, shelter your profits. Bury it and if everything goes toes up, it doesn’t matter.” He had the two cinnamon buns in his right hand and the glass of cold milk in his left. He was ripping off chunks of the cinnamon buns with his teeth. Ripping things with his teeth was a genetic thing except his Viking ancestors would have been ripping meat off a leg of mutton. When he finished the buns, he sucked on his fingers to get all the sugar and cinnamon off them. I could see Laxness’s Vikings licking and sucking the lamb fat off their hands. Connor took another two cinnamon buns. My mother took that as a compliment.

“You got a girlfriend yet?” he asked. I didn’t bother to reply. He had an inordinate interest in my sex life. It was probably because he’d been married since he was twenty. He saw me as a bachelor and then married to Jasmine the Hot Number as he called her and, now, as a divorced guy free to hump anything available. There was a touch of envy in his voice.

“How’s Trudy,” I replied. He’d found Trudy in a pool room. She had big tits, blonde hair to her ass, cowboy boots and an attitude. He challenged her to a game and she beat his balls around the table and took five dollars off him. He’d been trying to get even ever since. Two kids and too much watching soap opera and she’d expanded to plus plus sizes.

“Doing good,” he said but his happy face had gone a little grimmer. There were, I expected, temptations at the office. There were opportunities for dalliances with his female clients, although as fat had replaced his stomach muscle those were likely fading. The Blue Bomber photos were with players whose names no one remembered.

I imagined Connor looking for new victims after church services were over, chatting up the widows, inquiring after their health, their interests, never asking about their money,  that would scare them. He’d feel them out, not up, to see if their husbands had left them well off, might mention the threat of inflation, of the importance of having their affairs in safe hands, little things, asking if they had a financial advisor, dropping a hint, nothing direct, just an oh, I see, and looking uncomfortable, making them concerned about that person, taking a stone to the edge of the advisor’s skates as it were, offering, at no cost, to take a look at their investments at some time in the future, raising the danger of another Nortel.

Laxness had used women to finance his writing. His mother knitted to make money to support him, she sold off land and mailed him the proceeds. If it had been possible in those days, she’d probably have sold a kidney to raise money for him. He borrowed money from women and never paid it back. He let them support him. He was an equal opportunity borrower. He didn’t just get money from priests and monks and businessmen. It was all justified because he won the Nobel Prize. I wondered, though, watching Connor gobbling down the fourth cinnamon bun, would it have been justified if he hadn’t won the prize.

“You doing anything for Christmas?” Connor asked and I knew better than to think he and Trudy might be planning on inviting me for Christmas dinner. If I said no, I didn’t have any plans, they’d want me to move into their place and take care of their kids for a week while they lay on the beach in Acapulco.

“Yeah,” I lied, “I’ve got a ticket for Cuba. Veradero.” Connor hated that, giving money to the commies, commies who refused to give the mafia back their property that had been confiscated by Castro, he didn’t differentiate between honest and dishonest capitalists. There was no such thing to him as a dishonest capitalist, just those who got caught and those who didn’t get caught. To him they were all the same. He’d eaten four cinnamon buns and was eyeing the last six. I expected him to lunge toward the pan, grab the buns and stuff them into his mouth. So did my mother. She said, “Leave one for Tom and one for your father.” He pulled another two free. His belly, I noticed, hung further over his belt since the last time I’d seen him.

 

 

Laxness and the Holdomor

laxnessyoung

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He ran his hand gently over the fur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did he come here?” Natalie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Laxness eat the hollopchi Domka gave  him?”

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

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

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

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

“Were there any Bolsheviks? I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laxness and the Black Maggots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to be there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Four x flour?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning to unravel Kiljan’s Mystery

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Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Dmytro asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Laxness Flees to France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” she asked.

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

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

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

“Do you want to feel my breasts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“An abortion?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Valkyrie disses Laxness

 

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

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

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

“Was she smart?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Separated.”

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

“No,” I replied somewhat testily.

“Single. Have you got a girlfriend?”

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

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

“Once is enough. “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That wasn’t me,” I protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not overweight,” I said sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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