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.