Valdi had sung with the area choir as long as his knees held out but when it became too painful to stand, he left the choir to join the audience. The choir master would have arranged a chair for him so that he only had to stand when he was singing but Valdi said no, there’s a time when you have to let an old bull go to pasture. At the nursing home, he was willing to join the motley crew that turned up on Saturday nights to entertain. He’d stand with one hand on the arm of his wheel chair. There was a thrill among the residents when one of their own stood up to perform.
His interests were unashamedly local. He might occasionally watch an NHL game but he took no great pleasure in it. Instead, he preferred to attend local hockey games where he knew the grandfathers and fathers of the players. He would much rather have talked about the local players, discussing their skating and stick handling, than some over paid person he knew nothing about. A player on the Midget hockey team was of more interest to him than the star forward of the Winnipeg Jets. He only followed the NHL closely during the years when Reggie Leach, the Riverton Rifle, was playing in the big leagues.
I visited Gimli in the winter but not as often as in the summer. The highways were often blurred with drifting snow, there was ice, cars frequently stuck in the roadside snowbanks, temperatures that with wind chill were minus forty.
He had my phone number and, from time to time, he’d phone me. “Are you coming to Gimli?” he’d demand.
“The roads are bad,” I’d say.
“You’ve got snow tires. What’s the use of paying to have snow tires if you don’t use them?”
“The RCMP have issued a weather warning.”
“It’s a good day for chess. Besides, that cute nurse that flirted with you last time is going to be on duty. You know, the one who plaits her hair.”
“She did not flirt with me.”
“She did. She did everything but pat your bum. She’s separated, she’s hot. A real man would invite her over to the hotel for a drink. It’s just across the street. There are lots of empty rooms. They don’t cost much. Don’t be cheap.”
I waited to hear why he was trying to tempt me to risk my life driving sixty miles when the RCMP were saying stay off the highways.
“The Wolves are playing tonight. I haven’t been out of this bloody prison for three weeks. You need to get out. There’s more to life than lesson plans and correcting papers.”
“The game will be canceled. The other team won’t come.”
“They’re here,” he replied. “They’re not wimps.”
“If they go into the ditch, they can pick up the car and carry it back onto the road.”
“I remembered some things about Laxness.”
“It can wait.”
“I’ll forget. My memory is getting very bad.”
Sometimes, I went in spite of the weather. I knew when he called like that he was pretty desperate. He and I would go to the hockey game and he’d watch from behind the glass and wire windows but I knew that something had happened, he’d got bad news from his doctor or his daughter had phoned. Or both. Other times when he called, he’d want me to drive him out to the farm. His longing for the farm was like an ache that couldn’t be cured.
He’d sold off his animals but he refused to sell the farm. In spite of everything he held onto the buildings and the land. His daughter had tried to persuade him, even threatened to take over as Power of Attorney and sell it in spite of him but he’d fought back, enlisted his lawyer, insisted on taking a mental competency test. As he said, failing knees and failing kidneys didn’t mean a failing mind. Although it made no sense, he still hoped for a miracle. His daughter went back to her library in a huff.
The house sat empty. He paid for the grass to be cut, allowed a neighbour to use the garden, rented out his fields. The barn and toolshed still housed his equipment. At first when we’d go to the farm, he’d asked for my help getting onto the tractor, the combine, the grain truck but in the last few visits, he hadn’t attempted climbing up. When we visited, I usually stayed near the door as he moved around the shed using a cane, talking to the machines as if they were animals, patted them, ran his hand lovingly along them. When we visited his shop, he touched the welder, the lathe, the saw, stood beside them lost in thought. We never went in the house. That had been his wife’s domain.
I drove a ten year old Ford van. It worked out just fine. He could get into the passenger seat. I could put his wheelchair in the back.
When I was in Gimli and stayed overnight, I usually stayed with friends who had a single bed in one corner of the basement. Most of the time it was covered in boxes and clothes. I just moved them onto the floor and went to sleep. In spite of Valdi’s saying the hotel wasn’t expensive, it was, at least on my salary. It was meant for holidaying tourists with open wallets, not a high school teacher collecting early immigrant stories for what he hoped would become a book.
I didn’t go the day he called so he had to play checkers with a resident who wasn’t suffering from dementia. Shortly after he’d got to Betel, he’d said, “It’s no fun playing against someone whose brain has gone off the tracks.” Most of the residents had brains that had gone off the tracks and some of them had brains that were complete train wrecks. Their heads leaned to one side and their mouths hung open. What was painful for him was that he’d known many of these people all his life.
I did go a week later. It was cold but there was no wind, the highways had been ploughed, the sky was a bright blue. It was 35 below but inside the van, with the heater ramped up, it was too warm for wearing mukluks and thermal long underwear so I turned the heat down and drifted down the dark channel created by the ploughed drifts on either side of the highway. The poplar forests behind the barbed wire fences that were buried in snow had snow piled so high that their tops might have been a forest of bushes. The shadows were shades of blue. It was deceptive, this artificial warmth inside the van where my feet sweated and I’d had to shrug off my parka. If the van stalled or slid off the road, I’d have to wrap mysel f in my down parka, pull on my deer hide gauntlets that came nearly to my elbows, pull the flaps of my sheep’s hide helmet down and tie them under my chin, and wrap a scarf around my face. In this weather you could die within a quarter of a mile and if you were stupid enough to try to cross an area of unploughed snow, you’d become exhausted and die standing up, your legs frozen into the snow up to your crotch.
I thought we’d play checkers or chess or discuss the latest idiocies of the Canadian government or the Icelandic government. He had on his wall two metal scales. I don’t know their original purpose but he used them to express his disgust with both governments. He called them his stupidity scales. He moved the marker up or down as news of government actions warrented. The markers slid up and down in a vertical slot and could be put into short horizontal slots marked from zero to twenty. He bemoaned that the scales didn’t go to a hundred, particularly during the years of the kreppa, the financial crash in Iceland. “There are stupider politicians than in Canada and Iceland,” I said. “I don’t care what they do in in North Korea or Malaya,” he snapped.
I tried to talk him out of going to the farm but it was hopeless. He hadn’t been there since November. It was now Christmas holidays. “You might as well take me to the farm,” he said. “You’re living off my tax money for doing nothing. You lollygag about your place, sleep in, watch TV, eat spaghetti out of tins and fart.”
I did nothing of the sort. I graded papers, made up lesson plans, did research at the archives and the Icelandic library at the University of Manitoba. I seldom watched TV and I hadn’t eaten spaghetti out of a tin since I was twelve. As for farting, I avoided garbanzo beans even though I liked eating them curried. Besides, one of the freedoms of living alone is that one can fart as often and loud as one wants and no one complains.
An attendant helped Valdi get dressed for winter, clucked her tongue at our going out, blamed me for the idea. Valdi had told her that I wanted to take some pictures of the farm in winter. The attendant had taken it as gospel. The staff had all seen that I carried a camera around most of the time.
The town had nearly disappeared under the snow. Snow banks were as high as the eaves where the north wind got to sweep in unobstructed from the lake. The road west was clear, the road north was clear, but when we turned west again onto a country road, there were small drifts that ran from shoulder to shoulder. We could see where vehicles had come through. By the time we got to Valdi’s farm the snow had narrowed the road to one lane. The farmer who rented Valdi’s land also checked periodically on the house. However, he didn’t bother to plough the driveway. We could see snowmobile tracks that went to the side door and circled the house. He’d shoveled the snow away from the side door but the front steps were buried. The drifts spread away over the fields so it was like looking at a white ocean. What had been thick, unrelenting forest when Valdi had bought the land had been reduced to the occasional tree that stood black against the snow.
We sat there, looking at the house and the barn and work shed. There was a large three sided structure that had been used to store hay. The three metal silos reflected the sun. A jack rabbit appeared. White on white, we wouldn’t have seen it except for its movement. It must have been forty pounds. It paused to study us.
“I used to hunt those buggers,” Valdi said. “Hardly ever got one. Bush bunnies are easy. Whistle, they stop, you shoot them in the head.” Valdi reached out and hit the horn. It blared and the jack rabbit bounded away in a frantic zig zag path meant to throw off eagles or wolves.
A snow devil appeared on a drift beside us. It looked like a small tornado. It appeared and disappeared. It was a first warning of wind starting up. If we got drifted in, as close as the house was, there was no way of getting Valdi from the truck to the house. I wondered if I could make my way there.
“We’d better be going,” I said. I put the van into gear and wished the farmer who rented the land had cleared part of the driveway so it would be easy to turn around.
“Go straight,” Valdi said, “turn at the next cross road. It’s just half a mile from here.”
I looked ahead and didn’t like the narrow trail that had been pushed open by vehicles traveling over the road. Unless I shoveled out a spot on the driveway to the house there was no place to turn around. I had a shovel in the back of the van but the drifts were over three feet high and the constant wind and cold had made the surface hard. I decided to back up. I figured with the wheels in the ruts, I’d follow them with no problem. I lowered the window and eased the van backward.
“Don’t you think you should go forward?” Valdi asked.
“The cross road may not be open, then we’ll be a mile in and if we get stuck, I’ll have a mile to walk to the highway. “ Two more snow devils whirled and disappeared.
I got back about a hundred feet when the van slipped sideways off the hard packed snow and the left back wheel dropped. “Shit, shit, shit,” I said. It wasn’t a creative response but it was appropriate. I got out, took out my shovel and began to dig around the back wheel. I chipped away at the hard packed snow. I got back into the van, tried to pull forward, the tires spun, I backed slightly, rocked the van a number of times, and when the tires caught, I was running the motor too fast and we shot across the road and both front wheels went into the snow bank.
“Better call the tow truck,” Valdi said.
I didn’t know the local number for a tow truck so I decided to call the nursing home. I’d explain our predicament and ask them to send a tow truck. I had a service plan. It cost 118.00 a year. I took out my cell phone, went to punch in the number and realized the battery was dead. I hadn’t used the phone for some time.
I looked back toward the highway. At this time of day, at this time of year, there might not be a vehicle going by for hours.
“There’s a toboggan in the work shed. You could pull me on that,” Valdi said. “Here’s the key. Don’t drop it. I’ve a key for the house and the house is heated, the electricity works and the phone is working.”
I looked at the gas gage and decided that we couldn’t spend the night in the van. It would be dark soon and nobody, if they actually noticed a vehicle on the side road, was going to come to see if everything was all right. A toboggan! Down the road, over the snowbanks. At least the side door had been shoveled free.
I wrapped myself in my parka, helmet, scarf, pulled on my deerskin gauntlets, pulled up my mukluks and tightened the drawstring at the top. The wind was becoming more persistent. I could see loose snow lifting over the fields. If it persisted, there could be a white out. People got lost and froze to death going from a house to a barn, never mind trying to find a house set back an eighth of a mile.
The road was treacherous. The surface was slippery and uneven. I walked with my arms spread. When I got to the beginning of the driveway, I had to kick into the snow to make a step, then heave myself onto the surface of the drifts. The first few steps were easy. The snow was hard and held my weight. I didn’t lift my feet but skidded forward. That is, I skidded forward until I broke through and my left leg sank up to my knee. I had to lie forward and pull so the force of getting the one leg free didn’t make the other one break through the surface. It went like that the whole way. Hard, hard, soft, hard, hard, hard, hard, soft. Fortunately, the shed door opened inward. I climbed over the drift that was piled up against it.
The toboggan was hanging on the wall. I stopped to rest, then took it down. I shut the door behind me and retraced my steps or, I should say, tried not to retrace them , avoiding soft spots.
When Valdi lay down on his back on the toboggan, his feet hung over the end, I gave him the shovel to hold. He grasped it to his chest. I pulled him along the road. The wind was steadier and even though only my eyes were uncovered, it was cold. I pulled Valdi to the beginning of the driveway. There was no way I could get him up onto the snowbank.
I took the shovel and cut a narrow inclined path for about nine feet. I then packed down the snow. At the top, I turned around, got on my knees and pulled the toboggan hand over hand as I backed up, all the time hoping my weight wouldn’t break through the glazed surface.
Valdi was now face down, holding onto the curved front of the toboggan. The surface of the snow was as difficult as the first time I crossed it. I didn’t dare go off the driveway because there was a ditch that fronted the property and if I sank into that I might never get out. In places, I crawled.
Darkness comes early in December in Manitoba and it obliterates everything unless there is a moon. Thank God a moon rose up, enough of a moon, so that light reflected off the snow. The world turned purple.
Valdi gave me the key to the house. I got the storm door open, then the inside door. I helped him sit up, then he put his arms around my shoulders and we did a kind of crazy, drunken dance up the steps, me hanging onto the railing, backing into the house, him struggling to get his feet up the steps and over the lintel. The door opened into the kitchen and I was able to walk him to a rocking chair beside the kitchen table. He fell into it and I caught his knees so he didn’t go over backwards.
I was breathing too hard to say anything. I shut the two doors, then turned up the heat and thought, thank God, when I heard the furnace start. The house was too cold for us to take off our parkas so he rocked in his rocking chair and I paced back and forth thinking of everything that could go wrong, like the furnace running out of oil.
“Give me the phone,” he said. There was an old fashioned phone on the counter. It had a long cord. I gave it to him. He rang a number. There was no answer. He tried two more times. “They must be out,” he said. “Probably curling. They curl.”
“We can call the tow truck,” I said. I was annoyed. We were marooned in a vast ocean of snow and ice.
“No point,” he answered. “He can get the car out but he’s not going to get us out of here. You want to make that trip back to the road? Just wait. They’ll get home soon enough.”
He put down the phone and said, “There’s bowls in the cupboard, a can opener over there, lots of canned soup in that cupboard, there’s bread in the freezer and a toaster to toast it.” He was struggling with his parka. I helped him take it off. “Good thing I’m prepared for the worst. Be prepared, that’s what the Boy Scouts say.”
“You need to get back to the nursing home to take your medication,” I said. He might think it was a great adventure but I didn’t.
He fished in his parka pocket and pulled out three pill bottles. “I never go anywhere without these.”
I heated up tomato soup in the microwave, made a pile of toast, made coffee and discovered some whitener and sugar for the coffee.
“Isn’t this great?” he said. It was obvious that he saw it as a great adventure. After being confined to his poky room in the nursing home, I expect it was. However, I wasn’t in a mood to be generous. I had planned on spending the night at my friend’s place. They were going to have a few people over, eat BBQ ribs, drink a few beer, have a few laughs. It had been a heavy term and I needed a few laughs.
“I loved it in weather like this. Nothing to do in the winter except read and relax. Take a look at the living room. There’s a fireplace. There might even be some wood. Catherine and I used to have a fire on days like this. It’s a great feeling. Get a fire going and we can sit in there. No TV but lots to read.”
He put his arm over my shoulders and we struggled to the living room. He sat in his leather armchair like he was king of the world. There was, as he’d said, kindling and birch slabs. I found some paper and matches and started a fire. Three walls of the room had bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. Shelves were taken up with books about Iceland, many of them in Icelandic, quite a few in English. There were books of poetry in Icelandic. I flipped one open. It had been printed in Winnipeg in 1898. I took out another one. It had been printed in Gimli in 1901. I ran a finger over the spines. He had an early Madame Pfeiffer, A Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway and a reprint of Olafsson and Palsson’s 1752-1757 Travels in Iceland. I worked my way along one shelf and then started on another.
“What are you going to do with these?” I asked. I’d taken down a copy of the Almanak from 1875. Someone had bound it with tape to the Almanak for 1876.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Hard to say. Maybe the person who buys the house will want them.”
“They should go to the Icelandic library at the university.”
“Now you sound like my daughter. That’s all she can think of. Books should be in libraries. They sit there gathering dust and after they’re copied digitally, they’re tossed out.”
“Why don’t you call Joe again?”
“Yes,” he sighed. “Bring me the phone.”
He called and this time Joe answered. “Joe,” he said, “Valdi here. I’m at the farm. We slipped off the road. Yeah, we got in fine. Could you come and get us? After you’re finished with the cows? That’s fine. We’ve got all we need here.”
We played cribbage until we heard the sound of a skidoo, two skidoos, actually. Joe and his wife, Alice, each had a skidoo. They raced over the snow and stopped at the kitchen door. They came in, took off their helmets, shook hands, and Valdi insisted on their having coffee.
“It’s like old times,” he said and I imagined that they’d had dozens or hundreds of evenings around the kitchen table.
We got dressed for the outdoors. I got on behind Alice and Valdi got behind Joe and off went, racing through the night, up and down drifts, around trees and stopped at their back door. We had to go inside, take off our winter gear, have more coffee, then Joe said, “We’d better be getting you back. We got into his Ford Ram with the big tires, he took us down a mile, across a mile, out onto the highway, then pulled the van onto the road and waited to be sure I got the motor started, then that I got the van onto the highway. He helped me get Valdi into the van and flashed his lights and beeped his horn when we drove away.
“We could have stayed the night,” Valdi said. “There’s three bedrooms. It was built for a family.”
The wind was blowing steadily now, the highway was blurred by drifting snow, fingers of snow were starting to reach across the pavement.
“You were going to tell me something about Laxness,” I said.
“I forgot,” he replied, “in all the excitement caused by your not being able to stay on the road.” I glared at him. He had a way of shifting blame that was very annoying. “I figured we’d just stop for a look at the farm in the snow, then go further down the highway to a place I know. It’s got a Laxness connection.”
“Tell me about it,” I said.
“No point, unless you can see it. What do you think of the house?”
“House?” I said, I was torn between being annoyed at having tomato soup and toast instead of BBQ ribs and not hearing something new about Laxness. Besides, if his librarian daughter heard about this adventure, I’d be hearing from her. She reminded me of some teachers I’d had in public school. I did not remember them fondly.