By Keltie Zubko
She turned the wick down in the kerosene lantern, not so low as to unthread it, but just enough that when she cupped her hand partly over the chimney and gave a quick puff, it guttered to black – lights out on her final night at the homestead. As a child, she’d thought the correct way was to turn down the flame till it drowned in the fuel, but her little Polish grandma sat her at the oilcloth-covered table in the kitchen of the log house one evening and showed her, depending more on gestures than words, her English never good. During those summers at Wandering River she’d also learned by watching her grandma how to kill,pluck, clean and cook a chicken, make jam from wild berries, catch and fillet a Jack fish, pick edible mushrooms, split kindling and start the fire in the woodstove.
There was no electricity or running water decades after the last holidays they’d spent there, at the homestead alongside highway 63, that for now, still rumbled with heavy truck traffic pushing its way all night long between Calgary and Edmonton in the south to Fort McMurray in the north, heart of the oil sands. The highway, not twinned at that point often made the news for yet another accident, where drivers could have used a coffee, when the length of the trip, either way,met the tipping point of fatigue. Her brain – her business brain – newly released from a job in the tallest Calgary oil tower thought immediately it was the perfect place for Timmys, and toyed with the idea of settling in the small hamlet, to be a franchisee on the cusp of the land her grandparents homesteaded in 1928. She could at least walk to work, she thought, just like her granny had covered the miles around with her footsteps.
It should have been darker, she thought, without the lantern and no tiny lights from electronic devices in the deep silence of the two room house. She sighed, realizing it was too soon for bed.She’d just lay awake as she’d done every night since she arrived, fleeing her last day in the downsizing company unable to hold out any longer as oil prices fell yet again.
The homestead was an unexpected refuge, as she hadn’t visited in years. She kept up with her share of it only through her brothers’ reports and the land lawyer’s letters, contracts and cheques for the pipeline corridor that had once saved their grandma but now was grown so wide it threatened the farmyard itself. There were actually eleven lines, side by side, traversing their property since the first one in the 60’s. Walking the land over them in the past few days, she noticed little difference between now and the land they’d played on as children, left out there for weeks at a time.
Inside the shadowy house, she sank into quiet as deep as her grandma’s well, the water still sweet and cold, until she noticed some kind of light from outside. It flickered on the walls around her, was not the orange glow of fire, or cold blue headlights, but subtle and delicate. She rose from the rickety chair, pushed open the door and stepped outside. Usually an opaque dark would wrap around her the moment she descended the one worn riser, but instead, this time, she met the capricious colorful light, dancing around and above her as if from those distant summer nights.
A big “oh!” captured her breath, made its way upwards as her face turned to the huge unimpeded sky. Having stowed the lawn chairs away, ready to leave early the next morning, she fumbled back inside, to the small anteroom, and by feel alone, pulled out a quilt kept folded there. That, like the lantern, was another family relic, the last handmade quilt their grandmother had sewn for her or one of her brothers. She didn’t remember which one. None of them would be happy to see her billow it into the air over the long-gone kitchen garden, then let it float down to the ground before falling on it, pressing her body into the somnambulant earth, to stare up at the night sky.
The garden survived only in her memory. There were no bell flowers, her grandmother’s favorite color, that she called“sky;” no four o’clocks, their yellow satin petals clasped in on themselves to a sharp point against the night; no Russian poplar, hung with cheesecloth bags, whey watering the ground, leaving soft curds hidden like treasure in the branches; no dill-weed waving awkward stalks against the fence, which had fallen rotten into the earth, many seasons ago. Just clover and the shorn wild grasses, remnants of a time before the land was cleared, almost 90 years past.Thanks to her brothers they’d held their ground against the brush and weeds so her 4Runner could get in and park close by.
The stars, brazen and bright away from the city,the fulsome moon,and the restless earth under the thin quilt all receded when she looked up at the aurora borealis. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen it but now realized this was,in part, what she’d hoped for.
She wished this was not the last night. It might have made a difference. As it was, she was set to go and fight her way back, like her grandma had crossed the ocean in the immigrant ship into the unknown.There was nothing else for her to do except go back to work,if not to that job, somewhere else in the industry, or what was left of it.
The ground was warm from another shimmering day where heat made everything sluggish. The sly pickerel hid in the Wandering River’s bland currents and even the air was heavy, as it used to be, with dust and pollen and invisible scents that weighed down upon them.
The aroma of mown hay wafted over from the neighbor’s work on their land that day. He had come nosing around just hours after she drove into the yard, opening the gate, and unlike her grandma, closing it after herself. He kept an eye out in the long neighborly tradition started after her grandfather died, and continued when her grandmother’s second man died, too. Her grandma eventually leased it out to them, and he was the third generation to watch and work their land.
The second man her grandma outlived had emigrated with her grandfather, three years before her grandma, dad and uncle followed. The two small boys puked in the hold of the Montcalm, sailing from Hamburg to Quebec City, and from there, silent with fear as their mother stared out the train window, crying, “Siberia… Siber…” as they clattered through the snow-covered spring landscape to Alberta.
Hard work or cancer finished her grandfather and then her grandma took up with the second man. They could not marry because he had a wife who refused to divorce or emigrate from Russia. So they combined their resources and for almost a decade, lived as a family. But he died, too. There was a large community funeral, and she’d been there, a very small child who even when the wind whipped her mother’s hat right off her head into the graveside, couldn’t pull her gaze away from the coins covering his eyes, until he was buried in the dirt beside her grandpa.And then her grandma was a widow, again.
She settled on the quilt into the familiar land, opening her eyes wide to the dark sky with its panoply of moving lights. How many times had her grandmother seen this? Had she ever taken the time to watch, rest on that ground she had not chosen?Grandpa cleared it himself by hand, the first furrows carved with a hand-plow hauled by borrowed oxen that he walked behind.As children,she and her brothers picked rocks and stacked the stone-boat high and heavy even in later years, after the earth was turned over. She closed her eyes, saw her grandma: black curly hair escaping from the edges of her kerchief, bare feet planted in the soil, cutting down weeds with her hoe, crooning songs whose words she only learned after her grandma died. The bird does not rest in your hand. It flies to its castle of sand. You can’t stop the clock if you try. With such haste does our time pass us by.
She used to wonder if her grandma missed the land when she relocated to Edmonton, living till her 90’s and outlasting yet another man. There, with a small yard, on a modest street, she’d lived on tea and toast and television. She still kept a garden right up to the final summer of her life, dying in April the next year, before she could plant her potatoes. In the cocoon of urban light,no one saw the stars to their full effect, much less the northern lights. But it must have been a relief to have electricity and a gas furnace, short distances to walk and a small garden, even if it was crammed right to the sidewalk with plants that once relaxed in the generous boundaries of the homestead. She had a hose with city water, not a heavy, sloshing pail from the creek, handle cutting then blistering her hands. She had a telephone, Ed Sullivan every Sunday night, and a son who visited daily for soup at lunch-time, fresh sorrel in springtime and sauerkraut in winter.
The traffic still roared at the borders of the homestead, even in the plummeting economy, and would continue for a while, she supposed. One day the neighbors might wake up to silence, and remember their own grandparents’ homestead days. For now the highway transported people and equipment, supplies and expectations in an exchange of energy her grandmother or they as children, had not imagined.
Then, they had lived the summers in a world of gently humming insects,her brothers’ unbroken voices echoing through the yard, chasing chickens,taunting the bogeyman in the well, while she contemplated the Eaton’s catalogue after exhausting (as she always did) the books stockpiled from the city library. Every few days their grandma made them walk a half mile down the powered clay road to the junction store that was also gas station, post office, sawmill, bus depot, telephone, and neighbor.
At the end of the straggling journey there would be an icy pop to share,cream soda with luck, suspended by its long glass neck in the water of the cooler. Its extraction from the metal channels took a good long time because that was all they had to do while their grandmother bargained with the owner for a mason jar of fresh milk, to be delivered by his teenage daughter every morning. Maybe there was mail, and they would carry it back the same distance in the sunshine, kicking up dirt with each footstep, as a game. There was not much to see once they passed the tower of sawdust that her brothers aspired to climb, but under their grandmother’s rule, never could.
The gravel road strung out longer on the way back, it seemed, and clouds of insects hung in the heated air. It was another game to dodge them, or trick each other into their midst, gathering bugs in hair, clothes, eyes and special points for mouth.Wild rose bushes, despite their coating of grit raised by passing cars, exuded a heady scent, so strong you could find them with eyes shut.Tall grasses brushed their legs at the road’s edge and random tiger lilies or Indian paint brush stood out in the dust-muted ditches.
Back at the gate to the homestead was the spot where sometimes she sat in the very middle of the dirt road, tracing patterns with grimy fingers, feeling the heat of the earth through her shorts, and on her bare legs and feet. They didn’t know the land in winter the way their grandmother did. The dip in the road where there had been spring puddles made a gentle basin for her to lay in, facing the way back to the city, staring down the ripples of the side road that went on up and down and up again to the horizon, past where she could see, exaggerated by heat rising from the dry land, as she waited for her parents’ red station wagon.
If they went the opposite way from the homestead, there was a family with kids to visit, together making a raucous tribe. Their grandmother would stop worrying about them for a little while, you could tell, as she sat in the kitchen drinking tea with the mother of the household.They had electricity and indoor plumbing, lived there year round, rode the yellow school bus that came after her father’s time. It was strange, returning to the silent little house and the empty logout-buildings, no pigs in the pen, no feed in the faded red barn,hollow with memories of the equipment their grandma had sold. Even the chickens were temporary, fattening to be killed at the end of summer, taken back to the city.
Sometimes she led them through the tall silvered-wood stockade across the narrow plank footbridge over the creek where she cleaned fish, and opened the gate into the vegetable garden on the edge of the field. They feasted on sweet peas and then took a shortcut through the crop, cross-country to see another neighbor. They weren’t allowed here without an adult because of bears. Now she realized their tiny grandma would have been no more able to deal with a bear than they were, but she certainly taught them how to deal with weeds. Making their way through the barley, she paused to pull out any thistles she found,vicious, prickly and some as big as they were.Even without gloves, she did it right there and then. They knew to stop and wait for her,and she didn’t need English to tell them: pull it out when you see it, don’t let it grow bigger, don’t let it go to seed, keep the land clean.
The quilt’s stuffing had almost dissipated like time or clouds and she sank through it becoming part of the ground itself.The land shifted, just a little bit, and perhaps she felt it cradle her, felt the pulsing ley lines, all around and even, it seemed, inside her.The highway’s energy, almost tangible in its flowing between north and south.The broad river winding through their land, hoarding fish in its rich darkness.She remembered the only fish she’d ever caught,there, with her grandma’s hand-skinned pole – dry and strong and sun-bleached white – while her father’s light touch waited, ready to guide her. Power lines hummed overhead, strung tower to tower through the fields, sewing the countryside together. She felt a gentle pulse in the earth below, breathing, beating, measured in millions of barrels per day, that hard-won wealth no longer an assumption to be tapped and shared and celebrated.
Remembering her lost job and all those other jobs made her shiver and feel the chill mist climbing from the river banks nearby, looming over her like night-time over those two graves.
But she could still feel the rich black blood that flowed in the veins along the corridor, residing in the homestead dirt, where her grandma had made peace with the land, buried her men,walked all those miles, checking the trap-lines every day in winter. They got five or ten cents a pelt, so the men did it, and the women did it, and if there was no one else to do it, the children, like her dad and her uncle, did it too.
Those lines all carried the same blood as in that fierce woman sitting by the light of the kerosene lantern, hand-sewing the quilt that at that moment bound her to the earth.
She narrowed her eyes, blurring the stars, while the aurora borealis glimmered on the pulse in her eyelids, her throat and her ankles.She couldn’t tell if the waves of color came from the sky, light years away, or from inside her, as she lay upon the land, and everything it guarded. She wished she could remain there, forever, letting what would happen, happen. Back in the greater world all those competing interests contended with each other and did not consider the workers like her who wanted their jobs and the people who needed the power they created.
She felt it, flowing for miles in the tiniest capillaries to the broader rivers of arteries and veins, all in harmony with the hidden, bigger vessels that were still pumping, hadn’t yet given up, trickling dry.
That chill would get her if she stayed on the ground all night. The damp was coming, the dew would fall and she wasn’t young any more. But hell, her grandma hadn’t given up till she was 92 or 3.
Somewhere, far past the highway, coyotes started howling, one group, then another in succession, a string of call and response, along some ancient trap-line.
She took one more look at the changing sky, the northern lights against the backdrop of stars that seemed constant and stationary, so close as to reach down and gather her up in their magnetic embrace. They wouldn’t seem so accessible in Calgary, she thought; she wouldn’t even notice them. She staggered upright, bones starting to ache. As if her brothers were watching, she snatched the quilt from the ground,floating it upward in brief homage, then shook off the dry grass and insects before folding it to put back in the log house for the future.