by Peter C. Conrad
The sky is dark with high heavy clouds. Only the wind is here now. A rushing, silence, rushing rhythm like breathing. The room has been a silent refuge too long. Outside, buildings stand against the wind and the rain I know are there—are always there. The glass panel going out onto my small balcony is slightly open—I opened it. Cool air and dampness flows in. The room has been held at seventy degrees too long; every part of my life seems to be held at a perfect seventy degrees. These walls around me keep it that way. High-rise walls: stone, wood, mortar, nails. With such walls one cannot hear the rain and thunder. The wood of those walls does not creak in the cold, but they are confining. Walls shut out light or hold it in.
I’m an old woman in a room I would have never imagined existed when I was young. They take care of me here, but I would have never thought I would be taken care of. I would have never thought that I wouldn’t be able to step out of my door and be in the field of sunflowers. That life faded away and this one came to be. When did I leave the farm? I don’t remember the day when I left. I don’t remember when I came here. It just has become so.
I feel his strong arm around me again. We look onto the land for the first time. The wind is blowing. We will build our walls against it, but it will force its presence through them.
His voice comes back to me like the whisper of the wind; “We will build a house of mortar and stone, and its walls will stand forever. We will have a barn, a few animals. You shall have a garden.” He pulls me around. I feel the warmth through his shirt.
“Sod,” he says, mocking those we know. “Build a mud hole until you can afford wood to build a shack. In the home country, we used what we had. All these stones… We would use stones to build walls around our fields and our houses and barns. Mr. Campbell tells me they don’t do that here—use sod. If I’m going to the trouble to build, it will be stone. First we sow the crop, then build,” says Mike. His plough is a one-blade, horse drawn plough, but he is breaking the field faster than Mr. Campbell.
“Anna, I have all the boards. You nail these two together like a triangle. You lay the boards over that frame I’ve already made.” Mike places the boards and joints together for me. “Now these are the side and the very bottom. We will have to step over these on the floor but it’s the only way to make a quick frame for this tent we will live in for now.”
“Of course Mike,” I say. It all looks simple. I use to build the extra shelves in the old cellar at home.
“By the end of the week we can maybe move our things into it. Then I can get a load of seed grain with the wagon.”
“Maybe sooner,” I say, and Mike grins at me. His muscular jaw, neck and shoulders relax.
“Well, if you think you can do it—I will get back to ploughing.”
He leaves. I will show Mike something by the end of this day. The hammer feels good in my hand. One frame is finished, then another, then another and finally the last. I drag the frames of our summer tent into the right place. There are five boards left That’s simple to figure out. One board runs the length of the top of the triangle and one on each side of the bottom. I lift the first frame. It’s light. Then the board, and using both hands I hold the board to the bottom of the triangle. How will I drive the nail?
I drop the frame, then the board and place it on the ground, and hammer a nail into it until the tip points through on the other side. I lift the frame again. It’s slanted toward me so that I can reach the bottom of the triangle. Somehow I get everything resting together and hammer the nail in. I go to the other side and hammer a nail into the board, then attach it to the frame. Bit by bit the frames are nailed to the board. I set them all straight up and down, and hammer more nails. It now resembles the frame of a house.
The only board left to put on is the one that runs across the top. I’m too short. I can’t move the wagon over to stand on—Mike has the horse in the field, but there are other things in the wagon. I pull a wooden box to the side of the upright frame.
Oh yes, I remember what is in the box. It holds our only pieces of stoneware. Old chipped pieces of simple dishes. There are items handed to us from many different well wishers. We have no idea of what came from where. The strangest article also came from a well wisher that we had never seen before.
As we came out of the immigration office in Winnipeg, the well wisher walked right up to us and asked if we would pose for him. We stood as he went behind a black bellows. He tucked his head under a black cloth. We waited. Mike said the man had forgotten about us; we should go. The man told us to hold it, then we heard a click. He thanked us and asked where we were going.
When we came to the town we had set out for the man at the lands office gave us a box with the shiny photograph the man had taken. We looked so determined. Mike’s eyes are set dark. His stature fits his eye. His faith in the land is present in that photograph.
Climbing on the box, I can push the board to top. I put a nail in it, and push it half way to the top, then drive the nail down so that it will stay. Then I climb up on the triangle. It’s holding me. Soon the top board is in place.
“Anna, what have you done?” He is looking at me from the ground. He stares.
“I have set up the frame for the tent,” I say.
“Yes—of course,” I say.
Today he announced; “I have time to build. Tomorrow we will hook up the wagon and get our first load of stones.” He knows where the rocks were in the area. We set to work lifting the stones. Using a crowbar, I carry and roll the stone from where they had lain for years. Once they are loose, he grips them and heaves them onto the wagon.
This is one of the biggest. It is long and flat on the top. I dig deep down one side of the stone. I have gone deeper in the mud than I first thought I would have to. I wedge another stone under the opposite side of the crowbar to act as a pivot. I press with all my weight, and the stone that is my pivot sinks into the soft ground. I place another on top of that stone and begin to push against it with all my weight. I can’t move the stone—the bar is bending. I slip and fall. I get up and place the bar under the stone again. Mike is here now, we press down together—the stone begins to move. Air loudly sucks and the stone is loose. It’s much larger than I thought it would be. I take one side and Mike the other. Together we lift it and carefully take each step to the wagon. We dump it in the wagon and sweat dampens Mike’s hair and his shirt. I feel wet too. My dress is stained and covered with mud. My back first feels stiff than it is all right. I move larger stones—I’m surprised with myself.
It isn’t noon yet, when we climb onto the wagon with our first load of rocks. The air feels heavy and hot. Mike lifts the reins and the horse lean onto the yoke, muscles bulge; he strains against the weight. Slowly the wheels turn. The squeaks become low hums. Mike hurries the horse, and I move close to him—he feels warm and wet. I feel better.
“This is where the door shall be,” Mike says, as he begins to explain what the pegs are for. “These are the corners and you see that peg in the middle?”
“That is where a wall will run from that side wall over there. There will be a stonewall that will run from the left side of the door all the way to the other side. Then there will be a dividing wall on the left and we will divide that space into two rooms. One will be our room and one will be the kitchen. In the other big room, we will have a fireplace. Later, we can build rooms above ours for the children. It is that good?”
“And, we will have windows with glass and shutters,” I say.
The railway supplied lumber on credit. He designs each door, and builds the frames—then the windows.
Mike has the cement, and the foundations are ready. He sets the stone and mortar together. Carefully checking each step with his plumb.
He builds stone on stone to create a perfect shelter. The walls are growing up around the door and window frames. He never slows his pace. Up early in the morning and straight to work. He repeats the same rhythms of lifting the stones from the fields. He says he takes them from their disorder and puts our order to them. Building a solid wall against the rain and wind. I take his lunches to him—he returns to out tent home only when the sun is half lost on the horizon.
As the crop grows, so do the walls of our home. Our creations rise from this flat place. Our world is what we are building here.
The clouds are dark and deep. Looking up, as in a pool of water, I can’t see the surface of this imaginary sea far above. The sound of thunder rushes from all directions and challenges me to stand against the elements like a stone. Then the rain comes.
“I have put canvas over the work I finished today,” says Mike as he closes the tent flap. He enters soaked from the rain. The canvas around us bellows in and out, and the wind grows. The low hum of the drops hitting the tent grows to a loud rush. I hold him—he is damp and warm. Canvas and wood groans. He takes me; under the warm blankets he enters. Together we meld into one—warm and damp. Then we listen to the wind and rain. When the air is fresh and the sky is clear, Mikes sets to work again.
“For a time, I was sure Mike had forgotten he had fields of grains,” says Mr. Campbell as he enters the yard. A light layer of snow covers the ground. “But, he got it down and we threshed it just in time. It looked like a fine crop.”
“Yes,” I say—not sure of why he is here. Campbell had complained at harvest time that he didn’t have enough time to build all the things he wanted to.
“I have come to help finish the house,” announces Mr. Campbell. “It would be a shame if he had done all that work, and couldn’t use the place this winter.”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Where is he?”
“Town—to pick up lumber from the railway.” He is to pay for the first lumber he had bought on credit, and pick up enough to finish the roof.
“Ah, so he is going to finish it.”
“Ah …” he hesitates, “I was going to tell you, that my missus expects to see you soon. She has extra things laying around from her last—with you expecting, she thought she could help—”
The house had to be finished. The child had to have somewhere to come to. From the protective walls of my own body to something as protecting… Canvas and wood would never hold back and stand against the wind, cold, rain or snow. Stone is the best we can offer.
There are floorboards under our feet—not the cold inert ground. Above us wood, not canvas that bellows in and out with the wind. It is a roof. Mike hadn’t the time yet to get up a ceiling, but that doesn’t matter. The rooms are empty except for crates that hold a set of Sunday clothes, carefully wrapped China, and pictures of people and places far away—a few things to start a new life. We have no shelves yet, or furniture.
The first snow melted. Most of the willows have lost their leaves. Mike has made a fire of scraps from the building. The floor is cold and the room feels breezy as we eat our first meal in the house. Only bread, cheese, and a few carrots is what we eat, but with the one bottle of wine we saved so long, we feel like we are on our wedding night again. The rain and wind will never be so threatening again. I feel protected.
Time doesn’t past; it dissolves away as if there is no beginnings or ends, only a present. I feel like I’m drifting in disappearing time. Something is in the darkness of the night, in the cold air. I am so tired. I listen to the muffled wind outside, and the cry from the crib. I light a candle, then crawl out of bed, and the floor is cold. I look at Duncan—should I pick him up and take him into the coldness of the air? I lift him and the blankets. I carry him to the bed, and hush him.
I hate the interruption in my rest. Mike is in a deep sleep. The walls, the darkness and the cold traps me. The house that protects and keeps out the rain and wind has a power over me, different from the wind and rain. Is this security better even though it suffocates me? The cold and the wind is just outside—I have a tight grasp on Duncan. Gentle, be gentle, I hear Mrs. Campbell tell me again. In this darkness, her words come back to me.
Firsts are a struggle, says Mrs. Campbell. First winter on the prairies, first child, first crop… The next is always easier—the next…
I didn’t know that the Campbell’s had arrived until I heard the knock on the door. I sat on the side of our small bed with Duncan in my arms, not recognising the sound of knocking. Then, it came again. I rushed to the door and opened it.
They smiled at me holding the baby.
“Come in,” I said. I didn’t notice what they were carrying until they turned around to look at me in the kitchen.
“I don’t know how to repay you—” I said.
“Now Anna—look at me,” she says patting her large stomach. “I will have no more babies, I have had too many already. It’s best to let you use those things.” What would I do without Mrs. Campbell? There are also the Thompson’s. They give us eggs, milk, and some cream. They even give us some ham for Christmas.
Christmas has come and the cold white landscape feels like it has been here forever. Slowly our wagon and horse plods toward Campbell’s homestead. We are going to celebrate the day with them. Duncan is buttoned inside my coat. I sit beside Mike, and share several blankets. Drifting snow settles around us. The prairie we are crossing looks like motionless swells of the ocean. It isn’t an ocean, it is a cold desert—
The silent empty days of winter seem to fade quickly, and spring arrives demanding our attention and work. The seasons of work slip by. Duncan is walking and running. Nancy, my second baby, can walk and fight with Duncan—Duncan wins. I am still holding David.
“And I presume you are Mrs. Hansen,” says the strange man at the door. He is the lands officer. We had forgotten there was supposed to be an inspection of our homestead to get the deed.
“Did you build this yourself?”
“Yes,” Mike says. The lines on his face are deep—they make him look older for a moment.
“Too bad we didn’t have more men like you.” They both go out. I watch through the window: Mike shows the officer the buildings, the barn, the finished storage shed, and doorframes. The neat fences… Three years, good crops, three children, and a stone house… We have the deed. The officer seems pleased. He says that there is another quarter section of land near by. Until Duncan can help, we have enough.
Rain, rain… We have endured much. The land has proved itself. Mike’s faith has become more powerful. The land is our fortune. Like the stone house, we are sure we will stand here forever. We sow in spring—the fields turn green—then no more. They shrivel, and the plants twist and fall back to the ground. But, there is always next year—always next—
The soil becomes dust. We sow the land, but we don’t even see green shoots appear anymore. The dust joins the air. We see a dark sky. Rain has come! But it passes by and the wind mocks us; mocks our faith. Even at home, the dust lies on everything inside—the desert enters—there is no rain—no challenge nor threat from it.
Duncan, Nancy, David and Helen don’t play outside anymore. I look at them, and wonder what memories they will have at my age. Joan is still very small. This will end—for Joan, I believe it will be over. When it rains, will they rush inside and close the door? Quickly change into dry clothes? Or will they rush out with faces turned to the sky, feeling the cool drops run down their faces?
Another season—the next has come. This season is like the others. We sow and wait. Insects, heat and wind bring the desert to the walls of our house.
Dust to dust—the casket lies in a hole torn in the prairie. I stand holding Mrs. Campbell. How did he die? I can’t remember. Here we are, me and Mike. Mrs. Campbell’s children and neighbours. In their boiled faces are questions—no answers. Before the pastor’s words are done, small drifts of sand sweep over the casket. The land is quick to claim it.
The other graves are weathered. The wind leaves no dust on them. Dry clay. The land is marred by deep cracks. The dust rises again. Mike looks old, tired, defeated. Once, my father said—every man has an ocean in his heart—I know now that every man has a desert in his heart, and, yes, I too feel it—I have that desert. Like the children, I would run from the stone walls and turn my face to the sky and feel the cool rain.
Go north, go north, says the government agent. We will help you; go north. We need help—no food, no hope.
“He says go north. He says nothing about coming back. This will end—I know it. Then what? Who will receive our stone walls?” asks Mike. I hold him, what can I do?
“Only the walls are stone,” I say. Why did I say it? We know that but it is now said. He moves away from me. I don’t see his eyes—I want to go to him, but can’t. He sits down on the bed. Now I see his face. Two lines of wetness mark it. What is left to a man who has lost his faith? A part of him drifts away into the desert.
“Pack,” he whispers. I don’t move—I don’t want to move. I force myself to him. We sit together on the bed. I hold him, but he doesn’t move his arm around me. His shoulders are soft and sloped. We will give back the paper we carefully kept. We will take the photographs of our arrival, because those in it are strangers.
Trees surround us. We can’t see because of the trees. We live separate from our land, surrounded by bush. But things are different—Mike never looks out at the land in the old way. The wood house creaks in the wind and groans in the cold. It is built quickly. Duncan and David are old enough to help. Lumber is thrust against lumber. Nails are pounded into place. The noise echoes through the bush. There are no neighbours to help with the roof…
The walls are frames of boards. They have a board on the top and one on the bottom. Boards, side by side, like a picket fence, other nailed at angles over these pickets to cover them. The walls are hollow. Before they become walls they lie on the floor and are moved about. Then, once all the walls are made, they are raised in one day, and nailed into place. What was not there yesterday is here today.
The wind rumbles in the spruce and pine trees. The trees labour and bend against its force. I rarely feel it on my face as I had on the prairie.
Gone: the silent presence of the land. Here, the coyotes cry their warnings. In our small wooden home, we listen like children to thunder.
The children left. Marriage, college—there was no reason to stay. Mike let them go. When I asked why, he said— “there are no longer stone walls, and I’m not of granite.” Granite stands against the rain and the wind—take forever to weaken and fall.
Rain is sprinkling into this small room. The glass is fogged over by the water flowing down it. The street lamps of the city are on. It is dark, even with all those different coloured neon signs outside. Rain, rain. I come out to you on the small balcony. The different colour lights of the city glare all around. It is cold here. The black asphalt of the streets below glistens, and the cars shine. The sky above is dark, but it glows with the bright lights. Like the children after the drought, I am dancing in the field with my face turned to the sky feeling the cool wetness fall on it. All walls are behind me—stone, wood, mortar, and nails are behind—far behind. The rain and wind are with me. The sky and I glow with the same city lights—cool, wet, free—