Authors: Anne Lazurko
Tags: #Fiction, #Pioneer women, #Literary, #Homestead (s) (ing), #Prairie settlement, #Harvest workers, #Tornado, #Saskatchewan, #Women in medicine, #Family Life, #Historical fiction, #Renaissance women, #Prairie history, #Housekeeping, #typhoid, #Immigrants, #Coming of Age, #Unwed mother, #Dollybird (of course), #Harvest train, #Irish Catholic Canadians, #Pregnancy, #Dryland farming
who chooses to find joy
Crowds of young men
milled about the Halifax train station, kissing teary-eyed girlfriends and ducking hugs from worried mothers. I watched the scramble of limbs and luggage and listened to the boisterous talk from a perch on top of my overstuffed suitcase. Some of the men glanced my way, then quickly again. I'm sure they wondered what I was doing there, how I fit in. But I didn't. They were heading west for jobs and excitement. I was heading west because I was pregnant, because my mother insisted I spend nine months of purgatory in Moose Jaw. In Saskatchewan.
It was a Canadian
, so new I'd had to investigate where it was and how to spell its name. I'm sure Mother chose Saskatchewan because it was such a ridiculously long distance from St. John's; my
was guaranteed to be hidden from the judgment of her privileged friends. Maybe she hoped to be rid of me altogether, to cut me off from my father, from my future. But while I was scared to death at the prospect of a baby and the unknown prairie, I would survive, and I would be back; I wouldn't give my mother the satisfaction of doing otherwise. The thought buoyed me, and I was suddenly caught up in the excitement I saw in the eyes of the fishermen's boys who climbed the steps of the train with me. The harvest train. A chance to reap. A chance at something better. More than the sea could offer them in 1906. More than my mother could offer me.
I wasn't entirely alone, though Mother's choice of Cousin Fred as my companion seemed ironic, if not spiteful. Fred had been in trouble since I could remember â at school, during catechism, in church. But Mother forgave him his excesses in light of mine, saying he was
more responsible than I. Fred had met Father and me outside the train station, where my care and my money were handed over as Mother had instructed.
There was no fanfare to my leaving, no emotional goodbyes. Father looked to the distance and pretended not to notice when I hung my head over the rail on the ferry crossing from St. John's. The nausea was bad, but when he left me with Fred, the disappointment in his face and his quick, cold embrace were worse. I was already a stranger to him. He'd been so certain of my future as a doctor, one of the first female physicians on the Rock. Now he had to relinquish that idea to a new truth: I would leave a bastard baby in far-off Saskatchewan.
On the train, Fred guided me to a berth and set my suitcase on the narrow shelf under the bed. I put my black doctor's bag by the pillow where I could see it. His eyes darted about, and he rolled his new bowler hat in his hands, anxious to be rid of me.
“Stay out of trouble,” I called after him. He chuckled as he swayed down the aisle and away.
I lay back against the pillow, exhausted. Out the window was forest and rock, any sign of the sea left behind. I felt claustrophobic; like the trees were keeping guard, foot soldiers for my mother. When I woke the light outside was grey. My sick stomach had settled down and I went to find the dining car. Most of the tables were filled with young men, their voices loud, excited hoots of phony laughter punching the air. Their hands fidgeted, shoulders tensing at each outburst. They had their fears too.
I hoped Fred might make an appearance and sat at a table for two against the wall. At the next one over a heavy woman sat bouncing a small baby on her lap. I imagined she was off to visit relatives and would arrive to welcoming arms and hugs for the new grandchild she brought. There'd be no shame, her baby unremarkable to anyone but her own family, free of the labels they might use for mine.
The men stopped talking for a moment to look suspiciously at another man, who showed up with a small child in his arms. They avoided meeting his eyes. I suppose they were expecting to have a good time before the months of work ahead, and a little one didn't fit into their plans.
The father was barely a boy himself, yet he seemed beaten, dark with the Irish in him, his face pounded to leather by the East Coast gales that weather them all. A wild black beard sprouted round his face, and his coveralls were patched on the knees and backside. Dirty socks poked through holes in the toes of his boots. His son's wardrobe was no better. The boy was a bundle of grey rags held together here and there by a stitch or a pin. My heart dropped for the child.
None of the other men asked the young father to join them, so he pulled out a chair at the table where the woman sat with her child. He smiled slightly at her and nodded, but the woman stood, stuck her nose in the air and looked for another seat. He yawned, grinned at his son and stretched his long legs out under the table, catching my eye and holding it. I looked away first.
I gave up on Fred and ordered soup and a biscuit. The men were quiet again, if for different reasons, as two pretty women in feathered hats and high heels came in and sat down at the table with the man and his son. They didn't speak to him, instead carried on a whispered conversation behind gloved hands, glancing at him occasionally with raised eyebrows. One of the women spoke suddenly, her words stilted as though their dismissal of him had been only a brief lapse of manners. “Taking him home to his mother then?”
The man started and glanced at his son. “Uh, yeah. In Moose Jaw.”
“That's good. He doesn't look well, you know.”
The boy looked to be close to two years old, his skin wan, eyes pale blue. His blond hair was wispy and untrimmed.
“He's looked like that since he was born.”
His voice had become quiet and hesitant, and his eyes softened when he looked at his son, the intense black faded to deep grey. A sadness pulled at the corners of his mouth. I wondered if any of what he said was true.
“Well, he's sweet, even if he is a little pale.”
The second girl joined the conversation, giggling behind her hand.
“Takes after his mother,” the man said proudly.
The girls nodded and went back to their whispering. But the boy's father leaned forward, eyes shining. “Sure wish we'd come out of this damn bush eh?”
The girls gasped in unison.
“I just mean,” he stuttered, “that a man can't see anything, not the weather coming, or a sunrise. It's nice to greet the dawn head-on.” He paused. He seemed to have forgotten anyone was listening. “Not have it sneak up on you from behind a tree.”
The girls looked confused at this and then slightly amused. Embarrassed, he turned back to the window. I smiled. Greet the dawn head-on. My home was on a hill in St. John's overlooking the city, the harbour and the sea beyond. The kitchen window faced east, revealing what we could expect for the day, sunshine or fog or a storm rolling in off the water. Something clicked in my throat and I quickly finished dinner and went to lie in my berth, exhausted and lonely.
The young man had seemed so comfortable with his son. Evan was the father of the baby I carried, but he would never lay eyes on his child, never know what kind of father he might be.
When I'd finally had to admit I was pregnant, I'd wanted
not to exist. Not dead mind you. Just not present for a time so
I could work out what to do. But I had no idea what to do. After six weeks of carrying the growing terror myself, I'd told Evan. He loved me. He'd said so in his way. He was silent as I spoke, my voice fading as he withdrew. He nodded, pecked me on the cheek and left to give his parents the news. Doubt had stroked the spot where his lips had been, and I remembered feeling more alone in that moment than I ever had. I shook my head free of the memory, didn't need to feel more isolated than I already was in my berth on a train to nowhere.
I didn't see the father and son again. Fred showed up for the occasional bite to eat or to check on me before bed. The miles were marked by meals and sleep and nausea. I passed some of the time reading the medical texts I'd slipped into my bag, hoping to keep up with my studies, too distracted to comprehend the words. On the third night we spilled onto the prairie somewhere
in Manitoba and I heard a deep voice announce Winnipeg. Passengers disembarked, bumping their cases along the aisle.
When the train resumed its chunking, I tried to sleep again, but tossed instead, shifting from side to side, nervous about our arrival, my destination a near mystery. Nowhere really. Not anywhere of significance to me. Mother had said only that her cousin's daughter had “managed” to make a good life in Moose Jaw. Or so she'd heard.
Soon I heard the murmuring of nearby passengers and the sounds of their morning preparations. I gave up on sleep and pushed up the window blind. The passing landscape was astonishing; overnight the train had left the forest, descended from the rock of the country and brought me to the vast nothing of Saskatchewan, the new prairie province with the strange name. Beyond the tracks, fields of golden crops stretched to the horizon. A few cows dotted grassed areas, kept there by wood fences so weathered and worn they appeared more an inconvenience than a deterrent. Endless blue sky surrounded the radiant hues of late fall.
“It's beautiful,” I breathed.
“It's a bunch of grass.” Cousin Fred scared the life out of me.
I rolled over and gasped. “You look terrible. What happened?”
His clothes were rumpled and bloodstained, his fancy hat crushed in his hands. Dried blood coated the skin under his nose, and he peered at me through red and swollen eyes. I smelled whiskey and sweat. “And you stink.”
“Thanks for noticing.” His voice croaked with a mix of fear and shame.
My throat was suddenly dry. “Well?”
His jaw worked, and his hands shook as he rubbed his stubbled chin. “I lost your money,” he blurted and turned to leave.
“What? Someone stole it?” I sat up so quickly my head spun. “Did you call the conductor? Is there a policeman on the train?”
“No! No coppers.” His face was struck through with sorrow, and for an instant I felt sorry for him. “I lost it in the saloon car. A poker game,” he whispered and bowed his head.
I reached for the door frame to steady myself.
“I tried to get it back. That's why they beat me up. Lost most of my own too.” His voice was a child's whine. “They were gonna throw me off the train; said no one would notice at night. What was I supposed to do?” There was no glimmer of hope on his face, no rescuing smile.
“All of it?” It came out a whisper.
“Except for this.” He held out a fistful of cash. “Take it.”
“Get out.” He started to protest. “Get out right now, or I'll throw you off the train myself, you irresponsible, stupid...”
He tossed the money onto the bunk and was gone. I lay back, not moving, and listened to the pulsing roar in my ears. It was blood money, but all I had.
Evan's father had arrived at the door two days before I was scheduled to leave, looking past me to speak only to Father, saying he'd sent Evan back to Edinburgh. His son wouldn't be returning. He'd put an envelope on the hall table and turned to go. “That should see her through,” he said, as though money was the only thing I'd need.
I lost my mind a little, ran after him, thumping on his back with my fists, flailing at his head. He'd turned in surprise, grabbed my arms and laughed.
“He's the baby's father,” I shouted. “I won't let you do this.”
“I already have.” His voice was flat, eyes hard.
Father finally pulled me off him and dragged me into the house, gave me a sedative and put me to bed. My father, the doctor, knew how to treat female hysterics.
i i i
They'd all betrayed me. And now Fred too. Dear God. I lay in my berth as the roar died to a whisper. Deep breaths. In and out. I was nearly penniless, pregnant and alone but for a guardian who'd seen fit to gamble with my future. The bile rose in my throat again and I reached for the chamber pot.