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Waskahikan, Northern Alberta
In summer the poplar leaves clicked and flickered at him, in winter the stiff spruce rustled with voices. The boy, barefoot in the heat or trussed up like a lumpy package against the fierce silver cold, went alone into the bush, where everything spoke to him: warm rocks, the flit of quick, small animals, a dart of birds, tree trunks, the great fires burning across the sky at night, summer fallow, the creek and squeaky snow. Everything spoke as he breathed and became aware of it, its language clear as the water of his memory when he lay against the logs of the house at night listening to the spring mosquitoes find him under his blanket, though he had his eyes shut and only one ear uncovered.
Everything spoke, and it spoke Lowgerman. Like his mother. She would call him long into the summer evening when it seemed the sun burned all night down into the north, call high and falling slow as if she were already weeping: “Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo . . . .”
And when he appeared beside her, she would bend her powerful hands about his head and kiss him so warm his eyes rang.
“Why don’t you answer, you?” she would say against his hair. “Why don’t you ever answer? The bush is so dark and I listen and listen, why don’t you ever say a word?” — while he nuzzled his face into the damp apron at the fold of her thigh. And soon her words would be over, and he would feel her skin and warm apron smelling of saskatoon jam and dishes and supper buns love him back.
His sister laughed at his solitary silence. “In Waskahikan School are twenty-seven kids,” Margaret said, “you’ll have to talk, and English at that. You can’t say anything Lowgerman there, and if you don’t answer English when she asks, the teacher will make you stand in the corner.”
“R-right in f-f-f-f-ront — of — people?” he burst out fearfully.
“Yeah, in front of every one of them, your face against the wall. So you better start talking, and English too.”
And she would try to teach him the English names for things. But he did not listen to that. Rather, when he was alone he practised standing in the corners of walls. Their logs shifted and cracked, talking all the time like happiness; logs were very good, especially where they came together so hard and warm in winter.
Outside was even better. He followed the thin tracks of a muskrat that had dented the snow with its tail between bulrushes sticking out of the slough ice, or waited for the coyote in the field along the hill to turn and see him, one paw lifted and about to touch a drift, its jaw opening to its red tongue smiling with him. Then suddenly cock its ears, and pounce! double-pawed into a drift, burrowing deeper. In summer he heard a mother bear talk to her cubs among the willows of the horse pasture near the creek. He did not see them, but he found their tracks in the spring snow behind the spruce and his father said something would have to be done if they came any closer to the pigpen. The boy knew his father refused to own a gun, but their nearest Ukrainian neighbour gladly hunted everywhere, whatever he heard about, and so he folded his hands over the huge pawprints and whispered in Lowgerman.
“Don’t come here, not any more. It’s dangerous.”
The square school sat at the corner, below the hill where the road allowances crossed south over the creek and bent around the spruce muskeg towards their Mennonite church, and the store. Inside the church every Sunday there were hands waiting for him. At the top of the balcony stairs — which led up from the corner behind the men’s benches, under the sloped roof with the church Highgerman of people murmuring like rain below them and poplar leaves at the window — were the hands that found things inside him, and let them out. Thick hands with heavy, broad thumbs working against each other on his neck, pressing down, pressing together, bending his small bones until through his gaping mouth they cawed:
“C - c - c - - cat!”
“Yes, yes, like that, try to say it again, ‘cat.’”
And he would try, desperately, those marvellous hands holding him tight as if everything on earth were in its proper place, and all the brilliant sounds he could never utter when anyone listened coming out of him as easily, deeply, as if he had pulled a door open.
“Yes, very good, now say, ‘Be sure your sin will find you out.’ Say it: ‘Be sure . . .’”
He knew find and you already, but sin? No one could find him in the bush, he did not need to say that; those English words, whatever they were, would never have to sit on the edge of his lips hissing. He drew his breath down, deep and safe.
“Ca-a-at,” he said firmly.
The post office was a wooden wicket folded open on Tuesday and Friday at the back of the store. There they got the Eaton’s winter or summer catalogues, and letters with stamps from Southern Alberta where his oldest sister Helen lived with her husband and Raymond, who came every summer to play with him in the bush behind the house. Mail came on the train, which he had never seen, but he heard it wailing faintly in the west, like an evening animal lost when light rises into mist along the creek. A sound so strange and far away that when it was gone he thought he might not have heard anything at all, it was only his longing for the white clouds of steam his oldest brother Abram had told him blasted out of the train when he worked laying steel rails on the ground for it, and blasting even whiter when it brought Abram back from Bible school at Christmas and he read the story of the Wisemen aloud in church and then prayed. The train, his brother said, went through the town of Boyle, three rows of houses on the edge of a wide valley. Almost a hundred people lived there, and the train ran along the big lake beyond it on steel straight as string. His father drove a wagon-load of grain, or pigs, to that town in fall when the mudholes on the road were frozen but the snow not too deep yet. And when he came back he said he had looked far across flat miles again at the rich valley farms they’d cleared there, red hip-roofed barns and white houses, all Swedes and Ukrainians because they got to their homesteads first, on the deep soil, not like their stone and clay where it wasn’t creek or slough or muskeg.
But the school had been at the crossroads since before the boy could remember, and now he tried not to look at it when they drove down the hill, though he knew the small panes of its five large windows stared at him as long as they passed. It was the Friday before the Monday when he would have to go there every day, like Margaret, that the planes came for the first time.
He was holding the parcel from Eaton’s, which he was certain contained the flannel shirt they ordered long ago for his first day in school, red check with black buttons, but his mother — “Don’t tear the paper!” — would never let him open anything before they got home. Their horses were so slow, good farm plugs, Schrugge, his brother John called them, pulling the wagon up the school hill as steadily as they always did, and it happened very fast, almost before he could look around. There had been a rumble from somewhere like thunder, far away, though the sky was clearest sunlight. His father had just said that in a week they might start bindering the oats, the whole field was ripening so well, and his mother sat beside him broad and erect, her braided hair coiled up in a bun under her hat, when suddenly the planes were there as a light flashed and he twisted to see, one after the other like four yellow-and-black fists punching low over them, louder than anything he had ever heard in his whole life. Roaring away north above the school and the small grain fields between poplars and sloughs and pastures and over all the trees to the edge of the world.
His father did not look up or around. His hands double-wrapped in the reins and his body braced to hold the terrified horses down, his voice was as sadly angry as an echo.
“Russia wasn’t enough, here they come out of the air.”
But the boy was looking at his mother. Perhaps his own face looked like that when next morning the yellow planes thundered over the school at recess, so low he saw horrible glass eyes in a sleek leather head glare down at him before he screamed and ran, fled inside to the desk where Margaret had told him he must sit. When he opened his eyes the face of the teacher was there, her gentle face very close, smiling almost upside down at him between the iron legs of the desk beneath which he curled, his new red-check shirt against the floor. Her gentle voice speaking.
“Come,” she said, “come.”
Her fingers touched his hair light as wind, and after a moment he twisted out and scrambled to his feet. He thought she was speaking Lowgerman because he did not yet know that what that word meant sounded the same in English. “Come.”
She led him past the amazing front wall that was “blackboard,” where that morning the white chalk between her fingers reaching out of her sky-blue sleeve drew the large letters of their school name:
WAS-KA-HI-KAN = HOME
She guided him through the rows of desks to a narrow cupboard against the wall opposite the windows, raised her thin hands, pulled, and two doors unfolded both at once. Books. He had never imagined so many books. Maybe a million.
She was, of course, speaking to him in English and years later, when he remembered that moment again and again, he would never be able to explain to himself how he understood what she was saying. The book opening between her hands showed him countless words: words, she said, that he could now only see the shape of, but would be able to hear when he learned to read because, she told him, the word read in English was the same as the word speak, räd in Lowgerman, and, when he could read, all the people of the world would speak to him. When he opened a book, he would hear what they had already said and continued to say, and he would understand.
He was staring at what he later knew were a few worn books on a few short shelves, and then looking back at the visible but as yet unintelligible words revealed by the book unfolded in her hands. And perhaps it was when her right hand reached down to touch his, hidden in his new shirt cuffs with their amazing black double buttons, when her fingers tightened and his hands clutched hers, perhaps then he slowly began to comprehend that there were shelves upon shelves of books on many, many floors inside all the walls of the enormous libraries of the world where someday he would go and read; that the knowing which she could help him discover within himself would allow him to hear human voices speaking from everywhere and every age, saying things both sweet and horrible, and everything else that might be imagined between them. And he would listen.
His mother, calling into the long northern evening.
“Where a-a-re you?”
Sailing to Danzig
Coaldale, Southern Alberta
His name was Adam Peter Wiebe. When he began school he liked being “Adam.” No one else had that name, and everyone called him “Addie,” like his sister Margaret who at first knew everything. Then one summer a travelling preacher came driving his thin horse and buggy through the bush to the Waskahikan Mennonite Church and, leaning far over the pulpit, declared that ADAM meant “of the ground,” which was how God had created the first man on earth. Out of the ground. And that had happened 4,004 years before Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son! was born in Bethlehem of Judah.
The way that huge man told the first story in the Bible stayed with Adam all his life like a memory of blue and golden light. He never wanted to read it in Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible — which his mother ordered for him from the catalogue when she realized he would never stop reading–or spoil the story with heavy Luther Genesis. Adam, made of ground, moist earth changed into flesh by God breathing warm breath into a mouth cupped open between His great, all-powerful hands! Adam’s first job was to name every animal God had already created, such easy work, and then, as a reward, God fingered the most perfectly beautiful woman that ever lived — that was the Highgerman word the preacher used: God touched Adam under his left middle rib and He “fingered” it out to make Eve — and the preacher stepped away from the pulpit, lifted his huge hands high and shaped Eve’s head in the air between them and then slid them around her shoulders, down over her pointed breasts — all his life Adam would remember his hands’ turn there, so slow, ineffably gentle — and over her hips and along her long legs to her toes. And then, ahh then! Adam and Eve lived together in the most beautiful garden on earth, eating fresh fruit and playing with the gold and sweet gum and pearls and onyx stones that were in the four rivers that flowed out of Eden, and bathing in them too. It was always the perfect seventh day of creation, forever rest, forever summer.
Travelling preachers came to Waskahikan between haying and harvest. Sermons were every evening if it didn’t rain too hard and three times on Sunday. This evangelist, Groota Donnadach Peetash as he was called in Lowgerman, Big Thursday — thunder-day — Peters, said the title of his next sermon would be “The Heaviest Word in the World.” He was preaching in Highgerman of course and so when he said, “Sünde,” exactly that word was the heaviest, and the apple tree and Eve and the slimy snake and Adam eating, that was truly Sünde, der Grosse Fall, forever and all eternity for all men and women ever born and all nature, even for trees and small animals, the very mosquitoes were all groaning and travailing in pain to be delivered from man’s bondage of putrid corruption!
Instantly, small Adam detested that second part of the story; he knew he’d never be like that stupid First Adam and eat a snake’s apple. He’d stick with God; if He had the power to make it He had the power to take it away, and if Eve couldn’t figure that out, Adam certainly could. And at that moment, as he sat with the other small boys on the narrow front bench with Big Thursday looming over them, it struck Adam that if exactly Sünde was the worst word, he would from now on live only in English where exactly that word didn’t exist, and he could stay with beautiful Eve and nice God Almighty in the Beautiful Garden forever, no gigantic angels with flaming swords that turned every way east of Eden.
Die Sünde Adams! That was Big Thursday Peters, weeping and blowing his nose like a trumpet-blast into an enormous blue-striped handkerchief, thundering God’s eternal damnation and endless grace all at the same time. But it was Lowgerman that quickly betrayed Adam’s thinking; after only a year of learning to read English in school he was no longer aware of what language he thought in, nor even how he dreamed, and looking up from the church bench and seeing the setting sun flicker the fine spray of Big Thursday’s mighty words into intermittent, visible rainbows around his mouth, he was convicted in his heart that Sind was too close to sin for a simple English escape. Especially with his name.
Adam Peter: “ground,” “rock.” Adam realized his names were basically the same, one merely a more stubborn form of the other. And Sind or Sünde or sin were of course all one too, abominably everywhere, in any language; as his mother steadfastly reminded him.