June 24, 2018
His mother was a strong woman who looked like she could hold up the sky, but couldn’t stop their father from dying, and couldn’t keep one giant rat out of their barn
“Come on,” said Miss Jill Taschuk. “Wanna watch?”
Dar and ’Dene slipped from their hiding place and stood vibrating in the sugary steam of the pouring room. Their eyes quivered, too, like ball-bearings between magnets. Miss Jill waved them over.
“It’s okay,” she said to the other grown-ups, who were dressed like nurses or doctors or something. Important, extra-clean, grown-up, city-factory-working clothes. Not like back on the family farm. Well, before he sold it.
Dar and ’Dene came closer to the big table. Its marble top looked like a smooth, giant version some of the prettiest stones they used to find out on the big creek on their land, with stripes of red and white streaking through it like fire and ice.
The seven-year-old girl got only so close. Her big brother snapped, more from candy lust than irritation. “C’mon, ’Dene! Hurry up, now! We’re gonna miss it!”
Miss Jill bent down a smidge. “You wanna help, ’Dene?”
The girl’s bright eyes flicked to the 20-year-old’s face. ’Dene still had a wildness to her, not the wildness of a coyote that would kill your cattle, but that of a prancing wild hare with alert ears and vaulting legs.
’Dene said, “Really? Can we?” She was already smiling and nodding hoping to confirm she had permission, her hair bobbing like a busy mop, when Miss Jill waved them over to fit them with gloves and smocks.
Darwin fit his easily. He was nearly as tall as little Miss Jill. But even though ’Dene was big for her age, even the smallest shop-floor clothing was flop-offable on her. Not that she cared. When she was all uniformed-up she smiled like a bright prairie dawn with sun dogs on the way.
Two older ladies—Dar and ’Dene had never heard either of them talk—hefted huge, hot copper pots from their boilers and brought them to the pour table. The kids pranced back, but Miss Jill nodded. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Theresa May and Rose-of-Sharon are careful.”
With their oversized oven mitts, like something a blacksmith would wear, the older women poured steaming goo from their pots, green from Theresa May’s and red from Rose-of-Sharon’s. When the streams hit the marble table they became waves, spreading and rippling until each met the other. When the women had exhausted their pots, Miss Jill handed wooden stir-sticks to each of the children and said, “Watch me, now.”
Miss Jill swirled beautiful patterns, some like the Northern Lights, some like sun dogs, into the cooling sugar concoction. The children’s eyes opened like the full moon meeting clouds of sugar-steam.
Dar elbowed his little sister. “’Dene!” he whispered.
She snapped to, suddenly seeing she’d drooled on her own shoe. But she wasn’t embarrassed—she laughed. Her brother dug his fingers into her ribs to make her laugh even more. “Stop it, Dar!” she said, still laughing but fighting to frown. “You gonna make me have an accident!”
Both kids looked up, mortified. But Miss Jill wasn’t mad. “Settle now, you two. Unless you don’wanna make candy . . . ?”
A choir: “We do!”
“All right, then. Pay attention. Think you can do like I showed?”
Dar started by immediately dunking his wooden spatula into the steaming mass, but ’Dene was only neck-high to the marble surface of the table, so Miss Jill had to bring over a crate for her. After hopping up, the girl began carefully copying her brother’s motions while checking Miss Jill’s attentive face. The kids’ expressions twisted and contorted with every swirl they made. The other adults said nothing but continually glanced over, sometimes nodding, and finally handing them knives while Miss Jill showed them how to slice the hardening stuff.
“Now you won’t cut yourself, right?” she said.
’Dene looked aghast. “Miss Jill, we been snaring and skinning rabbits and ferrets since we could walk! You can sure bet we can handle a mess of candy!”
Miss Jill smiled. “I will surely bet you can.”
After a great while they’d finished cutting up their work into hundreds of sweet emerald-ruby gemstones.
Miss Jill said, “You’ve just made your first batch of Christmas candies, children! Want some?” Dar and ’Dene jumped with glee. The silent ladies rolled their eyes, but Miss Jill smiled even more while she handed them finished and wrapped toffees from her apron pockets.
Then a door slammed from downstairs. Heavy boots came tromping up. Miss Jill’s smile disappeared. “That’ll be your father,” she said.
’Dene snapped, “He ain’t our father!”
“Isn’t our father!”
And then Jack Dahl appeared at the doorway. His eyes were wrong, stained like beet juice that all the scrubbing in the world would never get out. His ever- stench of coffee, beer, and tobacco smacked every nose in the room. An unlit cigarette squirmed between his clenched teeth.
The kids stood up straight.
“Mr. Dahl,” said Miss Jill Taschuk, “remember what the inspector said? We can’t have any smoking in here. It’s not hygienic and it’ll ruin the flavour of the—”
“Do you see me smoking?” he spat, eyeing her like she’d stolen something from him, or was fixing to.
He raked the room with his glare while he kept patting his pockets.
Finally he saw his wife’s children. “You two! I told you about interrupting grown folks’ work. Get home and do your chores! Help your mother ’steada eating up our business!”
The children muttered their yessirs and ran with candies hidden in their hands. They popped back fast enough to say, “Thank you, Miss Jill!” and then were gone.
DARWIN AND NADENE HIT THE GROUND OUTSIDE the factory doors at 114th Avenue and 95th Street. Glancing over his shoulder until they were half a block away, Dar finally reached into his pocket and pulled out a dented, scratched, but still shiny tiny metal box, and then flicked it open just like a grown-up would. A little flame popped out its top.
“Dar!” squealed ’Dene. “You had it all along? Jack Dahl’s been looking for that for days!”
“Jack Dahl can look for this the rest of his life.”
“But you don’t smoke,” said the little girl. And then her eyes horrored. “Do you?”
“Naw. Could if I wanna. I just don’wanna.”
“So why’d you take it?”
He looked at his little sister, innocent and wondering and afraid.
“Sometimes you just gotta do suh’m.”
She nodded slowly, but he figured she didn’t really get it. And he felt his throat bunch up knowing that one day, she would.
They headed home north on 95th towards the back of the Safeway, where their family lived in a tiny apartment. And they would have made it home except for who’d spotted them from down the block, advanced on them like they’d been waiting.
“Dar!” cried ’Dene, grabbing her brother’s hand. “It’s the Prunkles!”
Billy and Karl Prunkle came running at them, knives in their hands, insanely cutting and eating slices of apples as they hurtled themselves straight at Dar and ’Dene.
“Darwin!” they shouted, because they were always either shouting or whispering.
“Billy, Karl,” said Dar to the knife-wielding maniacs. “Carve anything nice today?”
Bright-blond Billy offered Darwin and his sister slices of apple, but Dar waved them away and counter-offered candy to the Prunkles, whose eyes went screwy at the sight.
“Thanks!” they both yelled before snatching and snaring their jaws in toffee.
“So . . . ?” said Darwin. “You said you carved suh’m?”
“Ja,” munched brown-haired, freckled Karl, the shorter Prunkle. He was born in Canada, but when he got excited he sounded just like his parents, and caught hell for it everywhere, especially now that the war had started. “Ve carved a duck! A little duck! Vanna see it?”
“Maybe later,” said ’Dene, tugging her brother’s sleeve and glaring at him. “We got chores, ’member?”
“Forget about the duck,” said Billy. He snapped his head back quickly, flicking his nearly white hair out of his eyes. “Got suh’m way better’n ducks.”
“Like what?” said Darwin.
Billy folded away his knife, and his brother followed suit. “Like suh’m. You comin’ or what?”
’Dene glared at her brother, but went with him anyway. When they got to the Prunkle house a block away they went into the rear yard, where Karl pointed at something hanging from the neighbour’s eaves. Something papery and swarming with noise.
“Big deal,” said ’Dene. “A wasp nest.”
“Arnchu scared?” said Karl, wiggling his fingers like a horde of 10.
She stuck our her jaw. “Our daddy usedta raise bees.”
“Did not!” said Karl.
“Sure did! Back on our farm! And we had all the honey we ever wanted.”
Karl said, “That’s why he makes candies now? Because of the honey?”
“I already told you a hundred times, Karl Prunkle!” stamped the little girl. “That man is not and never could be our father!”
“Okay, okay,” said Billy, who was in charge. He kept his brother back with an outstretched arm. “So Darwin, did your dad really know how to keep bees?”
“Sure. My dad was smart,” said ’Dene’s big brother, sticking out his chest and tilting up his chin. “He had 400 books.” And that was true, cloth-shrouded books whose spines glittered with alien names like Marx and Tolstoy. And books on every topics: literature and war and farming and science, and one his dad had said was about “electromechanical devices and dynamos you could only dream of.” And he had endless technical magazines, which he used to buy whenever he hauled cans of cream into Mayerthorpe to sell. “He taught himself all sortsa stuff,” said Darwin. “Even beekeeping. If you own your own land, you can do anything.”
“Sounds like you hafta do everything,” said Karl. “I heard if you live on a farm, it’s work, work, work. Never stops.”
“Yeah, and so what?” said ’Dene. “If you don’t work in this life, you starve!” She said it with all the authority of all the adults who’d ever said it around her. “And our farm was beautiful! We got up before the sun dogs and got to feed sheep and cows and horses and gooses and goats, and we had all the fresh milk and cream and eggs we could eat!”
“You didn’t have no gooses!” said Karl.
“Sure we did! Even ate goose eggs every Sunday morning!”
“You did not!”
Dar nodded. “We really did.”
“Who’d wanna eat a goose egg? Prob’ly tastes like goose-poops!” laughed Karl.
’Dene stuck out her jaw. “Whadda you know? Goose egg’s two times the size and four times the taste of a chicken egg! Like a steak in a shell!”
“She’s right,” said Dar. “You got one goose, you could feed your whole family.”
“Sure I could! I’d break his neck and roast ’im!” said Karl, barfing laughs till Billy joined him.
“You could,” said ’Dene, “but then you’d be a dummy!”
Karl’s face warped and his cheeks and forehead turned beet. “What’d you say to me?”
Dar stood in front of his sister, who ducked behind him like a doe behind an oak.
“C’mon, Karl. Why kill a goose and eat once when you could keep a goose and eat for years?”
“Cuz,” said Billy, “I ain’t never got a drumstick outta no egg!” He backhand-smacked Dar in the chest, just hard enough to satisfy Karl’s honour and kill the fight. They all laughed. Even ’Dene. “A drumstick in an egg!” she giggled.
And then Darwin turned to the side and his eyes went wide. “Karl, what’re you doing?”
All of them turned, but it was too late. The rock was flying out of Karl’s hand straight into the nest. Wasps boiled out of it like a slough surging its banks during a storm, and all of the kids screamed and ran straight for the Prunkles’ cold cellar. Billy threw open the hatch and they all scrambled down the ramp, and Darwin slammed shut the hatch above them.
They could hear Billy patting his pockets, probably for matches. It was worse than a moonless night down there, and the earthen walls and floor were dank.
But then light shone next to Darwin’s face like he was the sun.
Billy gasped. “You got a Zippo? Wheredja get it?”
“Never you mind where I got it. I just got it.”
“Here,” said Billy, hefting the oil lantern from a hook on the wall and removing its glass. Darwin lit the wick and put away his lighter, and Billy replaced the glass and set the lantern on the floor.
Karl started laughing. “You shoulda seen your faces when you saw them wasps!” He howled like a moon-mad wolf.
Billy punched him in the shoulder with his free hand.
“You’re a lunatic, Karl Prunkle,” snapped Darwin. “Wasps can kill you, you know.”
“If enough of ’em sting you, trust me.”
Karl said, “You sure don’t like your stepdad.”
Everyone froze. The remark had crashed that heavily. Karl wasn’t smart enough to be calculating. He hadn’t been trying to get the focus off his idiotic war on wasps. He was just a scattered kid. But he’d succeeded in steering the conversation anyway.
Karl: “Why doncha, Dar?”
“Because,” said the 12-year-old leader of their pack, using one of the worst words he’d ever heard his father say, a word he’d found in some of the books he’d inherited: “He’s an opportunist.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Means he waits ’til a man’s down ’til he steals his wallet.”
“He did that?”
Darwin shook his head, turning away from the lantern and staring into the shadows. “When our dad was dying, he told our mother she should marry right away so we didn’t lose the farm.”
Billy whispered, “I’da liked to’ve grown up on a farm. Sounds nice.”
Darwin nodded, turned back to Karl. “Lotsa animals. Lotsa people. Even Blackfoot usedta work there. They came out, kids and all, helped clear the land. They brought their moose-hide teepees when they came. I even got to live with ’em one time for a week out in the fields. They were poor, but nice. We couldn’t afford much, but we paid ’em in crops, and they hunted. And then, when the sun dance season came, they were gone.”
Karl’s and Billy’s eyes sparkled from the lantern. All they’d ever known was the rough, dusty city.
Darwin turned back to the shadows. “But Jack Dahl . . . he was a drifter. He worked on our farm, too. And maybe always had his eye on our mum, so when our dad died, he made his move. Married our mum and sold our farm. I heard my uncle Detmer telling her it was a bad deal, but what could she do?”
He thought of his mother Hazel, a strong woman who looked like she could hold up the sky, but who couldn’t stop their father from dying and couldn’t keep one giant rat out of their barn. And so Dar put his hand on his sister’s shoulder. She gritted her teeth and looked down.
“Three sections—that’s around 180 acres—and all our buildings and livestock. And what’d he get for it? A fancy car and a little old candy factory no bigger’n a barn!”
“I wish our folks owned a candy factory,” said Billy. Didn’t sound like envy. Sounded like trying to comfort his friend.
“Yeah, but we’re farmers,” said Darwin. “What do we know about running a business in the city? And now there’s the war, and sugar’s more expensive every day . . . ”
There was sniffling in the shadows. Darwin stopped his tale.
“Now, c’mon, ’Dene. I’m just talking. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“I miss the farm,” she whimpered. “And I miss —”
He squeezed her shoulder and she shuffled and snuffled into his side.
Finally in the awkward silence, Darwin said to Billy, “Well? What’s better’n a duck?”
Even in the limited lantern light, Billy’s confusion marked his face like clouds blotting the Milky Way.
“You told us,” said Darwin, “you had something way better to show us than a carved duck. So what is it?”
Billy smiled and nodded, and reached behind a sack of potatoes to pull out a bomber—a warplane just like on the cover of the newspapers—perfect and small enough to fit in his hand.
“Wow!” squeaked ’Dene. Not even ghosts, not even her dislike of the Prunkles could keep the glee out of her voice.
“That’s a beaut!” said Dar. “Can I see it?”
“See with your eyes,” said Billy slyly.
“Gimme that,” said Darwin, taking the plane.“Golly!” he said, noticing the payload. Twisted wires on the undercarriage carried bombs, bombs that were actual bullets. He handed the plane to his sister, and she flew it through the darkness while making whooshing noises and then sat down next to the lantern for a better look.
Darwin had seen plenty of bullets and shotgun shells back on the farm. Used them, even. When he was five his dad—his real dad, Homer Thomas, the homesteader from Missouri, the patriarch, the Bolshevik, the descendent of Lieutenant Spotswood Thomas who’d fought for the Union in the War Between the States, had taken him to one of the cut lines on their land and handed him a .22.
“I’m heading into the bush now,” he said. Homer wasn’t a big man. He could maybe stare into Uncle Detmer’s chin. But as his stepfather had said, Darwin’s dad was “built like a brick shit-house.” Short or no-short, everything thing about the man had crackled with power, like a prairie rainstorm gathering and growing and just waiting to bless all the crops between the hills of sunset and the plains of sunrise. “I’m gonna flush out some game,” said his dad, dressed in grey and brown, camouflaged for autumn’s trees. “You take this rifle and be ready, now. When game comes out, blast it!”
And his dad disappeared into the brush, silent and invisible as an owl in the branches of an oak.
Darwin waited. And gripped his gun. And glanced around. And waited. And gripped his gun tighter. And waited. And heard a branch snap and screamed.
His dad came running back, furious at his five-year-old holding the rifle and no game and finding out nothing was wrong. He barked at his son: “You stand on your own two feet, or else!”
But he let Darwin keep the rifle anyway.
’Dene was tugging on his sleeve. “Dar!”
“So whatcha think?” said Billy. “Ain’t she a beaut?”
“I already said it was a beaut —”
“Dar!” worried ’Dene again.
Light flared from the now-open Zippo in Darwin’s hand.
They all saw the shattered lantern on the floor, and then turned and saw a puncture in the dirt wall.
A wisp of smoke was curling out of it.
The puncture was just past Billy’s head.
They all turned to ’Dene.
“I, I—one of the bullets—it just came loose! It fell in the lantern! I tried to tell you! I tried to tell you!”
“You almost kilt me!” screamed Billy.
The little girl scrambled up the ramp and slammed open the hatch and was out.
Billy started to go after her, but Dar blocked his path.
“It was an accident!” yelled ’Dene from the surface.
Dar held up his finger, traced a line from Billy’s to Karl’s faces.
Billy: “But Darwin, she —”
“She’s just little! It’s your own fool fault putting bullets on toys when you don’t even know how to handle guns!” He breathed out sharply. “Now you don’t come outta here ‘til you’re good and settled down.”
The Prunkles stayed in the ground while Darwin backed up the ramp. He glared down at them, but they didn’t move. “I’m taking my sister home,” said Dar. “We got chores to do. You oughta do the same.”
Karl moved over to hold his brother’s hand, and Darwin thought Billy would pull it away, but he didn’t. His face was cinched tight in the middle, damming back tears.
Dar and ’Dene left the yard, heads down.
“Dar, I’m sorry. I’m sorry! It was an accident!”
’Dene stopped, pointed at the cratered, papery nest on the ground. The wasps were gone.
“Those Prunkles!” said ’Dene. “I just think about all those poor baby bees getting chased off by some dummies who wanna beat ’em up and rob ’em of all their honey!”
“Wasps don’t make honey. Everybody knows that.”
“I know! But still!”
Dar sighed. “Yeah.”
They were almost home, the apartment at the back of the Safeway, when ’Dene said to Dar, “You never ate a goose egg in your life!”
“You told Karl we usedta feed our whole family from goose eggs.”
“Well you said goose eggs’re two times bigger’n chicken eggs and four times the taste! Remember?”
’Dene’s eyes snapped to the sky, pondering her brother’s comeback. Finally, softly, realising: “That’s true . . . ”
Their mother, Hazel, hugged them tight when they came home. She was a big woman, and they almost disappeared into her like she was a stack of quilts. Her big hands, big enough to ring a chicken’s neck in a single twist, held them gently, warmed them. “Had fun at the factory?” she said. They looked at each other, and their eyes confirmed what they wouldn’t say. “Yes, ma’am,” they said together.
“All right,” she said, tucking back silvery hair behind her ears and the arms of her round spectacles. “Now time to help me with supper.”
“What’re we eating?” chirped ’Dene.
“Panna-cakes.” That’s how she always said the word, which made her girl smile every time. Dar smiled, too. Pancakes meant there wasn’t much food left in the house. But even though the eggs and cream weren’t from their land, their mum could turn lard and milk and flour and half a spoon of sugar and an egg—even a chicken egg—into love.
“Now you kids wash up the dishes. And not too loud. Patty and Baby Kenny are sleeping.”
The kids set to cleaning and, while their mother was mixing batter, Darwin pulled out the last two candies with a soapy hand and handed over one to ’Dene.
His little sister smiled and started chewing, and said softly, “That Miss Jill is sure nice.”
“She sure is,” he whispered wistfully.
“Darwin, you’re always talking about Miss Jill. Do you wanna marry her or something?”
He shook his head and whispered. “Don’t be a horse’s ass.” She smiled some more and kept chewing. She didn’t say I’ll tell. Because she never would.
But she was right. He did love Miss Jill. And one day, after he grew up and got a job, he would marry her.
BUT HE DIDN’T. BECAUSE THERE WERE TIMES AHEAD neither Dar nor ’Dene could ever dream of. Like how they’d all get sick of candy within a few short weeks, and soon enough the factory itself would go kaput on account of wartime sugar rationing and because Jack Dahl didn’t know jack shit about running a business. Or that he’d buy a two-ton truck and pack up all their belongings in the middle of the night and hurtle them over gravel highways with grown-ups and their baby sister, Patricia Finnegan, and their baby brother, Kenny, inside the cab, and Darwin and ’Dene riding on top of all their possessions in the payload container behind. Or that no rain would fall on their heads for the whole of the September it took them to cross the giant sunrise of Saskatchewan and descend to sunset on Manitoba’s desolate Sand Hills outside Portage la Prairie.
They didn’t know that, within a year, the ex-drifter Jack Dahl would drift away for good, or that the family would need to harness all their skills for hunting and trapping and growing food just to stay alive, during their first winter when the children couldn’t even go to school because they didn’t have shoes for the hour-plus trek. They didn’t know about the railways Darwin would build, or the union he’d help lead, or the beautiful Ukrainian girl named Elsie that he’d marry, or the one-room school where ’Dene would teach six-year-old girls and huge farm boys older than she was, or that she’d eventually lead an entire teachers’ union in the province of their birth, or that she’d meet a man from a faraway land called Kenya and have a son with him named Malcolm.
There was much ahead for them in their young family in their young country, ploughing under the homelands of many ancient peoples. And there would be enough pain and tears and births and laughter and building and fallouts and reconnections and regrets and deaths and somberness and celebration to fill their lives until the sun dogs came for them all.
Sweet Dreams on the Prairies at the Dawn of War by Minister Faust originally ran in the Canada150 issue of Eighteen Bridges magazine, which was a special collection of essays commissioned for Edmonton Community Foundation’s (ECF) High Level Lit project — a partnership between ECF, Eighteen Bridges, and LitFest. The published collection of these essays was awarded Best Editorial Package of the Year at the 2017 Alberta Magazine Publishers Association Awards and was instrumental in Eighteen Bridges being named Magazine of the Year at those same awards. The project was also nominated for two National Magazine Awards, including Omar Mouallem’s essay Homeland for the Holidays, which won gold in the Personal Journalism category. To mark Canada’s 151st anniversary of Confederation, ECF is making digital versions of these stories available to the public.
You can listen to ECF’s interview with Minister Faust about his story on The Well-Endowed Podcast by clicking here.