I used to dream I could fly. A spirited run, a leap into the air, and the wind-milling of arms would send me skimming over the telephone poles that lined the gravel streets and wooden sidewalks of Netherhill, Saskatchewan. Then, it was simply a matter of scissor kicking the air with the endurance of an Olympic swimmer in order to stay aloft.
Below, a herd of boogie men were left in the dust, but dangerously circling in position— anchored by gravity, but waiting for a system failure in the incredible flying machine of one airborne ten-year old girl. Who were these nocturnal creatures in pursuit? What would they do if they captured their prey?
Inevitably, my ability to remain aloft would start to wane almost the same instant I had reached a safe altitude: skimming the top of the ice rink, the spire of the white clapboard church, past the unblinking stare of the single-eyed plywood Christmas reindeer mounted on the roof of the lone village store.
“Roxana!” “Victor”! “Harold”!
The voice of my mother pierces the stillness of a winter’s dawn. She calls from the downstairs’ kitchen. I am startled but safe. Awake. And summoned into action. My twin brother, Victor, will lead the charge downstairs. My older brother Harold brings up the rear. It’s a school day. In exactly fifty minutes, the ubiquitous yellow school bus will fade up on the distant horizon like the opening credits on last night’s Ed Sullivan show; cuing a mad scramble at the door: grabbing paper bag lunches, exercise books, winter boots.
1964. It’s our first winter on Highway Number Seven, a two-lane ribbon of asphalt that slices through miles and miles of wheat fields in the heart of what our schoolbooks proudly declared, “The World’s Bread-Basket”! Dad paid a thousand bucks cash for an abandoned farmhouse one town over, to be hoisted as is, onto a flatbed truck, hauled six miles along the highway, and finally maneuvered onto the freshly poured concrete foundation in the middle of the field.
We are surrounded by an uninterrupted sweep of stubble poking through an otherwise pristine canvas of snow. Endless queues of stunted wheat and barley stalks bend and bow, with the whims of an incessant wind. On the pewter days of winter, the sky appears to melt into the earth; one grey swatch blending into another, with no beginning and no end.
Three sets of feet pound through the porch, past a pair of tin garbage cans redeployed for storing drinking water, and finally, out to meet the waiting school bus before it turns off the highway towards the village itself. A trio of somewhat symmetrical elevators marks the end of the road, in more ways than one.
These wooden cathedrals, storing thousands of bushels of grain, reach 80 feet into the sky. That makes them the tallest buildings in the world as I know it at age ten.
Much too high to fly over.
With the bombardment of boots, voices, and the slamming storm door, field mice that have taken up refuge in the cistern beneath the porch to escape the prairie winter, scatter for cover. A few will meet their demise in the icy water to be discovered later in the spring clean up. A few flee into the kitchen, darting behind cupboards, joining the rest of the clan who’ve tucked in for the winter.
But one somehow makes his way into the bathtub. The panicky scratching against enamel draws my mother’s attention. Within minutes they are eyeballing each other: the ex-Red Army soldier and the ill-begotten rodent. Locked in a showdown. The Russian versus the prairie field mouse. She reaches down, snags the tail, and, within a heartbeat or two, that mouse is airborne. Flung out the back door into howling wind to live another day. No doubt, it will be back by nightfall.
The reflex for survival can take many forms.
“Mrs. E. Spicer” takes a deep draw on her duMaurier cigarette. That’s how she signs her name on all of our elementary school report cards. The letters are perfectly articulated on the page; drawn, rather than written, disguising the fact she hasn’t mastered the written form of this strange alphabet. All these English vowels and consonants stacked end-to-end create a language that sounds like everyone speaks with a mouthful of hot potatoes.
She takes the letter ‘E’ from Eric, her Canadian husband, my father. That gives her a layer of anonymity. She prefers things that way. She’s changed her own name so many times, she doesn’t remember how many times, or, how many ways she’s lied her way across a couple continents to get to this foreign place.
She goes by “Agnes” now. It’s close enough.
She savors the way the smoke curls in the air, appearing to freeze time, if only for a moment. Though it is no longer her intention, the cigarette dulls her hunger in a familiar way this morning. She started smoking to kill the scratching in her stomach, picking up butts along a roadside crowded with prisoners-of-war on a forced march from Russia to Germany. She was one of them.
She watched the others stripping bark off the birch trees to stave off starvation. Digging for frozen potatoes somehow missed in the fall harvest by the Ukrainian farmers. The uninvited memory creeps to the surface, triggered by the stark landscape framed in the front picture window.
Snow drifts across the highway: swirling, slightly menacing, ever unpredictable.
Within an hour, the whole village of 100 or so could appear to vanish; whipped from view by a scalding snowstorm. She fixes upon her scampering trio as they jump the drifts, plunging their boots in and out of the freshly scalloped snow peaks that have recast the front yard into a moonscape.
The morning ritual is on schedule. 8:15 am. The double doors of the bus split open, and, a troika of snowsuits climb inside the waiting bus.
Her grasp on this new reality is once again reassured as the children turn to wave, and the bus disappears down the village road.
EXCERPT: THE TRAITOR’S DAUGHTER:THE BOOK