That summer’s night in ’48, the steam driven train announced its approach to the prairie town with a long, sustained whine. You could hear that horn all the way from the previous whistle stop, six miles down the track. And that’s God’s truth.
Twilight draped the stark squat buildings in a wash of darkening amber tones down the full length of what must be ‘main’ street, although there are no street signs in the prairie village of a hundred people or so.
From the train window she watches the shadow of the railway cars dance along the tall grass, swaying in the wind beside the iron tracks as the train finally pulls into the station. She’s a 26-year old widow, traveling alone on the CN night milk run, between one ‘glubinka’ and another. One backwater village after another. It all looks so temporary, the entire bloody country! Like everyone put down stakes for the night with the sole intention of getting the hell out in the morning.
But this place. “Netherhill”. What kind of prairie purgatory is this? She catches a glimpse of the bare light bulb swinging on a cord over the entrance to the railway station in Netherhill.
“You’ve really done it this time, Girlie!“
She scrambles to find her prized fur coat; the one she brought with her from Holland. The one that embraced her during the nine long days and nights of non-stop puking on her transatlantic crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The one that shielded her from the sharp, salty ocean gusts when she finally stepped off the troop ship, the Mauritania, at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia with the other war brides who shunned her because they mistook her for a German. That accent. She had to be one of “them.”
Long before the whistle blows, the faint, but growing clang of steel wheels in the distance, triggers a ritual exodus of customers lingering around the Netherhill drug store. Behind the counter, Doc Crosby’s got just enough time to scoop out one last vanilla ice cream cone before he joins the townsfolk out on the sidewalk. The ceiling fan doesn’t do much to stop the sweet sticky dripping of ice cream melting through the fingers of the eager last customers. The young couples who’ve grabbed the three booths by the window waste no time, shimmying themselves along the slippery plastic protecting the shiny red leather benches. The gents slip a nickel under the empty coffee cup before helping the ladies on with their cardigan sweaters.
Doc Crosby, well, he’s not a real doctor, but he got the nickname because he sold over the counter medicine, right along side the chocolate and vanilla ice cream cones…like everyone else in town, looks forward to this time of evening in the summer.
Vivid splashes of deep mandarin orange, rust, and unearthly striations of magenta contort and undulate along the horizon. The Saskatchewan license plates declare this is the land of living skies, and, even the most blasé can’t help but marvel at the magnificent play of light at sunset on the prairies.
The wind has finally, mercifully died down to a gentle whisper as it does at this time of evening, and, the mosquitoes aren’t too bad. What with the dry spell and all. After a Biblical infestation that almost wiped out the wheat crops the summer before, the grasshoppers too, seem to have abandoned their demonic dance of destruction in the fields this year. Thank God.
It’s all in God’s hands, the way the new garage man sees it, as he flips two bits onto the counter to pay for his lemon meringue pie and coffee.
Six feet tall, thick jet-black hair, and a single harvest away from his 37th birthday, Eric’s one of the oldest bachelors in town, and fully resigned to his marital status as something pre-ordained by the Lord. He plunges his hands into his pockets, fishing around for a match to light his evening smoke.
He takes casual notice of the fine black lines that now seem permanently etched into the very fabric of his hands. Minute tributaries of black car grease refuse to yield to even the most vigorous scrubbing with purple gasoline. On his way out of the drug store with the rest of the town, Eric checks his watch. 9:16. The nightly show’s about to begin. And he doesn’t want to miss that.
That bloody fur coat.
Fumbling for her suitcase, it finally dawns on Agnes that, she doesn’t actually own it anymore. She lost it in the Saturday night floating crap game at that prairie grand dame of CN hotels, the Bessborough Hotel in Saskatoon. (That was a tedious six hours away by train but only 120 miles!)
A table of roustabouts with dirt under their nails from working the fields that day, or messing around under the hood of their old car wrecks, thought they knew how to play poker! She’d been on a roll that night, pocketing two thousand dollars. More money than she had ever seen in her life! Delirious, intoxicated with the lovely crispness of foreign paper bills grasped between her fingers and palm, it numbed her ever so gently, blocking out all that had led to this moment, this place, this country. If only for a moment. But then, her luck ran out.
Agnes grasps all of her worldly possessions contained in that lone leather suitcase and breathes in the perfume of the prairie night, unaware that she is alighting upon a stage upon which, she is the main attraction.
All five feet of her.
She feels their stares. Their collective curiosity creates the uneasy feeling of being impaled like an insect stabbed with a sharp pin. Trapped. And ready for the entomologist.
Eric watches too, if only for a second or two. He feels a stirring deep in his being than is even louder than even the Voice of God. His mind races with the certainty that the Lord has just sent him a calling. But a life-long habit of shyness trumps a powerful desire to look, just once more, at the petite red-head, maneuvering her way on pumps, across the uneven gravel road towards the Netherhill Hotel.
In the morning, she’ll be sorting out the details of her job as the new cook in town.
Grasping the solitary suitcase, Agnes takes a deep breath, steps into the small pool of light cast by the bulb over the hotel entrance, and disappears through the door into her new life.
Netherhill. This will do, for now.
It’s a perfect place for a woman on the run.
THE TRAITOR’S DAUGHTER: BOOK EXCERPT