Toronto – October,1929
Sometimes ten year old Irene MacNeil lay in bed at night and listened. It was a weird trick of the house that the radiators and air vents acted as a kind of amplification system, conducting every sound, no matter how subtle, to every corner of every room. The heart-jumping thud of coal settling in the furnace. The gurgle of water in the pipes. The hum of the refrigerator. Her father’s snore. Her mother’s body turning, making the coils of the bed-springs squeak. She imagined the house was a creature in whose body they all lived and the sounds were like those her own stomach made when she’d eaten something hard to digest.
For all the seeming order in the lay-out of the rooms it was a narrow, jumbled-up house, where even the MacNeil’s small family of three felt like more. One was forever excusing oneself to pass in the hall, both parties pressed up against their respective walls; or feeling as though a window should be opened to let in a little more air.
A concrete path led from the sidewalk to two wooden steps, and the porch that ran the width of the house. The door opened into a small vestibule with hooks for coats, facing the steep stairs to the second floor. To the right was the living room, made cheerful enough by a rose and violet chintz sofa on one side of the green-tiled fireplace and a matching chair on the other. In the corner a radio stood proudly next to a potted split-leaf philodendron, and next to that, Douglas MacNeil’s orderly desk, with neatly piled papers and envelopes and a little brass clock. In the dining room, no more than a dark nook behind the living room, was an imposing walnut table and hutch containing the good dishes and two Toby jugs, which had been wedding gifts. The kitchen was in the rear of the house. Upstairs were two bedrooms, one for Irene at the back with a window that overlooked the yard, and one for her parents in front, as well as a summer sleeping porch.
This morning Irene was in the upstairs bathroom brushing her teeth. She was a deceptively sturdy little girl, her wrists thick and her face square and determined. Her nose was pug, her eyebrows sparse and her eyes nut-brown. When she was finished brushing her teeth she ran a comb through her wavy hair, the colour of reddish earth. She thought her hair was pretty. It might even be what magazines referred to as a “best feature,” except that her mother insisted on cutting it blunt and no longer than the bottom of her ears. It was parted on the side and held tightly with a hairpin so that it did not get into her eyes, although a stray wisp or two always escaped and sat rather ridiculously on her forehead. Such a curl now straggled out, no sooner than Irene pressed the pin into her scalp, and she hurried to wet it and pat it into place. Her parents’ voices floated through the vent from the kitchen below, along with the smell of coffee and bacon.
Irene did not want to walk in on what was clearly one of her parents’ ‘discussions.’ If she did, they would stop talking and her mother’s mouth would set in that way that made Irene feel as though she were a bother. So rather than interrupt, she re-brushed her teeth and although she knew it was wrong to listen to other people’s conversations, she listened anyway. What choice was there? Sometimes she felt they were all sort of mushed-up together in the house, and it was unclear where one of them ended and another began.
Douglas read the day’s headlines. The news was bad, but he saw no need to alarm his wife further. She was far too easily alarmed as it was. The early morning light made the red-walled kitchen look downright angry. It hurt Douglas’ eyes, as he knew it would even when he had, on a benevolent whim, agreed to it two months ago. He held the newspaper up to block out a shaft of light knifing through the black venetian blinds.
“We should have invested while we had the chance. The boom’s all over now, isn’t it, and we’ve lost an opportunity,” said Margaret.
A banner across the top of the front page of the Toronto Star read: STOCK PRICES CRASH, next to stories telling how the streets around the Montreal and Toronto exchanges were filled with crying men and women, who pushed and shoved each other, losing their hats and bruising their shins, in the false hope of salvaging something of their evaporating fortunes.
Douglas did not respond and so Margaret tapped the paper. “Put that down and talk to me please, Douglas. We’ll never get rich now, will we?”
Margaret’s insistence upon wealth puzzled Douglas, for it was not as though they lacked for anything. They had an electric refrigerator as well as electric cooking range. They had a radio. He’d given Margaret a fox stole for Christmas last year. They’d recently modernised the kitchen and painted it the garish red she’d insisted on. Douglas was a pharmacist, a professional man with a well-respected business. They lived a better life than their Scottish immigrant parents had ever dreamed of.
And Douglas loved his wife. She was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, with her sleek bobbed black hair and smoky eyes and Clara Bow mouth. When he’d married her she was twenty, a tiny girl with a waist his hands could nearly span, and even now, ten years after Irene’s birth, she had kept her figure. He wanted to make her happy. He had never given her the impression he would ever be anything except exactly what he was, take it or leave it. By marrying him he assumed she’d decided to take it.
“Margaret, there’s a story here in The Star about a woman, a Lottie Nugent, who lost her entire life savings and went home and turned on the gas. Would you rather we had put all our money in the stock market and lost it? I don’t understand you, my dear.”
“No, you don’t. I don’t know if you ever have,” she said and marched out of the kitchen, her heels clacking on the new linoleum floor.
Douglas sighed and carefully folded his newspaper. He ran his fingers along the crease, making it sharp. It was time to go to the drug store.
“Irene, stand still!” Margaret rubbed furiously at a spot on Irene’s chin with a handkerchief on which she’d spit.
“Oh, don’t carry on. How you manage to get as much toothpaste on the outside of your mouth as you do on the inside, I’ll never know.” She stepped back and surveyed Irene, who squirmed uneasily. Margaret hated it when Irene fidgeted, but bit her tongue. She was annoyed at Douglas, not Irene, and she didn’t want to take it out on the girl.
“I’m going to be late, Mum.”
“Hurry up, then. Hurry up! Get your books. Where’s your sweater?”
Irene grabbed her sweater and dashed down the stairs. She picked up her books sitting neatly in a pile on the chair by the door.
“Daddy? Are you ready? I’m going to be late.”
As he put on his coat, Douglas reached for the inside pocket and patted his flask. Its smooth cool solidity reassured him. A little dram of rye whiskey now and again kept him steady, especially after a spat with Margaret.
It was the habit of father and daughter to walk along the street together every morning, until Irene came to her school and they parted ways. As they left the house, neither of them mentioned that Margaret had gone upstairs into her room and closed all the curtains against the day’s bright sunshine.
The boy sits on the stool with his head against the warm flank of the cow. His name is David Hirsch. He is half asleep still, as is the cow. Her name is Sophie and she smells of hay and manure and cream. The kerosene lantern throws a small pool of yellow light around them. Beyond it, the two horses, one dapple grey, the other roan, paw softly at the ground as they chew the feed he’s poured in their trough. His hands work mechanically but reassuringly on Sophie’s teats, rhythmically, the milk hissing into the bucket. His breath and the cow’s mingle in a steamy cloud for the early morning air is chill. Sophie lows and shifts her weight. He speaks softly to soothe her.
“Sophie-girl, there, there, Sophie-girl.” David mutters the words as though speaking through dreams.
It is dark outside and will not be light for another two hours or more. The nights have grown longer and it is harder each day to get up to tend to the cow and the horses and the chickens and the dogs and chop the kindling and start the fire and tend to the other thousand things a farm morning brings. Winter comes early on the Saskatchewan prairies and the wind warns the farmer of what’s to come. This morning it is a slap on the cheek, delivered a by harsh hand, although it doesn’t yet shock his breath away, as it will in deep December. He’s already spotted the first few flakes of snow, dancing in a thin wisp along the side of the farmstead roof. The coming of the dark time, and perhaps another hungry time. There have been droughts before, but this has been a dusty year and the harvest was meagre and the cellar is not full enough to let them rest easy in the knowledge of plenty.
The wind has blown hot and dry and relentless all summer. Perspiration left a salty grit, drying on the skin before cooling it. Sand began to drift under farmhouse doors. The men have whispered at the grain silo, at the feed store, at the barber’s. “The crops are failing,” they said, but did not say it loudly. They remember bad years, 1885-1889, 1917-1921. It will pass, they say, and turn their eyes to God.
The prairie sky is vast and moody and restless in the fall. The granite-coloured clouds shift and blur, the grey land, drifting to sleep beneath the thin blanket of frost, rises up to meet the air and the two become indistinct, inseparable, a huge arc of seamless space. Distance is distorted, everything seems further away while the soul longs for a warm, snug corner by the stove.
David is restless too, and moody, ill-fitting in his fourteen years. He is outgrowing his hand-me-down jackets and pants and pushing up against the tight seams of Sonnenfeld as well. One hundred and thirty-seven Jews on twenty-nine farms. It had been one hundred and thirty-eight, until his mother died two winters ago of the influenza. There is only one road out of the settlement and it leads to the nearest railway stop in Estavan, fifty miles away. He lives on the farm with his father, Herzl, and his brothers Jacob and Isaac, and Isaac’s new wife, Toba. Toba will have a baby in the spring. Then they will be one hundred and thirty-eight again.
It is a misconception that boys grow up more slowly in the country than in the city streets, or that they are more innocent. Death is kin. Accidents, the loss of an arm or an eye, not unfamiliar. Because the population in Sonnenfeld is so small, births and deaths, tears and pain, rage and despair, all are shared and no one is too young to shoulder his or her burden. And they come from strong stock, these refugees from Eastern Europe, from Lithuania, from Galicia, from Russia. They have fled, or survived, the massacres of Kharkov, Odessa, and Kiev. They do not let their children forget.
David’s father came from Bialystok to Canada with his parents in 1881, when he was six. His baby brother did not made the trip. In the slaughter that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander, a soldier took the boy’s uncle, little Asher, by the heels and dropped him down a well where he drowned. The family buried him and, still mourning, fled.
It was a long journey, but they are settled now, here in the plains of Western Canada, for the time being at any rate. But movement is in the blood, and the boy is distrustful of a place too-well loved. He has been taught that a boot can kick down any door, if there was enough hatred in the foot, and that hatred is also a creature that roams. The Klu Klux Klan operate in Saskatchewan now.
He pats Sophie and she turns to look at him, her great eyes holding only trust and calm. He takes up the pail of fresh milk and leaves the barn. The planks of wood laid down as a walkway across the yard creak beneath his boots as he walks toward the house. It is small. Three rooms. Kitchen, two sleeping rooms. Since the death of his wife the boy’s father has slept alone in one, but now that Isaac has married, he sleeps with his other two sons, and Isaac and Toba have a room to themselves. The roof is steeply pitched and the chimney rises from the centre. There are four poplar trees around the house, and by the door, two wild-rose bushes his mother transplanted from the prairie. His father cares for them now. Chickens peck at the ground in their wood-fenced pen at the side. The dog, a yellow hound of indeterminate parentage, pads out from the shadows to meet the boy, its body wriggling with happiness as he reaches down to rub its ears.
He stops, picks up a stick and tosses it for the dog, who runs after it with a joyful bark. He watches the dog and then looks up to see the morning star in the charcoal sky. The earth sweeps out in a gently rolling sea to a sliver of silver promise on the horizon. He holds his head up and sniffs the air. Eggs and coffee from the kitchen, but more. David Hirsch is a child of the land and the scent is familiar. Something harsh and dry and brutal as a brush fire, rolling in across the earth on the northern wind.