I can’t think of it any longer; otherwise, I might go insane. A man, wearing a grey-brimmed hat curled upward on one side, smokes a fat, brown cigar. He fumbles through his copy of a newspaper. My stomach churns with the sway of the car. He sits a few seats down the aisle from me—the waft of smoke is revolting. My forehead numbs as it bangs against the windowpane, the ride, rough and jarring. I gaze at fields skimming past, if you can dub them fields. Small twisters swirl dust and dry winds scatter dead tumbleweeds. Crops have been planted, but the topsoil is burnt up by the sun and is blown haphazardly by the wind. It piles up against fences and along roads. The cost of seed and the long hours put in … all gone to the wayside.
A piercing whistle vibrates past gray clapboard buildings. Some houses appear abandoned. In one farmyard, a wagon sits partially tipped—a wheel half-ripped off. Whoever owns it will be staying put for a while. In another yard, a swing fastened to a branch of a tree, sways back and forth, as though a child had just jumped off and fled to the call of ‘suppertime’.
About a month ago, a kind neighbour who farms down the dirt road from us dropped by. He had clipped a small portion of a newspaper column and interpreted for us. There doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight. Some are calling this phenomenon—the Great Depression. Dust storms breed from nowhere and everywhere. The government must continue its ration on food supplies. Could this be the end of the world? He ends with that proclamation. Now he gives us his take on the article. Discouragement settles in my heart, trying to make a home for itself; however, I am not one to become friendly with the likes of it. Small things turn into big blessings, and a new baby soon to be born fares well with me.
Time has come for me to go home with my baby boy. I keep to myself after handing my ticket to the conductor, simply shaking my head or shrugging my shoulders if addressed. I haven’t learned to speak English yet. The only thing familiar—my baby bundled in my hand knit shawl, a mixture of grays and browns.
Still staring out the window, I can see my reflection. A black shawl folded in a triangle and knotted tightly at my neck covers most of my hair with just the front exposed. Thirty-two years old and white strands are already spicing my curls. The mirror at the hospital exposes wrinkles etched across my forehead and my high cheekbones. When I was young, my mother braided my hair in two braids everyday for school. My sister Vronni—two years older than me—grew her hair down to her knees, requiring several braids to keep her hair tidy.
Memories like these flash on and off in my mind. If only things would’ve worked out between my father-in-law and husband, we would still be living close to our families. I remember Jakob, my husband, saying, “My brother is using my father. My father hangs on to the belief that the eldest son carries on the name and the tradition.” The two brothers could not get along. That is when we made the decision to move to Canada.
I came from a rich family, but my father was a stingy man. When I wanted a new dress, he would tease me, and twist the money in his hands. I told him, “You can’t take the money with you. When you die the Croatian dogs will shit on your grave.” Half of Cacinci were Croatians, and they believed that the dead came out to eat at night. They would place food on the graves for their loved ones. The dogs sniffed out the tantalizing smells, devoured the food and showed their thanks by shitting all over the graves.
When I was twelve, we moved to Cacinci. Vronni had to wait a brief time until she turned fourteen so she could marry Adam Stamfer. Marriages then were prearranged. They moved in with Adam’s parents. Within a few years, Vronni and Adam had a son and a baby daughter.
One day, Vronni went outdoors to feed the pigs. They had a large garden and animals to care for. She left the baby asleep in the cradle. When she returned, Seppi, the older child, had found a crochet hook, and was poking the baby’s head. Vronni rushed with the baby to the doctor, but she died. Vronni thought Seppi was with Grandmother in the garden, and Grandmother assumed Seppi was with Vronni in the house. I take in a deep breath and blow out of my mouth.
I remember the acres of vineyards so beautifully embellishing the countryside. What a contrast to what I see out the window. But the Croatians ruined the good life we lived in Cacinci. Time had come that if you weren’t one of them, you were run off. The bloody Croatians hid in wait for my brother, Andreas, near the train station. They attacked and thrust him on the railway tracks in front of an oncoming train. A German man, who knew and liked Andreas, gathered the dismembered pieces. Andreas’ son, along with the German fellow built a box, dug a hole and buried him. The German man advised the son to leave with the people from Cacinci that were being chased away. The son escaped the murderous mob, fleeing to another country.
A young woman sits down next to me since the last stop. She motions to lift the blanket with a curious smile, but I shake my head, and indicate by pressing my forefinger to my lips that I don’t want him awakened. She must think I’m rude.
Forget, Saskatchewan should be the next stop. I can’t wait to see my two sons and two daughters. Surely, Jakob will bring them along in the wagon to pick me up. I haven’t seen them for days. On second thought, he may leave them at home for precaution. If a dust storm should arise, it would be hard on the children. At least, if they stayed inside the house, they would not choke on dust or suffer with the torment of grit in their eyes.
Finally, the engine jolts with a slam on the brake. A few passengers begin to gather their things. The brakes squeal and protest. We slow down. Soon we come to a halt. Some stand and reach for their suitcases on the rack above them. I have only a canvas bag with me besides my baby.
I rise gingerly—grab my bag. Walter seems heavy, my arms and shoulders—sore and tired from cradling him so tightly. There’s a knock on the window. My husband leaps up with anticipation, informing me he is here. I am so happy to see him. I cry out loud, “Jakob!” I don’t care at this point what people think of me.
Walking slowly to the exit, my knees tremble. I nearly collapse when Jakob seizes the baby. Yes! He left the children home, and I will have to wait another half-hour or so to see them. Jakob kisses me on the cheek with tears rolling down his cheeks. We walk toward the wagon—my head resting on his shoulder—my arm entwined in his. The horses chew on some oats and drink from the water trough. That’s when I notice the inside of the wagon behind the seat. That’s when I see the small box Jakob has built. That’s when the tears burn my cheeks like never before. Our baby had to have surgery on his twisted intestines. He lived through the surgery, but died shortly afterward. We couldn’t afford to buy a coffin. The only way I could bring him home was in my arms.