Saturday, April 26, 2008


The Last Supper on the Finmark Road

Anya looked at her husband as he gave the blessing before the meal, his head bowed almost to the wooden plate. Even with his eyes closed and deep in religious fervor, Fyodor looked drawn with worry, as if the dear God had not showered them with good fortune. She glanced up at the icon on the wall, their one treasure brought from Russia. “Blessed Mother,” she whispered, “You have helped us so far; help us farther.” The painted face with the golden halo smiled back at her. Her husband might be a mass of anxiety, she thought, but she, Anya, was calm as the steppes. She knew the Holy Ones were with them.

Indeed, God’s bounty was sitting on the table before them, the fruits of their summer labors: boiled jacket potatoes, eggs from their healthy flock of chickens and cabbage fried with onions. In pride of place, in the centre, sat a loaf of bread. She had made it from the flour that Fyodor had taken in trade for a rabbit at the near-by Ellis train station. The flour was pure as white snow, wonderful Canadian flour, the visible sign of their success in the new country, where even peasants like themselves could eat white bread. There was no butter because they could not afford a cow yet, but in the spring, after Fyodor finished up his job in Port Arthur, God willing, there would be a fine Canadian cow and a barn too.

Fyodor finished his prayer, crossed himself, and, picking up his knife and carved wooden spoon., smiled at her. She could read his worries as if they were her own. Should he go into Port Arthur when the snow came and take the job Father Constantine had found for him at the dairy? It would mean leaving her alone for the winter. She smiled back. “I’ll be fine,” she said before he could open his mouth to once again suggest selling the chickens and rabbits and bringing all the vegetables into town. “The icon will watch over me and, remember, we have a good neighbour.”
She was referring to the Mister Edvard, a community leader, who had given land for the local cemetery and who had visited twice with his wife Rosa, once bringing them a pail of lard and the second time, a basket of strange purple berries called Saks. Rosa had shown her where Sak bushes grew and she was grateful.

“Someone has to stay and guard the house,” she reminded her husband. Her thoughts momentarily flew to the unfriendly Ukrainians who also lived on the Finmark Road but near the highway. The Ukrainians, newly arrived like themselves, were a big disappointment as neighbours. The huge man with the black beard had run across the yard towards them when they came to pay a first visit. He was shaking his fist and swearing in Ukrainian, a language close to their own. “Your monster, Stalin,” he had shouted, “make such a famine in my country, millions died.”

Fyodor stood his ground and spoke with his calm deep voice. “My friends, we are refugees too. It is true we are Russian but we had to flee because of our religious beliefs. Stalin burned our church and took the priest away. When we tried to make a protest, they sent soldiers. But through the mercy of heaven, my wife and I escaped.”

“Get off my land,” the big Ukrainian shouted in his garbled dialect. “We don’t want to smell Russians shit around here,” and he reached for a big stick. She and Fyodor retreated down the path to the Finmark Road and sadly walked the six miles home.

“Perhaps,” she said as they trudged back in the August heat, “they did not understand our Russian.” Fyodor had just grunted.

She’d so longed for a woman friend to talk with even if they could not understand each other completely. She’d seen the Ukrainian wife standing in the doorway and she’d heard there were children too, so nice. But, in all fairness, the disastrous visit had been the only bad thing that had happened since the wonderful day last winter when Father Constantine had helped them sign the papers in the Port Arthur Land Office and, unbelievably, as soon as Fyodor made his mark, they had became land owners.

“Only a few months alone,” she said to her husband with a reassuring smile but these were her last words in her own house because, at that minute, the heavy wooden door crashed open, sending the holy icon tumbling from the wall. Four men in uniform rushed in, grabbed her husband and, just as she stood screaming, her own arms were pinned and she was dragged forward. Outside, she struggled with all her strength, aiming to run into the forest and hide, but they dragged her relentlessly along the trail to a truck parked at the road. Lying beside her husband in the back, her wrists and ankles tied, her mouth covered with a cloth, she could see in her mind’s eye, again and again, the falling icon, turning slowly in the air, landing on the floor.

Two years later, in September 1941, young Charlie Edwards, who had come out to Ellis Station to visit his aunt and uncle, was enjoying his last hunt of the partridge season, Tomorrow, he would catch the CNR back into Port Arthur and a week later, on his eighteenth birthday, enlist in the Lake Superior Regiment. He knew the first two years of the war had gone badly for the allies and every man in the Empire was needed to come to the aid of the Mother Country.

With his .22 over his shoulder, Charlie followed an overgrown path back from the Finmark Road and to his amazement, saw, deep in the spruces, the slanted sides of a roof sitting on the ground. An old root cellar? No, it was the top of a small cabin that had been dug almost completely into the soil. On the far side, a clearing about twenty feet across stretched into a grove of tiny poplars. The door was an excavated gaping hole and he lay down on the dry spruce boughs at the entrance to peer in. He could see a small wooden table in the middle of the floor, two rough benches on their sides and beyond, some boxes and what seemed to be a pole bed covered with rotten rags. He wiggled inside.

He picked up a short rusty knife lying on the table beside a rounded slab of wood that might have been a plate. He pocketed the knife along with a carved wooden spoon. There was nothing else of interest. He stared at the mess before him. The people must have left in a hurry for he could make out food on the plates, a mouldy mush and a green pile which may have been a loaf of bread. He kicked at the items on the dirt floor, a wooden ladle, some papers, more rags and bits of scrap wood.

That evening, his uncle, who had lived at Ellis Station since he was a boy, was able to clear up the mystery.

“They were Russians,” the uncle explained. “A young couple. They were taken away a few days after the war started. Russia was the enemy then. Stalin had signed a pact with Hitler but he sure learned different when the Huns invaded his country last year. Then the old fox switched to our side. Still, I don’t see those two youngsters as being any sort of menace. Your aunt Rosa and I visited them a couple of times. They were doing OK in that funny dug-out no bigger than a hen house. And the hens lived in there with them and some rabbits too. Still I never understood how they were any danger to anyone.”

“Where’d they go?”

“Who knows? An internment camp somewhere, I suppose. Maybe they were deported back to Russia. No use asking—probably all classified. We’ll have to wait till after the war. On the other hand, with Russia our ally now, they might show up any time”.

Charlie came back to visit his aunt and uncle six months later wearing his new kaki uniform and six weeks after that, he was shipped out to England and then Italy. He never returned to Port Arthur or Ellis Station. He was killed near Florence and buried in the Canadian cemetery at Rimini. Anya and Fyodor did not return either.

The little dug -out house on Finmark Road is still there, but lost in the bush and only the story remains.

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