A Ukrainian family claims their slice of prairie under the Canadian Homesteading Act.
Written for "Project Write World" }
ITEM TYPE: Short Story
WORDS: 2636 words
PROMPT: March 2018 - Photo of woman holding baby and camper in background.
*** Present Day ***
Kate slammed the dirty pot into the little sink of the camper and tossed the tea towel onto the counter. When it slid to the floor, she kicked it aside with a huff of frustration.
“You said you’d quit that job. You promised.”
“I will. I just need more time.”
“That’s what you said last year.” Kate slammed the door and stomped across the muddy driveway in her bare feet. Jarod followed with his duffle bag over his shoulder and little Jimmy on his heels.
“You want this house don’t you?”
“You know I do. It’s our dream.” Her hands curled into fists at her side. “I’m just so... so frustrated living in this little trailer with two kids. You get to leave. I have to deal with everything every day. I don’t know how much more I can take cramped up in this little space.”
“I’m sorry, Honey. But we have a plan. No mortgage, remember? Soon we’ll be farming this land. The house will be weather tight before you know it. I’ll only be gone six weeks. It’ll fly by.”
“I dunno ‘bout that,” she sighed. “I’m just anxious to be in a proper house again.”
“Me too. I love you.”
“I know. Love you too.”
Jarod kissed her and the kids and jumped into his truck, waving out the window. She glared after the pickup truck as it headed west to Alberta. Jarod was gone again, leaving her with the two kids. How would she cope while he went off to his job in the oil patch yet again. Usually he only did two- or three-week stints. Her shoulders slumped as she switched the baby to the other hip.
Frustration made her petty and she hated that. He was right. With luck they’d be in their house by spring. A cozy home on the Saskatchewan prairie. As bleak as it was sometimes with the wicked winter storms and the searing summer heat, she loved this place. When her dad died a few years ago, he’d left the land to her, Katerina as Grandma Sofia insisted on calling her. The little log house in which three generations had raised their children had seen better days, so she and Jarod decided to build a new modern home. In a few years, they would farm this land just as her parents, her grandparents, and her great grandparents had. The original 160 acres deeded to Great Grandma Olga and Great Grandpa Fedir through the homesteading act was precious property. Throughout the decades the family had expanded the farm to a full section of land—640 acres.
Before moving home to Saskatchewan with Jarod, Kate spent six years in Calgary earning her degree in agriculture and working at the Canadian Wheat Board. Grandma Sofia often talked about the early years here when her family came from the Ukraine with not much more than the clothes on their back and a few sentimental treasures. Kate thought what she was going through now was rough. She could never imagine living like Grandma had.
*** 1887 ***
Sofia moved her fussing baby brother Oleksander, tiny box cradle and all, to the other side of the room so she could sweep. He cried even louder, as if this side of the room was a strange land he’d be lost in.
Svitlana, her younger sister, played in the corner chattering to her little straw doll.
“Please move.” Sofia ordered.
“No. I’m playing. Mama!”
Mama stood over her youngest daughter with her hands on her hips, her hair sticking out in all directions from the scarf tied tightly around her head. “Svitlana, do as your sister says. She needs to clean up in here. Why don’t you take the scraps out to the pigs.”
“No. Don’t want to.” Svitlana’s lower lip poked out.
“Svitlana. Do as you’re told. We’re all busy and you need to help, and get out of your sister’s way.”
Svitlana tossed her doll into the corner and stomped off to find the bucket of slops. “Stupid pigs,” she muttered.
Sofia laughed, “You won’t think they’re so stupid when you’re filling your belly this winter, will you?”
Svitlana squinted her eyes at Sofia and slammed the door behind her.
"Mama, I hate this place.”
Mama cuddled the baby on her lap trying to still his wailing. “Shhh, my little one. What did you say, Sofia?”
Sofia, took a deep breath and tried again. Oh, to have a moment of silence.
“I said, I hate this place. I'm so tired of cleaning mud and dirt. When are we getting our real house?”
"I know. Soon, my darling Sofia. Soon." Mamma sighed as she crooned a lullaby.
Where the cottage is warm,
Where the tot is tiny,
There we will go,
And rock the child to sleep.
Neither of them were enthralled with their little house, with its cramped quarters, dirt floors, and dirt walls. Every time it rained, the water seeped through the straw-thatched roof and washed more mud onto the floors. The younger children were forever dirty, and doing laundry was a difficult chore. They constantly reminded themselves that it was only temporary.
"We must be thankful that we have a roof over our heads. Think of the Broeskys who still don't have their house built. Maybe you could go there later and see if there’s anything you can do to help. You can take some of the stew and bread that I made yesterday. It will be one less thing for Mrs. Broesky to worry about."
"Yes, Mama," muttered Sofia, as she swept more dirt through the door with the raggedy straw broom that had to be replaced every few weeks. “We need a new broom Mama.”
“I know. I’m going to make another one soon.”
“When is Papa planning to get the logs for our new home?”
“Maybe next spring. We have to earn money to pay for them first. If we are lucky, our crops this year will good.”
Again, a great sigh from Sofia. “Another winter in this mud house.”
“Yes, my darling. I’m afraid so.” Mama managed a wistful smile as she put Oleksander back in his box crib and stacked the clean dishes on the plank shelf.
Later, as the sun beat down, Sofia watched Papa turn over soil with his horse and single-furrow plow. Mr. Broesky followed behind cutting rectangles from the sod and piling them on his wagon. At the house, the women piled them to form walls. Mr. Davydenko made doors from the small load of lumber they brought from the east.
Sofia overheard him grumbling as he nailed on a cross piece. “If it hadn’t been for the free land, we’d have stayed in the east.”
“Didn’t we pay for it?”
“Yes. Ten dollars, but you might as well say free. We could never do that in the old country.”
“Weren’t they giving away land in the east?”
“No. Only here on the prairies. Now I know why. No one in their right mind wants to live in this heat. We bake in the summer and freeze our toes off in the winter.”
“You could leave.” Sofia laughed.
“We could, but where would we go? We’ll make something of this place if it kills us.” Mr. Davydenko paused his work and gave her a crooked smile. “At least the soil is good here. Where else could you get 160 acres of fine farmland for practically nothing?”
“How do you plan to make your roof?” Sofia was always curious about that part, perhaps because of the mud or loose dirt that she moaned about every morning.
“Same as Fedir, your Papa. I’m going down to the... what do they call it here... coulee.... I’m going in a few days to the coulee and cut some poplar.”
Early one morning in late April, Sofia laid in her bed listening to Mama and Papa talking in hushed tones at the table.
“I have to go now. We must build our permanent house, or we risk losing our land. We had three years and our deadline is in the spring. We can’t wait another winter.”
“But we could still get bad weather. You know by now what it’s like here on the prairie. What would I do if I lost you?”
“You won’t. I’ll be fine. Mykyta is coming with me.”
Mykyta, their neighbor, agreed to fetch logs this year, if Papa went with him next year.
“Fedir?” Mama paused. “I’m having another baby in the winter. You better come back to me.”
“Ach, my sweet dove, what good news! Why didn’t you tell me before?”
A momentary silence filled the air.
“Are you sure it’s good news, Fedir?” Mama asked. Sofia caught the worry in her voice. “That will be six mouths to feed.”
Ever the optimist, Papa nearly shouted, “Oh, my heart. We will be fine. We will have our new house and we will own our land. What more could we ask God for? This country is good to us.”
Three days later, Papa kissed everyone good-bye, and the men ensured them they’d be back in about four weeks. He and Mykyta Shwetz hitched their horses up to their wagons and headed north. Sofia and Mama were left to plow and plant the fields. A few neighbors came by offering a couple days help, but they couldn’t stay longer. They had their own crops to plant.
By week five, Sofia tried hard to not let Mama see her uneasiness. She didn’t want Mama getting upset and something happening to the baby. Papa and Mykyta should have been home by now. Something had happened. She felt it in her bones. The only thing she could do was keep busy, all the while keeping an eye the northern horizon for Papa to come riding home with a great load of logs. She and Mama talked about how they’d fix the house up inside. Perhaps they’d take a trip to town this fall to by some fabric for curtains. Mama wanted a rocking chair. She had one in the old country that she’d used when Sofia was a baby. If only she’d been able to bring it to Canada.
Six weeks passed. Then seven.
As twilight crept across the fields, Mama lit candles and the lantern hanging in the window. A knock came at the door.
“Mykyta!” Mama called as she swung the door open.
“Papa!” Svitlana screeched running for the door. “Where’s Papa?” Oleksander let out a yelp as if he too needed to know what was going on.
The look on Mykyta’s face stopped Mama and Sofia in their tracks.
“Mrs. Kozel. I’m afraid I have bad news. Please, may I come in.”
Without a word Mama pulled out a chair for Mr. Shwetz before sinking into a chair across the table from him. Her hands trembled as she and Sofia expected the worst. Mama gestured to Sofia to take the children to the other room. Sofia took the younger children into the sleeping area shared by all the children and set off from the rest of the house only by a sheet of canvas. She tucked them all into bed and returned to the table just in time to hear Mr. Shwetz say, “I’m so sorry.”
“Will he be all right?” Mama asked.
“I believe he will. He crushed leg pretty bad when the wagon slid into the river. All the logs fell into river.”
Tears slid down Mama’s face. “We’ll never have our house now. We spent all our savings on those logs. ”
“Oh, Olga, you will. We make sure of it. Somehow, we will all have our houses.”
“How?” Sofia asked. “We have no logs. Papa is hurt. If we don’t have it done by next spring, we’ll lose our land.”
At least Papa was alive. Sofia feared the worst and by the relief on Mama’s face, she did too.
“Where is Papa? Why isn’t he with you?”
Mykyta continued in his thick old-country patois. “I rode on ahead. Fedir did not want you to worry. He asked me to ride home to let you know everything all right. He will be here maybe in week. We got him to little hospital in Regina. He had terrible infection in injured leg and very bad fever. Doctor reset leg and made him stay until he satisfied it heal properly. He want to be sure nothing happen on journey home.”
“And you stayed with him until he was better?”
Mama rested her hand on his. “Oh, Mykyta. You are a good friend. You should go see your wife now. I’m sure she’s worried sick too. Thank you so much for coming.”
Eleven days later, still with no sign of Papa, Sofia and Mama stayed busy repairing the fence behind their sod house, gathering eggs, and pulling weeds in the garden. After they stowed the tools away, Mama stood with Oleksander, propped on her hip and gazed off to the northern horizon. A tear slid down her face and she swiped it away with her free hand.
Sofia took her arm. “Mama, come in side. You’re exhausted. You need to rest.”
“Yes. I am tired.” She turned to follow Sofia, but halted when she caught movement from the corner of her eye.
“Sofia, look! Your Papa. It has to be!” Sofia ran toward the silhouette. Mama follow slowly with her wiggling bundle.
Papa’s deep-throated voice echoed across the prairie grasses. “Hallo!”
“Mama. It is Papa!” Sofia took off at a run, her skirts billowing around her legs.
He rode on front of a wagon with his leg a little off to one side and splinted to hold it straight. A second wagon appeared over the crest of the hill. A larger wagon hauled by a pair of oxen and loaded high with logs. Then a third appeared, and a fourth, and a fifth.
Sofia stopped in her tracks and waited for Mama.
“Mama. What is this? What’s going on?”
Papa, with his infectious grin and usual laughing voice, said, “I told you things would work out, didn’t I?”
Mama simply stood speechless, now with tears of joy streaming down her cheeks, so Sofia asked the burning question, “Where did all the logs come from?”
“Ah, it is an unbelievable story. After Mykyta left, some men in the hospital heard our story. Before I knew it, they had arranged for all these logs to come here. More are coming soon.”
“But how will we pay for them?”
“We don’t need money for them, but I will go to Regina and work in the saw mill this winter to pay for them. We are neighbors helping neighbors. I love this country!” Papa threw his hands up in the air with a bellowing laugh and everyone joined him.
*** Present Day ***
Kate cleaned the dishes, including the dirty pot she’d thrown into the sink earlier. She should be thankful. Grandma Olga’s sod house and Grandma Sofia’s log house weren’t much bigger than this camper and they’d both raised their families in it. Jarod was doing everything he could to ensure their family had a comfortable life without major bills. The sacrifices they were both making would be worth it. They would invest in the farm and one day their children would not have to struggle.
After supper, she and the kids strolled around the wood skeleton of their new house and talked of the future.
“Where is my bedroom gonna be?” Jimmy asked.
“In this corner, right here. And, Sofia, your room will be right here beside your brother’s.”
Sofia kicked her chubby legs and giggled in response.
Kate took little Jimmy’s hand and gazed toward the northern horizon imagining those oxen and horses trudging over the hill with their cherished logs and dreams of their future.
The Dominion Lands Act (also known as the Homesteading Act):