End of a Dream
Even as he did his evening chores on his small subsistence farm in Midwestern Alberta, the old man lived more in his dreams and memories than in the present. Presently, he was putting some oats in front of the horses as he tied them up in the barn for the night, but he was thinking of himself as a young man back in his village in the Old Country where he was known as Mighty Mike. In those days he could lift two sacks of flour at the mill, one in each hand, place them on his broad shoulders and walk home with them. Now lifting half a sack of oats took effort. He who had been independent all his life had come to admit that he needed help. At other times the thought had filled him with a sense of hopelessness, but today was going to be different. Hope and help could be arriving this evening.
He put his eye to the hole in the wall of the stable where a large knot had fallenout of a plank, and looked over to the hillside for a telling cloud of dust that would herald an approaching vehicle, but there was no dust. The sky was a deep blue and the hillsideshone with the underside of poplar leaves that fluttered in the light breeze. Their sparkle against the backdrop of the dark green of the pines invited his eyes to linger until a not-sogentle nudge on his rear jarred him out of the scene. He turned around. The black horsewas looking at him expectantly, waiting.
"Well, what do you want?" He asked, smiling. He knew very well what the horse wanted, but still he wanted the stallion to respond.
The horse bared its teeth and answered with a toothy whinny, shaking its mane.
Mike gestured towards the oats. The horse looked at the oats and shook his mane again. His velvety lips were vibrating softly, showing only the tips of its yellowed teeth. Then they were looking at each other anew, each one still waiting. Finally the horse stretched his long neck out of the stall and nudged the old man's pocket. Mike laughed. This is what he was waiting for. "Ha so, you want your sugar, ha?"
He reached into the pocket the horse was nuzzling at and brought out two lumps of sugar, offering them to the horse on his outstretched palm. The animal took the sugar from his hand with a delicate touch, ate them with apparent appreciation, then nudged his pocket again.
"That's all you are going to get!" Mike said. But as the horse insisted he turned his pocket inside out to show the animal that there was no more. Finally, the stallion turned away and joined the mare at oats, and Mike walked out of the stable, stepping into the hay barn.
He looked at the hay stacked up half way to the rafters with concern. This would not last the long winter, he knew. Each of the previous years he has been able to do less and less, and now it has come to this: he who had provided for his horses all his life could not bring in enough hay. He would have to buy a lot of expensive feed before the winter was over. Still, he looked at the hay he had with appreciation, and opened his nostrils wide like his stallion would have, to let the smell of hay fill his being.
He fervently hoped life would always go on on his farm. And he hoped never to be separated from his land. He just needed a little help, help that could be on its way now... Had not one of his daughters just written to say that she was bringing the man she was going to marry to the farm to see him?
This daughter, he knew, never shirked from a challenge. He pinned all hisremaining hopes on her. For if he had a daughter who might not marry a city man itwould be this one. She grew up on the farm, and she knew how to work. And she would always feel at home here. With her looking after the house and a young man at his side,they could turn things around here in no time! With a young handy man as his son-in-law they could live together for a while in his house, while they fixed up the second house he bought and had had brought here from a nearby settlement. The young couple could live there after that. . .
He stopped. Like always, thinking about that house jarred him from his dreams.
His wife was still living with him when they picked out that house from the many that had become available when the mine closed down, and most of the people drifted away to the city. They had hoped that the house would attract one of the children to live there and be of support for their old age, and carry on the farm. But now she too was living in the city where all the children were, herself a patient in an extended care hospital. She was too frail ever to return to a life on a farm, Mike knew.
And yet how carefully had they chosen that house! It had been a very attractive house with plenty of room. He was still working on a good foundation for it when he returned from a visit from the hospital after an overnight stay in the city and found it had been vandalized. Some youth had broken into the abandoned house while he was away, had a wild party, and thrashed the house inside and out. To Mike, it was an incomprehensible act. He could never understand it, and he could never come to grips with it.
He found the many empty and broken bottles and the rusty crowbar the vandals must have found along the railway tracks that had been used to smash the doors and, pockmark all the walls with holes. There was not a single gyprock left untouched, room after room; no window was left unbroken, no floor left without gaping holes through which one could look right into the basement. Each of those holes were like a hole in his own heart.
The policemen came and took away the crowbar, said something about the difficulty to prove anything without witnesses, even if fingerprints were to be found.
Later, he himself had seen a gang of youth hanging around outside the highway gas station store, drinking. Mike did not know any of them. He wagged his accusing fingers at them, but they just laughed. He could still hear their taunting catcalls as he walked away.
The police did nothing. No arrests were ever made. But he could not forget his humiliation. He tried to put the house out of his mind. He never looked at it, and he did not even think about it for some time now – until today.
Carefully he bolted the door of the barn and put a padlock on it, then turned tolook at his land. In spite of everything he loved his land fiercely. Just looking at his land filled him with a sense of satisfaction nothing else came close to. It made all his sacrifices, all those years of working in the coal mine, even his contracting silicosis seem all worth while. He only needed someone to pass the farm on to when he died.
Mike walked across the deep furrow that now separated his house from the barn which the river had cut in preparation of its future bed. One of his sons had drowned in a river, and he never went to the river after that. Yet the river had been his friend long before it had become his enemy, and he had many pleasant memories associated with the water as well. A river, he knew, could help bring life to the land. The small river was gentle and peaceful most of the time. However in the spring it was swelled with the snow melt in the mountains and raged with terrible power. The pilings he had built to contain it were washed away, and last year's flood took one of the barns.
His neighbor's cottage across the river has been already destroyed. Its remains sat askew atop a bed of gravel and weeds, its ribs bleached white as bones. It was a daily reminder of what might happen to his own. He usually averted the sight, but today he looked at it with defiance. With help he could fortify the bank, and he could save his land from being washed away. He would not let his house to come to a fate like that!
He remembered that in his youth he had seen the men of his village working together repairing the dikes, guarding their land. They saved that land from the river for centuries. It could be done. He just needed help. That was all. He just needed a little help. Help that he hoped would now come at last.
He walked into the house and made his dinner. It was dusk when he sat down to eat it. Looking out the window he saw a doe and its young raiding his garden. He lingered a little, watching them, for he was very fond of all animals. He never hunted. Then he got up and went outside, waving his arms in the air, shouting at the deer. The doe looked at him with liquid eyes and resumed her grazing.
Mike went back to the house and came out with a rifle. The deer did not move. It took repeated shots into the air before the doe and its young ambled out of the garden and reached the edge of the forest. Even there the doe turned and looked back at the old man before she disappeared into the forest. There was no mistaking of her disgust and annoyance.
Mike walked back into the house and carefully bolted the door behind him. He was smiling. This was a nightly ritual he enjoyed. He pulled out a drawer filled with odds and ends, and searched until he found an eyedropper. It had been well used. Its glass was cloudy with a dirty rubber end, but it worked. He was trying to melt the wax in his ears, because he wanted to be able to hear the dog bark at night. So now he drew some warm water from an old pot on the stove and dropped a few drops into each of his ears, then wiped them with the Kleenex tissue he found lying crumpled on the table. He dropped the Kleenex, now smooth and wet, on top of the coal in the coal bin.
Next, he reloaded the rifle, and leaned it against the wall by his bed in the bedroom. Then he picked up the old schoolbook he had acquired when the school closed down. His place in the book was marked by the letter his daughter wrote, announcing her coming with her fiancee. He rechecked the time and the date. The date was today's, but the time was well past. He didn't hold out much hope of them coming today and felt tempted to drink a glass of wine, but refrained, just in case. He did not want to make a bad impression. He also thought of tidying up the place a bit, but it was too dark and too late to start. Still, he delayed going to bed.
He did not hear the dog bark, but he did hear the rap on the door. Taking the rifle in his hand he stood behind the door and yelled, "Who is it?!"
Only when he recognized his daughter's voice did he open the door.
The young man with his daughter was a city boy, he could tell at a glance. He had a tie on and was wearing a tweed jacket with light colored pants. On his feet were a pair of soft leather shoes. Only a city boy would wear something like that to visit a farm. Seeing the puzzled look he gave the rifle in his hand, Mike grinned and said: "I have been doing my exercises, see?"
And, holding the rifle by the end of its barrel he lifted it up at the end of his outstretched arm and held it horizontally for almost a minute.
"Can you do that?"
The young man could not, but he tried, with wrist bent and arm quaking. No, this one would not be of much use on a farm. But Mike appreciated that he tried. He was a city boy, but he was all right. Later, from his daughter, he learned that he was an educated man, a school teacher. Well, at least his daughter will be all right.
Mike respected learning. If his daughter was going to marry a city boy, he felt proud she will marry an educated man. But Mike himself was too old now for learning.
He had a good mind when he was young and did his best to learn when he was at school, but he only finished the first six grades himself. Then he hired out as a boy and worked on the land. He knew he could never hope to own land in the old country, that was why he emigrated. He was grateful to Canada for his land, and proud of the country for all the land it possessed. But he did not talk of the land during the visit and he did not take the young man to the vandalized house even when he asked about it.
What would have been the point? At least she will do well by him, he kept telling himself, and he by her. She will look after him all right, and look after him well. How quickly she managed to tidy up the place, and what good meal she cooked. No, his daughter could look after anything, she knew how to work. But she too had changed, he noted, she too became like city folk, always in a hurry.
And sure enough, like all the children who have come to visit, his visitors, too, seemed to be in a rush to get back to the city. Before he knew it, this visit was over as well. Sadly, he watched them go. Even when their car crested the hill and was out of sight, he still lingered and waved until the last whiff of the dust they left behind settled and the air was clear again.
The sun shone brightly as he walked back to the house. He watched as the horses, now loose in the meadow, rolled themselves in the deep grass in unison, as if responding to a signal. They were rejoicing in life, he saw. The meadow larks which seemed to have been silent during the visit also resumed their chirping and singing. He stopped and watched them for a while.
Mike went into the house and poured himself a glass of wine. Wine had become his solace since he felt his land slip away. In his old country life revolved around the land for centuries. Land was valued, cherished, revered. It was a source of wealth, a source of life itself He pondered. Here was this great country with all the land, and nobody cared about the land. And without help he could not save his land. It was incomprehensible. It was sheer madness. He raised six children, three of them strong, healthy boys. Yet there was no one to carry on his work. Well, at least he dreamed, and he tried. He emptied his glass. On other days he would have been finding some chore to do, but now he lingered a while. Soon his memories began to flow before him, uninterrupted and clear like the river.
When dusk came the doe appeared again with its young. He did not chase them away. Instead, he walked over to the river, and for the first time in many years, sat down on its bank. The eagle in the sky that had been circling earlier, was now gone. His deep sigh mingled with the cooling air and, unbeknown to him, his tears fell into the river.