About the Author

Rudy Wiebe

Rudy Wiebe was born near Fairholme, Saskatchewan in 1934. From the University of Alberta, he received a B.A. 1956 and a M.A. in Creative Writing in 1960. He studied under a Rotary International Fellowship at the University of Tuebingen in West Germany, and in 1962 he received a Bachelor of Theology degree from the Mennonite Brethren Bible College. In 1962ᆧ63 he was editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald, a position which he resigned because of the controversy over his first novel,Peace Shall Destroy Many. From 1967 to 1992 he was Professor of Creative Writing and English at the University of Alberta. Wiebe has published twenty-five books, including nine novels and the non-fiction best-sellerStolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman, co-authored with Yvonne Johnson. He was awarded the Governor General’s Award for fiction forThe Temptations Of Big Bear in 1973, and again in 1994 forA Discovery Of Strangers. He is also the winner of the Lorne Pierce Gold Metal of the Royal Society of Canada for his contribution to Canadian literature ླ87). Wiebe has served as chairman of both the Writer’s Guild of Alberta and the Writers’ Union of Canada. He now lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

Books by this Author
A Discovery Of Strangers

Chapter 1
The Animals in This Country

The land is so long, and the people travelling in it so few, the curious animals barely notice them from one lifetime to the next. The human beings whose name is Tetsot’ine live here with great care, their feet travelling year after year those paths where the animals can easily avoid them if they want to, or follow, or circle back ahead to watch them with little danger. Therefore, when the first one or two Whites appeared in this country, an animal would have had to search for four lifetimes to find them being paddled about, or walking, or bent and staggering, somewhere on the inexorable land.

About that time some of the animals did begin to hear strange noises, bits of shriek and hammer above the wavering roar of rapids or the steady flagellation of wind. These were strangers, so different, so blatantly loud the caribou themselves could not help hearing them long before they needed to be smelled, and some animals drifted around to see what made the trees in one place scream and smash that way, the rocks clang. They noticed creatures that looked like humans standing motionless here and there, abruptly pointing and shrieking, pounding! pounding! scuttling about all day and sometimes at night as well, when tendrils of bush along the river might spring up suddenly into terrifying flame. And the animals understood then that such brutal hiss and clangour must bring on a winter even colder than usual.

And shortly after, when wind hammered the snow hard as folded rock under the thickest trees, and growing ice choked the rapids into silence, they knew that of course they had been right. Then an erratic cracking open, or a tree splitting, could be heard so far it seemed they were alert to every sound happening anywhere in the world, and the racket these strange human beings made in one place mattered nothing at all. The animals simply moved away into their necessary silence, travelling where they pleased, as they always had inside that clenched fist of the long darkness, their powerful feathered, furred bodies as light as flecks of ice sifting over snow, as light and quick as breathing.

But throughout the dark weight of midwinter, with moss and lichens always harder to smell and paw from under the crusted snow, all the caribou knew that the sun would certainly return again. And eventually it did; its rim grew slowly day by day up out of darkness into red brilliance, until finally the cows and calves recognized themselves together as they always were, in the whole giant ball of it shimmering through ice fog, round and complete again on the distant edge of the sky. The cows lay in their hollows of snow on a drifted lake, their calves from the previous spring sheltered against their backs out of the wind. Their blunt, furry noses lifted from the angles of their folded legs, their nostrils opened to the burning air: it was sharp as ice, gentle with all the smells they recognized, arctic and safe. Lying safe, alert in this instant of rest, they were reassured that when that blazing sun stands three times its height over the glazed levels of this lake, they will feel the restlessness of their young grow heavier within them. And then they will move again into their continual travel.

Gradually at first, then more steadily, like driftwood discovering a momentary current, hesitating into daily eddies of moss or crusted erratics but leaning more certainly down into motion along this contorted river, or this lakeshore; easily avoiding the noisy, devastated esker between Roundrock and Winter lakes and their connecting tributary streams. Seeking steadily north. From every direction more and more of them will drift together, thousands and tens of thousands drawn together by the lengthening light into the worn paths of their necessary journey, an immense dark river of life flowing north to the ocean, to the calving grounds where they know themselves to have been born.

The caribou cow with three tines on each of her antlers lay curled, bedded and at momentary rest with her calf in the lee of her body. She had once been a woman; in fact, she has already been born a woman twice. But she has never liked that very much, and each time she is born that way she lives human only until her dreams are strong enough to call her innumerable caribou family, and they come for her. One morning people will awaken, and their child is gone. They search everywhere to find her, and finally notice the two pointed tracks that come to their lodge in the hard travelling snow, and the three tracks that leave. Then the Tetsot’ine – Those Who Know Something a Little – understand what has happened.

“We have lost another good child to the caribou,” they begin to wail. “She will never play and make a fire with us, or dance, or sew clothes and bear strong children, or comfort us when we are hungry and sick. No-o-o-o, oh no, no. We will never see that good child again.”

And they will, of course, be right. If the three-tined cow with her calf alive beside her had had a name, it would have been “Elyáske. All the animals knew this, but they didn’t think about that.

The silver wolf who lived with the caribou had never been anything but a wolf, and he would have defied any animal, and that included the seven members of his pack, to know his name. However, sometimes when the strands of their twilight howl strayed alone and united again over the long evening hills, or his voice deepened into that longer warning other males could only hear and avoid, the silver wolf remembered himself as Na?ácho roaming alone, a presence of untouchable enigma between the eskers and the ocean, an apparition so gigantic that people are like mosquitoes to him, trifles to swat and eat whatever tasty parts he deigns to tear out of them. But Na?ácho lives best in memory; he cannot see very well, nor hear, and he hunts alone mostly by smell, so the silver wolf liked being what he is now better, though he was only a little longer than a human sleeping, or possibly collapsed in the snow. He liked the skill and nerve of having to be precisely careful. He could run so swiftly that the opening moss was far too slow to swallow him, he could see an eyelid flicker and hear a caribou calf’s heart beat steady and unaware in the shelter of its mother, the folds of rocks now hid him silent as breath. And he could still smell anything he sniffed after, drawing winter air like bloody slivers into his deliberating nose. Above all, he liked the female wolf who hunted beside him.

It was that female, white as a numinous drift, who turned left to lie in wait when the silver male led their hunting pack out of the brush above the falls and onto Lastfire Lake. She had played with him below the falls all afternoon, stretching languidly near him, urinating to give him something to sniff and claw over with snow, stiff-legged, and bumping into him and dancing away and bumping until they licked each other’s laughing faces, rolling over and under each other, their teeth gleaming like icicles. All afternoon the other six wolves lay easily about on the snow and watched them play, especially the heavy brown male who occasionally seemed to be a little too close, and the silver wolf would whirl on him, forcing him to creep back, crouch and fawn, even to roll over on his back with paws helpless in the air, pleading open-mouthed, throat vulnerable, like any puppy. When the white wolf finally permitted the silver male to mount her, the brown wolf sank down with his long, sharp head along his paws, watching them intensely.

And for a time the two alpha wolves were joined together, were one great doubled animal whose every hair bristled red in the level blazing light; whose twin heads pointed in opposite directions, aimed still and alert towards whatever might materialize or threaten them from anywhere within the completed circle of the world.

In the sinking light the caribou cow uncovered their afternoon food along a tilted esker, between erratics and the last dwarves of the treeline. Her yearling calf crowded down into the craters she dug, so tightly against her that sometimes he tore away from her teeth and lips the crusted lichen she unerringly smelled under the snow. As he had done all winter, his body filling out powerfully into the length of his legs, into his muscled endurance. He was a thick, solid warmth now, holding tight against her, and sometimes he thrust his head up between her hind legs, nosing for the comfort of her teats, but she bumped him away. The sunlight against the hillside was threaded occasionally with a whiff of warmth, and as the light burned lower behind the southern hills they slipped into the communal drift of cows and calves all about them, down the deep trails in snow onto the ice of Lastfire Lake. They felt the thick ice boom and crack, splitting in black branches away before them as the air grew colder. The undulating limit of horizon all around them, the hump and hollow of island and hill and lake and the long eskers, and the southern sky burning from crimson to thick red down into the slow, sheltering twilight.

They heard the wolves then begin to call and answer in their evening howl – there where the water slipped from under the ice, and smashed down into the steaming falls that thickened the willows and birch and spruce and shattered rocks and stones with perpetual ice. The wolves were always with them, around them everywhere like air, wherever they folded their legs and eased themselves into an instant of rest; that wolfsong had haunted them since they’d slept curled in their mothers’ bellies, and when they jolted into air, and awoke, it lay weeping over them and remained still their eternal ruminating lullaby.

The cow had bedded at the edge of the herd which spread through its labyrinthine tracks upon the lake. Her square and triangular teeth ground the swallowed lichen rhythmically into cud as she waited. The day was closing, but it was not complete, not yet. She had only to wait while those interlacing howls sang, shivered through her and faded against the dying light, and rose again. She understood their every shift and whisper, the high yowls of the younger wolves, the deeper call of those huge mouths lifted open somewhere below the horizon, closing and opening upwards into a sky of blazing teeth. She lay replete, her mouth and stomach gurgling, while the heat of her blood beat as one with the unborn calf she carried soft and safely hidden, beat to the edges of her body, to the tips of her hoofs, in the cold that cradled her. She watched the bright bowl of sky tighten over her, the lethal edge of its darkness seeping upwards. Her thick tongue, powerful and sweet, licked into one opened nostril and then the other. There was still only the smell of themselves, strong as a vision of the immense renewed herd they will soon be, spread like grey moss over tundra in the constant light of coming summer. She waited.

And saw movement flicker where the edge of mist slid into the rumble of water. Instantly she stopped chewing, lunged to her feet, staring hard to be certain, for the air in her flared nostrils remained clean and without warning. Her yearling and the others lying nearby scrambled up at her motion, and so they all together recognized the silent wolves at the same moment: seven of them fanning out, coming on, the huge silver male they knew so well at the centre, very nearly invisible between the grey hills and the lake just before the rising of the moon.

The cows now standing with their yearling calves watched, heads poised and alert, all knowing the exact distance they would need. A few urinated nervously, some cocked one hind leg to the side, the position of alarm, and a ripple of others rising swiftly flowed around the curve in which they lay bedded. Breath snored here and there, the cold, rigid air, still treacherously clean, so confident in all their powerful chests. But the seven wolves were coming on faster now, the widening fan of them loping over the hard drifts, and then in one sudden simultaneous motion, they charged.

Instantly the caribou along the edge nearest the charge exploded into flying snow. And their flight spread like a quick river bursting thick and strong into the herd, and there was really no more danger than the continual community of apprehension that was their entire life; they knew they could outrun any wolf, the tight, hot closeness of their boned bodies beginning to stretch every intricacy of muscle into familiar speed, all their perfect hoofs reaching, gripping and hurling their bodies away over snow or swept ice, barely touching in their immense communal vision of safety for ever awaiting them over the deepest waters of lakes, always there at the spooned tips of their united, infallible hoofs.

In that burst of dark animals like land flooding over the frozen lake, the silver wolf ran closest to the three-tined cow. Her calf was well ahead of her, running as strongly as she, and they were running as they had so often run all their lives, it was their only and continuing life and there was no particular danger for one or for the other. Until, from the sidelong treachery of a drift, the white wolf lying there in wait, charged them.

For that moment of angle she was faster than any caribou, even as they all whirled aside as if the lake had opened beneath them and ripped wide their flowing forest of bodies, and still it would seem they remained that one essential lunge beyond danger. The calf turned a trifle slowly, turned a hesitation too wide, and in that beat of burst apprehension the cow’s concentration staggered and the silver wolf was directly behind her, her powerful hind leg stretched far back in the power-thrust of her bend towards the open lake, and he lunged for that tendon and the granite edge of her great shovel-hoof flashed up against his counter-rhythm, touched him, just barely touched him like the flicker of lightning from a storm already past, and he missed the one grip he needed all his life, the one grip he had never missed before, and his lower jaw cracked.

The small rift between calf and herd was all that mattered to the white wolf. She shifted her charge slightly, straight across the curve of the calf strained now beyond breathing for the fleeing herd, and on that line for one instant only she ran alongside him, stride upon stride, her jaws companionably gaping wide with his, and in that last second of speed they snapped into his nose, a flurry of wolf and caribou skidding, smashing over in the snow. Desperately the calf lunged to his feet, his nose-blood bursting over the wolf as he heaved her here, there, body spastic with terror, heaved her, heaved! but her teeth were clamped immovably, and then the brown male arrived and leaped up. With one gigantic bite to the base of the skull, he crushed the calf’s neck.

Swiftly the other wolves arrived and circled the kill, their tongues lolling between the daggers of their teeth, panting clouds into air dripping silver under the livid moon. The caribou ran on, then gradually they slowed to a walk, and finally panted into great scraggly islands on the deepest northern reach of the lake. They were very tired now. It seemed the length and depth of the lake they had run was multiplied into their exhausted fear, here where moonlight was beginning to lift the great hump of Dogrib Rock up over the last edge of trees, the solitary erratics waiting along the skyline like relentless totems to guide them in their travel north into the open tundra, fifty or sixty or seventy running days north, into the constant light of their calving grounds, travelling, travelling....

The white wolf tore the calf’s throat open, and with her eyes washed by spraying blood dug in, through, to the sweet tongue. The silver male charged up, growling, and as always the others fell back before him; he sprang to the calf’s belly and the six wolves, circling, waited for him to rip it open and devour the liver as was his right. But he merely growled again, deeper. And then, when they looked at him in mild surprise, they noticed a split of red seeping along his long jaw. Though he had not yet touched the bloody head, his mouth was already full of blood.

The three-tined cow did not search for the calf for which she had once, necessarily, submitted to a conjunction with a momentary bull, and then borne and birthed and nurtured and guarded perpetually for ten months; which had lain so long in the lee of her body and so often run with her in the desperate, totally terrified strength of the hunted. For those ten months it had reached into the deepest call of her every bone, blood, muscle; now she knew that if it was not beside her soon, it never would be again.

She eased herself down, front and back, into her hollow of welcome snow. With each moment she knew her name, if she had one, was becoming Dámbé “Elchánile; but when her travel in her present direction ended it might very well be “Elyáske again. At least for a time. And if she and her newborn calf, then, survive the coming intermittent blizzards, and mosquitoes, and hordes of botflies, and swift river crossings, and wide summer lakes and storms, and the invidious treachery of a stone splitting a running hoof – as she has for this moment survived the wolves again – she knows one of them may once again be reborn a child, and in that less fleeting incarnation gradually grow once more into this dream of being what she is now, resting, sleeping the profound safety, as deep as it is fleeting, of all continually hunted animals. Alive on the sheltering ice.

The silver wolf may live into and perhaps even through the perpetual light of summer; and when tundra light again shortens towards winter darkness he may well discover the helpless trail of the few Whites he has ignored until now. It may be he will follow them, and find them where they collapse one after the other, and gradually creep close; may gouge and gnaw and tear from each whatever he can before their corpses harden into impossiblity for the rotting lower half of his jaw, which the brown male did not rip away when he supplanted him.

A tattered rack of once-great bones, the silver wolf will recognize his death in that straggle of frozen meat briefly marking the tundra, emaciated meat of no interest to his powerful offspring. For they will be travelling somewhere with caribou, nowhere near him then, and he will not be thinking of them. Nor will the other animals who follow and feed quite fearlessly about him: the white and silver and red arctic foxes, or migrating gulls, or mice, or golden eagles, or lemmings or ground squirrels, or even the grizzly and vicious wolverine whom he must avoid by crawling away as he can. Or the great ravens, flying the stark black message of their perfect bodies over the unrelenting land.

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Of This Earth

Of This Earth

A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest
also available: Paperback
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Peace Shall Destroy Many


The yellow planes passed overhead swiftly and in thunder. Thom Wiens had heard their growing roar above the scrape of the plow on stones, but the trees hedged them from his sight. Then suddenly, as he twisted on the halted plow to look back, they were over the poplars, flying low and fast. The sense of the horses’ sweated trembling was in his rein-clenched hands as he stared the yellow planes out of sight to the north.

Fly, you heathen, he was thinking. Fly low, practise your dips and turns to terrify playing children and grandmothers gaunt in their rocking chairs. Practise your hawk-swoops, so you can gun down some equally godless German or bury a cowering family under the rubble of their home. To get paid for killing. To be trained to kill more efficiently. If you shoot down five Germans you get a medal. If you kill twenty at once, you get a Victoria Cross and the King himself shakes your hand. What will you do when all the Germans have been killed and the only work you know is shooting men? Acclaimed murderers everywhere!

They were gone, flying in a tight triangle like ducks going north for nesting. Thom slid to the earth and worked his short crow-bar under the stone which had staggered the plow just before the planes appeared. Loosened, it came easily and he walked across the plowing, holding the heavy stone against his stomach. The heap of rocks along the fence ground together as he dropped it. With the edge of his hand he knocked at the dust on the white-worn front of his overalls.

Before him the fence stretched tight over the humped land. He could see a third of a mile of it bordering the open field, every post belly-deep in stones. The planes passed so quickly and, standing there with his hand raised for a last brush, Thom suddenly experienced, like a water-bucket emptied over him, the weeks and months spent gathering rocks from the field and piling them, one by one, along the fence until only enough post showed for a top wire. To grow something took a long time, and the machines for it were slow. There were no machines to pick rocks. But the machines for death were wind-swift. For a moment he felt he had discovered a great truth, veiled until now: the long growing of life and the quick irrevocableness of death.

The heaped rocks recalled him, and he turned to stride rapidly towards the plow. To just stand, thinking! He glanced about, happy for the rugged world that had hidden his dreaming. Pulling his feet up hard with each step, he sensed within himself the strength of his forefathers who had plowed and subdued the earth before him. He, like them, was working out God’s promise that man would eat his bread in the sweat of his face, not pushing a button to watch a divine creation blaze to earth.

As the four horses moved under his urging, he settled his broad limbs to the jolting ride. He cringed then as, with a flare of conscience, he recalled Brother Goertzen’s clipped German phrases: “We are to follow Christ’s steps, but we do not have pride. By God’s Grace we understand what others do not. As we cannot imagine Him lifting a hand to defend himself physically, so we, His followers, conquer only by spiritual love and not by physical force. Always only love: for those who love us, for those indifferent to us, for those who hate us, for those who would kill us, which is the same thing; all are included when He says, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another even as I have loved you.’”

Thom could not doubt such sermons. He had grown up hearing these statements and if someone had asked him when he had first known that Christ bade His disciples love their enemies, he could no more have answered than if he had been asked to consciously recollect his first breath. All week the stentorian voice had ruled the hushed church: “Have you not heard our country loudly proclaim that we must protect the innocent from the ‘trampling boots of tyranny’? The whole land is geared to destruction so that it will not be destroyed. The glorious end justifies any means we use to attain it. For the Christian, the righteous means are more essential than comfortable and apparently necessary ends. What do we gain if we retain our bodies here on earth an hour longer, but lose our everlasting souls? We can ignore the black power and his fiendish earthly workers who can destroy our bodies but cannot touch our souls.” There was no argument against that.

And truth necessitated following.

The horses were wheeling in their awkwardness at the corner of the field and stopped at his touch. Home was beyond the hill and a line of trees. Thom felt the ground warming with expectation, the ripeness of the earth’s belly pushing itself up against the steel of the shares. When he lay with his face in the sandy loam, arms and legs yearning, he was beyond himself. It seemed to Thom that every man must feel the smallness and the greatness, his face in the dirt when the clouds were sheep with their heads down in the sunshine of the open sky and the larks chanting from their post-perch and the burdened horses nodding their heads to earth with sweat black in straggles down their thighs. Lying there, he felt doubts settle in his mind like mud in the hollows of the spring-soaked land. He could not actually imagine that men should wish to kill one another; yet they must, for how else could they give themselves into the murder that was the Army? The earth holding him, he thought, If only there were enough trees and hills and rocks in all Saskatchewan or all Canada or even all the world to hide us from a Hitler who has tasted power like a boar’s first gulp of warm blood. But once a man has tasted power, you cannot pen up or dispose of him like a blooded boar, and he the greater danger. And Thom felt the persistent, recurring prick: sometimes you think you should help try, anyway.

He rose quickly and the horses heaved in unison. He knew the shape of every tree along the rock-heaped fence without lifting his eyes from Jerry’s hocks treading the furrow. Why must something as remote as being required to kill another human become as forcibly real as the plow’s hump against stone beneath him. But it had become so. Could he but know himself strong, like Peter Block! To stand alone before the judge in a courtroom crowded with gimlet-eyed women whose husbands and lovers and sons were flying like yellow hawks, somewhere over the bend of the world, and to say clearly, “It is against my conscience.” Never having considered even for an instant that there might be another way. If he could but know himself strong!

The whoop behind him perked the horses’ ears. As Thom turned on the iron seat, the tow-headed “Indian” transformed himself into a small fighter-plane, and with arms outstretched, lunch-pail rattling, bare feet flashing in the turned earth, came soaring in gasps to trip and sprawl beside the slow plow. The boy was up even as he rolled.

“The planes–we saw ’em, Thom! Three big ones flyin’ low and makin’ the biggest noise! Boy, they were ’way longer than Wapiti School–longer than Beaver even–and they were bangin’ like anythin’. Maybe they’ll bang apart, huh? When I’m real big I’ll fly some–wow!”

Thom looked down on Hal walking in the following furrow. He said, brotherly casual, “Why do you want to fly one if it might bang apart?”

“Oh. I’d get one that goes smooth, like brrrsssh–” and the small boy spread his arms, made several rolling swoops with the upper part of his body, and then, to avoid running into the plow, threw himself beside it as he tipped forward.

“You’ll spread your nose all over the plow-wheel if you don’t watch. You were to wear shoes to school.”

Hal was up and behind the plow again. He rattled his battered syrup-pail. “It’s too hard walkin’. An’ the Indians came past today–I saw ’em first through the big window, even before Jackie Labret, and I put up my hand real fast an’ Mr. Dueck saw it even before Jackie raised his hand–”

“Were the Indians packed for the summer?” interrupted Thom.

“Uh-huh. Mr. Dueck said, ‘All right, Helmut,’ before he saw the wagons an’ I went out an’ all the other kids had to sit down again to read their books an’ Jackie was real mad after school ’cause he got hardly one look an’ almost–”

“Who was moving?”

“Ol’ Two Poles. An’ Hankey was there on the wagon. He waved. There were lotsa squaws an’ more wagons. But Ol’ Two Poles an’ his pinto were on the front wagon goin’ to the Point.”

“The pinto wasn’t on the wagon, it was hitched to it, not? Fishing will be good if they move this early.”

“Uh-huh. Jackie said the muskrats have been real good. We would ha’ followed their trail back but they just use the main road now an’ don’t go on the trails like they used to–Jackie says they’re mostly fenced shut anyhows an’ we were comin’ home by Martens an’ we saw the planes goin’ north like hell Jackie sa–”

Thom swung round on his seat. “Don’t you say that or I’ll trim you. Not once more!”

The little boy’s eyes dilated with sham innocence. “But I didn’t. Jac–”

“Okay, okay! Never mind that. And tell Jackie he needn’t talk like that. It’s bad–for him as well as you. If you say that again, you’ll walk home by yourself from school. You’re not going to swear like a half-breed.”

“Half-breed” to Hal was merely a species of being that did certain things he himself was not allowed to do because they were “bad.” Usually when talking near his elders, he was careful to avoid phrases that might catch a sensitive adult ear but then he always forgot what they had termed “bad” before. Puzzling now, no really good method of describing the thunder of the planes struck him–except Jackie’s way, with a pleasurable push on the “bad” word. The furrow was cool to his toes. He curled them as he walked, leaving bunched ridges of sand behind the scoops where his toes had been. He stopped and lifted one foot carefully. Like a row of tiny pigs sucking. He ran to catch up.

“Anyway, we’re gonna fly ’round in yellow planes when we’re real big an’ just fly an’ fly. Why don’t you fly, Thom?”

The difficulty Thom found in answering his brother’s simple questions always reflected to him his unstable faith. Like his elders, he believed life’s answers explainable to a child; even if the answer grew more complicated as the child grew, it could never basically change, for the basic answers were known. So he said, on his confident level, “Because the people that fly those planes do nothing good with them. They fly in the war and try to kill as many people as they can. And remember what you learned in Sunday School? How the Lord Jesus said we weren’t to bother anyone, but love them all, like you love Mom? We are to do good, not hurt.”

“Why do they want to hurt and kill people?”

“I suppose because the others are trying to do it to them first.”


So Thom explained as he had known it himself since he was a child, working the religious idea, among Mennonites always expressed in High German, into the unaccustomed suit of work-day English. Somehow, while he was plowing, he could not suddenly speak to his small brother in the smooth German of the church, not even regarding non-resistance. “The Bible says that when men live in sin they do sinful things. They do not love but hate. They don’t trust each other. They turn around quickly and hurt you when you’re not looking because they care only for themselves and wish to get all they can without working for it. Finally, if they can’t get away with their evil any other way, they try to kill the other person.”

“Why don’t the police get ’em?”

What next! Yet why not? A long-submerged argument rose in his searching mind. He spoke before he thought, sensing his deviation only as he proceeded: “Because there are whole countries of these people, and the police are few. So other countries feel they have to join together to kill those who are doing bad, so that they themselves and their families won’t be hurt and killed–”

Hal did not sense his hesitation. “Does Hank Unger fly a plane to kill people so we won’t be hurt and killed?”

The horses began their turn at the corner where, through the white stems of the poplars, the house looked south and east. Hank Unger. Thom pulled out his watch.

“What with snooping after Indians and watching planes and gabbing, you’re late for the cows before you get to the house from school. Now move.”

“Is Nance in the barn?” The question broke across Hal’s serious face.

“I got her in at noon.”

“Oh boy!” the lad fled over the plowed land. “An’ maybe it’ll rain tomorrow so I can ride to school!” He was out of hearing among the trees.

The sky was empty as a tipped cup. As the horses eased their pull edging down a small ridge, over their backs Thom could see hills of poplar and birch, with coned pines among the willows along the creek between them. There was no longer enough bush between themselves and the world. There had once been, for during the first nine years of their settlement at Wapiti when, as the English were bought out and moved away, as the breeds settled back farther into the wilderness, only an occasional rcmp officer, coming the thirty miles of dirt road from Hainy to check their passports or eventually to bring their naturalization papers, had even reminded them of the world. But now into weather and crop reports the radio blurted statistics of people killed. Children could not walk home barefoot from school without a plane shadow crossing their faces, and people like Hank Unger sent pictures of themselves casual against fighter planes with the level waste of Africa beyond and left the faith of their fathers to do–what?

There was a point of thought beyond which Thom could not go. Since Joseph Dueck had come to teach at Wapiti School the fall before, his friendship with Thom had unlocked new thought possibilities of which Thom had formerly had no conception. He had been astonished to find that, with arduous effort, he could follow most of Joseph’s thinking. On a winter Sunday afternoon, as the heater glowed red and the peaceful sounds of Pa’s afternoon sleeping drifted through the curtain of the bedroom door, Thom had stumbled after Joseph’s rambles regarding the meaning of existence, the nature of Christianity, the Christian’s relationship to his fellow men. During the week, while cleaning the cow-barn or hauling hay to the stock, he would grope through the newly discovered labyrinth of his mind, alternately enchanted and intimidated, but, despite the varying paths he chose, he always arrived at the same ultimate point. He could no more have denied what he held to be the basic tenets of his belief than he could have straddled the sun. He was at that point again: he had been told the truth. The church–the Deacon–they knew. Believe; questions were often simplest if not answered. When the plow jerked in the earth you could truly know, but when a man went his way, the surmise of whether for good or evil, if perhaps correct, told little of why. And Joseph said the “why” was most important. But why not leave simple at the simplest? Must he always wonder and try to explain? Why not accept like Pete Block? It was probably better not to know, not to have to think about it. Perhaps no one could know, anyway. Joseph! “Leave it to the fathers,” he said abruptly in German. He kicked the plow-frame and flexed his cramped legs forward so that they dangled nearly to the ground. It was sheerest comfort.

His head hung, dulled from plowing all day alone with his mind. On the last round, when the horses moved with the knowledge of coming rest, he liked the earth as it unfolded itself like the roll of a filleted fish to a thin knife. Packed by the snows, it twisted free and lay open, crumbling at the edges, intruding no questions, offering itself and its power of life to the man who proved his belief with his calloused hand. And the believers went on turning its page, while round the world it was wounded to death by slashing heathen tank-tracks. Plowing, he watched the furrows turn and settle.

The best of the day for Thom was when he drove the unhitched horses towards home and, above the jingling of harness and shuffling of feet, heard the last birds chirp themselves to rest on their branches. Faintly the sounds of the world shutting itself away for another day, a dog barking, the call of a boy to his cows, a calf bawling, the slam of a screen-door, drifted on a breeze now warm on the hillock, now cool in the coulee. He turned the corner of the hay-yard with the worked horses and looked north past the edge of the barn to the house facing him on the knoll. To the right stood the summer-kitchen; tin milk-pails blinked on the points of the slab fence separating the two buildings from the yard. As he closed the wire gate behind him, he could hear the pigs oinking to be fed in their huge pen. When he stopped the horses by the horse-barn, he was already in the smooth groove that was “doing chores.”

For the past five springs, since he had finished grade eight, Thom Wiens had followed the same evening pattern of unharnessing the horses, watering them, stacking their manger with hay, dumping chop into their boxes, filling the trough for the coming cattle. Every spring he knew his bare arms and the drip drip of the rising bucket. Except for more land to plow each year, there were few changes. Across the well-mouth, Thom could now see the bent figure of his father re-shovelling a heap of grain, his face half-covered with a red handkerchief against the formaldehyde. Thom dumped the bucket over into the trough, gripped by the consciousness that his family was carrying on their ancestors’ great tradition of building homes where only brute nature had couched. Saskatchewan, in the spiraling heat of the Depression, had acted wisely in opening up this rock-strewn northern bush to the Russian Mennonites.

He caught back the bucket with about a cupful of water left, lifted it, and drank without dripping as his older brothers had taught him years before. The water tasted pure as ice.

“Thom.” He turned to see his mother outside the kitchen. “We need some water.”

His mother watched him a moment as he came towards her; then she turned back into the log kitchen. He was her son. To her, despite the fact that she had four sons, tall dark Thom was different and, somehow, more important at this moment than the others. She had first known this feeling of special importance with young David, when coming to Canada on the crammed ship. Then it had been Ernst in the early back-breaking years in the Wapiti district. Now David was in India, across more oceans than she could imagine, Ernst was married and had his own farm two miles away, but Thom was at that age. And she felt more than ever that she was helpless before new manhood’s unshackling of itself. Thom, stooping wide-shouldered to enter the door, reaching for the water pails on the wash-stand, had little notion of the prayers breathed for him in the heat of the kitchen wood-stove. He saw the fresh bread and dropped the pail-handle, eyes searching for the knife.

“Cut the cooler one–this will burn you.”

He cut a chunk carefully. “What did Carlo bark about just after dinner?” They talked in Low German. The peculiar Russian Mennonite use of three languages caused no difficulties for there were inviolable, though unstated, conventions as to when each was spoken. High German was always used when speaking of religious matters and as a gesture of politeness towards strangers; a Low German dialect was spoken in the mundane matters of everyday living; the young people spoke English almost exclusively among themselves. Thought and tongue slipped unhesitantly from one language to the other. Now, as the pale butter melted into the bread and its warm aroma rose to Thom’s head, his teeth crunched through the crust as his mother answered.

“Mr. Block came to collect for that new church in Alberta. Even in the busy season he always does church work first.”

“We haven’t anything to give now.”

“We promised when the hogs go. We have to help, others helped us. And you know Mr. Block; he would never leave his farm now except for the church.”

“Uh-huh.” With his mouth full, he heard the cow bells nearing; he picked up the pails and went out. Deacon Peter Block had been the first Mennonite to come to Wapiti: he cleared the way for the others. When he had come, the wilderness, now thinned every winter for firewood and better grazing, stood as forest, and the only settlers were several Englishmen grubbing a few acres from the fastness. The Wiens family came three years later, in 1930, and together with Block and the others who followed, formed the Wapiti Mennonite Church. Swinging the pails to his stride, Thom thought of the good land that was left. The hamlet of Calder was only twelve miles south of the church, but to the highway on the east, Poplar Lake on the west, and to the Indian reservation across the Wapiti River to the north, all around the Mennonite settlement lay virgin sections, heavily wooded, enough for children’s children. And there would be more, when the last breeds were bought out.

“How much left?” his father asked, passing towards the kitchen.

“Half a day maybe. Is the disc ready to take out tomorrow morning?”

“You’ll have to use the hitch from the plow–I haven’t fixed the other.”

A grimace flicked over Thom’s face, but David Wiens had already walked beyond hearing. Forty years before, Wiens had been Thom’s age, unstooped and husky, serenely at ease in the Mennonite community life of Central Russia. The upheavals of Russian life after 1917 that drove him to America with his family had wrenched him from his roots. He had lived his lifetime in Russia: his sons built the farm in Canada. For him, the Canadian bush disrupted the whole order of things, for though one could succeed with some Russian Mennonite farming methods, most past standards seemed barely authoritative. Farming villages were impossible, married children had to settle far and farther from their parents, the family was splintered, the English language intruded itself. Yet if practical difficulties alone had been involved, Wiens might have regained himself. There was more, however. In Russia behaviour for him, the last of eight boys, had always been clear: right was right and wrong was wrong. Any situation could be quickly placed into one or the other category. Here, the people scattered in the Canadian bush lived, according to accepted Mennonite standards, such nonchalantly sinful lives that when Wiens was among them, even on his infrequent visits to Calder, he felt as if the foundation of all morality was sliced from beneath him.

For Wiens, as for his third son, there was one rock in the whirlpool of the Canadian world. They were both thinking of him at the same time. Deacon Peter Block. Where even the middle-aged Pastor Lepp was at a loss, the Deacon held the church community solidly on the path of their fathers. He seemed to understand how the newness of Canada must be approached. It was at his insistence that they had bought out all the English years before, despite the deeper debt it forced upon them, that they might have a district of Mennonites. Now, there were only four breed families left, and war prices had almost cleared them of their debt.

The first cattle ambled through the gate as Thom turned with the brimming pails. He glanced at the trough. With the cattle drinking at the full sloughs, there should be enough. He walked up the path, and then he heard the rumble of approaching planes, coming from the north-east this time. There were only two, and they came roaring directly over the yard, the tiny figures of the men, one behind the other, bumped in each plane, the motors hammering. The whole yard burst into a chaos of squealing pigs, flying squawking chickens, Carlo barking, Hal screaming “Bang! Bang!” and the cattle stampeding, milk jetting from swinging udders, towards the safety of the barn to crash against its closed door in a convulsion of bodies. Wiens, Mrs Wiens, Margret before the summer-kitchen, Hal astride Nance by the gate, Thom on the well-path: they could only stare in apprehension as the cattle bunched against the cracking door. In a minute the rumble had died over the flickering poplars to the south, and then Boss, her lead-bell clanging, broke through the bunching and galloped to the trough, circling crazily as she over-ran her mark. Others followed, one by one, to drink in gasps of slurping water. Wiens, shouting Carlo to silence, strode down the path to the few still strained against the cracking door, his wife behind him, both soothing with voice and then hand. From where Thom stood, one cow looked very bad.

Godless heathen, he thought. With all the sky to fly in, to come messing here twice on one day! He could see Pa feeling Nellie slowly. Her calf would be dead after that. Nowhere was there peace from them; after you were nineteen you could be sure it was coming. Pete Block’s came when he was twenty. The judge would not feel that his staying home would be necessary: they did not have enough land. But to Thom’s thinking that aspect of war was of no significance at the moment. He thought, If it comes on Friday, I will go to court on the day and say with the same conviction as Deacon Block’s son, “It is against my conscience!” In the spirit and in the faith of the fathers. Murdering heathen!

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Lethbridge, City on the Prairie
photographs by Geoffrey James
by Rudy Wiebe
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River Of Stone

Love Letters from Land and Sea

North and wilderness. When I consider my country as a place distinct and particular from all the other places I have seen and lived in, that’s it: north and wilderness.

Never mind that I live in a modern city: my travels and any map tell me wilderness and north are no more than a few minutes away from anywhere in Canada by air. And air travel is the Canadian way: this century’s plane or helicopter is our continuation of the canoe, carried on endless streams of air with endless stories of long flights and crashes in our turbulent air’s weather rapids. Canada reaches so far north that air will carry you in that direction until suddenly you will be going south.

And somewhere there is tiny Hedwen Island; at the outermost tip of the giant Dehcho (Mackenzie River) Delta, anchored between Richards and Summer Islands in Kugmallit Bay. One hundred and twenty kilometres northwest of Tuktoyaktuk as the helicopter flies its island-sea route, where the July-green land undulates gently above the grey ice-ridden water of the Beaufort Sea.

I slide one hundred and twenty metres down sand cliffs to the rippled beach, and walk west singing. Centuries of Dehcho driftwood caught in the hollows of bays; a loon’s pre-emptory nest of waterplants smeared on a spit between sweet water and salt, its long, deep-brown egg dappled black; three pieces of hollow petrified bone sticking out of a headland eroding steadily into the sea: what animal were they? Dinosaur seventy million years ago when the globe tilted differently and tropical trees flourished here two metres thick? The loon, most ancient of birds, calls where it rides between ice-pans; perhaps longing for its solitary dappled egg.

A flash of red beyond the nest in the hard sand: a detergent container, crushed, but containing a bleached mass of aluminum foil. I complete the break, shake out the black sand; and disclose a message from the sea.

“beaufort sea’s arctic / 1986,” I read on paper mottled by seepage. “August 1986 / Arnak Drilling Rig / Kenting 32 / Esso Resources Canada Ltd.” Twenty-two signatures under “Names” and as many dates and places under “Date of Departure” – everything from August 1 for Aklavik to August 18 for Australia. And under that, curled tight, a second sheet with twenty-one more names and departures. Only three names have comments: “Flo Keir (No. 1 Cook yah)” and “Les R...” bracketing to his indecipherable signature “(Homo)”, and the last name: “Thora Reid – Fifteen years of missed boats.”

Somewhere in the Beaufort Sea on a manufactured steel and gravel island, forty-three people, five years ago.

I walk on, trying to imagine at least one of those lives, the sea nudging an occasional beluga whale rib near my boots. And discover beside me the ice that undergirds the world here: a crumbling cliff and beneath a few centimetres of moss the massive black ice wedge that holds the land up and reaches down, hundreds of metres down, down to the limits of the permafrost. Geologists tell me later this may be the black ooze of prehistoric glaciers which here still give shape to the land. Or, some theorize, much of northernmost Canada may be supported on ice wedged somewhere kilometres down into the yet undiscovered texture of the earthen earth: they cannot tell for sure.

What is obvious: without the ice, the island would not exist.

I climb and slither and sink up the oozing cliff, between floating tussocks of moss brilliant with tundra flowers, bottomless sand, vanishing water. I touch, fondle, lick this black ice, this primordial cold which solidified here before the existence of humanity.

“Forget me not,” the last words on the last sheet from the sea, serrated by sand and water, ask of me. If I am ignorant, forgetting is impossible. Only this bit of knowledge allows me to promise: “I will remember.”

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Stolen Life

Stolen Life

The Journey of a Cree Woman
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Prefatory Note

This book is based on what Yvonne Johnson holds to be her own truths about the life she has lived. However, since there is never only one way to tell a story, other persons involved in this one may well have experienced and remember differently the events and actions here portrayed. The book is also based on my research into the circumstances of Yvonne’s life. Besides over five years of dialogue with her, this research involved travel to various places crucial to the story; interviews wherever possible; attendance at trials; and the gathering of data from court, police, government, school, and newspaper records in both Canada and the United States.

I have gathered together Yvonne’s words, as given in the present text, as she and I agreed, from various sources: largely her seventeen black prison notebooks, her letters to me, her comments on official records and documents, her statements to police, my notes of our conversations in person or on the telephone, numerous audiotapes. She has a natural gift of language, which at any moment will follow a detail and widen into incident, story, often humour. This was at first sometimes confusing, even disorienting, until I recognized that her thinking was often circular, revolving around a given subject, and her writing almost oral in the sense that I had to catch the tone of her inflection to understand exactly how the incidents she was remembering connected; where the expanding images or even parables with which she tried to explain herself were leading. These qualities can only be fully appreciated when talking with Yvonne face to face, but I hope this book will give its readers a good flavour of such a conversation.

What is remarkable and enlightening is how Yvonne’s powers of writing have expanded during her time in prison. Her first letter to me (November, 1992, quoted at length in the first chapter) was as chatty as her talk still is; her formal education could, at best, barely be called erratic and ended in Grade Eight, but even in the earliest of her writing that I have seen she had a profound ability to capture an astute perception with words. For example, during her trial in March, 1991, she handed to her lawyer a long analysis of a relative, which included this comment:

“She is a woman of many faces. . . . You know, the only feelings you get from her is one of her faces. One of her strong feelings is fear, anger. And she has a tongue like a knife in your heart.”

Reading has helped her think and write. By 1998, after years of reading widely and deeply–including the works of Carl Jung, some of whose books she read and re-read while making copious notes–and thousands of pages of writing–by pen, typewriter, computer–Yvonne’s imagistic insights have widened into longer, much more coherent explorations and descriptions. The written language of her perceptions and her natural oral story-telling ability have grown immensely, to become acute, distinctive, and often beautiful.

The selection, compiling, and arrangement of events and details in this book were done in a manner the two authors believe to be honest and accurate. Public documents are quoted selectively, but with every attempt at fairness and accuracy.

The actual names of people are used when their identities are a matter of public record; for others, and in the case of all persons at present minors, the names are pseudonyms. Also, the spelling, punctuation, and grammar in Yvonne’s letters and notebooks have been standardized.

— Rudy Wiebe, Edmonton, April 1998


O Creator of all, I pray you, look at me, for I am weak and pitiful.

I pray,
help me to make amends to all those I have harmed;
grant them love and peace, so that they may understand I am sorry;
help me to share my shame and pain, so that others
will do the same, and so awaken to themselves
and to all the peoples of the world.

Hai hai

Yvonne Johnson, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, April 1998


Blood Runs

Thick and Long

and For Ever

Nothing just happens, my friend, unless it was meant to be. . . . If we are guided under the Bear, then even our futures can be changed. . . . You and I may have been chosen long ago to meet, and our past has given us each a gift of understanding.
— Yvonne Johnson to Rudy Wiebe, 24 December 1992

To begin a story, someone in some way must break a particular silence. On Wednesday, 18 November 1992, in Edmonton, Alberta, I received an envelope from Box 515, Kingston, Ontario. Inside, folded into quarters, was a long sheet of paper typed from top to bottom, edge to edge, solid with words on both sides. It began:

Howdy Howdy Stranger
My name is Yvonne Johnson. I am currently an inmate at the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario. I am thirty-one years old. I am a Cree from Saskatchewan, that is where my ancestors come from. We were accepted back into my grandmother’s rez after my mother was kicked out for marrying my father, who is a White from Great Falls, Montana. My grandmother Flora was a Baptiste, my grandfather was called John Bear, I lost him a few years back now; and my grandfather’s grandfather was the Cree chief Big Bear.

On either side of the straight Saskatchewan road, the lines of barbed-wire fence try to square the land into right angles on the curving earth. The land is white here in January 1996, prairie-snow flat, and on this morning frigid fog hides the world; I can see nothing of sun beyond the fence. At the road crossing, where I feel the pavement end, I stop, turn right, and drive south–the Cree direction of the Law of Order, which is the natural order of Creation, the order of how things will happen. I need that today: order.

The road disappears ahead into limitless mist, slopes down a little and east, then straight south again, with all the land now rising about me. Gravel clatters, swerves. White-tailed deer feed above brush on the bare shoulders of a ravine; they will look up only if I stop, probably scatter if I get out, so I continue moving, very slowly. The temperature is twenty-two below, but the deer are spaced delicately at ease, heads bowed to their feeding scrawls in the snowy earth, and when the ravine hides them again I continue my watch into the grey mist, into its brightening; waiting. And then, imperceptibly, the high hills begin to emerge.

They are very nearly upon me, their folded shapes covered with hoar-frosted trees, the mass of the Cypress Hills like immense, furry animals kneeling down tight together, brilliant as spun glass against the sudden blue sky.
The road ahead vanishes again down into mist, then reappears once more, higher, like a question mark up into the hills.

The Stoney people called them pa-ha-toonga, the Thunder-Breeding Hills.

The “Howdy Stranger” letter continued:

I was accepted by the Red Pheasant Reserve south of Battleford, but I do not know where I truly belong. As you may be aware, in 1885 my family and band were spread all over this continent after the imprisonment of Big Bear. I don’t know where to start, or where to go from here, but I have a will and hopefully you can help to guide me somehow. I have been through a lot in the last few years. I don’t have that much education, just what I’ve learned or I think I’ve learned over the years. I try to fake it a lot; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t [. . .].

Well, once again, I am thirty-one and mother of three children and a stepson. I was born in a place called Kalispell, Montana, and raised in Butte, Montana. My brother was killed by the cops there when I was nine and my family, or what of it we had, went all to hell. My mom went on the aim [American Indian Movement] march from Wounded Knee to Washington in 1972 to see if she could get anything done about my brother’s death, but came back empty and soon filed for divorce and said she was going back to her people. I stayed with my father, as no one else would and I could not leave him alone like that. All the other kids, minus the one brother who was in prison, went with my mom to Canada. Me, I was pulled back and forth a lot, as I am born with a cleft palate and lip and only in the United States would the Crippled Children’s Fund pay for the repair I needed. I had a hard life and it keeps getting harder. I think it’s a deep sense of true justice and understanding and of true knowledge I search for that keeps me going.

And believe me, death seems a lot easier and a lot less painful at times, but I guess I truly am a sucker for punishment. What can I say? I still hang in. Well, I just wish my life would change for the better at some point. I don’t want to die this way, with nothing settled or overcome. I need to fight, I need to know where I come from and why our race suffers so from the hands of my White brothers. Just because I went through my first thirty years in silence does not mean I went through it blind and deaf as well. If anything, my silence enhanced my keen sense of observation–had to get the dictionary out for that one. All my luck, I probably copied it wrong! . . .

My mom’s a Cree from a residential school in Sask.; my father is a ex—U.S. Marine of the Norwegian race. My dad was out of the war for a short time when he met my mom, who had also just got out of a hell of her own, the Indian school. Quite a combo, hey? There were seven kids in my family. Anyways, I don’t hold it against them; they tried as best as they knew how. And I love them. I just hate reality, it’s so cruel and unkind. But I hold history responsible for that as well. You see, I’ve spent the last thirty years running from it, but due to imprisonment I was forced to stop running, and that’s so hard.

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Sweeter Than All The World


Speaking Waskahikan
Waskahikan, Northern Alberta


In summer the poplar leaves clicked and flickered at him, in winter the stiff spruce rustled with voices. The boy, barefoot in the heat or trussed up like a lumpy package against the fierce silver cold, went alone into the bush, where everything spoke to him: warm rocks, the flit of quick, small animals, a dart of birds, tree trunks, the great fires burning across the sky at night, summer fallow, the creek and squeaky snow. Everything spoke as he breathed and became aware of it, its language clear as the water of his memory when he lay against the logs of the house at night listening to the spring mosquitoes find him under his blanket, though he had his eyes shut and only one ear uncovered.

Everything spoke, and it spoke Lowgerman. Like his mother. She would call him long into the summer evening when it seemed the sun burned all night down into the north, call high and falling slow as if she were already weeping: “Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo . . . .”

And when he appeared beside her, she would bend her powerful hands about his head and kiss him so warm his eyes rang.

“Why don’t you answer, you?” she would say against his hair. “Why don’t you ever answer? The bush is so dark and I listen and listen, why don’t you ever say a word?” — while he nuzzled his face into the damp apron at the fold of her thigh. And soon her words would be over, and he would feel her skin and warm apron smelling of saskatoon jam and dishes and supper buns love him back.

His sister laughed at his solitary silence. “In Waskahikan School are twenty-seven kids,” Margaret said, “you’ll have to talk, and English at that. You can’t say anything Lowgerman there, and if you don’t answer English when she asks, the teacher will make you stand in the corner.”

“R-right in f-f-f-f-ront — of — people?” he burst out fearfully.

“Yeah, in front of every one of them, your face against the wall. So you better start talking, and English too.”

And she would try to teach him the English names for things. But he did not listen to that. Rather, when he was alone he practised standing in the corners of walls. Their logs shifted and cracked, talking all the time like happiness; logs were very good, especially where they came together so hard and warm in winter.

Outside was even better. He followed the thin tracks of a muskrat that had dented the snow with its tail between bulrushes sticking out of the slough ice, or waited for the coyote in the field along the hill to turn and see him, one paw lifted and about to touch a drift, its jaw opening to its red tongue smiling with him. Then suddenly cock its ears, and pounce! double-pawed into a drift, burrowing deeper. In summer he heard a mother bear talk to her cubs among the willows of the horse pasture near the creek. He did not see them, but he found their tracks in the spring snow behind the spruce and his father said something would have to be done if they came any closer to the pigpen. The boy knew his father refused to own a gun, but their nearest Ukrainian neighbour gladly hunted everywhere, whatever he heard about, and so he folded his hands over the huge pawprints and whispered in Lowgerman.

“Don’t come here, not any more. It’s dangerous.”

The square school sat at the corner, below the hill where the road allowances crossed south over the creek and bent around the spruce muskeg towards their Mennonite church, and the store. Inside the church every Sunday there were hands waiting for him. At the top of the balcony stairs — which led up from the corner behind the men’s benches, under the sloped roof with the church Highgerman of people murmuring like rain below them and poplar leaves at the window — were the hands that found things inside him, and let them out. Thick hands with heavy, broad thumbs working against each other on his neck, pressing down, pressing together, bending his small bones until through his gaping mouth they cawed:

“C - c - c - - cat!”

“Yes, yes, like that, try to say it again, ‘cat.’”

And he would try, desperately, those marvellous hands holding him tight as if everything on earth were in its proper place, and all the brilliant sounds he could never utter when anyone listened coming out of him as easily, deeply, as if he had pulled a door open.


“Yes, very good, now say, ‘Be sure your sin will find you out.’ Say it: ‘Be sure . . .’”

He knew find and you already, but sin? No one could find him in the bush, he did not need to say that; those English words, whatever they were, would never have to sit on the edge of his lips hissing. He drew his breath down, deep and safe.

“Ca-a-at,” he said firmly.

The post office was a wooden wicket folded open on Tuesday and Friday at the back of the store. There they got the Eaton’s winter or summer catalogues, and letters with stamps from Southern Alberta where his oldest sister Helen lived with her husband and Raymond, who came every summer to play with him in the bush behind the house. Mail came on the train, which he had never seen, but he heard it wailing faintly in the west, like an evening animal lost when light rises into mist along the creek. A sound so strange and far away that when it was gone he thought he might not have heard anything at all, it was only his longing for the white clouds of steam his oldest brother Abram had told him blasted out of the train when he worked laying steel rails on the ground for it, and blasting even whiter when it brought Abram back from Bible school at Christmas and he read the story of the Wisemen aloud in church and then prayed. The train, his brother said, went through the town of Boyle, three rows of houses on the edge of a wide valley. Almost a hundred people lived there, and the train ran along the big lake beyond it on steel straight as string. His father drove a wagon-load of grain, or pigs, to that town in fall when the mudholes on the road were frozen but the snow not too deep yet. And when he came back he said he had looked far across flat miles again at the rich valley farms they’d cleared there, red hip-roofed barns and white houses, all Swedes and Ukrainians because they got to their homesteads first, on the deep soil, not like their stone and clay where it wasn’t creek or slough or muskeg.

But the school had been at the crossroads since before the boy could remember, and now he tried not to look at it when they drove down the hill, though he knew the small panes of its five large windows stared at him as long as they passed. It was the Friday before the Monday when he would have to go there every day, like Margaret, that the planes came for the first time.

He was holding the parcel from Eaton’s, which he was certain contained the flannel shirt they ordered long ago for his first day in school, red check with black buttons, but his mother — “Don’t tear the paper!” — would never let him open anything before they got home. Their horses were so slow, good farm plugs, Schrugge, his brother John called them, pulling the wagon up the school hill as steadily as they always did, and it happened very fast, almost before he could look around. There had been a rumble from somewhere like thunder, far away, though the sky was clearest sunlight. His father had just said that in a week they might start bindering the oats, the whole field was ripening so well, and his mother sat beside him broad and erect, her braided hair coiled up in a bun under her hat, when suddenly the planes were there as a light flashed and he twisted to see, one after the other like four yellow-and-black fists punching low over them, louder than anything he had ever heard in his whole life. Roaring away north above the school and the small grain fields between poplars and sloughs and pastures and over all the trees to the edge of the world.

His father did not look up or around. His hands double-wrapped in the reins and his body braced to hold the terrified horses down, his voice was as sadly angry as an echo.

“Russia wasn’t enough, here they come out of the air.”

But the boy was looking at his mother. Perhaps his own face looked like that when next morning the yellow planes thundered over the school at recess, so low he saw horrible glass eyes in a sleek leather head glare down at him before he screamed and ran, fled inside to the desk where Margaret had told him he must sit. When he opened his eyes the face of the teacher was there, her gentle face very close, smiling almost upside down at him between the iron legs of the desk beneath which he curled, his new red-check shirt against the floor. Her gentle voice speaking.

“Come,” she said, “come.”

Her fingers touched his hair light as wind, and after a moment he twisted out and scrambled to his feet. He thought she was speaking Lowgerman because he did not yet know that what that word meant sounded the same in English. “Come.”

She led him past the amazing front wall that was “blackboard,” where that morning the white chalk between her fingers reaching out of her sky-blue sleeve drew the large letters of their school name:


She guided him through the rows of desks to a narrow cupboard against the wall opposite the windows, raised her thin hands, pulled, and two doors unfolded both at once. Books. He had never imagined so many books. Maybe a million.

She was, of course, speaking to him in English and years later, when he remembered that moment again and again, he would never be able to explain to himself how he understood what she was saying. The book opening between her hands showed him countless words: words, she said, that he could now only see the shape of, but would be able to hear when he learned to read because, she told him, the word read in English was the same as the word speak, räd in Lowgerman, and, when he could read, all the people of the world would speak to him. When he opened a book, he would hear what they had already said and continued to say, and he would understand.

He was staring at what he later knew were a few worn books on a few short shelves, and then looking back at the visible but as yet unintelligible words revealed by the book unfolded in her hands. And perhaps it was when her right hand reached down to touch his, hidden in his new shirt cuffs with their amazing black double buttons, when her fingers tightened and his hands clutched hers, perhaps then he slowly began to comprehend that there were shelves upon shelves of books on many, many floors inside all the walls of the enormous libraries of the world where someday he would go and read; that the knowing which she could help him discover within himself would allow him to hear human voices speaking from everywhere and every age, saying things both sweet and horrible, and everything else that might be imagined between them. And he would listen.


His mother, calling into the long northern evening.

“Where a-a-re you?”


Sailing to Danzig
Coaldale, Southern Alberta

His name was Adam Peter Wiebe. When he began school he liked being “Adam.” No one else had that name, and everyone called him “Addie,” like his sister Margaret who at first knew everything. Then one summer a travelling preacher came driving his thin horse and buggy through the bush to the Waskahikan Mennonite Church and, leaning far over the pulpit, declared that ADAM meant “of the ground,” which was how God had created the first man on earth. Out of the ground. And that had happened 4,004 years before Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son! was born in Bethlehem of Judah.

The way that huge man told the first story in the Bible stayed with Adam all his life like a memory of blue and golden light. He never wanted to read it in Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible — which his mother ordered for him from the catalogue when she realized he would never stop reading–or spoil the story with heavy Luther Genesis. Adam, made of ground, moist earth changed into flesh by God breathing warm breath into a mouth cupped open between His great, all-powerful hands! Adam’s first job was to name every animal God had already created, such easy work, and then, as a reward, God fingered the most perfectly beautiful woman that ever lived — that was the Highgerman word the preacher used: God touched Adam under his left middle rib and He “fingered” it out to make Eve — and the preacher stepped away from the pulpit, lifted his huge hands high and shaped Eve’s head in the air between them and then slid them around her shoulders, down over her pointed breasts — all his life Adam would remember his hands’ turn there, so slow, ineffably gentle — and over her hips and along her long legs to her toes. And then, ahh then! Adam and Eve lived together in the most beautiful garden on earth, eating fresh fruit and playing with the gold and sweet gum and pearls and onyx stones that were in the four rivers that flowed out of Eden, and bathing in them too. It was always the perfect seventh day of creation, forever rest, forever summer.

Travelling preachers came to Waskahikan between haying and harvest. Sermons were every evening if it didn’t rain too hard and three times on Sunday. This evangelist, Groota Donnadach Peetash as he was called in Lowgerman, Big Thursday — thunder-day — Peters, said the title of his next sermon would be “The Heaviest Word in the World.” He was preaching in Highgerman of course and so when he said, “Sünde,” exactly that word was the heaviest, and the apple tree and Eve and the slimy snake and Adam eating, that was truly Sünde, der Grosse Fall, forever and all eternity for all men and women ever born and all nature, even for trees and small animals, the very mosquitoes were all groaning and travailing in pain to be delivered from man’s bondage of putrid corruption!

Instantly, small Adam detested that second part of the story; he knew he’d never be like that stupid First Adam and eat a snake’s apple. He’d stick with God; if He had the power to make it He had the power to take it away, and if Eve couldn’t figure that out, Adam certainly could. And at that moment, as he sat with the other small boys on the narrow front bench with Big Thursday looming over them, it struck Adam that if exactly Sünde was the worst word, he would from now on live only in English where exactly that word didn’t exist, and he could stay with beautiful Eve and nice God Almighty in the Beautiful Garden forever, no gigantic angels with flaming swords that turned every way east of Eden.

Die Sünde Adams! That was Big Thursday Peters, weeping and blowing his nose like a trumpet-blast into an enormous blue-striped handkerchief, thundering God’s eternal damnation and endless grace all at the same time. But it was Lowgerman that quickly betrayed Adam’s thinking; after only a year of learning to read English in school he was no longer aware of what language he thought in, nor even how he dreamed, and looking up from the church bench and seeing the setting sun flicker the fine spray of Big Thursday’s mighty words into intermittent, visible rainbows around his mouth, he was convicted in his heart that Sind was too close to sin for a simple English escape. Especially with his name.

Adam Peter: “ground,” “rock.” Adam realized his names were basically the same, one merely a more stubborn form of the other. And Sind or Sünde or sin were of course all one too, abominably everywhere, in any language; as his mother steadfastly reminded him.

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Temptations Of Big Bear

“I see this room crowded with – handsome faces – faces handsomer than mine even when I was young. I have been the leader of People in this country for a long time; People rode from four directions to hunt with me. I never put a chain on anything. I stand here an old man, and I will be sent somewhere with this chain. No doubt these handsome faces I admire will know how to care for the land. No doubt, better than I. Perhaps they will also be able to care for my people, now that I am gone. My people are hiding in the woods, terrified – those are my children, and they are starving, driven from the land which was our great inheritance and they are running, somewhere, in the darkness, afraid to show themselves in the big light of day. Oh, when I stand on the ground with the sky over me I pray to That One whose finger drew us from Earth and spread it out for us like a big blanket, Forgive them, they are hungry and terrified, forgive them! Have you no children? Have they never asked you for food? Is there nothing but punishment in the Grandmother’s law? When a young man of the River People leads other young men rashly into a bad raid and one of them is left on the plain, that leader returns to camp and falls down before that father, that mother, and he cries for forgiveness. Then the mother touches him, the father lifts him and holds him to his breast and there is a son again in that empty lodge to make them happy, to care for them when they are old. Who can say here why the dead are dead? Who can give them life again? I say there will be a time soon when the Grandmother will be very happy for every one of my people that live in the North West. I plead with you, chiefs of the white law, have pity! Pardon the outcasts of my people!”

The judge had no eyes. On the motionless head the egg-shaped glasses sat glazed gold.

“There are only a few words left,” Big Bear said, softly. “This land belonged to me. When I had it I never needed your flour and pork. Sometimes I was stiff with Indian agents who looked at me as if I was a child and knew less than a child. Before many of you were born I ran buffalo over this place where you have put this building, and white men ate the meat I gave them. I gave them my hand as a brother; I was free, and the smallest Person in my band was as free as I because the Master of Life had given us our place on the earth and that was enough for us. But you have taken our inheritance, and our strength. The land is torn up, black with fires, and empty. You have done this. And there is nothing left now but that you must help us.

“I have heard your many words, and now you have heard my few. A word is power, it comes from nothing into meaning and a Person takes his name with him when he dies. I have said my last words. Who will say a word for my people? Give my people help! I have spoken.”

For a moment the thunder of his voice battered the room; the answering sound of River People rose behind him, almost as if for an instant the old man stood again in the strong circle of his council. Then Peter Houri’s voice spoke and the English voice came immediately, quiet as always, but now more than ever as he would not expect it from so thick a body, though covered with black; thinly hard like steel:

“Big Bear, you have been found guilty by an impartial jury. I have no objection to hear what you have to say, but on one point you must be corrected. This land never belonged to you. This land was and is the Queen’s. She has allowed you to use it. When she wanted to make other use of it, she called you together through her officers and let you decide which of the choicest parts of the country you wanted, to reserve them for yourself. Your people can live there because the Queen has graciously given it to them. The land belongs to the Queen.

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Fruits of the Earth

Abe made room under the spout by driving ahead.

“Here, Charlie,” he said, for the boy had climbed to the ground. “I want you to take a load to town. Can you do it?”

“Sure, daddy.”

“All right. There it is. Climb up.” And he helped him. “Had your dinner? To elevator one; the first from the crossing. Listen here. While you have the load, you walk the horses. When you drive up the incline, hold your lines tight. On the platform, let the man do the work. On the way home, you can trot half the way.”

The boy nodded and clicked his tongue.

Victor Lafontaine had been watching father and son. As Abe turned back to his load, the Frenchman caught his eye and smiled. “Nice kid,” he said.

Abe looked at his watch. “Fill Horanski’s tank. Then dinner.” And he, too, drove on, separated from Charlie only by a narrow strip; for half a mile the trails hardly diverged. Abe met the hayrack bringing the dinner for the crew. Mrs. Horanski stood, precariously balanced, among baskets of food and boilers of coffee. As she passed him, she nodded with a smile at Charlie who laughed proudly back at her.

Then, just as father and son reached the point where their trails divided sharply, the whistle of the engine blew, giving the signal to stop work. The shrill sound made Charlie jump; and smilingly he looked back at his father, waving his hand; then he disappeared from sight.

Two hours went by. Abe had had his lunch at home and was back in the field filling his tank.

Wheat, wheat, wheat ran from the spout.

Then, just as in the morning, Victor and his lads stared south.

Abe looked up at the old man’s face which he saw in three-quarter profile. He was conscious only of the sunlight playing in the snow-white bristles of the stubble of his beard. Incomprehensibly, a wave of fear invaded him, aroused by the puzzled expression on the man’s face. Again, as in the morning, Abe dropped to the ground and circled the engine.

On the trail from the yard a dust cloud was trailing along. It took Abe a second or so to make out, at the apex of the fan-shaped cloud, a man on horseback tearing along at a terrific speed. He was riding a draught-horse, which fact was betrayed by the lumbering though furious gallop. He had just crossed the pasture.

“He leapt the gate,” Victor said from behind Abe’s back.

Abe did not answer. Who could it be? Whence did he come? A dull and ever-increasing disquietude took hold of him.

Suddenly he recognized the rider. It was Bill Crane. He should have been back by this time. The horse he was riding was clearly doing its utmost; yet Bill was wildly lashing it with a long line.

Everybody in the whole field was aware of the rider’s approach; all work had slowed down.

Then, at a distance of a quarter of a mile, the horse stumbled in full career and fell, throwing the rider who rolled over two or three times, to leap up and to fall again, fighting for breath and reeling.

Abe veered on Lafontaine. “For God’s sake, shut that engine off!”

Victor jumped; the hum subsided into silence.

Bill had stopped, struggling for his voice. “Charlie!” he yelled. “Charlie’s got hurt.” Abe’s knees gave under him.

“Where? How?” he shouted.

“Hilmer’s bridge. Load went over him!” Bill was still staggering forward; apparently he had been hurt by his fall.

“Hurt?” Abe asked as if groping for a clue.

“Load went right over him.”

For a moment it looked as if Abe were going to ask more questions. Then he turned and ran for the lead team of his grain tank. Feverishly he unhooked one of the horses, a Percheron colt, and, gathering the long line into loops, vaulted on his back. Lashing the heavy horse into a gallop, he shot past the engine out on the trail.

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by Robert Kroetsch
edited by Rudy Wiebe
photographs by Harry Savage
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