TUESDAY: Eighteen Ninety-Seven

BY PAULINE SHEN

Copyright is held by the author.

I RUN my finger along the marker at the edge of our farm. Its wood is parched from time and weather. A locomotive’s soprano voice carries across the prairie. I picture that engine puffing into a station where the platform swirls with a symphony of tongues. I think of families boarding with slumped shoulders and weary eyes. I recall how we, my parents, my brothers and I, stepped onto the colonist car with its sunlit windows and faintly sweet fragrance. Around us, men snored while mothers cooed at young ones latched to their breast. I witnessed my older brother, Wasyl, rub his teary eyes as the train pulled us westward.

We had boarded that car at the docks. This came after countless days of retching and moaning deep inside the steamship. I swaddled my baby sister, Ana, inside my sheepskin coat. We clung to each other while the Atlantic’s undulations tossed our ship. The worst part about feeling her body shiver from the cold was when it stopped. As Papa caressed her pale cheek, the sash fell from her linen.

One-by-one, families lost their weaker members. Lifeless bodies were tossed over to the tumultuous brine where sharks circled. In our dark quarters, Ana’s sash felt soft in my palm. I curled my knees to my ribs and leaned into our cabin’s dank rot.

The ship’s baritone honk was the first sound I remember after the ocean’s heaves subsided. Halifax harbour opened its arms as the S.S. Scotia let out one final sigh, pushing its contents into the New World. Arms, legs, and torsos pressed through the corrals. Flies mingled in manure. My younger brother, Philip, pointed a finger at screeching seagulls by a barrel of smoked cod. Steam and soot emanated from everywhere, even bovine snouts. Our vessel had no sooner exhaled the last emigrating family before its crew stuffed lumber, grains, and livestock into the holds. A balking horse broke free of its rope, delivering a snap that resonated through my navel.

I remember the mechanical chatter, clatter, and clicks of our railroad journey. Station by station, rolling hills smoothed out to a flat expanse. After Winnipeg, we unfolded the benches and stretched our legs. Mama loosened my braids and stroked my hair. Papa laid out bread and cheese from our sacks while my brothers wrestled in the aisle. Our heartbeats drummed with the swish-swish on the track.

The steam engine’s bell heralded our arrival in Moose Jaw. I recall stepping out to fresh warm air. Philip held Mama’s hand while Papa and Wasyl packed the wagon with bushels, barrels, and wood. The train’s aria echoed in the distance as we trekked out of town. Papa led the horses while we ambled alongside the wagon.

When we stopped, the swaying tall grass tickled at my skirt. Papa’s spade rang out as he struck a timber marker into the ground. I secured Ana’s sash around it and looked up to the wide sky. We, all of us, were home.

4 comments
  1. Thanks for this. This resonates for me. My father arrived in 1905 and my mother about 1920. They worked with their backs and persevered too.

  2. Loved it! Such colorful descriptors pulling the reader into time and space.

  3. Masterfully written! I can see and feel the experiences of the narrator

  4. Lovely work!!! The scenery is painted well and I wish there was more

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