by Seyward Goodhand
The depredations of a corrupt local government and the ravages of a harsh prairie winter force an ostracized but self-sufficient widow to open her home to innocents with nowhere else to turn. Journey Prize finalist Seyward Goodhand's effortless storytelling allows the humanity to shine through in this grim take on a classic tale.
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I BECAME GUARDIAN OF the Wiebe’s toddler, Katie, right before the war, in the heart of the prairies. It’s a sore, red, infected-looking mouth she’s got, one that in my moments of lift I imagine contains the terror of her family’s end like she’d gobbled it up only for she couldn’t help it, the little witch. Small as it is, it’s a mouth I have to feed.
By the time she came to me, my husband, Derek Pifer, was dead for three years. He’d fallen down a well off in the back sixty and I hadn’t gone to look for him on account of he sometimes did go for days to auction without telling me — he liked to torture me this way, imagine me trapped by worry and impotence. Me who didn’t get an allowance more than exactly what I needed to keep the house running and who couldn’t go to the bank and make a withdrawal without Derek’s co-signature. Not in our town, anyway. We followed Company rules. Fight and fret him all you want, push him down the stairs, skip his meals, swell up before him in a squall of indignation while he sits at the kitchen table hanging his head and afraid — there is no proving you’re his match, Wife, when the facts of the world are against you.
Oh, sure. I did take away that well cover. Years before he fell down it, though, so by the time he did fall I’d forgotten. Still, you can take away a well cover but you can’t make a man walk to exactly the place on the whole two hundred acres where there’s a pit. That was grace delivered me. Then the farm was mine, and suddenly I could go to the bank myself. I know it’s said: how to control a man, give him a plot of land to defend. This might have been true of me, too, were it not such a hopeless time already. I never quite believed the house might not be taken from me at any moment, didn’t feel at home in it on account of it was Derek’s inheritance, really. It was somehow thin for a house, just like he’d been thin. In any case, owning this home has not made me compliant.
By then the Company had already been coming more regular to check on our yields of corn and wheat. They weren’t yet interested in the acre of vegetables we all grew to eat and sell at market on the weekends, really it amounted to trade, all that selling and buying, zucchini for tomatoes, beans for mushrooms, broccoli for cauliflower. We all grew potatoes, onions and cabbage, but we brought them to market anyway for the city people. They’d sit on these old sawhorses around the barrel of fire Rolf Wiebe used to roast corn, playing at country on their harmonicas. What is it like to be them, I’ve always yearned to know. To walk down a sidewalk dressed in the armour of fashion, into a place where I had cause to go and others were expecting me, and I knew exactly what I needed to do and was good at it?
When the Company did take an interest in counting our vegetable yields, we got new contracts we all had to sign — or we didn’t have to, but it was illegal to sell to anyone but them. The weekend markets stopped and what became of the city people I’ll never know. I suppose some of them became the migrants who started coming through. Then children — released into the wilds, at first with something like benevolence, for it was summer — came travelling in their pup packs, ransacking our orchards and berry patches, stealing the odd chicken and bringing it back to the eldest of them who’d set up a sort of camp among the poplars, over in Mustard Woods. We’d all tacitly agreed not to shoot the little scamps, hoping things might rectify themselves when winter came, though people did grumble about their missing stock.
We told ourselves, at the end of the season, come harvest, there’d be some for us to keep just like there’d always been. True, we hadn’t seen that number drawn up in our contracts, but the Company wanted farmers, didn’t it? It wasn’t good business to have all your workers up and die, we said with a degree of self-importance. I suppose living on the prairies we didn’t know how full the world was elsewhere, didn’t share the general population’s dim, panicky impulse to purge itself. No, we were people who conserved, who stocked up. We had no idea how replaceable we were.
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