Eveline and I awake in Tomahawk Park to the sound of the rain’s pit pat on the orange plastic tarp. We crawl out of the tent into a gray and dripping sky, the raggy bottoms of the clouds ringing the last drops of the night’s downpour onto a soaking prairie landscape. A prairie that stretches out and away to the west and north, to Little Pine and Poundmaker and Cutknife Hill. Up towards that somewhere of the thousand stories of my imagined youth. My father’s remembered youth.
I know the trip to the old farmhouse will be difficult if not impossible. The directions are sketchy at best and if we can find the old farm road there will be no gravel to speak of. Only that legendary dirt track, turned to ruts every spring, the ruts recarved with every vehicle after every new rain. We pack the camp without enthusiasm, knowing that if the rain does not let up our last day in Saskatchewan will bring us no closer to that house than this little town of Cutknife. The sky slowly lightens, the clouds lifting and breaking up, and the wind rises and begins again the cycle of licking the sparkling beads of moisture from all the bare branches, the waving stalks of the tall yellowing grasses and the miles of stubbly wheat fields.
We head north out of town, highway 674. Sign says five miles to the Poundemaker turn off. Dad had said five miles or so to their turn but its been a few years. The retired teacher at the museum said he thought the turn was only two or three miles, so we slow for every road leading to the east. Soon the land begins an almost imperceptible change. The fields to the east of the road begin to swell and undulate. The bush creeps in on the edges and there are more draws and hills. A strange familiarity drifts on the heavy damp air. That purple red glow, like an aura around the leafless willows bunched in the coulees, the silvery gray trembling aspen and the yellow ochre of the stubble fields transports me back to my childhood, to the landscape of the Peace River, two provinces and almost fifty years away.
The road was there, exactly three miles from town, an unused single track along the edge of a field. Part of the field really, but unplanted, stubble on one side and a fence line and willow strip on the other. Now head east for two miles or so, and the house should be there, can’t miss it. Within a few yards I realize this isn’t the gumbo of the Peace River, but some different ground, and though we slither and slide from side to side there are no ditches and the banks of the dark sandy clay loam keep us on the chosen path, the land itself directing us forward, back through time. The sky was threatening, dark gray clouds hung low over head as I gun the old Chevy through the first of the rain filled pot holes, whooping and hollering and skidding sideways, water and mud spraying, clouds of steam billowing out from under the yellow hood.
A mile or so east of the highway, we crest a knoll and catch our first glimpse of the house, peeking out over the large bluff of trees to the North East. A tide of excitement rises in my chest as memories flood in. My father’s stories, the memories of his youth. Intertwined with memories of my own, taking me back to the land of my childhood, on a farm, on a prairie, a mirror image of this place. We are still moving east and the house sinks off to the north, crouching out of sight, hiding behind the overgrown hedge. The Black Poplar and Caragana have not stopped their reaching towards the prairie sky. They are unconcerned with the comings and goings of the visitors that lived within their embrace for those few short years. Besides they still have the old house to protect.
At the two-mile line the old road peters out and we stop the truck and step out onto the prairie.
We turn around and around under that big gray sky and we are alone. In every direction the rolling fields. Most forgotten and unused, grown in with prairie grass. The low knolls build to the East and North, to the brushy, willow lined draws of Cutknife Creek and further South flattening out again towards the town of Cutknife. To the west, from where we had come, a lighter sky and flatter open prairie, still farmed. Once the farm of my father’s uncle L. P., the first one to come. Sent by his father from southern Manitoba, to find land, following the path beaten by the Metis less than fifty years before. Walking all the way from the Battlefords, across the Battle, west past Sweetgrass, further west and finding land here at Cutknife Creek hard up against the south side of Poundmaker. In his house my father was born, eighty years ago, just a half a mile from where we stand.
We turn and begin to walk north. Ahead a mile or so, beyond the bluff of trees that now hide the house, the low wooded hills of Poundmaker Reserve rise up darkly, into the low hanging sky. The same wooded hills where my father was sent to find the horses when they had wandered and mixed with the Indian ponies, and returned home crying that he couldn’t find them ‘cause he had gotten scared out there all by himself.
All is silent but for the wind. The wind that blows out here, unimpeded all the way from the Gulf of Mexico. Wind that one time carried the sounds and smells and clouds of dust that brought the great herds of Buffalo to the people of Poundmaker. Wind that blew across this prairie of my fathers youth and farther on across prairie, on up to the north and west to that prairie landscape of my own youth. The wind that blew in the grasshoppers and blew away the buffalo and the rain and with it any hope of remaining on this chosen land. That blew my Grandfather north and my Father west and away to sea, never to return.
We reach the fence line now and crawl through, round the end of the tangle of hedge, and step out into the knee high waving yellow sea of grass that once was a yard. Transformed, over eighty years ago, from an earlier sea of grass. Trampled flat that summer, by the horses hooves and wagon wheels and trod flat by all the feet of the 11 kids, my not yet father’s aunts and uncles and my grandmother and grandfather and everyone else racing to finish the new house so they would be out of the granaries by winter. We slowly circle the house, around to the front and in the shelter of the hedge the wind drops, a quietness descends. We stand silently not wanting to break the spell, to stop the rushing flood of memory. The stories and images and sounds. Of horses pawing and stamping, snorting and shaking their massive heads, setting the wagons and harness leather and buckles creaking and jingling. Dust and dogs and chickens swirling. Kids laughing, shrieking and running everywhere. And my fathers’ uncle, his shrieks echoing, his boy lying still in death on the kitchen table, after being pulled from that Cutknife Creek.
This house sheltered many children. My father, born the very summer it was built, was the twelfth. And the last, the seventeenth receiving life nine years later with the death of their mother, my grandmother. With all the empty windows, the sagging roof and collapsed front foundation, the house stands sturdier and taller than I imagined. The original cedar roof shingles, shipped all the way from B.C., are mostly still there, hanging on by their nails. The shiplap siding has been weathered of its whitewash paint to the colour of the land itself. The detailing of the two arched dormers, the inside staircase and the hardwood flooring throughout, bucking now from the rain poring through the gaping chimney hole, signifies a craftsman’s care and pride and belies a summers rush to completion.
The old house rests now, alone, tucked into the corner of the hedge grown up on three sides, open to the east. It’s hollow windows gazing out over the land. That first eighty acres, broke the year of my fathers birth, by my grandfather with an ox and plow and turned to field. Reclaimed now by the prairie, that sea of waving grass.