Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:49

Letters from a Conservative Farmer - American Memories

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Letters from a Conservative Farmer - American Memories

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Indians in Nova Scotia are MicMacs, kin to the Abenakis of Maine, and on Cape Breton they live on five reservations, called reserves. We didn't know them at all in 1971 until they started coming to the farm for butter and cheese and bacon, but that was a couple of years in the future. In the meantime there was an Indian family nearby, living in a shack just a mile down the railroad tracks where there used to be a station, within a stone's throw of the lake. He had served in the army during the war, so he had a pension and was independent of the reserve. When I was driving out that way - we still had the truck then - in the early morning sometimes I would see him in his skiff hauling a herring net, and he would stand out sharply through the mist, like those 19th century portrait photos that blank out everything but the face.

Of course, Indians figured in our correspondence with our friends in the States. Curious about our Canadian venture, our friends seemed to think of our farming almost romantically, as something exotic, an expedition into the Great North Woods, and Indians filled the bill: the Indians lived in our letters as parenthetical asides, enigmatic figures at a distance.

And then one day the Indian's wife flagged us down as we were passing in the truck.

"I go doctor. Bad pain," clutching her side, pulling at the door handle.

Jo Ann opened the door, and the woman huddled in the seat, moaning. Jo Ann tried to find out where it hurt, but the woman would have none of it, turning her head away, refusing to answer, muttering about the doctor. She was gaunt and severe, in some sort of black garment, and she never looked at us. It was 35 miles to the town, and I hadn't planned to go there, but I could get grain on the way back. I drove as fast as I dared on the wretched roads.

When we offered to go in the hospital with her she snarled and jerked away, so we left her in the parking lot and went our way.

What were the chances of that happening in the same way a week later? Pretty small, you'd think, but again she waved us down, "I go doctor, bad pain," and again she resisted Jo Ann's solicitations. This time, however, she perked up as we went along and she insisted on getting out in the town instead of going on to the hospital. I mentioned it to a neighbor and he laughed. "She wanted a ride to the liquor store. It's an old story. She's been doing that for years. Nobody pays any mind to her, but she figured you were a newcomer who wouldn't know." He laughed again and shook his head.

I was astonished and embarrassed. To be taken in once, all right, but twice, and when she didn't even bother to keep up her act! We wouldn't be taken in like that again.

The occasion didn't arise, but three weeks later, on a Sunday, the sow came in heat. The boar was in Middle River, a good 25 miles away, so we loaded her in a travelling crate on the truck with the two boys riding in back with the sow. We set off. When I rounded the turn by the tracks where the Indians lived, there was a human barrier across the road: the Indians and their two little boys, and a bum from town, Three-Fingered Archie. When I stopped, they mobbed the truck, climbing in, thrusting money on the dashboard, demanding to be taken to town. What the hell, I thought, the town's only five miles. Archie and woman settled in and the Indian got in back. The two little boys were left standing in the road, crying their hearts out. I got out to soothe them - "Don't cry, your mother'll be right back" - but they ignored me, until their mother shouted one word - it meant nothing to me but it was hard and harsh and the two little boys, still bawling, ran toward the shack. I got back in the truck and turned it around toward town. No one said anything; I noticed that the money was gone from the dashboard.

When we arrived at the crossroads where a left went toward the village and a right led to the TransCanada highway, it turned out that they wanted to go some place on the highway, not far, and money again appeared on the dashboard. There was much jabbering. Meanwhile the Indian, seeing through the back window that Archie had his arm around the woman, climbed out and demanded that Archie get in the back. When everyone was resettled, I turned right and set off again. At the highway I was told to turn right and head for the reserve, but before we got there the Indian pointed to a lane which I followed up to one of the garishly painted houses the Indians favored. The passengers jumped out of the truck and ran to the house. I sat there looking at the house, talking to the boys, who wanted to know what was going on. "I guess it's a bootlegger," I said. I should explain that bootleggers weren't distillers but entrepreneurs who spent weekdays buying quantities of liquor from the Provincial liquor stores that they sold, at double the cost, to their customers when the Provincial stores were closed. The stores weren't open on Sunday or at night, and they were few and far between, so the bootleggers filled a need. The Mounties didn't bother them much.

They weren't in the house long. They came out carrying a case of beer and two cases of Canadian sherry, and as soon as they got in the truck each one started in on a bottle. By then, my brain had begun to function and I realized that if a Mountie saw what was going on - and how could he miss it? - and stopped me, I'd be in big trouble. So instead of going back the way I had come, a dozen miles on the TransCanada, I'd go a couple of miles beyond the reserve and then take a side road down to the ferry, which would put me back on the peninsula, where Mounties were seldom seen.

I was relieved when I turned onto the ferry road, but when I drew up in the line of cars waiting for the ferry, I was horrified: I had forgotten it was Sunday. The service in the Presbyterian Church beside the ferry had ended, and a large crowd of parishioners from our end of the peninsula was standing out front, 30 yards away. The Indians beside me were pouring the stuff down, and worst of all, Archie was sitting on the sow crate with a bottle lifted to his lips. We had lived here only a few months, and I knew we were regarded as eccentrics at best. Every eye was upon us. That's when I started to laugh.

"Suddenly I saw it all as if from the Cosmos and I saw how funny it was," I told Jo Ann.

"Oh, wonderful! The Cosmos! Listen to me: we don't live in the Cosmos, we live in Cape Breton!"

That's all she said about it, but you can be sure I didn't pick up any more Indians, and in fact, I had no opportunities. Occasionally I saw the Indian in his skiff out in the cove, but that was all. Then winter came, and one day the woman beat the little boys with a poker and they ran away to hide in a neighbor's barn. The Children's Aid society took them away, and by spring the Indians were gone, moved to the reserve on the other side of the island. Some Indians started to dismantle the shack, but the storekeeper, who had some sort of lien on it, stopped that, and the tiny building (it wasn't more than 10 feet on a side) stood there until some kids burned it down one Halloween. Now all that's left are some charred bits and broken glass in the midst of the weeds.

When I wrote to my friends about our Indian adventures, they didn't say much - I guess drunks weren't very romantic. Later, when we had Indian customers and I got to know them, I had stopped writing letters about our romantic life in Canada.

But sometimes, when I drive by the cove with the team, and look over the water on a misty morning, I remember the Indian in his skiff checking his nets. I can almost see him, and then I remember ourselves then, full of illusions and naivete. *

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