A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.
This letter is to say, come. You shouldn’t wait any more. I know it now, and here’s how I know it.
All starts a few days ago back in Montreal: so picture me, there I am in a big fancy building, like a train station but empty, and I’m eating cookies – they melt in the mouth from butter – and I’m hugging the tin, it’s my last meal till I don’t know. It’s middle February. I thought Montreal was cold, but I didn’t know from cold till – wait, first things first. Mr. Glenn had gave to me the cookies at Christmas, right off the shelf, he said, “Do you like shortbread?” I pictured miniature challa like Bubby used to make with the tail end of the dough, remember? So I said, “Sure, Mr. G, I love short bread.” “Merry Christmas,” he said and plunked it in front of me where I was standing behind the cash register: a red tin with a picture of a man in a skirt blowing into an octopus, and I said, “Merry back, Mr. G.” Then I put it under the counter.
Mr. Glenn is Scottish. He is now out of business, thanks to the Chinese have bought his drug store for “half the tea in China,” said Mr. Glenn. I don’t know from tea, I know only I’m out of a job now and eating Christian cookies which, Got tsu danken, I have remembered from under the counter before I leave.
So there I am (like I said this is a few days ago, I’m not there now by a long shot) and I’m keeping warm in the fancy building up the street on account of I can’t face my landlady, Mrs. Litvak whose solution to all my problems is marry her son. I’m thinking maybe I’ve run away from her. And I’m thinking, maybe I should run back. Once the blizzard dies down. Such a building this is. When I left Mr. Glenn’s, I staggered up St Lawrence Street on my feet like lumps of ice, all the time I was feeling along the fronts of buildings so as not to slip onto the street and get sliced by a tram, every door I tried until I found one that wasn’t locked or didn’t open onto “PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY.” And my luck, I’m suddenly in the Taj Mahal.
Marble staircase, chandeliers, a skylight far above me, I’m dizzy just looking up – but all empty. On one wall a couple of wickets, closed, with the words “Billets” and “Tickets” in gold overtop, so I figure whether or not there’s trains there’s bound to be facilities, because now that I’m warm I have to pishn. And you know what’s worse than frozen feet? Thawing feet. Next to the wickets is a big door, so I limp over and try it. All my weight it takes but I push hard enough I half fall through and drop the tin with a clatter, which danken Got, it stays closed and I don’t pick it up right away because I am not alone: I want the earth should open and I drop down to Sheol. A big bright roomful of people all turn and stare at me. Ladies and gentlemen seated on chairs in a semi-circle around a what-do-you-call-it, a stand, where a distinguished looking gentleman has just stopped whatever it was he was saying. On one side of him is a big flag hanging down from the ceiling, it’s blue with a white cross and lilies like I’ve seen before in this part of town, and on the other side of him, a picture of Jesus wearing his thorns – he’s looking straight at me, like he knows I’ve been eating his cookies.
The gentleman at the whatchamacallit smiles, says something to me in French, gesturing like I should take a seat. There’s an empty one next to a girl about my age. She has the saddest face I have ever seen outside of the back of my own spoon. What’s she got to be sad about, I’m thinking, as I stoop to pick up my cookie tin; nice dress, and those boots with real shearling at the tops, and that’s probably her fiancé sitting next to her, a delicate blond yingl, he is. You look at a girl like that and you think, she’s got parents who love her. I should know. I hate her. This takes two seconds, so amazing is the human brain.
The gentleman is waiting, I say “Excusez moi, Monsieur, but I’m in the wrong platz, I think.” There is not a sound; these people are high-class. He nods and comes out from around the podium – that’s the word. He has neat grey whiskers and nice eyes – I wonder if he has a shop and could use a shopgirl, or even does he need a maid, or a Jewish daughter?
He holds the door open for me, and points up the marble staircase. I smile and nod like I know where I’m going, and walk up a few steps to please him. The heavy door closes behind him with like a polite sigh and I’m about to run back down the stairs and out into the blizzard again when I hear something from up above. A dull roar. A train, after all? I climb the marble steps up to the first marble landing. Another roar. People, a lot of them. A few more steps. Laughter. At the top of the staircase, another big lobby with chandeliers and inlaid patterns on the marble floor. And another big set of doors. What have I got to lose: my job? My family? I open the door a crack:
Effie it’s like I open onto the sun shining in the middle of the night. It’s a theatre with a show going on – I’ve never been to one, but I’ve read every newspaper and magazine at Glenn’s Drugs and Variety. Up there on the stage are people in robes, purple, yellow, white; they’re in an old town square, from the Bible it looks, there’s palm trees and a camel (not a real one) and the desert in the background. I’m feeling already warmer. There’s music. Familiar. Sad, sad, sad music, it makes me feel so happy. Piano, clarinet, a lullaby sung by a mother... It is not possible, I am dreaming, she is singing...in Yiddish. I'm dead. I died in the blizzard, cut in two by a tram, and my soul has gone to the cold empty place forever because of the Christmas cookies. On the other hand, like I said it’s pretty warm in here. And full. Packed with audience, now my eyes have adjusted I see also, Effie, it's not just nice, it’s grand. Like an opera house in Warsaw, velvet seats, fancy boxes like little boats, and way over the stage saucy cupids. All around the ceiling the same blue flowers like on the flag downstairs, and everywhere gold.
Well, you are in Warsaw, Effie, and instead of running back, I’ve gone further into this krazy kountry, and I want you should come here too. Last year, when I left for Canada I believed just as much as you that you should stay and wait for a message, but Effie, lot of times there’s no messenger. And that’s the message. I am right now waiting for a train, and I want I should finish this letter and put it in the postbox before I can change my mind for what I’m going to do next, which it is too late for me anyway.
So, there I was, just a couple days ago, standing in the back of the theatre with the audience I’m laughing and crying, because it’s water in the desert, Effie, watching those actors up on the stage in their robes like from Moses, showing us how brave and noble and gorgeous we used to be and maybe still are, it gave me such a yearning like I couldn’t wait to find someone to rescue! I forget I’m existing until the velvet curtains close and the lights come on, and I’m in a crowd of – for sure, over a thousand – Jews! I’m hearing not a word of English or French even, just Yiddish, and the accents, you would not believe. Effie, they’re from everywhere, but you know how when we finally got to Warsaw and we’d run into a Jew from Belz otherwise known as the Middle of Who Cares? But we’d greet each other like long lost family, that’s what it felt like in that theatre. There was a man there who looked exactly like Tante Freyda if Tante Freyda were a rabbi. And I saw Mama – okay, but she looked exactly like Mama, okay, enough.
So ya, ya, I know already there’s a multitude from our people here in Montreal, but multitude schmultitude; this was a celebration, men, women, children everyone together, even Hasidim, not like at synagogue with us all separate, not like at work, work, work, which is all anyone ever does, except pray, pray, pray, this was a theatre! And guess what? That girl I saw downstairs? Her father and mother and their friends have built it – this I find out from her later, yes, Frenchies have built this, Catholics to boot, but where do the Jews come in? From Kiev and Moscow and Minsk and a hundred shtetls no one’s ever heard of, okay, okay, to answer the question for really: Jews pay the rent. Effie, we are good tenants, God willing they don’t evict us like from everywhere else, but that man downstairs, he knew I was Jewish, and he was nice (I know, I know...). Where was I?
In the theatre. The Monument National. That's French for the National Monument. (They call it “national” but they mean Quebec which is just a province but they think it should be its own country or at least get more respect, which what is not to understand?) So the lights come on and everyone claps and I let the crowd carry me out to the lobby – I hide the Christian cookies in my coat, and already I’m thinking, “well that was wonderful, but this is Montreal 1896, not Jerusalem from Bible times, and a maydel cannot live by shortbread alone, I need to find a job.” But the crowd doesn’t flow down the stairs, instead they fan out, some to the refreshment counter, some to – not a moment too soon – the facilities.
I wait in line, shifting back and forth on wet feet. One by one the stalls empty and one by one the ladies and women and girls, we take our turn, but one stall at the end stays closed; inside, a pair of beautiful boots with shearling tops, which I know because I’m maybe not the only one to wonder what’s with the lady stalling in the stall, but I'm the only one to peek.
The last flush, I’m washing my hands, I hear a bell and I figure, the show’s starting up again, but do I go? Neyn. I wait, because even more than dancing and singing in the Holy Land, I want to see if I’m right about who's in those boots. Why? you ask. So do I. Answer: Kismet. (I see your eyes rolling from here, Effie, but wait...)
It's her all right. The Katholische Frantsoyzishe from downstairs, her with the fiancé and the, yes, boots that say “somebody loves me.” Already I’m turning to go catch the second act, but wait, she’s crying. I see this before she shuts the stall door again when she realizes she is not alone after all. I say, “What's the matter?” She says back something in French. I say, “Come again?” She has a little English, I have a little less French.
She comes out of the stall. I offer her a cookie. She eats one. Then another. All the while talking, all the while eating the cookies. She eats them all. My last meal.
Long story, less long: She is pregnant. It’s him, the blond. He should ought to be her fiancé except he suddenly won't marry her on account of he's got a vocation. A what? She explains: he’s been called to be a priest. Personally, by God. Supposedly it's a bigger sin for him to ignore this call, than it is for him to have up and left her farshtupft. This, all in the bathroom, meanwhile I’m missing the show, which if I want to come back later I’ll have to pay next time.
At first, when she told him she was in the family way he got tickets on the train west along with a “Claim” he bought from out a newspaper advertisement – a little patch of permafrost, just this side of Siberia where they would live miserably ever after. But suddenly he saw the light, and he’s joining the seminary tomorrow – what they call the priest school. So tomorrow she’s got to tell her parents that she’s in trouble and they’ll send her to the nuns. Where to the nuns? She just repeats “To the Nuns” as if that’s a place on a map everybody’s heard of. I say, what’s to stop him getting on that train himself? She looks shocked like it never crossed her mind – but she reaches inside her dress and comes out with a brown envelope. Fifty dollars! Plus, two train tickets, and – get this – a piece of paper like a school diploma, it’s called a Certificate of Claim. She’s saying, “He gives me all to show his bonne foi.” I’m thinking, “Run, Ruchel!” I can be out the door and hail a taxi before this girl can Hail Mary, I’ll cash the tickets, and hop a boat back to Effie. This shtupped-up Catholic has no claim on me, what with us going all the way back to the salon downstairs with the picture of Jesus and the flag of the promised land of Quebec. Her with the nice parents – that was her Papa with the whiskers, and her Maman is going to see to it that women get to vote (and pigs should fly) – so what if she has to put up with a few nuns, what about me? I'm too young to die and go to bed with Shmuel, I’m going back to Warsaw, me and Effie we’ll make hats like we always said, and one day an old woman will hobble into our shop and say, “...Effie?...Ruchel?” And we’ll say, “Mama, thank God! Where were you?”
It takes two seconds in my brain to think, I should rob this Frenchie maydel, but it’s two seconds too many because it gives her time to say, “Mademoiselle, why do you not wearing boots?”
I say, “I am wearing boots.”
“Boots of winter,” she says.
“Oh,” I say. “You mean my fur-lined calf skin boots? I must’ve left them back in Moscow, but you know how things slip your mind when you’re getting expelled.”
She stares. I say, “My name is Rachel.”
She says, “Je m’appéle Adéle.”
Then she takes off her beautiful boots and gives them to me –won’t take no. Effie, the boots are to the feet what butter is to the mouth.
So on one hand, the shortbread mitzvah is paying off large, but on the other, I can't rob her now. I wonder, if I give her my little-bit-used hanky, will she give me that tortoiseshell comb in her hair? But the more we talk the more I see she isn’t stupid, just rich. She asks from my family and I tell her about you. She asks why you have stayed in Warsaw, and I tell her the reason. I have never told no one else, just her who I have known for five minutes (maybe it’s my warm feet have gone to my head.)
It takes us most of the second act, but we make a plan to rescue each other: her from the nuns, me from Mrs. Litvak and by the time we slip back into the theatre to catch the grand finale where Shulamith marries her hero (never mind he jilted her and brought a curse on his kids), Adèle’s brown envelope full of freedom is safe in my cookie tin, and she has tucked it inside her fur muff.
Back out on St Lawrence the snow has stopped, the tram slides by, every window a yellow light like a tiny theatre where each passenger is acting in their own story. Everyone has got a story, Effie, right? And so long as even one other person knows that story, it counts. Way overhead you’ve never seen a blacker sky, or a brighter. It’s something about cold; it makes shiny the sky like a black diamond, with stars so sharp they hurt, but it’s a good hurt. We walk through the Chinese Quarter where you never see anyone but men, till we get to the train station on Windsor Street – talk about a palace – and I’m ready to stop the kidding around, already I’m bending to give her back her boots and say goodbye because, let’s face it, we’re oil and...whatever it is can’t mix with oil, or maybe I’m vinegar and she’s... the other thing; point is, we’ve had some fun, now it’s time for her to go to the nuns and for me to marry Shmuel. At this she looks surprised. She says, mostly in French, but it’s easy to catch her drift, that she thought we were going to rescue each other but she’ll get on the train without me and I can keep her “maudites bottes.” She bangs through the big doors. I follow, running across the (second in one night!) marble floor. “Hey!” I holler, “Gimme back my cookie tin!”
Short story, more short:
By the time the train is moving with a cloud of steam and stink like Leviathan moving its bowels, I am one of those faces between the curtains of the windows and my story has taken an unforeseen turn. That’s my window, fourth from the end; I’m the one waving. To Adéle.
See, no sooner did she talk me into climbing aboard then she stopped in her tracks. Did she see a ghost? A nun? I looked around, but everywhere just regular people boarding the midnight train to the rest of their lives. It was that she couldn’t do it to her mother, to her father – just disappear. “What about your baby?” She patted her stomach, “Je le garde.” “They won’t let you.” “They don't stop me now.” “Adèle, I thought we were going to rescue each other.” “Rachel, we do.” She pronounced French my name so it rhymed with hers. She held out her hand, like I should come with her for the rest of my life, but my brain said, if I do that, I’ll be like Effie in Warsaw, waiting... I went to open the cookie tin to give her back the envelope but she shook her head. She hugged me. I said, “Merci.”
By the time the train comes out of forest and onto prairie two days later I am lonely, a little scared maybe, the prairie is like an ocean, so big this country, but I say, “Ruchel, you crossed an ocean already by yourself, this is just one more ocean.” Still, every mile takes me farther from you, Effie, and from Mama... At least my feet are warm in the boots of Adèle, warmer still with dollar bills stuffed round my ankles – but not the Certificate of Claim, that I keep in the red cookie tin.
This certificate I have plenty time to study during two days of forest. Goes something like this: “By the Authority of The Government of The Dominion of Canada and Her Majesty Queen Victoria, the bearer of this Certificate of Claim is hereby granted lawful possession of...” It’s for a piece of land way north at a place called Rabbit Creek – some bisel pissle off a big river called Klondike. Whoever owns this piece of paper owns what they find there, including, gold. Gold, Effie. I figure the red tin has already turned cookies into money, so I put the Claim certificate in there for good luck and hold it on my lap.
Out the window it’s still flat like you would not believe and emptier even than Russia; except, turns out it isn’t. This I find out, thanks to a church lady who’s got five little children with her. They get on in a town with a frozen river and I think, “We're here!” I hop off the train, run into the station. But no. We are in a town called Winnipeg. I hop back on.
They all squish into my compartment, the church lady and the five little kinder. Strange thing: it’s middle winter but the lady has a bamboo fan on her wrist, it hangs there, closed, I’m wondering how hot can it get on this prairie in February? These little children you can tell right away they’re not hers, black hair cut short, boys and girls both, all in clothes from hard new cotton but with skin coats, fur turned inside. They have darkest eyes like shaynsteh black gems, very tanned-like skin but I don’t see a smile and pretty soon I know why: she hits them cross the hand with the fan every time they make a peep in their language – raw their knuckles – except for the oldest, a girl, maybe nine years old, her the lady hits on the ear but the kid never flinches, and it’s like she never takes her eyes off my cookie tin either. I want to say, “Sorry, no cookies in here,” but I don’t want to get mixed up. Whack. Quarter mile later, whack – you get the picture. I say, “Excuse you me, Ma’am, you maybe shouldn’t ought to whack too hard.” Church lady smiles, says, “Miss, I can assure you I’m not hurting them, they’re from the Reserve.” And I wonder, what is this place where children feel no pain? Talk about a promised land. So I ask, the Reserve, is this a province or territory? (I’m up on these things, thanks to I looked at the map in Winnipeg station – which is how I found out also how far Klondike is. Far.) Turns out it’s neither, and there’s isn’t just one Reserve, there’s loads... For Indians. I ask how they got here from India, she says they didn’t, and the rest I can’t make head or tail but it reminds me: You know how at home there was the Pale of Settlement and it was every year the Czar would shrink the borders where we can live? So I wonder if maybe pogroms will come here too. But she says they’re the “the luckiest savages in the world,” she’s taking them to live at a fancy new school where they’ll grow up and get saved. I say “That’s wonderful. But maybe probably their parents will miss them?” I was thinking how Mama and, when he was alive, our father, would feel if we have been taken like that; at least you and I got to run from Moscow together, at least Mama knew where we were going. And then I thought how someone must know what happened to her, why don't they at least send word... And I thought how carrying even a bad message is a mitzvah.
Meanwhile the church lady is saying, “They don’t have the same family feeling we do.” We makes me feel guilty because I must’ve let her think I’m Christian; until I realize it’s maybe enough for her that I’m not an Indian. Whack.
When she falls asleep, I want to say to the oldest one, the girl, “Come with me,” and reach my hand, but that would be kidnapping. I close my eyes to stop seeing hers. When I wake up it’s still flat outside, and white, the sun is still too bright and the church lady’s still snoring. So it can’t have been long, but the girl with the eyes is gone, and so is my cookie tin with the Claim inside.
I spring up so fast, church lady snorts awake, I say, “She took my cookies.” Church lady pulls herself to her feet, the other little kids act like nothing’s happening. I charge up one way the aisle, church lady not so fast down the other, hanging onto the tops of seats, like on a ship in a storm – the train, it rocks even though the land is flat and almost I fall. I get to the end of the car, there’s a door with a small high window, all frost and steam, I scratch clear a patch and see the girl.
She is standing, her back against the next car, holding on tight to the red cookie tin, there is nothing else to hold onto out there. She maybe thought she could get through that next door and hide and eat all the cookies she thinks are inside. I don’t know if she can see me, but she’s staring straight at the window like she knows she’s got to get back inside somehow. But I know from heavy doors. It’s one thing to push, it’s another to pull when you’re on the outside between two moving cars.
I push, it’s stuck, I push, it opens, I just about fall, Effie, the tracks, the snow, so loud so fast under my feet, I don’t look, I look straight ahead at this girl, what is she made from? I reach out my hand. She holds out the cookie tin with the Scotchman and his musical octopus – he’s far from home, no castles out here. I shout, wave my hand to say, “No, give me your hand!” She understands and reaches her free hand, I take it. So. My hip is holding open the door to our carriage, the handle jabbed in my pelvis for safe-keeping. So. She needs to come to me, across the coupling. However it was she got to the other side, now she has to come back. She takes a step – Effie, it’s just a piece of paper, but I had this meshugeh notion I would go up to that new promised land and find gold. I’d go back to Warsaw, you and I would open our hat shop, we’d find Mama – I open and close my other hand, so as to say to the girl, “give me both of yours” because it’s the only way. She lets go the red tin, it disappears under the train like it never was. I get both her hands, and now she puts one foot on the coupling and I’m going to pull her, we’re going to fall back hard and safe inside. But she looks up, like she sees something over my shoulder. She lets go my hands, turns like to jump back over the coupling but – she’s gone. Like she never was.
I can’t understand it. My whole lifetime might not be long enough to make enough time for that to have happened. Effie.
I turned around, and it was the church lady behind me.
They don’t stop the train. The lady doesn’t tell the conductor. “There is no point inconveniencing the other passengers when there is nothing to be done.” She takes from her purse a notebook. “Are you writing to her parents?” “Her people are illiterate, dear.” “Who is going to tell them?” My voice sounds strange, like if the frozen window beside me could speak. Lady sighs, makes a mark in the notebook with a pencil. The other children stay perfectly quiet.
When she gets up to go to the facilities I take the notebook from her purse. The children watch me do this. A heading at top of the page says the name of a place. Under it, a column of five numbers. One is crossed out. When I see the door to the facilities opening at the end of the carriage, I put back the notebook.
The children must know something bad has happened because not only does the girl never come back, the lady never has to whack them all the way to the place where they get off and where I am now. Brandon. This is where their school is, but I am not following them there. I am waiting for the train back to Winnipeg, to where they first got on.
Effie, we will open our shop. But I want it should be not in Warsaw, but on St Lawrence Street in Montreal and we call it, Le Chapeau National. It is time for you to leave Warsaw. Mama is not coming back. I know this now. Come to this big country, Effie. Canada is a whole lot of countries rolled into one, so many stories. Mama is dead.
My train is coming, you can see here from 20 miles. Like a desert, but with snow.
I am going to go find the place written in the lady’s notebook where it must be the children came from. When I get there I will look for parents of a girl about nine years old, who are missing her. I will tell them what happened.
The name of the place is Cross Lake. I want you should know this, in case.
Your loving sister,