“Was it here?”

drumheller 1912

from a work-in-progress:

Early on the morning we are to leave Drumheller, I open the door of the little house we are staying in. My grandchildren are playing with puzzles, their parents and my husband are making breakfast. I walk to the river, just a block or two away. The trail is crisp with frost and the willows hang over quiet eddies of the dark water. Was it here? One map suggests it was. Was this where Joseph Klus dug his house into the bank, laid his blankets on a cot, listened for rain? Is this were he first felt the chill, the congestion in his lungs, shivered until he was moved to his sister’s house where he died among the children, one of them an infant? Did anyone bring soup or tubs of water for washing his body? Two days later, Joseph Yopek also died, in Anna’s care.

Was it here or was it across the river? Magpies watch me walking. There’s a hotel I’ve seen in early photographs and someone told me the squatters’ camp was in that area. Our little house looks out on the hotel. Was it here, was it here? Everyone is nice to me but I know they don’t understand my urgent need to determine where my grandmother lived, where she lost first one, then a second, and finally a third family member in a short period of time. Baby Myrtle died of whooping cough with the underlying condition of malnutrition. I can’t imagine my grandmother took to her bed, not with 9 children, but did her milk dry up? Was there no money to supplement the infant’s diet?

Was it here, where the children were sent for water, were hushed while both Josephs coughed themselves to death? Was it here the coal smoke rose from their chimney, carrying the souls to heaven?

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