Driving east to Smoky Lake, I was taken by the abandoned houses, tucked into their groves of trees, surrounded by fields. Winter was in the air, even though it had been warm in Edmonton. In Smoky Lake, the pumpkin festival crowds were warmly dressed, there were line-ups for the food trucks, children were straddling the concrete pumpkins near the train station, and overhead, geese were loud in their formations. Before we parked in the town itself, we drove out to the Victoria Settlement. The site was closed but we drove to a place just above the river and tried to locate our friend’s property, one of the river lots. His has a creek running through it, Smoky Creek, and remnants of a grist mill. We called him from the river bank and after he got over his initial surprise — “You’re calling from where?”– he explained how to find his place where decades ago he and his late wife had built a stackwall cabin. There were roads to take, a farmer to talk to, and although we tried, we couldn’t find it, though we were close. Close enough to feel the softness of the place, to hear geese gabbling on the river below, the fields along the road shorn for winter. We stopped at Pakan Church, beautiful in the grey light, and then continued back to Smoky Lake where our family was arriving to eat pierogies, visit the museum, watch a crane drop a giant pumpkin onto an old car, followed by a scrabble for seeds for next year’s garden.
I thought of the Ukrainian folk songs I’d become so fond of in the past few years, the ones about fields, the ones about leaving.
O MY field, my field!
Ploughed with bones,
Harrowed with my breast,
Watered with blood
From the heart, from the bosom!
Tell me, my field,
When will better days be?