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Atlantic Salmon Journal

Woman of the River

by Wayne Curtis

Illustrations by: Kat Frick Miller

On The Miramichi during the Christmas holidays, hard times and happiness often went hand in hand

IN THE SPRING, on her river farm, snow was melting and the river ice was breaking away. The old place was being awakened by the mooing of cattle, the crowing of roosters. Barbara, my grandmother’s namesake, put twelve fertilized turkey eggs to hatch beneath three clucking hens. She had a long-range plan to nurture the young fowl to maturity and sell them to Karl Savage—a village merchant whom her husband, Tom, was working for as a contractor in the lumber woods. This would provide money for her to purchase Christmas gifts for her husband and their two daughters. Times were tough, and Barbara knew that if the plan fell through, there would be no festive season, no gifts and no music. It would be like the old Bob Cratchit Christmas of a poverty-stricken London.

Barbara was a strong Dutch woman of reclusion. Through the winter, when Tom was away, she looked after the farm animals, while her daughters, Natalie and Kelly—they were still enjoying their schooldays—worked the evening barns by the light of lanterns. In the lumber-woods, through December, on those long, dark evenings, Tom sang to the work crew. But all the men would be out of the woods by Christmas Eve.

When finally the baby turkeys came out of their shells, they huddled around the mother hens, drank the water and ate the grain that Barbara had scattered for them. Through the summer, the young fowl grew out of all proportion to the surrogate mother’s profile so that there were times when the mothers relied on their brood to shield them from the danger of being picked on.

Two days before Christmas Eve, the full-size turkeys were slaughtered and ready to be taken to the Company Store in the village. The air was cold, and winter was in the wind as Barbara loaded the bound-in-twine, frozen turkeys into the back of the portage sled.With a buffalo robe wrapped around her back and knees, Barbara took the reins. With her weathered face, fur cap and long scarf wrapped around her ears, she looked like Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait. With the horse pulling the sled, she left her neighbourless farmhouse and headed down the river, following a hedge of black alder bushes the farmers had stuck into the ice where it would hold up a horse. (At that time, the watercourse was her main source of transportation.) The river was talkative. Sounds came from the fifes and gulps of the lowly raven, the chirp of a solitary chickadee or the mournful cry of a Canada jay, which signalled a snowfall. And the icy wind made her face sting.

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At the Campbell Pool, she could visualize the slow water that flowed under the ice and the salmon that, having spawned weeks before, would be there now in their state of comatose. The salmon would stay there until spring, when the water warmed, then head back to the sea for nourishment. For a brief moment, she could remember fishing there among the mosquitoes and later paddling her canoe through this part of the river on her way to the village church service. In the heat of summer, she had worn her wide-brimmed garden hat of plaited straw—it had wildflowers in the band—to keep the blistering sun off her face.

By the time she reached the old Vickers place, five kilometres down the river, it had started to snow. In gusts, the driving flakes twisted across the ice like so many snakes on a dance floor. Inside her, there was a dark cloud of uncertainty as to how her mission would go. In her mind, she had the little gifts she wanted to give to her daughters as well as her husband, who would be home from the lumber camp on Cains River the following day. In spite of the snow, it was pleasant driving, with the runners creaking and the harness bells jingling in the cold winter air. She had a fleeting glimpse of the distant fields and snowy hills along which she was driving. With school being out for the holidays, noisy children were tobogganing on the hillside. (They appeared to be intoxicated with merriment.) Down that lonely river, she had gone to church all her married life. As a farm woman, she had travelled to the village on horseback around the river’s neighbouring flats and meadows. Along the way, farmhouse chimneys carried smoke that rose in whiffs, vestiges that carried the scent of bread and sweet cakes being baked for the holidays. And there were trees being trimmed in front gardens and on verandas that overlooked the valley. Suddenly, every fir tree that stood on the riverbank was secretly evaluated for its use as a Christmas tree. She could visualize the strings of garland and the candy canes weighting down their now-sparkling boughs.

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On Main Street, in Blackville, she tied the horse to a hitching post, walked into the store of Mr. Savage and asked to see the owner. Savage’s big establishment was the centre of gravity for the river people, a place where old men set on benches near a wood-burning stove to gossip and tell outlandish tales. She thought, Aristocracy is a relative thing; these people live for its frivolous amusements with no thought of the morrow. This was a society that she had been indifferent to since moving upriver to the farm, after marrying Tom. While she had previously lived in town, she had never completely adapted to the urban ways and preferred the river life. Because of the little world in which she found herself since marrying Tom, she felt self-conscious and that she was overstepping her social boundaries.

Waiting to see the manager, she set by the heater to get warm. But she soon left this spot with its frivolous chatter and went to stand by the office door. She wondered if Mr. Savage would indeed condescend to meet her. She waited a long time on tired feet. When at length the manager was free, he invited Barbara into his office. Savage was a big man, both tall and stout. He was dressed in a black suit with a pair of gold chains that trailed from a buttonhole in his vest to a watch pocket. She wondered what the chains and watch would be worth. With humility, she told him that she had a dozen free-ranging turkeys to sell and that they were in the sled out front.

Savage stroked his moustache, looked at the floor and shook his head. He said that he did not need turkeys at this late date and that if he did take them, he would have to deduct their worth from her husband’s wood account. Barbara and her daughters had been getting merchandise from the store as needed and were already indebted to him for more than the woods operation was producing. “It has been a rainy fall, and so far the men haven’t brought to the river the logs necessary for me to break even,” he snarled. “And the other day, your daughter Kelly come in here and picked up a new pair of winter boots!” He pointed a crooked finger at Barbara who was, by then, in tears. With sad intonations, she pleaded with the merchant, but he would not change his mind. Yes, he had been rude, she thought, and was taking advantage of her predicament. Finally, with a huff, she walked out of the store and set out to drive the loaded sled back home, now in swirling snow.

At this point, Barbara, with her strained features, was so troubled a figure that a good artist could lay bare his genius.

As she drove up Main Street, a snowplough hurried her along. The church bells at St. Raphael’s were ringing. She noticed that the village priest, Father Sullivan, in his long habit, was standing in the church door. He had become the bell-ringer when the bell-ringer had failed to show. She stopped the horse, and with a renewed vitality, went into the entryway to talk to the bearded old patriarch. When Father Sullivan heard Barbara’s story, he scratched his head and stared at the floor as if in a state of profound meditation, as if he were calculating something in his mind.

“Dear oh dear, Father, what can I do to make a Christmas for my family?” Her words contained nervous excitement and tears.

“Barbara,” he said, “let me help you to bring your birds into the church basement. It just so happens that I’m looking for twelve free-ranging turkeys. I need them to fill my charity Christmas baskets for the less fortunate in the parish.”

Barbara heaved a sigh of relief. It was like her soul had suddenly been transformed into something between a troubled existence and a virtuous encounter, like she had awakened from a bad dream. And her sobs turned to tears of joy.

With church funds, Father Sullivan paid Barbara the going price for her merchandise. The priest said himself that it had been an act of Divine Providence that brought Barbara to him at that moment. It was a piece of luck, all the same, that he was ringing the bell as she passed, the chances of this happening being so remote. Barbara gave the blessed Father a hug and was gone. When she got on her sled to drive home with her money tucked into a deep pocket, above the howls of the wind, in her mind there was the continual chiming of distant bells, which seemed to last throughout the afternoon. She could say, without being sentimental, that she loved that old man who was doing God’s work. It was still snowing, but she did not seem to notice it anymore. In spite of the storm, the village was bustling with shoppers. She went to Underhill’s Five-And-Dime, Bean’s Variety, Susan Ross’s General Store and Quinn’s Mercantile to pick up things for the girls and Tom.

It had been a good day in spite of Mr. Savage, who had played the humbug. While there had been a lot of urban ugliness in his soul, the experience had brought her out of her cocoon to a place from which she was forced to activate her cultivated mind. She thought, The further we ascend the social ladder, the more snobbery we find. But she was pleased with herself and the way she handled things. With her shopping done, she headed back up the river ice, the bells of St. Raphael’s still prominent in her ears.

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At her farmhouse on Christmas night, Barbara’s extended family—most had come by horse and sleigh on the river ice from long distances—stood around her piano with glasses in their hands to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It was a gathering of the family and large cousinhood: nieces, nephews-in-law, spinster aunts, tobacco-smelling bachelor uncles and great uncles, white hair and canes prominent. Old lips moved in unison. These were well-seasoned faces, their features exaggerated to show little comparison to their former selves because of what the years had done to them. The assembly, so fragile, might have been a pencil sketch by Leonardo. They bumped into one another as they crowded around the Christmas tree and talked of past days. It was a time to cast aside old worries, old pains and troubles.

Some of the kinfolk had been waiting for this night since the previous Christmas. All being sentimental, some songs, more heartfelt, brought a tear; others, more jubilant, a hearty laugh. Some drank ale and others drank nothing but cold water. Barbara herself, when she had a sip of wine, was capable of enlivening the dullest of parties. Here, everything was more heartfelt, as if their senses had outlived their now frail bodies. These people had real characteristics, more natural connotations than the young, and they openly expressed them in the simplest of terms. Many of them waited for the screech of Uncle Andy’s fiddle, maybe a step from Papa, who was happy to be home from the woods and having a sip of brandy. There was the taste of good food and goodwill, the uplifting sound of a fragile chorus and a hornpipe, with the piano being played by Natalie. For the assembly, the audible applause, the music and the extended goodwill was carried inside them to their winter homes. Barbara had made it happen.