Digging for gold

Issue 2/1989 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Antti Tuuri has found his theme in the life of Finnish émigré communities and their experience in what used to be called ‘the New World’. Uusi Jerusalem (‘The New Jerusalem’, 1988), is about the Finns who migrated to Canada during the Depression, only to find that their utopian dreams had no basis in reality. In the following extract the narrator finds himself and his fellow mineworkers in the middle of the forest at night, on the way by foot to the Kirkland Lake gold mines, where they are going to be strikebreakers. The novel, an ironical tale of life in a new land, follows on from Pohjanmaa (‘Ostrobothnia’, 1982), Talvisota (‘The Winter War’, 1984), Ameriikan raitti (‘The American road’, 1986).

The train pulled up at Swastika station, many a mile from Kirkland Lake, and Hamina said we’d have to press on by foot from the station to the town.

Swastika, he said, meant the crooked cross, but he didn’t know whether there were any of those German Adolf-fanciers around, who were so keen on the sign. He was certain, in fact, the town had got its name long before anyone in Germany had heard of Adolf or his swastika.

We asked why we had to walk from here to the town. Hamina said we’d got to walk because even in Canada vehicles didn’t drive through the backwoods; moreover, it wasn’t a good idea to walk along the Kirkland Lake road: we might meet up with the kind of guys who’d make our arrival at Kirkland Lake seem very unwelcome.

We jumped down onto the railway embankment with our stuff. It was getting dark already, and beyond the embankment the forest was looking dense and impenetrable. A guard, brakeman or something jumped down from our carriage and signalled for the train to leave. We were left standing on the embankment.

We noticed that other people had got out here too. Won’t these people get it around in Kirkland Lake, we said, that about forty Finns have detrained at Swastika and pushed off through the forest in the direction of Kirkland Lake? Hamina didn’t believe the locals would go blabbing about things like that: they were just as keen as the mineowners for the strikes to be over and business in the town to start rolling again. Even the Finns running speakeasies were beginning to feel it was time for tough measures to break the strikes. This was the first time I’d heard mention of these speakeasies. Later, I’d know all about them myself.

We left the track and set off through the forest for Kirkland Lake. Hamina led, saying he knew his way around. We lugged our baggage after him; there were about forty of us left because of the dozen or so who’d abandoned train that night after Montreal, not wanting to strikebreak their own kinsmen here.

I didn’t have much stuff with me, as I’d been thinking of stocking up with gear when I arrived; I’d got a suitcase of clothes and other bits and pieces, easily toted in one hand. The money was the main thing, and that was in two wallets, one in my pocket, and the other hanging round my neck, under my shirt: that’s where I kept most of it. The only way anyone could get that wallet off me would be cutting off my head.

Many of the lads were loaded with a lot more luggage than I was, even American trunks they’d got in Finland from people coming back. They were huge iron-reinforced trunks, not meant to be toted through a darkening autumn forest by one man.

There was a good deal of cursing: cursing the Kirkland Lake gold mines and companies for not being prepared to risk taking their men to town by train – forcing us instead to haul our chattels through a jungle like this; and cursing Hamina, who seemed to be taking us through the roughest undergrowth he could find. We suspected him of choosing these tangled thickets on purpose because he’d taken against us on the way here. The darkness came as suddenly as if we’d bumped up against a wall. Hamina kept shouting it wasn’t far to the town now, and even before then we’d be able to get up onto the road that came from North Bay, the one that didn’t diverge through Swastika. If that road, why not the other? we wondered, but Hamina assured us that the pickets wouldn’t be expecting us from that direction at this time of night.

We still kept going for quite a while, and people at the back started calling out: when was this wandering in the wilderness going to end? It was only a few hundred yards more, Hamina said. I tried to remember how long one of those things called yards was. It was already so dark, you had to keep very close to the person in front in case you went astray in these great Canadian wildernesses.

I’d been in forests enough to know how easily voices become inaudible among the bushinesses and hillocks; it’d be no good trying to keep contact by calling out to each other, and in any case we’d been ordered to go as quietly as possible. I held on to Kalle’s shoulder; Kalle trudged on without a word, sighing, stumbling and nearly falling over tree roots, and cursing under his breath. I began to see the funny side of this trek; I’ll not get cut off from this gang yet, I thought.

The forest was full of wet patches you couldn’t avoid in the dark, and our shoes were slopping. The lads began shouting that old Hamina had better look quick about finding the road. Hamina hushed and shushed and told us to keep our voices down, or we’d be getting jumped on by people who wanted no new miners around here: strikers who’d make it so hot for us, our shoes’d dry out quicker than we wanted.

Someone fell over behind me, cursing like hell, but I couldn’t stop to help him, as Kalle was forging ahead and I’d got to hold onto him. We went on for quite a bit longer, impossible to say how long; in the dark, the passage of time was becoming something else, something you’d never met before, that you could only measure in footsteps. The bushes and shrubs and twigs kept whipping painfully against our faces and hands.

We climbed up a bit, and found ourselves on the road, which felt firm and clear under our feet and stood out visibly even in the dark as a lighter trail through the dark trees. Hamina tried to line us up along the road and count how many of us there were. He asked if anyone had got left behind in the forest and lost his way. Naturally, any such was not there to tell the tale. Someone suggested we should number off as in the army, but Hamina thought that was no use: we didn’t even know for certain how many of us had detrained for the forest.

Then Hamina said we couldn’t keep hanging about there for ever, as we had to get to our quarters before the pickets got onto us. We listened to see if we could hear anybody moving about in the forest. Noises of all sorts were in fact coming from there. Hamina sort of whispered into it, calling under his breath ‘anybody there?’ But the only reply he got was the faint whistling of the wind in the trees. There’s a saying about the forest: ‘What comes out is your own shout’. Kalle said to me, ‘What whistles is your own whisper’; but I was no longer in a mood to be amused: standing there in my wet shoes, my face stung by the branches, I began to feel that those that’d got lost in the forest could, for all I cared, stay there.

The lads told Hamina we ought to push on to our lodgings and try to sort out by lamplight who was missing; on this dark highway it’d take us till dawn.

Hamina went on ahead of us along the road; setting off, he said no one was allowed to light up a fag or a pipe, or even a match, as it was essential to get to our lodgings unnoticed. The march got under way. The gravel road was dimly visible in the dark, and we knew where we were going the whole time and where we were putting our feet, but even so our wet shoes and heavy loads made our arrival at Kirkland Lake anything but a triumphal march, and the furtiveness was shaming.

We got to where the first houses were. Hamina stopped, and we all stopped. He walked along the whole line from end to end, whispering that we were now at the outskirts of the town, and we’d have to go on for a few blocks before we came to our lodgings. If anyone met us and said anything, or asked anything even in Finnish, we must on no account reply. Had we got that? We said we had.

We moved on, past the houses and towards the town. The houses in these outskirts were small and low-down; some of the windows still had lights showing. As we went past one house, a man came out and stood a moment in the light of the doorway. Then he closed the door, and we couldn’t tell whether he’d stayed outside or in.

Our quarters were in this part of town too. It was pretty black as we followed Hamina into the yard and stood about. Hamina told us to wait there. A couple of fellows came along the street and asked us something in English. We said nothing in reply. In the house a light went on, then another, and the second light came to the door opening onto the yard. From inside Hamina said we could come in. Which we did.

The house had two large rooms, and the rooms were filled with beds. Hamina pulled some material across the windows. We all stood in the front room and had no idea what we ought to be doing next. Hamina told us each to choose our own bunk from the beds that filled the room.

They were three-tiered bunk-beds, and there was an immediate rush for the lower berths. There weren’t enough for everyone. I didn’t get a bottom bed myself, but I went into the back room and secured a middle berth. I put my suitcase on the bed and sat on the lower bed next to the man who’d captured it. He was a fellow from Ylistaro; I’d chatted with him on the ship on the way over, and on the train too, and I knew his father had a big house in Ylistaro, but he wasn’t willing to speak about it.

I took my shoes and socks off and squeezed the water out of my socks. The others were drying their feet too. I took dry socks and shoes out of my suitcase and put them on. The fellow from Ylistaro started cracking up leather boots: they were the world’s wonders for the feet: a man’s feet would stay dry no matter what the conditions. But my mood was such, I couldn’t summon up any interest in discussing boots.

Hamina stood in the doorway separating the two rooms and told us to try and work out, now we were in the lamplight, whether any men had got lost in the forest. We started to look around at each other and try to remember everyone who’d got out of the train with us. It was impossible to decide whether anyone was missing – we knew each other so little.

We supposed that anyone lost in the forest would be bound to find their way to people once daylight dawned, and Hamina thought so too. Hamina said that the only bother coming from anyone lost was their pack lunch unpaid for. He pointed out that you could work out from the payments for the lunch boxes everyone from the train had turned up at the lodging house. He began to count the food money on a table near the window, spreading out the dollars and cents, and chasing off anyone trying to get too near the table. He counted his money three times and then counted us. He said that no one was in the forest; everyone who’d left North Bay for Kirkland Lake was in the building. We didn’t start to disagree, even though we could see he wasn’t totally convinced by his arguments himself.

Hamina now showed us the lockers we could put our gear in, but as the lockers had no keys, I didn’t risk putting my stuff in, and many others didn’t either. I left everything in the suitcase, apart from the wet shoes and socks, which I hung up on the headboard to dry. Hamina said he was going to put the lights out now, and we’d better all get off to sleep, as there’d be an early call in the morning and an early start with the digging for gold. Did we have to kip down on our first night in Kirkland Lake with our stomachs rumbling for something to eat? we asked. Hamina said there’d be food coming in the morning. He told everyone to go and lie down.

The lights were put out. We lay in the dark, speechless and quiet, but not for long. Soon a terrible cursing was heard coming from both rooms, and lights were howled for. Hamina put one light on. The lads were bellowing that the beds were full of bedbugs or some other vermin. Hamina walked through the room with a lamp and put one on in the other room.

I began to investigate my own mattress and couple of blankets. There were no bedbugs, but the seams of the mattress were thick with lice, and it was the same for everyone: they all had lice for bedfellows. We said no one could get a wink in beds like these and ordered Hamina to get us a lodging house and beds where we wouldn’t be immediately attacked by bloodsucking bugs: we’d come a hell of a long way from Finland, for Christ’s sake, and we didn’t think it was too much to ask, a bed you could at least get a night’s sleep in after a trip like that.

Hamina said it wasn’t on to go out into the night to look for better lodgings or hotel rooms. Lots of us got up and went and sat on benches or chairs round the table. There was shouting: We may be from a poor country and forced to go away as exiles, but we’re not in the habit of tucking up at night with lice. It was Hamina who was the target of most of this. Then others began to tell the complainers to pack it in: they’d been accustomed to sleeping with vermin since childhood, they said, and were none the worse for it; and, in fact, it purified the blood, kept it healthy: lice cupped you every night, like those old biddies who put hot glasses on your skin – or they bled you like leeches, sucking the bad blood out of your back or neck.

Well, I too did know what a louse was, though I’d not been accustomed to sleeping with them; yes, in those days, many Finnish houses too still kept lice as household pets.

After a bit we began to see the funny side, and we decided to spend that night sleeping with the lice and wait till morning to see what we’d do about it. I asked Hamina how the lice had managed to proliferate so much in this place: what sort of a set-up had it been, and who’d been here before we came? Hamina had no idea.

Bunked down near me was old Saari, a fellow from Jalasjärvi, and this wasn’t his first visit to Canada. He said the louse was a creature they’d perhaps never get rid of in Canada: you could kill every other kind of vermin here with pesticides or steaming the clothes, bedclothes and beds, but the lice always came back; and it was a breed that was multiplying, because lice were caused by homesickness, and there’d never be a shortage of lice as long as there were men here longing for their homes and their home country. Saari said that even if we forgot our homes, and our homesickness went away, there were always more people coming from all round the globe, and they were all homesick for the places they’d given up for the New World. So lice would never die out in Canada.

We weren’t certain whether Saari’s information was scientifically valid, but some of the lads climbed into their beds and said they’d manage to get to sleep even if the sheets were crocheted with lice – they were so worn­out with the trip; we’d been three weeks coming, and they said a young’un could ziz after a trip like that, even if was raining hot dogs and cat casserole.

I didn’t go to bed straight away, the lice threw me so much. There were other men sitting round the table too. There were calls for us to put the light out, but we weren’t going to sit around in the dark. Saari said anyone who couldn’t nod off because of a faint light like that wasn’t tired enough yet. We smoked, there were yells about that, and then the yellers were yelled at, saying it was time to be quiet now in both rooms.

We sat round the table for a long time without saying a word. Regular breathing began to come from the beds, and the sound of irritable tossing, turning and scratching as the lice dug into someone. The lamp didn’t cast much light, someone dropped off at the table itself and woke with a start.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Tags: ,

No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment