The new Hutterite colony is all straight lines — buildings, hedges, and fences impeccably neat. I stop along the colony road beside the cemetery, three brick markers per side, gateposts slightly higher — the barest outline of a boundary — and in the far corner, a single gravestone lettered in old Germanic script: Justina Wollman, 1912 - 1997.
A stiff wind is blowing foul smells from the lagoon. I stop again at the Hutterites’ massive modern workshop to ask permission to visit the river flat, the farmland that five generations of my family knew intimately. Inside the workshop door I startle a young couple washing up for Mittag and chattering in their tongue. A friendly-faced elder says hello, I introduce myself as a relative of the people from whom they bought the land, and make my request.
“Oh shure, sir,” he says.
Driving downhill brings a wash of familiarity. Poplars line the sides of the trail, and through the trees I catch blurred glimpses of the North Saskatchewan River, then the bend of the water comes into view, same as it ever was. Even with my conservative Mennonite heritage, Hutterite life seems to me bleak and constricting, though I envy the sense of community an ex-Hutterite once described to me as “the next best thing to heaven you can imagine, if it’s run right” — very little individual stress, great responsibility on the collective. In his family’s case, the colony was not run right, and he and his two brothers and their families had left with only the black suits and print dresses and shawls they were wearing. (I learned that within two years of leaving, they were running a million-dollar operation of their own, thanks to their experience in the colony.)
Now our river land has been put back to pasture, but it seems mostly overgrown with Russian thistle. The old road to the buildings is nearly unused, and a new trail leads down to the riverside. I stop again in mid-field, on this land where my father and his brothers planted potatoes that grew too knobbly to be commercial, where they laboured to raise crops for Early’s Seed & Feed in Saskatoon and made hardly a buck, where their sawmill burned down and had to be rebuilt, where my grandfather had grown watermelons by the bushel and in several varieties. Today, the cattle heads look up and stare at me. I roll down my window and moo loudly at them, and others farther off turn to stare too: Who is this non-Hutterian brother?
Here is the spot where my family’s fish-basket was rolled into the river, a sheltered place where my relatives gathered countless times over most of a century. Now it’s where the cattle can wade down for a drink. Out in the middle of the river, three swans rest on a sandbar beside a new growth of willows.
I follow the cow path back to the dilapidated buildings. The Hutterites haven’t had time to straighten things out down here, the fence around the structures is gone, animals have free run of the yard — shit everywhere, better watch your step. And the residues of culture: wrecked metal chairs, green couch without legs, cushions rotting on the ground, steel tractor rim in lieu of the stone firepit I loved. A crooked maple tree from my childhood is still standing, bent in two directions from the ground, not long for this world, already showing new shoots at the V. And here’s an old swing on which I pushed my daughters when they were kids, overturned now and rusting in the grass.
It’s what I get for coming here.
The swans on the sandbar fly into the wind. A small bird with a gold belly flits to another tree. I hear my first crow of the day. I wish my father were with me today — of course he is, but I mean in the former way.
I sit down on a small patch of grass and open a lunch bag. Cold pizza, cucumbers from my mother’s village garden, cherry tomatoes from my city patio. All unbidden comes this childhood table grace I’d almost forgotten: Segne Vater diese Speise, uns zu Kraft und Dir zum preise, Amen.
And don’t forget the little box of Sunpac Real Fruit Beverage Fruit Rhapsody (An Excellent Source of Vitamin C), with a plastic straw to poke a hole and suck up the juice. I once met the businessman who sold these Tetrapaks throughout Western Canada. We sat together on a flight to Kelowna, and he stopped just short of buttonholing me with his “gospel” — as much as he enjoyed his job, it was perfectly clear to him that the world was going to hell, and wasn’t that just what the Bible said?
A sound of a going — almost roaring — of wind in the trees on the hillside. I climb up toward the commotion, to where the river panorama begins. The wind has travelled on, the trees are silent again. People once lived here, laboured and loved and wept, and are gone. Previous versions of myself walked here, on former paths, among other trees. “Person” is merely another word for “instability.” I forgive my ancestors for whatever I supposed they did wrong.
One thing to which the wind has called me on the hillside is a saskatoon berry bush. I eat a few sweet ones on behalf of my scattered tribe, and a few more for the Hutterian sisters and brothers above. Then I begin the descent to my car, in order to drive back uphill, and I’ll take a wistful ride to the distant city in which I have chosen to live.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards. He has taught writing classes for the University of Saskatchewan Certificate of Art and Design (USCAD) and the Western Development Museum.