She was a stunning woman with beautiful long black hair, shockingly rare blue eyes and tanned skin. She was captivating and absolutely gorgeous. Ivan thought that he didn’t have a chance until he found out that she lived down by the pier with her father. He bought fish from her father regularly, trading vegetables and grains some days. Every time Ivan visited the large fishery at the pier, he was always scanning the crowd for the beautiful blue-eyed fisherman girl. He found out that she was almost the same age as himself; she was 18, and he was 19. How she had managed to remain single was something beyond his stretch of knowledge. Maybe she was too beautiful, he thought. No man was courageous enough to approach her. Until this day, he thought.
Ivan straightened his tie and proceeded to the fishery. He ran his fingers through his hair, adjusting his cowlick. The pesky tuft of hair at his crown annoyed him greatly. It seemed to have a mind of its own, especially in tense situations; it would stick up like a fork in a haystack. Otherwise, he thought that he was quite a handsome fellow, standing at six feet tall, slim but fit, with dark blonde hair, a young uneven beard and captivating green eyes. Women looked at him often, so he knew that he was attractive, but he still felt unsure of himself some days, especially around stunning women like her. Ivan pulled the door to the fishery open, unconsciously licking his hand and smoothing down the cowlick again as he stepped inside.
“Good morning, Ivan,” a giant voice boomed.
“Good morning, Garth,” Ivan responded. “How is business today?”
“All is well, all is well,” Garth replied, happily. They had prospered over the years, there were good years and bad, but the Icelanders finally found ways to increase the number of fish caught. They had scoped the areas that had the best fishing at certain times of the year and pulled in so much fish sometimes that selling them all blossomed into big business, a profitable industry. Nath and Garth had become business partners in late 1877, building the most significant fishery in Gimli. The whole family helped, as well as many employees and local fishermen. It was something to be proud of and continued to be a successful venture. Both families lived in two of the most affluent homes in Gimli, built right along the shoreline street, with the beautiful beach in their backyards. Bea and Garth lived in the brown house; Nathan and Annabella lived in the tall white house. It was something to be thankful for every day. “What can I do for you today, Ivan?” Garth asked. “I thought you were just here yesterday. Did you forget something on your list?”
“No, no, actually, I came to speak to Nathanael,” Ivan said, his voice cracking. He talked to Nathan several times before, but the large muscular older man was still intimidating. Especially now, he thought. “Is he around for a quick chat?” Ivan asked.
“He’s just in the boat with Annabella at the moment, pulling the days catch in,” Garth replied. “You are welcome to go talk to him; they are almost done for the day.”
Ivan looked nervously behind Garth, staring out the window towards the massive boat, where Nathan and his daughter were. He stuttered briefly and then coughed. “Ok, I will go talk to him at the boat then.”
“Are you okay?” Garth asked. “You just looked a bit pale there for a second. You should drink water! Dehydration can be a beast during the summers here! You need to be careful when you are working hard, sweating in the fields. Go, I need to attend to the other customers now. Drink, boy!”
Ivan laughed nervously. “Ok, thanks,” he replied as he walked out towards the boat. His nerves were starting to make him think twice. Maybe he shouldn’t do it this way; perhaps he should approach Annabella more, talk to her more. She just seemed so withdrawn. He sometimes tried just chatting with her about the weather, when he caught her in the store, but it was rare, and she just seemed to shy away, retreating into her fishing boat. But one day, he had caught her looking at him. Several times actually, she had glanced demurely away every time he had looked her in the eye. It made him think. What does a man need to do to talk to a woman so she would marry him? It sounded so foolish when he thought of it that way, but she was the only woman he wanted. Ever since they arrived in Gimli, she was the one he dreamt of, only her face and her smile filled his dreams. Annabella was his favourite person in the entire world. He couldn’t think of anyone else he would love to spend his days with, today and into the future.
His shoes clicked on the wooden dock until he arrived at the boat. There weren’t as many people around this late in the morning. It was relatively quiet until, of course, he heard Nathan’s voice booming.
“Annabella! Grab that net before it falls in the lake!” Nathan shouted.
Annabella ran across the boat, right past Ivan to the net. She noticed him briefly, grinning curiously and grabbed the net as her father snatched the other end, just in time. They rolled the net and hauled it aboard. “Pabbi,” she said. “Someone’s here, looks like he wants to talk to you.”
“Oh?” Nathan said inquiringly.
“Yes, Nathan,” Ivan interrupted. “It’s me, Ivan. I wanted to ask your approval of something.” He stood a bit taller, pushed his chest out a bit and smiled his most handsome smile.
Nathan lifted his head over the boat and whipped his hair over to the side. He had aged well. His brown tanned skin was still tight, his hair still full, and his body muscular and quite fit. A life of working hard in the commercial fishing industry kept him younger than most his age. Nathan was in his mid-thirties, but he felt as young as when he had first met Anwa. “Is that so?” Nathan replied. “Then come aboard!”
Ivan nervously stepped onto the boat as Nathan grabbed his hand. Annabella ran around the vessel, standing beside her father. “Hi, Ivan,” she said, simply, her hypnotic blue eyes piercing right through him.
His heart melted into a puddle at her feet. She has such an immediate effect on me, Ivan thought. He smiled and reached over, grasping her hand and kissing her knuckles in the gentlemanly style that was common these days. “Hello, Annabella, you are as beautiful as ever today.”
She giggled briefly, then scowled, not sure where this was all going.
“What brings you here, lad?’ Nathan asked inquiringly.
Ivan took a deep breath. “Well,” Ivan started, letting out his breath as he talked. “I came to make it known of my love for your daughter.” He paused momentarily then continued in a rush of nervous words. “I have been hoping for the past year that she would talk to me more or acknowledge me more, but I believe we are both the shy type, and we seem to be having difficulty connecting in the normal ways. So I thought I would ask you, her father, if it would be alright if I could begin dating your daughter.” He let out another gulp of air as he braced himself for the rejection.
Nathanael stood in shock then started chuckling. Annabella looked at her father and then at Ivan, grinning but still confused. Nathan grabbed Ivan by the shoulders, half hugging him with one arm. “You have guts, my boy!” Nath replied heartily. “I don’t believe any man has ever tried even to approach my stoic daughter.”
“Pabbi!” she scolded, immediately, stepping a bit closer to the two men.
“Annabella,” Nathan said. “You know I am right!”
Ivan was relieved; Nathan had not said no, and Annabella was stepping increasingly closer. His heart lifted higher as Nath squeezed his shoulders in a friendly gesture. Ivan winced, as Nath’s grip sent pain through his limbs. The older man was strong!
“Let’s go for a walk, Ivan,” Nathan said, laughing.
“Pabbi!” Annabella shouted at him angrily.
“Sweetie,” Nath said, looking back at her. “I will be back. Don’t worry; I love you more than anything in the world. Give us a moment.”
Annabella stood there stubbornly, then whipped her hair to the side, just like her father did, but she was female, and her hair was incredibly long and thick, reaching to the top of her buttocks, so it had a very alluring effect on Ivan. He gazed up at her, his eyes turning glossy and silly looking. She smiled and shook her head. She was trying to act stubborn, not gorgeous! Men are weird, she thought.
“We will be back, Annabella,” Ivan said, waving.
Nathan let go of the young man’s shoulders and walked with him along the sand. Once they got out of earshot, Nath started talking. “Do you know why my daughter is so withdrawn?” he asked.
“I heard her mother died when she was young,” Ivan replied.
“Yes, her mother, Anwa, died in my arms,” Nath said, gulping in his emotions. The memory tugged at his chest, piercing his heart silently. Nath looked down and ran his fingertips over a beautiful beaded bracelet on his wrist, momentarily lost, then inhaled sharply, swallowing his emotions. “It was a very difficult time for me. I poured my entire heart into raising Annabella. But I think as Annabella grew older, she started assuming the role of her mother, the missing parent. It was not something I even realized she was doing; my daughter is a lovely soul. It just became natural for her to help me through the rough times.” Nathan shuffled his feet in the sand. “As time went on, I healed. We all healed, but for me, there will always be a missing piece that I don’t think can ever be replaced. I don’t believe many people can truly understand this.” He smiled weakly. “Annabella, I think she tried to be that piece for me. Her whole life. I also raised her on a fishing boat. She learned about fishing, nets, boats and spent most of her childhood on the water. She still went to school but always looked forward to fishing in the mornings and evenings. She became somewhat socially awkward as a result. Even though she loves fishing as much as I do, I think she began sacrificing her own happiness by spending all her time with me. And I feel that it is my fault. My sorrow was not something I managed well.”
“I’m so sorry to hear of your anguish,” Ivan said softly, watching Nathan’s wrist rest on his shoulder. He noticed a blue beaded bracelet woven together with string on the older man’s wrist. “Do you mind if I ask where you got that man bracelet? I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“It’s not a man bracelet,” Nathan said, fingering the beaded jewellery on his wrist. “It was Anwa’s. I found it in her belongings years after her death. I liked the colours, so I started wearing it a few years after.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Ivan said.
“Thank you,” Nath replied. “It was a long time ago. I think when you find that right person, Ivan, when it feels like your heart is going to jump right out of your chest and you think about that person almost every single day, then I think that kind of love never fades, no matter what. It just stays.” Nathan patted his chest. “Right here.”
Ivan stopped, momentarily stunned by Nath’s words. “That’s how I feel about Annabella, Mr. Olason,” he said. “I think about her every day. It’s making me crazy trying to figure out how I can possibly be with her. My parents know this because I talk about her, and no one else. Even when Annabella and I just talk randomly about the weather, my heart sings! My parents pushed me out the door today to do something about it because they are sick of seeing me in such turmoil over a girl.”
Nathanael’s face broke into a wide smile. “I’m so happy you feel that way about my daughter,” Nathan said, his eyebrows lifting. A question formed in his mind. He was curious about this young man that was interested in his daughter. “What country did you emigrate from, Ivan?”
“Ukraine, sir,” Ivan responded.
“Ah, yes,” Nathan nodded. “Lots of tensions in Ukraine right now. What kind of work did you do while you were in Ukraine?”
“I was in the military, sir,” Ivan replied, uneasily.
Silence filled the air as Nathan absorbed this information. “Military?” Nathan said, cocking his head to the side. “What was your position?”
“Private,” Ivan answered. “It was a compulsory service. I had no choice.”
“Oh,” Nathan said thoughtfully.
“I was beaten,” Ivan blurted out.
Nathan glanced at the young man. He was tall and strong, holding his head high.
“The Germans were brutal,” Ivan continued. “They were abusive and belligerent. And I had some trouble with them.”
“What happened?” Nathan asked.
“Well,” Ivan said, his voice cracking. “You have to know that we could not understand the orders. They were speaking German, not Ukrainian. There was a considerable amount of miscommunication.” He swallowed bravely and continued. “I was ordered to bring in some ammunition, and I brought in the horses instead. One soldier yelled at me and then struck me. I blocked his arm and accidentally elbowed him sharply in the face. A scuffle ensued.” Ivan exhaled slowly, trying to forget the horrific details burned into his mind. “A group of German soldiers swarmed me. I was beaten unconscious. I am lucky to be alive, Mr. Olason.”
A gust of wind blew along the beach, whipping up sand, swirling it in front of them. Nathan shielded his eyes. “I’m sorry,” Nath said. “You are alright now?”
“Now, yes. It took me months to recuperate,” Ivan said quietly. “They dropped my battered body off at my parent’s door, using me as an example of what would happen to the other soldiers if they misunderstood instructions.” Ivan paused, breathing in. “My parents made plans the next week to leave Ukraine. It took three months before I recovered enough to travel. We packed our meagre belongings and boarded a ship to Canada soon after. It was one of the best decisions my parents made.”
“You’ve been through a lot,” Nathan said, his face in the wind. “You are a strong man.”
“Thank you,” Ivan responded. “I plan on making a good life here in Gimli.”
“That’s exactly what I thought when I first came here from Iceland,” Nath said.
“You are from Iceland?” Ivan asked.
“Yes,” Nathan replied. “I am one of the original explorers that settled here. It was extremely difficult. There were many hard years here before it became easier.”
“I’m prepared for that,” Ivan said, smoothing his cowlick down again. “I can never go back to Ukraine. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
“You have a good positive attitude,” Nathan pointed out.
“Thank you, sir,” Ivan replied.
“Stop calling me sir,” Nathan said, hugging the younger man with both arms and patting his back. “You can call me Nathan. Okay, let’s head back now,” Nath pulled his arm away and thoughtfully gestured his hand at the dock in the distance. “If Annabella agrees, I would love to accept you into the family, Ivan.”
Ivan’s face broke into a huge smile; he wasn’t expecting this. He reached over and hugged Nath spontaneously. Nathan laughed, and so did Ivan. “Thank you, Mr. Olason,” Ivan replied happily.
They both walked briskly back to the boat, speaking in hushed tones, Ivan almost skipping and Nathanael with his head slightly down, grinning.
Annabella stood defiantly on the boat, watching them both return to the dock. She laid her hands firmly on her shapely hips, trying to maintain a stubborn disposition. Annabella flipped her hair as it fluttered in the wind, slowly allowing a smile to creep onto her lips. She couldn’t help it; a giddy feeling was inching through her body.
Ivan looked up, gazing at her silhouette, the glossy look coming back into his eyes. “She is a stunningly beautiful woman,” Ivan said, as he admired her curvy figure and the odd smile she wore on her face.
“That’s exactly how I felt about Anwa,” Nath said softly, nodding.
The forest was dark, and he could hardly see anything. The wind blew through the shrubs, swaying the branches. The forest floor was full of deadwood, so much that it was impossible to clear it all. The trees hid everything in the dark; you could never see where you were going in the blackness.
But it didn’t matter; he knew the way in these woods.
He looked up and noticed the stars glowing down upon him. The crescent moon rose higher in the sky.
No full moon tonight to guide him.
He walked through the bushes with a purpose, fuelled with a mix of anguish and recklessness. He swatted the branches away, blazing a path into the darkness. The trees swayed back as if in answer. Don’t come here, they said. It’s not safe. You may lose your way and never return.
He didn’t listen. He brought his axe this time.
His footsteps crunched the ground until he arrived at his destination.
He knew it well. He could find it with his eyes closed.
“How did your talk go with Annabella?” Ivan’s mom asked, her voice lilting in the air pleasantly.
“It went well; I think,” Ivan answered happily. “I talked to her father more than her, but he approved of me courting his daughter.”
Ivan watched as his mother folded the cabbage rolls over the rice and meat mixture. Along the other table were numerous dough-wrapped potato mixtures called perogies. These were Ivan’s favourites, amazingly delicious with cheese mixed into the mashed potato filling. When they first arrived in the summer of 1893, he noticed many of the Icelandic people in Gimli thought these foreign foods were a welcomed addition to meal preparation. The bland flatkaka, an unleavened rye bread, and salted fish were the Icelander's main dishes; Ukrainian cooking was an appreciated bonus.
The Kozak’s arrived together as a family moving to the outskirts of Gimli, registering their free farmland for ten dollars. They invested in the land, cultivated it, grew grains and vegetables, then sold the goods in locals stands at the market. It was hard work. They had slaved together as a family unit, growing as much wheat, oats and root vegetables as they could. They were low on funds but desperate for a chance to make it in this new country, Canada.
Gimli had welcomed many settlers from Ukraine, Hungary, Germany and Poland; people that were being forced out of their countries from the Austria-Hungary tensions.
Ukraine was being splintered into several parts, with Western Ukraine falling into the Austria-Hungary rule. The average peasant’s main occupation was farming; although forced to farm the lands of their lords in Ukraine, paid nothing more than just room and board, they became landless peasants, never able to grow and prosper.
Even the languages were changing; Western Ukraine was now a mixture of German, Polish and Yiddish speaking inhabitants. The Ukrainian farming labourers began to feel like foreigners in their own country. Many young Ukrainian males, like Ivan, were enlisted in the compulsory service in the Austrian army, with disastrous results. Ivan’s experience with the military was not something he would ever forget. Left with a deep scar on his scalp, Ivan had deep-rooted resentment for his occupied country. Emigration was the only option left for Ivan and his family. He felt so lucky that his parents had managed to save enough money to leave.
When they learnt of what Canada was offering, they were hopeful. The Canadian government embarked on an aggressive immigration strategy to attract farming labourers from many countries, including Europe. Coinciding with the Austria-Hungarian crisis, Canada was experiencing an intense period of economic growth. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad opening up the west, demand for wheat and grains increased substantially. Massive areas of the country that were inaccessible before were now demanding train shipments. Settlements were growing everywhere, and labourers were in high demand, especially wheat farmers.
Ivan and his parents were desperate for a country to call home, and Canada was calling them. So, a deal was born. One hundred sixty acres of land was offered free as a homestead for just a registration fee of ten dollars. His parents thought this was a sweet deal. They scraped together the hefty boat fee to cross the Atlantic, gambling on a better life. Thousands of Ukrainians flocked to Canada with them, stretching from Manitoba to Saskatchewan to Alberta. Canada was everything they had dreamed of; their promised land.
Once they started farming the land, his parents began building a second home on the property for their son and his future bride. The only problem was that the bride didn’t know it yet.
“So how did she react?” his mom asked.
“I don’t know,” Ivan said, trying to smooth the pesky cowlick on his head. “I don’t understand women much, Mom. At times she would smile at me, then at other times she would appear aloof and perturbed.”
His mom laughed, “That’s wonderful news.”
“How do you think that’s wonderful news?” he asked incredulously.
His mom smiled sweetly, “She likes you, Ivan.”
“I sure hope so,” he smiled, nervously running his fingers through his hair. “Because I’m going to ask Annabella on a date tomorrow.”
© 2020 J. A. Boulet
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