fiction by Leif Gregersen
The sun beat down hard on Eb Johansen’s back as he thrust his shovel into the hard earth, kicking it down with his foot and filling it and tossing the black dirt onto a pile. He paused for a moment as he did his work, the sweat glistening on his face and soaking his shirt. He ran his arm across his forehead and breathed deeply as he looked up at the clear blue sky.
Eb reminisced about what it was like when he first took his buckboard carriage onto this land. Must have been five or six years back. Long time, he thought as he continued to thrust down his shovel repeatedly, making progress, but conscious of the fact that the sun was going down and that he needed this job done. It had been a long day. Every day in the summer in this part of the world was long, but the work he had to do needed to be finished by sundown or the smell would be just too much.
When Eb first came out to the land he now homesteaded, he had nothing but a strong will and about seven dollars. His entertainment was building a sod dwelling and then a wooden one and staring into a fire each night as he cooked whatever he could find, catch, or trap. As he cleared his land of trees and stumps bit by bit he collected enough wood to make a shack. From there, in the short months of warmth and midnight twilight he planted, harvested, learned to sew his own clothes, and did all the thousand and ten things a farmer must do to keep alive.
Eb had brought with him a catalog or two. One was the Sears Roebuck catalog and, as he was building his home and selling things like eggs or wagonloads of grain, he would pick the odd item to order on his two-day trips to town. The other catalog was one for mail-order brides. He still remembered the line that had caught his eye: Highly attractive Philippine women will work hard and produce many children, guaranteed.
Guaranteed. Eb liked the sound of that. Highly attractive and hard working. He sent his name in with payment and in just two months he was notified as he went to get his mail from town that his bride would be there shortly on the train.
Eb did all he could to fix his place up. He bought a used set of china, he sewed some curtains that he felt a woman would like for the only window in his shack, and he cleaned everything from the creaky floor to the walls stained brown with his pipe tobacco smoke. When the day came and he first saw his new bride, he couldn’t be happier.
The two got married in front of a justice of the peace that day, then loaded up the buckboard with meager supplies and headed off to spend the winter getting to know each other. His new wife, who he called Nellie, didn’t speak any English, and so they had to find other ways to communicate with each other. At first it seemed like paradise. Late-night lovemaking and early-morning fresh-cooked breakfast. It was only four months into her time as a homesteader that Nellie was with child.
This was where things had started to go downhill. Nellie got sick often and the smell and the mess it caused started to get under Eb’s skin. She wouldn’t do as much cooking or cleaning and seemed to be getting lazy. This was something Eb couldn’t take. As a boy, anyone who got lazy would get motivated with a whipping, and Eb felt this applied to wives as well as children. Nellie would scream and carry on whenever he did this, and wear a face of strong defiance, which only made him more angry.
About six months into her pregnancy, Eb gave her a particularly nasty beating and induced labor. The baby came out and he had no clue what to do; Nellie was screaming and carrying on and as Eb looked at the face of what could have been his own child, something changed in him. He cleaned Nellie up as best he could, let her lie down to rest for a few days and did all the things his medical book said to do, letting her heal like a loving, caring husband would.
Romance seemed to be rekindled in the home after that. The pair co-existed in much greater happiness and Nellie even began to learn English. Early in the spring, Nellie was with child again. This time Eb left her to do as she wanted, taking all the rest she needed.
Eb never meant it; he had gotten into his reserve moonshine to celebrate having a child of his very own come into the world and it happened. He went into a rage over Nellie burning some chicken she had fried up, and let her have it.
Eb didn’t want to think about any of that now. All he wanted to do was finish the job, get the hole dug. He didn’t know how deep to make it so he just let his strong arms push and dig and throw until he couldn’t dig any more. Then he took what was left of Nellie and his child and threw them in, spread some lye over them to control the smell, and filled in the grave.
When all was said and done, Eb sat down to write a letter he was going to take to town the next day. He wrote out a receipt number and penciled in the words, “Not satisfied with mail-order bride, not able to give me children. Please send sturdier replacement as soon as possible, long winter ahead.”
Leif Gregersen grew up and lives in Northern Alberta. They have two kinds of weather there, too cold and too hot, and both make Leif appreciate the other. He is a proud Scandinavian writer, public speaker, and poet. Most of his fame is for being an advocate for better treatment of people with psychiatric disorders. He also teaches creative writing classes and workshops and feels that through the written and spoken word people can find respite from life’s problems. Find writing samples, poems, blog entries, and photos at www.edmontonwriter.com
This story originally appeared in the May 18, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.