Solly knocked his head on a low-hanging birch branch as he ran toward the crowd that had gathered at the food concession. He hit the ground hard, lay unconscious for three days, and when he woke, the Pioneer Village was deserted. Not a visitor or staff member in sight. His stomach churned and he felt nauseous. He wondered what had happened to his wife and to Sim. Had they really left without him? Or were they wandering the empty village right now, looking for him in the old church, the red schoolhouse, the office of the Village Tribune, the cheese factory, the town hall?
The Pioneer Village was situated in a rural stretch of gently rolling hills, several kilometres from a major highway. So there were no car sounds—no engines, horns, brakes, or collisions. Solly heard only the rustling of breeze-agitated trees. The mechanical buzzing of a cicada. The groan of his stomach demanding food or demanding to puke.
Three days had passed, but Solly didn’t know three days had passed, only that it’d been a long time, because he’d never felt so hungry. He suddenly remembered the crowd, the commotion. They had been gathered around the food booth. There’d been some kind of hubbub there. He swivelled around and saw, beyond a cluster of pine trees, the small wooden structure. It said HAMBURGERS on it. It said HOT DOGS and POTATO CHIPS. COLD DRINKS. ICE CREAM.
Solly started walking along the dirt path that threaded through the village, connecting all the buildings from a century past, a century and a half. He passed a large flatbed wagon parked in the path. It was heaped with hay. Now he remembered: he’d sent Carla and Sim on a hayride so he could sneak off and have a smoke. He remembered waving to them as they sat on the back of the wagon, pulled by a pair of old grey horses. Solly wondered where they kept the horses when the Pioneer Village was closed. Maybe they didn’t keep them on-site. Maybe some local farmer brought them in on loan for all the various events: for Pumpkinfest, Hay Daze, Shear & Cheer.
Solly felt a chill and became suddenly aware how soggy his clothes were. It was early morning. The grass, which he had been lying in, was glistening with dew. Dew sparkled on spiderwebs dangling from trees. He heard now the crow of a rooster. The hum of—what was the creek called? The hum of Carpenter Creek.
The food booth was still open. Not open for business, just unlocked. Solly saw a paper plate of wizened French fries, streaked with ketchup and crawling with flies. It sat on the serving counter, having never been picked up. He pushed through the small half-door that swung in toward the kitchen space. Deep fryer. Fridge. Cutting board. Shelves of buns. Solly grabbed a bag of hamburger buns off a shelf and ripped it open. He squirted some ketchup on a bun and took a few bites. His teeth and tongue needed convincing. He forced them into operation.
Outside, there were half a dozen picnic benches, one of which was strewn with empty pop cans. Some of the cans were standing, some lay on their sides, rocking incrementally in the near-breeze. Solly sat down at one of the tables and crossed his arms on the wooden surface. He closed his eyes gently and tried to piece it all together.
The Pioneer Village had been built, Solly remembered, in a place where there had not been a pioneer village. There was, however, a gristmill, a beautiful stone gristmill, and that was why the village was put here. All the buildings were moved in from around the province and set up to create a little village. By any standards, by the standards of any century, it was an unusual village. A village with one of everything.
Solly recalled that after the wagon carrying his wife and son had disappeared down the path, he had wandered off behind the Old McGregor House to light up a Lucky Seven. While he was drawing the smoke slowly into his lungs, he’d heard laughter from inside the two-storey structure. He took a few steps toward the window and peered in. A woman stood by the fireplace, and in the fireplace hung a large black pot. The woman stirred its contents with a long iron ladle, and he recognized her. The woman was Evie Hyman. She wore pioneer garb: a big blue dress, white apron, ruffled sleeves, a bonnet.
Back in high school, Solly had asked Evie Finkelstein, as she was called then, to go on a date with him. There was a stage adaptation of the Archie comics being presented at the East Side Secondary School, on the other side of town. Evie had smiled a real genuine smile. But she was already going to the play with Beanie Hyman. Maybe she and Solly could do something else sometime. Even though she’d been totally gracious, Solly felt a bit embarrassed, and soon they graduated, and Solly went to Montreal to attend university, and at some point, he heard that Evie and Beanie had gotten married, become Orthodox, and were cranking out kids at an unprecedented rate.
Now here she was, stirring up dandelion tea at the Pioneer Village and ladling it into little paper cups for the visitors to taste. Had she really traded in the name Finkelstein for Hyman? That’s what Solly found hard to believe. It was a lose-lose proposition.
After a few moments, Evie had straightened up suddenly and turned toward the door, her back to Solly. She lay the ladle down on a wooden stool and ran from the Old McGregor House. Solly wondered if she ever had dreams of being Evie McGregor, but he didn’t wonder long, as he became aware of a commotion in the distance.
That was when he’d started running too, and the last thing he remembered was all the running. Boys in suspenders running. Women in hoop skirts. Bearded men in straight black pants and elbow-patched jackets. Some of them carried farm implements. Some laughed, some shouted.
That was three days ago. Now Solly ground the last of the hamburger bun between his teeth and forced himself to swallow. He opened his eyes again and was surprised by how bright the sun was. He swung himself off the bench and walked back to the tiny kitchen. The cupboards were all open, food and supplies scattered on the wood floor. Why hadn’t he noticed this before? And an axe—an axe had been slammed into the food-prep counter.
He grabbed another hamburger bun off one of the shelves and stuffed it into his pocket for later. He set out along the path that led toward the entrance to the Pioneer Village. Alerted by the noise of metallic clanging, Solly swung around to look at the blacksmith’s workshop. Was someone in there making horseshoes or something? But then he saw a padlock swinging against the metal plate that housed the door handle. His heart slowed down again.
Passing the Old McGregor House, he glanced through the open front door. The large front room on the ground floor was empty. The black pot, presumably filled with cold dandelion tea, hung motionless in a cold fireplace. Soon Solly was stepping through the back doors of the General Store, which also served as the village’s admission office. The shelves were sparse and tidy. Jars of maple syrup. Small boxes of chocolates in the shape of maple leaves. A Pioneer Puzzle: 312 Interlocking Pieces That Paint a Rural Scene Worth Framing. Key rings with little horseshoes attached, and nameplates in moulded plastic made to look—just barely—like wood. A package of perforated cardboard sheets that, assembled, create An Authentic Steam Engine Just Like Our Great-Grandfathers Operated!
Solly’s great-grandfathers had lived in Poland. One was a rag man and the other was a tailor. Solly had been named after the rag man, Simcha, his mother’s grandfather. These guys had big grey beards and thick eyebrows and dark eyes and they wore black clothes. They spoke Polish and Yiddish. He imagined they ate dumplings and thin soups and chopped liver. Solly had no idea what his great-grandfathers did for fun, or even if there was such a thing as fun back then.
Solly passed by the admission counter, drawing his fingertips lightly along its surface. There was a large jar on it containing small bits of folded paper. Raffle tickets. He remembered buying a raffle ticket when he came in. The prize was a hideous quilt. He had hoped he wouldn’t win.
He stepped out the front door of the General Store and gazed past a quartet of outhouses and a rudimentary gazebo. A grass field stretched far back to the country road that meandered about seven kilometres farther to the highway. The grass field was covered in cars, parked in long neat rows. All those cars. No people. Suddenly dizzy, Solly reached out to steady himself and found his hand grasping an easel with a chalkboard perched on it.
In ornamental red hand lettering, it said:
WELCOME TO THE PIONEER VILLAGE
ANNUAL STEAM ENGINE
The word below the second line had been hastily erased, presumably with the side of someone’s hand. Solly tried to remember what the missing word was, or the missing words. “festival”? “EXHIBITION”? “DEMONSTRATION”? Or maybe something clever, like “blowout.” Didn’t matter, though, because scrawled in white chalk beneath those two lines was:
Solly licked his right index finger and reached toward the chalkboard. He carefully erased all the consonants from the third line in white chalk and stood back to read the whole sign again:
WELCOME TO THE PIONEER VILLAGE
ANNUAL STEAM ENGINE
Maybe later he’d get rid of all the consonants. He was thinking he probably had a lot of time to kill.
A shadow passed over Solly’s eyes and he became aware of a faint flapping sound. Looking up, he saw a lone turkey vulture sailing across the cloudless sky. He watched it disappear into the distance like a single piece of punctuation in the corner of a sheet of blue paper.
His legs steady again, Solly started toward the parked cars. One licence plate, on a silver PT Cruiser, read: BEANIE 123. The grass, upon which he walked silently, looked perfectly groomed. The indentations the tires had made were invisible now. How many days does it take for that to happen? For the grass to regain its stature after it’s crushed by a tire.
When he reached his car, Solly jammed a hand into his rear pocket. He pulled out the squished hamburger bun, transferred it to his other hand, and jammed the first hand back in. A tiny slip of paper. His raffle ticket for the quilt. He let it flutter to the ground. Now the pocket was empty. He felt the other pockets, patting against the black denim of his jeans, but they were empty too. Solly found a large rock in the grass and began hammering at the driver’s window of his car. This set off the car horn, and its bassoon-like honk blared across the field of cars at three-second intervals. When he’d finally smashed a hole in the window, Solly reached in and unlocked the door, swung it open, and slid behind the steering wheel.
The hamburger bun was dry and chewy. Somewhere in the car there was probably a little ketchup package from a hamburger drive-through, but Solly couldn’t be bothered to look. His life had changed.
Peering up through the windshield, he saw the turkey vulture winging back. It grew larger and larger. Did the turkey vulture know there’d been a whole thing with a skunk? Did it know what had become of Carla and Sim? And who would win the raffle?
There were plenty more buns on the shelves of the food booth. Eventually the car’s battery would die and the horn would stop honking.
Solly would wait for his wife and son to show up, or for the results of the raffle to be announced. Whichever came first.
It was like living in another century.
His was the life of a pioneer.