By Jeff Carter
My friends of Orkney, we left Clifton and Estelle in Ontario’s northland, at a place of golden dreams, the Jerome Mine. War was once again raging in Europe and Estelle had made a full recovery from an operation which had left her bedridden for weeks, four years earlier.
Clifton was working for wages. Estelle had found employment as well, serving as housekeeper, cook’s assistant and, when time allowed, pig herder.
The pigs were Clifton’s idea. Estelle had a more rational opinion of their nature having been raised on a farm but he was undeterred. Top dollar was paid for 50 young animals just old enough to fend for themselves. They were trucked north with enough feed for the journey. The workings were located on a 250-acre peninsula jutting into a sizeable lake, the only access being a muddy track passing through a narrow strip of land.
Assumedly, the pigs would stay put, straying only within the peninsula, and by fall each would reach market weight, 200 pounds on the hoof, and the couple could return south for the winter, the fine jingle of coin in Cliff’s pocket, not gold perhaps but enough to start setting things straight.
Surprisingly, only a few were lost over the course of the journey. The remainder, upon being set loose, paused for a moment and having accessed their new found freedom, began browsing upon the greenery, slyly eying the line of trees nearby.
The pigs did gain, though in a modest way, their rakish forms glimpsed briefly on occasion as they darted through the underbrush along a labyrinth of low tunnels. From the vantage point of a canoe on the lake, they could occasionally be seen sunning themselves along a stretch of sand in a little cove or, as the weather warmed, paddling about in the clear water. Pigs may not fly, but they can certainly swim and swim they did, some making their way to the distant shore, their fate unknown.
The handful that remained were wary things, full of squint-eyed, malignant intelligence. There was an attempt at a roundup, Clifton managing to lasso a couple of the less cautious but after being dragged through the brush for some time, he gave up on the attempt.
Two were shot early in the fall at the garbage dump and the men made a feast of them but Clifton received nothing for that brief bounty, the shooter having noted the savage nature of the beasts, the gamey quality of their meat and the expense of his bullets.
“Thus, were feral pigs introduced to Ontario’s north?” Pinkie asks.
“Not only there, Pinkie. Their progeny has since spread across the land.”
Pinkie, I should explain, is a kind of gentle, chimerical construct but not without some basis in fact. We knew each other in high school and she told me in the not-so-distant past of her father returning home, the scent of his work lingering about him, something I too am most familiar with; a dim, dust-filled space filled with warm bodies, and the scent of warm milk and dung.
“You knew Estelle, but not Clifton?” she asks.
“Estelle, yes, but Clifton only through reputation. She said he was the biggest liar in Oxford County. There were rumours of infidelity too, a relationship with a tall farmer’s wife. For a short little fellow, barely scratching five feet, my grandfather possessed high aspirations.”
“And your mom, what did she have to say about her father?”
“Not a great deal, Pinkie, though she would repeatedly advise me, ‘Do not have delusions of grandeur; find yourself good steady work, like welding.’”
• • •
Clifton spent nine seasons at the mine, working as an electrician and mechanic. He went north in 1937 when it first opened. Didn’t bother writing and when letters arrived, he’d often set them aside and lose track of them.
It was in the fall that year, the Great Depression lingering, that Estelle fell gravely ill with womanly troubles. Surgery was needed immediately and if she were to survive that a long convalescence would follow – weeks in the hospital.
The county’s Children’s Aid Society arrived at the family’s doorstep. It’s still there, three slabs of squared granite forming two steps and a small stoop; the main entrance to the home James Isbister had retired to and occupied after his death by his grandson, Estelle and five of his grandchildren, three girls and two boys.
Anita, nine, always maintained that she enjoyed the discipline and orderly life the group home provided, a single-story structure; narrow beds lining the walls of its barracks-like space. When she served oatmeal to her own children, topped with cream-heavy milk and plenty of brown sugar, her words would always be, “It will stick to your belly. Eat it up.”
She spent three years in the place and then when it was closed, she was fostered.
To be continued...