WHERE CHILDREN RUN
SHHH,” EUNICE WHISPERED as she pulled her little sister close. Clasping her hand over three year-old Rosalie’s mouth, she shot her a stern look. Rosie was trying to be brave, but she couldn’t stop sobbing because her parents were yelling in the kitchen.
Eunice was six now, old enough to understand that it was best not to draw attention to themselves. Pushing her light brown hair back she watched silently as their brother Norman quietly slipped out of the big bed they all shared. He tiptoed across the floor to the bedroom doorway then pulled the curtain back. He could see their mother arguing with her common-law husband, Boleslaw Domko, who came to their farm as a hired hand just over a year ago. Now they had a baby together and that’s who they were arguing about this time.
Norman couldn’t understand everything they were saying since they spoke mostly in Polish, but he could tell by their anger and the occasional English word that Domko was accusing their mother of something. They argued furiously, prompting Norman to let go of the curtain, then tiptoe towards the bedroom window. Grasping the metal rungs he gently lifted, pausing and flinching at the sound of the loose window panes rattling.
Once the window was wide, warm summer air filtered into the stifling hot bedroom. Feeling the breeze, he noticed how serene it was outdoors. The sun shone golden-pink from behind the forest as it set slowly in the western Manitoba sky. Mosquitoes buzzed loudly while the family’s cows stood grazing the damp grass in the nearby pasture. A dog barked excitedly somewhere in the distance.
As he slid back on the crowded bed, the smell of urine wafted up and he could feel the warm dampness of the mattress on his bare legs. He shot a disapproving look at his twin brothers.
“R-r-rosie did it,” David whispered.
“Uh-huh,” Dennis nodded.
Norman rolled his eyes. Probably one of them did it, but it really didn’t matter. The bed had been peed in so many times it was likely still wet from the night before. It wouldn’t take long and he would warm up and soon the smell wouldn’t bother him anymore.
“Ssssh,” Eunice whispered again.
Norman looked at the twins whose bright blue eyes pleaded for help. Physically they were identical—big boned and healthy, but too thin. Their wild blonde hair was bleached white from the sun. David was aggressive with lots of energy and an independent thinker who often made their mother laugh. Dennis was quiet and always went along with whatever David did. He was sensitive and soft-spoken, preferring to sit on an adult’s knee rather than play with the older boys. This seemed to annoy their mother who was not very generous with hugs and kisses.
Eunice was the family interpreter since she was the only one who understood the twins’ strange language—a jumbled combination of low German and fabricated words. Nobody cared what they said except Domko, who was oddly preoccupied with their jabbering. If he was in a good mood, he would chase them out of the house so he didn’t have to listen to them. But if he was in a bad mood, he would beat whichever one he could catch.
That afternoon Norman had worked alongside Domko and watched him grow increasingly irritated as they picked rocks out of a field and stacked them in a pile. His older brothers, Walter, 11, and Steven, 10, were beaten the day before for not milking the cows properly, so they had run away. That might be what annoyed Domko this time, but he couldn’t be sure. Norman wondered if his older brothers felt as bad as he did about leaving the younger ones behind.
The children listened as their mother calmed Domko, and soon everyone began to relax. Rosie stopped crying and Eunice dozed off while the twins shifted their bodies in unison, causing the bed springs to creak. As the house grew quiet, Norman fell asleep with one leg dangling off the bed, his foot resting on the floor.
It wasn’t long afterwards that baby Kathy started to cry. At first the sound was muffled, but soon turned to wailing, and the fighting started again. This time though, Domko was instantly angry. He complained that the baby made too much noise. Their mother picked Kathy up and began pouring water into a washtub for a bath. She argued that the baby’s stomach was cramping because she needed whole milk to drink, but that all he would allow her to have is skim milk.
The children cowered in the bed, expecting Domko would come raging into the bedroom any moment. He hollered that the children cost too much money to support and their mother shot back that the farm was hers and that he was the intruder. They could hear her trying to give the baby a bath. Kathy’s little arms and legs thrashed in the basin, splashing water onto the worn linoleum floor. The baby’s wails were far beyond her father’s tolerance level and everyone knew it except her.
The twins sat up and clasped their arms around one another. Eunice drew a protective arm across Rosie’s chest while Norman slid out of bed and crept to the window. The younger children began to weep as he glanced back at them for a moment, then swung his legs over the sill and disappeared outside.
“I’s be showink them soneebeech bastards!” Domko roared. His English was difficult to understand and his vocabulary consisted mostly of obscenities.
The children heard their mother’s tactic change as she began patiently reasoning with him. His voice shook violently as he screamed at her to make the baby stop crying.
Muttering something about the child not being his, Domkoagonized pitch as the sickening thud of the baby’s body slamming against the wall echoed throughout the house.
“Boleslaw!” their mother screamed as she ran across the floor. “What have you done now? Get out, get out of my house!”
The sound of Domko’s heavy boots crossing the floor caused the children to hold their breath, until the kitchen door slammed shut and the house grew quiet. The only sound was their mother’s voice whispering to the baby and her prayers to God that Kathy would live.
Knowing they were finally safe, the children began to cry and moan. No one dared get out of bed to comfort their mother, though, just in case he came back.
Pulling the sheet up over his head, Dennis hummed softly, trying to block out the sound of his mother crying. He squeezed his eyes tight, wanting to remember his father. It had been almost two years since his father’s death and each time Dennis searched his memory for his father’s smiling face, one memory returned over and over again. It was the cold, February day that Domko arrived at the farm.
His mother had been preparing supper in front of the old wood cook stove and he’d gotten her attention by tugging on her dress. She looked down at him and frowned because his boots had made a wet mess across the clean floor.
“Dennis, why are you crying now?” she asked, walking past him to a burlap bag on the floor near the door. She pulled out three large potatoes and snapped off the long white eyes that had grown over the winter.
“When’s daddy comin’ home?” he sobbed, rubbing his eyes.
“I told you before,” she answered. “Daddy died. He won’t be comin’ home no more.”
“I want daddy now,” he cried, needing to tell her what had just happened.
“I know you do, but he’s not comin’,” she said. “Now go outside and play until supper is ready.”
Dennis turned and left the warm kitchen. Stepping into the late afternoon air, he walked towards his twin who was playing in the snow alongside the house. Dennis looked up at the roof and was disappointed there were no doves perched on the peak. His mother had pointed out a pair of white doves on the roof the day of his father’s funeral. She said that the birds were a sign that their father was at peace. Dennis didn’t know where Peace was, but he wanted to go there. He hoped the doves would return to show him the way.
A noise in the barnyard caused him to look in that direction. His older brothers Walter and Steven were watching the new farm hand give water to the horses and fresh hay to the cows. The man was irritated and he said something that made the boys hurry into the barn.
By then, Dennis’ hands were cold because he’d lost his mittens. Too frightened to look for them, he went to David and Eunice.
“Eunice,” he cried. “My han’s are cold.”
Looking down at her brother, Eunice took off her mittens and handed them to him. “You can wear ‘em ‘til my hands get cold then we’ll trade back,” she said. “Where are yours?”
“T-t-they’re in the barn,” he stammered.
Both of them looked toward the gray, shanty-style building. A makeshift fence of old posts and planks that their father built surrounded the barn yard. Normally Eunice would have offered to find the mitts, but the anger Domko displayed earlier that morning was still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Domko had hauled a large load of hay into the barn, then returned to the field for more. While he was gone, they all jumped from the loft into the hay. Dennis could never remember being scolded for this before, so he was stunned when Domko returned and flew into a rage. Domko said they were going to have to obey him now, and he lined them up along the hay rack and strapped each one with his belt.
Dennis cringed at the remembrance of how the stiff leather had stung his cold legs. Big, red welts made it hard to sit down afterwards.
As he drifted off to sleep, he remembered how Domko’s eyes flashed when he warned them not to tell anyone.