16, Number 92, August/September 2013 WINNER OF THE FICTION: THE BRUNO PENNER PRIZE Hunting for Henry by Donna J. Quick
The first news about the disappearance came when Elsie Halwa phoned over to my Aunt Nellie’s house. I happened to be there having coffee, so Nellie wiped her forehead with the corner of her apron - she’d been canning beets that morning - and turned to me. “Arnie, have you seen Henry Halwa around anywhere today or yesterday? That’s Elsie on the phone, and she says Henry didn’t come home last night.”
Well, I hadn’t seen Henry, but I drove past his farm on my way home. In fact, I even turned up the dusty dirt road that runs along his west quarter, where he always grows his best barley.
Sure enough, I could see the roof of his old International half-ton in the middle of the field, and when I came to the gate, there was a set of tire tracks running right through the grain.
I drove in on the same tracks, seeing as how the damage was already done. There was the white truck, surrounded by acres of green barley waving in the wind, with the sky clamped down over everything like a big blue bowl. The driver’s side door was open, but there was no sign of Henry anywhere. I tried calling his name, but all I could hear was wind rustling through the stalks of grain.
Two days after he disappeared, a bunch of neighbours and a contingent of the regulars from the Millet Legion started tramping around the bush in the back half-section of the Halwa place. But there was no sign of Henry, dead or alive.
Otto Schneider even hauled his fishing boat over to the farm and used a hockey stick to poke around the two dugouts and the big slough alongside the old shortcut road to the ball diamond before Henry fenced it off. The only good thing to come out of that was finding Nick Smirchuk’s old 1977 Ford Meteor, which had been missing for the last 10 years, at the bottom of the slough. Nick had reported his car stolen, but now he knew better.
He looked just as prickly as the brush cut he’d worn ever since his Korean War days. “Why, it was that goddamn brother-in-law of mine that swiped my car to go play ball. I should have known all along.” From what I heard, Nick never spoke to his brother-in-law again, and Aunt Nellie said he didn’t even talk to his wife for two weeks.
The RCMP had a little bad luck when they finally showed up four days later along with one of their tracking dogs. He had a great time pulling a skinnylooking lady constable through the bush until he met up with a cute little coyote bitch that started hanging around last spring. She lost her litter of pups when the creek overflowed and flooded her den, and I guess she was on the lookout for another mate. She gave the tracking dog a toothy grin, kind of waggled her tail, and took off through the trees. The shepherd gave a big lunge, yanked the RCMP lady right off her feet, and gave chase. That was the last we ever saw of the dog or the police, and people pretty much gave up the search for Henry after that.
I didn’t know what to think. If there was ever a man who didn’t want to be a farmer, it was Henry Halwa, and I always felt mighty sorry for him. He had a natural talent for drawing and painting, and that’s all he ever wanted to do. In fact, he took off right after grade 12 and spent a year in Vancouver going to some kind of art school and working at odd jobs.
“Happiest year of my life,” he told me once. “All those beautiful big trees, not just skinny little poplars, and everything all moist and green. You don’t have to go crazy watching a field of grain bake to death in the sun. You can just sit beside the ocean and watch the waves roll in and feel you don’t have a care in the world.”
Henry didn’t even look like a farmer. While you could believe the rest of his family had been born with two sturdy legs already on the ground, ready to throw a sack of feed over their shoulder, Henry was tall and thin and not too strong. Everybody else had sandy blond hair, but he had dark hair and a little black mustache, almost like one of those Russian cossacks in our high school history book.
But by the end of his first year in B.C., everything had changed at home. His older brother had a big blowup with their dad over buying a new tractor and stomped off to Calgary to sell used cars. His sister met an oil patch worker and followed him to Grande Prairie. So Henry was really needed to help out on the farm, and being a dutiful son, he carne back home.
All he had to show for his year at the coast was a big painting he brought back with him and hung over the couch in the living room. It was just as good as anything you can buy in those art gallery stores in West Edmonton Mall. You could see the waves rolling into the shore, just as real as life, an empty piece of stone seawall running alongside the ocean, and some of those beautiful big cedars Henry liked so much.
Within a year he married Elsie Kostiuk, who was one of the smartest girls in our high school class. As for me, I always thought she was a little too thin and serious looking and a whole lot too bossy. Once she had three kids to keep in line, her voice seemed to get even louder, especially when she was ordering Henry around. Between Elsie and his dad, Henry didn’t get much time to himself and certainly no time to do any painting. Each year he looked a little more miserable and a whole lot older.
It was at the start of summer last year that Henry’s dad died of a sudden heart attack. The day I heard the news I said to my aunt, “I’ll bet anything Henry will sell the farm, settle his mother in the seniors’ lodge in Millet, and move to B.C.” Nellie just kind of snorted and said, “I’ll believe that when I see it.” Turns out she was right and I was wrong.
Henry’s brother and sister came home for the funeral and the reading of the will, and behind their tears you could see a little bit of excitement at the thought of all that money they expected to inherit when the farm was sold.
But everybody was in for a big disappointment. It turned out that old Jacob’s will stated that the farm couldn’t be sold until his wife died so she’d have a home for as long as she lived. Since Henry’s mother was only 70 and her own mother had lived to be 93, it looked like Henry was stuck on the farm for a good many years to come.
His brother and sister were fit to be tied. They hung around for a week or so, going into Edmonton almost every day to talk to lawyers about breaking the will. Of course this didn’t sit too well with Henry’s mother. By the time John and Helen went home, nobody in the Halwa family had a civil word for each other. Henry was hardly saying anything to anybody by that time. He just got quieter and sadder looking every day.
So if he really was gone, it was hard to feel sorry for Henry, no matter what had happened. At least he got away from the farm, or so it appeared.
I’ll always remember what happened next to the end of my days. I’d been over talking to Elsie about helping her take the crop off that fall. Elsie was on the sofa and I was sitting across from her in Henry’s big old recliner. She said later that my face went as white as the ground after a summer hailstorm.
My eyes had travelled up past Elsie’s head to Henry’s painting above the sofa. But this time, the empty stretch of seawall was no longer empty!
There was a man sitting on it, and not just any man. Even though he had his back to us, you could make out the U.F.A. ball cap that Henry was never without and the snapbutton shirt with the dark brown yoke he always wore to the Leduc Black Gold Rodeo.
Elsie stood up and turned around to see what I was looking at. She just had time to say, “Oh my God,” before she passed out for a few minutes right on the sofa. But by the time I made sure Elsie was all right and got her sitting up again, the darndest thing had happened. The picture was back the way it had always been, the seawall stretching into the distance just as lonely and deserted as ever, with the waves rolling in as if they’d never stop.
“Well, there’s no use in us even trying to tell anybody what we saw,” Elsie said, and I had to agree.
But whenever the conversation turns to what might have become of Henry, we both try to change the subject in a mighty big hurry. And anytime I’m over at the Halwa house, it’s hard not to smile when I look up at that picture.