The Last Trustee

Nick Dutko loose-bolted the metal ramp to the tray of the Ford F150. Now was the harder part: getting his 86 year old body up into the back of his pick-up. He heard a crunch as he started to climb, and didn’t know if it was his bad hip or his farmer’s boots on the gravel road.

Nick carefully swung a blue-jeaned leg over the side. ‘Do things in slow motion’, Dr Yaremchuk in town had said. Then, Nick sat down on the ride-on mower’s black and cracked pleather seat. It was hot from the late afternoon August sun. 

Warm seat. One of the simple pleasures of mowing the grass at the church – once in spring, three times in summer, and once again in autumn. Other part of the year, well, the relatives in the church’s graveyard had that to themselves during Saskatchewan winters where snow was measured in months and metres.

He straightened his green-and-gold John Deere cap and turned the mower’s motor over. It was a trick to ease out the clutch and let the mower inch its way down the ramp that he’d welded together in his barn years back. It was when it’d first been left to him to start 

cutting the grass at St Nick’s, the church his grandfather and his uncles had built in 1905 when they’d settled the district. They’d milled the lumber themselves from pine trees they’d harvested up north and brought back with the same horses that pulled their ploughs. 

‘There were still raw-hide tee-pees back then, Nicky,’ he remembered Dido telling him about the pioneer days when they’d come from the Old Country with the wheat seeds that they planted for their first crops.

‘The Indians thought we were strange, but we might as well have been creatures from the sky when we started putting up the “bani”,’ Dido had said of the five onion-shaped domes atop the Church, laid out in the sign of the cross. They were just farmers and learned as they went when hand-crafting the domes from copper sheets brought in from Thunder Bay on the new train line. ‘Might as well have been.’

Dido was pretty much Dad too from the time Nick was 12 and the tallest kid in the one-room schoolhouse down the road where Miss Patricia Klymenko, who wore red cardigans, was the teacher of 28 farm kids. Nick’s father had died in ’44 with the Royal Canadian Army at Juno Beach. The world didn’t know about Canadians – no less first generation prairie boy Canadians – at D-Day, but Nick was reminded every Sunday. In the Church’s graveyard, the congregation had installed a simple monument to Lance Corporal Dmytro Dutko. A white-washed concrete slab and a red maple leaf emblem made of wrought iron staked in front of it. Lest We Forget, it had welded on to it.

As the mower chugged its way up the hillock’s incline the tall grass to the peak of the hillock where they’d placed the Church, Nick reminded himself to wipe the emblem clean. And, the three metre high aluminium cross near the front door too. If he stood on the mower’s hood, he could pretty much reach the top (which he didn’t tell young Dr Yaremchuk about). Back in ’62, Father Oleg had caused a stir by installing one so big; people thought it was too flashy, especially the Catholics and the Methodists down the road.

Not just for its size, but because the priest had screwed little name plates to it. At the top of the cross, the name plate said Heaven and “nebo” in smaller Cyrillic letters. Down the bottom was Hell and “teklo” (which was meant to be “peklo” but somebody had screwed up the first letter). To the left was Death and “smert”; to the right, Judgement and “suud”. At the time, Dido has said: ‘Father Oleg’s a showman, but he also wants the world to be a simple place. Not sure how that works, but still he’s our priest and means well.’

Dido and Nick after him had lots of time to think. When you were seeding, spraying or harvesting over many flat acres and many flat hours, especially when you were running under lights at night to say bring in the soy beans, the combine’s cab was good for that. Nick missed that time now; he’d had a farm manager on his property for ten years at least now, and the only thing that came close nowadays was mowing duty at the Church. Time to think. Time to be with the relations – parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, his wife, his daughter – buried in the graveyard of a church that no longer had a priest, or parishioners, or prayers, or promise. 

After the pioneer families’ kids had followed ambition to the cities, the universities, the ice hockey rinks, the accountancy practices, and the dental surgeries; after wooden silo’s had been replaced by metal ones and those replaced by plastic ones; after the first generation had died away in third generation renovated houses on their original homesteads; after horses had given way to tractors had given way to millions of dollars worth of machines that did the job of two hundred men; after his long life, Nick was the Last Trustee of St Mykolai’s Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Maysville, Saskatchewan.

Nick started mowing in concentric rings from the Church’s collapsing fence line. He knew that it was 16 laps all up, then three more around the old church hall, and then an hour for the tricky parts in the cemetery, by the crucifix, and around the bell tower. He could cover it all up in four hours. Then, he would go back to the truck and get out the Thermos of Tim Horton’s and the donuts he’d picked up in town, and watch dusk on the deteriorated domes. 

Four hours to figure things out. Nick didn’t know why he felt they needed an answer this time. Every other time, he’d just thanked them for the call and left it at that until they politely inquired again a few months later. You could always count on Canadians being polite, Dido used to say. But, maybe, Nick’s fall down the back porch stairs last summer, his broken hip, his crawling back inside to call the ambulance from town, and the three weeks in the hospital in Prince Albert, maybe, it made him feel like something needed to finally be decided about the Church.

They were more than polite, the museum curators. Nick knew they were decent and wanted to do the right thing. To move the Church and preserve it in an open-air folkloric museum in Saskatoon so today’s Canadians – Indian Sikhs, Hong Kong Chinese, even the fourth wave of new migrants from the Old Country – could see how these hardworking settlers had brought their version of beauty and belief to the plains. It was worthy. But it wasn’t easy.

Probably on lap six or eight, it was hard to tell, Nick thought to himself: ‘What would Dido have done?’. As he took a turn, he saw that a metal cross on Helen Dutko’s tombstone must have rusted through over spring and fallen off. She’d been his dad’s jolly sister and had been named after her their dour great-grandmother, Halyna, who only wore black even before she was a widow. Helen was well known through the district for the best “bigos” – stewed cabbage with kielbasa. The secret, she said, was to add a splash of rye whiskey at the very end. Nick suspected Helen had more than a few splashes herself as she stirred the big cast iron pot on the new stove from Sears she was proud of.

Nick remembered her – proudly – serving up buckets of the stuff at the annual Church picnic and reunion day – called “Zeleni Sviata” or the Green Holiday after Easter. Pentecost: when all the family and the other original settler families, including everybody visiting from Saskatoon or Regina or Edmonton, would come back to clean up the cemetery, plant posies around the tombstones, eat too much, and toast dead ancestors with shots and highballs into the night. ‘Naz dorovya’ – to our health. You’d leave a plate on your relative’s grave for their good fortune – and for the grouse and the ducks to have a feed on too. 

As the day wore down and the bonfire went up, Uncle Taras played polkas on the accordion and his son, Terry, joined in on mandolin. Uncle Hryts – or Greg as he was known in Winnipeg where he was a lawyer specialising in real estate exchanges – told dirty jokes. The aunts pretended to be embarrassed, the nieces told them to stop being so old-fashioned, and the uncles laughed and the nephews knew then it was okay for them to laugh too. 

Everybody said that was part of the tradition too; even as a boy, Nick didn’t buy it. Though not everything is so obvious. Like it wasn’t obvious it was spring in Saskatchewan when some years there were still snow patches on the muddy ground. But, whether it was an old tradition or one they’d made up in the country they now had called home for more than a century, it was always good way to start to what you needed to believe was the new season.

When they’d come up last spring for a “site immersion”, the museum curators said to him that “Zeleni Sviata” was among the ‘unique prairie pioneer customs we want to capture’. For instance, they said, it was really interesting how over four generations the names in the graveyard had become more assimilated. Halyna to Helen. Taras to Terry. Hryts to Greg. Mykolai to Nick. 

On that visit too, they’d put a drone in the air to film the Church from above. Nick had watched Rae, the youngest museum staffer with his hair tied up in a bun and his finger nails painted black, controlling the machine and looking at birds-eye images of the Church on his cellphone. ‘Might as well be creatures from the sky,’ Nick recalled. Nick had told his farm manager he didn’t want a drone on his property when the guy had suggested it. ‘Better to get out and check the seedlings yourself,’ Nick had told him. That’s what Dido and him had done for decades. At least that was one thing he was certain about.

‘What would Dido have done?’. On lap ten or maybe thirteen, Nick reminded himself that was the question he was meant to thinking about. He didn’t need Dr Yaremchuk to tell him why his brain just jumped around nowadays like a spooked frog in a creek. 

Well, no matter what, Dido would have seen things clearly. One way or another. Picked it and stuck with it. That’s why he was a better man than me, Nick thought, as he noticed he’d missed a long strip of grass that he’d need to circle back to. 

I could never get clear. About whether I loved Mary or not over 43 years of the marriage, or just the idea that a big city girl had fallen for me at a Ukrainian ‘zabava’ dance. About what I was meant to do for young Doris when she was prematurely dying from breast cancer. About whether I should have just kept my ice skates on when I was young, and gone east to the junior league in Ontario when that scout had asked me to. About whether there’s a God or I just need to keep making Him up. About why the heck I outlived everybody and am the Last Trustee.

Nick finished the main laps and the smaller ones around the hall, where on winter Sundays after Liturgy they had burnt coal in the iron stove to keep warm over cups of instant coffee. The chimney would back up sometimes, and they’d wave away the smoke while comparing the grain prices to be expected the upcoming season. That’s what they said to each other at least, while their heads calculated whether that’d pay for college fees for the sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, and maybe a new car – a Lincoln or a Buick – for going to town in. They loved these plains and they did everything they could to get their kids off them.

It was darker than it should be, Nick noticed. The sky was going orange and purple in the west, and there were only two fingers to the horizon – or 30 minutes – left to sunset. He had run out of light to do the graveyard and the rest. Somehow the timing wasn’t right. Then, Nick looked down and saw the smudgy gauge by the mower’s steering wheel. Dammit. It showed near empty on fuel and he hadn’t brought an extra jerry can of diesel.

Nick knew he wasn’t right to put the mower back on the pick-up in the dark. So, he pulled the lever to lift the cutting blades, put the gears into neutral, turned the engine off, and pointed the mower downhill toward the pick up. He wanted to make sure he had time and fuel to get the machine back up the ramp.

The mower started to roll quicker. It bounced hard when it hit some bumps. Nick’s dentures jarred in his mouth.

Nick pushed the brake pedal down. It didn’t engage. It wasn’t meant to when the motor and electrics were switched off. 

The mower rolled faster into a small knoll he’d mowed an hour ago, and the machine nearly came off its wheels. The cutting blades banged off the ground. 

To not lose his seat, Nick bent forward and grabbed at the steering wheel. He pumped the brake pedal again. It just sank to the mower’s floor and stuck there. 

Nick Dutko was fifty metres of downhill from the gate opening to the pick up parked on the road. There were mangled old fence posts on either side with barbed wire laced through them. He’d put the wire up a few years ago to keep local kids from breaking in and smoking dope in the old sacristy. It was either the gate opening or the fence line. 

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