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In 1856, the Swedes named their hamlet Rabisholm. Fourteen houses, a blacksmith, twenty-six horses, a stable and a store. That same year Minnesota became a state.
In 1857, the Germans came. And a few Dutch and the Finns.
In 1858, an Indian boy was hanged for intention to rape. In 1859, an Indian family was found frozen in the snow, dead of starvation before freezing. In 1860, two full-grown Indian males were shot dead while stealing corn from Ole Borg. In 1862, while the southern Sioux were going crazy with revenge, three Chippewa renegades slipped into Ole Borg’s house and cracked his skull with a hatchet. The renegades were later captured by a cavalry troop dispatched from Fort Snelling. They were hanged until dead.
In 1863, the town celebrated its first Ole Borg Day.
In ten easy years, the Indians were gone, pushed north and west.
Perry learned about the hardships. Hardship was something the old man stressed. He learned that the Swedes broke ploughs on base rock, got robbed on prices, seeded soil meant for spruce and not corn, wore silent hard faces. They were blond. He learned that they left Sweden in famine and, in perfect irony, came to Minnesota just in time for more of the same: locusts and drought, fierce winter and boulders; they left bad soil for worse soil, rock for rock, pine for pine. In some miserable genetic cycle, they did not leave at all and they did not arrive.
The Germans came later. The Germans came late enough to see that their future was not in the land. Instead they opened taverns and a hardware store and an implement shop, taking the Swedes’ money, extending credit, turning the bundle of tiny farms into a hamlet. Within a few years it became a predominantly German village, both in numbers and power, but the Swedes still remained vital to the tight circle of economics, because without them there was no need for German shops. Old World rivalries persisted, and Perry heard the story often: In 1863 a meeting was convened to choose the village’s soldiers for the war against slavery. No one understood the war, but everyone wanted to fight it. They hadn’t heard how many were dying. At the meeting it was decided that only a few could go, and after hours of haggling the number was fixed at fourteen, a quarter of the able-bodied men. The Germans, citing their new predominance, insisted on supplying ten of the fourteen. The Swedes wanted the war party split equally, arguing that they’d been the first to settle the forest, that they had eight more corpses in the cemetery, and that their farming sustained the small community. In short, Perry’s father had explained with relish, in short they were arguing about the right to die. ‘Well,’ the old man said, telling the story, ‘the Germans threatened to foreclose on two mortgages. Herb Wolff’s great-grandfather was one of the bastards. Anyhow, the Swedes told them to go to hell, threatening to take their corn and trade into Two Harbors. So the krauts threatened to close down their shops. And the Swedes threatened to boycott the shops. And the krauts threatened no more credit. On and on. Well, next thing you know there’s a scuffle and somebody knocks over a lamp and the meeting hall catches fire, threatening a forest fire, threatening everything. And that, if you see the point, that was the final threat.’
‘Yes,’ Perry had said.
‘And what’s the point?’
‘A big forest fire. The end of the whole village.’
‘Exactly,’ the old man had crowed, opening his Bible. ‘The end of everything. The end of the world.’ His voice rang like an old bell.
In the end, a single young Swede went to the war and fought with the Minnesota First at Gettysburg. He was buried in the Swedish half of the cemetery, solidifying the Scandinavians’ grasp on the land, another root sunk deep in. For reprisal, the Germans convened a secret meeting and voted to change the name of the place from Rabisholm to New Köln. The Swedes simply ignored the vote, and until 1887 the village had two names and the matter was taken quite for granted.
In 1887, the timber companies moved in.
They built their sawmill on Dunkle Creek and named the place Sawmill Landing.
It became a logging town – a town now and not a village. Simple frame houses went up, each identical to the next with their wide porches and crawl spaces and stone fireplaces and upstairs bedrooms. It became a company town. Using the sawmill as a hub, the timber companies laid the streets like spokes into the forest, seven spokes that radiated into the timberlands, and as the forest was cut and gutted, the spokes were simply extended and the town expanded. Each spoke was given a name: Acorn Street, Larry’s Lane, Moose Street, Apple Street, Broken Axle Road, Sawmill Street and Mainstreet.
For nearly thirty years the logging companies ran the town, and the population climbed over a thousand. A school was built. And a jail and a town hall. The timber companies tarred Mainstreet and cut a highway out to North Shore Drive. An undertaker set up shop. A railroad spur was laid, a depot was built, new wells were dug, a water tower went up. The timber companies built a pulp mill and a planing mill, changed Ole Borg Day to Paul Bunyan Day, and, indirectly through the labours of their wage earners, paid for the construction of Damascus Lutheran Church. ‘That,’ Perry’s father had said with a customary spit at progress, ‘that was the only decent thing.’
The timber companies also brought a second wave of Finns into Sawmill Landing. They were gaunt families, blank-eyed and harsh and disciplined by tundra spirits, wide foreheads and black eyes and strong arms. Among the new Finns was Perry’s own grandfather.
The facts of Pehr Peri’s life were as bare and brittle as the scattered bones of some ancient reptile. All that was known came from the memory of Perry’s father and from a tiny packet of papers buried in the attic. Up to a point the story was typical. Pehr Peri was born in a fishing community north of Helsinki. At sixteen, for reasons unknown, he boarded a boat for America, spent a year of near starvation in Baltimore, worked his way west to St Louis, then boarded another boat that took him up the Mississippi as far as Red Wing.
For the next five years, young Pehr Peri was swallowed in a dark succession of lumber camps and pine forests, gradually moving north with the advancing timber companies, working first as a shanty boy, later as a swarmer hacking branches from felled trees, and finally as a fully-fledged lumberjack. While the specific events of that lustrum were murky, it was probably the story of thousands like him: immigrants homesick for the Old World, hard winters, danger, relentless work, fist fights, mosquitoes and loneliness and barracks yarns, campfires and boredom, northern hardships, frontier trials. Whatever the specifics, Pehr Peri emerged at the age of twenty-two in a camp outside Sawmill Landing – tall and strong, virtually illiterate, speaking a hybrid of Finnish and English and Norwegian, unmarried. And the father of a young son.
Sometime during those dark five years, in circumstances that could only be imagined, the young Pehr Peri had spent enough time out of the cold to sire a son, to see it through birth and to take the child with him. It was never explained. The identity of the mother, as well as the means by which Peri gained custody of the boy, was never told. The only clue – a minor one – was that the child was baptized Pehr Lindstrom Peri, and it was assumed that the mysterious woman, wife or mistress or lover, belonged to one of nearly three hundred Lindstrom families scattered between Red Wing and Sawmill Landing. But it was never known. In customary and callous disregard for reminiscence, Pehr Peri raised the child as though he alone were responsible for its propagation, refusing to talk about the mother, ignoring the very fact of motherhood, an asexual northern temperament that excluded and eventually scorned things female. ‘I didn’t have a mother,’ Perry’s father once explained, ‘because I didn’t need one.’
For more than a year, Pehr Peri continued working the forests outside Sawmill Landing, leaving the child in the daytime care of assorted shanty boys, camp cooks or idlers. Then, in August of 1901, his right arm was crushed in an incident that again went unexplained. In one of the few scraps of paper he left behind, Peri referred to the accident as a ‘thing which happened’, accepting the crushed arm as a timber wolf might accept a broken leg, without bitterness or remorse, burning eyes, a natural thing of the north. Hardship was to be expected. At any rate, Perry’s grandfather was out of a job, saddled with a motherless child, crippled, stranded in a town that offered nothing but hard work. So he became a preacher.
Despite the contradictions and ironies – semi-literate, not a trace of prior religious zeal, barely able to speak English – Pehr Peri became a successful stump preacher, shuttling from camp to camp, travelling by foot with his young son and a secondhand Bible and a store of winter tales, preaching a mixture of folklore and Christianity and Finnish mythology, relying as much on his native Kalevala as on Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. In time he became something of a hero in the outlying camps. He spoke their idiom, shanty talk that blended accents with nationalities and common experience. And he was also a born preacher. A preacher, not a minister. His sermons called for no acts of repentance, offered no hope of salvation, anointed nobody, elected nobody, promised nothing to the choppers and swarmers and barkers, ignored heaven and delineated only hell. His promise was that things would get worse, and his theme was apocalypse: forest fire, death in the snow, a new Ice Age. He was a preacher of the elements, more pagan than Christian, appealing to the only true emotion of his frontier congregations, which was fear. Looking through a few of the old sermons, Perry saw in his grandfather a simple glacial floe and a frozen spirit. The sermons called merely for heroism. Urho, in the Finnish. Practised endurance, silent suffering, fortitude. His symbols were snow and timber wolves, the forest afire, the world ending, the town collapsing. His hero was the bull. The Bull of Karelia, a moose with antlers gone and head down in the dead of winter. Pehr Peri left the lumber camps with the certainty that there was no alternative but to go on, which was what everyone was best at anyway. So, with a reputation anchored in realities, it was a natural course of events that culminated in his assuming the pulpit of a brand-new church called Damascus Lutheran. And even with a congregation of shop owners and farmers and wives, Pehr Peri never relented in his stern predictions of hardship and collapse. The more vivid his prophecies, the more popular he became, drawing audiences from as far down as Two Harbors and as far north as Grand Marais. Never exhorting, he merely laid down hard principles: the strong will not survive forever, but they may survive longer than the weak; things are bad now but in the winter they will be much worse, so take advantage of the present and prepare for the future. Since his ultimate prophecy of doom was always rooted in stories of present suffering, and since there were always ample cases of forest fire, hard winters, drownings or freezings or death, he could never be faulted for poor vision nor accused of promising too much. He saw no hope and offered none. Strokes of good fortune, he reminded the Damascus Lutherans, are forever followed by bad fortune; summer to winter; birth to death; construction to destruction; the elements. He was never wrong. He preached simple heroism. What cannot be escaped must be endured, and if it must be endured it might as well be confronted.
Pehr Peri taught his singular lesson with conviction. And he taught his son, who listened.
So in 1915, when the timber companies left Sawmill Landing, it was seen as something to be endured, a dying town, a minor collapse in a world of collapse, so inevitable that no effort was made to save the place. Rusting machinery, uncut weeds, unpainted buildings, unstopped forest. And in 1919, when Pehr Peri hanged himself from the rafters of Damascus Lutheran, his son was ready to endure, having listened. In a natural succession to the pulpit, Pehr Lindstrom Peri presided at his father’s funeral, buried him in pine in the old cemetery, and the following Sunday preached that Sawmill Landing was a dying town, that there was no sense trying to escape it because the next town may already be dead and the next on the verge of death, that the Ice Age was returning, ice a mile thick, a glacier that would level the forest and fill the lakes, the sun would turn black and the moon red as blood. And as though to demonstrate the flux, Pehr Lindstrom Peri journeyed the next day to Silver Bay, where he changed the family name to Perry and eliminated his middle name, his mother’s name, for he did not need it.
Perry’s first memory of his father was neither striking nor unusual: a holiday, Thanksgiving or Christmas, snow on the ground, his mother only a pleasant shadow beside him as they huddled in the house to wait out a storm, his father nervously watching the snow through the kitchen window. His second memory, unconnected to the first except through later association, was of a long sobbing sound, the snow still blowing, a baby crying and his father wiping bloody hands. His third memory was of great loss. The house was stone cold. His father was holding a child, rocking before the fire, and the sobbing sound ran through the house like the wind.
The three memories might have been separated by years or seconds.
Later, as he recognized Harvey as a brother, he remembered other things: his father preaching the apocalypse, the word throbbing in four full-bodied syllables like the chiming of a bronze bell. The cold house. Harvey and the old man going off somewhere in the woods. The feeling of cold. Harvey playing football. The old man watching with blank eyes. Harvey fighting. The old man dying, ringing with a spoon in his spit bucket. Harvey digging a bomb shelter for the dying old man, pouring cement, stringing electric lights so as to work at night. Gaunt nightlong images, partly a combination of human beings and events, partly the town, partly the place, partly a genetic fix, an alchemy of circumstance. He could not find the start.
Perry carried the rucksack, Harvey plunged ahead. They passed Pliney’s Pond and continued on. Hornwort and water moss grew along the path, in the shallow-cut parts of the forest. It had finally rained and the forest was soggy. Twice the path appeared to end in a tangle, but Harvey would push away the brush and the path was always there. They walked single file. The bushes leaned in from both sides, parting like water and Harvey pointed out the trees and gave their Latin names. He showed where mushrooms grew and explained how they should be eaten and how a man could survive for years in the woods if he knew what was what. The trail was black dirt. It twisted through alternating growths of birch and pine, slim white trunks with maroon leaves. The earth was springy from decay and rot. Harvey seemed very happy. They crossed a meadow, turned on to an old logging road that followed a creek into the thick forest. Perry walked fast. He’d lost nearly five pounds. It was a fresh day. Sometimes he could hear the creek rushing off to the left, bubbling against the rocks, and Harvey kept talking, explaining things, pushing on. He showed where poison ivy and poison oak and maidenhair grew. He was quite expert. The forest grew high and thick, big enough for harvesting, monster trees with gnarled roots that lay like fossils across the path.
Eventually the trail ended, facing dead into the woods.
‘Nice, isn’t it?’ Harvey said.
‘This is really it. I told you it was nice. What do you think?’
‘I like it. Spectacular.’
‘I told you.’ Harvey pointed into the brunt of the forest. ‘Out there is the real stuff. That’s the wilderness.’
‘Where do we swim?’
‘Out there,’ Harvey grinned. ‘These trails we’ve been following are white-man made. Loggers mostly. But this is as far as they come, and out there you won’t find anything. This is where the logging stopped.’ He pointed to where the trail widened. ‘See here? The wagons turned around here and went back. This is as far as they ever came. Isn’t it something?’
‘Right. No kidding.’ He waded into the brush, motioning for Perry to follow. ‘See this?’ He picked up a rotted piece of leather. ‘Dad showed it to me. It’s an old horse brace. See? You can imagine how it fitted over the horse’s neck. The straps went here and were attached to a go-devil. All kinds of junk is lying around here if you can find it.’
Harvey scrambled about the clearing, picking things up and explaining them. He held up a long pole. ‘See? This thing’s called a peavey. They used it to manipulate the logs. See? The point’s rusted off, but it used to have this sharp point on the end and they’d use it to pry logs.’
‘Where do we swim?’
It was hard going. Perry was sweating. His jeans ripped in the thigh. Harvey plunged ahead. The forest had been cut by glaciers, chunks of silicates and rock ripped up and carried forward by advancing ice, blistered and dried, holes and crevices and long strips of gully bulldozed southward. The good soil was skimmed off, carried south. And when the melting started and the glaciers receded, ice turned to water and the water filled the holes and crevices and strips of gully, becoming lakes and ponds and rivers and tributaries, a circulatory system, the land of ten thousand lakes. Only the tough things grew. Pine, birch, bristled brush, primitive kinds of fish, walleyes and pumpkinseed sunfish, bullheads and crayfish and northerns. Tough mammals, too: wolves and beaver and bear and moose, and the Indians and the Swedes and the Finns, all tough.
The country began to drop. It was a different kind of forest than he was used to. It was thick and blurred and impenetrable, going out and out.
Then he heard the water again. Then he was in it, up to his knees.
He followed Harvey up the creek. It was cold water. On each bank the trees grew like mutants, huge and old, and the water ran faster. He was in it. Harvey was moving fast and Perry lifted his knees high to keep up the pace, sweating, his glasses sliding down his nose. Bugs hovered just over the water. There were dragonflies and bugs Perry did not know.
Gradually the creek widened and flattened out and the water got deep.
Harvey stopped in a shaded part of the creek.
‘A good spot,’ he said. ‘You like it?’
‘It’s fine. Water’s freezing.’
Harvey smiled. ‘Dad showed it to me. You’ll get used to it. You want me to carry the pack awhile?’
‘No. I guess I can handle it. Where the devil are we going?’
‘Just a way farther. The creek empties into a small lake. We used to go there to fish. You’ll like it.’
‘Nice, isn’t it?’
‘Spectacular. I hope to hell the creek doesn’t get any deeper.’
‘Maybe you better let me carry the rucksack.’
‘All right,’ Harvey grinned. ‘We’ll take her slow.’ He gazed up the stream. ‘Nice, isn’t it? Even better when you get deeper in, but we’ll go slow this time.’
‘That’s the ticket.’
‘You’ll love it.’
‘I’m freezing. Let’s go.’
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