I can’t recall how Bunyan and Poka got their nicknames, but they were neighbours in the small village about two kilometres from our farm.
Although Bunyan didn’t own a blue ox, his one source of pride was a team of horses called Queenie and King. Whenever they emerged from the little thatched barn in which they were kept, they were as clean and white as Lipizzaner stallions.
Every spring, Poka hired Bunyan to cultivate her garden using his white steeds and every spring the following scenario repeated itself.
Before I tell you what happened, however, it should be noted that much to Bunyan’s amusement, Poka had a vocabulary that would make a sailor cringe, a highly peculiar ability in a day and age when women rarely swore.
To Bunyan’s way of thinking, to hear her let loose was well worth the sacrifice of a few stalks of rhubarb, so every spring Queenie and King “accidentally on purpose” trampled Poka’s rhubarb patch.
Beholding the ruins from her kitchen window, Poka would come tearing out of her house, her apron flapping in the wind. Wrinkled jowls jiggling with intensity, black eyes flashing with vehemence, she would lob a volley of cuss words toward Bunyan and his white horses.
Bunyan patiently tolerated all the foul invectives — aimed at his laziness, the unpainted, weather-beaten structure he called his house, even the condemnations heaped upon his wife and eight unruly kids.
Bunyan would just stand there, spitting tobacco juice and holding the reins of Queenie and King, who were impatiently pawing the ground. Exasperated that Bunyan was not obviously shaken by her comments, Poka would move in for the kill.
In all the years he’d owned them, nobody but Poka had ever dared say a bad word about Bunyan’s horses, and Poka could never say anything good. They stunk, they generated manure, they whinnied when she was trying to sleep, they were aged equines unfit to be seen in public and didn’t even know the difference between “gee” and “haw.” All these criticisms were levelled using the most vivid descriptions.
Bunyan had but one piece of ammunition in his arsenal that could silence Poka’s tirade.
Of the many odd jobs Bunyan was called upon to perform, that of community grave digger was the one for which he was most recognized. As Poka’s castigations regarding his horses built momentum, the gathering steam turned the air blue, and Bunyan could scarcely contain himself.
Spitting a mighty blob of tobacco juice dangerously close to Poka’s threadbare slippers, he would issue his retort: “Oh yeah? Well, I’ll be glad the day I throw the clods in your old face.”
Whether it was the shock of being reminded of her own mortality, or simply that she had nothing with which to deflect Uncle Bunyan’s verbal bullet, Poka would turn on her heels and return to her house, shuffling and stumbling over the newly cultivated soil, all the while muttering unintelligible retributions upon Bunyan, Queenie and King, in that order.
What was curious about the situation is that never once did Poka stop to think of the distinct possibility that Bunyan might return to dust in the little village cemetery long before she was laid to rest.
And Bunyan just naturally assumed that Poka would go first.
In the meantime, the rhubarb rebounded despite the trampling, more green and lush than ever, and Poka’s heart would soften at the sight.
The soil, however, gradually hardened, and by the following spring Poka would again engage Bunyan to till her garden, so long as his horses didn’t ruin her rhubarb. And Bunyan would make sure they did, just to see whether Poka had added any more colourful words to her vocabulary.
Year after year, the feud culminated in the garden patch in spring, gradually diminished over the back fence in summer, and all but disappeared over the winter.
And then Poka was hospitalized.
Bunyan was sitting, as usual, in the sunny south window of the Red and White General store when the two round bells on the hand-cranked telephone jingled loudly. The storekeeper answered.
“Yes, yes. I’m sorry to hear that, but I’ll pass the word along.”
Poka had died.
“You don’t say,” was all Bunyan could mutter, before slowly wending his way home, deep in thought.
He went first to the little thatched barn, where he curried Queenie and King for a long time. And then he retrieved his shovel from the back porch and using it as a walking stick, he made his way to the local cemetery located on a sandy knoll just south of town.
The day of the funeral, we locals gathered in the little white church to pay our last respects, and then followed the hearse to the cemetery. A thin line of immediate mourners gathered around the grave site, with friends and neighbors surrounding them.
Off to the far side, I saw Bunyan leaning on his shovel, his two hands crossed on its handle, his head bowed.
The little crowd slowly dispersed, until only a few of us were left. That’s when I noticed Bunyan take a wrinkled red handkerchief out of his overall pocket and wipe the tears from his eyes.
Then slowly, respectfully, as gently as he could, he began to shovel the sandy soil down onto the lid of Poka’s coffin.