Published in Markham Village Writers, the Collected Works
Edited by Donna Marrin 2004
“The Queen eats fiddleheads when she comes to Canada!” my father proclaimed. “They’re a delicacy!”
My sister and I were impressed, and proud to have tasted such a noble food.
“If you’re going picking, Mrs. Olsen would like some,” said my mother.
“Can we go?” asked Jan. “It’s not rainy today.”
My father looked out the window. “We’ll go tomorrow. It’s still too wet.”
Jan could not hide her disappointment and fell to sulking in the corner. I tried consoling her by offering a game of Monopoly. We went out to the sun porch to play.
“Hey!” I had a great idea. “Let’s say every time you pass ‘Go’ you get a check mark, and that means one fiddlehead. So tomorrow, you have to pick however many fiddlehead check marks you got!”
Jan liked the idea and we called out to Mom and told her of our new rule. She didn’t say anything, but Dad hurried into the porch with a worried look on his face.
“Ssh!” he ordered, panicked. “Keep your voices down! You want the whole neighbourhood to hear?!”
Since our closest neighbour was about a kilometre away, the prospect of eavesdroppers seemed unlikely. Still, Jan and I crouched down and gasped.
“What we are doing is highly illegal!” my dad whispered fervently. “If we get caught…well, who knows what could happen!” I was struck by images of my whole family in bleak jail cells, chained to the dirty, grey walls, our arms and legs poking out from ragged clothing, water bowls just beyond our reach. An armed guard would come in every so often, yell curses at us, kick us with his heavy combat boots, and cry, “That’ll teach you to steal from Blue Woods!”
Blue Woods was a conservation area, not far from our farm house. Every kid in Hayden Township learned about the difference between coniferous and deciduous trees at Blue Woods. They also learned how to distinguish white pines from jack pines, how to spot a groundhog hole, and where the tallest cattails grew. In Brownies and Girl Guides we’d go to Blue Woods and play Survival. Sometimes I got to be a wolf, since I was fast. It was always an honour to be a wolf.
Every time the school buses dropped us off on the narrow gravel road by the Blue Woods entrance, we got a severe warning:
Teacher: In authoritative voice. Blue Woods is a Conservation Area. And what does Conservation mean?
Students: In unison. Save!
Teacher: And what does that mean we don’t do?
Students: Mumbled and disorganized. Go off trails, pick plants…
Teacher: That’s right. Always stay on the marked trails and DO NOT pick any plants of any type – not even dandelions. Understand?
Students: Garbled. Yeah…
And they were serious about it too. One time, Billy Farr picked some ferns and our teacher, Mr. Lorrin, yelled at him for over five minutes in front of the whole class. We were sure poor Billy was going to be taken to the police and would never return to school.
Picking stuff was a serious crime. My dad wasn’t kidding. The thing was, Blue Woods was rife with fiddleheads – and my dad knew where all the best spots were.
Every time we committed this dastardly offence, there was a shroud of secrecy over our whole family. No one was to speak of it – it, being akin to robbing the Canadian Mint in Ottawa. Often, Dad wouldn’t even tell us we were going until a few moments before, when he would get his old green coat, with all its inner and outer pockets, from the work clothes closet in the porch. Then, without a word, my sister and I would put on our work coats and load up our pockets with plastic shopping bags. We would pull on our rubber boots – the kind that made your socks worm their way off your ankles and down around your toes – for fiddleheads liked to grow in moist areas. Then Dad would get the big, old truck out, and he’d just wait, silently, for us to join him.
We always left just before dusk, since that was the time that fiddleheads were easiest to spot. It also meant that Blue Woods would be deserted. Few people went hiking along the trails at dusk. If there were people about, the operation was called off – no questions asked and no debate about the matter.
Our most exciting adventure happened one early evening in late April. Jan and I climbed into the big, black 1966 Ford truck and started arguing over who had to sit in the middle where the heavy gear shift would come down and hit you in the knees.
“Quiet!” ordered Dad.
We obeyed and drove on in silence. Just as we passed through the little hamlet of Valesgreen, my Dad caught his breath. There, just over the hill, was a police check. High school was coming to a close, the weather was warming up, and the bush parties were starting. The cops weren’t taking any chances with drunk driving. “Keep quiet,” Dad told us. Jan and I exchanged worried glances, and I wished I had said a proper good-bye to Mom. It might be the last time I ever saw her, once they threw me in prison, that is.
Dad slowed to a stop by the officer. “Hello Doug,” our father said.
“How you doing Brian?”
“Are you expecting the high school students out tonight?”
“Getting around that time of year. Where are you off to in this old thing?” He slapped the big truck on its side as if it were a horse.
“Just off to pick up some stuff for my wife.”
“Well have a good night then.”
“You too.” And we drove off. Jan and I let out the breaths we had been holding, and Dad grinned wickedly to himself.
When we turned down the Blue Woods side road, Dad told us our instructions. “All right, Jan – I’ll let you off at the bend in the road and you can go over the fence into the woods. Hayley – you go in 300 yards farther down. I’ll park the truck past the entrance, down the road the other way. In fifteen minutes we meet back at the bend in the road. Clear?”
“Should we synchronize our watches?” Jan asked, barely whispering.
“Good idea,” Dad replied.
“I don’t have a watch,” I said, panic rising in my throat.
“Doesn’t matter,” Dad said. “Remember, if you see any people, get back to the meeting place. Fast.”
Jan got out first, closing the door of the truck silently. She cast us a furtive glance and hurried down into the ditch and through the old rail fence, disappearing into the woods. I did the same thing farther down the road, and Dad drove off with the truck, past the main entrance.
It was dark in the woods. The last of the daylight was hardly strong enough to get through the canopy of trees. Still, there was enough light to find the fiddleheads. I immediately saw a boggy area with lots of ferns growing up in it. I headed over there and found a darling little patch of fiddleheads – five or six of them, all growing together, using one another for protection from greedy fingers like mine. I pulled out a plastic bag and started picking them off, one by one, near the base of their stems. I looked around and noticed a couple of singles, but the pickings there were slim. I saw a few that would be ready in a day or two, but they were too small yet to pluck. I moved on.
I found a few more areas that were pretty good, and I had two pockets full when I heard footsteps on the boardwalk that cut through the conservation area. I couldn’t see the wooden planks, but I judged that I was not more than twenty feet from them. A grove of bushes was hiding me.
I had images of policemen with their guns pointed at me, telling me to empty my pockets of fiddleheads or be shot. I stayed where I was, crouched behind the bushes, my heart pounding through my chest.
The footsteps gradually faded and I peeked out from behind my hiding place just in time to see the back of a man I did not recognize disappearing behind several large maples. I knew that I was supposed to head back to the bend in the road and wait for pick up, but just as I was about to turn around, my eyes fell on a huge patch of curly sprouts. I gulped, for they were right beside the raised boardwalk – almost underneath it, in fact. They were beautiful, standing in their cluster, dark green with their papery brown coats. They were calling me, taunting me, daring me to come and pluck them from their moist, earthy home.
I edged forward slowly until I could see down the boardwalk. To the south, the way was clear. The wooden planks stretched out at least fifty yards before turning behind a grove of cedars.
But the other way was a problem.
To the north of my hiding spot, not far along the old boardwalk, was the Blue Woods entrance, and I could see only about ten feet in that direction before the path turned sharply behind some bramble bushes. If I picked the fiddleheads, I would risk being caught. If there was one person out this evening, there would probably be more.
I looked at the lovely fiddleheads, laughing at my predicament, and I couldn’t resist them. Before I knew what I was doing I had made a dash for the patch and had fallen on my hands and knees beside them.
I had picked only three when I heard a “psst” behind me. My heart stopped; I was immobile.
“Hayley!” came the whisper. It was Jan.
I turned my head and saw her frantic expression. She was waving at me desperately. I knew she wanted me to follow her, but I furrowed my brow and hurriedly shook my head. I turned back to my fiddleheads.
“Come on! People are coming!” she whispered. “It’s a school bus! Let’s go. You’re going to get caught!”
“Two seconds!” I whispered back, grabbing at the fiddleheads and stuffing them into my pockets.
“Hayley! Come-” And her whispers suddenly stopped. We both froze. We had heard it at the same time.
Laughing. Footsteps. Lots of them. Ten feet away – not more – just around the bend. Without consciousness, my body sprang into action. I hurtled backwards in two giant leaps, mud splattering all over my face and clothes. Somehow I found myself beside my sister, and before I could catch my breath I was being pulled through the woods towards the rail fence. We didn’t look back.
We emerged from the woods too far to the north. The school bus was looming in front of us. It was empty, except for the bus driver, who seemed to be sleeping behind the wheel. It must have been an evening field trip – probably Guides or Scouts. We crouched down and hugged the fence back to where the truck was supposed to be waiting. I could hear my sister’s heart beating through her old work jacket, matching the rhythm of my own. When we finally spotted the old truck we looked behind us quickly to make sure no one had seen us or was following us. Then, holding our breath, we sprinted.
I was in the cab first, and as soon as Jan’s foot hit the outer step, Dad was on the gas. Nobody spoke for a few moments. We revelled in our fear and excitement.
“Dad? Shouldn’t we go home another way?” Jan asked, concerned about the police check and the mud on my face.
“Nope. He’ll wave us right through.”
Jan and I exchanged worried glances. We weren’t so sure.
As we approached the police car, I didn’t think my heart could take any more suspense, but Dad had been right. We didn’t even stop. We all just waved at the officer and smiled. At that moment I knew how it felt to have committed the perfect crime. I glowed from head to toe.
As soon as we were on the other side of Valesgreen, on the home stretch, Jan and I started giving Dad an account of our adventure and how I had almost been caught.
Dad just grinned. “That’s something all right,” he said. “Mm-hmm! Fiddleheads!” He licked his lips. “The Queen’s favourite vegetable in Canada!”
Jan and I felt proud and we started comparing the number of fiddleheads we’d picked.
“Not here, not here!” Dad exclaimed. “Wait until we’re home.”
We drove along in silence for the rest of the ride, and I was itching to reach into my pockets to show everyone what great fiddleheads I had in my possession. When we turned in our laneway Dad said, “You know, maybe this summer we should go out to Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. That’s where the world’s tallest fiddleheads are.”
Jan and I thought that would be exciting, and we discussed our upcoming vacation while dinner was being prepared that night. We watched Dad clean the brown papery jackets from the green stalks by rolling them again and again in a towel, and then we watched while Mom ran water through them, cleaning them up. We admired how their dark green coats turned vibrant and shiny when put into the boiling water with the butter and salt. We stood guard over them and made sure they didn’t boil over or cook too much.
Then we sat down to dinner. We admired how pretty the fiddleheads looked on the white plates, their curly heads bowed demurely at us, inviting us to pop them into our mouths. And we did.
It was not until many years later that I finally made it out to Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. I was with my then-fiancé, who did not share my fascination with fiddleheads. We were on our way to walk on the ocean floor in the Bay of Fundy, and we didn’t know when the tides were coming in. There was no time to waste in Plaster Rock looking for the world’s tallest fiddleheads.
We drove straight through the little town, stopping only at a tea room that gave us two coffees to go.
And then I saw it.
“The World’s Largest Fiddleheads! Plaster Rock, New Brunswick!” the sign proclaimed for the whole world to see. There they were. They must have been at least twenty feet high. My dad had been right.
I convinced my fiancé to stop so that we could take a picture of these beautiful, curly beasts. I didn’t pose foolishly for the shot. I stood beneath the wooden stalks, my face calm, my heart full. I was pleased to be here, amused even, but more than anything, I was proud.
One of my childhood dreams had finally been realized. I decided then to call up my sister as soon as I got home. I would suggest a trip back to Blue Woods. It had been too long since I had been stealing fiddleheads.