Poisonous Potato

The gold miner
prepares to bake
potatoes
removing some
yellow flesh
and replacing it with a blob
greyish, putty
mixes with black sand
over the flame of the campfire
he cooks them
turning them over, then
opens them
like oysters
with pearls of gold
he walks away
leaving broken halves

“Dr. Fifer!”
Sara is sick
only eight years old
Dr. Fifer tries to guess
what is happening?
the little girl’s life slips
through his fingers
he is helpless without knowing
her mother knocks his glasses
off his nose and onto the floor
Ah Chung picks them up
before her feet can crush them

Going for a walk to clear his mind
he comes across a campfire of
smouldering ashes and potatoes
and sees little teeth marks
he smells the potato with his eyes shut
then he opens them again and sees
Robert Wall, one of his patients
cooking mercury in the potatoes
he explains
wire that holds them together

Fifer throws down the potato in disgust
and turns his back to Wall
in two years Fifer will be dead
not from mercury
from an explosion of lead in his chest
from Wall himself

______
When the Fraser River gold rush began in the spring of 1858, Governor James Douglas sent Hudson’s Bay Company employee Ovid Allard to reopen Fort Yale, which had been abandoned on the completion of Fort Hope nearly ten years before. Allard remained at Yale until 1864. Sara was his youngest daughter.

Dr. William Fifer came to Yale during the height of the gold rush from California with his assistant, Ah Chung. He served as the town’s doctor as well as president of the Town’s council. He was killed by Robert Wall, a gold miner, July 5, 1861.

Mercury (or quicksilver) is a heavy, liquid metal, silvery-white in colour, with a very low melting point. It was commonly used to recover gold in the 1860s.

A note on the artist: Sarah Crease painted a series of watercolours depicting the Hudson’s Bay Company fort and the town of Victoria. In 1862 she sketched landscapes of New Westminster, Hope, Yale, and the Fraser River.

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