Black Apple 1 Baby Bird
PAPA OPENED THE DOOR slowly. “What do you want?” he said in English.
“I’m Father Alphonses,” a white man’s voice said. Then came a stream of sound. Rose, cross-legged on the floor while Mama braided her hair, made out just a few of the words. “School,” “must,” “law” louder than the rest.
Mama stopped braiding. “Lie down with Kiaa-yo,” she hissed, pushing Rose towards the nest of hides. Mama stood, pressing herself against the wall where the men couldn’t see. Catching Rose’s eye, she signalled her to pull the hide over her head.
Under the fur, Rose couldn’t make out the words anymore. Kiaa-yo threw out his arms and legs, making crying sounds, so Rose pushed up the soft cover with one hand and put a finger in his mouth, letting him suck.
“You’d better leave,” Papa said.
“We’ll bring in the RCMP,” one of them yelled back.
She peeked out, and that’s when it happened. Oh, Papa with his what can I do? look stepped backward into the house, no longer fierce, his colours breaking apart like the reflection of the moon in runoff water.
The men barged in, but Mama stepped forward and stood in front of them.
“Mrs. Whitewater, I’m here to escort your daughter to St. Mark’s Residential School for Girls,” said the man with the white stripe at his throat. “This is Mr. Higgins, the Indian agent. Now if you’ll just get—ah, there she is.” He pulled the hide back on Rose and Kiaa-yo.
Mama started coughing. The lard man pushed her aside. Oh, now Mama was changing just like Papa, her colour draining.
She ran to Mama, let her mother hold her against her soft body, rocking gently.
“Rose,” Mama whispered, “my little Sinopaki.”
“No packing necessary. All her clothing will be provided,” the man with the white stripe said, but Mama wouldn’t let her go, and Rose wouldn’t let go of Mama. The man grasped Rose’s arm with cold fingers, but she pulled away. Kiaa-yo screamed.
She flew to the door, where Papa slumped against the wall. He was mad and scared and just like sand spilling out of an old cloth bag. But suddenly he stood up straight and stepped in front of her. He stopped her from reaching the door.
He opened his lips, but the words caught in his mouth. Nothing came out but spit. He didn’t say it, but Why did I stop you? splattered over his face.
* * *
“Hurry up, Rose,” the lard man behind her yelled.
Walking between these strangers, these bad men, she gulped and burned. They had come to her house, and now they were taking her away. She wanted to run, but her feet were wobbly and all wrong.
Mama and Papa had told her that men might be coming, but they hadn’t said she would have to go all alone, that they would stay behind. These a-ita-pi-ooy were stealing her. People eaters. She cried into her hands, snot-slimy. Ahead, the stripe man was a black smear against the old carriage road.
A machine sat on the side of the road. Car. She had seen cars before, had even been in a big one called a “truck” with her mama, Mama’s sister Aunt Angelique, and her new husband, Forest Fox Crown. The truck growled and chewed the ground. It charged way too fast, making trees uproot and fly by the windows. No, she wouldn’t get in this car.
The lard man came up behind her, opened the front door, and wedged himself behind the wheel. The stripe man pulled the back door open and pushed his cold hand against her shoulder. “Get in, Rose.”
Oh, and she had to. She scooted along the seat as far away from him as she could get. The car smelled bad. Not tree, water, moss, meat, blood, or berry. Like the stink that blew in from that mining town to the west, that Black Apple.
He climbed in the front next to the lard man and turned to her. “By the way, I’m Father Alphonses. This is Mr. Higgins,” his voice way too loud.
Mr. Higgins said nothing. He acted like he couldn’t see her anymore. The car snorted and they jerked down the road, trees and bushes whooshing by.
“Papa,” she cried.
“Quiet, Rose,” Father Alphonses said.
“Jesus Bloody Christ!” Mr. Higgins shouted as the car bounced and they all shot to the roof. “Excuse me, Father, but these shit roads are wrecking the undercarriage. Excuse me for saying so.”
The backseat squeaked under her bum. Rose threw all her weight onto her feet, half standing. The car turned suddenly and she tumbled back. The squeaking under her was terrible, the sound of a baby bird crying out for its mother and flapping its bony wings in her throat. The car rumbled onto that great grey road.
They drove faster, and the bird cried even louder, underneath and inside her. Its mama didn’t hear, couldn’t answer, wouldn’t come. She kept swallowing so she wouldn’t throw up.
“Clean sheets,” Father Alphonses said, pretend-friendly. “You’ll like that. And there will be other children your age. You’ll learn manners and discipline, but most important of all, Rose, the holy sisters will teach you the Word of God. You will be saved. Do you know what saved means?”
Bird bones in her throat. She could hardly breathe, so she put her head down on the floor and pushed her feet up over the seat. Closing her eyes, she tried to fly away, but her head throbbed and throw-up pushed from her belly down to her throat. She swallowed it back, one foot against the door handle.
“Stop that.” Father Alphonses’ voice was full of thistles. “Sit up properly.”
No, she wouldn’t. Not even if her head burst open on the car floor, a big fat puffball. Behind her eyes, she jumped in Napi’s river and paddled around, water shooting up her nose until she choked and sputtered, and Mr. Higgins said, “What’s she doing back there?” Rose put her face back underwater trying to swim away from those men, but when she came up for air, she was still in the car—they were all still in the car.
“Sit up, Rose.”
The baby bird started calling out again and it sounded like Mama, Papa, Mama, Papa over and over, and Father Alphonses said, “Stop that,” so she shut her mouth and held her breath, diving deep to get away from the bird and the men and the thistles.
The car rumbled to a stop.
Sitting up, she peered out the window. Aunt Angelique’s Reserve! Oh, they had driven east and she knew where they were. There was the band office, and there, the church, with kids, mamas, papas, grandmas, and grandpas everywhere. She spotted Aunt Angelique’s round red-checked skirt. The youngest two of her six new stepchildren clung to Angelique’s hands.
“Na-a,” she cried, pressing against the glass. Aunt Angelique didn’t hear, so she pounded her fist and screamed, “Na-a!”
“Quiet!” Father Alphonses said, reaching over and cuffing her across the head.
She didn’t care what he did, that stupid mean stripe man with cold hands!
“Na-a!” she screamed.
Mr. Higgins pulled up a button on his car door. “I’m going to check with the bus driver, Father. Get her to shut up and stop—”
She pulled up the button on her door, pushed out, and ran. “Aunt Angelique!”
Auntie turned. She opened her arms, and Rose tumbled into the aroma of wood smoke and delicious imis-tsi-kitan, her face pressed to Auntie’s soft belly.
When she opened her eyes and looked around, she saw kids being bustled towards two yellow buses. Boys bunched outside the doors of one bus, girls outside the other. A piece of ice shivered down her back.
“There you are,” said Father Alphonses.
“No!” She grabbed the soft flesh at Aunt Angelique’s hips and clung.
“Ow!” cried Auntie. Rose’s little stepcousins backed up and stared. “Sinopaki, let go.” Angelique pried Rose’s fingers off and placed her broad hand on the nape of Rose’s neck. “Kaakoo!” she ordered, steering her towards the bus. “You have to go to school.”
Father Alphonses made a throat sound. He was right behind her. She had nowhere to run.
“Bye-bye, Sinopaki.” Bending, Aunt Angelique rubbed a thick cheek against her nose. Then she stepped away and grabbed the hands of her own children, her new children who were Forest Fox Crown’s and not really hers at all!
Eyes on the dirty black-licorice steps, she climbed into the bus. Kids were squeezed in everywhere. That awful Father Alphonses plunked himself down on the front seat, so she pushed to the very back and squished beside a bony girl with big teeth.
So many kids! She had seen some of them before on visits to the Reserve, had played with a few of them when they had waving arms and flying feet. But today these girls were scrubbed shiny, their hair pulled into tight braids. She touched her own hair. Mama hadn’t been able to finish braiding it. The bad men had come, and now it was unravelling.
All around her the girls were quiet, each pair of eyes stuck to the green seat directly in front. Small girls huddled close to bigger ones. Rose spotted Aunt Angelique’s two oldest stepdaughters sitting in the front row across from Father Alphonses. They turned to look at her, but they didn’t nod or smile. “Your auntie isn’t our real mother,” they had told her at the wedding. “You’re not our cousin.” She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and swallowed down the baby bird still flapping in her throat.
The bus shuddered and moved away from mamas, papas, grandpas, grandmas, and Aunt Angelique, some of them waving kerchiefs, flying patches of colour that grew smaller and smaller until they disappeared, like fireflies going out. Soon there was just a plume of dust billowing into the too-blue sky.
She turned to the front. Hills rose and fell, and Rose’s tummy rose and fell too. Cottonwoods and wolf willows thinned until ahead in the distance was nothing but a line of yellow grasses drawn between the road and a big empty sky. Nothing but space. The bus was taking them to nowhere.