Truth and Reconciliation
Nuna runs from the clearing to the cabin. “It’s Billy and Cardinal! Sister Anne sent Billy and Cardinal.” Her rapping rattles the window of Father LaPierre’s home.
The rabbit howl of Kimi’s baby fills the cabin. Kimi puts a warm damp rag over his lips. She pulls the latch of the door and stretches her neck out for a look. Outside her sister is gone. The tall meadow grass bends in an arctic breeze. She looks down the worn black line of earth parting the field back towards town, the church, the residential school.
“I am so scared for you,” she says to the baby.
Billy’s and Cardinal’s heads rise over the roll of the meadow.
Kimi tips her chin to the sky to call to her sister, “Nuna, where are you?”
Branches snap and crack in the brush behind the cabin.
Kimi looks into her arms. Her baby’s eyes are wrinkled ruddy slits opening over blue globes. She runs around the cabin into the woods. “Nuna. Wait for us.”
“They’re not in the cabin, Billy.” Cardinal’s voice is mostly air as he struggles to catch his breath.
Kimi hears him cough and spit.
Billy’s voice isn’t so laboured. “They have to be around here somewhere. They’re not running through the bush to the Reservation—it’s forty miles away.”
Red, orange, yellow, brown jagged leaves drop about Kimi as she huddles beneath some balsam deadfall broken by a Chinook that screamed over the mountains onto the prairies. She tastes the acidic bite of pine needles as she pants. Her hands quiver. She shakes a black carpenter ant off her wrist. She presses the bundle of blankets against her chest. Her baby squawks. The shrill, fragile voice pierces the forest. She gasps and pulls at her blouse. The buttons will not slide free from the loops. She yanks and yanks. A patter of buttons rains upon the damp forest floor. She fumbles for a breast.
Billy’s and Cardinal’s voices forge together into a singular tempered tone. It feels like the cold bite of winter stabbing at Kimi’s bones.
“Where would they go? No more Indian in them. Father LaPierre whipped it out of them. Now for that half-breed baby. They mustn’t be far.”
A crow caws. It pulls Kimi’s eyes from her son gumming at her nipple. The bird roosts on the edge of another fallen balsam stump. Its long black-feathered tail twitches up and down, keeping the bird teetering on the wood as it points an onyx glare at Kimi and the baby.
“There! Crows,” Cardinal says.
“Granddad says crows follow lone, sick animals and lost people. They must be here.”
Kimi looks beyond the crow watching her from its perch into the tree tops. Branch after branch after branch drop their pointed tips towards her. Another caw from her neighbor sets off an echo inside the forest. And another crow lands on a tree not three yards from her. She hears the snap of branches and the crush of dead leaves underfoot.
“They’re back in here somewhere,” Billy says. “Sarah! Come on out now and give Father LaPierre that baby. You know you can’t take care of it. Do the right thing, girl.”
Kimi shimmies back deeper into the hollowed trunk of the tree, pulling her legs from under the last band of sunfall draped upon the ground. She swipes at her neck. The scratchiness of the tree fibres crawls down to the small of her back. Another cry fractures the stillness. She presses her breast, pointing her nipple into the baby’s mouth.
She turns to the forest.
Twenty yards away Cardinal, wearing grey slacks and suspenders pulled over his bare dark shoulders, pushes past a birch branch. Deep lashes—red sunburnt furrows—of scar tissue blaze across his shoulder blades.
Kimi’s lashes have healed and look like rows of sand on skin the color of baked clay.
Cardinal seems to be pulling something. More leaves flutter to the ground as more crows land above her.
Cardinal swats at an orange leaf that has landed on the top of his uneven bowl cut. His black bangs jostle. He lifts a rifle up to his eye and jerks it upwards twice. Cardinal eases the tips of a pointer finger and thumb into his mouth, folding his fuzzy light brown lip over his teeth and whistles. “Look what I found!” He laughs. “Why don’t you come out of there? You’re going to miss Mass.”
Cradling her son’s head, Kimi bounces the baby in her arms. The infant hums low.
“Where’s the baby?” Billy says, joining the scarred, shirtless Cardinal. He combs his hands over his forehead and through his dirty blond hair, minding two fresh black eyes. He doesn’t have a rifle, but he does have suspenders. They are neatly drawn over a pressed white shirt and black slacks that stand apart from his green chore boots.
Rifle fire cracks, three, four shots chasing the crows into the skies.
The baby’s limbs jerk from his body, his fingers grasping at air. His mouth holds open for a second before the screams follow. Kimi squishes her breast against the baby’s face. She sucks on the timber air, holding her stare on the two teenage boys as her mouth runs dry.
The smooth burn of gunpowder sews its way through her lungs.
Cardinal draws Nuna—Kimi’s younger sister—by a braid to her feet and into view. The black braids, woven together with tanned strips of leather, are crowned with a leather band surrounded by polished stones.
“Sister Anne says you roughed her up pretty good,” Billy says, standing off from Cardinal and Nuna looking through the brush. His face becomes rung, his gapped teeth clenched. “Where’s your sister, huh? Where’s that Sarah?”
“Her name is Kimi,” Nuna says.
Billy strides over and yanks on Nuna’s free braid. She tries to keep standing, tipping all her weight onto one leg. Billy kicks her and she falls. “No. I like you better on your knees.” He gives her face a slap with his fingers. “Open your mouth.”
Nuna spits at Billy.
Billy scowls. His dusty blond eyebrows push into the muddle of Saskatoon berry bruising spilled around his eyelids and cheekbones. He drags her by the hair into the ground. His fist rises.
Slamming her eyes shut, Kimi flinches with each—one, two, three—hollow crack.
“Now tell us where your sister and that baby is,” Billy says. “Should I say please? Please open that pretty little Indian mouth of yours and tell us where she took that baby.”
“He doesn’t belong to you,” Nuna says.
“I know,” Billy says.
Cardinal calls into the brush, “Sarah! Bring us that baby. It belongs to Father LaPierre now.”
“Her name is Kimi. And he belongs to Kimi. She’s his mother.”
“Shut up,” Billy says. “That baby belongs with us.”
“No. We do not belong with you.”
“Then why did your parents leave you here? That’s what these schools are for—for you. Indians can’t take care of themselves, so what makes you think she can take care of that baby? You all belong here. Where were you going to go? I know if I was fifteen—and hell I’m near twenty—I know I’d give that baby to Father LaPierre. You shouldn’t sound so ungrateful. Father LaPierre has given you everything. If it weren’t for him you’d be off banging rocks together and dancing for rain. And this is how you repay him for feeding you, clothing you, schooling you? He brought you to civilization.”
“He’s a monster.”
Kimi hears another hollowed thud of knuckles into bone, but Nuna keeps right on talking.
“You’re right, she is fifteen. Did you think of that? That’s when he started coming to her?”
“Shut up!” Billy yells.
Kimi squeezes her eyes so tightly her temples hurt. Her fears slip off her tongue, “I am so scared for you.” She rocks herself for the baby.
Nuna keeps talking. “He came to her again and again and again.”
“Give us the baby, Sarah!” Billy’s scream seems to have risen from the earth like a fog. “Father LaPierre expects us to bring him a baby, and we’re bringing him one—one way or another.”
Opening her eyes, Kimi sees blood covering her sister’s nose and upper lip.
Billy drags his hand back and forth over her face. “Clean yourself up, nichi.”
Nuna tries to use her hand, wiping her fingertips around her nose and lips.
“Use your shirt,” says Billy.
Nuna slides her hands behind her belt, easing her white grass-stained blouse free, and lifts the cloth to her face. The fabric takes away the blood.
“Now look what you’ve done.” Billy lifts the bloody ends of the cloth to her face. “You’ve ruined it.” He laughs.
Cardinal laughs, too. “Take it off.”
Cardinal grabs and rips the blouse open. “I said take it off.”
She slides the blouse off one shoulder.
Billy says, “Don’t tease us.”
Nuna yanks the other shoulder free and chucks the blouse into Cardinal’s shins.
“Look at her nipples. They’re tiny.” Billy pinches one, and then slaps her breast.
Nuna turns her face to the treetops.
“I thought you were the older sister.” Billy strokes the back of Nuna’s head “Fifteen. And what does that make you?”
“Younger,” says Cardinal.
“But she looks old enough, doesn’t she, Cardinal?”
“Yup.” Cardinal laughs. He rests the rifle against a tree. He turns to Nuna and snaps his suspenders against bare skin.
Billy looks down to Nuna. “Father LaPierre told us to bring him a baby.” He turns his voice to the forest. “Sarah! This doesn’t have to happen. Just bring us the baby.” He shoves his finger into Nuna’s forehead, “And don’t you dare use her dirty Cree name.”
Kimi stares down at the baby, tracing her thumb across a fuzzy eyebrow. They could be tent caterpillars munching, feeding on poplar leaves. The tip of her thumb touches his eyelid. The baby closes his eyes. Kimi holds her hand over his face, her fingers spread. She looks at her fingers, follows the roll of her dark skin to his new skin that is almost the color of a steelhead. She brushes her hand back over his forehead. His eyes open. They are blue with speckles of green—the colour of sandy lake water—shattered throughout. She looks away, burying him into his feast. “I am so scared for you.” Her hand slides back behind his neck, her fingers spread. She looks up to the teenagers.
“You like that,” the shirtless Cardinal says, kneeling on the ground. His suspenders rest on his calves.
Nuna is almost hidden behind the boy’s pulsing body. Billy presses his lips against her ear, pulling on her hair with one hand and clutching her chin with the other. “Tell him you like it.”
Kimi squeezes the baby. His little voice creaks. Both of her arms fold around his length from head to hip. His knees pull up against her chest. His eyes bulge.
The teenagers trade places. Billy takes off his shirt and ties Nuna’s hands behind her back and shoves her face down. He slaps her hip and laughs.
Kimi’s hands cross deeper over her son, her fingers grasping her elbows. Her shoulder blades protrude towards each other over her spine and her shoulders flare. The baby’s little fingernails slice into her body. She grits her teeth, her eyebrows wringing the pain from her gaze, watches the boy heaving into her sister.
Tighter, gurgling, tighter. The little knees fall over her arms. A swell of creamy milk pools at the corner of the baby’s mouth, its roundness engorging, trembling, before it ruptures, spilling into a soft white line down his cheek, tracing its way to his earlobe. The milk leaps onto the blanket and disappears into the threading.
Kimi gulps at the forest. The taste of moss makes her spit. She feels a flap of skin dangling from her tongue. She bites it and spits again. She swallows more of the piney air, more and more and more. Paper birch, trembling aspen, jack pine, elm, and cedar surround her. Overhead the sound of the boreal forest combs though the atmosphere, and the spin of the world—its immensity never resting—throws Kimi. She falls forward with her son onto the ground. She takes him from her breast, cradles him to her neck.
She whispers, “I was so scared for you.”
Her lips search for his. They’re cool, his face wet from milk. She touches her forehead against the forest floor. Her hands pull at the ground, her fingers searching and clutching, throwing twigs, sticks, leaves, bark and pine needles over her baby. She wipes her face, feeling the heat upon her wet cheeks. She is as calm as the soil clinging to her hands. She opens her eyes and focuses on the boy still pushing themselves into her sister. She pulls her blouse together over her breasts. She grabs an aspen limb, its fibres braided and gnarled around a knot. It is heavy enough. She fumbles in the leaves and pine needles under her legs and finds a stone just larger than her fist. It is warm in her grasp. She stretches to her feet and moves towards the boys.
Gregory Koop grew up on the border of central Alberta and Saskatchewan. Living the life of Garp, Gregory cares for his daughter, practices Muay Thai, and writes. A past finalist for an Alberta Literary Award, Gregory has also been a resident of The Banff Centre’s Writing Studio. His work has been featured in Carte Blanche, Drunk Monkeys, The Nashwaak Review, Other Voices Journal of the Literary and Visual Arts, paperplates, and Raving: The Raving Poets Magazine. He is currently polishing a novel through the support of a WGA Mentorship Grant.