It’s freezing in only my sweater and jeans. I pull up my hood and stick my hands in my pockets. The night sky is clear, so the temperature’s colder: no cloud cover to keep the warmth in. My breath looks like smoke.Read Hanna Waswa's The Peaceful Dead
When I started this story, my main goal was to portray reserve life as accurately as possible. The idea of making the main character a girl home from high school for her mother’s funeral is one that I have been playing with for a long time, and when given the opportunity, this was the first idea that I wanted to write. As a young person of First Nations descent who has gone through high school off-reserve (as is the only option for many Native children), I found it easy to identify with the main character. Her story is a part of my own, and, though her situation differs greatly from mine, there are common elements connecting her to me, and, truly, anyone else born and raised on a northern reserve.
I set this story in the present/recent past because this is the reality for many people. While the tragedy is rare, the emotions and circumstances are a daily part of people’s lives. While there is hope, it sometimes feels like only a fool’s hope to believe in the restoration of the First Nations. The real hope in this story comes from the person who feels the most betrayed. With her mother gone, the main character finds that her anchor has disappeared as well. But her education is nearing its end, and in her family, she might just find that she’s not alone after all.
I didn’t cry at my mother’s funeral.
My grandmother wailed at the viewing, her stiff hands clutching at mine, as though I would up and follow my mother into a coffin. It’s night now, and the body is in the ground, but I can still feel her fingernails in my skin. Even though I’m alone, her hands are holding mine.
I’ve got the door closed, but that doesn’t mean anything in this house. Since I came back, I’ve been sharing this room with my little half-sister, and, just until the funeral is over, my older siblings. Their dad is my dad, which means we are biological siblings. We haven’t really spoken. Seeing them puts a stone in my heart, because when mom kicked my dad out, they went with him to his home reserve. I don’t remember it, or them.
I don’t belong here. I’ve been gone for more than two years now, not even sixteen and on my own, really. I wanted to stay here, with my family, but my mother and grandmother decided to send me south to school. There’s no high school here on the reserve; the closest one is an hour away by plane.
My grandmother is yelling at me from the kitchen. “Carrie! Come eat!”
I pretend I don’t hear. She’ll leave me alone if I don’t respond.
But she’s determined to have her way. She barrels in, frowning down to her armpits. “Get out of bed! You think you’re the only one who’s sad? You think you can sleep while the rest of us are trying to be together? Quit being like that! Get out here.”
When I don’t move as fast as she wants, she opens her mouth to yell again, but stops herself. As she turns away I think I see more tears in her eyes.
But my grandmother is a tough old lady, and the family needs her. So she hobbles over to the kitchen, popping her advils as she walks. Her hip has been acting up since I arrived, and her medication doesn’t seem to be working. She’s a lot smaller than I remember, as well. Thinner, less weighty. I find myself wishing I were ten again. My grandmother paid to let me go to a summer camp down south with a bunch of other kids. It was the first time I went anywhere without my mother.
The kitchen is already crowded to overflowing, and Grandma’s reappearance scatters a couple second cousins. This little old house was packed before the funeral. Now it’s like a prison cell. My step-dad is sitting at the table, vacant. My older sister is holding someone’s baby. Children, including my little sister, are on the floor. A dozen cousins, uncles, and aunts are crowded in the corners of the room. People on chairs, people on the floor. There’s nowhere left for me to sit. .
Grandma’s got all the food laid out on the counter. “I’m going to pray, then we’ll eat.”
Everyone bows their heads. Usually the prayer takes half an hour. Today, it only lasts a minute. Everyone lines up. There’s not much talking, but I end up behind my uncle, Henry.
He might be my uncle, but he’s only a few years older than me. We ended up in the same class for a year because he failed a couple grades.
“Hey Carrie. Where’ve you been?”
“High school, down south.”
“That’s great!” His voice isn’t loud, but it annoys me. “Yeah, you’re smart. Always so smart, always at school. Bet that’s new down there. A smart Indian.” He laughs and I can smell the alcohol on his breath. He’s not drunk, just boozy. “What’s with your hair? You dye it to look like all the other smart kids down there?”
“Shut up Henry. No one wants to listen to you.”
“I’m jus’ telling everyone how smart-”
Grandma rapped him on the knuckles with the ladle. “That’s enough, or no food. Don’t think I don’t know you’re going out to get drunk as soon as you can. I know what you do at night.”
That settles him down. But I’m not going to forget that easily. One day I’ll get Henry back for all the stupid things he’s done. The only reason he’s here is for the food, anyway. It’s not like he even cared about my mom.
The kitchen can’t hold us all. We spill over into the living room and floor. Even though the table was built for a handful of people, my grandmother manages to squeeze more and more of us in. The house is silent but the cutlery scrapes on the plates.
Everything tastes like mud. The church people my grandmother calls her friends dropped most of the food off before the funeral. I manage to eat it all anyway. You don’t waste anything in this house. As inconspicuously as possible, I clear my plates and slip out the door.
It’s freezing in only my sweater and jeans. I pull up my hood and stick my hands in my pockets. The night sky is clear, so the temperature’s colder: no cloud cover to keep the warmth in. My breath looks like smoke.
The door creaks open and shut again. Someone followed me out, taking advantage of my initiative to escape the atmosphere inside the house.
“Sure.” It’s my step-dad. I don’t mind him. “Thought you quit.”
“Thought you did, too.”
“Guess I didn’t do it right.”
He lights up one for me and one for him. The smoke is good. Only one drag and I remember why it was I started.
The night silence is soothing, and we stand out there on the porch for a while, breathing, before he speaks.
“What’re you gonna do now?”
“I don’t know. Go back to school, maybe, finish my grade eleven.” The idea doesn’t appeal to me. “Maybe I’ll stay here.”
“Don’t you dare.”
We both jump. My grandmother is like a fox. Neither of us heard her coming. “You listen to me, Carrie. Your mother was a good woman, and the only thing she wanted for you was to get your education and get off the reserve. Don’t you dare let her down.”
I stare at my shoes, half trying to hide the cigarette. I don’t want her to see me like this. Unexpectedly, she drops a jacket over my shoulders.
“Here. Don’t get frostbite.” She’s frowning, but tears well up in my eyes anyway. It’s a flood, and I cannot stop it, because it’s coming up from the deepest place in me. I drop the cigarette.
“She said she’d be here. When I came home. After I was finished, she said… she said she’d be at my graduation. She said-” but my voice is cracking and I can’t breathe between the sobs.
Her arms close around me. Whispers in my ear. Everything in me is crying, trying to tell her that it isn’t right, that nothing will ever be alright. She holds me for a long time.
Coming back to reality is slow and sobering. I don’t want to be weak in front of my grandmother. But she’s crying too.
“Carrie, you get an education.”
“Grandma, I can’t. I’ll end up back here anyway.”
She shakes me a little. Her hands on my shoulders are comforting. “Carrie, your mother was doing correspondence courses.”
“She was trying to graduate with you.” Another tear escapes Grandma’s eye. She wipes it away. “Ever stupid, us, hey?”
I laugh a little and hug her. “I don’t want to go back south to school, Grandma.”
“Too bad. We have one too many Henrys in our family.” She whispers in my ear: “I’ll get him, too. Someday you’ll like him, you’ll see.”
I don’t believe her, but I ignore it. I realize that we’re alone on the porch. My step-dad is gone. Embarrassed of me, probably. When the silence is peaceful again, I ask where he went.
“He went with Henry.” She shakes her head, the tear trails glittering. “He misses her as much as any of us. It’s the same way I feel, you feel. Like a part of us died when she left us.”
And I’m reminded of the viewing. How I was too afraid to look inside the coffin. I sat on the church steps while my family said goodbye, and on the pew while everyone else paid their respects.
Right before they closed the coffin for good, I worked up the courage to look in. I didn’t see my mother in that place. Just a body dressed up, trying to be real again.
They say the dead are peaceful, but that’s not what I see.
I hold on to my grandmother for a moment more. Together we go inside.