"He rubbed more foundation under his blackened eye. More contour on his cheekbones. Ran his hand against his shaved head. Fierce."Read Gabriel Castilloux Calderon's Ishkode (Fire)
Non-Status Mi'kmaq and Algonquin
This piece is about a young man, named Cody who learns to accept himself as a two spirit, or ayakwe, and to carry his grandmother's woman's pipe. It is about coming to terms with the community cultural roles that two spirit people carry. A pipe is a very sacred tool in many spiritual indigenous people's bundles. According to the teachings I carry, pipes are only to be put away for specific reasons, usually they are to be used for the person or for a family or community. A pipe put away for decades without any care, is considered, by most, to be disrespectful. This is why this story means so much to me, as modern day two spirit people we often ask ourselves what are our traditional roles, what does two spirit encompass, and here I have a very simple story about a pipe returning to the light because of the gifts that two spirit people carry.
His reflection peers back at him, judging his choice for the shade of lipstick. He scowls back at it. His hair is short. Much shorter than he would like it to be. But when his mom’s boyfriend had grasped at his hair enough to hold him immobile with his locks enveloped in filthy fingers, screaming into his face, he knew he couldn’t keep it like that. Unfortunately, the decision was made for him as the monster grasped his gutting knife from the table; still bloody from the doe he had been butchering out back and run it through his hair. His mother had gasped in horror, but done nothing else.
“There!” Yells the monster, holding a mass of hair in his dirty hands. “Now you look like a man.” His beer addled breath piercing every word like a prison sentence as the hair tumbled from his hand, the wind taking it out of the unfinished bush cabin.
He shook his head, as if the motion could make the bad memories disappear. He rubbed more foundation under his blackened eye. More contour on his cheekbones. Ran his hand against his shaved head. Fierce. He walked downstairs, right in front of the hockey game on the television, looked at his mother’s boyfriend, smiled and waved as he walked out of the house.
He couldn’t help it, he started running, grabbing his bike and speeding away, laughing at the top of his lungs. He felt free.
He sped on his bike, past the rows of houses, the broken-down cars and the empties. Finally, he made it to the last house on the road, deep in the bush. There was a dozen or so cars parked in the driveway. He could hear voices behind the house. He had never come here before, so he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to bring something.
He snuck around and saw about twenty or so people sitting around a fire, and there in front of them all was Kokomis. She wasn’t his grandmother, but everyone called her that. She knew all the stories. She had been one of those hidden from the police during the residential school days. Hiding in the trees and under stumps, she couldn’t read, but she could tell stories. The real ones. “Kwey!” she says, her voice strong and confident although she hunched on her camping chair and her hands shook a little. She began by thanking everyone, the spirits and the fire and the people there. He could only catch every second or third word. His mom didn’t speak the language, and her boyfriend was white so neither did he.
Then she started talking about the pipe. He listened to Kokomis share about the Lakota and white buffalo calf woman and how the trade system with the Lakota led to the Algonquins carrying pipes as well. He listened to her explain the calling that a pipe was, to lead a good life. With each word he became more and more enraptured, feeling the words like smoke envelope him and the bowl’s warmth in his left hand, a lit match in the other. His heart echoing with the crackle of the inhale. Like a distant memory. He felt his blood rise and his breath get caught in his throat, tears welled up in his eyes, silently running down his cheeks, he rubbed at them, absentmindedly realizing he had probably ruined his make up.
The story was over, people got up to shake Kokomis’s hand and thank her for her teaching. They left, giving him dirty looks as they walked back to their cars and on with their night. He sat there, unable to move, unable to go back to his mother and that monster. Kokomis unsteadily rose from her chair, a helper grasping her elbow and helping her rise. Kokomis looked him in the eye. “Shirley nidijinikaz. Kin tash?” He took a breath. The helper looked at him, then explained, “She said-“ Kokomis raised a hand to stop him. He took another breath. “Cody nidijinikaz.” He replied, his mispronunciation of the words making him feel embarrassed. But Kokomis smiled at him. “Niminwenindam kikeniminan.” She said to him. He could feel the warmth from the welcoming words, soothing him, reaching out to his soul, his blood memory. But he couldn’t remember how to respond. He lowered his eyes and gently shook his head. Kokomis continued to speak the language. She asked him a question, about his mother, but he wasn’t clear what. He shook his head more furiously. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Algonquin.” He muttered, shame smattering his voice. The smile on Kokomis’s face remained and she nodded to her helper. “She asked who your mother is and who her mother is.” He nodded. “Susan,” he declared, his voice shaking, “Her mother was Anne.” Kokomis nodded, her reply in the language, swift. Her helper translates, “She says, I thought that’s who you were. I knew your grandmother well. I remember when your mother was pregnant with you. Susan asked if she was going to have a girl or boy and I told her, you will have both. Susan said, she wasn’t carrying twins, I replied, you will see.” He sat there confused trying to understand what Kokomis was saying. But maybe the translation was coming out wrong, because the words weren’t making sense. The helper continued. “She says, come over to my house whenever you want, ayakwe.” He looked up. “What does that mean, ayakwe?” The helper repeated to Kokomis, she just looked him in the eye and pointed at her heart then at his. She nodded to him again and told him to have a good night.
After a few minutes he gathered himself together, got up from his seat and walked back to his bike. He pedaled away, looking at the house behind him. He was overwhelmed with questions. But for the first time in his life, he felt a certainty about himself. He didn’t understand why Kokomis said his heart was ayakwe but it was like he had heard the word before, maybe in a dream, or someone else had shared it with him. It felt right. Like coming to listen to stories, like staring at the chaotic graceful lick of fire flames, like listening to the wind shake the thin walls of a bush cabin, like feeling the rush of the stream pulling at your ankles. He shuddered. “Ayakwe.” He whispered to himself.
He grabs the wrapped pipe hidden in his mother’s closet for decades and dashes out of his house in yesterday’s clothes, running to his bicycle before anyone can intercept him. He arrives to the last house on the end of the dirt road in record time. He opens the side door and stands in the entrance.
He’s met there by Kokomis herself. “Cody!” She says by greeting and goes to give him a big hug. He gently pats his hand on her back, uncomfortable by the show of affection. He lets his other arm limp at his side, his knuckles white in their tight grasp of the blanket bundle he carries.
Kokomis lets go of him and talks to her helper in the language.
“She wants to know what’s in your hand, looks important.” Her helper drawls out in translation.
He sighs, feeling resigned. “This is my grandmother’s pipe. My mom said she gave it to her so that she could pass it on to her daughter or granddaughter. But my mom never uses it and doesn’t know what it’s for. I don’t know anything. Except what you shared last night, about white buffalo calf woman.”
Kokomis nods, her eyes shining. She talks rapidly, excitedly. Her helper translates. “She says that she’s happy you came. She’s been waiting a while for ya. Says that maybe that pipe’s for ya. It’s up to ya to talk to it, see what it wants. That if that pipe chose ya then it’s a big responsibility but ya can handle it. She says, ya can come and do pipe ceremony here. We do them on Sunday mornings, instead of going to church.”
“But I’m not a girl!” He retorts. He can’t have this pipe. It wasn’t meant for him.
The helper translates, while him and Kokomis go back and forth for a while.
He feels impatient, not speaking the language is making it worse for him, he feels even more useless, not native enough or cultural enough to be here.
“She says that your body parts don’t matter, the pipe cares ‘bout your spirit, and ayakwe or two spirit are in the middle, yous don’t need to be anything but your self because ya can exist outside of the male and female existence. Am I making sense ta ya?”
He nods. “Ya, it makes sense. I just don’t know what to make of it. It feels like a lot. I’m not like you guys, I don’t speak Algonquin, I don’t go to ceremonies or know anything about our culture besides what they tell us at school. I feel like I’m not meant for any of this.”
He starts to feel emotions trapped in his chest trying to break free, he feels tears well up in his eyes and he starts crying out loud, becoming body wracking sobs. Kokomis holds him tightly, murmuring sweet words in his ear. He can distantly smell the sweet scent of sage and feels the tickle of feathers gently brushing his head and back. After many minutes, he starts to quiet down. He lets go of Kokomis and wipes his face, looking behind him to see her helper with an abalone shell and some lit smudge in it being blown in his face by an eagle wing fan that he’s waving back and forth.
“Is that to make me stop crying? He asks.
The helper shakes his head. “It’s to keep ya crying. So ya let it all out.”
He nods his head. He feels a bit better. Kokomis is still there grounding him. She grabs the blanket bundle and gently places it on the table. She proceeds to unwrap it gently, then with a roll of her chin, she beckons her helper over with the smudge bowl. She gives him a pointed look then points her chin at what she’s doing. He gets the message and watches what she does attentively. She takes the bowl and separates it from the stem. Gently lifts it towards the sky, then brings it over to the smudge bowl where she slowly rotates the bowl so every part of it touches the smoke. Then she places it back in the blanket. She lifts the stem and does the same, ensuring every part receives the attention of the lit sage. Kokomis says something to her helper.
“She says that’s the first lesson. Ya always need to cleanse your pipe. She says ‘that ya cried for the pipe. It’s been very sad. No one took care of it. It’s healing tears ya cried for it. She says ya take your time with it. Let the medicine cleanse it before ya use it every time. She asks if ya’ll come on Sunday.”
He nods. “Yah. I will. What time?”
Her helper smiles. “Sunrise. Better set your alarm. I’ll come pick ya up, it’s aways to bike first thing in the morning.”
He smiles back.
“Opwàgan.” Kokomis states. Pointing to the pipe. “opwàgan.” She repeats, then looks at him expectantly.
“Ohpwahgun.” He says. Kokomis smiles and talks again.
After a long day, he begins to get ready to leave. “Is it ok if the pipe stays here? It’s safer.” He says. Her helper asks Kokomis. She nods and says yes.
He bikes into the night, feeling a sense of peace come over him. He feels a lightness in his chest, so grateful to be different, to be two spirit, so that his grandmother’s pipe wasn’t lonely and waiting anymore.