by Patti-Kay Hamilton
There is a swish and shadow of a brown and black robe moving down the staircase.
Sati stares. She’s not sure if this ghost-face is a man or woman. A grey hood is bound tightly around the head hiding ears and hair. The face reminds Sati of a weasel; pointed nose, beady eyes, thin lips and white whiskers on the chin. A claw like hand stretches out and grips Sati pinching her arm with sharp nails. The mouth moves and loud words come out. Sati continues to stare. The weasel face yells and a girl runs up the stairs. Sati reaches out to hug her cousin but Effie pulls back and shakes her head. “No touching,” she says. Effie tells Sati she will help her understand Sister Cecile’s strange words. “You are number 55,” she says. Sati knows her numbers. Her mother set up a small table in the corner of their cabin and made her daughter sit and copy numbers and letters from a book. Her dad called it a waste of time.
“She doesn’t need no book learning,” he said. “The bush is our classroom.” But her mom insisted. Sati thinks 55 is easy to remember. There were five brothers including her father, Joseph. They shot five buffalo and now her dad is in prison. Sati doesn’t understand why it was a bad thing to kill buffalo when everyone was hungry. After her father was taken away two men with silver beards wearing long, black dresses, black crosses dangling from their necks came to their shack cackling like ravens and said, “Without a hunter there is no meat. Without a hunter there is no fur to trade for flour.” The stocky one with a sour stink threw her over his shoulder like a sack of muskrats and carried her to the Big Building. Her cousin had warned her about the Big Building and scared her with stories about what happened to children there.
Sister Cecile comes toward her with scissors. Sati ducks and the sharp blade nicks her chin. There is a snip, snip and Sati watches her braids fall onto brown tiles. Blood drips on the white hide her mom had used to lash the ropes of hair. Sati hands over the sweater and socks her mom has knit but she holds on tightly to her moccasins and with her finger traces the red rose and green leaves. It’s the first pair she has beaded by herself. It took her a long time because if she made a mistake or there was a tiny bulge in the line of beads her mom would make her start again. The nun slaps the hide slippers from her hand onto the pile of clothes.
Sati’s not used to the stiff, slippery leather shoes and falls several times as she is led up the stairs to the sleeping place where she is shown cupboard 55. Heavy drapes are pulled over the windows so even though it’s bright outside the long room is gloomy. Sati counts thirty brown, metal beds pushed close together and covered with a thin, blue blanket.
The nun points her to the eating-place. Sati follows Effie to the lineup where two big boys carry a steaming pot of whole boiled potatoes with skins on. Fish are stacked on a tray. Sati likes fish but these look like fish her father feeds dogs. Every fall during the whitefish run he would net hundreds and she would help him pierce the tails with a sharp, dry pole. Each stick held ten fish and was hung on a rack to dry in the wind and sun. Guts still inside.
She bends to sniff the fish and gags at the stink. She pokes Effie in the ribs and raises her eyebrows nodding down at the plate. Effie passes her a rag under the table and says in a whisper, “Pretend to chew while you cut the fish into bits. When no one’s looking, wrap it in this cloth and toss it down the outhouse.”
Just then there is a ruckus at the end of the table. A small boy vomits on his food. Sister Cecile strides up behind him and pushes his face into the puke, potato and fish. The nun holds the boy’s head down and Sati worries he will smother. Finally Sister Cecile yanks his head back and orders him to eat. “Charlie,” says Effie. “Orphan. Been here since he was three.”
After the meal Sati is ordered up to the top floor to clean the pails where the children poop and pee at night. She holds her breath and gets the job done then pulls the drapes open and stares out the high window. In the yard beside the church there is a pile of logs as high as a house. She spots her dad bent over sawing wood. Hard labour the boss at the trial had told him. An older, angry looking man with a cap on his head and smoking a pipe watches. When her dad pauses to wipe his brow the man shoves him in the back and he falls against the sawhorse. Near the fence she sees a cranberry coloured shawl on the bent shoulders of a woman who is also staring at her father. Sati bolts down the stairs and out the big doors. She sprints to the fence and reaches over the top railing to knot her fingers with her mom’s. Over her mother’s shoulder Sati stares across the lake toward their home. Her mom squeezes tight and Sati hears hard breathing behind her. The weasel face grabs her around the waist and drags her inside.
Sister Cecile holds Sati tightly by the ear jerking her back so the girl loses her balance. The nun continues to pull her up the stairs one hand on the railing and the other gripping the ear as Sati’s hard shoes bump, bump on each step. There is piercing pain and a sound like canvas ripping. Sati screams as blood spurts from the ear lobe that has been torn away from the side of her head and there’s a thud when the weasel face lets go and Sati’s head hits the landing. Another nun runs up the stairs, veil flapping. She pushes a hand against the ear; blood seeps between her fingers and Sati passes out.
Sleet pings on the window as students bend over scribblers practicing writing; line after line of big A and little a. Then B, C and D. Sati is humming inside and feels grown up today because a mystery person has given her a gift for her thirteenth birthday and the nuns didn’t take it away. She fingers the round collar of the soft blouse with the lace edging.
Sister Cecile is patrolling the aisles. The only sound the scratching of pencils and the nun’s heels tapping a staccato beat; steady as the pinging on the window. Sati proudly finishes a line of carefully crafted capital C’s when she hears the silence. Sister has stopped. Sati glances over to the row of desks near the window where the nun towers behind Charlie. “What is that scribble?”
He grunts. “My letters.”
A slate coloured strap, shaped like the long tongue of a giant lizard dangles from the nun’s hand. She yells at him to write. Charlie’s hand shakes as he presses down too hard on his pencil and the lead snaps. Sister swings back and slams the strap on his page, ripping the paper. “Write!” Charlie’s fists knot together as he stares at his broken pencil and the strap whistles through the air and comes down on the back of his shoulders. Over and over she lashes him with the strap and her words until the boy sinks down with his head on the desk. Everyone holds their breath and tries not to look. No one is writing. Sati stares down at her page of perfect C’s. Sister Cecile turns to continue her patrol leaving Charlie to his torn scribbler and broken pencil.
Sati can’t move her fingers. She grips the stubby pencil tight but her brain can’t convince her hand to move. It’s frozen in place on the tail of a capital C. She hears Sister coming up the aisle behind her, tapping the strap on her thigh until she stops beside Sati.
“Why aren’t you writing?” Sati quivers and wills her hand to move. Sister orders her to stand. Sati reaches over to place her pencil in the slot at the top of the desk but her muscles are so tense the pencil flies across the room. Sister Cecile hollers at her to get up. Sati rises and looks into the beady eyes of the weasel face. She stares until the nun begins to fidget and orders Sati to hold out her hand. Sati’s fingers are clenched and she begins to lift her hand but something explodes inside of her like the wolverine that lunged and snarled at her father once when it was caught in a steel trap. Her fist rears back and she drives it into the weasel face’s glasses.
The old woman stumbles and bangs her head on a desk then sinks to the floor. Her legs are splayed out, grey skirt hiked up over bony knees, black stockings rolled around ankles. Words erupt from Sati. “I hate you. We all hate you.”
Sister Cecile shakes her head, pulls her robe down and uses the desk to haul herself up. The glasses dangle from each ear as she squints at Sati as if the teenager is a stranger then turns to face the class. “Who hates me? Put up your hands.” Sati twists to look and everyone has heads down. No hands rise.
“Cowards,” Sati yells as she runs from the class. She sobs as she races across the frozen field to the fence and tries to climb over to the other side. The sleeve of her new blouse catches on a spike and Sati yanks at it until it rips. She wants to be in the warmth of their tent with the smell of spruce boughs under her head and feel the pounding of buffalo hooves on the earth. Strong arms yank Sati off the railing and drag her to the barn. The sound of her wails is drowned out by the wind and pounding waves.
There’s no moon and it’s so windy the creaking and whistling will drown out her footsteps. She lies in the narrow cot with her eyes closed and tries to breathe slowly. Her hands are crossed in prayer position above the blanket. As a child she’d always slept curled on her side until she was taken into the Big Building and got slapped and had to kiss the floor many times before she got used to sleeping on her back. She hears the clack, clack of Sister Cecile’s heels as she does a bed check making sure all hands are above the blankets. The nun pauses and Sati holds her breath until the clacking resumes. Sati waits until she hears the groan of Sister’s bedsprings and the rattle of the old woman’s snores.
Instead of folding her clothes into closet 55 Sati has stuffed them into her pillow. She changes quickly and holds her shoes as she tiptoes to the door leading to the side stairs on the outside of the Big Building. Last month she stole yellow grease from the garage and used it to polish the door hinges to get rid of the squeak. She stops and listens. She hears wind rattling the shutter, soft breathing and words whispered in sleep. She smells incense and kerosene. She sucks in air and slowly opens the heavy door just wide enough to slide through. She wants to race down the stairs but forces herself to slow down and take one-step at a time, pausing often. Her father had taught her that animals are invisible if they don’t move. As soon as her feet touch the ground she dives into the high grass and lies still keeping her eyes on windows for signs of someone watching then she crawls in a zigzag hoping if someone glances out her movement will appear like a fox hunting for mice. The rustle startles the animals and horses kick at the stalls. Around the corner Sati runs to the long dock where waves roll over the pebbles making them rattle. She finds the rowboat Charlie had promised her. The old boards creak as she steps into the center and poles the boat into deep water.
As her eyes adjust to the dark she makes out the silhouette of Potato Island. She had hoped to get that far tonight but the wind is blowing up white caps as it sweeps in from Lake Athabasca and pushes the boat in the opposite direction. She pulls on the oars to keep the bow facing the storm so waves don’t swamp the small skiff. As the boat drifts into the current the tall trees on the shore provide shelter from the wind and Sati stops rowing to catch her breath and dip water to drink. She looks back and sees the looming shadow of the cross at the top of the Big Building disappearing in the distance. Her back and shoulders ache but she keeps rowing and glides past the log cabin where a buffalo ranger lives with his family. It is the same ranger who tracked down her dad and his brothers and gathered the evidence for his trial six years ago. Sati floats toward a cove and pulls the boat up where it won’t be visible.
Sati has no idea where she is but if she can find buffalo tracks and a trail it will lead her to a wallow and that is where she’ll find the roots she needs to help her mom who has been coughing up blood and is getting skinny. “No cure,” said the old man who handed out medicine in town but Sati knows there is medicine in the bush that doesn’t come from a bottle. She had seen it save others. As she bends to tie the strings of her moccasins there is a rustle and high-pitched whistle. She braces to run but looks up to see bats swooping through the treetops gobbling mosquitoes. She pulls her hat down over her hair, bows her head and steps into the forest; cool earth beneath the hide of her slippers.