Updated: Mar 4
I was driving through Reserve lands on the way to meet Rita and Gunnar at the Folk Fest when I saw the sign. I was late, but I’m a sucker for yard sales, so I pulled in. You might be asking: what does an Indian have that I want? Any yard sale expert will tell you - shop in an upscale neighborhood if you want to find a steal. But you never know.
Anyway, you’re not supposed to call people “Indian” any more, unless you’re talking about somebody from India. Nowadays you’re supposed to say they’re “Indigenous” or “First Nations.” Back at Medicine Meadows, though, I used to hear my native friends call each other Indians all the time. It wasn’t a bad word to them, depending on who said it and how. I’ve never thought of it as a slur. In fact, I always wished I were an Indian myself. My moccasins helped me figure out why.
Up ahead was a typical reserve homestead: a crumbling mid-70’s split-level house with blankets hanging in the windows and a patch of wildflowers where the lawn should be. Behind a table, a couple of native women with long braids were playing cards and smoking cigarettes. Meanwhile, two guys in cowboy hats tinkered with an old pick-up, periodically sipping beer and spitting tobacco juice into the dust. Britney Spears was blaring from a speaker somewhere as I stepped into the yard.
Their faces were set like stones, but they nodded politely when I said hello. It didn’t look like they were getting much business; I was the only one there. On the tables were the usual things you see at yard sales; knick-knacks, kitchen stuff, Christmas decorations. There was fresh bannock, though, as well as canned salmon in mason jars. Everything else looked pretty used up, and none of it interested me except the bannock. I asked for bagful, and passed one of the women a ten. It didn’t seem like much of a contribution. I turned to leave, and that’s when I saw the moccasins.
They were calf-high, made of deerskin, and looked like they’d hardly been worn; the leather was soft as butter, and about the same color. They had been expertly beaded across the toes and trimmed with pretty swatches of color. Furry pom-poms adorned the strings that tied them. They were beautiful, and they were my size. You can get factory made moccasins anywhere now, and they are sort of in style; you see white people wearing them everywhere. But these were hand-crafted. I asked how much they were.
There was a little silence, and then one of the women said, “Twenty dollars.”
I was absolutely delighted. Twenty dollars? She had to be kidding. I would have paid two hundred, or more, if I could afford it. I was sold, and handed over the money lickety-split, before she changed her mind. Right then, a little native girl came dancing around the corner while Britney Spears jack-hammered the summer stillness with a song about the lives of the rich and famous.
She was maybe four or five years old, wearing a bikini with mismatched top and bottom. Bright red lipstick was smeared across her mouth, outside of the lines, so to speak. She was waving a tinsel wand and swiveling her hips in a grotesque parody of the twerking sex-pot singer. “YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME? YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME?” she screamed. Her eyes were dark and hostile. The adults laughed.
I got into my truck and took off. I knew the little girl meant no harm. But I was rattled. I had a piece of her on the seat beside me; it only cost me twenty bucks.
By the time I got to the Folk Fest, the sun had dropped from the sky. I drove around the campground, dodging wayward hippies, until I found Rita and Gunnar’s site. When we were all sitting by the fire, I passed the bannock around and showed Rita my moccasins.
“Wow,” she said. “Those are ceremonial moccasins. Where did you get them?” I told her about the yard sale, and wondered what she was thinking. Rita is native, and an activist for Indigenous rights. So I felt sort of defensive, like I’d stolen the moccasins or something. But she only smiled and raised her eyebrows a little.
I pulled my sandals off to try them on. As soon as I put my foot in, I felt a sharp, stinging pain on the arch of my foot. Ouch! It was a wasp. White-hot sparks of pain went shooting up my calf as the soft flesh began to redden and swell.
“Wasp isn’t happy,” said Rita. “She’s telling you to wake up and do your own thing. Here, you’d better let me smudge those moccasins.” She pulled out a bundle of sage, lit it, and waved smoke over the moccasins. After that, I wore them all the time, and I got a lot of compliments on them. I always felt just the tiniest bit guilty wearing them, though.
I grew up on the redneck Alberta prairie. My mother was adopted, and we don’t know who her parents were, so I figured there was a chance some native blood was running through my veins. Mom had high cheekbones and dark, flashing eyes. It’s possible. I used to look out the farmhouse window, past the flagpole with Union Jack flying on it, and imagine what the land looked like with no fences on it. When it was covered in buffalo instead of grain fields.
Dad is the son of a first generation British immigrant, and a staunch loyalist to the Crown. He considers the Maple Leaf a betrayal of our British heritage. Once I learned about colonialism, though, I wasn’t so proud. It always seemed to me that the natives got a raw deal, and that we were just squatting on their land; furthermore, that we had pretty much wrecked it. Dad and I used to argue about it over roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
He told a story about a Coast Salish friend he had when he was a boy; they used to go fishing together. For Dad, it was just a pleasant way to spend a Saturday, but Jimmy needed to bring fish home to his family for dinner. Jimmy didn’t have any shoes, and lived in a run-down shack with a dirt floor and about twelve brothers and sisters. One day, Jimmy invited Dad home for lunch, and made him a salmon sandwich. “It was foul,” said Dad. He always talks like a stuffy British gentleman, even though he was born and raised in Nanaimo, BC. He calls cookies “biscuits,” for crying out loud. We just roll our eyes.
Dad’s view was that the government did the natives a favor by rounding their kids up and putting them in residential schools. He said they needed education to survive in the modern world, and religion to get into the next. “They were practically eating each other, they were so hungry,” he said. “Whose fault was that?” I shot back, thinking of the buffalo. White people almost killed them all.
I doubt he mentions these thoughts to our friend Toby. Toby is Stoney Nakoda, an artist from the reserve out west at Eden Valley. You don’t see many First Nations people around our town – maybe nobody will hire them, so they just stay on the reserve. But Toby has his own business. He’s a stonemason, and a good one. Every year, he and his horse do the parade in full tribal gear, smiling and waving. Everybody knows Toby. He and Dad go for liver and onions at Smitty’s most Thursdays. I can’t imagine what they talk about.
When Toby got diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Dad bought six of his paintings and hung them in the farmhouse. Most of them are pictures of the land, the way it used to be, and they’re beautiful. One is of a Blackfoot warrior with a feathered headdress. It looks a lot like Rita's dad - Caleb - and it’s my favorite.
I met Rita and Caleb when I moved to Burnsley, British Columbia, a sleepy little town on the banks of the Wellington River. I’d been commissioned to write and produce a play about the history of the area for their 150thCentennial celebration. The first thing I did when I got there was head to the museum and start researching. I found out that the place was settled when gold was discovered upriver in the late 1800’s and swarms of greedy white people showed up to cash in.
Somebody suggested that if I wanted the real story, I should talk to Rita. Her people have been living in the area since forever, and she has an anthropology degree from UBC, so I guess she’s some kind of expert. She’s got a job teaching Indigenous language to native kids, and is married to Gunnar, a tattooed Viking welder with a Harley and a bright orange man-bun. They live in a log cabin on the edge of town, surrounded by sunflowers, pot plants and a rotating crew of artists and activists camped out in their back yard. Any time of the day or night you can hear them jamming in the garage with their band, the Guru Guerillas. The band was named after Caleb - that’s one of his nicknames. The handle sort of covers the range of his personality, but I didn’t know that then.
I called Rita up and asked her to send me an email with the historical highlights in point form, but she said the story had to be told orally. I was sort of annoyed, because I was on a timeline, and I just wanted to plug a few facts into my plotline. But what the hell. I invited her over.
She walked in looking like some kind of earth goddess, dressed in a painted shawl, with feathers hanging in her braids. She sat down, started talking, and didn’t quit for about three hours. It turns out it was a good thing she did. I’d seen a picture in the museum of the early settlers with their wives, who had long black braids, dark faces and almond-shaped eyes. So I had this idea in my head that the natives and the settlers were all cozy and friendly, and I was working that angle into my story. But Rita set me straight.
It was true that the natives tried to give the settlers a hand, she said. They showed them where to hunt and what to eat. They even showed them where to find the gold rocks they were so interested in. The ore was too soft to be made into weapons, so the tribe had no use for it. And it was true that the first settlers took native wives, but they kicked them out as soon as they got the place going, and brought their English Ladies over from England shortly afterward. So much for multiculturalism.
After the gold rush died down, the forests were cut down to make way for the railroad, farms and ranchland, all owned by white people. By then, three quarters of the original population had contracted smallpox or measles and died. The natives had no immunity to the diseases the settlers brought, so they just fell over like dominoes.
The ones that survived now had to compete with white hunters and trappers from the fur trade, who depleted their traditional hunting grounds and made it harder to find game. Eventually, they were put on the reserve, and told the Queen would look after them. But they didn’t want to be looked after. They just wanted to hunt and fish and gather the way they always had.
There was no place in the changing landscape for traditional Indigenous culture, though, so in the 1880’s, somebody up the food chain decided the best plan was to assimilate the natives systematically. The residential school system, mandated by the Canadian government, was administered by churches and operational until the late 20thcentury. It had one primary objective: to “kill the Indian in the child” - a slogan that surely sent shivers down the spine of Indigenous elders.
Well, it’s one thing to read about this stuff in books. It’s another to hear it told by somebody who’s lived through the fallout. When Rita started to talk about her Dad, I got a funny feeling in my stomach, and got up to make some tea.
Like other native kids across Canada, Caleb was taken from his home by the age of five and spent eleven months of the year separated from his family. His elders tried to teach him the old ways when he was allowed home in the summer, but they had only one month out of twelve to do it.
The school he was sent to was three hundred kilometers away, so it wasn’t easy for family to visit; they weren’t welcome, anyway. When he got there, his braids were cut off and he was punished for speaking his own language. The dried salmon his parents had packed for him was taken away, and he was fed oatmeal and watery soup. Once, he snuck off the school grounds, snared and killed a young deer, and shared it with his brothers and sisters over a bonfire. It was the best meal they’d had since they left home.
The school was Catholic, so of course all the kids got taught about Jesus, who was supposed to save them. They had to memorize a bunch of long prayers they didn’t understand, and were told their own ways of praying would land them in hell. Lots of those kids found hell right there at school; one of the priests was later convicted of 17 counts of sexual assault against boys, perpetrated over a 30 year career in saving souls. He probably wasn’t a very good advertisement for Jesus.
They weren’t able to kill the Indian in Caleb, though. He hung on to his language and participated in traditional ceremonies every chance he got. When he moved home for good, he found most of the band living in poverty, with no electricity, heat, plumbing or insulation. After his aunt died of pneumonia due to lack of access to medical services, he joined the 1974 Native People’s Caravan movement in protest. Along with 200 other Indigenous men, women and children from all across Canada, he travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa to bang his drum on Parliament Hill until people listened.
The band elected him Chief for a couple of terms, but he lost his taste for politics when a bid to put in a gravel pit where his ancestors were buried came through. He took a job as a wilderness guide, and raised a family of eight kids on meat that he hunted and killed himself.
Things must have gotten rocky at home, though, because at some point, he got divorced, and spent some time in jail. Rita wouldn’t tell me why. She said that when he drank, he got pretty wild. “But he’s been sober over a year now,” she said. I could tell she was proud of him. “And if he likes you, he might tell you what your totem is.”
“What’s a totem?” I asked.
“It’s your spirit animal. It has lessons for you. It teaches you how to live in the world. Me, I’m Raven.”
“What about your Dad?” I asked.
“He’s Grizzly Bear.”
I could see it when I finally met him. Caleb came to the play on opening night, and stood in the back with his arms crossed for the whole thing. I couldn’t tell if he liked it or not, because his face was a blank slate. Tall and well muscled, with a dark ridge of brow over flinty eyes, he sort of looked like Ricardo Montalban, only not so friendly. He was wearing a black tee shirt that said “Homeland Security: Established 1492” on it, and had a long braid running down his back. He made me nervous. But he broke into a grin when I asked him what my totem animal was. “You’re Cougar,” he said. Very funny.
The first time I ever really talked to Caleb was at Henry’s memorial. Henry was his favorite brother, and he had died the year before. Rita invited me out to their family land for a traditional ceremony in his honor. I was amazed to be asked, since I’d never met Henry, and I didn’t know their family then. And I’d never been anyplace where native people outnumbered the whites.
I followed Rita’s directions, driving 20 kilometers north of the reserve, wondering what kind of reception I’d get. I kept going around hillsides and seeing nothing but pine trees and the odd ramshackle house. But there was no mistaking I was in the right place when I pulled over the top of the last hill.
Below was a wide, grassy meadow with a creek wandering though it. Four or five houses dotted the landscape, along with a couple dozen motorhomes and campsites set up across the flats. It looked like a small village, actually. Beside the creek was a fire pit and a dome-shaped structure covered with blankets – a sweat lodge. Somebody was chopping wood down there and adding it to a pile.
I pulled into the gate and parked by the white house Rita said was her Dad’s. People of all ages and sizes were tramping around between the houses, visiting. Some white people, too. Most of them looked like hippies.
One of the houses was set up to feed people. It turned out that this was where Henry had lived. The kitchen was full of women boiling and barbequing moose ribs and putting bowls of rice, vegetables, and potato salad out on tables for people to eat. Rita handed me a plate, smiling.
“Welcome to Medicine Meadows,” she said.
“It’s a sacred place,” she said, “and some of our people are healers. We’ve lived here for generations.”
I spotted Caleb sitting by himself on the porch, staring out into the trees. He wasn’t eating. There was an empty chair beside him, so I sat down and told him how sorry I was about his brother.
When he turned to me, I saw his eyes were fire engine red. His face was drk and dangerous, and he smelled like sour gin. Maybe I shouldn’t have sat down.
“You’re Hummingbird,” he said. Just then, something vibrated in the air between us. It was a hummingbird. As it shot off into the trees, something in my chest opened up like a flower. I looked it up later – Hummingbird is the bringer of joy, sent to remind that love transcends death. That’s a tall order.
I couldn’t think of anything to say, so found myself telling him how guilty I felt that white people had come along and stolen their land.
“It’s not our land, it’s the Creator’s,” said Caleb. “But you guys sure fucked it up. Come on, it’s time for the giveaway.”
I didn’t know what that was, but I followed him to the yard behind the house, where there was a huge pile of stuff: food, toys, tools, quilts. Dozens and dozens of quilts. Caleb started banging a drum and everybody gathered in a rough circle around him. He pulled out a cigarette and shredded it, scattering tobacco across the ground. Everyone was utterly silent. He took a big seashell and filled it with sage, and lit the sage. The smoke curled up and spread out, washing the air with its sharp, acrid scent.
Then he lifted up the shell, and began brushing the smoke in all four directions with an eagle feather, praying. He faced the east, asking for clarity; the south, for compassion; the west, for strength, and the north, for the wisdom of the ancestors. Then he raised the shell to the sky, thanking the Creator. One of his sisters, wrapped in a colorful shawl, joined him in the center of the circle, and began singing a wild, keening song of sorrow that raised goose bumps on my arms. A toddler broke out of the circle, ran over and began tugging at her, but was ignored until the song was finished. Then the kid was swept up in a big hug, and everybody laughed.
After that, everyone sat on the grass while kids began handing things out. I didn’t feel like I deserved anything, because I didn’t know Henry, but I was given a mason jar full of salmon, a piece of deer antler, a white towel, and a can of Pringles. Everybody was getting something; family members all got quilts. One of Rita’s sisters had quit her job and spent an entire year making them.
As the sun sank behind the mountains, people gathered around bonfires across the flats. There were a few guitars being passed around, people singing. At one site, people were playing a game that involved little sticks and bones, called lahal. Rita said they would be gambling until the sun came up.
At some point, I wandered into the white house. It was painted with bright colors inside, Navajo blankets on the couch, tribal art on the walls. There was a huge bookcase stuffed with books about warfare – The Prince, by Machiavelli, Sun Tzu: The Art of War, a biography of Napoleon. There were also a couple of books by the Dali Lama. In the corner was an altar set up with a picture of Henry, a big smudge bowl, and a little plate of food that looked like it had been there all day. Maybe for Henry to eat in the next world, so he wouldn’t get hungry.
Led Zeppelin was blasting from the speakers, and in the kitchen, a bunch of guys were dividing up a huge pile of weed on the kitchen table. This was before legalization, and it gave me a bit of a start, so I beat it, wandering down the hallway looking for a bathroom. I opened a door and quickly shut it when I saw the gleam of a knife-edge stuck into the jamb on the other side, and a long dark shape stretched out on the bed behind it. Somebody yelled, “Don’t go in there unless you want your throat slit. That’s the Grizzly den.” Caleb’s room. I doubted he was sleeping with all that racket going on. Maybe he just didn’t feel like partying.
I left shortly afterwards, driving back to town under a full moon. It painted the road and the hillsides silver, casting dark shadows across the valleys; I thought of it shining down on the farmhouse in Alberta, and remembered my Dad telling us about my uncle’s funeral in St. John. None of us could go, except Dad – it was too far, and too expensive. He told us about it, though. As the choir was singing “Land of Hope and Glory,” he looked down the pew to see his mother and father and sister-in-law all staring straight ahead, no one shedding a tear. That made him proud. “They tried to make us cry, but we didn’t,” he said.
I probably wouldn’t have left Burnsley if not for my Mom. But when she got sick, I moved back to Alberta. Rita gave me a smudge stick the size of my forearm to take with me. She’d picked the sage and wrapped it herself. Caleb gave me a beaded eagle feather. “Keep it safe,” he said. “Don’t ever put it on the ground. And look after your elders.”
By then, I was smudging regularly. My parents raised me as a Catholic, but the whole thing made about as much sense to me as it did to those captive residential school kids. To be honest, I wasn’t all that sure about the Creator, either. But I liked the ritual of it, and wanted everything the four directions had to offer. Part of me was still hoping I had some Indigenous blood in me.
Mom had dementia, and Dad was having a hard time looking after her. She would leave the burners going on the stove, take off and get lost in the car, and repeated herself a thousand times a day. Dad tried to do everything she asked, but she was just upset all the time. As for him, he was drinking a lot. I would sit there in the kitchen trying to referee between them, neither of them making any sense, and I felt like I was going crazy too.
I found a place of my own in town, just about the time Mom came down with pneumonia and wound up in the hospital for three months. She was a smoker, and developed chronic lung disease. When she was finally well enough to be discharged, it was clear she would have to go into a home. Dad just couldn’t handle her any more.
So we found a senior’s residence that would look after her, and it was only 15 minutes from the farm. She had a pretty nice room, with trees and flowers out the window, and her own bathroom; we got it all set up as homey as we could, with pictures from the farmhouse on the walls and so on. She hated it. Dad would take her for lunch every day, but they had nothing to talk about except for the fact that she was mad as hell to be stuck in this old folk’s place, and wanted to go home. The doctors said we shouldn’t even let her visit, because we’d have a hard time getting her back to the residence. They were right. She was stubborn.
Anyway, she wound up getting kicked out. She just couldn’t remember that she wasn’t supposed to smoke inside. We found a nursing home in the city that had supervised smoking four times a day for dementia patients, but it was an hour away from the farm. And it was pretty dismal.
She had to share a room with another lady who was just as demented as she was, and instead of being nice and homey, it was cramped and dark. Somebody from the family still visited her every day, but as soon as we left, she forgot we’d ever been there. One day, after we’d been visiting for an hour, she went to the bathroom, and came out a minute later surprised to see us. She started forgetting our names. But she never forgot that she wanted to be back on the farm.
Dad was sort of in a living hell, even though he didn’t have to look after Mom anymore. So when he came up with the idea of having a Diamond Jubilee party to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, I got behind it, even though it would be the first party we ever threw at the farm where Mom wasn’t present.
My sister-in-law didn’t think it was right, that we were having a party with Mom in such bad shape, and said so. My brothers were also dubious, and my sisters couldn’t come, because they don’t get along with my Dad any more. So in the end it was just me and Dad planning it. I did feel funny about it, I’ll admit. Even though I knew Mom would never find out, she would have been brokenhearted that we would have a party without her. And I wondered what the neighbors would think. But Dad needed something to look forward to, and so did I, so we pulled out all the stops.
We decided to make it a garden party, catered, with cucumber sandwiches, English tea, strawberries and cream, the works. We gave out invitations suggesting fancy English attire including fascinators and top hats. And we ordered a new flag for the flagpole, because the old one was in faded tatters.
On the day of the party, I was tempted to dress like a native, but I couldn’t find my moccasins. Anyway, I didn’t know if Toby would like it, and Dad probably wouldn’t either. All I really wanted to do was help him feel better, so instead I put on a rhinestone tiara and a white dress.
I was running around at the last minute, arranging garden furniture, when I realized we hadn’t put the new flag up yet. The caterers were due any minute, and the guests soon after. Dad was still dressing, so I banged on his door and asked him where the flag was. He came out in a crisp white shirt, dress pants, and a gold ascot. He looked fantastic, and I said so. But he also looked tired. We’d been prepping for this for days and I don’t think he was sleeping very well. And he didn’t know where the flag was, so we started looking.
We looked and looked, but everything had been moved around for the party, and we couldn’t find it. The caterers arrived, and interrupted the search while we got them sorted out, and the clock kept ticking. We looked all over the house, the garden, and the garage. Nothing. Dad was starting to sweat and mutter as we looked under things and behind things and inside things. “Dad, they’re going to be here any minute,” I said. “Nobody’s going to notice the flagpole. The Queen will never know.” Fuck the flag, I was thinking.
No flag is worth all this trouble.
“We’re not doing this with that old rag on the flagpole!” His eyes were blazing. You wouldn’t want to see my Dad when he’s mad. He was in such a weird state I could almost picture him canceling the party for real. My stomach was in knots. We kept looking, and finally found it in the linen cupboard. Thank Christ.
We hurried out to the flagpole. I pulled the new flag out of its packaging while Dad pulled the old one down. But his hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t loosen the knots. “Here, let me,” I said, but he waved me away. He struggled some more, gasping with frustration, and finally dropped his hands. I silently took the rope from him and worried the knots apart. We were running out of time.
We attached the new flag to the rope and hoisted it up. “Pull it tight, said Dad. “It has to be tight or it will slide down the pole.” I did what he said, but while he was fastening it, the rope snapped in two and the flag came whistling down to the ground. “CONFOUND IT!” yelled Dad. The words came out in a strangled, pained bark. His eyes were wild. He kept looking over his shoulder towards the driveway; a car was pulling in.
It was Toby.
“There’s plenty of rope,” I said. “We can tie it back together.” I spoke softly, smoothly, like you would if you were trying to talk a suicide down off a ledge. I was afraid he was going to have a heart attack.
I don’t know how to tie good knots, so Dad had to do it. But I tried to steady his hands as he fastened the rope, and he let me. We hoisted the flag up again. “Is it at the top?” he asked. I craned my neck. “Yes,” I said. It looked like it, anyway. There was a pretty good breeze going up there, and the flag unfurled, the sharp edges of the Union Jack snapping against the blue sky.
The car door slammed, and Toby got out, coming towards us in a Hawaiian shirt and a sombrero. “Do you need some help?” he asked, with a dubious glance up at the flag.
“No,” we both said, as Dad shook his hand and started steering him towards the bar. I looked over my shoulder to admire the fruits of our labor, and my heart plummeted. The rope must have slipped somehow, because the flag was sagging at half-mast.
I rushed back to the flagpole and pulled the Union Jack the rest of the way up myself. Dad never saw a thing. I made so many knots there was no way we’d be able to untangle them next year. But the rest of the party went off without a hitch.
Whatever the neighbors thought, they all showed up. Everybody was milling around admiring the garden, wearing top hats and tails, fascinators and summer dresses. One guy came as a polo player. Everybody was talking to each other in fake English accents, having a jolly good time.
The porch behind the house had been set up as a stage for the jazz band, which was busy tuning up, and behind them was a huge banner of the Union Jack. Dad stood there in front of it, banging the mike, getting everyone’s attention. People started strolling over, while caterers handed out glasses of champagne. I was sure they all noticed that Dad and I were the only members of our family present.
“Good afternoon! Welcome to Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee!” Dad is a pretty good speaker, and he got everybody’s attention right away. He went on about the Queen, how young and inexperienced she was when she took the throne, and how nobody thought she would do a very good job. How she’d upheld British values and brought honor to the Empire throughout her reign. I looked out past the flagpole while I listened, wondering what the land looked like before we put fences on it.
When he was done, he raised his glass, and shouted, “To the Queen!” Everybody cheered. But a big lump came up in my throat. It probably wasn’t the right thing to do, but I spoke up with a toast of my own. “And here’s to all the loved ones not present, including the Queen of the Alexander Ranch!”
People all had another sip, but the cheers weren’t as loud. It was a downer, what I’d said. But it didn’t wreck the party. People hung around for hours. Dad was the perfect host, and drank like a gentleman. You’d never know he almost had a meltdown just before everybody arrived. Me, I mostly scrambled around clearing drinks and passing food, trying to be Hummingbird. When it started to get dark, we all trooped out to the pond, where fireworks were set for nine o’clock and a teenaged trumpet player, recruited from the high school band, was waiting on the dock.
As he lifted the horn to his lips, the sky and the water lit up. He opened with “God Save the Queen” while the staccato percussion of explosives ripped through lone peals of trumpet-song like bullets. There was something about his slim figure silhouetted against the rain of color behind him that brought us all to silence. He blasted through his repertoire of English patriotic tunes, but fireworks still peppered the sky as he ran out of songs; he wound up playing “Land of Hope and Glory” twice. Dad didn’t mind a bit. In the end, he played “Last Post.” I stayed there long after everyone had left, thinking of Mom. It was like she was already dead.
Mom died ten months later, on the Queen’s birthday. We had a Catholic Mass for her the following Saturday. The priest came in waving clouds of smoke from a silver globe; it didn’t smell like sage, and it made me feel a little sick. I didn’t want to embarrass my family by crying in church, so I just sat there shaking. The Mass was in Latin and I didn’t understand a word of it, so that helped.
Afterwards, I sent my DNA away to be tested. It turns out that I am 100% white, with British roots going back at least twenty generations. Of course, I was disappointed; I guess I just wanted to feel like I really belonged someplace.
A couple years later, I heard that Caleb had died. I sent my eagle feather back to Rita by mail; I didn’t feel right keeping it anymore. The story was, he just went off into the mountains, and died like a Grizzly Bear. They didn’t find his body for weeks.
I didn’t go to the funeral, and I never did find my moccasins. That’s okay. You can walk a thousand miles in somebody else’s shoes, but that doesn’t make them yours.
As published in Queen's Quarterly Literary Review, Spring/Summer 2020 Issue