By Carolyn O'Neal
My cousins are beautiful. Dark eyes, shiny black hair, and cheeks as full as the sunset. When I look at their photographs, I pretend I’m looking in a mirror. I pretend I have a face that people want to see and a body that will fit into white dresses with pink ribbons and matching shoes. I run my fingers across the images of my beautiful cousins and I don’t feel like I’m living at the bottom of a well where every sound echoes off barren walls, cuts my skin, and hurts my ears.
None of my photos hang on the walls of my grandparents’ home in the Woodland Cree Reserve in Alberta, Canada. Not my baby photos, not my school photos. It’s not my grandparents’ fault; my mother snatches my pictures off their walls as soon as they hang them.
I hear my grandmother’s high-pitched voice. “Grace, come help me with the frybread,” she calls. I don’t want to leave the photos of my beautiful cousins. I don’t want to stop pretending. “Grace,” she calls again, louder, “did you hear me?”
I run wide-legged like a frightened goose, almost knocking over a lamp in my hurry. I clutch my hands over my ears. “Braaugh,” I yell, terrified the lamp will shatter.
Grandmother doesn’t ask about the lamp. She’s kneading white dough with her strong, dark hands. Back-and-forth. Back-and-forth. The rhythm of the soft dough against the hard kitchen table calms me. I lower my hands. Grandmother rubs her nose and white flour dusts her copper face. I am reminded of raindrops glistening on the backs of white-tailed deer, and I am comforted.
“Api,” she says, pointing to an empty chair. I move the chair close, my thigh touching her thigh. I yearn to lean my head on her shoulder as she folds the white dough but touching thigh-to-thigh is all I can endure. “She was cursed the day she started driving that huge truck,” Grandmother says, and I know she is talking about my mother. “One tire costs more than this house and is almost as big. That’s where she met your father, you know, hauling oil sands. She swears he was just another roughneck but I think he must have been a Sasquatch,” she laughs. “Or a moose!”
Grandmother cuts the dough into twelve pieces and pats them into disks. She groans as she waddles to the stove and slips the disks into a pan of boiling lard. I join her at the stove and watch the dough turn golden brown. Grandmother stacks the frybread on a plate, paper towels in-between to soak up the grease. “Whoever he was, he wasn’t worth asiniy. Didn’t even come to our house to meet us. Didn’t even—.”
Grandfather walks in, and Grandmother is silent. She won’t ridicule my never-known father in front of Grandfather. The one time she did, he solemnly told her that everyone is beautiful in God’s eyes, and popped her on the back of her gray head.
“Niwi'-ma'ci'n,” Grandfather says. He carries his rifle and his leather satchel, and beckons me to follow.
Coats are needed, even though no snow has fallen. The forest is awash in greens and browns and the bluest sky imaginable as we hike single-file to the same small, handmade hunting blind Grandfather has used since he was a boy. Venison is the only meat I eat. Grandfather doesn’t hunt elk or caribou. I’ve never tasted beef or pork.
Ducks fly in formation overhead as ravens quietly gather in a nearby birch. Four white-tailed deer tiptoe into range and I place my hands over my ears. Grandfather aims at the prettiest doe: Large eyes, unblemished fur, and just a hint of a belly. I hold my breath as he squeezes the trigger. One shot through the lungs and the deer falls. We climb down from the hunting blind and Grandfather kneels beside the downed doe, gently shushing her. “Shhh, iskwe'sis,” he says. He closes his eyes, places one hand on the deer’s side, and whispers a prayer to ease her passage until she stops kicking.
I lay my head atop the doe’s twitching chest and whisper so low that only the deer can hear. “I love you.”
The doe stops moving and Grandfather opens his leather satchel. Inside are three knives and two whetstones, one rough, the other smooth. “All of God’s creatures are beautiful, Grace,” he says. He pulls out a short, sharp knife and firmly grabs the doe’s hindquarters. “Start by trimming around her rear end.” Grandfather works his knife around the outside edge of the doe’s anus. “Trim all the way around, about an inch or two deep, this way when you open her up, everything comes out in one long piece. You don’t want to break the colon or bladder,” he says. “Spoils the meat.” Grandfather motions and I come close. “Help me roll her on her back.” We roll the deer, exposing her soft, white belly and teats like brown gumdrops.
“Run your fingers down her chest,” he says. Grandfather’s fingers look like knobby brown twigs as he finds the bottom of the doe’s ribcage. “Pull up on the skin and make a small incision. You want to be careful not to go all the way through.” He runs his knife down the velvety belly of the doe, opening her like a book. Her stomach and intestines pop out like overfull water balloons and I smell her earthy aroma. Grandfather cuts through the doe’s milk sack and white liquid pours over his hand and trickles down the brown fur.
Grandfather slips his hand inside the doe’s chest. “I have my hand on her heart,” he says, “and above her heart is her esophagus.” He beckons me to slip my hand inside the deer. She is soft and warm, and I wish I could crawl inside and stay forever. “Can you feel it? Can you feel her esophagus? Just like a garden hose. I have to cut through it very carefully.” Grandfather pulls my hand out and shows me his short knife, no longer than his forefinger. “Notice how I’m holding my knife,” he says, his forefinger pressing against the dull side of the blade. “A big knife isn’t as maneuverable.”
Ravens glide down from the birch as Grandfather gives the doe’s insides one good pull and out comes her lungs, her heart, and her digestive system. He tosses the parts he won’t keep to the birds. “Ravens are powerful omens of both good and evil, Grace,” he says. “They must be respected.”
“Help me roll her over so the blood drains out.” I help him roll the deer. Grandfather groans as he stands and stretches his back. “Never kill for fun, Grace. Not even the smallest ant. We’re all brothers in God’s eyes, man and animal. Kill only to survive.” Grandfather heaves the doe on his shoulder, carries her back to his property, and hangs her by her back hooves on the low limb of an aspen poplar. I pet her black nose as droplets of blood drip on the dusty ground and Grandfather goes to fetch his butchering supplies.
The kitchen is as warm as the inside of the doe. I stand beside Grandfather as he checks the venison roasting in the oven, my hands over my ears. People are arriving to feast on Grandfather’s venison and Grandmother’s frybread. Noisy people. Uncles, aunts, and my beautiful cousins. I run out of the kitchen and my beautiful cousins laugh. “Why are you running away, Grace?” they ask.
I run into Grandfather’s bedroom and search in the dark for his leather satchel, the one with his three knives and his two whet stones. I clutch it against my flat, wide chest and I am comforted. Grandmother comes to the doorway in silhouette. “Grace? Grace? Are you in there? Dinner’s ready.” She doesn’t turn on the light; instead she finds me sitting in a dark corner and sits beside me. “Grace,” she whispers, “Everyone needs family. Even the earth is not alone; she has the sun and the moon.” Grandmother lets me keep Grandfather’s satchel as she gently takes my hand and leads me to the dinner table.
The laughter softens as I enter. Grandmother leads me to my chair and fills my plate with frybread and roasted venison. My aunts have brought perogies, peas, and applesauce. I watch as they close their eyes and hold hands. Grandfather sings his blessing:
Health to the Earth, may we never know hunger.
Health to the Rivers, may we never know thirst.
Health to all God’s creatures,
May we never know loneliness.
He opens his eyes. “Eat!” The room fills with the sound of forks and plates and Grandfather’s stories of his youth. “I remember when white tourists used to come to Alberta before the oil sands drove them away,” he says. “Old Uncle Milt loved telling them their history books were wrong. He told them Pocahontas was Cree from western Canada, not Powhatan from Virginia.” Grandfather laughs and wipes his eyes. “He told them he knew the real story of how Pocahontas got her name. Her real name was Hontas, but she was so slow, her daddy called her Pokey Hontas. And they believed him!” Grandfather slaps the table and everyone laughs. I am still clutching the satchel so their laughter doesn’t hurt my ears. I smile and Grandmother hugs me.
My beautiful cousins are gone by the time Mother arrives. She’s wearing thick blue winter coveralls and carrying a dirty-white hardhat. Grandmother helps me put on my coat and wraps a scarf around my neck as Mother slurs her goodbyes and hustles me to her pickup truck. I climb into the passenger seat and see Grandmother and Grandfather watching me from the front door, Grandmother’s hands wringing a dishtowel.
The dark asphalt road doesn’t shine under the moonlight. No snow muffles the grinding sound of tires against road. Mother drives under dozens of swinging stoplights and parks at a tavern in a strip shopping center. Flashing slot machines light the way to the bar and I cover my ears. I am afraid. Mother takes a seat on a high stool and points to the one beside her. “Sit,” she says. I sit. She orders a whiskey and a cola from a man who gawks at me then quickly turns away. The slot machines squawk louder than a flock of crows and I wish I had Grandfather’s satchel. The cola comes but doesn’t have a straw so I can’t drink unless I lower my hands from my ears. I hunch over my cola like a vulture.
An old woman with leather skin like Grandfather’s is dropping coins in one of the slot machines. She pulls the lever and fruit spins around. I am terrified the slot machine will screech WIN-WIN-WIN. I rock back-and-forth, back-and-forth, almost toppling off my stool. “Uuuuhhh,” I moan and the man behind the bar frowns at me. The old woman drops more coins. “Uuuuhhh.” I want to run to Grandfather’s house, find his satchel, and hold it against my chest.
Mother doesn’t take me away from the loud slot machines or ask the frowning man behind the bar for a straw so I can drink my cola. Instead, she orders another whiskey. “Genocide, that’s what it is, genocide. Look what they’ve done to our forests.” Mother’s eyes turn to me and I stop rocking. I am afraid of what she will say next. “Look what they’ve done to my baby girl. She looks like a monster and has the personality of a dead tree.”
I hunch so low my head almost hits the cola. A white man wearing the same blue coveralls as Mother takes a seat on the stool next to mine and moves my glass away from my head. “Don’t you listen to her, Grace,” he says. “You ain’t no monster, you’re just big boned.” He orders a beer and grabs a bowl of pretzels from behind the bar, taking a few and placing the bowl in front of me. He even sticks a straw in my glass so I can sip my cola. “God, Paula, could you be more of a stereotype? Drinking and complaining about the white man.”
“Fuck off, Frank,” Mother says.
Frank. The man’s name is Frank. I’ve heard that name before. Perhaps he is my never-named father. He covers one nostril and forcefully blows out of the other, wiping the slimy results off the bar with his bare hands. I decide he is not my father. He sniffs and turns his attention to Mother. “How much tar sand do you carry in that big truck you drive?” he asks. “Three hundred, maybe four hundred yards per load? How many loads per day? A couple dozen?” Mother doesn’t answer. She orders another whiskey as I sip through the straw the white man who isn’t my father gave me. He leans toward Mother and oil from his coveralls touches my coat. His smell reminds me why Grandfather doesn’t kill stags, their meat tastes like urine. I am crushed between him and Mother. “How much money you make a year, Paula? One-hundred thousand? Two-hundred thousand? You can buy a lot of whiskey with two-hundred thousand dollars.”
Mother shoves Frank away and snatches my arm, pulling me off the stool. “Come on,” she says. Frank laughs as Mother drags me out of the bar and back into her pickup truck. “Fucking asshole,” she says. She starts the engine.
Red, green, yellow and purple flash from streams of neon signs as we drive through Ft. McMurray. Mother drives beyond the neon to a dark, wooded lot with one dim streetlight swaying above our singlewide trailer. Mother stumbles in the dark to the front door. “Mother-fucking-ruin-the-world-oil-company-loving-white-men,” she slurs as she lumbers through the dark living room to the couch and collapses, still wearing her blue coveralls. I stand beside the couch. I don’t know what to do. The only light comes from the clock on the DVR. I whisper “Mom” but she doesn’t move. I curl up on the floor beside the couch.
Bright sunlight through the front window hits my face. I am still in my coat on the floor. I stand beside the couch, waiting for Mother to wake. She is not as beautiful as my cousins. Her face is thin, like Grandfather’s, with lines that make her look angry even when she’s asleep. I watch her breathe. In-and-out. In-and-out. I am comforted.
Her eyes open. “What the hell are you doing, Grace? Stop staring at me.” She sits up and shivers, rubbing her arms. “God, you’re so creepy sometimes. What time is it?” She glances at the clock on the DVR. “Fuck, I’m late.” She grabs my hand, pulls me out of the singlewide, and back into her pickup. “Got to get to work. Don’t have time to drop you off at school.” I cover my ears. I don’t want to go to where Mother works. I am afraid of the pounding, grinding, beeping. I look out the window. The greens and browns disappear and are replaced with blacks and grays that go on forever and ever.
Mother parks outside a garage bigger than my school. “Wait in the truck,” she says but I am not looking at her. I am looking at the giant trucks coming out of the garage. Each one is as tall as the birch tree in Grandfather’s back yard. Mother pulls my hands away from my ears and turns my face to her. “Grace, listen to me. Stay in the truck until Pa'pa comes. Children aren’t allowed near the mines. It’s dangerous. Do you understand?” I am silent. Mother curses. She leaves me in the pickup truck and goes into the giant garage.
Soon I see Mother steering another massive truck out the garage. I get out of the pickup and follow her until I am too tired. She is going too fast and too far down, down, down into a deep gray pit surrounded by miles and miles of shiny black lakes. Mother’s giant truck joins other giants and a skyscraper-sized excavator digging black holes into the sides of the canyon.
My stomach hurts. I wish I had some of Grandmother’s frybread. I wander to a small trailer with a radar dish and a plastic hawk mounted on top. Inside the trailer, a white man is looking at a screen. “Hey there, Grace,” the man says and I wonder how he knows my name. I think I’ve seen him before, at the bar. He may be the white man named Frank who gave me the straw but I’m not sure. All white men look the same to me.
“What are you doing here?” he asks. I stand beside him. The man taps a large blob moving across the screen. “See that? A flock of birdies is headed our way, pretty big one from the size of it. Probably ducks, although there could be a few coots or snipes mixed in this time of year. Too many to be scared away by that fake hawk on top of the trailer, that’s for sure.” He goes to a control panel and punches a button, then grabs a couple of headphones. “Want to see the cannons, Grace? Want to see how we save the poor little duckies from getting sick?” I follow him out the trailer. “The cannons scare away the birdies so they don’t land in the tailing ponds,” he says. “That water’s full of tar and oil and will hurt them. No one here wants to see the birdies hurt, Gracie, no matter what your momma says. We’re the good guys.” He smiles and raps his dirty-white hardhat with his knuckles. “That’s why we wear the white hats.”
The white man who might be Frank points to a row of strange-looking machines dotting the shoreline of the black lakes. “See, Gracie, can you see the cannons? They’re going to make a loud noise and scare off the birdies.” He offers me one of the headphones but I don’t take it. He sighs and tries to puts the headphones over my ears.
“Baaauugh!” I scream, frantically batting away the headphones. I don’t want anything touching my ears.
“Jesus Christ, Grace, I’m doing you a favor. You’re not even supposed to be here.” His face is red and he’s breathing heavy. He quickly looks around but no one is near. All the other men in blue coveralls are far down in the mines with Mother and her truck.
I hear the approaching flocks. Quacking. Honking. Making more noise than all my beautiful cousins a hundred times over. I rub my ears where the headphones touched. Soon the sky is full and my heart races as the ducks descend toward the black lakes. The white man who might be Frank looks at his wristwatch. “Cover your ears, Grace. Three, two, one.”
BOOM! The cannons surrounding the black lakes fire.
BOOM! The ducks scatter and change trajectory.
BOOM! A thousand knives fill my brain.
I clutch my ears and run in circles, my knees askew, and my elbows out. “Baaauugh!” I scream. The noise is everywhere. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. The white man who might be Frank chases me. BOOM. I don’t want him to touch me. BOOM. I scoot away, screaming. BOOM. I run into the nearest black lake. It doesn’t splash like water. It’s thick and warm like porridge even though the air is near freezing. I can’t move. My feet are stuck. The blackness sticks to my clothes. I scream louder, “Baaauugh,” arching my back. The blackness seeps into the cuffs of my jeans and through my socks. It burns my ankles, calves and shins. I rock back-and-forth, back-and-forth; hands still over my ears.
The white man who might be Frank wades into the tarry lake. He grabs me and pulls me to the gray shore. The cannons stop. The sky is empty. All the birds are gone, but my legs are covered in wet tar.
Someone is running toward me. A thin, brown man with long gray hair pulled back behind his ears. His stride is smooth, like a deer. Grandfather. He’s carrying his satchel. I pull away from the white man and he lets me go. I run to Grandfather but I can’t look at him. I close my eyes and bury my head into his chest. “Uuuuhhh,” I moan. He hugs me and I let him. My blackness smears on his clothes as he rocks me back-and-forth, back-and-forth. He gives me his satchel and I am comforted.