The first day she arrived she knew she wouldn’t like it. The place was cold and drafty. The clothes they made her wear were hot and itchy. They didn’t fit well at all, and all the girls had to wear the exact same thing. The boys, situated at the opposite end of the building, were not allowed to talk to the girls. Brothers weren’t allowed to interact with sisters, cousins and so on. Only the People in Black, otherwise known as the Nuns and the Priests, were allowed to talk to each other. To the young girl, these people had nothing interesting to say. And what they did say was usually not very nice. And what they did was sometimes even worse.
Those with darker skin who were not yet adults and free of this mandatory education called it the Angry Place. Still, she put up with it. It had taken a long time to get here and she instinctively knew it would take her a much longer time to get home. Wherever that was—she had no idea if it was north, south, east or west. It was just far away. As soon as she arrived, she was told stories of one of the girls trying to run away. She wasn’t the type to break the rules like that. Instead, she decided to deal with the present by con cen trating on the past and the future: remembering the family she had just left, and imagining the family that she would someday have.
Sister Agnes had christened the girl Lillian. As soon as she had arrived, they told her that her Anishnawbe name was not to be uttered anymore. Her old name became her secret that she kept close to her—so close, she would seldom speak it aloud. Her grandmother had given it to her a decade and a half ago. In this place, words other than English or Latin were unchristian and those who used them were punished severely. So, she became Lillian.
The girl worked hard to learn their language better. She was an average student, but critical, often wondering to herself why she should care about a train leaving Toronto, travelling at eighty kilometres an hour. She outwardly learned to respect this place—but was suspicious of it. An incident just before bed on her second day there had planted that seed. In fact, it made her doubt the whole enterprise. She and Betty, a newly made friend, had discovered that their mothers had the same name—and they had found this hilarious, falling into an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. Out of nowhere, Sister Agnes appeared. She scolded, “Stop that this second.”
The girls looked at each other, uncertain. Betty, who had always kept on the sister’s good side, asked meekly, “What is it, Sister?”
“Stop that laughing—it is rude and not acceptable in a house of God such as this.”
This, of course, made the girls laugh all the harder. What kind of a place was this? Not a day, or more like it, an hour went by at home when Lillian didn’t hear her mother break into loud guffaws. It was what Lillian loved best about her. Oftentimes (more often than not) these White people made no sense at all.
“Did you hear about Sam?” whispered Rose, one night, about a year after Lillian had arrived. Rose was the only one of them who had managed to pick up a smattering of Latin during the many church services they were forced to attend. As a result, most considered her the People in Black’s pet. All the girls were kneeling by their cots saying their prayers. In an attempt to curry favour with her fellow inmates—though she maintained that she didn’t know that much Latin—Rose would often tell them what was going on.
“No,” said Lillian. “What about Sam?” Sam Aandeg was from her community, one of the only familiar faces here, though they spoke only about once a month. She was related to Sam through her mother’s first cousin—and he had a rebellious streak. When he arrived he’d bitten a Nun attempting to shave his head. That was seven years ago, and time and repeated punishments had not managed to subdue him.
“He’s in trouble again!”
“Why?” Lillian asked, kneeling by the cot next to Rose’s.
The girl whispered, “The usual. Being mouthy. He’s in the shed. And Father McKenzie won’t let him leave until he can memorize all the monologues in that stupid play. He’ll probably be there overnight.”
“Again!” she said. Lillian had taken to caring for her way ward cousin, knowing his nature was instinctively to wade against the current of any river. But one did not wade against the current of the Angry Place. “Well, it’s a good thing the mosquitoes are gone,” she told Rose. “Like sitting in that shed is going to change anything. He should know better.” Secretly, though, she admired his resistance. Indian boys and girls who misbehaved spent a lot of time in the shed, Sam more than most. Some people might not see the connection between placing defenceless children in confined spaces for prolonged periods of time and any particular passages in the Bible. Perhaps the People in Black reasoned that Christ had spent those couple of weeks in the desert, trying to figure things out and come up with a life plan. It had worked for Him. It should, in theory, work for these savages too. It was, they believed, a win-win situation.
So there sat Sam, a copy of a four-hundred-year-old play, which he struggled to read, on his lap. For most of the day in October, the shed was way too dark to read in. Still, boredom made unwitting readers of the most stubborn students. On clear nights when the moon was waxing, a narrow diagonal strip of light fell across the dirt floor. If the resourceful penitent placed the book just right, he could sometimes make out passages in the moonlight.
Memorizing sections of this play was no problem. He came by it naturally. Though consensus in the big brick building was that Sam was unintelligent and a problem student/child/Indian, he was actually very smart. And he wilfully refused to give Father McKenzie and the rest the satisfaction of knowing this. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” he read aloud.
Sam liked this question. He, and practically every student in the building, could understand the quandary. Many wrestled with it every day. Some won. Some lost—but there were always more arriving to fill their places.
It was too cold to sleep, and the growling from his stomach kept him awake. Gradually he dragged the book across the dirt floor, struggling to read in the shifting patterns of moonlight.
His lone voice broke the silence. One line, after the monologue in Act 1, Scene iv, caught his eye. “‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’”
Boy, he thought, I don’t know what or where the hell this Denmark is but it can’t smell nearly as bad as this place. Denmark would have to be an improvement.
“Sam! Wake up! Sam Aandeg! Hurry and wake up!”
Amazingly, Sam had managed to fall asleep sometime before dawn, worn down by the cold and strain of trying to read in the darkness. The book had been his pillow. It was a few moments before he could manage a response to his cousin’s tense knocking on the shed’s splintered wall.
“What!” he snapped groggily. He tried to unroll from a fetal position, but couldn’t. Waking up in this place was painful. He longed for his bed back home.
“It’s me, Lillian. You okay?”
All he could make out was one brown eye peering through a gap, and a bit of the plain grey dress she, like all the girls, wore.
“I hate that name. You’re not Lillian.”
By now, he had managed to move to his hands and knees, and he stretched like a cat.
“Don’t be like that. I can’t stay long. Here, I brought you something to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.” They both knew that was a lie. “What . . . what did you bring?”
Near the bottom of the rear wall of the shed, about a foot of one plank was missing, broken off when a shovel had once been carelessly tossed into the back. Through it, she passed a wrapped-up packet, and Sam groaned in pain as he reached for it.
“It’s just some toast and jam. That’s all I could sneak out.”
Trying not to look ungrateful, he took the offering and slowly opened it. He was an angry boy, and life was unfair, and a large part of him wanted to piss off the entire world. But there was still enough of the little boy from the Otter Lake Reserve to know right from wrong. And to be gracious when someone was being kind.
“Thank you” he managed to mumble. Trying to show some restraint, he ate the toast as slowly as possible.
“You shouldn’t be here. They’ll catch you and you’ll be on the inside looking out, like me.” He watched as his cousin looked around warily.
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“I’m cold. I’m hungry. I’m mad. But I’m okay.”
All of this was spoken in Anishnawbe, the forbidden language. Sam revelled in it, but Lillian switched quickly back to English. It was bad enough that she was here now, but if anyone overheard them, who knew what they would be in for.
“Why do you always get yourself in trouble like this?” whispered Lillian. Licking his fingers of the last remnants of jam, Sam just shrugged. “I can’t keep sneaking around in the middle of the night to bring you food. If either of us gets caught . . . And someday, you’ll get yourself into so much trouble that they’ll send you away and I won’t be able to help at all. You should just do what they say. It’s less trouble.”
“I don’t care about trouble, I just want to get back home. This place is no good. I’m going to run away,” he answered in Anishnawbe.
Lillian shook her head. “You’ll get yourself killed. You don’t even know which way home is. Remember Daniel River and James Magood.” They were both silent for the moment.
“I’m not them. I know where home is. I saw it in that book. I saw the river and the islands. I’m sure that’s them. And I know the bush.” Sam paused for a moment. “Wanna come?” From somewhere near the kitchen, they both heard some of the kids yelling as they played a quick game of soccer before classes. “No, huh?” Lillian leaned against the shed, making it squeak. “You like it here, don’t you.”
“No. Not really.”
“Then why don’t you want to go home?”
Sam could see her hair squeezing between two of the boards as she rested her head against the shed. “I’m older than you, Sam, so you listen to me.”
“Only by three years.”
“That doesn’t matter. I get to go home next year. And I like learning. I like knowing there’s so much out there. I’m still trying to figure things out. Remember that map they showed us of the world? My grandmother used to tell me all of us were sitting on the back of a Giant Turtle. That’s what we were taught. I didn’t see any turtle there, Sam. It’s a big . . . they call it a continent. There’re lots of them.”
“I’ll find you a turtle if you want one so badly.”
“I thought the world was full of magic. I don’t think it is. Maybe once it was. Not any more.”
“What are you so depressed about? I’m the one in the shed.”
“And I kind of like this Jesus guy they talk about all the time,” she said.
“You like a White guy?”
“They say he’s Jewish, and that’s not the same.”
“Looks White to me.”
Silence surrounded them, and Lillian looked behind her to make sure she hadn’t been discovered. Her life up until then had been divided into White people and her people. “I think they are White too—but a girl here told me that it has something to do with their dicks. And pigs. I think.”
“Dicks and pigs? They’re weird. That guy Shylock is a Jew—and he was mean. Fine, then. I’ll go home alone.”
Lillian turned and looked at him once more, one eye peering through a separation in the slats. “I really wish you wouldn’t.”
“I’m not staying here. I won’t stay here.”
“Sam, please be careful. This place is no good, I know. But if you just pretend, it’s so much easier. Don’t make such a fuss.”
“But it’s different for me than you—that priest . . .”
“Oh, Sam, he’s just a big bully. He can only hurt you if you let him. Don’t you remember what you promised your folks? That friend of your mom’s—you said you wouldn’t end up like her. Nothing is worth that.”
“But I can’t stay here—I just can’t.”
“Sam, that guy’s just mean. But at least he’s teaching you all about Shakespeare. You told me you loved that stuff. You’re so smart.” She had slipped into Anishnawbe without realizing, until her tongue tripped on that old writer’s name. She checked herself—if she wasn’t careful she might be keeping her cousin company in the shed some time soon.
For the first time, their eyes locked. “What, what is it Sam?”
But he couldn’t tell her what it was; he hardly knew what it was himself. “Goodbye, then, Mizhakwan . . .”
She glowed inside—he had said her name aloud in the forbidden language. And she knew that he was right. The best thing was for him to get away any way he could—and she should help him too. But these people had eyes in the back of their heads. Both of them would be punished. She looked around and walked stealthily away.
She was so confused. It was possible to be right and wrong at the same time. This place was challenging everything she had ever known before. But at least she was learning more than she ever learned back home.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. Copyright © 2010 by Drew Hayden Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.