Is it you?
Where have you been?
Yes. Of course. Where did you get to?
Everywhere. Everywhere I always wanted to go, everywhere I ever heard about.
Did you like it?
I loved it. I never knew the world was so big or that it held so much.
Yes. It’s an incredible thing.
What did you think about all that time?
Everything. I guess I thought about everything. But I thought about one thing the most.
What was that?
A movie. Actually, a line from a movie.
Yes. Funny, isn’t it? Out of all the things I could have thought about over and over, I thought about a line from a movie.
Casablanca. When Bogie says to Bergman, “The world don’t amount to a hill of beans to two small people like us?” Remember that?
Yes. I remember. Why?
Because that’s what I think it’s all about in the end.
Well, you live, you experience, you become, and sometimes, at the end of things, maybe you feel deprived, like maybe you missed out somehow, like maybe there was more you could have–should have–had. You know?
Yes. Yes, I do.
But the thing is, at least you get to finger the beans.
Yes. I like that–you get to finger the beans.
Do you ever do that?
All the time.
Let’s do that now. Let’s hear all of it all over again.
Okay. Do you remember it?
All of it. Everything. Every moment.
Then that’s all we need.
Yes. The beans.
One For The Dead
It was Irwin that started all the dying. He was my eldest brother, and when I was a little girl he was my hero, the one whose shoulders I was always carried on and whose funny faces made me smile even when I didn’t want to. There were five of us. We lived on an Ojibway reserve called Big River and our family, the One Sky family, went back as far in tribal history as anyone could recall. I was named Amelia, after my grandmother. We were a known family–respected, honoured–and Irwin was our shining hope. I was the only girl, and Irwin made me feel special, like I was his hero. Love is such a simple word, so limited, that I never use it when I think of him, never consider it when I remember what I lost.
He was a swimmer. A great one. That’s not surprising when you consider that our tribal clan was the Fish Clan. But Irwin swam like an otter. Like he loved it. Like the water was a second skin. No one ever beat my brother in a race, though there were many who tried. Even grown men–bigger, stronger kickers–would never see anything but the flashing bottoms of my brother’s feet. He was a legend.
The cost of a tribal life is high and our family paid in frequent times of hunger. Often the gill net came up empty, the moose wouldn’t move to the marshes, and the snares stayed set. The oldest boys left school for work, to make enough to get us through those times. They hired themselves out to a local farmer to clear bush and break new ground. It was man’s work, really, and Irwin and John were only boys, so the work took its toll.
It was hot that day. Hot as it ever got in those summers of my girlhood, and even the farmer couldn’t bear up under the heat. He let my brothers go midway through the afternoon and they walked the three miles back to our place. Tired as they were, all Irwin could think about was a swim in the river. So a big group of us kids headed toward the broad, flat stretch below the rapids where we’d all learned to swim. I was allowed to go because there were so many of us.
There was a boy named Ferlin Axe who had challenged my brother to race hundreds of times and had even come close a few of those times. That day, he figured Irwin would be so tired from the heat and the work that he could win in one of two ways. First, he could beat Irwin because he was so tired, or second, Irwin could decline the challenge. Either way was a victory, because no Indian boy ever turned down a race.
“One Sky,” Ferlin said when we got to the river, “today’s the day you lose.”
“Axe,” Irwin said, “you’ll never chop me down.”
Now, the thing about races–Indian races, anyway–is that anyone’s allowed to join. So when they stepped to the edge of the river there were six of them. At the count of three they took off, knees pumping high, water splashing up in front of them, and when they dove, they dove as one. No one was surprised when Irwin’s head popped up first and his arms started pulling against the river’s muscle. He swam effortlessly. Watching him go, it seemed like he was riding the water, skimming across the surface while the others clawed their way through it. He reached the other side a good thirty seconds ahead of Ferlin Axe.
The rules were that everyone could rest on the other side. There was a long log to sit on, and when each of those boys plopped down beside Irwin he slapped them on the arm. I’ll never forget that sight: six of them, young, vibrant, glistening in the sun and laughing, teasing each other, the sun framing all of them with the metallic glint off the river. But for me, right then, it seemed like the sun shone only on my brother, like he was a holy object, a saint perhaps, blessed by the power of the open water. We all have our sacred moments, those we carry in our spirit always, and my brother, strong and brown and laughing, shining beside that river, is mine.
After about five minutes they rose together and moved to the water’s edge, still pushing, shoving, teasing. My brother raised an arm, waved to me, and I could see him counting down. When his arm dropped they all took off. Ferlin Axe surfaced first and we all gasped. But once Irwin’s head broke the surface of the water you could see him gain with every stroke. He was so fast it was startling. When he seemed to glide past the flailing Ferlin Axe, we all knew it was over. Then, about halfway across, at the river’s deepest point where the pull of the current was strongest, his head bobbed under. We all laughed. Everyone thought that Irwin was going to try to beat Ferlin by swimming underwater the rest of the way. But when Ferlin suddenly stopped and stared wildly around before diving under himself, we all stood up. Soon all five boys were diving under and I remember that it seemed like an hour before I realized that Irwin hadn’t come back up. Time after time they dove and we could hear them yelling back and forth to each other, voices high and breathless and scared.
The river claimed my brother that day. His body was never found and if you believe as I do, then you know that the river needed his spirit back. But that’s the woman talking. The little girl didn’t know what to make of it. I went to the river every day that summer and fall to sit and wait for my brother. I was sure that it was just a joke, a tease, and he’d emerge laughing from the water, lift me to his shoulders, and carry me home in celebration of another really good one. But there was just the river, broad and flat and deep with secrets. The sun no longer shone on that log across the water, and if I’d known on the day he sat there, when it seemed to shine only on him, that it was really calling him away, I’d have yelled something. I love you
, maybe. But more like, I need you
. It was only later, when the first chill of winter lent the water a slippery sort of blackness, like a hole into another world, that I allowed the river its triumph and let it be. But it’s become a part of my blood now, my living, the river of my veins, and Irwin courses through me even now.
My parents died that winter. Those cheap government houses were dry as tinder, heated by one central stove that threw an ember through the grate one night and burned our house to the ground. Those who saw it say it looked like a flare popping off. I hope so. I hope my parents slept right through it, that there was no terror or desperation for either of them. We kids were with my Uncle Jack and Aunt Elizabeth at a winter powwow that night. Standing beside my uncle’s truck the next day looking at the burnt and bubbled timbers piled atop each other, I felt a coldness start to build inside me. A numbing cold like you feel in the dentist’s chair, the kind you’re powerless to stop. I couldn’t cry. I could feel the tears dammed inside my chest but there was no channel to my eyes.
We lived with Uncle Jack for a while but he was a drinker and it wasn’t long before the social workers came and moved us all to the missionary school fifty miles away. I was six and the last sight I ever had of Big River was through the back window of the yellow bus they loaded us into. We moved from a world of bush and rock and river to one of brick and fences and fields. There we were made to speak English, to forget the sacred ways of our people, and to learn to kneel before a cross we were told would save us. It didn’t.
The boys and girls were kept apart except for meals and worship. I never got to speak to my brothers at all except in mouthed whispers, waves, and the occasional letters all the kids learned to sneak across to each other. It was hard. Our world had become strange and foreign and we all suffered. But it was hardest on my brother Harley. He was eight and, out of all of us, had been the one closest to our parents. He’d stayed close to the house while the rest of us tore around the reserve. He’d cooked with our mother and set snares with our father. Quiet, gentle, and thinner even than me, we always treated Harley like a little bird out of its nest, sheltering him, protecting him, warming him. In the tribal way, change is a constant and our ways teach you how to deal with it. But we were torn away from that and nothing we were given in the missionary school offered us any comfort for the ripping away of the fabric of our lives. Harley wept. Constantly. And when he disappeared over the fence one February night, I wasn’t surprised. From across the chapel the next morning, John and Frank nodded solemnly at me. We all knew where he’d gone. I still remember watching from the dormitory window as the men on horses came back that evening, shaking their heads, muttering, cold. If they couldn’t figure out how an eight-year-old could vanish and elude them, then they forgot that they were chasing an Indian boy whose first steps were taken in the bush and who’d learned to run and hide as his first childhood game. They looked for three days. Uncle Jack found him huddled against the blackened metal of that burnt-out stove in the remains of our house, frozen solid. Dead. All he’d had on was a thin wool coat and slippery-soled white man shoes but he’d made it fifty miles in three days. Uncle Jack told me years later in a downtown bar that Harley’s eyes were frozen shut with tears and large beads of them were strung along the crossed arms he clutched himself with. When I heard that I got drunk–real drunk–for a long time.
Life settled into a flatness after we lost Harley. But all three of us rebelled in our own ways. Me, I retreated into silence. The nuns all thought me slow and backward because of my silence but they had no idea how well I was learning their ways and their language. I did everything they asked of me in a slow, methodical way, uncomplaining and silent. I gave them nothing back because all I knew was the vast amount they had taken from me, robbed me of, cheated me out of, all in the name of a God whose son bore the long hair none of us were allowed to wear anymore. The coldness inside me was complete after Harley died, and what I had left of my life, of me, I was unwilling to offer up to anyone.
I drifted through the next four years as silent as a bank of snow. A February snow.
John and Frank made up for my absence. They were twelve and ten that first year, and when they refused to sit through classes they were sent to the barns and fields. John rejected everything about that school and his rebellion led to strappings that he took with hard-eyed silence. The coldness in me was a furnace in him and he burned with rage and resentment. Every strapping, every punishment only stoked it higher. He fought everyone. By the time he was sixteen and old enough to leave on his own, the farm work had made him strong and tough. It was common knowledge that John One Sky could outwork any of the men. He threw bales of hay effortlessly onto the highest part of the wagons and he forked manure from the stalls so quickly he’d come out robed in sweat, eyes ablaze and ready for whatever else they wanted to throw at him. It was his eyes that everyone came to fear. They threw the heat in his soul outward at everyone. Except for me. In the chapel, he’d look across at me and his eyes would glow just like Irwin’s used to. He’d raise a hand to make the smallest wave and I would wonder how anyone could fear hands that could move so softly through the air. But they did. When he told them he was leaving there was no argument. And when he told them that he would see me before he left there was no argument either.
We met in the front hallway. He was big. Tall and broad and so obviously strong. But the hand he laid against my cheek was tame, loving. “Be strong,” he told me. “I’m going to get you out of here, Amelia. You and Frankie. Just as soon as I can. I promise.” Then he hugged me for a long time, weaving back and forth, and when he looked at me I felt like I was looking into Irwin’s eyes. Then he was gone.
Frank tried to be another John. But he wasn’t built of the same stuff, physically or mentally, and he only succeeded in getting himself into trouble. No one ever feared my brother Frank. In those schools you learned to tell the difference between courage and bravado, toughness and a pose, and no one believed in Frank’s imitation of his brother. That knowledge just made him angrier. Made him act out more. Made him separate from all of us. He sulked and his surliness made him even more of a caricature and made him try even harder to live up to what he thought a One Sky man should be. He got mean instead of tough and, watching him through those years, I knew that the river, the fire, and the cold ran through him, drove him, sent him searching for a peg to hang his life on. It was a cold, hard peg he chose–vindictive as a nail through the palms.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese. Copyright © 2008 by Richard Wagamese. Excerpted by permission of Anchor 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.