STAR OF THE SEA
Don’t call yourself a Canadian
Joseph always told me, you belong to Newfoundland. Don’t call yourself a Canadian. You are an islander, despite an Alberta birth certificate. You aren’t a Newfie. You are a Newfoundlander. What you are is a Newfoundland Indian, even though you don’t know what that means. You are Leigh; your family is in fragments. And Leigh reads, makes art and now lives in St. John’s. You are a Newfoundlander, you are a Calgarian, you are only a Newfie in a Calgary hat.
You are a daughter, who doesn’t cause much fuss, and did well in art school. You are Leigh, and you are looking for answers to questions you are too afraid to ask your father.
Instead, you are hanging out with your first cousin, Tara, who you just met and has ordered two glasses of Pinot Grigio at The Rooms Café, and is now doing a line of coke in the bathroom. She offers you some, you are too hungover to say no, and she is too high to care that you say yes.
You hate the feeling in your nose. It’s like you’ve snorted pop rocks. Tara isn’t afraid of questions, everything out of her mouth ends with an inflection.
“Where are you living? Do you have a boyfriend? What did you do last night?” said Tara.
Because I’m Leigh, and I’m high, I answer in increments. I stutter, and get so nervous I forget what I am saying, so I try and speak slowly. The coke speeds everything up.
Answers tumble around: I live in the west end? I broke up with my butch girlfriend? Last night I got loaded at a women’s dance at the Legion?
I lean back against the bathroom stall and attempt to form an answer. My brain on pop rocks, exploding in question.
“I am living… I am living on Gilbert Street. I don’t have a boyfriend. Last night I was… Last night I was at a women’s dance. A women’s dance at the Legion.”
“A women’s dance? Is dat a gay thing?” said Tara.
“It’s a queer thing.”
“Lezzies only?” said Tara.
“Only a handful of guys show. Fags, mostly. The Zone closed. Nowhere else to go but Star of the Sea.”
“Are you da star of da sea?” said Tara. “Thought queer was a bad word.”
“Not in my world. Queer is whatever you want it to be. It’s not one thing or another. It moves in different directions. Sometimes, being queer leads to more questions than answers.” “Many people go?” said Tara.
“A few. Many women come in from around the bay. Older crowd, for sure.”
“Meet anybody?” said Tara.
“Met a few new friends, no one special.” Because I am Leigh, I have a square of toilet paper stuck to my red leather boot and a run in my tights, so I try fixing both things at once. I fail. I am wearing last night’s dress. I pick off the toilet paper and toss it in the garbage, I can’t do anything about my tights, so I take them off. I’m not wearing underwear.
Tara offers another line, this time you decline.
Leigh grabs a hand towel from the neatly folded pile, and imagines turning paper towel into origami doves and tossing them off Signal Hill into the harbour. Sink or swim, little birds.
“What actually happens at a women’s dance?” said Tara.
“What kind of interrogation is this? What happens at any bar? People drink, mingle, and hope to see someone they’d like to take home, and fuck their brains out.” Tara cocked her eyebrow.
“Thought so. Cousin Liam’s gay. He’s a few years younger than you,” said Tara.
Facebook profiles leave little to the imagination. One rainbow flag post and you’ve outed yourself to 527 of your closest acquaintances, and family members you’ve never met.
Because you are Leigh, and you are Joseph’s biological daughter, you have a dozen aunts and uncles you don’t know. They could make up a small factory of employees, given all of the cousins, second cousins, nieces and nephews.
You posted the flag because you have to post the flag; it’s your social media obligation. You are queer, and Facebook says so, and the whole world knows.
“Liam found me on Facebook, and we wrote back and forth for a while. So I met him and his boyfriend for coffee in Toronto. Took me to his empty apartment in the village, said he was trying to stop using. Cracked a joke about us booze bags. We got drunk on Steam Whistle and promised to see each other again. We haven’t.”
“He’s married now,” said Tara, washing her hands in the sink. “I loves Liam, he’s da only person I can relate to in this god damn family. And now you.”
Here you are, high on coke in the bathroom of The Rooms, with a glass of wine at your fancy table beside the floor-to-ceiling window view of St. John’s. You’ve left your purse under the golden tablecloth, and you hope no one notices you are drinking, again, in the middle afternoon.
“My boyfriend and I just broke up. Here I am in da city. Can’t find a man in Stephenville,” said Tara.
You aren’t sure where to find men, because you aren’t looking. You are Leigh, and you’re not sure about your new cousin’s means of coping with heartbreak. You are high on coke at The Rooms, and you are too hungover to drink the glass of wine back at the table. All that glass, the windows, your wine.
“It’s hard, ya know. Nothing in Stephenville. Let’s get back to our table,” said Tara.
Tara is cool as cucumber; completely unaware the art gallery isn’t where you go to get high. The jazz music annoys me with its inconsistency. I’d rather be listening to the conversation of the couple beside me who just got
engaged and are out for eggs benny on a Saturday afternoon.
Groups of tourists gather outside the café, taking in the panoramic scene from the lookout. Cabot Tower is swallowed in fog, and you can see your breath on the window when you exhale like you are in downward dog.
“Liam and I were close when he lived in Stephenville, he loves Darlene. Don’t understand it,” said Tara.
“I only met Darlene once, years ago. She scared the shit out of me. No offence, but I don’t feel like my father’s family is my family, you know? I belong to my mom and her family. Darlene isn’t my grandmother.”
“You tink she’s my grandmudder? I got a real Nan out of it?” said Tara. “Called me a slut when I came home pregnant for da second time. Two different fadders. It’s not like I got a knitting, baking, loving Nan either.”
Tara’s eyes start to well.
“I know you didn’t. It’s just not in Darlene to give. She never had it herself, how could she have it to give anyone else?”
I was saying too much, the cocaine was making my tongue loose.
“I tried. Went to see her all da time, looked for love, never got it,” said Tara.
“If I were Darlene, I’d resent every child and grandchild who passed through me.”
“What do you know about what Darlene’s been through?” said Tara.
“I don’t, really. I just assume it’s been tough. Poppa Smurf was a drunk and beat on his own kids, if he wasn’t beating on her. That’s what Liam told me.”
“Your father is da spittin’ image of Smurf. Identical, really. Must be da Indian blood. Joseph took the brunt of it before he left home, tried to protect Darlene. Smurf would come home loaded and take it out on her,” said Tara.
“Dad’s still a bit of a scrapper, if he has to be. Can hold his own.”
“He’s da oldest of thirteen. Joseph couldn’t stick around Flat Bay forever,” said Tara. “Smurf went after my mom when Uncle Joey left. Eventually she convinced Darlene to leave him. It took a lifetime. No wonder Darlene’s so fucking miserable. She had thirteen children, raped every time.”
“Dad still sends her money, phones her every day. Mommy, he calls her.”
“Bet he doesn’t say I love you. No one in our family can say three words,” said Tara.
Joseph always told me he loved me. Even though our phone calls rarely last longer than six minutes, he says the words every time. I can never tell if it’s to reassure me, or himself.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” said Tara.
“Not anymore. I was dating someone before I moved to St. John’s. But couldn’t keep it going long distance.” Oceans tear hearts apart.
Tara chugs the remainder of her glass of wine. “You should come to powwow dis year,” said Tara.
“I’d like to. I saw the CBC news clip a couple of years ago. Joseph nearly dropped a grand on a last-minute flight to get me there. I couldn’t go: exams.”
“It’s da best. Dancers, drummers, feathers. I loves sweat lodge,” said Tara.
“I’ve only been to a powwow once before. Grand Chief Membertou 400 on Halifax Common. Bawled my eyes out during the dances.” Colours blurred like melting pastels. I could hear my heartbeat over the drums.
My girlfriend at the time had no clue what had made me so upset. Thousands of First Nations people gathered for the 400th anniversary of the baptism of Grand Chief Henri Membertou.
We wandered around the man-made “traditional Mi’kmaq village” together, in a haze. Hungover from the night before: retro dancing and cheap tequila shots. I remember we got into a fight over something stupid, so I snuck into a teepee and folded myself into child’s pose. Eventually she found me, and we made up.
“Are you gonna drink yours?” said Tara. Pointed at my glass of wine.
I shook my head no.
“Wanna go check out d’art?” said Tara.
Did I want to go see the art? I wanted to run up and down the stairs and take a zillion photos of the harbour from every pane of glass in The Rooms, and make an army of paper birds.
Tara paid for the glasses of wine. Tipped the waitress ten dollars. Took me by the arm. A group of knitters chattered in the atrium. The security guard nodded as we flashed our stickers stating we paid admission. His teeth sparkled against his dark skin. Tara winked.
Blackwood’s work tapped into the isolation and extremes of bay-life, depicted the poverty, wild weather and brutality of life on
an island in the North Atlantic.
Cocaine made me feel like I was capable of stepping inside a David Blackwood print. I was a boat on fire, my brain the iceberg, my heart a tiny rescue boat, and my soul the gigantic whale under the ocean. Fire Down the Labrador. Flaming ghost ships. Icebergs. Cod. Weathered men, broken dreams buried in their wrinkles. Portraits of mummers. Foghorns. Red lanterns. Seaweed blue skies. Whales. Men moving saltbox houses across the ice. Old dory boats. “Pretty incredible, huh?” said Tara.
I nodded, and sunk into all that I didn’t know. Blackwood understood the magic and seedy underbelly of this place. Overwhelmed by the ghost ships and concealed features of mummers, I looked to the red lanterns for answers, and found nothing but light.
“I love dis one most,” said Tara.
Tara pointed at Blackwood’s famous print on the cover of Annie Proulx’s god-awful novel, The Shipping News. The streaks of sun shed hope on the dozens of men pulling the old house across the snow. A handful of women, children and a dog stood watch. A gigantic anchor off to the left of the print symbolized centralization, the government game.
“Imagine, by’. That’s how they used to move houses,” said Tara.
I transfix on the single woman in fur, off to the right of the print. She seems so out of place, like a fish out of water.
You remind yourself; you are Leigh, you are Joseph’s biological daughter, you are a newfound Indian. This is your cousin Tara. You are related, by blood, and your brain is on cocaine, and this is the David Blackwood exhibit, Black Ice.
“You know about our great-grandmudder, Mary?” said Tara.
“She was full Mi’kmaq. Medicine woman. Bootlegger. Quite da girl,” said Tara.
Joseph had sent Mary’s obituary. I keep a photocopy in my desk drawer.
“They have some information about her downstairs in the archives, a few photos, and a newspaper clipping. Checked it out a few weeks ago,” said Leigh.
“Really? Let’s go check it out. I’m tired bored of all d’ese depressing pictures, anyway,” said Tara.
Tara grabs my arm and ushers me out of the gallery. She curtsies for the security guard on our way out. We take the stairs two by two. The afternoon light falls over the giant box obscuring the city view, and I catch my reflection in the shiny floor. I look haggard in my cable-knit sweater, and need a haircut.
Tara leans over the archivist’s desk as if she was belly up to the bar.
“Can I get some help ’ere? My cousin and I want to find our great-great-grandmother. Mary. She’s a healer and a midwife in Flat Bay. D’ere’s a statue, life size, of her in Corner Brook. She’s a big deal,” said Tara.
The archivist looked at us suspiciously. I smiled. Hoped she didn’t remember me.
“There’s a folder of articles about Mi’kmaq people in Newfoundland. Otherwise, the rest is in special collections at MUN,” said the archivist.
“Well, can we see it?” said Tara.
The archivist nodded, and went to the office to retrieve the files.
“I’m going to da bathroom. Wanna join?” said Tara, and nudged her.
No thanks. I take a seat. The weekend edition of the Globe and Mail in a pile on the table. The front-page headline caught my attention—my Secret Identity. The tagline read: “When science writer Carolyn Abraham turned to genetics to explore her roots, she uncovered more family secrets than she had expected. Welcome to a world where gene technology is opening a Pandora’s box of human history.”
You are Leigh, the archivist has already retrieved the folder of newspaper clippings about Mi’kmaq people in Newfoundland. You are Leigh, and didn’t even notice her leaving it in a heap beside me, and forgot to wonder where Tara went.
Because I am Leigh, I figured Tara has decided to do a few more lines. Because I am Leigh, by the time I go to the bathroom to check on her, I only find Tara’s scarf, and it takes looking under all three stalls to realize she’s long split. Shannon Webb-campbell is a Mi’kmaq poet, writer and critic. Her poetry collection Still No Word (Breakwater, 2015) was the inaugural recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Award.
March Kite by David Blackwood, 1986. Etching. 35" x 15".