Don’t call your­self a Cana­dian

Geist - - Contents - Shannon Webb-camp­bell

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.

I nod­ded.

“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".

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