by MƏLIDI (SYDNEY ROBERTS)
Winner of the Room 2022 Creative Non-Fiction Contest
When the canoe cracks, it’s slow and can be repaired.
Jerri’s long black hair swallows her face. Last night’s green beer bottles surround us. Green on the inside too. I step off the bed. Beer bottles clink gently. Swim in a sea of those green beer bottles and clink forever. I reach for the last big gulp of milk in the fridge just enough to quench my thirst.
The feel of alcohol hangs in the house. I put the empty milk bottle back in the fridge.
“Ralph! Get the door jeezz.” Jerri shouts from the room. I’m still not used to my English name.
Open the door to the unturned mouth of my landlord.
“Rent, today” the short Asian woman spun on her heels. Didn’t have to say what would happen if I didn’t. I lock the door anyway.
“Jer, you got any money?” I ask leaning into the doorway. She takes up a lot of space.
“You can’t hear it clinking around on the ground?” she says, reading my thoughts from earlier. Jer’s leg sticks out and kicks some over. Warm beer spills on the hardwood floor and makes a small puddle.
“Gisa̱n ayusala,” I don’t understand.
My mom’s large woven cedar hat swoops with her motions and always covers her eyes. The lower half of her face is intense, the shadows of the big house fire bounce off.
“They are here now and we will never be the same.” She lifts her face, eyes meet mine two shining pieces of obsidian that I rarely get to see, all too quickly hidden under the brim of her wealthy woman’s hat. My mom doesn’t care.
“Ralph where are we going? Ralph, Ralph!” Jer struggles to keep up. She wore these stupid leather boots with slippery bottoms and the snow on the cement block was compacted and icey.
“My name is Woɫgene.”
She falls quiet like the snow among us. She never had an Indian name so she don’t know what it’s like.
Black wool blanket, heavier in my hands than usual. The Indian collector looks at my blanket in a way that scared me. Like he is going to cut it into pieces and eat it, bib on an’ all. Rich wool rough up his insides and abalone buttons cut his guts. He has masks all over his fancy house on Macdonald and 4th. Even the Cannibal Birds of Heaven. I refuse to look at them and lower my gaze. I don’t want to know how he came about them.
He pushes his glasses further up his nose.
“We both know it’s a practice blanket, how about 250?” He sniffs his huge nose.
Ancestral masks in the room are making me wild, sacred whistles of night only I can hear. I try to focus on the white man, he’s a small, meek ghost, a ring of white hair with none on top, like he has no good thoughts in his brain to push up an’ out through the scalp to make hair. I meet his gaze, like he’s been waiting his whole life to make eye contact with an Indian.
“Ralph . . . Ralph,” Jer nudges my side. I hate when she does that.
“Sir, it’s obviously a nice blanket. Look all the buttons are hand cut abalone.” I fucking cut them all myself with my dad over my shoulder, if one wasn’t the same as the rest he would just pick it out of my hands and toss it in a tin, saying, “Do it right or don’t do it at all.”
The Indian collector raises his eyebrows like he’s actually considering it. Not like he would know what a nice kəngax̌ tola blanket is, he’s never seen them danced in the gwukdzi big house, the powerful women conduiting their energy from above, healing us all wearing their ancestral key to the universe on their backs.
I try to imagine Jer in regalia. Or with an Indian name. Her hand’s always warm. We take our time walking down the gray streets. Our feet leading us to the bar we always end up at. The one where Indians could go.
“Hey whaddya say we call Ed? Didn’t you say you owed him a beer?”
With Jer it was always beer. I don’t know what happened in that school she went to but it sure made her always want beer.
I wonder if she had it in her to live like how my people live. It must be in her somewhere, her Indian-ness. I could have given her the practice blanket so she could have at least something. I shouldn’t have sold it. The Indian collector will eat it. I wish I could make her see how beautiful it is to me. How devastated my mom and dad will be if they ever found out. A feeling in my stomach I only started getting when I learned English. I wish I could show her, before the mamaɫas white people came, I was nine my dad gave me his Hamatsa, the wild man responsibility. I jumped out of a sacred ring of cedar and I became wild so I could lead my people.
My dad put me through a supernatural aperture. Just to be a fisherman. We gave a big feast for my people. Jer wouldn’t know what it all meant unless she saw it though. She only knows scarcity. I think the white school made her brain white, maybe even her heart too. I don’t even like drinking that much, I only like her smile that comes along with it and never accompanies anything else but the clink of the green bottle.
Ed always has this stupid mutt with him he takes everywhere, even to the bar. No one really minded because it was a kinda cute small black thing. One day he just showed up with it and shrugged his shoulders like he always had it.
“How about another round?” I say just to make Jer smile.
I get up to get the drinks. Three green bottles. Me, Ed, and Jer.
“Ga̱ns?” Ed asking how much but really asking where I got the money from. “
Oh gisən məlkʷəla,” I told him I don’t remember.
He stared at me trying to find the truth in my eyes. Our people speak without speaking.
Ed takes a slow sip from his green beer bottle and narrows his eyes, “Well let’s get some more then.”
It’s always hard to leave Jerri. I don’t know if I love her in Kwak’wala but I do love her in English. I put on my gray Stanfield and black gumboots. Ed said the fish were leavin’ early.
The sun was trying to come up over the docks. Ed and his mutt are already on the ugly, little, beige wooden boat. The only thing our families could afford for us. We attached a drum so we could gillnet.
Ed pulls out from the dock, following the fish. Getting closer to home. I miss when we were young. I was Woɫgene ̄ and Ed was Kawlili. Before Ed or Ralph was even a sound. Air drenches my body, releasing the green bottle feeling from the night before.
Keeping the beat on the wheel, Ed starts my Hamasta song cycle. I dance for him and dip real low, eat the flesh, Hamatsta is always hungry. Going around the imaginary fire in the middle of the ocean. Four times. We both can feel the fish in the water.
I get into the outboard boat, it putters along and we set the catch. The drum rolls the net out lazily. I look at the beige wooden boat from afar, the name “Sunny Lady” barely hanging on, paint curling off leaving a shadow of itself, the grayness of the sky refracted on the grayness of the flat water. I light a cigarette and it tastes like kissing an ashtray. Glint of fish between us start to surface. I see Ed go from the wheel house to the bilge pump below, must have stopped working.
I throw my cigarette in the water, hits the surface and the fucking Sunny Lady is almost all the way below the grey mirror.
I jump into the gray, flat face and swim the 100 or so meters to the stupid wooden boat. One of the planks must have popped.
Quietness underneath is deadly.
Everything is all net. I swim into the sleeping corders hallway. Ed is unconscious. The fucking dog is trapped underneath the radio equipment, it looks like a piece of seaweed. Tightness in my chest. I manage to grab us a life jacket. My Stanfield weighs a cold million pounds. My boots are cement blocks I kick off. I swim Ed and I to the surface of the mirror. Which is the underwater world and which is the earth. Everything is a gray shadow of itself. Jerri is a woman. I am a man. Practice blanket gone. Indian collector belly full. Guts cut. Obsidian eyes. The smell of the big house. Breathing water. Bagwəns kumugwe visit the chief of the underworld sea. Ya ̱ tła ɫa ̱ xwa tying together love. A’ayut̕ sa ḵ ̓ oḵ̓ a̱dzu to understand the back bone of the salmon. Ḵ̓ uk ̱ ̕ wa’stola tears that have not fallen. Awax ̱ ste’ mouth of a bottle. I try to put the life jacket on Ed but he is slipping.
Wool blanket scratches my chin with a familiarity that makes me sick for my mom. I wake to find the gray sky still above, the sun still resisting the journey. I am wet. Bitter ocean winds whip through my hair. Ed appears over me. His eyes search mine.
“Pretty lucky you sent out that distress call right in time, eh?” the white accent is harsh against my ears. “The water is ice cold today and we were just pullin’ in the dock to get roast beef san’wiches, eh Larry?” I look to see where the voice is coming from but I just see a big red coat.
Ed’s face is still over mine, girls always giving him their number but he never seems interested. His eyes search mine asking about the stupid dog.
I guess my face said it all because Ed looked away and never really looked at me again. He loved that stupid fucking dog.
I sit up to feel the bump of the wake, look to the approaching city, the Big Smoke my people call it. Not like the rich, cedar, sliver smoke of the big house that dances with the women of the tribes. But a cloudy, ugly dullness that comes off like the feel of green bottles whispered through the whole thing, you could get lost in it. Sharp buildings and an Indian collector to slice the belly of and pull my blanket through. Separated by water. Jer is there paddling to me. I’m tempted to jump in the green glass clinking, breaking, exploding around the canoe, clink forever, pull her in, only if her canoe is too cracked to be repaired.
Submit to our 2023 Creative Non-Fiction Contest by July 1 to be read by our incredible judge, Tajja Isen, and stand for a chance to win $1000 and publication in an issue of ROOM!
Check out more spectacular and contest-winning poetry, art, creative non-fiction, and fiction in ROOM 46.2: Ley Line.
“Clink Canoe” by MƏLIDI (SYDNEY ROBERTS) was first published in ROOM 46.2: Ley Line. Copyright © 2023 by MƏLIDI (SYDNEY ROBERTS).