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Nmishoomis (My Grandfather)


I

I don’t know this place. I don’t like it.

My parents sent me here. They said, you’ll learn new things. Important things. For the future. A new language. New skills. It will be useful for us, your family. I told my parents, I want to learn from you and the old people like my brothers did. They shook their heads. The land is changing because of these people. Too quickly. We must adapt for the future. You’re our future. I don’t want to be the future, I said. I want to stay with you, my family. They shook their heads. The food will be better there, they said. You’ll see. My parents must not love me as much as my brothers.

It’s strange. I don’t know anyone here. At home, I knew everyone and everyone knew me. It’s strange to be a stranger in so many strangers’ eyes. We all look alike now too. They have cut our hair and dressed us in the same unfamiliar and uncomfortable clothes. We wouldn’t look alike, if we were on our own land and with our own families. I don’t understand why they want us to look the same. It’s like they want to hide who we are.

My parents said teachers would be here, but none of these people seem to be teachers. There is no kindness in their eyes. They rarely touch us, and never with kindness. One boy was struck, when he spoke. The man spoke harshly in his own language, after he hit him. I don’t understand why the boy was struck. I’m now too afraid to ask anyone if they know why.

It’s strange. I’ve never seen so many of us sitting so quietly when we’re all together in one place like this. Maybe the real teachers will arrive and remind these adults how they are supposed to treat children? These ones seem to hate us.

We’re eating at long tables, sitting on hard chairs. The food they have given us is awful. I have not eaten all day and have travelled a long way, but this food still tastes empty and flat. The boy across from me makes a funny face about the food. I don’t feel very happy, but I can’t help giggling. Others around us start to giggle too.

Harsh words erupt from the man who has been watching over us. I look down and try to smother my laugh. The angry noisy words close in behind me. The others manage to quiet down, but I can’t. He hits me on the back of the head. I show him with my eyes that I don’t understand. I smile because I don’t mean to be disrespectful. He strikes me. I taste blood when my head finally clears. A river of tears grows in my heart, but I swallow them.

The man barks more harsh words and leaves, taking what’s left of my food with him. I’m grateful that I don’t have to finish it, but I will be hungry again very soon. I’m sure they won’t give me any more. The boy across from me apologizes with his eyes. I nod my forgiveness. It’s not his fault that I have been sent to this strange place. I wish I knew what I did to my parents to deserve this punishment.

II

Mom and Dad and the other old people was happy to see me when I got back. It felt strange to be looked at like that. Held like that too. They’re not too happy now. They don’t look at me much now. They see how changed I am now. I’m not what they hoped was coming back. After seven years. Not what they wanted. Not what was promised. Not the son they sent. Not an Indian. Not a white man. Nothing.

Not doing much good here. Not good at the old things. Not good at the new things. Didn’t learn much at the school. Worked lots, but didn’t learn the new good things for Mom and Dad, and my brothers and the old people. Learned nothing.

Not strong like I thought I was. At the school, I was one of the big and strong ones. Never got sick. That’s why they kept me working all day, when I could have been learning. Here, I’m not so big or strong. There’ something in their eyes that I don’t have. Must have been the food they was giving us.

Keep my trap shut now most of the time. Like I did at school. Here, I’m listening, trying to learn. At school, I was only trying not to be seen. Coming back here makes me remember what it was like when I started at the school. The old words don’t make any sense to me now like the new words did at the school. I stopped using the old words long ago. I can’t remember when. Some of the mothers sing songs to the little ones that sound familiar. Like I heard them once. They don’t mean anything to me now.

I get angry sometimes. Out of nowhere. It scares them. It’s strange for them. Somebody so angry. I don’t see anybody here getting angry like me or like the teachers did. After I yell at them for no reason, they stay calm and quiet. Only some sadness in their eyes. There’s times I come back from somewhere else and my brothers are sitting on top of me, calm and strong. Their eyes aren’t sad anymore. Just hard.

It’s not their fault. I think they was tricked into sending me there. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Living here’s not easy for them, but it’s better than the school. They got each other. That’s something. They’ve got the old words. The old ways. The songs. Not me. I got nothing. This isn’t even my home anymore.

III

I like to ride the bus. It gives me something to do on Sundays that isn’t drinking. I sit quiet and still in the back, trying not to be noticed. The nicer drivers let me ride around for a while on one fare. I like to watch for her too. To make like I might know her, if I saw her.

One time, after she was born, I went around to Grace’s place. I was too drunk to make too much sense. It turned into a big fight before I knew what I was doing or saying. Might have seen Annie’s little face peering down at me from the stairs. That’s what Grace called her, I think.

I never went back after that. Not once. It must be thirty years now. Best to steer clear and not get in the way. Better for the both of them. Like it was better for my family for me to clear out when I did. I’m not any use to anyone.

It’s not so bad these days. I found a worksite where they don’t ask too many questions and pay cash at the end of day. They don’t mind that I’m older than a lot of the other guys. So long as I do the work, without talking back. No problem there. Keeping my head down, keeping quiet, and working. That’s the one thing the schools taught me to do right. If the work stays steady, I might even rent a room of my own for a few weeks. Any time away from the shelter is good.

Back at the shelter, on the TV, I saw a guy I remember from the school. I figure he’s a chief or something now. He looked important talking on the TV. Some of the other guys must have remembered him too. They started hollering and were thrown out for all the noise. They’ll find a bottle or whatever it takes to kill those memories for a couple of hours. About what the older kids did after the lights went out. Me, I like to ride the bus and decide what to remember. Make my own memories sometimes. Like when I see a woman about Annie’s age getting on or off with a kid or two. My grandkids maybe.

Kids like them are the future now. Not me. Maybe that’s good. Maybe they’ll blend right in like everyone else. Not be noticed. Like I tried to do back at the school. My whole life too. That’s something worth hoping for. I never felt too much of that. Hope? No point getting worked up about it now. My life’s never been worth much. That was schooled into me early on. Maybe my grandkids will learn something different. I hope.

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