Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Story I read (most of) at Aqua Books

Sarah’s Spirit Walk


Shelley Cook

On the day that Sarah died, I thought the whole world was going to fall apart. I was just thirteen years old when Uncle Bennett came storming into the house to tell us that Sarah had hanged herself from the big crab apple tree by Nelson Bear’s house.

“They did this to her,” my uncle sobbed, and he sank into a chair at the kitchen table, and lowered his head. “The fucking white man, he did this.”

At that moment, it seemed as though everything just stopped for a moment or two. We were all in shock as soon as the horrible news was spewed out of Uncle Bennett’s mouth, so we all just kind of froze.

There was an eery sense of calm in the house for the rest of that day; mom started burning sweetgrass and tobacco, and she told my younger brother Darien to go and get Chief Sinclair, and bring him to the house. Dad left, to find solitude and answers away from the darkness that surrounded the house. And I just stood there, watching my uncle, a strong warrior, break down at the kitchen table.

“She didn’t have to do this,” he cried. “She didn’t have to do this...”

Sarah was my younger cousin by seven months. She was a small girl with long brown hair, and the blackest eyes you’ve ever seen. At 12-years old she was like a tiny adult, who was wise beyond her years. She was the only girl out of Uncle Bennett and Aunty Fern’s eight kids, and because of that, and her terrific beauty, she was coveted like a treasure in the Prince household.

Everybody liked Sarah. Everybody did.

At her wake, Sarah’s tiny handmade coffin was dressed in a traditional star blanket composed of the four traditional colours; red, black, white and yellow. Her hair was done in braids, and she was wearing her favourite dress that nana made for her for her last birthday. She didn’t look like herself; her lifeless body looked rubbery...Empty.

Her coffin that lay in nana’s crowded foyer, looked like a claustrophobic box; a pine prison away from eternity.

Suicide wasn’t unusual here, not even by someone at the age of twelve.

The sound of of the drum was think in the air, competing with the chants of the singers who were sitting in a circle, pounding on the drum hide. The smell of death and sweetgrass and tobacco loomed around us, bringing back painful memories of all that had gone on before Sarah. Old people cried, and stroked Sarah’s rubbery face, as though trying to invoke her sleeping spirit. Young people, we cried; out of heartache and fear of our own mortality. Many of us have seen more funerals than birthdays.

Elder Thundersky, dad’s cousin, spoke, of the Creator who called Sarah home.

“She has embarked on her journey home,” he said. “The Creator will light the path, as she takes that journey home...”

He told the rest of us that we were the future, and that we needed to find a better way within the circle rather than a way to escape it. “You’re circles must be bigger,” he said. “You are the future, you must continue to respect the life that the Creator has given to you...The life of our culture. If you die, a piece of it dies as well...”

We listened through our pain, realizing that Sarah’s death was a reminder that we didn’t learn from the last one, or the one before that. There were too many dead rez kids, and we all looked around wondering whose pain and sorrow would get them next.

Even through our sorrow though, we all understood why Sarah did it; we’ve all considered it before, as a way out of the hopeless conditions that plagued our people. -- Even if we made it through our teenage years, the hopelessness would still remain; just another Indian, striving to be human in a foreign society.

Sarah was sick of not being human; of not understanding the culture that was stolen from her long before she was born. She was sad and hopeless, like so many of us who unwillingly traded in our childhoods for this reality.

We sat there, through the darkness of night, waiting with Sarah’s body, as her spirit took its journey home.

For three days we waited in nana’s foyer. The journey to the other side was a three day course. In those three days, we prayed, offering tobacco to the Creator, asking for Sarah’s journey to be a safe one. We paid respect for her life, and guided her though our prayers and songs.

On the third day, Sarah’s brothers, Bennett Jr., Franklin, Morris, Cecil, Archie, Tony and Daniel hoisted her tiny coffin, out of nana’s foyer. The procession followed, wandering to the edge of the reserve, where all the others were buried. A sea of homemade wooden crosses poked out of the earth, and even from a distance we all knew exactly where each of our friends and family lay.

Uncle Bennett and Aunty Fern wept, as the singers followed with the bittersweet sound of the death song. Dogs howled, as the coldness of winter burned our exposed skin. The sky was grey, and the wind was calm but chilling. Children, still oblivious to the sacred moment of this sombre goodbye, complained about being cold. Mothers ignored them, instead offering their care and attention to my dead cousins parents.

In death we were all a family, united by tragedy. Though our hearts are broken, our spirits run high; men partake in sweats, and therefore must abstain from everything, and cleanse their bodies. Women care for the dead, and their broken families. We have become so good at this routine; creating a path to the spirit world for the ones that have gone before us.

They put her into the ground, in the late afternoon in November, and she was no more. Another tragic ending to years of abuse and neglect of an already broken culture. -- If her death was deemed important, a white woman would come and talk to us about her. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. I was pretty sure that they would with Sarah, she was just the kind of story that they liked; pretty and young, and shockingly abrupt to meet her demise.

When people across the invisible Indian line would find out, they would say her act was tragically selfish, and that her parents must be to blame. But they didn’t know what life was like on this side of the world, they’re far too oblivious to look at what it’s like from this angle.

On the long walk home, past the apple tree in Nelson Bear’s back yard, the only sound that could be heard was the crunching of the hard snow beneath our feet, and the quiet whimpers from Sarah’s parents. Even the kids, after watching the pine box being buried deep into the ground, seemed to finally understand the sadness of this day.

Mom grabbed my hand, and walked quietly back into real life with me, squeezing it so hard, as though she never wanted to let me go. Dad marched behind, protecting us from the darkness that loomed behind us in the overpopulated cemetery. Nana, at 87-years old, walked in front, clutching to Elder Thundersky, who led the procession home.

And when it was done, and we all returned to our shabby little homes, the stench of death was still upon us. Mom burned more sweetgrass and tobacco, sending our prayers to the Creator, and to Sarah. Dad, went out with Uncle Bennett, and Uncle Gordy to chop down the old apple tree in Nelson Bear’s back yard; and I sat near the wood stove with my brother, trying to escape the chill that had seeped into my bones.

In the days following Sarah’s funeral, life around the rez was almost tranquil. Nobody spoke, and the silence almost made it appear like Sarah never left. Mom got back to her daily work of making traditional ceremonial regalia, and moccasins. Dad left the day after Sarah’s funeral for a 10-day hunting trip, and Darien and I just sat, afraid to talk, for fear of disrupting the silent denial that blanketed the community.

Uncle Bennett and Aunty Fern stayed hidden away in their house for a really long time. The boys were the only vein of life left in that house. They would come around every now and again, putting on a tough facade for everyone who was watching them so intently. But Aunty Fern and Uncle Bennett rarely saw the light of day anymore. Not since Sarah died.

Sometimes mom would send me over with some baking or homemade cooking for the boys, but after she became annoyed with my begging and pleading not to have to go to what I explained to her as “the house of horrors”, she started to send Darien instead. He’d do it. He was too young to really appreciate how depressing the situation had become, and he really liked playing with his older cousins. He didn't realize how tragic and haunted Uncle Bennett and Aunty Fern's house was.

There were more suicides after Sarah; younger, older, it didn’t matter, there were just more. The hopelessness that claimed Sarah’s life was still very much alive, and with each generation it encountered.


  1. Where did you get this story?

  2. Wow Shelley. That is some fantastic writing. Your story is so descriptive, it really sounds like something published in a book.

  3. Shelley, you're so gifted! This is an amazing story