As Long as the River Flows
A The Ones Who Call story
Start at the beginning of The Ones Who Call series
The room was filled with the heavy, dusty sort of silence that Jenny usually associated with abandoned buildings. Even the mechanical noises and beeping coming from the monitors seemed somehow muffled and distant. The sound of her wet boots squelching against the tile sounded almost obscenely loud.
A rustle of cloth caught her attention, and she turned to see one of the Elders sitting in the plastic chair in the corner of the room, arms crossed over his chest. He looked up at her from under his battered baseball cap, then pointed with his chin towards the bed.
"Go on. She's not awake right now, but she knows we're here." He said.
Jenny swallowed hard and crept to the bedside. She'd seen her grandmother sleep before (quite frequently, in fact, for she often fell asleep at the dinner table), but she had never before seen her face look quite so slack. She had expected her to look pale, but without her bright scarves and scratchy wool sweaters brightening her complexion, her skin seemed as thin and colorless as rice paper. She hesitated as she reached out for her grandmother's hand, gripped by the irrational fear that her touch would hurt the older woman.
"Hi Kohkum." Jenny said, her voice a whisper.
She shifted from foot to foot, not sure what she was supposed to do next. She could feel the gaze of the Elder sitting in the corner, and it made her self-conscious. She fidgeted with the sleeves of her coat, wishing that her mother were here, wishing that her grandmother would wake and smile that wry smile of hers and tell her that everything would work out as it was meant to.
She dragged another chair over to the side of her grandmother's bed and spent the next hour watching her sleep. Occasionally, she tried to make small talk, pretending that her grandmother could hear her, but in the end her throat would always tighten and tears would silence her. The Elder, sitting in his quiet vigil, said nothing.
After an hour of uncomfortable silence, Noreen returned. Jenny got to her feet and offered her mother the chair, but Noreen refused. She seemed too agitated to sit, and sent Jenny to the cafeteria to get some tea and snacks. When she returned, her mother was talking to one of the nurses. Noreen waved Jenny over and took the tea from her, taking a long sip of it to calm her nerves.
"I'll just need you to sign this." The nurse said, holding out a clipboard.
"What's this?" Noreen asked.
"We just need a signature to authorize the ambulance." The nurse repeated. "We're going to transfer her to the city this afternoon. They have better facilities there to care for her."
Noreen shook her head. "No. My mother would want to stay here in the valley."
The nurse cleared her throat. "You do realize that her chances are not very good if she stays here. At least in Regina, there's the possibility of recovery."
Jenny found her mother's hand and gave it a squeeze. Noreen squeezed it back but didn't take her eyes off the nurse.
"No. You can't move her." She said. "She stays here, with her family."
The nurse opened her mouth to argue, but faltered as she saw the look in Noreen's eyes. She frowned and looked away, looking suddenly tired.
"It's your choice." She said. "But if that was my mother—."
"She's not." Noreen's voice was hard. "So don't try to lay the guilt on me, moniyas. You think this is easy?"
"Mom." Jenny said, tightening her grip on her mother's hand to silence her. She knew how bad her mother's temper was when she was under stress, and it seemed wrong to bring an argument like this into her grandmother's room.
The nurse seemed to realize that she'd crossed a line, and lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Sîpisis. I just want you to be aware of all the options for your mother's care."
"Yes. I am aware of the options." Noreen's voice was nearly a snarl, and she stepped towards the nurse. "No, you can’t take my mother to the city for care. So, figure out what you are going to do to care for her, and let me have some time alone with her now."
The nurse stammered an apology and left the room. Noreen paced furiously and chewed at her nails. Jenny knew better than to try and calm her down when she was like that, and pretended to be reading one of the Readers' Digests on the bedside table.
The Elder shook his head and stood, groaning a little as his sore knees complained. "I should go. Alex and his brother said they'd be down here after dinner, so you two can have some time alone with her for now."
He laid a hand on Noreen's arm, and she calmed, seemingly ashamed by what she saw in his eyes. He patted her shoulder a few times and then shuffled off, muttering a soft prayer in Cree under his breath.
Jenny was bored and restless by the time her cousins arrived, and was grateful when a nurse came to remind them that only two visitors were allowed in the room.
The drive back to their house was very quiet.
Someone, likely her Aunt Sparrow, had left a casserole on the oven for them, and Jenny turned on the oven to reheat it while her mother spent some time on the phone, updating their family members on Kohkum's status.
As though summoned by the prospect of food, Fox knocked on the door just as Noreen was removing the casserole from the oven. Jenny met him in the entry hall and threw her arms around him before he could get his coat off.
"I'm glad you're here." She said, squeezing him tightly.
She felt rather than saw the sad smile he gave her as he patted her back.
"'Course I'm here." He said. "I came as soon as I heard."
"Where were you?" Jenny asked, accusingly.
He shrugged and gently disengaged from the hug. "You know. Around."
She narrowed her eyes. "You were trying to find a way to save her, weren't you? From the Mishipizhiw?"
"No." He said, a little too quickly.
"Oh, come on. You smell like lake water and sage. I'm not stupid, you know."
He grinned at her, and put a finger to his lips. They hadn't told Noreen of her mother's promise to the god-creature that lived beneath the lake, and now was not the time to upset her further.
Jenny blew a snort of frustration out of her nose, then hugged her brother again, desperately glad that he was here to help out.
When Noreen saw Fox, she took his head in her hands and pressed a kiss to his cheek.
"You’re not leaving again, are you?" She said, looking him hard in the eye.
"No, Mom. I'm here as long as the family needs me."
She looked at him for a minute, a tremor passing over her face that hinted at tears, and then nodded and waved her children to the table for dinner.
"So, Jenny." Fox said, obvious in his attempt to lighten the mood. "You're almost done grade eleven now, huh? Only one more year until graduation. That's gotta feel pretty good, huh?"
Jenny shrugged and pushed her food around on her plate. "Not really. It's not like I can go to University once I'm done, and all my friends are just going to leave after graduation."
Fox flinched, but Noreen seemed to perk up. "Oh, I meant to tell you, Jenny. I was talking to some of the band counsellors before this all happened, and they said that the First Nation's University has some really good distance education courses. You could get a degree in nursing, or office admin."
"Great." Jenny sighed. "Then I can work at the band office for the rest of my life."
"Jenny—." Her mother began, but Fox cut her off.
"Wow. My little sister with a University degree. That'd be pretty cool."
Jenny rolled her eyes at him and picked at her food.
"So, uh. It's a pretty crazy spring, huh?" He continued. "All that snow the Ice People dumped on us has kind of made a mess of the roads and stuff. But, it's good for us waterfolk, right?"
"Yeah, I guess." Noreen said, glancing at Jenny. "At least they've managed to keep the flooding back from the school this year. Have you seen all the sandbags they've got piled there?"
"Seen 'em? I spent a day helping out." Fox said. "My shoulders are still stiff."
"That's good." Noreen said distractedly. "Jenny, honey, you need to eat something. You didn't finish your sandwich at lunch."
"Neither did you." She shot back.
"Jenny." Her mother warned, and she clenched her fists, fighting back the tears.
"Look. I'll eat later, okay? I've just got to..." She trailed off, her throat tightening.
Her mother rose to embrace her, but she waved her away and fled to the silence of her room, throwing herself down onto her bed. Here, at least, she didn't have to pretend that everything was okay.
She sobbed, face pressed into the pillow, feeling her own hot breath and tears making the pillowcase soggy. She didn't care.
It was too much. It was all just too much.
Her grandmother's stroke. All of the weirdness that had gone on that winter, none of which she'd really had the time to process. Her sudden break-up with Kyle. The loss of her dreams, her future, to her family's curse.
All of the loss seemed to loom up before her like a vast, unending wave, and she saw no way out of the pain. She sobbed until her throat hurt, until her face felt raw from the salt, until all thoughts but the hurt and fear had been chased out of her head. She lay curled into a ball, exhausted, until her mother crept into the room and held her.
The touch seemed to summon new tears, and she and her mother cried together for a time. She was distantly aware of the sounds of Fox clumsily clearing the table and clattering around as he tried to do the dishes. When they finally left her room, blinking and squinting against the bright light of the living room, Fox had a movie and popcorn waiting for them.
The next morning, Jenny lay on her bed, still feeling as empty and numb as she had the night before.
She picked up the phone that lay on her bedside table, then set it back down again. Her mother was at the hospital, and had told her to keep the line free in case she called.
She desperately wished that she could talk to Kyle. She missed him fiercely, even though he'd dismissed her so quickly last month. She'd tried calling the number he'd left for her, but there had been no answer and she'd been too chicken to leave a message for him. After the third attempt, she decided just to let him be. If he didn't want to talk to her, then she supposed there was nothing she could do about it.
She sighed, and began taking down the pictures on her walls. Most of them were of exotic places she'd hoped to travel to one day: the Great Wall, the stone heads of Easter Island, the quaint cafes of Venice, but there were also a few of the two of them together. Seeing herself so happy, smiling and carefree seemed like a slap in the face right now. She ripped her favorite picture off the wall and began to tear it in half, then stopped suddenly as the tear went across Kyle's face. Biting her lip, she tried to smooth the torn edges back together.
Unexpectedly, she found herself smiling. Kyle's expression in that picture was ludicrous, which is why it was one of her favorites. They had spent the day at the beach, mostly talking, but also sneaking a few private moments behind the cover of the ice cream hut to make out. She remembered the stupid pretend fight they'd had when he disagreed with her over the best flavor of ice cream. The argument had only ended when she'd dragged him into the lake and thrown mudballs at him until he admitted that mint chocolate chip was, in fact, superior to rocky road.
She smiled and tucked the photo under the pile of junk on her bedside table. Then, still feeling a sort of bittersweet happiness, she went into the kitchen to make breakfast.
She was lying on the couch, watching cartoons, when the phone rang.
It was her mother's voice. Jenny felt a flush of cold sweep through her, turning her knees to water. She knew what words would come next, and she wished she could plug her ears or slam down the phone to avoid hearing them.
"Jenny, honey... Your grandmother's missing."
Jenny raised an eyebrow in surprise, but the cold feeling didn't go away. She knew that her Kohkum's absence was just as final as if she'd simply passed away.
"The hospital staff are all in a panic." Her mother continued. "She was there last night when they checked on her, still unconscious, but this morning the bed was empty. Do you... Do you know where she went?"
Her mother's voice was not accusatory, but unexpectedly small-sounding and fearful. Jenny nodded and swallowed hard.
"Yes. She went to the lake."
Her mother let out a long breath. They were both silent a moment, and Jenny could hear the 'tap tap tap' of her mother's rings clicking together as she twisted them around her fingers. She picked up some tissue sitting by the phone and began to shred it.
"So." Noreen said. "So. She's gone, then."
Jenny nodded. "Yes. She... She had a promise to keep."
She continued to rip up the tissue as her mother digested that, dreading having to explain things to her. Thankfully, her mother was willing to accept that as an answer.
"Okay." Noreen's voice still sounded shaky, as though she weren't quite aware of what she was saying, but her natural organizational ability seemed to be working on auto-pilot. "I'm going to call the family together. You get Fox and come down to The Point, okay? We'll have the ceremony there."
Jenny agreed and hung up the phone. She listened to the clock ticking in the hallway. It was the only thing that made sense at the moment, and the heartbeat sound of it reminded her of pow wow drums.
She was still listening to the clock when Fox returned. He looked at her and read what had happened, his voice going from jovial smile to something uglier in seconds.
"Is... Did...?" He began, and she nodded.
Fox bared his teeth, then whirled and punched the wall. His fist went through the drywall, and Jenny stumbled back in fright.
"What are you doing?" She yelled.
He swept a hand across the clutter on the counter and sent boxes and cutlery crashing to the floor. A glass smashed in a tinkling of shards.
"Stop it!" Jenny shrieked, still reeling back. "Fox, just stop it!"
He turned, and only now seemed to realize how badly he'd scared her. His shoulders slumped and his rage seemed to deflate, leaving him empty-looking.
"Jenny, I—." He began, and then stepped over the broken glass to give her a hug.
She resisted at first, still shocked by his reaction, then returned his tight hug as she realized he was crying. She'd never seen her brother cry before, and the small, whimpering noises he made tore at her heart.
They held each other for a long time.
The family assembled at the lakeside.
There were already over forty people on the small strip of sand and scrub jutting out into the lake, and more trucks and cars pulling into the gravel lot every minute. They milled about, not entirely sure what was expected of them. Normally, the family would take turns sitting a wake overnight until the body was ready to be interred, but no coffin stood out on the sand. Some even argued that she wasn't actually dead, and it was disrespectful to mourn her if she was still alive. Others seemed to intuit what had happened, and those people stood quietly, heads bowed, honoring her sacrifice.
It took over an hour for the rest of the family to arrive, and Jenny spent most of the time sitting quietly with her mother and brother, looking out at the water.
Finally, the older members of the family called everyone to order. A drumbeat started, quiet at first, but growing in volume as several other hand-drums added their voices to the song. At this signal, the loose knots of people sorted themselves into a row facing the water. Albert, the oldest member of the family and Agnes' only surviving sibling, said the prayer while some of the older old men burned sweetgrass and smudged the gathering. When they were finished, Albert addressed the crowd.
"Well, uh." He said, clearing a throat that was creaky with age and grief. "Agnes, my sister, she's gone back to the lake, you know. So now's a good time to honor her with your words."
He spoke a little bit about Agnes' life, saying that she had always been a good sister, and that she'd always looked out for her youngest brother, even when the other kids had picked on him. He told a story in Cree that Jenny only understood parts of, but caught enough to know it was how Agnes had helped him win back his wife after he'd cheated on her. He ended with a prayer, and then stepped aside to let others speak.
Jenny sat through a few more stories about her Kohkum's life, some funny, other poignant. A strange sort of pressure seemed to build up in her chest as she listened, and though she'd thought she'd be too choked up by tears to speak, she realized that there were things she needed to say.
Finally, as Aunt Sparrow broke down in tears and was unable to continue, she got to her feet and stood before her family. Her hands shook, and as everyone's eyes turned towards her, she felt such a shock of fear that she wanted to run back and hide in the crowd. She swallowed, clenched her fists, and let the words rise up in her mind.
"I, um. I have some things I need to say." She said, voice shaky. She took another breath, closing her eyes, and when she continued, her voice was stronger.
"My grandmother taught me a lot of things. That's a Kohkum's job—to teach the kids everything a mother can't. How to crack an egg without breaking the yoke. The 'right' way to mix bannock dough. The wisdom of sneaking a candy or two before dinner and just not telling your mother about it."
A few people chuckled, remembering the candies Agnes always carried in her purse.
"But I think the most important thing she taught me, I only realized today."
"Just before I got the call from the hospital, I was in my room, thinking about the future. I was pretty sure that my life was going to suck. I was never going to be able to leave the valley, never going to travel to all the places I'd always dreamed of, never be able to go to University or even to concerts or the mall. My life, my whole life would be spent here in this valley."
A few of the younger members of the Sîpisis' family muttered their agreement.
"This whole year, I've been so angry about our family's curse that I never realized that everyone who came before me lived under the exact same curse. All of our ancestors have lived in this valley. Did their lives suck? Maybe, sometimes, but everyone's life sucks sometimes."
She lowered her eyes, feeling her throat tighten as her family stood before her. She took several deep breaths, not wanting to go on but knowing that what she had to say was too important to stop now.
"I... I remembered Kohkum telling me stories about when she was growing up. She loved this valley. She could tell you the stories that happened at nearly every bush or stream. 'Look here, this was the spot where your uncle proposed to Aunt Sparrow'. And, 'over here is where your great-great grandmother hid from her mother after she ate all the chokecherries'."
"I'm sure you all know the stories even better than I do. So you know, just like I do now, that life here is actually pretty good. We have the lake, the hills, and we now even have a little mall. Sure, it's only two shops by the gas station, but it'll get bigger in time. And, more important, we have our family."
"You sure that's a good thing?" Someone yelled half-jokingly, and others quickly shushed him.
Jenny found herself smiling. Her family could joke around even in the most serious of circumstances, and she was sure her Kohkum would have appreciated it.
"No, not always." She agreed. "But I can't think of anyone else I'd rather be stuck in a valley with."
"Hey hey!" Someone whooped, and the cry was taken up by others.
Jenny blinked back tears as fists were pumped into the air, and felt her mother's hand on her shoulder. Noreen's face was wet with tears, but her eyes glittered with such pride that Jenny felt it like a physical force. She latched onto her mother and hugged her fiercely, and neither of them bothered to hold back their tears.
The lake lapped gently against the shore as more stories were told and songs were sung, long into the afternoon. Eventually, as people grew tired and hungry, they took the wake back to the band hall and laughed and feasted late into the night.
Outside, the flooded valley shone in the setting sun, and the laughter and voices of the Sîpisis family rang and echoed from every hill, much as it had for generations.
Much as it would, as long as the rivers flowed.
Story by Alina Pete, Copyright 2011
Image by Tara Willett, Copyright 2011