January 10th, 2019
The latest issue of Maisonneuve magazine features a story called “Bear” by prolific Sto:lo author Lee Maracle. A three-year subscription to Maisonneuve is only $36.00, and Maracle’s story alone is worth it. This mini-review talks about the first half of the story, but does not spoil the ending.
“Bear” opens on a man physically uncomfortable in a large room full of people. He feels a twinge in his knee, a twinge that has come and gone since he was six-years-old in his first large room full of people, the crowded cafeteria of his residential school. As a child, if he squirmed to try and allay the irritation, “one of the brothers would come over and bark, ‘Sit still, Henry.'” (The word “brother” in this context brings none of the familial warmth it should.) The real problem though, is Henry is not his real name, and try as he might, he can’t remember what his parents called him before he was taken. By the age of ten, the brothers had barked his real name out of him.
Or, perhaps, there was something worse than the barking. It’s hard to tell, because in the present tense, Henry laughs–roars, even–at the jokes the moderator at the front of the large room is telling about the idiosyncrasies of Canadians, Indians and Americans when filling up seats as an audience. Where are we? We are at a Truth and Reconciliation conference; there are both Indigenous women and Catholic men being introduced. When the Catholic men’s names are announced, Henry zones out, thinking: “I don’t want to know their names until I can remember my own.”
And though Henry can control what information he hears and what information he blocks, he cannot control the effect these people, this room, the overhead lights are having on his body. “It’s as if I am in a black box and there is some tiny hole in it where the light outside the box shines through.” After the introduction of the clergy, the overhead lights start to glare so harshly, it sets off an audible scream in his head. “The scream won’t stop for a while.” He knows this, because it has happened before, and usually requires external stimuli–alcohol, a physical fight–to silence it.
But then George, Henry’s friend, arrives and sits next to him, and the screaming stops, and the tingling in his knee disappears. George is the one who’s convinced Henry to come to this meeting. Henry had been talking about having difficulty waking up to go to work, and George suggested that talking about his experiences at the residential school might help. He thinks adult survivors of residential schools either sleep too long or not enough.
“Are you going?” I asked.
“You want to know the answer so bad, you’ll go to a conference?” Everyone laughed, clicked glasses. I’m a regular fun guy.
“Yeah,” George said. “I’m the other guy–insomnia.”
This bit all the laughter in half. Then I saw the bags under his eyes, the sagging skin along his jawbone, the fatigue that bent his shoulders slightly. He cradled his cup like he was at rope’s end. Why hadn’t I seen that before?
There’s lots we can’t see or hear or remember when we are looking away and covering our ears. Sometimes the violation is so great, we need to block it out in order to live; but it catches up to us. In her Giller-nominated novel Split Tooth, Tanya Tagaq says, “What keeps you alive in crisis can kill you once you are free.” By his own account, Henry is free now. He has a good job, he owns a home, he is thirty-seven. But still, he’s in that black box sometimes, with the glaring light, and the scream.
What follows is a courageous renunciation of silence and a step toward healing that Maracle seems to suggest can only happen when held and heard among friends, among listeners.
The story is punctuated by this chaotic painting by Kent Monkman, an artist of Cree and Irish ancestry. His grandmother went to a residential school and never spoke of her experience. This painting is Monkman’s representation of an exact description in the Truth and Reconciliation Report, when RCMP officers and clergy took children from their families against their will.
Maracle dedicates “Bear” to the three commissioners of the TRC: Marie Wilson, Willie Littlechild, and Senator Murray Sinclair.