Dan Holden's Creative Writing
She grabbed for the dashboard with one hand and her seatbelt with the other.
Her heart jumped as her bear of an uncle cranked the big old Ford viciously to the right, sending it crashing down the snow-covered embankment and onto the frozen lake below.
They both laughed as it slid quietly over the ice like a duck on a frozen pond.
“Goddam it Uncle Joe!” she squeeled, slapping his shoulder with her mittened hand. He raised his massive elbow to protect himself, his sparkling eyes crinkling shut. His old wool hat tipped sideways and rolled over his long grey hair, falling awkwardly into his lap, making him laugh even more.
Uncle Joe’s laugh. It was unmistakable, unforgettable. Like a bear.
She looked at him. He was smiling again, that same sneaky smile. Her eyes widened and she quickly scanned the horizon, looking for a clue as to what he might be up to, but it was all ice and snow and a low mackerel sky, set in the long late afternoon light of winter.
“What?” she asked testily, her fur-lined jacket tickling her pouty lips.
He laughed again.
“You think I am tricking you?” he asked.
“How am I supposed to know, when you look at me like that?” she said.
“Like what?” he asked, in mock surprise.
“Ugh!” she laughed.
“Whatever,” he shrugged, suppressing another smile.
Kami loved how her uncle was up to speed on popular conversation. Not like most of the other Missisougas elders, who barely noticed the outside world.
She chuckled to herself as the truck drove on, its tires making a distinctive crunching sound as they rolled over the fresh snow atop the solid sheet of ice.
“Look over there,” said Uncle Joe, motioning with his chin in the direction of a snowmobile a couple of hundred yards off the left-front side. They peered through the frosted window at the shadowy stranger, but made no effort to engage with him. Neither did he express any interest in them. He was dressed in non-Native clothing and appeared to be holding some sort of black box.
“Random,” she said, borrowing a term she learned on the Internet.
“Random,” her uncle agreed, nodding his head.
She looked for landmarks through the side windows. “It should be close, right?” she asked.
“A little farther,” he answered, slowing the truck by half. He looked both ways and then turned the truck slightly to the right, driving on for a couple hundred yards before coming to a stop.
“Let’s try here,” he sighed, popping open the big hollow door. Chilly arctic air to blew his hair sideways while he fumbled for his hat.
Kami laughed. “You look like a hippie Uncle Joe!”
He pulled a couple brooms and a shovel out of the back of the truck, gave her one of the brooms and walked on. They walked that way, a few yards apart, looking intently at the ice ahead of them.
The fishing stick was really just an old yardstick, laid out sideways on the ice with the net line tied to the middle. It would be almost covered in snow, so they swept as they walked. After what seemed like half an hour, Uncle Joe finally called out, waving at her to come.
He had found the front end of the line. The back end would be 200 yards away, suspended on another stick buried in the ice. Uncle Joe stood behind the stick to find its perpendicular, raising his hand to point out where it should be.
They walked along in a straight line, looking for the yardstick with the string tied in the middle. It would have been disastrous to mark the spot; anyone could have come along and pulled the nets ahead of them.
Eventually they found it, buried in three inches of ice. Uncle Joe used the shovel to cut through to the stick, which he retrieved after cutting the line loose. Then they went back to the first hole.
“I’ll get the truck,” said Kami, departing. Uncle Joe nodded his approval.
She backed the truck slowly till Uncle Joe motioned to stop. Having already freed the line from the ice and the fishing stick, Uncle Joe tied it to the trailer hitch and signaled for her to drive forward.
The net slowly rose up out of the ice and one by one, the fish emerged with it. By the time Uncle Joe signaled for her to stop, they had at least two dozen good-sized fish on the line. Kami climbed out of the truck to help him free the catch. It would be a long and tedious process, and their wet fingers would grow painfully cold before they were done.
It seemed like as good a time as any to ask him the question.
“Uncle Joe – ” she started.
“Your mother knew all the native songs,” he interrupted. He seemed to want to direct the conversation, which was fine with Kami.
“Yes, I know,” she said.
“How many do you know?”
She glanced his way, trying to gauge his seriousness, but his focus was on the fishing nets.
“I suppose I know most of them, too,” she said. “Momma sang them to me every night. We usually sang them together.”
“Good,” he said. “And the stories, do you remember all the stories?”
Kami stopped working at stood, rubbing her fingers together to keep them warm.
“Yes,” she said, “I do remember the stories too. Some of them are very funny.”
“They tell our history, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Some of these stories are older than writing.”
“Your mother was the storyteller for the whole nation.”
“Yes, I know that. Anyway, the radio station has recordings of everything.”
“They have a recording,” he countered. “But stories die if no-one tells them.”
“Yes, I know. I will remember them,” she said reassuringly.
He pulled a fish from the net and placed it into the cooler. Then he stood to stretch his back.
“You may remember them,” he said, “But will you tell them?”
“The stories? I- I’m not really very good at -”
“A story will die if no one tells it,” he said again, and raised his glistening black eyes toward her. He had the exquisite, deeply furrowed face of a native elder. But he was larger than many, and his sense of humor made him uncharacteristically modern. He waited patiently for her response.
“I’m not comfortable in public,” she said, her eyes dropping to the ice.
“Do you have a zit?” he asked, and they both laughed loudly.
“No,” she said finally, “I just don’t like to stand in front of people.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Look at me,” she said. “I am too big, my face is too white, I have freckles and glasses, I look like a dork.”
“You’re worried about how you look?” he quipped, sizing her up as if he was seeing her for the first time. She squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze.
“I see fur and leather, and a face that is twice as pretty as your mother’s,” he said, smiling.
She had heard something similar before, but somehow, it didn’t ring true. In her own eyes, Kami was the ugly duckling of the reservation.
They stood there for a moment, looking at the fish in the cooler and the long stretch of net yet to be untangled. Uncle Joe finally broke the silence with a question of his own.
“Kami,” he asked, as he crouched down again, “can you tell me what happened?”
“What do you mean?” she asked nervously. She really didn’t want to go there.
“The trip to the hospital,” he said. “How did she pass?”
“She bled out,” said Kami. “Her kidneys ruptured, she was bleeding all over the van.”
Kami dropped to her knees on the ice, shaking at the memory, still fresh in her mind.
“I stopped right there in the middle of the road and broke out the first aid kit,” she recalled quietly. “I grabbed as many pads as I could and put pressure on the bleeding, but it just wouldn’t stop. She was bleeding from the mouth, the nose, everywhere.”
“Did she know what was happening?” he asked, his voice trembling perceptibly.
“Yes,” she said, sighing. “You know she heard all my stories about driving people to the hospital. The villages are so far away… I’ve lost count of all the insulin shocks, diabetic comas, alcoholic seizures…and they won’t send an ambulance until they’re almost gone, and by the time they get there…”
She felt all talked out. It was a reasonably good job she had, driving patients to their hospital appointments, but there was so much illness on the reservation, so much misery. She felt that she was slowly driving people to their deaths. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happened.
“Did she talk to you before she passed?” he asked.
“What did she say?” He didn’t look up. Kami had the feeling he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“She said ‘Thank you for trying.’ She said she loved us all. She said she was very proud of me,” said Kami, as tears formed in her eyes and rolled into frozen pools on her large round cheeks.
Uncle Joe stood and hugged Kami.
“We are all proud of you Kami,” he said. “You did the best that you could.”
“No I didn’t,” said Kami, pushing him gently away, rubbing at her wet nose with one mitten.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“We might have gotten there quicker.”
“It was snowing,” said Uncle Joe.
“Yes, but Momma didn’t want to go straight to the hospital.”
“Where did she want to go?” asked Uncle Joe, his voice rising.
“To Marie’s house,” she said, lowering her head apologetically. “She wanted Marie to come with us.”
Uncle Joe just stood there, looking out at the horizon, not saying anything.
“Did you go?” he asked finally.
“Was she with you when my sis- when your momma died?”
Kami looked up at him, eyes glistening, lips trembling. “Yes,” she said, “but I don’t think it made a difference, I mean, we had so many miles to go-“
Uncle Joe grabbed her again and held her tight, wrapping her in a massive bear hug.
They stood there like that on the desolate ice, in the middle of the lake, for what seemed like eternity. It might as well have been. The stranger was long gone and there was no other movement except for the occasional slap of lake water through the fishing hole.
Finally he let her go, wiped his own eyes and then stooped down to grab the net again.
“So, Marie was with Rosie when she died.”
“Yes, she tried to help. She was hysterical, she didn’t know what to do. There was blood everywhere, on me and Momma and Marie. I asked her to help me take Momma out of the van, it was getting ruined,” she sobbed. “We put her in the snow, on blankets.”
“Did they talk?” asked Uncle Joe.
“Yes Momma told her how much she loved Marie,” said Kami, crying openly.
“She told her they would be together again in heaven. She said she would always love her and Marie said it back, said she would always love Momma. And they both cried. And that was it, that was how she died, lying there in the cold snow, holding our hands.”
Uncle Joe looked up from his work.
“Why are you crying girl?” he asked.
“It was just so sad. I have never heard them talk like that before. I knew they loved each other, but nobody ever heard them talk like that before.”
“Because it was a secret,” said Uncle Joe, tossing another fish into the cooler.
“Yes,” said Kami, wiping her eyes and kneeling down to help again.
Several minutes went by as they worked the net some more.
“You remember how we laid this net?” asked Uncle Joe.
“Yes,” said Kami. “We cut this hole first, and tied the line to the widget board and shoved it under the ice. Then I walked along listening as it banged into the ice. When it got to the end of the line we cut another hole and pulled the widget out, and then we strung the nets through.”
“Exactly,” said Uncle Joe. “And we hid the lines so no one would take our catch.”
“It was our secret.”
“Yes,” she said, looking up at him thoughtfully. She had never heard him be so clever.
“Your momma had a secret like that, with Marie. A secret that allowed them to enjoy some special times together, but it would have been ruined if anyone had found out.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that,” said Kami.
Uncle Joe pulled the last fish out of the net, placed it in the cooler and closed the lid.
“You don’t have to tell me that,” he said. He picked up the cooler and began walking it to the truck. “When me and your momma were younger, people used to talk about your momma. There were missionaries on the reservation back then, trying to sell us their religion. I don’t remember which one it was, there have been so many.
“Anyway, they used to tell me, ‘You’ve got change that girl. She needs to find herself a man and get married.’”
He swung the cooler into the truck bed and grabbed a big tub to gather the net.
“What did you do?” she asked, following him back to the fishing hole.
“I talked to her. I shamed her. I convinced her she needed to find a man. So one night, she did. She went to the village and got all drunk and someone took advantage of her. And that’s how you came into the world,” he said, patting her shoulder.
They gathered the nets carefully into the tub.
“People of your generation have a chance to change that.”
“What do you mean?” asked Kami.
“I mean,” he said, and then paused to consider it closely.
“I mean a story dies if it isn’t told.”
“You want me to tell people the story of Momma and Marie?”
“Not Momma and Marie. Momma the storyteller, and Marie, her companion,” he said.
“Yes, but –“
“Then you have another story you can tell,” he said, picking up the tub of nets. “The story of the storyteller. Isn’t that important?”
They walked back to the truck, again, and he threw the tub into the back, with the cooler.
“Why me?” she asked as they climbed into the cab and shut the doors. “Why should I tell the story? Why not you?”
He started the truck and began the slow drive over the ice to the distant shore.
“This is my world,” he said, gesturing into the window. “I don’t even go to other villages on the reservation, much. But your world is all those places you have been, all those people you know from the villages and the city and the hospital. Your friends from all across Canada, from your computer.”
“Why do they need to know about Momma and Marie?” she asked.
They drove on in silence for a while and then Uncle Joe slowed the truck as he scanned the shoreline for his tire tracks.
“For a long time,” he said, gunning the truck up the embankment, “we didn’t want anyone to know about us. We liked our solitude. We enjoyed being left alone. We don’t take to random strangers
“But the world has changed and we haven’t. Cities have grown up all over Canada. People enjoy their lives, even in the coldest part of winter. Here, we fight to keep our old ways, our old stories, but maybe we are holding on too tightly to some things. Maybe we are bleeding to death before we get there.
“Anyway,” he said finally, “A story dies if it isn’t told.”
They drove onto the road and turned back toward the village. Snow crunched under the tires.
Uncle Joe turned on the heater. It was warmer in that truck than just about anywhere else on the reservation.
Kami cleared her throat and began to sing…