Fearless: The Story Of The Talking Boy
They called it Shubenacadie.
My parents patted me on the back and told me I would go. I didn't want to. The word already tasted wrong, forbidding, on my tongue. I didn't want fight my parents, though I wanted to. I was only five, and I knew they would only do what was best for me.
It was still like summer when my father borrowed a horse and buggy for the three hour drive. I stayed in the tiny house, trying to commit everything to memory. I already felt like I didn't belong here anymore. Mother had taken my usual clothes, instead dressing me in what the Canadian boys wore. The restraining, tight, stiff clothing made me want to crawl out of my own skin.
Finally, Father came in, scooping me up and depositing me, without grace, next to Mother. The drive to the school didn't seem very long. There was the heat of the sun, sweat on my skin, the itch of the boy's suit and Mother's arms holding me tightly. To this day, I can't feel the hot sun without thinking of her long braids and earthy scent.
Mother's grip tightened on me suddenly. "I love you," she said fiercely, making me look into her eyes. "Never forget."
At the time, I thought she was just talking about her love for me. I nodded, who would forget their mother loved them? "I love you too."
It was over my mother's shoulder that I saw Shubenacadie for the first time. Despite the sunshine and sweetness of summer, the school looked evil. It cast a long shadow along the generous lawn, which didn't look much like a lawn at all. The grass was cut so short that there didn't seem to be grass. Trees were planted, probably to make the building look beautiful, but the school dwarfed the skinny trunks, making everything look more foreboding.
The horse and buggy was stopped a short distance away from the doors. One thing caught my eye, one thing that seemed to make the school seem a little more the cold stone: the children. Boys, dressed in the traditional, colourful clothes of their own tribes. I wished I still had my own clothes on; to have that piece of home.
I stepped down off the buggy. The ground even felt different than at home. This ground was not made for running barefoot while shouting as the mud squished through your toes. This ground was made for the tight, Canadian shoes that Mother had bought for me.
There was a woman, dressed all in black that was collecting the children from their families. I held onto my parents' hands until the last possible moment.
She looked at my parents, speaking in a language I didn't understand. Father's hand loosened. I clung to Mother with both hands. The woman reached out a hand to me, but I tried to hide behind Mother. The woman knelt to the ground in front of me. Her eyes were blue and she was very old. There were deep wrinkles in her face.
She placed a hand on her chest. "Sister Elizabeth."
` I whispered my own name in return.
She reached for my hand again. I looked up at Mother, who loosened her fingers. I took a deep breath. If I had to go, maybe it's best I go with this nice lady whose name was soft like her smile. I let go of Mother and let Sister Elizabeth take me indoors.
There were only a few boys in the herd behind Sister Elizabeth. She led us through the front doors. The halls were quiet. I heard the creak of a door, ready to close. I spun, looking for a last glimpse of Mother, but the door was closed, sealing off the sunshine. The longer we walked the halls, the colder it seemed to get. I started to feel trapped.
It was then we emerged into a big, long room. Beds lined the walls. Large cabinets were in the room too, but they were closed. I thought I saw locks on the cabinets too. I barely noticed the room, except for drinking in the light from the windows.
There were other women, all in black like Sister Elizabeth, in the room. There were also boys, maybe two dozen. There were boys like us in traditional clothes (well, maybe not exactly like me) and long hair. They were forming a line to two women in black. The boy would remove his clothes. All of them. The two women would fold the clothes, then the boy would go to a group of other naked boys. Next the naked boy would go to one of the woman with chairs. He would sit and the woman would cut all of his hair off! My hand flew to my own thick hair that Mother loved. I loved my long hair too.
Finally the boy would go to yet another pair of women. They would give him clothes, much like the ones I was wearing. He would stand behind those two women, clothed, with boys in matching outfits.
I was moved down the line to the first set of women. I tried to move past them. I was already wearing their clothes. One reached out and whacked me firmly on the back of the head. I froze. I had never been hit by an adult before. I had wrestled with other children, but I had never been struck. I turned to face the woman. She was holding her hand out, waiting for my clothes. I took them off, feeling regret. Mother and Father had probably paid a lot for those clothes so that I would fit in here. They even took my pinchy shoes. I liked that, at least. My feet were not used to being caged.
The air was cold against my bare body. I shivered as I waited for the chair. I stamped my feet once, trying to keep the cold from the floor from seeping into my bones, but the noise was so loud I didn't dare do it again.
The chair was even colder than the floor. I wiggled, trying to get comfortable. The woman snapped my shoulder with the flat side of the scissor blade. I jumped, both from the cold and surprise, and she did it again. I held perfectly still, but I could see a red welt forming on my shoulder.
Cutting my hair was a fast process. A few snips of the scissors and my hair was short, like all the other boys ahead of me. As soon as I was sure she was done, I bounded out of the chair. I shook my head, but no long strands fell over my shoulder. I touched the place where my hair should be as I stumbled to the last set of women.
They handed me a set of clothes. I hurried to put them on before these women hit me too. The clothes were even cheaper than the ones Mother had given me. I joined the group of boys that had been through the process already. We all looked the same. I slipped toward the back of the group to mourn the loss of my hair and the clothes that were my last link to home.
I looked out the window, squinting against the setting sun. I ran my palms over my head. The hair felt wrong. As I was inspecting my transformation, a boy sidled up beside me. He was much older than I was, probably thirteen or fourteen, yet he'd gone through a transformation just like I had.
He was talking to himself. It wasn't the language of the women in black. It was my language.
"What are you looking at?" The talking boy demanded.
I shrugged, casting my eyes downward. My feet had shoes on them again.
"Did you get taken from your home?" The boy asked. "Or did your parents make you come?"
His talking was making me nervous. None of the other boys were saying a word. We were all standing quietly, like statues. It felt unnatural, but I wasn't going to be the one to talk, or try to play a game. The walls, strong and dark, commanded silence and respect. The women had stern mouths and eyes. They didn't look like Sister Elizabeth, who seemed soft.
"I was stolen. My parents went to a school like this. They tried to keep me safe. We lived off the land like the ancestors. But we couldn't hide for long enough. There's no room for the ancestors in this world."
I looked up as the boys began to move. We left the room that I would later learn was called the infirmary. We went back to the hallway. We were herded upstairs, down another hall. Finally, we were stopped with a loud command. I bumped into the older, talking boy as I tried to stop. The boy didn't even turn around to glare at me, but I could still hear him talking to himself.
We went into the room. It was only beds, some stacked on top of each other. The women in black took each of us by the shoulder and put us in one of the beds. I ended up in the bed above the older boy. The mattress was uncomfortable, digging into my flesh.
Then, we were moving again. The talking boy stayed close to me, though I didn't want him too. He talked a lot about the ancestors, the old ways. This place didn't seem to fit the old times.
We were brought to a room, even larger than the infirmary. It was filled with tables. I was amazed at the amount of kids. Boys sat on the left side, all looking the same. The same clothes, the same hair, all methodically eating the meal sat in front of them. But on the right side of the room there were girls, all with short hair and matching skirts. Both sides were eerily silent.
We walked to the front of the room, where plates awaited for us to get our own meal. As we passed the girls, one of the boys reached out, grabbing one of the girl's shoulders, calling out her name. She returned to him, replying to him in kind.
Suddenly, the women in black were leading each of them away from each other to the front of the room for all to see.
"Nuns," the talking boy whispered, before continuing too low for me to hear.
I watched in horror as the two women, the nuns, took the boys belt and beat their palms with it. They spoke to crowd after the girl's cheeks were wet with tears and the boy's hands were swollen. I didn't understand what they were saying, but the lesson was clear; don't talk to the girls.
The rest of the supper passed without incident. I hated the food. It stuck in my throat and tasted nothing like Mother's. The talking boy stayed by my side the entire time, never eating a bite.
We returned to our room. The women stood and watched us change into our pajamas. I went through the motions as quickly as possible. I hated feeling their eyes on me.
I scaled the ladder from the talking boy's bed to my own. I, like most of the boys, went to lie down. A nun hit the boy closest to her on the back of the head. She forced him to his knees on the end of his bed, his hands together in front of him, head bowed.
We were quick to copy him.
The talking boy remained standing. The nun pointed to him, yelling an order. He shook his head, still talking too low for anyone to hear. The nun walked right up to him. The next few minutes were a power struggle between him and her. He did not bow. Finally, she lead him out of the room, he was spitting blood onto the floor as he went.
With all of the boys in the same position, one of the remaining nuns spoke. She said the same words over and over again. She paced the room, twisting the ears of the boys who were silent and forcing open their jaws. I spoke my first words of English that night:
"Our Father, which art in heaven,
"Hallowed be thy Name.
"Thy Kingdom come.
"Thy will be done on earth,
"As it is in heaven.
"Give us this day our daily bread.
"And forgive us our trespasses,
"As we forgive those that trespass against us.
"And lead us not into temptation,
"But deliver us from evil.
"For thine is the kingdom,
"The power, and the glory,
"For ever and ever.
The next morning, we woke before the sun was even up. We dressed under the gaze of nuns and were lead to a room with lots of benches. A man was standing at the front of the room. The boys were on the left and the girls on the right. I took a seat. The talking boy turned to me. "Leave." His brown eyes burrowed into mine. "Leave with me."
I looked away from him, down at the floor. I didn't look up until we were being moved again. This time to a room with lots of chairs with little tables. The women made sure we sat with the boys on the left, girls on the right. The talking boy was right behind me. The man at the front was writing on the board. He turned to us and pointed to one of the things. "A." He said. He pointed to us, then back to the thing. "A." He repeated. A few of us said it to. He smiled, encouraging. "A."
We all said it. Except the talking boy who kept up his own running monologue. He had to be crazy. There had to be something wrong with him.
The man, my teacher, moved onto the next thing. "B."
The days quickly became routine. Church, school, lunch, church, school, dinner, church, bed, pray, sleep. Chores were frequent too, varying in the time of day and activity.
In school, we were reading three letter words. We had learned the alphabet. The teacher pointed to a word, then a girl. "Cat." She said. The teacher smiled.
The teacher pointed to a word, then the talking boy. The talking boy had not yet stopped talking. I feel asleep to his mutterings every night. He had also been subjected to several beatings and had not yet eaten a bite.
The teacher pointed at the word again, then the boy.
The boy said the word, but in Mi'kmaq. The room, which had already been silent, went tense. The teacher's face went purple. He marched toward the boy, fist clenched. The talking boy was still talking. As the teacher punched, kicked and screamed profanities, the boy still spoke.
"Enough," I pleaded in my native language, not knowing enough English to make my request, grabbing the teacher's sleeve. The teacher pushed me away. I hit my head off of the cold floor. My vision exploded with tiny lights and colours.
That night, I found myself under the school, working in the boiler room. The furnaces were hungry beasts, constantly needing to be fed. I was hot and sweaty. As the night wore on, and I became more exhausted, I burnt myself again and again.
At dawn, when we were escorted back to our room to change for church, the talking boy whispered, "run with me."
I had no choice, I could not stay here.
We ran the next night. The moon was full, giving us light to move by. The talking boy looked thin, weak. I knew he had not been eating. We slipped out into the black hallway. I walked as silently as I could, feet slapping the floor. We went downstairs. I knew the door was just ahead. The talking boy opened it, letting in a rush of cold air and moonlight.
There was a scream. A nun was rushing toward us. The talking boy snatched my hand, pulling me with him. Fear thudded in my heart. Freedom was close. Mother was close.
Except, the man who talked in church was just ahead of us. The talking boy veered to the left, except there were more nuns. He pulled me to the right, except the teacher was there.
We made a desperate attempt to get passed the priest, but we failed. He caught us, sending the talking boy to the ground with the force of his blow. I was jerked to the ground as well. The ground was wet with dew. The talking boy was still talking.
The next few minutes I can't recall to memory. I know I was beaten because of the bruises, the blood, the broken arm.
In my next memory, I am in the eating room. All the other children have been summoned, though it is still night. The priest gives a speech. I'm not listening. I don't think I would have understood it anyway. Then, I am being forced to hold out my hands while the priest brings his belt down upon them. I want to scream, but I bite my lip. The talking boy is still talking to himself. When the priest is done with me and the talking boy a nun approaches each of us. I don't understand what has happened until it is over.
I am bald now.
We are lead to a tiny room. I can hear the lock turn. I throw myself against the door, beating myself even more. The talking boy keeps up a relentless muttering. I fall asleep against him.
We are let out for dinner. I don't care about the quality of the food, just the fact that I am eating. When it's finished, I am prepared to go back to the room with the other boys. Instead a nun takes me and the talking boy back to the tiny room. I want to fight, but I can't make this any worse.
The third night in the tiny room is when it happens. The talking boy stopped talking. He slumped against me. I could only hear my own breathing. I screamed, but no one came.
It has been sixty-eight years since the talking boy died beside me. I have not been able to find his name. He has impacted every aspect of my life. As Prime Minister Harper's apology washes over my ears, I remember him.
I kept my head down during my remaining years at the school getting out for the both of us. I, after being released, did what most would not. I rediscovered my culture. I wanted to see what sort of faith would keep a child strong, unflinching, in the face of residential schools.
I never married, never had children. Partly because I did not want them to go to the residential school. Partly because I did not want to raise them like the residential school raised me. I could not bear to see them fall into the suicide and self-medication that the residential schools have gifted us.
Perhaps this apology is the turning point in the legacy of the residential schools. Perhaps, the new generation can be saved. But, no matter what words are said, it will never equate to the talking boy's last words "let the creator free me from the sin of God". And no matter how much money they pay, they cannot buy back my innocence.
©The Last Letter