Authors: Nancy Huston
Yes, British landlords were bleeding the country dry, but frustrated celibate priests tirelessly incited their overworked and undernourished parishioners to indulge in constant copulation so as to go forth and multiply. They painted hair-raising verbal pictures of what awaited married couples in Hell if ever it occurred to them to slough off on their conjugal duty and stop churning out kids: fallow wombs ripped open, lazy penises transpierced with pitchforks, unborn babes flung into cauldrons of boiling oil for all eternity . . . Don’t forget, Milo—horror movies hadn’t yet been invented and neither had TV; people back then weren’t accustomed to digesting war footage with their evening meal. These images of Hell were very real to them. They stuck in their brains, tormenting their consciences by day and giving them bad dreams by night.
The Irish multiplied like rabbits and died like flies. Their country couldn’t feed them! They were packed half dead onto boats; droves of them died on the boats and got flipped into the sea; other droves made it to Sydney, New York, or Toronto and died there of starvation; those who made it to La Grosse Île, just upriver from Quebec City, turned out to be good at dying of cholera. This they did at the rate of five thousand a year for so many years that the island came to be known as Île de la Quarantaine. But still the Irish kept going forth and multiplying, hoping against hope that the next life might be better than this one, sure an’ nothing could be worse.
Oh, the poor Irish, Milo! An undereducated, gullible people, forever kowtowing to teachers and preachers, kings and popes, following their orders, fearing what they were told to fear, praying to the God they were told to pray to, abdicating their wills, allowing themselves to be downtrodden, endlessly cooperating in their own destruction. How I longed to help them! To write a book that would turn their resignation into some unprecedented form of intelligence! But now Ireland had spewed me up in turn. I was persona non grata in my own country, disowned by both the pro-British establishment and the nationalist independence movement.
So why did I never write that book, you ask? Well, my boy, little did I know it at the time, but I had come out of the frying pan into the fire. In Quebec as in Ireland, priests threatened married folk with hellfire if they did anything to avoid reproducing. In Quebec as in Ireland, women routinely gave birth to twelve, fifteen, or even twenty children, praying that half the swarm might stumble their way to maturity and that a precious one might enter the church. Oh, I hated those preachers with a vengeance, Milo, but I loved your grandmother. Being pious, Marie-Jeanne wouldn’t hear of abstinence or birth control; the minute each babe had finished suckling, she would come panting to me for more seed. Her thirteenth delivery killed her at age forty, and sorely do I miss her still . . .
a brilliant way of filming the ocean crossing. For once you’re thinking budget. No need to charter a ship or hire seven hundred actors to play the wounded, wild-eyed returning Canadian soldiers; the whole thing can be shot on set, in the studio. Brilliant. You deserve a kiss.
• • • • •
Awinita, July 1951
SOUND TRACK: IN
the background, far away at first, the beating of Indian ceremonial drums.
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA . . .
Is this throbbing a sound
Or an ache in the air?
Pervasive as light,
Measured and inevitable,
It seems to float from no distance,
But to live in the listening world—
The sound of Powassan’s drum.
Remember you read that poem out loud to me once, Milo, as we flew from New York to Bahia? Its author, Duncan Campbell Scott, was not only a great poet, but arguably the most ruthless throttler of native culture in Canadian history. In the 1920s, even as, in Salvador, Police Chief Pedro de Azevedo Gordilho was busy repressing capoeira, candomblé and
, Scott ran all over Canada persecuting Indians and forbidding their festivals.
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA
. . . White folks have always lived in terror of that sound. It’s the sound of their own bodies, their own desires, which they throttled centuries ago to become conquerors . . . Sorry.
TA, TA-DA, DA
, ta, ta-da DA . . .
In the foreground, so close as to seem to be coming from inside our very brain: zippers, belt buckles, the swish of pants being removed, a man breathing heavily, a man swearing under his breath, another man, another, another and, between pants, swearwords in English and in French,
you little cunt, little slut, little slut bitch,
belt buckle clinking, these sounds gradually fading and the drumbeats coming closer,
ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA . . .
zipper unzipping, a shout.
You like it, don’t you? You like my big fat cock bangin’ into your savage little Indian pussy, don’t you? Come on, tell me you like it, you little whore. You like it, don’t you, eh, you fuckin’ little slut? Hey, little Indian, hey, baby,
drumbeats getting louder,
I’m gonna come, lemme come in your mouth, baby, can I come on your face, lemme come in your
drumbeats now drowning the words out,
yes yes yes YES oh my God, oh mon Dieu, oh oui oh oui ouh ouh, oui, OUI,
the belt buckles, panting, pants, swish of pants and clink of buckle and zip of zipper ultimately rendered inaudible by the extremely loud drumbeats.
Awinita’s face (our face) reflected in a pond. We’re still only nineteen, but our expression is grave. As we stare at ourselves in the water’s still surface, our face sprouts long brown hair and laughs at us. Our body shrinks and we turn into some small, round, furry animal, maybe an
(woodchuck). Quivering, we bound away
Awinita is fast asleep on Declan’s chest in the cruddy little bedroom above the bar. Half sitting up in bed, smoking a cigarette, Declan looks drunk and in an evil mood.
“Nita,” he says (but she’s breathing from the depths of sleep). “Nita!” he repeats, stubbing out his cigarette and jerking her to wakefulness.
“What’s the matter with you?”
She doesn’t answer. Wouldn’t know where to start.
“Ever since the baby was born, it’s as if you don’t wanna make out with me anymore. Come on, whassup?”
“It’s only been a coupla weeks, Deck. I’m tired, dat’s all.”
“We used to have such good times in bed, baby. Come on . . . Make an effort, honey . . . Make me happy.”
“I’m tired, Deck.”
“You make your johns happy all night long, no problem there, no I’m tired there! Just suddenly when it’s my turn, the tap runs dry.”
“Don’t you later-sweetie me. You know we gotta clear outta the room by noon, and I’m not allowed in your place up on the Plateau. I don’t like this, baby. I’m not gettin’ any and it pisses me off.
I’m a normal guy with normal needs and you’re my gal, remember? Maybe you get your kicks elsewhere, but I sure as hell don’t . . .”
“Lemme sleep, man. You should get some shut-eye, too. You had too much to drink.”
Turning her back on him, she pulls the sheet up over her shoulder. He rips it away.
“Don’t you tell me what to do, bitch. You’re not my mother.” He moves onto her.
“Hang on, Deck . . . you wearin’ a safe?”
Large animals—oxen?—writhing in agony. Their bulky bodies heave, they bellow.
Awinita in the apartment on the Plateau Mont-Royal, chatting with her roommates. One of them—Deena, a young Mohawk Indian from the south of the province, also a bleached blonde—always gives her beauty tips.
“Wow, Nita. You should get your hair done, you know that? Your roots are really visible.”
“Yeah, I’ll get around to it. Soon as I’ve paid off my debt.”
“I’ll be all paid up a month from now,” says Cheryl. “Got a terrific weekend job up at that new hotel near Trois-Rivières, Le Paradis des Sports.”
“Lucky you! How’d you land that?”
“Owner was in town coupla weeks ago. Guy named Cossette. Musta liked the way I went down on him.”
“You’re goin’ up in the world, with all that goin’ down. Wow! Put in a good word for us, Cher!”
“Sure thing. Uh . . . Actually they say they don’t want native girls, to start out with . . . But at least you’re working again, Nita. That’s amazing. Got your figure right back, eh?”
“Yeah, nobody’d ever guess you just had a baby just three weeks ago!”
“Not even floppy around the tum.”
“Hurts, dough,” Awinita says.
“Yeah, I know,” says Lorraine who is older than the others, twenty-five or so. “Been through it twice.”
“I never had a baby, but I can imagine.”
“Your johns notice anything?”
“Nah . . . but
“Well, tell ‘em to be nice ‘n’ gentle with you.”
“Yeah, sure,” says Awinita, and the four of them laugh.
“You know what the best painkiller is, don’t you?” Lorraine says.
“Uh . . . love?” says Awinita, and the four of them laugh.
“Nope. Cold as ice. Keep guessin’ . . .”
“Better’n love, but still barely lukewarm.”
“Gettin’ warmer . . .”
CUT to Awinita and Lorraine locked into the bathroom together. Subjective camera: we’re seated on the toilet lid, our face visible in profile in the mirror above the sink. Close-up of a needle slipping into a vein in our inner arm.
“It’s a gift, Nita. Won’t cost you a cent, this first time. Just a gift, to make you feel better.”
Close-up of our face in the mirror. Slowly its muscles relax, its tensions dissolve, its contours fill with bliss. They melt and fade to whiteness . . . Yes, the divine milky whiteness of heroin
you know so well, Milo, darling, and which you’ve always longed to convey on film. We could put Arvo Pärt’s
on the sound track. Our eyes close, our lips and mouth go slack and we sink deeper and deeper into the liquid ecstasy, floating in it as we did in our mother’s womb, hearing the soft throb of our mother’s heart, which is also our heart and that of Mother Earth, that Indian drumbeat we recognize from before . . .
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA . . .
As our flesh melts and the universe dissolves around us, we nod off, our forehead pressed against the bathroom sink, but even that chill hard edge is a pleasure as exquisite as the first spoonful of vanilla ice cream on the tip of our tongue when we were three years old. Our hand falls off our lap, our arm flops to our side and dangles there. We open our eyes long enough to see Lorraine smile down at us and move away . . . CUT.
Awinita has gone home for a visit.
Full summer sunlight glancing off the high blond waving grasses of the Waswanipi Reserve, uncultivated land as far as the eye can see. She walks past the old folks sitting on benches beneath the eaves of their miserable huts. As they gaze after her, we see their brows knit at the way she walks and the way she is dressed. Their disapproval isn’t about her being a prostitute; it’s about her being a city chick, a stranger. Her demeanor can’t fit in here anymore. The community is losing its members one after the other, a slow hemorrhage.
In the shade behind their shack, she sits down with her mother, a hunched and wizened woman of maybe forty-five. Their conversation will be in Cree with English subtitles.
“Many moons it’s been,” says her mother, plaiting sweetgrass.
“Yes. Too long.”
“And the envelopes stopped coming. But now you’re here and it’s better than many, many envelopes.”
“I had debts to repay. Life will be easier now, I hope.”
“Difficulties come to us all, we face them. Your body is strong?”
“My body is strong. The brothers and sisters?”
“There was hunger this year in springtime, but none of us died. Life thrives. The world follows its course. And we must all go back to the earth our mother, who patiently waits for our time to come, her arms wide to welcome and hold us.”
“Yes. When there’s more money, I send it to you.”
“If you have extra, send it so I can buy more flour.”
“Now I must go back to the city. The trip is a long one; night will be day before I arrive.”
“Take advantage of life.”
Gently, unsmilingly, the old woman presses the braid of sweet-grass into her daughter’s palm. Awinita rises and moves off. And, as the punishing sun finally starts to set . . . CUT.
A series of toilet scenes, still and always from Awinita’s point of view.
Seated on the throne of a toilet, now at Liz’s place, now in the cruddy bedroom on Saint Catherine, we wipe ourselves and twist around to check the toilet paper. It comes up bloodless.
Time after time after time, we swivel to find no blood.
Close-up of our impassive face in the bathroom mirror. Our hair is now half blond, half black.
Sound track of men groaning and muttering, panting and swearing, zipping their flies up and down, unfastening and refastening their belt buckles.
A frog tries to leap out of a well. It gathers tremendous energy for each leap but never manages to reach the top. After each failure, it finds itself back where it started, only tireder. Sometimes it bangs its head on the stone wall, but it can’t help leaping; its urge to reach sunlight and fresh air is irresistible. At last it weakens and sinks beneath the water’s surface. There is light there, too, but of a different kind. A still, glazed-green light shrouds the frog.
• • • • •
Who gets your heart, baby, after nine?
Is it mine, is it really all mine?
When I’m away, do you toe the line?
Who gets your heart, baby, after nine?