Photographs of Watikwan as a Child
Oliver Harrison was searching for a nail file when he found the photo album.
He’d already checked the medicine cabinet and the night stand, but failing
eyesight meant he often overlooked the obvious. Sometimes he lost his focus.
Sometimes he put away his coffee mug, freshly washed and dried, inside the fridge
or peered intently at his missing glasses without a clue of where he might’ve
left them. Perhaps senility was setting in—or worse. But when Oliver
felt back beneath the clutter of the old receipts and Christmas cards, the
his withered fingers touched the shoelace-binding of the album, he knew exactly
what it was.
As if it were incendiary, he pulled it out with caution and hugged it high
against his chest, then found his cane and took the thin, black booklet slowly
the large apartment to his sitting room. He eased himself into the rocking
chair beside the cool, north-facing window. Then he waited for his heart
to slow, uncertain
if it raced because of exercise or dread of traveling back in time. The photographs
had aged for over forty years, pictures taken by a teacher working on a north
Ontario reserve, a young idealist, a dreamer never once imagining he’d
grow old while the people in the album would stay frozen for all time. The
far away and long ago ghosts no longer begged for objectivity, no longer frowned
when Oliver stepped outside himself, put himself in every pair of shoes. He
their futures. He thought he knew their dreams and apprehensions.
Oliver lifted the cover, and there was Watikwan, a name almost forgotten,
as fresh upon his tongue as when the boy first spoke it. Four of Watikwan
first page, each one a story. Were someone to have touched his shoulder then
and asked him if he’d ever found the nail file, he would have thought the
person daft. “What in the hell are you talking about?” he wouldve
“A thousand words,” is what he really muttered.
* * *
“Vodka what?” says the young teacher turning from the window to his
student. Outside, autumn’s first flock of Canadas wing south across the
muskeg beyond the schoolyard, their tenor voices crack into falsetto, distracting
his class. “You studied what, Albert?”
The boy waits. Patience, Oliver thinks. Give him time to plan it out in Cree,
then translate into English. “Last year we—in Sister Marguerite’s
class—we use the dish-in-air.”
“Yes, yes. We’ll use dictionaries too, Albert.” Lord, grade
five! We’d better use them. The class is struggling in the grade-three-level readers.
Albert grins. He’s less hesitant this time. “We did vohka bewlery
in English class, Mr. Harrison. I’m pretty good, me.”
“Yes. You’re very good, Albert. Now get ready for recess.” Oliver
rests his hand briefly on the boys shoulder. With a grin like that,
the twinkle in his eye, and having spent last summer with an aunt down south,
hell have Albert in detention writing lines and cleaning chalk erasers
soon. Hes a good lad, but a Cree kid here with the spunk to talk directly
to a teacher will surely get in trouble. The rest are sheep: quiet, shy,
so polite hes never
heard a disrespectful word, never seen a frown. Oliver has taught at the
Otter Creek Indian Day School for two years now and has seniority over everyone
the nuns—some of whom have been cloistered here for twenty years or
Class! Yes, I heard the geese. Now put away your pencils. Well finish
English after recess. Thats one command that doesnt need repeating.
What was Albert saying anyway? Vodka-vohka-something.
The bell rings and he dismisses them. He catches Sister Marguerite in the
dim corridor on her way out to the yard.
Sister? He waves across the children filing down the stairs. They
all converse in Cree. Some do goose calls. Fall hunt is near and their excitement
M. Harrison. Duty today pour moi.
This will only take a moment, Sister. She twists her face, indicating Oliver
is not her principal. God is Sister Marguerites employer. Shes made that clear
to Oliver; shes more concerned with souls than proper punctuation. Sister,
Albert Trapper just spoke to me. Something I couldnt understand. Vodka. Something
to do with your dictionaries.
Mais, oui. Nous étudions le vocabulaire. But of course. Naturellement,
I teach dem in English. Voh-ka-bew-ler-y, of course. Dere is some problem,
* * *
Standing at his window, watching the tide of black-haired, brown-skinned
children waiting patiently in lines for the broken teeter-totters and the
Oliver sips his coffee. Jesus H. Christ. Is it any wonder that they dont
speak English well? Half the staff are nuns, first language French. The only
teacher is from India. One from Hong Kong, one from Sweden.
The battles lost, Oliver thinks, before they even start. When TV finally
comes this far into the boondocks, of course then things will change. Theyll
to school with handy English phrases: Gimme a Big Mac and Reach
fur the sky, Injun.
His dead-end rant stops with the ringing bell.
Outside, students dawdle toward the building—most of them. Theres trouble
on the far side of the yard. Sister Marguerite wags her finger at a group of
students, some of them his. He can see Albert mimic her, wave his finger back
directly in her face. Suddenly they bolt. They head pell-mell toward the school,
the sister in pursuit. Her grey habit billows like a thunderstorm around her.
The ones in front are fives, his fives. No contest. They make the school
door ahead of her by twenty yards. The younger ones are not so fleet, but
them are Sisters target. As she passes the little ones, she taps each
lightly on the shoulder as if shes noting names for later, but this
wont be a game
for her. Therell be no ollie ollie oxen free for anyone today.
Students have already come into his classroom. Already there are tip-toe
faces pressed against the window as Sister hits the steps and lunges through
Thats enough, class. Shows over. Take your seats. The bell
is the bell. Take
your seats now. Keineipee! Hurry up. We have English to finish. Ahpei, Sarah!
To your seat now!
Theyre just complying when Albert slithers through the door, closes it behind
him, and flips the lock.
Albert Trapper. And why are you so late?
I stop for drink, sir.
Take your seat, Albert. Youre sweating awfully hard; I can see you needed that
drink. Oliver is moving toward the door when the handle turns; then it
rattles and everyone can hear a breathy M. Harrison! from the other
Im on my way!
Dont open it, Mr. Harrison! Dont!
Sit down, Albert. Ill take care of this.
Oliver has barely turned the lock when the door slams open and the red-faced
nun stomps across the threshold. Hes barely opened his mouth when she bellows, Fuck
you, Albert Trapper! Fuck you, slut!
Olivers mouth remains open.
Albert hasnt taken his seat. Hes retreated to a back corner. Sister starts
toward the cowering boy, but Olivers hand finds her shoulder. Physically
restraining a nun. What are the odds of lightning striking inside a classroom?
Sister! Could we have a word in the hall? Mr. Trapper might need some time
to collect his thoughts. He turns to the class. "The rest of you.
Your Reading. Keep working on the questions, page sixty-seven. If you get
and reread page sixty-six. Quietly.
Quietly is superfluous. The class has never been so quiet.
Dis is not over, M. Trapper, says Sr. Marguerite over her shoulder as
Oliver ushers her into the hall.
Once there, he can see she is trembling as much as Albert was. Sister?
What means dis Fuckyouslut? she asks Oliver once shes caught her breath. I
say it right back at him.
Oliver blushes while Sister Marguerite waits patiently for her voh-ka-bew-ler-y
lesson. After school, thinks Oliver, during detention hell take Alberts
picture peeking over the large Canadian Oxford Dictionary on the back table.
He may even
take the photo home at Christmas, have it blown up to eight by ten and framed
for hanging on his wall.
His long black hair held back by a moosehide headband, Albert peeks up at
Mr. Harrison. Its February. Its lunch hour and Albert notices
eyes dart from the clock to the open classroom door. Not coming back
this afternoon, me, Mr. Harrison.
Whats wrong, Albert? Youre feeling ill?
I feel good, Mr. Harrison. I have work to do this afternoon. Its a risky
conversation, one Albert would rather have in Cree—if his teacher spoke
Cree, aside from sit down and hurry up. The other
grade fives almost never speak to their teacher at all. No one talks to him
things outside the school; no one but Albert would dare announce in advance
he is cutting
Your work this afternoon is fractions, Albert. Subtracting fractions is
the hardest work of all. Youd better tell whomever that youre busy here in
I go get wood all afternoon, Mr. Harrison.
Let your father cut the firewood by himself. Albert can hear Mr.
stomach rumble. You run home now and get some lunch or youll
be late for class. The bell is the bell, Albert.
Albert smiles because Mr. Harrison always says the bell is the bell and
each time he says it, Albert wishes all English sentences were so sensible and
easy. Now he must construct a difficult speech for his teacher, one he doubts
will be understood, one that is tricky to utter aloud. Mr. Harrison moves his
feet and frowns. Big party at my house last night, Mr. Harrison. My house
is cold now. Catch up with school tomorrow, me. Anyone in his village
would already know this without having to be told, that his baby sister needs
fire, that his father and mother would be asleep after the all-night party.
Any inninew, any human being, would understand this, but Mr. Harrison only
his lip and grunts.
Your place is here, Albert. I expect you here. Mr. Harrison shakes his
head. Go now. Get some lunch. Is it any wonder you kids slip further
and further behind each year? Go home. Dont play along the way. Ill see you
Tomorrow, Mr. Harrison.
* * *
Bitter wind finds every worn seam in Alberts parka as he drives across the
river and then down the bush road. When he guides the battered snow machine
familys narrow turnaround, stands of spruce and cedar block the wind and
blunt the cold a little. Albert shifts from one side of the seat to the other,
his body to help steer through the twisting moguls of fresh snow. He ducks
low to avoid overhanging branches. He looks back, checking the sleigh, making
its firmly on the trail as he slows and stops at a place where there are
dying trees that will burn in the woodstove without causing a chimney fire.
A Canada jay swoops low through the forest like an artist making a single,
perfect brushstroke, perches on a nearby stump, and cocks its head. Without
of the Ski-Doo, the birds soft whee-ah, chuck is suddenly loud.
As Albert fills the chainsaw with gas and oil and takes the lightweight trimming
axe from under the tarp, he talks to the jay. Nina ndohkimawin. Im
the boss today. They have the sickness. So I cut the wood; I take care of my
The jay struts and whistles.
I didnt bring you any bannock, not today. Next time, maybe.
Whirr. The jay flutters to a branch and scolds.
Albert cuts four black spruce, trunks no bigger around than his slim waist.
The snow is deep; Albert is careful with the chainsaw, turning it off as he
from tree to tree, trampling the snow around each one before he sets the
roaring saw against the bark and lets it chew itself into the wood the way
taught him. He checks the wind in the treetops to know where theyll want
to fall. After each cut, after he puts the chainsaw down, he leans into the
and lets the last half-inch of frozen stump crack like a rifle shot through
the silent forest. Each time the boughs whoosh softly into the snow, the jay
and Albert laughs at its odd sense of humour.
Removing branches is the hardest. Albert takes off his parka so it wont
get wet from his sweat and freeze the cloth solid on the drive home. When
the axe to each fallen tree, the curious bird follows him like a dog. Straddling
a tree trunk, Albert slides the axe along the bark, knocking off the small
dead twigs and moss that dot them. Then he stands in the waist-deep snow
the axe above his head to clip the largest limbs.
Watikwan, says Albert to the jay. He points to the sharp nub of limb left
where hes trimmed it. Thats my nickname. When Father carries a tree over
to the sleigh, he says the watikwan bites his shoulder. Maybe I was a bad baby,
eh? Albert laughs with the jay.
After he cuts the logs into stove lengths with the chainsaw, after he loads
the long box-sleigh, after he shivers himself warm again inside the cold
he pulls the starter until the engine catches, he sits on the Ski-Doo seat
and watches the jay. You never come into the schoolyard, Weesakichak. I dont
think you will like it, but it is fun for me sometimes. As Albert leaves
the turnaround, the jay soars high above the tree tops, blending into sky
like smoke or cirrus clouds.
* * *
All right, children. Settle down now. The bell is the bell. Weve lots of hard
work to do this morning. Mr. Harrison taps his ruler on the desk like he
always does to get their attention. Did you have your fun playing in
the bush yesterday, Mr. Trapper? We missed you.
Albert says nothing, only grins and blushes. Mr. Harrison is lucky to live
in the teacherage with an oil furnace that runs even when there is a party;
Harrison had a baby sister she would never get cold.
Thats about what I thought. Well, kids will be kids. Lets start with
a review of common denominators for those who were truant yesterday. You pay
Albert. Its time you did some work.
Albert says nothing, but he thinks, whee-ah, chuck, and smiles. Maybe
someday hell give Mr. Harrison the Polaroid photo that his proud father took
yesterday—an out-of-focus boy standing beside a sleigh piled high with
Tan tatoh? How many? Alberts cousin shoves one hand in the front pocket
of his torn jeans; from the other hand, a slingshot dangles carelessly.
Albert can feel his face warm as he kicks at the melting slush. If he says, None, or
says, None yet, the older boy will laugh at him. If he says nothing
at all the boy will pull his catch of snowbirds from his pocket and make Albert
feel still worse. Lying is not an option, so Albert laughs before his cousin
can snicker, laughs to show it doesnt matter. To show Albert is younger anyway,
and by the end of the morning hell have snowbirds, too, something for his own
mothers cast-iron cook pot.
Alberts cousin catches the laughter and returns it, but he pulls out the
handful of brown and white anyway. Four small white heads, eight tiny feet. Nayow.
Albert nods, the way hes seen his father nod to honour the moose or geese
of other hunters. Four is not very many, but its a start. Its food. His
has done well and Albert, nearly eleven, knows it merits his respect.
Now the older boy points his nose at a small flock of birds that has flown
into the adjoining yard, turning their wings in unison from brown to white
dip and circle, all landing at the same instant like a single patch of slush
falling from the sky onto the dead grass. Hes claimed them by seeing them
first. He returns his catch to his pocket, crouches, and readies his slingshot
sneaks through the grass toward his prey.
Albert walks the opposite way, hopeful of his own chance. There are many
snowbirds, but the prospect of hitting one with a stone seems small.
* * *
Alberts father studies the splash of brilliant green and yellow, limp in
his broad palm. I have never seen one like this, Watikwan. It must have got
lost. Sometimes during the migration, a flock will get spread out. Maybe there
was a bad storm. Maybe this one became confused.
Albert grins. A breeze off the northern muskeg riffles his ebony hair, but
he doesnt shiver. Albert eyes the small bird, memorizing it so he can draw
its likeness. Maybe hell show his teacher. Maybe Mr. Harrison will know
how to find its name. Most important, he has stumped his father. He has discovered
something new in his rich and complex world far from the nearest highway. It
is the only one, then. So it belongs to me. I hit it. I can name it.
Albert raises his nose to the wind to show his father how he stalked his
prey. He mimes the way he kept his head just inches from the ground as he
distance on the bird so different from the grass around it. He tells his
father that he thought it mightve been an empty bag of crisps until it spoke
until he heard it sing. He shows the way he placed the smooth round stone
into the centre of the bundled rubber bands borrowed from Mr. Harrisons
desk, how he drew it back and bam.
Alberts father simply nods and places the strong brown fingers of his other
hand gently on his sons shoulder.
Ill call it Muskoshee. I saw it in the grass. It stood in the grass and sang
to me. It died there in the grass. Albert runs his finger along the birch-crotch
he has carved into a weapon. He feels its slick, lean strength come into him
and he puffs out his chest.
A bird is not grass, Watikwan. It traveled across the sky alone like
the sun. The wind brought it to you, son. But the bird was the only one that
Now everyone will admire my bird, my penaysheesh. Watikwans penaysheesh.
Alberts father sits on the stairs of their back porch so his eyes are at the
same level as Alberts.
None of the other boys has killed a bird like this, says Albert. I
only killed one snowbird this morning, but this bird it is worth ten of them.
Twenty. This one is special. Now I will go show the others.
Alberts father closes his fist so only one yellow leg and a bit of beak,
a fleck of feather shows.
It came to me. Its mine. I want to show it. Give it.
Why did it choose you, Watikwan?
The tightness in his throat keeps Albert from answering. He wants to say the
bird came to him because it knew he was the best hunter, because it would
make his cousin and the other boys jealous, because Alberts fingers and toes
from the cold after a morning of wandering the village while managing to
kill only one small snowbird, because he had earned it. Albert knows his fathers
reason. The tightness makes arguing impossible.
To satisfy your hunger. Now honour it. Take it to your mother.
Alberts face falls. Would the other boys believe him without the proof? His
prize. There is nothing else to say. Nothing can stand against the rightness
of his fathers words, but if Albert draws its picture well, then Mr. Harrison,
at least, will understand its importance, will praise him in front of the
other hunters wholl have nothing but snowbirds to talk about. Mr. Harrison
take a photo of the drawing like he has before, one with Albert holding it
out and smiling boldly.
She will cook it. You will eat it with your supper. His fathers fingers
uncurl and he extends his arm so Albert can take it—his bird with no
Touch* * *
When Olivers students finally settle, he walks up and down the rows of brown-eyed
smiling faces, placing sheets of paper, ripe with ditto fluid, face-down on
No peeking means no peeking, he says to one overanxious student. Wait
until everyone has the test, then well all start together. Dont panic. Its
just a quiz. Do your best. Youll do better if you just relax.
He stops at Albert Trappers desk. The boy is hunched atop a different piece
of paper, and Oliver is about to remind him about clearing desks and paying
attention, about to tell the boy he ought to listen, get his mind onto his
just in time he sees what Albert has been doing. Just in time, he stops his
tongue. Its another drawing—this one, a portrait of the teacher. Albert?
Let me see.
Oliver has never known anyone of any age who draws like this. Many of his
students are good in art—keen observers of things around them, above the norm at
judging distances and angles, advanced in eye-to-hand co-ordination—but
Albert, hes something else entirely. If he keeps it up, even if he never gets
any better than he is right now, the boy has real potential. Especially if
he does his secondary somewhere like Toronto, someplace with a first-class
school, a school with real artists for teachers. Then all this talent could
turn into a good career.
Albert passes the drawing to his teacher without comment. Other students
crane their necks to see.
This is not a cartoon or disrespectful caricature. The eyes are perfect,
almost blinking from the page. Its so effortless, they might have drawn
Albert. Someday youll to be famous. Thats the truth. Whats this here along
My name in Cree, Mr. Harrison.
Syllabics. I cant read them, Albert. Your initials? Just three marks?
My whole name. The dot and triangle says wah. The upside down U with the
little line, it says teh. Then kwan, he says pointing to last syllabic. My
Indian name. Watikwan.
The register says Albert Trapper. You mean, all year youve had a different
name and no one told me? Do the rest of you have different names?
There are giggles and the shuffling of feet, but no one speaks. Some
Albert. That is OK, Mr. Harrison; we know our English names. A name
is a name. Albert strains, pressing his lips together, but cant
suppress his laugh.
Wah-teh-kwan? Oliver shakes his head. Watikwan, today youve
got a grammar quiz. You put away your art for now. English class is English class. The
boy is smiling. The praise pays off. More flies are caught with honey...
Although finding nouns and verbs in simple sentences seems such a waste for a
like him, what must be done must be done. In spite of all his foolishness
and opposition to authority, Oliver likes him, wishes he could somehow rescue
from this lonely patch of muskeg so far from real culture. Hes bright.
In the right environment, hed surely thrive. Hed deliver papers
every morning instead of killing finches. Hed have two sober parents
who wouldnt let him skip his
lessons just to keep them warm. Hed be famous, not in trouble with
the nuns. Oliver touches the boys shoulder. Do your best on
this, Watikwan. Leave the drawing till art.
He turns back to the class. Ready? Begin now.
Seventeen of Olivers students flip their quizzes in unison as if they were
a flock of snowbirds; then they lean forward, their lips parting slightly
mouth the sentences. His eighteenth student slides an unfinished portrait
on top of the test and uses his small but graceful fingers to gently rub
contouring the pencil lines together to bring the teachers solemn face to
After class, after Watikwan finishes making up the quiz, Oliver brings
up the possibility of art school. You should take a stab at it. Who knows
how far youd go. You need to try, Watikwan. You need make it happen. Then
he stands his student by the chalkboard, the portrait sitting on the ledge
beside him. Then he snaps the picture as Watikwan shuts his eyes against the
For the final weeks of school, Albert is Watikwan in Mr. Harrisons class.
In the years that follow, when the boy drops by the grade five classroom
his former teacher scraps of paper with birds or trees or human figures,
then Watikwan is Watikwan.
One winter night the following year, the youngest brother of the schools
custodian drops by the teacherage to pick out melodies on Olivers acoustic
asks if Oliver would like to cut some wood the coming weekend. A chance to
see the bush and do some manual labour. It might be fun for you, he says.
Oliver sees it as a chance to take more pictures, to learn about the people of
Otter Creek. The man teaches him a word while Oliver struggles through the snow
with a trimmed log on his shoulder, then laying it on the pile beside the sleigh.
When Oliver complains the sharp ends of branches pinch into his flesh, the other
man laughs and says, Watikwan. Watikwan is biting you.
* * *
The next time Watikwan bites his former teacher, it is five years later,
a year after Oliver moves back to southern Ontario. The day he sees Watikwans
the name Albert Trapper really, buried in a small article on an inside
page of the City section of The Toronto Star, Oliver is teaching
at his new school where the grade five students read from grade five readers
and each teacher
speaks English distinctly and correctly.
Oliver sips his coffee in the staffroom while reading the paper. His gaze
floats over the stories while his mind checks off the points he is going
to make in
his next class.
Accident at Central Tech. The headline is small. The paragraph, short.
A grade ten student, Albert Trapper, a Native at the new art school, while
cutting bronze ingots on a band saw in the schools metal shop, preparing
to melt the
pieces to cast one of his exceptional sculptures, this Albert Trapper accidentally
severed all four fingers on his right hand. School officials are investigating.
Thats all it says. In spite of the neatly lettered sign above the
staff-room sink, at the end of the period, Oliver neglects to wash his coffee
put it back inside the cupboard. The bell is the bell, after all.
The old mans eyes had fallen closed. They opened suddenly at the sound
of the photo album hitting the hardwood floor. Once fully awake, Oliver shook
until the youngsters phantom scream became a whimper, became the
sharp pain inside his shoulder. Arthritis once again.
Leaving the album next to the rocking chair, Oliver Harrison heaved himself
up and shuffled across the room. Somewhere in his small apartment hed misplaced
a nail file. It had to be somewhere. A nail file was a nail file, and it
walk away by itself.
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