The Medicine Line
Brian Reynolds

After making her announcement about leaving the reservation, Alberta sat at her mother’s kitchen table behind The Globe and Mail “Careers” section. The paper was two weeks old; the jobs were thousands of kilometres away from the reserve and required skills she didn’t have. No matter. She was using it to hide, hoping to avoid further criticism from her know-it-all, teenage daughter. “They're looking for an Airport General Manager in Halifax.”

“Where’s this Halifax?” Louisa, Alberta’s mother, spoke in her nearly toothless Cree: Tan-tay Han-i-vax? She arranged three plastic mugs on the kitchen counter in a row and turned to check the progress of the teakettle moaning on the wood stove.

“She’s not going to any Halifax, Gran. She can’t manage a correspondence course, let alone her life. Airport General Manager. Bull.” Jo’s pierced eyebrows furrowed. “Try again, Mom.”

Alberta sank deeper behind the paper. Books with prominent Lakehead University logos lay at one end of the table. “Principal of Havergale College. In Tee Oh? All girls. You’d love it, Jo. You can’t wait to get to Toronto, right?”

“Gag. I’d so fit in—in some preppy uniform. Stop joking, Mom. Get your degree, OK?”

Louisa pulled a clean margarine tub from under the counter and started making her wah-pah-ka-mi-ni-kan tea by dropping in a half dozen Red Rose packets, then pouring the boiling water over them.

Alberta put the paper down and folded it. “We need to leave Otter Creek. For a while anyway. Till you finish high school.”

“I knew it! I knew you’d put this onto me. I’m not going. Forget it.”

Louisa looked at her daughter and granddaughter, then pressed her lips and squeezed the floating tea bags, one at a time, between a fork and tablespoon.

“Then I’ll go by myself.”

“So go. Who’s stopping you? I can stay with Gran.”

Alberta ran her finger along the cover of a book. She’d just finished number seventeen in her twenty-four lesson undergraduate course—History 2311, “Native People and Newcomers.” She hadn’t mailed her essay yet, “The Medicine Line,” but it was now, finally, inside the university’s manila envelope waiting for a stamp. It told about the arrest of some “Canadian” Cree in 1881 by the U.S. Second Cavalry for hunting on “American” soil. How their weapons and some of their clothing were confiscated in the middle of winter before they were “deported” to freeze and starve trying to walk barefoot back to Chief Piapot’s encampment. Invisible border lines had meant little to the buffalo hunters. She glared at her daughter. “I’ll move off the reserve if I want to.”

Louisa mixed flour, lard, and water into a paste and added it to the tea until the mixture was the same brown as a summer beaver’s soft belly fur. She sweetened it with nearly a full cup of sugar. Then she set a plate of bannock, cut into thin slices, on the table between them and carried the books into the living room.

“Don’t lose those, Mama. I haven’t finished with them,” said Alberta.

Jo picked at a bright red fingernail. “So whatcha gonna do off the reserve, Mom? Start a restaurant or something?”

“I could if I wanted. I might.”

“Need a restaurant here in Otter Creek.” Again Louisa spoke in Cree. She slowly stirred the tea, then tipped the bowl carefully above each mug.

“None for me, Gran. Got a Coke?” Jo was already half inside the fridge, her jeans wiggling in the air as she searched. “Something drinkable.”

“Indian food better for you.” Louisa poured the contents of one mug back into the bowl and slid into a chair at the table. “You want off the reserve? Just go to the mission side.”

Otter Creek was cut in two by a sometimes-trickle of water and a quarter-mile-wide stretch of dried-up ox bow lake. On one side lay the reserve; on the other, the school, airstrip, mission, nursing station, and store.

“It’s still Otter Creek, Mama.”

“Bull, it is.” Jo pulled the tab on her soda. “It’s like further than you think.”

“You’re just lazy, Jo. You need to jog or something. Build up your leg muscles.”

“Not what I meant,” said Jo.

“What did you mean, love?”

“You ever walk over with Gran? Like when she goes to the hospital or the store?”

“Maybe not recently. That makes it longer?” asked Alberta

“You wanna hear this or not?”

Louisa sipped her tea.

“I'm listening, Jo.”

“Like we're talking, eh? On the road. And Gran is going on and on in Cree about a mile a minute so I can barely understand her, OK? Well, every time we hit the bridge—I mean exactly when our feet first touch it—even if she’s right in the middle of a sentence, she switches to English. No lie.”

Louisa raised her eyes.

Alberta frowned.

“I don’t think she even knows. And it’s not just her. I’ve heard others do the same. And it works the other way coming back—English back to Cree.”

“Make a restaurant on the mission side if that’s what you want.” Louisa said it in her own language.

“It’s weird, like magic,” said Jo.

Alberta looked out the kitchen window. “Maybe it’s like a medicine line.” She thought about the possibilities, thought about a restaurant name.

“Whatever a medicine line is,” said Jo. “Sure.”


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