Photographs of Watikwan as a Child
Brian Reynolds

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 moment 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 through 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 knew 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 on that 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 would’ve said.

“A thousand words,” is what he really muttered.

* * *

English Lessons

“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 members of 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 boy’s shoulder. With a grin like that, the twinkle in his eye, and having spent last summer with an aunt down south, it’s likely he’ll have Albert in detention writing lines and cleaning chalk erasers soon. He’s 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 he’s 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 except the nuns—some of whom have been cloistered here for twenty years or more.

“Class! Yes, I heard the geese. Now put away your pencils. We’ll finish English after recess.” That’s one command that doesn’t 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 is palpable.

“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 Marguerite’s employer. She’s made that clear to Oliver; she’s more concerned with souls than proper punctuation. “Sister, Albert Trapper just spoke to me. Something I couldn’t 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, M. Harrison?”

* * *

Standing at his window, watching the tide of black-haired, brown-skinned children waiting patiently in lines for the broken teeter-totters and the only swing, Oliver sips his coffee. Jesus H. Christ. Is it any wonder that they don’t speak English well? Half the staff are nuns, first language French. The only Indian teacher is from India. One from Hong Kong, one from Sweden.

The battle’s lost, Oliver thinks, before they even start. When TV finally comes this far into the boondocks, of course then things will change. They’ll come 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. There’s 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 none of them are Sister’s target. As she passes the little ones, she taps each lightly on the shoulder as if she’s noting names for later, but this won’t be a game for her. There’ll 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 the downstairs door.

“That’s enough, class. Show’s 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!”

They’re 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. You’re 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 side.

“I’m on my way!”

“Don’t open it, Mr. Harrison! Don’t!”

“Sit down, Albert. I’ll take care of this.”

Oliver has barely turned the lock when the door slams open and the red-faced nun stomps across the threshold. He’s barely opened his mouth when she bellows, “Fuck you, Albert Trapper! Fuck you, slut!”

Oliver’s mouth remains open.

Albert hasn’t taken his seat. He’s retreated to a back corner. Sister starts toward the cowering boy, but Oliver’s 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 stuck, go back 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 she’s 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 he’ll take Albert’s 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.

Uncommon Denominators

His long black hair held back by a moosehide headband, Albert peeks up at Mr. Harrison. It’s February. It’s lunch hour and Albert notices Mr. Harrison’s eyes dart from the clock to the open classroom door. “Not coming back this afternoon, me, Mr. Harrison.”

“What’s wrong, Albert? You’re feeling ill?”

“I feel good, Mr. Harrison. I have work to do this afternoon.” It’s 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 about things outside the school; no one but Albert would dare announce in advance he is cutting class.

“Your work this afternoon is fractions, Albert. Subtracting fractions is the hardest work of all. You’d better tell whomever that you’re busy here in school.”

“I go get wood all afternoon, Mr. Harrison.”

“Let your father cut the firewood by himself.” Albert can hear Mr. Harrison’s stomach rumble. “You run home now and get some lunch or you’ll 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 a warm 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 bites 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. Don’t play along the way. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

“Tomorrow, Mr. Harrison.”

* * *

Bitter wind finds every worn seam in Albert’s parka as he drives across the river and then down the bush road. When he guides the battered snow machine onto his family’s 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, using 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 sure it’s 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 the growl of the Ski-Doo, the bird’s 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 n’dohkimawin. I’m the boss today. They have the sickness. So I cut the wood; I take care of my family.”

The jay struts and whistles.

“I didn’t 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 moves 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 his father taught him. He checks the wind in the treetops to know where they’ll want to fall. After each cut, after he puts the chainsaw down, he leans into the trunk 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 screams and Albert laughs at its odd sense of humour.

Removing branches is the hardest. Albert takes off his parka so it won’t get wet from his sweat and freeze the cloth solid on the drive home. When he carries 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 and raises 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 he’s trimmed it. “That’s 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 parka, before 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 don’t 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. We’ve 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; if Mr. Harrison had a baby sister she would never get cold.

“That’s about what I thought. Well, kids will be kids. Let’s start with a review of common denominators for those who were truant yesterday. You pay attention, Albert. It’s time you did some work.”

Albert says nothing, but he thinks, whee-ah, chuck, and smiles. Maybe someday he’ll give Mr. Harrison the Polaroid photo that his proud father took yesterday—an out-of-focus boy standing beside a sleigh piled high with firewood.

Albert’s Penaysheesh

Tan tatoh? How many?” Albert’s 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 doesn’t matter. To show Albert is younger anyway, and by the end of the morning he’ll have snowbirds, too, something for his own mother’s cast-iron cook pot.

Albert’s 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 he’s seen his father nod to honour the moose or geese of other hunters. Four is not very many, but it’s a start. It’s food. His cousin 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 as they dip and circle, all landing at the same instant like a single patch of slush falling from the sky onto the dead grass. He’s claimed them by seeing them first. He returns his catch to his pocket, crouches, and readies his slingshot as he 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.

* * *

Albert’s 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 doesn’t shiver. Albert eyes the small bird, memorizing it so he can draw and colour its likeness. Maybe he’ll 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 closed the distance on the bird so different from the grass around it. He tells his father that he thought it might’ve been an empty bag of crisps until it spoke to him, 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. Harrison’s unattended desk, how he drew it back and bam.

Albert’s father simply nods and places the strong brown fingers of his other hand gently on his son’s shoulder.

“I’ll 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 knew its name.”

“Now everyone will admire my bird, my penaysheesh. Watikwan’s penaysheesh.”

Albert’s father sits on the stairs of their back porch so his eyes are at the same level as Albert’s.

“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.”

Albert’s father closes his fist so only one yellow leg and a bit of beak, a fleck of feather shows.

“Give it.”


“It came to me. It’s 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 Albert’s fingers and toes stung 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 father’s reason. The tightness makes arguing impossible.

“To satisfy your hunger. Now honour it. Take it to your mother.”

Albert’s 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 father’s 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 who’ll have nothing but snowbirds to talk about. Mr. Harrison may even 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 father’s fingers uncurl and he extends his arm so Albert can take it—his bird with no name.

The Artist’s Touch
When Oliver’s 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 every desk.

“No peeking means no peeking,” he says to one overanxious student. “Wait until everyone has the test, then we’ll all start together. Don’t panic. It’s just a quiz. Do your best. You’ll do better if you just relax.”

He stops at Albert Trapper’s 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 schoolwork, but just in time he sees what Albert has been doing. Just in time, he stops his tongue. It’s 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, he’s 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 tech 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. It’s so effortless, they might have drawn themselves. “Someday, Albert. Someday you’ll to be famous. That’s the truth. What’s this here along the edge?”

“My name in Cree, Mr. Harrison.”

“Syllabics. I can’t 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 you’ve 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 do,” says Albert. “That is OK, Mr. Harrison; we know our English names. A name is a name.” Albert strains, pressing his lips together, but can’t suppress his laugh.

“Wah-teh-kwan?” Oliver shakes his head. “Watikwan, today you’ve 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 gifted student 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 him from this lonely patch of muskeg so far from real culture. He’s bright. In the right environment, he’d surely thrive. He’d deliver papers every morning instead of killing finches. He’d have two sober parents who wouldn’t let him skip his lessons just to keep them warm. He’d be famous, not in trouble with the nuns. Oliver touches the boy’s shoulder. “Do your best on this, Watikwan. Leave the drawing till art.”

He turns back to the class. “Ready? Begin now.”

Seventeen of Oliver’s students flip their quizzes in unison as if they were a flock of snowbirds; then they lean forward, their lips parting slightly as they 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 circles, contouring the pencil lines together to bring the teacher’s solemn face to life.

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 you’d 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 flash.

For the final weeks of school, Albert is Watikwan in Mr. Harrison’s class. In the years that follow, when the boy drops by the grade five classroom to show 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 school’s custodian drops by the teacherage to pick out melodies on Oliver’s acoustic Martin. He 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 Watikwan’s name, 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 school’s 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. That’s 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 mug and put it back inside the cupboard. The bell is the bell, after all.

* * *

The old man’s eyes had fallen closed. They opened suddenly at the sound of the photo album hitting the hardwood floor. Once fully awake, Oliver shook his head until the youngster’s 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 he’d misplaced a nail file. It had to be somewhere. A nail file was a nail file, and it couldn’t walk away by itself.

Otter Creek is a fictional reserve located in northeastern Ontario. The people there speak the n-dialect of Cree. I am indebted to Alexandra Sutherland for correcting my poor attempts at their language and helping translate it from syllabics into roman letters.

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