Homework Assignment #22: Write About Your Family
by Meoquanee Minawasinons (age 7) – April 28, 2079
My family is my two older half-brothers and my two older sisters and my dad and my mom and me.
Sansuka and Sasrutha are old old men, Dad says they would be 26 now. Sansuka is a geomancer and he works in the Deep Fishing Mine in Wattlesburg North. He writes us lots of letters that come in by carrier pigeon because he says they’re faster than the Internet. He calls me baby and gives me piggy-back rides when he visits. Dad says Sasrutha went to Toronto to be with his boyfriend and ended up being a travel writer. He has been everywhere except Mars and always sends us copies of his articles with his very own notes inked in. He writes under a fake name because he doesn’t want the places he’s visiting to know he was there. Except they do, they just don’t know that he talks about them after.
My oldest sister is Keezheekoni, I don’t remember much about her. Dad says she left right after the government had the airtrains put in and maybe she is travelling like Sasrutha, except liking it more and that’s why she doesn’t write to us. Sasrutha always ends up getting a mango worm in his head or needing money for bail, his articles are pretty funny.
Ominotago we call Minnow and she is only four years older than me but she calls me baby-baby, which I like when Sansuka calls me that but not her. Dad says she was used to being the baby and doesn’t like that I’m younger than her, which is silly. I’d rather be older, but not as old as the twins because Sansuka is losing his hair already. Also we call her Minnow because Ominotago means ‘nice voice’ and she sounds like a cat being stepped on. At least I think that’s why we call her Minnow. It’s why I call her Minnow. Sometimes I call her Fishbreath.
Dad says he used to be a no-good layabout before he met Mom, and then he became a good daddy BOOM like that. He grew up in the Tooth for a Tooth War, in the Wild Eagles tribe, but he wasn’t kidnapped like the other kids. He was actually born into the tribe, but he doesn’t remember who his parents are because none of the adults were very good at taking care of kids. That’s why the war ended so badly, because they were all hiding in the Northwest until the leaders finally said, “Oh wait we’re actually pretty stupid and we have no idea what we’re doing.” That’s what Dad says happened. He says they were just a bunch of angry kids and if they had just stayed in the North and been angry all by themselves instead of stealing people’s babies, nobody would have cared. Except they did and some people died and the government couldn’t always figure out which kids belonged to which parents and sometimes they thought the parents didn’t even want their kid back. That’s why I have an Aunt Ying even though she’s not really my aunt, but Dad says she didn’t have anyone else to be family with.
He was trained up to be their storyteller except I don’t think his tribe would like the stories he’s ended up telling about them. He also says Wild Eagles is a dumb name but they chose it because they got tired of news reporters mispronouncing their own language at them. Dad tells stories to the tourists who come up by airtrain now.
Mom’s from Sri Lanka and she married a bad man and she had Sansuka and Sasrutha there but she didn’t want to stay with her husband so she came to Canada instead. And the government found out she was a terramancer and told her to go north and make the hinterlands (where we are) better for tourists. Dad says she must have been a fertility goddess too because she kept popping out babies way after he thought they wouldn’t need protection. I don’t know what that means.
Mom’s a zombie now. She cut herself about a month ago when she was making dinner and we didn’t think it was bad but the next day it went all green and by nighttime she was dead. She and Minnow and Dad and I had all piled into the truck and drove to the hospital fast as we could but it’s really far and the doctors say she would have probably lost her arm anyway.
She had signed up to be an organ donor so we stayed at the hospital overnight while the doctors took out her eyeballs and heart and things. They sort of stitched her back up and we drove home. Minnow and I went to school like always in the school bus but when we got out Mom was waiting to take us home. Minnow started crying and got on the bus, but I let Mom pick me up and she ran all the way home with me on her shoulders. She’s a lot faster than the bus because she doesn’t have to stop at all the houses.
Tammy Gabriel saw Mom drop me off at school the next day and started yelling, “Your mom eats brains! Your mom eats brains!” over and over until I threw rocks at her. When I got home I told Dad about it and he said Tammy’s just upset because her dad died in a mining accident last year but he stayed dead. So the next day I told Tammy I was sorry for throwing rocks at her but if she ever said anything bad about Mom again then next time I would make her eat them. The end.
Meoquanee sits on a chunk of granite which lumps outside the principal’s office. The stone is comfortable, for stone. Her brother Sansuka had made a cozy little depression in it and gifted it to the school a few years ago, when the wooden bench that originally sat outside the principal’s office fell apart from rot.
The principal’s office is a clapboard addition to the schoolhouse proper. Its door is a single sheet of ill-fitting particle board, with a twisted-up wire coat hanger for a knob. It would be impossible to not hear what her teacher and her principal are saying, and since they are talking about her she feels it would be rude not to listen.
So she listens.
“I’d say she’s dealing with her mother’s death just fine.” That’s Jacy Stonefish, the principal. He looks like what a bear would look like if it were human. “Aside from throwing rocks at the other students, but girls will be girls.”
“Her mother is a zombie.” That’s her teacher, Johansen. Meoquanee doesn’t think he has a first name. “I don’t know if you read that part.”
“That was definitely the part I read, yes. I’ve seen her around. What’s the problem?”
“Sir? She is, need I repeat, a zombie. She’s scaring the students. She just stays outside all day, waiting for school to be let out.”
“Whereupon she takes her daughter home. I don’t see this as frightening.”
“Not frightening? The woman has no eyes.”
Meoquanee leans a little to look out the front door. Her was-mother is standing on the single flagstone outside, waiting for Meoquanee to come out so she can run her home. It’s hard to tell how her was-mother knows when it’s time to take Meoquanee home. At recess her was-mother stands over her like a patient vulture. At home she does it to Minnow.
Meoquanee waves. Even without eyes, she knows her was-mother sees it.
“What are you expecting me to do? Tell was-Jivanta not to look after her children? I don’t know how closely you follow the news, but so far it’s proved impossible to make a zombie do anything it does not already wish to do.” There’s a pause. Meoquanee can hear papers being shuffled. “There is also no evidence that zombies will attack the living except under the most exceptional circumstances.”
“And who decides these ‘exceptional circumstances’?” Johansen’s voice raises like the sound of a wet finger dragged along the lip of a wineglass. It shatters at the end, too, just like what happened to the one and only wineglass Meoquanee’s ever found. “Who knows what’s going on in their brains?”
“Nothing’s going on. It’s been tested. They are dead. And the dead still have rights. As long as they are mobile, they will be treated with the same respect you would give to anyone, regardless of their physical or mental quirks.”
“It’s quirks now? I thought it was attributes.”
“Policy changed a couple days ago. I sent a memo.”
Meoquanee loses interest in the conversation. Johansen told her to stay after school while Jacy looked at her homework, and now it sounds like she’s been forgotten.
By her teachers, anyway.
Her was-mother’s mouth hangs slackly open. Tautologically, no muscle is used until it is used. Her arms dangle flaccidly. Even her neck is cantered at a loose angle, lolling occasionally when Meoquanee waves.
Her was-mother is more here for her now than when she was alive.
Meoquanee slips off the granite block — comfortable, but even her brother can’t change its inherent chilliness — and picks up her bag. The voices on the other side of the door continue to speak, absorbed in the intricacies of matters which do not concern her.
“Speaking of keeping informed,” says Jacy, “the annual Gay to be Grey zombie walk is being held in Ottawa this year. Perhaps you’d like to go.”
“Impossible, sir,” is Johansen’s immediate reply. “My mother…”
“Oh yes, I’m sorry. How is she?”
There is no verbal response. Jacy replies with, “Mm. Are you a religious man? Some people find it a comfort.”
“Me, sir? No, I’m an atheist. Frankly, I think zombies are living, ah ha, proof that there is no God. No loving God would do this to His children.”
“Ah,” says Jacy. “A Christian atheist. By the way, I’d be interested in reading her sister’s report.”
“Minnow’s? There’s nothing to worry about. She’s fine.”
“By the way. I’d be interested in reading her sister’s report. If that could be arranged.”
Papers are picked up and shoved roughly into a satchel. “Could we do this tomorrow? Ms. Chan needs to leave at 4:30.”
“Of course. Give my best to your mother.”
Johansen flees. He forgets he even asked Meoquanee to stay after class until he sees her riding her was-mother’s shoulders as he drives by.
Was-Jivanta is running in great leaping bounds. The sewn-up skin of her emptied belly flops inside her dress, creating an oddly hypnotic ripple in her silhouette. Her arms bounce up sharply with every heavy impact of her hiking boots on the dirt road. Meoquanee is shrieking her laughter, her arms wrapped around was-Jivanta’s head in an effort to stay balanced on what could be mistaken for a two-legged pogo stick.
Meoquanee looks happy. Was-Jivanta looks dead.
A great sticky lump clogs Johansen’s throat as he continues the drive back to his house. Ms. Chan does not tolerate tardiness, has threatened numerous times to leave Mrs. Johansen alone if he is not back by 4:30. Sometimes he wonders what would happen if he took her up on it.
It’s not fair.
“It’s not fair,” Johansen whispers.
Minnow and Meoquanee are in their room. Minnow is trying to do her homework, but her was-mother is standing right behind her. There’s a tension in the room that reminds Meoquanee of the wineglass again. She’s fiddling with a bit of string and one of her socks. She has been pretending it was a tree with a lake beside it, but the wineglass tension distracts her from play. She looks up to watch her was-mother, not motionless, but swaying gently in the faint breeze of the room.
Minnow’s shoulders are hunched. Meoquanee thinks of them as the halves of a book, closing.
Suddenly Minnow yowls like a cat and slams her math book shut. She hurtles out of the room, roughly shoving their was-mother aside. Was-Jivanta bumps into the wall and gently collapses. Meoquanee drops her string and her sock and watches her was-mother stand, using her legs and the wall and nothing else.
Was-Jivanta glides out of the room and Meoquanee follows.
“She’s looking at me again!” Minnow has found their father in the room that serves as both living room and parents’ bedroom. Ahmik is on the futon. The TV is on, the one channel showing something from the House of Commons.
“Madam Speaker, this is a gay time to act,” says an officious man in a suit.
Ahmik clicks off the set. “Troutlet, I don’t think she can help it.”
“Make her stop!”
“Troutlet.” Was-Jivanta is standing behind Minnow again. Everyone sees it but Minnow. Ahmik gestures to her to sit beside him. Minnow crosses her arms instead and sets off a furious pout. Ahmik keeps his hands out. “You have to remember, she doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s just what zombies do.”
“Why is she still here? Why can’t she just be dead?”
Ahmik turns from tired to annoyed, limp to sharp. “Don’t talk that way about your mother.”
“She’s dead and I hate her!” Minnow yells. She turns to storm out and bumps into was-Jivanta’s legs. “Get away from me!”
Was-Jivanta stands there, rocking back and forth gently as Minnow punches her. Meoquanee, with the wineglass feeling in her bones, rushes over and shoves Minnow as hard as she can.
Minnow stumbles into the futon. Ahmik catches her before she tumbles. Minnow is looking at Ahmik and Ahmik is looking at Meoquanee and Meoquanee is looking at was-Jivanta and was-Jivanta is.
Ahmik breaks the cycle. “Troutlet,” he says, addressing Minnow, “your mom’s a zombie. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to live with it. I know it’s not fair, but…”
Minnow wrenches away from him, ducks around was-Jivanta and throws herself back into her room. The door slams and there is the thunk of a latch slotting into place.
Was-Jivanta goes to stand outside the door.
Ahmik sighs and gives Meoquanee a look that she isn’t sure about. “Are you mad at me?” she says.
He blinks. “At you? No, not at you. Not at Minnow, either.” He pats the futon and Meoquanee obligingly curls up beside him. “I guess our family’s gotten a little strange, eh?”
Meoquanee shakes her head, but it’s not clear if she’s actually disagreeing. “It’s okay,” she says.
He rubs her back. “So how do you feel about Mom being a zombie?”
“I like it,” she says instantly. She feels his hand judder and bumps her head against his thigh. He goes back to stroking her, but it’s slower now, and lighter, like he’s scared she’s going to break.
“Why’s that?” he says.
“She spends more time with us. She gives good piggyback rides,” she says decisively. “Dad, why is she a zombie?”
“Ah, frogget,” he says. “Do you know what a theory is?”
“It’s a guess. It’s a good guess, and it might even be true, but it’s still a guess.”
“There’s lots of things that doctors think make some people more likely to be zombies than others.” He ticks them off on his fingers. “She was a ‘mancer, and they tend to come back as zombies more often. She was an organ donor, and they tend to come back as zombies. And… well, she was very attached to her work.”
“She was always working.”
“I know.” He stands up suddenly and she plumps against the futon. There’s a row of mason jars on the window sill and he picks one up to show her. It’s covered with smudgey fingerprints and crusted with old, dried dirt on the inside. “You know what this is?”
“Uh.” She sits up. “Mom would wash our feet at the end of the day, and she’d squeeze some of the water into those.”
“Yup. Each of you had your own jar. Sansuka and Sasrutha and Keezheekoni and Minnow and you.”
“What about you?”
He chuckles. It’s an odd chuckle, starting off genuine and ending sour. “She knew I didn’t need one.”
“What are they for?”
“If you went off wandering,” he says, tapping the jar, “she could find you with this.”
Meoquanee’s eyes are wide. “She couldn’t!”
“I never wandered off!”
Ahmik looks very much as though he wishes he’d never taken the jar off the sill. “No, you didn’t.”
He puts the jar back and sits next to her. She snuggles into him, but her eyes are for was-Jivanta. “Is Mom dead?”
He sighs. “It depends who you ask.”
“Do you think she’s dead? Everyone at school says she is, but we didn’t ask the Midewewin to come by, and we still say her name.”
Ahmik takes his time answering. “I think her body died at the hospital, but her soul and her spirit got confused about where to go after.”
Meoquanee says with certainty, “Her body isn’t dead. She runs really really fast.”
“She’s good at running,” Ahmik agrees. He thinks about all the running she’s done: from her country, from her husband, from the Wild Eagles, from her children. Now she’s run away from death. “Lots of practice.”
Suddenly there is a loud thudding against the door to Minnow’s room. Ahmik is up so quickly that for a moment Meoquanee thinks he’s vanished. She trails behind him and they see was-Jivanta throwing herself face-first into Minnow’s door.
“She knows how to open that,” says Ahmik. There is a horrible panicky sound to his voice that makes Meoquanee want to sit down and bawl. He brushes past was-Jivanta and tries the knob. “The latch — Minnow, open the door!” he yells.
There is no answer, but was-Jivanta solves all the problems by hurling herself once more at the door. The latch breaks and she falls inside the room.
The room is empty and the window is open.
“Minnow!” Ahmik wails.
Before he can even turn around, was-Jivanta is up and diving through the window. Ahmik snaps at Meoquanee to stay here! as he rushes out to the truck.
He doesn’t get as far as turning on the ignition before was-Jivanta appears in the rearview mirror, with Minnow under her arm.
Ahmik gets out of the truck and his storyteller’s voice gets big and shouty. “What the hell was that about? Don’t you ever run away again!”
For once, the fight is out of Minnow. “Was going to find Keezheekoni,” she mumbles.
“No you’re not.”
“I want to live with Keezheekoni!”
“I want my sister!”
“hgghh,” says was-Jivanta.
It’s not even a word — it’s barely a cough — but it startles Ahmik and whatever he was going to say gets caught somewhere between his diaphragm and larynx.
Minnow starts to squirm. “Put me down!”
You need air to talk, and to get air you have to breathe, and breathing means lungs, which she doesn’t have anymore. Ahmik stares at his was-wife and realises, with the pinpoint accuracy of those in shock, that he is having a deeply profound and unsettling epiphany.
“We’ll talk about this later,” he says, the shout gone from his voice. “I need to talk to the twins.”
Was-Jivanta takes Minnow inside. Ahmik goes to the shed where the water coolers are kept. There’s two of them, each fitted into its own dispenser, both kept clean and mostly shiny. There’s still a good bit of pinkish water left in each, as correspondence between Ahmik and the twins doesn’t usually require immediate responses, and Jivanta often let months go by between hydrocalls.
Near the coolers are a shallow metal pan and a tuning fork. Ahmik dispenses a little water from each cooler — one with Sansuka’s blood and one with Sasrutha’s — into the pan and sets it on the floor. The floor’s just dirt and seeping dampness, but the call won’t take too long.
Water is the great medium of all transmissions and the blood tunes the call to the individual. You tap the tuning fork and get it humming and stick it into the water and let it buzz itself out, and then dip your ear into the water and talk like normal. The person on the other end gets a persistent buzzing in their ear, and if they want to talk, they just lick their pinkie finger and stick it in their ear. If they don’t want to talk, they wait for the buzzing to go away. A hydromancer on vacation set it up for Jivanta. It’s cheaper than a telephone, doesn’t need electricity or bandwidth like the Internet, and won’t disturb anyone at the movies. It’s also the most private call you can make, which appealed to Jivanta’s sensibilities. Sure, the solution is finite, and sure you’re dipping your ear into someone’s watered-down blood, but these modern conveniences, right? There’s always a catch.
Ahmik taps the tuning fork and sticks it in the water. It seems to take a long time for the water to stop twitching, and he lays on the dirt with his head in the pan.
“Boys?” he says.
You feel the voice in your bones more than hear it in your ear, but he knows it’s Sansuka who answers first. “Hi, Ahmik.”
Sasrutha says, “Ahmik, what’s gay?”
“Minnow tried to run away tonight.”
“She get very far?”
“No. Was-Jivanta brought her back pretty much soon as she left.” Ahmik pauses. “She wants to live with Keezheekoni.”
Sansuka asks, “What did you tell her?”
“Nothing, yet. But I think I should tell her. Both of them. I wanted to talk to you two first. See if it was a bad idea.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” says Sansuka hesitantly, “I just don’t know if it’s the best time for it.”
“Yeah, ’cause waiting for her to hop on the airtrain is a much better time.”
“I meant with Mom dying. It might be too big a shock.”
“Sansuka’s right. Continual lying is definitely the best way to go.”
“I’m just saying she’s at a rough age and it might be better for her to mature a little before springing it on her.”
“Get her to a happy secure point in her life first? And then take it away?”
“So you’d rather give her all the bad news at once and expect her to just get over it?”
“Okay,” says Ahmik.
“Tomorrow,” says Ahmik. “After school. I’ll tell them tomorrow. About Keezheekoni. And Jivanta. Everything she did.”
Sasrutha says, “Eh, was?”
Sansuka says, “Hey now.”
“I think it’s right,” says Ahmik. “You boys, you grew up knowing everything, and you both left. I think…” He stops. There are too many years of swallowing words and bottling feelings to let them out over a hydrocall. “Your mother had her reasons for everything, even if she didn’t explain them all.”
“Any of them,” says Sasrutha. “I wonder if she’s happier now that she can’t talk. She never liked doing it when she was alive.”
Ahmik wants to tell them about the strange noise was-Jivanta made, but he can’t find the words to explain his epiphany. They would react like Minnow, ignoring the importance of that odd exhalation…
“I’ll tell them tomorrow,” he repeats. “I should go check on the girls.”
“Bye, Ahmik,” says Sansuka. There’s a slight lessening of pressure in Ahmik’s head, and he knows Sansuka’s taken his finger out of his ear.
“Lahter, Vater,” says Sasrutha. “You know, I’m glad she chose you. You’re the only one around here who doesn’t run away.”
Tonal variations don’t translate well over hydrocalls, but it doesn’t take an hour’s therapy session to suss out the self-loathing in Sasrutha’s voice. Before Ahmik can reply, Sasrutha’s gone. Ahmik wouldn’t have known what to say anyway.
Ahmik stands creakily. His arm’s gone numb from lying on it and his hip hurts from pressing into the ground. He dumps the pinkish water outside on some rocks and replaces everything in the shed. As he does so, Sasrutha’s parting shot echoes oddly in his mind. His family does have a bad habit of running away from each other, but it occurs to Ahmik that for the first time, was-Jivanta might be running towards.
Inside the house, Meoquanee is sitting on the futon with her knees up and her arms around her legs. The TV is on, a voiceover commentating soberly on two lines of people shouting at each other. It’s the news.
“…clashes expected between the festival organisers and Go to Hell, the radical Texas-based anti-zombie group. This group has taken credit for the dehumanisation of zombies in several American states in the past year, and border police are warned to be extra-vigilant in the coming weeks as the Gay to be Grey zombie walk prepares to kick off in Ottawa in July.”
“You can’t kill what’s already dead!” screams a young woman in the background.
“Lazarus rose! Jesus rose! The righteous also rise!” That comes as a mass chant from the other side.
“Meanwhile, the Trillium Gift of Life Network reports that organ donation registration is on the rise among the youth across Canada, while numbers have dropped sharply for the elderly community, with many refusing to even accept life-saving transplants.”
There’s a cut to a close-up of a middle-aged doctor, stethoscope like a talisman around her neck. “Receiving a transplant from someone who later becomes a zombie is no different than any other kind of transplant,” she says. “A heart from a deceased patient or a kidney from a live patient, it’s all the same. These people were all willing donors.” It’s clear the doctor has plenty more to say, but gets cut off in favour of more people shouting at each other.
Ahmik turns off the TV. “How you doing?”
Ahmik kisses her on the top of her head. “It’ll be okay, frogget.” Louder, he calls, “Minnow?”
“What.” It’s little and croaky.
“Can you come out here for a minute?”
Minnow shuffles out of her room. Was-Jivanta pivots to keep an eye on her.
Ahmik takes a deep breath. “Girls, we’re going to go for a little trip on Saturday, okay?”
Meoquanee finally looks at him. Minnow pouts rebelliously.
“We’re going to visit Keezheekoni,” says Ahmik.
Minnow’s eyes go big.
“We’ll need to bring tobacco and sweetgrass,” he says.
Minnow’s eyes go small.
Ahmik crouches down and puts his hands on her shoulders. “Troutlet… we’re visiting her grave.”
Minnow throws her head back and screams.
Meoquanee claps her hands to her ears. Even Ahmik can’t help wincing. Minnow screams like a throat-singer, one continuous note, rising and falling. Minutes go by and Ahmik tries shaking her gently, then harder, but the noise won’t stop. Eventually he and Meoquanee retreat to the girls’ room and shut the door. It doesn’t help.
Was-Jivanta stands behind Minnow, and Minnow leans against her and howls and howls and howls.
Eventually the noise dies down. There’s a residual buzzing in their ears: for Ahmik, the hydrocall; for Minnow, a wineglass.
They open the door and cautiously step out into the living room/bedroom. Was-Jivanta is standing, swaying in that way she has. Minnow is curled around her feet, snoring like she does.
Minnow stays home from school the next day. Was-Jivanta runs Meoquanee to school as usual. A little after lunch, when Johansen is talking about chlorophyll and photosynthesis, Jacy walks into the room and takes him aside.
Meoquanee, at the front of the class so she can crane her neck to see her was-mother outside, hears these words: “Ying’s on the phone.”
Johansen scurries across the hall to Jacy’s office, where the one phone is. Jacy shuts the door to the classroom, for privacy’s sake.
Jacy smiles reassuringly at the fourteen children in the room while Johansen’s voice gets louder and louder. Then the phone slams down and Johansen is back in the classroom, grabbing his coat and shooting words over his shoulder to Jacy. “She’s leaving. I have to go. She can’t be alone.”
“She’s my mother!” Johansen does stop by the door long enough to give Meoquanee a look of such hatred that she finds herself rising out of her seat, ready to attack.
Johansen runs. Through the two doorways, the classroom’s and the hallway’s, Meoquanee sees him spit on her was-mother.
Jacy shuts the door again as Meoquanee pushes her chair back. “All right, class, let’s get this settled and then we can move on with the lesson.”
“He spat on my mom,” Meoquanee says. She doesn’t feel angry. She feels like she’s waiting.
Jacy doesn’t say anything for a moment. He saw the look Johansen gave her, and he remembers the homework assignment. He addresses the class. “I suppose most of you know Mrs. Johansen?”
Someone says, “My mom says she’s sick.” Someone else says, “She used to watch my brother.” Meoquanee says, “My Aunt Ying looks after her.”
Jacy nods. “Mrs. Johansen needs more attention these days.”
It’s not good enough. Meoquanee isn’t satisfied with leaving things at that. “Aunt Ying says Mrs. Johansen bites her sometimes.”
Before Jacy can answer, another voice pipes up. It’s quiet but pointed, like a pin sliding under a fingernail. “Didn’t know Mrs. Johansen was your mom.”
No sooner does Jacy pull Meoquanee off Tammy Gabriel than was-Jivanta is in the room, kissing-close to Jacy and showing him her teeth. Jacy pulls his hands away from Meoquanee and ducks down to check on Tammy, bleeding from the nose and crying. Meoquanee is breathing hard, and she and her was-mother seem to be trying to stand protectively in front of each other at the same time.
“Everyone settle.” Jacy’s voice is deeper than Ahmik’s. When Ahmik’s voice gets big, it goes straight to your head, sets it spinning. When Jacy’s voice gets big, it goes down to the roots of your feet. “Back in your chairs. We’re having a history lesson.”
Meoquanee sits on the edge of her chair, hands gripping the seat. Was-Jivanta is out the door, but not out of sight. The other kids fidget, glance at Tammy and her red-spilling nose. Jacy gets her some tissues and tells her to keep her head down.
He paces in front of the class. “Who knows who the first recorded zombie was?”
An older student, thirteen, raises his hand. “Inga Stjerna. From Sweden. Uh… 2003.”
“Right,” Jacy nods. His pacing slows, his hands raise up and slash down, creating notes on an invisible blackboard. “Inga Stjerna was an arbourmancer of considerable note in Sweden, an international ecogeek well known for her sustainability projects in Greenland. Plantlife Plants Life was one of hers. While vacationing in Iceland, she fell into a fissure and was retrieved some six hours later. Unfortunately, she had broken a lot of bones in that fall, and she died some three hours later in hospital. True to her reduce-reuse-recycling nature, she had signed up as an organ donor and what parts were still functional were duly taken out. Her body was put on a plane to be sent back to her native Sweden for burial. When the plane landed, ground crews were understandably taken aback to find Ms. Stjerna had freed herself from the airplane coffin during flight.” Jacy clasps his hands together. “Her family was notified and I believe Ms. Stjerna spent the rest of her days roaming Padjelanta National Park, where sightings of her eventually became as legendary as those of the Loch Ness Monster, Elvis Presley and Godzilla.”
Jacy stands behind Johansen’s desk and lays his palms flat upon it. “That’s our first official zombie. Pretty smooth sailing she had, didn’t she? Why was that?”
The same student raises his hand again. “Sweden’s got the highest life expectancy rate so people there are used to…” He cut himself off. “Uh.”
Jacy raises his eyebrows. “Used to?…”
“…having those kind of people around…”
“What kind of people around?”
The student shrinks into his chair. “…kind of useless almost-dead people…”
Jacy leans back. “We’ll discuss that attitude later. Any other reasons? No? Here’s one: Ollie Brown. Ollie Brown,” says Jacy, strolling around the room again, “was a Jamaican-Canadian boy, born 1976. Died 1994, at age eighteen. Motorcycle accident. Registered organ donor. Eyes were all they could harvest from him. Ollie Brown goes into the hospital morgue and not long after scares the skin off a janitor who came down to investigate some strange noises. Janitor finds Ollie Brown up and about. Ollie Brown did not yet have a mortician put his bones back into more or less place, did not have anyone pretty him up with pancake make-up and make him presentable to the family. Ollie Brown is a shuffling, shambling mess, and it does not help that the janitor had some fairly right-wing hang-ups which do not bear going into.”
Jacy sits sidesaddle on the desk and draws his lips down. “There’s a lot of unhappy coincidences that take place in this story. There have always been stories of zombies rising from the dead, but until Ollie Brown there hadn’t been security cameras to capture it happening. Specifically, there hadn’t been cameras to capture it happening to a young, black man who already looked to be in pretty bad shape… getting what was left of him smashed in by a white man with a ring of keys.” He pauses, looks around the room, nods. “And if that is making you angry and uncomfortable, you are not alone. The janitor was eventually charged with ‘indecently interfering with’ and ‘offering indignity to a dead human body’. He was sentenced to five years in prison. During those five years, Ollie Brown’s family worked to not only seek life imprisonment for the janitor, but to change the definition of ‘dead’.”
He stood. “You see, everyone knew that Ollie Brown had died. No one could have survived that motorcycle crash and then had his eyes taken out without kicking up some kind of a fuss. Plus there was that security video showing Ollie fighting for fifteen minutes to get out of that drawer in the morgue, and then stumbling around on half his legs. Like it or not, people had to accept the fact that life after death didn’t necessarily happen somewhere else.
“Ollie was not the first to be recognised as a zombie, but because of his family’s efforts, the world started being able to recognise zombies when they happened.
“Medical dictionaries changed. The Criminal Code of Canada changed. Religions changed. Thinking changed.
“A single zombie changed the world.”
It’s a long lecture for the kids. Some look bored. Tammy glares at Meoquanee over the soiled wad of tissue in her nose. Jacy claps his hands. “Recess.”
After Tammy’s nose is examined and both she and Meoquanee are giving a finger-wagging, Jacy takes a moment to look through the satchel Johansen left behind.
The papers on the kids’ families are still in there. Jacy sits at the desk and puts his feet up to read Minnow’s report.
She talks a little about her dad and mentions her brothers. Meoquanee gets a paragraph of complaints. There’s a lot about Keezheekoni.
There’s nothing about her mother.
“Damn you, Johansen,” Jacy mutters. “Bagwanawizi. Stupid man.” There’s plenty for Jacy to worry about with Minnow’s report, but just as much to worry about Johansen’s reaction. It’s true Mrs. Johansen needs more attention these days. Attention, and maybe a muzzle.
“Jealous idiot,” Jacy says suddenly. “Bagwanawizi.” He’ll pay a visit to the Johansens tonight. As zombies have proven, sometimes just being there is enough.
The next day is Saturday, and Ahmik and the girls ride in the pick-up. There’s tobacco and sweetgrass, cedar and sage. Minnow’s got her fear bundle all wrapped up. Ahmik has Meoquanee hold onto Keezheekoni’s foot-dirt mason jar. Was-Jivanta lopes along beside the truck.
“Does she know where we’re going?” Meoquanee asks.
“I don’t know,” says Ahmik. “Maybe she’ll remember when we get there.”
It’s an hour’s drive. Nobody talks. The road is just dirt piled onto more dirt. There’s jack pines and not much else, but Ahmik always knows where to take a turn.
Eventually he stops the truck in front of a hill and they get out, bringing a picnic basket with them. Ahmik walks them up the hill and all of a sudden an amethyst post comes into view.
It’s lovely. It’s very lovely. There’s a small lodge built behind it, and while not lovely it is very pretty and it suddenly hits Meoquanee that Keezheekoni is buried somewhere underneath it.
Minnow is already running her hands over the post, over the upside-down bear totem carved into it. “Who made this?” she asks.
Ahmik sets down the picnic basket. “Sansuka. The amethyst comes from his mine.” He chuckles. “I don’t think he told his supervisors he was taking it.”
Minnow asks, “Did Keezheekoni have a guide?”
“Yes. A Midewewin came. Maybe you girls remember when we had Aunt Ying stay with you for a while? I was here with Keezheekoni.”
Minnow nods. Suddenly she stops stroking the amethyst post and slaps her hand on the ground. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Ahmik sighs and runs his hands through his hair. “Sit down, girls. It’s story time.”
They sit in a circle which includes the post. Was-Jivanta doesn’t seem to notice them. She’s standing in front of the little lodge and not swaying at all.
Ahmik says, “First I need to tell you about your mother.” Minnow sputters while Ahmik lights a cedar stick. Her voice trails away as the scent rolls over the hillside.
“You know she was a terramancer and the government hired her as a kind of tourism promoter, but that wasn’t all they wanted from her. When she came here… Jivanta had never divorced her husband. She came all the way here with the boys to get away from him. When she got here, the government said, ‘We can’t let you just stay here and cause problems between our countries. But, if you agree to work for us, we can offer you protection and a new life.’ So she did. Publicly, she was sent north to make the land better for tourists. Privately, she was used to find the children in the Tooth for a Tooth War. It was very sensitive, politically — she pretty much had to give up her identity. And she decided it was better that way.”
He sighs. “So they brought her up here and she spent a lot of time tracking down the kidnapped children and figuring out where they had come from and who they belonged to. And she did it using…”
He sets the dirty mason jar in front of him on the grass. “Dirt. As a terramancer, Jivanta could change the very earth itself, make it sand or loam or grow things you never thought possible up here. She could change the shape of the land itself, make a hill where a valley had been. But you can do so much more with terramancy than just play with dirt. You can track down an Ojibwe through his own magical borderlands, you can take the dirt from a child’s foot and find out where they came from.” He taps the jar. “You can find your missing child.”
Minnow frowns. “She’d wash our feet and the used water would go in there.”
“That’s right. When Keezheekoni ran away–”
“Why did she run away?”
“She was never really happy here. Do you remember the summer we let her stay with Sasrutha? He and his boyfriend took her in for a couple months and they said she liked Toronto and Montreal well enough, but she didn’t like visiting the places in between. She wasn’t made for any city smaller than a million people. We knew she’d leave eventually, like the boys did, but we hoped it would be when she was older and… not so angry.”
“Why was she angry?”
“Why are you angry?”
Minnow digs at the dirt with her fingers and doesn’t say anything.
Ahmik sighs. “So. Keezheekoni didn’t like it here, so when the airtrains came in, she got on one and left. We weren’t worried, because we knew Jivanta could always find her with the dirt from the mason jar. We thought we’d give her a few weeks to cool off before bringing her home.”
He stops talking. The smoke from the cedar drifts west.
“The Mounties brought her home first.
“Troutlets… Keezheekoni was murdered.”
Minnow’s face crumples up like a dried flower. For Meoquanee, the concept of murder is barely understood. She thinks of Tammy’s nose when the blood was pouring out, tries to imagine what that would be like all over. Her face is wet and she feels her own nose running.
Ahmik continues. “Your mother and I washed her body. While the Midewewin and your brothers and I kept watch over Keezheekoni, your mother…” He swallows. “Jivanta had cleaned under Keezheekoni’s fingernails, and there was dirt under there, but it wasn’t hers. It was from the man who’d attacked her. While the rest of us were holding vigil, your mother was hunting the murderer.”
“Did she get him?” Minnow whispers.
Ahmik looks away. “She told me she’d buried him so deep that he’d be a fossil before anyone found him.”
Minnow and Meoquanee stare at their was-mother, their mouths as slack as hers. Ahmik shakes his head. “She told the boys. She knew they would have guessed it for themselves eventually, and they were old enough to understand why they couldn’t talk about it. I wanted to tell you girls, at least that Keezheekoni was dead, but Jivanta thought it would just make you ask more questions.” His storyteller’s instincts are telling him to stop talking, the story’s done, but it’s as if the words in his brain and the words from his mouth are disconnected. “I don’t know if either of them were very happy. I don’t know why she thought she–” could love me. “I wish she had spent more time with you girls. After Keezheekoni died, it was like she — ran further away.”
Minnow’s voice is so quiet it barely exists. “Did she even love us?”
He wants to lie, but he’s run out of good ones and okay ones and lousy ones. “I don’t think she wanted to, but it happened anyway.”
They burn Minnow’s fear bundle and nibble at the picnic. Sometimes Minnow brings up a memory. Meoquanee barely talks and frequently goes to was-Jivanta to hug her legs. They spend the day there, exploring the land around the gravesite. They leave before nightfall, when Ahmik can still recognise landmarks.
As they’re getting in the truck, Minnow says, “Can we come back next week?”
Ahmik says yes. Meoquanee clears her throat. “Isn’t Mom coming with us?”
Was-Jivanta is still in front of the lodge. She hasn’t moved since she got there, not even to watch the girls.
“She’s a terramancer,” says Minnow. “She can find her way back if she wants to.”
Yesterday, Ahmik would have heard spite in those words, but today there’s only peace.
“And if not, we’ll see her next week,” he says.
They do see her next week. And the next, and the next.
Between visits, there’s school. There’s Tammy Gabriel, who makes one joke about was-Jivanta not being around any more and when Meoquanee says nothing it’s Tammy who apologises. There’s Johansen’s mom and her dementia, and Johansen running out of the classroom because another caregiver can’t take it anymore. There’s Jacy, teaching most of the classes and not sleeping well, because sometimes Johansen calls him in the middle of the night.
And there’s was-Jivanta, standing by Keezheekoni’s grave. It’s hard to tell, because she doesn’t move much any more, but she looks fatter. Maybe not fatter. More like her hollowed-out belly is getting filled in. Meoquanee mentions it to Ahmik, but nobody can pluck up the courage to lift was-Jivanta’s dress and see what’s going on. He asks her, sometimes. He hasn’t convinced himself yet that she didn’t actually speak those months ago, but it’s weighing less on his mind. The girls are happier, or at least healthier.
One fine summer day, was-Jivanta is nude at the gravesite.
The hiking boots are still on, and that’s it. The family hurries over, more confused than concerned. Was-Jivanta’s back is to them, her arms crooked at her sides. They have to squint against the afternoon sun.
Meoquanee says, “She’s holding her stomach open.”
Ahmik says, “What?”
They circle around was-Jivanta. She’s standing as she always stands, right in front of the lodge, facing west, not moving, but this time her midsection is open. The thick black thread holding her skin together has been taken out, and inside the cavity where her organs used to live is a pile of dirt.
And a fireweed, blooming.
“Did she put it there herself?” Minnow says, though it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it for her.
“Maybe she grew it,” says Meoquanee. “From herself.”
Minnow looks in the little lodge. “I think she took the dirt from in here,” she says. “It’s kind of dug up.”
Ahmik studies was-Jivanta’s slack and faraway face. Part of him wants to touch it, to get any reaction that will tell him there’s still someone in there. He doesn’t touch her. “I never know what you’re thinking,” he whispers.
“Keezheekoni,” says was-Jivanta.
Laura DeHaan is a healthcare practitioner in her hometown of Toronto.