Copper bright, p.1
Copper Bright, p.1F. L. Pomeroy
By F. L. Pomeroy
The sea kayak slices through the waves like it was born from a union of air and dark water, not fiberglass with a heart of pine. It was my mother’s favorite, back when she cared about things like kayaks. But it is now my favorite, because my mother is dead.
I shift my twin-bladed oar, look toward the horizon. Fog hangs stagnant in the distance, muting color, hiding shape. I watch for the island, will it to appear. I squint, sigh, and move forward within the kayak until I’m leaning as far as I can over the water, but nothing resolves.
From my first visit to Michipicoten Island when I was five, to today, I see no change. So long ago that it seems unreal to me, this island was discovered by one half of my genetics, shown to them by the other division who were already there and already knew. But, in all that time it is still much the same. Hidden, a floating time capsule in a sea of wildness.
I drop my gaze, pick up the compass that is tied by a nylon cord at my neck. I sight it toward where I think the island is, make a slight adjustment to the direction of my kayak bow with my oar, and start paddling again. The weight of the copper lump on my knees feels suddenly heavier, and I sigh again. Mom should be here, because this would have been us together, like every year. But it’s not. I need to accept that.
And I’ve worked hard to quiet the part of me that blames her for this. No bit of me should, and I’ve tried a million times to stop the feeling whenever it creeps up. But she chose to go that morning, to the pow-wow instead of out with me, kayaking. She chose to die when that car hit hers, a part of me says.
That part of me is always wrong, but sometimes in the dark it is the only part of me left that I recognize, and somehow it wins.
My mother is really dead, I guess, because she cared so much about what she used to call ‘our culture’. She referred to me and her as if I was Ojibwe like she and not a half-blood with a dad that left us both one night when I was four. She went to the pow-wows every year, long after I stopped going. When I started the sixth grade some boy I liked said he wouldn’t date me because all Indians grew up to be drunks. After that, I decided I didn’t want to be Ojibwe. She respected my decision, I guess. But she kept trying to tell me things about being native, things I still don’t understand. Like how she knew for certain that the underwater panther chose my name.
No, not the name I was born with, my Ojibwe name, my heart name. At least, that’s what she called it. I call it useless because what is the point of having two names? Nobody calls me by the second one. Besides, she said the panther came to her in a dream on the island, and what kinda bullshit is that?
The underwater panther has many names, Mishipeshu, the great lynx, and Gichi-anami'e-bizhiw, which even I don’t know how to pronounce and means something like ‘fabulous night panther’. I know. Crazy, right? Mom told me once how this panther-thing lives on the island of Michipicoten, and rules all the water animals there like some sort of lord of the lake that needs appeasing. Copper is sacred to it, and supposedly the island is riddled with the remains of failed mines, and the bottom of the lake with sunken ships. The panther doesn’t like those who steal, and all too many have tried.
I used to tell her cats don’t even like water. Who makes this stuff up? But she would just smile and shake her head at me, call me her little nindaanis, her beautiful daughter.
Sometimes I am so mad at her for all of those things she said about being Ojibwe.
I miss her so much.
Still, there is nothing I like about being half-native. It’s like holding onto sand, being half-something. Once you loosen your fingers, even a little, small grains of what you’re supposed to be slip through and are lost. You can’t pretend to be half-anything. You either are that, or you are not. All of this holding onto traditions that don’t make sense anymore, to places and words and stories that don’t have any ability to help you get into college or get a job. What is the point of them?
My Ojibwe name cannot be used in school; nobody there would know how to pronounce it. I also can’t recount anything worth saying about my supposed tribe either, because no tribe is what they originally were. If asked, I guess I would say that the Ojibwe are in the Great Lakes Tribal Family, and speak an Algonquian dialect. Probably the only native you know from that language group would be Pocahontas. I guess that’s a little sad, since the Ojibwe were supposedly excellent explorers and traders, or at least that’s what the Europeans they met up with said.
I sluice the oar again through the onyx below and listen to the sound of loons, mournful in the stillness. It is otherwise silent, but for me and the earth, and I feel centered, calm. I will make it to the island, one last time.
The sun blankets me, sliding through venetian blinds and twisting down in slanted snakes of light that curl across my pillow and stick their tongues into my eyes. I avoid batting them away as long as I can, then sit up and pad downstairs to the smell of Grandma cooking breakfast on her old Kitchenette stove. The greasy smoke makes my stomach growl unhappily.
I slide into the chair across from the stove in silence and pull two pieces of bacon onto my plate. One I eat right away, in large bites. The other, I strip into little pieces and contemplate as I chew. The table is tiny and right across from the stove, with only three chairs and a Formica top chipped from age, and three children long ago. I don’t notice this anymore, or care. I’ve always been poor, and everything poor people have is somehow broken, anyway.
“Alaia, you’re coming to the pow-wow tomorrow?” She motions at me with a spatula, standing over some popping hash browns. Her face is turned slightly toward the table, just enough that I can see her right eye, the questioning need in it. She doesn’t want to go alone.
She fought with me last year about this, the pow-wow my mom died going to, the only time of the year when almost all her relatives are gathered in one place. I’m too tired to fight with her this year. Her words are no-nonsense and not pleading. They’re merely stating fact, that this is what she would appreciate I do and that I should. She’s not often wrong about what I should do, even though I don’t share this with her much. And in this, I’m doubtful she understands how I feel, because she’s full Ojibwe.
I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. But I do.
I can’t stand it when my grandmother looks at me like that.
We live on the outskirts of Ontario, near Wawa, three miles from Lake Superior. The wind blows in off the bay and sometimes it is almost like living next to the sea, almost like freedom. The morning after she convinces me to go, though, there is no wind. We climb into her beat-up Toyota pickup the color of burnt toast and slip down Highway 17, toward French River, with nothing but the smack of the tires against the frost-heaved road and the sound of the radio playing something by Johnny Cash.
Seven and a half hours later, I stand in grass that scratches my bare ankles. Around me children argue about Pokémon while adults sit in tents or wait in camp chairs. They’re eating hamburgers and talking about families and friends and people who can’t be here. Their voices mash together until it is time for the dancing to start, and then everyone tries to get a better seat, except for me.
Ojibwe pow-wow dancing is much like that of any native group, governed by drums and the soles of your feet. All of the drummers are male and they sing songs I don’t understand mostly because I don’t care to. While I stand around looking bored, Grandma finds Aunt June in the waiting families ringing the grass of the dancing circle. June’s brought extra foldout chairs, so we don’t have to go back to the truck and pull ours out. We sit down next to her as if she planned on us being here.
Grandma smiles, nods, pulls their nearest hands together. To our right, the drums take up a beat that flows through our chests and mutes the sounds of everyone’s hearts into one communal thrumming. I can feel it in the bottoms of my feet, in my hands inside of my jacket. It is a physical thing, the sound of the drums.
Beth arrives for one of the women’s fancy dances, Memengwe, the butterfly song. Her dress is a shade close to the deepest part of an unblemished sky. The cape she stretches between her arms is as pink as a blush, the flowers embroidering the back sewn in beadwork by her own hand. Beth is a year younger than me, but you can’t tell. Where I’m still pretty flat across the chest and hips, even at fifteen she looks like a woman, proud and confident. The tassels on her cape swing out as she pads the earth lightly next to two other girls, as if flitting amongst imaginary flowers. I watch for a few moments until I can’t stand it any longer, because she looks so sure of herself, so alive.
I glance elsewhere because I can’t watch anymore, and realize my
Copper Bright by F. L. Pomeroy / Fantasy have rating 4.3 out of 5 / Based on17 votes