“HEY MAREH? — FULL OF GREASE
Lart in yer tea
Blasst artaow munst wimmin
an blasst arfroot ah yur woun
Bertha recites this new prayer kneeling on the linoleum tiled floor beside her brown army style cot, which is lined up with the thirty-nine others in the dormitory. Her skin itches in the stiff nightgown. She feels so small and alone in the big room. No familiar smells of wood smoke or wild peppermint tea. The room smells musty and damp, which makes it so hard to concentrate.
It’s her second year at the residential school, but she has no idea what the words she pronounces mean. She struggles to remember the sounds and intonation of each line. Tomorrow she will have to recite the entire prayer in front of the nuns and all the girls, even the older ones. She doesn’t want everyone to laugh at her as they have at the other girls her age. She glances around. Annie, the slightly older girl who sleeps in the next cot over, is watching her and giggling. Bertha squeezes her eyes shut to ignore her.
Annie could be Bertha’s older sister or first cousin: the same smooth brown complexion and deep brown eyes; the same jet black hair hacked into an inverted rag mop, just grown out a bit. But Annie is different. She smiles a lot and quietly sings to herself in Cree. She has been in St. Bernard’s Indian Residential School for a few years already and speaks English quite well. She and most of the girls in the school, along the shores of Lesser Slave Lake, speak Cree or Nehiyaw.
Annie sees the consternation on Bertha’s face: eyes squeezed shut, forming a slight scowl. She remembers how hard it was to learn the Hail Mary prayer, but she mastered it some time ago and can now recite it by heart. When she recited the prayer earlier that day, in front of a gaggle of gloating nuns, she noticed Bertha watching her in amazement. She also sang a version of God Save the King, and capped it off with the date: “Todayh ‘his ’hwenesdeh sectembur twunee forth nihn-t’in fortih wun.” Bertha, listening in wonder, had no idea what the song meant, let alone that extra string of strange sounds at the end.
Suddenly Bertha feels a warm presence. She opens her eyes. Annie is kneeling directly in front of her. Bertha grasps Annie’s outstretched hands and wraps her tiny fingers and thumb around them to complete the connection. Annie pronounces each line slowly and carefully. Bertha watches her lips intently then repeats after her:
“Hail Mareh, full of grace,
The lort is with thee.
Blesset art thou ‘mongstall wimmen.
And blesset is the fruit of thy womb,
Bertha is there with her older sister Margaret, her aunties, already in their early teens, and dozens of cousins. Daily she struggles, being away from her mother, her home, and the younger kids. She craves the food her mother, mosom and cucuum feed her: stewed moose ribs, fried whitefish, the marrow of moose thigh bones, thinly sliced deer meat, boiled potatoes and carrots, sweet red willow shoots, and dried or stewed berries. And this evening, just after suppertime – kneeling there on the hard floor, the memory of good food makes her especially sad. While the others ate solid food, she nibbled stale bread and washed it down with a glass of water. She knows that Margaret will have done the same.
Early that morning, just before breakfast, were caught again – talking Cree. Bertha had found herself alone, one on one, with Margaret and so she whispered to her fervently for a few stolen moments. They huddled to one side of a statue of the Virgin Mary, which sat on a large pedestal at the end of the main hallway.
“Ninohte Nigawi, ninohte Nigawi” Bertha mumbled over and over, squinting to hold back tears. Margaret cooed as she ran her fingers through Bertha’s hair, then gently wiped away a single tear.
“N’sims Mahti poni mahto.
Mahti poni mahto n’sims.
Suddenly, they heard footsteps and a swoosh. Bertha shuddered, clenched her jaw and her hands trembled. Her eyes moved up to the black robe and cape, then to the small pink-and-white face – the forehead completely covered by a white stiff strip attached to an oval frame. Black hood. Bertha’s terrified gaze stayed on the headscarf for a moment. Was there hair under there? So many times the older girls had debated this – some saying, “Well, of course they have hair, they’re human you know,” and others saying, “They hate hair – look what they done to ours. They probably shave their heads.” Sister Pierrette bent down low, and Bertha watched with fascination the shiny metal cross dangling at mid-chest, as if by magic.
Both girls recognized Sister Pierrette’s unique smell – unwashed hair and the ripened but clean sweat accumulated in her robes. They jerked their heads back as they felt her sour breath on their tiny round faces, gaping at her bushy eyebrows and faint black moustache.
“Pahagat-h’own” Sister Pierrette said in lilting Cree. “Speak hinglish! Come into de classroom. h’Astum. Qwee- ah-hoh! Come here! Vite! hurry!” She used her unique blend of Cree, French and broken English. ”Sister Marguerite! Viens icitte – Dese two sauvages were speaking dair language h’again. What do you tink we should do wit dem. De terd time dis week qu’est-ce qu’on fait d’elles, donc?”
The girls looked down the hallway in horror. Another dark figure moved in their direction: Sister Marguerite. This nun never smiled, and her face looked as though it was on fire: bright red with white, scaly patches. She strained to rush over, but her arms shuffled awkwardly in the heavy robes so that she seemed to float across the floor – a surreal black-and-white mannequin. It was hard for Bertha not to stare; Sister Marguerite’s nose seemed to stick out even farther today.
She carried the smell that some of the nuns had at certain times of the month – a smell the girls had never noticed at home, though today her odor was partially masked by incense fumes from morning mass. Her gaze was gentler than that of Sister Pierrette. She hustled Bertha and Margaret into the empty classroom nearby, then sighed.
“Ah – pas encore les filles! Not h’again girls! You have ta learn les filles. Here — no Cree – Hing’lish h’onlee!”
“Well h’it his dee terd time tis week Sister Maguerite I hear ‘dis!” Sister Pierrette growls. “I tink dey should wear der mocasiiin roun der neck fer two day! Dat will teach d’em!”
“Oui oui – mais aussi – du pain sec and h’water h’only for two day, non?
So, as the nuns watched, Margaret and Bertha took off their moccasins, tied them together and hung them around their neck. All day they walked barefoot on the cold floors of the classrooms, dorm, dining room and chapel. When lunch and supper were served they went to their beds, where Sister Pierrette had left them each one glass of water and a plate of dry crusts.
Now, one last time Bertha repeats after Annie, Blesst is the fruit of thy womb, Cheesus, with a convincing ah-min. Then she climbs into her bed. But in the night she tiptoes past four cots to Margaret’s bed, gets in and cuddles close. At home she usually slept with her mother, her older sisters, an auntie or a cuucum; until this school, she had never slept alone. Slowly, she calms with her sister’s warmth and delicate fragrance. She tries hard not to fall asleep, knowing she has get back to her own bed before morning.
“Nigawiy, Nigawiiiiiy! NiMamaaaa! Namoya! Moyaaaa!” Bertha cried this out as soon as she had understood that the strange men at the door had come for her, as they had for Margaret two years earlier. Her mother had always been affectionate, gentle, and attentive but now she turned her back on Bertha.
“Wiyawiii Ndans,” her mother commanded. She waved her arm high, motioning Bertha to leave the large canvas tent. Usually her mother only did this when she was fed up with the racket and wanted the kids to go play. Bertha had wondered why some of her clothes had been packed into a cardboard box, which had sat by the door for two days.
“Waaaaaaa namoya…. Nigawiy!” Bertha’s piercing voice.
The boat ride down the river was fast – the white poplars and jack pines a blur. Then the car ride over a dusty and rough dirt road. She sat in the back seat sobbing, her head cradled in her hands – elbows resting on her knees. The actual physical distance was only thirty miles, but Bertha was transported into another world.
They arrived at the three-storey red-brick building. It looked enormous to Bertha, who had only seen their summer tent houses and the white-washed log cabins where they lived for the winter months. She saw the grassy meadow that led down to the reedy bay of the lake. Bertha fixed her gaze on the bay that seemed to go on forever.
Everything was a blur. It all had happened so fast, yet she herself seemed to be moving in slow motion. The group of new girls was lined up. They gazed at the floor, only glancing up as each girl moved to the front of the line to have her braids cut off.
Bertha glanced around furtively whenever she dared, trying to spot Margaret and her aunties Helen, Mable and Eva. She didn’t see them. Her eyes became fixated on that mound of charcoal black braids on the floor around the chair. One nun, her face strangely framed with stiff white canvas, held each girl by the arms and placed her onto the chair. Another nun, shorter but dressed identically, chopped off the braids just below the ears with large stainless steel scissors. It took just four or five rapid and forceful snips. Strange looking girls got up from the chair, hair cut even, flat all around straight bangs that stopped inches above their eyebrows, puffy eyes – faces stunned with shock.
Next, the assembly line led them to a giant white enamel basin.
Each girl in turn stood in the bath tub, while two nuns scoured her body with a scrubbing brush designed to scour wooden floors. Hair was shampooed with a liquid that smelled like diesel and then dried vigorously with a white towel that smelled of bleach. The last nun forced flour-sack dresses over their heads.
Bertha awakes in a panic but is confused about why. First she rubs her belly to sooth the aching emptiness, then gasps as she realizes she’s still in Margaret’s bed. She tiptoes back to her bed, climbs in, covering herself with the thin sheet and scratchy wool blanket. She feels dazed, but her thoughts are clear. She knows her nigawiy and her mosom would never let her go hungry – not her nor any child. In their home, the little ones – awasisuk always ate first, savoring delicacies as the adults looked on. Without even thinking about it, she knows what she has to do. She will find a way to talk to Aunty Helen, their mother’s second youngest sister, to ask for guidance and help.
Mid-morning, when Bertha and Margaret muster with the other girls to do their gardening chores, they spot Helen in the doorway. Even in the peculiar school uniform, she is beautiful – with her stunning smooth dark complexion, deep-set eyes and confident gaze.
Bertha coughs to get Helen’s attention.
“Mar – gret.” Helen calls, glaring at the two girls. “Put on your moccasins ‘fore you go outside! Why ya wear dem aroun your neck hanaways?”
Margaret glances around to see if there are any nuns close by. Oh, no. There is the unmistakable tall silhouette, just behind Helen. By lifting her chin slightly and protruding her lips, Bertha points behind Helen. Helen goes silent and lifts her hand to her forehead as if to make the sign of the cross. The nun strides past them and down the hallway without saying a word. All three girls sigh.
“Nuns heard us talking Cree,” Bertha whispers intensely.
“Tey make us do dis.” She touches the leather strand around her neck. “An jus’ eat papwesagun – drink nipiy.” Her bottom lip is sticking out, trembling – her face is screwed up.
“Whuh waah! Sos-quats!” Helen’s face turns red as her breathing becomes audible.
Then they catch the flash of a metal crucifix against a black robe, see the black headscarf and white frame. It is Sister Marie-Ange, who works with the older girls. More than once the girls have seen her crying in the chapel alone, after the evening prayers. Bertha and Margaret do a volte-face, brush past a cluster of girls then dart in opposite directions.
Helen watches the two little pairs of bare feet shuffle down the hallway. Fury flashes from her eyes in the direction of the nun.
“Wah waw! They’re doing it again. Punishing kids jus’ for talkin Cree! Sosquats! Damn!”
That afternoon, alone in the chapel, Helen gazes at the statue of the Virgin Mary that she finds so intriguing. The nuns don’t know, but she has hidden a medicine bundle her mother gave her inside the hollow of the statue. Now she never feels sad when she kneels in front of it, and prays to it for hours on end, repeating endlessly the Hail Mary prayer.
She walks over to the statue and reaches inside. Yes, the amulet is still there. She picks it up and caresses its rough leather surface. Its smoky aroma reminds her of home.
I’ve had enough. She thinks. It’s one thing what they done to me and my sisters, but now they’re picking on the younger ones.
She remembers the time that Sister Pierrette slapped her because she choked on her supper, eating dry porridge for the third time in one day. She recalls being caught speaking Cree to her sister Mable. They locked her in a musty dark closet in the basement. For two days she sat on a thin mattress placed on the cement floor, hearing only the shuffle of feet above her. Cold mush, dry bread and water. She was ten then.
But what infuriates her most is the recollection of waking to feel hands moving over her body, first along her thighs, then up to her chest, then to the spot that the nuns had taught the girls they themselves were never supposed to touch. She knew the huddled figure by the bed was Sister Pierrette, recognized her smell. Every time it happened Helen lay awake for the rest of the night, overcome with anguish and shame.
Helen startles at footsteps just outside the chapel. She recognizes the cadence of the steps. Bolting upright she rushes to the door, coming face to face with Sister Pierrette.
“Hay–layn. I want talk wit you. Astum, come, let’s go back into la chapelle, ma chère.”
As Pierrette steps in close, Helen instinctively jerks away. Her mouth is suddenly parched. She stumbles backwards, almost falls. Pierrette slides past and stands in the aisle, turning her back to the dramatic crucifix suspended behind the altar. Helen swallows hard then steps back into the chapel. Her gaze crosses to the statue of the Virgin Mary. She catches her breath, breathes in deeply and stands up straight, confused for a moment by the calm coming over her – a soothing balm on her forehead. She hears her mosom’s drum: boom BOOM boom BOOM boom BOOM boom BOOM. Or is it her own heartbeat pounding in her head? Then she sees them.
First her cucuum, then her mosom, and their parents too. Then her aunties and uncles who have moved on into the spirit world. They’re all there around her, filling the entire space of the chapel. She’s overwhelmed and trembling, but suddenly strong. She takes a deep breath then steps forward, putting her face close to Pierrette’s.
“Yeah, I wanna talk ta you too!” She says in her strong alto voice. Her gaze is solid now, unwavering. “What you doin’ to Bertha and Margaret? They’re goin’ aroun’ barefoot and not eatin’ in the dinin’ room for two days!”
“C’est pas de tes affaires! Not your bizness Hay-layn.
“Scanak! I’m their auntie; they’re my relations! Did you hit them too?”
“Arrete! Pahagatone – shut h’up now or you go to downstair. Mayhbe for h’a long time!
Helen moves yet one inch closer, toe to toe with Pierrette. “You send me down there again, and I will tell what you done to me at night! I will tell everythin’!”
The white frame around Pierrette’s face is now a stark contrast with her crimson cheeks and purple lips. The putrid odor of her breath has intensified, or is it just that she’s breathing so much harder now? She has clenched her fists and Helen girds herself for a blow. Instead, Pierrette beams her hatred through her beady blue eyes. Is she trying to instill irrevocable terror in Helen’s soul? She exhales forcefully – spraying Helen’s face with droplets of saliva, then turns and stomps out of the chapel.
As soon as she is gone, Helen goes quickly to the front pew, where she kneels, drinking in the presence of her ancestors. She gazes at the special statue and whispers hay-hay hay-hay over and over until the pounding in her head stops. As her breathing slows – as she gazes at the virgin Mary, a plan takes shape in her mind – all on its own.
Helen has successfully organized a few secret sessions with the older girls over the last few months, discussing how they can help each other. So she knows the nuns’ schedules and behavior patterns. And the girls trust her. Many are first, second or third cousins. Even the girls who aren’t related come to these secret meetings, in order to help each other to survive. Every single one of the girls has had a sister, a brother, or a cousin who hasn’t survived. Each month a few more die.
Early one morning Helen had managed to sneak a glance at the class register to look at the name of a cousin who was missing. What she saw confirmed the rumors:
Name: Mary Gladue Date of Birth: May 9th, 1927 Attendance: Absent
Reason: Dead — TB
She had scrolled down the page frantically – the word dead was printed beside the names of others who were missing. TB was written by two others, but for most, no reason was given.
Over the next two days, with Helen leading, the girls have urgent Cree conversations in different hiding places: Friday afternoon in the laundry room in the basement. Saturday morning outside behind the chapel, while pretending to play frozen tag.
Helen knows she has to be cunning as a vixen. There are cliques in the group of older girls. Some of the nuns have even groomed a few girls to be their stool pigeons and spies. The nuns’ brain-washing about the wickedness of being Indian, speaking Cree, and of using their Indian medicine in heathen ceremonies worked on these girls. They got special privileges, candy and open affection from the nuns.
The plan is hatched. They’ll strike Sunday afternoon. This is when most of the nuns leave the school grounds and only two are on duty.
Sunday morning arrives. Helen, Bertha, Agnes, Margaret, Annie and the other girls walk to the church for the eleven o’clock mass. At the entrance they each dip their right hand into the holy water and make the sign of the cross. They genuflect to the crucifix behind the altar. They stand, sit, kneel, then stand, sit, kneel again at all the right times.
The priest’s calls, “Dominus vobiscum.” In perfect unison and on cue they utter the response, “Et cum spiritu tuo.”
They line up for communion as usual, kneeling before the priest, closing their eyes and sticking out their tongues, so he can place the sterile white host on it.
The girls glance at Helen, confused about whether they should swallow it, today of all days – afraid they might choke. They pucker – the dry host sticks to the roof of their mouths; they let it disintegrate there.
During the final procession, from the altar to the exit, the sweet and pungent odor of burning incense reminds them of sweetgrass and sage.
Now Helen and Agnes hasten from the church to the schoolhouse. They conceal themselves on opposite sides inside the doorway pressing up against the wall so they can’t be seen. Helen glances at the crucifix above the door – the near naked man on the cross with the crown of thorns. Is he on their side, or will he help the ‘Sisters’ who wear his gold ring and claim to be his brides?
When she closes her eyes, her heart thumping, an image of the Virgin Mary appears in her head, just above the center point of her eyes. Mary is so clear, a lovely serene face cloaked in an emerald green mantle, but the face Helen sees has a deep brown complexion with beautiful prominent cheekbones. Her almond shaped brown eyes project pure love.
She thinks about genuflecting, or making the sign of the cross. But this Mary – her cucuum, her mother, her aunty, her sister – doesn’t require that.
Girls are trooping past them into the school. Helen peers outside through the open door. White aspen trees line the road away from Buffalo Bay and Grouard, their delicate leaves dancing with excitement. So many times she has longed to wander into the forest to greet her little animal friends and commune with them once more. She longs to stroll to the lakeshore – wade in slowly to wash away her fear and torment, and then hurry home.
Helen’s heart begins to thunder again. If this doesn’t work, she, her sisters, and all her cousins will suffer. Punishment will be swift and severe. The fiery images the nuns show them everyday flash through her mind – tortured faces burning in the lake of fire while the devil hovers above with his spiked trident in hand peering down with sadistic glee. She glances over at Agnes, positive that she must be having similar thoughts.
Agnes’ flushed face is a stone sculpture. Her breathing short and fast. Her eyes dart around the entrance. She looks astonished that they are actually going through with the plan. But when Helen catches her eye, she smiles. By night time, if all goes well, they could be home, in their own beds.
That’s it. The last girl is in Mable is always the last. They hold their breath then hear the familiar cadence of the Sisters’ footsteps on the school stairs. They meet eyes. Helen nods. Agnes nods in reply.
What unfolds next is so accelerated it will forever be a blur in the girls’ minds. And the sequence of events will differ each time Bertha, Helen, Margaret or Agnes tells the story. Each of them will emphasize some points and leave out others. But Bertha’s version – my mother’s version – is the one I know best, and I believe it is a consolidation of the others’ stories, as well as being her own. She will repeat the story over and over, telling it to me more or less as it appears below.
Helen jumps in front of Sister Marguerite, thrusting her hands against the sister’s chest with all her strength. Sister Marguerite struggles to stay on her feet, shuffles forward, back, and then tumbles down the stairs. She lies at the bottom, stunned red face framed by her displaced white headscarf. Then Agnes shoves Sister Pierrette with all her might. Pierrette falls backwards too – sliding head first to the bottom. Helen scurries down and pounces onto Marguerite’s stomach, while Agnes, with lightening speed, imitates Helen – landing hard on Pierrette’s stomach, taking her breath away.
Sister Marguerite screams, “Au secours… au secours! Girls please help us!”
Bertha stands in the doorway, trembling – Annie by her side. The sun is shining; the songbirds sing in full force. A cool breeze makes the delicate leaves on the poplar trees dance more fervently than ever. The nuns are crying for help but she doesn’t go. Instead, she looks over to her big sister Margaret. As though giving a signal, Margaret removes her moccasins from around her neck and slips into them. With her lips, she motions towards Bertha’s moccasins. Bertha slips hers on, hands shaking as she struggles to fasten the leather laces.
A cluster of the girls now stand in the doorway. “FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT. Pagamahow. Pagamahow.” They have witnessed many fights, mostly between boys or men, but also between their aunts and female cousins. Now, even the crows caw loudly.
Margaret leads Bertha down the stairs to the front of the crowd, where they see Helen straddled across Sister Marguerite’s chest. The starchy headscarf is off, and Helen is grasping the nun’s hair. Bertha sighs at the sight of it: it’s just like Cucuum’s hair – thick, shoulder-length and wavy, coal black with white strands.
Helen lifts and pounds Sister Marguerite’s head on the cement as hard as she can. A small stream of blood flows from Sister Marguerite’s nose down to the base of her neck. If Helen had been a man, Bertha thought, Sister Marguerite would be dead. She rolls onto her side, covering her head with her hands, her brass crucifix now on the grass beside her, upside down – her black rosary tangled in knots beside it.
Bertha watches – breathless as Agnes copies the pounding Helen is delivering. She hears the nuns moaning and muttering incomprehensible words. It seems that a blinding fury has come over Agnes too.
Bertha has to act. If you hurt someone for any reason, by hitting, teasing, or tormenting them – it will come back on you. Seven times worse her cucum had told her. And killing, the nuns had taught her, is a mortal sin. You’ll burn in hell.
“Astum. Come on. Semak – NOW.” Margaret shouts. “Kwee ah hu’! Hurry! Before the others get back.” But Bertha rushes over to Agnes, grasps her wrists to wrestle them away from Pierrette’s head. Blood from Agnes’s hands smears onto Bertha’s.
“Agnessss… EKOSI… astum! Come on kwee ah hu!”
“Run! Run! Go! Go! Kiwek go home! Now hurry! Kwee ah hu!” Helen yells. “We’ll catch up.”
Bertha and Margaret flee – running towards the welcoming birds and poplar trees that will guide them home.
“Scanak! Mean bitss.” Helen rams Sister Marguerite’s head onto the ground. “Mean. Mean. Why you so mean to us?” She is yelling and pleading, both at the same time, then stops – breathless. Agnes is plucking at the back of Helen’s uniform with bloody hands.
“Ekosi maga! Let’s go Helen. C’mon. Astum.”
Helen jumps up, feeling the wetness on the back of her blouse. Then she, Agnes, Mable and their nieces take off running, screaming, “Mamaskatch! We’re free!
Bertha hears their voices in the distance and yells back a response: “Tapwe! Mamskatch. MAMASKATCH!”
The last time Bertha – my mother, told me this story, it was in the wee hours. As she came to the end, she opened her eyes wide. Her face reddened and her breathing seemed to stop altogether. “You know what was a miracle, Son? They never came for us – never took us back.” Then she looked down at the floor and I felt her withdraw into her own world.
Bertha, Margaret and their aunts managed to make it home late in the evening the day they escaped from St. Bernard’s. Their sister Agnes wasn’t with them. She had been convinced that it was just a matter of time before the police would round them up. As they were walking she reminded her sisters and aunts what happened to students who left and were taken back. Convinced she would die if she went back, she continued walking to the junction of the highway to Edmonton and hitchhiked as far as she could go – to land’s end – the Pacific Ocean.
For weeks Bertha slept in her mother’s bed. Her mother even had to take her into the bushes or outhouse to pee. Margaret was more independent but she didn’t go far on her own either. Whenever a policeman or stranger in a uniform or suit showed up – the girls would hide and not come out until they were called by name. Bertha’s mother registered the two sisters for regular school in Slave Lake. They attended for one year – but the daily trip by dogsled became too much. Bertha taught herself and Margaret to read, write and do arithmetic.
Word spread quickly about the escape. A rumor circulated that the nuns were scared of Bertha’s teen-aged aunts and had them expelled. And there had been so many deaths at the school that local police stopped responding to the church’s requests to arrest and return children.
With the exception of Bertha, the girls married young and raised healthy families. Margaret had eighteen children. Agnes married a fisherman on the coast, worked her whole life in a cannery, and raised one son who became a prominent surgeon.
For some reason, perhaps a series of tragic deaths of her most beloved in rapid succession – compounded with childhood separation from her mother and untold abuse at the hands of nuns and priests, Bertha fell apart in her early thirties – became a chronic alcoholic and abandoned her seven children.
Darrel J. McLeod’s life began in his great-grandfather’s trapping cabin in northern Alberta. His birth language is Cree. He has been an educator, chief negotiator of land claims, senior administrator, and first nations’ delegate to the UN. He lives by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near Sooke, B.C., in a modern replica of his Mosom’s trapping cabin where he writes, plays music, cooks, and gardens. “Hail Mary, Full of Grace” is his first published story.