"Warrior" by Meg Todd
2017 CBC Short Story Prize finalist
Warning: This story contains graphic language
My American cousin arrived at our house with half-closed eyes and a swagger that drew in 10-year-old me but failed to impress my mother. My cousin was adopted. Mixed blood, my aunt had told my parents 15 years ago. She'd said it proudly, as though adopting the dark-haired toddler was laudable and unprecedented. My mother wasn't convinced. Intentions, she said, did not guarantee results. Now my cousin was a rebel, exiled from her home and sent north to spend her Grade 11 year with us.
"Bitch got rid of my snake," my cousin said of my aunt. The roof of our garage was where we sat. She smoked and I watched, drawn in by the impossible rings she blew. "But check this out." She lifted her shirt and leaned forward to reveal the small of her back, which read haudenosaunee in semi-cursive. "Warrior. So fuck them." It wasn't the meaning of the word so much as the audacity: A tattoo! And so close to her bum! I settled back against the crumbling asphalt roof tiles and breathed deeply. Tobacco, she called white man's poison; pot, she told me, was medicine. I never knew which she'd light up but either way I was impressed. Besides the smoke, my cousin smelled of sweat and heady femininity, dirty and raw. My mother told her to shower if she wanted breakfast. Histrionics were verboten in our house. And that's what my mother believed it was - the clothes, the drawl, the attitude — nothing more than song and dance.
She spread herself across my room. Ripped T-shirts and jeans, tattered sneakers, mismatched socks, dirty bras, panties, tampon boxes, nothing was sacred. I took it in lustily, happily. She dressed and undressed while she talked to me in her lazy, deep voice. "They try to pin me down. That's what folks are always trying to do. They wanna own me." In front of the mirror, then the window, she stood, naked from the waist up, brazen and wonderful, her breasts like great balloons.
At school the boys circled her and the girls held their distance. I was so much younger, in a separate building down the hill, with a separate life. I was happy to jump double dutch at recess, happy if I had ham, not peanut butter on my sandwich, happy to get praise from my teacher. But word trickled down to the primary school and so I learned that everybody was interested in my cousin. I kept my head down and glowed with pride. She slept in my room, in the bunk below me. I shared the air with her, felt the bed quiver when she turned in her sleep. I knew she liked comic books, I knew she hated the smell of coffee grinds, I knew her periods seized her vice-like. I knew more than anyone. And wasn't she what we were studying? All week my teacher had been talking about the Métis, how they were a mix of white and Native. I would bring my cousin to class.
And then one boy did more than circle. Long black hair and a sneer, afraid of nothing. Held back two years in a row, he had the voice of a man and was in and out of foster homes. Some days he came to school, some days he didn't. He showed up at our house, leaning lazily into the door frame, cigarette burning in his fingers. The way he looked at me — the half smile, the sliding eyes. I was acutely aware of my mother who kept her mouth in a tight line and made the extra lunch, the extra bed, who, a month into my cousin's stay, cut all the towels in half, set out margarine instead of butter and turned down the thermostats in the bedrooms despite the early winter chill. I didn't say come in. I left him there and bolted, hissed at my cousin that she'd better hurry and she'd better not.
"Y'all gotta learn to calm down," she said, and she rooted through the clothes on the floor until she found her sweatshirt, and was gone.
Three months after she arrived, she said, from the bottom bunk into the dark, "Nance? I'm — I'm not doing so good. You know. Like — " She'd gone to bed early. She wasn't feeling well, dizzy and tired. My mind floundered. It went to flu, then it leapt to ringworm (I'd had a terrible case once, mysterious red, itchy welts on my legs, caught from the barn cats that lived up Johnson's way and that I used to love but that my mother abhorred), then cancer. "Is that it?" I whispered. "Are you dying?" In the silence she let bloom, I thought of life without her, I thought of the uselessness of an empty bottom bunk, the bleakness of a tidy room. Eventually I fell asleep, a smaller version of my cousin dancing in my head, a semi-deflated, cloudy version, one that was in danger of being stepped on, popped.
She disappeared, and my mother went from angry to anguished to disparaging. Her face red, her lips tighter than ever. I did my homework, kept my room tidy and put away the dishes without being told. Even so, I was reprimanded: My shoes were dirty, I hadn't wiped the sink properly, I didn't know how to manoeuvre a broom. And then she wept and frightened me. An enormous mystery, she called my cousin. "The idea that sending her here would help — The idea!" There were endless phone calls. To the police, to my aunt, to the school. There were visits to the boy's foster parents who said they had no knowledge and no control, and no they hadn't seen him but that didn't mean he was missing and it didn't mean he was involved. And there were interrogations of me: There was no way I could be sharing a room with her and not know what was going on! I argued. I said she'd be back, of course she would be, she was my cousin, she lived with us, she was family. Besides, I said, she's coming to my class, she promised. But she didn't come. I stood at the front of the room and apologized. "Can you tell us about her?" my teacher asked. "Her background?" I thought and thought and finally I said, "She has a tattoo." I meant to say that she was brave. I cried myself to sleep and I did not disagree with my mother. I should have known. And she was a mystery. Or she was dead.
And then she reappeared. Came in through the front door one night while we were at dinner. Took a plate and slid into the empty chair. I looked closely. She seemed tired, but not unhealthy. "Y'all got no rights over me," she said, defiant as ever. That she wasn't dead was good, great in fact, but I thought she might be wrong. Maybe my parents did have some rights over her. Wasn't she in their house, eating their food? And why hadn't she come to talk to my class, like she'd promised. It was mixed up for me. My mother, my cousin, love, hate.
"Anyways," my cousin went on, "I got resilience. It's in my blood, that's what."
"Until you don't," my mother said. "And we're left picking up the pieces. No thank you."
My mother kept going, her voice growing harder. She talked about responsibility, common courtesy and blatant insolence, but my father put his hand on her arm.
"You better call home," he said to my cousin. "Right now."
My mother started stacking dishes with a fierceness that hurt.
"So what," my cousin said to me. "I sorted things so what do they care? It's got nothing to do with them. Your folks, that prick doctor, everybody." She'd taken up her place in front of the mirror, and was turning left and right, running her hands over her smooth brown belly, over her breasts, which, to me, seemed rounder than ever. She looked at me slyly. "Do you wanna touch them?" Her eyes held a challenge, almost a taunt and there was an ache deep inside me. I wanted to please her, that's what I wanted. I wanted to do what my mother wouldn't. To please and impress her. To offer her something.
I pulled down my panties and showed her my pubic hair. A single strand that had sprouted rebelliously almost overnight, appalling and exciting me.
My cousin leaned in and she laughed. Laughed so that I grew warm. Then she took hold of the hair and deftly, suddenly, plucked it out. Making my eyes water.
I pulled up my panties, shoulders shaking, and bolted to the bathroom where I locked the door and wept. Not because of her. But because of me. Stupid, stupid me. I thought I would never come out. That it was impossible, that I could never live down my childish foolishness, that my cousin wouldn't speak to me again, that she despised me, felt nothing but overwhelming disdain for me. But of course I did come out, and of course it wasn't as I thought it would be. The lights were off in my room and at first I didn't see her and I was immediately relieved. But then I did, and I was again relieved. She was in bed. A bunched up heap of blanket, the top of her black head all that remained uncovered. She was crying. I stood still and didn't know what to do. By that time I knew she wasn't sick, but I didn't know what had happened, why she had gone and why she had come back.
I touched the blanket mound, tentatively. "I'm sorry," I whispered. For the sadness, for whatever had happened to her, for failing her somehow. For me.
"Shit happens," she said and her voice was muffled. "Pain is pain, Nance. Get it in your head."
"I know that. Duh."
"Come in here," she said. And when she lifted the covers her heat and a sour metallic smell wafted out.
I felt it then. A crack, a small fissure in the shell. A day earlier, an hour even, I would have climbed in, I would have wanted nothing more than to feel her strong brown arms around me. It would have meant complete and utter happiness. But not now. I didn't want to, I couldn't. That part of me had drawn inward, receded. I climbed onto the top bunk and lay still and straight on my back and tried not to pay attention to the hollowness that was swallowing me.