Governor General's Literary Awards·Chaos & Control

Okay by David A. Robertson

A story from the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award winner for young people's literature — illustrated books for CBC Books' special series, Chaos & Control.

A story by the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award winner for young people's literature — illustrated books

(Illustration by Ben Shannon)

Okay, a short story by David A. Robertson, is part of Chaos & Control, a special series of new original writing by the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award winners.

Robertson's picture book When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett, won the young people's literature — illustrated books category.

​Warning: This story contains strong language.

This being the third time Tara and James had been to the clinic, death had started to feel at once timid and gracious. On this visit, at least, Tara's moshom was there. Days earlier, they'd arrived first thing in the morning only to be told that at 2 a.m. the Elder had gotten out of bed and left. "I'm not just gonna lay around and wait." Moments later his truck peeled out of the parking lot. 

Tara held her moshom's hand. James, in turn, held Tara's hand. They'd been communicating this way. Silence had followed them from the city's perimeter, when Tara had turned off the music and neither she nor James said anything during the trip. They held hands then as well, and breathed, and watched scenery reveal itself down the winding highway like secrets. 

Tara squeezed her moshom's hand to tell him that it would be okay, but the sentiment felt like a lie. Her moshom was in front of her, skin melting into the mattress and leaving behind only bones, a patch of medicine affixed to his arm to manage pain, faint breath tenuous. 

But then, she wasn't sure how much was really a lie, and how much was not. 

His life had been hard; the sickness had been harder. And while he'd dealt with both similarly — something to the effect of "I'm not just gonna lay around," then tearing the proverbial truck out of the parking lot — maybe now it'd been enough. Her life had been hard too; things hadn't changed much. 

Life was hard. Life is hard. Life would be hard. 

"Know why my dad never taught me about who I was?" Tara glanced at James, then away. 


She breathed deeply. In, out. "Moshom told my dad that I'd be better off not knowing." 

"But then your moshom did teach you …"

"I was so mad for so long." She let go of her moshom's hand, and placed her palm against his forearm. "Moshom told me things were different then…"

"What are we talking about?" 

"Are they though?" She looked at her moshom's face. Every inch of it. The deep lines, where his history had been written. The cracked lips. 

"Tara." James squeezed her hand. It would be okay. 

"I don't think we should." She was looking at her moshom, but she knew how James was looking at her. 

"Tara…" James repeated, but it sounded different. 

"What if we have a girl and something happens to her?" She stood up; started pacing around the room. "What if we have a boy and —"

"You need to calm down."

"— what kind of world would we be bringing a baby into, James? It could be some, I don't know, some post-apocalyptic…" Tara sat down again, rested her head against her moshom's chest, listened to his weak heart "…dystopian…" and started to cry. It felt like tears were the only thing she had left. 

"Maybe she'll get a cool bow, and people will salute her with three fingers or something," James offered. 

Tara chuckled, kind of. It was a stuttered breath through her nose more than anything. "I'll give you a one finger salute if you start telling jokes," she said, as though sleeping.

Then, she heard a crackle in her moshom's chest. She lifted her head to find him staring at the ceiling. 

"Nimoshom," she whispered. 

His head fell to the side, and they met eyes. He was blinking a lot; a fight to stay awake. 

He moved his lips.

"What are you trying to say?" Tara leaned forward, took his hand in hers. 

"Taking," he struggled out, "a long time to die, eh?" 

Tara sighed. "And here I am acting tired. I'm sorry, Nimoshom." 

He shook his head, like a quiver, like an autumn leaf desperately hanging on. "You have a baby —" 

"No," she shook her head too, albeit with a grin, "I don't think…"

"— teach it," he whispered. "How else we gonna fix this shit?" 

He squeezed her hand. It felt like a breath against her skin. It felt like he was telling her something. 

That it would be okay. 

About David A. Robertson

David A. Robertson won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustrated books for his book When We Were Aloneillustrated by Julie Flett. This poetic picture book follows a girl asking her kókom questions about why she wears bright colours and speaks different languages. Her kókom responds by describing her experience in residential school, where she had to hide her identity.

This book was also a finalist for the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. Robertson is the author of several books and graphic novels, including StrangersWill I See? and The Evolution of AliceRobertson lives in Winnipeg and is a member of Norway House Cree Nation.

About the series Chaos & Control

Each year, CBC Books partners with the Canada Council for the Arts to present a special series of new original writing by the winners of the Governor General's Literary Awards. This year, the award-winning writers were asked to reflect on the theme of Chaos & Control. Read the rest of the series:

Several authors also contributed to an episode of CBC Radio's Ideas, discussing the concept of balancing chaos and control. Listen to the episode in the player below:

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