Ray Says by Joseph Kakwinokanasum
2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Joseph Kakwinokanasum made the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Ray Says.
You can read Ray Says below.
I lean against a wall in the lobby of the Delta Hotel on 20th Street East in Saskatoon. A bellhop helps a lady with her luggage. The desk clerk checks a customer into their room. I made a mistake coming here. It has been almost 10 years since I have seen any of them.
Through the tinted floor-to-ceiling windows of the hotel I see a cab under the car-port, then, a white Cadillac SUV. The driver gets out. It's my older brother Michael. He spots me right away. I walk toward him. We hug. It is physically awkward. I pull away. He's rounder than I remember, greyer. His face is creased. Crow's feet bracket his eyes. They show his age.
"I guess so. Where is she?"
"At the house. Come. She's expecting us soon."
His partner gets out of the front passenger's seat. She introduces herself as Carol. "It's good to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you."
"All good of course," my brother says.
In the late 1970s, my family lived in the village of Pouce Coupe. In a three-bedroom, one-bathroom home. It was yellow with a partly unfinished basement. There was green carpet in the living room that led down the hallway to the back of the house where the bedrooms were. The kitchen, dining room and bathroom had beige linoleum. It smelled of plastics and fresh cut wood.
In the living room, I sat on the old brown couch and watched a Bruce Lee movie called The Big Boss. I became an instant fan of the martial arts; I wanted to learn so badly. I thought it would help me defend myself against all the bullies in my life. No one would ever mess with me again. When I heard that our little northern village was getting a taekwondo instructor I flipped out, and when I found out that the lessons were free, I lost my mind.
When I heard that our little northern village was getting a taekwondo instructor I flipped out, and when I found out that the lessons were free, I lost my mind.
On registration day, I got up early to make sure I was first in line. I waited outside of the entrance of the elementary school, looking in through the window. A long table was set up in the mudroom. I heard the roll of car tires over the gravel road to the teachers' parking lot. An old green car pulled in. A tall Native man got out wearing a bright white martial arts uniform tied at the waist by a black belt, and black sandals on his feet. He carried a brown leather satchel under one arm and a ring of keys in his free hand. I inspected my tattered gym clothes. He smiled and unlocked the door. "My name is Ray. What's yours?"
"Well Joseph, you'll be my first student." He motioned for me to follow him inside.
He sat down behind the table and pulled out a stack of forms from his satchel and a bundle of pens. "Print your name, address and phone number and sign below and I will meet you in the gym once I'm done here."
I signed my name on the form, then looked at Master Ray. I recalled Bruce Lee's lesson to a student of his, "Never take your eyes off your opponent; even when you bow." I bowed and made the most serious eye contact I could. With a thin smile, he gave a subtle nod.
My heart raced.
They make me sit in front. Carol gets in the back. The next 20 minutes we small talk: the weather, his new SUV, and I agree, it's comfortable. There's a long silent moment as I play with a hangnail on my thumb. It stings first, then starts to bleed. I wrap it with a Kleenex from my pant pocket. I think I should have followed them on my motorcycle.
I suppose I could take a taxi back to the hotel if I need to.
We pull up to the house and park in front of their two-car garage. I open the vehicle door, slide off the seat and stand on the paved driveway. Sweat runs down my back, and I feel a bit dizzy. I follow my brother and we climb four cement steps to the front door that's unlocked. "Halloo there," he calls out.
My brother leads me into the living room. My legs feel a bit weak.
Master Ray used to say, "When your mind and body are calm, anger and fear have no power over your actions."
I take a few deep breaths.
Master Ray used to say, "In through the nose, out through the mouth."
The television blares the evening news. She sits on a plush leather couch.
"Eh?" she says. "Mike, is that you?"
"Yep, and guess who I found in my travels?"
"Oh, my baby boy." She struggles to stand up.
She's much older than I remember. Weaker. Less powerful.
I feel sadness and pity.
She hugs me. "It's been too long, my baby." She grabs my hands and I am amazed by her soft touch.
Master Ray would take off his sandals and jog around a paved running path that surrounded the schoolyard. I did the same. I pulled my socks off with holes in the toes and heels, and stuffed them into my sneakers that were so worn out light could pass through some parts of the sole. I followed him as best as I could.
One day we were instructed to run barefoot around the paved track until our hearts raced. Then he assembled us in a circle where we sat cross-legged. Master Ray pulled out a heart monitor from a cardboard box, and asked for a volunteer. I held my hand up. He slid a sensor over my pointer finger, and the device beeped to the beat of my heart. "Close your eyes, breathe; in for eight seconds, hold for four, and out for eight seconds. Feel your heart. Relax. Calm." I felt my heart slowing and to my surprise, the beeping slowed. When I opened my eyes, the other kids were staring at me, and Master Ray had a smile on his face.
My brother's house is big. My eyes trace up the living room walls to the vaulted ceiling. The dining room has a large table set for four, and past that through two sliding doors, a wide deck faces a large backyard. I sit across from her in a chair that matches the couch. She squints at me and smiles.
"Tansi!" she says. "You still remember some Cree?"
"That's good. Kinanaskkomitin."
"Migwich, I especially remember the swear words."
From my wire cot bed, I heard her enter and shake off her shoes. Her footfalls approached. She kicked my bedroom door open.
Master Ray used to say, "Set, ready position."
I jumped up and stood on my mattress. The doorknob had punctured the wall, white paint chips and bits of drywall sprinkled on the thick green carpet.
Master Ray used to say, 'Wait for your opponent to come to you. Never throw the first punch.'
Master Ray used to say, "Wait for your opponent to come to you. Never throw the first punch."
She held a hanger in her hand. She stepped forward and swung it like a whip. I took one step back and deflected her arm, but the hanger connected. Again, she lashed out at me, but I swung my arm out and it collided with hers, the hanger struck then flew from her grasp. She was a big woman, about five-foot-11, and when she sprang toward me, I raised my leg to throw a forward thrust kick but instead my knee connected with her belly. She fell to the floor.
I panicked and ran.
Their home smells like supper. Carol is in the dining room putting the last pieces of the table settings in place. Michael turns the television volume down. "You'll go deaf if you keep listening to it so loud."
"I'm already half-deaf Mike, why do you think I listen to it so loud then eh?" She smiles at me, "Baby boy, help me to the dining room, okay?"
Dinner is spaghetti and meat sauce with garlic bread and salad. I'm trying to curb my carbs and get off meat, but I say nothing. I take a small serving of the entrée and load up on salad. Dinner is quiet, my mother hovers over her plate. She eats like a bird.
She talks about my other five siblings, and what they are up to. "Your sister is writing a book."
"Yes, I hear."
"She's telling her story, but she's not using our names."
"So, she's fictionalizing our names. Is she holding true to the characters?" I look at her.
My brother shrugs his shoulders as he winds a wad of spaghetti with his fork. "I haven't seen it."
"I don't think anyone has seen it," Carol says.
I cleared all the steps leading down to the foyer, and slipped on my running shoes and pulled my jacket from a wall hook. I swung the door open and ran around the backyard and climbed the cedar fence. I didn't feel the slivers go into my hands.
I crouched into the shadow of the back alley. I heard her voice. She was swearing in Cree.
I sprinted from my hiding spot, and headed toward the school ground. My vision blurred. The rush of wind drowned out all sounds. I hit the fence that surrounded the schoolyard then clasped the top bar, and climbed over, landing on all fours in waist-high grass. I crouched toward a small stand of trees out of the light cast by the street lamp. She came around the corner in her big red Caprice Classic, skidding to a halt just before the ditch. I ducked to avoid the headlights. She scanned the field from the driver's seat then drove off, her Chevy spit rocks through a cloud of pale brown dust.
It grew quiet, a thin mist hung over the schoolyard. I touched my face. A lump on my left cheek throbbed, and two cuts from the hanger stung. I pressed my hand to my chest and felt my heart race.
My brother drops me off in front of my hotel. The receptionist waves to me. I wave back, and push the button to call the elevator. On the way up I pull out the key card from my shirt pocket. I walk down the hallway to the door of my suite and slide the key card through the reader. The light flashes green and I enter. I sit down at the desk provided and look at the telephone. I call my wife.
Master Ray used to say, "Breathe, boy, breathe slowly. Calm yourself, the pain will pass."
- Take a Photo Before I Leave You by Amy MacRae
- Value Village by Jonathan Poh
- The Story Teller by Rachael Preston
- Sturnella Neglecta (Overlooked Little Starling) by Leona Theis
About Joseph Kakwinokanasum
Joseph Kakwinokanasum is a Cree-Austrian writer. In 2014, he received a Canada Council for the Arts creation grant for Aboriginal peoples, writers and storytellers. He completed the Simon Fraser University Writer's Studio 2018 program and the graduate workshop in 2019. Joseph won an honourable mention in the 2020 Humber Literary Review fiction contest. He writes from home, where he resides with his partner and their two cats.
The winner of the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.