I liked chess as a kid because it gave me so many choices. The kids at school hated playing chess with me because I took away all their choices. Whatever. Compared to everything else going on in my life right now, the board didn’t take things away. Like my parents or grandmother in the accident last weekend. In chess, you can only lose one piece at a time. Nobody asked me who I’d sacrifice. No choice at all.
Sarah Macmillan’s bubble gum bubble snapped and then she said, “Will you hurry up and take your stupid turn, Rain?”
Right, the game. We were inside today for recess because of the cold. Last day before Thankstaking break. Not what they called it. I pulled one of my hands out from under my lap and moved a piece. “Checkmate.”
“No fair. You cheated.”
I pursed my lips and pointed them at her problem. “You have nowhere to move your king. That is how you lose. Next.”
The crowd of kids trickled off and Sarah got up, another bubble building, but at least she stopped whining. Games were quick at school. Unlike tournaments, like last weekend where we were coming back from St. Cloud. My little brother blames me for it, but it was my dad. Drunk again. See, I knew which piece to sacrifice.
In a blur, Sarah’s hands moved and reached over my head, right before slapping down on my hair. I reached my hand to it and felt my fingers stick. The gum. Kids laughed and pointed while I froze, calculating my next move. Sarah stood with her hands on her hips, a giant smirk on her stupid beaten in six moves face.
I clenched my jaw because I never knew what to say when the kids were jerks. So I stood up and left the room with my hand stuck to my hair and left the classroom. The abrupt motion bumped the cardboard chessboard, knocking pieces over, and they rolled onto the floor. Fine, she can pick the game up. I left the classroom and headed for the restrooms across the hall.
I stopped and looked. Jimmy stood over at the principal’s office, probably having escaped trouble for something. He wore his straight, black hair in a funny looking top-knot like the samurai movie he saw last night. The cast on his arm had more writing on it than I remembered this morning. He came over and gawked at my predicament. “Can you pull it out?”
“No, it’s gum.”
“Wow, it’s stretched out pretty good. Who did this?”
I paused. If I told him, he’d be back in the principal’s office. I couldn’t have my baby brother fighting my battles for me. Footsteps on the stairs rose in volume until they reached the top.
“Jimmy Wanase. Where are you supposed to be?”
“I am heading back to my classroom. The principal needed to consult with me.” A thin smile crossed his face as he looked up at my teacher, Mrs. Brady, with earnest helpfulness in his eyes.
“Mmm-hmm. Then you’d best be on your way. I’ll see to your sister.”
Jimmy trotted off to the stairs and the fourth grade classrooms below. Mrs. Brady turned her eyes to me. “That’s a sticky wicket. Seems I can’t have lunch without trouble. You’d best go to the principal’s office and they’ll sort you out.”
Great. I’ve never been to the principal’s office. It’s right there, flanked by the fifth grade classrooms. Mrs. Brady trundled off to our room on the right, leaving me in the hall with my hand stuck to the top of my head. What do I tell them? Can they get the gum out? Would they do anything about Sarah? The possibilities and probabilities tumbled in my mind. What choice did I have? None. I was a good kid who didn’t get sent to the principal’s office because someone put gum in my hair.
I shuffled my feet toward the office, thinking about the mess I couldn’t see. Normally, mother would braid my hair each morning. If it needed trimming, we’d go over to grandmother’s house. They told me to never let anyone cut my hair. It was sacred. I froze. What if they were going to cut the gum out? I stopped my free hand. It was flapping again. Before anybody could see, I stuffed it into my jeans pocket. The kids would make fun of me for that if they saw, but I can’t help it when I’m nervous.
The door to the office opened before I could figure out how I’d turn the door knob with one hand in a pocket and the other stuck to the top of my head.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Cooper, the secretary. “Oh dear. You’d better come into the office.”
She turned and went back inside, and seeing no better option, I followed into the sanctum of principals. It turned out to have a desk with where Mrs. Cooper sat. I could tell because of the picture of her son who was in the other fifth-grade class. The beige walls had pictures of flowers, and book shelves and filing cabinets. A door with the kind of unseethrough glass stood at the other end of the small room. Beyond lay Mr. Sauther, the principal. Jimmy didn’t like him.
“Alright, let’s take a look at this. They spread it out pretty good, but you were smart and didn’t make it worse. Now what’s your name?”
“Rain,” I said, in as small a voice as I could muster.
“You’re Jimmy’s sister? He’s a frequent visitor. Now I’ve heard peanut butter might work. Or freezing it off. Let’s see…you’ve got such pretty long hair.” She put a hand on the back of my head, presumably below the mess, and pulled my gummed hand up. The minimal contact I’d made posed little trouble, and at least I was free from that embarrassment.
Then the door to Mr. Sauther’s office opened. “Pauline, I–.” The voice stopped. I dared not look up. “What’s this?”
Mrs. Cooper removed her hands and replied, “This is Rain Wanase. She has gum in her hair.”
“Well, that was silly of her.”
“I was thinking of trying peanut butter from the cafeteria.”
Mr. Sauther walked over to Mrs. Cooper’s desk. “No, that will just make a mess.” He dug around in her drawer and pulled out a pair of scissors, snipping them in the air to test them. I backed away toward the open hallway door, my hands flapping uselessly in front of me. My voice caught. Why can’t I say anything? They didn’t even ask me.
“Hold still, this will be over quick. It’s just hair.”
Just hair. Grandmother’s hair hung down to her hips. She told me they cut it off when she was in school to shame her. That our people’s hair showed our strength. Our history. My eyes blurred. She was gone. No one could fix my hair if I let this monster cut it.
Mr. Sauther reached his free hand toward one of my arms, hands still flapping. Why can’t I stop it?
My mom couldn’t stop my dad. Not when he was drunk. Jimmy didn’t see it because he was blinded by wanting to be like his dad, but I knew. It was easier to go along. Let things happen. I could see all the possible outcomes, but nobody ever let me decide what would happen.
“No.” I formed fists and stopped the thing I couldn’t control.
“Now listen here young lady,” said Mr. Sauther as he came closer with the scissors waving closer to my face.
“No!” my tiny voice said with a force I’d never been allowed to use.
The principal lurched at me, one hand grasping, the other swinging with the blades of the scissors for my eye. I bolted, slipping free of his slimy hand.
I ran down the hall to the stairs, taking them two, then three at a time. My next move would clear the second flight and slam into the doors to the front of the school and I would be free. Nothing would stop me. Except for the janitor cleaning up tracked-in snow in the entryway.
Footsteps clomped behind me at the pace older people take. I glanced back to see Mr. Sauther making his way down while peering over the railing. I glimpsed the silver tip of the scissors over the railing as he still held them in his hand. “Stop her!”
The janitor straightened up, and adjusted his hat, tucking in a loose strand of straight black hair. Then he cocked his head up at Mr. Sauther while pulling a headphone speaker from his ear. “Huh?”
I shot past him and the door exploded open as my foot hit the glass and off I tumbled into the afternoon cold. The concrete scraped some skin off my hands, but I leapt to my feed and took off. My sides ached by the time I hit the railroad tracks a few blocks away. My pace shifted to a brisk walk as I headed east on the side of the road. A little snow remained from the blizzard a few weeks back, but the road was clear.
At three and a half miles an hour, it should take about three hours and twenty minutes to get home. Mom was good at math. She said we got it from grandfather. He taught it at the high-school. I knew he’d be angry. Jimmy and I were staying with him, but it’s not like before when we’d spend a weekend. He couldn’t cook and didn’t know any stories. Or he wouldn’t tell us, like how he lost his arm in the war. What he could do was look stern and sit quietly in the dark.
What am I going to tell him? That I disobeyed the principal? I’ve never been in trouble, not like Jimmy. He seemed to always have an excuse. Somebody pushed me. Called me a name. None of it worked with dad, and Jimmy would get spanked. I’m older. If he can take it, so can I. I kept marching. Home getting closer as I passed dirt side roads I recognized from the school bus rides.
A whoop came from behind me. I turned around but kept walking backward. A police car with the lights on top quietly flashed. The driver pulled even with me in his lane. I knew which side to walk on. The window rolled down, and a cop looked over at me. “Hey, kid. You need a ride?”
My feet held the white line, keeping me out of the ditch. “No.”
“You’re, uh, the Wanase girl? I pulled you and your brother from the wreck last weekend.”
I said nothing, focussing on keeping my pace in the cold. My fists felt like ice, so I stuffed them in my pockets. A memory of darkness in freefall as the car tumbled and unci’s arm wrapped around me as her white hair floated around us in the backseat. I’d gotten stuck in the middle because Jimmy wanted to pretend he was riding a snowmobile in the ditches as we drove home.
The policeman kept talking. “Got a report that a girl ran away from school. I’m gonna roll this way for a bit to look for her. You’ve got a better vantage. If you see her, let me know.”
The car kept pace with me, creeping with me at my ten-year-old pace. Great, now I had a police escort. So we walked. Maybe he’d get bored, or have to respond to a real emergency. I had my plan. And I had my memories to keep me company along the way.
We’d gone to Sr. Cloud University for a chess match because I ranked high enough to enter. The games were better than I could get at school. They told me I placed well enough to advance into the semi-finals hosted at U of M in two weeks. Jimmy was bored the whole time, and my father disappeared for most of it. But mom and unci stayed and watched all my matches. Night came by the time we were done, so the hour drive went silent as my father focussed on staying between the white and yellow lines. He was good at that. Unci held me as I fell asleep between her and Jimmy in the backseat. When the car swerved, I snapped awake.
I stumbled as my foot slipped off the edge of the road, almost twisting my ankle. Still, I kept walking. My gut ached, like the bottom had fallen out. Just like that night. The chill bit into me as I kept walking the line. At best, I had two inches of pavement to the left before it fell off into the ditch. Now and then, a car would slow and pass me and the putting cop car following me. Maybe he thought I couldn’t make it home. Part of a story my unci told me came to mind. This little baby, a lost bird, survived a massacre and was left in the cold. I couldn’t remember the rest and I’d never learn the rest of Zintkala Nuni’s story from my grandmother.
A few hours in, we reached the border of the Rez. Sure enough, my escort turned off, leaving me to my shivering. I’d at least worn a long sleeve shirt today, but it must be 20 degrees out and my winter coat sat in my locker at school. And my books. How would I study? Jimmy would laugh at me, but school was my only way out of here. Mom understood it. Whispered possibilities to me. A chess scholarship. College. The cities. Maybe it’s all gone now. Would grandfather drive me to chess matches? Why would he choose that when he could sit in the dark and miss his wife and daughter?
The gravel crunched under my feet as I continued passing a few trailer houses. One had an old lady getting the mail from her box. Her braid flipped off her shoulder as she turned and nodded at me, her face reddened a bit in the cold. I must look dumb, no coat and gum in my hair. I reached a frozen hand up to touch lightly at the gob to find it stiff. My plan might work. Flexing my fingers to get them working, I pried and pulled at the frozen mess. One hand held my hair at the root, the other tugged. When it felt like my efforts were warming it back up, I’d stop, but I kept walking.
By the time I passed all the homes and buildings and reached our trailer house, the last of the pink mass had broken free. I looked up to see my grandfather’s ancient Buick Wildcat in the driveway. He sat on my parent’s porch, smoking his pipe. How’d he get here? He had to teach.
“School called me. I got a sub.” He didn’t speak much, but he always had the answer.
I stopped in front of the house we hadn’t been back to. My head hung low. Dad would paddle Jimmy right here on the step. So I waited.
“You know there’s more than one way to get here, right?”
He rose from the step and approached me. His hand came up, and I flinched, but he rested it on my shoulder. “Turn around.”
I shuffled my cold feet, slowly coming to face the road I came from. Before me stood some twenty to thirty people, all with long black hair drifting in the light breeze and twilight.
“We heard you. Our people walk behind you, no matter where you go, little Rainstorm.”
My eyes watered, freezing to my cheeks. For a moment, I thought I saw my mom’s long braid, and a swirl of snow became my grandmother’s wild gray mane. I blinked away the tears, but only saw the living. My people. I nodded, and they returned to where they came from. Their lives and routines needed them.
Grandfather reached down to take my hand. “We need to get your brother.”
I didn’t get spanked. Nor did Jimmy. It turned out he pulled a chunk of Sarah’s hair out as soon as school let out and got detention. Pauline had called my grandfather. News traveled fast at our small school. We buried our family the next day when nobody had to work. The elders gave me three bundles to protect and honor my parents and unci’s spirits. I told grandfather what I’d seen at the gathering, and he told me to tell no one, and that I couldn’t go back to our old home. He went back and got some of our stuff, but the rest would be given away. Jimmy complained, but it didn’t bother me. That part of our life was done. When I told my grandfather I wanted to go to the cities for the next chess tournament, he said okay. I found the power in my voice. I could make my own way across the board.
It is Indigenous Heritage Month. And also Thanksgiving. Ironic, and mirrors the pickle I’m in for this year’s annual backstory I write. Even so, I wish everyone’s family well, and I hope you enjoy the story. This year, I wanted to tell a story from a secondary character’s perspective without our hero, and since I chose Rain, she had something to say that’s not normally my story to tell. I’d like to leave you with a few books by indigenous authors to fill in that gap with their own words.
Walking With Grandfather - Joseph Marshall III
Grandma’s Tipi - S.D. Nelson
Moon of the Crusted Snow - Waubgeshig Rice
For Other Wizard of Houston stories click here