Excerpt

Bad Cree

Jessica Johns

January 10, 2023 
The following is from Jessica Johns' Bad Cree. Johns is a Nehiyaw aunty and member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. She is an interdisciplinary artist and winner of the 2020 Writers’ Trust Journey Prize.

Kokum was shorter than all of her daughters, though she didn’t look it, and she was all teeth. Her real teeth rotted out as a kid, and when she got her dentures, they were too big and too white for her mouth. I think I fell in love with her teeth first. How they were so even and moved to the sound of the room. She used to call them a weapon. “Stronger than regular teeth,” she would say. “Can bite right through bone. Don’t ask me how I know.” Her party trick was putting her teeth in our water cups when we weren’t looking, laughing when we’d spot the enamel staring back as we put our lips to the glass.

She wheeled the wagon over to the campfire and whistled at us, even though we were already watching her. We normally were, whenever she walked into a space. She waved her hand in front of the wagon like a magician, the smoke from her cigarette curling around her body.

We all dropped the sticks we were using as shovels and ran over to her. Sabrina left her book right on the ground. Mom, hearing the whistle, came out from inside one of the tents she was setting up. “Holy, where the hell did you get that?” Kokum smirked over her shoulder at my mom while her grandkids circled her in hugs. “Kokum has her ways.”

Auntie Verna popped her head out of a tent next to Mom’s. “There’s no way that’s going to fit all those kids. They’re not babies anymore, you know.”

“Watch your tongue,” kokum said, taking a drag of her cigarette. “These babies will fit just fine.” I breathed her in as she talked to my mom and aunties. Even with all us kids pushing against her, she was sturdy like the trees she just came through. Her chest moved under my head as I pressed into her harder.

“Okay, let’s take this out for a spin.” She grabbed Sabrina by the hand and helped the rest of us get into the wagon. The cigarette, mostly ash, dangled from the side of her mouth, moving up and down as she talked. She started wheeling us back to the trail.

“Don’t worry about us,” Mom yelled, “we’ll make sure to get everything cleaned and set up.”

“Thanks, my girl.” Kokum waved behind her. “We’re just gonna walk for a couple High Prairie minutes.” That’s what kokum used to call walking the trails through the woods.

Mom rolled her eyes. “Well, how long is that?”

“The minutes take as long as they need to!”

A minute to her was the distance between two trail openings on the lake. No two openings in particular. It was just the amount of time it took to get from one trail leading from the woods to the water and the next one. Sometimes these openings were only a few feet apart, sometimes they took forever.

This is how I learned the trails around the lake, how I started to make myself a part of their paths. Before we had the wagon, we’d just walk, and she’d point out plants and what they could do, tell us stories and jokes.

“Wapanewask,” she said once, pointing at the ground to a yellow stalk sprouting tiny, white flowers growing in a plume. “Your mom’s favourite. Fitting. Yarrow is stubborn, like her. Only grows where it wants, doesn’t take orders from anybody.”

Sabrina wrote down everything kokum told us about plants. She even drew sketches and, eventually, started painting them. Me, Kass, and Tracey were more interested in her stories.

Sometimes she’d take us on a long walk right before we were supposed to be leaving, when Mom and the aunties were packing up the campsite. By the time we got back, it would be late.

“We only walked a couple minutes!” kokum would say when Mom got mad at her.

Mom shook her head. “A couple minutes, my ass,” she said as she started to unpack, setting up camp again for us to stay one more night.

“It’s not the only way to measure time,” kokum said once. “Sometimes time is measured in the days between phone calls with your kokum, which should never be very many. Sometimes it’s the measure of a heartbeat.”

The wheels squeaked as kokum took us down the trail for the first time in our new wagon. After a couple minutes, the trail forked. Going straight would lead us to the road where we left the cars. Kokum took us right, where the lake turned into marsh, and then into rivers and creeks that opened like fingers spread right through Grouard. The water was connected to everything, even though from our campsite we could only see a fraction of it.

Me, Kassidy, and Tracey fit comfortably in the wagon next to each other. We could have fit Sabrina, too, but she wanted to walk next to kokum, help her pull the wagon and look at the plants up close.

Kokum swatted at a mosquito on Sabrina’s arm. “Damn mosquitoes are bad this year,” she said, rubbing where she just hit.

“They just love that Cree blood.” She looked back at us in the wagon and winked. We all giggled, but I laughed the loudest, the way kokum taught me.

Once, I had laughed with my hand over my mouth because my teacher told me an open mouth was a rude mouth. Kokum gently moved my hand from my face and told me to laugh like I was blowing air into a giant balloon, as open and as hard as I could. She said that if my teacher ever told me to cover my mouth again, I should tell her and she’d take care of it.

We rode along the trail, kokum smoking and telling us stories about the lake, pointing out areas where she used to bring the aunties and Mom when they were just kids like us, the size of the fish they used to catch, the time they saw maskwa and her cub. The moss and trees muffled our talks, like we were in a cozy room together rather than out in the open.

We’d stop every now and then when she’d point out a flower or plant. Sabrina stroked the newly bloomed petals of a wild rose. “Okiniyi,” she said, and kokum nodded, proud. It was still early summer, but the pink of the roses could be spotted everywhere through the trees.

Whenever we passed a trail that opened back to the lake, we’d catch a glimpse of water and count out loud together: one, two, three High Prairie minutes.

“Always do this if you go for a walk,” kokum said, “to remember how far you’re getting from your campsite. Count the trails to the water, remember the minutes.” She talked and talked and pulled Sabrina close, trailing her hair with her hand. She looked back at us in the wagon when we got too quiet, and she’d always look right at me. She had the softest eyes, and when she held me in them, I knew that no one else in the entire world could ever love me like she did.

Kokum was pointing out a ohtihmina vine, the small strawberries still a while off from flowering, when Sabrina let go of her hand and walked forward, staring into the empty trail in front of us. Kokum stopped and looked up after her.

“What is it, my girl?” Fallen pine cones and sticks crunched under her feet as she closed the distance between them.

“I think mosum is walking with us, too.”

If kokum was surprised to hear this, she didn’t show it. “What do you mean?”

Our mosum had died from a heart attack a few years earlier. He was a big, soft man who was always chewing tobacco and making kokum laugh. Even though kokum was always laughing anyways, she never laughed as hard as she did with him. Sabrina described the man she saw. A tall, brown man in a red shirt, which is what gave him away. Mosum wore that red shirt on every important occasion, the loose collar and three buttons undone from the top, a gold cross hanging in the centre of his chest.

“Mosum is standing right there,” she said, pointing. “He’s laughing into the sky, but the sound is coming out like thunder. Does anyone else hear it?”

When no one answered, she looked scared. Somewhere in the woods, a robin sang.

Kokum smiled the scare away and pulled Sabrina into a hug. “It’s okay, my girl. Mosum is just telling us a storm is coming.” She looked into the sky then and we all looked up, too. The sun beat down hard against thin wisps of white clouds. They were spread out in impossibly straight lines around the sun, a rib cage around a heart. Otherwise, the sky was clear.

“Let’s head back, count the minutes as we go,” she said.

Kokum turned the wagon around and pulled us back down the trail toward our camp, faster than before, not stopping to point out plants or tell stories. The squeaking of the wheels quickened with each turn, and we all counted the minutes at each glimpse of water. The minutes seemed to shrink, like time was an elastic band someone let go after pulling it too tight for too long.

After the final minute, just as we got to our trail and turned down toward the water, we heard a rumble from above. The air hung heavy as we left the brush and broke into the campsite. We jumped out of the wagon and left it by the trees, running toward the tents. Mom and the aunties were tying off a tarp between a couple trees when they saw us.

Kassidy was running slower than the rest of us, so kokum scooped her up. The rumble sounded again, louder and closer. The heat held above our heads like a broken thought. The sky snapped just as we made it under the tarp, the rain pouring around us in buckets.

“Just in time,” Auntie Doreen said, pulling Kassidy from kokum’s arms and into her own. “You’re damn lucky you didn’t get caught in that. That came out of nowhere.”

Kokum held me and my sisters in front of her as we all looked out into the sky, now rolling with thick storm clouds. Lightning cracked and we counted out loud together until we heard the thunder come after it, measuring how far away the storm was. After each line of lightning formed above us, we only counted to three before hearing the thunder. Deep in my chest, I felt mosum’s laughter move like a wave from the base of my spine and out my own mouth.

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From Bad Cree by Jessica Johns. Used with permission of the publisher, Doubleday. Copyright © 2023 by Jessica Johns.




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