اوپال وایولا ویکتوریا بیر شیلد

کتاب: هیچی نیس، آرام باش / فصل 5

اوپال وایولا ویکتوریا بیر شیلد

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Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield

ME AND MY SISTER, Jacquie, were doing our homework in the living room with the TV on when our mom came home with the news that we’d be moving to Alcatraz.

“Pack your things. We’re going over there. Today,” our mom said. And we knew what she meant. We’d been over there to celebrate not celebrating Thanksgiving.

Back then we lived in East Oakland, in a yellow house. It was the brightest but smallest house on the block. A two-bedroom with a tiny kitchen that couldn’t even fit a table. I didn’t love it there, the carpets were too thin and smelled like dirt and smoke. We didn’t have a couch or TV at first, but it was definitely better than where we were before.

One morning our mom woke us up in a hurry, her face was beat up. She had a brown leather jacket way too big for her draped over her shoulders. Both her top and bottom lips were swollen. Seeing those big lips messed me up. She couldn’t talk right. She told us to pack our things then too.

Jacquie’s last name is Red Feather, and mine is Bear Shield. Both our dads had left our mom. That morning our mom came home beat up, we took the bus to a new house, the yellow house. I don’t know how she got us a house. On the bus I moved closer to my mom and put a hand into her jacket pocket.

“Why do we got names like we do?” I said.

“They come from old Indian names. We had our own way of naming before white people came over and spread all those dad names around in order to keep the power with the dads.”

I didn’t understand this explanation about dads. And I didn’t know if Bear Shield meant shields that bears used to protect themselves, or shields people used to protect themselves against bears, or were the shields themselves made out of bears? Either way it was all pretty hard to explain in school, how I was a Bear Shield, and that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was my first name, which was two: Opal Viola. That makes me Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield. Victoria was our mom’s name, even though she went by Vicky, and Opal Viola came from our grandma who we never met. Our mom told us she was a medicine woman and renowned singer of spiritual songs, so I was supposed to carry that big old name around with honor. The good thing was, the kids didn’t have to do anything to my name to make fun of me, no rhymes or variations. They just said the whole thing and it was funny.

We got on a bus on a cold gray morning in late January 1970. Me and Jacquie had matching beat-up old red duffel bags that didn’t hold much, but we didn’t have much. I packed two outfits and tucked my teddy bear, Two Shoes, under my arm. The name Two Shoes came from my sister, because her childhood teddy bear only had one shoe the way they got it. Her bear wasn’t named One Shoe, but maybe I should have considered myself lucky to have a bear with two shoes and not just one. But then bears don’t wear shoes, so maybe I wasn’t lucky either but something else.

Out on the sidewalk, our mom turned to face the house. “Say goodbye to it, girls.”

I’d gotten used to keeping an eye on the front door. I’d seen more than a few eviction notices. And sure enough, one was right there. Our mom always kept them up so she could claim she never saw them, in order to buy time.

Me and Jacquie looked up at the house. It’d been okay, the yellow house. For what it was. The first one we’d been in without either of the dads, so it’d been quiet, and even sweet, like the banana cream pie our mom made the first night we spent there, when the gas worked but the electricity hadn’t been turned on yet, and we ate standing up in the kitchen, in candlelight.

We were still thinking of what to say when our mom yelled “Bus!” and we had to scamper after her, dragging our matching red duffel bags behind us.

It was the middle of the day, so hardly anyone was on the bus. Jacquie sat a few seats back like she didn’t know us, like she was riding alone. I wanted to ask my mom more about the island, but I knew she didn’t like to talk on the bus. She turned like Jacquie. Like we all didn’t know each other.

“Why should we speak our business around people we don’t even know?” she’d say.

After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Mom,” I said. “What are we doing?”

“We’re going to be with our relatives. Indians of All Tribes. We’re going over to where they built that prison. Gonna start from the inside of the cell, which is where we are now, Indian people, that’s where they got us, even though they don’t make it seem like they got us there. We’re gonna work our way out from the inside with a spoon. Here, look at this.”She handed me a laminated card from her purse the size of a playing card. It was that picture you see everywhere, the sad-Indian-on-a-horse silhouette, and on the other side it said Crazy Horse’s Prophecy. I read it:Upon suffering beyond suffering; the Red Nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world filled with broken promises, selfishness and separations. A world longing for light again. I see a time of seven generations, when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again.

I didn’t know what she was trying to tell me with that card, or about the spoon. But our mom was like that. Speaking in her own private language. I asked her if there would be monkeys. I thought for some reason that all islands had monkeys. She didn’t answer my question, she just smiled and watched the long gray Oakland streets stream by the bus window like it was an old movie she liked but had seen too many times to notice anymore.

A speedboat took us to the island. I kept my head in my mom’s lap the whole time. The guys who brought us over were dressed in military uniforms. I didn’t know what we were getting into.

We ate watery beef stew out of Styrofoam bowls around a bonfire some of the younger men kept pretty big and hot with chunks of wood pallets. Our mom smoked cigarettes farther out from the fire with two big old Indian women with loud laughs. There were stacks of Wonder Bread and butter on tables with pots of stew. When the fire got too hot, we moved back and sat down.

“I don’t know about you,” I said to Jacquie, my mouth full of bread and butter, “but I could live like this.”

We laughed and Jacquie leaned into me. We accidentally knocked heads, which made us laugh more. It got late, and I was dozing when our mom came back over to us.

“Everyone’s sleeping in cells. It’s warmer,” she told us. Me and Jacquie slept in the cell across from our mom. She’d always been crazy, in and out of work, moving us all over Oakland, in and out of our dads’ lives, in and out of different schools, in and out of shelters, but this was different, we’d always ended up in a house, in a room, in a bed at least. Me and Jacquie slept close, on Indian blankets, in that old jail cell across from our mom.

Everything that made a sound in those cells echoed a hundred times over. Our mom sang the Cheyenne lullaby she used to sing to put us to sleep. I hadn’t heard it in so long I’d almost forgotten it, and even though it echoed like crazy all over the walls, it was the echo of our mom’s voice. We fell asleep quickly and slept soundly.

Jacquie got on a lot better than me. She fell in with a group of teenagers that ran all over the island. The adults were so busy there was no way for them to keep track. I hung by my mom’s side. We went around talking to people, attending official meetings where everyone tried to agree on what to do, what to ask for, what our demands would be. The more important-seeming Indians tended to get mad more easily. These were the men. And the women weren’t listened to as much as our mom would have liked. Those first days went by like weeks. It felt like we were gonna stay out there for good, get the feds to build us a school and medical facility, a cultural center.

At some point, though, my mom told me to go out and see what Jacquie was up to. I didn’t want to go out there alone. But eventually I got bored enough and went out to see what I could find. I took Two Shoes with me. I know I’m too old to have him. I’m almost twelve. But I took him anyway. I went down to the other side of the lighthouse, where it seemed like you weren’t supposed to go.

I found them by the shore closest to the Golden Gate. They were all over the rocks, pointing at each other and laughing in that wild, cruel way teenagers have about them. I told Two Shoes it probably wasn’t such a good idea and that we should just go back.

“Sister, you don’t have to worry. All these people, even these young ones over here, they’re all our relatives. So don’t be scared. Plus, if anyone comes after you, I’ll jump down and bite their ankles, they would never expect that. I’ll use my sacred bear medicine on them, it’ll put them to sleep. It’ll be like instantaneous hibernation. That’s what I’ll do, Sister, so don’t worry. Creator made me strong to protect you,” Two Shoes said.

I told Two Shoes to stop talking like an Indian.

“I don’t know what you mean by talking like an Indian,” he said.

“You’re not an Indian, TS. You’re a teddy bear.”

“You know, we’re not so different. Both of us got our names from pig-brained men.”

“Pig-brained?”

“Men with pigs for brains.”

“Oh. Meaning?”

“Columbus called you Indians, for us it was Teddy Roosevelt’s fault.”

“How?”

“He was hunting bear one time, but then found this real scraggly old hungry bear, and he refused to shoot it. Then in the newspapers, there was a comic about that hunting story that made it seem like Mr. Roosevelt was merciful, a real nature lover, that kinda thing. Then they made the little stuffed bear and named it Teddy’s Bear. Teddy’s Bear became teddy bear. What they didn’t say was that he slit that old bear’s throat. It’s that kind of mercy they don’t want you to know about.”“And how do you know about any of this?”

“You gotta know about the history of your people. How you got to be here, that’s all based on what people done to get you here. Us bears, you Indians, we been through a lot. They tried to kill us. But then when you hear them tell it, they make history seem like one big heroic adventure across an empty forest. There were bears and Indians all over the place. Sister, they slit all our throats.”“Why do I feel like Mom told us all this already?” I said.

“Roosevelt said, ‘I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.’ ”“Damn, TS. That’s messed up. I only heard the one about the big stick.”

“That big stick is the lie about mercy. Speak softly and carry a big stick, that’s what he said about foreign policy. That’s what they used on us, bears and Indians both. Foreigners on our own land. And with their big sticks they marched us so far west we almost disappeared.”Then Two Shoes went quiet. That’s the way it was with him. He either had something to say or he didn’t. I could tell by what kind of shine I saw in the black of his eyes which one it was. I put Two Shoes behind some rocks and headed down to my sister.

They were all gathered on a small wet sandy beach filled with rocks that thinned out or were covered where the water got deeper. The closer I got to them the more I noticed Jacquie was acting weird—all loud and crooked-looking. She was nice to me. Too nice. She called me over, hugged me too hard, then introduced me to the group as her baby sister in a too-loud voice. I lied and told everyone I was twelve, but they didn’t even hear me. I saw that they were passing a bottle around. It’d just gotten to Jacquie. She drank long and hard from it.

“This is Harvey,” Jacquie said to me as she knocked the bottle into his arm. Harvey took the bottle and didn’t seem to notice Jacquie had said anything. I walked away from them and saw that there was a boy standing apart from everyone else who looked like he could have been closer to my age. He was throwing rocks. I asked him what he was doing.

“What does it look like?” he said.

“Like you’re trying to get rid of the island one rock at a time,” I said.

“I wish I could throw this stupid island into the ocean.”

“It’s already in the ocean.”

“I meant down to the bottom,” he said.

“Why’s that?” I said.

“ ’Cuz my dad’s making me and my brother be over here,” he said. “Pulled us outta school. No TV, no good food, everyone running around, drinking, talking about how everything’s gonna be different. It’s different all right. And it was better when we were home.”“Don’t you think it’s good we’re standing up for something? Trying to make things right for what they done to us all these hundreds of years, since they came?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s all my dad ever talks about. What they done to us. The U.S. government. I don’t know nothing about all that, I just wanna go home.”

“I don’t think we even have our house anymore.”

“What’s so good about taking over some stupid place no one wants to be, a place where people been trying to escape from since they made it.”

“I don’t know. It might help. You never know.”

“Yeah,” he said, then he threw a pretty big rock over by where the older kids were. It splashed them and they yelled curse words at us I didn’t recognize.

“What’s your name?” I said.

“Rocky,” he said.

“So Rocky throwing rocks then?” I said.

“Shut up. What’s your name?”

I regretted having drawn attention to names, and tried to think of something else to ask or say, but nothing came.

“Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield,” I said as fast as I could.

Rocky just threw another rock. I didn’t know if he wasn’t listening or if he didn’t find it funny like most kids did. I didn’t get to find out either because just then a boat came roaring up from outta nowhere. Some of the older kids had stolen it from somewhere else on the island. Everyone walked toward the boat as it approached. Me and Rocky followed.

“You gonna go?” I said to Rocky.

“Yeah, I’ll probably go,” he said.

I went to Jacquie to ask if she was going.

“Fuuuuck yeah!” she said, completely drunk, which was when I knew I had to go.

The water got choppy right away. Rocky asked me if he could hold my hand. The question made my heart beat even faster than it was already beating from being on that boat and going so fast with all those older kids who had probably never driven a boat before in their whole lives. I grabbed Rocky’s hand when we went up high off of the crest of a wave, and we kept our hands held like that until we saw another boat coming toward us, at which point we broke our hold as if catching us holding hands was why the boat was coming. At first I thought it was the police, but soon I realized it was just a couple of the older men who ran another boat back and forth between the island and the mainland for supplies. They were screaming something at us. The men forced our boat to the front of the island.

It was only when they docked that I could really hear the screaming. We were being yelled at. All the older kids were pretty drunk. Jacquie and Harvey took off running, which inspired everyone else to do the same. Me and Rocky stayed on the boat, watched the older guys scramble to do something about everyone falling and running and laughing that stupid drunk laugh about nothing. When the two men realized they weren’t gonna catch anyone, and that no one was gonna listen, they left, either because they gave up or to get help. The sun was setting and a cold wind came in. Rocky stepped off the boat and tied it up. I wondered where he learned how to do something like that. I stepped off too and felt the boat rock as I left it. Fog was coming in low, slow to the point of creeping, up past our knees. I watched the fog for what felt like minutes, then I came up from behind Rocky and grabbed his hand. He kept his back to me, but he let me hold his hand like that.

“I’m still afraid of the dark,” he said. And it was like he was telling me something else. But before I could figure out what that was, I heard screaming. It was Jacquie. I let go of Rocky’s hand and went toward the screaming. I caught the words fu@king asshole, then stopped and looked back at Rocky like: What are you waiting for? Rocky turned around and headed back toward the boat.

When I found them, Jacquie was walking away from Harvey, every few steps picking up rocks and throwing them at him. Harvey was on the ground with a bottle in his lap, his head swaying—top heavy. That was when I saw the resemblance. And I didn’t know how I hadn’t noticed before. Harvey was Rocky’s older brother.

“C’mon,” Jacquie said to me. “Piece of sh@t,” she said, and spit on the ground toward Harvey. We made our way up the incline that led to the stairs to the prison’s entrance.

“What happened?” I said.

“Nothing.”

“What did he do?” I said.

“I told him not to. Then he did. I told him to stop.” Jacquie rubbed at one of her eyes hard. “It doesn’t fu@king matter. C’mon,” she said, then started to walk faster.

I let Jacquie go ahead. I stopped and held the rail at the top of the stairs, next to the lighthouse. I thought to look back, to find Rocky, then heard my sister yell for me to catch up.

When we got back to our cell block, our mom was there sleeping. Something felt wrong about the way she was lying. She was on her back but she always slept on her stomach. Her sleep seemed too deep. She was positioned like she hadn’t meant to fall asleep the way she had. And she was snoring. Jacquie went to sleep in the cell across from us and I slid under the blankets with my mom.

The wind had picked up outside. I was afraid and unsure about everything that had just happened. What were we still even doing on the island? But I fell asleep almost as soon as I closed my eyes.

I woke up with Jacquie right next to me. At some point Jacquie had taken our mom’s place. The sun came in on us, making bar-shaped shadows across our bodies.

After that we did nothing every day but find out what the meals were and when they would be served. We stayed on the island because there was no other choice. There was no house or life to go back to, no hope that maybe we would get what we were asking for, that the government would have mercy on us, spare our throats by sending boats of food and electricians, builders, and contractors to fix the place up. The days just passed, and nothing happened. The boats came and went with fewer and fewer supplies. There was a fire at some point, and I saw people pulling copper wire out of the walls of the buildings, carrying the bundles down to the boats. The men looked more tired and more drunk more often, and there were fewer and fewer women and children around.

“We’re gonna get outta here. Don’t you two worry,” our mom said to us one night from across the cell. But I no longer trusted her. I was unsure of whose side she was on, or if there were even sides anymore. Maybe there were only sides like there were sides on the rocks at the edge of the island.

On one of our last days on the island, me and my mom went up to the lighthouse. She told me she wanted to look at the city. Said she had something to tell me. There were people running around like they did in those last days, like the world was ending, but me and my mom sat there on the grass like nothing at all was happening.

“Opal Viola, baby girl,” my mom said, and moved some hair behind my ear. She’d never, not once, called me baby girl.

“You have to know what’s going on here,” she said. “You’re old enough to know now, and I’m sorry I haven’t told you before. Opal, you have to know that we should never not tell our stories, and that no one is too young to hear. We’re all here because of a lie. They been lying to us since they came. They’re lying to us now!”The way she said “They’re lying to us now” scared me. Like it had two different meanings and I didn’t know what either one was. I asked my mom what the lie was, but she just stared off toward the sun, her whole face became a squint. I didn’t know what to do except to sit there and wait to see what she would say. A cold wind laid into our faces, made us close our eyes to it. With my eyes closed, I asked my mom what we were gonna do. She told me we could only do what we could do, and that the monster that was the machine that was the government had no intention of slowing itself down for long enough to truly look back to see what happened. To make it right. And so what we could do had everything to do with being able to understand where we came from, what happened to our people, and how to honor them by living right, by telling our stories. She told me the world was made of stories, nothing else, just stories, and stories about stories. And then, as if all of it was leading up to what she was gonna say next, my mom paused a long pause, looked off toward the city, and told me that she had cancer. The whole island disappeared then. Everything. I stood up and walked away without knowing where to. I remembered I left Two Shoes over by those rocks all that time before.

When I got to Two Shoes he was on his side and in bad shape, like something had chewed on him, or like the wind and salt had dimmed him down. I picked him up and looked at his face. I couldn’t see the shine in his eyes anymore. I put him back down like he’d been. Left him like that.

When we got back to the mainland, on a sunny day months after we’d first left for the island, we got on a bus and went back over near where we lived before we moved to the yellow house. Just outside downtown Oakland, on Telegraph. We stayed with our mom’s adopted brother Ronald, who we first met the day we got to his house to live with him. Me and Jacquie didn’t like him one bit. But Mom said he was the real deal. A medicine man. Mom didn’t want to do what the doctors recommended. For a while we went up north all the time, where Ronald would run sweats. It was too hot in there for me, but Jacquie went in with Mom. Me and Jacquie both told her she should do what the doctors said to do too. She told us she couldn’t, that she could only go the way she’d been going. And that was the way she went. Slowly receding into the past like all those sacred and beautiful and forever-lost things. One day she just holed up there on the couch in Ronald’s living room. She got smaller and smaller.

After Alcatraz, after our mom died, I kept my head down. I focused on school. Our mom had always told us the most important thing we could do was to get educated, and that people won’t listen to you otherwise. We didn’t end up staying at Ronald’s all that long. Things went real bad real fast. But that’s a story for another time. When she was there, and even after she died, for a while he left us to ourselves. Me and Jacquie spent all our time together when we weren’t at school. We went to see Mom’s grave as often as we could. One day on the way home from the cemetery, Jacquie stopped and turned to me.

“What are we doing?” she said.

“Going home,” I said.

“What home?” Jacquie said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“What are we gonna do?”

“I don’t know.”

“You usually have some smart-ass answer.”

“Just keep going, I guess—”

“I’m pregnant,” Jacquie said.

“What?”

“fu@king piece of sh@t Harvey, remember?”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter. I can just get rid of it.”

“No. You cannot just get rid of—”

“I know someone, my friend Adriana’s brother knows someone in West Oakland.”

“Jacquie, you can’t—”

“Then what? We raise the baby together, with Ronald? No,” Jacquie said, then started to cry. Like she hadn’t cried at the funeral. She stopped, put her hand on top of a parking meter, and looked away from me. She wiped her arm across her face once, hard, then kept walking. We walked like that for some time, the sun behind us, our shadows slanted, stretched ahead of us.

“One of the last things Mom said to me when we were over there, she said we shouldn’t ever not tell our stories,” I said.

“What the fu@k is that supposed to mean?”

“I mean having the baby.”

“It’s not a story, Opal, this is real.”

“It could be both.”

“Life doesn’t work out the way stories do. Mom’s dead, she’s not coming back, and we’re alone, living with a guy we don’t even know who we’re supposed to call uncle. What kind of a fu@ked-up story is that?”“Yeah, Mom’s dead, I know. We’re alone, but we’re not dead. It’s not over. We can’t just give up, Jacquie. Right?”

Jacquie didn’t respond at first. We kept walking, passing all the storefronts on Piedmont Avenue. We listened to the constant lapping sounds of cars passing by, like the sound of waves against the rocks on the shore of our uncertain futures, in an Oakland that would never be the same as it was, before our mom up and left on a jagged wind.

We came to a red light. When it turned green, Jacquie reached down and took my hand. And when we got to the other side of the street, she didn’t let it go.

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