The darkness of the residential school system brings a child’s fears to life, and only her refusal to give up her language and culture ensure she will survive The Sisters’ Building.
TW: Residential Schools
The Sisters’ Building
By Daniel Hansen
The Sisters’ Building was not yet called the Sisters’ Building. Well not in common parlance, though it was already whispered at times. One had to wonder what the church thought of that. The bastion of male privilege that the church was, defined by these people’s fear of nuns instead of priests. How they must hate that, but perhaps they feared the sisters as much as the people did.
Not that priests didn’t have a certain perception as an oppressor in the minds of the populace, but it was the nuns that held the whips and switches. It was the nuns that decided when the children ate, or more likely when they didn’t.
And so the squat edifice of wood and brick would become known as the Sisters’ Building by the children unlucky enough to go there, but lucky enough to survive their time within.
Christina, not her real name but the name the priest decided he could pronounce, had only ever seen the building from the back of her family’s wagon as they passed by, and had never spoken of it before. The dark fearful whispers everyone saved for the structure had ensured she was much too frightened to allow her mouth to contain the words.
Some topics were never uttered except by the very strong and extremely brave, or more likely foolish. Topics like Christina’s real name or talk of the late night jump dances; somethings you just didn’t say out loud. Not if you wanted the eyes of the priest and sisters to pass you by. Avoidance was often the best method of dealing with that which could harm you.
But the days of avoiding this particular fear were over now that the priest had spoken. Christiana had been deemed old enough to be taken by the church, and her family had no choice as the soldiers bundled her and her cousins up in the back of the wagon that would deliver them. There was a powerlessness in life that Christina could feel even at her young age.
The soldiers smelled of grease and liquor, and their uniforms looked to have never been washed. Christina wondered how their mothers allowed them to leave the house like that. Her own mother would be mortified if Christina’s father ever represented the family so, and the entire clan took great pains to remain clean despite not always being able to harvest the proper cleansing roots and herbs due to such things being forbidden by the priest.
Christina’s mother had dressed her in her most beautiful ribbon dress and braided her hair. Christina may need to face this terrible fate, but she would do it representing the family with pride.
The soft sounds of her mother singing had soothed much of Christina’s fears. The warmth of her mother’s fingers through her hair. The process of packing what little she would take. Picking beaded hair stays and small trinkets for protection took up much of the morning. The calming purpose of the action took from her mind what was about to happen and soothed her fears.
The soldiers’ wagon was open air, and the children were freezing as they rode from house to house collecting those that had been chosen. The sounds of their quiet banter filled the air, and several children cried silently missing their families.
Christina was lucky her uncle spoke some English because of trade partnerships he had, and he had taught her what little he knew. Several of the other children had never been taught the foreign tongue that would be part of their curriculum. Christina knew that neither the priest nor the nuns would sully their mouths with the People’s language.
Christina’s thoughts slipped from her mind as the wagon’s jerky momentum slowed and stopped. Even the soldiers grew quiet.
They had arrived.
Apple tree branches reached out towards her, grasping at Christina with their autumn bared arms like skeletal remains grasping for life. But Christina ignored the twisting wood as her mind took in the massive building behind the branches and the women dressed in black standing beneath them.
Christina scrambled out of the wagon clutching her small pack before her. Her cousins and the other children gathered around her, huddling together.
A woman in black stepped forward and began yelling in what Christiana could only assume was English and pointing at the earth before her. None of the words sounded like what her uncle had taught her. The children huddled tighter as the muddle of words mushed together in senseless screams.
The nun screamed louder and pointed harder, but it failed to make clear what she wanted.
Finally, with a huff, she stalked over and grabbed a young Northern River Clan child and dragged him to the spot she had pointed at. The boy seemed near tears, but he stood tall as she ripped his pack from him and dumped its contents onto the ground. A pile of clothing and odds and ends fell into the dirt. The woman pulled out a few small trinkets, yelled at the boy waving them in his face before she tossed them back into the pile.
The woman grabbed him by his hair and pulled him closer.
The boy began to cry.
Quiet tears that fell into the earth, ignored.
The woman stripped him of his ribbon shirt and pants.
Next came his moccasins.
She pulled from her dress a pair of long black scissors.
She began to shear the hair from his head.
Long black locks fell to the earth, as the blades snipped.
All that he was dumped into the pile until he stood naked and shivering.
The other children huddled tighter around Christina.
There was no escape as one by one they were stripped, the boys shorn, the girls’ hair pulled free of braids to hang in ragged clumps. The sounds of a foreign tongue constantly streaming around them through the cold air.
Their belongings piled before them.
Precious treasures lay upon the earth like trash.
Christina would not cry. Not even as she watched the women light the pile of hair and belongings on fire. Not even as a younger woman in black handed her a thin cotton dress while whispering in that garbled mess they called language.
The woman that had first stripped them looked at Christian with stern ugly eyes hidden among pale skin.
Christina, flinched at the little-clawed hands wrapped in the woman’s blonde hair, the little face that stared out from above the woman’s head. The creature held to the woman like a hummingbird on a goose. Christina was transfixed as the claws dug deeper, a mouth of jagged teeth smiled, and the woman in black’s smile mimicked it only moments later.
Christina looked down at her new cotton dress and realized this was her new life.
She was 5 years old.
The crackle of fire filled the crisp autumn air, consuming all she had been.
She was 5 years old.
Somehow Sister Margaretta knew.
Christina had been at the Sisters’ Building for months, and Sister Margaretta was the first thing the children had learned to fear. The children already here had whispered to the new prisoners’ everything they needed to know.
Speak never, but when you did speak English. Those who could not learn the language must remain silent and hope they could pass. There would be no English lessons, beyond the beatings when one did not understand. So, learn, or pretend that you had.
Give no indication that you remembered the People’s ways but only the priest’s mass and prayers. To remember the true ways was to be classed a ‘heathen’ and heathens did not eat. Those that prayed to the priest’s Father might find food in their bellies if they were lucky. Those that did not have not even that slim hope.
Eat when you find the chance, the sisters supplied some mush for the children, but often long periods without food would pass. Those that worked in the kitchen often could sneak some food, but such a thing was dangerous and could lead to severe beatings and the cellar. Still, the temptation of the priest and nuns’ usual hearty meals was often too much to not take the risk. But still, the older children whispered it was best to take what was offered as soon as it was offered and no more. No matter how bad the mush might be, one must eat when they could or starve.
Most importantly stay out of the way of Sister Margaretta. All the nuns were scary and violent, but Sister Margaretta was the worst. She kept her switch hanging from her belt, and the slightest hint the children were falling back into ‘heathen’ ways was an excuse to use it before throwing them into the cellar for a night of contemplation.
Christina had been careful even before the warnings. She had seen the small creature crawling through the nun’s hair, and that had been the only indication she needed that the woman was to be feared.
Since the first day she had seen the creature, she named it a nimerigar after her grandmother’s stories. Her grandmother had come from across the mountains to the east and enjoyed filling quiet nights with tales of the little human eaters and other scary tales
From her first night, she had seen many nimerigar around the Sisters’ building. Always they were near the nuns, and always one clung to Sister Margaretta, climbing constantly through her blonde hair. They scurried this way and that, and nobody else seemed to see them. But Christina saw them, and she shivered at the thought of their claws upon her skin.
The nimerigar were not her problem right now. Her problem was that Sister Margaretta knew. Christina had been careful, but her cousin, Sara, would not stop coughing, and the husk root had been right there near the well.
She was not out looking for the root, in fact, it was rare that it would grow outside of the mountains. She was merely coming to fill her bucket, and there it had been. Small white flowers, blooming as if just for her, and she had thought about her worry for Sara’s cough.
A nimerigar had hissed at her as she approached the flower, and its claws had clicked along the stone of the well as she slipped her hands into the dirt. It’s hiss filled the air, as the blossoms swung, giving off their scent. The nimerigar jerked back as the blossom struck the stone of the well, and it scurried farther up to the well’s lip as if burned.
Christina’s fear choked her, but she dug deep and pulled the wormy root up before running away, whispering her thanks to the plant for its gift, asking forgiveness for not replanting what had been left.
Washing and peeling had to be done in secret, for the use of traditional medicines were listed under ‘heathen’ works. Christina was so careful, telling no one of her actions.
When ready she gave pieces of the root to Sara to chew on. Handing it over slowly and telling no one, not even Sara. Christina had merely slipped it to the coughing girl while they scrubbed the floor near each other. Sara’s eyes had widened as soon as the root past her lips. She smiled slightly before looking down and away. The rest of the husk Christina hid within her dress, pressed tightly to her breast, a memory of her mother’s teachings.
Nobody could know.
Nobody had seen.
But Sister Margaretta knew.
The sister had walked right into the long dormitory the girls all shared and grasped Christina and Sara by the ears dragging them silently out into the night. The other girls looked on with big fearful eyes, as the nuns switched this one and that upon the wrists and hands for dawdling. The sounds of nightly prayers whispered through the darkness.
But the nightly routine was inconsequential to Christina as the nun’s iron fingers pulled her along. Sara’s weeping slipped through the darkness around her, and Christina knew, that Sister Margaretta knew.
The cellar was dark, and Christina’s body ached. Sister Margaretta had whipped them like they were a blanket in need of a good cleaning, and Christina’s body could still feel every smack even if her mind told it not to.
Christina thought she should be used to such beatings by now, but she was not. She could hear Sara’s silent weeping in the darkness to her left, and she scooted towards Sara to feel the comfort of family.
The cellar was were Sister Margaretta locked those children that just would not listen. The Sisters’ Building had been built upon a cave system, that soldiers had dug out further to create a larder for the building.
Deep within the earth, it stayed cold and dark enough that food could be kept there to remain fresh. Fresh as long as the many snakes and rats that roamed the freezing room did not get into it.
Children sent here for a night were often never the same, as they whispered about things crawling upon their legs and arms in the cold night. And those tales came only from the children that survived to emerge unbitten and unfrozen from the darkness. There bodies intact if not always their minds. Not all the children were so lucky for even this imitation of survival.
The earthen floor was gritty and scratched at Christina’s legs as she scooted through the dark until she felt Sara’s warmth. Sara jerked and cried out at Christina’s touch and pulled away.
“Your fault,” Sara said through tears.
“T’i’ cheł chkhuyenis” Christina whispered to Sara.
“No, it’s your fault.” Sara cried.
“Hoy ch’uł’enis,” Christina begged before adding, “please Sp’arq’walqs, we must. Sti’m khwe ‘i’ytspu’sminm”
“Hoy!!” Sara finally screamed and Christina slipped away from her as if slapped.
The darkness was absolute as Christina pushed herself away from her cousin. There was nothing she could do. She had never felt so alone, she wanted to cry. But in that dark eyes opened and stared at her. First, just a pair, but soon joined by more. The eyes of the nimerigar opened along the walls and from the sickening glow that lit within them the room became a pale dusk.
Christina could feel their hatred seep into her skin. She pushed farther back along the gritty earth only to feel her dress catch and she could push no more.
It did not matter because the eyes were all around her in the darkness, and in their dim light she could see their teeth jagged and snapping. She wrapped her arms around her knees to slow her shivers.
The creatures moved slowly but surely away from the walls and circled the two girls. Sara made no noise, and Christina assumed that even here the other girl could not see them.
But Christina could, and the nimerigar circled in towards them, eyes unblinking. Long thick claws clacked along the earthen floor. Christina was frozen in place. Jagged teeth seemed to smile at her. In their yellowed gleam, she was paralyzed.
They reached Sara first, and Christina flinched as a nimerigar seemed to caress her prone cousin. It ran its fingers along her bared foot.
Sara jerked away and began to cry louder. The nimerigar hissed and gashed Sara’s leg with its dirty claws. Sara cried out louder and without thinking, Christina dived at her cousin knocking the creature back.
Sara frozen in fear now did not push Christina away but huddled under her protection. Christina punched at a nimerigar only to have its long claws rake against her skin.
The pain was unbearable and she jerked her hand back against her chest. It struck a piece of hard root, and she recalled how the nimerigar earlier had jumped away from the husk flower.
She pulled the leftover root from her dress and waved it before her. The scent of husk filled the room, stronger than such a small piece should be capable of. The nimerigar hissed around her, and she waved her hand before her driving them back.
Christina could feel the power of traditional medicine, but she knew it alone was not enough. She knew she needed more, and from around her, she could feel her ancestors telling her what she needed to do. She stood and stepped towards the nimerigar and as they hissed she spoke.
“A chn Christina,“ She shook her head and started again with more force, “A chn Stbembm.”
The sounds of her language echoed along the walls of the cellar, and she spoke again louder, “A chn Stbembm.”
The nimerigar hissed and jerked back at the words. They hid their heads from the echoes that reverberated within the caves. The smell of husk grew stronger. A whisper from her ancestors entwined around her through the air, and Stbembm leaned back into the embrace of those that had come before her.
Stbembm, for that, was her name the priest could not pronounce, stood over her shivering and crying cousin. With the nimerigar leaving the darkness seeped back in. But Stbembm was not afraid. She knew now how to survive this prison made to destroy her will.
She would resist.