It was the gradual unhooking of a leash. Her jaw gnawed the rope knotted around my neck until the fibres of her gums stretched and broke. Her teeth dulled and blunted until they forgot themselves and their homes — little pink sockets, deep red holes, empty. She is teeth that believe they are stronger than rope. A chain link fence shaking in the wind. Flatness and silence and awkward conversation. The feeling of dust on the road when it finally settles on skin. Unending hope.
Back then, my father held the whip. My beaten bottom was the colour of humiliation. I wilted and reddened. All the way through, my body remembers the feeling of being folded over one knee, same as that leather belt remembers the crease that transformed it from holding his pants up to holding me down.
My mom let me go — to powwows and socials, and alone with her to Ipperwash and Kettle Point. She let me go where I belong, feet on the earth dancing, eyes at the edge of water, living and alive, special and belonging, standing but never bent. Not stripped naked to reveal me but undressed for the weather, to free me.
In water, I shrug off this thick, dead skin and my twin floats to the surface. She is an unrecognizable mask, scowling. This callous grew up with me, is the same age as me, has hardened over to protect me. My skin shines blue-green underwater, stripped of roughness, a drifting log, heavy and smooth. I am scrubbed free of her weight. No sound but a slap, over and over.
I become the rocks and stand up to waves. I become anó·ki and swim until my paws find their footing. I bring my mother small pebbles. I swim circles and sing. My skin warms against grey slate and my chilly, wrinkled fingers trace out wet letters. Dark blue-purple fingermarks warm, fade to yellow and vanish in the sun. I reimagine the slap of leather, over and over, renewed in my memories and transformed, now fresh as waves. Whoosh, slap. Whoosh, slap. Sand smooths over and trickles into every space, overwhelming my body with laughter and sneaking a space of air into my chest,
“Sal^•ná!” her spirit sings to me, reminding me to take a breath. “Your prayers will always come to you, if you sing your songs.”
In a deep water,
Palms moving back and forth, back and forth,
afraid to feel fish between my toes
because I’ve never had a chance
to catch and eat one,
I am safe because my mother kicks.
I cling to her soft body,
As she kicks and kicks and kicks.
I let her go,
I see her floating alone.
She bobs up and down, up and down,
dark against the sunset,
behind a wave and back again.
Behind a wave and back again,
As she kicks and kicks and kicks.
Maybe soon she will swim her own way
with some new direction and intention,
find another warm stone to trace letters
and love, and speak secrets out loud,
Maybe she is safe.
Behind a wave.
I’m still here, eyes on the edge of water,
gifted with what’s left of my teeth.
I am a standing stone,
placed carefully upright on the beach
by the loving hand of my mother.
She left me here to come alive,
tumbled in waves
Smoothed over and over,
a loving hand who caresses my hair
until I can speak.
Rowan Sky is an Onyota’a:ka artist, activist and educator living in Tholʌto• (Toronto). His cross-disciplinary approach includes music and spoken word poetry, photography, illustration, video, publishing, sewing, installation, performance, workshops and teaching. He is currently working with visual programming language to make interactive multimedia presentations about Onyota’a:ka life and culture, and developing curricula to teach Indigenous youth how to program their own creative presentations.