Mouse and Medicine
A knot in the wood. In a floorboard in the attic of the old house, a knot appears near the edge where the cedar plank was cut. The fingerprint of a dismembered branch. The knot serves as a testament to the wood’s first life. Perhaps the branch held up one end of the family clothesline. Maybe it bent under the pressure of little bodies swinging from little hands. Eventually, the mark of that severed branch gave way, leaving a space just big enough for a young face, pressed flat, to peer in and spy on life below.
Elsie was about ten years old at the time, a number she gauges from staring into her palms and following the lines on her fingers. “How old was Robert?” she asks herself. “Let’s see…” She rolls her hands over to examine the back where the answer awaits her, “he was probably five or six then.” From there she calculates her own age, counting backwards from her younger brother’s birthday to hers on her long, slim fingers like her past is kept and rediscovered in the wrinkles of her palms and the spots on her skin.
As Elsie finds her memories in her skin, I think of everything her hands have been through. The meals they’ve made, the geese, rabbit and moose they’ve cleaned, the perfect pieces of wood they’ve collected to tan hides and smoke meat. Her hands have taught beadwork, fed mouths. They’ve picked berries and pulled feathers, they reveal the details of her life that her mind has left somewhere in the past, the stitching to her childhood. For some reason, today they remind her of the day her brother Mouse was saved by Cree medicine.
In my mind, ten-year-old Elsie is not unlike the woman who sits in front of me, sharp and witty with bright, wandering eyes and a smile that suggests the joke is on you. The image of her younger self, laying flat on the floor, nose pressed hard against the wood, watching midnight secrets unfold below her, comes easily. It’s no surprise she was awake when she shouldn’t have been, listening to things she wasn’t meant to hear. Ignoring the rules seems to be part of Elsie, like it’s born to her marrow.
When Elsie grew up, her people struggled beneath the barriers we still see today and although the country’s atmosphere was teeming with political charge, the post World War II era brought little change for Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal people. Veterans returned to find life on the reserve unchanged, despite their own lives eternally altered. Small variations to the 1951 Indian Act resulted in even smaller variations in daily life. Policies forbidding traditional ceremonies were repealed, however Aboriginal medicines were still banned and the Canadian government was still committed to assimilation.
“Because it was outlawed for so many years,” Elsie explains of her people’s ceremonies, “…even at the time of my old people, they didn’t really talk about these things because it was illegal. It wasn’t until after a few years I realized it had been happening in Cumberland House, but it was hidden away from the community.”
Located on an island that separates Cumberland Lake from the Saskatchewan River, Elsie’s home, named for the lake it borders, is the oldest permanent settlement in Western Canada. For thousands of years its waterways and rivers were used for communication, trade and travel. Without them, the area was shrouded in isolation that oftentimes became dangerous, even deadly.
That year, the year Elsie found in her palms, the changing seasons had rendered her northern community unreachable. The only modes of travel were dogsled or boat and access to the remote location was lost to either melting ice or freezing waters. The all-season road that would connect the community to the rest of the province wouldn’t be built for another ten years.
“We were pretty well isolated at the time,” Elsie explains, her eyes softening as she sees her old world unfold in front of her. “It was either spring break up or fall freeze up and you couldn’t get in or out, couldn’t use the traditional ways of travelling, the weather wouldn’t allow it.”
The sixth of thirteen kids, Elsie’s brother Robert was right in the middle of the family’s baker’s dozen. Born prematurely, Robert entered the world tiny, feisty and covered in dark hair. The nickname Mouse came quickly.
“Mouse was the spokesperson,” Elsie says. “He and his younger brother Eric were two peas in a pod.” Being the older of the two, Mouse started school before Eric and was able to speak English before his younger brother. “So he took Eric all over and became the spokesperson.”
Mouse learned quickly to use his English and his sharp tongue to get him and his brother in, and usually out, of trouble. “They were trying to split a block of wood – doing what they weren’t supposed to,” Elsie remembers, “Eric’s holding the wood and Mouse swung the axe and chopped Eric’s finger.” The boys, only five and six at the time, rushed to the hospital. The nurse stitched Eric up and gave Mouse specific instructions to care for his brother. “The nurse told him to come back the next day,” Elsie smiles, “He says to me in Cree, she said, ‘come back good morning.’”
Despite his energetic nature, as a child Mouse was plagued with illness. Complications from birth caused him to suffer unrelenting nosebleeds.
“He used to almost drain of blood before we could stop them.”
One night when the seasons cloaked Cumberland in isolation, Mouse’s nosebleed began. Unable to get him to the hospital, Elsie’s family watched as blood poured out of the boy. The community knew by law they weren’t allowed to help. Their methods were ungodly, their medicines witchcraft. They were to stand by and wait for rescue to arrive. The white world knew best, knew the proper ways to heal. The white world didn’t leave medicine to old ladies and wild herbs. It was better left to professionals, doctors in white coats with university degrees and new machines.
But Mouse’s blood did not run on white world time and it did not wait for their machines. As the hours ticked by, the clock took with it Mouse’s colour, left him pale, his face grey, his body listless. The hours dragged their feet and hushed the room as they pulled silent prayers from visitors. Time slowed his heartbeat and quieted his pulse. Mouse was too small and the blood continued to run.
Elsie’s family moved the dying boy from the shared bedroom in the attic to the living room, downstairs. They set up a bed between the dresser and the kitchen table.
“It looked like a big house to me then,” Elsie says, her voice heavy with memory. “It had a lean-to built on to it where the kitchen was, so there was only a wood stove for cooking. Downstairs in the middle was a cast iron stove that kept the house warm. There was a little dining room table, a table for beadwork and a big bed in the corner.” It was there Mouse slipped into unconsciousness.
“People were taking turns sitting around him, coming and going all the time,” Elsie remembers. “Some of them were praying.”
The local priest came to visit along with some of the nuns from Cumberland House Convent. The RCMP and sometimes even the Hudson Bay manager would come and stay for hours. Elsie remembers them standing in the doorway staring at the foot of Mouse’s bed or drinking coffee from tin mugs and looking quickly from face to face.
“There was always one of them there,” Elsie says, her eyes squinting into twinkling slits, “it never occurred to me until years later but they were making sure we weren’t doing the traditional healing.”
Despite the ban that had existed for decades, traditional practices were still going on in Cumberland House as they were all over the country. Sweat lodges were hidden under trap doors in porches, ceremonies were performed by moonlight, Cree was being spoken in whispers and stories were being passed to grandchildren behind closed doors. The Canadian government did its best but the heartbeat of First Nations culture was not silenced. Though muted and hidden, tradition lived on.
Elsie didn’t realize it then, but she had been watching her culture performed in secret her whole life. “I recall seeing the Elders, when we were out picking, go walking on their own. I didn’t realize they were doing their prayers and offerings,” she smiles, “All the little ladies had little pipes. They’d be outside, smoking their pipes, not talking to anybody. I just thought it was something old Indian ladies did.”
After a few days when Mouse was nearly comatose, bed sheets surely sodden with blood, word finally came that help was on its way. A plane had been cleared to land and take the young boy to the nearest hospital. With this, the visitors dispersed.
“They told everybody to go home. Everything would be alright and help would be there first thing in the morning,” Elsie says. “So they left. The elderly ladies that came and sat with him and the old men who were there too, everyone went home.
“Sometime during the night, I heard a rustle. People were moving around and I heard whispering.”
Ten-year-old Elsie crawled out of bed and lay flat on the ground. The glow from the cast iron stove illuminated the cracks in the floorboards, like a lighted road map. Elsie quickly found the knothole and watched silently. “I don’t know if anyone else remembers, they were asleep. They didn’t watch what I watched.” Below her, Elsie saw two old women slip through the front door and make their way to Mouse’s bed.
“It was my own grandmother, Isabelle Dorion and another elder, Sarah Carriere – the medicine women of Cumberland.”
Elsie watched as the old ladies hovered over her brother. They whispered in Cree and moved quickly in their moccasins, the smooth hide muffling their footsteps into the floor. But little Elsie was already awake, already watching the unlawful actions of the old women, already realizing that just like Mouse’s, the heart of her culture was still beating.
The next morning, authorities arrived to take Mouse to the hospital, only to find the boy alert and lively. The community had gathered outside the home, in support and protection. As they stood watching, Elsie recognized a knowing silence among them. She knew the authorities would find no trace of the medicine women’s visit, except the flush of colour in her brother’s cheeks.
Cassi Smith was born and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan in 2013 with a Double Major in Political Studies and English, In 2017 she graduated from the U of S with an Masters of Fine Arts in Writing after successfully completing a collection of nonfiction short stories based on interviews with Saskatchewan’s First Nations Elders. Cassi is the the fourth recipient of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award (2017). She currently lives and writes in Saskatoon.