Ve'ahavta's Creative Writing Contest, in its 13th year, gives homeless men, women, and youth the opportunity to have their voices heard through written works of art. Facilitated preparatory writing workshops have taken place in Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax with thousands of eager participants. Writing entries are evaluated by panel of judges, which have included Tony Blair, Michael Ondaatje, Michael "Pinball" Clemens, and Ron Maclean, among others. Winners are awarded with cash prizes which have the potential to dramatically change their life circumstances. The Creative Writing contest has proven to be a life-changing experience for many -- including contestants, judges, and audience members who hear live readings of the winning entries at a concluding Coffee House event. This year's event took place Tuesday, July 9th, 8:00pm at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto (1950 Bathurst Street). What follows is the first place entry written by Westwind Evening.
The keepers of Anishnabe traditional knowledge say it begins with a whisper. Sometimes there's so much going on to even pay attention, especially when you're constantly trying to stay one step ahead of trouble. Looking back, I figure I heard that whisper when I was seven years old along a prairie highway on a bitterly cold winter night.
I'm walking fast in between my two younger brothers. It feels like 40 below, walking along that dark road. Those boys were so cold. They started crying and all I could do to keep them warm was walk them fast and keep my arms wrapped around both of them. Poor things weren't properly dressed for cold weather, no mitts. Mom is ahead of us and boy is she pissed. My step-dad didn't put enough gas in the car to get us home. I can hear her raging at him. Good thing for him, he's headed in the opposite direction looking for that farmhouse we passed. I warn the boys, "Shhh guys, be quiet!" I sense their hands are getting pretty cold by the way they try to tuck them into their jacket pockets. After walking for about half-an-hour, I tell them, "We're almost there, guys. Almost there."
Finally, we turn off the main highway and it's another 10-minute walk to our little house. I continue to hurry the boys along, as we get closer to our destination. I keep urging them to be silent. As we approach the house, I run ahead because I know that front door has to be open before she reaches the final step on the landing. I hear a growling voice yelling at the boys. My hands are shaking as I fumble in the dark to insert the key into the lock. The lock is frozen and I can't turn the key. I can hear the boys standing behind her on the steps as I fumble in the dark. By now the boys' cries are piercing. My hands are shaking violently now as I struggle with the key. Fear sweeps over me. Fear, my trusted ally at times like these, helps me move faster, be stronger, be smarter, and be whatever I need to be. I hear angry words again. I turn my head and see two little bodies flying through the air. They land in a deep snow bank several feet away from the step landing. They lay there in the snow in the dark, crying softly.
Finally, the door flies open. I step aside and let her storm into the house. Still shaky, I'm right behind her. I turn on a light and get a chair and slide it in front of the wood stove. As I rush into a bedroom and retrieve a blanket, I can hear the boys outside whimpering like little puppies. Still fumbling, I wrap the blanket around her and I put wood in the stove and get a warm fire going. The boys by now are standing on the steps outside the door, still whimpering, hesitant to enter the house. I pull her shoes off and wrap another blanket around her feet. She's sipping on the hot bowl of soup I've prepared for her. The raging storm has subsided. It's safe now. Quietly, I sneak the boys inside the house and put them to bed. I gently blow my warm breath onto their hands until they fall asleep.
The next morning, my two little guys wake me. They bravely hold their hands out to me, taunting me to examine. I gasp when I see each and every little finger severely blistered. Their hands are beyond recognition, their fingers encased in flesh balloons filled with water. But days pass and hands heal. For a few nights after that perilous midnight walk, when everyone is asleep, I would take a small hand in mine and stare at its crooked little fingers.
If you don't hear the whisper the first time, the knowledge keepers say, each utterance thereafter grows incrementally with intensity and urgency. I'm ten years old when the second whisper escapes my attention. The morning after, when the grown-up party is over, I know it's my cue to come down from the solitude of the attic and play the role of grown up again. My time frolicking on an imaginary beach with imaginary friends living the good life in paradise has come to an end. I'm back in the trenches. It's another prairie winter. We've moved into an abandoned house on the edge of town next to a big wheat field. This is advantageous for the boys who appreciate a landscape where they can easily escape the long end of a beating stick. At times of reckoning, they can be spotted, occasionally two heads poking above the wheat stalks, the way prairie gophers do when they chance to see if the coast is clear.
Being a kid of ten, there's not much quiet time. Who can hear the whisper in the wind when your family depends on you for everything? There's wood that needs chopping, water that needs hauling, meals that need cooking, and clothes that need scrubbing. All tasks must be performed to exact specifications, otherwise there is the inevitable wrath that comes down on your head like a ton of bricks. In the face of failure you don't disturb shit. You just put your head over a basin of water and wash the blood out of your hair. And the drunken parties go on for days and strange drunken men look at you in a funny way, a dangerous way. The parents are gone and who knows when they'll be back. It could be days. Sometimes, you can't run away soon enough to hide, and you end up suffocating underneath the heavy weight of a man's body, imagining you're on a sunny beach with all your imaginary friends. You stare at the ceiling, pretending the reality away. And then, you're terrified you'll get a wicked licking when mom gets home for peeing in her bed. It is only many years later that I learn the truth -- the wet spot on the bed sheet that the man left behind that night wasn't pee.
My step-dad used to embarrass me to death with his drunken party stories. He would say, "I open my lunch box, take out my sandwich, and take a bite." I hear this story a million times. "Where the heck's the meat? I open the sandwich and there's a small shrivelled up burnt hamburger patty in the middle of these two slices of bread!" Laughter echoes throughout the house. He never mentions that every morning he wakes me before the crack of dawn to get him ready for work. He doesn't tell them I make breakfast for him after filling his lunch box and ironing his work clothes. Before he's out the door, my attention turns to getting the kids ready for school. And after that I make sure there is breakfast waiting for mom whenever she gets out of bed after we've gone to school. He leaves those details out of his story.
We've moved to the city now. It's not surprising that somewhere, sometime, somehow he starts thinking I'm his wife even though I'm really only his 12-year old step-daughter. He often wakes me in the middle of the night to cook for him. From my vantage point at the stove, I can see his wrinkled naked body sitting on the couch. He's toying with his genitals, flashing a toothless grin at me while mom snores away in the next room. Over the next three years, he gets bolder. When I'm not paying attention, he sneaks up behind me and puts his hands on my girl breasts. He usually catches me off guard when I'm standing at the stove, cooking. Sometimes he runs his hands between my legs. Judging by the way he grins and laughs, he thinks I get pleasure from this secret attention. Doesn't he know, I rage, feeling nothing but utter disgust? It never occurs to me to turn to mom and report my step-dad's paedophilic behaviour. The fear of being on the receiving end of a wicked licking keeps me silent.
Eventually, I learn to be a highly trained sentinel, acutely vigilante during the days of routine drunken binges that can go on for days. In addition to the two boys, who are now quite self reliant, there are two little sisters and a baby brother to protect. Whenever I hear my step-dad announce to his drinking buddies, "Hey! Party's over!" I know exactly what that means. Run! I make my escape through the back door and hide in the bushes. I hear him walking about the house, calling my name. I stay in the bushes until dawn. By then, he's passed out. By then, mom has found her way home. Her presence makes it safe for me to enter the house. I sneak inside and barricade myself in a closet. Mom wonders why I do that but I never give her a straight answer for fear of being on the receiving end of a wicked licking.
Passage through the adolescence years is perilous. These are rites of desperate insanity. From the age of 15, I'm feeling a hurricane of pent up emotions. I become intolerant, brave, and reckless. Standing at the stove, feeling a hand slide between my legs, I suddenly realize if I walk out that door, there's no turning back. Death is a welcome alternative to this shit. Plan A -- run away from home and start a new life -- ends up with a wicked licking and my long hair laying on the cutting floor. I'm locked away in a bedroom in nothing but my underwear. Fingers wrapped tightly around my hair so tight as to get a good grip to slam my head against the walls and floor spark plan B -- a razor blade that makes a bloody mess in a toilet stall. Plan C, requiring a bottle of sleeping pills, is implemented when I learn I am to be withdrawn from school permanently to care for the baby in diapers and for the invalid with a beer bottle at her side. There would have been a Plan D and E, all the way to Z, if necessary, had it not been for someone at the hospital who is keeping track of my failed escape plans. Somebody, other than me, realizes a human being can only take so much shit.
I spend two weeks in a psychiatric ward before I'm discharged into a foster home. The social worker gives me the scoop. The mother and father are church people. I move in not knowing what to expect, not knowing how to relate to the three middle-class kids who are now my older "siblings." I don't leave my bedroom for a year, except to go to school. After two years, I eventually drop out of school and venture out on my own. I didn't expect the foster dad to take over where the step-dad left off. Whenever we are alone, his loving declarations just don't feel inviting. He tries to kiss me on the lips and a whisper is telling me "Run to the bushes!" There's nowhere to turn but the streets. I'm convinced this is a safer place.
I'm seventeen now. I figured I'd take a chance and see what happens if I went to see mom. I'm scared as hell she might give me a good licking. As it turns out, all the kids are happy to see me. She's so quiet during this celebratory reception. Then one Sunday morning, I'm sleeping peacefully at my beloved aunties' house. Suddenly, I see a shadow hovering over me. I hear threats uttered, something about my bony body going down the stairs. My bony body is an inch from being grabbed. Undoubtedly, I've overstayed my welcome. Back to the life tumbleweeds carried along the wind.
For the next two years, I live in the streets not knowing where the next meal or bed would find me. Sometimes it's an adventure, sometimes a risk. I learn a lot about survival, how to get a bed for the night without having to make too much of a compromising investment. Usually the men are not that interesting or selfless enough for me to let my guard down. I pray, the next one will be different. How I learned to stay calm and rational during a rape in progress is one lesson that still stays with me. It's a memory that hangs around forever. I find a way to make the rapist calm enough to fall asleep beside me. During my quiet sobs, I pray to the Grandfathers to guide me out of this predicament. In a state of hypervigilance, I creep out of a wheat field with a stolen screwdriver in my hand. I walk along the highway, after he's long fled, a coward taking refuge in the anonymity of night. I walk the several miles down the dark and silent highway to the kindly old gentleman who shelters homeless kids. In middle of the night, he opens his home to me. After I explain what happened in a van in an isolated wheat field, he draws me a warm bath. But no amount of Lysol can wash away the dirt. With a tear in his eye, I sense he's wishing he could erase the last two hours of my life.
I'm lying on the sofa and my head is pounding as I wake up to greet two little darlings arriving home from school. My girl is excited to tell me about her field trip. My little guy just goes upstairs to his room to play with his Lego. I'm cranky and distracted. She is annoyed. Angry words are exchanged. Locking horns with a six-year-old is developing into a daily routine. Sitting on the sofa with my head in hands, struggling to regain my composure, I hear a small whispering voice, "Mom, I think you have a drinking problem." She bounces out the door to play, leaving me stunned and paralyzed. In my solitude, all I can do is reach for a glass of wine to soothe the sting. Who me? A drinking problem? It takes a couple of days before I can digest those words and face the truth and wisdom of a child's observation. A week passes before I finally wrestle up enough courage to surrender my booze. Traces remain -- it's the only thing that got me through my day, got me through my life.
Getting and staying sober offers a new lease on life. It didn't make my life any easier but I can focus more clearly on the demands of single parenthood instead of languishing in front of a TV set with a glass of wine in hand. It gives two small children the opportunity to thrive in a stable home environment. Family and work become the sum total of my life. I'm actively involved in my community, giving expression to a burning desire to change the world, to advance the causes of the marginalized. One day I'm invited to sit with a delegation of government officials representing many sectors of the Justice system. There is a lively debate around the boardroom table: how to reform prisons for women. At the end of the day, I speak for the first time. A realization suddenly hits me, "You know, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about when it comes to prison reform. And neither do any of you! If I've never seen the inside of a jail cell, what do I have to offer women behind bars? The ones behind bars, they are the experts. Why aren't they sitting at this table?"
Still, I do not hear the whisper in the silent spaces between banal debates taking place around that boardroom table that day. An elder sitting beside leans in, probing, "Why are you so angry?"
It takes only nine months to descend the depths of hedonism. A daily assortment on the menu -- a bottomless cornucopia of wine, thick long lines of cocaine, a colourful array of sedative cocktails -- catering to insatiable appetites served up at 11:00 AM every morning. Sexual behaviour becomes a compulsive performance. It takes five years to kick that loser petty criminal boyfriend to the curb. For lashing out with a paring knife at his violent outbursts, I give up two years, less a day, and two more years of probation to pay my debt to society. I regularly report to a perplexed probation officer. She wonders how an educated professional high-achiever hooks up with a misogynistic drug dealer. Community charities, including a police foundation committee, waste no time launching a disengagement campaign, complete with thank you letters acknowledging my contribution to their cause and wishing me the best in my future endeavours. The subdued anger crippling my spirit, as recognized by an elder sitting beside me in a boardroom a long time ago, can no longer be contained. A whisper has ascended to a screaming rage.
A prosecuting lawyer is reading my pre-sentence report before a presiding judge and concludes, "This accused has had a horrific childhood..." This is the only time I've ever heard my childhood assessed. I always figured I never had one to assess. The well-intentioned, but naïve, judge thinks I need addiction and sexual abuse counselling among a string of other reformative measures. Compliance with the conditions of my sentence becomes a mission, testing the boundaries of rebellion. My urine tests positive for cannabis. I fall asleep at the rehab centre after a two-day-cocaine-induced bout of insomnia. I sip on a vodka cocktail concealed in a coffee mug while I check off time from my 100 hours of community service. On paper, my rehab is progressing quite nicely. In reality, I'm living a nightmare, slipping into a dark and deep depression, a journey from which there is no apparent return.
I give up my three-bedroom house to return to the homeless wandering of my youth. Like GPS devices, probation officers track my every move. I hibernate the winter in Newfoundland. Spring finds me in Winnipeg. Summer comes and I'm back in Ottawa. Loneliness follows me everywhere. No matter how much I try to give it the slip, it finds me. My son is missing and my daughter is estranged. I've fulfilled my obligations to the court. I should feel free. I should feel celebratory. Loneliness, deep despair, and a bottle of wine are my only companions.
You take it for granted that some people just live forever. You expect immortality. Moms are like that. I find out from a phone call, she died of heart failure one April afternoon in 2006. I track down phone numbers and I make the call to family members with whom I've had no contact for over 25 years. Those were the wishes I reluctantly respected all these years. I'm calling too late to attend the funeral. Not remembering who they are, all I can do is give them my phone number. Call me if you need anything. Never in a million years did I expect to hear my baby sister on the other end of the phone telling me she still remembers me. At five-years-old, she hated wearing dresses, especially the ones I made her wear. She still hates wearing dresses! She wants to meet. That intensely emotional meeting is only the beginning.
She says, "Let's go to Edmonton. We can get there tonight!" How can I say no to that 13-hour road trip. I'm nervous, not knowing what to expect. It's 2:00 AM. The end of the 13-hour journey is closing in on me, suffocating me. I feel a sudden resistance when I see the city lights over the hill at two in the morning. I feel panic! I don't want to be here. I don't want to meet anybody. What if they give me a hard time for leaving them so long ago? I sit at the kitchen table, four of my six siblings bathing me in a deep love I've only just experienced for the first time. After 25 years, I finally feel like I'm home again. Words are not enough to describe the emotional ecstasy a family reunion can elicit. My eldest brother reaches out his hands to me. I see the hands with the crooked fingers. Those aged crooked fingers wrap themselves around my shoulders, delivering the warmest loving embrace I've ever felt.
We chatter until the break of dawn. "I still remember your shitty little butt, changing your diapers." A shy man smiles with his head held down. I remember him as a toddler. His shy quiet manner tells me he still remembers a beloved big sister who used to take care of him. He never understood why she went away. That shy smile assures me, the heart has a memory of its own.
I open my eyes slowly and stare at the ceiling. It feels like I've hardly had a wink of sleep. I feel a gust of warm wind enter the room and softly caress my cheek. I see the curtains gently swaying in the breeze. I glance at the clock radio on the nightstand -- 11:00AM. The Sun has put the Moon to bed. I suddenly realize I'm sleeping in mom's bed. I'm lying on the side of the bed where she quietly passed away in her sleep only weeks ago. A solitary tear slides down the side of my temple. I listen. For the first time, I hear the singing voice of Nanabozho, the trickster, whispering in the wind, "I forgive you."
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