River - Chapter 7

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River

By Dawn Natelle

Posting a day early, as I have a busy week planned for next week. And chapter 8 has already been written, and is with Eric, my super-editor, so it will be out next week, probably on Sunday again.


CHAPTER SEVEN

River had spent much of the morning in town treating and finally liberating several elders from the local hospital, where they had been encouraged (trapped?) to stay in a scheme rigged by the administration of the hospital to maintain a higher bed count. With the elders freed, River needs to take them to the river, to allow them to be cured in the ceremony that they had missed on Monday.

At the river River pretty much duplicated the ceremony from Monday. After Harold had done a sweetgrass cleansing, the elders were assisted into the water by their relatives. River sang the song of the people and their history, and watched as the elders from the hospital puffed up with pride, remembering their storied past. These older people remembered the days of the 50s and 60s, when First Nations people were treated as second class citizens, made to do their shopping in the local stores before 9 a.m., before the whites would come in. The merchants wanted their money, but not at the risk of offending the white customers. There were no jobs for the people back then other than hunting and fishing. Welfare cheques kept most of them living in subsistence housing, made out of packing crates and other scavenged materials, or log-built homes they made themselves.

It was nearly two hours later when River finished her song, and the river had finished healing the elders, teaching the language to those who hadn't spoken it, and refreshing it for those who hadn't spoken it in years. River's entire song was in Ojibwe, and those elders who had not learned the language in their youth were surprised to find they could understand every word. The river translated it for them, and, as it did, they learned. Not only the words of the song, but much more as well. River was about to lead the group out of the water when she heard a siren in the distance, then approaching closer.

A police cruiser pulled up on the river bank, and an Ontario Provincial Police officer stepped out. Then Dr. Mitchell and Desmond Kraud popped out of the back seat. The doctor still seemed to be in an agitated state. River led the group out of the water, with all the elders walking with much more confidence and ability than they had in entering it.

"She's the one. She's the leader," the doctor shouted, pointing at River. "Arrest her. She kidnapped my patients."

"She's just a child," the officer said in amazement. "She can't be much more than 16 years old."

"Fourteen, sir," River said, walking up to the officer, water dripping from her clothes. As they had left the river, it had told her that coming out dry would confuse the officer and possibly cause trouble. Instead the river had water cling to the outsides of the clothes of the people who were in the river, but leave the inside dry. The water dripping would look natural, but the people would be dry and warm. "What seems to be the problem?"

"I was told that a band of Indians kidnapped some people from the hospital," the officer said.

"We prefer the term First Nations," River said.

"Oh yes, sorry," the officer winced. His training had told him to address natives as such, and he had forgotten, falling back on the term that was used internally in the police station, where the officers were frequently called out to domestic disturbances and drunkenness calls to the many reserves in the area, particularly when the monthly Ontario Works (welfare) cheques came in. Calls to the reserves were not fun for the OPP.

"We did go to the hospital this morning, hoping to do some traditional healing ceremonies for the elders in care there," River said. "We were told we were not welcome to do our ceremonies there, so we decided to bring the elders back here to do the healing. All came on their own accord."

"They weren't released properly. That is kidnapping," the doctor shouted. "And what about the wolves? Look, there is one over there." He pointed to Night, who was laying peacefully at the side of the river, about 50 yards downstream.

"Did you bring your pet wolves into the hospital? And use them to threaten the doctor and Mr. Kraud?"

"No sir. They are not pets. They are friends of the people. A few did come into the hospital with us, but we don't control them. When the doctor got a little agitated in there, it seemed to alarm some of them, and they don't like aggressive behaviour. They tend to get aggressive in response. But that was not us causing it. The doctor caused it by shouting and acting menacingly to us."

"Lies, lies," cried the doctor. "She is telling you lies."

"Are you planning to bring the patients back?" Desmond Kraud asked rather politely.

"Do they look like they are in need of 24-hour care?" River replied, gesturing for the elders to gather around her.

The doctor looked more closely at his former patients, and his agitated state dropped away. He looked at his patients with amazement. They were the same faces, but they looked decades younger. Age spots were smaller, or gone completely. They moved about freely, with a greater range of motion. "What ...?" he asked in amazement. "How ...? What did you do?"

"The traditional ways are important to our people," River said. "Depriving them of traditional healing deprives them of healing that your modern medicine cannot provide. Your pills and treatments often deaden their senses. It makes it easier for you to deal with them in a hospital, but takes them away from the land, which is a part of each of the people. Bringing them to the river cleansed them of those drugs, and restored their connection to the land. They are healthier because of it."

"I ... I don't know," the doctor said. "I must study this. You must bring these people back to the hospital where I can study this."

River giggled. "So you want to take them away from what is making them healthy, and put them back to where they were just waiting to die? How does this help them?"

"But I need to know," the doctor said, in what sounded almost like a whine. "It is important."

"These people are going home with their families. They still have much to give to their children and grandchildren. They are elders, and the lore they hold is invaluable. They need to pass it on to the younger generations. In the hospital they had no purpose. Giving them a purpose is part of what has healed them. I am sure that they will be glad to talk to you and give blood samples and such if you wish for them to come to their new homes."

The doctor harrumphed. "The province does not pay for house calls anymore."

"Well then, I guess you won't be seeing them unless they come into the hospital. And none of them appears to have any need for your medical care at the moment. I'm sure if that changes, we will bring them in to see you."

The doctor started to get agitated again, although seeing his patients looking so healthy kept it from growing to the state it had been. "What about the kidnapping? None of them were released from the hospital."

"I think we can stop using the term kidnapping, when all of them appear to have left on their own accord," the police officer said, and all the elders nodded agreement. "Unless any of them were admitted to the hospital through a court order or some other judicial instrument, then they are not required to continue treatment."

"But they weren't released," Desmond whined.

"Actually, you told me that they offered to be released, but the doctor refused to do so immediately. It seems that one might consider that the hospital was kidnapping them, not the other way around,"

The administrator paled. He hadn't considered that.

"I don't know of any laws that were broken here," the officer continued. "Are there any under the health care acts that I am unaware of?"

"Well, the regulations require patients be discharged before leaving the hospital," he said.

"And what is the penalty for failure to discharge?" the officer asked.

"Well, there really isn't one," Desmond said. "But there is a lot of paperwork at our end."

"So no laws broken then? I think we are done here," the OPP went to his cruiser and opened the door. "Are you fellows coming with me, or did you want to walk back to town?"

"It is against the law to practise medicine without a license," the doctor insisted.

"You aren't going to get me to charge anyone with that for practising traditional healing," the officer said. "We've had directives relating to that from HQ."

"But ... but ... but ..." Dr. Mitchell stuttered. He was not used to failing to get his own way.

The cruiser eventually left, and the people dispersed, with the elders going with their families to their new houses. Wayne took River to the campsite where her parents were. The boys were off playing, completely carefree and wild again.

"I think I should head off to the camp office," Dale said. "I don't have a job to go back to, so we can stay the extra week until your Mom has to go back to work at the bank."

"Maybe we shouldn't go shopping in the city tomorrow," River said. "If you don't have a job ..."

"Don't you worry about that," Dale said. "Don't go nuts, but you need to buy what you need. Thank goodness I didn't sell off my investments last month when the company offered to sell me shares. I'd have wound up with nothing when they took off with all the cash."

"Well, we should do some shopping in town tonight," River said.

"Won't it be cheaper, with more selection in the city?" Alison asked.

"It would be," River agreed, "and definitely yes to selection. But we should support the local store too. If we don't, then he winds up going out of business and then the town has no store. Is it worth it to save a dollar or two if we wind up costing someone his living?"

Dale nodded, and then said: "Well, I'm heading to the office. If you girls are going into town, you can have the van. I'm going to walk to the office and back. I really like having this thinner waist, and I don't want the old one back." He trotted off and the boys just happened to touch base at the camp at that time, hungry perhaps, but when it was mentioned that they were heading into town, they both were eager to join in.

Alison drove, stopping at the JR camp, where Gina and Gale were just back from showering after a day of work planting trees. They joined in, and the group drove out of the park and into town.

River had only been in town twice since arriving the week before. They had been at the service centre when she sent Henrietta on her way, and the hospital on the other side of the street this morning. The service station was on the band side of the road. As a part of the reserve, it didn't have to charge tax on fuel, so its price was lower than any other station for miles in any direction, and most regular traffic on the TransCanada highway stopped there for the cheap gas. It had an attached café and a small variety store.

On the lake side of the road was the hospital, a tiny post office, and the liquor store. The town once had a LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) store years ago, but cutbacks 15 years back meant that it closed and a private agent was appointed. He ran in about a third of the old LCBO store, with the other two-thirds sitting empty. There was another building next to it: a general store carrying both dry goods and a limited supply of groceries. There was a hotel - not featuring rooms, but more as a tavern. Finally, there was a small eight-unit motel on the edge of town, and Moonie's hatchery across the road at the edge of the reserve.

It was to the general store that the group headed, and found that they were pretty much the only ones in it as they walked in. Gail and Gina eschewed the stock in the clothing area, having seen it all before, but River bought some more panties, and Alison got a couple new bras and tops for herself, and was looking at jeans and t-shirts for the boys, herself, and Dale.

"Finding everything you need?" the jovial merchant asked as he wandered over.

"I think so," Alison said. "I need to get a few things for my husband. It is like pulling teeth to get him into a clothing store. If something doesn't fit, can we exchange it later?"

"No problem," the man said. "Just make sure all the tags are on it, and it is still in saleable condition and we will exchange for goods. We don't do cash exchanges though."

"That should be okay," Alison said. She turned to the boys and said: "You two are here ... so head into the change room and try those jeans on."

The shopkeeper noticed some of the people at the front counter, and he hustled over to help them. Gina, Gail, and River browsed over in the same direction. River noticed that all three of the people, who she recognized from the ceremony, but couldn't name, had cashed government cheques.

"There is no bank in town, is there?" she asked, after the trio had left. All three had nodded respectfully at River before they left.

"Nope. Nearest one is in Terrace Bay, about 30 klicks down the road. A lot of the Indians get welfare, and when the Ontario Works cheques come in, like today, they come here to cash them. I do them for free. They could also cash them down at the liquor store, but he charges $15. So most of them come here first, and then head down there with their cash."

"That is nice of you to do that for the First Nations people," River said, stressing the proper term, not wanting to nag.

"Well, I guess I have an ulterior motive," he said. "If I cash them, they clear their accounts with me first. I run a tab for groceries and dry goods through the month, and then on cheque day they all pay up. I may not sell a single thing today, but it will still be one of my best days of the month with all the accounts being cleared off."

"Well, I think Mom is definitely getting more than a few things, so it won't be a ‘no sale' day for you," River said. "We are going to the Sault tomorrow, but we wanted to check in here first and get what we can locally first."

The man softened his look. "Well we thank you. Not many will do that. When people go to the city, they tend to buy everything there. I admit it is cheaper, but I've got smaller volume and freight costs that the big stores don't have."

Just then Alison appeared with her shopping carts full, one with dry goods, and the other with groceries that the family would need since they were staying the second week. The bill totalled over $200, and the storeowner was exceptionally pleased to make the sales. Another two of the people came in while they were being rung up, and waited patiently, again nodding respectfully to River and getting a friendly smile in return.

The boys carried the groceries out, while River and Alison carried the clothing bags, loading all of them in the van.

Down the street Nelson Churchill looked down at the store from the front window of his liquor agency. "Damn, that is another five that have left without coming here," he said, largely to himself. Ontario Works cheque day was normally his busiest day of the month, but today it had been dead. Only one in five of the natives that usually came in had shown up, and the ones that did come in were buying a fraction of what they had bought in the past. They had bought a single bottle instead of four or five, or a single case of beer instead of three. Nelson noted when they paid they had money left in their wallets. He could see the bills. Bills that in the past had gone into his till. Something was making them keep hold of their money. Nelson would have to ask around and find out why.

Meanwhile, the van was soon at the camp office, and looking in they could see that Dale had left. That was to be expected. Even walking each way, he should have been back at the campsite long before their nearly two hour shopping trip had ended. But in fact, they saw him walking as they neared the JR camp, where River and the two girls would spend the night.

Alison warned the girls to be up early, since they were planning to leave at 5 am in order to make it to the Sault by 10. [The Sault refers to Sault Ste. Marie, and is referred to in the north as The Sault, which is French for The Rapids. It is pronounced Soo.]

"That won't be a problem for me," River said. "I'll be up before dawn to go to the river. I'll get the girls up at four."

"Four?" Gail and then Gina groaned.

"If you are up that early, you can wake the rest of us too, and we won't have to remember to set the alarm tonight," Alison told River. "And you girls will be able to nap in the van on the way down if you are still tired. I know the boys will."

As Dale slid into the driver seat of the van, and Alison slid over to the passenger side, River noticed a huge grin on his face. How happy can someone be from getting a week extension at a camp office? "You look like the cat that ate the canary," she said. "What happened?"

"Tell you tomorrow, after I talk with your Mom," Dale said with a smile.



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