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Cattail Heart

Kate Heartfield is a newspaper journalist and fiction writer in Ottawa, Canada. Her stories have appeared recently in Waylines, Spellbound and Lackington's. Her story "For Sale by Owner" appeared in Daily Science Fiction in 2013. Her website is heartfieldfiction.wordpress.com and she is on Twitter as @kateheartfield. She is working on a historical fantasy novel.

My mother told me, "You are my heart."
"I don't want to be a heart."
"I don't mean a heart like a lump of bloody meat. I mean a heart like the center of a thing. Like the pith at the base of a cattail. If someone peeled all of me away bit by bit, what would be left would be you."
"I don't want to be a heart," I said.
I must have been about seven because she died soon after that. I wanted to lay cattails on her pale pine coffin before they put it in the ground.
Maybe my mother would have stopped the white people from taking me with the other children to the Indian Industrial School. My father was a good man but he wasn't as fierce as my mother.
For two long days we rode in a bumpy cart, the younger ones sniffling and us older ones sitting very tall and not looking at each other. When I got there they changed my name to Jane. They were going to make all us Indian children forget we were Indians. They were going to turn me into a proper farmer's wife.
For a long time, I thought the cart came for me because my mother died. I was just garbage after that. What does a dead woman need with a heart?
Miss Smith came to the school early in the summer of 1893. I had been at the school for five years.
Every night of those five years, while I lay in bed pretending to be asleep, I wondered why I didn't just jump off that cart and run. It wouldn't have made any difference but I could have tried.
Sometimes I would shut my eyes up tight and picture myself jumping down off that cart and just running. All the other children watching, cheering me on.
As if I could remember it a way it didn't happen, just by trying hard enough.
On the night Miss Smith came, I rammed my fists hard into my eyes to stop myself from seeing. I wished I could stop myself from smelling because my hair and my hands smelled like pig manure. The principal had smeared it on me, because I was bad, and told me I would be feeding the pigs for the next month.
"Because pigs like garbage and that's what you are," he said.
"Yes," I said.
The windows were open because of the heat. The peeps and croaks of frogs were almost drowned out by the whimpering in the bed next to mine, and the creaks of the floorboards under the teachers' feet.
Then a string of sharper sounds: the clop of hooves and the squeak of a cartwheel. Voices, outside. The big door opening and closing. Feet on stairs.
It was the new teacher, Miss Smith. I knew because the other teachers had been expecting her all day: The replacement for a mean old thing who had died of the same kind of fever that killed my mother. And a half-dozen students in the last month.
I didn't know anything about Miss Smith yet and I didn't dare to hope she would be any better than the rest.
I rolled over, burrowed my head under the thin pillow and told myself a wendigo story. For five years, every night, I told myself the wendigo stories my mother taught me. My mother and I both liked to be a little scared but not too scared.
Later, I wondered whether that was what brought Miss Smith: me telling myself wendigo stories under the blanket.
But of course that was only a child's notion. Miss Smith brought herself. She came sniffing. She was curious.
She did not frighten me at first. In fact we all preferred Miss Smith to the other teachers, and not only because she was new and young. She was the least strict of any of them. She hardly ever strapped one of us and when she did she would go to the privy after and come out with a blotchy face. Even though she had long dark hair like me, her skin was papery with freckles on the nose, and it held redness for a long time.
Half of every day except Sundays we sat in class and learned to read and write and do arithmetic. I was good at that part. Miss Smith smiled at me when I got my sums correct. She liked math best, she told me. I knew she meant she liked me best because I was good at it, too.
The other half of the day, the girls scrubbed the floors, cooked the meals, washed the laundry, and fed the animals. The boys did carpentry and worked in the print shop. I wanted to work in the print shop too, so I did my chores badly and I got punished.
A few weeks after Miss Smith came, I was carrying the slop buckets out to the pigs when I felt someone watching me. I looked all around, just using my eyes so as not to let on that I knew I was being watched. I put my buckets down and knelt to scratch my ankle so I could twist my head around and look. No one.
I walked all the way to the sty and back, kicking my feet, taking my time, because it was safer outside than in, at that school.
Someone was watching me. I looked all around. Nobody but the chickens.
I was almost back to school when I stopped and did a full circle, turning around slowly, watching.
Miss Smith stood between the barn and the sty, staring straight at me. She was thin, like a little hungry tree standing against the sky.
That was when I first suspected she might be a wendigo.
In my mother's stories the wendigo was so thin its white bones were on the outside. It was so thin that you had to be looking at it face to face, or you might not see it at all. If you caught it off guard you might see a star on its forehead. I never saw a star on Miss Smith's forehead though.
A wendigo is thin because it is hungry. A wendigo began as human but became a monster when it ate humans for meat. It was cursed to starve and feed, to eat and eat the flesh of humans and never be satisfied, to curse itself again and again with each new crime.
"Remember," my mother said. "You can be born human and become a monster. You might not even know you've become a monster. It's easier than people think."
They taught us to fear, God, and other things.
I saw my father once a year. He looked at me as if I were a stranger. He looked like someone was teaching him to fear, too, but I didn't know who it could be.
That summer when Miss Smith was at the school, she came one night with another teacher and took me out of the dormitory, and they told me my father died. His heart just stopped. Hearts give out, they said. They get tired.
I nodded. Miss Smith cocked her head and watched me until the other teacher told me I could go back to the dormitory.
Miss Smith used to take me into Selkirk and even Winnipeg sometimes to help buy supplies. She would ask me questions, not about arithmetic but about other things: my parents, my home. When I did not know the answers or did not want to say, I said what she wanted to hear.
One day Miss Smith took me in a canoe to Selkirk for a treat, just the two of us. She gave me an apple and I gnawed it down to the core before I threw it in the river.
I paddled in the front. Miss Smith called out to me to switch sides.
She called out in Anishinaabemowin.
Miss Smith spoke our language badly. I paused for just a heartbeat and the water dripped off my paddle but then I thrust it in again and I didn't switch sides. I thought it was a trick. She asked me again but this time she spoke in English and I switched sides then just like she asked.
The next time we were in the canoe, a week or two later, she called out in my language again. It was hard to understand what she was trying to say but I think she was trying to tell me she was pulling the canoe over to the side. There was a little inlet there, thick with reeds where the air buzzed with insects.
It wasn't a trick, she said: I could speak the Ojibwe language if I wanted. I spoke English.
"Turn around to look at me, Jane," she said and I did, twisting around on my knees, resting my paddle carefully on the thwart so that it made the smallest possible noise.
"Look at these cattails," she said. She pulled one out. She had to use two hands because it was thick and slick with mud. Her long fingers got dirty.
"Look, did you know you can eat the inside?" she peeled away green strips from the base and threw all of it away except the smooth white heart. She held onto the gunwale and leaned forward, stretching out her arm to hand it to me but I did not take it.
My mother called me her heart.
Miss Smith sat back on her heels and chewed the cattail pith, looking at me all the time. She put her long white hand in front of her mouth and spit out little pale flecks. I guess there were some hard bits.
"Can you keep a secret, Jane?"
I just looked at her; my name wasn't even Jane. I had a lot of secrets already and I was only twelve.
"We're related, you and I. We are part of the same family."
She looked like a white woman to me, but I nodded anyway.
"I want you to know something. Because you always look so forlorn, little thing. I want you to know that one day, you will be a grandmother, and you will carry an eagle feather, and all of your children and grandchildren will have pride because of you. You will keep the language alive in the family. You will be the heart of the family, for years and years and even after you die, your great-great-grandchildren will know your name and..."
Her face was whiter than ever but her cheeks were red and she talked so fast she choked on her words and had to stop, shaking her head. She picked up her paddle again and pushed us out from the reeds and cattails.
Later on, when we could see the school near the shore, she said again, from behind me, “Look at you, a little strip of a girl, and one day, the heart of a great family. You will make change. You will force them to change. Everything depends on you.”
I decided she was crazy. How could she know what I would be like as a grandmother?
And who wants to be a heart anyway?
I tried to avoid her as much as I could, but you could not avoid anyone in that place. She kept asking for me to help her with errands but I pretended to be sick. Finally they threatened to beat me for malingering so I went with her to Winnipeg. It was autumn then, and little pinpricks of snow melted on our cheeks.
She drove the cart and I sat next to her, looking away, at the trees and farmhouses. I can still feel the rough wood of the side of the cart printing red lines in the palm of my right hand. It was not too far to the store where we were going so she talked even faster than she usually did.
She had a special machine, she told me. A time machine. It could take us to her time.
I didn't know she had her own time.
“The late twenty-first century,” she said, grinning. “How many years is 2067 into the future, Jane?”
“One hundred and seventy-four.”
I should be dead by then. But I could visit, Miss Smith said, using her special machine. So long as I didn't talk to anyone because it was naughty what we were doing. And so long as I promised to come back.
"I can visit the twenty-first century?" I asked. I knew by then she wasn't going to punish me and she liked it when I asked her questions. “But why?”
"Oh, Jane, you'd love it. It's a wonderful place. So much better than what you're used to. The disease that killed your mother is gone, just gone. You can fly, up in the sky, in great big machines, any time you feel like it. You can find out anything you want to know just by asking machines that we have in our bodies. And you wouldn't have to go to a place like this. People understand, in my time, that these schools are evil places. You could go to a real school. You could do whatever you wanted."
“No, I mean why do you want me to go, Miss?”
“Oh,” she said, and flicked the reins. It did not matter because that horse only went as fast as it wanted, but I didn't tell her that.
Then she said, “Well, I guess because I owe you so much. Do you remember, Jane, when I told you that we are part of the same family?”
Of course I remembered. I wasn't stupid. I nodded.
“Well, you are my ancestor. Your children have children and they have children and... on down to my parents and me. That's why I came back. I wanted to see you in person, you understand?”
“Yes,” I said, but I only understood the words, not her.
“But there's more than that. You were a strong woman in a difficult time. Your sacrifices and your strength are the reason I'm here today. So I want you to see that, to know that the world does get better, in large part because of people like you. It's only fair, isn't it, to know that what you do in this life, all this suffering, that it matters? That it has a purpose? That everything works out for the best in the end?”
I thought for a while.
"But what would happen if I went into the future, the time with the no disease and the machines and the good schools and all, but I didn't come back to this time?"
She smiled like she did when I got all the right answers on a test.
"Nobody's really tested that yet. This is all new, this time travel. I think, if you never came back in time to have your children, well, I would just cease to be at some point."
"Would I die if I tried to stay there?"
"Well, that's an interesting question, Jane. I think you would be fine. Because we need each other in different ways, don't we? I need you to be my ancestor. Always. But you only need me to come get you once. The me who exists as your descendant already exists for at least one cycle of time, and came back to get you at least once."
She must have thought I looked confused.
"You can understand, Jane. You're a bright girl."
"Yes." I did understand.
"Put it this way: my 2067, when I came from, that can't be changed. But if we traveled to 2067 together we would create a new 2067, by going back together. And I think that would be all right for both of us, so long as you eventually come back. If you stayed there past the age of nineteen, when you met your husband, well, that would take us--well, Jane, what date would that take us to?”
“To 2074.”
“Right. Good girl. If you stayed that long, there would be no one here to bear my ancestors, so after that new 2074 there might suddenly be no me.”
“Ah,” I said.
“So obviously you have to come back before you turn nineteen, to start the family, to be the great woman you are going to be."
"Yes," I said.
"But I don't think a day's visit can hurt either of us."
When she said "machine" I thought she meant something big for us to go in but she just jabbed her fingers at what looked to me like a little bar of black metal and the world changed around us. I felt something sucking on me and letting me go, like gravity was trying to eat me, like all the lines of the world were warping.
And just when I thought it was going to hollow me out from the inside, I blinked the tears out of my eyes and saw the world had changed.
She thought I was bright enough to answer her questions but not bright enough to make choices.
Sometimes, when I am in a happy mood, I think maybe Miss Smith expected me to run. Maybe she was even giving me a chance to do what I should have done when I was seven: just run.
Most of the time, I think she just assumed I would do what she said, like a good little Indian girl.
I ran away as soon as we got here. I haven't seen Miss Smith since. If she is looking for me she isn't very good at it.
I changed my name. I'm not Jane anymore. I lived on the sidewalks and in the alleys for a while and some of that was not much better than the residential school. Some of it was worse. But I found good people eventually, even a few people who speak my language and nobody gets in trouble for it now.
I'm nineteen now and in my second year at the University of Manitoba. I am taking math so I can work on time travel. I want to understand it better. Better than anyone.
I went to the archives and the library. I know everything that happens to Jane after 1893. She is like a character in a story to me. I know what happens to her three babies who live. I know how all seven of her dead babies die. I do want to have babies. I want to have three babies who live, not three babies who live and seven who die.
I won't graduate, though, if I go back in time to meet the man I'm supposed to marry, so I can become the heart of Miss Smith's family. So she can feed off of my strength and my sacrifices, gobble me right up and say thank you after.
Miss Smith might not have known she had a wendigo spirit but she had one all the same. She could only live by consuming me, the heart of the family. Feeding on hearts is a risky way to live. Hearts give out. They get tired.
I mark my twentieth birthday with my girlfriends. I cook Indian tacos and we walk down Corydon Avenue at midnight screeching with laughter. I tell them stories of the wendigo, stories my mother used to tell me because I liked to be scared when I was a little kid. I don't tell my girlfriends where I'm really from. I just say "the reserve" and they don't ask questions.
I go back to the archives and I look for my name. The only record of me now is from the Industrial School. They recorded my disappearance.
No dead babies for Jane, now, and no live ones either. Jane only lived for four years, between the time she didn't run away from the cart and the time she did run away from Miss Smith.
There are a few people I wish could have existed. My grandson--Jane's grandson--would have been a great drummer and singer. Jane's great granddaughter would have been a writer. She would have written about Jane. She would have been famous for her anger and her love. She would have been named Jane, after me.
I grieve a little for that woman I was supposed to be. And for others. Maybe I'm the wendigo now, I think sometimes, when I can't sleep. Maybe I'm eating people up, possible people, just so I can live.
I tell myself it doesn't matter to anyone that Miss Smith never existed. Lots of people never existed. Infinite people. She is one possibility that didn't become. A probability wave that collapsed.
She only lives now in my memory and if I squeeze my eyes shut and pretend hard enough, it's almost like she never existed at all. It's almost like neither of us did.
But still I feel something like grief for the wendigo woman. It is strange to think that those long white hands, that freckled nose, will never exist. She was kind to me in her way. She did not like to beat us and she let me come here, to her time, to visit. She admired me. She wanted me to be a grandmother, to show the world that all my suffering did not bow my head.
I am twenty years old. It is 2075 and I will be a grandmother one day. I do not need suffering to teach me how to hold my head.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 29th, 2014

Author Comments

I grew up in Manitoba, where this story is set. "Cattail Heart" was a very difficult story to write, because I wanted above all to show respect for the Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and placed in residential schools until quite recently. In 2008, Canada's prime minister issued a public apology. But that was only the beginning of the process of understanding this history and its ongoing effects, including the damage to language and culture.

The science-fictional notion of time travel forces us to ask the question: If we could change the evils of the past, would we have the courage to do so, no matter the cost to us as individuals? Do we see the people who came before us--especially the mothers and grandmothers--as mere means to an end? In many time-travel stories, the power and choices are all with the time-travelers. I wanted to reverse that, and play with the old dilemma of the "grandfather paradox," to give some choices to a character who had few.

- Kate Heartfield
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