Saddles in the Kitchen

by Shantell Powell

      In the 1970s, my family lived all over New Brunswick before settling down deep in the Appalachian hills of the Acadian forest. Every summer, we journeyed to Newfoundland to visit Dad’s family. I have snippets of memories from my infancy and early childhood. I recall being a baby on a plane with a smoking section, hoisted up to look over the rails of an icebreaker ferry called the William Carson. It sank by the time I turned six. We drove through a place called Blow Me Down where Dad told me the Tabletop Mountains were flat on account of the fierce wind. I camped in a frigid tent on the Avalon Peninsula and peeked through the tent flap to watch a bull moose swim across a moonlit lake ringed by dark conifers. I saw icebergs float like white mountains off the coast of St. John’s. I witnessed herds of Newfoundland ponies running free, the last of a vanishing breed marking the end of an era. I remember being held in my Inuk grandfather’s arms in the passenger seat of a car while he pointed out a waterfall to me. It’s my only memory of him. He died when I was two.
      When I was in my thirties, I visited my parents and saw a photo of Dad I’d never seen before. When I asked about it, I found out it was not my Dad but my grandfather. Dad looks like his Dad, and I look like my Dad. I also look like his grandmother. Though my skin isn’t as dark, every time I gaze into the mirror, I see the face of my ancestors. We share the same almond eyes, powerful jaw, and high cheekbones. The last time I got to visit my Dad, I noted that even our legs are identical.
      On March 6, 1981, Mom and Dad loaded our furniture, Blaze the horse, Buoy the sled dog, and Tarby the pony into a school bus and moved to Newfoundland. Dad drove the bus, and Mom drove the bright orange Chevy long-box crew cab with its homemade camper. My sister Erin and I rode in the truck with Mom and Orangey the tomcat, and inside the camper were our geese Charlie, Lulu-Bell, and Matilda, and an ill-tempered goat named Snipper. We worried that Snipper would attack the geese, but they kept the goat at bay. We know this because when our ferry landed in Port aux Basques, Snipper was huddled in the corner terrified, and the geese stood proudly over an unbroken egg
      Our new home was on the outskirts of Musgrave Harbour, a place named Muddy Hole by its colonizers. Muddy Hole was an apt name. Our yard was too wet for gardening, but it was just right for geese and the plants who like having wet feet. Our yard was polka-dotted with alders and abutted onto the grassy dunes separating us from the landwash.
      I was not allowed to swim there on account of the undertow, but I frequently walked along the shoreline looking for shells, mermaid purses, beached whales, and messages in bottles. One time, I found a shark egg. Sometimes, when the weather conditions were just right, I saw fata morgana in the form of upside-down islands floating just above the horizon. I wondered if the people living on those islands saw me as the upside-down one.
      I attended a school called the Lady Peace Academy. The school was named after an airplane piloted by Harry Richman, a nightclub owner and aviator famous for singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Harry hoped to complete the world’s first transatlantic round-trip flight, but due to bad luck and miscommunication, he ran out of fuel on his return trip. The wings were filled with about forty thousand ping pong balls in case they crashed into the ocean. Fortunately for Harry and his copilot, they did not have to test out the buoyancy of this ad hoc flotation device in the north Atlantic. Instead, they crash landed in one of Muddy Hole’s muddy bogs, thinking it was a hayfield.
      Lady Peace Academy was a dreary place with no playground, populated by strict teachers who taught reading, writing, religion, and arithmetic. Maybe writing was the best subject, because my grade-four homework included entering an essay contest in honor of the International Year of Disabled Persons. I won.
      It was in that same class that I watched the Columbia, the world’s first space shuttle, take off. It was also in that grade-four class that I first kicked a boy in the balls for flipping up my skirt. It took me a few years to figure out why he’d fallen on the ground screaming. I didn’t know boys were so delicately made.
      When I took the bus home from school, I was greeted by the dog, cat, and geese. The geese loved their new home and waddled all around the yard in a line. They announced every visitor by parading around and honking. Although I had no friends at school, I was always surrounded by animals at home. The geese followed me all over the yard. I built little campfires and cooked stew for them in a billy pot. I stirred together grass, dandelions, and dog kibble. I knew it was done when the kibble got mushy. “Don’t waste that dog food!” yelled Mom, but it wasn’t being wasted. It was being eaten. My culinary creation was popular with the dog and the geese alike. They gobbled it up from margarine containers.
      Dad converted the school bus into a chicken coop and built sheds for the rest of the livestock. Mom kept the saddles in the kitchen, and when Dad wasn’t busy looking for work in Gander, he tended potatoes in a cold, distant field, or worked on fixing up an old dory.
      The marsh was just a bit further down the road from our house. I loved the bogs. I peered into bulbous pitcher plants to watch insects flounder and disintegrate in slippery juices. Erin and I picked blueberries, marshberries, crowberries, bakeapples, cranberries, and partridgeberries in the wetlands, and raspberries, strawberries, crackerberries, and Juneberries in the bush. We could never stop ourselves from eating the sweetest berries, but we filled margarine tubs with the tartest ones and dragged them home in a little wagon to our grandmother, my father’s mother. Nanny turned our wild harvests into gemlike tarts and jams. The partridgeberry tarts were my favorite. These were true kitchen jewels, with ruby-red berries glistening beneath a lardy golden lattice. They tasted sharp and sweet.
      Nanny lived on the top of a hill just down the road and a bit closer to town. She maintained a vegetable garden filled with root vegetables and greens. Swiss chard, turnips, beets, rutabaga, carrots, parsnips, and summer savory flourished in that soil. I don’t recall any flowers decorating the yard, but pinwheel-shaped whale vertebrae adorned her fence posts. When the tide was low, she took me out into the harbor and showed me how to pick mussels. They hung from rocks and piers like purple clusters of fat grapes. We filled buckets with them.
      My family moved to Newfoundland because Dad thought he had a job lined up. It fell through, but he never stopped looking. He had skills. He was a fisherman, handyman, sharpshooter, athlete, electrician, and ex-soldier. But the only jobs were terrible. He considered taking a job in a mine, but Mom vetoed it. She’d grown up in Springhill, Nova Scotia, a town best known for its catastrophic mine collapses. She was sitting at her school desk during The Bump of 1958. When the earth thumped, everyone knew what that meant. The collapse chewed up and swallowed uncles, fathers, cousins, and brothers. Her grandfather, Pa Rolf, was a miner. Pa was good with animals, and his team of workhorses brought out the coal in wagons. When the mines devoured his friends and family, he used his wagon to carry out their remains. Both the Springhill graveyard and my family tree are full of dead miners.
      Dad considered another job aboard the Ocean Ranger, but Mom vetoed that one as well. She didn’t want him working on an oil rig way out in the Grand Banks. Less than a year after she said no, the rig sank. There were no survivors. Dad often wondered aloud if he might have been able to stop the disaster. His job would’ve been maintaining the part that failed and caused the disaster.
      By the time I was an adult, the Grand Banks had also collapsed. Hundreds of years ago, when the first colonizers arrived in Newfoundland, the cod were so plentiful that sailors tossed buckets overboard and pulled them aship teeming with fish. By the early 1990s, the northern cod population was only 1% of its historical population. Just as the bison had been hunted to near extinction by colonizers, so too had been the cod.
      We lived in a tiny square house, raised up high on stilts. It was the first actual house I’d ever lived in, and I had my very own bedroom. It was so narrow that there was no room for my chest of drawers opposite the bed. Dad would sit at the foot of the bed and read Robinson Crusoe to me by the light of a kerosene lamp. We only had electricity when Dad ran the generator. I loved the story of how Robinson used his ingenuity to live on the land and survive on his own, and was thrilled when he met and made friends with a savage he named Friday. Robinson was a civilized man, so he helped Friday rise above his ungodly, heathen ways by converting him to Christianity.
      I knew I was civilized. Mom told me she got baptized when she was pregnant for me to ensure I’d have a chance at surviving Armageddon, and about a year later, my father left the army and got baptized, too. He’d been a member of the Black Watch, and honor guard for the Queen and Queen Mum. My parents gave up their ungodly ways to become Jehovah’s Witnesses. My Dad’s Inuit and Mi’kmaq ancestors, however, had never known about Jehovah. I knew from the talks at the Kingdom Hall that their ways were every bit as savage as the dread cannibals of Robinson Crusoe. In their ignorance, what choice did they have but to fall under Satan’s influence? I knew that savages were terribly superstitious people who put their faith in superstitions and shamans, but I also knew they could still be saved just like my parents had been. Jehovah’s Witness literature was filled with exciting stories of how Satan tricked people into worshipping nature spirits, ancestors, and false gods. Witch doctors, shamans, medicine men, and the like cursed, blessed, afflicted, or healed using demonic powers. And when my ancestors hunted, they’d never thought to give the blood to Jehovah. They ate it, and that was a sin. But even these wicked people had a chance at surviving Armageddon. Even they could be converted to Jehovah’s righteous ways if only we preached hard enough. Then people like my ancestors could be free of Satan and his demons.
      I was glad I was civilized. I was excited at the prospect of a paradise on earth, but less excited about preaching. I went from door to door on Saturday mornings armed with a Bible and copies of The Watchtower and Awake! If people turned us away at the door, I knew they wouldn’t survive Armageddon. It was sad, I cheered myself up by knowing their fancy houses would be up for grabs come Armageddon. My sister and I regularly fought over who would get the nicest houses. It was all very civilized.
      Muddy Hole was on the traditional territory of the Beothuk. Those few who were not killed or enslaved by civilized people had been absorbed into the Mi’kmaq population. I recall Dad telling my sister and me that one of our wicked European ancestors had hunted the Beothuk for sport. When this murderer lay on his deathbed, he asked to be buried in a Beothuk graveyard. Perhaps he wanted to continue murdering them in the afterlife. That sounds like it would be heaven for a civilized genocidal maniac.
      Dad never told me Nanny was Mi’kmaw. I didn’t find out until decades after she’d died. He’d hidden that part of our ancestry from me out of shame. The Newfoundland equivalent of residential schools had done that to him. Nanny had come from the Gander River Micmac Community. He never admitted to being Mi’kmaw until 2022, about ten years after I found out through his sister Maisie.
      Somehow, despite his shame at being “Indian,” he was proud to be Eskimo. That was his word for us. He said Eskimos were never recognized in Newfoundland, but that his grandmother Phebe had come from somewhere on Baffin Island. I’ve never found out where.
      I’d never heard of Inuit back then. I knew little about my Inuit ancestors, and nothing at all of their spiritual beliefs, but in spite of being colonized, we retained some traditional knowledge. Dad offered seal meat to me, but I turned up my nose. I did the same for the meat of Arctic terns, hares, and other meat I didn’t think was “normal.” Dad told me about how the women and girls chewed seal skins to make mukluks. He told me they played games by making strange rhythmic noises at one another until someone finally laughed. I thought that sounded like great fun, and I played it by myself or with my animal friends all the time. I was full of strange noises. I made up my own, but I also copied the noises made by the world around me. I hissed like geese, sighed like the wind, cawed like crows, mewled like newborn kittens, croaked like frogs, clucked like chickens, screamed like coyotes, and panted like sled dogs. Sometimes it made people laugh, but mostly it annoyed everyone. When I tried doing it at school, the kids bullied me and teachers called me a “disturber.” I stopped doing it around other people.
      I didn’t know it then, but the shape of my teeth is what let me make such a wide variety of animal calls. I had something called shovel teeth, a dental adaptation common to many Inuit. Some researchers say shovel teeth are adapted toward eating hard foods and chewing animal hides, but I’ve never seen anything about how they are also good for speaking to birds. When a well-meaning dentist “corrected” my concave incisors in my late teens, my teeth felt peculiarly convex against my tongue. I had no idea my dentist was going to radically change the shape of my teeth. It was only when I tried to sing to the birds that I realized what I had lost. I could no longer speak their language. My mouth still remembers, but the sounds won’t come anymore.
      One day, Dad took us to Twillingate to visit some of our seemingly infinite number of cousins. We were in a steep place of boulders and bedrock, the outcrop spackled with bright-colored boxy houses. Outhouses teetered on long stilts over the barnacle-crusted rocks below. A lot of places didn’t have indoor plumbing back then, so folks walked the plank to shit from altitude.
      I sat out on my cousins’ bridge, swatting away at the nippers and no-see-ums while listening to the whoosh of waves on the landwash. Dad sang “Squid Jiggin’ Ground” and “The Wild Colonial Boy” in the kitchen. I was only used to what my parents listened to, to the songs I sang in the Kingdom Hall, or to jigs played on button-key accordion. But then one of my cousins came out through the swinging screen door. It slapped close behind him. He was a teenager. I didn’t know any teenagers, so he seemed extra cool and exotic to me. He wore a jean jacket, and he carried a tape deck. I watched with great interest as he sat down beside me on the bridge and pulled out a cassette case from his pocket. The cover showed a pretty nun with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She had long, beautiful legs in long, black stockings.
      My cousin put the cassette into the tape deck and pushed play, and then I heard music unlike anything I’d heard before. It was a song called “Drugs in My Pockets.”
      I don’t remember anything else about that day. I remember sometime later, maybe weeks, maybe a year or so, that my cousin, who listened to this interesting song with me, had been kicked out of his house. No one was to speak to him or about him again. “But why?” I asked. Was it because of the song? Were there drugs in his pocket?
      But no. Dad said it was because he was a faggot.
      I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was bad. I could tell from the way Dad said it. I figured it must mean he’d done something bad, but I didn’t exactly know what. I wondered where my cousin would go. Would he be ok? What if I was a faggot, too? Would I get kicked out, too?
      I never did find out what became of him. No one ever spoke of him again. Because of this, his name, like him, is lost to me.
      We didn’t end up living in Newfoundland for very long. Dad could not find work, and we were going through a lot of persecution on account of not being from the area. People assumed we were rich because of the truck and the animals. People broke into our sheds and our camper. They threw rocks through the hull of Dad’s dory. They shot our animals with pellet guns, and one day, stole my pet gander Charlie. “They scoffed him,” said Dad. “Probably cooking him up for supper now.”
      He was too bony a bird to have much meat, and he was my friend, but I didn’t dare cry. When I cried, it made my parents angry. They would tell me that if I didn’t stop crying, they’d give me something to cry about.
      Mom had problems, too. Nanny didn’t like her. She didn’t think Mom was good enough for my Dad, so she kept trying to set Dad up with better women.
      Frustrated with the escalating problems, Dad sold or gave away all of our animals but the dog and cat, fixed the vandalized camper, and told Erin and I to pack two toys and two books each. I hated to leave my books behind. After a lot of contemplation, I chose The Black Stallion and The Cat from Outer Space. There’d be no more Robinson Crusoe. We left everything behind and drove as far away as we could.
      The next place I lived was on the outskirts of Kamloops, British Columbia. Cowboy country. Many years later, I’d learn about the residential school there. I never went back to Newfoundland, and I never saw Nanny again. It was as though she and my homelands had been swallowed up by Armageddon.