Heads You Live.
Tails You Die.
Kensington Street. Stale fish stench floats like chum smog in a cannery. Sweat pours down eager faces weaving in and out of dingy shops, eyeing cheap cheese and ginger beer. Bob Marley songs belt out of dusty storefronts graced with Guatemalan knapsacks and “love your mother earth” bumper stickers, peeling off the glass. The scene reminded her of Amshiwa Sun dancers in a South Dakota summer.
A hippie with blond fuzzy dreads and big muscles stopped Asha to ask about her boots. “Ya ya, my auntie made them,” she said, clutching the gritty inside of her army pants pocket, twirling the loose tobacco through her boney fingers. He was making sexy eyes at her and not in a good way. “They are wolf designs, my clan…Thanks,” she said, awkwardly sliding away, not much for small talk or uncouth flirtations.
Alone time was passing painfully slow. She cuffed the bottom of her wool toque, freshly shaven head prickling her inner wrist. She scrunched her nose, feeling the ache in her head hammering, blow by blow. Street life was inhospitable.
It wasn’t all bad. The last seven years taught her how to read people. She could tell what anyone was on, from prescription drugs, to high-grade whisky, to steroids. She could tell when it was time to go, be polite, or act like a lunatic. It was survival.
She lifted a half drunk coffee abandoned by a restaurant patron and took a sip, cradling the warm styrofoam in her hands. Tired and drained, she waded through a maze of yellow leaves on the sidewalk. A seagull landed atop a dilapidated house and it reminded her of life on the rez, in Nashouz. Instinctually, she sniffed the air, searching for salty ocean smells, imagining waves licking her face and hundreds of glistening sockeye in drift nets in the mighty Pacific.
She looked up to the sky and smiled. Passing oak trees shaking along the streets, she thought about what it was like to be home. Auntie Diane’s long dark face, her petite frame barreling down the shiny grey boulders, like she’d done since she was four. Her black wiry hair always wild in the wind, her eyebrows furrowing together, lips pursed towards the nets. “Quick there’s fish, get it out, put it in the pond and I’ll bring it up to the tubs.” Fast and furious days always ended well. Todd boasting about his hard work, rolling up his jean shirt, and showing us his bronze muscle, a stack of bills bent in his fist.
Asha missed waves kissing her feet, even barnacles blistering her toes. After a day on the boat, Asha and her cousin Star would jar fish, joking and laughing in their tiny kitchen. With chubby fingers they’d pick sticky stems off furry Salal berries. Auntie would throw pectin and heaps of sugar in, excited at the thought of sweet jam and hearty pies. This was the day before Asha dropped the bomb.
The day her life changed forever. Standing alone at a band council meeting she’d disclosed, “I was 13 years old when I was first sexually assaulted by Edward Geeves.” Loud gasps and blunt moans echoed through the room. Bolts of familiar betrayal bounced off the thin wooden panels, vibrating through Asha’s lanky body. She wondered if those around the heavy oak table could see her heart pounding through her shirt. “Yes, Eddie, the English man — the economic development officer,” she said, gulping back the tears. An elder in the room cupped her mouth and lowered her head. The Chief, her Dad, crossed his arms in front of his chest and looked angry, with Asha. She knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But she didn’t then expect her world to cave in and crumble, for the truth to crush any semblance of love held for her. Unfairness piled up, layer upon layer. It. was. all. so. obvious.
Everyone knew Eddie, the money bag had a bit of a cocaine habit. For years gossip permeated the community like a dark pandemic. Whispers of his interest in young girls swirled. But it was said the mining capital he brought in was groundbreaking and could not be replicated. Small pockets of old people and youth denounced him, saying his profit over people model was heinous. Those who tried to bring light to the issue were denigrated as dissidents, as rogue band members — troublemakers.
“How can our people ignore what he has done to me, to others?” Asha protested, her voice shaking. Auntie would question Asha’s memory as she peeled potatoes methodically. Would chalk it up to a misunderstanding. Of course Eddie had his own version of events. Her dad eventually gave her an ultimatum. It was an unofficial silent edict, but she heard it loud and clear. Leave and not come back or suffer the consequences. Severe isolation and ostracization would be her destiny here. Heads you live, tails you die, she thought.
The pain in her heart shot through her mind snapping her back to the present. She felt tears welling up in her eyes and knew she couldn’t be seen crying. People preyed on the weak. It was getting dark.
Every night she’d climb a wooden cross propped up on a grated metal stairwell. She’d flip her scraggly legs over the steel eaves, clutching the edge then pushing herself up to the rooftop. If it was warm enough she’d tug out her bed roll and perch her skinny body alongside a friend’s, to stay warm. If temperatures dropped, she’d climb through a broken window of the abandoned Royal Bank– the smell of spilled whisky and piss wafting out with a vengeance. Once her feet touched the marble floor, the battle for sleeping real estate was on. The rats generally lost 0-2. Drinks and blurry but dramatic socializing were needed to cope with the reality.
“Heads you live, tails you die,” Sam said looking at Asha, a dark twinge in his eye as he flipped the quarter high in up the air. She grabbed it and slapped it on the polyester sleeping bag. He smirked, knowing how superstitious she was. Asha’s dad always said spirits spoke through unplanned action. Heads. Asha breathed a sigh of relief.
Life on the street was fickle. You could sink into the unknown and become submerged into a perilous underworld in the blink of an eye, if you weren’t careful. Relatives back home used a metaphor of a feather to teach about balance and the fragility of life without it. The streets, no matter how hopeful one was, were bleak. The good memories of home kept her heart strong.
She pulled out a matchbook and struck the flint strip with one hand. Success. Lighting her Du Maurier, she thought, there’s one thing you learn from watching others live a lie; one’s self can be reimagined and reconfigured. One did not have to be defined by a treacherous past.
In a moment of weakness she called her Auntie on a pay phone. She didn’t think much about it when she stuffed the coins in the slot. When her Auntie answered she didn’t hesitate. “How do you forgive someone who ripped off your wings before they even started to grow? How do you mend a broken heart, shattered by someone who was suppose to keep you safe from the world? She wasn’t looking for an answer. She wanted to believe in humanity and to trust, but she knew happy endings didn’t exist; only lessons, that sometimes made little sense.
“The way the world shapes you is predicated on nothing but you, Auntie Diane shot back. “As a child, the world paints you but over time you must stop blaming the past.”
Asha nodded her head, silent through the phone. The taste of the ocean rolled on her tongue. Home, but so far away. Heads you live. Tails you die.