On the Matter of Josephine

It was on a Wednesday when we got the news that Josephine had died. We were immediately told where the body was being laid out so we could attend the communal gathering. We were reminded by the school principal that our attendance was mandatory, and so, we, the “outside” teachers of The John C. Yesno School would (on a Thursday, I believe) collectively enter the tiny church in Eabametoong and convey our deepest of sympathies to the family and friends of Josephine.

We would sit down and wait for the evening’s tragic events to begin, but it seemed they never really did. We were needed, mostly, for the purpose of sitting. The church was small and even the pews were covered in the same powdery blue paint (I seem to recall) that covered the walls. Josephine was laid out no more than fifteen to twenty feet away from where we were seated. Her face and body was on intimate display, even for those of us in mandatory attendance.

There were no real instructions as to what we, the white teachers were expected to do. So mostly, we just sat there, kept our knees together, folded our hands on our laps, and tried not to stare too much at Josephine.

Seventeen years of living, maybe, or perhaps it was only sixteen. Nobody but her own people seemed to know for sure, and, of course, none among us (from the outside) dared to ask. Girls the same age as Josephine sometimes died in these isolated Aboriginal communities. Sometimes it was without apparent reason or cause. That’s as much as I’m willing to say on the matter.

We were all plenty sorry for the death of Josephine, and certainly, some of us believed we ought to have done more to convey our shock or sympathy or something. This was a young girl’s life, after all (no small matter). But not much would come of it. We were, after all, a rather strange, transient kind of presence (however necessary) here in the land of the Indian. So, in time, we all went back to teaching for our pay and minding the necessary silences.

The day I was to leave the land where Josephine was laid to rest, I remember thinking to myself how odd a thing it is that children should appear, even in death, beautiful. How stubbornly their muscle clings to the bone so as to give the effect that one has but laid her precious head to a pillow for a moment’s rest, and that soon, perhaps, the very minute the springtime geese arrive back to these skies, the child will jump onto her feet, and with the rest of them, come running.