We always wanted to fix up Josephine. You have to admit she needs it, what with that ratty hair, carrot red and ratty. Bad combo. Also, that skin. White, white, white except when she has zits, which is about eighty per cent of the time. You gotta wonder how much washing goes on at that house. The pimples on albino skin look horrible, no doubt, but with a little cover stick or some foundation she could look semi-decent. I wonder if you can get foundation in such a pale shade?
We sometime talk about ol’ Josie not having any blood, but then we’ll see those blue veins, all pokey and sticky-outy on her long white neck, and we know for sure she’s human. Her face is narrow, like a goat, and I won’t even begin to describe the clothes she wears. Honest to God, you’d think a colour-blind hobo picked them out at the Goodwill. Nothing matches. Horrible flowered pants that make her skinny little rump look pathetic, and sometimes a nubbly knit sweater with stripes. Those horrible stripey sweaters some granny knit in the war make Josephine look concave, skinny and shrunken-in, like the flesh-eater come and sucked most of the life off her.
If I were that skinny you wouldn’t catch me dead in bone-rack tops, no way. I’d dress way better, and I’d at least try to match things so as not to look like something the ragpicker threw outta the truck.
Anyway, me and Jax decided we’d fix her up, like a good deed, you know? Not like we’d get any Girl Scout badges or anything like that, but just out of the goodness of our hearts because it was getting so bad the kids in the school yard were starting to call her Fleabag. Fleabag Hebert. That’s her last name, Hebert. Rhymes too easy with flea-bert, so you can just guess how nasty the names were getting.
We talked for the longest time, me and Jax, about whether she might really have fleas but in the end we decided no, not enough scratching. You can never be too careful with these things, especially since our fixing-up plan involves a sleepover in the tent. You wouldn’t want lice or fleas to get into a tent, would ya? Every time you’d go camping, it would be fumigation city just unrolling the tent. Camping is s’posed to be about fresh air, too, so it would be bad to have some infestation of flea-bert bugs all though the summer holidays.
Anyways, we asked her if she wanted to have the sleepover. We sidled over to her just before the bell at last recess. She’s by herself, as usual, so at least no one’s going to know we’re doing it. Jax does the talkin’.
“Hey, so Josephine, my Mom’s going to let me set up the tent in the backyard this weekend and me an’ Tish here thought you’d like to, you know, have a sleepover with us.”
Josie sort of slumps into her body and narrows her eyes. Did I mention her eyes? They’re real pale blue with red around the edges, like she’s always just finished crying or like she never gets enough sleep. You gotta wonder how much sleeping goes on in that house, considering them eyes. Not very nice eyes, right now, either, really suspicious, but with a little eyeliner, some blue or purple makeup maybe not so bad.
“What do you want?” she snarls.
Jax ignores that. “Yeah, we were thinking we could set the tent up, talk a bit, read a few magazines, have a pajama party, you know? Whatcha think? Ya wanna come?”
Here it seems Josie’s kinda interested, so I pipe up about the bag. I thought it might be the problem, her not having a sleeping bag, and all. You gotta wonder how much camping goes on in that house, what with that house—if you could call it that—being in the country, down in Willow Flats with all the Indians and drunks. Anyways, I’m thinkin’ we got spare bags at home and I can give her Luke’s cause he’s peed in it a couple times and I’m pretty sure Mom just unzipped it and aired it on the line those last few times ’cause she was so mad he’s still wetting himself at eight. Josephine won’t mind, and I won’t tell Luke or he’d have some sort of blue-lip fit about me using his stuff.
“How will I get home?” she asks.
“Me and Tish, we’ll walk you or, even better, we’ll get my Dad to drive you home on Saturday ’cause he likes to go down there once in a while to check out the float planes.”
It’s a great answer. I just grin. Jax can sure think on her feet. I wonder if it’s true. Neither family ever goes down to the float base. Why’d ya wanna go down there for, when there’s everything you need up here in the new town? The Old Town, where Josephine lives, still has the trading post and the float base. Not much more except maybe one old hardware store that stinks like animal skins. People still live in shacks down there, with wood-burning stoves instead of furnaces. Most of them don’t work, as far as I can tell, or maybe they work just enough to get wood for the winter. And food, I guess, though you hardly ever see them shopping. Could be the old caribou-on-the-roof trick. Stick an old frozen carcass up on the roof, eat it all winter. Except for the ravens. Ya gotta watch the ravens don’t peck the old caribou to pieces before the winter is out. That’s what the Old Town is like. Primitive.
Our Moms shop at Mr. Fong’s Super A uptown and, heck, if we ever need a plane, it wouldn’t be a stupid float plane with a couple of pathetic little propellers. No way. We’d take a jet from the real airport, just back of town round Suicide Corner where they’re thinking of expanding the New Town even more, building a new subdivision, maybe even a hospital.
Josephine’s still looking suspicious so I throw in the only thing I can think of that might sway her. “My brother might lend me his ghetto blaster so we can listen to tunes.”
She smiles then and I get a good look at her teeth and wonder if this really is such a good idea. What teeth. Crooked first off, and small, real small. Yellow, yellow, yellow, too. You gotta wonder how much tooth brushing is going on in that house, judging by the colour of them stumpy yellow teeth. Still, with a little lipstick, maybe an orangey-coloured one to match her hair, the yellow might look a little bit whiter.
You gotta wonder how much tooth brushing is going on in that house. Still, with a little lipstick…
I make a note to read up on colour because somewhere I remember my mom telling me how colours are seasons and we all have our own special set of colours that make us look the best. I’m winter, which seems like a fancy way of saying I should wear blue, which is good, because blue’s my favourite colour.
I almost give it away, right then and there on the playground, because I’m about to tell Josie she’s definitely an autumn—what with that ratty red hair and all—when the bell rings and reminds me to shut up because the fixing-up part is supposed to be the big surprise.
She goes into the school right away without hardly waiting for us, but over her shoulder she says she’ll tell us after school today whether she’ll come or not. Jax and I look at each other and grin, even though it’s not a definite thing yet. I can’t help but wonder why Josephine doesn’t have to ask her mom first. I know I would for sure, sleeping over at a new house and all. Fact is, my Mom would phone the new friend’s Mom and it would be a big to-do, a big kafuffle, at least the first few times. You gotta wonder how much power Josephine’s Mom’s got down in that house. You gotta wonder if old ’Phine even has a Mom, her not bothering to ask and all.
Anyways, there’s a note in Jax’s locker after school. “I’ll come Friday,” it reads. There’s no signature but we know it’s from Josie. The writing is really small and sort of scratchy looking. Still, it’s good news and Jax and I go back to her house and start gathering all the beauty magazines we can find to get ready for the next day.
I’m going to bring some of my stuff over. I don’t have a lot, because my parents don’t really believe in makeup, but I’ve got a stash of things I bought with my own babysitting money they don’t even know about. I even have an eyelash curler. My Mom saw it and thought it was something to tune Jason’s guitar. Poor Mom, not very tuned in.
Jax has lots of stuff and we’re even going to sneak into her older sister’s room and get some of her stuff. Marcia’s going on a band trip so the best makeup will be gone, but there still should be enough lip gloss and mascara to give us some variety for the job at hand. It’s a big job, too, fixing up the Flea-bert.
That night I’m kinda anxious and I can’t sleep or anything. I think about how we’re going to makeover Josephine and how she’ll be so grateful to us afterwards and maybe even be so pretty she gets crowned Homecoming Queen or something like that. I see her transformed from a squirmy maggoty thing into a beautiful butterfly and it’s all because of Jax and me, caring so much.
Josephine starts speaking in this other language, deep and strange, from inside her skinny little belly.
On Friday, school drags. Jax and I meet at the first recess but we don’t see Josie anywhere. She often doesn’t come ’til mid-morning, though, so neither of us is too worried. You gotta wonder how much activity there is morning time in that house, her coming in so late all the time. She finally comes after the second bell, but we don’t wave or anything. Don’t want to make it too conspicuous, make her think we’re willing to be friends in the playground or something sick like that. She looks our way, though, so it seems like it’s really going to happen, and Jax and I meet at lunch hour to make a strategy about how we’re going to get her home without a lot of people seeing.
Turns out clever Jax tells Josephine at third recess that I got a DT for looking at someone’s math test, even though I’d never really do something like that, and besides, I’m really good in math. Still, Jax tells her to meet us outside the detention room twenty minutes after the last bell. Ol’ ’Phine just nods and mutters something about missing the last bus, but Jax says it’s okay cause her house is really close and we can all walk. I notice she’d got a lumpy plastic bag with her; maybe more ragged clothes for sleeping. You gotta wonder if they even have pajamas down there in that house, being Josephine often wears the same clothes day in, day out, sometimes up to four times in a row.
Anyways, it all works out, we hang late, nobody sees us, and we get to Jax’s house and start the tent set-up and old Josie-o is pretty good at it, makes me ask if she’s ever gone camping before.
“Every summer we go out on the land,” she says, without even looking up from what she’s doing.
“Whatcha mean? Out on the land? Like, to a park or something?”
“No, my Dad still runs traps so we make a summer camp up the East Arm of the lake.”
Well, that just about slays me. My jaw probably drops to the ground. The East Arm is real wilderness, not a lick ’a people live up that way.
“Do you go by float plane?” Jax smirks, cheeky-like ’cause she knows how I feel about floatplanes being so welfare and all.
No,” says Josephine, “We paddle. We have a freighter canoe.”
Me, I can’t believe it, but Jax suddenly looks kinda uppity and it makes me freeze just when I’m having some luck getting this stupid little fibreglass roddy-thing through the tiniest tent hole in the world.
“When you say traps, do you mean like Indian traps? Like a trapline?”
Josie stops fiddling with the cross bar then and looks over at Jax who’s holding up a corner while I’m doing most of the work. “Yeah. My Mom’s Indian. Dogrib.” She pokes her pointy little chin out, “You got a problem with that?”
Me and Jax don’t say anything for a split second, we just shake our heads at the same time. How could she have an Indian Mom and have red hair? Must be she knows what we’re thinking cause she says quick as could be, “I’m Métis. My grandfather was from Scotland. Maybe my great-grandfather. He married Dogrib.”
“You mean like a voyageur?” I ask.
“Yeah, right,” says Jax. “And my grandfather was a Negro.” Except she says it long and drawn out. Knee-grow.
Josephine drops the tent then and it all collapses in a big puff of air. “I could go home,” she says. It sounds like a threat.
“Nah,” says Jax. “I was just kidding. We don’t care if you’re Indian or whatever, do we, Tish?” and she looks darts at me, like I better say the right thing or the whole makeover thing is gonna be toast.
“Nope, we don’t care. You know how to play the bagpipes?” I ask, holding my nose and karate chopping my throat so this weird moaning sound comes outta my mouth. Josephine kind of smiles a bit and picks up the tent again.
Well, if we’d known she’s got an Indian for a Mom it would explain a lot of things. Everything except the hair and the skin, I ’spose, but that’s now our department.
I kind of wonder if we’d have started all this, knowing about the canoe and the traps and the summer camps up the East Arm like we do now, but we’re in too deep to get out.
Part of me thinks its kinda cool, her being part Indian and looking paler than the whitest kind of white man. It kinda explains the shape of her eyes, though, and her cheekbones. Now that I can be double-checking her while she’s working on the tent, I see Josephine’s got an Indian face, with those high cheekbones to die for, like the fashion models who have all their back teeth pulled to get that long Indian face look. I wonder if I’d rather be an Indian or have my teeth pulled?
Anyway, we eventually get the tent up, get the bags all unrolled and because we don’t want to scare her off, we don’t tell right off what were gonna do for her. We’ve got the kit, the deep moisturizing facial wash, the exfoliating grapefruit mask, the toner, the skin care products. We got the little brushes and enough eyeliner and eye shadow and lipstick to war paint the whole goddamn Dogrib nation, need be. But first we gotta kinda put her at ease, so we decide to get into our pjs, just hang out for a while.
Josephine’s really shy and tells us to wait outside the tent while she changes. Jax and me kinda roll our eyes, but we do anyway, so as not to have to look at her so skinny and poxy and all.
We hear this weird rustling, crackling sound and when she calls us back in, you can see she’s got on these cheapo pajamas, straight out of the package. They still got the cardboard creases in them, for God sake, and them ugly pink pajamas with little white horses on them totally clash with her hair. They looks so new and big on scrawny Josephine it kind of makes me feel like crying, but I’m not quite sure why.
Neither of us speaks, not wanting to make a big deal about the jammies but you gotta wonder when she bought them.
Ol’ Josie, she just crawls into Lukie’s sleeping bag like she’s got something to hide, but Jax and me, we sit on top of the bags, pretending like it’s normal and she’s just cold or something.
“What do you do at camp all summer?” asks Jax, all innocent sounding, like she really wants to know.
“I don’t know,” says Josephine. “We fish. Hunt. You know. The regular stuff.”
“For Indians. Regular for Indians,” says Jax.
“I guess,” says Josie, propping herself up on her elbows. “It’s probably not much different than what you do when you go camping.”
I think about our camper: the propane stove, the cool little compartments where you can store things. I know Mom is after Dad to get one of those portable flush toilets so we don’t have to use the creepy outhouses, with their germy lime smell. “We fish,” I volunteer, trying hard to get the kinship thing happening. “My brother once caught a jackfish so big it fed the whole family.”
“We don’t eat jack,” said Josephine. “We feed jackfish to the dogs.”
Now that makes me feel like my camping family is some kinda trashy dogfood-eating people, but Jax comes to the rescue. “What else do you do in that camp? What does your Mom do? Does she ever dance around the campfire or talk to the northern lights?”
“No, stupid. That’s just what you read in books.”
Well, I just about freak, ’cause I’ve never heard anyone call Jax stupid to her face and I kind of hold my breath, to see what she’ll say.
“At least I read,” she comes back, mad but not too mad. “Lot of Indians don’t even know how to read.”
“That’s because our language isn’t written down,” says Josie, sort of gentle, as though she’s really sorry for calling Jax stupid. “It’s oral, you know, telling stories and stuff.”
“Cool,” I say.
“Weird,” says Jax.
“It still works,” says Josephine.
There’s silence in the tent, just the sound of us breathing and a lone mosquito buzzing up at the top where the poles join. You can hear it but you can’t see it, being dim and all. The only thing I can see is all the makeup bags me and Jax collected, stashed against the back wall of the tent, waiting to do their work.
“Say something,” challenges Jax.
“Yeah. Tell us one of the stories.”
And then Josephine lays her head down on Luke’s sleeping bag, closes her eyes and starts speaking in this other language, so deep and strange it seems to come from inside her skinny little belly instead of from her mouth and throat.
In the semi-dark of the tent, with the words coming out of her like that, all full and strange, I see her different all of a sudden. She knows stuff me and Jax don’t know, stuff we’ll probably never ever know. Even though she tried to fool us with the red hair and the white skin and the stupid pink pajamas, I know Josie isn’t going to get her makeover that night. She’s going to paddle her freighter canoe up the East Arm every summer with her family to pick berries and fish and live on the land. She’s going to keep on speaking her secret language and telling stories about her mother and her mother’s mother before that, and all the ancestors’ voices will be in those stories, so much so that you never need to write them down.
All the makeup in the world isn’t going to change ol’ Josephine. Her hair will be just as red and ratty as ever, and she’ll still be skinny and the pink pajamas won’t be pink anymore, they’ll be faded and dirty, but you know what? It won’t matter at all, because Josephine won’t even care. She’s just hop in that ol’ canoe every summer and point it up into the wind. Then she’ll paddle hard, all elbows and wiry arms, heading up the East Arm of the lake until she’s clean out of sight.
Margaret MacPherson is a novelist, short-story writer, poet, teacher and book reviewer. She lives in Edmonton.