by Kevin McCann
Setting : A bare stage. To one side is a rack of what looks like theatrical costumes. Centre stage but back away from the apron is a make-up table. The mirror has no back so we can see the actor applying make-up. Also on the table is a bottle of whiskey, half-full.
Time : Indeterminate.
Character : MAN, early 40s. He is dressed as a Native American (buckskin, long hair in braids, etc)
In the background we can hear the sound of excited chatter and an orchestra tuning up. MAN is applying some dark liquid to his face. He finishes, stands up and faces the audience. Background noise fades.
I remember boots.
Theirs. High buttoned. Dull.
His. Heeled. Tooled leather with shiny toe caps and I grabbed one of them just as he was leaving and they pried my fingers away and scolded me. He turned away then turned back and threw down his hat and said—Wear that when your head’s big enough and remember me.
Then he was gone.
I never saw him again.
(He steps forward and holds up his right hand, palm outward)
My name is Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, Grey Owl and I come in peace.
(Drops his hand)
They’d say I had his eyes and even when I won the Composition Prize at school, I was still my worthless father’s son.
And there was this woman used to watch me sometimes from a distance. I’d be alone, tracking buffalo through the park or hunting bears in our back garden and see her spying through the gaps between the trees.
A small dark skinned woman. My mother.
But the two Aunts, my father’s sisters, kept her separate. She was The Other and not to be spoken of. So I’d stain my paleface skin with cold tea, stick seagull feathers in my hair, sit on the hillside above the old town dreaming buckskin, beadwork, braided hair and tragedy.
I left first chance I got. Nineteen-o-six. Travelled west. Landed up in Canada. I was supposed to be farming. Ended up at Bear Island, met and married Angele, moved in on what was left of the Anishinabe.
Old Lady Cat, my new Grandmother, told me their stories. White Bear taught me how to hunt and track. Go for days on chokecherries and pemmican.
I grew my hair. Peppered my speech with phrases from their language.
Walked toe-heel and leaning forward slightly as if the trump line was pressed against my head and I was pulling the weight of a laden sled.
(During above he mimes each action he describes)
Summers, I guided hunters (white men) and Wintered with the Indians.
They gave me my real name.
Nineteen-fourteen, I volunteered.
In France I was stone, dark light, a shattered tree, silent, hours unmoving, waiting for first light and the carelessness it brings. A yawning stretch above the dig-out’s lip…a head shot…one less Fritz.
I remember every face.
I was Belaney. A.
(Snaps to attention)
Honourably Discharged Wounded Great War Veteran, Sniper First Class, bigamist who married a nurse from the Army Hospital then skipped off first chance he got.
Bear Island was more or less deserted when I finally got back.
(Picks up the bottle and takes a good long swig)
Trees hacked down. Rivers trapped out. Streams choked and dying so one night, drunk on home made wine that had been brewed a full three weeks, burned my discharge papers, smeared the ashes on my white skin and headed back out again.
I killed beaver wherever I could find them. Spent a lot of time alone in my cabin.
And then she came along.
A diner waitress sneered at, groped by drunken white men.
Together we left and every day, she watched me silently. Watched me track and trap and every time I killed, she would turn her face away as my axe fell on some half dead animal, leg gnawed through trying to escape my trap in desperation until one day (pause) until one day I was about to finish off two beaver kits, deep in the Winter, way out of season and she murmured one word—No!
I never killed again.
Now, from back to backs, from under skies where yellow smoke curls in on itself, they fill every Lecture Hall from Southport to Hastings.
I stand on platform after platform, raise my right hand
(He does so)
I am Grey Owl, Shadow-Who-Flies-By-Night, Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin) and then I begin.
(His voice loses the slight slur it’s been acquiring and he stands up straight and confident looking)
One fine morning crow noticed a shadow hooked to his foot so he tried to circle it.
(He circles, arms bent behind his back, elbows hooked out, palms touching)
But it stalked him.
(He switches roles and lifts his feet high and slowly like Chaplin)
So to shake it he’d take off suddenly and row halfway across the sky.
(Begins flapping his arms frantically and over the speaker there’s faint tinny laughing, some applause)
But wherever he landed, it was waiting for him.
Finally, at sunset, enraged, he pecked and clawed and caw-caw-cawed at the thing.
(Over the speaker more laughter, more applause)
But then the shadow came to life and simply swallowed him.
(Laughter dies, the faint applause is scattered, echoing)
I am your shadow
(Speaker is silent now)
And when you come to me for sustenance, all I have to offer you is one green leaf.
I fill every Lecture Hall from Southport to Hastings and they come needing the buckskin, the beadwork that’s exquisite, my braided hair, my people’s inspiring tragedy.
I stand on platform after platform, white skin, the mark of Cain, stained with walnut juice, raise my right hand to repeat:
(He steps forward, raises his hand palm outward)
My name is Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, Grey Owl, and I come in peace…
copyright © 2010 Kevin McCann. All rights reserved. ___________________________________________
Kevin McCann has been writer-in-residence in H.M.P. Birmingham (for Arts Council England) and H.M.P. Wymott (for both the Poetry Society and the Gulbenkian Foundation), has run poetry workshops and given readings in schools, community centres, libraries, hospitals, universities, cafes and pubs. He has published six poetry collections for adults, and his children’s poems have been included in numerous anthologies, the most recent being: Poems About Water (Evans, 2007) and The World at Our Feet (Macmillan, 2010). In 2006 he was joint winner of the Booktrust’s Writing Together Award.