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TRUTH TO TELL

I have a story to tell. Whether it is true will be for you to decide. But that comes later. We must still negotiate the first sentence where ‘have’ is something of a stumbling block yet is the word I want to use. I was not born with the story. I didn’t come across it by chance. I neither wanted it nor asked for it. Still, it was told to me and now that I have it I am compelled by the story itself — by its unquiet nature, and the questions it raises — to pass it on.

* * *

The story takes place one night in the 1960s, in a small community on Vancouver Island. It is winter. It is raining. There is a man working in a shed splitting wood with his two sons. There is a chopping block in the centre of the shed. A single light bulb hangs from a cord slung over a rafter, just out of range of the swing of the axe. The father stacks the wood while the older boy wields the axe. The younger boy picks up kindling.

The three of them work in the pool of light. The shed is small and there is not much room to move about. All of them are getting tired. It is the younger boy’s misfortune to reach out for a piece of wood on the block at the wrong moment. When the axe comes down on his fingers the blow severs two of them.

The father acts quickly. The boy’s mother, called to the scene, wraps the boy’s hand, together with the severed fingers. They all, father, mother and the two boys, get in the car and drive to the hospital twenty minutes down the road.

When they arrive at the Emergency unit the nurse points to the chairs lined up opposite the desk. She asks for the father’s name.

The father tells her it’s an emergency, that his son is hurt very badly. He explains to her what has happened. The nurse turns and calls a question back into the room behind her.

Someone answers and she turns back.

"The doctor for Indians is off duty" she says. "But he’ll be on again in the morning at six."

The boy sits for the rest of the night in the waiting room, holding his own severed fingers in his lap.

That’s it. No more details, no waiting room drama. The story as I’ve recounted it mirrors as nearly as I can recall the story that was told–in the first person–to members of a small advocacy group for Native justice. The details are spare. I can’t even tell you the ages of the boys though I can guess at seven and twelve. The teller, the man who as a boy lost two fingers, left us to sit with our own shock and our unanswered question in much in the same way that the nurse in the story left the family to sit with their pain.

The non-Native response to this story is the overriding question: how could this happen? You ask it in disbelief — yet still believing. If you are Native you don’t bother to ask because you know the answer, have known it for more than a hundred years.

Should you care, however, to take it further, the answers you turn up are disconcerting. That it happened is not in any doubt. But when you ask ‘How?’, the answers indicate that it might not have happened in quite the way the telling of the story suggests.

What took place in the emergency room and the words that were spoken there–as they are remembered and recounted by members of the family’s community–imply a quite specific situation:
— a family has come to seek emergency surgery to sew back on the severed fingers of a young boy;
— the boy is forced to wait all night for treatment;
— the chance to reattach the fingers is lost.

But the questions prompted by the story lead incidentally to aspects that subtly alter the violence of its colouring. In the 1960s, when the event took place, reanastomosis — the surgical procedure involved in reattaching severed members — was not a technique known or practiced in the emergency rooms of Canadian hospitals. It became an available option in that context only during the 1970s. No medical practitioners in an emergency unit at the time of the story would have considered it — which is not to say that the parents of the boy did not hope for some miraculous medical intervention. I have no doubt at all that it might occur in the minds of any, of all, parents in the same situation, regardless of the current state of technology or their own knowledge of it.

Secondly, in the 1960s there would have been no specially-trained emergency physician on duty. There would have been an intern to give interim care while the patient’s own doctor, in this case ‘the doctor for the Indians’, was called in. Now, putting the two facts together, you can see at once how the outrage at the heart of the story is diluted. And other questions remain. Did the attending intern administer any care? Why wasn’t the "Indian" doctor called before morning? What did the nurse do? Nothing?

All of which creates a dilemma, for I do want to believe. It’s a powerful story and I want to tell it. Already I can think of three or four people who would do well to listen to it. This is a story to demolish all ifs and buts about the need for restitution and justice for Native peoples. Not only that, its metaphorical heft is impressive and that’s hard for a writer to resist.

But the new light I’ve just, myself, cast on the story is a problem. By repeating it as I heard it, I’m now in the position of offending both my artistic and my moral integrity at the same time. To tell it, I have to transgress my own most hallowed dictum that only the truth (the whole truth etc., etc.) has the power to restore and redeem, or at the very least that without the truth no healing can begin. Still. my dented scruples are a minor hurt set against the injury I might otherwise inflict on those who are connected to the story, for to tell it now in any other way would be to rewrite someone else’s reality. To call any detail into question is to heap more injury on the man with two fingers missing who transgressed his own cultural constraints (of privacy, of propriety) to repeat his story outside his own community; who is, and knows himself to be, a living metaphor for the dismemberment of his people.

The reality for the boy, the man, and by extension (because he himself has taken on the character of symbol) his people is that the experience of inhumanity is a central part of his life. Whether it was a direct result of that night or a consequence of everything that went before and continues to come after hardly matters any more. Analysis is not and cannot be the apposite response to his story. All those in the community who tell it are speaking wholly and only what they deem to be the truth.

The way out of this impasse is to listen to what is being said, to listen and to really hear. Truth will not necessarily (will rarely?) present itself in neat analytic packages. It may come in forms that we don’t readily recognize, especially when our minds are trained by the printed word to rationalize and ratiocinate. The western, literate mind is the product of a whole string of European philosophers whose writings have tried to reduce lived experience to sets of propositions, proofs and corollaries. But the rules of evidence aren’t always up to the task in hand. Within the community where this event took place, the tradition of story telling is still very much alive. No discourse or debate takes place without the inclusion of quite lengthy factual or even fictional oral accounts; these narratives are not illustrations of a truth but are the receptacles of it. They are the means to convey it. To receive the story in the spirit of this kind of truth-telling is to begin to have your heart and mind opened to another’s experience and to another means of establishing its truth.

It opens too the question of the relevance of the authenticity of Story itself and how the truth, the validity of an experience, may be carried intact in the leaky vessel of fiction. Good non-fiction writing and good fiction are identical in that both attest to the social and political conventions of our time — and then go beyond them. As a writer I could add details of my own to the story, could make the lamp swing and the power dip when a tree touches the line outside, could make the father turn, his arms full of wood, to see the two brothers staring at the block, could show the fingers like salamanders frozen in the light. I could make the cloth to wrap them checkered, could have an uncle drive the car, could make him park all askew in his haste to get into Emergency. The story as I have told it may already, technically, be fiction. Was it the mother who wrapped the fingers? Did she wrap the boy’s injured hand and then on a sudden thought wrap the fingers? Was it the father or was it an uncle who was working with the brothers? I can’t say. Still I could make the boy a girl, make him/her lose three fingers, one. Would the story be less true? More?

And what of the role of the listeners or the readers in all this? The narrator’s instincts were one hundred percent accurate — or true — in the telling of his story. He knew exactly what he was doing when he left us, his listeners that day, with the image of the boy in the waiting room. For don’t we all want to fill in the blanks? And once we’ve painted in our own details — the mother cradling the boy, the father pacing the floor — is it still a true story we carry away with us? Truth has always been absolute, hasn’t it…? Questions can only mean one hasn’t arrived yet at the thing that is believed, the place where no questions arise.

The truth at the heart of this story is pain. The validity of the experience of that pain lies within the confines of the story itself, not in facts that must be authenticated outside it. The story is a dramatic indictment of the consequences of our social and political history, yet it wields its power not necessarily for any attention to details of recent history but for its ability to reveal the deeper truth about the capacity of men and women to turn their backs on each other.

This revelation should be the place where there are no more questions. Yet still there is something unsatisfactory. To distill this story down to the generality of man’s inhumanity to man would be to deny, or at least to gloss over, the specific oppression of one group of people by another. Men and women with power are more prone to inflict injury than to suffer it; yes, we all have the capacity to turn our backs, to inflict pain, but that these things can be done only from a position of power nevertheless remains the most uncomfortable truth of all, in itself the single most pressing argument for an urgent redistribution of power and resources. We can reject the burden of guilt for the sins and blunderings of someone else’s fathers — but not the responsibility to make restitution. Present political reality will always be the product of history; that’s always been the easy get-out for those who don’t want to change it. But history is not over and done with; it’s the river we swim in, as ongoing as the present moment; and tomorrow’s political landscape is already being shaped by what we do, or don’t do, today.

June 11, 2002, 2150 w.

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Pauline Holdstock

Pauline Holdstock has published novels, poetry and short fiction in Canada, the U.K. and Germany. Her most recent book is The Turning(New Star Books). She lives in Sidney, B.C.

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