Excerpt: Cherie Dimaline's 'The Marrow Thieves'

In this dystopian novel, Indigenous survivors of a global disaster try to reclaim their culture
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on August 22, 2018
guests on The Agenda in the Summer
Nam Kiwanuka interviews Cherie Dimaline on The Agenda in the Summer.

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Miig explained it one night at the fire.

“Dreams get caught in the webs woven in your bones. That’s where they live, in that marrow there.” He poked at the crackling wood with a pointy stick till the shadows were frenetic against his tan face, till they slid into the longer shoots of hair near the front of his mohawk, the tendrils he swept up and patted into place atop the shorter brush with the care of a pageant queen. He didn’t make eye contact with us, the motley group seated in a loose semicircle around the fire, beneath the trees where he commanded cover of The Marrow Thieves place.

I imagined spiderwebs in my bones and turned my palm towards the moon, watching the ballet of bones between my elbow and wrist twist to make it so. I saw webs clotted with dreams like fat flies. I wondered if the horses I’d ridden into this dawn were still caught in there like bugs, whinnying at the shift.

Miig nudged the rounded stones placed around the perimeter of the fire with his boot. You could see where the holes in his sole had been patched up with sap and scavenged leather.

“How do they get in there?” RiRi, now seven, was always curious and not shy with her questions.

“You are born with them. Your DNA weaves them into the marrow like spinners,” Miig answered. The flames tried to settle, and he prodded them to dance again. He added, “That’s where they pluck them from.”

I pulled each one of my fingers into my palm and made a fist silhouetted against the fire, flames licking around the tight ball of brown and bone. I imagined my brother tied to a chair at the school, a flock of grey-hooded villains tightening his beaded chains while they recited Hail Mary like synchronized swimmers.

Miig sat, satisfied that we were all at attention, that we were listening with every cell. He leaned against a felled tree beside Minerva, who woke up with his rustling. He rolled a smoke out of his precious tobacco stores and plucked a twig out of the fire with a burning ember at the tip to light it with. Old Minerva, nearsighted to squinting, lifted her nose at the smell. Her lips fell slack and she sighed. Those first few exhales were big and wasteful as Miig tried to get the damp paper to light, and smoke billowed across the clearing like messages. Everything was always damp, so we were trained to sniff out mould to keep that sickness at bay. Minerva made her hands into shallow cups and pulled the air over her head and face, making prayers out of ashes and smoke. Real old-timey, that Minerva.

Miig and Minerva were the only grown-ups in our group. Miig wore his hair shaved to the skull except down the middle and had a moustache that only grew on the left side of his top lip. He was tall but bent like a walking question mark, and he was short with words and patience. Miig wore army pants, alternating between two identical pairs, and layers of brown and green sweaters. He kept a small pouch hung on a shoelace around his neck and tucked into those sweaters. Once, when I’d asked him, he’d told me that was where he kept his heart, because it was too dangerous to keep it in his chest, what with the sharp edges of bones so easily broken. I never asked again. Too many metaphors and stories wrapped in stories. It could be exhausting, talking to Miig.

Us kids, we longed for the old-timey. We wore our hair in braids to show it. We made sweat lodges out of broken branches dug back into the earth, covered over with our shirts tied together at the buttonholes. Those lodges weren’t very hot, but we sat in them for hours and willed the sweat to pop over our willowy arms and hairless cheeks.

“It’s time for Story.” Miig exhaled smoke as he spoke. I watched the word Story puff over the fire and spread into a cumulative haze that smelled of ground roots and acrid burn just above our dark heads.

Slopper struggled to his feet and started over to his tent. The youngest weren’t privy to Story, not yet anyway. RiRi made the face she pulled out when she wanted something, like an extra piece of camp bread or to sleep in my tent so I could tell her stories to keep the nightmares away.

Miig just looked at her, lifting one eyebrow higher than the other.

“Aww, Miig. Can’t I stay for a little bit?”

She received no answer, and kicked rocks all the way to her tent.

The woods grew quiet now; even the beetles stopped rubbing their smooth shells on softened bark, even the wind picked around the branches instead of rattling straight through.

Miig leaned in so that the fire illuminated his face from the bottom like unsteady stage lights. And he opened a hand, palm down to indicate the ground, this ground, as he began Story.

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