By Joshua Whitehead

The Stonewailers

Stone sat facing the setting sun, its red glare stained across his temples, oxidized, aging him into a premature elderhood—which is not to say it was unearned. A recently placed glass of hot water with lemon began to steam the pane of glass he sat beside. He had a propensity for having his iPhone on the brightest setting because, for him, it was both an alleviation and a leader. He wore tiger trout scales under his eyes like glitter to hide his insomnia, a feature that lit them up like two little saints in the bright sheen of his light. A faint smile arched from time to time, only to hide in his dimples and the hollows of his cheekbones, as he scrolled through social media looking at his likes and DMs—that fleeting euphoria doomed to fail. His shadow of joy ghosted back into flattened muscle when the gravity of aloneness hit him again. 

His mother named him Stone due in part to her own waning mental health in the height of colonial crises: the water cannons, body bags, bronzed water, and incarcerations. When she was pregnant with Stone, the bodies of thousands of children were unearthed on her reservation. The community told him this story often—for stories, as they say, of your birthright are often meant to bring a sense of calmness and fortitude, which they thought might steel him to a wounding world—of how she calmly got up, walked into the prairie field beyond their house until she hit a vanishing point and returned a ghost three days later. She hadn’t died, physically, but when she returned her nightgown was simply a hanging piece of lace, her body splattered in dried blood, and her hair swept up into a bird’s nest. For those three days she was absent, the reservation locked their doors at night, the piercing scream of a mother’s cry wailed through their shack homes, knocking over ceramic plates of their favourite chiefs, kitschy wolf figurines, and dreamcatchers that only ever seemed to catch the happy ones. 

Some say she was a skin walker and traded her peace for a righteous revenge on the landowners near Piapot. Others say she went to the Sky People in Waterhen to travel to the Sky World and call upon the thunderbirds to storm the land in her absence. And reservation famous conspiracist Hugo called her the “Saskatchewan Sasquatch.” The women shooed Hugo off with their sandals in hand and nicknamed him Jeff Wade. “No,” they said, “Kitty went to the old one’s tipi rings to pray, just look at the grooves of stone still indented in her knees.” Four days after her return, she gave birth to Stone. She never cried, never called out, she didn’t even flinch. The midwives huddled around her, cut his cord, and asked him what she’d like to name him? “asinîy,” she said, “Stone” and those were the last words she spoke to anyone but him, and even then, it was mostly theorizations on the state of animation mostly lost to him in nêhiyâwewin. After Stone’s naming ceremony, the Chief concluded, “Whatever it was, we lost Kitty on the horizon that day and now she only stonewails us.” Of course, what the Chief really meant to say was stonewalling, but it became a legend of sorts: of how weeping stones could steal your voice.  

Maybe, he thought, naming me Stone was a way for her to propel his register of life and arc him towards an elderhood he’d always known. And there, sitting in a dim coffee shop in the Foothills, his face a distortion, disappearing, if one were to look from outside, behind a pane of glass that continued to steam with lemon and hot water. 

“What the hell, Stone?” Pin asked, rolling down their septum nose rings, finally warming the roses that sat behind their cheeks. Pinhead was a horror fanatic, they idolized the Hell Priest Cenobite, but really, it was a reclamation they had made from being called a pinhead all their life to become a sovereign of something, least of all their intelligence. “It’s a sobriquet,” they always announced. Stone thought what they really meant was tourniquet, but he let them have their naming ceremony too because English had always failed him. “I mean seriously,” they huffed, “you know I love me some sad girl story time, but I literally just sat my ass down. And you’re already acting hella sus.” 

Stone shrugged, “Is it giving, though?” he slugged them in their arm.

“Give me Cher, not oversharing, sakes” they smacked him back. “So, you’re just right deadly now ‘er what? You went hardcore last night, fuck. Scared us.” 

Stone had another propensity, to easily disassociate. It felt like unsheathing, as if he unzipped himself from his body and stood more naked than naked. It happened every now and again, especially when he was beyond exertion from insomnia, which was more often nowadays. He would slip away, even mid conversation, and not come back into himself for what seemed like hours but was only a few minutes. He could tell it was coming on because, he explained to others: it feels like when you experience pain, you know? Like when a needle pierces your skin at sun dance or when you have a tooth ache, that every sense in your body, every nerve, every synapse, shuts down and retreats into that pain and all that’s left of your body is that aching site of skin.  

“Yeah,” he sighed, “I’m a little messed lately. Sorry,” he tossed an incongruous smile.

“Took me a bit of explaining and all,” Pin shimmed themselves into an air of care, “but I got the crew to settle down some. They thought you were having a seizure or some shit.” 

“I mean, maybe I should look into that. Gotta find a doctor ‘round here that takes NIHB first though.” 

“You work on that, old man, and I’ll find you a white medicine man shrink.”

“Not even,” Stone recoiled in his seat and held his own hand. 

Pin noticed his discomfort and tapped their feet against his as their own nonverbal means of apologizing. “Anyways, fucks going on anyways?”

“Ah, I don’t know—.”

“Hey Merle,” Pin yelled out, hatching out a twenty from their pocket, “Gimme two of your most traditional Bepsis.” Merle was the only other NDN they knew who wasn’t at least bisexual. Being heterosexual was a passing fad these days in NDN country, everyone wanted to be like the influencers, stylized and neotraditional—even if was only for the aesthetic, it seemed all they had to hold onto now that the Elders were beginning to age out. 

“I’ve been working on a new story though,” Stone shrugged, “It’s pretty stupid, but it’s been helping with my mental health and all that.”

“What did I tell you about calling yourself stupid, boy? Only I can do that, queerdo.” 

“Well, it’s about this boy—.”

“This better not be about your ol’ ex again Stone, I told you, moniyaw gotta go.”

“—who wants to die.” Pin’s eyes furrowed, they had a knack for seeing through everyone’s countenances, both their faces and their lies—even if they were white. Merle, a man of maybe ninety pounds, whistled over their shoulder setting down their sodas like the spirit his frame made him out to be.

“Jesus, Merle, read the fucking room once in a while. Just gave me a start, you. And you’re interrupting my boy’s story.” Merle rolled his eyes and refilled Stone’s hot water. The steam returned, the café’s pane of glass phasing behind it, devouring him from sight outside save for the silhouette of a red blip from the café’s neon sign.

            “Alright, alright, anyways. Boy. Dying. Continue.” 

            Stone sat and bowed his head, one hand cradling the other, drawing hearts into his palm with his thumb. This was a coping mechanism, one his mother gave him, soothing him when he was a boy, cursed, as he always called it, with anxiety. Her namesake was Kitty Wells on account of her mother and her mother’s mother, both who raised arms against the missionaries and church who came preaching about Jesus Christ and God Almighty and the Holy Ghost. Great Grandmother Kitty idolized Kitty Wells for taking on Hank Thompson with her song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” so much so that she would maximize the volume on her record player whenever the priests knocked on her door. The stories say that she’d only knock back on the door to them, shouting, “It wasn’t God who made me, there’s always a man to blame!” Stone’s mother, Kitty, instead took from “Dust on the Bible,” whenever those preachers made themselves too welcome at a funeral or a wedding, “There’s dust on the bible,” she’d announce, mimicking their religious gate, “And dust on the holy word!” and she’d snap two twigs she’d hidden in her jacket to scare them into thinking that she truly was beyond angelic grace. Sometimes he could hear the twang of her guitar, rotting into firewood in the corner of their home, and other time’s the wailing.

            “Earth to Stone, hello? Queerdo, you’re zoning out again, c’mon back to us,” Pin was roiling their nails on the table out of boredom, its own whining. 

            “Sorry, Pin gimme a min, eh? I’m gonna have a quick fag.” 

            “You’re gonna end up killing yourself one of these days, boy, spliffs just twenty-four-seven. Sakes.”

            He got up, threw on his plaid coat, tossed a smile on the table and went outside. When he was twelve, Stone began disembodying like that, it used to scare him, he thought he was dying. He told the Elders about it, and they took him seriously, thinking he was trying to self-harm and reported him to the reservation mental health nurses who made him watch a four-hour mandatory film on suicide and its effects on the community. Given, the class was full, and it seemed his whole generation was plucked from school sitting there watching this documentary. His reservation and all the neighbouring ones did have an alarmingly high suicide rate—but it wasn’t exactly Stone’s thoughts, at least then, to unmake himself even further. “Appreciate your life kids. Life is beautiful,” was what the nurse would say to them after spending the entire class, feet on her desk, playing games on her phone. Stone light his spliff and smoked it slowly, holding the fire in his lung. Sometimes causing pain is what got him out of disembodiment, to focus, again, and transport himself to another site of twisting. 

            There were times when Pin got under his skin when they commented on his livelihood. He had divulged to them, a few years prior, of his thoughts on dying and death. When they asked him about it, Stone, deeply within his depression and disassociation, and further under pretense knowing that he could never lie to them even if he wanted to, just told them the truth. He thought that was why he began smoking, beyond the allure of feeling more adultlike, and then began getting so stoned he lost every semblance of control. He felt he had control over his disembodiments that way, to move into a place beyond himself, or beyond the pull of a gravity outside of the physical realm. He felt he was painting a bullseye on his body and placed his debts in every wheelhouse: slow necroses and quick engulfment. Sometimes he wanted so badly to die but couldn’t do it on his own. So, he prayed to the consuming jaw of human violence with a bravery, he thought, in knowing what he was doing, but a cowardice in the application of it all. Eat me, eat me, anyone, he pled to himself hoping others could hear his own stoned wailing, I know you so badly want to. He concluded that history itself was written in human hungers and he felt himself a man unfurled, delicate as a chord, all he needed was for someone to pluck him from the chorus of this recording and he swore he’d call it grace or faith or whatever his lifetaker wanted to crown themselves with. Stone loathed that inane rallying call, “Life is beautiful. Appreciate your life,” a phrase so commonly railed against him—for everything contains beauty, does it not? He could summon the faintest grimace in response, and at other times, an accompanied nod, or a raised brow, not for himself but for the speaking party to ease their guilt for having shown them this desire housed deep within his spiritbody. How could he appreciate beauty in something so fleeting and intangible? A blur racing across the retina, only the remnant of a sensation, is the adjective he might call beauty—but what of its noun? What of its verb? 

            Stone had begun to think of the beautiful as being solely furnished in finality. Like when a day ends and you close your eyes to rest, replaying it, but controlled now, the events of the hours. You pause on a stilled frame and say, see there: beauty but it has already fled out of frame, and it only exists now in the animations of a dream. Which is a type of dying. Cloaked in this illusive grammar. Or like love, one appreciates its beauty only after it has collapsed, and so too have the lovers, changelings now to a type of play so enmeshed in ruin and breakage that when one emerges again from behind the veiled mirage of another kind of death, they conjure sculpture and illusion, a love life’s worth of joy or hate embroiled into a twisted figure only they could ever deem beautiful—and that too, he thought, is a type of appreciation. So then, why not life? If I were to appreciate it, can I not distill it into magmacite—slick and prideful but cool to the touch of a now ephemeral being and attach it to a sash whereupon he might store his most beautisome belongings? Maybe death too is a kind of unparalleled loving and a steadfast form of appreciation?

            Stone put out his cigarette and dusted his hands of ash, he hadn’t smoked any of it, just a lone man on the precipice of thought staring out into a dead street. The sun was just a faint bulb on the horizon now, and as he made his way back in, he stopped. Pin was sitting there talking on their phone with headphones in, staring straight ahead, where he had sat. All he saw was the faintest hue of red light yet left in his seated absence as he heard the receding wail of an ambulance in the distance. 

Previously published in Weird Era.

Joshua Whitehead
+ posts

Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-nêhiyaw, Two-Spirit member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). He is the author of full-metal indigiqueer (Talonbooks 2017), Jonny Appleseed (Arsenal Pulp 2018), Making Love with the Land (Knopf Canada 2022), and Indigiqueerness: a Conversation About Storytelling (Athabasca U 2023). He is also the editor of Love after the End: an Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction (Arsenal P 2020). Currently, Whitehead is an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary (Treaty 7) and is housed in the departments of English and International Indigenous Studies.

Next article