They took me to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School. I read once that there are holes in the universe that swallow all light, all bodies. St. Jerome’s took all the light from my world. Everything I knew vanished behind me with an audible swish, like the sound a moose makes disappearing into spruce. We’d driven two days to get there. Two nuns and three of us kids crammed into the back seat of a battered old Chev. A little girl who cried most of the way, and another boy. We spent the trip without talking, taking turns at the window watching the land flow by. It seemed boundless. Every curve in that road, every crest of a hill, even the cut of the trees against the night sky held me spellbound. I barely slept.

I was lonely for the sky, for the feel of it on my face.

The school was a four-storey red brick building with a cupola bearing a tall white cross as its only adornment. There were no trees around it, only ground shrubs. A wagon wheel leaned against a rock beside the large wooden sign that read St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School. A gravel driveway curved toward the front entrance of wide concrete stairs with white-washed balustrades and double doors of frosted glass. Two wings of the building thrust back behind. Beyond were sheds and barns and fields speckled with the rubble of furrows poking up through the thin snow. The entire property sat in a clearing at the top of a ridge with bush at its edges.

Inside, the smell of bleach and disinfectant, so strong it seemed to peel the skin off the inside of my nose. The floors were hardwood, sallow from decades of mopping and scrubbing. The walls were a sickly green. At every landing were doors of frosted glass so the light was pale and gave off a feeling of cold even though the radiators pulsed heat outward in waves. The linoleum on the steps was cracked in places but scrubbed to a dull sheen.

The fourth floor was one big room with windows at each side. Between them was a sea of cots, all folded and tucked in exactly the same manner. Regimented, though I didn’t learn that word until much later.

The other boy and I were marched by a gruff priest to the back of this dormitory and ordered to strip and climb into tubs of nearly scalding water. After a minute the priest made us stand and threw handfuls of delousing powder over us. It bit at the corners of my eyes as he sat us in the tubs again to rinse it off. Then a pair of nuns scrubbed us with stiff-bristled brushes. The soap was harsh. They rubbed us nearly raw. It felt like they were trying to remove more than grime or odour. It felt as though they were trying to remove our skin. When it was over they handed us clothing and watched us while we dressed. The wool pants scratched at my skin. They were a size too big and had to be held up with a belt cinched tight. The shirt was stiff and white. The shoes were thin leather with laces and smooth, slippery soles. They made us walk awkwardly. Next, we sat in chairs with towels around our shoulders while the nuns shaved our hair down to nubby crew-cuts with electric clippers. I watched my long, straight hair land on the floor, and when I looked at the other boy he was crying. Huge, silent tears.

Back downstairs, we were made to stand in front of a desk in an office with windows looking out over the fields. We stood there a long time. Then the door opened and a priest and a large, reddish-faced nun stepped in.

“I’m Father Quinney and this is Sister Ignacia,” the priest said. “This is our school. Well, more properly, it’s the Lord’s school, but he’s put us in charge.”

“Saul,” Sister Ignacia said. “That’s a fine biblical name. We won’t need to change that. But we’re going to have to do something about Lonnie Rabbit. I think Aaron is more suitable. From now on you are Aaron Rabbit. Do you understand?”

“But Lonnie is my dad’s name,” the boy said.

“Well, the Lord God is your father now and he wants you called Aaron.”

“But I got a father.”

Sister Ignacia strode out from behind the desk to stand directly in front of Lonnie, who looked down at the floor. “Your father is the Heavenly Father. You will learn that here. Your human father has nothing to offer you anymore.”

“He’s a trapper.”

“He’s a heathen.”

“He’s Ojibway.”

“He is unbaptized and impure of spirit. When you use the word father at this school, it is your Heavenly Father you make reference to.”

“I don’t want no other father.”

“You have no choice.”

“I’ll run.”

The Sister smiled. It was chilling because there was no laughter in her eyes. They were a cold, pale blue, like the eyes of a husky, and when she reached behind her and brought a leather paddle into view she had a terrible calm about her. The paddle was blunt and wide and drilled with holes across its face. She cradled it in both palms, and with a blur of motion she twisted Lonnie around by the collar and pushed him to his knees. He screamed as the paddle struck his back. The nun yanked him to his feet as though he were a rag toy and struck him repeatedly behind the knees and on the back of the thighs. It sounded like she was beating a hide. Lonnie squirmed and struggled but her grip was incredible. She kept hitting him until he collapsed. Father Quinney stood with his hands behind his back and watched.

“Obedience is the measure of our worthiness.” She spun Lonnie around to face her. “Here you will learn to be worthy. Do you hear me?”

“Yes,” Lonnie said.

“Yes, Sister.”

“Yes, Sister.”

“That’s a good boy.” She reached out to lay a hand on his face. He flinched. She smiled again with the same ghastly lack of feeling. “At St. Jerome’s we work to remove the Indian from our children so that the blessings of the Lord may be evidenced upon them.”

“Industry, boys,” Father Quinney said. “Good, honest work and earnest study. That’s what you’ll do here. That’s what will prepare you for the world.”

Sister Ignacia took us each by a hand and, with a firm nod to the priest, led us from the office and out into the school. Her hands like dried birch bark. Her face composed, the slight press of a grin at the edges of her mouth. Beatific. That’s another word I learned much later. As the Sister walked us through the school that first day, she had that saintly look on her face. The whistle of the leather still hung in the air. She was a large woman, tall, and I’d never known such terror.

In what seemed like an instant, the world I had known was replaced by an ominous black cloud.