Darrel J. McLeod,
"The Carved Cedar Bent Box in the Trunk"

Had I always wanted to be white, or was it simply a desire to be cool, cocky, and confident like the white kids I grew up with?—so sure of themselves. I might have been happier if I were Asian, at least then I’d have had a clear identity and been able to live, work, and play in my birth language in many cities of the world, including Vancouver or Richmond. From the time I was a small boy everyone had accused me of being Chinese.

Are you Perry Mah’s twin?—kids would goad before launching into a lilting chorus of chinky chinky chinaman, sitting on a fence, tryna make a dollar outta fifteen cents. Strange thoughts to be having as I opened the trunk of my car to quickly inspect the urns that I had nicely wrapped in a red and black button blanket and placed gently into the carved cedar bent box—yearning to go up to the cafeteria level of the boat for my first coffee of the day.

A blond Rasta man sauntered up the rocking sun-filled ramp of the 11:00-a.m. ferry from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen as a swelling crowd of short foreigners in steel blue uniforms with black crewcuts pushed past muttering amongst themselves while shifting their heads from side to side to glimpse screaming seagulls. The blend of sandalwood and pot as he brushed by took me back to my high school days: Western Canada High, Calgary mid-seventies. Every lunch break I would stand on the front steps of the sprawling red brick building to watch the scrum of guys huddled off to one side, toking up—my stomach grumbling. Their “devil may care” attitude made me feel like a nervous laboratory rat. How uptight, ordinary, and dull I must have seemed. The burned French roast in the tall paper cup the Rasta man held in his unwashed perfect hand and the slight to-and-fro movement of the huge boat brought me back to the present. Saltspring Coffee Company the label read—the brand I drank when I first moved to Victoria in the early 90s. I loved their Mocha Java, but my sister Trina and our good friend Mike found it weak.

The white Rasta man sat on the floor at the top of the stairway near the video arcade on deck five, got out his guitar, set its tattered black case in front of him, and began to tune. Near identical half- and full-page photos formed a mural around us—the Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, and USA Today: the twin towers—a coal black cumulus cloud blasting out of one, a golden fireball out of the other.

Teewaaanguh teewaaanguh—this sound many times in rapid succession from bass to high notes as the ship’s horn blasted a long deep moan. People continued to mill past and I wondered if he was going to busk. What was it about him that intrigued me—the fact he played music, probably reggae, or was it the beehive of dark golden hair that wafted up off his head and then cascaded into shredded-wheat dreadlocks?

Concert B flat, that’s what the trumpet players tuned to—the violins to something else, I think it was A at the top of a D-minor triad, and the French horns and trombones something different altogether, it was probably F—F-major. A Sea Symphony by Vaughn Williams—that was the first symphonic piece I had heard and my friend Anne Butterworth, who was in first year university then, sang the soprano solo. I was awestruck by the rich tone of her voice, its consistent flow and subtle tremolo. She wore a plain white blouse and a pleated black skirt the day of the final concert at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton (this was similar to what she usually wore; she dressed sensibly, like a nun). I wore a puffy yellow dress shirt and jeans. What would Anne have thought of this Rasta man, his look, his smell, his delicate unkempt flaxen beard, paisley kaftan shirt, tan-colored jeans and matching work boots? His bottomless cobalt blue eyes? I could just hear her: what a waste of talent, trying to be something he’s not, throwing away his own culture and heritage trying to be Jamaican; he obviously comes from a privileged background, he should be studying something. And what would she have thought about Greggie—my brother, who at the time was in in the early stages of metamorphosis, to become Trina. I never did tell her about him. Her family owned a Tudor style house on the south-side of Edmonton, overlooking the North Saskatchewan and she was already a respected musician and academic—she would have had to reject me if she found out.

The only girl who would kiss me during the music camp where I met Anne was a very overweight girl with long chestnut-brown hair (Anne may have kissed me, but it took time for me to realize that she liked me). Nobody had asked the girl to dance at the sock hop after the variety show where she had sat frozen at a table, onstage, while another pair of hands, those of a guy concealed behind her, applied her makeup—powdered her eyebrows and drew cherry lips on her forehead, encouraged by guffaws from the teenaged crowd. Sitting in the tall grass of the campus fields, we got through one frantic kiss before we both realized we were hiding.

Trina was fat too (her words), and she thought this helped her to pass as a woman. I was chubby as a teen, but went on a crash diet—yoghurt and nuts for two weeks to lose my spare tire. So, I was slim in the summer after Grade Eleven, but I still wasn’t attractive (although years later I would understand it had little to do with my looks or weight).

The Rasta man must have sensed I was studying him (the new blemish on his fair nose, specks of dirt under his uncut fingernails), and conjuring his soulmate, a fair Rasta girl whose porcelain breasts he caressed with unclean hands and whose neck he nuzzled with his puffy pink lips and fuzzy facial hair. He fastened a capo around the neck of his guitar, then tucked its curvy body deep into his lap and reached for his pick. I hoped he would look over to confirm my penetrating gaze. Would it offend or trouble him? Would he pity me when I told him that I was about to drive a couple thousand kilometers to a tiny village in Northern Alberta to bury Trina, my brother turned sister? Would he sense how distraught and afraid I was to do this alone, and offer to come along for the ride, perhaps even drive a stretch of the journey that would take us up the Coquihalla, through the desert of Kamloops, along the Thompson River, and then through the snow-capped Rocky Mountains of Jasper National Park?

Is that how Trina’s one ride in my black BMW sports car—the ride I had promised her (once she had gotten over her outrage that I had bought a Bimmer instead of giving her a down payment on a condo) would turn out—me, with my hair tied back into a wavy salt-and-pepper ponytail, flying at 160 kilometres an hour along the eight-lane freeway with the sun roof open, and a ripe wannabe Rasta man sprawled in the passenger seat, while she and her favourite cat, Cleopatra, rode in urns, carefully wrapped in a black and red button blanket inside a carved cedar bent box in the trunk?

It had all begun one sunny Friday afternoon. We had completed three days of transition meetings in Vancouver (I was leading the closure of the Victoria treaty office and laying off twenty talented people, including friends, because Lorne, our new boss had wanted to “reel us in.” Among other things, he hated a poignant apology we had made to the Nuu-chah-nulth people for their horrific residential school experience). As I was leaving the Pacific Palisades, ubiquitous crows dive-bombed me. I dropped my briefcase and ducked under a sculpted Japanese maple—chills up to my neck. Oh my god, it was happening again, just as Mother had warned—the crows had a message, and I got it: somebody was going to die. I choked back tears and begged the universe—please, oh please, not now. I know I should have taken the time to visit her, but I didn’t. Not this time. I stood there for a moment—should I go to see her right now, and spend the night in Vancouver? I glanced over the lush manicured lawn and sculpted evergreens, then at Grouse Mountain in the distance.

Surely she would hang on—I had just helped her settle at home after a long stay in the hospital and she was improving. Tomorrow I’ll order her Meals on Wheels. I darted and weaved my way through the first wave of rush-hour traffic, drove onto the ferry and hurried up to the outer deck of the fifth floor to relax. The crows were just being crows—they did that to a lot or people, especially people with black hair. Instead of burying my head in briefing books, I sat cross-legged atop the bin of life preservers hoping to see bald eagles circling above as the boat swayed and shuddered through Active Pass. They would give me strength and clarity—confirm that everything was okay, but there were none.

Exhilaration upon seeing the Olympic Mountains across the strait and tasting the fresh cool island air. In the twenty or so kilometres from Saanich to Sooke, the external temperature gauge had dropped from 26 to 20. I pondered what I would do when I arrived home—rush to my garden to see what was ready; run five kilometres along the beach, savor miso soup—probably with fresh snow peas and purple broccoli; and perch myself by the fire with a glass of red wine and a hand-rolled Drum cigarette. Then the best part—stretch out on the couch to finish reading La Saga des Béothuks, a tragic but fascinating story about the extinction of an entire tribe in Newfoundland.

These thoughts had calmed me and I was starting to unwind when three brief screams of a siren pulled me out of my daydream – shit, where did that cop car come from? Suddenly it was right behind me with its red and blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror. They’re never out here—but yes, going through town you had to be careful to not even go a few kilometres over the limit. Damn, I couldn’t have been going that fast.

He stepped out of his car and slowly approached with his hand on the holster of his revolver. Why do they always do that? A bare giant maple across the road, most of its crimson and orange leaves covered the ground, but some still swirled around.

Where you goin’ in such a rush?


Where are you coming from?


Oh, it’s going to be like that is it? Let’s see your stuff.

I gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands.

You live out on West Coast Road? You’re Darrel McLeod? Well, what a coincidence, I was just on my way out to see you. Your sister is dead.

What are you talking about? I just spoke to her. She’s fine, I bluffed, hoping he would realize he was mistaken and apologize for being so crass.

Uh Trina Lee McLeod—she was found dead yesterday afternoon in a Native housing project, Downtown Eastside.

Oh my God, I crumpled into a ball and fell towards the passenger side.

Uh, sorry… I didn’t know how else to tell you. You’re free to go.

The Rasta man was now strumming his guitar and singing—Bob Marley’s One Love. How could I find the courage to ask him to join me, or should I try to find David Goodswimmer, my shirttail cousin from Sturgeon Lake, to make the trip north with me? He knew my family situation and understood our culture. As a droning voice announced that we were nearing Tsawwassen, I watched the Rasta man carefully pack up and sling his backpack and guitar over his shoulder. Maybe we would meet again—perhaps on the ferry ride home in a week or so. I held onto this hope as I impatiently inched the car towards the off-ramp and then accelerated onto the expressway to speed through the dark depths of the Deas Tunnel and along the freeway to Vancouver, wondering where I would find David and if he would be clean.

That afternoon I picked up my good friend Mike and Trina’s best friend Donnie to accompany me to the funeral home. (Donnie had worked as a transvestite waiter for thirty years and I had always wondered if he really liked Trina or simply pitied her.) I regretted including them, because what came next was horrific (even for me, and I had assisted in hospital morgues and seen an autopsy).

The acne-faced, tall and scrawny undertaker rolled out a narrow trolley with a huge black plastic garbage bag flopping over its sides. He gave me a kind smile and then abruptly reached into its centre with large scissors to snip it. A flaccid arm fell down and a putrid odor slammed us. Mike gagged and fled, but Donnie managed to touch her hand and say, “Goodbye dear Trina. You were a good friend,” before gliding away. That left me—and I couldn’t leave; I had to see her face and stay with her awhile—say my farewells. I slid the metal folding chair closer to the trolley and swallowed back the acidy liquid that was percolating in my throat. I couldn’t touch her unwashed ashen body, but I moved in closer. I began to reminisce: the time Greggie had pulled me out of the Athabasca River when I was five and ran in after a fish that got away; and how when I was seven and he thirteen we braved the resounding howls of coyotes and wolves to traipse into the dark and snowy forest in search of the perfect Christmas tree because our step-father was drinking and Mother was desperate. I pictured Trina working as a waitress at the Aristocratic on Granville and Broadway—so beautiful in her starched uniform with her hair tucked under her peaked cap. Her beaming face at her college graduation.

She had suffered trying to be something she couldn’t: after countless hours of idle banter with other nurses she realized that she could never truly be a true woman—she would always feel like a fake, inventing stories about heavy periods, fake orgasms, mammograms and birth control. The dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Gastown a week before she died. She set it up so she could apologize for all the horrible things she had said and done to me over the years. I sighed and said thank you that means a lot, but was confounded. Had she really taken stock of all of the abuse and conflict over the years and even if she had, did she expect it all to dissipate with a simple apology?

I wiped my face with the back of my hand and stood to leave.

Early the next day, I picked up David Goodswimmer in front of the funeral home and crematorium. McDonald’s drive-through for breakfast and then we headed onto the TransCanada. We were on the flat stretch through the Fraser Valley when the shrill ring of my cell phone startled us. A nasal voice on speaker phone.

Hello, Darrel McLeod? It’s Joan Lyons—your sister Trina’s addictions doctor. You must have known she was on the methadone program the last few years of her life.

Yes, Dr. Lyons, Trina really admired you.

I just wanted to, ahhh—tell you, she mentioned you in every appointment. She said you were so caring, very kind to her, always.

I pulled over, worried that a rush of tears might block my vision. I turned the windshield wipers on and then quickly off—and felt stupid. I glanced at David’s angular but morose Cree face framed by long black hair—he cared, but maybe I should have asked the white Rasta man along instead. He would have distracted me in powerful ways and I wouldn’t have gotten sucked into the vortex of my despair, and with David around I had to stay in control, be vigilant.

The rest of the journey is a blur. I uttered a prayer to our ancestors at Mount Robson and noticed a new continental divide marker as we entered Alberta. Boy is that symbolic—might as well be crossing a force field to enter another universe. The next day in Edmonton, alone, I drove Jasper Avenue—the strip where Greggie used to hustle as a teenaged transvestite. I passed a small store that had been Dolly Donuts, the place where all the “queens” used to hang out late at night and meet for coffee early the next afternoon. I had to focus—flowers, you have to buy a couple of wreaths Darrel before heading to Smith—a spray of long-stemmed roses, she loved red roses, and food for the reception afterwards, Ritz crackers, cheddar cheese, dill pickles and kolbasa—you can’t expect Auntie Rosie and Uncle Charlie to provide everything. After all, they had looked after all the other funerals and what did they owe us?—we had left Smith in 1967, when I was nine and Greg fifteen. Greg hadn’t returned.

I bought the Edmonton Sun and flipped past the photo of the busty blond Sunshine girl to find the obituary I had run for a week—that’ll cause a stir. I had attempted to at once sound poetic and spiritual and I had free reign:

At the age of 48, Greg/Trina McLeod, our dear brother/sister has gone to the other side. S/he trained and worked as a nurse and was an animal rights and smoking activist. Greg/Trina will join those who have gone before us to prepare the way: our loving Father and Mother, Sonny and Bertha, our oldest sister Debbie, younger brother Travis, and step-father Edward.

I sighed and smiled as I pulled into the muddy driveway in front of Auntie Rosie’s house. She was now the matriarch of what remained of our waning clan. She had always guarded Greg/Trina and Uncle Danny (who had also had a sex change to become Diane, but died in his twenties).

Everyone cherished Auntie Rosie’s timid chuckle, but the evening Father Giguère came to her house to bless Trina’s remains, it was infectious.

Why two h’urns, the octogenarian priest asked, his trembling hand suspended mid-air, three quarters of the way through the sign of the cross. The three of us eyed the two gray onyx urns nestled into the black and red button blanket in the carved cedar bent box.

A worried look across Auntie’s face—I had to speak up.

The smaller one is her cat. She adored that minoos and she put it in her will that I collect the urn and bury it with her.

Bon dieu, but cats—les chats, they don’t ‘ave h’a soul. He frowned as his hand dropped.

For a second we stared at him, speechless. Then Auntie covered her mouth, met my gaze and began to chuckle. I felt my belly jiggle, then my chest began to throb and I coughed, but I couldn’t control it. We laughed and laughed and laughed.