Cheryl Skory Suma

If The Snow Never Melted

When I was eight, I discovered that secrets could be acceptable. Remaining quiet didn’t make you a bad person—good people sheltered confidences and tales as often as bad folks did. The world was full of secrets.

Before, I thought I knew good from bad and felt guilty whenever I encountered the later. Until that day, I hadn’t considered that they could mix, blurring their lines until their yin-yang turned grey. 

* * *

My grandfather was born in England, in the heart of Piccadilly. He immigrated to Canada at thirteen, travelling by boat to follow his older brother—both chasing the promise of free land and new hope. My grandfather lied about his age so he would be given a parcel of land to call his own. The only price: the commitment to cultivate at least forty acres and build a home on the property. He lived alone on that farm until his mid-thirties, when he met my grandmother in the nearby small town of Cochrane and fell in love with her sweetness. 

Although my mother fled that farm when she was seventeen, she enjoyed returning with her new family—to share the kinder side of the north. Every end of June, my mother would take my brother and I up to the farm. We always missed the last few days of school (“When nothing ever happens anyway,” mom pointed out) in order to visit before the black flies became too bad.

A bit past Clute in northern Ontario, it felt like we’d travelled to another earth. A place so different from our Toronto home, it felt akin to the secret worlds of Lewis’ Narnia or Tolkien’s Middle Earth. A place the rest of the world had forgotten.

As we entered the farm’s long driveway with its tall spruces towering on both sides, my brother and I would bounce across the blue swede seats of our father’s ’68 Chevy Oldsmobile (seatbelts were still a rational step of the far future). We were brimming with childhood nerves—whether for the adventures to come or just the end of a long drive, I can’t recall. 

My grandmother must have kept watch out the window for hours before our arrival, for she never failed to appear in the doorway to greet us the minute we spilled from the car. Her warm, round face was always smiling, her eyes bright and filled with promises of new stories to share.

Unlike my immigrating grandfather, my grandmother was Indigenous (Cree)—part of this place before it was Canada. She had survived the residential schools after being torn from her parents as a young girl, yet rarely spoke of her native heritage or her experiences in the school. Instead, like the last piece of cake, she would parcel out morsels of wisdom in her soft way, hinting of a different way of life. One truly present, her demeanor was always calm and accepting of all things as they occurred—only through her quiet did she allow us a glimpse into her childhood; into a life before her future was bent upon itself.

* * *

One of the north’s not-so-secret secrets is that they have wild blueberries just waiting to be plucked. If you’ve ever eaten wild berries, you know the taste is vastly different than the greenhouse berries at the grocer. They are sweeter, juicier, and with an added spicy twist. 

The summer in question, my mother and grandmother decided to take me berry picking. We piled into the cart behind my grandfather’s tractor. A short while later he dropped us off in the woods, not too far from the Frederick House River (if you were to brave her fading rapids and continue north, you could make your way along the same route used by fur traders traveling to Moosonee on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay). 

Grandma had brought us each a kitchen pot: two larger ones for her and mom to carry, and a smaller soup pot just for me with a sturdy handle. As we wandered between the tall plants, she took the time to show me how to respect the blueberry bush.

“The secret is to pick the ones that are bright blue. When you see a deserving one, roll the berry gently between your thumb and palm—she should slip off into your hand without a fight. If you have to tug, then she’s not ready to leave her mother, and you should leave her be.”

I nodded solemnly, although all I wanted to do was grab a handful and shove their sweetness into my mouth. 

“The longer the berries are on the bush, the sweeter they’ll be. We mustn’t pick them too young.”

Grandmother looked at me, ensuring I understood.

“You aren’t ready to leave home, are you.”

I understood. Respect the bush.

* * *

An hour later, I was proud. I was good at this—as evidenced by my pot, which was almost full. I hadn’t tugged, I hadn’t eaten them. 

Then grandma startled me by yanking me sharply into her belly. She grabbed my pot, spilling my hard-earned gems all over the ground. 

“We must become one. Stand as tall as you can, against me,” grandma hissed, before beginning to bang my now-empty pot against her own, high above her head. Grandma started yelling.

I looked around for my mom, hoping she could explain grandma’s sudden metamorphosis into this angry, loud creature that I’d never met.

Then I saw him, just a few bushes away. He was taller than dad, towering well above grandma and myself, and blacker than I remembered bears to be at the zoo. His arms were raised like grandma’s, but he did not step closer.

“Raise your arms like me—we must become bigger!” Grandma hissed, still banging our pots.

So I did. I pressed myself into my grandmother’s belly, and I raised my arms. I began to yell like her, nonsensical things, and when the bear roared, I joined grandma to match the bear’s roar with my own.

* * *

“She’s gone now.” Grandma bent down, beginning to scoop our spilled berries back into her pot. 

She? Grandma explained she was a momma black bear, enjoying the berries just like we were. “Her babies must be nearby; she was worried about them. She didn’t want to hurt us.”

While glad the grandmother I knew had returned, I couldn’t fathom her calm. The entire incident had terrified me. 

“I wish we hadn’t come to pick berries. I wish that black bear had never come—we should go back to the farm, grandma.”

“Ah, but if only. Tepiyahk-namoy wihkac-saskan[1],” grandma said softly.

“Huh?”

Grandma stroked my hair. “If only—it emerges out of the snow.” 

I still didn’t understand. I began to help grandma pluck the spilled berries from the earth, dropping them back into my pot.

Grandma laid her hand on mine, stopping my work. Then she squatted down to the ground, crossed her legs, and scooped me into her lap. 

“My words mean to say—if only; if the snow never melted. Then the mamma bear would never emerge from her winter sleep, but neither would the blueberries bloom. So we must love them both.”

I looked up at her, amazed she loved the angry bear.

“The bear is our family, as the berries and the earth are our family. Always we must accept the good with the bad, the old and the new. This cycle is a give and take with the earth. We each have a part in it.”

“Love the berries, love the bear,” I whispered.

Grandma smiled, pleased I’d understood. “Now, let us fill our buckets before your mother returns.”

***

A few minutes later, I heard my mother calling out to grandma.

When she came around the row of bushes, I immediately felt guilty. Would she be upset that I’d angered the bear?

“Sorry, mom, lost track of time—and of you two. This berry patch is a massive maze!” 

Grandma nodded. Instead of telling my mother about our encounter, she said, “Time to head back, I think.” She held up her full pot.

I held mine up too.

“I’ll help you with dinner, mom. Cheryl can wash the berries for dessert, can’t you princess?”

I nodded. When was grandma going to tell mom about the bear?

***

When it was time for bed, grandma offered to tuck me in.

“How are you, little granddaughter?”

I didn’t know what to say. Momma needed to know about the bear, didn’t she?

Grandma sighed. 

“Your mother—she is prone to worry. There are no worries left. The mother bear is gone, and we are safe. We enjoyed our berries. All is well.”

I sat up in bed, intending to argue. How could my dear, kind, wise grandma keep such a secret?

“Did you enjoy the berries?”

Of course, I had. They were like nothing at home. They were…secret.

“Your mother loves you. I love you. The bear loves us. When the snow comes again, you can give our secret, and the bear’s secret, to the winter wind, to the storm’s snow and ice. To next year’s berries.”

I understood. I nuzzled into grandma.

“If the snow never melted,” I whispered.


[1] Reference used for Cree Language: Cree Words, Volume 1&2, compiled by Arok Wolvengrey, Canadian Plains Research Center, 2001

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Cheryl Skory Suma launched her writing career with a YA fantasy novel, Habitan, which made the longlist of the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards. She won Blank Spaces 2020 (March) Flash Fiction Contest, was longlisted for both Pulp Literature’s 2020 Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest & Hummingbird Flash Fiction Prize, received an Honorable Mention for Spider Road Press 2020 Flash Fiction Contest, was a finalist for Exposition Review’s Flash 405 (April 2020), and her second novel, gods Playground, was a ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Competition semifinalist. Her poetry has appeared in La Piccioletta Barca and Public Poetry’s Enough Anthology. In 2019 she was also a semifinalist for Ruminate Magazine’s VanderMey Nonfiction Prize and shortlisted for Hippocampus Magazine’s Creative Nonfiction Contest, Blank Spaces Flash Fiction contest and the Erbacce Prize for poetry. Cheryl has a Masters of Health Science in Speech-Language Pathology and a B.Sc. in Honors Psychology. Her website is cherylskorysuma.com; Follow her on Twitter: @cherylskorysuma