Sisters Mary Francis and Mary Catherine entered the room as the boys were preparing for breakfast. Standing quietly in the doorway, they waited as the action in the room slowed down to a crawl.
The boys watched as the two nuns entered the room, their hands clasped demurely behind their robed figures. One by one as the nuns passed them, the boys began to whisper and wonder what was about to happen.
Mary Catherine was the first to stop, managing to look down at the back of the young boy without actually lowering her chin. It was a look that every boy in the room had experienced and none of them wanted directed at them. “Joseph?”
The boy didn’t move a muscle.
“Joseph Cross?” Her volume didn’t rise, but the clipped tone of her voice seemed to echo off the walls.
“He’s too stupid to know his own name.”
“Stop that, Tommy.” The fluid sound of the words on Sister Mary Francis’ tongue said she had ample practice forming the syllables. “If you have nothing nice to say-”
“Ain’t nothin’ good to say about a half-breed.” There was a murmur of agreement amongst the children.
“That’s enough, Thomas.” Sister Mary Catherine’s words were full of admonishment and the room went silent enough for them to hear the soft steps of Sister Mary Francis as she stepped around to the other side of the bed to see the boy’s face.
Her soft smile seemed to affect the boy, loosening the tight line of his lips. “I know you had another name with your people-”
“We don’t talk of heathens,” snapped Sister Mary Catherine.
“But here, you must become one of us.” Her tone was soft but insistent. “So we’ve come today to take care of the one last thing you need to fit in with the rest of the boys.”
Buck looked at his reflection in the glass of the window and saw the suspicious look in his own eyes. Unless they were able to turn his skin to the color of flour and dull his features, he’d never fit into the crowd. “You’ve already taken my name.”
The young nun gasped and rocked back on her feet reaching out her hand to steady herself against the wall. “Joseph… please. We’re just trying to help you.”
“Then let me go.”
The words were simple, but the plea was heartfelt and reached down to the depths of the young woman’s heart, but she couldn’t stop what was about to happen. “We’re prepared to trim your hair… to an appropriate length.”
“I’ll never look like a white man.” His tone was dull as a butter knife and his eyes empty of emotion.
“It’ll be easier for you to look like the others.” She straightened and spared a look to Sister Mary Catherine standing behind him. “Come,” she motioned to the door, “we’ll go together and then we’ll join the others for breakfast.”
“Really, Sister, you’ll coddle the boy and he’ll be good for nothing.”
Buck heard the words and looked up at the young nun standing before him. He saw the way her smile was pinched at the corners and the way she tried to ‘not’ look at the other nun behind him. This was important to her… and since she had shown him kindness-
He stood, his back straight even though his eyes were still full of distrust.
“Oh good,” she breathed a sigh of relief, “follow me.”
Sister Mary Francis preceded him out the door and into the hallway.
He had thought to fight them, to run from the women that led him toward the washroom, but as they passed the other children in the room, Buck saw the boy that was named Tommy Harper. He didn’t need to see the boy’s eyes. The corners of Tommy’s mouth curled up as Sister Mary Francis tugged at his arm. “Come along now.”
“That’s right red-man,” Tommy taunted him, “Go and get your hair cut. If we’re lucky, they’ll scalp you and be done with it.” The boys around him chuckled and elbowed each other. Buck remembered the words his mother had once whispered in his ear. “It is the way of our people to suffer the indignities that others bring us. Hold your head up to the sunlight, my son… you are Kiowa.”
He had shed silent tears held tight in her arms, but he’d never made a sound as he knew there were others listening at the door. He had clenched his hands into fists, his fingers digging into the scrapes on his palms welling up fresh blood as he struggled to calm his anger. He’d held tight to the rage that day, until he felt the silent fall of his mother’s tears on his skin. He’d heard the breaking of her heart where his ear was pressed tight against her chest and he’d known the humbling weight of guilt as it descended on him. He’d rarely thought of that moment in the short time since it had happened, but looking at the tender plea in Sister Mary Francis’ eyes Buck heard his mother’s voice as if she was close enough to whisper into his ear. “Hold your head up to the sunlight, my son… you are Kiowa.”
He walked past one of the windows down the long hallway and the warm spill of sunlight shone down on his face. His steps slowed his face lifting up to the sun as if the heat pouring down on his skin was the touch of his mother’s kiss. He would let them cut his hair as they’d already changed his clothes. He would let them change the way he looked, but they would never change the heart that beat in his chest, or the blood that ran through his veins. ‘Yes, Mother,’ his voice spoke to the heavens, ‘I am Kiowa.’