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Authors: Thomas Maltman

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BOOK: Night Birds, The
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“Did you know him from the before times?”

 

He shook his head. “Been a long time since I spoke Dakota. It come back to me, easy as sin.”

 

Ma got up to tend to the dishes. “You don’t think they’ll lynch him before we can collect?”

 

His laugh came out like a low, rumbling cough. “That’s only talk,” he said. “That’s all they’re good for. Even liquored, I don’t see a one of them killing a man. Not that it’s a bad idea. It might have been easier if I had just shot him when I saw what he was.” His voice lowered. “Must be two hundred miles between here and the reservation in the Dakotas. A long ways on foot.”

 

“Why did he come here, Papa?”

 

“Said he was homesick. Imagine that. He said he was dying and wanted to see the place of two rivers one last time.”

 

In the washbasin my mother let the dishes clatter together. “Don’t you go getting sentimental,” she said. “He’s worth money to us.”

 

“Don’t worry,” Papa said. “I pegged him for a liar from the first. I haven’t forgotten how we suffered. Any trust I had for Indians died a long time back.”

 

Lying atop my sheets that night I felt as uneasy as the locust legions preparing for their invasions northward. They left by morning in great glistening clouds, traveling as far as Polk County the papers would later report, almost to Pembina and the Canadian border. By now we knew not to celebrate. All that remained of our fields was chaff and dust. An inch below the ground ran a white, pulsating river of eggs waiting to hatch next spring.

 

I heard the locusts stirring, the scrape of their wings a rasping drone like a vast machine humming through the night. Here was a thing of wonder. That multitude of insects communicated as one great hive, one mind, while I lay there, one boy, with nobody in the world who knew his secret thoughts. I was stuck thinking on the Indian. He would have walked straight past our watchtower while my father dozed if I hadn’t said anything. My stomach clenched when I remembered my father talking about the Indian’s homeward journey. It wasn’t right for me to feel sympathy for his kind, but I did.

 

A tallow candle made a circle of light on my nightstand. I picked up my Bible and turned to a page at random. This was a kind of divination I had heard about in school. You closed your eyes in prayer and then opened up the Bible to see what message God had for you. That night my fingers blindly found Hebrews, Chapter Thirteen. The first verse spoke of brotherly love, which didn’t help me all that much since I was an only child. I started to close the book when something caught my eye. Verse two read: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” I read over that verse three times, my spine tingling. What had we locked inside that jail cell? What was God trying to tell me now?

 

The same heat that spawned the dust devils we saw earlier now settled over the cabin. My loft room window was peeled open with a shirt tacked over it to keep out the hoppers. Moonlight flooded the room while I sat on the edge of my bed studying the back of my hands and the darkness of my skin. At school when we played Little Crow and the soldiers, I was always one of the Indians, while Franz Schilling, the storekeeper’s son, got to be Colonel Sibley on account of the sideburns he could grow even though he was only fifteen. We reenacted the killing of whole families in Slaughter Slough, the girls fainting in their dresses and petticoats. After the massacre, Franz led his soldiers through the tall-grass to hunt down those of us unlucky enough to be Indians that day.

 

Once we even made a fake prison of woven willows and Franz brought a rope from home and showed us how to make a proper noose and sling it over a sturdy oak branch. Since I was Little Crow they sent me up to test it out, even though this was not how it happened in the books. I didn’t protest. At that age I was eager to please and just as curious as the rest of them about death. You know what I felt? I felt guilty about things I hadn’t even done. I felt that I had this coming. Made of horsehair, the rope itched around my throat. Then Franz kicked away the log. If Mr. Simons hadn’t seen us in time and come running I might not be here now to tell this story.

 

Down by the grove a screech owl started up. It sounded like a catamount, like the shrieking of an old woman. They make that screech to scare up the mice and wrens, but it doesn’t sound so nice to humans either. Normally the shrieking would have sent me under the covers to huddle for I was a cowardly child, but tonight it was too hot. I knew that I wouldn’t get any sleep. The owl kept calling. I thought about how surprised I had been when the noose worked and cinched tight and my face swelled with trapped blood. Terrified, some of the children ran beneath me and tried to lift me up by my boot soles. By the time Mr. Simons cut me down I had voided my bladder and had to be sent home.

 

I thought about that old Indian and realized they would likely kill him when they discovered his true name, either here or at Fort Ridgely. That’s what they did to Medicine Bottle and Shakopee after they captured them in Canada a year and a half after the uprising. I had read everything I could about Indians. I knew then that I didn’t want him to die that way. For the longest time, I sat there thinking on the hopes for wealth he represented to my parents and what might happen to him in the following days. Without knowing it, my hands went up around my throat, touching skin that still remembered the burn of a rope.

 

Since I was a born insomniac, my parents allowed my nightly ramblings. On hot nights like this, I usually liked to go the springhouse, which was full of spiders but dark and cool. But tonight, dressed only in nightclothes and in my bare feet, I picked my way over a mile of moonlit ground swimming with sleepless locusts. I walked until I couldn’t hear the owl anymore. Trees stripped of leaves unhitched their shadows in the moonlight and followed after me.

 

I pretended that I didn’t know where I was going as I went past the graveyard and climbed the dragon’s spine. The streets were bare, the shops shuttered. A horse nickered from within the livery stable, smelling me in the dark.

 

I told myself that I was bewitched and not in my right mind, but I had walked all this way carrying my father’s brass circlet of keys in my fist.

 

The inside of the jailhouse was as dark as the bottom of a well. I didn’t have a lantern, but I knew this room by heart, filled as it was with relics of another time. Human scalps as long as horsehair manes twisted from the rafters. The scalps danced in the breeze from the open door. I could hear them as they reached for one another in the night. In the newspapers it said that the thirty-eight Dakota held hands in the moment before the trapdoors opened beneath them and they dropped to their deaths. They held hands and sang their death songs. But these scalps weren’t from that time; they were taken during the Devil’s Lake Campaign of 1864. Yet that’s what I thought about as I heard the whisper of their twisting.

 

Except for that sound it was silent in the jail. I listened for snores, the sound of a man breathing, and heard nothing. I told myself he must already be gone as I stepped forward and began to fuss with keys. A sudden pressure in my bladder. With my fingertips I followed along the wall until I felt the cool iron of the bars. On the other side of them I sensed him, there, watching. This gave me pause. He could have reached out and seized my hand through the bars. I shook so badly I dropped the keys; they rattled to the floor. After I picked them up, I tried a couple before I found one that worked. The lock mechanism whirred like the turning of a clock. I stepped back. The Indian spoke, his voice surging out and echoing all around me. His voice spoke in that same language, low and strangely birdlike. The hair raised on the nape of my neck.

 

Then I ran like Little Crow’s warriors were after me in the dark. I ran until the air burned inside my lungs, the keys jingling in my fists. I didn’t stop running until I passed the graveyard and paused to catch my breath near some desiccated plum bushes. When I was done I turned back and looked toward the town, the strange humpbacked dragon’s spine and the moon hovering over the buildings. I saw the Indian in the very center of the street. He had retrieved his hat. He lifted it like a gentleman and then bowed. I never saw him again but it came to me that when he had spoken in that rush of clicks he might just have been telling me his true name.

 

By morning the news spread through town that the Indian had gotten away. People argued over whether he had been spirited out of the jail or let go on purpose. And even though I had crept so very carefully back inside our cabin that night, my father had been awake too. “You didn’t go near that Indian, son?” he’d asked me. I could only stammer in answer, hoping the keys made no noise as I hung them again on the nail. I knew we would have another conversation when he returned from riding with the men he gathered for a posse.

 

The Indian’s escape coincided with the departure of the locusts. The townspeople were hushed by the sight of them eclipsing the sun. Disappointment turned quickly to relief. Even if the hoppers came back again next year, there was a sense of something evil passing, a lifting of spirit.

 

Down below the hayloft in our barn I had made myself a secret hiding place that I shared with a few of our cats. Swallows dipped and dove in the little bit of light that sifted through the slats. It was quiet here now that our prize Jersey bull and the percheron had been sold to pay debts the summer before. I had a cigar box where I kept some much-thumbed Beadle dime novels Mr. Simons had been kind enough to loan me. Our pastor, Jarrel Henrickson, called dime novels the “ruination of the American moral fiber,” and maybe that was part of my problem. My own papa only called reading them “loafing.” Even though I had my favorite book,
Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the Great White Hunter
, I couldn’t concentrate on the sentences because I kept thinking how cowardly I had become. I had betrayed my own kind and deserved any punishment I might get for it. Paging through the book, I wished I had been born in a different time, earlier, when things were still wild.

 

I stayed all day in that place, until Pa returned at twilight. He came into the cavernous barn at a time of long shadows, took off his hat, and held it against his chambray shirt. “Tell me one thing,” he said. “Why’d you do it?”

 

I closed the book, placed it carefully within the cigar box, and hid it in a mound of hay. I wanted to tell him I was sorry but my throat felt as thick as if I had drunk a cup of molasses.

 

“I provided a place for you, kept you warm and fed and safe. I’ve raised you with all the love that I have left inside me even though some nights I felt as hollow and stripped as these fields. Don’t you know that?”

 

I peeked around the corner of my stall. His hair was pasted to his skull, crushed down by the hat. He drew his finger along his brow, wiped away the sweat leaking into his eyes. I stayed frozen, unable to speak or move further. And the terrible thing was in that moment what I felt mostly was relief they hadn’t caught the Indian. He had eluded hounds and men on horseback. Papa looked at me and my relief turned back to shame when our eyes met. His cheeks were sunken, his nose a hawk’s beak. His shirt was soaked with sweat.

 

With a clenched fist he thumped his chest as though to loosen the words stopped up there. “Come here,” he told me. “I don’t have any patience left in me.”

 

I followed him to the barn’s entrance. When he took down a rawhide whip hanging next to a hay cradle, I went numb inside. “Take off your shirt and hold onto that beam,” he said. Then I saw that he was crying and I felt a deepening of shame. “I heard you come in last night. I think I knew even then what you’d done. You won’t be wandering at night anymore after this. If people in town knew, they would hate you the rest of your living days. If your mother knew the true reason for this whipping I am giving you now. . . . Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

 

I shook my head, not understanding why I had done something that hurt the only people who loved me in this world.

 

Papa hit me three times while I clung to a beam that traveled up to the ceiling. Blue fire danced before my eyes. I didn’t scream or holler the way I thought I would. Then my father collapsed to his knees, weeping, and didn’t strike me again.

 

I kept my hands wrapped around the beam. Runnels of hot blood ran down my back. The muscles there felt raw and seared. I waited for him to hit me some more. The sound of his weeping spooked me beyond anything I had heard or seen before. I had done something that locusts and Indian wars and massacres couldn’t. I had broken a man I’d thought invincible.

 

Still shirtless, I went to him and knelt and put my hand on the top of his head. I touched him hesitantly, the way a person touches something dangerous, a wounded wolf or grizzly bear. He didn’t jerk away from my touch, didn’t get angry. He took my hand and held it to his face, saying in a husky whisper, “You don’t know what it cost me to keep you here. You don’t even know what it cost.” I didn’t understand him then, but I felt something break inside me at those words.

 

My father never hit me again after that, not even after what happened later.

 
BOOK: Night Birds, The
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