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Authors: Thomas Maltman

Night Birds, The (4 page)

BOOK: Night Birds, The
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“You think God is punishing us?” said Papa. “Reverend Henrickson said so from the pulpit.” A scattering of fine bones lay picked clean on his plate.

 

“Maybe,” Aunt Hazel said. “And maybe it’s just the land itself speaking to us and our iron plows, our gelded bulls, and foreign seeds and threshing machines.”

 

“You talk a lot,” my mother said. “I remember a time when you didn’t talk so much.”

 

Aunt Hazel was quiet for a time and then she told a story in answer. “Listen,” she began. “Once there lived an ancient king who believed all children were born with an innate language and he wished to discover whether it was Greek or Latin. For two months every child that was born in the kingdom was gathered in a single room in the castle. The nurses were forbidden to speak with the children while the king waited to hear what language would arise from them naturally. The babies were well fed and swaddled in warm blankets, but never a word was spoken to them.”

 

Hazel paused and then she looked directly at me across the table. “All the children died,” she said. “One by one, not hearing a name or a whisper, and the king came to understand our universal language, silence, and the price it demands in the end.”

 

Mother brought her fork down with a clatter. “That’s a terrible story,” she said.

 

Father leaned forward in his chair. “Hazel,” he said. “It would be better if you spoke more plainly around here. Save the stories for your book.”

 

Still incensed, Mother said, “I don’t know why any of those women would trust the king with their babies. If it was my baby I wouldn’t let another soul handle it.” Then she seemed to realize something and sank back in her chair. Her mouth opened and closed again and she got up and started gathering the dishes. “Well,” she said, “Well.”

 

For my own part I liked the story despite the consternation it caused my parents. Hazel’s story cast a spell and not much else was discussed that evening. What I loved most about it is what it said about the silence I had grown up with. Both my parents had thought they were sheltering me with their secrets, protecting me from some awful truths only they knew.
I don’t believe in dredging up the past
, Papa liked to say. Well, now the past was here with us in the flesh, and she spoke in stories that seemed to say the past mattered, and that silence would only cause more bad things to happen in the world.

 

After dinner, Mother threw Aunt Hazel’s uneaten chicken out in the yard. When I came back from carrying water from the springhouse she still seemed angry, clattering the dishes around in the washbasin.

 

Aunt Hazel took out a mason jar of white powder from her carpetbag. She set it on the table, unscrewed the lid, and dipped in a tiny spoon. This little bit of powder, no bigger than a hummingbird’s meal, she set on her tongue and swallowed. She shut her eyes, sighed, and when the lid was in place set the jar on the shelf next to my mother’s sarsaparilla root. Aunt Hazel held out a hand to my mother. “I’d like us to be friends, Cassie,” she said.

 

Mother, elbow deep in suds, looked at the hand and nodded. “Don’t need to be friends,” she said. “We’re family.”

 

Since Hazel was to share the loft room with me, Papa had rigged a single oak crossbar to divide the loft and hung this with quilts. For the novelty of a guest in the household, I was more than willing to give up my bed and my window with the view of ruined, moonlit fields. That first night Aunt Hazel parted the blankets and stood before me in a white gown that hung loosely from her scarecrow limbs. “Asa,” she called to me. “I’d like to make you the same offer.” I’d been sitting up on my pallet and contemplating how to decorate my side of the room. She held out her hand. Unlike my mother, I took it. The hand that held mine had a surprising, bony strength. “Friends,” she said, “but you have to promise me something.”

 

Nobody had asked me anything important before this. I swallowed, nodded. She said, “Promise me you won’t ever go into my belongings. They’re all I have.”

 

“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”

 

We shook on it and then she went back to her side of the room, turned down the wick, and lay on top of her sheets. A cooling breeze blew into the room and ruffled the blankets and the gown she wore. “Aunt Hazel?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“If we’re friends it means I can ask you questions.”

 

“Sure,” she said. “But friends don’t tell each other everything. If they did they wouldn’t be friends very long. What is it you wish to know?”

 

“Were you afraid in the asylum?”

 

She didn’t answer right away, thinking on the matter. Her voice seemed to come from far away when she did. “It isn’t like you think,” she said. “The St. Peter Hospital is like a city unto itself. There are farm fields and animals and even cabins where the patients on good behavior get to live. I wasn’t really afraid inside there because everyday was the same. All the meals are set according to a weekly plan. Every part of the day is settled.”

 

“But weren’t there scary people?”

 

“Some,” she said. “But most of them they locked away in their own section. You could hear them on quiet nights. A relentless kind of moaning came from their section, and maniacal sounds. But most of the crazy ones I knew were harmless. There was a man who thought he had a horse trapped inside his chest. He would go about the room, whinnying and pounding his breast.” Aunt Hazel made the sound for me. We both laughed.

 

“Didn’t you ever think to write any of us?”

 

“Ask me something else.”

 

“What is it that makes you afraid?”

 

“You’re kind of stuck on the same subject,” she said. “Well, all right. I am afraid of forgetting things. I am afraid that sometimes it’s too late for me to start my life over again.” Then her voice hushed further. “I’m afraid I’ll have to go back.”

 

“I don’t want that either,” I told her. “Aunt Hazel, there’s something you should know. I never really had a friend before. I might not be any good at it.”

 

“It isn’t all that difficult.”

 

Then all at once I confessed to her about the Indian and what I had done. The words spilled out in a breathless rush. It might seem strange to you, for me to confess in this manner, but for whatever reason I’d made a decision right then and there to trust this woman. I was crying by the time I got to the end. I said, “That’s why I don’t know if I’ll be a good friend. Look what I did to my own folks.”

 

“Nonsense. I know somebody who would understand you.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Your grandpa.”

 

“Grandpa Jakob? Papa doesn’t talk about him much.”

 

I couldn’t wait to hear more but from downstairs I heard the rumble of the loft’s trapdoor. My mother knocked on the door three times. “You all go to sleep,” she said. “We can hear every darn word downstairs. Your father needs his rest.”

 

A quiet settled between my Aunt Hazel and me and it wasn’t like all the other silences I had known in my lifetime. It was the kind of quiet that makes you feel content inside. I didn’t worry that night about having any bad dreams.

 

We woke early the next morning to a crescendo of shattering glass. Still in her nightgown, Aunt Hazel rushed to the trapdoor, threw it open, and climbed down the ladder from the loft. I followed after, my mind still groggy with dream.

 

Downstairs, I woke up pretty quick. The mason jar of bromide lay in a million pieces on the floor and the powder sifted through the floorboards down into the root cellar below. Aunt Hazel knelt in the glass shards and tried to salvage what powder remained before it was all lost. Her face looked pale, stricken. Mother stood over her saying, “I didn’t mean to. I was just reaching for my jar of sarsaparilla and I plum forgot what else was up there.” Papa sat at the table with his head in his hands.

 

Aunt Hazel said nothing, but a shiver of grief traveled down her spine and she shuddered. Her hands trembled, spilling more powder. I knelt beside to help her.

 

“Don’t cut yourself in the glass,” Mother told me. Then she turned to Hazel. “We’ll get you some more,” she said. “We’ll write that doctor friend of yours and he can send some more.”

 

Like water the powder spilled down through her hands, speckled with spots of her blood. She stood with her remaining medicine in a bowl of bone china. Her hair jutted out in wiry curls. White-faced now, she was the very woman I had been expecting to show up at our door. Her lower jaw quivered. “There won’t be any more,” she said. “This is all they would allow me to take. You can’t just order it in the mail, or get some from the apothecary. The only way to get more is for me to go back inside.”

 

“I’ll get a letter written to that doctor myself,” Mother promised. “I can be very persuasive.”

 

Aunt Hazel held the bowl close against her chest while she climbed the ladder into the loft where she would remain the rest of that day. She set the bowl in a corner where it was sheltered behind her carpet bag and then, still in her gown, lay down on the bed with her arms folded over her chest. An absolute stillness possessed her. Looking at her, I realized this was how she had survived all those years locked away. I watched her and tried to think up nice things to say, but nothing came to me.

 

Downstairs, Ma continued to carry on like she’d been wronged. “It was an accident. She acts like I meant to do it.” Papa picked his hat from the door peg and walked out without speaking.

 

Papa had to leave us because of the crop situation. He was released from his duties as township constable, but the man in St. Peter didn’t have farm work for him this summer. Instead, like many of the other men in Kingdom, he headed north to work in the pineries of the Big Woods. As he walked down the path to town, I trailed after him begging him to let me come along. “I’m big enough,” I told him. “I can work like a mule. Look at these muscles.” I flexed for him. I hoped he might forget how I’d let him down before.

 

He stopped and pinched my bicep with two fingers. “You’re strong, all right,” he said. “But I need someone to stay here and see to it that those two women don’t kill each other.” He flashed me a rare smile.

 

“You like having her home too, huh?” I said.

 

His smile faded some. “I think it was God’s will that brought her here.” I considered what he said. “Don’t say it like that, Papa. People only call it God’s will when something bad has happened they can’t control.” This was about the longest conversation he and I had ever shared. Aunt Hazel being here had changed things. “A providence,” I told him. “You ought to call it a providence that she is here with us now.”

 

A wistful smile curved the corners of his mouth. “You’re awful smart.” He patted me on the head and continued on down the path that would take him to New Ulm and beyond that to the shady dark of the north woods.

 

The next day, while Mother took eggs into town to trade for salted meat, Aunt Hazel opened the carpetbag and showed me some of her treasures. I sat on the bed beside her while she took out a red leather tome bound in rawhide. When she unwrapped the book it smelled of dried spices and earth. The pages seemed as dry and breakable as leaves, rustling gently as she turned them over. “Onionskin and vellum,” she told me. “It’s all I could get hold of inside the asylum. One of the doctors allotted me a few pages each month.” The handwriting was spidery, each page cross-hatched to conserve paper. To read one you had to hold it vertical and then horizontal.

 

“What is it?” I asked.

 

“My journal,” she said. “Though there are many stories here. I suppose even yours.”

 

“I can’t read a single word,” I said, squinting.

 

“My pa kept such a book and I thought the very same thing. Inside it were formulas and spells concerning childbirth and water-witching as well as dried specimens of flowers and herbs. He collected folklore when we lived in Missouri.”

 

“Grandpa Jakob? You mentioned him last night. Why did we ever leave Missouri?”

 

“Oh, that was a long time ago,” she said. “1859. Yes. I was even younger than you then.”

 

BOOK: Night Birds, The
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