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Authors: Thomas Maltman

Night Birds, The (7 page)

BOOK: Night Birds, The
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Kate had two living children. Asa, twelve years old, had his mother’s red hair and fine skin. On him the auburn hair looked like leaves on fire and because of his irrepressible cowlick and nasal voice, folks didn’t take to him right away. Her other son Matthew, was six years old and had been blinded by the scarlet fever which also turned him innocent and simple-minded. The land held a graveyard where Kate’s mother was buried along with three of Kate’s other children who had died each summer when the bottomland air turned miasmal and florid with mosquitoes. Sometimes Hazel missed their old life above the printing shop. But here they had a salt spring where deer came, and wolves from the Ioway prairies, and once, a white albino bear with eyes like two drops of blood.


Two years passed and Jakob took his daughter out in the phaeton less and less, for his new wife didn’t approve of superstition. Perhaps she intuited the reason behind these journeys, knowing Jakob had never fully let go of his first wife.


Seasons came and went until March of 1859, when on a warm day walking home from school Hazel held out her hand and caught a red petal curling past her in the wind and held it in the palm of her hand.
It is a false spring
, she thought, not knowing where the words came from.
The snows will return and what germinates in this season will perish. There will be little fruit for the harvest. It is false, false.
Then she realized she held a petal of the Judas flower within her palm. Chilled, she dropped it and listened for a time in the evening quiet. Nothing happened. No vision from the devil entered her brain. The breeze hushed over the hay meadow and stirred the dress at her ankles. A warm southern wind carried the smell of the spring thaw. She was looking north and wondering how far the wind had traveled. She imagined it lifting her from the grass and carrying her there. Maybe in this distant northern land there was an Indian boy with a feather in his hair, his pony’s mane ruffling in this same breeze while the rider looked south and wondered what this wind was bringing toward him.


Hazel had arrived home from school ahead of her mother and brothers. On the way she passed the shop where Jakob published
The Saline Springs Luminary
and saw shattered window glass and a vacant dark spot where the press had once stood. Who would do such a thing? Of her Pa there was no sign. As she set about her evening chores, her mind filled with worry. First those red petals had unsettled her, now this. When she entered the barn to fill buckets with the milk she would churn into butter for tonight’s supper, she was surprised to find her father there with the hand press, stabled like some living creature of iron and wood. Her father wore a greased apron. Weak wintry light spilled over him through cracks in the slats. In the stalls the horses nickered, spooked by the strange smell of ink and oil. Her father took hold of the calfskin handle. The machine came down with a ringing clank while the horses perked up their ears and tensed their flanks. He was talking to himself while he worked. He released the lever and shook out a smeared sheet of paper and held it up in a shaft of light. A deep frown of concentration was etched between his eyes.


In Hazel’s mind she was cast back to the winter when her first mother died and her father spent time alone in a stall talking to himself. From her place in the doorway, unnoticed as of yet, the girl made out the title at the top of the page:
. She didn’t know this was an anti-slavery pamphlet. She didn’t know that he was publishing his paper from a barn because every window in his shop had been shattered the night before by the Blue Lodge Society and the spines of every book he owned lay broken and torn in puddles of ink. All she saw was their oldest draft horse, a gentle Morgan named Isaac, as he leaned over the stall and sniffed the new paper, nostrils wide and flaring. She thought the horse might snatch the paper right out of her father’s hands and chomp it like an apple in his great yellow teeth, but then he snorted and turned his rump toward the publication.


Long after the candles were put out and the ashes banked in the stove the girl lay awake listening to her parents arguing over her father’s newest publication. From her room below the loft where she shared a goosedown mattress and rope bed with her blind brother Matthew, the words were indistinguishable.


When she dreamed that night, she felt a familiar floating sensation. Night after night, she dreamed that she stepped out of her own body. She became a shadow girl made of air and darkness. As she drifted from her cage of skin and bone she looked down on her own sleeping form, fists tight, clutching the quilt.


Like vapor she drifted past her parents as they exchanged bitter words before the stove. Cold air seeped under the door and she traveled through that space and out into the night. Among the secret beds of the deer she came like a shadow and the does lifted their heads in the darkness, sniffing. Only the birds saw her. They trailed after her dream-form. She had the sense that if they caught her she would not wake again. Her parents would find her body, blue and cold, in the morning and know her soul had been carried off in the night. Crows cawed in the distance. The wind picked up and hurled her along like a leaf.


She closed her eyes while the air rushed past. When she opened them she no longer recognized where she was. She stood before a strange, mound-shaped house of earth and sod. The roof was green with grass and twisting vines of morning glory. The door made a squeaking sound as it swung open and shut on its iron hinges. Broken window glass lay upon the grass. A silent crow watched from atop a chimney of mud and wattles. The wind came across on quiet cat’s feet and whispered
If only men knew what I know
. She felt a thrill run up her spine at these words. Something watched from inside the house.


She went past the broken door. Chairs were spilled and scattered on the floor. A pot squatted over the slackening flames in the hearth. The floor beneath her was packed dirt, not so different from that of the healer’s cabin. A figure in a light-blue dress lay on a pallet. Only when Hazel came closer did she see the head was gone.


In the next moment she noticed the missing head upright in the center of the table. The hair was matted with blood, but she recognized the healer from the river. In dream fashion the facial features shifted and became her mother’s. The girl was terrified now. Blood dripped through the table, ticking, as steady as a mantle clock. Hazel came closer, saying “Mama?” Her voice sounded strange in her ears. When she was right next to the table the eyes opened, white and empty. Her mother’s jaws parted with a crackling sound and the carmine petals of the redbud tree spilled out and flooded the room. At last when the stream of petals stopped, the head spoke. “Hide,” it said. “You must hide.” There were footsteps outside the cabin. The thing that had done this was coming closer. Hide. She was up to her ankles in red petals, her feet fixed to the floor.


The door swung open.




forget seeing her pa as he was laid out on the kitchen table, his body splotched with spots of viscous tar. Kate cast a shadow over him. Armed with a boar-bristle brush she scrubbed the black spots on his thickly haired arms and chest. His jaw clamped down as he strained to keep from crying out. When Kate lifted the brush, flecks of his skin came away. The flesh beneath was pink and raw. Light in the room wavered as Hazel—standing on a nearby chair and holding a tallow candle so Kate could see properly— nearly fainted at the sight. “Hold still,” Kate said. Below the girl, a sour-smelling bucket of well-water, lime, and lard soap sloshed around. Oil and tar and blood scummed the surface.


How did it come to this?
the girl thought. She could still hear the bad men outside and she was terrified for Pa.
He will live, I know it. And if he lives, what will become of us?


In the shadowy corner, an old man leaned against the wall. He balanced on one mud-streaked boot, a broad-brimmed hat hooding his features. Sometimes, Kate glanced in his direction, anger rising in her cheeks. Josiah, town squire. Josiah, slaveowner. Josiah, her father who had done this. A vein surfaced in her temple, a danger sign that Hazel and her brothers had learned to recognize in the few years since they had lived with her.


Hazel clutched the melting tallow candle and strove not to swoon. Her pa wasn’t much to look at now, stripped naked, only a damp washcloth covering his genitals like an Indian breechclout: a short, bowlegged man whose breathing was ragged and uncertain.


Outside in the yard, riders had dragged the press from the stable and worked with blacksmith tools to dismantle it. The tin box of letters lay scattered across the meadow. When nothing remained of the press but loose hinges of iron and wood, the men mounted their swaybacked horses and rode back to town.


The old man had to raise his voice to be heard above the rain spattering the shingled roof and coursing down, darkening the window frames. “I will not protect this man the next time they come for him.” A white flash rippled and faded outside the window, followed by a close grumble of thunder. It was early in the year for such weather; a surge of warm air that came from the south and made men think and act in ways that went against nature.


Kate’s expression was shrouded beneath the fall of her auburn hair, glistening in the candlelight. The skin of the hand working the brush was callused and chapped, not ladylike at all, too large, like the rest of her. Without looking at Josiah, she said, “You went too far.” She didn’t say any more, perhaps fearful that her husband would be conscious enough to understand. When she spoke these words, she felt them inside her. She should not have shown her father the pamphlet before it was distributed. She should not have gone inside a room where angry men gathered. Her husband was on this table now because of her, and despite every argument, every moment of unhappiness she had felt in her life with him, she found that she still loved him.


“You need to understand how things will be if you are going to continue living here on my land,” Josiah said. He turned his attention to Hazel holding the dripping candle, a girl whose shivers cast uncertain shadows over her pa’s body. Just then, candle wax dripped into one of the man’s shining wounds. His eyes flashed open and his neck arched. A hiss of breath escaped through his clenched teeth. The legs of the kitchen table bowed outward while he twisted on the surface like a stuck hog.


Kate laid her hand on his chest. “We’re almost done, Jakob,” she said. “It won’t help matters if you bring this table down.” The touch of skin against skin, her palm against his clammy chest, gave her confidence. She might still be able to control this situation. “Hazel, you watch how you hold that candle now. Your father doesn’t need any more burns.” She settled the brush on the rise of Jakob’s stomach and pulled her hair out of her eyes. “What is he to do now that your men have ruined his press?”


“He ain’t much for field work, but he could keep the books for my sawmill and salt mines. Might do him some good to apply his mind to a more useful end.”


“And if he refuses?” She couldn’t hold his gaze any longer. Kate turned her attention back to the last dark spot on her husband’s forearm where the tar was spread like a bruise. She had poured a tea of ground poppy leaves down his throat after he was carried in, a tea she used to soothe the children when the damp winters made them bronchial.


“I could not have foreseen what your husband was going to print in his paper. Had I done so, I might have been able to give him warning. If any speak against the border guard, they will be silenced. If a man among us questions our very institutions, his words must be trodden down. With all that’s going on, Kansas turned to blood and Missouri on the verge, your husband picked a poor time to express contrary opinions.” The words had a practiced ring in Kate’s mind, like an orator working a crowd.


The girl didn’t pay attention to either of them. She followed the shallow breathing of her pa and the blue rush of veins beneath his pale skin. His eyelashes fluttered and he seemed to be dreaming. She traced the curving bones of his ribcage to an outer dimple of a gleaming wound in his side. Lines of goosepimples rippled across his skin. The soft pine planks beneath him groaned in time with his breath. Where his breastplate joined his neck there was a hollow shadow, a gathering of darkness like blood spreading from a bullet wound. Her hand hovered over this spot and it came to her that her father would die one day, and there would be no one to defend her from her brothers, to bring her horehound candy when he walked back from town, candy that melted like molasses, something secret and sweet, while they rode together in the woods and he sang to her in the language of the Old Country. She couldn’t stand to look at him any more, his skin already going blue and pale with the knowledge of what would come. Hazel set down the candle on the hewn bench and ran out into the rain.
How did it come to this?


Once Hazel had walked with her father through a rare grove of mountain aspen and climbed the high hill that overlooked the Missouri River. The silver aspen leaves quaked and shuddered as the two passed under them. He did not sing to her, but walked slowly, holding her hand and allowing her to set the pace.


“Do you know why the leaves tremble like this?” he asked. The girl shook her head.


“The aspen trees did not recognize Christ when he came among us. They alone, in all creation, did not bow to the Son of Man, and so they are doomed to shudder until the end of time.” The girl listened to the wind rustling in the leaves.


“You must be watchful,” he told her. “This world brims with signs and portents. The leaves of a silver maple will turn upside down when rain approaches. A horned moon means snow. Trees, wind, birds, stones: They all have messages and we must listen and be ready when they appear amongst us.”


Jakob’s own sign had first come to him the Sunday afternoon he stayed and listened to the Reverend Benjamin Keene preach the Higher Law doctrine. But it was a hand-scrawled note that came the next day which changed things for good. Aside from yearly subscription income, the newspaper earned a tidy sum printing advertisements for escaped slaves and nearby slavery auctions. Like any other business in Little Dixie at that time—a region of the country that produced the hemp used to bind huge cotton bales and the hogs to feed the antebellum empire—Jakob’s
Saline County Luminary
was dependent on the slave trade to put food in his children’s mouths and he labored not to think too deeply about what this meant.


The hand-scrawled note and the dime that accompanied it arrived on Monday in the mail, along with a separate envelope from the north advertising the rich soil in Minnesota territory, which had just become a state. The note was written on blue butcher paper still stained with animal blood. It described an escaped slave named Ruth, a “mulato with skin the color of burnt chicori.” The writer also mentioned, in passing, a distinguishing mark of a “circle brandid in the dark of her left thy.” The last part said she came out of Callaway County and promised a reward of fifty dollars for her capture and return. Jakob set the advertisement for Minnesota aside and read and reread the note over again many times. Notices for escaped slaves sometimes described mutilations, lash marks, cut ears . . . but this marking stuck in his mind. He kept picturing the pink imprint of the wound in the soft skin of her inner thigh. For a reason he could not fathom he felt a connection with this slave. Even as he printed the information in that week’s edition, he felt it somehow drawing her closer.


Two nights after he printed the ad, Jakob did Caleb’s chores out in the cow barn since the boy had taken sick. A round harvest moon hovered low over the valley and its light pierced the slats of the barn. The milch cows and draft horses were dozing. A whale-oil lantern cast celestial shapes against the stalls. One side of the lamp was pricked out in stars and moons and these cosmic patterns flickered and danced while Jakob pitchforked piss-wet straw and manure into a rancid pile. He had just spread a fresh layer of hay in the stall when he heard a movement in the loft above him.


A rain of hay motes sprinkled down from the hayloft. The lantern hissed by his side. He held his breath, listening, and then heard a board creak again. The hairs rose along his spine. It was not a sound that belonged in his barn. The cats that usually trailed after him when he did morning milking were nowhere to be seen. Jakob lifted the lantern.


“Is that you up there, my shadow?” he called. Hazel often followed him about wherever he went and he hoped she might be playing such a trick now, but even as he said it he knew she was inside. Jakob looked at the slender ladder rising into the darkness of the haymow. It called to him, this shadowed place. He set down the lantern, but kept hold of the pitchfork as he climbed. His boots were heavy on the ladder rungs. He heard the sound of his own breathing in the quiet, the drum of his heart in his ears. The ladder creaked with each step. From out of the loft’s edge far above him, he saw two pink palms take hold of the top rung. One shove and the ladder and Jakob would be spilled onto the hard ground below.


“Don’t,” he cried. “I don’t mean you harm.” Jakob let the pitchfork fall and it clattered against one of the stalls. When he looked down he saw the circle of lantern light on the floor and the constellations whirling and spinning around it. He closed his eyes to steady himself. When he looked back up, the hands had disappeared. He kept coming up the ladder, his hands slick with sweat, one greasy rung at a time, drawn like a fish with a hook through its gills. At the top rung he hefted himself into the loft and crouched there.


While his eyes adjusted in the shadows of the bales, Jakob listened. A dark shape breathed in the corner. The smell of hay, welcoming and warm with the memory of summer, pervaded the loft. A slat had been busted out in the side and through the gap Jakob saw his moonlit fields and the black woods beyond.


“Who are you?” he said, but the shape didn’t answer. He could make out the white rims of two eyes looking back at him, eyes framed by a wild tangle of coarse, shorn hair. A girl, a runaway. He smelled the scent of her now, an acrid, fearful undercurrent in the hay. When he came closer she drew herself into a ball and hissed. Her ivory teeth flashed.


“I don’t mean you harm,” he said again. Her breathing had become hoarse. She trembled before him like something chased for so long that what was human in her had faded for a time. “You’re Ruth, aren’t you?” He thought by naming her he could bring her back. She didn’t answer that night, but he knew it at once, had known it when he first printed the ad. It was as if his words had called her into being and summoned her to this place.


When she spoke her voice was parched, but the words formal. “Mister,” she said. “I could’ve hurt you, but I didn’t.” Jakob had heard slaves talking among themselves before, though he hurried onward, pretending not to see them and putting them out of mind as soon as they were out of sight. This girl sounded nothing like them. She spoke in a careful, measured manner. She spoke like him, like some forgotten part of him he was just discovering. Once she said those words she began to cough violently.


He wanted to comfort her with a light touch, but didn’t wish to frighten her any further. “I’m not going to turn you in,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about you for days and now I understand why. Whoever did that to you, they don’t deserve you. Not that I believe in it anyhow, the idea of owning another human being.” He realized he was babbling and that he had not spoken his convictions aloud until this moment. She looked back at him, her eyes chalky in the shadows.


For the next few nights Jakob claimed to be carrying out food for the barn cats, but he climbed that ladder and brought the leftovers to her. He would sit and watch her eat, the way she licked her fingers clean, her habit of muttering a prayer in words so quiet he couldn’t hear them. The second night after she finished eating, she stood and stretched, yawning. They had not discussed yet how to get her across the river and beyond that to Ioway country and freedom. Simply by hiding this fugitive he had dragged his own family into territory he didn’t understand. She was taller and thinner than he expected her to be. The frayed calico dress she wore was pale against her skin and showed the bare flesh of her arms and legs, a pretty umber color. His eyes traced the smooth shape of her calves up to the ragged edge of pale cloth. She felt his eyes on her and turned away. Her hands smoothed down the low mound of her belly as she looked out the busted slat to the empty night beyond. “You’re pregnant,” he said, his breath low.

BOOK: Night Birds, The
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