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Authors: Thomas Maltman

Night Birds, The (9 page)

BOOK: Night Birds, The
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It stood in the clearing, a lightning-struck oak tree split down the middle. A necklace of grape vines encircled the trunk. In the distance we heard the last of those crows as they harried the owl, an ancient killer, away from their nest. The light here was dappled. Aunt Hazel’s eyes were the color of these dark leaves. We stood looking at the stump for a long time.

 

“Give me the ax, boy,” said my mother. She took it and before she could doubt herself again, advanced on the stump. It stood about six feet off the ground, surrounded by grass and vines, the trunk stark and black. The first time she raised the ax, her pale calico dress billowing around her, she didn’t have the strength to bring it back down. She lowered it once more, her shoulders heaving. Suddenly I wanted to be away from here. I didn’t want to witness her in this most private of moments. But then she raised the ax again and attacked the rotted tree. It sprayed around her in black flecks, the spongy wood crackling with every blow of the ax. Aunt Hazel set her hand on top of my head. “Be brave,” she said, quietly, “Be brave for her.” And then with a sound like the tearing of some vast sheet of parchment the black oak tree split open.

 

It was there like she said it would be, and this too seemed a dark magic. The skeleton was yellowed by time. Grape vines coiled through the ribcage and pelvis like green serpentine veins. The woman wore only shreds of dark silk. Her jaw cracked open as though even now she wished to speak, as though even now she was crying out to anyone who passed her in these woods. “Look away, Asa,” Aunt Hazel said, but I couldn’t.
This was my grandmother
, I was thinking. My mother knelt before the skeleton, sobbing. In the center, curled in the woman’s embrace like a child, lay the glass jar of tarnished coins.

 

“All these years,” my mother said. “All these years I thought she had abandoned us and was living the good life.” She picked up the ax again and raised it as though she might begin to hack away the skull.

 

“Cassie,” Aunt Hazel called. The ax remained poised at the apex. “She suffered after her own fashion. A living death. She climbed inside there to hide from the Indians and got stuck.”

 

My mother lowered the ax and then dropped it behind her. Her breathing came raggedly. “I always wondered what I would do if I saw you again,” she said, addressing the skeleton. Then she laughed at the absurdity of it all. “I’m taking back these coins, Mother. I’m taking back every night I lost sleep thinking about you. You were a coward. Do you hear me? You were a coward and don’t deserve the proper burial we will give you. Here in these trees, we will leave you to your rest.”

 

Schilling later tried to claim part of this wealth, the 133 silver dollars my grandmother had carried into what were now his woods, but none gave his claim serious attention. If anything, the story, something tangible from the past, a real skeleton from the inside of a tree, served to increase the townspeople’s fear and awe of Hazel. For if she could look inside the flesh of an oak tree, then what shield was ordinary human skin from those searching green eyes?

 

Thirty-three of those coins went to pay for the pine box the bones were stretched out in and for the Reverend Henrickson to speak a short homily over the woman’s grave on a grassy overlook halfway between the stump and the remains of her husband’s still. After we buried the body in the woods one rainy day, my mother told Aunt Hazel she wanted to know everything. What else was there in that book?

 

Most of the coins went to bring back Moses, the percheron draft horse we redeemed from the Schilling’s livery. He was a year older since last we’d seen him, and hard used. His coal-black coat was lined with coarse gray hairs along the withers that the curry comb could not tame. His dark eyes were dulled, but he had new iron shoes on his hooves and seemed to recognize his home. We stabled him next to the ginseng that Aunt Hazel had been gathering. The ginseng brimmed over the stall beside him and Moses gave the odd, man-shaped root a sniff before snorting disdainfully.

 

“You’ll have to go back and cut grass in the woods. We’ll need enough hay to last until winter,” Mother told me. In a normal year we would have cut the meadow hay from our own land, but in a locust year there was no grass to be had on our property.

 

The three of us stood in the barn, admiring our horse. “Bought with Judas money,” said Mother. “What will your father say?”

 

It was late afternoon, the shadows lengthening within the barn. A few swallows skimmed through the murky light. Mother peered over the stall brimming with ginseng. “What do you intend to do with this?” she asked Aunt Hazel. “The man that used to buy the ginseng is long gone. People found out he was paying four cents a bushel and then selling it for ten times that to Chinamen and they run him out on a rail. Nobody has come since to buy our ginseng.”

 

“I don’t know,” said Aunt Hazel. “I guess I’ve been gathering it out of habit. We would have starved some years without the money from ginseng.”

 

Mother plucked one of the fist-sized tubers and held it up in the half-light. “What does that look like to you? Whatever did the Chinese see in such a root?”

 

Hazel coughed. “They believe it enhances their manly properties.” Mother quickly dropped the root back into the pile and then wiped her hand clean on the apron. “Oh dear,” she said. “That’s what it reminded me of.”

 

Both women looked at each other and then burst out laughing. While I didn’t see what was so funny, I joined in because such opportunities had been rare of late. My laugh had a tinny, forced sound at first and this seemed to bring the women to further heights of amusement. Mother even had to lean against the stall while tears sprang into her eyes. She wiped them away and then shook her head and drew herself up straight. “That’s quite a load of ginseng,” she said.

 

“A month’s worth of grubbing,” said Aunt Hazel.

 

“It would be a shame to let a root of such wondrous properties go to waste.”

 

“It would be a sin,” said Aunt Hazel, smiling.

 

“I have an idea,” my mother said.

 

Mother’s idea centered around a man she had heard about in St. Paul who sold things only by catalogue. She thought we could wash the root and seal it in amber mason jars along with a healthy dose of whiskey to give it kick. All we needed was the bottles and whiskey and for this she sent us back to Schilling’s with a few of the silver coins.

 

Even in midday the shades were drawn in Schilling’s and the light that trickled through the openings was pale and yellow as yolk. The shopkeeper claimed this helped keep the store cool and insulated. Mother said it was to hide the defects in calicoes and fabrics, and the sleight of hand he used to pinch away tobacco and coffee people purchased. The store smelled of sawdust and pipe smoke when I came inside with Aunt Hazel one Saturday morning. We blinked in the dim light and beheld the blacksmith, Julius Meighen, a broad-shouldered man with a walrus mustache, playing chess with my schoolteacher, Mr. Simons. The board perched atop a salt barrel, the two men so engrossed in their next maneuver they didn’t look up.

 

This was Hazel’s first trip into town. Outside, she had already been unsettled by a group of girls in the center of the town’s dusty streets. While they skipped rope, they had been singing the Hangman’s Ballad:

 

Slack your rope hangs-a-man,

 

O slack it for awhile

 

I think I see my father coming,

 

Riding many a mile.

 

O father have you brought my gold?

 

Or have you paid my fee?

 

Or have you come to see me hanging

 

On the gallows tree?

 

Hazel had paled; her mouth formed words, but nothing came out. The girls were all looking at her while they sang. There was Jenny Schilling with her rose-trimmed bonnet and the two Meyer twins who followed her every move. I took Aunt Hazel’s hand and hurried her onward, until their jeering song faded behind us.

 

Now we stood in the store, and she drew in a breath, gathering courage. I could see that all these people—men sitting on the porch playing cards in the noon sun, people passing in the streets, riders from other towns—were part of a swirl of activity she had not accustomed herself to. She wore the brown-checked dress along with a lavender-lace shawl my mother had given to her. She peeled back the bonnet and gave August Schilling, busy pushing a corn-husk broom behind the counter, a hesitant smile. He glanced once at her, his thick black eyebrows arching above his spectacles, and then looked away again. He continued to sweep even after she said his name. “Excuse me,” she said, much louder, “but the boy and I have come to purchase supplies. We want a case of amber mason jars and two jugs of whiskey. Your cheapest kind.”

 

When it became clear that Aunt Hazel would not be ignored, he cast her a sidelong glance. “I don’t sell hard spirits to womenfolk.”

 

She swallowed, shrinking before the glare he sent her way.

 

Julius stood, pulled up his sagging denim britches, and said, “C’mon. We’ll finish this game later.”

 

Mr. Simons also stood. He had a long scholarly face with a down-turned mouth. He wore a white shirt with a pin to pinch closed the sleeve of his missing arm. His brown eyes were owlish behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “We’re only three moves from checkmate,” he said.

 

Julius knocked down his king to signal surrender. “Not my day again, I see,” he said. “Let’s go.”

 

“You go on,” Mr. Simons said. “I haven’t been properly introduced to this lady.”

 

“Suit yourself,” said Julius, sagging toward the doorway. I wondered then what other stories had spread through town about Hazel. Maybe it was just the same old story, that she loved being with Indians better than her own kind.

 

Mr. Simons crossed the room and bowed slightly when he was close to her. His thin chestnut hair was parted to hide a balding place on top, but for a schoolteacher wounded in the War, he remained fairly athletic, and was the subject of a certain amount of gossip regarding his marital prospects. “Good morning, Mrs. . . . ?” he said, though he knew full well her name.

 

“Miss Hazel Senger,” she said. “I thank you for your concern.”

 

“It’s early in the morning for whisky, don’t you think?” he said, smiling.

 

“The boy and I are making a concoction. We are in the ginseng business.”

 

“Ah,” he said, including me now in the smile. “Young Asa, maker of elixirs. That’s why you need the mason jars.” He turned to the shopkeeper. “Well August, fetch forth those supplies.” He raised his good hand and snapped his fingers.

 

Mr. Schilling remained steadfast, frowning sourly. “I won’t do business with such as her,” he said. “Have you not heard what happened to Custer and the Seventh at Little Bighorn? A terrible day for our nation. And now this woman comes in here. Escaped from an asylum no less.” As he spoke his voice increased in volume. His cheeks were splotched by his anger. “They should have hanged you along with
him
that day,” he said. “You should never have come back here.” His voice lowered to a menacing baritone. “I choose my customers. I won’t do business with such as her.”

 

I expected her to flinch before his anger, the way he spat those words at her. Her cheeks were plum-colored and her eyes glittered. “It was the Dakota that did this?” she said.

 

“It was Indians that did it, doesn’t matter the tribe,” said Mr. Schilling. “But there’s some that say Inkpaduta was there.” When he saw her mouth drop open, he added, “Yes, you know that name, don’t you?”

 

“It can’t be,” she said. “He would be an old man by now.”

 

“The old killers are the worst,” he said.

 

Aunt Hazel had managed to hold her own, but now her face fell. Mr. Simons had turned on August and was berating him for speaking so to a lady. Hazel glanced once at me, her eyes brimming, and then gathered her long dress and rushed out of the store. She fled without looking back, past the gray-hairs playing cards, past the children singing their terrible rhymes, past the old graveyard filled with dead Germans.

 

I walked to school alone for a week, missing Aunt Hazel and her stories. When Mr. Simons saw my long face he gave me a book to read during lunch hour,
Journey to the Center of the Earth
, which took my mind off some of my troubles. At night Aunt Hazel stayed behind her curtain. I will tell you what bothered me worst. Her eyes had a flatness, a glazed-over expression that I’d seen on bullheads when I pulled them from the river and smashed them against a rock. All the light had gone out of her eyes as surely as a wick being turned down. What August Schilling had said in that store was terrible, but the mention of the name seemed to bother her worst.
Inkpaduta
. Her emotions seemed to surge between such heights and pure depths that I was afraid for her.

BOOK: Night Birds, The
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