THE NIGHT BIRDS a novel
By THOMAS MALTMAN
Soho Press Inc. Copyright © 2007 Thomas Maltman
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-56947-462-4
Chapter One HOMECOMING
I grew up in the shadow of the Great Sioux War which started here in Minnesota in 1862. Born four months after thirty-eight Dakota warriors were hanged en masse in Mankato the day after Christmas, I was named for an uncle, Asa, killed during the conflict. Sometimes, lying awake after the wicks were turned down, I listened to the wind outside and wondered what I inherited along with his name. I grew up mindful of the deep scars people carried from the war, but did not know the story behind them. My mother, Cassie, a slender, flaxen-haired woman, became pinch-mouthed if I asked her questions.
When my papa still attended church he never stepped forward to take communion and he told me he would beat me within an inch of my life if I pressed him on the matter. The second summer the locusts returned to our land, Papa stopped going to church entirely. He stood in his barren fields watching my mother and me ride away in the buckboard. Locusts sparked around him like hot specks of grease in a griddle. He stood in his infested fields, watching us ride to church as he crushed the insects in his clenched fists until the greenish-black blood ran down into his shirt sleeves.
I grew up with the past coursing under the surface of my family life like some dark underground river that I could sense but not touch. Against the dozens of pamphlets published far and wide about the conflict-A Thrilling Tale of Captivity, and The Red Man's Revenge-I had the measure of my parents' silence. Just under layers of topsoil I sensed the story waiting there and knew that it had something to do with sorrow, and that it made them afraid to this very day.
The year 1876 was the fourth year of the locusts. What I thought about that long ago afternoon as I scanned the prairies was that there is beauty in devastation. Passing clouds of locusts clothed the sun, on the move now that a new brood had hatched and eaten our countryside down to the bone. Their many wings were jeweled by the sunlight. A million scarabs of gold moved across parched ground and the land hummed with the song of their gathering hunger.
With no crop rows to harrow and tend, my papa and I passed time most days by climbing the Indian watchtower built in 1871 by Silas Easton, from which we could look out over the stripped farmlands and the oxbow of the Waraju River, a shallow stream in this dry season. Papa's duties as constable of Kingdom Township required him to spend a portion of his week scanning the frontier for hostiles, though no Dakota had raided this territory in over a decade. South and east, the land sloped away in rounded hills that sheltered ponds for cattle and sparse stands of burr oak and silver maple. North and west lay a sea of tall-grass prairie dotted with islands of wheat fields. If I followed the southern curve of the Waraju River, a caramel gleam in the late afternoon sun, I could catch a glimpse of smoke curling up from our cabin on the edge between hill country and grassland, just outside the township.
On a hot June day, with dust devils passing over barren earth, the first of two visitors who would alter the course of our family relations walked into our lives. He came across no-man's land abandoned by the Vajen family two years before, and something in the way he moved bothered me. A lone man moving at an easy trot. "Papa," I said, giving his shoulder a gentle shake. "There's something coming."
The stranger spoke no English and his lips were crusted with black blood from the locusts he had eaten to sustain him on his journey. Papa spoke to him a language I had never heard before, a rush of clicks and gutturals that brought a hesitant smile to the man's face. I knew him for an Indian only by the darkness of his skin, more sienna than the brick-red I had imagined, but otherwise he was dressed like a poor farmer: wool pants, a white cotton shirt partly eaten by locusts, and a bent slouch hat with the top cut out. An aquiline nose perched in the center of his weathered face and his broad features were framed by twin silver braids twined with strips of fur. He stood a head shorter than my father. I remember the keen sense of disappointment I felt on viewing my first specimen of the savage race. He didn't carry any weapons and there was a hint of senility in those black eyes shaded by the hat. I looked off to the north trying to imagine his journey across hundreds of miles of land his kind had been banished from a decade ago, his bare feet somehow unbloodied by the razor grass and stripped stubble of dead wheat fields. The hesitant smile the old man wore faded when Papa brought his half-stock prairie rifle up to his shoulder and cocked the hammer.
The township of Kingdom curved over the top of a series of humpbacked hills shaped like a dragon. Hedged by dark woodlands along the backside, the dragon's sleeping head opened out to an oceanic span of grasslands the Waraju River flooded in rainy years. From the grasslands came wolves and locusts and now this Indian.
While we were still a long ways off, my teacher, Mr. Simons, had spotted us with his looking glass and rang the bell of the church that also served as our schoolhouse, ensuring a large crowd when we came through town with our captive.
The higher you climbed the dragon-shaped hill the more prosperous things became. The floodplains were inhabited by immigrant farmers like the Ecksteins-Bohemians who adjusted to the plague by cooking the locusts in a buttery dish they called "fricassee." At the base of the dragon's tail, you passed the grist mill where farmers came to grind their grain. Here the road split a graveyard of leaning crosses bearing the names of German settlers killed during the Indian uprising. Up a small rise, the Schilling family had struck together some dour clapboard buildings that passed for the town's dry goods store and livery. My father was the constable and his single room jailhouse, which he said would blow down in a strong wind, squatted next to the livery barn and blacksmith shop. A rutted dusty road continued up the dragon's spine until you reached a brick hotel with ornate columns the Meyers had built in the hopeful days when they thought the railroad might pass through town, and onward to the whitewashed, country church from which the bell now resounded. Mr. Simons was fond of ringing that bell.
It seemed people had come from all over the county, summoned by the sound. Farmers abandoned their useless work in the fields at the promise of some new glimmer of entertainment. There were shopkeepers in soiled aprons and women in bonnets so deep only the beaks of their noses showed. All of them hovered around us, a low excited murmur rippling through the ranks when they saw what we had. Papa had taken the Indian's slouch hat and shirt, and the old man jogged behind us, his bare chest glistening, his wrists bound, a leather cord encircling his throat.
For a moment we all paused outside the jailhouse. In the distance there was the everpresent drone of the locust hordes taking flight now that dark had fallen. If the crowd was disappointed in our captive, the first prisoner my papa had captured since a group of horse thieves troubled the county two years before, they didn't show it. One woman, her voice hoarse, kept calling the Indian a rot tuefel in low, Germanic undertones that sounded like a person spitting. If the crowd hoped for a show they received some measure of it when the Indian raised his head and began to address us in his mother tongue.
I didn't know any of the words, but watched my father carefully. Papa's lips narrowed. The entire crowd froze and Myra Schilling would later claim that the Indian put a spell on us. At first he seemed to be speaking to all of us, but then his eyes found me standing beside my father and I stopped breathing entirely. He held my gaze for only a second. The dull, faintly senile luster was replaced by a dark, shining intelligence. Then the Indian's speech came to halt as my father jerked the end of his cord and choked off his words. He was dragged inside and locked in the one-room cell. All through the evening, people paraded through the jailhouse to admire the Indian and praise my father. While a few pitied the prisoner, most of the talk I heard was darkened by the memory of past events. We did right to hire an old Indian fighter, I heard them say. I bet there is a bounty on this one's head. What do you reckon he was intending? Probably sent to scout us out. He's come to prepare the way. Don't take him to Fort Ridgely. We can deal with his kind here.
As for me, I mostly figured that the Indian was guilty of poor timing. General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry had just been annihilated at Little Bighorn as the country was preparing to celebrate the first centennial. Our nation was reeling from the loss of this hero and three hundred soldiers. A few newspapers openly called for the "extermination of the entire treacherous red race." And while we were far from the Montana territory where this had happened, the people here had suffered greatly during the month of August 1862 and had long memories. They did not see a man before them. They saw a devil.
In the dark a thing turns on itself. As long as the locusts were here, the chickens had to be kept penned in their sour-smelling coop. Otherwise the hens devoured the locusts like gluttons until all you tasted and smelled when their eggs fried was the sulfurous, black taint of insect blood. That night I found another hen dead in the straw, pecked to death. The other hens huffed and ruffled out their feathers, a jury of malcontents, while I held up the kerosene lantern and inspected the mottled corpse. The body was already going stiff and I knew the meat was ruined. We were down to a dozen hens and a sickly rooster now. With the weather so hot and space tight and enclosed, the hens turned on one another. They were not so different from the locusts which cannibalized each other when nothing else was left to eat. They were not so different from human beings, as I would learn that summer.
I carried the dead pullet by the talons as I walked back to the cabin. Locusts crunched under my boot heels and some took flight and battered themselves like moths against the lantern. Crunch, crunch. Each step released a sour smell of innards and blood and I was grateful not to be barefoot like so many other country children. Think of every terrible sound you have heard-a saw on bone, a man grinding his teeth in anger-and you will know what I heard as I crossed that field every night between the cabin and the henhouse. The hen's broken neck flapped loosely against my pant leg. When I felt something crawling against my fingers, I knew the maggots had got to her. Rather than carry her back I flung her out into the dark, onto a moving carpet of insects.
Inside I skimmed a few dead locusts from the wash basin and splashed cool water on my face to erase the image of the dead pullet. Papa surprised me then, coming up behind me and lifting me in a great bear hug. "You did good today, boy," he said.
I felt the sinewy strength in his arms, smelled his sweat and the whisky on his breath. He had lean, hatchet features, a hawk's profile, and a mane of wheat gold hair. I was a dark, thin child, sparrow-boned and breakable in his grasp. Even as he crushed the air from my lungs with this hug, we shared a wheezy laugh. "Old Eagle Eye," he called me. He was sunburned, the skin on his long nose peeling. "We'll make a proper soldier of you yet."
Then Mother called from the table saying, "Set him down and come get your grub," and the moment was over too soon.
All through dinner, fried fish and buckwheat bread, they talked about the Indian and what his capture meant for us now.
"Do you think he's an important figure?" Ma asked.
Papa shrugged. "They paid that man from Hutchinson five hundred dollars for gunning down Little Crow in a field of raspberries. He didn't even know what he'd killed until they'd scalped the body and someone saw the corpse had a double-set of teeth and bent wristbones."
"Will they still pay a bounty after all these years?"
Papa didn't know. "But five hundred dollars," he said. "Imagine what we could do with just one hundred. I could buy back the percheron from the Schillings. We'd have enough to live on until the hoppers leave." A few stray locusts crawled over his dinner plate and he pinched them absentmindedly between his fingers.
"We'd have enough to buy passage out of this country for good."
"You know I won't ever leave here," he said.
From across the table, I saw her eyes glisten. Behind her a laundry line was strung from one end of the cabin to the other, clothes hung to dry over the stove where the locusts couldn't get to them and devour the fabric. The cabin was a simple two-room structure, not so different from the one Papa had grown up in with six siblings on this very same ground. That cabin burned to the ground with the rest of town in 1862. When all the ashes had settled and the war was done and every last Dakota chased out of Minnesota or strung up from the gallows, my father rebuilt over the old root cellar. Our cabin nestled in the crook of a low hill, sheltered from the north wind. A good place, if unlucky.
"Things are changing," Papa said. "I can feel it. Things are turning back to the good."
When I spoke they looked startled, they had been so absorbed in their own conversation. I was quiet enough as a child that my parents often forgot me. "What was his name, Papa? The Indian, didn't he tell you a name?"
"He called himself Hah-pahn, which means second born. I knew it for a lie, though. That was only his childhood name. An Indian will tell all sorts of lies to save his own skin."
"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?
Excerpted from THE NIGHT BIRDS by THOMAS MALTMAN Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Maltman. Excerpted by permission.
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