The Night Birds
Thomas Maltman

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The Night Birds



Indigenous Americans (fiction)

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The Night Birds

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.



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. [...] 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.

A Second Visitor Only a woman does a thing like that: takes you into her hands like she held a sparrow and was divining its lifespan, the good and bad. Men are keen about other things, but not very often about people.


Women and Men

“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 babes were well fed and swaddled in warm blankets, but never a word was spoken to them.”

[...] “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.”



The Children of Leaves They said the same things about the slaves in Missouri. Degraded. Lesser men because of the darkness of their skin. I don’t believe it. I remember the dogwood flower and how within each petal there is a cross, a rusty nail, the sign of Christ. If God inhabits a flower, so must he inhabit men.



Blood Prayer “You must understand that there is no magic. [...] There is only belief, something far more powerful. Even demons believe in the Son of Man. They know his name and fear it. The yarrow flowers and the Bible verse are only a ritual. Power comes from your touch, skin against skin. Power comes when your belief joins with theirs. If belief is powerful enough to build and destroy nations, then surely it might command the blood in its narrow travels from heart to wound.”




The Parable of the Sower As the boys cut wood for the worm fence they are building to keep the stock out of our fields, they catch glimpses of the Indian boys running in the woods. Leaf children, Hazel calls them. I can see the bitterness in Asa and Caleb’s face as they hack at the forest and drag up heavy limbs. How they long for such freedom yet there is so much work to be done. I tell them those boys are like the grasshopper of Aesop’s fable. They play now and will not be ready for winter. I tell them whatever I can to keep them working, even as I wonder. Who is wiser after all? We who plant more than our family needs for the sake of commerce? Or they who take what nature provides? Who has greater faith?



Less than two months have passed and we know nothing for certain of one another. He and Winona know our curses and boasts thanks to my brothers. They know our names for what is holy. How strange it is that when two races first meet they trade in both the sacred and the profane.
The New Country As my mind drifted, I thought of the Indian belief that everything was alive. From dust to the stars, it was all connected. Locusts, crows, thorns, and hemlock. Butterflies, meadowlarks, strawberries, and sweet grass. I held up the things of night and the things of sunlight, weaving together words in a whispery incantation. Why had God made the world knowing all the time it would fall? And even as I thought of all that was poison and peril, my head growing heavier as sleep descended on me, I also wondered why God allowed such sweetness into a world we were called to leave behind.
Wedding Night “I’ve seen enough killing. It doesn’t change things.”



“Hanyokeyah taught me that each of us has two souls. One soul must travel a perilous journey after death. Even in death the Dakota must face enemies and cross a great river to reach the afterworld. But the other soul stays here, close to earth.”


The Afterlife

Herod’s Justice Most of what we know of God in this world is His absence. Don’t think that I mean any sacrilege. If faith were easy, it would have little worth.



The Good Road

“You know I wasn’t much older than you when the Union militia came into my yard. Frank had joined up with the Raiders and it was him they were after. None of the rest of us had done any wrong, but that didn’t stop them from stringing my stepfather up by a rope and torturing him until he almost breathed his last. He wasn’t right ever after. They damaged him forever. I fell in with Quantrill’s Raiders after that. Been trying to set the world right ever since.”

“By murder?” [...]

“Yes, I’ve seen and done terrible things. We had a taste of it just a couple of days ago. We aren’t anything before what’s coming. An age of machines. The great plains tribes will fall before the Gatling gun. Wires will whirl a voice across mountains and deserts in a blink. The railroads and steamships will go on reducing ocean and distance into nothing. I stand in the way of such an age. I want to throw a cog into the churning wheels of these machines. Such things will consume us.

“There’s more money out there than I could ever steal. The tracks will cross buffalo country, the herds vanish. And I can’t go back to being what I once was, a boy on a clear morning standing in the knee-high corn while riders approach on the trail. To come up from the fields and not let my heart be turned to hate. I long to ride into the past, but that’s a lost territory. I can’t go back.”



text checked (see note) Nov 2008

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