Hawk was restless in the youth’s chest. She turned and turned, uneasy on her perch. Sometimes she beat her wings against his ribs. He was afraid she would lunge against his chest wall and scream.
He couldn’t tell anyone.
He had to talk.
He looked around the shadowed lodge desperately. His home where he never felt at home. The robes where his father and two mothers slept at the back. His father’s willow backrest. Weapons hanging from the lodge poles, women’s things hanging from other poles. Beside the lodge skirt, parfleches with the family’s belongings. On one side the robes where he and his brother slept. Opposite, his grandmother sitting on the robes that made a bed for her and his sister, Kettle. A home, but not his home.
He had to talk.
“My Grandmother,” the youth Curly said, “Unci,” in his language. “Unci, will you come sit with me?”
She didn’t respond. She never did. She hadn’t spoken for ten winters, or responded in any way to words. She acted deaf and dumb. But he thought she knew things.
Light Curly Hair walked sunwise around the center fire to the side of the tipi where she always sat on her robes, staring into the shadows. He sat next to her and thought he heard her sigh. Though she didn’t speak or act as if she knew anyone else was there, sometimes he thought the way she moved showed some awareness. And she was not feeble. If you called her name, Plum, or addressed her as Unci, she didn’t respond. But if you gave her a spoon, she would stir die stew. If you gave her the knife, she could cut up a rabbit. She could get up and go outside to relieve herself.
He thought maybe he was crazy. Was he going to talk to someone who couldn’t hear or speak? Except he thought she could hear and could speak but chose not to.
He scooted directly in front of her, took one of her bony hands between his hands, and held it. He studied her eyes, which were blank.
She will never tell my secrets.
Now, because of another dying person, he had to talk. He had seen them moving Bear-Scattering-His-Enemies this morning. Curly’s brother by choice, Buffalo Hump, his hunka, was helping. Curly had squatted and looked between Hump’s legs and seen the chief. And smelled him. Bear-Scattering was rotting.
Whenever Curly saw death, she came back to him from ten winters ago, his blood mother, Rattling Blanket Woman. That death had silenced his grandmother, and perhaps destroyed her mind. Grandmother Plum and Curly had walked into die lodge and found his mother, Grandmother Plum’s daughter, hanging from a lodge pole by a rope around her neck.
Grandmother Plum had screamed, a terrible outburst full of all die evils of the black road of this world. At its loudest she cut off the scream so violently she seemed to choke on it, as though a great hand had seized her throat and was strangling her. Somehow the silence was louder and more awful than the scream. She had never spoken since. She didn’t lose her voice and her mind, not in Curly’s opinion. She threw her voice away. And maybe her mind was still there, in the shadows.
He held his father responsible for that suspended body.
Was he a fool to talk to Grandmother Plum? He shook his head, uncertain. She held her eyes blankly toward the shadows. There was no one else to talk to.
She will never tell my secrets.
It was time to force himself to speak. He sat there and held her hand and breathed the air she was breathing and tried out different beginnings in his mind. There was no way but to blurt it out “Sometimes I feel a bird in my chest. Beating her wings.”
He looked hard at her face. Maybe now she would laugh at him, or her eyes would mock him. Her lips didn’t move, though, and her face was as blank as ever.
He plunged on, like a fallen tree being washed downriver by a rushing current. “Ever since I can remember, since I was a small child, I’ve felt it. Most of the time things are quiet. When things are hard, and I get scared, I feel it. A bird in my heart. A red-tailed hawk, female, I think, beating her wings.” The female was normally bigger.
No response. He imagined a glimmer in his grandmother’s eyes, but her face was shadowed.
“Hawk gets jumpy sometimes. Sometimes…When people make demands of me, she’s like one of those eagles the Sahiyela men trap and raise. They keep the legs tethered to perches, so the eagles lunge against the tethers, shrieking, and lunge again and again. Sometimes Hawk lunges and shrieks until I can’t stand it.”
He just sat there for a moment. “Unci, does everyone have that feeling?”
He didn’t know what answer he wanted. Maybe he was ordinary, which he didn’t like. Or maybe he was very strange.
Surely he was strange. He never forgot for a moment how conspicuous he looked. Not only did he have light skin, but his long hair was the tawny color of sand. In his people’s dances, with their blue-black hair and earth-dark flesh, he stood out like a candle flame in darkness. He avoided dances.
They called him Light Curly Hair, a name he didn’t like. He heard the whispers: Somewhere in his family, maybe, they said, was wasicu(white-man) blood. Not only the wasicu on the Holy Road noticed his hair and pointed at him rudely and said he must be part wasicu. His own people did, too.
He never answered in any way. Never. But the whispers made him angry. He would say to himself, My father is the Oglala called Tasunke Witko, His Crazy Horse, a name revered among the Lakota. He is the son of a father also called His Crazy Horse, later known as Makes the Song. My blood mother bore the honored name Rattling Blanket Woman, because she could make her blanket crackle and pop when she danced. She was the daughter of Lone Horn, one of a line of chiefs, all named Lone Horn, of the Mniconjou band. My uncles are honored warriors and leaders. I am utterly Lakota.
In camp he wore his light hair braided. On the warpath, where they gave him only boys’ duties, he let it flow free. It hung not to his heart, where most Lakota men cut their hair, but to his waist. The sun made it gleam like brass. In the village he felt ill at ease. On the warpath Hawk was always calm in his chest.
He repeated the question softly, more to himself than Grandmother Plum: “Does everyone have this feeling in the chest?”
Grandmother Plum seemed to be looking off into die past.
He said loudly in his mind, I am confused. I don’t know whether to feel proud or fortunate or peculiar. I only know that in my spirit lam Hawk. I feel fully at ease alone, and only in solitude. With Hawk.
Now he looked into Grandmother Plum’s face again. He wanted to provoke her into speech. So he asked the other big question: “Unci, shall I cry for a vision?”
Nearly sixteen winters old, he was powerless. He had no wing feathers of the war eagle, or tail feathers, no whole wing to be used in prayer. He had no coups, no vision, no power. When he let himself think of that, shame blotched his spirit like boils.
Out of his shame and weakness he had been thinking of going onto the mountain to cry for a vision, to enact the great rite hanbleceyapi.
From early boyhood he had been taught that seeing beyond, into the spirit world, is a man’s medicine, his personal power.
But he had not gone to an older man for counsel about this crying for a vision. He was afraid the counselor would say he was too strange, too peculiar. The refusal would humiliate him.
“Unci, shall I cry for a vision?” Crying to see beyond had been on his mind all summer. His friends and comrades and rivals were doing it. Both the twins from the Bad Face band had sought visions this summer, and found them. He had been waiting for…he didn’t know what.
Now Hawk turned in his chest. He felt a faint flutter of her wings against his ribs.
All right, he told Hawk silently. Wait. I will take care of you in a moment.
He looked at Grandmother Plum. Her face was unreadable, blank as a dried-up mud puddle.
He hadn’t solved anything. She wouldn’t speak. He knew that when he came here. But talking to her had soothed his hurt.
He got up, put her hand back in her lap. “Ake wancinyankin ktelo.” Until I see you again. The Lakota did not say good-bye, like the wasicu, unless they meant goodbye forever.
He had no answers. Maybe no one could give him any answers. Maybe his way was to find all answers by himself, alone. A hard way.
He lifted the door flap and looked back and said softly, “Thank you, Unci.”
Copyright © 1995 by Win Blevins