The Lore of the Birds
by Joshua Allen
The leaves were dancing in the warm wind off the grassy plain that long-ago day near the banks of the big river people would come to call "Mississippi." In a village of small teepees, a boy named Texoje squeezed his eyes shut and borrowed courage from his dead mother, Tse, to bear what the winds were bringing.
When Texoje opened his eyes his teepee still stood, the same color it had been the day his mother had died, though before she died its colors had changed with the seasons and the moon as she painted it with the decorations only she knew how to make. Texoje looked up to his chief, Changing Sky, who was staring down at him.
Texoje stood. Only the leather skin hanging from his belt covered his nakedness.
"Will you do it, Texoje of Tse?" Changing Sky asked. "Visit the New People?"
"I'll do it," Texoje said, if only to show Changing Sky he was brave enough to say it. If only for the hope that his mother was smiling at him.
"New People" was the name most of the village had settled on for the visitors. Supposedly, they lived across the ravine, over the plain and on the other side of the river. It had been determined the previous night at the sit-down with the men that someone would be chosen to make this journey, crossing the river at the nearest point, then moving back up the river, following the thick of trees on the banks until they found the New People village. Changing Sky had sent everyone to bed with a promise to decide who the emissary would be in the morning.
As Texoje slipped through the woods near the village, he tried to push away the other names people had whispered around their fires all that night: Those With One Eye, Backward Ankle, Inside-Out Heart. But the truth was only one person had seen the New People, Little Grass Blade.
Texoje stretched when he reached the edge of the ravine, limbering his muscles. He ran down and then up the sides of the grassy ravine at top speed, his feet padding quickly so he wouldn't slip and break a leg and become food for one of the big brown puma that sometimes lived in the caves nearby.
People trusted Little Grass Blade's words just because his father Big Plains had been a good hunter. Even though he was only eight years old, Little Grass Blade's words sounded wise, at least to the others.
When Little Grass Blade had come back to the camp hysterical and shrieking stories that made no sense, people had listened, even though his descriptions of what he had seen contradicted themselves. He described the people, and said they lived in a village of eggs from the Great Spirit, and kept animals of all sorts in square hogans you could see through. Texoje had chewed the words slowly, decided they didn't taste right, and spit them back out. If these new people could live in the eggs of the Great Spirit, then surely they had no need to keep animals for food. And if the hogans had walls you could see through, how would you even know they were there? Texoje knew that Little Grass Blade was a born liar.
Texoje reached the river bank at the bottom of the ravine and felt the water with his toe. The water was cold. He didn't mind, because the sun was so big today it could have hardened him like a clay pot in a fire. Texoje slipped into the cold river water and swept his arms in front of him, pulling his way through the current that pushed like a herd of buffalo at his side. On the opposite bank, he checked that his stone hatchet was still tied around his thigh. One of the long decorative eagle feathers was missing, but everything else was in place. He waited for his breath to return.
Texoje suspected that all that waited ahead of him was a settlement of White Men, like Lah Doo, the trader they had met who could almost speak like a normal person.
Or maybe this was a different kind of White Man. For all Texoje knew, the White Man wore his knees around backward and his heart inside out when no one else was watching. It made sense. Why did they make sounds like their minds were broken if they were people? On the other hand, that would mean Little Grass Blade's story had been true. The truth was Texoje didn't know what to believe at the moment.
So why had Changing Sky chosen him? The easy answer was that no one in the village much cared if Texoje lived or died. He could accept that. In the days since Tse, his mother, had died, Texoje had felt more and more hatred toward the people of the village, but only because he saw this same feeling on their faces whenever he spoke or moved in a way they disapproved of. These days, he didn't much care if he lived or died, so why should they?
Something round tinkled out of the tree above him. Texoje dug curiously in the mud until his fingers found the culprit. It was a trinket, a yellow, shiny disk with a hole through the center. It was one of the many things that Lah Doo had offered them when he had come trading. Changing Sky had laughed when he'd seen the worthless little lump of yellow rock. What worth was it to anyone?
Texoje looked up into the tree, but saw no one. If a White Man had dropped this, he was too small for Texoje to see. Texoje stood and cursed at the trees. If the White Men were small enough to live in trees and throw trinkets at him, Texoje would squash them beneath his moccasins.
Texoje threw the trinket into the river, where it skipped across the surface before sinking forever with a final splash. He looked up at the tall oak behind him. "You'll never get it now, Little White Man. You should know better than to play tricks on giants!"
Texoje forced out a few loud laughs to show the Little White Man he wasn't afraid. He loosed his hatchet from the string around his thigh and struck the closest tree three times. A long breath passed before the noise finally faded completely.
"Does that not hurt you?"
Texoje squealed and leapt back. His embarrassment mixed with surprise and resulted in losing his hatchet in the mud beneath a patch of what he always called stinging grass.
With no time to dig for his weapon, he readied his fists, crouching so he could pounce, like the Puma did.
The source of the voice appeared from the tall grass. This was the Little White Man who had thrown the trinket at Texoje, he was certain of it. However, the man wasn't as small as Texoje had imagined. The Little White Man also wasn't white. He stood about as tall as Texoje's chest and was the color of raw buffalo meat. The Not-White Man was back on his haunches, like a rabbit sitting up to look. His eyes were on short branches above his head, like the eyes of the fat slugs Texoje sometimes found slithering up the outside of his teepee.
Nothing about this Not-White Man looked just right. Even still, Texoje could see how foolish Little Grass Blade had been to think this Not-White Man was something to fear. Where were its claws? Its teeth?
The Not-White Man didn't even have a mouth, it had a dimple on its face like a fire pit that moved when the White Man spoke. "Why do you hurt yourself?"
"I struck the tree, Not-White Man. Why did you throw your trinket at me?"
The Not-White Man reached for the place on the tree where Texoje's hatchet had chipped a piece of bark away. Strings that looked like the ones that hung off a buffalo's knee when the woman were cutting out the good bones for needles emerged from the Not-White Man's hand and probed the tree's bare spot.
The Not-White Man turned its eyes to Texoje, who readied his fists. "Tree?" the Not-White Man asked.
"You don't have trees in your land?"
The Not-White Man shook his head. "Do you not suffer when you harm the living?"
Texoje lowered his fists. This could be a trick, though, so he stayed crouched, propping himself up with a hand. "The tree is not alive. You have to chop through its hard shell to get at the living spirit inside."
The Not-White Man's mouth changed from a fire pit to a shape more like a teepee opening. "Yes, I suppose I understand."
Word sounded strange coming from the Not-White Man's mouth, like a sound heard from a Coyote far away, rather than from a person sitting a few feet away. Texoje knew he could hear them, but couldn't determine the exact source. Maybe the fire pit was no mouth at all.
"What about the other people?"
Texoje sat down on the ground, so his eyes were almost even with the Not-White Man's. "We are the people."
There was another silence. "Are you knowledge-abled?"
Texoje flinched at the word. He had to think before he could figure out what it was supposed to be. But its meaning was a mystery. "What do you mean, 'knowledge-abled'?"
"Do you know that you will..."
Texoje waited for the end of the sentence. The White Man looked away for a moment. He made a sigh that sounded like the sigh of anyone from Texoje's village.
"You will die."
Texoje thought of his mother. She had fallen on a rock during one of her times of walking with her eyes closed. Her blood had fallen out the crack in her head and no matter how hard Texoje had shaken and screamed in her ear, she had stood no longer.
"Then you are knowledge-abled."
"Then I am," Texoje responded, no longer happy with this Not-White Man, who had forced him to think of his mother's death.
"We were told you were not."
"Then you are fools."
The Not-White Man's fire pit turned into a teepee opening again, then back to normal. Suddenly Texoje was sick of this strange Not-White Man and his face that didn't quite make sense. He wanted to leave and just go back home and tell them he had seen nothing and to forget he'd ever wasted his time out here by the river.
"Perhaps we are," the Not-White Man said. "A man LeDeux told us this."
"Lah Doo?" Texoje should have suspected that Lah Doo was friends with these new Not-White Men. He looked back across the river. He felt tired, though the sun was still hanging red in the sky. "It was he who gave that trinket, wasn't it? I hope you didn't give him many furs for the trinkets. They are worthless."
"You are mistaken. It was we who gave him the trinkets."
"What did he give you in return?"
"He gave us some knowledge-abled people. Ones called 'dog' and 'opossum.'"
Texoje laughed even harder. "Those are not people. Those are animals. Animals do not have a spirit of their own. They share a spirit among them." The new Not-White Man certainly was no smarter than even the ones in his village who couldn't get fish from the water or corn from the ground.
The Not-White Man's eyestalks drooped. The black spots in the center grew into circles. "Perhaps we should have spoken to you first."
"I don't want your trinkets." Texoje hoped that this would end the conversation so he could leave. When the Not-White Man didn't immediately respond, Texoje stood. "I should have known you were interested only in useless things like Lah Doo. I must leave before the sun is swallowed by the ground."
"What would you have traded?"
Texoje mulled the question briefly. "I would have had a rifle, to start." He looked at the Not-White Man, whose eyes remained up and aimed at Texoje. "And a big, beautiful horse."
The eyes were still upright.
"And a squaw. One more beautiful than Butterfly Wings, whose teeth are crooked." He saw that the Not-White Man's eyes stayed firm. "That would have been a good trade."
"For this you would have traded us knowledge-abled people?"
"For that I could show you a whole village of knowledge-abled people."
The Not-White Man leaned back and folded the buffalo-knee-like strings across his bulging stomach. "It is done. Take me there."
Texoje was impressed that the Not-White Man could keep up with his new horse just on foot.
The Not-White Man's legs were small, but they worked well. Never once, even when they rode up steep slope of the ravine, did the Not-White Man complain. They followed the ravine until the sun was nearly gone.
Texoje's squaw said nothing the whole way, and Texoje had never had a squaw to call his own and did not know the words to make her known that she was now his. But when they stopped for the night, she got off the horse first and busied herself starting the fire.
Texoje was pleased. He took his rifle out of the buffalo-skin pocket on the side of the horse and played around with it. He had never actually seen a rifle up close. He rubbed the shiny surfaces and played with the little parts that made sounds he tried to reproduce with his tongue and teeth, but couldn't.
He knew rifles could make a lot of noise and if the spirit of the animals allowed, whatever you pointed it at fell down dead, but he couldn't make it work, no matter how he spoke to it or made its parts talk, so finally he put it back. There was always tomorrow to figure it out.
The Not-White Man surprised Texoje by sitting in the grass, out of the reach of the fire.
Texoje didn't ask the White Man about this, or say anything. He had learned in his life that some people had their way and you had to leave them to it or suffer their wrath. When the sun was gone completely, the Not-White Man seemed to go away, though Texoje had a feeling he was still right there.
Texoje was able to shrug off the Not-White Man's behavior. He had his horse, his rifle, and his squaw. If the Not-White Man wanted to wander off on his own, that was his concern. After the squaw cooked them a few potatoes she had found growing on the slope of the ravine, and they had eaten their fill, she came to Texoje and touched him in a place no one ever had before, at least not kindly. It made him feel strange, like she was tickling him but he didn't want to laugh.
He had stood up and tried to hide what her touch did to him, as he'd been taught when such things happened, but she was pulled him back to the ground and kept touching and touching until Texoje lost himself in the sweet music of her touch.
The Not-White Man was sitting nearby when Texoje awoke.
The two of them, along with Texoje's horse, rifle, and squaw, started off again. Texoje led the Not-White Man along the edge of the ravine, until it shrank and was nothing more than a trickle of water running through a dark forest. The forest took all day to cross, and when they emerged into the plains on the other side, Texoje jumped down off his horse and tied it to a tree. He made a motion for his squaw to stay. She smiled in a way that made his heart flutter.
"Are we there, Texoje?"
Texoje put his finger to his lips. He crouched down low and started toward a low hill. The Not-White Man followed. At the top of the hill, Texoje fell to his stomach and crawled. The Not-White Man did likewise.
Just over the hill, the village became visible. Texoje pointed. "Ayuwha." The Sleepy People. His village called them that because his village always caught them unaware, as though they slept even when they were awake. They usually took their horses, and food when they needed, but left the people alive to live in their shame. His village had counted coup with them many times without them ever counting coup in return.
"Ay-u-wha," the Not-White Man repeated.
Texoje led the Not-White Man back down the other side of the hill. When he spoke, he whispered, "The Ayuwha know that they will die, too. They are like my village, except they are slow and weak. You can count coup with them right now if you want. They don't like to count coup because they think it makes their corn grow slowly." Texoje pointed to a patch of tall green plants ripe with small ears of corn.
The Not-White Man put his long arm-thing on Texoje's shoulder. "We thank you, Texoje."
From the forest behind them emerged a large disk, shiny and yellow, like the trinket the Not-White Man had traded to the fool Lah Doo, except much, much bigger. Bigger than Texoje's entire village and with eggs embedded in it. The eggs that Little Grass Blade had taken to be the eggs of the Great Spirit. Texoje flattened himself on the ground, terrified.
The Ayuwha villagers came from their mud huts and ran to their corn, covering it with their bodies.
The Not-White Man's giant disk of gold approached quickly. Texoje ran back toward his his squaw and his new horse, certain that they had met the Great Spirit. Texoje froze at the top of the hill. The horse was calmly eating grass while his squaw picked blue flowers that were growing along the forest line.
Texoje turned. The Ayuwha villagers were gone. The giant trinket kept moving, like a bird with no wings. It made no sense. Nothing did anymore.
And it was his doing.
Texoje had destroyed everything that made sense.
Texoje looked back at his new horse and his squaw, pleasantly unconcerned. But then, both had come from the Not-White Man, hadn't they? As far as he knew, the squaw and the horse were tricks, Not-White Men wearing skins of a squaw and skins of a horse, like when Changing Sky sometimes wore skins of a buffalo before a hunt and the others would boom the drums and the smoke would hit you just right and you could almost imagine that Changing Sky was a buffalo.
The squaw waved at him and even from here he could see her smile. He remembered how she had touched him last night and wonderful that had been. Another trick by the Not-White Man?
Texoje turn and ran after the Great Trinket. He screamed. "I want to come, too!"
But the Great Trinket flew away faster than he could see it, up into the sky. Texoje stood there screaming until his voice was gone. He was in the middle of the Ayuwha village. He looked around. The Ayuwha people insisted on making hogans and keeping animals and growing food like women. His village had always laughed at them for that. The hogans were arranged in a circle and in the middle of the circle was a square of dirt where maize grew, fluttering now in the cool breeze.
The village was empty of everyone. The fires still burned, but the people were gone. He double-checked all the hogans to make sure.
The squaw and the horse were still where Texoje had left them. He saw them as he crested the hill. Without a word, he led them to the Ayuwha village. The squaw began to gather food from the cooking fires.
Texoje sat in the dirt he stared at the impressions the feet of the Ayuwha had left. Five toes on each foot, like him. Were they dead now? Was that what the Not-White Man's word "knowledge-able" meant? Had he really been asking if Texoje would kill an entire village?
Texoje didn't know. He spit in the dirt and formed it into a ball. The ball of mud wasn't much, but he thought it would fill in a crack on the smallest hogan, the one he would call home. Maybe with the little ball of mud, he could start to put the world back together and bring the Ayuwha back.
And if Texoje couldn't put the world back together, then he would never, ever return home.
© 2009 Joshua Allen
Bio: Joshua Allen's work has previously appeared in The Fifth Di..., Reflection's Edge, Twisted Tongue, and The Written Word.
E-mail: Joshua Allen
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.