Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Feather

It was an ideal site for a new Feed’n’Seed, the developer considered. Big enough for a nursery greenhouse, a couple of salesrooms, a warehouse with loading docks in back and in front for deliveries and customers. Room for everyone to park and get their birdseed and horse feed and flats of petunias and sacks of lawn chemicals. The highway was not so busy it couldn’t accommodate a turning lane, but the parcel was barely two miles from one town and practically in the suburbs of another. The nearby river was far enough downhill not to flood the basement. The soil was rich enough not to support the habitat of inconvenient butterflies. He had every reason to think the town meeting would welcome his offer; it was good for everyone and disturbed no one. He still had a few hoops to jump, though; the damned bloodsucking archaeologists were coming this week. The developer wasn’t too worried, just annoyed. Couldn’t they tell just by looking that nothing had ever been here?


Fifteen hundred years earlier there were no towns, no highways, no lawns, and no horses. The developers’ ancestors wouldn’t get there for nearly twelve hundred years. They would have agreed with him in thinking the lands hereabouts were uninhabited. Some times of the year, in some parts of the region, they would have been right. But even then they might have noticed the forest was relatively open, almost parklike. Some of the trees were girdled in a manner that ruled out beavers or rabbits. Near one cleared area there were some quite elaborate wickerwork affairs, but if you were used to lumber or stone, or even wattle-and-daub, they did not look like houses. But people returned there one spring and made comments any summer renter would recognize.
“I don’t remember leaving this place such a mess,” Many Fawns grumbled. “Beanflower, can you take that bundle to your grandmother? Feather, catch this line while I knot it –“
Her husband’s mother, Didn’t I Tell You, pulled her end of the hide covering taut and swatted at the four-year-old next to her. “You can pull harder than that.”
Feather, who was nine, came and stood over his young brother and helped pull the skins over the framework. Didn’t I Tell You laced it up and patted them both with more approval, while Beanflower and Fawns unrolled the next bundle of hides. Feather and Child Underfoot pulled, their mother and sister laced, and Didn’t I Tell You grumbled until the wickerwork was suddenly covered in a patched, overlapping skin of its own, much more homelike, with a definite inside and outside and a door between. “Right then, Beanflower, you can get the floor cleaned up and Grandma and Feather can go look for sweet fern and maybe some mint – take Underfoot with you – and I’ll get the fire started up. Gran, will you look for some decent kindling --?”
“How many times did I set up camp before you were born?” asked the older woman, without much heat. “Come on, Feather, bring a couple of sacks and we’ll see if we can find a snack as well…. Your mother would tell a moose how to swim and that sister of yours is worse, make some man rich and very tired in a year or two.” She took a handful of Underfoot’s shirt for steering purposes and picked up the digging stick she carried everywhere. Feather came after, with a bunch of netting bags and the smallest bow Didn’t I Tell You had ever seen used seriously. Maybe if there was a grouse about to die of old age… but the boy had thrown his shoulder out so badly last winter. It seemed to be all right now. “How’s that arm, boy? And don’t give me any of that manhood crap.”
Feather giggled briefly at her language -- he had learned most of the bad words he knew from her – and fell in alongside. “Pretty good, most of the time.”
“Unless you use it?”
“No, really. Sometimes it aches at night.”
Underfoot fell over. They picked him up. Didn’t I Tell You watched Feather dust him off. He was good with the younger ones. He was, she admitted only to herself, her favorite of Fawn’s children. It was partly the habit of fear; Feather was not strong and every passing illness seemed to sit on him longer. “So tell me, how many things you see around here are good for eating?”
“Not very many now,” said Feather. “Things with big roots are still scrawny from the winter. In a month or two, we can dig that one up – come look at these leaves,” he told his brother. “We can eat that one there when the shoots are about as long as your arm, and we at that one after midsummer.”
“And when do we eat that?” his great-grandmother asked.
“You can’t eat that. Can you?”
“Good! You can, however, make fairly good rope out of it if you can’t find cedar bark or milkweed or what else?”
As they walked, picking their way among the trees, Underfoot found a turtle, but it was not the time of year for eating turtles so they just praised his powers of observation and walked on. At the top of the hill, they stopped to catch their breath and looked down to the canoe landing. The cousins were unloading the last of the sacks and Beanflower was carrying the largest cooking pot with exaggerated caution. Feather pointed off to the right.
“Did we use to live over there, on the other side of the stream?” The place looked brushy but picked over somehow. No big trees.
“You didn’t, but I did,” his grandmother answered. “About thirty years ago. But the river moved one season when we were away for awhile, and the land was wearing out. Needed a rest. My parents are buried there. You can see a couple of sticks left of the house.”
“Did they need a rest? Will they get strong again like a cornfield?”
“I don’t think it works like that,” she answered cautiously. “I think they just went to be with the ancestors, somewhere else. Like your baby sister last winter.”
“How can she be an ancestor when she never had children?”
“You’re a Feather of a very talkative bird. I don’t know. I’m an ancestor of you and your cousins and I’m not even dead. As far as I know, and your mother doesn’t come to find us wasting time.”


A week later the camp was transformed. Even the most civilized eye (probably from Asia) would have agreed. Seven skin-covered homes were linked to each other with clearly worn paths, and more paths led to the cornfield and the latrine and the river and off into the woods. Small fires leaked smoke through the seams of the houses and the crevices left open in a little smokehouse full of rather lean deer meat. The fresh skins were stretched over frames for scraping or smoking or otherwise processing into usefulness. A tree, girdled years before, now lay felled. It was being dismantled into firewood, tanning bark, basket and arrow and bow and spoon and bowl and packframe and bedding materials. A row of pots dried under a lean-to shelter, guarded anxiously by Beanflower from her younger relatives. Underfoot had learned about skunks. Many Fawns had set up her netting posts and informed all of her children that they could twine whenever she caught them looking idle or causing trouble.
This gave the children an incentive to keep out of her way and learn to look busy; and, most of the time, they really were. They weeded the mounds in the cornfield and set the seeds to grow. Everyone used the new latrine to the west of the field, and helped empty the old one-- some years old and now unsmelly --into baskets and spread the rich soil onto the corn mounds. Feather and his brother scared crows and jays off the field, and helped their mother clean pigeons when their father, Walks Into Moose, came home with a huge net full. Even Beanflower dropped her adult pretensions for a moment and chased bits of feather down floating in the sunlight and the draughts from the fires.
“Why did you call me Feather?” the boy asked his oldest relative one evening. “I don’t catch fire and smell bad, and I can’t fly.”
Didn’t I Tell You looked around and picked up a stray flight feather, too small for fletching. She bent it almost double and it snapped back straight and apparently just as strong. They smoothed the barbs together; it looked as crisp as it had in the bird’s wing. “You’re light but strong, boy,” she said. “You came through a bunch of illnesses in fine shape.”
Feather nodded. Could be worse (like Reeks Underfoot, as his small brother was known these days). “Something Mom said once that you said when I was born --? What was that?”
Didn’t I Tell You pursed her lips, successfully hiding her concern, and spoke slowly. “Sometimes I get these notions, and sometimes I’m right.”
“Like when Uncle Bear broke his leg?”
“Like that –“ Early the winter before she had woken Many Fawns--and everyone else—out of sound sleep to tell her to go up the game trail with some of the cousins. A long time later, they met Walks Into Moose. He was two hours’ walk from the place he had been forced to cache his brother. It had taken six people most of the day to get Uncle Bear home.
“—but usually less useful. Sometimes when a baby is born I know things about them. I knew your father would be catching a lot of ducks, and when I met your mother I knew they would end up together—“
“Which was weird, because she’s from the people who live on the coast and we don’t see much of them,” Feather completed the formula of the family story.
Didn’t I Tell You, who privately considered her son’s connections to be coastal trash, nodded. “And they twine their cordage the wrong way around. I was worried that when she started showing your sister how to –“
“But what did you know about me?”
She would much rather have stayed with a safer subject, but the boy was persistent. “When you were born I knew you would do something for us no one else could do.”
“For you and Mom and Dad and Uncle Bear and the cousins?”
His grandmother shook her head. “Yes, but no – for people I don’t know, too. All the bands, Real People. Even other people. And no, I don’t know what it will be. Maybe you’ll find a way to make a better fish-spear.” She hoped that would be enough. For the moment, it was. Feather leaned back into the bedding and thought about fish-spears.
Spring was always busy – actually, so was summer and so was autumn – but Walks Into Moose listened when Didn’t I Tell You asked him to start teaching Feather more about hunting. A month later he reported to her that Feather was getting stronger; not a natural shooter, but quick and good at noticing. He knew entirely too much plant lore for a boy. “And he wants me to carry a full set of hunting gear and a digging stick too.”
“At least you’d bring back something every time,” his mother snapped. They both knew Moose would never be caught doing anything so undignified. “And that load of hemp you helped him bring home really was unusually long. Saves a lot of time.”
“So he told me until we helped him pick it. He looked like a squirrel nest all the way walking home. He’s a good kid.”

But then the mosquito season began in earnest. All of them itched. They added green stuff to smudge the fires till their eyes burned and no one’s nose could tell good meat from rotting. The cousins’ new baby cried most of one night with a fever and then died, and suddenly eight of the twelve adults in the band were feeling dizzy. Didn’t I Tell You just stayed in the house and swore, horribly, drinking as much water as she could get anyone to carry and peeing immodestly close to the living areas. She shivered a lot, and tried every kind of safe bitter bark in her remedy stash, but nothing was better than willow (and she would never misremember that purgative again. Nor would anyone else).
It was a measure of her illness when she felt better one morning and realized she couldn’t recall when Feather had stopped being the one to bring her water. “Where is he?” she asked her daughter-by-marriage.
“He got sick two days ago.” Many Fawns looked like a starved deer but she, too, was on the mend. “He’s bedded down with Too Much Marrow in their house. We didn’t want to disturb you.”
What she didn’t say, but Didn’t I Tell You managed to find out in the next few minutes, was that Feather had tottered around bringing people water until he keeled over in a dead faint, spending most of the time since then not coming very far out of it. Too Much Marrow was perfectly healthy by comparison and complained vigorously when made to get up. Too Much Marrow’s mother pursed her lips and hoped Didn’t I Tell You would have a stroke as the old woman condemned the state of the bedding, the treatment of the hides, the vermin (as IF!) in the flooring and the clearly demonstrated incompetence of Too Much Marrow’s family for the last five generations or possibly all way back to the Big Floods Time. But somehow through the vituperation and cursing, Feather was moved back to his mother’s house, gently sponged and forced to drink some infusion and even take a little meat broth thickened with cattail starch.
Four days later Feather was able to walk slowly to the latrines by himself, even if he needed to rest on the way back. Every joint he had ever wrenched hurt like he had torn it the day before. The taste of willow in his mouth seemed to be eating through his cheeks and if he had felt better he would have been in a foul temper. Even thinking that was too hard. The sun felt good. It had been a long time since he had been able to escape from hovering relatives; even now Underfoot was running up alongside him, shaking his head. Feather fixed his version of their grandmother’s glare on him and the child swerved away. Good. Feather was having enough trouble dealing with himself. His arms and legs looked gaunt; he guessed the lightness he felt in his head was true of the rest of his body, too. No wonder people looked at him anxiously. His breath wouldn’t go deep enough, either.
He crept out of the campsite along the nearest trapline. Other people had been tending his snares and deadfalls; Feather didn’t think much of their idea of concealment and his grandmother would have told them to redo the knots. He retied some of them himself, but even his fingers felt clumsy.
And none of the efforts he put forth did anything to alter the wavy disparate memories from his illness. Pictures swam in and away: the look of resignation on his mother’s face; his so-assured sister in a kind of long-term terror; Underfoot and their grandmother somehow wearing an identical expression of stubbornness and anger. Feather had never noticed how much alike they looked, with her wrinkled old face and Underfoot’s young plump one, but both of their brows knit the same way and both of their mouths pursed up in the same disapproval.
He pulled his thoughts away from that and tried to see the path in the stray beams of light through the trees, to pay attention and see and hear the presences that concerned him. A fox yipped and Feather was on the edge of another band’s homegrounds. Two brothers wrestled and their mother, tired, lay easing herself on a warm rock nearby. The fox kits didn’t even glance at him. The vixen noted Feather’s arms remaining by his sides, and maybe, he thought, his general weakness. She didn’t move, just watched him. Foxes were never good to eat and it was not the time of year for taking their pelts, and anyway he didn’t feel any stronger than the kits, snapping at one another with their milk teeth and tripping over sticks. He nodded to the vixen and went away in another direction, feeling his weakness and uselessness shown up by another set of people.
No one else had been taken by the fever so hard; well, no one else who could walk, or hunt, or bring home goods. He tried to keep his eyes here, in the sunbeams with the dragonflies and the birds, but the pictures in his mind keep returning: his grandmother and his brother scowling, his mother and his sister deeply upset – not the way he would have thought Beanflower would look, since she usually pretended Feather didn’t exist anymore than Child Underfoot. He couldn’t remember seeing his father there, though he knew he had been, could recall his voice. It wasn’t just the faces that haunted him so much as a snatch of conversation between his mother and grandmother.
“You said he would do something important,” Many Fawns had accused, in such a low voice Feather knew only his grandmother was meant to hear. Didn’t I Tell You had grunted in as much pain as if Fawns had struck her, and answered in just as much pain, “Fawns, he will do it for us being dead, I have always known that, my poor little brave child. He works so hard and it’s being dead that he will work to our good, I hate it, I want to see him married and strong—but Fawns, he will do something, and I hope it’s so many years from now I’ll have gone to dust and never know what.”
“How can he help anyone being dead?” Fawns had almost sobbed. “I want him alive with his bad shoulder and his caution and his little steady head. Moose says he is too weak to be a great hunter but they come back together with good stuff. What is use is it knowing he’ll be a powerful spirit? Will he send us to meadows of very tall hemp?”
“He could do worse,” said the grandmother. “Enough noise, Fawns. These notions of mine either go too far or not far enough. You’ve never considered them much before. Let it go. Moose is a good provider with no imagination, and I don’t know what Feather will be, but get him more water and more willow bark. I want him to stay as long as he can before he becomes Feather on the Night Wind.”
The memory of the pain in their voices stabbed Feather again and he gasped in the brush, and then again as he remembered it was himself they were mourning. It took him a few minutes, but the tears stopped and his breath came back, as much as it ever did these days. He thought of his tall, hearty father and the uncles and cousins who hunted together and they were like different animals from him altogether, bears to his woodchuck. Now that would be an awful name, Woodchuck’s Shadow.
There was a coil of new string in his pouch, so he worked on rabbit snares. It wasn’t the same as bringing back a deer, but a couple of rabbits made stew for a family and warm leggings for the winter. He set the snares up carefully, wondering if there was a better way to make one. Fish spears were not something he had used much yet.
Then he walked slowly back to the houses and had a relapse.

“Sometimes people get these fevers,” Didn’t I Tell You assured him, when Feather had been awake for awhile a day later. “I knew someone your father’s size who had these spells two, three times a year. He did all right, except for his daughter marrying that complete fool from the Inland River-Too-Good-to-Use-Quartz People.”
“I don’t want to marry anyone,” Feather rasped.
“Well, not for a while yet, you wouldn’t.”
Feather looked at his grandmother harder. She looked away, which answered his question. He couldn’t see all the fuss about marrying anyway, though it seemed to be all Beanflower and her friends talked about. Uncle Bear and his friends mostly laughed and told each other about that monster fish they caught last year, eh?
But you didn’t marry anyone if you were dead.
“Do spirits marry? Is that how my little sister from last year can be an ancestor?”
“You’re not a spirit yet, my lad,” his grandmother said darkly. “One day soon some girl like Beanflower from another band will notice how quick your eyes are and –“
Feather’s laugh came out sounding like a heron, but it was a good sign anyway. “Right now I need to get to the latrine or someone exactly like Beanflower will be yelling about getting new bedding.” He sat up slowly; his grandmother helped him stand. He was thinner than she was, now. “It’s not as bad as last time. I can walk well enough myself.”
He ducked carefully out of the house and made his way to the latrine. Spirits, he assumed, did not have to pee. Except for his bladder (and even that once it was empty) his body felt remote and unconcerned. But otherwise they might feel just as drifty and unconcerned. He felt like he was gliding and had to stifle a giggle when he nearly tripped.
“You should eat something,” his mother said, handing him a strip of meat. But chewing jerky was too much trouble and the stew wasn’t ready, so he munched some popcorn and drifted off to his trapline.
It wasn’t so sunny today and he had more trouble finding his path. Apparently his father had had trouble too, because no one had checked his snares. A rabbit dangled shoulder-high in the air, but whatever joy Feather had in his success vanished as soon as he touched his prey. It must have been caught within hours of his setting up the snare. He should have been there at dawn the next day, instead of lying sweaty and unconscious in his bed while the rabbit swelled and spoiled. Feather doubted that it was fresh enough to make a good pelt. No one liked to waste a death; the little bloated body cut through even his detachment. This little dead one would not be helping anyone’s tribe except the Small Flying People. He was still looking at the snare when Underfoot crashed through the brush, accompanied by their grandmother. “He didn’t think you should go off by yourself,” said the old woman. “Showing more sense than some people not far from here.”
“I wanted to tend my trapline. Look –“
“Overripe, but at least you caught something. Good knotting.”
“I might as well be dead, for all I can do. I can’t even trap properly.”
His grandmother looked at him levelly. “You’re lucky you’re too weak to hit. You’re not the only one here missing his kill or spoiling work after that fever. Now, do you want to explain what you’re being so ungracious about to your brother?”
“No,” said Feather sullenly.
“He came after you. He’s not too young to help you set traps. And you’re not so useless you can’t show him how. You could use someone else knowing where they are. And if you want to leave my sight any time for the next week you can remember to take him with you.”
His brother’s stance indicated that he had no idea what they were talking about, but he intended to be stubborn. “You want to be Child Comes Along instead of Underfoot?” Feather asked, glad there was someone to speak to besides his grandmother in her nastiest mood.
“Want to be Catches Rabbits.”
“Not that particular one,” said his grandmother. “But he could do worse. All right? You mind living a little longer, if it’s not too inconvenient?”
Feather nodded. “Can we check the rest of the line? It isn’t far.”
“I can’t stop you, and you have a keeper so I suppose it’s all right. Back before noon?”
“Maybe sooner.”
“Maybe you aren’t completely without common sense after all. I’ll see you then. You might want to take that rabbit farther from here, before something less choosy comes and learns to tend your trapline for you.”
Feather wondered for a moment what could be possibly want to eat spoiled rabbit, and then realized who would. He took the rabbit’s leg in one hand and his brother’s shirt in the other and they walked along his trapline. To his relief, the other snares and deadfalls had failed. “Now watch me reset this one. You put the rock back just like this. Well, something like that. Over there, can you see the next one?”
The traps ended as they neared the rock where the mother fox had rested. Feather shushed his brother and they crept forward.
“Smells funny,” muttered Underfoot.
“Smells like foxes. Shh, now.” Feather threw the inedible rabbit toward the pile of boulders where the foxes lived and settled to his haunches. They waited a little while. Then the mother fox appeared, and sniffed at the rabbit. Three cubs tumbled out of the den and their mother watched indulgently as they threw themselves on the rabbit, yipping with excitement and tearing it to pieces. The wind, fortunately, carried the smell away, or maybe the relatively clean foxy smell masked the worst of it. The rabbit certainly gave one family a meal and a morning’s entertainment.
“Rolling in it,” Underfoot giggled.
“Just remember, people don’t roll in their food. Now, can you remember where all the traps are? Then we’ll go home.”


“You hired me to find out if you could build there,” the archaeologist told the developer. “I found out. You can’t.” He had been in the developer’s office for half an hour; the atmosphere not been becoming any more cordial. “I’m sorry, but that’s why they make you hire us to find out. It’s a crapshoot.” Kind of a loaded one, he had thought since he'd seen the topo map; south-facing, gentle slope overlooking the water, old river. The only surprise was that the site hadn’t been plowed out of existence.
“You say it’s not even that old, why does it have to be preserved anyway?”
“I said Middle Woodland. I don’t know if you think the sack of Rome is recent history, and if you go seventy miles north you find traces of people here when they were building the pyramids in Egypt. But this is plenty old enough, and we don’t dig up cemeteries any more.”
“How the hell do you know there’s a cemetery there?” The developer looked at the array of ten or fifteen irregular blobs. Ground-penetrating radar sounded like Star Wars to him.
“For one thing, I’ve seen maps like that before. For another, I dug one up. Right here in this box.”
“What is right there in the box?”
The archaeologist had not been in a kindly mood at the beginning of the meeting and the reception of his news had done nothing to change it. He opened the box: red flannel cloth, green cedar branches, skull --. “About nine years old. A boy, we think; there were some arrowheads found with him.”
The developer had turned satisfyingly ash-colored. He had a picture of a nine-year old granddaughter on his desk. “That’s – that’s disgusting.”
The archaeologist let him draw his own conclusions.
“What are you doing with him, with, with it?”
“Since the burial is already disturbed, we took a lot of pictures and a measurements. As soon as we know you’ll be leaving the site alone the local Abenaki will rebury him.”
“What’s with the cloth and stuff? You didn’t find that with him?”
“No, but the modern Indians like it. Respectful.”
“Well, shit.”
In terms of bringing the interview to a quick end, the skull had done its work. The archaeologist felt a little gentler. “A chunk of open space is a nice thing, too. Your name on a park? Audubon Society, the Archaeology Conservancy – they could give you good press.”
“God damn.”
“I’ll be in touch, then.”
“Just take IT with you.”
The archaeologist would not have considered doing anything else. He took the dead more seriously than most; if someone a thousand years and more gone had anything to say, he wanted to hear it. The dead have very soft voices, even if you use the most modern techniques.


It was an ideal site to raise children. The road was noisy and dangerous, but that was only on one side. There were chickens not too far away, and a woodchuck, and lots of mice and voles and nesting birds. The thicket surrounded a really excellent pile of boulders, and no smell of anyone living here now. The fox crossed the little meadow, slipped into the thicket, and started to dig.

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