The Killdeer Stammers
Carol L. Park
I don’t know exactly what draws my attention—the rustle of wings or the slight tremble of branch and needles of the white pine as the killdeer alights on a limb. I stand near it, arms raised to drape sheets and a blanket over the line stretched between the tree and the hook I once hammered into the side of our home. The cool November sun might not dry the blanket’s coarse fibers, but it’ll freshen them. Last night Bill and I grew warm in the close huddle of our bodies—one white, one clay-brown—finding solace and rest while our skin dampened and scented our covering.
Every fall the killdeer leave the shore and their nest and make their way south. There is one that honors us by making her stopover here. When she arrives, I welcome her with a pause. We eye each other and chat—long-separated friends uniting. But on today’s coming her jabber is anxious, not cheery. Maybe her release from tending babes is not all joy.
For me that’s true. Our twins started first grade a few months past, mixing their coffee-cream bodies with those of many whites, and though I pleasure in hours free of interruption, concern tinges my days. I picture my boys and wonder. How do they take the required sitting still and attentiveness to the teacher? Before they roamed, climbed trees and discovered bulletins of nature—worm, cone, or deer scat. Here, near my feet, are the greens they seeded, replacement of the corn and tomatoes that together we watered and picked.
This soil is dark and moist, but fields around us parched. I scan a half circle, past fields and onto the rolling hills, and to the clear sky, wanting to know why the mother killdeer stammers her call. Then the dart of her head and white collar draw my eyes. She spreads her tawny-brown wings and vaults into the air to alight on our roof. Again her call stutters.
“What is it, Ms. Killdeer?” Past times she quieted on hearing my voice. Today her sharp quick noises became louder, more urgent. Something is wrong. Is it with someone I love? A chill rises from my toes through my spine. I pull my phone out and touch two keys that link me to Bill. He works around big equipment and occasionally there’s an accident. I ask, “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m checking the latest tractor shipment.”
The lilt of his voice eases me, but words stick in my throat.
“Is something wrong?” Bill asks.
He respects my sensitivity to the Whisperings. After all, he’s known me since college days and seen my intuitions borne out. No ordinary white man, he grew up on a reservation, son of missionary parents, with plains around him until we moved here to the farmlands of western Michigan. Bill, like me, attended elementary and middle school with First Nation kids of varying tribes, mostly mine. Together we left that life, that place.
“I don’t know.” No use alarming him, so we say our good-byes.
I know it might only be Mama feeling poorly again, not necessarily the boys. When I first met their teacher, she smiled at all three of us. No puzzlement or judgment at seeing the mixed-race look—unlike some. Without hesitating she said, Jimmy and Sammy, you’re going to like it here! What do you like to play? They gave their straight-line smiles back, silent. Do you like ball games? They nodded. Dodgeball? We didn’t play that game, so they stared wide-eyed at her. She looked around the asphalt where some kids played tetherball, others swung on a play structure, and another six stood in a circle and took turns throwing a large white ball at two children in the middle. Andrew, Sarah, and Jackson, called out the teacher to get their attention. Here’s some players for dodgeball.
I stepped aside and she walked my boys over to the group as she explained the ball game to Jimmy and Sammy. I heard her introduce them all and saw the kids give way, making a place for my boys. It did not pass my notice that two of them looked sulky or annoyed. The others seemed okay.
At the end of their first day, Jimmy and Sammy seemed fine. They had one small complaint. Dodgeball hurts, said Sammy. Only when Jackson throws it at us, added Jimmy. He throws it easy at the other kids.
Then don’t play with him, I cautioned. It reminds me of town. How some people treat me normal and smile, and others keep apart or make it hard. A cashier who doesn’t ask me, do you want help out? Or, when I say yes—as I did when eight-months pregnant—keeps me waiting. Occasionally, there’s a foot set out to trip me and the sarcastic-sound of, Sorry, if I stumble or the whispered, Clumsy. Or the name-calling from a passing car. They rarely do it when Bill walks with me. His height and big hands and chest warn them off.
I climb the three porch steps to get a glimpse out our long driveway to the road where the school bus stops. Two small figures were coming into view, their steps slow instead of their usual dash. I walk towards them, taking them into my heart. Their eyes, their foreheads, their tuckered-out look. Dust and scuff mark Jimmy’s jeans—he’s the bigger one, the one usually first to clench his fists or push.
I see each pair of eyes flit from me to the other—like a bird’s head bobbing down and up, as if in search of consent—then back to me. As of late, they check each other’s opinion, looking to some secret understanding, a unity of intention. How is it that so soon they aim for solidarity with each other and that I am already—slowly but certainly—being shoved to the back?
“Come on. Tell me everything,” I urge them. I notice Sammy licking his lips. The lower one puffs out as if he’d been hit.
“Did we, did we come from India?” asks Sammy.
“No, no. Of course not.” Again that look to each other. They seem unsure whether to believe my words. What brought this on? What talk—name-calling, labels or taunts—did they hear? At their school are girls with white-yellow hair like Palomino manes or boys wearing gym shorts rippling above pale knees and eyes of blue or green. The hair of our twins is near fully black like mine; Jimmy’s eyes hazel like Bill’s and Sammy’s darker, like mine.
“You were born here, on this very red soil.” I shake my head as if I shooed off a horse fly buzzing near and his attempts land and bite. “Indians were born in India, a far, far off place.”
“Jackson said so.” Jimmy sticks out his jaw as if defying someone. I hope that’s aimed at Jackson, not me.
“And Andrew, and Sarah, and Mike. Said we belong there,” adds Jimmy.
“They lie. Your father’s ancestors are Dutch and I, I’m American longer than your Dad.”
I’ve never told them about being Shawnee and Potawatomi. I don’t want them to feel different. They seem to feel easier with the darker-toned kids, “niggers” as others sometimes call them. Or an occasional migrant worker. They’re so young—I haven’t wanted to explain about my First Nation heritage. Certainly not now, not with old resentments and hatreds running high. Not after the fear-mongering speeches of the election campaign and after where racial typing and slurs lie below the surface of the words. Not with hate and targeting of immigrants bandying about. Not after the blustering words of that Republican candidate, now President. Not with our state following after him like some kind of Strong man to save us from our economic woes.
I raise my hand up, palm facing out, as if I were an officer trying to hold off traffic, but it’s something much harder to stop. It’s the wrong-way speeding of lies, prejudice and hate. My arm stiffens. My fingers crumple into a fist. I slowly withdraw it inside my pocket and I hear again the urgent chatter of the killdeer. Oh that I and my babes could fly away like her.
Oh these sticks jabbing my heart. I will dab them with mud and dam the tears pushing to get out. Mama taught me never to show the hurt a white man’s taunts causes—they’ll torment you all the more. Neither did she want me with Bill, at first. Before our wedding, she told me I’d hurt for it and regret my vow. For that, I didn’t want to even see her until the babies were born, but then I came around. I couldn’t deny her who—the one who gave me the gift of flesh and spirit—these two new lives. Bill, good man that he is, always took us to see her when I asked. When she saw our beautiful boys and how he cares, she softened.
Bill and I considered whether life in Michigan, so full of white people, would bring us closer to our dream. Living far from my kind, would I hear Injun spoken less often with scorn? Or would it be worse, more lonely?
So far it hasn’t been too bad and at least we have a house and a plot I can farm. I thought my boys would be left alone until they were bigger. They don’t come yet to their Daddy’s thighs. What a shock that it would start so soon. So soon. Was it the first graders who bullied them or older ones? For shame—they don’t even know what and where India is and so soon my little twins have to stomp their tears.
My lower lip shakes like the tail of a squirrel in the wind. I grab the boys’ heads and bring them to the home-dyed fabric of my soft cotton skirt. “This is your home more than theirs. We were here first.”
They’ve learned today what I learned long ago in my college studies and efforts to help my people. That the United States is a lie. There is no uniting here, no sure melding of native blood and European. The American names I gave them, Sam and Jimmy, offer no harmony, afford no shelter even in first grade. I won’t tell them yet the other half—how in states not far from here black asphalt paves soft dirt where their forefathers were shot with rifles—the poor natives holding only bows. Nor of the broken treaties and forced marches to barren land. I want to tell my boys that those school kids know nothing. They don’t even know India is a country and Indians are from that nation. Nor can they point to India on a map. More than that, their parents are fools—ignorant of the differences among the First Peoples of this land, between ancestors who speared silvery trout leaping in the streams of Dakota or those tribes who seeded and harvested grain. The school children know only a terrible little, what their parents tell them, their torqueing of the story, the harvest of fear and greed.
But what use would it be for me to speak of such to my boys now. What do they need from me?
Perhaps I will talk to their teacher. Yet, she can’t watch every schoolyard game, hear every whisper, stop every taunt.
So I only stroke the black thick lines of their hair and tell them, “You are Little-sun and Moon-eagle.” They look up at me surprised. They haven’t heard their other names since they were babes in arms. “You are First Nation people. Be proud.” And I look up. The mother killdeer cocks her head so that I see plainly the spot of her white forehead and her orange-red eyering, amid her brown cap and wings. It comes naturally to speak to her in my mother’s language. She too understands the dangers fledglings face away from her wings, far from the nest.
I gaze at my own. Confusion floods their eyes. I reach my strong arms to bring them close to my warm, woven skirt. My longing grows and swells, like lake water stirred by wind, gathering into a cresting wave. Oh, the ache to know, to tell them, when and how truth will shower the dry, cracked land.
About Carol L. Park: Books, hiking, and pursuing various geographies–spiritual and cultural–are Carol L. Park’s loves. In the last several decades she’s raised two marvelous daughters and taught English as a Second Language, six years of that in Japan. Creative writing became her focus in the last dozen years, including earning an MFA in Creative Writing. Her short stories have appeared in the anthology, Irrational Fears, and also in The Harpoon Review and The East Bay Review. To learn more about Carol L. Park visit her website.