He felt like stifling. Every so often he glanced somehow disgusted at the stubby fingers of the man beside him. He pictured them soaked in sauce and oil at some gluttonous meal. All this time he was fretting more than ever, straining his mind in the hope of a late redemption. The man with the grey moustache wearing a blue uniform would be eating and laughing with his wife, while he–
”Move, you sonofabitch!” a voice came from behind.
It was a lanky guy with glasses and a wooden forehead crossed by a shadow darkening his whole face. They called him Pudding because he was the most frightened of them all, though he didn’t like to show it. He couldn’t stare into the eyes of the doomed. He would swirl his gaze up to the ceiling where it would get stuck in the cobwebs. When it was over, his gaze would come back down in his purple orbits honoring them with a bit of humanity. The other guy’s name was Stubs, well-known for his volcanic temper and racial prejudices. He has been employed there only two years ago, but you’d say he was born there from the dust on the floor, each box bestowed with a piece of his darken soul. They called them ‘boxes’ to alleviate the circumstances.
Every step hurt, stinging him. He knew he was coming to an end, to a „last journey”, as his grandfather – the great sage of the community – used to say. He loved his grandfather more than anything, an old man clad in buffalo skins who would ponder in the evenings on the riverbank and beckon the birds. He remembered a story he told before the ceremony of his elder brother. One day a child was born bearing a birthmark, not a good omen because it foresaw a tumultuous life, full of mishaps. Still, his destiny wasn’t to be deprived of majestic joys. He would help many people and get precious rewards. The moment he was born, an owl perched on a branch above his mother, in broad daylight, and uttered a strange sound, like a wail, then spread its wings and scattered a silvery dust on the baby’s cheek. They called him Owl Wings ever since. The great learners of the tribe read in the tree bark that the owl was his lucky charm animal that would protect him every step of the way. So it was when your mother was due. Remember, my boy, you’re not just anyone. You are meant to be a warrior like your father, The Great Raven. Now, his grandfather’s words echoed feebly in his mind, like a breeze over an empty nest.
„Can’t you see, he looks as if already toasted”, Stubs jeered and broke off sullenly seeing his partner’s unruffled soberness.
Pudding tensed his shoulders and sighed.
„You have absolutely no sense of humor”, the moustache man muttered, then started to hum: Today it smells like fry, today’s your lucky day…
Only the metal sound of the shoes click-clacking on the floor and the rattle of the chains cut through the stillness of the hallway. Owl Wings closed his eyes. He pictured a sweltering summer day. A humming caressed his ears. Walking towards a nearby creek, he felt the grass under his feet, but some burden thwarted him, so he just smelled the perfume of the flowers and marveled at the clouds scattered in the sky. Somebody called him from behind a cluster of trees. He could only discern a woman’s shape who beckoned him with her finger. Hadn’t he been pinned to that field, he’d have gone to her. Eventually, he knew who she was. She was Wild Rain, the only one who knew how to shoot an arrow better than every young her age. He was mesmerized by her finely-shaped thin lips and her tawny long hair that half-covered her cheeks like a shield so that her fearsome beauty shouldn’t chase away all her suitors. She was alive and young, waiting for him. Only him, in the secret place. He’d never known someone like her.
„Yo! What’re you chewing? Give me some.”
„It’s a mint. You don’t want it, it’s bad for your diet.”
„Don’t get cheeky, Pudding.”
„And you said I had no sense of humor. Hey, you redskin, move! Why’d you stop?”
Owl Wings jumped, then started to trudge wearily along the endless hallway.
It was mid-August when he met the American. His grandfather had just finished his prayer to the heavens. He spotted him while he was staring idly into the distance. First he was a dot, then a stain that sliced the horizon. He grew curious and headed that way with a spear in his hand. Then he saw him: a young man in his twenties, a paleface with tattered clothes. He’s been badly wounded in some ambush and barely managed to crawl up to their village. The man raised his head and, despite his fear, cried in his language: „Help!” He couldn’t understand a word in English, but this one he understood: a word wrenched off of an endless despair. He helped him get up and offered him his shoulder. In his family, there was always this silent war with „the white skins” which had troubled them for so long in the past, burned their villages, raped their women, and stole their dignity. While he was helping one of them, he thought with horror what would Chieftain Eagle Eye say, finding that the grandson of the much revered Black Wolf had saved the life of an enemy.
He had to lie. But what could he tell them? The American was shaking and every so often muttered something in a low voice. His walk grew harder and harder. „He limps like an sick dog”, Owl Wings thought. „I should let him die for all the evil his ancestors did to us”. But he couldn’t. Ever since childhood he’d been scolded for being gentle like a woman. He would look after the sick animals. He had this dream of acquiring their language.
His elder brothers came up to them, armed with bows and stones. He waved them to stop and lay the American in the grass that swayed gently into the evening breeze. He knew by heart the words they exchanged into that sunset when his life was about to change forever:
”What have you done? Why did you bring the white devil on our land?”
„He’s just a man who needs help as I see it.”
„Let him die like the worm that he is!”
„Brother, I love you and honor you, but I’m the eldest and you’ll listen to me.”
„You may be the eldest, still our father has the final say. Beware, Owl Wings, this will be the beginning of your end.”
During the meeting of the Elders Council he sat beside the young American who was unconscious. When he touched his forehead, he felt it hot. That heat filled his bones, tying him mysteriously to that stranger. A trickle of blood fell from the lips of the dying man and dripped on his fingers. He was never aware of the sacred pact he signed in that blood ever since.
No one was on his side. He pleaded with Dark Wolf to treat him and promised that he will work harder instead of roaming the fields. He sobbed until the old man agreed to bring to life that man who slept between the worlds. In that crucial moments, the soul was traveling between life and death. And because they were sworn brothers, Eagle Eye gave him the blessing. The wounds were cleaned and rinsed with the water in which healing herbs had boiled. The bullet had missed his heart. Sharp objects had scratched his face and arms. After hours of struggle and prayers, the American opened his eyes. He put his hands together and, with shadowed eyes, thanked the women gathered around him.
He thanked him differently, though. He hugged him. Fell to his knees and kissed his feet. And that kiss sealed the bond between their souls. The gratitude he felt towards those who saved his life appeased the sages of the tribe. Richard began helping them, sharing with them the advantages of one who belonged to the civilized world. He learned them survival tricks and built them a stable for horses and cows. He fed the birds, cleaned the houses and joined the women’s chores, weaving baskets and taking care of the new-born babies, much to the amusement of the young girls who secretly mocked him. He never spoke of what had brought him on their lands and who had made him suffer so much. He only told them that some unrighteous men shot at him, then assailed him as punishment for something he hadn’t done. Nor did they ever ask or try to rummage through his past. Once accepted, you leave everything behind, just like a snake which sheds an old skin. No one needed drab clothes.
„Well, all white people are the same,” his brother muttered sometimes, „they even kill each other.” Tiger Lip always thought the American a potential threat, ready to go off just out of the blue.
Their friendship grew stronger with every word they learned from each other’s language. Richard first learned the names of the family members. He articulated them very carefully as if his lips were holding some frail fortune. To Owl Wings, English seemed like his second language that he learned with unusual ease.
„You were a white devil in some other life”, his mother – the most gentle woman in the tribe – teased him. She was fond of the American, too, even secretly in love with him. He took him in by their laws, arousing the jealousy of her sons and the displeasure of the chieftains. Sometimes, years later, he would take Richard’s side in arguments, praising him for his dissenting nature.
In spite of his humbleness towards the elders, Richard always felt a second heart beating inside him. Together they pilfered fruits from the nearby tribes and ventured in mysterious places; they defied the ancestral laws and tamed the wild animals. It was no wonder they saw Richard in front of Panther Voice, the chieftain’s daughter, juggling with four oranges. They fell in love with each other before Eagle Eye could knit his eyebrows in anger. Twenty lashes that gouged his back couldn’t abate her love for him, either. Finally, the father agreed. But he fell sick after the wedding and requested to be replaced. Slanderous tongues said it was the curse of the white man brought upon by Richard’s blood. When Panther Voice gave birth to a dead child, black rumors fell over the community like a plague. One day, with a voice sprung from some other body that was forgotten in a far-away land, he said to him in sadness:
„Forgive me, but I can’t stay here any longer. I belong to some other place, I miss my own. I want to take you with me. Come, little brother, come with me in Boston.”
He tried to change his mind, but all his efforts were in vain. His sworn brother was ready to leave the land that sheltered him for seven years and the people to whose goodwill his life had gone depended on. The woman who became his wife begged him in tears to stay with the tribe for her sake. She scraped her knees in the soil of the hoof-trodden roads hoping that Richard would look back, impressed by her wounds. But the American kept his gaze ahead… And he followed him like a faithful horse, burying his origins in the mists of time.
The city shriveled his courage and his inocence. The sky-scrapers, the high heels, the purses, the noisy cars, the fast-foods… all these opened a huge void inside, draining him of his happiness. The first time he laid eyes on a skyscraper he thought it was a monster and threw himself over Richard to protect him from the ominous intents of the beast. But the American laughed at his naivety. A hearty laugh after many months of mourning. They both jot jobs at a bakery where Richard knew a plump man with a moustache. If Richard hadn’t convinced his father to take them in with him, they wouldn’t have been able to lead a decent life off their meager wages. They hadn’t spoken for seven years, but the old man needed the hands of another man to take care of his household. Rancor was a luxury he couldn’t afford.
There were nights he’d have given everything to turn back to his people, but knew the town ensnared him and wouldn’t let him go too soon. He steadily gave up his feathered hat and braids to the displeasure of the other employees at the bakery who were now left without their main source of laughter. He bought a pair of jeans and a jacket like the ones cowboys wore in the western movies. He took up smoking to impress the dyed-hair girls and he was baptized a new name: Phil. Wild Rain, the only woman he ever loved, was to become a ghostly presence like some blurred shadow behind a curtain.
His existence as a modern man grew over the next three years. Richard had changed. Their past frolics were over, so was the joyfulness of youth. Only a dying echo remained – a bee buzzing past the ear of a sleeping man. His brother kept searching for something, a part of him lost in the place he left a decade ago. He asked him many times who had hurt him, why he ended up in a tribe of native Amerindians, but his answer was always blunt:
„I told you I don’t want to talk about it, Phil. The story is too painful.”
One night, Richard received a strange phone call. He heard him from the living room:
„Who are you? How do you know? I’ll… no! It was ten years ago… You bastard, you won’t do it! Why… yes. There…I should have known it was you… Ok, I’ll meet you in front of the depot.”
Richard’s face had gone white. Hadn’t he known about the law of nature, Owl Wings would have thought his friend long dead.
„Who was that? What did he want?”
Richard searched for something in a drawer and got out without a word. Next day he was woken up by a rapping at his door. He swung the latch. Three policemen barged in, throwing him on the floor and searching him. The questions started:
„Where were you last night between eight and ten o’clock?”
It was a nightmare, a misunderstanding.
„I was here with Richard Holmes’s father. He can back it up.”
„Oh, he speaks English!” jeered the policeman who pinned him.
„So you know nothing of your friend’s death. He was found shot in the head near the depot on Grey Street.”
It felt surreal. His gaze blurred, making the whole scene in front of him look like a bad dream. He fainted.
Later, he opened his eyes to a cold room where he was lying on a dirty bed, dressed in some kind of pijamas. There they came and took him for questioning. The torture in those moments brought up memories he wasn’t even aware of. He was beaten, spit upon and humiliated. Suddenly, the fact that he didn’t belong there cast him to the side of humanity. But he didn’t judge them, didn’t even hate them. He couldn’t help thinking of the unrighteous fate that parted him from his sworn brother. That night when Richard had answered the phone had been the last time he’d seen him alive. They wouldn’t let him sing Haoa Thatthaa, nor wipe his blood as he once did. The American ran like a coward and died amongst his own, the „white skins”. This time the bullet ripped his flesh and nobody stitched it. All secrets were buried with him. He never understood why he didn’t share them, why their souls failed to coalesce and why Richard had chosen to die alone…
„They call it ‘the death row, you knew that?”
The Indian stopped. He was staring idly, unheeding.
„Do you think he’s afraid?”, Stubs asked, smirking.
„Who wouldn’t be, in his place?”
„Me. If I was him, I’d have gone through fire and hell, like a real man.”
Pudding smiled peacefully and put his hand on the back of the man with long black hair.
„Come on, let’s go.”
Owl Wings started to walk slowly, trudging his bare feet on the cold floor, cold like an arctic sea of death. Had I wore any shoes, I’d have been sorry to part with them.
All pain left him. He felt a numbing on top of his head.
How would it be like beyond? My grandpa told me it’s like when you wake up in the morning and you’re still clinging to the realm of dreams. You don’t know which reality you belong to. A silver cloud ensconces you and you’re a child again, not crawling, but floating. You’re again happy and carefree until a man in fox or wolf skin comes along and tells you what you did wrong in your past life. At the end of the lecture you’re brought in a waiting room that has a buffalo head painted over the entrance. You wait until a new life is given to you, as man or animal.
What if grandpa was wrong? What if it all ends here… here, at the end of the hallway?
They came in front of a bleak door, guarded by two limp goons. As if on cue, they spread apart, letting all three of them to enter into the dark insides of the room. They unchained him, then pushed him into the black chair. They tied his hands and covered his head with something like an octopus meant to suck up his pain. In front of him, a bunch of people separated by a brackish sheet threw him hateful arrows from bloody eyes. Among them he saw the old man Holmes. He shouted out some curse. Why were all against him? What harm has he done to them?
He sighed, blowing out the last candle placed at the head of his soul, lit by the shadow of his ancestors. He remembered the hot kiss of his mother caressing his forehead, and his fingers scrabbling through the sand. It was the day when he was promised the key to the kingdom of butterflies if he’d behave. He missed the plains reddened by the sunset, he missed his sorrel. He wanted to run, to lose his trace in a thick forest. He was thirsty… he wished he had drunk water from a pond. But there were no ponds there, only locked-up boxes.
All of a sudden, a breeze from nowhere tickled his nostrils. He felt the weight that pinned him down turning into a strange feeling as if a tree would sprout up from inside, stretching its branches through his arms. An astonishing pain shriveled his shoulders. He looked around, thinking that someone had pushed his fists down on him, but everyone sat now at a safe distance. A figure was getting ready to pull the switch. The weight intensified. He started shaking and his body fell on the floor. It was impossible, he knew it. Still, he wasn’t in the chair anymore. Something grew out of him, rising.
„Yo, are you nuts? Who am I working with? I’ll sack you, you jacklegs!”
Pudding kneaded his hands. His face was white and he looked visibly thinner.
„I knew you wouldn’t believe us, mister Warden.”
„You’re pulling my leg, lads. You let a prisoner escape right before his execution.”
„A-a-ask Stubs, sir, he was there too.”
The man in the uniform coughed nervously, then faltered:
„Yea, I was there… they was about to pull the lever, to start the machine. Then it happened. A blinding light flooded the room. When we came to, he was gone. We held the witnesses responsible, one of them might be hiding him. We even shoved some of them. You know me, I’m straight as an arrow. We searched until we got to his box. We opened it and… an owl flew off. It just stood there in the dark. It took off, just like that. Tony swore the bird whispered a name before getting out through the window: Robert or Richard… fancy that, the bird spoke!
Stubs burst into laughter. His baleful guffaws echoed along the hallway sounding like a dying man’s ballad.
– Translated from the Romanian by Dan BUTUZA