ONTARIO, CANADA 1891
I am in the tree again. They will kill me. I am in the tree again and they will kill me. They will whip new feathers along my arms and shins, blue and red and burning as lightning. A hundred new feathers, yet I cannot fly.
I scrape the broken leaves from my hair and stumble down the branches.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
They remember the weight of my feet. I have been here many nights before. It is morning now and the fathers will be waiting for my empty bed to scream out like a white mouth, to tattle on me and spit up my grievances.
Why do I belong to the tree? I cannot fly.
“Simon!” It is Father Matthew. He rips my brown hand from the muggy air of the woods and into his own. He wears it like an unneeded glove. I am his now. I am no longer the tree’s.
“I’m sorry, Father,” I say. “I must have sleepwalked again.”
Dragging me toward the school, he snorts. “Stupid Indian. You were in a tree! I saw you coming down.” The glove of my hand loses its fingers in his palm. “Sleepwalking…nonsense…let’s wash that sleep off you then,” he mutters as we reach the entry hall. “And fix that godless walking,” he adds.
The other students are bent over the balcony in a smudge of brown- brown shirts, brown pants, brown shoes, dark brown hair chopped off and formed like clay into little bowls. They are silent as their faces swallow and breathe me out, a bubble on the floorboards.
I will be given a shower. I will beg for it to be warm. It will be so cold that it draws fire, my shoulder blades curled up into wings and soaring over my ears. I will be hit because I am a brown boy who belongs to the trees at nighttime, to the land, our first land that was not called Canada.
“What do you think you were you doing last night? Trying to run away?” Father Matthew’s voice bites at me.
I am naked in his office and already scarred by the whip. "I don’t want to run away.” I clutch my arms in an X across my chest. My penis dangles like a broken question mark. “It’s just sleepwalking, Father. I don’t know…”
He slides into my side, his fingers curling over my arm. His nails are too long. They make five tiny, white half-moons in my skin. Five branches. I can’t climb down. This will be the fifth time.
“Your parents want you here,” he hisses. “They gave you to us. Don’t you know that? The sooner you accept it the better.” He pushes the clump of wet bangs from my forehead and kisses my forehead. His breath smells unholy. “Come now, Simon. Time for class.”
It is not class.
This will be the fifth time.
In school they teach us their religion. They teach us their world. They teach us that we should not exist in the skins we are in, that we should cut ourselves new ones from themselves like we do from the animals, that we must pull their right bodies around our wrong ones.
Caleb sits next to me. His family called him Nodin. His eyes skim my blue and red stripes.
I bend into the icy desk as the feathers tighten over my broken skin.
“I am ‘wind’ and you are ‘waving feathers,’” he says. “We should fly out of here. I can help you. I am wind,” he whispers into his reading book.
Kahkewāquonāby. It is what my family called me.
“Yes, Caleb,” I am defeated. I no longer know how to use the names we carry inside of us.
“Simon!” A voice shouts.
It is a new father, a different father. They are all the same.
“Perhaps Mr. Sleepwalker would like to take a walk to the front of the classroom to read the passage?” He laughs. It somehow ripples his starched collar. “Don’t worry, I’ll strike you awake if you nod off.” He shakes his head so sharply I think it will leave a hole in his robes. “Sleepwalking into the tops of trees! Such absurd Indian nonsense. You likely think that you can talk to animals as well, that you are one with the birds, so to say!”
“Yes, Father,” I respond, my palm coating my reader. “I mean, no, no I don’t!” I stammer. “No, I don’t believe that. Yes, Father, I will come to the front of the classroom.” I stand up and the feathers fall in patches to the floor.
“Are you bleeding?” Father asks, jerking backwards into the blackboard. “Get a towel from the laundry! Hurry! Clean that up!”
“Yes, Father,” I repeat.
I walk in my feathers by mistake, streaks of red on the soles of my mud-brown shoes.
Streaks of red brushed back into the ground.
Into the woods. Calling up to the trees, “Let me fly.”
It is dawn, three days later. I am in the tree again but I am no longer alone. The other boys lie at its roots. Are they dead? Brown clothes, brown skin sinking into the ground. I scurry down the tree as if my feet have eagle’s claws.
“Wake up, wake up!” I shake them one by one. There are twelve of us. One me and eleven of them. “Wake up, wake up!” I am shaking on the inside. I kneel down before Caleb as his breath hits my cheek. It is bitter and warm.
“Mmm…,” he moans, his lashes fluttering. The brown of his eyelids become two brown slits of iris as he falls into Jeremiah. “I was dreaming, friend. We flew. We flew away. I helped you…”
“What did you do?! Hurry,” I warn him. “We must get the others up and go back in. Why are we all outside? What did you do?!”
Caleb stumbles to his feet. “I did nothing!” He bellows. “Was only dreaming.”
The sun carves away a chunk of his cheek. The others begin to moan just as Caleb had. The sun is peeling them open like newborn flowers.
“Please get up! Everyone, get up!” I yell at them. “We cannot be out here!”
The hot August rays bounce off the schoolhouse’s windows and strike me between the eyes. They are a whip. They are Father Matthew’s hands. They are killing me. I press down on both lids with my leaf-coated fingers and rub away the pain. It slips inside of me. It is traveling down my throat to my lungs, to my heart, to my stomach, to my knees and the balls of my feet. I can take it. I will take this pain. I will not be killed.
When my eyes open the other boys are a muddy burial ground built upon the land before me. The dead have no words.
We have died a million times in this place, but we will not be killed.
The schoolhouse is on fire, peels of orangey-red curling around its frame like plumage. The feathers skim the sky. The wings are beating. There is a concert of screeches. It is the sound of slaughtered animals.
The fathers are wearing our skins.
“Caleb…” The name is a knife in my throat, cutting away all sound. “What have you done?”
There is shock on his face, his mouth open like the door of a tent. He squeezes my feathery shoulder. “I only dreamed,” he breathes. “Only dreamed while you were sleeping, while you were walking.” He pulls his hand away, each finger stained red with feather.
The fresh wounds have gathered in spots beneath my shirt. I jerk my muscled back free of it, tear its brown cloth from my shoulders and throw it into the woods.
I stare at the schoolhouse. I stare at every big and tiny bird flying away from it. Three years I have been caged. Three years I have been cut and torn into and broken, pieces of me stolen and never to return. I stretch my arms out to the sky and pull at the smoke clouds around me.
I am trembling, shouting, screaming the name that now swims to my lips from the pools of fire in my belly. “I am Kahkewāquonāby! I am Kahkewāquonāby! I am Kahkewāquonāby!”
I fall to the ground in a piercing cry, sobbing so hard that my tears flood the death from these grounds. I peel off my shoes and bury my battered legs between verdant tufts of grass. Bury my screaming head. Let the grass caress me back to life as if it were my mother’s hands.
“Let’s fly, friend,” Nodin says. Our classmates are alive, growing in a circle around us. Their backs are as bare as mine. We embrace in a storm of tears.
We will fly back to our mothers in our own naked skins.
We will fly back as Thunderbirds.