When I was a small child I used to think the tall trees whispered secrets to each other in the dark. Now as we float along the narrow banks of Bear Creek I know it isn't so. I am twelve; almost a woman my mother tells me - born in a small cabin near this creek December 10th, 1916. Mother is Ojibwa Indian. Father is a white man. I am White Feather. Everyone calls me Feather.
Today the trees are still, and the air silent. They move quietly past as one upon the bank of Bear Creek as our paddles pull us forward through the dark waters before nightfall. Father sits behind me. His red beard glows in the setting sun. He steers our canoe around hidden rocks while Mother paddles in the front. I sit in between among the harvest of rice we have just gathered from the marshes around Bear Creek. The smell of new rice, and the sound of our paddles make me drowsy. Soon, I begin to hear another sound - hollow, like the cry of a loon. It weaves its melody through the trees like a mournful call.
"Do you hear that?" I ask my Mother.
She hesitates…"Red Bird."
"Red Bird?" I ask.
"She is an old woman who lives alone, not far from this place. Sometimes, you hear her play her wooden flute. It is her song."
Mother turns and looks at me. She makes a little smile that seems to cover sadness.
"You have never spoken of her. When did you know her?" I ask.
"Sometime I will tell you - but not now."
I know better than to press my mother for answers when she is not ready to speak.
"An old woman who lives alone - surely she must need things," I suggest. "Can we bring her some rice?"
Father interrupts, "We will speak of giving when the work is done."
He is right. Collecting rice from the marsh is just the beginning of preparations. It must be dried, stirred over a wood fire, and the husks removed. It must be tossed gently in the wind to blow away the chaff. But no work seems too hard when I think of sharing our rice with an old woman who lives alone in the forest.
Late at night I lay still on my bed in a small loft above the kitchen. The light from below casts a soft glow on a picture of Jesus on the wall. When he walked on the land he was treated badly Father told me. I wonder if they treated his mother badly too. An Indian boy once told me my Mother was "bad medicine". I told him that was a lie.
I begin to listen to my parents talking in the kitchen below.
"We will celebrate our own First Rice Feast," I hear Mother say.
First Rice Feast is held every year among the Ojibwa Indians much like Thanksgiving.
"When the rice is prepared, I will take Feather to meet Red Bird. We will invite the old woman to our feast," she tells Father.
I strain to hear what Father will say. Then I hear him ask, "What do you think she will do?"
"No matter. It is time," Mother says. There is a long pause. "Time for Feather to know the truth."
Time to know what truth? And why is it a secret? I listen to hear more, but Mother has changed the subject. I am half-excited, and half-afraid.
I peek out the window beside my bed. The tall trees tremble, and seem to whisper in the wind. Are they telling secrets? I feel like a child again, and wonder if I will ever get to sleep.
The next morning at breakfast, Mother tells me we will visit Red Bird the very next week and bring her gifts! Perhaps then she will reveal what the big secret is all about.
Within a few days, I watch as Mother pours our gift of rice into a burlap sack. She fills a tin with wild blueberries, and wraps up some fresh fry bread. Father presents a beautiful wooden bowl and spoon he carved out of birch wood. I convince Mother we must include the extra quilt I keep at the foot of my bed. "It is much too hot in the loft for so many blankets," I insist.
We pack our treasures into two canvas packs and carry them to the creek to load into our canoe. I take Mother's usual spot in the bow of the canoe while she paddles behind in the stern.
After three miles, she begins to scan the shoreline up ahead. Mother is always the first to spot portages in the woods, no matter how hidden they are along the shore.
"You see over there? That's it," she says, pointing.
I see nothing but a solid bank of trees and brush. Then I detect a small rocky ledge, and a narrow opening into the forest. We aim for the opening, and are soon drawing our boat toward the shore, sculling our paddles back and forth. Mother has been quiet most of the trip.
After unloading and securing our boat, we hoist the packs onto our backs and Mother leads the way. My curiosity grows with every turn. A black dog meets us halfway along the trail, and runs ahead of us.
Red Bird's house soon appears. It is a small shack, an abandoned trapper's cabin Mother tells me. Its wood has grayed, and the boards at the base are rotted. I wonder how an old woman can keep warm all winter in such a poor place.
Red Bird sees us coming through a small window. Soon her door opens. She appears, smiling, wearing a faded calico skirt and blue shawl. She begins to rattle off words in pidgin English mixed with Ojibwa that I cannot understand, but Mother seems to know perfectly well.
I have never been taught to speak Ojibwa. Mother doesn't talk it at home. She thinks the white people will find out and send me to boarding school to get the "devil's talk" out of me. Father would never let them take me away, but Mother is still troubled. I cannot understand why the whites are afraid of Indian children speaking Indian?
Red Bird motions for us to come in while she shoos the dog out, jabbering all the while. We sit with her at a small table. I smell cornbread and mint tea. A barrel stove sits in the corner. Red Bird's flute hangs from a leather strap on the wall near the door. Mother and Red Bird continue talking with words I don't understand until I finally break in and say, "What is the big secret?"
They both stop talking and stare at me. Who will speak first? I wonder.
In the next few minutes, I am told a story that turns everything I ever thought about my tribe and my family inside out. I learn Mother was married to an Indian man named Grey Horse many years ago. They had a son who was stillborn. The next year they had another son. He was also born dead. Red Bird, a medicine woman, helped with each birth. Grey Horse believed the deaths were her fault, and so spread rumors among our tribe that she was "bad medicine".
I remembered what the Indian boy said to me about my mother, and wondered too… if that is why the tall trees seemed to whisper secrets to each other in the dark.
The story continued. Not long after spreading the rumors, Grey Horse was pinned under Devil Tooth Rapids and drowned. People believed Red Bird and my mother brought this bad luck to the tribe, and both women were shunned, and feared. My Mother was re-named "Stands-Alone." No Indian man would have her after that, and my half-brothers were never spoken of again.
Finally, I understood why our tribe rejected us. They have been afraid of what they do not understand. Fear often makes people act in ways that hurt others. I suppose it is why some whites are still afraid of Indians, and why some Indians are still afraid of each other. Even my mother was afraid of Red Bird, but now she has overcome her fear, and is ready to invite the old woman back into her life.
As we show our gifts to Red Bird, she gives us thanks and quiet tears begin to trickle down her old and weathered cheeks. I carry my quilt to her bed and spread it over her thin worn blanket. Mother invites her to our First Rice Feast, and I get an idea. I ask Red Bird to play her flute at our feast!
Later, as we walk the path through the woods back to our canoe I ask Mother, "Why is it that you have never spoken to me of Red Bird, or Grey Horse, or my two half-brothers?"
Mother pauses. "I was afraid to tell you. Once, I knelt beside your brother's graves and a red bird flew and landed a few feet way. I became afraid. From that time on I thought if I told you all these things, you would come under Red Bird's power. Now I know it isn't so. You think our tribe has turned us away - this is only partly true. I have kept you away so you would not find out about the 'curse of Red Bird', but Red Bird has done no harm. She is an old woman, and she is our neighbor. Fear will no longer hold me captive," Mother says.
I look up and take a deep breath of the forest. I close my eyes and listen to the tall trees rustling in the wind. A song bird calls and I feel light as a feather - but I do not feel like a child anymore.
(Authors note: Red Bird's Secret was first featured in Aletheia, an arts and literary magazine for teens. It is also part of a story collection I have written titled 'The Stone Writer' currently available in paperback and digital format on Amazon.com.)
If you died today, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven? You can be! TRUST JESUS NOW
Read more articles by Toni Babcock or search for articles on the same topic or others.