chapter three ~children by the way~ ~part two~ ~feathers on the wind~

WordWulf By WordWulf, 14th Apr 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Family>Domestic Violence & Abuse

~we just have to make it through the night~sleep won’t come~safe in our cocoon~peeking through night holes~feathers on the wind~a shrewd awareness~back your ass up white boy~maybe live through the night~

~feathers on the wind~

Though I willed myself to stay awake, I must have drifted off. Bird was back. I don’t know how I knew but, peeking out between the wooden slats of the truck rack, I saw a fuzzy form sitting on the running board of the truck. The roofing axe felt reassuring in my hands but I wondered how and if I would use it to defend myself and my siblings. Fear nibbled at the edges of my brain. My skin broke out in gooseflesh, partly because of the chill in the air, mostly because I wondered if I would have the courage to wield the axe against an opponent. Bird was a formidable man with an axe of his own, what I imagined to be war feathers, eagle feathers, adorning its club-like blade.

Something slapped violently against the wood of the truck rack an inch away from my face. “Go back to sleep, blonde boy!” I fell back against the boxes behind me. I hugged the steel of the axe to my breast. Bird, with a shrewd awareness, had known I was there watching him. I lay back and squinted my eyes. I could make out the light of the moon through a hole just there in the tarp. I swore to the moon that I would be good forever going forward if God would just see my family safely through the night ahead, away from the threat of Bird.

The night was bone cold. From the warmth of our child cave we heard muffled and sleepy adult voices. A door squeaked and I was certain Bird had joined my parents in the cab of the truck. The interminable night stretched forever and I fell off its jagged edge, hatchet in hand, into the dark maw of sleep. I was embroiled in a vivid nightmare where I stood on the edge of a precipice, giant bats, teeth gleaming, diving at me. Hatchet in hand, I swung wildly at them, feet slipping, scrabbling for purchase in the loose gravel at the side of the road, on the edge of the cliff in my mind. A giant bat whose wings were arms and face was Bird’s snatched the roofing axe from my hand and descended on my family where they slept unawares on a picnic blanket swirling like a cloud just beneath us.

“You guys keep still. Everything is all right now.” Momma's hand was on my face and the lifted tarp revealed promise of a fuzzy American prairie dawn. There was a sharp edge to Momma's voice, even as she whispered, and the tracks of tears on her face. She set a paper bag just inside the tailgate of the truck. “There’s egg salad and bread in there. When your brothers and Lily wake up, fix them some sandwiches. Daddy got the truck fixed and we’re getting ready to leave. We won’t stop now, except for gas, until we reach Billings.” She stifled a sob, reached in and squeezed my bare knee where it stuck out from a hole in my jeans. “I love you, Tommy. You go back to sleep now.” I opened my mouth to reply, to question. The tarp fell back into place. Momma was gone, darkness returned. I questioned her presence, had she been part of my dream but her feet crunching on the gravel and the squeaky door of the truck opening when she got in convinced me the sleeping dream was over and that Momma and the morning were reality. I reached out and touched the paper bag. Its crinkly sound was a final and indisputable verification of the reality of her visit.

I found the roofing axe, gripped it tightly and hugged my knees up against my chest. Go back to sleep?!? What about Bird? Who stole the night? I peeked over the tops of the boxes as the truck chugged to life. The headlights came on and Daddy pulled ‘er out onto the tarmac. Peeking into the cab through the rear window, I saw Daddy’s face in the rear view mirror. His jaw was set and his eyes held a fearful determination. I squinted hard to see them and hoped they wouldn’t catch me looking, see me back. Momma's head was resting on Daddy’s shoulder and that was all. There was no Indian in the cab with them and that was a good thing. I will remember forever Daddy’s worried face through the glass, in the mirror. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the young man, Daddy, was only twenty-five years old.

I scrambled to the back of the truck and lifted the tarp. I saw a small bundle that might have been an animal skin there by the roadside. My eyes widened in horror as a white dervish rose from the ground, dancing and spinning, caught on a swirling wind. It flattened out and came to rest over the bundle like a comforting shroud, a mantle of sorrow. Full of holes, it was the last I ever saw of the blanket Momma had spread for us to rest and eat our supper on.

I tucked the tarp in and crawled back into the cave, secure in the nearness of my siblings. The axe was cold in my hands and I kissed its steel with the warm breath from my lips then drifted into an uneasy doze. The metal tasted like copper, like blood, like a tear. I dreamed of Missouri, so recently behind us. Momma had almost made it on her own with her ragtag army. The past few months flickered through my mind, desperate shadows and peek-a-boo hopes.

After Uncle Jack left, Momma continued to work. She was distracted, took us out for walks in the rain and picnics in the sun. We enjoyed many ‘first things’ together, attended events with Aunt Ella and her family, fairs and such. We went with Uncle Steve to his ‘club’. I found out that’s what rich people call the place where they go to get drunk. We had dinners with Grandma Ada and Grandpa Jim. It was all too strange. If they were normal, these people and their lives, I was sure I wasn’t and probably never would be. Jim showed us how to catch fireflies and keep them in a jar. They would flicker through the long night, making light inside their prison of glass. We took them out to a wild blueberry patch to bury them in the steep morning.

Momma didn’t feel good after a while but said she thought she knew what was wrong. I worried; I always worried though Momma warned me not to. She vomited through most mornings then left for work pale and drawn. When she got home all she wanted to do was sleep. She went to the doctor and seemed to feel better but was sullen and strangely sad. When I asked what the matter was, she would hug me, then Jackie, Phillip, and Lily in turn. Her sadness reached beyond us and the light left her eyes. I still worried though she told me not to.

“We’ll be together, no matter what,” she’d say to us, over and over, the chant of a private prayer. “I’ll always be here to take care of you. We have to believe in each other and, no matter what ever happens, know your Momma loves you.”

She argued with Grandma Ada a lot. I heard them but pretended I didn’t know, like a good son should. I would never understand adults. The things that made folks happy in books I read, even newspapers, were sadnesses to be endured in my family.

Momma was pregnant and Daddy was coming from Denver to take us away. Momma and Grandma Ada spent a lot of time crying and yelling at each other. I was glad Daddy was coming and wondered why Grandma Ada hated him so. Adults were supposed to have answers but all the adults I had known in my short life answered questions with questions of their own. They used trouble to stir up more trouble.

I stirred uneasily in the traveling cave while the wind whoop-whooped the tarp over our heads. The wild wind put me in mind of the tornado. We were at Grandma Ada’s and the wind was blowing Jim said, ‘like the dickens.’ Chickens were blown from the pen, tossed a-tumble, every which way. They flapped and flipped through the air, squawking feathered kites, finally quiet and tangled in the blueberries. Grandpa Jim called everyone inside and Jackie and I helped him open all the windows and doors in the small house. The wind broke most of the windows anyway. We huddled under a bed while the terrible storm tore the place to pieces. Grandpa Jim sat on the bed so it wouldn’t blow away and made low man sounds that made everyone feel better. When it was over, the outhouse was gone but the hole was still there. We all had to squat in the open and do our business in front of God and everybody. Grandma Ada said that was just the way it was for now, nothing to be done about it. She wept over her blueberry chickens. Grandpa Jim dressed ‘em out and put ‘em on ice down the well house.

Adults are like a rising wind, I thought. They create you in a great storm of loving, fling you into the air then tell you to be still. The hole is black and you drop your waste into it, wondering if it ever stops or just falls and falls until the wind picks it up and splashes it into your face. Saint Louis fell away; now we were in Wyoming, on the way back to Billings.

“Tommy, the truck is rolling.” Phillip was squeezing my sleeping cheeks, his eyes haunted and afraid. “Did the mean Indian get us?”

“Ah, Phillip.” I woke, hugged him to my side. “The Indian’s name was Bird. He fixed the truck so Daddy could take us to Montana. He’s gone now and everything is all right.”

“I want my Momma!” Lily woke up crying.

“Jackie,” I whispered, “Hold Lily.”

“No way,” Lily whined. “He’s bein’ mean Jackie.”

Jackie was huddled up in the far corner, as far away as he could get from the rest of us. His face was a dark sullen masque.

“That stupid Indian didn’t kill us,” he said in a thin monotone voice.

“I hungry and ‘tinky, Tommy,” Lily complained.

I stashed the roofing axe in a nearby box then went about the business of changing Lily’s diaper. I used an old towel retrieved from the same box to replace the messy diaper. Jackie lifted the tarp so the wind would blow through and chase the unpleasant smell away. “Hand me that bag,” I said and Jackie pushed it toward me. A few minutes later we were all munching on egg salad sandwiches. I rolled the dirty diaper up and wrapped the lunch bag around it. I snuggled Lily against my chest, Phillip at my side, closed my eyes and began to sing.

“Here comes Peter Cottontail, hoppin’ down the bunny trail. Hippity, hoppity, Easter’s on its way!”

The old pickup ticked the miles away, ran like a top as Daddy would say. The Sterner family returned to Billings late that evening and moved into a motel on the edge of town. Our unit consisted of three small rooms, a tiny kitchen, living room, and bedroom. It felt like a mansion to us following the boarding house and days spent riding in back of the truck. Momma and Daddy took the bedroom and us kids slept on the couch. Lily was too big for a dresser drawer and had taken to snuggling up next to Phillip at bedtime. I went to sleep easily for once, happy beyond my wildest dreams. Not only were we back with Daddy, he was sober. We were a family like a family should be.

Within a week, Jackie and I were registered for school. Momma got a night job as a waitress and Daddy was roofing for his old boss, George Nicholas. Daddy bought a TV and sometimes he made popcorn and Koolaid for everyone to eat and drink while we watched it at night. Momma cooked breakfast and lunch and Daddy made supper. He was a much better cook than she was.

Life was good then, except for Jackie. It seemed like the better Momma and Daddy got along, the more he screwed up. He crawled behind the couch and messed himself. He’d stay there until Daddy smelled him then refuse to come out. Daddy moved the couch, whipped Jackie’s butt all the way to the bathroom then make him stand in the corner. Once in a while he would have to stand there naked. Other Times he’d just stand there all night, until Momma came home from work, in his soiled clothes. Not only did this make him smell worse, he broke out with awful sores.

Momma and Daddy argued about the problem then went to the bedroom to make the springs squeak. Daddy never hit Momma when he was sober. They worked through their problems but Jackie was more than they could handle. I wanted to choke him and hug him all at the same time. I watched Jackie close because I knew, sooner or later, he would run away. Before he had a chance to run though, something even stranger happened. Momma and Daddy sent Jackie back to Denver to live with Uncle Jack and Aunt Pat.

He was happy and I was sad. What would I do without my brother, my best friend? Would I ever see him again? One morning he was there eating his oatmeal. That night he was gone. What if Uncle Jack took out his meanness on Jackie? Daddy made popcorn and Kool-aid the day Jackie was sent away. It was almost as if he was celebrating. I forced myself to eat a bit, then asked if I could play in Daddy’s truck while Daddy, Phillip and Lily watched TV.

I was the only one of the children allowed to play in Daddy’s truck. It was hallowed ground. It held the tools and ladders with which he worked to feed the family. It carried him from town to town, job to job, and back home again. It had rescued us from the jaws of Saint Louis and returned us to the country of the big sky. It was the home of the country western singers when Daddy wasn’t at home to listen to them. I sat behind the steering wheel and wondered where Jackie was at that exact moment, whether he was happy and safe and what he was doing. Was it deep night in Colorado? Did Jackie miss me?

The steering wheel of the old truck felt solid in my hands, substantial. I gripped it so tight my knuckles turned white. I was doing my best not to cry but felt feverish and a tear slid down my hot cheek. “Jackie, don’t go away,” I sobbed, “You gotta come back to me. I need you.” I kicked my feet back and forth and felt my heel come into contact with something solid sticking out from under the seat. Daddy was very strict about his tools. They were always kept locked in the tool box on the truck or in a bucket next to his bed. The mystery underfoot served to help me forget about Jackie and my nagging loneliness for a few minutes.

I peered down into the darkness between my feet but could only see odd pieces of old newspaper strewn about. The truck’s floorboards were rusted out, its frame visible through them in daylight. Daddy planned to have a welder patch ‘er up when he had a extra few bucks, but for now he kept newspapers under the floor mats to help insulate the cab. They were stuffed in the broken door panels as well. I almost ignored the object which my heel struck and have wished ever since that I had. Some things known are not meant to be and such was this, a lifetime reminder of Jackie going and the wisdom of birds. I couldn’t reach the object while in the truck. The steering wheel was in his way so I decided to approach it from outside.

The door opened with a squeak as I stepped out onto the running board. I bent down low and poked my head inside the cab of the truck, just underneath the steering wheel. Whatever was under the seat seemed to be wrapped tightly in newspaper. I reached under to grab it and pulled my hand back quickly. The paper wrapping was damp and sticky. The dampness made sense, sticky didn’t. My mind slipped back to the road trip from Saint Louis, the newspaper toilet paper. Of course it’s wet, I told myself; water comes through from the street and keeps everything down there wet. There was a dark stain on my hand where I had touched it. I pressed it against the papers, rubbed it back and forth, but was unable to wipe off the stain and stickiness.

Finally, I clenched my teeth and closed my eyes, grabbed the end of the thing and pulled it toward myself. The wet mushy newspaper came off easily. I opened my eyes and peeked down. What I saw there drove all thoughts of Jackie and everything else from my mind. The motel sign was flashing off and on, “VACANCY”, a strobe light exposing the mystery of the object in my hands. It was Daddy’s roofing axe, covered with blood and strands of long black hair. I dropped it, watched its slow motion fall and stared at my bloody hands. I wrapped the axe in its soggy paper and put it back under the seat. I pushed more paper around the mess, did my best to put it back as I had found it. I winced at the squeak of the door. I closed it as quickly and quietly as possible but it still made a loud whining complaint. I climbed into the back of the truck and sat on Daddy’s tool box, sobbing and staring into the wide night sky. There was a coffee can with kerosene in it that Daddy used to clean tar off of tools wedged in between the tool box and the side board of the truck bed. I plunged my hands into it and sat there rubbing them together, washing away the blood, breathing in the pungent odor of kerosene.

~farewell captain charlie~
©2014 graphic artwork music & words
conceived by & property of
tom (WordWulf) sterner 2014©
~also available at Amazon ~


1958, Alcoholism, Art, Colorado, Denver, Family, Free, Memoirs, Missouri, Mommas Rain, Mothers, Novelist, Parenting, Philosophy, Photography, Poetry, Poverty, Saint Louis, Sons, Survival, Tom Wordwulf Sterner, Violence, Wikinut, Writer

Meet the author

author avatar WordWulf
I write novels, poetry, songs,nonsense & lies. Sometimes truth sneaks in when I ain't lookin'.

Share this page

moderator Steve Kinsman moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


Add a comment
Can't login?