“I saw the most beautiful girl yesterday,” Keme said to his mother. “More beautiful than any I have ever seen.”
Wapun continued grinding the pestle into the multicolored corn contained in the hollowed-out mortar stone. “Oh…have you been traveling north again, visiting with the Hidatsas?” She glanced over her shoulder, smiled up at him. “Has some pretty little thing caught your eye, my son?”
“No, not the Hidatsas.” Keme remembered the girl, eyes as green as prairie grass, hair the color of gold. And her smile.
“The Kansa then? Or the Mandan?”
“No, no, she was…well…” Keme trailed off, uncertain how to tell his mother about the beautiful girl, how they had met, and how she had not been frightened of him.
The pestle stopped. Wapun turned toward him, her black eyes locking on his. “You did not go over the mountains again, did you?”
Keme looked down at the stone floor. It had been a mistake, he should not have told her about Millie. But he had been so excited he had to tell someone about the girl and his love for her.
His mother grabbed his arm. “Look at me, Keme.”
Slowly, he raised his eyes. Worry twisted her features, causing the fine, white down that covered her face to bristle like an angry dog.
“This girl—does she live across the river?”
Swallowing the lump that had formed in his throat, he nodded.
Her wings rose slightly, quivered, the tips making a raspy noise upon the floor. “You know this is wrong. We do not mix with them.”
Keme knew. From an early age, he had been warned not to fly south from the Redochre Mountains where they nested, that since war had broken out among the Earthbound Ones many, many moons ago (so long ago that no one now living remembered just when), they had changed; the Earthbound Ones now believed their avian brothers to be witikos or other evil spirits.
But the girl had been different. She didn’t run screaming when she spotted him perched in the rafters of the old shed, watching her milk the cow. Instead, eyes on her hands as they continued their rhythmic pulling of the cow’s teats, she had said, “If you’re gonna stare at me, you can do a better job of it down here.”
Keme had frozen, his breathing had stopped.
“I know you’re up there, and I know you’ve been watching me for days. What do you want?”
Keme let out his breath. His white wings fluttered, stirring up straw on the floor of the shed. A cloud of dust motes puffed into the air.
The girl stopped milking, turned on her stool. She glanced up at him, her green eyes laughing. She grinned. “Come on down. I won’t hurt you.”
She hurt him? The very idea was ridiculous. The Earthbound Ones feared his people, not the other way around. Still, her bold gaze made him uneasy. Did the folds of her long, gray dress conceal the-weapon-that-kills-from-afar? The elders in his tribe had told stories about the weapon, how it shot stones that could tear holes through your body and knock you out of the sky.
The girl stood and placed the pail of foamy milk onto the stool. She swiped back a damp, blonde curl, then looked up at him again. Her eyes softened. “Please come down.” Her voice was equally gentle. “I’ve never seen any of your kind before, why, I wasn’t even sure you existed. You’re so…so…like an angel…”
Keme unfurled his wings and drifted down from his perch to stand in front of the beautiful, golden girl.
“Keme! Are you listening to me?”
Wapun’s urgent tone pulled Keme from the dim shed where Millie had first spoken to him, back to his family’s nest high in the Redochre Mountains. “Yes, mother.”
“Promise me you will not go back.”
Keme’s mouth opened, but he could form no words; his heart was stuck in his throat.
Wapun reached up and grabbed his face between her trembling hands. Her eyes locked on his. “She is not of our kind. Forbidden. She is of the Earthbound Ones, and they will kill you if they see you—or worse.”
“What is this worse?” Keme asked.
“Never you mind, just promise me you will not go back.”
Keme saw the naked fear gleaming in her eyes. Shame filled him. A good son should not worry his mother so. She was to be honored and obeyed above all others.
Wapun’s fingers dug into his cheeks. “Promise me!”
“That I will not cross the river again. I promise.”
She dropped her hands and reached around his waist, rested her cheek against his bare chest. Keme felt her tears wet the white down there. Shame washed over him again.
“I am sorry that I hurt you, Mother.”
“I forgive you, Keme. You are still young and don’t know how dangerous the world can be.” She released him, tilted back her head and cooed. And Keme knew happiness had returned to her heart. “Now go help your father. He is in the north field planting winter corn.”
Keme did not keep his promise, could not keep his promise. The following night, while all in the nest slept, he stole away and flew south over the Redochre Mountains and across the broad river that lay at the base of its steep slopes to meet Millie as they had arranged.
As he winged over the mudflats, a pack of one-eyed cyclotes howled and snarled into the face of Mother Moon. They saw him but could not reach him.
Keme laughed. The cyclotes would never catch him, and if he were careful, neither would the Earthbound Ones. He would not make the mistake again of crossing the river when Father Sun rode the sky.
His mother would never know. No one would ever know.
For a fleeting moment, he saw his mother’s worried eyes, and guilt for breaking the promise he had made twisted knots in his stomach. Then, lit by the full face of Mother Moon, he spied the shed below, and next to it, Millie’s home, and all thoughts fled his mind except ones of her.
Two gnarled oaks flanked each side of the house, casting twin pools of dense shade. Keme glided down, settled in the moon shadow brushing the front of the shed, then opened the door.
The cow mooed.
He almost jumped out of his feathers.
“Shush, Daisy,” a muted voice said. “It’s just him.” Then the soft tinkle of laughter.
Keme’s racing heart slowed. “Millie?”
He heard the rustle of skirts, and turned toward the sound. From the back of the shed, a shadow approached. The shape, the smell, he recognized her.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have laughed.” A small giggle escaped her. “But you looked so funny, your legs…hopping around…looked like a big chicken.”
Keme’s wings drooped. He knew his legs were different from hers, long and thin in comparison, and covered with scales. Did she find them ugly?
Millie moved close, and now he could make out her face. She was smiling, her teeth a slash of whiteness inside the dark shed. She looked up into his face, and the smile faltered, then disappeared.
“I’m sorry. I would’ve been startled too in your place.”
“Is that why you laughed at me?”
Frown lines appeared between her eyes. “What other reason could there be?”
Keme looked down. His long toenails scratched in the dirt, an outward sign of his nervousness. “I thought you were…”
“Laughing at my legs.”
Millie snorted. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“I know your kind keeps the small birds…chickens. Our legs are much alike.”
“A little, yes.”
“Do you think of me that way?” Keme dared to raise his eyes. “Like an animal…like a chicken?”
Her eyes glistened. She reached up, and up—Keme was much taller than she—and laid her hand on his cheek. Again, she smiled, but there was no laughter behind it. “You, an animal? Keme, you’re an angel. You’re beautiful.”
He took her hand in his, moved it to his lips and placed a reverent kiss upon the calloused palm. “It is you who is beautiful.”
The smile slid from her face. She stared at him, her eyes intent, mysterious. Then she cupped his face between her hands, coaxed his head down, and kissed him.
Keme felt as if every feather on his body was electrified, standing on end. The tip of her tongue brushed his lips and he burned. “I love you…” he whispered against her mouth. “I love you so much.”
She pressed the full length of her body against his. “Show me.”
Keme knew secrets could not be kept forever, especially if the secrets compounded; like repeated sins, they had a way of getting out. But love made him blind, brought him back night after night to the shed. To Millie’s arms.
That night, resting on a velvet blanket of stars, a half-full Mother Moon peeked down from the darkness. Inside the shed, Keme held Millie’s naked body against his, unmindful of the sweat that slicked her skin and dampened his feathers. He wanted to merge his body with hers. He could not get close enough.
He felt her heart slowing, heard her breathing returning to normal, and knew he wanted this woman beside him for the rest of his life. She was his first love, and she would be his last.
Somehow, he would convince his mother, and all the tribe, that this love was right. He would bring her to the village, and make her his wife.
“What are you thinking?” Millie said softly.
“That I love you, and…” Keme’s chest tightened. “And…”
Her lips nuzzled the base of his throat. “Yes…”
He took a deep, calming breath. “I want you to live with me. I want you to be my wife.”
“Oh…” The straw whispered around Millie as she moved away from him and sat up. “I didn’t think…didn’t know…oh…”
Her hesitancy struck him in the gut. He pushed up and circled an arm around her delicate shoulders. “You want to be with me, don’t you, Millie?”
She looked up into his face, her eyes gleaming in the near-total darkness. “Of course I do, I love you. But the mountains are so steep, too steep to climb. How could I possibly get there?”
“I will fly you!”
“You can do that? You can—”
A resounding bang startled them apart. A shaft of bright light cracked the darkness, blinding Keme.
“Get away from my gal!” an angry voice bellowed.
“Pa…” Millie squeaked.
Keme lurched to his feet, stepped toward the voice.
A thunderous boom rattled the shed and Keme was knocked off his feet, his chest exploding in pain. Gasping for breath, he struggled to rise. He had to protect Millie from…from…. But he could not move; it felt as if a bull buffalo was sitting on his chest.
Millie’s face appeared in his dimming vision, eyes wide in a smudge of ghostly white. “Keme!”
Then her eyes faded out of existence.
And so did he.
From a long way off: “Keme…Keme…”
Green eyes swam up out of the darkness. “Millie?”
Berry-stained lips smiled.
And he opened his eyes to his mother’s face.
Where was Millie? He should be with…
He took a deep breath, felt a dull, profuse pain in his chest, raised a trembling arm, and laid his hand on his bandaged chest. And remembered. The boom, the pain, the darkness. “Millie…”
Wapun’s brow furrowed. “Is she the one who harmed you?”
Keme remembered the harsh voice, the words “my gal”. “No, mother. It was…it was her father…I think.”
“I did not think so.”
“Where is she?” He glanced over his mother’s shoulder. “Is she here?”
“No, she is across the river where she belongs.”
“I cannot leave her there. She is in danger.” Ignoring the pain, he tried to sit up. Wapun took his shoulders, and gently pressed him back to the bed.
“How is she in danger?”
“The man…her father…he might—”
“The man is dead.”
Again, Keme tried to sit up. Again his mother pushed him down.
“How…?” Had he killed Millie’s father and did not remember? “Did I…?”
Wapun’s eyes softened. “No, my son, you did him no harm. It was the girl.”
Gray spots danced in Keme’s vision. “Millie? She could not…would not…”
“She did. Her screams led your father and uncles to you. They saw it, Keme.”
The spots were spreading, darkening. “What…happened?”
“Your father said that Mother Moon had stolen her spirit, that she attacked them when they tried to take you. She injured your Uncle Nahko before they could get you away.”
Keme strained to see his mother’s face through the gray fog. “I must go to her, help her.”
“You cannot help her, no one can help her. She belongs to Mother Moon now.”
Wapun’s face disappeared.
Keme thought, Millie is mine. I will not give her up to Mother Moon’s madness. I will go back for her. I will…I will…
Darkness overtook him, and he slipped back into unconsciousness.
An overview of The Kingdom here
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