Midnight Page 36


On arising, he had seen nothing but a candle burning on the lawn. Careful not to wake his parents, he sneaked outside to take a closer look at the candle, but it was gone.


"Always keep these signs secret, or they'll realize that you're a child of destiny, that one day you'll have tremendous power over them, and they'll kill you now, while you're still a boy, and weak."


"Who's 'they'?" Tommy asked.


"They, them, everyone," the Indian said mysteriously.


"But who?"


"Your father, for one."


"Not him."


"Him especially," Runningdeer whispered. "He's a man of power. He enjoys having power over others, intimidating, armtwisting to get his way. You've seen how people bow and scrape to him."


Indeed, Tommy had noticed the respect with which everyone spoke to his father—especially his many friends in politics—and a couple of times had glimpsed the unsettling and perhaps more honest looks they gave the judge behind his back. They appeared to admire and even revere him to his face, but when he was not looking they seemed not only to fear but loathe him.


"He is satisfied only when he has all the power, and he won't let go of it easily, not for anyone, not even for his son. If he finds out that you're destined to be greater and more powerful than he is … no one can save you then. Not even me."


Perhaps if their family life had been marked by more affection, Tommy would have found the Indian's warning difficult to accept. But his father seldom spoke to him in more than a perfunctory way, and even more seldom touched him—never a real hug and never a kiss.


Sometimes Runningdeer brought a gift of homemade candy for the boy. "Cactus candy," he called it. There was always just one piece for each of them, and they always ate it together, either sitting on the patio when the Indian was on his lunch break, or as Tommy followed his mentor around the two-acre property on a series of chores. Soon after eating the cactus candy, the boy was overcome by a curious mood. He felt euphoric. When he moved, he seemed to float. Colors were brighter, prettier. The most vivid thing of all was Runningdeer: His hair was impossibly black, his skin a beautiful bronze, his teeth radiantly white, his eyes as dark as the end of the universe. Every sound—even the crisp snick-snick-snick of hedge clippers, the roar of a plane passing overhead on its way to Phoenix airport, the insect-hum of the pool motor—became music; the world was full of music, though the most musical of all things was Runningdeer's voice. Odors also became sharper flowers, cut grass, the oil with which the Indian lubricated his tools. Even the stink of perspiration was pleasant. running deer smelled like fresh-baked bread and hay and copper pennies.


Tommy seldom remembered what Runningdeer talked about after they ate their cactus candy, but he did recall that the Indian spoke to him with a special intensity. A lot of it had to do with the sign of the moonhawk. "If the great spirits send the sign of the moonhawk, you'll know you're to have tremendous power and be invincible. Invincible! But if you do see the moonhawk, it'll mean the great spirits want something from you in return an act that will truly prove your worthiness." That much stuck with Tommy, but he remembered little else. Usually, after an hour, he grew weary and went to his room to nap; his dreams then were particularly vivid, more real than waking life, and always involved the Indian. They were simultaneously frightening and comforting dreams.


On a rainy Saturday in November, when Tommy was ten, he sat on a stool by the workbench at one end of the four-car garage, watching as Runningdeer repaired an electric carving knife that the judge always used to slice the turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The air was pleasantly cool and unusually humid for Phoenix. Runningdeer and Tommy were talking about the rain, the upcoming holiday, and things that had happened at school recently. They didn't always talk about signs and destiny, or otherwise Tommy might not have liked the Indian so much; Runningdeer was a great listener.


When the Indian finished repairing the electric knife, he plugged it in and switched it on. The blade shivered back and forth so fast that the cutting edge was a blur.


Tommy applauded.


"You see this?" Runningdeer asked, raising the knife higher and squinting at it in the glow from the fluorescent bulbs overhead.


Bright glints flew from the shuttling blade, as if it were busily slicing up the light itself.


"What?" Tommy asked.


"This knife, Little Chief. It's a machine. A frivolous machine, not a really important machine like a car or airplane or electric wheelchair. My brother is … crippled … and must get around in an electric wheelchair. Did you know that, Little Chief?"


"No."


"One of my brothers is dead, the other crippled."


"I'm sorry."


"They are my half-brothers, really, but the only ones I have."


"How did it happen? Why?"


Runningdeer ignored the questions. "Even if this knife's purpose is just to carve a turkey that could be carved as well by hand, it's still efficient and clever. Most machines are much more efficient and clever than people."


The Indian lowered the cutting instrument slightly and turned to face Tommy. He held the purring knife between them and looked past the shimmering blade into Tommy's eyes.


The boy felt himself slipping into a spell similar to that he'd experienced after eating cactus candy, though they had eaten none.


"The white man puts great faith in machines," Runningdeer said. "He thinks machines are ever so much more reliable and clever than people. if you want to be truly great in the white man's world, Little Chief, you must make yourself as much like a machine as you can. You must be efficient. You must be relentless like a machine. You must be determined in your goals, allowing no desires or emotions to distract you."


He moved the purring blade slowly toward Tommy's face, until the boy's eyes crossed in an attempt to focus on the cutting edge.


"With this I could lop away your nose, slice off your lips, carve away your cheeks and ears …"


Tommy wanted to slip off the workbench stool and run.


But he could not move.


He realized that the Indian was holding him by one wrist.


Even if he had not been held, he would have been unable to flee. He was paralyzed. Not entirely by fear, either. There was something seductive about the moment; the potential for violence was in an odd way … exciting.


"… cut off the round bail of your chin, scalp you, lay bare the bone, and you'd bleed to death or die of one cause or another but …"


The blade was no more than two inches from his nose.


"… but the machine would go on …"


One inch.


"… the knife would still purr and slice, purr and slice …"


Half an inch.


"… because machines don't die …"


Tommy could feel the faint, faint breeze stirred by the continuously moving electric blade.


"… machines are efficient and reliable. If you want to do well in the white man's world, Little Chief, you must be like a machine."


Runningdeer switched off the knife. He put it down.


He did not let go of Tommy.


Leaning close, he said, "If you wish to be great, if you wish to please the spirits and do what they ask of you when they send you the sign of the moonhawk, then you must be determined, relentless, cold, single-minded, uncaring of consequences, just like a machine."


Thereafter, especially when they ate cactus candy together, they often talked of being as dedicated to a purpose and as reliable as a machine. As he approached puberty, Tommy's dreams were less often filled with sexual references than with images of the moonhawk and with visions of people who looked normal on the outside but who were all wires and transistors and clicking metal switches on the inside.


In the summer of his twelfth year, after seven years in the Indian's company, the boy learned what had happened to Runningdeer's half-brothers. At least he learned some of it. He surmised the rest.


He and the Indian were sitting on the patio, having lunch and watching the rainbows that appeared and faded in the mist thrown up by the lawn sprinklers. He had asked about Runningdeer's brothers a few times since that day at the workbench, more than a year and a half earlier, but the Indian had never answered him. This time, however, Runningdeer stared off toward the distant, hazy mountains and said, "This is a secret I tell you."


"All right."


"As secret as all the signs you've been given."


"Sure."


"Some white men, just college boys, got drunk and were cruising around, maybe looking for women, certainly looking for trouble. They met my brothers by accident, in a restaurant parking lot. One of my brothers was married, and his wife was with him, and the college boys started playing tease-the-Indians, but they also really liked the look of my brother's wife. They wanted her and were drunk enough to think they could just take her. There was a fight. Five against my two brothers, they beat one to death with a tire iron. The other will never walk again. They took my brother's wife with them, used her."


Tommy was stunned by this revelation.


At last the boy said, " I hate white men."


Runningdeer laughed.


"I really do," Tommy said. "What happened to those guys who did it? Are they in prison now?"


"No prison." Runningdeer smiled at the boy. A fierce, humorless smile. "Their fathers were powerful men. Money. Influence. So the judge let them off for 'insufficient evidence.'"


"My father should've been the judge. He wouldn't let them off."


"Wouldn't he?" the Indian said.


"Never."


"Are you so sure?"


Uneasily, Tommy said, "Well … sure I'm sure."


The Indian was silent.


"I hate white men," Tommy repeated, this time motivated more by a desire to curry favor with the Indian than by conviction.


Runningdeer laughed again and patted Tommy's hand.


Near the end of that same summer, Runningdeer came to Tommy late on a blazing August day and, in a portentous and ominous voice, said, "There will be a full moon tonight, Little Chief. Go into the backyard and watch it for a while. I believe that tonight the sign will finally come, the most important sign of all."


After moonrise, which came shortly after nightfall, Tommy went out and stood on the pool apron, where Runningdeer had shown him the self-devouring snake seven years earlier. He stared up at the lunar sphere for a long time, while an elongated reflection of it shimmered on the surface of the water in the swimming pool. It was a swollen yellow moon, still low in the sky and immense.


Soon the judge came out onto the patio, calling to him, and Tommy said, "Here."


The judge joined him by the pool. "What're you doing, Thomas?"


"I'm watching for …"


"For what?"


Just then Tommy saw the hawk silhouetted by the moon. For years he had been told he would see it one day, had been prepared for it and all that it would mean, and suddenly there it was, frozen for a moment in midflight against the round lunar lamp.


"There!" he said, for the moment having forgotten that he could trust no one but the Indian.


"There what?" the judge asked.


"Didn't you see it?"


"Just the moon."


"You weren't looking or you'd have seen it."


"Seen what?"


His father's blindness to the sign only proved to Tommy that he was, indeed, special and that the portent had been meant for his eyes only—which reminded him that he could not trust his own father. He said, "Uh … a shooting star."


"You're standing out here watching for shooting stars?"


"They're actually meteors," Tommy said, talking too fast. "See, tonight the earth's supposed to be passing through a meteor belt, so there'll be lots of them."


"Since when are you interested in astronomy?"


"I'm not." Tommy shrugged. "Just wondered what it'd look like. Pretty boring." He turned away from the pool and started back toward the house, and after a moment the judge accompanied him.


The next day, Wednesday, the boy told Runningdeer about the moonhawk. "But I didn't get any messages from it. I don't know what the great spirits want me to do to prove myself."


The Indian smiled and stared at him in silence for what began to be an uncomfortably long time. Then he said, "Little Chief, we'll talk about that at lunch."


Miss Karval had Wednesdays off, and Runningdeer and Tommy were at home alone. They sat side by side on patio chairs for lunch. The Indian seemed to have brought nothing but cactus candy, and Tommy had no appetite for anything else.


Long ago the boy had ceased to eat the candy for its flavor but devoured it eagerly for its effect. And over the years its impact on him had grown constantly more profound.


Soon the boy was in that much-desired dreamlike plane, where colors were bright and sounds were loud and odors were sharp and all things were comforting and appealing. He and the Indian talked for nearly an hour, and at the end of that time Tommy came to understand that the great spirits expected him to kill his father four days hence, Sunday morning. "That's my day off," said Runningdeer, "so I will not be here to offer you support. But in fact that's probably the spirits' intention—that you should have to prove yourself all on your own. At least we'll have the next few days to plan it together, so that when Sunday comes you'll be prepared."


"Yes," the boy said dreamily.


"Yes. We'll plan it together."


Later that afternoon, the judge came home from a business meeting that had followed his court session. Complaining of the heat, he went straight upstairs to take a shower. Tommy's mother had come home half an hour earlier. She was in an armchair in the living room, feet on a low upholstered stool, reading the latest issue of Town & Country and sipping at what she called a "precocktail-hour cocktail." She barely looked up when the judge leaned in from the hall to announce his intention of showering.


As soon as his father went upstairs, Tommy went to the kitchen and got a butcher's knife from the rack by the stove.


Runningdeer was outside, mowing the lawn.


Tommy went into the living room, walked up to his mother, and kissed her on the cheek. She was surprised by the kiss but more surprised by the knife, which he rammed into her chest three times. He carried the same knife upstairs and buried it in the judge's stomach as he stepped out of the shower.

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