As soon as Orneda saw the bird—a flash of red wing, a call oh-ka-lee—she knew it was happening again. Sixteen summers and the sight of it still sent a chill down her spine; the sound of its call made blood rush in her ears.
She ran. Her shoes were in the longhouse, but she didn’t dare go back to the village. Orneda stopped going back long ago. It was bad enough knowing that she harmed somebody but actually seeing it was something she couldn’t bear.
Oh-ka-lee, the bird sang behind her. Bare feet pounded rhythmically. Each rock in the underside of her foot was embedded by someone she hurt.
It was summer and the world was a green blur around her. It was summer-green the first time she saw the blackbird, too. Orneda was playing with her new corn husk doll along with a few other small girls out in a clearing. The village seemed far in her little mind, but looking back Orneda knew it was only a few paces away from where she played.
Oh-ka-lee. She hadn’t heard it before, but its call always stuck out from the others. Oh-ka-lee. Orneda sang along with the bird happily. On the fifth call, another voice joined the song in a scream. The village was on fire—nobody knew how it happened, but one of the longhouses went up in flames.
It wasn’t until a woman in the village told Orneda the story of her birth that she connected the dots. As soon as she was born the bird flew onto a branch, sang oh-ka-lee, and her mother was dead. Her father abandoned her right there so the village people named her Orneda, meaning “magic power.” She always felt like it was meant to be a warning to everyone who met her.
Orneda was tired of running. She used to move from village to village, living in each until the blackbird came and the village people made her go away. Now she knew better, though, and ran as soon as she heard its call.
She took a breath so deep it hurt. Her legs wanted to stop so badly but her mind knew she had to run far enough so if they came looking they would not be able to find her. Orneda was done causing pain; she would go and live in the wilderness forever if that was what it would take to keep everyone around her safe.
Orneda ran until the sun began to sink in the sky behind her. Green leaves turned black against pink sky, pink like water when mixed with blood. Pink faded to purple then black and Orneda felt very alone. She was trained to live off the land, so surely she could live by herself in the woods. She told herself it was better that people weren’t around, anyway. They always got hurt in the end.
Wind rustled the leaves, left a chill on her skin and goose bumps in its wake. Even though it was summer it got cold at night and Orneda would freeze if she didn’t find somewhere warm to rest. She should have thought ahead to bring a blanket and some food, but the only thought on her mind up until now was run.
Drawing on her only resources, Orneda lied down at the base of a tree and gathered fallen leaves around her body. She was cold but it would have to do.
Suddenly she was tired when she had been so awake only moments before. Her leaden eyes shut slowly, filtering out the sounds of her mind and replacing them with those of the forest. The chirping cricket and hooting owl made Orneda feel at peace. It was just her, alone in nature—it was as if she had never seen that bird and what happened after it came.
Then she heard the drums and everything came flooding back as her eyes opened to silver moonlight. It turned out that Orneda was not alone like she thought.
The music must be coming from a village having a social dance of some sort. Orneda wasn’t sure what to do. Only hours ago, she set out to live alone in the wilderness to save others from the havoc she wreaked on people near her. Should she go into this village? Even if she stayed for a little while, there was a chance the bird would find her and hurt someone else.
No. She made a promise to herself that she wouldn’t be in a position to cause harm ever again.
But . . . she was cold and hungry. Would it do that much damage to stay the night?
Orneda decided to go to the village. Since the bird just attacked, there was little chance anyone else would be hurt in the near future. She would stay for the night and leave before morning. Then it would be back to wilderness and isolation.
Shedding her blanket of leaves, she tread quietly toward the drum beats. Blue light changed to orange as Orneda approached the village’s fire. She lurked on the outskirts of a clearing in which many people were dancing and making music. It seemed like the trees and leaves were dancing, too, in the shadows of the fire.
Orneda wished that she could be carefree like the dancers—hair running wild, her only concern being to stay on beat. But she wasn’t destined for a careless life. The blackbird made sure of that.
Unsure of when to approach, Orneda watched the dancing for a while before emerging from the woods. Nobody saw her at first; they were too caught up in the music. But as she neared the fire an older woman took notice of her and broke the dance to greet her.
In the shadows, away from the fire, the woman said, “Hello, child. What brings you here this late at night?”
Orneda decided she would be as truthful as possible. “Tragedy in the village. I only need to rest one night, if you would be so kind as to take me in.”
Taking her hand, the woman smiled, eyes crinkling. “Of course, of course. I can take you to my home now.”
“I wouldn’t want to make you miss the rest of the festival.”
“I’ve been at too many festivals to count, child. It won’t hurt to leave early,” replied the woman. The two walked in silence, music fading away, until she spoke again. “I am called Waneek.”
Orneda’s heart leapt into her throat. She knew a Waneek from her childhood village. Of course, different people could have the same name, but deep down she knew this woman was the wise woman of her youth. But why was she here, wherever Orneda was now? It was too dark to properly make out her surroundings but this didn’t look like her old home.
Going back on her earlier promise to be truthful, Orneda said the first name that popped into her head, “I’m Awinita.”
Waneek’s wrinkled face shifted, expression unreadable. “Where are you from?”
Orneda’s palms grew sweaty as she tried to come up with a good answer. The crunching of leaves under moccasins was the only sound in the air until she managed to say, “I’m from Anpuaqun.”
Waneek took this information in silence. Anpuaqun was the village from which Orneda ran earlier that day, so her statement wasn’t a complete lie.
Away from the loud dance in the clearing, the village was calm. Some fires crackled outside while mothers and children relaxed in the summer evening. Waneek led Orneda through the maze of longhouses and people until they arrived at Waneek’s longhouse. This dwelling, unlike the others, was dark—Waneek’s family was already asleep.
“Wait here,” said Waneek, entering her home briefly before coming back out and gesturing for Orneda to follow. Orneda couldn’t see a thing and would have been lost had Waneek not guided her through with a gentle hand on her wrist. Waneek stopped in what Orneda assumed to be an empty section of the longhouse. After giving her a thick blanket, she bade Orneda goodnight. Orneda thanked her and stumbled through the darkness to a pallet in the corner.
Her mind was calm until, on the brink of sleep, she felt a strong sense of foreboding. Orneda knew something was going to go wrong, and soon. But the bird didn’t come at night when she was protected by her dreams; it only came when she was vulnerable during the day. If Orneda left before sunrise tomorrow nobody would be hurt.
That was all well and good until Orneda woke up to daylight in the longhouse. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but that didn’t matter anymore—all that mattered was getting far away immediately. The bird could already be nearby.
Shedding Waneek’s blanket, Orneda stood. Like she suspected the night before, she was indeed in a closed-off room separated from the main longhouse. Orneda exited her temporary room to discover that the longhouse was completely empty. Judging by the strong sunlight pouring in from the door, it was about midday.
It would be harder for Orneda to leave undetected in daylight, but she would try anyway. She had to.
However, like her plan the night before, this one was immediately thwarted when Waneek walked in, a basket of fur cradled in her arms.
Upon seeing Orneda, she smiled. “Ah, good morning, Orneda. How did you sleep?”
“Good, thank you—” Orneda cut off. “My name is not Orneda.”
Wisdom shone through Waneek’s aged eyes as she chuckled. “Now, child, there’s no need to hide anymore. I thought it was you last night, and now there’s no denying it—you look exactly like your mother.”
Orneda swallowed thickly. Waneek knew her; how would she lie her way out of staying longer in the village now? The bird was coming. Orneda could hear its call in her head, closer, closer, closer.
“How did you end up here again?” Waneek asked, sorting furs on the ground.
“I was . . . traveling. I heard the music and wanted a warm place to sleep out of the forest.”
Waneek smiled knowingly. “So that bird is still following you around, then?”
“Yes,” Orneda replied after some hesitation.
Waneek hummed in response.
“I have to go,” blurted Orneda, muscles tense in anticipation of her run. Her skin was crawling like it did when the bird was near. It could be right outside—someone could already be hurt. She had stayed for too long.
“I understand if you want to go,” Waneek said, “But I don’t think you have to. I know someone who can help if help is what you seek.”
Orneda frowned. “How could anyone help me?”
“He can explain that.” Waneek set down her furs and walked out. Orneda assumed she was to follow, so she did, shielding her eyes as she emerged from the shade of the longhouse.
Green leaves rustled in the summer breeze. It would have been calming if Orneda’s ears weren’t perked, waiting to hear the fateful call.
Waneek walked slowly, stopping to greet everyone she passed. Orneda bounced on her feet, impatient.
It seemed like they were going in the same direction of the clearing where the dance was held last night. It was impossible to tell, though, because it was dark when Orneda arrived. Her childhood village that she used to know so well was now almost unrecognizable, save a few landmarks like the old willow tree by the river and the big stump in the meeting place.
Even as they reached the outskirts of the village Waneek continued to talk to anyone who wanted to chat or get advice. Orneda was growing increasingly worried that the bird would make an appearance before she even got to meet this person who could supposedly help her.
“Waneek,” Orneda said after Waneek finished talking to a particularly chatty girl, “I don’t mean to be rude, but can we possibly go a bit faster?”
Waneek wasn’t offended like Orneda feared she would be. Instead, she simply nodded, understanding, and continued on at a quicker pace. When they passed more tribe members Waneek said hello and stopped at that.
Soon they arrived at a small, run-down longhouse on the outskirts of the village. Fallen branches and twigs coated its roof and long grass brushed its sides. The back half of the building was hidden in foliage, which gave the impression that the house itself was an extension of the woods.
The man who emerged when Waneek called looked like he came right from the trees, too. Orneda remembered him immediately: Hiawatha, the medicine man. He wore deerskin leggings, like all tribesmen did, but that was the only thing he had in common with them. His hair was long and unkempt, his chest adorned with many beaded necklaces that rattled when he moved.
As happy as Orneda was to see someone she remembered from her childhood, she wasn’t sure that Hiawatha could really help her. Orneda had already been to see him multiple times as a girl at her adoptive mother’s urging. No medicine or spell could ward off her bird.
“Waneek, I don’t think—”
“Shh,” Waneek cut Orneda off. “He can help you.”
Protesting was futile; Orneda would have to sit through another useless session with Hiawatha before leaving. All she could do was hope that the bird wouldn’t make an appearance too soon.
Orneda waited as she watched Hiawatha slowly make his way toward her and Waneek. He was old when she was a young child, she remembered; now he was ancient.
“Greetings, Orneda,” Hiawatha said, voice characteristically raspy. Turning to face Waneek, he smiled. “And to you, Waneek. Thank you for bringing her to me.”
Dismissed, Waneek smiled in return before turning back to the village, leaving Orneda alone with Hiawatha.
“Come inside, child,” Hiawatha urged, leading Orneda to his longhouse. Like Waneek, he walked slowly and Orneda felt each second go by with increasing dread. Why didn’t they understand that this was urgent? They had both seen what happened when the bird came.
Finally in the longhouse, Orneda’s eyes took a moment to adjust. The inside of Hiawatha’s home bore no resemblance to its wild exterior. Tables covered with various neatly arranged medicines and potions lined the walls, which were covered, too, but with many beaded necklaces. The place would have had a calming effect on her if she weren’t so tense.
“Sit,” said Hiawatha, gesturing to a worn blanket folded on the ground. Orneda did as he said and sat, though she didn’t want to—she was growing more and more impatient. Hiawatha followed suit and sat across from her on a blanket of his own.
“Waneek tells me you are still being visited by your bird,” Hiawatha began, speaking to her like she was just another patient. Orneda wasn’t self-absorbed, but her case was unique. She had taken more potions than she could count and had numerous spells performed on her, all without luck. There was nothing that could be done—Orneda was sure of it.
“Yes, I am,” Orneda played along for lack of a different course of action.
Hiawatha nodded, eyes closed in thought. “Before I can decide how to help you, I need to know more about your situation.”
“You already know about my situation.”
Hiawatha dismissed her statement with a wave of his leathery hand. “I remember, child. I need to know how it is now.”
“Nothing has changed. It comes and something bad happens.”
“But you have changed, Orneda, have you not?”
Orneda frowned, unsure. “I’ve grown up, if that’s what you mean.”
“In a way,” Hiawatha said. A long silence followed before he made his next request. “Tell me how you feel when the bird comes.”
“I feel . . . I feel anxious when I see or hear it. Tense, when I run. And guilty because I know I hurt somebody.” Just describing the experience made Orneda feel those very emotions. Or maybe it wasn’t just the experience but that the bird had already come and someone was hurt in the village. She would never know, away from the village like she was.
No, she always heard it call and she hadn’t heard it yet. But it was close nonetheless.
“Why do you think it is your fault people get hurt?”
Orneda scoffed. “The bird follows me. It’s my fault for putting people into danger by being near them.”
“I must politely disagree. The bird follows you, yes, but it is a separate being. The only reason I can see to put you at fault is that you let it attack. You let it follow you.”
“How do I let it follow me? I don’t have a choice! It’s been with me my whole life,” Orneda protested.
Hiawatha, not affected by Orneda’s growing aggravation, explained calmly, “You feed it with your guilt and fear, child. When you run you give it control over you. The only way to stop it is to stand up to it. You must be strong in the face of adversity or forever run away.”
When he put it like that the whole situation seemed almost too easy to overcome. Still, Orneda feared she did not have the strength inside her needed to banish the bird, if what Hiawatha said was true and bravery could really fix her problem.
“I’m not strong enough,” Orneda voiced her concerns.
Hiawatha’s calm demeanor was replaced by intensity in his dark eyes. “Again I must disagree. Everyone has demons, Orneda, but yours just happened to manifest in such a physical way. It is your destiny—your obligation—to overcome it.”
His words made Orneda feel strong, ready to defeat this bird once and for all when she heard it and her chest tightened with anticipation.
As soon as the bird called again all of Orneda’s strength flew away. She wasn’t ready; she needed time to prepare. Orneda didn’t even know what, exactly, she was supposed to do. The bird was already here and it was too late.
“Go,” urged Hiawatha, “Be strong. That is all you have to do.”
Orneda hurried outside. She was walking too slowly yet she was going too fast. The call came again, from the direction of the village. She felt empty and numb.
The walk to Hiawatha’s was incredibly short when compared to the walk back to the village. The blackbird’s call was a constant sound, blending in with the other, less sinister noises of the summer forest. It was taunting Orneda as she neared its location.
She expected the villagers to be in a panic, running and fleeing by the time she got there. But none of them knew what danger they were in. When she was a child they had learned to recognize the call and hide when it sounded, but they must have forgotten.
Oh-ka-lee. Where was the screaming? It was like the bird knew Orneda was going to try something. It was waiting for her when it usually attacked after its first few calls.
Orneda’s breaths came fast as she saw the first longhouse up ahead. Everything was so vividly green it hurt her eyes—everything except the bird. It was black and would have blended in with the midday shadow if it didn’t have that bright red streak across its wings.
Her legs were numb; she was breathing but didn’t feel her chest expanding. She should be running. Why wasn’t she running?
Be strong. That is all you have to do.
Orneda had never looked at the bird for as long as she did now, when she walked straight toward it. Its wings were stained red with all the blood it had spilled. Oh-ka-lee.
She was close to it now and could make out its black, beady eyes staring at her. Her feet itched with the urge to run but she had enough torment from this little bird. Orneda stood strong and still. Her heart pounded out of her chest as she waited for the screams.
Oh-ka-lee. A taunt. She stayed put and tried to look strong but feared it wasn’t working. Everything was slow around her as she focused on the little bird. Orneda had always wondered when the bird would finally kill her. Was this it?
Villagers walking by with fish and berries stopped when they noticed Orneda. A few recognized her, and, upon seeing the bird in the tree, finally connected the dots and hurried away. Others too young to know her gathered around, watching the girl and the bird with wide eyes. Anticipation hung in the air, heavy.
It knew she was afraid. Gathering all her strength, Orneda pushed away her fear and stood before the bird with an empty chest. She remembered everyone hurt, everyone killed by this monster and vowed to never let it happen again. Unlike before, she didn’t plan to hide—she planned to stand strong.
Orneda took a breath and held it. Then she blinked and the bird was gone. Red flashed in the corner of her eye for the last time as her tormentor flew away, out of her life.
She waited for the scream she knew was coming, but nobody screamed. Nothing happened.
She was free.