“The short man followed, limping, terrific, crablike.”
Nearly through reading 900 pages of Faulkner short stories, and can’t get rid of the sentence above. For some reason. Yesterday, while doing research for a story I’m writing, I came across a Cree word that any bird hunter would appreciate: “Papêtikwâskopaniow.”
I wish I could pretend I knew how to pronounce it. But it means the thundering sound a partridge makes with its wings when it takes off.
We’re always, all of us, until we die, in between things. Words and sentences stick with us, for some reason or reasons (often inexplicable), that mark a point in time and place that’s there as a kind of anchor. I’m sure I’m driving Leslie crazy by randomly repeating (usually as she’s about to fall asleep at night) that sentence from Faulkner’s story “Death Drag.” I can’t explain why I like it so much, but I know I do and am fine with leaving it at that. Then there’s the Cree word, which I might say a lot about. Each of these linguistic landmarks will bookend a moment in my life later on that will remind me I was in the middle of something intense here, in this case not really the kind of intensity I would choose, but just one of those life things that we’re always in the middle of. My stepmom likes to say, after an emotional response to something, that she was “in the middle of being moved.” It’s like that. But it seems, probably for everyone, that we’re always in the middle of something, whether it’s being moved or not. For me, this marked moment has to do with moving. And it’s moving, too. But see, that’s another story.
The Cree word, for obvious reasons, struck me. When I came across it I was simply looking for the Swampy Cree (“N Dialect”) word for “hello” on an online Cree dictionary. Hello? Maybe you can think of the thunderous surprise of a grouse busting right at your feet as a kind of greeting. More likely, the word came up because of a coding glitch. But I’ll take the connection; it makes some sense. The bird flipping you the bird? There are all kinds of ways to say, and all kinds of ways to interpret, “hello.” Lookout, idiot! Nice to see you again. Is anyone there? The word itself is liminal, and the context and how we see it gives it its meaning. One of my favorite lines from Hamlet nails it: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Papêtikwâskopaniow. Good: it’s beautiful to me, enviable even, that the Cree have a single word that captures such an incredible, shocking, powerful, complex experience, especially if you’re a bird hunter. Bad: English doesn’t. But then, these judgments are of course culturally contingent and biased. Liminal. Can we say it matters who we are and where we come from? Who gets to say that? And who gets to say how we feel about killing a bird?
We do. We must. So what do you say?
One thing I love about the Cree word is the agency it gives to the partridge. Some of us talk about “fair chase,” so this matters. For Cree, and most First Nation people, “prey” are so much more than that. This word makes it clear it’s the bird who makes the sound with its wings, and it’s a specific kind of sound. One word. You’ve experienced the sound. When you replay that moment reflected by that word I would bet your brain slows it down so you can see it, so you can get in the middle of it. Liminal. The bird is leaving one place and going to another, and anyone who’s watched a big dusky grouse do this in dense woods or even in grassland knows that even that bird doesn’t know for a while exactly where it’s going. And when it’s a covey of chukar, or waves of a super-covey, what then? The sensations. And where does this leave you? Do you shoot? Can you?