Dark and silent late last night
I think I might have heard the highway calling
Geese in flightĖ
Dogs that bite
Signs that might be omens say Iím going
I tossed the fly rod I was working on to the bench, frustrated. The thread wraps around the line guide had unraveled three times and popped once when nearly done. My father always told me to walk away from something when I get frustrated with it, come back later in a better frame of mind. I heeded him posthumously.
Out in the garage the little boat called, not a voice, but a tuning fork struck against my bones, resonating at a frequency meant only for me. But Bayou Teche is brown and high, filled with duckweed, and I know the lake is the same.
So I get my keys and get into the truck. Itís been a horrific two weeks: One disaster after another, and a series of heart rendings, left me exhausted and feeling as if I could jump out of my skin. As I was backing out of the garage, I thought of writer Sherman Alexie:
Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you. Maybe you donít wear a watch, but your skeletons do, and they always know what time it is. Now, these skeletons are made of memories, dreams, and voices. And they can trap you in the in-between, between touching and becoming. But theyíre not necessarily evil, unless you let them be.
I stopped the truck and went back into the house to fetch my fatherís medicine bag. I keep it in a cool, dark place because I donít know whatís in it. Itís a small leather bag, with buckskin fringe, no bigger than a thick trade paperback book. I donít know whatís in it because itís his medicine bag. I have never opened it. Itís full of the things that made him strong, kept him close to the ground and protected him from the bad in the world. I canít possess his magic, but I can borrow from it because the same blood flows in my veins, so I took it into the truck, tucked it close to me on the seat and took to the highway.
Take to the highway
Wonít you lend me your name?
Your way and my way
Seem to be one and the sameĖ
Iíd rather be on the water, but itís too hot, too late in the day. So I press the accelerator and the engine growls, spinning wheels shooting me along the concrete. I touch my fatherís medicine bag at my side, and it is warm.
Someday Iíll have my own. Full of the things that strengthen and protect me. I havenít started to collect it. Iím a little lost over it, because I donít know what should be in there. He died before he could teach me. I thought of putting it in his coffin with him, but he had his abalone bolo tie on and the eagle feather in his hands, both full of power, and when I thought of placing the bag at his side, the resonance of a tuning fork spoke in a deep voice slightly tinged with the accent of a man raised in Texas, Keep it. I know the way.
I speed to the back roads, the out-of-the-way lines on the map, seeking its edges. Much younger, I used to take maps, topographic quadrangles, and place them edge-to-edge and try to find where the final edge was, the one that led to the place where we donít know what lies beyond. But we donít live in that world anymore. Now the maps encircle the globe, around the latitudes, across the longitudes, and there are no more edges with dark unknowns beyond them. I think weíve lost something special when we know all there is to know. I think weíre aimless beings in the absence of mystery.
Sundogs flare on the window, and I lower the visor, but put it up again, letting the fire make me squint. I might find magic up there. Like the magic under the tied flap of my fatherís medicine bag. I let myself imagine what it contains sometimes. Almost assuredly alligator teeth, probably crowned with silver. Alligators are powerful, and in a tooth that power can be borrowed, made your own. Iíll bet there is sage and sweetgrass in there, cedar and tobacco, but itís probably so dry Iíll never catch the scent of it.
Perhaps thereís a piece of flint, so if he ever found himself in a dark place off the edge of a map he could strike a spark off the blade of his knife and bring fire. Iíll bet thereís a fish hook in there, not for catching, but for remembering.
Itís too small. It canít hold all the things I imagine if I think with the non-indigenous part of me. But the Indian man knows that the whole universe could fit in that bag, because so-called "laws" as time and space are only valid if you believe in them.
Your past ainít going to fall behind, and your future wonít get too far ahead. Sometimes, though, your skeletons will talk to you, tell you to sit down and take a rest, breathe a little. Maybe theyíll make you promises, tell you all the things you want to hearÖsometimes your skeletons will dress up as your best friend and offer you a drink, one more for the road. Sometimes your skeletons will look exactly like your parents and offer you gifts.
A road to the levee approaches and I take it, climbing that endless modern-day ridge as if it were my grandfathersí ceremonial mound. I ride the top though itís not permitted, but I had my fatherís medicine bag to grant me passage. Maybe you can arrest me now Ė one of the taxpayers that funds its maintenance, helps pay for itís forbidding signs Ė for driving atop it. Because the bag is back in its cool dark place while I am working behind this gray-blue computer screen, sowing tumors in my brain with unnatural light. But then, that evening with dusk nearing, I was free, powerful, protected. I might as well have been a spirit. If I could have wished but one thing to vanish, right then and there, it would be the signs and the fences, and with them the illusion of control.
There might, I thought, be a King Edward cigar in the medicine bag. A red handkerchief. A pocket knife and a few nuggets of turquoise. Maybe some of the candies Mom kept in a jar for him. He had a sweet tooth something fierce, all his life.
All I have is a piece of hard candy. But itís not for eating. Itís just for looking through.
Or maybe it contains sawdust and the ribbons of so, so thin wood that curled out of the throat of his hand planes. Iíll bet thereís a few coins in there, too. Like the silver half-dime I keep close by, should I ever need to pay the Boatman for passage.
I donít know whatís in there, but it nourishes me, keeps me whole. And suddenly, there is the lake, as if I ever doubted I would end up there, and itís high and brown and muddy, just as I knew it would be, but I never saw anything more beautiful. Never. I sat on the rocks that protect the shore, my fatherís medicine bag in my hand and the sun is descending toward the horizon of cypress, painfully bright, but bearable. The things that grated against my bones, that pierced my heart and drove me to the edge of despair are still there, but they exist back on the map somewhere. I have found the other side of the edge. My fatherís medicine bag was my guide. I could have stayed home this night like others, collapsed on the sofa, found solace in a bottle, sat and simmered in festering rage.
And later that night, back home, I put the bag back into its secret spot, cool and dark. It remains unopened. I donít know whatís in there. I donít want to know whatís in there. Maybe itís the last mystery I have. The last map-edge. If I opened it, Iíd have nothing left.
I went back to the bench, picked up the rod and thread. The wrap went on perfectly. I tucked the thread under the guide foot and cut the tag end off with a razor blade. I stopped for the night then. Stopped, while I had something left.
(A debt to James Taylor, Sherman Alexie and Lone Watie from "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is gratefully acknowledged.)