My father talked about buying a big camper and heading west, to the Black Hills, and in his pupils I could see Cheyenne and Lakota on horseback dashing over windswept foothills.
Those were the things my father dreamed of. He never lived them. The illness and the age and the years of hard work set in too quickly. But in his eyes, I saw what he saw. I could see him standing there, looking up at the unfinished sculpture of Crazy Horse, his hands in the khaki pockets of his Dickies work pants, a breeze tugging at tufts of gray.
More likely, more steadfastly, I can see him at dusk. After the age set in some, he would put his little bateau in the water behind our house, and tie the bowline off to a tree to fish deep in the bowels of Bayou Teche. Three rods propped up on the gun’ls, his straw Panama hat on his head, but he had adorned it with silver and turquoise and abalone, an Indian man’s hat and he’d watch orange and red and yellow fire span over the sunset, an Indian man’s sunset. Far there to the west where the sun was flinging itself across the curvature of the earth, he could see himself, mountains and valleys, paint ponies and songs.
Flashes, stories and tall tales. Who knows the difference anymore? They’re embers shooting from a campfire. Lightning, jagged and spectacular, dancing from cloud to cloud.
Perhaps, on the plains somewhere, he would have seen the Ghost Dance, because someone might have wanted him to, though it was last sung and moved and felt a century earlier. Perhaps a curl of smoke from a buffalo hide teepee would have beckoned him and, in the last years of his life, sweat out the sickness from him, the carbon black in his lungs, the sawdust in his pores, the calcification in his heart, the regret in his spirit.
Eight years later, I put my hand in Otatsa Creek in northern Montana and he placed his over mine, and together we touched the headwaters of all he knew down here. From where it came. From where it began.
He went around to schools to tell school children his stories. He and his friend Bobby spread the gospel of two cultures together. No greater testament to peace. He played wooden flutes carved in the shape of teche, the snake that made the bayou outside my window, and fourth graders watched and listened. He shook rattles made from snapping turtle shells, he shot blowgun darts into pillows. Off to the next school, the next gathering. Off to the west, the singing beckoned him. But he never got there.
I don’t know why I thought of it. I don’t know why it’s there today. Who knows the difference anymore?
He probably did. He probably knew the way it was told before The Great Sadness that began on this continent five centuries ago:
Once the people lived to be old, old – sometimes eight or nine hundred years. Once a girl, just about a hundred years old, got sick and was about to die. They hated to see her die so young so decided they would go find out how to make her live.
A great many people agreed to go – several hundred, both men and women. They took everything with them. They even took corn to plant, so that if they ran out of food they could stop and raise a crop. And they did this. Then their food gave out and they stopped and raised a crop of corn, killed game and dried meat, then they went on again.
After a very long time, they came to the Cold Country. Here many of them died; some were crushed between the ice and sky. One man who died was not even buried, and the buzzards ate him.
Finally those who were left alive got through the Cold Country. When they got on the other side, they met the spirit of the man who had not been buried. They asked him if he could tell them where to go to find out how to keep people from dying. He told them to go on a certain way and they would come to a house. By this house they would see an old man. If they would ask this old man he would tell them what to do.
After while they come to the old man, and they asked him how to keep people from dying. Now, this old man was Nete’schmeesh, chief of the spirits (This was before they knew anything about Kootna’hin. Kootna’hin is the white man’s God).
The old man told them that the world was getting so full of people that the old ones had to die to make room for the young ones. From that time on, people would never again live to be so old. But he showed them all the herbs that would cure sick people, but after people got old, they must die in spite of these.
Then they asked the old man how they would get back to their country. He told them to go until they come to the edge, where they could look down on their country. Then they would have to jump off. But he told them he would turn them into anything they wanted to be. So one said he would be a squirrel. He was turned into a squirrel, but when he jumped down, he was crushed to death. Several others chose the forms of different animals, but were crushed to death. Then one said he would take the form of an eagle; he got down safely. The next said he would be a spider, and he spun his web down and was saved. All of the people had died before they got there except eight, and only four got down safely.
When these four got back, the girl was dead. They had been gone a very long time. But after that, people knew what herbs to use to cure sickness. Only the very old people died. But nobody lived to be much over a hundred any more.
Maybe he remembered and knew that all stories end, in time. I wish I had thought to ask him, but then I didn’t understand the sunsets and the dragonfire and how I really could get crushed between the ice and the sky. Back then it was all stories, and I didn’t understand the difference. That they live on even after they’ve ended.
If I stood in the Black Hills tonight, would the Ghost Dance move for me? Would my father sing there and move there? Perhaps I’d die there, and buzzards would consume me. It’s not really destruction. Maybe it’s just freeing up of the soul to go where it always wanted to be. Maybe it’s stories that get more real or less real the more times or the less times they’re told.
I don’t know why I didn’t ask him earlier. Before he took to the wind, and to the Black Hills, to the Backbone of the World and the Great Divide. Maybe it was meant that way. Maybe I had to take that great and massive compilation of stories and mingle them with my own. To become us, instead of me and him.
Sometimes, Father, you and I,
are like a three-legged horse
who can’t get across the finish line
no matter how hard he tries and tries and tries.
And sometimes, Father, you and I
are like a warrior,
who can only paint half of his face
while the other half cries and cries and cries and cries.
Now can I ask you Father –
If you know how much farther we need to go?
Now can I ask you Father –
Do you know how much farther we have to go?
Father and farther
‘Til we know…
(A debt to Caroline Dorman’s documentation of the Chitimacha death story, and Jim Boyd and Sherman Alexie’s "Father and Farther" is gratefully acknowledged.)