Monday, August 30, 2004

Ashland (Redemption in the Heartland) A NOVEL IN PROGRESS

I. Prologue – I Die


It is said that we are heroes in the story of our own birth. For me, this was not the case. In fact, my story had no heroic elements whatsoever. It could be said that I was the villain of my own story and only now, in my death, would I become the hero of the ultimate journey.

The event itself was not worthy of noting. Nothing more than a few lines in a Billings Gazette obituary. Living just off the Crow and Cheyenne reservation, winters were so cold you could piss and lean on it. As a white ranch hand I shared a lifestyle with the Crow and Cheyenne Indians that I came into contact with. There was enough cross-pollination to often blur the lines of our cultures, especially when it came to drinking.

It was a typical Saturday evening when I stumbled out from The Buffalo Jump, Ashland’s only bar just off the reservation within a three hour drive of Billings. Both reservations were dry. This was, I suppose, some attempt to acknowledge the part alcohol had in the poverty in which they lived. This fact was simply an opportunity for Lyman Morris, a stout, reddish man who ran the place, to sling drinks and misery.

Lyman had tried ranching for a number of years, but found it more lucrative to serve booze and drugs on the side to Indians and whites alike. He believed in equal opportunity addiction; green was the only color that mattered to him.

Having drunk enough whiskey to intoxicate a small city, I trudged home in the razor cold air that night, the sharp crunching of the snow beneath my feet, until I fell over too drunk to stand, nodded off and fell asleep. Thirty-five degrees below zero is a harsh environment, even for the most robust of us. It was just like falling asleep.

They found my body the next day, stiff and as square as a butte. It happened a lot on the res. Every week or so, when some Canadian clipper would sweep through from the north, some poor drunk would end up freezing to death. It was just part of the terrain, I suppose, like the scent of the pine in the air, or the colors of the foothills at sunrise. It was just another obstacle to living out here. No one ever really got upset.

The Buffalo Jump wasn’t really a bar. It was more like a double-wide trailer with some stools, a pool table with curved cues and torn felt. The bathroom (there was only one) was never cleaned. Male patrons would simply smash their fists into the gypsum board to make a new hole in which to piss. The toilet was so overrun with grime and mold that no man ever dared dangle his dick over the bowl, and women for the most part squatted over the seat to go, not wanting to run the risk of catching some other infectious diseases not yet cataloged by medical science.

The main room had a makeshift bar with cans of soda and tonic water being served out of a cooler. It was mostly beer and whiskey that they served. For my money, I always chose whiskey.

The air in the room was moist with alcoholic need; women were dressed to pick up whatever warm body would get her home safely and might supply a drink, or a snort of coke. I admit to looking for some relief in the low self-esteem of some of these women myself. It wasn’t lust. There was no lust in that place, just need. Any passion had been ransomed long ago for the next drink, the next fix or the next high. Feel Like Makin’ Love played over and over on an old refurbished juke box: one of about 10 other songs on the play list that used power seventies rock’n’roll and an ironic lyrical sense to contrast the desperate souls that wandered into the place.

That I died walking home from such a place is no small feat. Usually, someone would have a gun and when the whiskey-laden arguments reached fever pitch, shots would be fired. Sometimes, people were killed; more often, people were just wounded. The gunfire would bring the sheriff around to close the place down for the evening. I suppose this was Ashland’s version of last call. Becoming a full- fledged, raging alcoholic in this kind of place meant something: it implied that I could survive. It was part of the rugged individualism that people seemed to drink as part of the water in these parts, no whining or crying. Just patch it up, fix it, and move on.

Being dead wasn’t on my list of things to do either. It’s not that I wouldn’t be missed though. I did have friends here. These were people who, upon hearing the news of my death, would first try to recall my face, then be grateful it wasn’t them, and finally would have a drink in my memory, saying things like: “He could drink any Indian or white under the table.”

That was my legacy.

My friends were mostly Indian, a mix of Crow and Cheyenne. Though I worked on Mick and Cheryl Meline’s ranch since moving to Ashland, I really knew few whites well enough to be considered my friends. Mick and I rarely spoke except as it related to ranch work.

Archie and Alberta Weaslebear had been married a long time by Cheyenne standards – ten years. We would often buy a fifth after The Buffalo Jump closed, to get even drunker while watching the Northern lights from his car. He was a large man. His waist ebbed over his tooled leather and beaded belt and turquoise and bone buckle. He was round in every sense of the word, with a pumpkin shaped head that sat on no neck. He always wore a single long braid, lots of turquoise rings and had lightly smoked wire rimmed sunglasses to hide his eyes. His smooth skin always covered by a few days’ growth of stubble seemed to hide just how drunk he might have been.

Alberta and he got married when they were teenagers. Alberta’s pregnancy while in high school was fairly common in Ashland. There was no real work in the area unless you could land a job working at the Mission, cleaning the hot tubs and saunas of Father Dan and the hermit, Brother Jim.

Alberta’s face was lined with memories too dreadful to even speak of, though she couldn’t remember them due to her blackouts. In a sort of perverse retelling of the story of “Dorian Gray”, her face aged well ahead of her childlike heart, until it was impossible to know what she was ever really like before alcohol and Archie became the center of her life.

Archie and Alberta fought often, but less so when they were both completely drunk. I don’t know if it was love that kept them together, or just the convenience of having someone to go home to. Either way, they had the forgiveness part of marriage down pat, splitting and coming back together more often than snow squalls in the winter in that place. It was when one of them was sober and the other drunk that the violence would start. The violence and proximity to firearms drove them close to the brink sometimes.

Alberta would always close her eyes and whisper a raspy prayer in her native Cheyenne whenever we would part, drunk or not. It was an aspect of Indian life that I always found ironic and incongruous.

Jonathan Bear Below was Crow. We worked together on Meline’s ranch but rarely spoke. He was a man of very few words and rarely smiled. His hair sat bowl-like around his pudgy face, with small horizon-like slits for eyes.

Why the Crow and Cheyenne reservations were placed side by side on the tracts of land they were given is truly an abject lesson in social politics. The Crow had been long time enemies of the Cheyenne and had, in fact, been scouts for Custer during Little Bighorn. To this day if you want to start a fight, mention the Battle of Little Big Horn to a Crow and Cheyenne in the same room. The Crow refer to the Cheyenne as “dog eater” which is a derogatory term to the Cheyenne. The word Cheyenne comes from the French term, “Chien” which means dog eater. It was a reference to their ritual habit of eating dog. The Cheyenne refer to themselves as “Tsitsistas” which loosely translates as “the people”.

Whenever I would get really drunk, I would make a reference to his people scouting for that son-of-a-bitch sociopath Custer. Jonathon’s narrow eyes would steel up and his chubby cheeks would grow crimson and we would end up wrestling and throwing punches until we were both a bloody mess. Once, on a typical Buffalo Jump Saturday night, he was so drunk and so mad, he ran out to the truck and came back with a Bowie knife the length of his arm. He said he was going to gut me and leave my entrails hanging on a fence post at the ranch for his animal ancestors (the coyotes, the wolves and buzzards) to come and nourish themselves. He would kill me as prayer to the Great Spirit, he would say. By the next work day, however, we would be back at Meline’s – not talking and branding cattle and castrating horses.

Matthew Two Moons was a maintenance worker at the mission. He was born the son of a hard, always drunk, legend among the Cheyenne. Matt’s father was the best horse dealer and rider in his day, and so he knew horse flesh better than any man alive, white or red. Matt was an alcohol fetal syndrome kid with a slight build and legs that stuck up out of manure encrusted boots like wheat stalks in planters. The large lips, webbed fingers, and stunted intelligence were all typical of kids born of alcoholic parents. Matt, like his dad, was a genius though, when it came to horses. His great grandfather was Chief Two Moons, famed Cheyenne warrior who fought against Crook and Custer. Matt had the coup stick from his father passed down from Chief Two Moons hung ceremoniously over his bed.

Matt and I saw each other at Archie’s since they were cousins and at the weekly hand games down at the Lame Deer Social Center. There, he gambled away the little money he earned and most of the monthly payout the coal company sent which granted them the rights to strip mine the reservation. The Crow had more coal and so were richer by Indian standards. Still, having the money only meant they could spend it more quickly and usually at the Buffalo Jump.

At the bar, I would bet Matt all sorts of things. Like once, I bet him he couldn’t drink his shot from his shirt pocket without using his hands. We all laughed watching that stupid son-of-a-bitch try. Being retarded and all, I didn’t think he minded us stealing a laugh once in a while at his expense. Seems cruel now, I know, but being dead sort of changes your perspective on what is right and wrong. He was crazy for gambling. He would always tell me that his coal check was coming in the mail soon, and he’d be back, then he’d show me. The night I died, he wanted to bet on something, but had no money. Maybe he should have bet that I wouldn’t have seen the next morning alive. Maybe that was a bet he should have taken.

One thing for sure though, for a little shit, Matt loved to fight and would give you the hairy eye better than anyone I ever knew. He couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, and often shopped for clothing for young boys rather than the thirty something man he was.

Once I asked him to come over for dinner. Suspicious and sober, it was a quiet evening. We talked about his dad, about tribal gossip. He’d asked me if I’d ever been in love, and what sex with a woman was like. He always asked about my time in the service. He loved uniforms.

It was these sober moments with Matt that I felt most uncomfortable, not because of his unfortunate situation. Christ, we all wade knee deep in shit the minute we are born in this world. No, I guess in these moments I felt most like a brother to Matt. At these times, I actually envied him a little. At least he was the great grandson of a famous Chief and warrior. Somewhere, even with his limited intelligence, maybe even from his soul, he knew what it was to come from greatness. At least he had that.

He left me that evening with a short prayer that he uttered in muffled Cheyenne, almost in an embarrassed manner. We never talked about these meetings at the Buffalo Jump. We just drank and gambled. We measured the days and our brotherhood in shot glasses, and never spoke of the plush landscape that carpeted our hearts.

Of the hundreds of people in my short life on the reservation, none touched me more than that of a young Blackfoot girl named Lois Calftail. Lois was one of a pair of fraternal twins. Her brother Louis and she came to Ashland after a drunk driver killed their mother. They, like Matt Two Moons, were also alcohol fetal babies, only much more severely retarded. Lois and Louis were almost universally loved and were affectionately known as “Sugar” and “Spike”. Hardly anyone used the twins given names, and doing so seemed to irritate Spike enormously. I got to know them after I was required to do some community service for a drunk and disorderly charge a number of years back. I was pretty good fixing things, so they had me stay at the group home to work around the home.

Sugar was as childlike as Spike was bellicose. It was almost as if they wore their names as monikers of their dispositions. Sugar had the intellect of a 6 year old. Her sense of wonder about everything was infectious and you really could not help caring for this kid. She loved playing with the dress up dolls and I would often role play different characters from her favorite TV shows of the day.
She would pretend to be Kunta Kinte, famed African slave brought of the TV miniseries “Roots”. She did basic arithmetic with her fingers, and wrote in a scrawled penmanship that belied her lack of fine motor skills.

Spike, on the hand, carried with him all the bravado a good male Blackfoot brave should. Smaller than Sugar, he overcompensated for his lack of size by always picking fights.
He was more standoffish, less open than Sugar. Still, despite all they’d been through, there was a closeness there that no one could articulate.

We talked about lots of things. We talked about life off the reservation, about other cities, my time over in Nam. I had heard stories about how their mother went on all day binges when she learned she was pregnant, trying to induce a home grown, half-assed abortion. Her boyfriend wanted the baby, not knowing she was carrying twins, but once they were born he split. Abortions were illegal and to get one she would have had to travel off the reservation. Money was an issue as well. These back alley doctors were seldom even doctors and often charged more than these young girls could afford. Money spent on an abortion meant less money for drugs or alcohol or gambling.

I’d heard stories about how she would fill the baby bottles with formula and rum, park them outside the Buffalo Jump, so she could go inside and drink, then find men to take home. It wasn’t enough, I guess, that she made sure Sugar and Spike had to swim upstream against the tide of a polluted gene pool. She had to cement the addiction firmly in place; she had to complete the circle in them.

Of all the things I’d lost on that cold night walking from the Buffalo Jump to my death, the loss of Lois hurts the most.

Roxy Pettit was half Crow and half white. Her bronze skin and long blond hair and blue eyes made her stand out. As near as I can tell, she never drank but was always at The Buffalo Jump. Every guy wanted to sleep with her, and every woman as well. Near as I can recall, I don’t think I ever did. Still she hung around the bar and kept me company, sipping a Pepsi and on occasion walking me home. Or rather, carrying me home. She would ask me do dance when the Juke would play the Eagles’ Tequila Sunrise. We would slow dance, most of the time, she would hold me upright, and she would scream the line into my ear: “Take another shot of courage. Wonder why the right words never come, you just get numb.”

She would hop on the bar and dance wildly when Bad, Bad Leroy Brown would come on. Sometimes would try to coax me up. That girl loved to dance.

She called me each morning to make sure I was up for work. More than once Mick would chew my ass out for being late, or worse for showing up drunk for a birthing or branding.
We got into some serious trouble on a few occasions, traveling to bars in Busby and Miles City. She was beautiful, slender, and angelic the way her blonde hair fell around her face like a halo. Sexy as she was, though she could cuss and chew tobacco just like a man. This only made her more appealing to most men, except to me. To me, she was Roxy. She was a constant that I took for granted right up until the end. It was Roxy’s smile that I saw in my sleep, as I nestled into the snowdrift, too drunk to realize that I was suffering from hypothermia.

Roxy was home with the flu the night I froze to death.

My spirit now flutters over the rolling foothills of this speck of place that is Ashland. It moves in quiet circles, like a plastic six pack ring holder that tumbles over the cow-catchers, mixes with the red dust and gets tangled in the barbed wire. Once, my body enchanted a spirit here long enough to set tendrils into the land and into the people of this place.

It is on this canvass that I paint a life for you, so that all that is bone and sinew in me will not have been scattered to the four corners of the earth, disintegrated, left as a stain on the garment of this life. I may be no one, but I have place.

II. The Sweat

After almost exactly one year to the day that I arrived on the reservation, Archie and Alberta invited me to come for dinner and to have a sweat with some friends and relatives. It didn’t take long for Archie and me to discover our love of Jack Daniels and easy women. We were fast friends in was that most others would never recognize. It wasn’t just that our human frailties overlapped our cultural differences. I was this dried up piece of beef jerky from Long Island who ended up blowing on to this reservation through a series of jobs, scuffles with the law and plans to strike it rich, hoping to own my own ranch someday. With Archie, it was like we knew who each other was before the first time we were introduced. It was a hopelessly male sort of friendship, based solely on a wordless vocabulary: close but not so close so as to make the other uncomfortable. The kind of relationship you hoped you could take for granted.

I arrived early that Sunday sober and with a three-day stubble on my face that would make sandstone feel slippery.
We usually opened up to each other at the Buffalo Jump. We were both usually too drunk to be accountable for whatever we said or did. Once, he threatened to kill Lyman Morris for serving watered down drinks at the bar. I talked him down from that one. He had a knife at the fuckers throat – not that he didn’t deserve it, mind you. But hell, the Pine Ridge Super Max was full of guys like Archie, gentle good guys who traded judgment for a decent happy hour.

So it didn’t take long for Archie and me (and eventually Alberta – she didn’t trust white people much, and cared for them even less) to become good friends.

The sweat lodge was in Archie’s backyard, which was on a slope that overlooked a stream that fed the Tongue River. It looked like the hump of a large buffalo, which, Archie informed me, was exactly what it was supposed to resemble. Half the lodge was painted red and the other half was an earthen color. The lodge itself was made from a specific number of willows, arched with their heads buried in the dirt. It was always placed over a twelve to fifteen inch hole dug fresh for that lodge. Over the willows were skins, leathers and even some Army surplus drab olive tarps. I’m sure this wasn’t kosher Cheyenne, but Archie didn’t care. Archie explained that each Cheyenne learns to build a lodge from his father, though now-a-days, they are actually teaching stuff like this at the white Catholic Mission just off the Crow Agency reservation.

“My dad was never around except when the sheriff took the time to drop him off after sleeping off a bender somewhere,” Archie explained. “That son-of-a-bitch couldn’t earn a living, or raise a family, but he did teach me how to build a lodge.”

“So it’s not according to Hoyle,” I assured him. “Looks like it’ll fit the bill.”

Near the lodge, a few of Archie’s nephews, Lloyd Lone Elk, and Richard Tall Man were busy stoking a large fire. It was winter, about twenty-two degrees below zero and the razor air felt like an eagle’s talon on my skin. They would heat the stones in the fire, then the women would carry them into the lodges. As was the Cheyenne custom, only the men could sweat together. Traditionally, they were naked but Archie was anglicized enough to be ashamed of his large, corpulent body so he wore gym shorts. I stripped down. Hell, I didn’t care who saw my bony white ass. Still I guess it must have made Archie nervous. Besides, it was dark in there. He never talked about it though, not even down at the Buffalo Jump, not even when we were both drunk.

Alberta and her sister, Mary Standing Elk, stoked the fire and brought the water, sweet grass, juniper and tobacco into the lodge. The glowing hot rocks were placed into the center earthen hole of the lodge.

We entered the lodge in the traditional manner. The opening always faced east toward the Morning Star (this, the Cheyenne believed was where enlightenment came from). As the guest, I entered first and moved around the hot stones counter-clockwise until Archie told me to stop. We sat and then Archie began to say something in Cheyenne. He would translate for me that it was an invocation of the Great Spirit, asking him to bring healing and courage to face the demons and bad spirits we might encounter.

Archie began to sing: Hai yu
Hai yu hait yo wat yu wat si na yu
Hai yu hait yo wat yu wat si na yu

Lloyd picked up a hand drum and began to bang it. The rhythm was complex and compelling. I could feel the beat in my chest on every stroke. Archie threw water onto the stones and the steam began to fill the darkness that surrounded me. It didn’t take long to see that I was sweating. I could feel the moist air reach in and open up my lungs. It felt like my skin became looser and open. I could feel the poisons in my body gushing from within.
Archie would explain things as we went along. By now I was feeling like the token ve hoe – white man.

“That was a peyote drinking song,” Archie whispered to me, and he laughed. I breathed deeply and realized that while this ceremony was sacramental, it was designed to open me up. And Archie knew how to have a good time, even when he was not at the Buffalo Jump.

“Let the steam and the smoke and the drum get inside you,” he said to me. “The sweat will clean you out.”

We each took turns praying, sometimes singing. Of course the others all spoke in their native tongue. Archie stopped translating soon into the sweat. It was like watching a foreign movie; after a while you stop needing to read the subtitles, trying to experience the movie first then understanding it, rather than the other way around.

I was very self-conscious when it was my turn to pray. I mean, I was brought up Catholic but religion and I made a parting of the waters, so to speak, a long time ago. I closed my eyes and said something. I can’t really recall what. All I know is that after I said anything, all of the other men would grunt approvingly for whatever I prayed. Then we each picked up a ladle of water and sipped from a large bucket. We spit out the water onto the hot stones, making even more steam.

After we went around the circle four times, Archie threw the sweet grass and juniper onto the hot rocks and the smoldering smoke added a sweet smell to the already wet, soggy air I was taking into my body. The sweat was rolling off me faster than I thought was possible. I felt alive, aware and open. My senses, my feelings were heightened and I was dizzy from the heat, the smoke, the chanting. Anything could happen now and I was ready for it. This, I guessed, was what the sweat was for.

Next, Archie lit the pipe; he offered it to the four corners, each time singing something and asking for the blessings of the Great Spirit, asking for the blessing of the Thunder People. The Thunder People was where Archie got his power, he told me.

After puffing on the pipe, he passed it around. Each man said something, inhaled the pipe, blew out and exhaled, then passed it on to the next fellow in the circle. Lloyd’s cousin, Matt Two Moons, was with us and wept openly as he prayed. There was cleansing going on. This was healing; I could see that. I knew then that this was why these Indians would always be superior to the white man; they would always win. They were superior in ways that the universe considers important, not in the typical guns and butter kinds of ways. They would always survive.

After the tobacco, Archie passed around the peyote buttons. Now I knew that peyote wasn’t technically Cheyenne, but they borrowed it from other tribes as did other tribes. It migrated from the tribes down south and made its way up north until most tribes in the west, into some sort of peyote culture. Peyote was a way for the Cheyenne to talk directly to the Great Spirit, without needing a priest. It was sacramental in the way that the pipe was. There were ongoing attempts by the whites to regulate this commodity as a controlled substance, but this was not like the drug epidemics of the white man.

No matter, I thought to myself. I was no stranger to hallucinogenic substances and I would not pass up a free ride. My thumb was out on the road of life and if Archie was going to stop and carry me down that road for a bit, who was I to argue?

I chewed the fleshy stubs – about five or six of them – which Lloyd pressed into my hand. Lloyd’s eyes were still wet from weeping. I was already dizzy from the heat, the dehydration, the drumbeat and burning grasses, even the sensory deprivation. All of these things contributed to a heightened sense of my feeling a little outside of myself. The peyote buttons burst in my mouth with a rush of slight sweetness and a real burning. Archie handed me the paired eagle feathers that were decorated with beadwork and bone. He motioned with his hands while he chanted, indicating that I should fan my mouth with the feathers, to try to cool it down. The drumming started a pulsing in my brain that soon had me feeling like I was somewhere else altogether. I had dropped acid before. Acid was a rocket sled that just took off and started the show. This was different. It was a very gradual process, as I started to feel myself crawling out of my own skin. Soon I was no longer in the spot on the floor where I had been sitting. The chanting and the drumming were keeping time and I swear that my heart and breathing started keeping the same time. A one point I believed that it was the drumming that was keeping my heart and breathing going. I believed that if they had stopped keeping time, I would have stopped breathing. It was not a scary feeling, just a matter of fact that my existence was tied up with the events going on around me.

Before long, I felt that the smoke was burning my skin.
I was lost in a way that I never experienced before and I knew lost better than most. I was now floating above the rocks in the center of the lodge, circling around the low ceiling. I felt myself getting pulled upward toward the stars. At blurring speed, I ascended feeling more and more queasy until all at once a “white-ness” flooded me both inside and out. I shielded my eyes but they were still accustomed to the darkness of the lodge so it hurt like pins sticking in my eyes.

When I could finally pry my eyes open, there before me was my grandfather. I looked again to be sure. I was in disbelief. He was in a bed and the linen was brighter than a snowy field at noon. There were four tall bedposts, all phallic shaped and on each post there was a uniquely colored ribbon: one was blue, one was scarlet, one was yellow and the final one was white. My grandfather stood up, and as he did, his sheets dropped away. There before me was my grandfather, peeled naked and thinner than I ever remember him. His arms and hands, his feet and fingers all seemed longer and more ethereal. He wore his usual gray goatee and was bald. His ribs flared out and spilled down his torso like a ladder descending from his chest.

I called to him in a halting, raspy voice. It was more a question of reality than a statement of recognition. “Grandpa?”

I was in utter disbelief and shock. So much so that I I was no longer in the lodge, this I knew. But I could not even tell you where I was.

“You’re dead!” I spoke with the obviousness of a six year old. He looked at me with a shadowy smile that showed love and pity. I was very young when he first became sick. I remember my mother telling me how he would always ask her to bring me into his room when he felt the most sick. It cheered him up, she told me, to have me nearby. I do recall his death a few years later. This was perhaps my earliest memory. I remember the cornfield-like rows of marble headstones rolling over the Long Island National cemetery. I remember my mother in tears. Despite the sun that day, I remember it as being a very dark time.

After standing for what seemed like a long time, he cleared his throat and spit as he used to do when he was alive. He spoke gently and quietly, so quietly in fact that I had to strain to hear it:
“It doesn’t matter where my body is,” he said. “Where there is heart, there it will be good to be.”

I had no sense of time. In the background I could still hear the drumbeat. Now with each pulse I saw more and more light emanating from behind my grandfather, until he was completely engulfed in light. I was fighting the vision; I was fighting the peyote. I knew as with most psychotropic drugs this could only result in a bad trip.

He motioned to me with his hand to come closer and despite my feeling that this was just a dream, I felt myself being pulled closer. He handed me a burlap sack, tied with a black ribbon. The ribbon had the date of my birth printed on it. I opened the sack with sheer horror to find the mutilated body of a large ermine black rabbit. Its neck was broken and there were large chunks of flesh taken from its body. Blood dripped everywhere, out from the sack and onto my hands and arms, then onto the floor. When it did, it changed from dark velvet maroon, to bright orange. I tried to scream but I was in a state of panic. It was as though my fear had its hands tightly locked around my throat.

I looked up again, and now my grandfather had all sorts of cuts over his thin pallid body and blood was oozing from these wounds. His blood trickled down and commingled with the blood from the rabbit on the floor. He said nothing else to me, but just looked so sad.

It was then that I realized that his bed was really a white marble tombstone and then I saw the cemetery exactly as I recalled it: expansive, empty and lonely.

Here I was holding this dead creature, talking to my dead grandfather and for the first time I felt the grief that my mother felt that day. It was not empathy, but I felt her actual feelings. I wanted to ask my grandfather why? Why did he have to die? Why cancer? Why not me? I wanted to say all that and I think I did. I can’t be sure. My own tears were streaming down my face and as they fell, drop- by-drop, I could hear the questions being verbalized.

When I looked up, I could see tears running down my grandfather’s face but they were tears of blood. I closed my eyes afraid now, until the steady drumbeat grew more tangible, more real to me. I was feeling like I was back in the lodge, but the peyote was still coursing through my body. The smoke started to twirl and sway and took on the shapes of naked women. I swear I could see the vibration of each drumbeat float off the drum skin and hover above our heads like bubbles.

Still spooked by what I saw, or thought I saw, I sat, sweating. I was having some trouble breathing. More water was tossed onto the rocks, as I just sat there in a ball. Archie and the others continued to pray, to chant and pass the pipe around. Archie was waving the sweet grass smoke into his face to get the full effect. He looked over at me but never once said anything that broke the spirit of the circle that we created that day.

I wore no watch; I never did. For all I knew, I could have been in this place for days. When we were finished we uncoiled like a snake out of the lodge, through the entrance as we had filed in. The peyote would do its magic on me for hours yet, but the sub zero Montana cold picked me right up, straight and quick. All at once, without even thinking, I ran completely naked down to the stream in Archie’s backyard. Despite the cold, the moving water didn’t freeze over. I rolled around in the frigid water giggling like a kid, as Archie, Alberta, their friends and relatives stood by the lodge, cleaning themselves off with a garden hose. I had read somewhere that after a sweat the Indians would jump into the freezing river or snow. Well, maybe that was the Swedes or the Finns, I forgot. I didn’t really care.

“That is one crazy white motherfucker,” Archie told Alberta, shaking his head. She told me this later that evening when we were eating dinner. That, in fact, became my Indian name, “Crazy White Motherfucker” and like most things on the reservation, the name spread as quickly as jam on hot bread and stuck just as firmly.

Afterward, Archie and I split a fifth of Jack Daniels as Alberta prepared a meal of Indian style grilled buffalo, fry bread, and frozen corn. The buffalo was buried in a large hole with hot coals then covered up for hours, almost a whole day. Archie kept a hole in his back yard for this very purpose so he could cook his buffalo the traditional way in the winter. The ground was too frozen normally to dig such a hole in the Montana winter and most Cheyenne cooked this way only in the summer months. He covered it with large sheets of foil and metal, and then threw some of his compost on top of that. It worked and was better than eating the store bought beef or prepackaged buffalo they sold at the Ashland store. Covering the cooking meat kept it moist and because it cooked so slowly, it had no gamey taste at all.

At dinner, Archie sat at the table and spoke with great animation. It seemed the huge turquoise rings were moving his hands as he talked. We all sat around as Alberta brought the food. They were talking about all sorts of things, but none of them talked at all about the sweat or what they had experienced. I felt like a boy at school who knew the answer and was just itching for the teacher to call on him. Finally I just had to blurt it out.

“I had a vision!” I said curtly.

They all stopped at once. Archie put down his fry bread that he was just about to put in his mouth. Then they all turned to me, and they listened, as I started to tell my story.

No one said a word as I relayed the story. They all nodded at all the right places and every so often one or the other of them would let go with a guttural sound of acknowledgement, a Cheyenne linguistic habit I learned later.

Archie said nothing until after I was done, but then asked me some questions; did I know my grandfather? Yes. Was I close to him? No, not really, but I explained about his illness and me being so small during that time. “He is telling you something,” Archie said, resuming his dipping the fry bread into the buffalo fat on his plate. “The rabbit is probably your power animal.”
“The rabbit is prey,” Lloyd chimed in. “Fear is what it is known for. Fear and swiftness and cunning.”

We finished eating with each male thanking Alberta for cooking. Archie held his large meaty arm parallel to the ground, making a fist, and moved it outward from his chest. He “tsked” with his teeth and uttered the custom Cheyenne compliment, “Ishtpiva, cha” – meaning “it is good”. It was usually associated with the previously mentioned hand motion, though it was never made clear why.

We had coffee, and finished telling others’ visions from their sweats. Not everyone had them, I was told. Some sat in the sweat lodge week after week seeking the sort of vision I had and get nothing. I don’t know. I still don’t even now that I’m dead. Maybe I’m not supposed to know. Maybe it was just the peyote and the heat. I do know that I thought more about rabbits after that vision. All I wanted to know is what it meant.

“It could be one of your ancestors trying to tell you something,” Archie finally told me.

“Traditionally,” Alberta added, “we would make you dance the vision, so that whatever power the vision was designed to give to you would become realized.”
Archie explained to me how power animals worked; that the Great Spirit put animals on the earth to help us get through this life; that each animal possessed gifts and strengths that could be aligned with our traits. Some people searched their whole lives for their power animal and would never find it.

But why my grandfather? What was he trying to tell me? This, Archie told me, was why the Cheyenne danced.


III. Intentions


It was not like we were ever really friends. Jonathan Bear Below lived outside of Hardin in a prefabricated one bedroom track house on the reservation. He drove the classic Indian reservation car: an old Chevy pickup with the flatbed rusted out and two tone paint job. The driver side lamp was really a hand held spotlight, manually held in place with wire. The cable ran along the fender and squeezed into the window where it ran along the dashboard and plugged into the cigarette lighter. Something with the wiring, he once told me. The truck had only three gears: reverse, neutral and low, though sometimes when it got really cold, the low forward gear would lock up forcing him to drive all over the reservation in reverse. It was common to see Jonathan driving backwards, no one ever seemed to think anything of it. When he had the money, he would tell me, he would get it fixed; he never really did though.

We met at Mick Meline’s ranch. The name of the ranch was the Thunderheart Ranch where we were both working off debts from disastrous marriages and life draining alimony. Mick and Cheryl were really good about giving guys who were down on their luck a second chance. Mick was an AA member and ran 12-step meetings out of his house. He never allowed swearing or drinking while on duty, but that never stopped us from showing up drunk. He’d get real mad when one of was drunk on the job. Still though, he only fired a few who would just not abide by the tenets of recovery, at least during the working hours. He never really preached recovery, mind you. He simply posted the meeting notices all over the ranch, each notice marked by the bright blue triangle inside a circle logo that was the AA trademark. He provided all the free black coffee Cheryl could make and left copies of the Big Book in the canteen and porta-sans on the premises. “Attraction, not promotion!” he’d tell us. It was the AA way. Everything about Mick was about attraction never promoting; leading through example, not pushing or prodding through any fixed path. He was painfully open about his past, which made Jonathan very uncomfortable. This was not the Crow way, to bare all.

Still, Mick made no apologies and while some things he did were more Mick Meline than AA, it was clear to anyone who spoke with him for only minutes, that he had come from someplace bad. Gratitude was what he wore now, like his leather chaps and dusty dungarees. He shared it with anyone who would listen. I never really listened though. I always saw it like religion; aimed at taking away the only thing that kept me independent.

I could really see the pain more in Cheryl’s eyes: the proximity to death and spiritual dismemberment we all skirt around as we make our way through this life; it was distilled in Cheryl until it came though in her humble work with Mick on the ranch. It was her quietness that was her testimony. These were good people; struggling-and-doing-what-they-needed-to-do-to-make-the-puzzle-pieces-fit kind of people. They gave us work, and fed us. We in turn, made the ranch run.

Jonathan was easily the most philosophical person I’d ever met. We spent hours while fixing fences or tossing bales of hay out to feed the livestock about all sorts of things. He read as much as he could, but only had a 6th grade education, having to bury his mother and father at such an early age. His observations were sometimes painfully direct and focused. Like the time we were talking about whether or not he thought animals possessed a soul. In his typically Crow manner, he spoke little as I spewed forth un-intelligible bilge I made up as I went along.

Jonathan’s eyes were nearly slits; he stood up as he threw his head back. He scratched the back of it for a moment, as he paused from the task of hammering in a nail to fix the barbed wire on a fence post.

“You know,” he said, “driving over here today I spotted a big yellow dog just standing in the middle of Baxter Street in Hardin. I aimed the truck down the middle of the street, as I needed to pass, and slowly made my way toward the standing dog. Do you know, that this dog lowered his head finally, dropped is tail, then moved over to the side of the street to let my truck pass.”

“So?” I said to him, lost as usual.
“So,” he continued, “see, the dog knew that the truck and his body couldn’t occupy the same space at the same time.”
I looked up at him, scratched the back of my head.

“And?” I continued, then began looking for more nails in my pouch to fix the fence.

“And, well, consider that the dog must have a sense that he is mass and occupies space. That sort of implies a sense of self, innit?”

“Meaning what exactly?” I had no clue as to where this was leading.

“See, this idea of time and space, well it’s a pretty basic principle of Einstein. The way I figure it, if a dog understands the basic principles of physics, then I reckon that the spark of life we call a soul must be there too. I mean, don’tcha think?”

I stared at him for the longest time, then went back to work. Finally I just said to him, “Man, you are fuckin’ weird even for a Crow.”

But damn it all if I wasn’t thinking about this lying in bed that night with Shayleen Pretty On Top after coming home from the Buffalo Jump. I was thinking about what he said, and the way he said it. It was like looking at a Christmas tree ornament, how simple the shape was, and yet how shiny the color was. I spun it over and over in my head all night that night. Even while making love to Shayleen.

I met Shayleen at the bar that night. She was a sweet little thing with a long torso and long hair with the color and feel of midnight. We had both been drinking and we played our own private version of hand games. The winner would have to make sexual requests of the loser, to be performed on the other later, in private.

Even Indian lovemaking was different, notched up a bit higher in ways whites could never grasp. It was their attachment to primal forces, someone told me once. Sex ws not an act but a sort of re-tracing of the same dance that the Great Spirit did when he created the universe. When that is the motivation, a motivation that is sown as seeds into every member of the tribe from birth, well, how can that action be anything less than divine? One thing was for sure: Shayleen was no ordinary fuck. And not a simple one either. Not all the Crow or Cheyenne women I had were as good, to be sure. But most were.

I knew nothing about her: we just met where we could, whenever either of us needed the other; we’d fuck and then we’d leave. Whenever she wanted to talk, I’d get up and ask her to leave, making some excuse, like I had to work early or something like that. She was a sweet kid, but it was just recreational. Nothing more.

One afternoon, we drove up to Eagle’s Nest lookout, a high point in the area and sort of “lover’s lane” used by the high school kids. We started the process as we had done dozens of times before. It was early spring, that time of year when the air was still cold especially in late afternoon as the sun was setting. The dusky brown sage brush was starting to get the putrid lime color. The windows of the truck were rolled up, and all fogged. I had Shayleen under me with just enough of our bodies exposed to get the job done. The truck cab became an embryonic sack of panting, hot slimy sweating, awkward lust on the narrow bench seat of that Ford pickup.

Nearing my climax, my mind was completely empty, in an almost trance like state, performing robotically, seeking nothing but completion of the act. Suddenly my concentration and rhythmic movement was stopped abruptly by a crashing sound of glass. The pebble-like rain of the shattered windshield came crashing down on us in small pieces; one piece lodged in my ear, cutting the inside of my it and caused blood to begin to trickle down my face. The glass sprayed like harsh, scratching sand over my bare ass as it swayed, partially exposed, in the air during our lovemaking.

We disentangled our bodies from each other as I let out the only exhortation I could manage, “ What the hell…”

“You sonovabitch!” It was Jonathon, wearing a black ski cap, preparing to swing the heavy wood maul again. I was confused. I could not register what he was doing, much less why he was doing it.

“Fuck! Jonathan…are you crazy?”
“You fucker!” he barked, and the maul came down again, this time over the hood of the truck, making a large dent.

“My truck! You asshole!” I scramble out of the cab mustering as much grace as I could for a man whose pants had now fallen down around his ankles. It was not ballet, but I stumbled out, and righted my clothing as we both shouted. Jonathan swung the maul now with more rhythm, and with a quicker tempo.

“That…” He uttered each word separately as he slammed into a different part of the truck. First the driver side headlight.

“is…” now the right headlight.

“my…” now the grillwork.

“SISTER!” He slapped away the driver’s side mirror snapping it off like a clothespin off a laundry line in a gale wind.

“Your what?” I was still not comprehending.

We both stopped for a moment. Shayleen was face down in the cab, her clothing pulled around her. She was crying uncontrollably.

Jonathon’s eyes were no longer slits. He’d been drinking, this I could see and smell. Word had gotten around I guess. Ashland and the reservation is a small place. He had come up here to find out for himself.

“Shit, Bear Below,” I was using his Indian surname now in an attempt to gain some sort of moral high ground – as if that was ever possible with anything I ever did.

“All you fucking Crow and Cheyenne have names that sound like they come from a kid’s coloring book! How the fuck was I supposed to know she was your sister?”

Jonathon’s breathing was more regulated now, so that his seething made its presence known in the hissing sound as he bit off and spit out each word between his teeth.

“She’s only fourteen years old!”

I froze. I wanted him to repeat the last line, but the thoughts of a conviction for rape flashed though my head. Besides, I didn’t have the balls to ask him to repeat it. Still though, he repeated it, as though he could read my mind.

“Fourteen!” he forced out in a whisper that held more hatred than a whisper should ever have to bear.

“For Chrissakes…I …Jonathon…She…I…”

My mind couldn’t focus on any one thing. I was thinking about the law; I wasn’t using a condom; how could I have been so stupid? What if she were pregnant?

Jonathon came at me again with the maul, this time it was for me, and not the truck. Shayleen managed to gather some composure, and scampered off behind the truck.

There will be serious blood spilled here tonight before this is over, I thought to myself, and I looked around for a way out.

After a while, Jonathon simply got tired of swinging the heavy maul. He breathed hard and was sweating. In between gasps of breath, he intoned a high pitched squeal on each inhale; he paused at the hood of the truck, with me, hands clutched around my pants to keep them up at the tail end of the bed of the truck. Shayleen, meanwhile, had run out of the truck’s driver’s side door, naked, holding her blouse balled up over her face and ran off into town from Eagles Nest. The stories the next day were part of the lore of the town, of course, but I couldn’t worry about this now. I was trying to avoid a homicide – namely my own.

I tried to talk to Jonathon, now that he seemed to be calming down. Still, this was his sister, and she was only fourteen. I was weighing my odds with the same sense that a prey animal weighs them when he sees the hunter off in the distance. I have no doubt that he would use that maul on me if I gave him the chance.

“You’re an asshole!”

He spit after that little bit of poison leaked out of his mouth. He wiped the sweat from his face, and I could see he had worked most of the violence out of him. Either that, or he was so drunk that he could no longer stand up straight. Either way, I was beginning to feel the upper hand, at least in terms of my survival.

Jonathon started talking again, animated as though someone had just pressed a button.

“Let’s say I’m driving and traffic is really busy,” he stared in a cool manner that unnerved me.
“Say I’m in downtown Billings, or Helena.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was grateful he was talking instead of swinging that maul.

“I stop to let a pedestrian cross in front of me, as a simple act of courtesy.”

I was still lost.

“This is an act of good, wouldn’t you say?” he asked me.

I had no idea what to say. I paused and he slammed the maul down hard again on the hood of the car, not so much as to destroy anything but to make a point. He wanted a response. He was looking for dialogue.

“Yeah, yeah, sure… I guess so”, I replied mechanically.

“Well”, he continued, “ Let’s say this guy crosses the street, and goes into a liquor store and holds it up and in the process, kills the store owner. To what extent am I – the one who let him cross the street – responsible for the death of that store owner?”

This was a hypothetical that had to do with intent. I could see now where his calculating mind was going with this. Intent. As though intent really swayed the moral outcome of any event in our lives. I wasn’t trying to hurt Shayleen. I really didn’t know she was only fourteen. Shit, she easily could have passed for twenty-one or twenty-two.
I was only out for some fun and I thought she was. But maybe not.

I could see from Jonathon’s anger how much he cared for her. What I never knew was what it took to raise a girl after parents simply gave up, and drank themselves into a mental home – as his father did. Or was the victim of a homicide – as his mother was.

I never knew what that took, so I could never understand the type of outrage Jonathon felt that night.

He finally dropped the maul, and began to sob uncontrollably onto the hood of the car. I tried to say I was sorry, but the words sounded tinny and hollow. I mean I was sorry, but that was not the point. I turned and walked back to town, leaving him there alone, in the cold moonlit night to face his sadness alone.

I never talked to him about that night. I swear I walked away thinking about fixing it and how I could. But what was broken that night was not Jonathon or Shayleen. They had broken long ago, in a repeating pattern of thoughtlessness and fate.

What was broken was what was in me; it was a bit harder to find. It was what I thought about; how I bounced off other beings on this planet, without regard for anything else that got in my way. Never thinking about that person I let cross in front of my car, to use Jonathon’s own analogy; never considering who I drank with or who I slept with.

Jonathon made the analogy once of each of us being a stone dropped into a quiet pool. Maybe that is so. We ripple into each other’s way, we make a splash, we create chaos, and make waves and counter waves. It is a thoughtless process for most of us.

I would never talk to Jonathon about that night. On that cold winter night that I died walking home from the bar, it was Jonathon who passed by me in his truck as I slowly froze to death. Perhaps he might have stopped and hauled me into his warm cab. Perhaps there might have been enough warmth left in his heart to keep me from freezing to death.
Perhaps there might have been a different out come, perhaps we are not all assigned a destiny over which we have no direct control.
I walked home that night after this episode and quickly forgot its lesson. This was eventually my own undoing.






IV. The Prayer

Summer in the foothills around Ashland is marked by a wall of hypnotic sounds of locust as the morning dew is sucked away by the heat of the day as it rises from the red dust and brown sagebrush the way the sun rises.
I yanked hard on the leather bootlace, a strand of leather now hard, dusty and as brittle as a scab. The force of the snap as the bootlace gave way rubbed my foul mood even more raw.

“Fuck!” I yelled. “Just fuckin’ great!”

The judge wanted to teach me a lesson, give me a chance to redeem myself. Like I needed redemption. I wanted a drink so bad but it was only 8:00 A.M. and I needed to be at the mission to meet Father Dan by 9. This was my purgatory for a drunk and disorderly charge a few months earlier. They say I threatened a man with a gun down at the Buffalo Jump. They say I started a big brawl, knocking over tables and things. I wish I could tell you I remember it, but I don’t. I just remember waking up in jail, going to court. Then the gavel – that damn judge’s gavel – slamming down over and over. Something about community service; forty hours of it no less.

I had no problem with the concept. I mean it sure beat time in a county prison. Honestly, they treat their cattle better here than the ones they toss into jail. So I went to pay my debt to society.
When I met Father Dan it was a bright day and the humidity was beginning to climb. He wanted me to work around the mission to teach me the value of work or the rewards of helping others. I’m not really sure.

Father Dan Crosby was a Loyola University graduate who avoided Viet Nam by becoming a priest. That is not what he will tell you, of course. But that is what actually happened. He registered for the draft with a C.O. status, and somehow found God in his last year of high school. He was raised in a blue-collar family, in Detroit, where they had little money, but lots of religion. They lived in a mostly black community and Father Dan would often skip his Catholic Sunday masses for the verve and color of the local Baptist celebration.

He decided on Loyola and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Linguistics where he promptly entered the seminary and took his vows. No one was surprised when he took his final vows, and he joined the Order of the Priors; he became a Franciscan - a Cappuchin to be precise - because of their commitment to the poor. He donned the brown robe with a rope belt and a large cross swung around his hips whenever he walked. His receding hair-line and protruding stomach gave him a sort of Tuckish quality about him. He was very soft spoken, and paused long and often when speaking to choose his words carefully. He had a long arched neck with a very large adam’s apple that moved when he spoke. I found myself at one point staring at his gliding adam’s apple as it slid up and down with the change of pitch and timbre of his voice. He was a true man of God who believed in lighting a candle, rather than cursing the darkness.

The Catholic Church had collected nickels and dimes from parishes all over the country to make this state of the art mission possible, just so they could bring Christ to the Indians. But Father Dan was not concerned with the structural politics of things. His motivation was pure or at least a pure as it could be. The mission was a spot of luxury on this otherwise bleak geography that was the reservation. To be fair, the mission did have a free elementary and high school that taught all of the major subjects. They even taught the Cheyenne and Crow their own culture. Some of these kids even went on to college thanks to the education they received here. Still, sitting smack in the middle of the mission was the church, large and pyramid shaped, with a slanted cross to represent the lodge pole of a teepee.

The pink sandstone and slate was quarried locally. The church was decorated with all sorts of Eagle feather and beadwork so as to bring Christianity to terms with the Indian way of worship. It was the white man’s attempt to “spiritualize” the machinery of organized faith. It was exterior, shell-like, beautiful, but still there was no sense of flesh applied to the building.

I was all set to listen to a lecture from Father Dan, but instead, he just greeted me with a gentle squeeze of my shoulder, a pump of my hand, and a “Welcome!” with a smile that seemed so genuine as to make me almost uncomfortable.

He spoke at great length about the Mission, about his ministry there. He talked about the group homes that the Mission ran. They held the kids who had no parents, or who had no good homes to go home to. The group homes were staffed by adult volunteers and paid professionals. But the houses themselves were in disrepair and needed some work. He wanted me to spend some time at the White Buffalo home. They gave all the homes names. There were some doors that needed leveling, and some spackling and painting that needed to be done.

There were a hundred places I’d rather have been right then. It was going to be hot and usually I never even thought about getting up on a Saturday until after noon.
I was tired and a bit hung over from Friday night. But I went anyway.

Father Dan introduced me to Willie Wolf, the volunteer staff member on duty and we chatted a bit. By 10:30 the heat was becoming enveloping. I started by grabbing an aluminum ladder, and scraping the chipping paint off the shingles. I took my shirt off, and tied a red paisley bandanna around my head, pirate-like. I lit up a cigarette, turned on a radio Willie had given me, and I began my redemption.

I was only on the ladder half an hour when I first met Sugar and Spike.

“Howdy, Howdy!” It was how she greeted everyone. Sugar was tall, skinny, with dark skin and long black hair. She was slightly cross-eyed and when she held her hand up to wave to me, I could see the slight webbing between her fingers, and the gnarly knuckles, common among alcohol fetal syndrome children.
“Howdy back at’cha”, I said, after pausing to wipe the sweat from my face.

Spike was half Sugar’s height with a mouse-like face and a buzz cut so short you could see his scalp. “Chaaa,” was all he said, as he waved his hand at me in a fit of disgust. Spike ran off to chase the wild dogs that seemed to roam the reservation, completely unfettered.

Sugar just stood below at the foot of the ladder, hand to her forward shielding the bright sun, talking, mostly asking questions.

We talked about what TV shows she watched, what she did at school. She even did some impersonations of her favorite TV characters. As I talked, I scraped the paint, chips flying everywhere and she just asked questions: how old was I? Where was I born? Why was I here? Had he ever met a Blackfoot Indian and did he know that she and Spike were Blackfoot.

I stopped for lunch and then for dinner, with Sugar right there talking and listening. She listened in a way that was unusual in a way normal people never seem to have time to do. Spike meanwhile would make an occasional entrance, sit for a while, seem distracted, then curse at me and run off.

I knew who Sugar and Spike were. I had already heard the stories: about their dad running off, and their mom dragging them to bars, filling their bottles with formula and booze just to keep them quiet while she partied.

But Sugar listened to my answers with a thoughtfulness that made me open up. This world was something to be explored to her. No one had to teach Sugar this, this was something that she was born with. This disarmed me a bit – me who never opened up to anyone. I found myself talking about my parents, and my grandpa, who had died of cancer when I was little. How he asked for me on his deathbed because I brought him such joy. At least that was what my mother had told me.

At 7:30 P.M. it was getting dark so I began to clean up the paint chips and the ladder to call it a day, when Willie Wolf came spilling out the screen door slamming it behind him, onto the front lawn.

“I’m outta here!” he yelled, as he tossed his arms up into the air with a gesture of youthful lust.
“Where’s your relief?” I asked him, now just a bit concerned no one would be around for the kids in the home.

“Not my problem,” Willie tossed over his shoulder as he hopped into his beat up El Camino and drove off.

The next shift leader got waylaid, no doubt. It happened all the time. She never bothered to make arrangements.

I finished cleaning up my work, as the sun finally melted down into the purple-blanketed hillside that the horizon had now become. I took the kids inside and told them to get ready for bed. What did I know about kids? This was way more than I had bargained for. All the while, Sugar sat by me, asking me questions. Spike would alternate between sitting with her, then cursing at me and running off.

Finally I told them: “Look, I don’t know shit about kids! What do you normally do about now?” I was looking for any kind of guidance.

Neither of them knew either.

“Let’s go to bed,” I finally came up with. It was dark now. Bed seemed about right.

Sugar and Spike slept in the same room, in bunk beds that seemed almost doll-like to me. They climbed into bed, Sugar on the bottom bunk and Spike in the top. I tucked them in, actually feeling almost parental. I had called Father Dan, but he had been out. I left a message with someone there and asked if he could call me back as soon as possible. I would try to call him back later in any case, I told the woman. I hung up the phone and went into the bedroom again.

I turned the lights out, and rasped a quiet “nighty night”, thinking I could sit down and just wait, when Sugar suddenly became panicked.

“No!” she shrieked. “We have to pray. We have to pray!”

“You what?” I thought she was ill, my heart leapt into my throat.

They prayed every night before bed. I was supposed to lead them in prayer. That was the group leader’s job, Sugar told me.

“Fine, okay,” I said just a little more than irritated, then I paused trying to make the space and moment reverential, in the dark, with the crickets now chirping outside.

I thought and thought. I was quiet, with my eyes closed, trying to come up with something. “Are we going to pray?” Sugar whispered. Spike just thrashed about in the top bunk, “Chaaa…” and cursed at me again.

“Hold your horses, here. Okay, I’m ready. “

I was nervous and I don’t really know why.

“Yo, God.” I began.

“No…” Spike whined. Sugar joined in.
“No!!! It doesn’t begin like that,” she informed me.

“Then how?” I asked, embarrassed now.

“Great Spirit, we bless all of your creation.” Sugar dutifully responded.
“He don’t know shit!” Spike just laughed and turned his body face down into the pillow.
“Mousee, be quiet.” She called Spike “Mousee” because he really did resemble a mouse, his face, his body, even his twitchy movements.

“Okay, let me start again,” I said.
“Great Spirit, we praise you for your creation.”

“Well, that’s not exactly it, but that’s okay Keep going. And we are supposed to be sitting up,” Sugar said reassuringly.

“Sitting up?”
“Yes, in a circle, on the floor,” she said.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” I was beyond embarrassed now. I was just plain annoyed. I never put this much thought or effort into what kind of drink I was going to have at the bar.

“Christ, well then let’s get to it then!” I exhaled clearly frustrated.

Sugar and Spike scampered out from underneath their sheets, and we sat in a small circle in the dark. I was quiet again, trying to evoke a sense of reverence, of solemnity that I thought the event deserved.

“Great Spirit, we BLESS you for all your creation.” I emphasized the word BLESS and glanced at Sugar, who smiled a broad, happy smile, nodding her head in approval.

“Ain’t we supposed to hold hands?” Spike let out.
“Sure, sure.” Sugar added now remembering.
“Oh for the love of Christ!” I was frustrated and felt myself getting very short.

“Why don’t we have YOU TWO LEAD the prayer,” I said finally completely exasperated, making sure I drew out the words YOU TWO and LEAD.

So that is what we did. We closed our eyes and we sat and we prayed. After a minute or so, I felt such a sense that the moment here was right. We don’t often get that sense, that where we are, and what we are doing is correct. And often when we do, we are never really present to it or aware of it. But here, and after the events of this day, after my conversations with Sugar and brief encounters with Spike and Father Dan, I was present to these two kids who only knew the backhand of the world. We sat, all of us, each of us, awash in a moment of gratitude, in the dark, not knowing about anything that was to come.

Finally I left the room and the phone rang. It was Father Dan, apologizing, explaining to me, thanking me for being there. I told him what a pain in the ass this was. And how he needed to do a better job with these group leaders, these are just kids after all. I told him I hated kids and this was like hell for me. It was Saturday night and I should be down at the Buffalo Jump with my friends looking for some pussy and this was above and beyond any fucking sentence the judge had in mind.

And I said it just like that too. I knew I was talking to a priest. I didn’t care. Something inside me snapped when I picked up the phone. Father Dan apologized and tried to smooth things over. Someone would be over in an hour he said.

I waited, watching the only TV we got on the reservation – Channel 38 out of Rapid City, South Dakota, and watched the price of pork bellies rise, and wheat fall.

The new group leader came in, barely saying a word. Father Dan had told her what I had said over the phone. She averted her eyes as I got up, I washed my hands and just walked out the screen door into the humid summer night.

The fireflies were thick and the crickets and bullfrogs filled the air with noise. I lit a cigarette when I got outside. I stopped and paused, then I climbed into the truck. I wanted to go to the Buffalo Jump. I really did.

Instead, I just blew a puff of smoke out the truck window, looked in the direction of the White Buffalo group home, where Sugar and Spike now slept and drove home and went to bed.


V. The Story of Rabbit


Once, I was driving into Billings to do some shopping with Matt Two Moons and he told me this story:

“At the start, before the animals had names, Maheo took a beak full of mud from a coot and made the rest of the birds. Among the birds, he created Eagle. Eagle was thoughtful about this new world he saw, and Maheo had not yet given him the gift of flight. “How am I to live and thrive in this world?” Eagle asked. Maheo thought, then snatched Wind with his two hands, and bathed Eagle with it. As he did this, Eagle’s wings spread and he opened them up and began to fly, and soon he ruled his kingdom of the air.

From the rest of the mud, Maheo made the other animals. He made Bear, but Bear was not the powerful hunter we know him as today. Bear also confronted Maheo asking him, “How am I to live and thrive in this world as you have made me?” Again, Maheo thought, and pulling the spirit of the mightiest oak tree he could find, he endowed bear with the spirit of this oak. Then he found the most prickly thorn bushes, and gave Bear claws and teeth that were razor sharp and could tear flesh. He took the roaring from the largest rapids and gave Bear a yell that could deafen an earthquake. Bear soon ruled the land hunting and fishing at will, fearing no other living creature.

Maheo continued making creatures, large and small, and each one asking him: “How am I to survive in this world?” Even little Skunk timidly asked this of he who existed before existence.

Maheo thought hard for Skunk. Then he made a mixture of the most foul smelling mud and slime from a great pond. Just to be fair, Maheo took a swipe from the largest cloud passing overhead, and smeared a long, wide white stripe from the tip of his nose to the end of his very large and bushy tail. “This will give your enemies fair warning of the power that I have given you,” Maheo told Skunk. Skunk went off and had no fear of any creature, and rarely had to defend his domain, thanks to Maheo’s wisdom.

When all the animals were created, and each one was done asking Maheo for a way in which to survive and thrive in this new world, the last creature was Rabbit.

Maheo was saddened since he had given all the other qualities to the other animals: to Fox, he gave the fire of cunning; to Owl, moonlight for his eyes to see at night, to Butterfly, he stole parts of the sunrise and sunset and painted her wings as a warning that she was poisonous; to Turtle, the strength from petrified woods as his shell to protect him.

But Maheo was at a loss as to what to give to Rabbit. He pondered long and hard, considering what he should give Rabbit to help him survive this new world.

“Come back tomorrow, Rabbit,” Maheo told him. I will find something for you.

The next morning Rabbit hopped back but Maheo looked troubled. He still could not find the right trait to give to Rabbit that would help Rabbit live and thrive in his own world. Rabbit was saddened, until Maheo shook his head and found the only thing left to give to him.

He took the quiet and shadows of the night and gave them to Rabbit. He gave him the stillness of the meadow and vigilance of the stars overhead, ever alert and always watching. He gave Rabbit a light breath of his own spirit to allow him to never sleep soundly at night.
“These gifts,” Maheo told Rabbit, “will help you rule your domain. Though you will be food for the other animals, you will be ever alert, and always watchful. Your fear and uncertainty is how you will live. You will never trust any place to sleep or any other creature as an ally. In this way, shall you live and thrive.”

Rabbit was very sad and angry and began to thump the ground in protest, but it was all Maheo could do. In time Rabbit would thrive and grow, just as Maheo had said. But Rabbit always longed for the day when he could possess real powers that would allow him to dominate his world, but it was never to be.”

“My Grandfather told me that story,” Matt said, after he had finished. We both let the whining hum of the wheels from the truck pour over us, as the wheels grazed over the I-90 concrete. It created white space between us as we let the details of the story sink in.

He told me that story a good while after my vision at Archie’s.

VI. Roxy’s Kiss

When I first met him, I was still a senior at the mission high school, finishing my last year in early spring; you know, when “senioritis” hits the hardest. He was a dried out scab of a guy, brittle around the edges like chewed leather when I first saw him in Joe’s Trading Post, where I worked. It wasn’t like I fell in love with him at first sight or anything like that, though my best friend Jennette Little Bird would giggle and make obscene sexual gestures with her hands behind his back whenever we were around him.

“He could do me right now, and twice on Sunday,” she would always say. She couldn’t say why she was so attracted to him. The fact is, he was not handsome in any traditional way. And while I never felt the lust of Jennette, I understood the attraction.

It was after school in May when Jennette first asked me if I’d seen the new “veho” in town. An old guy, she said, like the flintiest of rocks with wiry arms and legs and hair that shot out chaotically everywhere from his head. Still, when we first started talking at Joe’s it was hard not to like him, even now, thinking back on it. Even after everything I learned about it; even after everything I knew he was and did.

We never “did it”, if that is what you are wondering but we did have that one kiss. I kissed him. Hard. He backed away. No, actually, he ran away.

I never drank. I know, most people meet me, see Crow Indian and think, “Hello! Indian! Must be a drunk.”
I hated alcohol though. My dad, Claude Pettit was a rancher from Hays, up north, descended from the Pettits from Canada, a long line of fur traders who long ago helped settle the area. That is if you don’t consider that the Sioux, Flatheads and Blackfoot were already living here.

Pretty much all Claude did was fuck my classmates and anything else that moved, got drunk, then came home and laid it on my mom pretty good, mostly open fist slapping her; sometimes with a belt. Those nights, growing up, I’d hide under the sheets hoping he’d fall from exhaustion before he got to me. Sometimes he did.

I would make up prayers for daylight, or for a blood clot to dislodge and travel to his lungs and heart or for a stroke. Not cancer though. It had to be instant. No lingering for Claude. It wouldn’t be right. It was a life I vowed I’d never get mixed up in once I was grown.

It was a May evening and I had just turned 18. I was at the Jump with Jennette just dancing and talking, sipping our cokes as we always did. We kissed after I went up to him and asked him to slow dance. He was drunk, I could see that. I can’t explain why I kissed him. We were just dancing, he was holding me real tight, but more so to keep himself from falling over than any attempt to grope me.

Jennette would flash me the thumbs up from the table whenever my face would turn her way, and his back was to her. I don’t know why I kissed him. It was sudden too. Nothing deliberate. I wasn’t even sexually attracted to him. I mean, I’d slept with boys before. I knew about sex. It’s hard to explain.

As we talked later that night I seemed to understand things about him. Even drunk, his voice carried an importance, an authority that implied that I would never be alone to face things so long as he was around. He was one of those people who seemed to exude ability and steadfastness, in a shifty sort of way.

When I kissed him, I know he was not expecting it. The music, the dancing, the smoke from the bar, the late hour, I don’t know. Maybe it was the feeling that I was just about to graduate from high school and maybe it was my just turning 18. I guess I didn’t need the drink to feel intoxicated.

I made the move quickly, like a lizard going after a fly and I plunged my tongue down his throat. The kiss languished for a few measures of the song that was playing, the Eagle’s “Tequila Sunrise”. We both closed our eyes and the bar seemed to fade away. I stroked his grizzly face; he had a curious smell of Old Spice and hay and I could taste the bourbon on his tongue. Suddenly, his eyes flashed open as what was happening registered. I nearly laughed out loud it seemed so comical.

He stepped back and stuttered and hemmed “Now wait just a minute.” He started to talk in circles, moving away as he did. I didn’t pursue him. Actually, I felt guilty for even thinking about what I had just done. Jennette was over at the table cheering and stomping her feet. Damn Jennette.

I apologized or tried to. He said it was all right, no harm done and offered to buy me a coke. We talked for the rest of that night. Jennette kept coming over asking if we wanted to borrow her parent’s house, they were away. “Go away Jennette!” I would yell at her. He looked at the ground almost embarrassed by Jennette’s behavior.

“You know, SHE would sleep with you,” I told him.
“I suspect so,” he responded.

We talked about where he was from, the time he did in a county jail in Denver for drugs. He told me about growing up in New York, and the mess he had left behind. We talked about his marriage that ended in divorce but could just as easily have ended up as a homicide/suicide. How his wife wanted kids but he could never cotton to kids. I went back to Jennette, and we danced some more. He went on, did his thing. He ended up leaving with two Cheyenne women. He even winked at me we passed him at the bar and told me I should be thinking about college, not boffing some 40-something geyser who’s bones would probably break the first time they tried to have sex.

I didn’t mind. It wasn’t love. I told you that, right? It’s not like I wanted to sleep with him. Something about being near him pleased me.

As it turned out we met almost every weekend down at the bar. I couldn’t wait to get off from my job as a checkout clerk at Joe’s Trading Post; I would drive down to the bar. Sometimes we would talk. Sometimes we would dance. Sometimes we wouldn’t interact at all. It was just knowing he was there that sort of felt good to me. He would come over to my place and help me fix my car sometimes. Damn, he was good with cars.

Only once he came over drunk and in a blackout I think. He raised his hand to hit me when I suggested that he should probably go easy on the drinking.

“You uppity little half breed bitch!”

But my mom was there with the shotgun and fired it at his feet, nearly taking off his toes. Swore at him in Crow and told him to get lost and she would shoot him with no thought at all, then go back to doing her house work. It was his special “pedicure” he would joke later, when I told him what he had done. Still, I didn’t find it funny and he knew that. I think he always felt bad about that. He never showed up drunk again after that.

The night he died, I wasn’t at the Buffalo jump. Claude had beat up mom pretty good the night before and I had to take care of her. We never went to the doctor’s or the hospital. The nearest clinic was in Lame Deer, about 30 minutes away. The tribal police came and took Claude away, at least for a while. I swore out loud that night as they guided his head into the police cruiser that he would never touch my mom again. I would kill him if he came back here.

And I would have too.

That night. That night that he died, freezing to death in the snow, I wasn’t there for him. I could have been. I probably should have been. The door closed on him just as it did on old Claude, though in Claude’s case, the door had a metallic clink to it as the jail cell closed.

We never again talked about the kiss; what it meant or didn’t mean. We never talked about what we meant to each other either. It wasn’t like that.

I don’t know what thoughts were going through his mind as he fell asleep that cold morning. I wonder if it was the kiss? Do you think it might have been? Did I mean anything to this lost eddy of pain as he rambled through a life he never seemed to quite grab hold of? Did I?

VII. The Foaling

Settling into a routine in Ashland is finding the rhythm of the fading colors as they seem to fight with one another in the expansive sky overhead; it was knowing how the sunrises and sunsets tickled and played with the shadows of each day, how they played against the red buttes and pale green of the sage against the rolling foothills of the Rockies.

It is people who mark time as surely and as consistently as any clock or calendar. In Ashland, it was the flatness of the conversation that mirrored the ordinariness of everyday living. These were conversations as craggy and flat as those hills and buttes, as plain as the people who uttered the words, mixed with Crow or Cheyenne and English. There was a way English was spoken here, with a sort of linguistic hangnail; they chopped at the end of each uttered sentence with a tone that gave one away as an Indian. Live here long enough, white or red and you picked up the same habits.

Conversations centered on living in remoteness as far from a New York Times Op Ed piece as the moon. Still, people visited one another here. They walked over, knocked on the doors of their neighbors and friends, and sometimes, even strangers, unannounced. They entered, sat, and talked. Sometimes they didn’t talk, but just sat. It was how the dark winter nights here were passed. It was how everyone knew everyone else’s business. It was how the sun leaped to start the pattern over again and it was how the sun blended into the horizon at its completion and quit; it was how the stars knew when to come out and when to hide. It was how events unfolded in Ashland, Montana, population 230.

Working on Mick Meline’s ranch was never my first choice. I was running from an arrest history in Denver looking to turn on, blend in and drop out of sight. I’d done some work on a cattle ranch outside of Golden, bit most of my time was busy trying to get drunk and laid.

It was Archie who recommended me to Mick. He was one of my first friends when I arrived and we went on weekend benders, early in our friendship. One time, in Missoula, we were looking for a bar Archie swore he knew was opening, place called “Your Happy Place”. We walked into the place and first noticed there were no women. There was no tightening stench of cigarette smoke either. The room was clean and too well lit for any bar I’d ever been in. As we made our way in, we noticed a commotion in the corner of the place. Some local TV news cameras were there and some reporter pulled Archie aside to ask him some questions. Turns out “The Happy Place” was not a bar at all, but the grand opening of Missoula’s first gay porn palace – complete with dark rooms in the back for more intimate needs.

Archie felt pretty foolish and we both looked pretty foolish on the news that night as they got us both going through the place, only looking for a drink. There wasn’t a person on the reservation that let us forget that one. Archie took it kind of sore though. He usually did with these kinds of things. As for me, I was just sorry it wasn’t a bar.

So Archie gets me a job with Mick Meline on the ranch. Now Mick was an all right guy – a twelve step kind of guy, who put things in places in his life. That was how he was able to function. A former drunk himself, he expected the most from himself before he expected anything from anyone else. His wife, Cheryl, was quiet and unobtrusive but you could just tell that you didn’t cross her or she’d fuck you up pretty bad.

My very first day, I mean my very first day, Mick had me running all day; fixing barbed wire, hauling hay, filling the troughs and cleaning the stables. By nightfall, I was beat up pretty bad, but I figured I’d made out okay. I was about to leave when Cheryl came running over to me as I prepared to climb into my truck.

“It’s Chloe. Mick needs you to help him. She’s ready to foal.” She was out of breath and I guessed that it was more from nerves than her running over here.
“It’s gonna be a bad delivery, I can just feel it. She’s waxin’ somethin’ awful.”

Chloe was Cheryl and Mick’s gray mare. They’d had her since they bought and started up this ranch. She’d seen plenty of their drinking binges and was there when they sobered up and found religion. It was clear that this horse was something special to them. She was part of this ranch, like the mortgage. Chloe was a part of a past they shared and seemed to cherish; now, with this foal, she would present them with a future. It was almost like all their hopes for anything beyond this point in time was bound up in this horse and her offspring.

I ran to the birthing stable where Mick was already trying to make Chloe comfortable. She was a large mare, with speckled gray on the hindquarters; she had only one sock, the white markings on her feet, and her mane was a dark, flat silver black. Mick asked me if I’d ever seen a foaling before. I told him no, but he had already moved to help Chloe as she leaned over to sit. I noticed how the smell in this stable was different than the other stables I had been cleaning that day. It was the smell of horse, of course, but more than that – I can’t explain it – it was a familiar smell, but distinct just the same.

Chloe was now resting, swaying and grunting to the movement that was going on inside her body. She would, from time to time, get up, and step around. She was swollen, like fruit that had been on the plant for too long. She would nicker and grunt, snort and step trying in her own way to deal with what was happening. She clearly looked uncomfortable.

“Don’t be afraid!” Mick yelled over to me. “She knows if you’re afraid.”
“Damn right they do.” I responded. Horses frightened me. I know about their magical relationship with the Cheyenne and Crow. Christ, kids grow up knowing how to ride. Every horseman I’ve ever met has a story that describes this sort of relationship. There are legends about how the horse was given to man by the White Buffalo woman. I knew all this, and I knew this was a special animal, even among horses.
Still, they are such large creatures! And there is something about their eyes. Have you ever looked deeply into a horse’s eye? I looked deeply into Chloe’s eyes and I saw the dark globes reflecting my own face. She just stared at me, as if to say, “who is this ve-ho you’ve brought to me – now of all times? Can’t you see I’m in pain here?”

Mick was talking low into Chloe’s ear, stroking her dusky mane. This seemed to quiet her down a lot. It was clear she trusted Mick.

Chloe was up and down in all sorts of discomfort for a good three or four more hours. It was 10:30 now, and I was exhausted. Cheryl brought us some sandwiches and coffee. I started asking Mick all about foaling a horse, what happened and when? And what was I supposed to do when it was time?
“Don’t worry son, I’ll let you know,” was all he said.

About midnight, Chloe seemed particularly uncomfortable and upset. On her side now, she snorted heavily and then gave a few sharp grunts.

“Cheryl!” Mick called out of the door of the stable. “Think this is it.”

Cheryl came running from the house to the stable and proceeded to tie up Chloe’s tail to keep it up and out of the way. Suddenly I felt the fresh barn hay just swish to the side with a flood of water from her backside where her placental water had broken and what seemed like one hundred gallons of amniotic fluid rushed the floor around us.

“Christ!” I began, looking to step away, out of the water, but Mick just moved in. “Move over there son, I’ll need to get my hands in her. Go over to her head and talk to her, will you?”
“And say what exactly?” I was frozen. Talk to a horse?
“How the hell do I know, just let her know she’s gonna be okay.”

So I did. I moved to her head and Chloe was trying to watch Mick and watch me at the same time. I could tell she still didn’t trust me.

Half an hour into it and Mick had his arms covered in the slime. Cheryl had a hose and would clean off his arms every so often. There were no wasted words, no wasted effort. Everyone was serious, and this was serious work. Every so often, Cheryl would get behind Chloe with Mick and try to pull with him.

Finally Mick backed away and pushed up the baseball cap on his head. With one hand bend on his hip, and the other one holding the visor of the cap, he was scratching the back of his head.

“Well, this is one major cluster fuck,” he said. He rarely swore so I took this as a bad sign. “It’s a dystoxic presentation. The foal is breach, maybe even posterior too. Cheryl, get me the box.” You could feel the danger in his voice. This was not going to be a normal foaling.

I didn’t know what he was talking about and I had the feeling there was no time for him to educate me on horse anatomy. I just stood frozen, tired, smelly and wanting to do something to make this situation better.
Cheryl handed Mick a long cedar box about the size of her arm. It was a perfectly elongated cubic shape and had a top that slid the whole length of the box, in a small groove that was cut just for the cover.

Cheryl handed the contents to Mick: some heavily worn braided cotton rope and a block and tackle, some rags and some petroleum jelly that looked to be one hundred years old.

Mick moved like a dancer, setting up the block and tackle; he tossed the ends of the rope to Cheryl who fastened it to a fixed post in the stable. There should have been classical music playing it was that well choreographed.
I kept talking to Chloe, while watching Cheryl and Mick looking over at the other end of Chloe; I could see the rear hoof protruding from her back.

“We gotta hurry.” The tone in Mick’s voice was urgent and worried. He tried to calm Chloe down. “Mick’s here baby. You’re gonna be just fine”, he repeated over and over as much for him as for her.

In a matter of moments he had the other end of the rope fixed to the gangly hoof which stuck out from Chloe’s back and he instructed Cheryl to pull on her end of the rope, but ever so slowly. “Their bones ain’t quite knitted yet”, he felt obligated to tell me. “So you gotta pull very slow. The vets, they don’t like me to do this. But sometimes…” He wouldn’t finish the sentence.

While Cheryl pulled slowly, Mick worked his arms – both of them now – into Chloe’s birth canal. He turned, twisted, prodded and begged to get that foal into the right position for a good delivery.

Within a half an hour the foal was finally born. Poor Chloe seemed limp. There was blood everywhere and I could see in Cheryl’s eyes something was wrong. Chloe was not moving and her breathing seemed labored. She was not active at all; she just laid there, with that one dark eye fixed on me. Mick and Cheryl took the foal and cleaned her up. It was a beautiful black mare, with one sock, just like her mama. She would lose her color when she grew, Cheryl told me later. The grays, they always start out this way.

I was there for a minute talking to Chloe. I didn’t know what to say. I felt it was not good and I was sure Chloe’s life was ebbing away with each second that past. Mick was very upset, crying as he was going through the mechanics of preparing the foal.

I looked at Chloe’s eyes asking me, “Was it a boy or a girl? Come on, ve-ho, tell me! Is she going to live?” I leaned over and I whispered to her how beautiful she was; that Mick had her; that her girl would be taken care of. I don’t know if she really understood me. All I saw was that eye. That dark, relentless eye.

Later that night, I was there when Chloe’s breathing finally stopped. I saw the eye change from the sparkling black to a glazed covering. I knew there was no life here. I looked again hard into her eyes, and I saw my own mother’s deathbed. I could see how weak she was. How she wanted to hold me but the chemo made her too weak. I saw her skeleton frame, and relived again how the sound of her heavy breathing turned to quiet when she passed. I remembered the smell of death too; the sharp, pungent scent that held this moment separate from all the others in her life.
I felt the sadness of that day, all over again. I saw her fading into the whiteness of her bed, how her gray hair and gray skin made her seem to almost disappear. Her mouth and eyes, dry and plastic, how she asked for water but then could not even keep a sip down. I was just a boy then, but I remembered it, and I remembered thinking that I needed to press this memory into my head like her frail, worn body was pressed into the formless mattress of her bed. There were no angels. No last words. No grand and glorious exit. When her breath was gone, she seemed to shrink even smaller. Her gray face appeared blanched, and like an object. There was no person there, I recall thinking. This was a body. With her breath, went the life of my boyhood. That I remembered.

I remembered all this in Chloe’s now defunct, cold, dry and cloudy dark eyes. The three of us were there now, but we all felt completely alone.



VIII. The Mysterious Glen Big Head

Curly Big Head, age 8, was my neighbor on the reservation. I guess that when he heard about my death, he probably just shrugged his shoulders, while digging deep in his nostril with his pointer finger to clean out his nose, then ran off to play on the dirt piles that surrounded the development.

I knew Curly because he spend every waking moment of each day over at my boxy three bedroom track house the BIA had set up as “modern housing” just off the reservation mission. Curly was your typical Cheyenne kid, as feral as the dogs that roamed the streets here, with a face that was a smudge. His round face was cropped by close short hair and bangs that were shockingly short. His body had an overall square shape, which complemented his globe-shaped head. He wore the same clothes every day, year round. In the sub zero temperatures, he simply threw a sleeveless down vest over the T-shirts or added a long sleeve shirt beneath the vest. When the temperature hit zero, all the kids on the reservation would put their vests away and just wear their short sleeve tees – maybe as a sign of some sort of warrior bravado as to who could stand the cold more. This perhaps harkens back to the days of the Cheyenne ancestral march in the winters from Oklahoma – where the Southern Cheyenne still live – into Montana where the Northern Cheyenne settled and now live.

Curly never exhausted his questions. He was filled with the curiosity of one hundred Cheyenne kids. From the moment his dad, Glen Big Head, let him out in the early morning to go off to school, until dark, when Glen would come out, flash the lights on the old V-8 Mercury Cougar signaling Curly to come home, Curly was on his own, and spent most of his time over at my place.

Once, Curly began talking about Mothers. I knew his mother had run off years ago, but I never really asked him why. Hell it really wasn’t any of my business anyway. I’m not even sure he knew why. I’d heard stories, but I’d never put stock in them. Stories in Ashland were the currency of trade.

Curly wanted to know about my mother, if I had a picture (I didn’t) and where she was (she had died a long time ago). I never really figured there was a point to any of his questions, and these were no exception. One day after these questions, Curly came in without saying a word. He had his hands plunged down deeply into his front dungaree pockets. He went over to the stool across the living room and sat down firmly on it. His whole body posture was angled down to the floor. Something was off with him, this I could see, but I could not gather what it was. He seemed almost afraid of me, whenever I would ask him if he were all right. Finally, he pulled his left hand out of his pocket. Beneath his dark, pudgy fist there was a meticulously folded piece of paper. The edges were so sever that they almost look like straight edges. It was clear he’d been carrying this paper around for some time. It was yellowed some and the creases were slightly torn at the top and bottom of the sheet when he opened it up, held it out, and averted his eyes, pleading with me through his body language to read the note.

It was a note from his mother. It had a date on it, but it had been smudged and I could not make out the exact date. Curly must have been an infant when she wrote this. He wanted me to read it, this I knew. But why? This I could not fathom. The writing was clearly feminine, with large loops for the “L’s” and “K’s” and long flaring crosses through the “T’s” – the lower case “I’s” had no dots, but rather just slashes, slanting forward.
Dear vohkoohe, it began.
When you are able to read this you will not be able to recall my face.

I bean to tense up. Curly’s eyes begged me to continue.

But it doesn’t matter. People will tell you stories about me. Some will be false. Many will be true. That I was blessed to be your mother is something that I will never be able to understand. Why you were cursed with me as your mother is an injustice that forces me to keep Maheo out of my life.

I leave you with Daddy so that you will grow up and perhaps be able to have and love your own little boy. If I kept you all for my own, as every muscle in my body tells me to do now, then I am afraid you will just re-live my life. And it would be too painful for me to know that I have ruined both of our lives.

Never doubt that I love you, vohkoohe, and will always love you, so long as the moon rises and sets. And when you stare up at the stars in the sky, these will be my eyes watching out over you. Someday, we will see each other again. Then we will truly understand the meaning of joy.

Love always, vohkoohe, your Mommy.

There was a large red heart drawn with a smile on its surface. On the top, she had scribbled a sketch of the Cheyenne Morning Star.

I folded the paper and handed it back to Curly.

We said nothing.

I smiled, touched him on the shoulder weakly. He looked up, almost grateful, maybe sensing that I would understand. Grateful for the understanding, he smiled back. He hopped off the stool, waddled over to the door, yanked the door handle, turned to nod to me, and closed the door hard as he left. It was the saddest silence I can recall ever hearing.

I though long about Curly, maybe for the next few weeks, he was never far in my thoughts. He stopped coming over after that, and I am not sure why. It was like that knowledge that we shared seemed to break something, or maybe it elevated our relationship to a different place that required no presence.

In any event, our lives ambled on their way, as they did in Ashland, from summer and into fall.

Then the oddest thing happened.

Just before Halloween, late, right at about midnight, I hear the urgent banging on my door. When I opened the door, still half asleep, I turned on the light only to see Glen Big Head standing on my steps. The moths were flitting about and he swayed back and forth in the yellow porch light waiting for one of us to say something.

Glen was the mission mechanic, and he always wore patchy grease stained overalls. His dark skin and overstuffed face was bordered with even darker wiry hair that shot out like black sparks into every direction. In the winter he wore a green ski cap with holes in it. Tonight, he was without the cap. Like most mechanics he had the scent of gasoline about him and his already naturally dark hands had tips that were pink from scrubbing constantly and the overuse of degreaser.
Glen rarely spoke. In fact, he never spoke to me. Not once. Not even to call Curly in at night. Near as I can tell, he never talked to Curly either. At least it seemed that way. The dark circles around his eyes made him appear nocturnal.

As we stood there, he gazing at me, and me trying to understand what was happening, I noticed that his breath began to become labored. His eyebrows were pulled back in a “flight or flight” manner and I could tell something was wrong. Just as I was about to utter his name, Glen leaned back and landed one punch, square and as accurate as any boxer, right onto my nose. I heard the “pop” and the blood began to squirt into my eyes. The red was all I saw before the lights of my eyes dimmed and I went down.

When I woke it was morning. I turned my head lying flat on my back, and I watched two small box elders scamper past my eyes and into the house.

How long had I been out? I was trying to recall, but I had no recollection of anything. The blood had dried to a flaky crust and I felt a molar wiggle a bit. When I finally did remember what happened, I still couldn’t process the information. Why had Glen punched me? I had honestly never spoken a word to this man.

After I got cleaned up, I began to get angry. I didn’t want breakfast; I wanted revenge. I set out to find Glen and – Curly or no – I aimed to fuck him up good. The more I thought and stewed, the more venomous my feelings became until I was actually talking to myself out loud. I was swearing in ways that even I was surprised to hear.

I drove down to the Trading Post. Roxy was working there. When I told her what Glen had done, she didn’t seem surprised, but she had no information as to why he might have done what he did or at least didn’t give any information. I forgot about Glen after that and went to work.

As I was quitting Meline’s for the day, I overheard someone talking about the hand games at the Lame Deer center tonight. Glen’s elders would be there. They were celebrating some sort of anniversary or birthday or something. I intended to stop by and give Glen his due, even if it were in front of his family.

When I arrived, it was clear the party was under full swing. People were already drunk, and tempted as I was to have a drink, I needed to take care of this first.

I saw Glen, sitting playing hand games, with Curly running around playing with the other kids. I visualized how I would do this. I picked up an axe handle that was in my truck when I came in. I would step up to him, look him in the eyes, and wait. I would not cold-cock the bastard, the way he did me. I would give him a chance to know that I was going to knock him into next Sunday. And there would be nothing he could do about it.

I approached the crowd. He saw me, but made no move to do anything. I pushed aside the others next to him – mostly cousins, and mostly drunk. He saw the axe handle in my hand. He sensed that trouble was coming, but still, he stared at me. Stared right through me actually.
He wasn’t afraid. Neither was I.

When I finally got up to him, the music had stopped. The chanting, the rhythmic drumming, the droning that filled the background of every event in these people’s lives – just stopped. We all turned to look to see why the music had stopped. Both Glen and I both looked toward the center of the smoky social center.

From the shadows, deep in the shadows, stepped out a tiny figure. It was Esther Little Bird, 85 years old, covered in a colorful family shawl. She was led out to the center of the floor by one of her grandchildren, her long silver braided hair and the multicolored shawl draped over her shoulders.

The whole center was dead quiet. The kids who were playing wildly before, stopped. The men drinking in the corner, stopped. They all looked toward the center at Esther. There was absolute silence. Even the dogs that some of the kids had sneaked into the center quieted down, and watched Esther.

Esther stood in the middle of the floor and began to pray in her native tongue. Midway through, she began to cry. Soon she was weeping almost uncontrollably, as her gnarly hands went over her face as she tried in vain to hold her grief back. She spoke and wept for about five minutes, with every face frozen in place. When she was done, the clamor of the event resumed exactly where it had left off. No one missed a beat.
It was a surreal moment. I didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed that I had stumbled onto a moment of transfiguration. It was a moment where truth broke through all the masks that are worn here in living daily life on the reservation. I was no mystic, but it seemed a sacred moment.

I turned to look back at Glen; he turned to look back at me. Nothing had changed as near as I could tell. Still, I thought about what I had just witnessed. I didn’t understand a whit it, but something inside me told me to go on my way.

This is exactly what I did.








IX. Brother Jim And The Curse

Religion and spirituality are two things that I know enough about and steer clear of both of these things. The fact is, ever since I learned that the local priest who came to visit us in the group home growing up told me that my mother would never get to heaven because she’d had me out of wedlock, I avoided the religious of this world. She was a harlot, he told me and when I asked my best friend what that meant, all he said was, “Means she put out pussy for anyone who wanted it.”

I was nine and embarrassed and very angry. I remember it being the first time I ever really wanted to hurt someone bad. It wasn’t a natural feeling for a nine year old, but I knew this. I didn’t need years of therapy to understand the source of my anger. I pride myself on being self aware, if nothing else.

When I first arrived at Ashland, I tried my hardest not to hate Father Dan and Sister Marianne and Sister Mildred. Sister Marianne, 23 with short dusty blonde hair and blue eyes framed with the freckles of youth, was out to save the world. Sister Mildred was considerably older and with her lanky body and white hair tied up easily resembled a walking peace lily. This woman could muster no harm to any living thing.

Truth is, I really enjoyed my visits from the good sister whenever they would come down to minister to me in the Lame Deer drunk tank. “Praise God, but pass me the wine, sisters,” I would always tell them. I was pretty tough on them who after all were only interested in my own well being. Still, I asked them all sorts of rude questions, asking them if they’d ever had their cherry popped and when, and if they are married to the church, just how good a lay is Jesus, anyway. Of course I was drunk. That was not an excuse, but rather an explanation.

There were many religious denizens who inhabited the mission, but the oddest of all was Brother Jim Gleason. Brother Jim was a Capuchin monk who lived as a hermit in the woods between Ashland and Lame Deer. His house was a one-room shack with an outhouse. It was tranquil, sedate, surrounded by wildlife. He lived and prayed among the fragrant, stumpy pine that grew brush-like around the foothills of the Rockies.

He was small, slight with skin that was more transparent than white. He spoke with a Northern Minnesota accent, lengthening the “o’s” and clipping the “ou” sounds. He spoke in choppy nasal tones similar to the way the Crow and Cheyenne did. Brother Jim started life as a kid too skinny to defend himself. His family was wealth even by non-Minnesota standards. Jim attended the exclusive Delasalle Preparatory School in Eden Prarie. While there, he began to experiment with drugs, mostly of the hallucinogenic variety. He could get anyone on campus the best acid around. Being unusually bright as well, he actually knew the chemistry involved. Some say he was manufacturing his own LSD; others say he was just using his knowledge to cut the acid with animal tranquilizers to increase his profits.

Business was good, as it was at most high schools around the country, and Jim rarely used himself except when he had to in order to show a buyer that it was safe. What they never knew, though, was that Jim always swapped the acid for a fresh batch he knew was good, that he’d always kept on him; a batch he brought from a reputable source.

It was in his junior year during one of the year- end parties that were the tradition at Delasalle, that a freshman, a girl who he had never seen before, had a really bad trip with one of his experimental batches. The girl climbed to the roof of the host’s house trying to run away from something – no one saw anything. Now there are some who maintain that these sorts of drugs can alter not only one’s psychological states of mind, but the metaphysical states as well. If this had been true that day, this girl might have escaped into some alternate reality. For Jim and his friends that day, though, she dropped like a stone off the roof and broke her neck.

The death caused a profound change in Jim Gleason, the likes of which Delasalle Prep had ever seen; the likes of which Mr. And Mrs. Gleason had ever seen. Jim took up Roman Catholicism leaving the comfort of a Presbyterian life and vowed to enter the seminary in Rochester. He eventually decided against priesthood and opted instead to become a Capuchin monk – a cloistered hermit – ironically on an Indian reservation where drugs and alcohol were never in short supply. He wore the brown cotton Capuchin robe with the thickly knotted rope as a belt. The natural unadorned wood cross swung by his side whenever he walked. He grew the thinnest of beards that hung down like string around his mouth.

So Ashland was his ministry. Sort of. In fact, Brother Jim could not minister to anyone. Brother Jim’s ministry was to Brother Jim. This was why he chose the life of a recluse. Except for once a month he had to drive the jeep to the five star Mission kitchen for supplies, Brother Jim saw no one except deer, bear, turkey vulture and the occasional crow who came to beg for scraps of food.

His tastes in food were simple: he was fond of beef jerky. He loved the concentrated apple juice, and dehydrated potato flakes. When the tribes cooked Buffalo, he took extra Buffalo burgers. His personal grooming belongings were as Spartan as his shack: Ivory soap and talcum powder, a toothbrush, floss. He read no newspapers but he had a large Douay version of the New Testament which he read constantly. He liked to sketch and his drawings revealed the eye of someone who saw beyond the surface of things. He saw perspectives of objects that few other saw.

When Brother Jim asked me to stay with him, I was just coming out of detox in the Billings Mental Health Center. I had been sent there by the courts after I beat up a young Sioux kid in a bar in Billings. The kid was trying to rip me off when I was scoring coke. He and his friend figured they’d just keep my money and one of them pulled a knife on me. I pushed the kid with the knife into the urinal as the other kid split with the money. I kicked the kid who was left nearly into a coma. When they arrested me they told me everything that happened but I didn’t remember a word of it. I was on that stand in the courtroom and could have sworn on a stack of bibles that I never touched this kid and to my recollection I never did. I wasn’t lying. I just wasn’t there that night.
After this Brother Jim invited me to stay, I was suspicious, but I saw it as a way to relax and recover – I needed to be away from people. I knew why Brother Jim was a hermit. He hated people, just like me. He would never admit that. He would rather move around I a world that had all those constraints set up for him by others. He avoided most of the trouble the rest of us have to negotiate day to day. Still I was not sure what to expect.

The place was small, but it was beautiful. At times, I would sit outside in the snow could feel the stillness lift me out of myself. Being winter, there was little movement by animals or insects. My own breath sounded full and solid. The wind was gentle and the days were sunny. The light gave everything a sharpness. At night, the moon poured light onto the snow like spilled milk. The shadows were three dimensional and solid.

I can’t deny that I came to like the quiet. Still, in the evenings, Brother Jim would try to strike up conversation. He told me about growing up in Minnetonka, about his family. He opened up a cache of Catholic doctrine about Virginal births, and god-as-man and redemption. I got up to keep from throwing up or throwing a punch – I wasn’t sure which would happen first.

“Save your piety for Sunday, Brother,” I snapped. “I gave at the office.”

Jim was surprised. For a religious man, he really did not listen all too well. He could not tell that I wasn’t buying his religious hard sell. I told him again to not even bother trying.

“Jim,” I told him, “I’ve been prayed over, had hands laid on, saged, exorcised, christened until there just ain’t one fiber left in this body of mine that doesn’t think that you and your religion are just a dodge of one kind or another.” I spit out the word “dodge” and saliva landed right on his cheek. I was agitated. “And I think you and your kind are bloodsuckers! And that you are a grade-A, purely refined asshole!”

The last word actually pushed him back, physically. He had a look on his face like I imagined he must’ve had when those football players back at Delasalle Prep used to stuff him into lockers. He was perpetually a deer in a hunter’s cross hairs – a fox always caught in a steel trap, trying to gnaw its own leg off to escape. This hermit thing was just a way for him to hide. He knew it and he knew that I knew it.

He tried to remain calm, and he talked about God’s grace and forgiveness. He told me how God works in ways none of us understand.
He spoke of the pain of this world and I stopped him as cold as a sawed off shotgun would have.

“What do you know about pain?” I told him. That old son-of-a-bitch priest came into my head now. I was nine years old again, defending my mother against some pious pulp all these years after her death. Then he quietly told me about the girl in high school; how she fell; the look on her face when the paramedics came and put the sheet over her face; the way her body had formed a twisted cross when she fell off that roof. Jim was absent when he spoke. I heard the despair that he covered up with the robe and his doctrine. Then I told him, “This God is no more a friend to you than he is to me!”

I stormed out of the shack.

Later that night, as he went to turn out the lights I watched Jim tuck some bills into a jar that had the words “FILTHY LUCRE” embossed in clay on the outside. I went to sleep thinking about that jar.

When I woke, Jim was out early as he usually was. He said his morning vespers while gathering and splitting wood for the stove. He put on coffee early and did his morning ritual in a numbing kind of silence, as though last night never even happened. He came in finally to gather his personal things. It was his habit to bathe in the pond behind his shack, and despite the cold, he did this every single day he lived there. I was pretending to be asleep on the cot, with my one arm over my eyes, so I could watch him. Every morning, I’d see his craggy bare ass and wire brush hair standing up as he made his way, naked, into the snow and to the pond to bathe.

That morning – the morning after he told me about that girl and we had our little “discussion” - I waited until he left. When he finally did, I jumped up and grabbed the money out of that jar. As I dumped the bills and coins into my pocket I thought how I was helping him keep his vow of poverty. I giggled at the thought. “God truly does work in mysterious ways, Brother,” I heard myself say out loud.
As I tied up my boots, pushed my wool cap onto my head, over my ears, and tossed on the large olive green snorkel jacket with hood, I had one more thought. I locked the cabin door from the inside so Jim would have even a harder time getting back in. As I was galloping my way through the snow and woods to route 202 to thumb a ride back to Lame Deer, I could just hear him in my head, banging on the door, calling my name, thinking he had mistakenly locked the door, and thinking I was a sound sleeper. The thought actually put an extra bounce in my step.

Later that night at the Buffalo Jump Archie and I had a couple of hundred dollars to blow on drugs and alcohol. Archie wasn’t cool with how I got the money. To him, ripping off a monk was bad medicine. He was a religious and these Cheyenne thought they had special powers. But the drunker Archie got the less he cared about bad medicine and the more coke he wanted to do. And it may have been all that coke that we were doing that made my heart race when I saw Brother Jim come through the door at the bar, carrying a baseball bat in his hands. His face was pale and his hair was a mess as usual. I fully expected to see the tribal police behind him, but there was no one else. Roxy was at the bar, and she knew what I had done. When she saw Jim come in, she ran off to fetch the police.

I knew what he was there for and frankly I never gave him credit for even managing to get back into his cabin. He wasn’t brandishing the bat, he looked like he was carrying it for protection. He was as out of his element in this bar as I was in a church.

He stepped up to me and confronted me about the money. “It was my money!” he seethed. He was angry. “It didn’t belong to the church!”
“Yeah, well, now it’s my money. Go prove it! Prove that I was even at your place this week! Take a hike! Go pray for your sheep you spineless piece of shit!”

I turned my back on him as the rage within him bubbled to the top. His anger made his face whiter but his ears redder. Jim lifted the bat to clock me but Archie was there and grabbed his arms. I wheeled around when I heard the struggle, aware of what Jim was trying to do, but not able to comprehend him doing it. Archie held him as my fists worked over his ribs and stomach, finally his face. I elbowed his jaw, causing a cracking sound that could be heard by everyone in the place. Finally, Archie holding him in a full nelson, slammed his face into the bar, causing him to bleed like a fountain. I tried to smash a beer bottle over the end of the table, like you see done in the westerns so I could hold the jagged edge to his throat and I swear I would have cut it, but the damn bottle wouldn’t break. So there was Brother Jim with his eyes now swollen shut, and blood pouring from his toothless mouth and nose, and me holding a bottle of beer, butt side up to his face. To make matters worse, the bottle I picked up was half full so the beer was running down my arm.

When I saw that Jim was a dishrag, I picked his tiny frame up and threw him out into the snow, which was starting to come down in quiet contrast to the rage inside me. The tribal police were just pulling up and Roxy had her hands over her mouth when she saw the condition of Brother Jim. It was a look that told everyone she was too late.
I reached into my pocket and found whatever money of his I had left, and threw it at him and ranted:

“Take your fucking money you hypocrite! And go tell your god to go fuck himself!”

I was sweating wildly now and my breathing was out of control. The police moved to step up to arrest me, but the stillness settled in after I shouted that last piece. Everyone stopped.

Archie nestled up to me and whispered in my ear, “Man, even the Crow don’t do that.”
He was right. I knew in this place, on this reservation, with these people, even drunk no one curses the Great Spirit. The police, two burly and clean shaven Cheyenne men in blue-gray uniforms, appeared embarrassed for me as they gently placed the hand cuffs on me, guided my head into the cruiser, and drove me off to jail.

X. Crow Fair

Every August when I lived in Ashland, Jonathan Bear Below and I would go to Crow Fair together. Crow Fair was the largest powwow in North America and hundreds of nations gathered to sing, dance, and generally party. My last summer alive, I arranged to meet Jonathan by the Custer Battlefield memorial on Crow Agency. It was a hot day, and the waves of heat rose from the quiet sage that littered the foothills. I got out of my truck and sat in the shade of the tourist building, looking out over the cemetery that that commemorated the Cheyenne and Sioux’s greatest victories. The wind whistled reverently over the brush as I read for the hundredth time the quote by Sioux medicine man Black Elk: “Know the power that is peace.”

I rolled a joint and lit it and watched Jonathan as he rode up the dirt road on an old cruiser bicycle. Its fenders were orange from rust and it clicked away the rhythm of Jonathon’s legs as they moved up and down. He was wearing cutoff dungarees with pointed leather boots that had a long, almost curved heal that arched from his Achilles tendon down to the earth. He had on a white sleeveless t-shirt that was stained somewhat, and around his thick hair he wore a red bandana. This was all topped off by a frayed straw cowboy hat.

“Who are you supposed to be, Cochise?” I mocked.
“Cochise was Apache,” was all he muttered, in a slurring, sliding kind of way.

We drove up to Crow Fair in time to see the procession in of the different tribes with their cars all decorated with blankets, colorful ribbons and feathers and beads. Some rode in on ponies painted as colorful as they themselves were. There was the music, and chanting everywhere, as the people in the procession waved to the onlookers. Roxy actually rode in this last year but she was too shy to do it again this year.

When we walked into Crow Fair the smell of the concessions made Jonathon hungry. He loved fry bread, he always reminded me, and he could never eat enough. This was the last weekend of the fair and the crowds were large. Tonight was the finals of the horse racing and dancing competition. There were thousands of tourists and Indians from all over the world here. Jonathon loved to torment the white tourists. He would nestle up next to some unsuspecting camera toting Midwesterners, shoot him an evil eye an utter in a just audible tone how he was aching for a white scalp tonight. We’d have a good laugh after that as the poor fellow would scurry away looking more than a bit worried. Eventually, the tribal police would be notified and they would warn Jonathon to stop it or be thrown in the holding tank in Lame Deer for the rest of the night. Every year, like clockwork.

We walked off to watch the rodeo and watched as bulls larger than small trucks would toss these rough and burly Indians and whites like rag dolls. At one point, I turned to look at Jonathon who was leaning up against a wooden beam for the stands. The sun angled his shadow in a sharp pitch in front of his body, paralleling his stare, lost in a moment of reverie, His cowboy had looked bleached in the sun and was angled upward. His body slumped in a slight “s” shape and he rested one foot over the other. A rolled cigarette hung from his mouth as though suspended by habit. On the rear of his pocket, I could see the circular shape of a chewing tobacco canister which every so often, he would pull out and grab a wad of tobacco, place it between his teeth and cheeks and begin to spit the blackest soup of salivary stew you could imagine. As he stood there I realized this was a picture of what the West was all about: the low level of anger and brutality just below the surface; the calm exterior; the ability to stand up and get by and to believe you are destined for greater things. This is what I saw in Jonathon while he stood frozen in that pose at the rodeo.

After that we walked over to the dance competition. Jonathon got me to join in the Crow Hop when they opened the dance up to everyone. This was a traditional dance of the Crow that imitated the movements of a real crow. Jonathon laughed at my attempts – I tried a few times, then sat down, brushing off other Crow’s attempts to encourage me and get me to keep dancing. Jonathon just laughed until he cried.

We sat through the fancy dance competition as dancers in colorful feathered costumes moved about to the rhythm of the drums, telling stories as old as their people; stories about animals and legends that explained the world. They moved in large circles, gradually ramping up into a frenzy of activity; the drum beats seemed to push them along like rag dolls, just like the bulls we had seen in the rodeo. Each was trying to win the prize; each was trying to win pride for himself, his family and his nation.

They always concluded the dancing each night with a round dance; a gentle “thump-thump, thump-thump” rhythm that was intended to get everyone up and dancing. Before long everyone was out there, white and Indian, young and old, holding hands, moving in a spiraling circle toward the center in a simple two step that even a 2-year old could do.

The dancing may have slowed down later in the evening, but the gambling went on for long into the morning. I left Jonathon to head over to the gambling tent, where I spotted Archie and Alberta with Lloyd Lone Elk. Lloyd and Archie had faces that looked like granite; they were engraved with the look of men in pursuit of something. Alberta wore the look of a person who would rather be anywhere else. Archie was betting heavily, and it seemed to me that he hadn’t even been drinking. He was focused on winning money and you could win serious money at these hand games.

When I approached, Archie looked up over his smoky aviator glasses that were his trademark, and barely recognized me. “Oh, good, veho, you are here. Take Alberta around and get her some cotton candy or something. She’s been bitchy all night and I am on a roll, man. Do me this favor?” He pulled me over and whispered the last part in my ear. Alberta looked embarrassed almost like she was sorry for being such a burden. She rarely spoke to me and I knew she didn’t like whites. Even though Archie and I were friends, she had a hard time opening up to me.

I slapped Archie on the back, told him not to worry, winked at Alberta and told her we’d get away from all this testosterone, and get something to eat. We walked for what seemed like a mile, until I noticed the snow cone vendor and asked her if she’d wanted one. “Hot night, this can only help!” I was struggling to make small talk. She didn’t even look at me. As the vendor was pouring the cherry syrup over the crushed ice, she watched him and I watched her face. It was funny how I had never noticed how beautiful she was. Around Archie, she never really seemed to have a face or a body, but here, in the damp summer night air, a fragile breeze blew her dress up and I noticed her legs. As she turned into the lights of the fair, I could see her body beneath her blouse silhouetted in a tantalizing display. She pulled her long hair back and made a comment about the heat, as she used her tongue to keep the ice from melting over her hand. In this light, among the noise and festival dust that kicked up everywhere, Alberta glowed. I could not for a minute understand how I had never seen this before. As I was thinking these thoughts, it was almost as though she could read them because she started to talk to me. I asked her if she wanted a real drink; I had a flask back at the truck.

Under the fair lights, we could not see any of the stars like we usually could. We each sipped from the flask, and she shivered after every gulp of the whiskey. “You know Archie really likes you. He doesn’t have many friends. I think he considers you to be one of his best.”

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. Sure, I like Archie enough. We had a blast together. I was trying to figure out what it was Alberta was after. She just talked more about their lives together. How they were married so young, how mean Archie got when he was drunk. She cried when she told me about their stillborn son years back. I never knew that. Even Archie never told me that. I pulled her into my shoulder automatically to comfort her and the words that came up were scripts from some other life. She began to apologize. “No need to apologize.” And “hey, it’s okay.” What did I know about this stuff?

Finally we both said nothing for what seemed like a painfully long time. We took turns finishing the flask. When I turned to ask her if she wanted to see if Archie and Lloyd were done, I noticed she had been crying again. I couldn’t stand it. I leaned over and kissed her full on the lips. Her lips were rich and consuming and she smelled like sweat and sage. The scent only invigorated me more as she kissed back even harder. I knew this was wrong but I didn’t care. I had a sense that what we were both about to do would set something in motion neither of us would ever have considered possible, but it made no difference. She was looking for something in me, and I sensed the hurt in her that made me want her the more she cried.

I took her out of the truck and we found a quiet, dark place away from the fair. We removed our clothes and under the crescent moon we began to explore each other’s bodies; the different scents and tastes, the softness of her thighs and firmness of her ribs. Her hair hung down just over the tops of her breasts and I could still see the fire in her eyes as well. She moaned with the whisper of a plateau when I first penetrated her. I was crazy from the moon, crazy from the heat, crazy from her pain. I pushed myself into her like leaning on a spade that bit deep into the rich earth and she gave way with that same sort of yielding. We accepted each other with a resigned carefree fate that night, we understood more about the world than before either of us started that day.
I was so immersed in Alberta that I didn’t hear the brush rustle at first. When we finished what we were doing, we were both empty. The stars seemed brighter and the lights from the fair seemed a bit dimmer, off in the distance away from the luster of Crow Fair. When I looked up, I saw the curious shadow of a large being walking away with a smaller one away from us and toward the fair. The one had a round shape, and I could see arms swaying a determined swing. As the larger one stepped over the brush, I could see the braided hair swing in opposing motion to his thick arms. I got off Alberta and I stood up to get a better look at who had just interrupted us. Lloyd Lone Elk turned his head to look back at us as if in disbelief; I recognized that toothy mouth and ruffled hair even at night, even at this distance. It seems that Archie and Lloyd were finished gambling. Alberta knew in an instant from looking at my face what had happened. We dressed in silence, each of us thinking about our own outcomes, neither of us able to discern what would happen next.



XI. Archie’s Revenge

After the Crow Fair incident, Archie dropped out of sight. I saw him only in passing and we never spoke. He stopped going to the Buffalo Jump altogether and instead frequented joints in Billings on weekends to party. Alberta left the area. Rumor had it that Archie took all her belongings, piled them in the snow in back of his trailer, poured kerosene on them and burned it all. Told her if she tried to come back he’d beat her senseless right in front of the goddamn mission priests if he needed to. I’d heard that she had gone off to live with a niece on the other side of the state in Glens Falls. Still, it wouldn’t be the last I would see her.

After the Crow Fair incident, things were different. Not just between Archie and me, but at the reservation in general. It’s hard to explain, but there was a feeling that something had been ripped open, irreparable. There was a sense that something was losing balance and was about to tip.

After the Crow Fair incident, Archie could be seen driving and drinking with a white kid named Owen Gorman. Owen was a skinny skid mark of a man with long, greasy and stringy hair that flopped along his ears. He had a protruding brow and no chin and his face was off centered due to a nose that had been broken numerous times. It gave him a slanted appearance when you looked him dead on. In the winter he could be seen chain smoking in a threadbare navy blue pea coat, always blowing into his hands to keep them warm.

Together Owen and Archie supplied the owner of the Buffalo Jump, Lyman Morris with all the drugs he could sell out of the place. Archie took up heroin with Owen but he always figured he could manage it.

After the Crow Fair incident Archie and could have been on two separate planets. I heard rumors about him plotting revenge, but I didn’t believe them. Archie never held things like that. He would get even right away or not at all. That was how he was. One morning though, I did find a dead black rabbit on my steps. His throat had been cut and the head was propped upward, its bloody distant dull gaze, just like that mare I witnessed die while foaling at the Meline’s ranch all those years before. The eyes just stared up at me and I felt a shiver right then. I should have known from that things were going bad. I never called the police, I just assumed it was Archie but I never gave it another moment of thought.

Archie and I were friends so I tried calling him more than once. He never returned the calls or picked up the phone. When I tried to confront him the few times I would see him on the street or at hand games, Owen would step in and run interference for Archie while he made a get away. Eventually, I just accepted it as one more loss in my life and thought nothing of it. Or at least thought little of it.

Once Archie and Owen were driving by the mission past the Eagle’s Nest group home where Sugar and Spike lived. Sugar was outside playing with cars in the dirt, oblivious as she usually was to things around her. Spike was off somewhere chasing one of the wild dogs that lived in the neighborhood. Archie pulled the rusted El Camino over and Owen was confused. “Why we stopping here, Arch?”

Archie never responded. Owen watched Archie lumber over to where Sugar was playing. He kneeled down next to her and started playing with the cars with her. Archie said something and it made Sugar laugh he bemused laugh. Owen thought Archie was sitting there for an hour. In fact, it was only a few minutes. Sugar knew Archie, and he could always get her laughing. It was an easy thing to do if you knew Sugar. Archie stroked her hair as he talked, smiling all the time at her. A dull buzz rang in Owen’s head. He felt a migraine coming on he was sure. He did not know what Archie was doing nor could he even imagine what Archie was planning to do. No one could. Owen’s mouth dried out as he watched. He snorted a bit through his mouth as his breath fogged the window of Archie’s truck.

When Archie picked up the toys and Sugar got up and began to walk along with him, Owen just stared still not sure what Archie was going to do. Sugar reached up and grabbed Archie’s hand as they both walked over to the truck. Archie banged on Owen’s window as he came up to the door yelling at him to open the back door. Sugar climbed in, ignoring Owen altogether, still engrossed in the cars that she carried with her.

“Now darlin’ were gonna go so put on that seatbelt so you are nice and safe,” Archie turned around to tell Sugar. Sugar did as she was told and they drove off.

They drove an hour into Wyoming just over the state line where Owen had a hunting lodge. They did lines of coke while sugar watched the one TV channel that came in on the airwaves out where they were. After the coke, Owen and Archie started passing a fifth of Jack Daniels just opened back and forth.

No one ever knew what Archie promised Sugar. He never told Owen. Still, she followed him to the car and then into the lodge. The TV had Sugar in a sort of trance. Her favorite, a re-run of the miniseries “Roots” was on and Sugar recited all the lines. She had committed every character and every word to memory.

Archie told Owen to move the car around back, and when he did that, Archie locked the door behind him. Archie had been fastidiously laying out duct tape, razor blades, packs of cigarettes and candles, and some wire. Owen was as blank as the new moon that night. He was vacant from whatever Archie had in mind. Archie walked up behind Sugar who was laughing and grinning at the TV. He stroked her hair gently, then pulled her hair up and punched her full force in her face with a closed fist. Sugar would have flown across the room from the force of the blow, except for the fact that Archie held her fast by her long black hair. Her jaw popped like the sound of a dry stick snapping in two. Sugar let loose a whimper-like moan, but never a cry. There was never a cry that night. Archie had nearly knocked her out.

“Archie not so hard!” was all Owen could muster, still blank of understanding.

“Shut your fucking face and hold her legs!” Archie yelled. He removed the large tooled leather belt and dropped his pants. Barely audibly Archie whispered, “We’ll teach this slut.” He moved in. Owen shoved his stringy hair behind his ears and did what Archie said. When Archie was done, he knew he would have a turn.

After this, Archie picked up the duct tape and unpeeled it in long strips. The sound ripped in a long tearing tone, like a knife into tough meat. Owen lit the candles at Archie’s insistence and the scent added to the smallness of the room. The air was congealed with the odor of sacrifice. Archie hushed Sugar’s whimpering in an almost caring way as he bound her wrists and ankles with the strips of tape.

By the time they were done, Sugar was no larger than a small heap of laundry, naked and crumpled in the corner of the room. The blood was everywhere. There was so much of it. It had a smell too. Archie hadn’t counted on the smell.

When Roxy came over to tell me what had happened the next day I was numb. I didn’t believe her that Sugar was dead. Rumors were a part of living on the reservation and came with the wet season, the snow and the dust in summer. Finally, Father Dan called me to confirm what Roxy had told me. They found her body dumped in some wildlife reserve, the wolves and buzzards were just starting to gnaw at her body, when the rangers found her. The state police were involved but they didn’t have to do much investigation. Owen called the police soon after they dumped the body. I guess what Archie had done to Sugar even shocked Owen, shriveled brain function an all. When the police went over to Archie, he confessed immediately, though he didn’t really have to. Archie was still drunk and high from the night before and he never even bothered to change out of his blood soaked clothing.

XI. The Grief

The note on the windshield flailed frantically, struggling as if trying to free itself from beneath the rubber claw of the wiper blades. I pulled over once I saw the note and unfolded it. There in bright pink marker were the words: “SPIKE LOVED SUGAR – Louis”

The handwriting was slanted and disjointed. The ‘S’ in Sugar was backwards. I honestly had never thought that Spike could even write. I had no idea what the note meant, except, of course, that Spike love Sugar. Of course he did! And yeah well, it was hard. I had been thinking of Sugar every day since Archie was arrested. I read and re-read the newspaper accounts of Owen Gorman’s confession, how he turned state’s evidence for a plea bargain.

I stayed indoors and drank mostly, shades pulled down, tight and unplugged the phone, after calling in to work to tell Mick Meline that I had quit. Mick told me to take some time, don’t do anything rash, and that my job would be here waiting for me, and by the way, if I needed to talk, he was holding meetings.

I went on the mother of a bender and stayed as drunk and as high as I could. I’d even taken to guzzling the Nyquil and hard cider that fermented over from last Thanksgiving. Roxy came by to look in on me. She tried to talk to me, wanted us to go to the diner on 202 for breakfast one morning. She tried to maneuver a broken world beneath me in a way that made it look good, and real and worthwhile, but no matter what she did it was no better than one of those three card monty games you see on any city street in the country. Or no better than one of those now-you-see-em-now-you-don’t hand games these Indians love so much.

I’m sure I said something hurtful to Roxy. She would almost always leave me in tears, then almost always would show up the next morning to do laundry, or make a meal. I wondered what I had to do to make her stop coming around, but she never would. We never talked and I even used her to bring me drugs and more booze when I ran low.

Sugar Calftail was 12 years old, and born one of a pair of twins on the Blackhead Indian Nation, up in northern Montana, and Canada. Like the Good Book says about Jesus, she was totally born without original sin. I’m no theologian, but it seemed that God took a major shit on this girl, and then tossed in a mutant like Archie to really put a corkscrew to her to finish the job. I guess God was done laughing at her; I guess God was done with his sport.

Cooties. That was all I could think of. Those damned plastic kids toys that looked like bugs and were brightly colored. Sugar loved them. She would make two bugs and then place them side by side and “race” them, cheering one on over the other. I had pictures of her doing this. Cooties.

When I opened the door that day after her death, Spike was standing there. I was struck by how much he looked like a Cootie. Sugar always called him “mousee” because she said he looked like a little mouse. But today, in evening chill, amid the scent of sage and the roar of crickets, he looked like a Cootie. He stood silent and all hollowed out, saying nothing, just staring. I remembered the note. I didn’t know what he wanted or why he wrote the note.

I let him in and he sat. Just sat. I asked him if he wanted soda or juice or something to eat, but he didn’t say a word. I asked him about the note; if he had written it. He cried but it wasn’t a total cry. It was as though grief was a passing shadow on a hillside, squeezed the tears out of him without him even willing it, or knowing it. He left without saying anything. I sure didn’t say anything. He came back the next night, and then the nextm each time bringing me something that belonged to Sugar. Each time, I avoided the subject of Sugar. I couldn’t bring it up. I found myself missing her in a way that surprised me. She touched the most real parts of me that I had not known since I was a kid; since my grandpa died; since the death of my mother. Somehow these were all connected events in my heart and I couldn’t prevent the connection from happening. I saw glimpses of who I was before the drinking and lost weekends; before the broken marriages and hurtful things I had ever done and said.

Then after the seventh day he stopped coming and I never saw him again, except once at Archie’s trial. Archie was being led into the courtroom in his oversized orange jumper wearing the manacles that cuffed his hands to his waist and his legs together. Spike was there to be called by the defense if they needed to, holding onto Sugar’s shoebox. He looked so small and I realized then how small his world was. Sugar’s was too, probably. As small as that shoe box filled with all sorts of goodness and monsters, from the glittery rocks and shadows that must have seemed larger than anything they could imagine, but really, it was only the size of that tattered, worn old shoebox.

Standing in the same room as Archie – he was the smallest shred of David to this Goliath – I imagined the volume of fear that Sugar felt that night. Still, I comforted myself thinking that perhaps the whole thing was so incomprehensible to her that it anesthetized her. I thought this the way people believe in God on their deathbeds, or the way we wish some final evil to consume those who commit a greater evil; or the way we teach heaven and hell to kids to show them how justice works. I tried to believe this. I really did.

Archie never looked up in the courtroom. I never saw him again. A child murderer and rapist, his death sentence was written with Sugar’s own blood. He would not last a month in the supermax without constant supervision. Alberta was nowhere to be found, though I’d heard she was living with some guy who beat her. Still I wondered why the world didn’t run on pain since there was so much of it to go around.

Roxy came by again after the trial and tried extra hard to bring me around. “Never argue with a drunk,” I told her, “Of course you’d know this if you went to those goddamn Al-Anon meetings I keep telling you to go to!” When I told her about Spike stopping by that week, and bringing Sugar’s things, just sitting, not saying a word to me, she just listened. She didn’t say a word, but tears slowly and with great stealth slid down her cheeks. She let loose a small sniffle, as if she were in pain.
She explained to me what Spike was doing, how it was the Indian way to sit with the grieving loved one in a loss. She told me about the “give-aways”, how an Indian always gave away the things that belonged to the person who died. Spike came to me to comfort me. When I realized this, the thought sobered me up faster than any cup of coffee ever could.

I had not cried since I was a kid, but I cried that night. Roxy and I collapsed into each other and cried and said nothing. The moist sounds of runny noses, the gargled moans, and shouts that came from places blacker than the night of a new moon filled the room that night. We pushed grief into every corner of that house that night. The keening was at once both ugly and harmonious. We ended up onto the couch, cradled in each other’s arms, perhaps to feel less lost, perhaps to end this rain of unending chill that we felt. Finally we fell asleep, Roxy and me, like some twisted fallen angels, interlocking arms and legs, as if to brace ourselves from the fall of the all the grief.

“SPIKE LOVED SUGAR” was the last thing I remember thinking before falling asleep.
And so did I.


XII. The Funeral

It’s a joy to be hidden; it’s a disaster not to be found.” - D.W. Winnicott

“The fog moves in on little cat feet.” I remember that line of a poem from grammar school. At Sugar’s funeral I knew exactly what that line meant. The fog spread itself over the toothy cemetery like a blanket before the sun could rise. It was rare to see such fog in this part of Montana especially during the summer months but every so often it happens. As the hearse pulled into the Mission cemetery it seemed to part the air. Sugar was given a site by Father Dan, one that sat on the gentle rise that overlooked the tepee shaped church. What would have normally been the lodge pole of a tepee was extended at an angle over it and formed a cross. The granite and slate for the outside of the church had been quarried locally from Colstrip, off the Crow reservation. Normally, in the bright sun, the rock rippled with color like a sunset, but today, because of the fog, everything looked sooty.

There were no cars following the hearse, all the mourners came on foot since the cemetery was so close to the Mission. I stayed sober for this which I knew surprised Roxy, but this was Sugar after all. I told Roxy about all the times I watched Sugar and Spike in the group homes, about the time Fr. Dan roped me into taking them to see a movie in “Billins” – and I said it just like that – “Billins” without the “g” the way Sugar would have said it. Whenever I was around Sugar, I was sober.

Roxy came by early, in case I was drunk and helped me get ready. Really, I could tell she was just checking on me to see how I was holding up. I had no good “dyin’” clothers as I called them. Some denim jeans that didn’t smell either like the Buffalo Jump or horseshit. Seemed like these were the two things I worked with the most around here. Roxy, on the other hand, came in a plain black dress that hadn’t a single crease in it. The dark dress offset her powder skin and blond hair. She looked beautiful in her dress and her sadness.

When we left the house, we both noticed the fog, how it drained the color from everything. There was a black line of mourners forming at the Mission high school. Roxy and I walked over there. Mick and Cheryl were there. Karl Neeble, the science teacher, Lois Little Bird, sisters Mildred and Marianne wearing their dark plain nun pantsuits. Brother Jim talked with some of the grade school kids and their parents who came. Even Curly Bighead showed up, grease stained wearing his wool cap. Matt Two Moons came over and stood with Roxy and me. He motioned to me with his hands for a cigarette. There was an unannounced silence among the group as Matt placed the cigarette between his thick lips, puffed out, looked up at the gray sky and only said in his slurred deep voice: “Helluva thing, innit?” He wasn’t looking for an answer. He was just smoking.

The hearse arrived and after some conversations between Lyman Morris who also was the town mortician, and Father Dan, the hearse crawled up to the cemetery. The black line of mourners fell in behind it, and gradually, the fog consumed the whole procession; this same fog that seemed to devour everything today: the color and the sound. The crunching of twigs underfoot, the wind that seemed to not even notice us – everything was muted.

When we arrived at the burial site the mound of dirt seemed to look like a monument. Dust to dust, I thought, more like dirt for dirt. The hole in the ground seemed to rip Sugar away from me more so than what Archie and Owen had done. The trials coming up, Archie was in the papers every day and I knew the case inside and out. I knew every detail even though I didn’t want to. Still, nothing seemed to take Sugar away the way that hole did.

I shivered and wished now that I were drunk. Roxy tucked her arm under mine, kept her head down and cried silent drops of tears. There was no more keening to be done, no more wailing or moaning. Not from her and not from anyone. Lois Little Bird nudged Roxy in the back and she turned. Lois nodded to say hello. She had cut her hair very short, in the Cheyenne tradition to show grief when a loved one died. I thought of how this was a holdover from the days when Cheyenne women would cut off a finger whenever a husband or child died. I could actually understand that tradition, walking today, and contemplated which finger I would later lop off for Sugar. She was Blackfoot, but still, she and Spike had been on the reservation since she was a toddler, among the various group homes.

Spike stood there in a gray suit that was too large for him. He wore his oversized aviator glasses that he needed to watch movies, or to read in school. The glasses pressed down on his ears and forced them outward. I could not hold back what I was feeling.

“Mousee,” I whispered, really to no one, just above my breath. It was what Sugar used to call him. Roxy overheard, “What?”
“Just, ‘mousee’”, I replied with a grin that seemed to stretch reluctantly across my face, and I nodded toward Spike to show her. Soon that same grin stretched across Roxy’s face as well. “Mousee,” she uttered in a tone that indicated she knew.

I can’t imagine what it is like to have a twin, to share a womb and in some cases, share a language, as some twins have been shown to have. In some cases they can communicate non-verbally, in ways that science doesn’t quite understand. Losing someone you love, well we think we are losing part of ourselves, and in a metaphorical sense we do. But losing a twin, someone who shares a mother, a birth date, a zodiac sign, someone who ripped into this world at nearly the same instant as you, shared DNA and amniotic fluid; maybe even touched their mother’s organs at the same time; certainly, they listened to the same heartbeat, the same rhythm of the universe that measured time while they floated about, and eventually measured time when they were pushed into this harsh light of day that is this world. They experienced one of the great mysteries together. No one gets to do that! There is an old Indian saying about how we face the great silence alone. Well, Sugar and Spike faced the great noise, their own big bang as it were, together. And now, one was gone; Sugar was off to face a new mystery without Spike. How can any of us know what loss is about unless we know what it is to lose a twin?

Spike was quiet, like the fog, and his face covered whatever was visible by ordinary light, also, just like the fog. It made him mysterious and sad, all at once. It made him seem small and lost, shivering in the cold, in the oversized suit he borrowed. He seemed incapable of knowing what words to use, or how to push the air from his lungs, over his larynx through his teeth to make a sound. He had lost the ability to form words with his lips.

Father Dan began the service as people bundled in winter coats huddled around the dug out hole that was Sugar’s final home. The hole pulled at me with grief; the dark and crusty mound of dirt wanted to cover the hole, pat it down firm, to settle it and make this finality real.

“Loss is only loss if we fail to see this as just another act in the great play of life,” Father Dan started. He paused a real long time. The pause was stretched out by the cold arctic wind whipping, blowing my hair one way and my coat in the opposite direction. In side my head spun as well, in opposing directions of emotions in some sort of coriolis effect of the heart: sadness swirling one way, dredging up my own loss; love swirling in the opposite way, knowing the tenderness this young Blackfoot woman unearthed. The images flashed back and forth between Sugar playing with her toys, and the pictures of my mother I had been shown while growing up in the foster home.

Father Dan spoke again, and his voice broke the drifting group consciousness that was taking in the long pause. The air steamed out of his mouth, curled around his temples, oblivious to the wool cap he wore, freezing instantly and growing white on his temples. The frozen breath made him look older, grayer and in fact, we all probably were.

“God does not leave us at the end of this act to perform alone! This is not a soliloquy.” He picked up his rhythm and continued with the “theater” analogy. “He promises a new act, a new curtain rising again and the greatest performance yet to come. Friends, the greatest performance of Sugar Calftail is being realized as I speak. She has become His favorite actress. And she is performing to standing applause!”

I wanted to hit him. If I were drunk, I probably would have. Roxy knew I was getting angry. She clutched my arm tighter.

“For who knows the meaning of anything?” he continued. “We are the creation! We know only a fraction of what God’s plan is!”

What bullshit, I thought. I could only think of the barbarism that took this poor girl’s life. He should have just stood quietly. That was what Sugar deserved. I fiddled with a pocketknife in my pocket, flipping it over and over with my right hand, while digging in and jiggling change with the hand in the other pocket. Roxy saw how fidgety I was and brought her arm up, across the back of my shoulders.

But Father Dan wasn’t done. He wasn’t finished “relieving himself” of the most worthless, hackneyed, “feel good” theology any one could imagine, the kind of stuff that made Marx conclude that religion was the opiate of the people. I wanted him to stop and I wanted to make him stop. I wanted to hit him so hard that it might bring Sugar back. I wanted to; but I didn’t.

After, some of the Cheyenne elders sang a song of farewell:

Heya-hoke-heya-ha
Heya-hoke-heya-heya-ha-na-ho


“When the stars stop shining, there is only the darkness that comforts us in the night,” Roxy translated for me. For a moment, through my tears, I could swear I saw Archie standing off down by the cemetery gate, a long way off. I knew it couldn’t have been him. He was in prison. Still, the shape of his corpulent body, the smoky glasses, the single long braid and dark skin, I could swear it was him, just standing there, smoking a cigarette.

I hadn’t really thought much of Archie since the whole thing happened. I had been just so lost trying to understand how Sugar could have been murdered so. As depraved as I was, this depravity eluded me.

Finally Father Dan and Brother Jim gave a joint blessing, sprinkling the coffin with holy water. Brother Jim lit the incense smoker and as the sweet smell of sage rose, danced a twirling move and spun away reminding us of where Sugar had gone, Brother Jim moved with a grace that was inconsistent with his small size, shaking the smoker in the right rhythm, releasing more of the smoke as he made his way around the coffin. He timed the clinks of the metal chain with the main vessel of the smoker so that it meant something. The repetition was sonic and soothing: three clinks to start to represent the Holy Trinity, then like a jazz musician improvising the most soulful melody, he moved and clinked: clink-clink-step, clink-clink-step, clink-clink-step – until he moved clear around to the beginning of the coffin. (I thought how Indian this was, and how Sugar, if she were able to comprehend the idea of a deity, would love this.)

Father Dan stepped up as Brother Jim faded to the background, moving as if in a movie, and the scene fades to black, it was that seamless a transition. I wondered then if these guys practiced this stuff. Dan closed his eyes and paused again, finally giving one last benediction, while we stood crying and freezing. He prayed for Sugar; he prayed for Spike; he prayed for the souls of their parents. He even prayed for Archie.

When he closed his missal, he did it with a large frozen thud underscoring the awkward numbness that really covered this group that day. As everyone else left, I stepped up to the mound of dirt and placed a colorful “Cootie” toy that Sugar loved so much on it. Roxy wiped her face and nose, red and puffy. She had a big smile on it when she saw what I had done. Meanwhile, Father Dan, the Sisters Mildred and Maryanne, Matt Two Moons, Jonathan and Mick and Cheryl – they all turned and walked down to the gate, clutching each other, wiping things, trying to restore the conversation to the mundane talk of ranch talk, fences that needed mending, barns that needed mucking.

We climbed down from Sugar’s final group home. I wanted this to be her final home; I wanted her to have a mother she never had; I wanted her to be able to watch Roots as often as she wanted, without commercials.

I walked over to Roxy and she hugged me; we put our arms around each other’s shoulder. I looked again at the gate and thought I saw Archie again. I rubbed my eyes, then asked Roxy to look, but when she did, no one was there. Of course it was not Archie; I knew this. But I also lived long enough with these people to know that these sorts of things had meaning. I needed to talk to Alberta. There were still things left to do for Sugar.

XXX. Epilogue – I Am Born

At the end of the day we are all bottom line people. Maybe it’s part of our American work ethic, I don’t really know. Being dead, of course, offers certain perspective. By now you are probably wondering “But what is it like to be dead? Is there an after life? Have you seen God?” and surprisingly my answer is like that old joke about the Army captain who was just sent out in country in Vietnam. Fresh from officer training he wanted to know from one of his subordinates who was responsible for all the ignorance and all the apathy in the unit, to which one battle grizzled lieutenant smart assed back, “I don’t much know and I don’t much care.” And that is my feeling about this question. I was never a holy man or believed in God. There’s no white light or music, no angels. To be honest, I don’t really feel dead. But maybe that is because I didn’t really feel alive when I was alive.

I can say that I remember more than I ever did. In fact I even remember being born, almost like I was a witness to the event, I recall my mother’s painful delivery, saw her beautiful face, the pride and courage in her eyes. Like in dreams, when you know things about people, but you don’t know how you know them. It was like that.

I was a shriveled gray monstrosity of a baby, larger than a small turkey. I started doling out pain early in this world with my own mother. Then there was the look on her face when the aneurysm burst and her eyes rolled up into her head. I remember how she just left me. No final words. No final wisdom. No fanfare. I recalled the commotion then the lights and the sounds of nurses running and things being dropped. I can feel her arms around me. I can feel being wanted like the blanket that surrounds me. It is the only time I can recall this.

Next I remember my grandpa, just as I did in my vision, frail, white, old and always smiling even when the cancer took him away and left me with no one. I am in an old wooden playpen sitting at the foot of his bed. And when he died he was glad I was there; somehow I made it easier for him. I know this firsthand. I see him trying to feed me meatballs and bread when I was only six months old, learning to change my diapers and talking to me in that thick, slurring Italian accent, always smelling of his home made wine. I remember all these things being dead.

My time with the Cheyenne and Crow was about surviving in a way whites never could understand. There was a native belief in the permanence of things that mattered, that nothing ever finishes and that despite the pain, we are called through it in those around us.

I don’t know how being dead works. If I can, I want to see Sugar again, and see if I can ease her pain. Her final moments were a confusing blur for her, I am sure. I still can feel the rawness of her murder and nothing makes sense in the context of something like this. Maybe there is a purpose for her knowledge of the world.

I would like to love Roxy the way she should have been loved. Her youth and my own pain kept us apart. With any luck she would go on to college.
And Archie – would I meet him here someday? And what would I say to him? Perhaps his circle of hell would keep us apart for all time. He took the only thing I was capable of loving in this world.

There is much to do. Opportunity fills me now, here, in this realm, where only doubt and anger filled me before. Where I was afraid before, I must be strong. For Sugar. For Archie and Alberta. For Roxy.

For me, now, I feel my mother all around me. Somewhere near here, I know she is waiting for me. For all my life there were things that mattered. Like those buzzards I used to watch under the Ashland sky, I feel myself following a current of air that wants to lead me to a place so maternal and so primal and not to be denied, always seeking to go home and never realizing that in Ashland I was always there.

There was a poem Roxy would read to me often, sometimes even when we were down at the Buffalo Jump. Most of the time I was too drunk to appreciate it. It was a Wallace Stevens poem that she told me reminder her of me.

I wonder have I lived a skeleton’s life
as a disbeliever in reality.
A country man of all the bones in the world?
Now here, the snow I had forgotten becomes
Part of a major reality, part of an appreciation
Of a reality.

And thus an elevation as if I left
With something I could touch,
Touch every way

And yet nothing has been changed except what is unreal
As if nothing had been changed at all.”



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