Part 3 of a sporadic saga. Part 4 is here
The wind in the Dakotas is as relentless as taxes. We stood on the hill with our backs to it. I shivered a little, not knowing if it was the wind or the place that chilled me. We were overlooking Wounded Knee Creek, a few miles from Pine Ridge.
“I feel like I should offer a prayer, or something,” I said, more to break the silence than anything.
“Do so, if you wish.”
“I’m not Christian.”
“Neither were they.”
I fumbled with words in my head, trying to come up with something appropriate, something that wouldn’t sound hokey or contrived. The history of the place demanded something beyond me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him grin. Without looking at me, he asked for a cigarette. I gave him one.
“I need another one.”
I gave him another.
He stuck one behind his ear and lit the other. Holding it in both hands, he offered the smoke to the four directions, the sky, and the earth. He spoke something in Lakota, puffed on the cigarette once or twice then handed it to me and grinned.
“You’re on your own,” he said.
Feeling awkward and more than a little foolish, I took the smoke and did as he had done, except I spoke in English.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”
To this day, I don’t know why I said that.
During the drive back to his house I asked him what he had said, back there on the hill.
“I said, ‘We will never forget you’.” He looked at me. “Why did you say what you said?”
“I don’t know. It just came out.”
He seemed to find this highly amusing.
“Mary has made you a couple of medicine bags. One is for you to keep, because she likes you. The other we will fill up with the cigarette tobacco, and when you are on Bear Butte you will make an offering of it.”
“We’re going to Bear Butte?”
“No, you are. By yourself. When you get there you will stay for as long as you need to. A day, a week, an hour. While you’re there, you will pay attention and you will listen and then you can come back and tell us what you heard, if you want.”
“You’re making fun of me,” I started laughing. He started grinning.
“To tell you the truth, it is Mary’s idea, and she does like a good joke, that is the truth.” He looked over at me and cocked an eyebrow, still grinning. “But Mary believes Bear Butte is lele wakan. You understand lele wakan?”
We drove on in silence for little while. I still wasn’t sure if I was being mocked or not. I thought about that phrase “pay attention.” They had both mentioned it to me. Pay attention to what? What are they telling me?
“What will happen when I get there? To Bear Butte?”
He was staring intently through the windshield, the lines on his face looking like canyons in the dashboard lights. He seemed oblivious to my existence.
“You’ll probably meet some dark-eyed princess and have the time of your life.”
He almost ran us off the road, he was laughing so hard.
“This thing gonna make it down to Bear Butte?” He was walking around my car, poking his finger at various scratches and dents. He had kicked me out of a sound sleep before dawn, made me feed the horses while he scrambled some eggs. Now I was slumped in the driver’s seat, curious and anxious, while he shook his head in wonder at my transportation.
“It’s got me three thousand miles so far,” I said. “Stop kicking the tires, hey? I don’t kick your horses.”
“They’d kick you back.”
He handed me a thermos the size of a bazooka. “Mary made the coffee, so it will probably work in your tank, if you forget to gas up.”
“Tell her I said thanks.” I knew he had made the coffee himself. Mary was still asleep. It was still very early, even though the sun had been up long enough to take the chill out of the air.
He stuck his hands in his front pockets and rolled back on his heels a little, watching me. I was struck again at how his face seemed to constantly shift, sometimes looking old, sometimes young, sometimes open and honest, sometimes dark and troubled. I never knew what he was thinking. Right now the early morning sun was outlining his head, his back-lit hair looking thin. I tried to remember if I had ever seen a bald Indian.
“What?” he barked. “Christ, don’t say ‘hey’ and then just sit there like a veho.” “Veho” is a Cheyenne word I had taught him. It means “spider.” He loved that word.
“Why am I going to Bear Butte? Am I supposed to do something?” I really was confused.
“I told you. It’s Mary’s idea. Ask her.”
“She just laughs and says I need to learn how to listen.” He was quiet for a moment. I heard the sound of a two-stroke engine, faint and far off. On the low hill to the west I could make out a man on an ATC, herding what seemed to be a flock of sheep.
“Have you ever talked to a spirit?”
There was a time in my life when I would have been amused at a question like that. That time was long past. I had seen too much between then and now.
He looked down at me. His eyes were very calm.
“I think when you are an old man you will talk to one. She will laugh in your ear and make your heart feel young.”
I’m not very often at a loss for words, but that stumped me, I’ll admit.
“Go to Bear Butte. Pay attention to what you hear.” Then he laughed. “Write it down in your journal, if you hear anything.” He turned toward the corral.
“Bring my thermos back, veho.”