part 5 of a sporadic saga. Part 6 is here
I was part way up Bear Butte, watching the temperature gauge on the dash, and hearing Mary’s laugh in my head, and wondering if I was supposed to be trying to find something or just waiting for something to find me. Lowell George was still blasting from the tape deck. There was a sudden splash of red off to my left.
What? I nosed the car to the side of the road and shifted into reverse.
Off to the left, down a small arroyo, I spotted flashes of color, small specks of red and blue and yellow. I put the car in park and killed the engine. The arroyo seemed to be filled with bright butterflies, dancing in the wind. I left the car and picked my way down the slope.
The butterflies were medicine bags, maybe a hundred or more, hanging in a small and spindly looking tree. Some were sewn of colored felt or flannel, some made from suede or leather. A few had feathers or beadwork adorning them. I suddenly saw Mary’s face, and I swear to whatever gods you choose, I heard her voice.
“Lele wakan. It is lele wakan. “
I squatted on my heels and listened to the wind. I have to admit, I was mesmerized. I felt like an angel in a graveyard.
I got up and went to the car. I found one of the sage sticks Mary’s husband had made for me and my small propane backpacker stove, and hauled it all down to the base of the tree. I set up the stove and lit the burner, and sat back on my heels, wondering if I was doing it right, wondering if Mary would approve, wondering if I had a right to be doing this at all.
I still wonder.
I crumbled a healthy pile of sage onto the burner until I had a good smoke going, and then I went through the purification, hoping that I was not making a mistake.
I reached inside my shirt, slipped Mary’s medicine bag from around my neck and held it in my hand. It was made of blue flannel with a leather draw string. She had painted a stylized sun design on the face of it. I felt the stitches with my thumb, feeling her fingers gently piecing it together.
I got up and walked to the tree, very aware of the sun on my face.
Suddenly, I don’t know why, I reached up and removed the black opal stud that had been in my left ear for years. I pinned it to the bag, then fished in my shirt pocket for the hoop earrings I had just bought. I put one in my ear and dropped the other back into my shirt.
Why did I do that? What kind of a spirit is going to be impressed with a stone?
I hung the bag on a branch and watched it dance, brought to life by the constant wind. I backed up a few feet and squatted on my heels again. Despite the wind, I felt warmth creeping up my spine.
“I will never forget you,” I whispered.
I sat there for a long time, thinking.
I can’t explain what happened next.
After a while, I stopped thinking and started feeling.
It was not a physical feeling at first. It was more emotion, or rather a lack of emotion. I suddenly felt empty. I can find no other word for it. Empty, as if the wind had carried off every internal thing that made me human. I couldn’t detect my breathing, I couldn’t detect my heart beat. I don’t recall hearing a sound. It seemed like my soul became a vacuum and I wondered why I didn’t implode.
The oddest thing was this. Up to this point, I didn’t find the experience uncomfortable at all. What came next shook me up pretty badly. I’ll try to explain it.
My lungs filled with air, and kept filling, and yet I couldn’t breath. It was the same sensation as holding your breath for too long, I became light-headed, I couldn’t focus. And then I began to see things.
I saw an old man in the snow. His feet were cold. Beside him was a young woman on her hands and knees, bleeding from the mouth. I turned away and saw a young girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old, walking through the snow. Her mind was blank, but her heart was strong, and she walked like she was determined to get some where. I had a sense of turmoil, confusion, a landscape filled with emotions, anger, fear, joy, hopelessness, all of it. Images came and went, some of them very quickly, each fresh image bringing a change of emotion. It was very chaotic and a little frightening.
The last thing I remember seeing was the old blanket trader, standing on the hill at Wounded Knee. He was looking down at me, holding my cigarette, and saying, “You’re on your own, Veho.”
I knew he was right. I could feel it. I don’t recall ever feeling so alone in my life, before or since.
When it was over, I was laying on my back in the same spot, staring up into an endless blue sky. The sun was far to the west. The medicine bags danced in the tree, the remnants of the sage smoldered on the backpacker stove.
I scooped everything up and tossed it in the car. I no longer felt frightened, but I had a strong desire to leave that place. Mary was right. Bear Butte was very holy. I had no right to defile it with my rotten helplessness. It was time to dance with the demons.
Lowell George was still in the tape deck, and I cranked it up loud as I came down the Butte, trying to overwhelm the visions in my mind. Her eyes had been one of the visions, her eyes and the huge gun in her tiny fist. I punched the volume button and began to sing along.
"I say Juanita, my sweet chiquita, where have you gone to?
Where have you gone?
I hear you moan, moan, moan, I hear you moan…”*
I whispered the words to myself as the blue sky got darker.
“I hear you moan. I hear you moan.”
I drove on.
*”Fat Man in the Bathtub” copyright Lowell George