“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”–Mary Oliver
Listening to Zuzu Bollin’s sexy blues, sipping Johnnie Walker Red, courting loneliness. Loud music, bone-deep bass lyrics. Blood-pumping brass. The spine knows what to do, knows how to stretch the urge until it whines like catgut and fiddle, stretch the loneliness so thin it wraps like muscle around the angles of the skeleton. Body music. Toes tapping. Pelvis all dark, waiting. Bones loving up to the flesh that layers them.
Horn and mouth harp. Wailing and wanting. The craving filling the spacious void. Funny, how body music sets the soul dancing. What is this need to keep body and soul together? I’ve struggled all my life just to introduce them to one another, let alone keep them together.
The things I know the best, I know through body language. The feel of a lightning scarred tree— the yellow core deep inside, bark stripped, burned away. I know this—know what the heat wound looks like, how it smells, the texture of sap oozing. The gummy, turpentine taste. The brittle feel of moss clinging to bark. The damp smell of cold air clinging to my dog’s coat. The wetness of his nose, histongue. The winter tufts of white hair that grow between the pads of his feet. The smell of horseflesh sweaty beneath saddle blanket. The grass smell of my horse’s breath. The moist vapor rising from his nostrils on winter days. The warm pocket of soft flesh where his elbow meets his heart, a pocket just big enough to warm my hand. The way the hair turns to velvet where his flank draws in.
Body language. The smell of my own skin. The smell of desire. The ridged roof of my mouth. The scoop of the back of my teeth. The hard, straight ridge that runs down the middle of the nail on the finger where my wedding ring used to be, knowing the shape of my hips, my thighs, my waist, my back, through the mirrored touch of a man’s hand. Knowing the depth of my fear in the face of my horse’s courage, my breath, so shallow compared to his. These things I know. These things I trust.
Standing on the top of a knoll at the ranch on a wooded section thick with Ponderosas, I gaze down at the small stock dam which for twenty-five years was on our property, but is now on his. Remnants of an old dugout cabin built into the side of the hill are also now on his property. Duke, our Border collie, stands beside me. We’ve been hiking for an hour. I notice each sign of the changing season on the ranch—the greening kinnikinnick, a few early yellow cinquefoils, the fernlike basil leaves of prairie smoke. I find a chip of black obsidian, its worked edge razor-sharp; a rare find. I do not keep it. I find a fossil nestled on top of a prairie gopher’s red mound of dirt, and don’t keep that either. Hold too tightly to something and run the risk that it will slip from your grasp like a just-caught trout.
The quick, yapping bark of a coyote jabs at the quiet. I jump. Duke bristles.
Scanning the clearing around the stock dam, I find the coyote—large, yellow, and low-slung— standing on the uphill side of the old cabin, which is really nothing more than a dugout with one rotten log wall, a door half-off its rusty hinges, and caved-in dirt sides. Not even a remnant of the roof remains.
I ease into a sitting position on the top of the knoll. The coyote trots into the brush. Quivering, Duke squats beside me. He wants to give chase. The coyote howls, tempting Duke. Stay, I whisper.
We have interrupted the coyote’s walk to the waterhole, or his hunting, or we’re getting too close to his den. Perhaps her den. The coyote keeps hidden. I scan the brush, the hillside, the paths cutting through the brush, the top of the opposite hill, the pine tree on the ridge where the lightning struck. I see no movement save the rippling surface of the stock dam caused by a cool breeze.
I grab a fistful of snow from the shadows and suck the moisture from it, hike across the saturated black soil beneath the oak trees, across the light brown soil on the high ridge, across the red clay in the draw, and across a rare slope where the streaks of yellow, pollen-like dirt mingle with the red and black. Here, rainbow meets earth. I kneel, push up my sleeves, and paint streaks on my palms with each color, rub my palms together and dust the back of my hands and forearms with the ochre, even my cheeks.
I stand and head toward a sunny patch of dried grass and oak leaves out of the wind. Duke goes off exploring. I scour my hands clean with snow. The sun’s warmth soothes after a long winter – after the hard separation of wife from husband, of mother from child, of self from land. I long to be healed, and to be touched. I sit down, then lie in the leaves and let the earth hold me. I close my eyes. The sun is hot on my face. I want to feel that same heat everywhere. I don’t want to feel as alone as I felt last night. I bare my breasts and belly, hips and thighs. My hands are cold. Clean, and cold. Cold on my breasts, my ribs, my belly, the inner thigh, the dark curled thatch, cold on the hidden heat.
Duke, who has not gone far, hears me whimper and returns to my side. I hug him, bury my fingers in his thickly furred white chest, smooth the black glossy hair on his neck and shoulders, and cry. Not huge sobs, but soft tears—like gentle rain. Then we hear a long, thin howl traveling the ridge top. The coyote. Come on, Duke, I say. Let’s go get him.
We aren’t really going to go get him, of course. We are simply going to call his bluff. We work our way out of the draw and up the steep hill, then down into the scrub oak and out the other side, into the clearing by the stock dam. The coyote is standing there, bold as day. I walk toward him. I howl.
Duke whines but stays close by my side. The coyote trots a few steps away, never turning his head. I keep moving toward him, howling when he yaps. He yaps and trots a few more yards, then breaks into a lope and disappears into the ponderosas.
I turn and head back toward the dam, toward the path that will lead us back to the barn—his barn now. I walk with my head down as I circle the dam, looking for a leather riding crop my daughter lost there fifteen years ago. I will go on looking. No matter where I live. Will go on stretching the loneliness until it’s so thin and light that it doesn’t take a mountain ridge to carry the weight of it.
Ten years earlier.
Within seven hours of when my stepmother called to say my father had had a stroke and was in a deep coma, my husband waited with me at the airport for the first flight out of Rapid City, bound for San Francisco. Spring meant calving season, an impossible time for both of us to be gone. Alone, I boarded the Boeing 747, a plane large enough to seat nearly half the population of the small Wyoming town where we lived.
Five days later, from my father’s hospital room, I phoned the ranch with the news that Grandpa Loren had died. My son and daughter were in the basement with the first calf of the season, having their own hands-on experience with death. My husband got on the phone. “We’re in the middle of a blizzard,” he said, “too damn cold out there for anything to survive.”
Matt and Sarah were massaging the calf, warming him with hot water bottles and heating pads and electric blankets, but his core temperature would not rise. The calf died only seconds after my phone call came.
They both died at high noon on the spring equinox – a time when day and night are of equal length. It is supposed to be a time of earthly balance. Yet I can trace the beginning of my awareness that the end of my marriage was inevitable, to that moment. I believed myself to be less lonely a thousand miles away from my husband, than if he had been there with me at the hospital.
My stepmother and I lingered with my father’s body, while back home in Wyoming Matt and Sarah lingered with the calf’s body. When Mark finally carried him back outside to where the cow paced the fence line, the other cows came, sniffed the body, circled around, then eventually wandered away, calling to the calf’s mother as they went. She stayed tethered to this place for days.
My stepmother could not bear to part with my father’s ashes. She placed the urn on a bookshelf in their apartment, nestled between two business books he had written. I flew home dazed with grief. At the ticketing line in the airport, I watched a young father tell his twin daughters good-bye. The toddlers wore matching red polka dot dresses; two identical sets of miniature suitcases rested next to the mother’s luggage. One twin stood sedately by her mother’s side while the other girl clung to her father, sobbing uncontrollably. He knelt and put his arms around her. She sobbed, “Don’t go, Daddy. Don’t go!” He freed himself and slipped out the door. The impassive twin watched while the other daughter threw herself writhing to the floor.
Standing at the ticket counter, I too wanted to writhe upon the floor. On the outside, I was the sedate twin. Inside, my heart was torn and raw. I wanted to blacken my face with ash, cut flesh wounds into my thighs—mark my mourning for all to see. Don’t you understand? I wanted to cry out, My father is dead! Instead, I whispered to the woman at the counter, “Yes, a seat by the window will be just fine.”
Wyoming was in the throes of another spring blizzard when I arrived home. Layers of heavy snow weighed down the lanky limbs of the Ponderosas and the giant burr oaks. At the ranch, drifts three feet deep wove their way like giant snakes across the road. The wind lifted the snow from the bottom of the draws, turning it into frozen, white-crested waves which hung over the edges.
My family greeted me with brief, sympathetic hugs. Duke wagged his tail, quivering at my arrival. Mark stood awkwardly beside the car, my suitcase in his hand. To carry my luggage was easy. To acknowledge my sorrow was not. Inside the house, I pulled on my heavy winter clothes to go back outside while he headed to the barn, leaving deep footprints in the fallen snow.
The cows churned in the dark corral, their backs layered with white, the ground black in the bleakness of night. A newborn brown bull calf with a white blaze on his nose lay next to the fence. The calf’s mother was restless, pacing back and forth, not urging him to his feet so that he could suck. Hypothermia had set in. We eased up behind the agitated cow, separated her from the herd, then locked her in the barn and carried the calf to the house. We immersed him in warm bath water, took turns rubbing his body until his core temperature rose.
A survivor, we christened him Lucky and returned him to his restless mother. She licked him with her rough tongue and spoke to him in low guttural tones. Yet she did not want to be locked inside, tried continually to return to the dark corral. Mark got up twice during the night to check things, then crawled back into bed exhausted.
My dreams were ripe with the astringent scent of hospitals, the artificial whooshing breath of ventilators, the echo of my own voice whispering the fatal words over which I had agonized. Tell the doctors it is time to disconnect the life support.
Early the next morning, the family went off to work and school and I faced the bitter spring day alone. The cow in the barn was still agitated, but Lucky slept curled in the corner, his mouth frothy with milk. I did the feeding chores, checked the heavy cows, then returned to the empty house to feed myself and face the rawness of my grief. Duke rested his head in my lap and pushed his nose beneath my hand.
By noon, the storm had cleared. Waiting for the cows to clean up their hay, I moved an old ewe who was getting ready to lamb into one of the lambing pens, then checked on the other ewes and the newborn lambs. One other old ewe looked like she would lamb before nightfall.
When the cows left the corral, working their way through the deep snow to stand in the sun, I got a shovel and went into the corral to chop away at slick patch of ice. I discovered a dead calf, half-buried in the snow piled up against the barn. I checked for an ear tag. There was none. Her umbilical cord was a clump of bloody ice. It had not been iodined. Her mouth was slightly crushed, as if she had been
stepped on during the night. How did we miss her? She looked like Lucky—brown body, white blaze on the nose. Where was her mother?
I tried to drag her out of the corral, but her tail stayed anchored to the frozen earth. I chipped away at the ice, thinking of my father’s body lying on the white hospital sheets, how my stepmother and I held his hands for exactly four hours until, at the same exact moment, we looked at each other and said, “He’s gone now, isn’t he?” We knew his spirit had left as surely as I knew, chipping away at the ice next to the calf, that all that remained of her was nearly-frozen flesh and a stiff brown hide. But whose was she? No cow would have voluntarily left her calf, even her dead calf. And then it hit me—twins. No wonder Lucky’s mother had worked herself into a panic when we locked her in the barn—she had a second newborn calf still in the corral. Tears slid down the handle of the shovel, freezing on the metal blade as it bit into the ice.
Finally, the calf’s tail was freed. I dragged her into the barn. The cow threatened to charge me. I pushed the calf’s body between us. The cow sniffed, reached out a tentative tongue, recognized the scent of her own birthing fluids, then began licking the stiff hair, settling down into the shadows of her own loss.
Dazed, I went to check on the old ewe. She lay on her side, a water bag hanging from between her back legs, her breathing shallow and pained. She needed help. “Easy girl,” I whispered, drying my cheeks with my coat sleeve. I pulled off my gloves, took off my jacket, and knelt beside her, then gently tugged the membranous water bag until it fell free. I reached a tentative hand inside and began feeling my way into the darkness of her womb. This could be the inside of my grief, I thought. And I didn’t want to go there. But then she moaned again.
Sheep are stoic when in pain. To cry out means to attract predators, to endanger the herd. Sheep, like most prey animals, suffer in silence. Yet she lay there moaning, her legs too tired to kick, her head too heavy to lift, her contractions too weak to birth. She was pregnant because we had put her with the buck. Her pain was my responsibility. I bellied-down in the straw to maneuver my forearm
deeper inside. My hand groped, my fingers became my eyes. I felt the soft cartilage of a hoof, then another, inched my fingers up the legs, found a wooly chest, a thin neck, a head, then another hoof curled around the neck. I followed this leg to another body. Twins. Blindly, I tried to sort the tangle of legs. Front? Back? Eight of them now. I found a nose, retraced my path, found yet another leg. Too many to count. More than eight. Long minutes passed. I found another nose. Triplets. The old ewe moaned again.
With my arm still inside her, I lay back, crying. I took a deep breath, gathered my wits, then sat up and tried to untangle one lamb from the next. I searched until I had two front hooves joined by the same rib cage, eased the hooves and legs toward the birth canal, eased the lamb’s nose down at the same time. The neck was flaccid, without vigor. The ewe groaned. I waited for her uterus to contract again, then pulled the dead lamb from her womb and dragged it across the straw up to her face. She sniffed, began licking, groaned, pushed again. As soon as her contraction subsided, I eased my hand and arm back inside.
Several weak contractions later, the ewe’s old, unfurling womb finally released a second lamb. This one, too, was stillborn. Now, there were no more mysteries inside of her, only one lamb left, four legs, one body, one deflated umbilical cord, one set of closed eyes. I no longer hoped for a live birth, and had little hope that the ewe or lamb would live.
The ewe died during the third hour, the last lamb only half-delivered, the stillborn nose still pink with trying. I realized then that I was not powerful enough to save any of them—not the ewe, not the lambs, not the calf, not my father.
That afternoon, the second old ewe struggled with a hard and useless labor. Her lambs, too, would be stillborn. When Mark got home from work, I told him I could not bear to see more suffering. He got his gun. We eased the old ewe out of the lambing pen and away from the barn, settling her fate, something we should have done the previous fall when we culled the other old breeding stock. We could barely look at each other as we walked back to the house. The pain, unshared, unspoken, was blinding.
A few weeks later, in April, a blizzard hit Wyoming that killed thousands of head of livestock. Cows. Calves. Bulls. Steers. Heifers. Horses. Foals. Colts. Ewes. Lambs. Rams. The news media did not report how many marriages died that year. Perhaps the bodies have yet to be unearthed. Perhaps, if we are lucky, most of them have long ago risen from the crusty snowdrifts and are trudging forward toward a new season.
When I returned from California after my father’s death, I returned to a community who had not known my father. Only a handful even knew of my loss. When I went to the local hardware store to buy light bulbs, no one offered condolences. No obituary appeared in the local paper. The old men who sat drinking coffee Saturday morning at Higbee’s Café did not commiserate about my father, telling “remember when” stories. No wonder I had wanted to blacken my face with ash when I stood in line at the airport. I understood now why, in some cultures, women wear black mourning clothes for a full year. Not only do visible signs of mourning honor the departed, but they remind the community: Here is a neighbor in need of comfort.
Two friends did reach out, sending a small check enclosed in their sympathy card suggesting that we buy a tree in honor of my father. Two months later, on Mother’s Day, Mark asked, “What kind of tree do you want to get?” I knew many things about my father, but not what kind of tree he would have wanted. A California Redwood, perhaps? But of course not, this was Wyoming. And then I realized, listening to the tight control in Mark’s voice that this was his loss too. His own father had died a tragic death when Mark was fourteen years old. That grief was still with him, buried deeply beneath the silence.
That same afternoon, our daughter’s pet parakeet Wanbli (“Eagle” in Lakota) died. Sarah and I, carrying a garden trowel, some matches, and the bird tucked in a little pouch, hiked up a ridge to where my two old favorite barren snags reached stark limbs toward the heavens. We called them the
Grandparent trees. Sarah walked around for a few minutes until she found a sapling barely a foot tall, a young ponderosa pine. We dug a small grave next to the sapling, then gathered stones and encircled the tree. Then we gathered a few stalks of wild sage and each said a short prayer, offering to the bird more ceremony than had been offered my father. Yet perhaps that was why burying Wanbli with such ritual was so important. When Mark finally did plant a small pine beneath Sarah’s bedroom window, I thought of Wanbli’s grave, high on the ridge next to the Grandparent trees.
A few weeks later, the persistent bawling of a cow and her calf’s plaintive cries, woke us at five in the morning. Mark haltered Tee, our roan gelding, and started doing chores while Matt and I went out to investigate. One of our young cows was standing a few hundred yards away from a dry well by the stackyard, her bag tight with milk. We could hear the calf, but couldn’t see him. As his cries drew us nearer, I realized he must be in the dry well—a hole twenty feet deep, at the bottom of which lay some old timber, the remains of the well’s cover. His cries echoed from the cement sides of the well. I peered over the edge, afraid to see a broken and battered animal. Miraculously, the calf was standing upright, a red scrape on his head and a small strip of hide missing from his back.
Mark came as soon as he could, carrying a rope which he tied to a nearby tree, then slipped around his hips. After rappelling down into the well three separate times, and scaling the wall each time to climb back up, and getting kicked several times by the calf, he managed to tie two ropes around the calf’s head and shoulders. The calf bawled while the cow ran in frantic circles around the well, bellowing.
Once the calf was harnessed, Mark used the tractor to hoist him out of the hole and onto the ground. I kept the cow at bay while Mark held the calf down and Matt pulled off the ropes. Finally free, the calf bounded over to his mother and with hungry thrusts pounded at her tight milk bag. She licked his head, then licked the scrape along his spine. Reassured that he was both hers, and safe, she trotted out toward the meadow while he followed behind.
I like to believe that had the dark tunnel of grief in which I was lost been as obvious, Mark would have come to my rescue too, would have found whatever tools were necessary to free us both. Perhaps I should have reached out more. Perhaps the deep hole was there all the time, yet I hadn’t known how to keep from tumbling into it. Perhaps Mark had been lost in the darkness of his own grief ever since his father died and no one had come to his rescue.
On the anniversary of the nineteenth year of our marriage, Mark and I went out to dinner at a popular steakhouse. He ordered a whisky, and then another, and then another. Later that night, he broke down. The anguish that surfaced seemed weighted by decades of old pain. Then it was gone, buried again. I tried to comfort him but still yearned to be comforted myself. Why, I wondered, was it my arm around him, and not his arm around me? What unseen and rigid rule kept us from wrapping our arms around each other?
A few weeks later, an August thunderstorm darkened the sky. Lightning cracked from the ridge where Sarah and I had buried Wanbli. To the east, a bolt so close that it silenced the storm, lit up the sky and crashed to earth with a tremendous BOOM. “Something got hit,” Mark said.
The next morning, we found a black cow dead on the side of a hill, a still-live calf by her side. Four redheaded turkey vultures took up temporary residence, gorging themselves on her carcass, walking flatfooted in the grass around her when their heavy guts kept them from flying. When not satiated, they spread their dark wings and lifted themselves only as far as the branch of the closest tree. All the while, the other cows milled around the dead cow, pondering their stiff-legged, bloated and gutted comrade who would not get up and move on with the herd. The calf, like the herd’s umbilical cord, kept them tied, one to the other. The calf that had fallen down the well stayed close to his mother. My father’s ashes were still on the bookshelf in San Francisco, where they would stay for the next ten years.
As the summer storms drew to a close, the fall season brought with it breeding time for the sheep. We borrowed a buck from a neighbor for our flock of ewes, smaller now because the older ones were gone. Feeling blue on a snowy day in November, I watched the ewes crawl the barbed wire fence and
head out into the hayfield, where they were not supposed to go. The buck hadn’t learned how to crawl the fence yet and stood on the other side, bleating his displeasure at being left behind. He paced back and forth, stood and stomped his feet, lifted his head and ran back and forth along the fence. I tried to blame my melancholy on the storm that had hit during the night, but watching the buck, I knew better. Humans, too, are herd animals. Isolation is a frightening thing.
I had been staring for weeks at two boxes of my father’s things sent to me by my stepmother. One day, I finally mustered up the courage to open them. One box held files on a new business book he had wanted to write, Secrets of Success. The other box held his fly fishing gear. I pulled out his fly fishing vest and held it, touching the worn square of felt where he had always hooked a spare fly for easy access, felt the cool metal of the nail clipper tied to the vest by a strand of leader, thought of all the times I had seen him use it to snip the excess tippet from the knot of a newly tied fly. “What are they feeding on?” he would ask the locals at our favorite tack shop in Ennis, Montana. “Whatever’s hatching,” they would answer, laughing at this newcomer’s obvious question. My father would laugh, make jokes, his piercing, friendly eyes moving from face to face, his gestures quick, like those of a trout darting beneath the water from stone to stone, not content to hover in the shadows and wait to see what the current would bring.
The box of files held the more public of my father’s dreams—dreams of success, of peer recognition and security, awards honoring him for founding the financial planning industry back in the sixties. These were the dreams of a man molded by the twentieth century. But the tippets, 6X, and 4X, and 3X, and the flies—the nymphs and wooly worms—the reels, worn and rusty. These held his real dreams. “What are they biting on?” my father would ask again, his eyes sparking, his fingers lifting each fly from its plastic bin, being careful to touch only the metal hook. “I know, I know,” he would say, laughing, before they could rib him again, “So tell me, what’s hatching?”
If only life were so easy. The right fly, the right tippet, the perfect cast.
That Christmas, my mother, who lived by herself in Colorado, came to the ranch. “You know,” she told me as we sat reminiscing one morning, “it was always your father’s dream that we would find an old rancher who needed a caretaker on a remote section of his ranch, and that we could live there, just the two of us, and your dad could fish, finally write that novel he’d been wanting to write.”
Her voice faded, silenced by the empty space that keeps us all apart—the distances that come between dreamers and our dreams, perhaps thinking of the twenty five years they had been married, of the years she’d been alone since the divorce.
Reconciliation is really what life is all about. Reconciling ourselves to the reality of our lives, to the parts of ourselves that are at odds—our past with the present, the present with the future. Even now, years later, my marriage no longer a living thing, my feet seem riveted to all the mistakes I made, to the times I, too, could have reached out, but didn’t. Two generations of marriage. Good marriages by anyone’s standards, both lasting twenty-five years, yet not beyond. Why? What legacy do I bequeath my children?
I had a dream that a bear was trying to get in our log home. He rose on his hind feet and clawed at the front door. Mark stood behind me while I pushed on the door, but the door became flimsy, like plywood, and soon there was only this piece of unhinged wood between us. The bear’s claws reached around the wood and tore it away in pieces. Then even the shredded wood vanished and I found myself pushing against the bear’s chest. Mark said to me, “Instead of pushing, you should stab.” We debated which knife would be best to kill this creature clawing at the walls of our home, threatening to tear at our lives, our security. I continued pushing against the bear’s chest, trying desperately to keep him from entering our home. Behind him, I saw our sheep—some standing, some lying on the ground. The limp body of a mauled lamb lay out, the wool on her head wet, as if the bear had held her in his mouth. I picked up the lamb and cradled her in my arms and, as I did so, the bear evaporated—like mist beneath a strong sun.
The morning of New Year’s Eve, we drove to Rapid City to take my mother and Matt and Sarah to the airport. They were flying to my sister’s home on the Big Island of Hawaii to celebrate the New Year. On the way back from the airport, I asked Mark if we could stop at Bear Butte, a lone mountain of igneous rock rising from the plains of the Black Hills. The eroded mountain, millions of years old, is sacred to the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians, a place where the Great Creator speaks to the people through visions and prayers. Artifacts dating back 10,000 years have been discovered there.
The Makaha people of the Sioux tribe believe that Bear Butte is the source of all souls. Many traditional couples come here to conceive a child, to capture a gracious soul for their firstborn. Barbara Means in Prayers of Smoke describes the creation story of Bear Butte this way: Mato Paha, a volcano, come into existence after a huge bear and the water monster, Unktehila, had a fight. Their blood flowed into the ravines and soaked the land. The injured bear climbed up to the top of the volcano and slept. Whenever the giant bear stirs in his sleep, the volcano trembles. Shale slides down the volcano’s sides as the bear breaths.
Another blizzard had hit the Black Hills the night before, snow falling at the ranch in Wyoming and blowing across the plains of South Dakota. Today, the sky was clear and cold. Mark and I got out of the car, pulled on our heavy coats, and headed up a trail only marginally protected from the 40-50 mile-an- hour winds that still blew, cutting back and forth along the southern slope of the mountain. Prayer bundles of tobacco hung from the ponderosas, red, black, yellow and blue ribbons whipped by the wind.
No one else was on the mountain. Our tracks were the first to mar the snow-covered trail. We hiked silently, not speaking. Mountain of stone, heal us, I prayed. Twenty minutes later, near the top, we reached a saddle in the mountain where we could look to both the southeast, and northwest. Here, the wind blew violently, without mercy or remorse. We backtracked, Mark in the lead, until we came to an abutment of rock that hung over the side of the mountain and a dark crevice in the rock. Mark side- stepped on the ledge, then disappeared into the crevice. I followed. Inside was a small, round cave,
facing south, the walls and ceiling blackened from ceremonial fires. A twist of burned sweet grass hung from the ceiling. A few offerings of hand-rolled Bull Durham tobacco lay on the rock floor next to another twist of sweet grass. Half-in, half-out of the cave rested a long, smooth-barked willow branch.
Silently, we leaned into the rock, away from the wind, and peered out the opening to the great expanse of sky and prairie that lay to the east. The state park’s small herd of buffalo grazed below. We watched a car pull into the parking lot next to ours. After a few more silent minutes, Mark bent, ducked under the entrance to the cave, through the crevice, and back out onto the ledge. As I emerged from this womb of rock, I remembered my earlier prayer. Mountain of stone, heal us.
When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we found four Indians, one man, three women, standing together, each draped in a brightly woven blanket, their heads lifted, eyes on the mountain, hands gripping the blankets to defend themselves from the wind. I guessed them to be Crow, or maybe Cheyenne or Sioux. They said nothing as we walked past, did not look in our direction, did not nod their heads, but remained as we had found them; heads lifted toward the mountain, silence everywhere.
Printed with permission by Page Lambert, copyrighted by Page Lambert @ 2009.