Reflections on Spirit

Note 17: Sun-Dancing Birds Who Black the Bison-Sky. 9/20/99

This is a story told by Bison:

At first his hopping out in front of me was mostly just annoying. Every time I lifted my head to look across the flattened prairie where I did my summer grazing to see what, if anything, might be coming my way, he was out there dancing around like a small black dot of insignificant fluff that must have wanted something, must have been doing something, even if it did not reach to my concerns, that fulfilled some need of his, some larger purpose in the scheme of prairie life beyond my comprehension. I only say that because he was there so often over so long a period of time and seemed to be acting out of any character that I had ever seen one of his kind do before. Back and forth and up and down he hopped and fluttered, never making a single sound that I could hear for all the commotion he created with his presence on the empty ground in front of my face. He was always ten or twenty strides away, as if that distance, and none closer or farther away would do, were somehow significant to his design. I came to assume he had a design because not even the sky's most fabulously foolish crow would spend as much time as he did trying to provoke me if he had no reason whatsoever for doing it.

And he did provoke me, of course. For weeks at a time he would appear in front of me as soon as Sun touched the sky with its golden light and brought day forth out of darkness dancing like a fool with a hop and flutter of his black wings until I could stand his presence there not one second more. I ran at him again and again but that did little more than encourage him to draw closer and closer as he measured out the distance I could cover in my charge before his wings would lift him up and beyond my reach. The most aggravating aspect of his display was concealed in the fact that he did not mock me at all when my tremendous bulk was to slow in its charge to reach the place where he had been before his wings would carry him safely away. He was not there to make a fool of his bigger, more powerful, brother. He was not there as a clown intent to mock and ridicule my thick and ponderous hide. I could tell that from the beginning but just the same his serious purpose remained hidden in the fact that I could not comprehend, or even conceive of, a single reason for him to be doing what he did.

Then, just as I was beginning to get used to the fact of his presence, when I reached the point where it became possible for me to ignore him altogether, he would disappear for the same length of time that he had been there with his dancing on the plain. I had no idea where he went when he disappeared. More times than once I tried to follow along behind the ever diminishing dot of his flying away but he always knew what I was trying to do and would drop down low against our mother earth where I could not see him anymore. Other times he would circle around in a high arc that would take him directly into the face of father sun where I could not see him in the glare of the whole sky. For some reason of his own, which would make sense only to another crow, he did not want me to follow where he went when he left his game of dancing in my face behind.

After nearly the whole course of the summer months I found a pattern in his being there and not. He always came on the first day after the new moon and stayed in place in front of me until it waxed into its fullest circle of reflected light. He would be gone the next day after moon had reached her full extent. Why that mattered to him or what it meant is locked in the hidden intent that drove him out across the months of time he spent in playing games and dancing black against the ageless sky. One day he came right up to me and stood his ground against the bulk of rage his being there that close inspired in me. He pressed himself against the ground the way a prairie chicken does to warm an egg. He hopped straight up and beat his wings a time or two to carry him exactly to a point between my horns, as if to challenge all the fury he inspired in me by being in a place where I could flick my head and knock him from the air.

Before he touched the ground again, he grew two human legs and turned his wings into a hunter's arms. His body bent and stretched and bulked itself into an old, old man who kept a crow for hat atop of his withered head. He did not say a word at first but only stood there like a post, a rooted tree, that did not seem to know how close it stood to being tossed aside into another world without its living flesh. I thought he was another trick that hunters use to draw up close enough to kill us where we stand. He held no weapons in his hand. He did not seem to be inside the flesh that stood before me in the morning light. I knew somehow that if I tried to strike him down, which I could do with just a single flick of head and horn, he'd simply fly away again like any crow would do. I stood my ground, not sensing any danger in the air, and snorted at his feet to let him know he stood too close to earth I meant to keep.

The old man standing in front of me took a precautionary step or two back and away from the compass of my horns as I shook my head in his face. He seemed at first amused by something he was looking at behind my back but made it clear enough by gesture, if not word, that he was much in awe of me and held a deep respect for all the power gathered by the spirit of my clan. His vision changed again to opaque black as if a cloud had fallen through his skull and dimmed his consciousness beyond recall. He stood that way so long I thought he never would come back. His head was tilted slightly to the left just like a man will do who listens to a voice no other ear can hear inside the earth. He nodded sharply once and shook his head. His eyes came back to life and seemed amazed to find me standing there in front of him, as if he had no way to guess or know that he had come out on the prairie to confront a member of our clan.

He drew his eyes back in again and spoke a single word I did not know, had never heard or thought before, which seemed to be a signal to the crow he still had sitting on his head to start a clucking song that danced along the old man's line of sight directly through my eyes into my brain. A vision filled my head. The old man, younger then, walked across a landscape I had seen before along a path my kind had used in ancient times to circumnavigate a stretch of desert toward the west where water was so scarce that hardly anything could live there in the summer heat. We always went around the sand along a river in the spring that held enough from melting mountain snow to get us to the cooler summer pastures in the north. The river did not run that way these days but had shifted to the east and flanked the other side of that deadly desert waste. The old man had me standing with the crow against a shelf of rock in a place so empty now of life that even spirits like the wind could not get there before the empty wasteland that surrounded it sucked out its life.

Even if I knew already where the old man had me fixed inside his vision of my future life I asked him where a place like that could be. He said his secret word again. The crow stretched out his wings atop the old man's head and sang a single word out of the hoard of them he kept from every sound his tribe had overheard across its flight through time. He said that place was everywhere the whiteman's coming touched. I knew the word for white he used, the color of the deadly snow, but what he meant by that when joined to man made nothing sensible arise and spread across the inner signscape of my mind. His words were meaningless to me.

The crow went back to singing like he'd done before and pictures from the old man's mind began to flow again across the air. A man, the like of which and kind I'd never seen before, was hiding underneath a shroud of swirling dust and ashes burned from bison bones. He held a stick out from his shoulder and his face that flashed like fire in the sun and threw a spinning ball out of its other hollow end that shut the life-blood out of any living thing it touched. He turned his stick around and poured a powder black as night into its hollow end. He kept those pieces of his sky inside a horn just like the ones that grew out of my head. He rammed another ball into its hollow end and packed it tightly in its place. He turned his stick around again to point it at my heart. I knew my life was almost gone in every word the old man told his crow to say, in every picture he produced inside the inner surface of my eye. I could not move or take a halting step to get away from death. The old man whistled like a shrike and spun me stumbled down a bank of thunderheads that flew out of the whiteman's stick. I heard his thunderball split through my chest and smash the crow into a thousand swirling feathers, each a living thing, that blacked the sky into another kind of place that had no end in time.

I saw the old man's circle made of polished stone and started walking toward the west, the river, and the shelf of rock where crow and I would die.

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