Reflections on Spirit

Note 12: Crow Can't See No Future in Some Bison Bones. 6/28/99

This is a story told by Crow:

Grandfather flew out as he did every day of his life in search of his favorite food. As often as not during the time before the great slaughter of the herds he returned after hours of flight without having the least chance of satisfying the hunger that drove him out on his daily round of hunting for the food that kept his spirit up. Those of us who stayed behind in the rookery, too young to go out on our own and not welcome most of the time to fly with our grandfather, waited as patiently as we could for his return. Sometimes he would be gone for weeks at a time, the primary reason he always gave for not allowing his grand-children to follow along after him, doing things and going places that would always be a great mystery to us unless he chose to tell the stories of his travels after he returned to the roost. We always believed he knew more and had seen more than any other member of our tribe and took great pains to please him in every way possible so he would not refuse to include us in his story-telling times when he came back from his great adventures.

The other members of our tribe, the ones who were younger than our grandfather but older than us, seemed to resent the power and influence he exercised over the course of our tribe's life, even if he denied he had any, or wanted to have any, at all, but they never did or said anything about any of their feelings when he was present in the rookery. Most of them seemed to be afraid of him and never acted out their frustration where he could see or become aware of how they felt about the authority he held over them. Grandfather always insisted that any authority he had was given to him by the ones among us who refused to challenge him to his face. "If they don't like the way I am," he once said to us after hearing the quiet murmurings that were always raised against him when he returned from one of his long flights, "they should tell me to my face how they expect me to behave." No one believed for a minute that he would actually change his habits. He had been the way he was for as long as anyone could remember.

We were a fledgling tribe according to the way Grandfather counted out the time we had spent together as a flock. He told us many times about the way it was before the first great conclave of our kind was called to bring us all together in a mass to share and sort out all the differences that kept us locked in twos and threes, or worse, as solitary wanderers across the great plains where we had always made our home. Grandfather said he still remembered spending days on end and never hearing any sound at all that spoke the language of his kind. His habit now of wandering alone in search of food was something he could not give up because it bound him to a past that one of us should keep and hold in memory so all the rest of us would know how hard our lives had been before we came together as a flock. A solitary bird stood out as harsh against the sky as any single living thing could do. We always watched him leave, come back again, alone, and felt ourselves drawn closer to each other as we saw the single speck of him recede to nothingness against the endless sky, or grow from nothingness to him again when he came back to roost. His singleness would always make us whole.

The food he sought when he went out was considered to be a great delicacy among the members of our tribe. Feasting on the eye of the great bison when one of them no longer needed it to find his way along the route that carried them in herds from east to west and north to south was thought to give the one who found it special gifts of knowing how to track a course along the road that spirits took when they came back to life. Feasting on the eye conferred both wisdom and nobility of mind on anyone who plucked it from a dying member of their band. Grandfather told us many times that stories such as that were told to teach us that each kind of life we saw across the plain held special value in its own distinctive way and if we watched and studied everything around us we could learn from others different ways of being in a place and time unlike the ones that custom taught us were our own. When we asked him did he mean the bison's eye provided nothing that would help one see the road the spirits walked, he said the better course to follow if you wanted power of that kind was to look inside yourself to find the way that spirits moved across the land. "The only reason I eat bisons' eyes," he said, "is because I like the way they taste." No one believed him when talked like that. We knew there was a better reason for the time he spent away from us in searching out his favorite food.

One story that we always liked to hear described a time before remembering took hold of us and shaped the way we lived in groups and social knots that made us stronger than a single bird can be. Grandfather said he found a single human man one day who spent three hours of the sun's short journey through the sky walking in a track around a hill of dirt and stone that seemed to be a perfect circle at its base. None of us had ever seen a thing like that and wondered what a perfect circle was. "A circle is a place," he said, "that's measured out with pieces of bright stone, as many as it takes to mark ten places from the center on one side where each of them is just as far from it as all the others are. Ten more are placed along the other side to close the gap into a single form. We fly those kinds of figures in the air. I watched the old man make a circle on the ground one day. He used a stick and a single piece of string to measure all the spaces that he wanted in between the center and each stone and in between each stone along the line that told him where his circle was."

"The old man I was watching all that day," he started up again when we had finished thinking out what kind of form a circle was, "tied his string with twenty knots and wrapped it all around his stick. When he was done with that, he put it back into the bag he carried on his back and took a piece of eagle's bone he kept inside and blew a song out of the holes he drilled along one side of it. The song went flying up into the sky and drew a thundercloud along the path he'd walk that day to get into the open ground where he had built his circle with the stones. He played his song and walked around the circle he had made ten times. He waved his arms and shouted louder than a thunderstorm. The sounds he made soon forced the springs he had gathered underneath his pile of dirt and stones to open up their mouths and flow like falling rain into four rivers that began to run their separate courses east and west and north to south. Unlocked, the rivers rushed and foamed their way across the plains and cut deep canyons in the earth where hardly any sun could reach the bottoms where the waters ran." Grandfather laughed his eyes back to the present moment in our midst and brought a sense of being there to see such marvels down with him into the nest.

Another story that he often told concerned the time the old man who he often watched and followed on the plains beyond the river where we kept our roost had come to him for help in bring up a missing member of his tribe who had somehow slipped out of the knot that held them close together in their clan. Grandfather told us what the old man said about the way a thing like that could happen but we did not understand the customs of his kind and so it would be meaningless for me to say again what he explained to us back then. Grandfather said: "That old man found me on the ground where I was looking for a piece of polished stone that I had seen him drop when he walked along the left fork of a river split in two by standing stones. He circled back around them out of sight and threw a net of silver cord across my back to keep me on the ground. I was trapped but not afraid to see him coming up to look me in the eye. He said he knew I followed him and wondered why. I told him that my business took me where it might and that, as far as I could tell, our paths had crossed more times than once but I had never spent a minute of my life watching out to see what he would do. He showed no single sign that he believed what I had said but worked the silver cords off of my back and set me free. 'Don't fly, just yet', he said, 'because there is a thing I'd have you do for me.' He seemed both kind enough and true so I decided to remain in place to see what else he planned to say."

We were unsettled by the way his story started out because so many times the people we had seen were violent and were mostly bent on killing us because we were so black. Grandfather calmed us with his soothing cluck and started up again: "The old man said there was a rising rage of whitemen coming who would slaughter every living thing they found that made its home beneath our sky. He wanted me to stalk a certain bull out of the herd and take him to the center of a thousand circles he had drawn a thousand times across the plain at every place where certain kinds of trails crisscrossed and marked the world directions that the bison used to know which way their migratory paths should turn to keep them on their proper course. He would not tell me where he thought that place would be but left it to my better judgment since I see the world he only walks upon from higher up the sky than anywhere he'd ever been allowed to be himself. He would not tell me what he planned to do when I had managed to convince the bull he wanted to go off with me."

Grandfather stopped a while to gather up the missing pieces of his story from the air around our nest. He fluffed his feathers like some older birds will do to get more air between themselves and everything that's harder to control than headlong flight into a bush of thorns when hawks are on the prowl. "I made myself as small and black as anything my size could be. I thought it would be best to hunt the old man's bull when darkness made it difficult for him to see me clearly in the distance I had planned to keep between his horns and hooves and all the fragile bones that kept me in my shape. He looked right at me where I stood and shook his shaggy head and beats his hooves against the ground. His anger at my being there that close was as frightful as ten thousand claps of thunder on a rainless night. He snorted twice and made some sounds deep in his throat that might have been a question asking me what I was doing there or might have been a warning that my time for living on his earth was drawing to its close. I stood my ground and fluttered up and down to tell him I had come to talk to him about the deep concern the old man had for all the future of our kind, both his and mine. He rolled his head around, and back and forth, to keep me surely fixed inside his gaze. I moved up closer to his head and horns and clucked a song I hoped would sooth the deep suspicion I could see he had about the reasons I had sought him out. He watched me as I settled in my place and knew I meant to stay as long as time itself until he listened to the words I had to say."

"Were you afraid?" I asked Grandfather when he stopped to smooth a feather on his wing. "Yes and no," he said. "The bull could kill me with a flick of head or hoof, of course, but what the old man told me I should do to keep him calm was working slowly to dispel the threat his bulk and fury seemed to hold. 'You are the one who eats our eyes', he said. 'You think I want to talk to you, hear anything you want to say? What kind of trick is this?' I told him I had never harmed a single living member of his tribe and only took what death itself had left behind; that food was food and only went to waste if one like me did nothing to retrieve it from the ground. 'What use are eyes to one who dies?', I asked. 'You know as well as I that travel in the spirit world requires that nothing from this life be taken there for any kind of use or need. Why would you hate and kill me now when all I ever do is thank you for the food you leave behind the day you start your journey back to time?' He knew my answer was the truth and dropped his head down to a level where he could look me in the eye. 'What do you want with me?', he asked.

"I told him everything the old man told me I should say to him and he agreed to follow me into the circle of white stones where death would come to one us before the sun had tracked his course halfway across the sky. The thing the hunter carried on his back and held up close against his eye discharged its thunder with a boom and crash that nearly shook the earth out of its sky. The old man's mirror broke into ten thousand silver pieces just the way he said it would. My warning cry had set the bull in motion just before the hunter's rage had tried to stop his tribe's whole life by sweeping all of it out of the plains. The thing that broke the mirror came across the air with deadly force and perfect aim to cut my head off like a blade."

"How long ago did all of this occur?" was all the question we had left to ask. Grandfather took us in with all his eyes and gentleness before he turned back out to fly in search of favorite foods. "None of this has happened yet," was what he said and flew off toward the south, a way we'd never seen him disappear before.

He never did return.

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