Reflections on Spirit

Note 2: The River Is A Bone. 12/10/98

This is a story told by a crow:

I once saw an old man walking along a riverbank in the driest desert on the face of the earth. He didn't seem to have a care in the world. The river itself, in the shimmering heat of the full summer sun, was as dry as a bone. In fact, the river was a bone left behind by a thousand years of drought that had evaporated even the memory of the water it had held in time. Bleached white. Light as a feather. Bird-bone, probably; hollow like a reed. The old man picked it up, cut a few round holes in it, put one end to his lips, and began to play the saddest melody you'd ever want to hear. That old man's song would have charmed the birds right out of the sky, had there been any around to hear the bone he played. There weren't any birds around then, not even crows. No food, no water, no birds anywhere in the mind of a seeing eye.

After he finished his song, he dropped the river-bone in this bag he had tied to his left wrist; dropped this five-acre bone down inside this little bag like he believed all along it would somehow fit in a space not even big enough to carry more than a couple of small stones, a few seeds, or nine small leaves of some herbal remedy he learned as a child from his grandfather. The river-bone was completely swallowed up as he walked along the rim of the empty canyon it's removal left in the desert. He walked and walked after that like there was no tomorrow. I flew along with him, just behind his head and so high in the sky I would have been invisible to anyone watching the two of us working our way deeper and deeper into the heart of the desert.

After what seemed like hours, even days, in crow time, as the crow flies, so to speak, we came to a place he had been seeking all along. I thought he was just wandering around, lost maybe, heat-impaired, sun-stroked, and, I must say, a little crazy. Who in their right mind, after all, would pick up a ten-mile-long piece of dry river and carry it out into a drier and drier ground? I couldn't imagine what he thought he was doing. The place he found told me nothing at all about his intentions. It was a deep pit about two miles across that had been formed by the collapse of a volcanic cone thousands of years before our coming. The sides of the pit were black lava. Sharp edges everywhere. Nearly a vertical drop of over two hundred feet down to the floor of the bowl-shaped depression. He started to climb down into the thing. The old man obviously had a death-wish.

I settled down on a dusty crag overlooking the vast pit of emptiness unfolding across the inhuman landscape that had drawn the old man so far from his fellow creatures. I assumed he had had contact with real people before he wandered out into the wilderness. Maybe not, though. As crazy as he was, could be not even a band of crows would welcome him into their society. We take in just about anybody who comes along: fools, idiots, clowns, politicians, lawyers. Well, maybe not politicians. You have to draw the line somewhere. So, I settled down on my crag to watch the old man snake his way down the side of the cliff into the black pit of the volcanic sinkhole.

He disappeared periodically behind outcroppings of lava as he climbed deeper and deeper into the pit. I called out to him every now and then to remind him I was watching his progress. Even a fool or a crazy man needs to be reassured that his efforts to entertain a member of the crow nation have not gone unnoticed and unappreciated. After a few hours, I left the rim of the crater and flew down closer to the old man. He was getting harder and harder to see against the emptiness of the background. I could still see his general shape well enough as he moved along the cliff-face but it was becoming more difficult to make out the changing expression on his face. The light was shifting and changing its shape as the sun angled across the sky. Harsh shadows were everywhere and the old man moved in and out of them like a bug on a wall. When he finally reached the floor of the sinkhole, and started moving off toward its center, I decided to find a better vantage point from which to watch what he would do next.

There was a dead tree not to far from the center of the pit and I made my way toward it as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. He was oblivious to his surroundings and was either unaware of, or unconcerned with, my presence. Without even pausing to rest after his long journey, and as soon as he reached the invisible center of the pit, he began to draw a wide circle in the sand with his foot. He seemed to know exactly where the center of his circle was located, though I hardly see how that was possible, because the circumference he was tracing in the sand was far too wide for him to be able to see it at all as he hobbled around its outer limit. The circle he was making was far too perfectly circular for him not to know the exact point of its center. He brought his line back to the place where he began and made no extra step, or loop, or skip, or hop to make it end where it had begun. I got the impression he had done this kind of thing before, perhaps many times before. Birds, crows especially, can fly perfect circles in the air, as you know, well, then again, maybe you don't know that after all, but people can barely make a decent circle even with a compass. The old man knew his business. He made a fine circle in the sand.

I had absolutely no idea what he was doing, or why he was in this empty pit in the middle of nowhere. He made a curious sequence of signs with his hands, like he was signaling to someone. No one came to his summons, of course, but he seemed neither upset nor surprised that nothing responded to his speech. I thought about calling out myself but I didn't know what to say. I couldn't read his hand-signals. In a situation like that, saying nothing is far better than saying the wrong thing. After waiting a while, as if he expected something to happen, he began to walk slowly toward the eastern edge of the circle. I checked against the sun's position in the sky and could see that he was walking exactly due east. When he reached the edge of the circle, he turned toward the north, took a piece of the river-bone out of his bag, and dropped it on the sand. It turned into a lake.

This is hard to explain. I don't mean that the sand under the bone got wet, turned into a small puddle of water, or whatever; the piece of bone turned into a lake. It was like a real lake, with shoreline and everything, waves lapping against the beach, and so on. But it was miniature. Maybe a foot across. The old man's lake looked exactly like a lake does when I'm thousands of feet above one in a fly-over. It was real, only very very small.

Hey, this was a dream, right? A lake can look real in a dream even if it is only an inch deep and a foot across. Fish started jumping in the reeds along the shore. A heron speared a frog in the shallows. The old man started walking around the edge of the circle toward the north. He dropped other pieces of the river-bone as he went. Each one of them turned into a different feature of the imaginative landscape he was building: mountains sprang out of the sand, snow-capped in some places just like the real thing only smaller, compact but incredibly detailed. There were ridge lines and exposed up-thrust faults revealing the layers of sediments that composed the earth as it grew under long vanished lakes and oceans. There were trees and shrubs growing on the windward side where the rain fell with enough profusion to foster forests and grassy meadows. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, and birds appeared out of nowhere to populate the vast miniature world he was creating as he walked along the outer rim of his ceremonial circle. On the dry side of his mountains vast expanses of grassland appeared. Herds of buffalo and antelope dotted the river valleys that formed from the melting of the ice-caps as the seasons began to turn from cold to warm to hot and back again. Rivers flowed. Lakes glimmered. Oceans formed to separate one land mass from another as he built one continent after another from the pieces of his river-bone.

He emptied his bag. He shook it out. He scattered the dust and tiny particles of his treasure across the completed whole of the world he had fashioned from the dreams he found locked in the driest piece of river-bone that had ever existed in the history and prehistory of the world.

I flew out of the pit as the old man finished his work and started walking back toward the cliff he would have to re-climb if he actually intended to make his way back to whatever home he had abandoned to seek out his empty pit of a sinkhole in the middle of the driest, most life-forsaken, desert in the history of creation. As I came across the rim of the sinkhole, my eyes rolled back into the center of my brain with a rush of confusion and wonderment. The desert we had crossed to reach the hole was completely transformed. It had vanished in the blink of an eye. Everything that had been bleak and colorless wasteland before was now green and blue and orange and purple with swelling, vibrant life as far as my crow-eyes could see. Directly in front of me was the lake the old man had fashioned from the first piece of river-bone he had dropped on the sand. I circled low over the vast forest spinning out of his creation, stumbled, as it were, in my flight, in an attempt to return to the place of my own origin back in the bleak and empty pit where he had spawned his magnificent dream, but the sinkhole had vanished into thin air. The old man was gone as well. Nothing remained of the world as it had been before he dropped that first sliver of bone.

Truth be told, this vision isn't really a dream at all. It's an old story that's been passed down from generation to generation in my family of crows for as long as we have existed. We have told it and retold it so many times that the number of tellings cannot be calculated in the numerical systems we have invented to record repetitious events and happenings. We tell the story among ourselves at the great conclaves of crows that are held each year so we won't forget that we are just another kind of creation spawned in the dreams of an old man who went walking in the desert one day before the world had become a place where life could grow and thrive like a seed blown on the wind to a patch of fertile ground. As long as crows exist to tell the story, the earth will stand to welcome the coming of a new day. Or so we have been led to believe.

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