Dance for the Dead

I lived in the desert then, where the earth drops suddenly from a string of peaks two miles high to the sand and sagebrush below. I first saw them, a small band of Indians, eight or ten of them, up on the very rim of the valley, near where the granite walls begin.

The unusual part was that they saw me too. They were just ghosts, you know, and the ghosts I had encountered before had been, at best, only remotely and dimly aware of my existence.

This was personal. A young one followed me home and stood over me when I lay down to rest, trying to hack me to death with his tomahawk. He was very angry, but it wasn’t working.

I saw them again about six months later, in the same place, just me out walking again in the early morning solitude and vastness of that country, before the harsh full light of day made things too solid.

This time the elder of the band approached me. Walked right up to me like we were a couple of regular fellows and spoke to me. I can’t tell you exactly what he said.

You know how this works, don’t you? It’s like looking at a memory. With your mind’s eye you can see everything very clearly, superimposed on the regular world, and even if the words aren’t in English and don’t make any sound, you still get the meaning.

In this particular case it was something about reconnecting, going home.  It sounded to me like a polite request to deliver a message, if it should just so happen I had the chance. Understated, but full of import, asking me to be a bridge between now and then.

You know how this works, don’t you? It’s just a feeling, real as any, you go with it or you don’t.

Eventually, I decided I had to do something about this. I went back out there, to the same deserted place, even earlier than usual, when it was still half dark and I had a say in the shape of the world to come. I gathered up some twigs and made a little fire. I drew a map in the sand that showed them how to get to the sweat lodge, on the reservation about forty miles away. I danced around the tiny fire singing “High Hopes” because that was what came into my mind and then I went home.

I said to my friend, the one I told about this, “I just felt like I had to do something and so I did something and that’s that.” I thought I was off the hook.

A couple of weeks later I was at the sweat lodge. I don’t know why exactly, I wasn’t planning on going in. I was just sitting by the cook house as people were going into the lodge and that same ghostly elder walked up out of nowhere and put his hand on my shoulder and then walked away and went in the sweat lodge. I could see the rest of the little band about a half-mile away, down by the river–just a canal now, but it used to be a river. I never saw any of them again and that’s all I know about it.


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