Medicine II Raven
A thin tendril of steam rose into the already cloudy air. The sound of hissing, followed by several loud pops, filled the small space. Darkness engulfed the enclosure. Mother Earth’s womb: warm, moist, dark, secure. Medicine Drummer rose and went out the door flap, momentarily bathing me in cool air. I drew in a heavy breath, savoring the warm moist air, but longing to be outside. I’d fasted three days before entering the sweat lodge, and now I’d spent what felt like several long hours inside it. A dream of death that had interrupted my sleep still haunted me--not my death.
A woman’s death.
In my dream, she’d looked like my wife, but not exactly. There were other aspects of the dream that gave it the semblance of a vision. My dreams always came in shades of gray. Visions came to me in vivid over-bright colors. This dream-vision held images of both.
Death surrounded me--and the woman, who at the end of my vision, I shot with an old lever action rifle, stood out as the cause. My wife and I were the leaders of our people; her unborn child represented the fulfillment of prophecy. If Morning Dove or the child died, everything we’d worked for would mean nothing. I needed guidance from the spirits to tell me what the dream meant.
Medicine Drummer returned, carrying a small round rock on a forked stick. He added it to the pile in the center of the lodge and withdrew several cooled rocks to take to the fire outside. From a wooden bowl, he took a thin strip of wet hide and wrung it out over the stones. A fresh batch of moisture-laden vapor rose from the center of the lodge. My apprentice glanced at me then left without a word. He would be back with more rocks, and more water if needed.
Wind rattled the hides stretched over the willow framework above my head. Smoke from the sage twist resting in the abalone shell at my left knee, swarmed around me, mixing with the steam and creating an otherworldly feel. Medicine Drummer came back inside with another stone.
Very little light came in with him from the eastern facing doorway. The day would soon be over. He ducked back out again.
Those of the ruling council would expect me to return to the council lodge and tell them of my vision. Sending Medicine Drummer to tell them that I still sought the spirit’s guidance would provide more time, but I grew impatient with the process.
More steam rose in a hiss. Too much steam. Medicine Drummer hadn’t come back inside, and he wouldn’t use that much water.
“Always in a hurry.”
Once the steam cleared, my grandfather’s face came into view. His favorite blue-checked flannel shirt, his long white braids--one over each shoulder, and his classic “old Indian” wrinkled face, the same as always. The last time I’d seen him had been when I’d been elected Chief of All Time.
He dribbled more water onto the stones, less this time. “Do I look like your grandmother?”
I let out a small laugh. Yes, he was the man I’d known most my life as my grandfather. In reality, he held the position of Napi, creator of all the Blackfoot people knew. If he were actually my relative, it didn’t matter. He’d filled the role of grandfather to me for so long I had a hard time thinking of him as a “god.” But, here he sat across from me, after he’d vanished half a year ago.
“I see you still have no use for the spirit’s gifts to you,” he said. He settled on the woven floor mat and leaned a bit to the left and passed gas.
“Good to see you as well, Grandfather.”
He made a sound--half grunt, half snort, and dribbled more water on the rocks. I didn’t have any idea if the sound meant agreement or simply discomfort from the hard ground.
Medicine Drummer came back in and placed a large gray stone on the pile. He dribbled water over it, watching me closely. He glanced around the sweat lodge, his gaze darting into the darkest edges, before he took a deep quick breath and left.
“Now, that one, he has use for the spirits--use for their gifts.”
“He’s a good student,” I said, avoiding the trap I’d once regularly fallen into of arguing with him every time he insulted me. A person could learn a lot from him, if they kept their mouth shut and listened for the wisdom in the words--if there were any to be found.
“Well, then, maybe they should have made him chief and let you go back to that modern world you love so much.”
It became my turn to suck in a breath. I thought the issues between my grandfather and I had been resolved. It had seemed he’d found respect for me, and I’d found understanding and acceptance of the old ways he preached to me throughout my youth. I shut my eyes and chanted the words to the spirit guide calling chant. His appearance, spouting his old views of me, only served as a reminder--unless I did everything properly--I wouldn’t receive any guidance.
“Awfully hot in here,” he said.
Trying to ignore him, I chanted louder.
“The spirits aren’t deaf,” he told me.
He wasn’t going away. I opened my eyes. “Grandfather, I am honored by your visit. What is it you wish to tell me?”
“Hurry, hurry, hurry.” He adjusted his position again. “Brother sweat lodge may have crouched on the earth to allow us to find what we needed, but I doubt he meant a person had to sit on rocks.”
To illustrate his point, he held up a large jagged rock. He tossed it over his shoulder where it made a sodden sounding thump against the wall behind him. I’d personally searched the ground for any rocks and debris that would make the floor of the lodge uncomfortable. He found another rock and tossed it across the lodge. I jerked to the side, narrowly avoiding the missile.
I didn’t doubt he could call rocks up out of the earth if he wanted to, but I didn’t want to be their target.
Holding a good sized chunk of stone in his hand, he paused mid-aim and stared at me.
“No more rocks. I am listening to you.”
“Phah, I doubt that.” He lowered the rock. When he set it on the ground, the earth opened up and swallowed it. It occurred to me then that the lodge no longer concealed me in total darkness. A small oil stone lamp rested near the pile of heat giving rocks. I glanced toward the doorway, and, when I looked back, fire danced where the rocks had been.
We now sat in a small lodge, with many furs on the floor. Baskets hung from the lodge poles and parafleches lined the northern edge. Where I had to crawl in the sweat lodge, I could have stood to my full height of seven feet in here. I didn’t try it. In a vision state, I would most likely knock my head on the framing of the sweat lodge.
His stomach rumbled.
“Wife,” he called. I expected the woman who had raised my wife--the woman whom my grandfather had married to make her a respectable woman, to appear.
“Wife,” he yelled, louder this time. He shouted for her three more times before he shook his head.
“Where is that woman when a man needs food?” He used a stick to poke at the logs in the fire before he moved off to the side and began to open the parafleches, one by one.
In the first, he found small pebbles. From the second, he withdrew a handful of what looked to be finger bones. From the third, he picked up a live kitten. Its tiny mouth opened and closed in a silent pantomime of meowing.
“Not time for you, yet,” he said and stuffed the kitten back into the hide container. I watched and said nothing. A person could seek a vision to ask for spirit guidance, but once that instruction came, little could be done about the content. Oddities were noted and filed away to decode the puzzle later.
In the next bag, he reached his arm in past his elbow--impossible given that the container was only about six inches deep. He withdrew his hand, and, in it, two black and dried umbilical cords rested. My mother had saved mine in the same form.
“Now, how did those get in there?” They got shoved into the bag with the kitten, and he moved to the next. In this one, he found dried berries. He tasted one and spat it out.
“Now, why would Night Girl save these bitter twin berries--awful. On one bush, they are sweet, and, on the next, so bitter your tongue curls--and they get confused so easily as to which taste they should be.”
He shook his head and moved back to the fire. Standing with his hands on his hips, he looked down at me. “Well, you just going to sit there or you coming with me to find something to eat?”
“I’ll follow you.”
He turned, flipped open the lodge flap, and vanished outside. I took one last look around his lodge before I crawled out of the open doorway.
Outside, I found myself on my hands and knees on hot blacktop. Apparently, what he wanted me to learn came from the modern world I’d left behind when I’d journeyed back in time two thousand years.
“You think you’re going to find lost change any better down there?”
I sat up and brushed my hands down my pants. Faded blue jeans now took the place of my breach clout. Gone were my adult hands as well. The palms I stared at belonged to a much younger me--nine years old, I guessed. When I’d turned ten, I’d gotten a fish hook in my hand that got infected leaving a scar in the heel of my left palm, it wasn’t there. Getting to my feet, I took in my surroundings.
We stood on the newly blacktopped parking lot of the trading post. A neon sign in the window advertised they had Pepsi for sale. Another sign said they made water deliveries on Wednesdays and Fridays, no exceptions. A hand lettered sign said the post was in, and, below it, another sign read, PAWN, in neon blue. The N flicked. I stood in a place of my youth.
The Siksika Nation in southern Alberta Canada, an hour’s drive northwest of Calgary, just off the Trans- Canada highway number one--a place I once loved, then loathed. I didn’t know how I felt about it at the moment.
My grandfather dug in his pocket. He looked at the coins he pulled out and started walking across the blacktop. I hurried to keep up with his long stride.
“Hope old Steve’s got some cold ones, think we have enough to buy two bottles--maybe even share a Hershey bar.” He held out his hand. In it rested several nickels and a few pennies. What did a Hershey bar and a couple of sodas cost in nineteen sixty-eight or sixty-nine?
Inside, in an old upright refrigerator, rows of bottles and cans stood lined up like soldiers. A sign on the door announced new Diet Pepsi--to me, the can looked outdated and odd. My grandfather took out two bottles of Pepsi and made his way to the front counter. I couldn’t recall a time when we bought two of anything; we always shared.
From a rack on the counter, my grandfather grabbed a Hershey bar and set it on the glass. He set both bottles next to it. Beads of sweat already covered the thick glass of the bottles. My stomach rumbled.
The man behind the counter looked down at me. He didn’t smile. I recalled well what old Steve had looked like. Steve had blond hair and skin, that looked to a young me, as if someone had thrown hot sparks at him, leaving behind deep pits.
This man’s hair stood out around his head like bright red flames. The bones of his face stood out, making his blue-green eyes appear sunk into his skull. His lips were a bloodless line bisecting his face. His red beard reached the V of his shirt and blended with the curling chest hair poking out. He spat a stream of tobacco juice towards the floor. It landed near my grandfather’s feet.
“Fifty cents, old man,” he said. “You got that much?” He laughed and spit again.
I stepped forward. My grandfather’s hand against my forehead reminded me of my nine-year old body.
“Steve never made us pay a deposit,” my grandfather said. “We’re going to sit right out on the porch and drink. . . .”
“Fifty cents,” Red-Beard repeated.
“You got another nickel?”
I shook my head, but patted my pockets anyway. Reaching into my left pocket, I came up with a marble, a stone, some lint, and three pennies.
I put the pennies on the counter next to the forty-five cents already there.
“You need to put something back, old man.”
“Looks like we’ll have to share.”
“No, wait.” The little-boy voice that came out of me made me startle. I dug in my other pocket, producing a piece of string, some dirt, and a sparrow feather. Deep in a grimy corner, I found a small round object. Sure I’d found a fifty-cent piece, or at least a quarter, I pulled it out.
A carving of an elk rested in my palm. I closed my hand around it. My father hadn’t given me the disk with the carved elk on it until my twelfth birthday. Why was it in my pocket in this vision?
“How much you got?”
I gazed up at my grandfather. Then looked back down at the carving. A fifty-cent piece rested in my hand. He scooped up the change on the counter and made to take the coin.
I snatched my hand back.
“What are you doing?”
“Fifty-cents,” Red-Beard said.
“Give him the coin.”
“No, Grandfather. He shouldn’t have it.”
“What’s the matter with you?” He grabbed my wrist, pried the coin out of my fingers, and set it on the counter.
“No. Please.” I tried to grab the coin off the counter, but Red-Beard quickly snatched it off the glass.
“Looks real enough to me,” he said.
My grandfather gave me a shove away from the counter. He held both soda bottles in one hand. I didn’t see the Hershey bar. With his other hand on my back, we moved toward the door. I looked back over my shoulder. Red-Beard grinned at me. In his hand, he held the elk carving. He started to laugh.
“Run, Running Deer, run,” he said, and I stumbled.
I quickly sat up and knocked my head on the willow frame of the sweat lodge.
My grandfather burped. The sound of him drinking out of one of the Pepsi bottles floated in the darkness.
“Powerful gift the spirits gave you.” He shook his head, broke off a chunk of the Hershey bar, and chewed. I stayed silent, respecting his turn to speak. He swallowed more Pepsi before he continued.
“Some with this power master it and can do much good--your wife mastered the power. You don’t seem in danger of losing your spirit to the power--no, I don’t see you not able to cope with any of the places you visit.” He ate more candy. I wondered why it hadn’t turned to mush in the heat of the sweat lodge. “Your problem is that bump on the head.”
He produced a bottle opener and pried the top off the second bottle of soda. Loud gulping sounds accompanied the emptying of the bottle. When he’d finished, he swiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
“Grandfather, I didn’t hit my head that hard.” I’d had his, gift-of-walking-time, lesson before. I still hadn’t mastered the ability. If my emotions were strong enough, I simply ended up somewhere. I couldn't control the gift. It controlled me.
I’d had a wolf spirit guide who had once helped me. He’d been killed. Now, since becoming chief, I hadn’t traveled in time at all--I didn’t think I had now, either. Despite my grandfather sitting in front of me, munching on his chocolate bar.
“Master the power given to you, and you won’t have to let ceilings hit you in the head at all.”
“At least I’m only dangerous to myself,” I snapped. The words came out, and I felt instantly sorry for them.
“That fella at the Trading Post, you gave him the carving.”
I glared in the dark at the place my grandfather’s voice came from.
“You made me.”
“Phah, wasn’t you anyway--just your blood.”
“My blood? On the carving?” Silence greeted me from the other side of the fire. “Grandfather?”
“Once, great good and great evil walked the land--like there is now.” My dead father’s voice rang out in the dark. “But then the power to trap evil rested in the hands of a great medicine man. He could fashion any image and see the true power of a man in it.”
The hot stones became flickering firelight. My father stretched his hand out to me. The elk carving rested in his palm. A miniature figure, with the torso of an elk, and the legs of a man, danced in shadow form around the carving. I drew in a sharp breath--razor edges as it tried to fill my lungs. I hadn’t seen the elk-man since I’d defeated it in a battle that almost cost me my life several months before.
“It is in your trust son. Lose it, and lose what the Great One gave his life for. It’s the only thing that can hold the evil.” He closed his hand around the carving, and, when he opened his fingers, the elk-man shadow no longer danced on his palm. My father turned into a gray wolf and dropped the carving from his muzzle into my palm.
Before I could say another word, he vanished into the returned darkness. I clasped the carving; it felt warm, alive, and angry. I crawled out of the sweat lodge more unsettled than when I had gone in.