Spirit walk

by Wren

NOTE: This is part of an unfinished story I’m writing about a Native American veterinarian who has a very special talent. It’s a first draft, written quickly as the ideas came.

My friend Ellie says I should write this so I guess I will.

I was born in Lame Deer, Montana on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation on October 25, 1969. My father, Terrell Gray Wolf, was 17. My mother, Rosa Spotted Owl, was 15. They were just dumb kids and they never got married. Terrell died when I was five months old. He got beat up behind a bar by a bunch of drunken Anglos in Ashland. He probably deserved it, he was always getting too drunk and picking fights. He had a bad temper. That’s what my uncle Henry Spotted Owl says. When I was three Rosa got tired of living so she drank some Drano. There were no more women in the family to take me so Spotted Owl and his woman Jewel Limpy took me.

I don’t remember these things. Spotted Owl told them to me. He says my father was big like I am now and my mother, his youngest sister, was very pretty. He says if she hadn’t started drinking maybe she would be alive now, but almost everyone drinks too much in Lame Deer. Spotted Owl thinks alcohol is the Anglo way of killing off all the Indians the slow way. Sometimes I think he’s right.

He says he drank too when he was young but he stopped when he was 15. He went on a spirit walk then because old Jim Running Horse told him he should do it before the alcohol took his spirit away. Spotted Owl says while he was on his spirit walk Old Grandmother walked with him a while. She told him he would be a good medicine man. He thought this was crazy because she looked like a mouse and she was very funny, but he never knew mice could talk before, so he decided maybe she was right. He took her advice and it worked. He is a good medicine man. He has helped many of the People and even some Anglos.

I was in trouble a lot as I was growing up. Jewel Limpy got sick from diabetes when I was 10 and went away. I think she had a sister in Oklahoma so she went there. I missed her because she was nice to me. Spotted Owl missed her too but he never said much about it.

I had a bad temper like my father and I drank too much with my friends. I also liked to smoke weed, which was better than drinking because it didn’t make me angry. But weed cost too much and it was harder to get, so mostly I drank. I did OK in school but I had trouble with reading so I just listened hard but the teachers didn’t say all the things I needed to know.

When I was sixteen I got into a big fight at a party with some Anglo kids in Ashland. We were all drunk but the cops only arrested me. I stayed in jail for ten days because a girl said I tried to rape her and I beat up some of the boys. They beat me up, too, but that was different. It was true I wanted to sleep with the girl, but not that I tried to rape her. The Anglo cops didn’t believe me, though.

After a while the girl’s spirit felt bad so she admitted that she had lied about me trying to rape her. That was brave because she was in a lot of trouble with her parents. I was very glad she decided to tell the truth. I never saw her again. Her family went to live somewhere else. I hadn’t done anything wrong but get drunk and get into a fight. Lots of people did that, so the police let me go home.

Spotted Owl was mad at me for being stupid like my father and getting drunk and fighting and trying to fuck girls. He told me I was dishonoring my ancestors. I knew he was right but I was mad at him for saying it. He said I should take my spirit walk but he thought I wasn’t strong or brave enough. That made me even madder so I did it. I wanted to prove that I was a man and not as weak as he thought I was.

I lost track of how long I walked but Spotted Owl told me later it was 12 days. At first I thought it was stupid to walk all over the prairie. I thought Spotted Owl was stupid, too. I was going to trick him and go to the highway and hitch a ride to Ashland and shack up there for a while.

But I got lost. I couldn’t find the highway or find my way back to Lame Deer. I got real hungry, too, but then that stopped and it didn’t matter if I was lost. After I walked a while I thought I would sit down under some trees and look inside the medicine bundle Spotted Owl gave me. I was curious..

I found two little stones, a black one and white one. There was a wolf tooth. This made me happy because I was named for the wolf. There was also a handful of cracked corn and a little, blackish, dry, wrinkled disk. It was about as big as my thumbnail.

I knew what it was, even though I’d never seen it with my own eyes before. It was peyote. I remembered what Spotted Owl said. When I found the right place I should stop and wait there. So I stayed. I softened the corn in my mouth until I could chew it, and then I chewed the peyote button. It tasted terrible, but I knew it was right that it did. I just kept it in my mouth and chewed until I could swallow it.

It made my stomach feel sick for a while, but then that stopped. I drank a little water to take the bad taste out of my mouth and then I just waited. I got bored. I wondered if all those braves in the old days who took spirit walks got bored too, or if they had adventures. I thought they probably had adventures, but I wouldn’t because I wasn’t a real brave.

I was a little mad because I knew peyote was supposed to give you visions. I didn’t know what those were like, but I wasn’t getting any. It was a gyp.

The tree I was sitting under was nice. The shade felt blue. I slept a little because my legs got too heavy to walk more.

When I woke up the moon was in the sky. I drank a little more water, and then Rosa came and talked to me for a while. She was real pretty. I didn’t recognize her, but I knew it was her because she didn’t have a throat or a belly. I could see the prairie and the stars through the holes where they’d been. It didn’t bother her any.

Rosa sat with me for a while. She told me I had an animal spirit. She knew this because since she was a spirit, she could see mine, and she told me I should think about that. I didn’t understand what she meant but I told her I would. That made her smile at me. We talked a little more about my animal spirit but mostly I didn’t understand. It was crazy talk to me because I was still thinking too much like an Anglo.

When we stopped talking about that she made me get up and follow her, so I did. She showed me where there were some camas plants and told me I could eat the bulbs if I could dig them up. So I found a sharp stick and dug them. I couldn’t cook them but that didn’t matter. They didn’t taste very good. Rosa said my belly would like them anyway. She was right.

After I ate some camas I asked her if she ever saw my father. She said no, but there was no hurry. I wanted to ask her why she’d drunk that Drano and left me, and if she was ever sorry she did that or if she missed me, but I couldn’t make those words. I knew then the answers didn’t matter. So I asked her how she knew about the camas. She giggled a little and said all the People knew about camas. I didn’t, until she showed me, but I was just a dumb teen-ager.

A while after that Rosa walked away into the tall grass. There were stars over her head. I was sad when she left but I knew she didn’t need to say good-bye to me. She could see me whenever she wanted to. That made me feel better.

I stood up and walked a while but then I got dizzy so I stopped and just sat down. It was a good camas place. There was lots of tall grass. I thought maybe I would die and be like Rosa, except I wouldn’t have holes in me, so I waited. I wondered if I would be a human spirit or an animal spirit. I hoped I would be a wolf, like my name. I wasn’t afraid though.

To give myself something to do I looked at the two stones Spotted Owl gave me. They were smooth and round. I thought they might be river stones from the Tongue. I put one in each hand and looked at them. After a while I could see that the white stone was me now, with my spirit strong and well. The black stone was me when I was angry or drunk. Both stones were beautiful, but the black one was heavy and dragged my hand down. The white one had no weight. It was like the stars.

I thought maybe it was better to be like the white stone, if I could. I felt dumb thinking I could be like a stone, but then I remembered that even though the stones were small and didn’t do anything, they were as old as the world. A long time ago they were mountains. They were very patient and never got angry.

Sometime after that Coyote came. He sat down pretty close to me but he didn’t talk. He just looked at me and I looked at him. Once in a while he scratched his fleas. He went away for a while, but he came back. He had something in his mouth. He dropped it in front of me and walked back into the grass. I didn’t see Coyote again after that.

It was a ferret he dropped. He was generous to give me this good ferret he caught so I could eat it. But I couldn’t eat the ferret. I didn’t have a knife to skin it or a way to make a fire to cook it. And it wasn’t dead. I was sorry for it, though. It was a nice ferret. It didn’t deserve to be caught by Coyote just so its death could be wasted on a stupid man who couldn’t even eat it.

I had a little water left so I put some in my palm for her. The ferret was very brave. She drank the water and asked if she could have some more. She was very polite. I gave her more. She said the places Coyote bit her hurt. So I used a little more of my water to clean them, and then I tore the blanket and wrapped her up in it. She went to sleep. I thought she would probably die.

She didn’t die though. After a while she woke up and told me her name was Ha’hahn’e. Coyote had eaten her four babies, but she understood he had to. It was the way of things. She had never been a mother before, so she was still learning the right way to hide them.

Ha’hahn’e asked me if I would make her hurts stop.

I told her I didn’t think I could, but I would try. She said that was OK. But when I touched her fur, I could feel the places where she hurt. I could see brown fuzz in those places. It was ugly, and bad. It scared me a little.

But I told her I would try, so I did. I found out I could make the fuzz stick to my fingers. It didn’t hurt me. So I started taking it out of her. It wanted to stick to me but I knew I shouldn’t let it do that. I shook my fingers and it floated away.

Ha’hahn’e was very quiet and only bared her teeth and snapped three times. She apologized, though. I told her I was sorry if I hurt her, but this was my first time being a healer. She told me she understood.

It took me a while to find all the brown fuzz. Some of it was very deep inside her. But I didn’t have anything else to do. I was too dizzy to walk anymore. I was afraid the wind would  blow me away, but if I sat on the ground like a stone it couldn’t. So after a while the brown fuzz was all gone. Ha’hahn’e said she felt better. I was glad for her, but I was very tired then so I went to sleep.

When I woke up the moon had moved some. I thought Ha’hahn’e might be gone, but she wasn’t. She told me if I didn’t mind, she would stay with me. I said OK, she could stay. I liked her. She was my first animal friend.

I stayed at that place for a while, watching the sun rise and set a few times. I thought a lot about what Rosa told me. I had always liked animals. I guess that was because I had an animal spirit but I didn’t know before. Now I could see the brown fuzz and take it away so they could be well. So I thought maybe this was what I was meant to learn on my spirit walk. I should be a medicine man for animals.

Also I learned I should not be like Rosa and make myself die. Life is very hard sometimes but it’s better than walking alone in the dark. Rosa told me she didn’t mind being a spirit, but sometimes she missed hugging people. I thought maybe I would miss that, too. It would be better to live until I was old. To be like the white stone, like the stars.

I thought I should walk back to Lame Deer. I didn’t know the way but I started walking even though I was dizzy and it was hard. My legs didn’t want to walk anymore. Ha’hahn’e rode on my shoulder. Sometimes she ran ahead of me and teased me. She made me laugh because she didn’t only run, she leapt and bounded and did funny somersaults.

When the sun rose I saw the town. I was surprised because I had been looking for it but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Now here it was, like always. I walked down the street and the people all looked at me and Ha’hahn’e. Some smiled and some only stared but no one stopped me or talked to me. Later I found out some of them thought I was drunk, because I was walking funny and I was only wearing that funny loincloth. When I got to Spotted Owl’s house he was waiting for me on the porch. He said he had water and food for me.

I never told him about my mother Rosa or about Coyote. Spotted Owl didn’t mind if Ha’hahn’e stayed with us, but he asked me to tell her she should go outside like we did if she had to make water or pellets. I told her and she did that. She was a very cooperative ferret.

When school started I worked harder than I ever had before that. I had two more years to go and I wanted my grades to look good to the Anglos. I knew if I wanted to be an animal doctor I had to do that. So I had to stay after school for help most days.

I stopped drinking. It was the hardest thing, because it was in my mind, like a blackness. My old friends got mad at me because I wouldn’t party with them. I wanted to, because it would be easier and more fun than doing homework, but I was afraid my animal spirit would leave me.

***

Daniel sat back and read the words glowing on the laptop’s screen. He was sitting at the kitchen table. Outside, rain pelted down unseen in the dark.

He was surprised how much he’d written. When he’d told Jessica he would try this, he thought it would be hard. He was no writer. Unless it had a direct connection to his veterinary work, he hadn’t done any writing since college – and that had been atrocious. He’d had to take bonehead English three times before he got through it, a humiliating, frustrating time.

So he didn’t think this writing was very good – it didn’t look like the writing real writers did, with lots of big words and detailed descriptions. But he could hear his true voice in it. He thought that was good.

It had taken him six years to get his degree in Veterinary Medicine from Montana State University at Billings. Six years of living on another planet among the 80 percent Anglo, 9 percent black, 7 percent Asian and 4 percent Native American student body. There had been no other Indians in the veterinary college the entire time he’d been there. His roommates, an endless parade of them, had all been white. Some had been wary of him, some fascinated, but none of them had become close friends. He wouldn’t party and drink with them, either. He’d worked four hours after classes each day and on Sundays at the local veterinary clinics. When he wasn’t working, he was studying. Because it was still hard for him to read – he was very slow – he had to work hard at it in order to keep his grades up.

Ha’hahn’e had stayed with him until he left for college, and then she’d said good bye because she couldn’t live in the city with him. He’d understood, but losing her had been very hard. She’d been a good and faithful friend, that ferret.

He spent two months every summer in classes. But each August he went back to Lame Deer to stay with Spotted Owl and remember where he came from.

That had been surreal. He’d quickly gotten used to indoor plumbing and air conditioning, and to the convenience of the Anglo world. It always took him a week to re-acclimatize to the baking heat of the reservation and to the equally baking heat inside Spotted Owl’s little house — and that was even after spending the first 24 hours home in the sweat lodge. He’d sweat the built-up impurities of the city out of his body, and with Spotted Owl guiding him, preparing his mind and body for the peyote trance.

Even now, years later, he could remember each peyote journey clearly, just as clearly as he remembered his spirit walk, Rosa, and Coyote. But each journey was different and took him to different places, and he’d always come back having learned something new about himself and the world. Peyote, Spotted Owl had taught him, wasn’t for fun or recreation. Peyote opened the mind to understanding.

After his first year away at college, Daniel found he was a stranger on the reservation. Each time he returned, he’d have to relearn how to talk Cheyenne and how to talk Indian, which wasn’t anything like talking Anglo, or people wouldn’t talk to him. Most of his childhood friends were still there, but now, as adults, many of them spent most of their time in the bars clustered just outside the reservation gates. Each summer he learned a few more had died in accidents or from illness – often alcohol-related. Diabetes was a scourge. Some had gotten jobs with the BIA on the reservation or other kinds of jobs in Ashland, but they didn’t make much money. Poverty still held sway. Some had left the reservation forever, never to be seen again. He was always glad to go back each August, but he was also glad when it was time to leave, even though he missed Spotted Owl.

After he graduated, he’d worked for five years at Missoula’s biggest animal hospital, a huge tile and glass monstrosity that was more about buttering up well-heeled pet-lovers than animals. Still, he’d learned a lot and, during his time there, gained a reputation for extraordinary skill. At the same time, he’d continued taking classes at the university and in other states, specializing in wild and exotic animal medicine and rehabilitation.

He’d disliked working for the shiny, ferny animal hospital with its corporate owners, but he loved the animals themselves and the salary had been, to him, astronomical. And each month, he’d sent a portion of his pay to Spotted Owl, knowing the old man would give most of it away. It didn’t worry him. Daniel was used to living frugally – he’d had to, as a grant and scholarship student – so he kept living that way and squirreled the rest of the money away. He didn’t want to stay in Billings forever. He wanted to go somewhere he could be himself. It wasn’t Lame Deer anymore – he knew that. But it wasn’t the big, concrete, steel-and-glass city full of cowboy wannabes, either.

There were a lot of girlfriends along the way – Daniel was 6-foot-3, weighed 225 pounds and had a handsome face and a fit, muscular body — but only one of them had been Indian. Her name was June Tsosie, a half-Navajo, half-Anglo lawyer working for a big Billings firm. They’d been together for a year, but June had no interest in leaving the city or “going native” with him, even if she loved jumping his bones and his quiet ways. For his part, Daniel had little interest in attending cocktail parties, art show openings, “doing lunch” or city life. He spent most of his weekends either volunteering with the local wildlife rescue organization or doing spay and neuter clinics. And, if the weather allowed it, he went backpacking into the Bitterroots or out on the prairie, as far from civilization as he could get in a few hours by car.

June Tsosie loved animals and having him in her bed at night, but she disliked camping – or anything that involved dirt, bugs or a lack of a handy spa tub. He understood. Her work, which she loved, required her to be immaculately dressed and put together, every single day. You got dirty when you went camping.

And he’d made her nervous. Deeply spiritual, he’d become, on Spotted Owl’s recommendation, a member of the Native American Church, which gave him the right to legally buy small amounts of peyote for “ceremonial and religious” purposes. His occasional use of the substance dismayed June Tsosie, who’d been thoroughly indoctrinated in Anglo culture and its Christian taboos against drug use. Her father, a devout Catholic, had left the Diné reservation in New Mexico with his Anglo wife before June was born and the two had moved to Montana. She’d lived her whole life in Billings and Missoula. June didn’t understand Daniel’s spirituality – she called it “immature” — and thought he was selling himself short, clinging so stubbornly to his “aboriginal, indigenous roots.”

In the end, they’d broken up. They’d remained friends but acknowledged they lived in different worlds and had vastly different dreams.

One of his Anglo college friends, an economics major by the name of Bill Sutton, had encouraged him to put his savings into investments so they would grow faster for him. He’d done it, afraid of losing it all, but Sutton had been a trustworthy advisor – and the stock market had been healthy. After five years with the animal hospital, he’d been ready to take off on his own.

And he’d found Tamarack. With Bill’s financial advice and June’s legal assistance – both of which he’d insisted on paying for — he’d bought his lakefront cabin and the 10-acre parcel it sat on, and rented a storefront in town. He’d bought used equipment and fixtures and opened Gray Wolf Animal Clinic. He’d been busy ever since.

Daniel saved the document and switched off the computer.

NOTE: This story is protected by copyright.

3 responses to “Spirit walk

  1. Hi enjoyed the story a lot. I would like to know more! Especially about his animal spirit and how it helps him be a vet. Does he communicate with all animals? Hope you write more. I read lots since having RA it helps with the pain to disappear via the pages into another world. Lx

  2. Hey Wren – reckon you have a bit of the healer in you too. Started reading this with ‘toothache in my shoulder’ and by the time I’d finished it had gone. :-)

  3. really wonderful

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