Wally sighed easily and turned without opening his eyes onto his left shoulder. He drifted off, but a moment later he reopened his eyes. He gazed upon Walkaway, who moved silently as the blue light of dawn toward the caveflap, cupping carefully, close to his chest, some object in his left hand. Perhaps a bowl brimful.
Beside the ash-covered embers of the fire the old man knelt. He plucked one of the pencil-thin, white, stream- and sun-bleached roots from the fire. Wally remembered gathering a number of them from the cutbank, without a clue as to why Walkaway might want them. The mildly crooked root glowed softly on one end. Walkaway straightened and drew three times on the cool end of the driftwood bit. The nether end burst into flame. Satisfied, he turned and proceeded toward the opening.
Wally observed from a crouch of stillness and silence.
The radical old man was a thin, flat slab of bone and wire, sinew and leather. Barely four feet tall, he was crowned by a too-large head — dark brows and dark eyes under a shock of long salt and pepper hair. The tough facial hide, taut over the skull, accented the pronounced prognathism created by oversized white teeth that met without malocclusion. Touching the earth, dark and tough as smoked greasewood, feet proportional to only the head, shuffled without sound over the worn stone. The tops of the feet were dark with sun, and the soles, Wally knew, were rough as abused latigo leather, and probably as thick. The old man moved over the floor, Wally thought, as carefully as though he were sensitive and thoughtful of the sleeping stone.
Walkaway exited and Wally watched. He caught an occasional glimpse of motion outside and knew the Indian stood just beyond the cave mouth. As quietly as he could manage, he rolled the robe off of himself and treading the hard stone without a sound, crossed to the opening where he could spy.
He saw the old man held a pipe, about 16 inches long — the red stone bowl in his left hand and the plain grey stem in his right — with the mouth piece pointed at where the sun would arise. He watched as the pipe was lowered, then with the bowl pivoting gracefully in the palm of the left hand, the stem turned clockwise in a complete circle.
Walkaway drew upon the driftwood a few times, until the end flamed, then he lowered the red ember into the bowl. He puffed until billowing white smoke circled his head, rose, and drifted up the slope. He cupped the smoke and fanned it over his head, committing each act with the greatest grace and reverence. Then he turned his face toward the sky and began to sing.
As hard as Wally listened he could recognize only two words, Wakan Tanka, which he was sure meant God. He recognized no other words, except perhaps something like Wambalee and Tunkashila, sounds that seemed coherent but meant nothing.
So suddenly that Wally jumped, a large bald eagle appeared rising swiftly up the slope, soaring without a wingbeat, lifted on an anomalous thermal that Wally could not feel. Although the sun swelled within a brilliant glow ready to boom forth just at the horizon, direct light of the sun had not yet lit the rock and the shadow of the great wings passed directly over the praying man. He stood a long time, still as the stone itself.
Then the peak above them caught fire and light charged down the mountain. The moment the light made him blink his eyes, Walkaway turned toward him, “Eagle is a spirit bird. They help take our spirits to the Star Road. One day soon I shall ride on the back of such a one. That will be a good day.”
“Aren’t you a bit heavy?” Wally blabbered, feeling unable to speak in sweeping metaphor.
“Now I grow lighter each day. It will not be a long time.”
Wally nodded slowly, politely.
“Yes, you, too, shall someday have such a ride. That will be a good day. Do not be impatient. And do not be afraid. Your heart stays good; you will need not be afraid of such great heights.”
Now Wally thought he understood. “I think I’ll wait a while.”
Walkaway pointed up the slope behind Wally. “See that one?”
Wally looked. Nothing. Then higher. Still nothing. Higher still. Still … Wait! There! A speck. Less than a single period on the great sheet of the sky, a tiny black spot moved, occasionally occluded by the shredded morning clouds.
“That eagle there, he is my friend. He flies very high, that one. He is a good one, that eagle.”
Walkaway started for the cave mouth, then turned to Wally, “I think it will be many seasons before your ride comes for you. You will have to run a while, then walk a long time before your ride comes for you. A good heart can walk a very long time. A good heart can climb the steep mountain. A good heart turns old verrry slow.”
Inside the cave, Walkaway gathered up two wrist-sized pieces of wood and pushed the coals together between them. He hustled about the cave, gathering baskets.
“I know, I know. There is work to be done. Food to get and all that.”
“You will stay here today and dry berries. I will go down the hill and you will guard against the little people.”
“You say … ‘hippies’.”
“Hippies? You know about hippies? And … there aren’t any hippies up here.”
Walkaway grinned a huge grin. “Ha. I know everything you know. You talk in your sleep.
“The mice, they are thieves. They wear little cloaks the color of shadow. Little silent cloaks. They come at night and take what they please. But these others, these hippies, they wear colors. They come in the light of day. Brave and bold, they demand what is theirs. And if you do not give it, they will take it.”
“Chipmunks!” Wally exclaimed, happy to have cracked the code.
“Chipmunks,” the old man agreed. “And there will be six-leggeds and winged ones, too. You must stay at our stone lodge today and for some days more. When the berries are wrinkled and little, we will put them in this.” He handed Wally a large bisqued pot.
Wally watched the berries. He had difficulty staying awake.
The heat of the day broke. Walkaway came up the hill toting a considerable weight of harvest. He gestured for Wally to gather up the berries, most of which had not dried greatly during the day, although the hillside had been rather hot and dry. He set his own load down inside the cave and signaled the young man to follow him back down the path.
Below the talus, on the rather flat top of the foothill, Walkaway placed a rock atop a rock atop a rock beside a heavily traveled wildlife trail. He signaled Wally with a circling motion of his hand to mark the spot in his mind. Then they followed the trail a considerable distance around the hip of the mountain and a short ways up another drainage. Here Walkaway built another stone stack.
“It is cool now. You will not hurt yourself. If you want to be a man, and a warrior, you must run. If you want to run, you must run back to the two stones at the beginning. I will go back another way.” He stood patiently, then, waiting for something.
“Do you want to be a man?”
“I am a man,” Wally announced, like a Cadet with any doubt hidden by bluster.
Walkaway lifted his eyebrows, and said, “There are men and there are men. You have lived long enough to be a man. Do you want to be a man like ..,” and he turned slowly and pointed with his chin back at the railroad.
Wally understood. “I will run.”
Wally started jogging. He went a short ways and stopped. He looked back and Walkaway stood still as a tree trunk. Then he faced the trail and began to run.
He had not noticed the inclination as they had come down this trail. Now his labor informed him of this in hard terms. He pumped, although his legs grew heavier and heavier. Sweat broke out. He thought he had better walk a bit but the warm evening breeze from lower mountainsides chilled him. He had to run for warmth. He set off again.
He had not noticed who, but someone had added miles to the path since he and Walkaway had walked down it. When he reached the piled rocks he stopped and panted, his hands on his knees. He enjoyed relief and satisfaction.
Then he turned his eyes up the slope in the direction of the cave.
Disappointment flooded him. He had the steepest pitch ahead of him before food, before rest. The mountains of the Great Bear Wilderness are very steep. There were no options. He stood a long time. His breathing and his heart leveled. Then he lowered his head and started plodding up the hill.
When he arrived at the rock plane in front of the crevice opening, Walkaway popped into his field of vision.
“How did you…? Wally persisted. “I ran. Then chugged up the hill. How could you?”
‘You’ came with a suitcase full of yer way old, man and yer so skinny and weak and I’m young and I just ran back.
The old man smiled a peculiar smile, like one might smile a I told you so without saying a word. A smile greased over a sober granite mouth. A smile painted on the rock. Wally trembled just a bit. The face beneath that smile had the courage to speak the truth, amen. The paint that spelled the smile blended to perfection the redolent essence of tolerance, gathered through clear-seeing and forgiveness and the recognition our basic unity; the humor of watching human beings, each with divine gifts and a tragic flaw, floundering in an effort to live a life worthwhile – and the gentle need to encourage a child. The faintest hint of loss.
Wally thought, Now that’s a smile.
Then, with the thinnest but unavoidable touch of laughter, Walkaway said, “I rose on a thermal.”
After they had eaten and Wally realized that he suffered no pain from the run, the old man said, “How would you like to rise on a thermal?”
“Well, yeah. That’d be great.”
“I’m sorry to report,” Walkaway said, sad and sorrowful as he looked down at the fire he was stirring with a twig. “Bears cannot fly.”
Wally could not help but feel a bit regretful about this. Although, of course, he absolutely knew it.
Walkaway lifted his eyes and pinned Wally, “However …” The old man leaned to reach for his leather-wrapped pipe, and sitting back up, “there are other ways to fly. I have great respect for that Bear.”
The old man unwrapped his pipe. He replaced the carved bowl on the hollow stem.
“Is that dope?” Wally asked. Nervous about plunging into that Holy Crowd when all his life he’d been more conservative than liberal.
“It is from the Earth. This is a mixture that is given to every man that asks, and for every man it is personal. For me it is some good tobacco, some sage — I would like willow bark but My Teacher did not say that — some burdock seeds, and bear-berry leaves. The power in this mishmah is very subtle, but if you pray with a good heart, you can leave that heavy thing behind you when it is time.
“If you are careful, then the higher powers will come sniffing around. They are a good visit. They listen well, and a wise man listens well.”
The old man went through the ritual, not saying a word. Drew smoke and passed the pipe to Wally.
Wally imitated Walkaway, sharing prayer and pipe. Wally sat in an expectation spiced with a peppering of sharp dread.
“It is already happening,” Walkaway grinned.
Wally shocked. Had he spoken aloud?
“You talk in your sleep,” Walkaway rocked back on one haunch, laughing not so loud.
“Look at me,” Walkaway urged with his chin. Wally did. Things began to occur that drew Wally’s concentration. First, his head felt that it was floating in space. There was a certain twist of objects in the periphery that limned a big tube, at the other end of which Walkaway’s head waited, isolated by focus.
“Let’s talk,” Walkaway stated and his voice suffered no restrain of volume or clarity.
And weighted with finality.
He sat. And sat. His arms crossed on his chest, his back straight, his face turned slightly down and his neck forward from the shoulders. His face one of tested patience.
“…I guess I gotta talk, huh?” Wally ventured to break the silence.
The head at the other end grinned with wide delight.
“What do I say?”
There is an expression one makes when shrugging. The tell. The actual shrug is for the kids.
“Are you like my psychologist? My Jung? I can play my Toni against your Jung? Excuse me, that’s a sexist thought. Ah. Ok, Doc, here it is.
“I was born when just a child…”
Wally studied Walkaway’s face. The most condescending smile-like twitch crossed. But the twinkle in his eyes reported good humor.
“I’m afraid of women.”
At this Walkaway smiled and said, “Oooh, you’re the one!”
Wally couldn’t help but laugh at the tension between a heavy, serious confession and total understanding and commiseration expressed so lightly.
As he laughed heavy things were taken from him.
“Your father?” Walkaway asked quietly.
“My father… He never came home. Navy; far way. And when he came home he’d get shit-faced with his friends. Mom wouldn’t let him in the house.” Anger began to grow in Wally, and the water of the slough began to rise.
“And your mother?”
“She cared for me. For us. Genuinely cared. She worked..,” Wally was realizing just that moment, “hard for us, cooking and cleaning and drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes forever…” The images arose in light; his mother in the kitchen bathing him – he was 10, for crissakes! – in the sink! Then his brother and his two little sisters. “The cigarettes finally killed her. Almost killed me! I hated the stream of smoke from her parked cigarette drifting across my face. But…”
There his mother sat, smoking a cig and sipping coffee. She would answer the phone, then say, “Hold on a minute, I gotta get my coffee.”
He could see her in the dark house, walking from front door to back. Listening. Most often alone. He could see her under the lamp, orchestrating play between him and his siblings. She created scenarios and they were free to play their assigned parts as they chose.
“Why did you not cry?” Walkaway nudged.
Wally knew exactly what he meant; at his mother’s funeral he shed not a tear. He stood there angry and fuming. “She died so young,” he struggled with the words. “She left us. Too soon. She was 46. I thought she was old – I was 26 – but now I see…”
“You didn’t cry.”
“No. I wasn’t so angry with her, but the guys at the funeral parlor, they took the little mattress from under her when they shipped her to her hometown. They stole it. And the hospital killed her with an infection. They left a mop inside her. And she would have rather been buried at the home she built for us …”
“You haven’t cried.”
Wally could feel the wall leaking. “I was in the Army. They said come home, your mother is sick, and I thought that’s my mom. She’s tough as a tick. Stubborn. She won’t die. Then they called back and said she was critical. I left immediately but I got there too late. She was … gone.”
“Maybe you should bury her now.”
“Huh..?” Wally answered thinly, his imagination standing in the little room not far from the casket, watching. Tears began to leak down his face.
He knew what to do. He left Walkaway beside the fire, picked a bear hide and walked back a ways into the cave. He laid down on the hide and imagined himself in the casket with his mother. He could hear her breath in the little trickling rivulet of water. He watched as the coffin lid closed over them. “Mom, I loved you sooo much. O Mom, thank you, thank you, thank you.” He heard the earth being thrown on the lid, then the heavy long-continuing crush of soil and rock as the machinery pushed the dirt in place. He lay there a long time, not noticing the flow of tears or his own breath through his wrenching throat. After an indefinite time, he said, “Mom, I’ve got to go now. I’ll visit.”
He got up, and dragging the hide he returned to the fire.
“Many, many women give birth,” Walkaway said to the fire, but it was for Wally’s ears. “We are bless-sed that many are good mothers. This is why a true man respects women. A man who beats a woman, he is a very sad man, a man who has wrestled with the Spirit and has fallen. That man is afraid. The world has beaten him and what is left for him to beat? A woman. A child. This is a very small man in much pain.”
Wally felt lighter than he had for years. “But a man…”
“You didn’t have a father?”
“Gone. Always gone. I needed a father…”
“To teach you to fight.”
“Yes. I never stood for myself, and I didn’t stand for others. A man would have taught me how to fight. To stand up to the bully. To protect others from the bully. But instead…”
“You learned a gentler way. You used words. A woman’s way.”
Wally hung his head.
Walkaway’s low gentle voice: “You are thinking now of guns. Of killing. The Spirit says you must never kill a man, unless that man tears into your lodge like an animal gone mad. Then no guilt. You, Little Bear, you hear me. If you can live without killing a man, then when you climb the hill of smoke and step pass Sleeping Bear Dreamer, the Spirit will walk with you.
“Maybe you will not be such a good man. Maybe you will ache to walk with the Spirit and will follow the bottle. Maybe you will scheme. Maybe you will take what it not yours. Maybe you will forget this old man, and this cold cave, and this big mountain, and maybe you will have no tears for the forests that are taken. Maybe your heart will grow hard. Maybe you will beat your woman. If you kill no man, when you come to the Gate, the Spirit, maybe just a little bit, will walk with you.
“If you kill a man … I cannot say.” He looked away.
“On the other hand…” Things began to lighten. “If you bumble along like a young bear seeking food, eating a fallen deer, turning over the rocks for tumble bugs, tearing apart Elderberry trees for those dusty berries, you will remember the Spirit. Maybe be OK.
“There are good ways to be. You will make a pipe like this.” And the gnarled old man held up his pipe. “You will pray hard. You will seek to be strong. You will help your people. When you die, then, maybe, the Eagle will come to you and pick you up and you can see the life trap. You can escape the life trap.
“All of this, it will not be anytime soon.”
Irrationally Wally laughed. Relief washed him.
“Maybe,” and the old man leaned close staring intently into Wally’s eyes.
Wally waited as though for the voice of Doom.
“Maybe,” the old man growled, “you will masturbate into catcher’s mitt.”
Wally laughed so hard that his chest ached.
It was relief. Thankfulness. Joy. All those prayers offered up playfully, seriously, ignorantly, hopefully, had been heard. He had been heard. He laughed so hard that the line between crying with all one’s heart and laughter grew soft and slippery as over-watered clay.
He hurt just a bit. He looked down the tunnel and saw that tears had blasted out the sides of Walkaway’s eyes, like the tears of the Holy Helmetless Biker, blowing back into the silver hair.
Wally cried because Walkaway was the most beautiful human being that he had ever seen. His eyes were on the horizontal diameter of a capsule brilliant in its proportions. The eyes were ablaze out there on the flowering end of the stem of love; their depths glinted as hard as the vacuum between the stars. Wally clung to the gentleness. And being listened to.
He longed …
All the garbage in his head gathered toward the opening in his mind and he turned away. The cancer of existential angst staggered but did not fall. He looked at the fire, afraid he had lost a great but terrible thing.
“I think that is enough flying for this night.” The old man stretched. “I am no longer a young man; can sit all night howling. I am going to lie down now.”
He left Wally sitting by the fire. The room, which had moments ago been tiny and active with delight, now retreated to distant dim and cool.
“Good for sleeping,” Walkaway mumbled from his robes.
Wally jumped and laughed, experiencing loss and new hope, forgetting for that moment to ask if his thinking had been overheard. He sat on his blankets chewing it all.
For a long time he could not fall asleep.