8: The Almost-Running

He ran every day. The leaves of the huckleberries turned red and yellow and fell. The leaves of the Kinnickinnic turned bright red with burnt-black edges. Gold caught the tamaracks, then those needles traveled with the wind. Walkaway would gesture at the pile of rocks and walk his fingers on the air. Time to run. Wally rarely groused. Did as he was told, finding more confidence every day. A dash of pride.

“Touch the rock,” Walkaway would say with a thither tip of his head, and Wally would run. At some point every day Walkaway would point with his chin and Wally would go.

The course grew rougher. He was no longer sent from the relatively flat saddle. Now he was sent from the cave. He had to traverse the narrow path. Steep down. Steep up. Some days snow dusted the rocks.

Reaching the first stack it took him few pumps to hit full stride. He felt like an eagle riding on the Wizard Wind; each rock on the path ahead stood out of the stone or dirt and beaten grass like a mountain top above the clouds. He scanned ahead without effort, measuring stride against terrain, selecting mountain top or vale. Learning, he had fallen a few times, now his stride and pace had a bit of the necessary resource to absorb a fall and to recover immediately. His most memorable recovery occurred when a rock slid atop another. He had cartwheeled on the path, setting hand and foot back on the path and continued his run without injury, a fall, or great loss of speed. He marveled at his own act. He successfully tried it again later, but that did not have the same wonder and delight as that first spontaneous dance.

If he dallied, if he coasted, he prepared his own breakfast. If he ran, he found dinner waiting. Each day back at the fireside he worked less hard to catch his breath, paced less to calm the torrent of energy. He stalked quickly around the cave until at last, with a deep and relieving yawn, his blood oxygen was fully recovered.

“We are high in the mountains,” Walkaway would say, making a reason for the young man’s panting. “Breathe deep. Breathe slow. Fill yourself.”

bear-running

Came a time when the running and the breath were one. He found his feet, his legs, his breath, running with an easy will. He found the periphery of his eyes expanding, his mind and his head still. Running became a sustainable state, his effort spent in attaining the state.

During the night, below the cave, on the steep pitch, the temperature had risen above freezing, tagging behind some meteorological anomaly. Wally knew running would be treacherous when the bit of compacted snow grew wet. He rose, ready to run, but Walkaway lifted his hand.

“No. Sit. Be still here.”

Wally sat. “OK, I’m sitting.”

“Your big ass is on the stone, but you are slumped like a rotting log or bouncing. Sit! Fully awake.”

“OK.” Wally straightened.

“Hu-ugh. Better. More of this,” and Walkaway rose and straightened Wally’s back. “This. This. Huh. You are bent sideways.” Walkaway rocked back and wrinkled his face in a parody of disgust. “For this have I waited so long. This is the best I get.

“Close your eyes.”

Wally did so.

“Better. Feel inside you. All is the same, this arm and this arm. OK?”’

Wally closed his eyes and tried to sit straight.

The old man gently pushed him to the right, then left, then this way and that. He rocked the young man backward and forward straightening his back. At last he made a sound of grudging acceptance in his throat. Huuh. “Now listen,” he said. “Your back is straight like moonlight across the still pond. In this ear,” Walkaway lightly touched Wally’s left ear, “goes starlight and out of this ear,” he brushed the right ear, “comes the same light. You sit still, this light touches nothing going through.”

Walkaway laid his fingertip on the very top center of Wally’s head. “From here, down to here,” the old man goosed and Wally jumped, “inside the hollow bone of your back, is hanging a thin doeskin thong. There is a rock on the end of this line. Do not move. Do not let the doeskin line bump inside your bones.

“Now look inside. See where the light and the doeskin string cross…”

“Like a crosshair,” Wally ventured.

“Huh. May be so. Look at that …crosshair… without moving. Anngh… Lift the back of your head like this. Turn your chin down a bit. Good. You are a big Father Bear and there is much power in your neck. Good. Now sit. Now listen. Do not fall asleep.”

“I will tell you a story. Listen in the easy way to my story. Listen in the hard way for the voices that will come from the back of the cave where I have put the little offerings. The mountain spirits will sing up a he-bear. You must listen hard. You must listen hard when you hear the drums begin.

Without warning Walkaway grabbed the slender young man by the shoulders and shook him. “Sit still! Sit still! You are here! You are there! The noise from your head is like many children playing.”

“I was just wondering…” With his utterance Wally felt a shock, as though he had just awaked to himself by walking into a plane of very thin glass. The crash and tinkle filled his inner space with distracting, floating shards of glass. He flung open his eyes.

And in that surprise a leviathan arose. Wally’s metabolism swelled. Wally’s mind/viscera stretched because, for many days at this time of the morning, he had run; he had put a heavy demand on his body.

Wally jumped to his feet. A sheen of cold sweat precipitated in the air around him. He turned to face the blackness of the cave behind himself — ready to fight.

Paranoia. Like coffee-twitches. Speed freak.

“SIT!” Walkaway commanded. “Who is the master here?”

Wally knew, certainly, the old man meant he must ride this wave of energy, but in the cave of his mind an earthquake shook down the hanging baskets, rattled the rock, spilled stone dust from above, and threatened to release something from the darkness behind.

What did he really know about the back of either cave? Sure he had explored the main passage, but there were fissures and hidden passages too difficult to reach without concerted effort, or perhaps even gear. And limestone. Limestone is a thing born of old mountains and water. How could limestone be up here, in the new raw, basement rock of the continental divide? How old is this place? Could some primeval thing, like a spidercrab, have slept all these years? Waiting for this moment to strike?

He prepared to fight. He felt pent and ached to break loose. But he caught the hard glitter of the old man’s eye and stopped.

‘Who is the master here?’ The words turned in Wally’s mind. “Are you a crazy boy?”

Indeed. Why should he obey the derelict and nearly decrepit old man? Didn’t he have a will of his own? Wasn’t he just as smart as this rag and bone old dude? What in hell am I doing up here? Giving myself over to a crazy old Indian? I gotta go.

His eyes darting. His breath rough.

“You don’t sit any better than you swim,” Walkaway commented. “Some say that you see nothing when you are moving. Where is the center of all this upset?”

The center? All over. My arms are jumping. My stomach is shaking. My legs are knotting and unknotting. My heart is going too fast, and pumping only foam. “I don’t know.”

“You are the plains. The energy is the buffalo. Let the buffalo move and let the plains remain. Then seek with your mind the one place in the center.”

“It’s all over my body.”

“Call it into one place.”

Wally closed his eyes. Sought control.

“Be a gentle master,” Walkaway instructed.

After a time Walkaway exclaimed in feigned impatience; “Whoo! Now we must start over. The rock is swinging. This time is harder. A baby bear. I do not want a baby bear! All play and no hunting. I’m not a suckle she-bear. YOU must hunt!”

“I was just wondering…” Wally began again.

Walkaway glared at him as though he were studying something he did not want to touch. “We must make it harder. Your heart is like a child; always noisy. Your head is like a child’s head. We must make it harder.” Then Walkaway stepped out of character, as he so often did, and said explicatively as though to a peer, “Not your head. The sitting.”

Walkaway scratched his head. The scratching changed slowly until Wally gaped the see the leathery old man apparently trying to dig a hole in his own skull by working his scalp this way and that, trying to get his fingernails into small cracks, pushing, pulling, smacking it with the heal of his hands, tossing invisible—or wait! what was that? Did the madman just throw something small toward the back of his head? — tossing invisible debris aside. All the while making faces of effort and frustration.

Wally began to laugh until his eyes ran with tears. The absurd old Indian stopped and stared until his eyes were enormous in stark disbelief, then went back to work. Wally laughed until the laughter owned him.

He laughed nearly to exhaustion. The dusty brown man held something between his thumb and forefinger and smiled with childish satisfaction. It was nothing, of course, just a show, but then, for a split second, too short a time to bring focus to bear, Wally saw a sparkle.

The old man jabbed the make-believe spark hard into the hole where the collar bones meet at the base of Wally’s throat.

In a twinkle Walkaway became sober. “Your back moves whenl your chest fills with air. You must move just enough to counter this. This time you will feel your body rock in time with the dance of your heart. You must rock just enough to counter this. Be still. Be very still. Let your thinking do the Hunter’s Walk.”

“SIT STILL!” Walkaway shouted. Wally jumped then froze.

Walkaway’s voice was very strong for such a small old man. The shout rang the cave and made something back in the depths hum momentarily. Wally’s hair took a few moments coming down.

“You must listen for the drums. The drums are very powerful. It takes a warrior to hear the drums. And the voices come with the drums.”

Wally encountered an apt working metaphor. He had seen bears enough this last month, getting their late season night caps. Finding cover. He knew now why they stood and stared, rocking — all the while rocking from side to side. Proportion. It’s for perspective, like advanced binocular vision.

He attained the state.

It came over him easy, perfect, that first time sitting. It would be days before it came so whole again. Or last so long.

He disappeared. There was no longer an ‘I’ perceiving and objects being perceived. The fire, the tools of wild living, the stores, the small hard light of the old man, all these existed inside his eyes. He surrounded them. He, Wally, was absent. He was these things: this fire. This space. This mountain. He weighed nothing, being one with the air. His detachment and his love melded — at-one-ment. He overheard a young, strong voice that asked, “How old are you, Walkaway?” that rose with his least thought.

A timeless voice answered, “Very very old. I have seen more than … two hundred winters.”

This did not disturb Wally whatsoever. He believed.

The young man asked, “What is place? Possibility? Event? State?”

He knew an answer would come. He perfected patience.

He could see, without turning to look, every rock face, the dirt, the tiny rivulet, the shape of space within the shelter; he could see without looking, the mountain, the ridges joining. This range.

Then he returned slowly, regretfully, to himself.

Walkaway smiled and for the first time Wally thought he saw the remnants of the warm, rosy juices of youth in that face.

Wally felt his own cheekbones expand, lift, until his face felt round as the full moon and his smile so slow and gentle, yet greatly wide, came of its own accord to cross that bright expanse.

“Beginners luck,” Walkaway, laughing, answering the ghost of a question.

~o0o~

What power does Walkaway hold over me? Why do I just sit here? I aught’a be scootin’ down the mountain. Winter, real winter, will be here any day now, and winter really happens up here, climate change or not. The snow is getting deeper. It hangs around 20o above during the day, but by night, every night, colder and colder. Even now the wind is sharpening her tongue and soon her words could cut me to the bone. Draw blood.

All true. Outside brumal clouds rumble silently into being not far north of the slope, sheer over the mountainside, buffet the door-hanging, leap off the lee ridge to join the throng tramping across the looming battlefield of the sky.

Walkaway insisted that as long as they could go downslope to gather wood, they do so.

“This is too damned high for a winter camp,” Wally puffed in clouds of breath. “Why camp so high? Shouldn’t we be down there?” Nodding once again at a sheltered drainage.

Walkaway, who rarely showed impatience, turned his head carefully so he neither spills wood nor hurts his neck, and chided gently, “You wanted to do battle, Yipping Pup.” And a little further he said, “Hardship, a day to day struggle, is how one overcomes a great obstacle. Time and repetition is leverage. You do not want to meet an angry she-bear on a narrow trail. That is the short deciding battle. Too easy to die. Give thanks for a long, hard pull.”

Wally chafed. Why do I have to put up with this? This guy just bosses me around. Puts me down. ‘Yipping Pup.’ I’m acting like a dependent kid. I’d better leave while the weather holds. I don’t need this old man.

Aren’t Native Americans supposed to be all about community? Family, clan, tribe, nation, all that? The People first. So here’s me, stuck with an anti-social redskin.

In the thin daylight, in the sharpening wind, struggling with the bulky load, the teachings appear as only words, mundane, inconsequential.

Even if Wally could gaze at Walkaway’s face objectively he would not see the subtle clues that suggest the old man knows his thoughts as though they were spoken aloud .

Walkaway, and you and I, and all who have looked into the fire, know what will be said next; in a minute, in an hour, or in a week. This saying nearly always comes, sometimes early and sometimes late, in the teaching.

You and I, Walkaway, and the others who have heard the Sun, know that when a young one truly leaves the High place, departs Shangri-La, even to tend to a few things in the world, the return path closes. Where among all the stories does one find the young man drinking a second time from the Spring?

”I’d better go while the weather holds.”

~o0o~

Mornings come later, darker, as the season turns.

Wally rolls out of his sleeping furs to find the fire already popping. He staggers just a little because he is loath to give up the easy world of dreams and he keeps his eyes low-lidded.

Walkaway has unrolled his pipe, and holding the dusty red stone in his left hand, fills the bowl. He says passively, almost as though he were speaking to the pipe, “Soon winter will come. If a young man is going to leave he must not wait another day.”

Wally’s eyes stretch. He has not said a word of his thoughts about going. His heart is mixed: the old man leads him around like a pup, but he loves him, and some wondrous things have occurred; Wally wishes to show off his new confidence, wit, and skills to the people in the valley. He recognizes those thoughts are the thoughts of a childish man.

Walkaway signs, Come sit by an old man.

Wally sits. Together they smoke the pipe.

“I have told you of the White Buffalo Calf Woman and how she gave to my people the Chanupa. Now be patient and let me tell you more.

“In your world there are many beliefs, many ideas. I have seen this. One man says, ‘This is the way’ and another says, ‘No, this is the way.’

“But Holy Men, men who live in both worlds, they know. Many paths make one Red Road. The tepee. Inside are many poles, yet outside there is but one tepee. The pole starts his journey from the bottom, on the ground. All poles from different places. Yet they all go to the same place. At the top all the ways of true believing meet. They make one thing.

“Sometimes, at the top, we look back down and see, Ho!, our way was straight. Sometimes…”

Wally’s mind, moving of its own, imagines himself running, speeding through the tamaracks and lodgepole. There is a ground fog through which the cool low sun shines. Spelled like ghosts in the hanging mists he sees, crossing his vision as barely discernable bands, the shadows of straight trees — all pointing at the sky.

In this daydream vision Wally sees the shadow of an antlered elk moving behind the trees. The elk lifts his head and bugles. The wind catches the whistled call and carries it up the slopes. Wally hears and lifts his head.

Walkaway chuckles, “Huh. Thinks he needs a woman.”

The elk, or… Wally grins a bit sheepishly. “Partly,” he admits. Brenda had been back there, her shadow moving behind the trees. “It’s not just that. I mean, everything that I really understand is down there. In Missoula. In the city. And you, you’re nice and all that, but you’re up here high on these mountains and God only knows why.

“Don’t you ever want to go back? Maybe someone in your family needs you.”

“My family is now up here.” Walkaway draws a vague circle above his head. “For a while I am needed here. Wambli, the eagle, is my brother. The little bear is my son.”

“You see what I mean? You say a lot of things indirectly. I think that I should go back down for a while. When winter comes I …

“I have a feeling that maybe I should be doing something more. I have to find my purpose.”

“Huh.” Walkaway says this word in a long, slow, descending hum. It is an acknowledgment and an examination. “What is waiting for you down there? All I can give you, I give. When I was young it was right to learn from the old ones.”

“I do want to learn about the woods the eagles and how to live here and about being a brother to the animals, and I will keep running and I will practice sitting, but I …” …I am tired of feeling like putty in your hands. I hardly feel like I have any will of my own. I‘m a rube sucked in by a conman.

“Sometimes we fail to see what the Great Spirit has put before us.”

There he goes. That subtle put-down. I ain’t stupid. I am not blind..

Wally gazed at the little pit without seeing. The small crackle and pop of the fire and the subtle trickle and plop of the stream play white-noise mantra in the cave.

“If you go,” the old man spoke slowly, “you will not meet the Mid-winter People. They come only one time.”

He leaned forward and pushed the fire around. “There are lions at the door of the temple. It is not play. It is not in the words.”

Huh,” Wally said, meaning There you go again and I still have questions.

Walkaway drew up. “You must listen, Little Bear. You are free to go. You can go and your life will be the same. If you stay, who can say? The quest is not for everyone. Fear has its purpose.

“If you stay more difficulties will come. You must travel the Long Tunnel. It is long and it is dark. But if you are strong you will emerge in a new place. You will be human.”

“But I am human now.”

“I cannot tell you more. You alone must see.

“Those crosshairs, Little Bear, where will they settle?”

Wally changed positions many times on his mat. “I’m here. Or dreaming. Isn’t this what I asked for? OK, OK, I’ll see it through.”

He fell asleep and a sigh passed over these mountains like a skywide billow of rain.

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