WARNING: This poem contains intense and controversial content that many readers may find disturbing. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes foreboding, a death in the family, report of heroic sacrifice, extreme grief, men crying, self-injury and consensual other-injury as a culturally valid form of mourning, minor medical details, further worry over other relatives being unreachable, taking keys from someone in no shape to drive, giving up decisions for a while, and other challenges. This poem may be especially rough reading for anyone with complicated grief or self-injury issues. Please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read. However, it launches an important thread, so skipping it would leave a big gap.
"A Sacredness in Tears"
[Saturday, May 28, 2016]
The Iron Horses ride through Montana
on a sunny Saturday at the end of May.
Beside the road, wildflowers speckle
the grass in an unpredictable riot of color.
Arrowleaf balsam root puts up daisylike flowers
of bright yellow, while lupines raise spires
of deep purple and beargrass shows off
tall stems tipped with white pompoms.
In some places, buffalo roam
over the prairie and into the road,
rust-colored calves trailing along
behind the big chocolate cows.
Joseph Elkdog dismounts and
walks his motorcycle through
the ambling herd of buffalo,
its copper finish gleaming
in the bright spring sunlight.
"Excuse me, Uncle," he says.
"Coming through, Auntie."
Most of the buffalo snort
and swish their tails as they
move away from the bikers.
Some of the bulls just stare
at the men, who lower their gaze
and go around the buffalo.
One curious calf snuffles at
Ron's riding leathers before she
wheels and scampers away.
"Have fun, little cousin!"
Ron calls with a cheery wave.
They get back on their bikes
and ride on as the sun crawls
slowly across the big sky.
When they travel the backroads,
sometimes their bikes racket over
the old wooden bridges above rivers.
It's late afternoon when a strange feeling
rolls through Joseph, cold and foreboding.
Without really thinking about it, he
slows down and looks around.
Nothing seems out of place, but
some of the other Iron Horses
are slowing or swerving too.
Joseph bends his arm down
and signals for a stop.
Everyone pulls up beside
him on the edge of the road.
"What's wrong?" Kyle asks,
searching the area for trouble.
"I don't know," Joseph says.
"Something feels wrong, though.
Everyone off, dismount, now."
Ben pushes his kickstand
into place and then rubs
his hands over his arms.
"Are you okay?" Joseph says.
"Not really," Ben says, shaking
his head. "I don't know why,
but my skin is crawling."
"The ground feels ... off,"
Ron says with a frown.
Joseph reaches out
to squeeze Ben's shoulder.
The big man has been restless
for days, troubled by flashes of
vision that make no sense.
All the Iron Horses are alert now,
scanning the horizon or shifting
around to stand back-to-back.
Nothing happens, though,
and nobody can pin down
a reason for their uneasiness.
After a few minutes, the vague feeling
fades away, and they look to Joseph.
"What now?" Kyle asks him.
"Mount up and ride out,"
Joseph says. "Turn right at
the next intersection and pick up
Highway 2. We'll head home and
ask Sounding Shell about this."
Independence is good to a point,
but sooner or later you have to admit
that you have no idea what is going on
and it's time to see a medicine person.
"We're with you," Ron says as he
climbs back on his turquoise motorcycle.
After they make the required turns
and put the sun to their backs,
Joseph feels better, although
the day has lost its easy peace.
It's evening when they reach
Rocky Boy's Reservation.
The sun is going down, and
it's already shady under the trees.
The Iron Horses pull off of
the road at the comfort station
they built some time ago.
The wood-chip parking lot
holds a little outhouse with
two composting toilets, a sink,
and two shower stalls in back.
The campsite consists of
a shallow firepit surrounded
by several log benches.
Kyle builds a fire while
Ben starts the soup.
Everyone else lines up
for a turn at the toilets.
Joseph takes his turn
as fast as he can, then
paces around the parking lot.
They won't stay here for long,
just a quick stop to stretch and
eat and collect themselves before
they go to visit Sounding Shell.
Then Ron's phone rings.
That can't be good, because
most of them turn off their phones
while they're riding, and Ron is
their emergency contact in case
someone really needs to reach them.
Whatever it is must be pretty bad,
because Ron looks stricken for
a moment before he folds away
the emotion to deal with later.
"Come and sit down," Ron says
after he hangs up. One hand
tugs Joseph toward a bench.
Joseph shrugs it off, because
when he's upset, he needs
to move. "Just tell me."
"Remember how your sister
went down to Yellowstone
with some friends?" Ron says.
"Yeah, Haiwee and some kids from
the Sacagawea Community College.
I met a bunch of them when we stopped
there to do that road maintenance workshop
for the motorcycle class," Joseph says. "Shit,
did something happen to one of the kids?"
"No," Ron says softly. "There was some sort
of disturbance at the Shoshone Geyser Basin.
Everything erupted at once. The rest of them ran,
but She Walks in Mist stepped into one of the pools
and disappeared. Within minutes, the eruption
stopped. They waited for her at the edge of
the forest, but she never came out. It's been
hours. I'm sorry, Joseph. She's gone."
His knees buckle so fast that Ben
barely manages to catch Joseph
before he can hit the ground.
Ben lowers him gently down,
supporting Joseph against
the broad wall of his body.
And Joseph comes undone.
His sister is gone: the pain
rips into him like a knife
buried inside his gut.
His sister is gone:
the light of his life
goes dark and shadow
wraps itself around him.
Never again will he see
the slow sway of her dance or
hear the rare joy of her laughter.
Never again will they ride
into the wind with her slim arms
clasped tight around his waist.
Joseph rocks back and forth
as he wails his grief into the night.
The Iron Horses gather around him,
Ben on one side and Ron on the other,
the rest as close as they can get.
They hold him while he cries,
and most of them are crying too,
because she was their friend
as well as Joseph's sister.
The company helps, a little, but
Joseph needs the outward signs
to release the inward grief.
He reaches into the firepit
for ashes to rub in his hair, and
he's not being careful about it.
After the first handful, Kyle
dips a bowl into the edge
of the firepit and passes
the ashes to Joseph.
That helps, too, as
Joseph's hair turns gray
with the ashes, the way
the heart is burnt out of him.
He rocks, and cries, and
it feels like all the water
will run out of his body.
He hurts, he hurts, but
it's clogged somehow.
There's no body for them
to lay to rest, and thus,
no real way for Joseph
to say goodbye to his sister.
Hugging himself, he feels
the knife in his pocket
and pulls it out.
to fumble it open, but
Ron takes it from him.
"Your hands are shaking,"
Ron says gently, closing it.
"I need -- I need --"
Joseph chokes in reply,
and drags his fingernails
all down his forearms.
The grief is swelling
inside him, and he has
to let it out somehow or
it will fester, and he knows
how much damage that can do.
"Is this what you want?" Ron asks,
opening Joseph's knife again.
"Please," Joseph begs,
pushing his bare arms
toward his friend, because
he knows there's no way Ron
is giving that knife back.
Joseph feels cold, but
Ron's hands are warm
as they lay the blade flat
against his forearms and
draw it gently across
until the skin parts.
The cuts are shallow,
barely more than scratches,
but the blood wells up freely.
There are two cuts on each arm,
four lines of freshly flowing scarlet.
The sight of it releases something
in Joseph, bright and red and real.
Now that he can see the pain,
he can finally let it out, feel it
flowing away onto the earth.
Joseph shakes his hands,
letting the blood rain down.
It feels good to cry, and
sometimes the tears fall
into the scratches and
make them sting more.
The first rush of grief is
fading now, washing away
into numbness, although
Joseph can still feel Ben
and Ron holding him close.
"There is a sacredness in tears,"
Ron whispers to him. "They are not
the mark of weakness, but of power."
Ben brings out a first aid kit and
gently rinses the shallow cuts with
herbal antiseptic. The smell of
sage is familiar and soothing,
even though the stuff stings.
The soft gauze winding over
wounded skin makes Joseph
feel better, as if it can reach
the deeper wound to his spirit
that nothing can really heal but
some things can ease a little.
"Here," Ron says, pushing
a warm cup into his hands. "Try
to drink this, at least a little bit."
It's just broth from the soup,
and the cup is barely half full.
They know not to press too much
on him when he's this wrecked.
It helps, though, settling his stomach
with the heat and familiar flavors.
By the time Joseph finishes the cup, he
can sit up and listen to the conversations
among the rest of the Iron Horses.
"Did Haiwee have any idea what
could have caused the caldera
to act up like that?" Kyle says.
"She mentioned a big earthquake
out west," Ron says. "That wasn't
really the part I focused on, though."
Ben promptly shifts Joseph farther
into Ron's lap and takes out his phone.
He dials first one number, then another,
his face crumpling as they ring out.
"I can't get through," Ben says,
staring at his phone. "I can't
reach any of my relatives."
"If they had an earthquake,
then the communication lines
may have gone down or gotten
jammed with extra traffic," Kyle says.
"Miwok reservations are inland,"
Ben says. "We get some earthquakes,
yeah, but not very serious ones."
"What about neighboring reservations?"
Ron says. "If the coast got hit worse,
what would your relatives do?"
"They'd drop everything and
head out to -- oh," Ben says,
catching on. "If they went on
a rescue run, they might not
have left anyone on the phones,
and might have gone into areas
that don't have service right now."
"Exactly," Ron says. "Let's head on
home. We need more support
to figure out what's going on
and what we should do next."
"Agreed," Ben says. "Finish off
the last of the soup, then put out
the fire. I'll start washing up."
Looking toward the motorcycles,
Joseph gropes in his pocket.
"Keys," Ron says gently,
holding out a hand.
Joseph gives him the keys.
"Leave your bike here for now.
Someone can bring it home later,"
Ron says. "You can ride with me."
Joseph is too tired and sore
to protest. Right now, it feels good
to let someone else make the decisions.
"Okay," he says. "Thank you."
He sits there and watches as
other people break camp and
then climb onto their bikes.
Ben helps Joseph
to mount behind Ron.
As the engine purrs to life,
Joseph leans forward and
wraps his arms around Ron,
drawing comfort from the contact.
His fingers rub lightly across
the bandages covering the cuts.
It makes him realize that, if there is
sacredness and power in tears,
there is even more in family.
* * *
The Iron Horses are in Montana when the West Coast earthquake hits, perfectly safe. She Walks in Mist is visiting Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, hiking with tribal friends to see the Shoshone Geyser Basin, which has an earthquake and hydrothermal event of its own.
In the middle of the park, the earthquake is 6.0 with intensity VII, strong shaking with some damage. It lasts about 20 seconds. At the Shoshone Geyser Basin, it's 4.0 with intensity IV, with light shaking. It can be felt for about 10 seconds, although not all the waves are tangible for humans. The caldera goes berserk. All the geysers erupt violently, pools boil over, and fumaroles steamwhistle.
Earthquake near center of park
6.0 – 6.9 about 130 VII – IX strong – damage variable depending on building construction and substrate
VII. Damage negligible in buildings of good design and construction; slight to moderate in well-built ordinary structures; considerable damage in poorly built or badly designed structures; some chimneys broken.
VIII. Damage slight in specially designed structures; considerable damage in ordinary substantial buildings with partial collapse. Damage great in poorly built structures. Fall of chimneys, factory stacks, columns, monuments, walls. Heavy furniture overturned.
IX. Damage considerable in specially designed structures; well-designed frame structures thrown out of plumb. Damage great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings shifted off foundations.
Earthquake at Shoshone Geyser Basin
4.0 – 4.9 about 10,000 IV – V light – felt by many people, minor damage possible
IV. Felt indoors by many, outdoors by few during the day. At night, some awakened. Dishes, windows, doors disturbed; walls make cracking sound. Sensation like heavy truck striking building. Standing motor cars rocked noticeably.
V. Felt by nearly everyone; many awakened. Some dishes, windows broken. Unstable objects overturned. Pendulum clocks may stop.
* * *
"There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love."
– Washington Irving
Here is a road map of Montana.
See some Montana wildflowers in May. The picture shows lupines in purple, arrowleaf balsam root in yellow, and beargrass in white. In Terramagne-America, Roadsides for Wildlife is a national program to plant native species. In some areas, buffalo roam across the roads. They may or may not deign to move aside for traffic. If they don't, you go around them if your vehicle is small enough, or you wait until they decide to move.
In Local-America, only a handful of places have free-ranging wild buffalo. In T-America, many more places do. A significant portion of Native American reservations within the historic range now have a herd, some kept as farm animals but most running free. Bison are listed for Rocky Boy's Reservation but the number is not disclosable. This aids the pursuit of food sovereignty. Restoring buffalo is an important part of prairie restoration.
Some back roads have old wooden bridges.
The comfort station at Rocky Boy's Reservation includes a sink, two composting toilets, and two shower stalls in back, all inside a small wood-chip parking lot. The Iron Horses built it. The campsite beside the comfort station offers a shallow firepit surrounded by log benches.
Saturday, May 28, 2016 -- Jackson, Wyoming (south of Yellowstone Park) -- Sunset 8:54 PM
Saturday, May 28, 2016 -- Great Falls Montana (southwest of Rocky Boy's Reservation) -- Sunset 9:11 PM
San Francisco, California is 1 hour earlier than Evanston, Wyoming (south of Yellowstone Park) and Havre, Montana (near Rocky Boy's Reservation). The earthquake happened at 4 PM in San Francisco, which was 5 PM in Yellowstone.
Motorcycle hand signals include putting a hand down to stop.
Popular dry soup mixes for campers include corn chowder and vegetable. For faster preparation at the campsite, you can presoak the mix by adding a small amount of water to a resealable pouch or travel cup. When you make camp, just dump the presoaked mix into a pot and add the remaining water.
The loss of a sibling is shattering, and it can bring secondary losses such as loss of identity or security. Explore some resources for mourning a sibling and helping a friend through sibling loss. These are written by and for mainstream people. Tribal cultures have their own customs.
Native American death rituals vary widely but show some similarities as well. Take a look at Blackfeet customs for death and mourning. The amount of modernization differs among individuals and tribes, but on average, is less in T-American than it is here.
Self-injury is not well respected in mainstream America, an attitude which has spilled over into many tribal cultures. However, this has been a popular form of mourning in many tribes. People may cut skin, cut hair, or cover themselves in ashes. The Sun Dance is another form of sacrifice that features self-injury, which is one reason why it was banned for many years. For people who have difficulties with self-injury, there is the Hurt Yourself Less Workbook.
Native Americans have used many plants for healing. Here is a guide to Cherokee remedies. The herbal antiseptic includes aloe vera, witch hazel, sage, willow, yarrow, and echinacea.
Herbal Antiseptic Spray
8 ounces of aloe vera
1 ounce of witch hazel infused with calendula flowers
1 ounce of witch hazel infused with sage leaves
1 ounce of witch hazel infused with white willow bark
1 ounce of witch hazel infused with yarrow
4 ounces tincture of Echinacea angustifolia
Grief can cause appetite loss, as stress often shuts down digestion. It is not good to cram food into a digestive system that is not running, but neither is it good to go too long without eating or drinking anything. Here are some general tips for managing loss of appetite. Try to eat small quantities of easy-to-digest foods such as bone broth or vegetable broth.