Guest Essay by Lysa Fisk
Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Against the grain of a bright summer sky, the crow flies. It calls to others, and they call
Against the grain of a bright summer sky, the crow flies. It calls to others, and they call
back, using a sublime language consisting of a single sound uttered with an infinite number of patterns and inflections. From our ground level vantage point in the woods where we hike two- legged and upright among the four-leggeds and slitherers, my brother calls back to the crow. He throws back his head; the muscles of his neck tighten and flex as he opens his mouth and fires the sound at the black bird’s big sky: “CAW!” he answers as he hikes.
Last summer, we could only imagine what lay hidden in the heart of these woods: these fields of grass and wild flowers, this grove of weeping willows and cottonwoods, these inter- dunal ponds algae skinned and teeming with dragonflies, salamanders, snapping turtles, and water moccasins, these pussy willows and cat-tails, these paths snaking through wetland wilderness and tracing stream beds that flood with spring showers and dry in the summer sun, for we’d only witnessed this place from the car windows of our mother’s Ford Granada as we sped past on the newly opened interstate that now connected us to the great new Kmart occupying an enormous concrete parking lot, a brick and mortar scarecrow rising in that vast cornfield south of our new subdivision, or from that safe distance within which we played: where mommy could see and hear us.
We hike single file along the narrow trail into that great beyond, he in the lead. He wears a white tshirt, cut off school pants, and canvas sneakers. His figure contrasts with the infinite varieties of green we wade through. Our mother had told me, “Make sure you keep an eye on your brother,” before she had let us loose in the woods. He is younger than I, so I lead him by allowing him to walk in front of me where I can watch him. We are learning our way around these woods for the first time and being very careful not to get lost. Ahead of me, my brother hesitates and waits bravely at the mouth of a well-traveled trail on the edge of that danger zone: a thicket of elephant grass far from our mother. This summer, the elephant grass dwarfs us.
I come to a stop beside him. He looks at me and grins nervously. He’s missing a front tooth.
“Well?” I ask, “Who wants to go first?”
He turns to look at that intimidating sea of elephant grass threatening to swallow us then turns back to face me. “You,” he answers positively.
I cannot see into this great field of the unknown, beyond our mother’s reach and gaze, but I take a deep breath and move ahead of my brother. I do not show my fear, though I feel certain he senses it as much as I sense, mingled with his own fear, his willingness to follow me, our mutual desire for danger and adventure. I hear the giant blades of grass whisper like sandpaper smoothing a rough wooden surface. As we cut through, the sharp blades leave tiny cuts on our exposed legs and arms. The crow my brother had cried out to continues its flight in a northeastern direction, circles, returns, is joined by others, their coordinated movements punctuated by conversation: “CAW! CAW!” We watch them even as we watch each other. I say to my brother, “I wonder what they’re talking about?”
To me he says, “I don’t know.” To them, he cries, “CAW! CAW!” His inflection has risen in pitch; his volume has expanded in enthusiasm. I draw a deep breath, throw back my head and “CAW!” The crows seem to understand us for their flight tracks our progress through the elephant grass and deeper into a muddy forest of trees.
Our confidence grows each time we explore the woods. We learn the layouts of the trails and how to find our favorite places. We often become separated. We never get lost because we can always CAW! When I am alone in the woods, and I know my brother is out there somewhere looking for me, I perfectly imitate the crows’ CAW! and watch for one to fly overhead and CAW! in response. The crow seems to hear my CAW! which he answers as he flies in the direction of my brother. The answer could either be my brother or a crow bringing my brother’s coordinates. When my brother needs to find me, he sends the same message to me via the flight of the crow. Once perfected, we demonstrate our crude homing system to our skeptical best friend. All three of us always return home together from our adventures, and our mothers never suspect how many times we lose and find each other in the woods.
My brother and I are grown now and have long gone our separate ways. He remains near our parents and eventually buys a home, marries, and has children. He walks a predictable path in life while I wander rugged trails through a wilderness newly opened to women of my generation. I could never have said my brother and I had a final fight that divided us so much as we lost sight of each other through thousands of tiny disagreements. Many times since the days of our childhood adventures I have lost my way in time and space and found myself beyond where even our mother’s love could reach me.
Thus, the paths I wander in life eventually lead me to a place that branches off into Indian country, where a political stand-off between the elected tribal council and the council appointed
by the hereditary chief has forced the Bureau of Indian Affairs to close their casino. The appointed council occupies the Tribal Center, the seat of their government. The elected council remains in exile. Brother fights brother; honor struggles against corruption. There are good guys; there are bad guys. Through the years, I have forgotten many things like how my brother and I used crow language to track each other through the woods. In my own time and in my own language, I hear the stranger who has crossed my path tell me, “I will plant you in Mother Earth.” I am as lost as he is when we find each other. Bravely, he leads me, a White girl, up the hill where he smudges me off and sweats me.
Early in the morning after one such night in the lodge, I wake up from a sound sleep on a Sealy Posturepedic® mattress in his house in the woods, the purifying smoke of sage and sweet grass still in my eyes, the voice of prayers spoken reverently in a dying language still in my ears, the steam and dust from the rocks caught in my teeth, and just a bit lost in last night’s trance. I have never felt so relaxed and peaceful.
In my mind’s eye, I notice a figure on the hill, on the edge of the trees behind the lodge, its back to me. I do not question if this is merely imagination, a dream, or fantasy. I simply watch. The scene is more vivid than a reality of this hill that exists beyond the back windows of the house. Curious, I study this mysterious figure.
He has both human and birdlike characteristics. He has a human face with an avian slope to his shaggy head. He stands upright, his arms resting at his sides. His arms have black feathers like wings and end in fingers like feathers. Is this a man wearing a bird costume? From this distance, I cannot say for sure. In my mind’s eye, I place my right foot on the narrow path to the lodge. As I take that first step to approach him, I sense a sudden SWOOSH as I join him on the hill, and he joins me at the foot of the hill. In this instant he materializes before me and reveals himself to be half man, half crow. His eyes meet my eyes as his thoughts soar through my mind. He perches on my shoulder and takes me under his wing.
We are in two places, all places, at once. As broken as I am, I am whole. Telepathically, this creature must have heard me ask, “Who are you?” for in this moment I am inhabited by a CAW!
I watch the ground become a blur below as we fly over the Nation. The treetops remind me of a well-tended lawn in the suburbs. Their branches and trunks root into the sky. The Iowa River snakes below us, and the wind carries the musical tones of its watery movement past our ears; a sound like coarse blades of elephant grass whispering as they scrape against each other. The swollen river feeds the land and creates a booming economy: a richly varied ecosystem. We set our course by the river’s winding shape slicing through the leafy treetops. However, as the crow flies, we seem to have no real direction.
In fact, the movement may not even be ours. Perhaps it is the earth that moves below us as, anchored in the sky, we watch it shift? With this thought, I feel my mind clear the way the sky clears after a summer shower. As my eyes follow the shifting scenery, the water rushing through the main artery of the river and feeding its capillaries suddenly dries up leaving behind a colorless, cracked valley. The leaves on the trees whither and die. The barren branches bleach to a zombie gray. Nothing moves.
As I continue to watch, it seems as if a floodgate opens and the tracks of the rivers and streams gush thick with blood. The blood rushes in from thousands of tiny cuts, wounds opened in battle, beating hearts torn out by the hands of a shaman and offered to the gods who created us of corn and water. Upstream, a heart of stone, non-moving, absorbs the rushing tides of flowing blood, softens just enough for the pressure of the blood to start it beating once more. It pumps the blood, and the death force in that blood flow powers this dark heart. All that I survey turns a rusty red. A shadow moves over the land.
I see my brother’s head, bowed in a field of elephant grass, listening for the CAW! and searching for the trail that will lead him back to me. Across the field, where she cannot see him but can see me, I see a frightened little girl who has lost her brother. She throws her head back and cries, “CAW!” And the crow carries her message and cries out to her brother, “CAW!” He raises his head, and I hear him, “CAW!” Before they find their way back to each other to make it home before the coming storm, blood consumes them. They step into a pool that swallows them like quicksand. The more violently they fight, the faster it sucks them in until they drown.
And in less than an instant, I am sitting in the lodge, facing Crow. To any outsider who dares to listen, the conversation might sound like a series of CAW!s, one indistinguishable from the others.
He tells me:
“Fear is the external power that dark heart needs to keep beating. It requires bloodshed as it drains Humanity of power. Love is the heart’s own self sustaining Source of energy that guides Humanity from a loftier perspective, and turns the evil heart to stone. Ask that the love in our hearts guide us.”
With this, he vanishes.
I open my eyes. I stare at the lines the morning sun coming through the blinds makes on the ceiling. No matter how lost in the wilderness I ever become, I can always count on the crow to bring me a message from my brother. But it is up to me to heed it.
I get out of bed to call my brother for the first time in years. I catch him at home. He answers, “Hello?”