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"Ponies Gathering in the Dark"--An Online Short Story by Endrezze



The house was a forest remembering itself. The pine trees that held up the walls dreamed of stars dwelling in their needles. Jointed, branched, rooted, the trees still listened to the wind. The oak floors gleamed from the generations of human oils, but they still grew into their immense lineage of light and matter. The air between the ancient trees whispered with spirit bees and dark small birds.

Even the iron that pierced the flesh of trees had a voice. It was deep, metallic, and sank heavily in the human dreams. At night, the iron spoke most eloquently, recognizing the kinship of darkness in sky and earth. The nails sang of geodes in the heart and the gathering of elemental forces only vaguely understood. When the iron sang, humans slept, troubled, their hands remembering the first iron. The spear, the knife, the sharp edge of death.

Under the house, the ancient continent measured the journey of clay animals: giant beaver, tiny horses, elk, intricately scaled snakes, vast bears that had clawed the horizon to shreds. There is the memory of ice animals walking into the sun, their bones crushed under the weight of frozen moons. And there is the tribe of obsidian, those sharp-headed old ones, who danced around fire, singing the hunt before iron.

Long ago, the beavers built their lodges here, when the marshes were thick with mud and sweet rushes. In the middle of winter, the oldest would tell about First Beavers, giant creatures that gnawed down trees the size of the night.

The marsh became meadow; wild horses ran into the thunder of their song. They pulled grass with their strong teeth and fertilized the young pines. Their foals stood weak-kneed under the slivers of moon that spiked the trees’ hearts. The horses rode the back of life and their bones crumbled into the afterbirth.

A family of black bears lived in the hollow tree that fell from the sky. A female bear shaman growled healing ceremonies, cleansing the air with broken cedar and chanting the fire back into lightning.

Later, a medicine man walked into the forest of tall trees. He heard the spirit horses drumming their hooves in the earth. All the others of their tribe, those descendants of runaway thunder, would within a short time be rounded up, branded with hot iron, put to the rein, plow, or wagon. Now, he only felt their leaving, south to hills of thick grass, and not their destiny. Only the deep belly breathing of the night horses brought out the clover smell of stars and taught the medicine man where to put his sweat lodge.

He circled a spot that spoke to him with the smooth tones of water and the rootlike dreams of animals. He cleared the brush, pulling up the grass with his strong old hands. He carried rocks which had once been polished by glacier and flood and then buried under gravel and sand. These round, rock ones danced themselves up to the rain again. Their tribe has two hundred thousand million words for themselves. And even though they have been born speckled, crystallized, pitted, brittle, they know they are still part of Grandmother Earth’s medicine bag.

He carried these rocks to the fire pit. He cut down saplings and bent them down to the earth again, building a hut dark as the womb. The branches rooted into the spiritual earth. He made a fire and the rocks told the story of their molten beginnings and the wood danced away into the feathered wind. The rocks blackened and cracked, hissed and cooled, as he tossed barkfuls of water on them. Steam rose, hot and thick.

The medicine man was old. It was his last sweat. His arms were well-muscled, but his skin draped over his bones. That afternoon, he sweated where horses once snorted at coming storms.  He heard the slap of beaver tails. He felt an icy wind and saw a wavering image of a face. It was an old woman wrapped in long-furred hides. She wore a necklace of a single mammoth tooth. She smiled at him and then was gone. In the dark, what he saw was inside of him but came from beyond. He felt the bears snuffling muzzles. He nursed at one fingerlike breast.

Hours later, he crawled out of the sweat lodge. The night was clear. He sensed some kind of structure all around him. The stars shone through a roof high as the trees. It was a house, he figured out, but whether it was a metaphor for the universe or something from the future, he didn’t know. The house was filled with busy humans. The people breathed their moisture into the trees. They offered up their breaths and the branches leafed out into air. People had been born in the house, their umbilical cords stretched from the salty waters to the nodding trees with their embracing branches. Cradled in wood, they slept with wood at the top of their heads where the soul enters, to the bottom of their feet, which is also called sole, but meant for grounding. The forest rose pine-scented and the people slept until they opened the thick-planked door of their death.

But what astonished him most of all was that he knew they were his children. Their skins were pink, white, brown, golden. Their eyes were the color of rocks: jade, obsidian, slate, amber. Or else the color of trees: green, yellow, brown. Some even had eyes the color of sky, water, or thunder. And their hair was the color of iron, bear, fire.

He saw them playing, laughing, arguing. He watched them dreaming, the soft dust of meteors sifting down through the roof to cover their faces with cool fire, their calm hands luminous, reaching out.

 

He awoke with a start. He saw the last of his vision dissolve into the cold morning air. But it had been a twisted and spotted arm that had reached out from his dreams. It was an arm from reality. His people were dying. That was why he was here, to find a way into the heart of a plant, to dream a cure.

He got up, clearing his throat. It felt dry. He took a deep breath to cleanse his body. The air around him felt hot. He ran the edge of his hand across his forehead.

His people had always been healthy. Only one plant had been necessary per patient. Now, the sicknesses didn’t respond to his medicine. He tried many plants, gathered them, dried them, pounded, seeped, and boiled them. Nothing worked. He needed a new medicine, one strong enough to stop death.

He pulled out his medicine bundle from his pack. He unrolled it, the leather supple. Packets of herbs were bound neatly. In a small bag, he fingered the splinter of wood touched by lightning. He used it for lancing. His fingers were long; the pads on the fingers were sensitive to the variables of health and sickness in the human body. In his mind’s eye, touching a healthy body was like running his fingers across a pond of water so clear you couldn’t tell which was air and which was water.

He set aside a bundle of dried salmonberry bark. It was good for the stomach when you ate too much salmon. There were also bundles of dried leaves, stems, and roots of the stinging nettle. He used this for headaches, pain of childbirth, and the ache in the joints of old people. Finally, he found the two packets he’d been looking for: dried strawberry leaves for a tea and twigs from willow to cool a fever.

He made himself tea. He would eat nothing. He would fast and sweat until he was given the new plant for healing. He sipped the tea slowly. He could feel power in this place, but he was beginning to be aware of a strange uneasiness.

He thought of his grandsons. They’d been angry, on edge. His granddaughters had set their jaws firmly, eyes hard and brittle. Their dreams were of fire and strange spotted humans. The medicine man pondered. When had the camp changed? Two moons ago? No, it was when the Ute trader came from the south.

The medicine man had held the wobbling head of an infant as she died. He had smoothed the white hair of an old man who had terrible sores on his body. The man was a cousin. The two had raced together across the meadows when they were young, tiptoed silently beneath the nesting herons, stood watch at the edge of camp. Now, his old friend was dead, along with fourteen others.

He got up and prepared for another sweat.

 

Inside the lodge, the air was thick. He brewed the willow twigs in the water he’d used to make the steam. He felt the long fronds of willow trees growing down into the darkness, their leaves glowing like bright spears or flashing fish. He felt the heat taking away his flesh, so that his bones became twigs. He was a willow tree bent over rocks and water.

He waited for a vision. He hoped for a plant to save his people. He threw more water on the rocks. The steam rolled off in crushing waves of liquid heat. He felt his chest tighten.

He was the last hope. His knowledge of plants that helped the body was immense, but he needed a deeper vision. He waited, praying.

He didn’t feel the ponies gathering in the dark, their hooves heavy and powerful. He didn’t see the bears disappearing into their own shadows. He didn’t see an old woman beckoning to him.

His hand clutched at his chest. He fell over, head striking the stones, the darkness taking him into itself.

Three nights later, a big storm came up from the west. It blew down the old tree over the silent, cold sweat lodge. The tree fell down on the bones of an old man, bones that became tiny spirit horses, and bones that bears used for dream medicines in their long winter sleep. And bones that flowered from plants gathered by the hands of spirits pure as tears.

from Ploughshares (Spring 1994) Copyright Anita Endrezze. Online Source


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