An Adrian C. Louis Essay
Adrian C. Louis
Earth Bone Connected to the Spirit Bone
An Essay from the Spring 1996 Issue of Ploughshares
Where is the Life we lost in living?
--T. S. Eliot
When America died, I was passed out and I never noticed. Was it a meteor
or an invisible wand that waved past
our eyes and blinded everyone? I awoke one morning and electrical maggots were spurting from the mind-control
machine in our disheveled living room. We are off the Rez in Rushville, Nebraska, eighteen miles from Pine Ridge.
Under the carcinogenic mist of the cropdusters, this lame-brained bordertown staggers and smiles. There is only
one restaurant--at the bowling alley--and it has skanky, subhuman food. The high school team is nicknamed "The
Longhorns." The steaks and hamburger in the largest grocery store in town are Third World. This is the heart of
cattle country. A ripened, diseased American heart.
From eighteen miles south, I watch the Rez gangbangers come to
town--pallid, goofy reflections of the gang scum
they've seen on TV. Sedated by sweating daylight, they rise to moonlight's murderous soul. Broken, the sacred
circle is. Broken, the sacred circle is light years from mending. We all play Indian roulette. Red fluid of life. Black
fluid of death. My wheel spins into middle-aged sameness. Still, there is something I want to say about love. It is
the cruelest drug and I have used and abused it. And now I am spinning, afraid to die alone or together. And we
are all the same, even our leaders, the tribal politicians. Our chiefs are big, brown ants in panties. Flint-skinned
mutants of the sacred song. Insects. Hear me. Where is my HUD house? Where are our warriors? Where are the
ancestor spirits who should be guiding us? Where is the love?
O Reservation. Home, home, hell. Eighteen miles north resides our howl and
hovel where everything changes
except the rusty bars across the moon. Listen, listen to the rabid coyote in the frozen Badlands. It is singing a love
song to us. A wild-ass cowboy and Indian tune. We can still hear it at this Nebraska Street Dance.
Yeeeeeee-hawwwww! Cowpokes all over the butt-fucking place. Huge, hairy galoots, veritable Blutos under
straw Stetsons. On horses by day, on heifers tonight.
* * *
And glimmering in the eastern mist is Oz--no, I mean Lincoln, Nebraska.
Beyond green cornfields that white city
gleams. Midwestern Cambridge. Home of Cliffs Notes. City of lame, homespun poets and other plains jokers.
The catapult where state income taxes launch Huskers to Orange Bowls. Great American city with a parched
cornfield soul: O rasping, generic America. Home of the hospital we visit and leave with pills to flower false hope.
* * *
You are upstairs on your Prozac and Haldol. I'm forty-eight years old and
groggy from napping after
self-flagellation. The two Bible thumpers at the front door graze on my nakedness. God help me if you can, I
mumble at them. I am scaling the black glass canyons of hell and doing tolerably well, almost enjoying myself as
they titter and quickly turn whiter than white.
* * *
God bless our Indian democracy. The red sun rises. Since the diagnosis,
neither of us work. The bathtub is
yellow. The bills are white. They mount and mount as do my collection of books. Writers I don't know send me
their books from every corner of this mad nation. I am too busy caring for you to read. Our fieldstone basement is
crumbling under the weight of their books. I wish they would send money, not books.
* * *
You have taken to wandering. Vanished for the third time this month. You
are out there someplace shimmering in
your own haze of dead memory. It does no good to call the cops. I've learned my lesson. Twice they've brought
you back from the video store. I sit and wait for your return, trying the mindless anesthetic of MTV. I watch the
music in black and white. In Seattle, young grunge nihilists are experiencing impotence before their time. In L.A.,
young black rappers sing grunts of the vengeful cock--a self-demonizing sort of urban Mandingo lingo that
reservation kids are now mouthing, too. Rap scares me. How is it possible to age with grace? Where is the
desperado I was? Where are you now, my love? And how is it still possible for me to hate? Worn by the daily
agitation of your slow-motion, terminal disease, I retain my anger. I turn off the tube and I think of one enemy in
particular. The bastard is thirteen years older than me and I will not be speaking ill of the dead when I piss on his
grave. I will be merely dousing the white devils which possessed him. Their names were greed, success, material
goods, and Jesus H. Christ.
* * *
Still waiting, I call my friend Simon to see if he's seen her. He asks to
borrow money. He needs medicine to get
well, but no, no money, Cousin. You already owe me. No, I ain't giving you no twelve-step quick-step. Only the
bottom, hard, harsh, and swift. Then you get up or don't, either one better than now. Oh, how you love living
death. Oh, how you live loving death. Simon said he fell down and broke his crown and awoke at the VA hospital
in a room filled with decrepit old men in wheelchairs. "I was one of them," he said and chuckled.
So I then said to Simon: "The information superhighway leads to
consciousness overflowing the toilet or true
denial. The murderous nature of man craves Nature's death. I know where you're coming from. Every day I also
fight the urge to drink. Every minute of every day. Sometimes I think: What if I got cancer? If I did, the first one to
know would be a bartender. I'd be just like you." And after an insufferable silence, Simon said at least he wasn't
coughing up blood, but he did go into seizures: "The earth was dying--and its children, too. The earth was
dying--and its children, too."
* * *
I'm sweating bullets at the Social Security office in the nearest large
city. This homely white woman's got me bent
over her desk and is banging me good. No, we're not legally married, I tell her. No, I'm not her legal guardian.
Just approve the damn papers, please. Christ!--I just wish someone would have asked this bureaucrat to her high
school prom. These gray-faced government mutants are all the slime-fucking-same. Hey, their souls are powdered
milk and we are the water they crave. In this hallucination of midlife, I whitewash all fatalistic interrogatives. There
is no primeval carnage of carcasses in caves. The black crust entombing blood lies upon a sesame seed bun. I am
plastic America. I am the holy man among the hollow men who worship at the altar of greed. For many years I
possessed the true Holy Grail and drank beer from it. Now I am the toad Prince. Kiss me and fuck me till I'm
raw, darling dearest fed employee, but God please approve the paperwork.
* * *
I come and go like the pavement in winter. No longer grease-black at the
intersection of blood leaves and
salt-peppered snow, I sometimes dye my sideburns, my soul. Smirking ancestors appear and disappear. My dogs
are turning gray and swimming slowly throughout the house. There were many women I loved, but I think they all
had the same name. I love you. I love you. They were all you and now you are slowly vanishing. Vanishing.
From a bleached fence post aimed at the gunpowder sky, an eagle explodes
upward. Our car is speeding down
the ice road when we see a small plume dancing earthward. Your circle is almost full. That is the message of the
feather, yet I continue to pretend that I don't understand it. This dreadful curse of middle age is no joking matter.
I'm no longer young and my mind can't grasp that fact. There is not one truth, but many truths. There are no
lies--just fearful shadings of the truth. I learned all my banks. I learned all the English I needed in eight ball and
This, thus, is what I learned. You are dying and you are not dying. I wish
I could have you do the rest. This is your
poem. Here are the words, this is the vision. Hey, this is the poem. Ride it if you can. All your worlds are
vanishing. I am not sad, but it is getting hard to love you. Do you understand? Do you? I remember your father
said, "Long as I can remember, us Indians leased our land to the white man." He said, "The wasicu grows hay
and gets rich." He used to run circles around these round bales when he was a kid getting in shape for high school
basketball--the famed 1936 State Champs. He said, "Sometimes, just at dusk, these bales look like ghosts of the
buffalos or...something, you know?" Now he is dead.
* * *
Darling, it seems my only reason for living is to help you remember. Do
you recall that white man who said how
come at every powwow you honor the American flag? This has always been a puzzle to me, he said. You are the
people who fell through the crack in the Liberty Bell. You are always the first to invoke the Washita River or
Bosque Redondo or Wounded Knee when you perceive injustice against your people. God, despite the centuries
of atrocities this country committed against you Indian people, you still love to honor that flag. I just don't get it,
the white man said to us.
There was no way to answer him. What could we say? Someone said Sitting Bull said:
If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man, he would have made me so in the first place.
It is not necessary for eagles to be crows.
Most of us know Sitting Bull wasn't bullshitting, but we still don't know
which way to go. We are torn between
two different worlds and between the past and the future. At least that's what we tell ourselves when we fail. We
never mention the fact that it was Indians who killed Mr. Bull.
* * *
On Sundays the caterwauling from this bordertown church down the street is
fearless, fearful, fearsome. In that
eternal fear they call Christian love, they yodel to forget who they are and screech the wondrous lie that all of us
are their God's children. If their God is real, why doesn't he help us? We are paying taxes here, too. It is all a
bland joke. I have heard these same poor whites say Skins don't want to work and curse us, sputtering that if it
weren't for the government handouts, we'd starve to death. And on Friday nights I've seen flocks of these same
angel-addled sodbusters drunk and desperate for Indian pussy and worse. Last winter a mid-February thaw
startled cows into dropping early calves onto the muddy plains. Even trees were tricked into budding. That week
a cop in Gordon, Nebraska, murdered an Indian guy. Shot him square in the back and got away with it.
When I was young I could always tell who the real cowboys were. They
always smelled like cowshit. These days
they wear nylon panties under their jeans and draw their guns as if their redneck lives had meaning. Damn this
chapped-ass cowboy hell. Damn this cowturd state of mind, this verbal puke, this pain.
* * *
Once the Rez sun rose bloated and angered. Like a neglected child, it
pouted over the purple hills surrounding
Pine Ridge Village. Dogs ran looking for cars to crush them. Soon it would be too hot to do anything but find
shade and suffer, yet Adrian would survive. He had enough beer stocked up to get drunk and sleep through the
heat of the day and get drunk again at night. Adrian was one smart Indian alkie. A flesh and blood oxymoron. O
* * *
Note to a young Rez writer:
Hey, Cuz, I thought they were eagles circling above, a sign of good luck
for Skins, but closer inspection revealed
them to be the turkey vultures of broken English. Hey, Cuz, I remember once you sent me a hand-scrawled note
saying you were out of typewriter ribbons and I sent you off fifty bucks that same day and you wrote back saying
you got the ribbons and some Big Macs to boot. Young brother, now I am saddened down to the core of my
sour-wine soul. Young brother. Young brother. You've become famous before your time.
* * *
My ancient mower refuses to eat any more lawn. It belches and farts and
quits. The rusty steel teeth have had
their fill. Sweating dusk sedates me so I nap on the couch and wake to the pine-goosed moon. With aching old
muscles and a young heart slightly crazed by my own funk and thirst, I head out for the Stockman's Saloon in
Rushville, Nebraska. It is quiet there when I walk in and order a nonalcohol beer and an Omaha World-Herald.
In this newspaper made from blood of trees, I read about Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark in Los Angeles. I
have lived in that mutant world of concrete canyons. The bartender says L.A. deserves a thermonuclear enema.
He is white and has green teeth. Me, I'd vote for Las Vegas or Nazi Serbia.
* * *
The pale professor who claimed to be Cherokee was spelunking in baleen.
When she decried the whiteness of the
whale and scrimshawed the blackboard, my sad soul tittered at her blubber butt jiggling. The poor woman would
never see that Melville's big fish was an Indian whale. I should've let her taste the ripe redness of my hapless
harpoon. Yippie-ki-yi-yo. I should've bowed, kissed her hand, and whispered that before he shipped out with
Ahab, Queequeg had his lonely sperm frozen. And that I am one of his clones. Screw it all. I have written this
several times before, but again I say that downtown, inside the Rez post office, a poster displays new stamps:
romantic Indian war bonnets in hues never seen by our ancestors. Outside, bruised and bumbling winos trod by
with Hefty bags full of flattened cans. Again I say that when Crazy Horse was murdered at Fort Robinson, the last
living free Indian died. Except for me, darling. Except for me, sweetheart. All my life I have been young and this
year I no longer am. The summer is putrid and I'm toying with six years of good behavior. Sweating and drinking
near beer, I'm in the oven of a bordertown bar and I don't know why I crawled in. Maybe it has something to do
with courage but the air is harsh and purple. I'm wedged in a narrow passage and it's purple-black and scurrying
sounds are dancing in the darkness. I know Jehovah is dead so I'm praying to the television, yes, goddamn it, I'm
praying to Phil Donahue that I won't start drinking:
Help me, Phil. Let me free to be me! I'm an Indian morsel trapped in
the guts of a cannibal called America
who, for rabid religious reasons and a touch of trickle-down economics, has shoved a pickle past its tight
sphincters. I don't want to drink. No I don't, so help me, Phil. Clinch your lust-mongering, liberal fangs
upon that dill, Phil, and yank the mother out.
* * *
Earth bone connected to the spirit bone. That's what I say in the
chest-pain night. Heart bone connected to the
ghost bone! And I pray that I could take all the imposed infirmities of flesh, all the little cancers, the tooth cavities,
the blackheads, the failing kidneys, the wrinkling skin, the allergies, the aphasia, take all those bad things from
one's body, suck them out by cosmic means, compress all those negatives into a compact ball of black star mass
and hurl it into the sun. Then they would all pay...I mean pray. And the molten-golden dew of love would cover
this land. But life is not so TV-easy. We cannot remove decay. Still, it is the wish of newness we desire. Like, if
everything in our worn house could automatically become new: the sunken couch arises, the flickering TV
becomes clear, the dog-stained rug becomes immaculate, and the walls are freshly painted...but life is not so
TV-easy. And no. No molten-golden dew of love will ever cover this land.
Ponce de Leon was not searching for gold when he came trudging up the
Everglades humming papal torture
songs. We know that he was searching for the "fountain of youth." And so what (in my hours of darkness, when
the computer of memory scrolls your ancient flashbacks) do I focus on, wish a return to? A moment of stolen sex,
or an accidental hand-touching, or a wistful glance of some unrequited love? Maybe a touchdown pass in a high
school football game? No! For the most part, I seem to want to return to pained points of failure. Earth bone
connected to the spirit bone, indeed...and often the doors of memory are of no consequence.
I, Adrian, live in the land of the common doorbell. Every time the
doorbell rings on a TV commercial, my dogs go
wild and I jump up off the couch looking for a place to hide. Me, a middle-aged man acting like it's 1962: I'm a
sophomore in high school, it's Saturday, and I'm in my cubbyhole of a room off the enclosed porch of the old
railroad shack whacking off and the dogs start barking and I see a pickup churning up our dirt road. I am in my
sanctuary, connecting my groin bone to the heaven bone. I do not worry until there is a pounding on the small pine
door to my room. My Nutty-Putty heart ricochets around my half-breed rib cage. I pull up my pegged Levi's and
peek out the door. There is Chris Brandon, fellow soph but a white boy, dressed in his usual, starched,
button-down clothes. I smell the Vitalis on his flat-top with wings. He is no friend, only someone I pass in the
halls, but what the hell is he doing here? On the porch outside my room is a bucket of soiled diapers from one of
my little sisters. The entire corridor is swamped with shit-smell. The whole house is in dirty disarray. Burning
shame makes my eyeballs flutter. In the living room I can see my illiterate, drunken white stepfather making small
talk with Brandon's father. My brown mother is scurrying after the smaller kids and she's wearing a tattered
gingham dress. Her black hair is electric and she's pregnant although the baby she's holding is less than a year old
and the flypaper above my head is so covered with flies that it couldn't hold another, and worst of all, I've still got
a boner, and Brandon looks down and spots it. At that instant I pray for nuclear attack. A complete devastation
of mankind, of Adrian, of Brandon, of my entire known world existing in the midst of that Nevada Indian poverty
thirty-three years ago. So, now I live in the land of the common doorbell. I live in the land of the common death.
This is still Indian country and it is to the Indian spirits that I must pray. I must fill our home with prayer. Death and
madness are hovering above our house. And I have the need of prayer. Earth bone connected to the spirit bone. I
must pray for the woman I love. Her very mind is vanishing. I must burn sweet grass, sage, and pray with the pipe.
And so I pray:
Grandfather of the West--
In the setting sun of my birth, in the red blood air of my birth, I am
praying to you. Pity me. Help me, please. Help
me to help another whose mind is evaporating like rain on these July plains. Help me to help another who truly
needs my help. With this first clump of tobacco into the pipe I pray for her.
Grandfather of the North--
Grandfather of this land of the pines and cold winds. Take pity on me. I
do not pray for myself. I am praying for
wholeness for all of us thus fractured. We are many, Grandfather. We are ghost warriors in the setting sun, an
endless army of broken Skins. This second clump of tobacco goes in the pipe.
Grandfather of the East--
Who lives where the sun rises and darkness is eased. This third clump is
for you. Again, I pray for wholeness and
for sanity. I pray for another who needs your help. I pray for a woman who needs your healing. She is a good
woman, your Indian daughter. She has made her mistakes, but her heart is good. Upon all that is holy, I say she is
kind. Upon all that is holy, she deserves to be whole.
Grandfather of the South--
One toward whom we all face. I pray for wholeness and good health for
someone I love dearly. This is not a
prayer for myself. Please listen, Grandfather. This fourth clump of tobacco for you. Help her, please.
Grandfather, who is the Great Spirit--
One who I call Numanah, and my woman calls Tunkasila, I pray to you. You
are the Creator, you are the Great
Spirit. You are our God. Pity me. Help me. Help me to be a good, strong man to an ailing woman. This fifth
clump is to open your ears.
Mother of us all. I pray to you, I pray for your feminine assistance. Pity
me. Help me. Help me to help one of your
daughter-sisters. And now the pipe is loaded. Now it is ready to be smoked. And now a second round of
prayers. It is needed. Dear spirits, it is needed.
O Spirits of the West Wind--
Receive this pipe and have pity on your people. From you comes the
Thunderbird who purifies the inipi and the
earth. You correct our mistakes. We are frail and weak humans and we sometimes do not do things right. You
keep us from doing wrong. You are the giver of rain and the beginning of life. The thunder of your Horse People
from the Black Mountains fills us with awe. You are mighty. Send the Black Eagle to help us. We await your
Spirits of the North--
You live in the sacred Red Mountains. From you comes the good, red
road--the holy road of our people. It is
with you the Sacred Buffalo Calf Woman stands. It is you who lead the Buffalo People out of lost darkness. Help
me be strong and steady under this adversity. Enable me to walk the good, red road with a straight face. Let me
not talk out of both sides of my mouth. Let me truly be humble and honest. Show me the starlight path that leads
to the good land. Send your messenger, the Golden Eagle, to guide us. Help me as I pray to you with your sacred
pipe. I am praying for one I love who, in her frailty, needs my love and strength.
Spirits of the East--
From you comes the Morning Star which radiates wisdom. From you comes the
sun filling our dark world with
light. From you comes the moon that gives us help and protection at night. In your Yellow Mountains the powerful
Elk People shake their great horns. Send the Bald Eagle and help me gain wisdom that I may find the things to do
and say to help the one I love. This is my need. This is what I pray for.
Spirits of the South--
Land where all living things face, where all the animal spirits live, have
pity on me, and turn your face toward me.
Send your messenger, the White Crane. Help me, in my need, help me to help the one I love. Help me to be
strong for her and not against her. Let not my fear turn into anger. Let my love fly into her heart. Hear me, O
Spirits of the South.
Grandfather, Great Spirit--
Have pity on the lowly piece of crap that I am. Accept this humility as my
true state and not some conjured prayer
stick. You are powerful and above all things. All things come from you. You are the most holy. You are the most
holy. Let your Spotted Eagle look down upon me and hear my prayer. You can do all things. Help me in my need
to help the one I love.
It is from you that we come, and it is to your arms that one day we shall
return. From you comes all our food and
all that grows. From you comes the medicine plants, the winged creatures, the four-legged, the things that swim
and crawl. Grandmother, help me for I am pitiful. It is to your arms that one day we shall return, Grandmother, but
for the one I love this is not the time. Spirits, I smoke this pipe and pray to you. My earth bone is connected to
your spirit bone. Mitakuye oyas'in. For all my relations, but for one in particular.
And so it begins or ends...If I am not prayer, at least the prayer has
been launched. Earth bone connected to the
spirit bone. The rest is up to the spirits. I listen to the ghost talk of tumbleweeds, nightcrawling, rasping across the
dry desert heart of my distant homelands. I listen and listen, but there is no real amen. A word comes, an English
word with harsh Germanic overtones. A solitary word comes and erases the connection between earth bone and
spirit bone. That word is Teutonic and Nazi-sounding. That word is Alzheimer's.
And now, fuck all the words I've ever uttered, it becomes the only word in our world.
Copyright © 1996 Adrian C. Louis
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