“This is an important quest,” his grandfather had said that morning, during the boy’s purification ceremony in the sweat lodge. “It is a sad time for us. Our homes get sold from under our feet. Too many of our sisters and mothers have got burned alive in their beds.” He shook his head and then gestured at nothing in particular. “Wyanka! Look at this country. Look what we’ve done to it.”
Walking Bear had been digging in the dirt with a stick. “Can I bring Ben?”
His grandfather looked at him.
“My horse,” Walking Bear said. “Ben.”
“You’re young yet. Got them young eyes can see. We need to know if things get better for our people. Mitakuye oyas’in. We are all related.” Two Horses sighed. “And no, you can’t bring no horse.”
In the middle of Walking Bear’s third night in the riverbed, something startled him and he scrambled to his feet. He could make out the blurred contours of a dark form in the refracted moonlight. It moved as he moved, twinned to him as shadow.
“Hau, kola,” said Walking Bear, but the darkness didn’t respond.
The boy stared into it. A chemical warmth stole through his body, something ancient and holy and magical that perhaps language couldn’t name. He felt almost as if history had manifested itself around him—crouched Neanderthals, robed Sumerians, his dead father—in the form of some molecular pulse, and he was hit with the thrill of a shared experience that transcends every known and unknown separation.
But just as quickly as the figure had appeared, a cloudbank reared over the moon and everything went black.
Walking Bear sat cross-legged as before. His father had been killed with his own Winchester lever-action carbine after surrendering at Drexel Mission during the Ghost Dance War. They’d tossed his body into a mass grave. Walking Bear’s people had said his father was brave. But bravery was just an abstract quantifier.
“My father died for nothing,” Walking Bear told the night, and then he started to cry.
The dark figure reappeared. It reached for him and he didn’t withdraw. He could see clearly the brute destiny of his people, the enforced assimilation in boarding schools and the prayers each morning to a white god. He could see himself as an old man, his face rigid and distinct as a thumbprint, his body shrinking as he tapped his boot upon the warped planks of his wraparound porch—his white wife long dead—rolling his own cigarettes as he hummed a forgotten song or an amalgamation of forgotten songs, recoiling into himself and into death like the defense mechanism of a crustacean.
He could see the death of the old ways and the rape of tradition. But he could also see the death of the entire world, all those gravitational glitches and transoceanic burps and tectonic shuffles with the power to wipe out entire civilizations doing their worst. He saw every last fire snuffed out, felt the sudden collective dread that would befall the populace like weather, saw a great storm and the surviving world engined by hunger alone, where packs of strangers waiting to die mourned out in the dark, nameless wastelands. He saw churches and synagogues and mosques leveled and torched, the ancient moral codes and the Decalogue mere punch lines. And he saw the dead desecrated as well, each cemetery and hallowed burial ground upended and emptied like so many junk drawers, their remains all furred with rot hoisted up on stakes or stacked like cordwood and burned for warmth, scenes from a wrecked dimension in which the dead themselves could never have dreamed they’d participate. He saw the end of humankind, the earth’s core furling like a fist, planets colliding and atmospheres evaporating, the unthinkable enormity of all those blacklung cosmos coming to an abrupt and final end.
The dark figure was gone. Walking Bear stood and slapped dust from his breechcloth. The sun was rising, a neon smear to the east. He’d seen the future and the dissolvability of all things, and an old cosmic sadness passed through him like a ghost. He wondered what he’d tell his people, if anything. Gathering his pipe, he began to walk in the direction he’d come.