On the way back from Texas, in seats A and B
midway down the aisle, lights dimmed,
intermittent, the plane’s roar hushed
above cloud in the night sky, he asked me
about the ghost dance and the Mormons.
I didn’t know about the dance at all, so he
explained it to me in that elliptical way
he talked about anything, so that, one and one
half paragraphs in, I always found myself
searching for the subject. I remember he said
Sioux. I remember late nineteenth century. But now
that he’s gone, I’ve added that close, soft talk
twelve years ago to a list of unfinished
conversations. Another, on the stairs at work.
fearing he might be misjudged. He rehearsed
his case to me as he always did, an argument
he carried in his pocket, to be exhumed
and reexamined upon the occasions when
nerves got the best of him. Latest, the time
I’d returned from the Big Horns. I was
trying to understand how I had never heard
of the Medicine Wheel. I asked were the caverns
of slotted stone made or were they found? He said
such a distinction would be beside the point, the holiness
neither found nor made. I had pictures and he
wondered why it mattered to me, which we
would discuss the next time we met. I would buy
the coffee. The very last time I saw him,
on the bed they’d made for him in the living room,
cage fighting raging from the television screen,
he struggled to free himself from the blankets.
He wore a hospital gown, soft green; the bed
the shape of a long box. I held his hand briefly,
skin tanned by sun, by smoke. I let it go because
he wanted to lift it, ask for something no one
could ascertain. Perhaps he wanted to pull the sheet
like a sky over himself, to be ended. The ghost dancers,
I only recently learned, wanted to renew the earth,
to restore themselves as its keepers. Some of them
fashioned garments, like those the Mormons wore,
marked with symbols, calling them ghost shirts
made to protect them from harm. After the fighting
at Wounded Knee, when a doctor began to cut
the shirt from her, a Lakota woman said, take it.
It was supposed to protect me. I don’t want it anymore.
At his wake, there was a picture, black and white.
He was down in the hole so carefully dug to save
any artifacts that might lie there. He leaned back
against one wall, smoking a pipe. He had tied
the apron with picks and brushes around his waist,
tools for the ceremony of recovering a world.
Lisa Bickmore's work has appeared and/or is forthcoming in Sugar House Review, Quarterly West, Caketrain, Tar River Poetry, Glass, Redheaded Stepchild, and elsewhere. Her forthcoming book of poems, flicker, has recently been awarded the Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press. She lives and teaches writing in Salt Lake City.