Ghost Shirt

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.