Posted by on Jun 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

Good Medicine

By: Ann-erika White Bird

They left the rez, a quick wind that touched down long enough to inhale dust and crisp air. Entering FAITH, the brilliant green sign promised. She didn’t look back at the slick, black road that snaked back to the reservation’s boundary.

Some relatives talk as loud as they don’t and she remembered the things unsaid most of all. She didn’t hear, “We’ve missed you,” or “It’s good to see you.” She didn’t hear, “Keep in touch.” But she heard the familiar laughter of her seven cousins after they returned from the wake. Even the two children in the group understood the jokes and stories if only in the grin of adult voices. She remembered how this was, laughing. Maybe in a people who experience so much pain, a place rises up to shake out petrified tears.

They passed through downtown Faith, having to stop at the one stoplight through town. The turquoise Ford Tempo cruised through the stoplight, blinking yellow. A left turn at the diner-gas station and the couple saw him.

“Hey. Is that a skin or what?” asked Joe, turning his head to look at the man lounging on the side of the road, thumb out and army duffel bag fallen to the side.

“Should I turn around?” Mary slowed the car, knowing the answer.

“Yeah, turn around. He’s a skin. We should pick him up.”

Mary flipped the car around, tires crunching rock, and stopped a few yards in front of the man. Joe hopped out, asked the man if he needed help with the bag and stuffed the oversized army duffel into the trunk. The hitchhiker had shoulder-length black hair and humble eyes. The man leaned in through the passenger door Joe left open, pushed the passenger seat forward, and hesitated.

“Can I smoke?” he asked in his gruff, strained voice.

“Yeah. You can smoke,” Joe replied.

The sun-darkened man pushed himself sideways into the back seat. After he settled in, putting his pop between his feet, he leaned forward and told them his name, Shawn Little Bear. Mary cracked the window to dispel the smell of alcohol. Shawn spoke gradually. When he talked, his words broke through the quiet thoughts of mourning, jumped from the backseat off the dash of the car. Each time he talked, he turned his head to the passenger side, addressing only Joe. He talked about tours of duty and his time spent in jail. The wind brushed inside the opened window.

Outside, fence posts passed steady, like broken soldiers guarding stolen land, their skeletal razor arms outstretched. Shawn began looking for something in his jacket pocket, shifting in the cramped back seat. Clumsily, he thrust a piece of paper between the two front seats. Joe took it, unfolded it and read.

“Oh yeah, enit.” He said, and handed the paper back.

The car continued its steady hum. Shawn settled back, looking out the window at the old abandoned farmhouse, the cows grazing, their black outlines against the pale green grass.

“I used to sundance you know.” Shawn said, leaning forward again. He reached out with the cigarette in his hand, offering it.

“For the spirits,” He said, “For a safe trip.”

Joe took it, broke it in two, and made his prayer. Mitakuye Oyasin. He rolled down his widow let the wailing wind draw the cigarette from his fingers. Mary looked across the plains. The clouds shadowed the road with ghosts and the long, thin prairie grass hunched over from the weight of it all.

Much later, after Shawn began taking deep, long draws from his “pop,” after they finally arrived in Rapid City, after Shawn got out and the air cleared in the car, Mary asked Joe what she’d been wanting to ask him.

“What was written on that paper he gave you?”

“It said that he lived on a fixed income of $344.75 per month, minus the cost of medication.”

“That not enough to live on.”

“No. It’s not.”

The blue fingers of dusk began to take over the sky. Not long after, the cold air began his journey, squeezing in through the tight spaces between metal and metal. Night had come and they had eight hours before they would get back to the city. Joe reached over and took Mary’s hand in his. It would be a long time before they could make it home again. They talked, repeating the stories they heard so they could remember the ones that made them laugh.