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Tallgrass

slipstream by Gerri Leen

You dream of grass blowing in the breeze — not this short growth that surrounds the houses in the fort, but tallgrass, covering the prairies. Your pony would race through the grass — if he were still alive and not shot out from underneath you in that last raid. You had to ride behind Tall Smoke just to get home.

But if you still had your pony, his legs would swim through the grass, and the grass would tickle your feet as you rode, as you led the People from the summer camp to the winter.

Buffalo would roam. Thundering darkness sent by the Spirits of the Grandfathers for the People’s use. The Grandfathers would never have made peace with the white man. You know this and if you ever forget, Tall Smoke reminds you of your bad decisions whenever he gets the chance. But you ignore him. The Grandfathers are not here and you are.

“The colonel wants to see you.” A small-eyed, white soldier stands in front of you. He shows you none of the respect you deserve as a war chief, but at least you see fear in his eyes.

“Tell the Colonel I am busy right now.” You are not busy. There is, in fact, nothing for you to do in this camp and the soldier must know it. But he hurries off as if you were sharpening your lance for war and not just sitting in the sun getting fat.

A while later, you see the Colonel coming. He walks slowly, keeping in sight of you. It is a sign of respect: the open approach. A sign you are equals.

Even if you both know you are not.

“Tompkins said you were busy.”

“As you can see.” You gesture toward the as yet untouched pipe that sits next to your worn buffalo cushion. It is from the last big hunt, from a mighty bull that fought hard to live. Burning Feather stuffed its hide with tallgrass to make you a cushion worthy of a war chief.

During the two years you have been here, it has grown flat with use. There is no tallgrass left to re-stuff it with, and you will not let her use straw.

Tall Smoke, for all his criticisms, lets his woman use straw, and he said nothing when she traded his old buffalo robe for the white man’s cloth.

“I have news,” the Colonel says.

You wait, as is your way.

“The last of the war chiefs in this territory have made peace with the Great Father in Washington.”

“The Great Father promised us a home always in view of the tallgrass.” This was one of your demands. It had, at the time, seemed like the easiest of the demands. How could you not live near the tallgrass that grew everywhere?

How could the white man destroy something in such a short time, something that had endured for as long as the People rode the plains?

“You promised,” you say again. You hate that you sound like a petulant child.

“That is proving difficult.” The Colonel looks down. “I remember when I first came here, watching the grass blow and weave. It was like the ocean.” The Colonel sighs and reaches into his jacket pocket, drawing out a packet of tobacco for your pipe. You take it with pleasure. The Colonel has the best smoke in the camp and he only shares with you.

“You are a good man.”

“You are a patient man.”

“I wait. Sometimes that is all a man can do.”

“Don’t wait for us to keep our promises.” He turns and walks away, and over him, you see a white owl like one in the tales of the winter lands, his snowy feathers gleaming as he wheels in the sky.

Then the owl is gone and you blink hard.

You shift so you can pull the buffalo cushion out from under you, and slit it open, pulling out a handful of the tallgrass. Lifting it to your face, you inhale deeply. But the grass is old — the smell is faint, and dust fills your nose. You open your fingers and let the grass blow off with the breeze.

“Grandson.”

You look around, wondering who would call you that.

“Grandson.”

The sound comes from above you. You peer up and see a raven looking down at you.

You wait. The bird must surely have more to say than just that.

“One wish, my boy,” the raven finally says.

You have never felt close to Raven, but you are not about to miss this opportunity. “Freedom for my people.”

“You wish too big. Ask again.”

“A home in view of the tallgrass.”

“Too much again. Ask something else.”

You are glad this bird was never your spirit animal. “You are a trickster, Raven. There is nothing I can ask for that you will give me.”

“You are wrong.” The bird flies down and lands on your shoulder.

“What should I ask you for then?”

“The one thing I can give you. Hope.” Raven pecks at your hair and pulls a strand free. “Someday, when you are long gone, things will be better.”

“And now?” You rub your head gingerly. Raven is not gentle.

“Now, I give you what tallgrass I can.” The raven hops down to your cushion, which is whole again. The hide looks new, the cushion plump.

You lift it up and sniff. The smell of tallgrass fills your nose. The smell of the sun on the prairies.

The smell of freedom. Maybe the smell of hope.

Raven hops once, twice, then launches into the air. He flies high, alone in the sky, then chasing a snowy owl. They both wheel and fly in front of the sun, silhouetted, white bird and dark looking the same.

Then they disappear.

You sit on your fat cushion that smells of everything you lost, load the Colonel’s smoke into your pipe, and wait for something you will never see.

copyright July 2011 by Gerri Leen

Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia, but originally hails from Seattle.  She recently celebrated the release of her first book, Life Without Crows, a collection of short stories published by Hadley Rille Books.  In addition to 10Flash, you can read more of her stories in such places as: Sword and Sorceress XXIII, Return to Luna, Sniplits, Triangulation: Dark Glass  and GlassFire.  Visit Gerri Leen’s Virtual Abode to see what else she’s been up to.

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