Menu

Short Story

A Narrative of Howling Wolf, 1875–78 Fort Marion Prisoner,
Saint Augustine, Florida

 

THE WAVES KEPT COMING like the cavalry.

We stood on the wall of the fort and stared at the water. We rocked back and forth with the waves. We were prisoners of the Plains Indian Wars. We were stultified. We were sick.

Henry Pratt brought us inside a casement and sat us at a table. He opened the ledger books before us. He put colored pencils in our hands. He had to do something to keep us from dying. I saw Bear’s Heart, Wohaw, and Zotom with their pencils. They looked at one another. Others in the room stared at the wall or looked on the floor. We sat at tables and chairs in rows. The books had rows of lines on their pages. Zotom made a mark with his pencil. The others followed. I could hear the sound of the pencils moving on the page. They sounded like waves in the distance. Did Captain Pratt think drawing would ease our lethargy? Our hearts were sick for our families on the plains.

We were broken now as stars scattered across the sky. At night, we watched them when there was no moon. In our darkness, we could see what had happened to us. We had fought until there was no ammunition for the few rifles we had. Ours was a dwindling source while theirs kept expanding. The soldiers were without number. The settlers followed.

§

The tourists in Saint Augustine came to watch us at Fort Marion. Some of us were sent into town to work. Anything to get us out of our wanting to die. I sat at the table in the fort. I drew our horses on the plains. I made an arch in their hoofs, the way the moon arched its foot when it was not full. I shaped the lines of color into hills and made humps of buffalo herds. The soldiers had taken everything from us. Yet I used the colored pencils as though they came down from the sun. The tourists bought our work. We learned the word commerce.

The paper in the ledger book was moonlight. I drew until I could hardly see the page. I think now the moon was blind. It was milk-eyed as the old ones who had looked at the sun too long. Maybe the moon had stared at the sun too long. Maybe it saw inside the sun’s head. Or the sun saw into it, erasing with its brightness.

I made nothing more than a few marks on the shore of the ocean, taken away each day by the tide.

I had trouble seeing what I drew. At first, I saw the ocean fog on the pages of the ledger book. I held one eye closed as I drew. I could see from my other eye. I didn’t draw from sight anyway, but from what I had seen and what I remembered. My drawings were pegged to the ground in the camp like our horses. I felt the drawings waiting in a row—waiting to be drawn. But still, it was necessary to see the page.

What was wrong? the captain asked.

I told him there was fog everywhere I looked. At first it was like the morning fog on the ocean. Or the winter fog on Medicine Creek in Indian Territory. But I was at the table in the casement. My drawings were making money. You see, Pratt wanted me to see. He wanted me to hold the moxe’estonestotse (writing thing) in my hand. He wanted me to draw. He sent me to the post doctor. I wanted to go. I could not lose the one thing that kept me alive until I could see my family again.

The doctor sat in a small casement. He carried a medicine bag of instruments—but there was no sage or roots of sacred plants. There was nothing with which to heal. He held a light at my eyes. We talked of the plains. I told him of my wife, Curly Head, and my family. I had received a letter with a pictograph showing I had a new daughter, Little Turtle. We talked of our ceremonies. The vision quest. The sun dance. Pratt interpreted between us.

Why did you look at the sun? the doctor asked.

How could I tell him it was to look at the Maker? He brought us into his world in the sun dance? We learned to see with his eyes.

I told him the sun spoke. I did not tell him what the sun said.

The sun spoke, but the moon was quiet. I listened, but could not hear it speak. Maybe it was speaking, but the ocean kept interrupting. Maybe the moon spoke through the ocean. Maybe it spoke with the voice of the ocean. Maybe it was heard by its effect on another.

What was the dissolution of one little world?

How long did you stare at the sun? the doctor asked.

I took part in the dance for several years. For as many summers as we had.

You have pterygium on the white of the eye extending to the cornea. It’s clouding your vision.

The post doctor washed my eyes with something that burned.

My vision continued to fail.

To stare at the sun is to see with the inner eye. There is a seeing that is not with the eye. At times I was on the prairie though I was at Fort Marion. I saw the brush along Medicine Creek in Indian Territory as if I was standing there. It was night and the moonlight was shining on the brush. The land was gray with moonlight and shadows. Then it moved as if I was riding a horse. I was back on the plains. But as soon as I realized I was there, I was back in Fort Marion.

At the fort, I had to sell drawings to tourists. That was what I was there to do. But I had trouble seeing. There was a teepee hide covering my eye.

I sat at the table and drew until fog covered the room.

It had been war to look at the sun. I lifted my face trying to open my eyes, but they fluttered as if they had wings. My eyes, the birds, trying to fly in a windstorm. I heard the sun dancer’s songs. The call of whistles. Skleeing and skleeing. To look into the sun was to see the face of the Maker. My father and grandfathers had been sun dancers. They had looked into the sun. As long as we had been on the plains, men had opened their eyes to the sun. The Maker spoke to us in the light. His face touched our face. I felt the weight of heat. No one told me light was heavy.

In time, I could hold my eyes open to the sun. I looked at the light until there was only light. And in that light, the nothingness that blasted away what we saw. It takes blindness to see the world.

One form disappeared into another, or became another, or aligned with another. One thing fled into another. We could not tell them apart. In our visions at the sun dance everything became one in the shape of light. There was nothing that was not light.

All was nothing. Nothing was all.

We looked at the sun until we understood all was light.

I felt the visions in the repetition of the sea. In the sun dance, you gave yourself up and found that you still remained. That was the reason for the dance.

After the sun dance, the sun was a hard spot in my head. Its light hurt. I wrapped my eyes even at night because the moon was too bright. Sometimes a man could not hold back his pain. Or the visions kept tumbling into one another in his head. He blurted out his moans before he was quiet. Sometimes others grunted in return. Other times the moaning ones were shamed.

After I saw the ocean, I thought the moon was water. It had the same marks as the shore where we walked. I knew there were waves on the moon as we looked at it above us. The ocean glittered under its light. I knew they were the same tribe. I knew the water could not see, but only reflected the shape of light.

There were nights on the plains when the full moon would light the darkness. When snow was on the ground, the moon nearly made a day of the night. The teepees shined with its light. Later, when the soldiers came through our country, we worried our camp would be seen from a distance.

Some of us, they taught to read and write. A woman came to give us English lessons, speaking to us slowly, as if it would make us understand her words. I saw Zotom look at Bear’s Heart. She was an older woman, wrapped tightly in her black suit. She looked like lodge poles tied up for travel. But she didn’t go anywhere. Captain Pratt made the fort a school. I wanted to tell him, in writing, the voice was blind.

The woman read us the Bible. I saw images hang on the words. I touched blindness. I touched the light. It was a wagonload of fire.

She knew my name was Honanistto. Howling Wolf. She read my name from the Bible—a tribe fierce as evening wolves.

She read, they looked for grass to save their horses. Yes, we had done that. We had traveled on the plains with our horses. Sometimes in late summer, we scouted for places where they could eat.

She prayed for me. But there was no medicine to make me see. I would have to go to another doctor, one farther away from Fort Marion, when they received permission to transfer a prisoner, Howling Wolf. I held the Bible. I could not read, but I felt the snorting of the horses—Nane’etamenotse Ma’heo’o. I depended on the Maker.

When I drew, I saw small balls on the edges of the light. Soon, I saw they were buffalo. I knew where they were camping—over what hill. I knew where they would be when time and place intersected. But the wagons came into the light. So small I could hold them in my hands.

I felt the sun dance again when I drew in the ledger book. At first it was painful. I was prairie grass tossed in the wind. I had to look at the line and color. I could not let myself feel, but I pushed my feelings into the drawings I made.

I made marks in my blindness. It was like looking into the sun at the sun dance. We always looked to the Maker for visions. My eyes struggled to close, but I kept them open as the full moon, as open as the ocean with no way to close. The Maker did not speak. He came through light and line and shape and form. He had colors like the pencils. His colors were the pencils.

Once, we had floated into the light. We became one with the sun where the Holy One lived in his light. The sun flashed colors in our eyes, into our heads. We were one with the source of light and life and warmth. The buffalo grunted their songs to the sun. It warmed their backs. On winter days, it gave them the thought that the blizzards would be over. The Holy One came to us. It was where we would return—to the sky where we would shine in his light. Where we would be the absence of anything but light.

Our visions came through suffering. We saw into the sun and its light came into us like a spear. It came like the cavalry. It came sharp as cannon fire. It came blaring. As swift as lightning. As frightening as thunder. It was prairie fire. Our eyes had flames because the sun kissed our eyes. The full brightness of the sun in our small eyes was blinding. Some of the old ones could no longer see. They rode on drag poles behind the travois horses, looking into the sky, remembering when they had seen the sun.

I drew the flashes of colored light in rows with its detail. The small things about it—around it. It was light and color and spark and clouds opening to let the sun through, the Holy One, the hurtful one. It hurt our eyes to look at the sun. We hurt our spirits to look into the sun. We were not what it was, yet it shined on us. We knew in our visions we would lose our way of life. Why had the light allowed the buffalo to be slaughtered? Why had he allowed their hides to be piled up higher than a man in a wagon? To what purpose? To take our way of life? To defeat us? To take the buffalo and make us dependent on their forts for food? For shelter?

We lost our independence. That is what they knew to take from us.

I would have stayed as blind as the Maker, but my drawings made money the fort wanted.

§

In summer of 1877, the war department granted permission for my transfer to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. I was case number 337. Dr. Henry Lyman Shaw found pterygium in both my eyes. In his office, I felt like I was in a teepee. The doctor had a cabinet with instruments inside that looked like hide drawings. I couldn’t see them clearly. I was unnerved by travel, the way I was unnerved by the journey to Fort Marion. I felt I was in the wrong place. But at the same time, it was familiar.

You injured your eyes. Why? When did the fog start?

I had a cloud in my eye. I had stared into the sun while seeking visions, I said.

The doctor decided on surgery and gave me sleeping medicine.

He took his colored pencils and drew sight into my eyes, not the way I remembered sight, but a likeness of it. He gave me blue eyeglasses. I could see the pages of the ledger book I brought. I drew my travels. I wanted the others with me who liked to draw—Zotom, Bear’s Heart, Wohaw. I wanted them to see what I saw. I drew the steamers and ports where I had stopped on my way to Boston. I drew passengers changing ships. I drew their luggage. That’s why they needed such large vessels to move from place to place. They could not move like we moved—with a few pack horses and dogs. I drew their houses on Cape Cod. I drew the square shapes of their world. I was a guest at their parties. They did not seem to think I was a prisoner.

I returned to Fort Marion with a derby hat, satchel, and cane. I strolled along the wall of the fort. I strolled into town. I tipped my hat to the ladies. The others wanted my accoutrements. I would not share. Captain Pratt took them from me because of my insolence and airs.

I drew a tribal ceremony in bright colors with straight lines of the new prison house. The bars were there, though I couldn’t see them. Or didn’t recognize them at first as bars.

My eyes were steady for a while, but the left eye returned to its hibernation. When I am blind, I see more than what is there—what I remember of what was there.

The other side of the moon is dark. You see, I supposed it was.

There was blindness in the little stones in Medicine Creek. Once I picked them up and knew they could not see. Was it the cavalry they looked away from, back into themselves? There was heat lightning in the sky. The moving clouds.

The Maker was a warrior with lightning on his tongue.

I became the ocean and the moon. Separated from each other. Of different forms. But they were the same. I could be on the prairie though separated from it. I could be with my family in the pictographs they sent.

The Indians who learned English wrote letters to the US government while I sat at the table and drew.

In 1878, after the letters to the government for our release, the Fort Marion prisoners were returned to Indian Territory.

I returned to my wife and four-year-old child. I abandoned the blanket. I turned from Indian ways I had known on the plains. I recommended the good Bible road to the people. I placed Little Turtle in the agency school. There now were settlers everywhere. We waited at the fort for rations. The sun dance no longer was allowed. I saw some of the returned prisoners cut and sell cords of wood to Fort Reno and the agency at Darlington, but they could not make a living. I tried to walk the white man’s road, but grew discouraged over the poverty.

In a Baptist camp meeting, they asked me to testify. They wanted to hear how I left the crooked road. I told them we were at the end of our road, and another one had not yet opened, and when it did, it too would come to an end with nowhere to turn. We had no hope it would change. I talked and rambled and accused. I made gestures they didn’t like. They asked me to leave.

I refused to speak English after that. I was restless. Disorderly. I was posted a malefactor. I divorced Curly Head, my wife. I married other women. Once I was arrested for assaulting a white girl—barely escaped being hanged. I remained a fugitive.

Great clouds moved across the plains. At night, the sky turned with stars. The moon was there. Sometimes I thought I could hear the ocean. Sometimes it was as if I stood at the wall of Fort Marion. In the day, the sun crossed the sky in different places. There was rain. Fog. Sleet. Snow. Then another summer. But somewhere it stopped. I was stranded. Inert. Not moving. I was in a place where everything was still. I don’t think the leaves moved on the tree by Medicine Creek. I could not get up. I was lethargic. They had words for the time the sky folded and the sun was shut in a box. The night was taken down like a teepee hide. It rode on a travois, but there was no going ahead. I did not want to get up. I did not want to sit down. I would not eat. I could not sleep. Dreams came to me like a travois. They pulled me behind them under the moving sky. I was the center pole. I did not move. It was a windless day though there was always wind on the prairie and off the ocean. Birds called, but I could not hear them. I could not respond to the wind. I knew they would put a drawing stick in my hand. But I only looked at it.

I had carried the Maker’s fire. I had brought the drawings from my heart. The drawings were alive on the page. They were taken from me. I felt the weight of the fire again. I left it there burning in a place inside me.

Somewhere the Maker was making new ledger books and pencils for drawings. He could draw by himself alone in his house.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Related Short Stories

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

By

Pinckney Benedict

That Old Dog

By

Larry Woiwode

The Afterlife

By

Chris Gavaler

image of a bathroom radiator hanging on white tiles with a slant of sun falling across it and onto the sink.

The Sparrow

By

Ron Hansen

Pin It on Pinterest