That afternoon of July 29, 1878, was exactly like a thousand others that Dirk Skye had experienced, except that the light was dying. He glanced out the schoolhouse window and saw nothing amiss. There were no clouds.
He returned to his lessons. This day he had seven students in his Wind River Reservation school. Some days he had two or three. Other days he had a dozen. They sat at their desks staring at him in the deepening dusk. There must be a towering storm off somewhere, throttling the light, he thought.
He never knew who would attend. This was a good day, actually. In the winters he often built up the fire in the potbellied stove, but not one Shoshone child would burst into the warmth of the one-room school.
Uneasily, he continued teaching them English words in the deepening gloom. Maybe he would soon hear a crack of thunder. That would be a relief. He saw his students glance at one another fearfully. The creeping darkness had caught their attention.
They ranged from Pan-Zook, who was an adult but slow, down to So-pa-gant and Mat-ta-vish, seven-year-old twins who were from the Old Man family. Few girls came to his tribal school; they were needed at home, but boys weren’t needed so much, now that they could not be warriors and hunters.
The light was turning orange.
“It is just a cloud on the sun,” he said in Shoshone. “We’re going to talk about the white men’s words for the land. Mountains, plains, forest, grass, hills, valleys, canyons…”
But they were staring at the jaundiced light bathing the valley, the foothills, and the vaulting Wind River Mountains, making the whole world look feverish.
It seemed too quiet. The open windows usually brought summer breezes, the cawing of crows, the trill of red-winged blackbirds, but now the world outside seemed almost striken.
His students stirred restlessly. They would not be concentrating. He was briefly annoyed at them, but the frightening dark could no longer be ignored. The twins stared, saucer-eyed.
The faint sound of shouting drifted into the room. Not far away were the whitewashed agency buildings, the place where his father had served for years as the Indian agent for the Shoshones.
“It’s a passing cloud,” Dirk said.
But no one believed him. Then, swiftly, the orange faded into brown, and then into the most awful midday gloom Dirk had ever known in his young life.
“All right,” he said, and headed for the door. The students did not rush out. Instead, they clung fearfully to their seats.
He opened the schoolhouse door and beheld daytime darkness, and a dying sun being eaten by the moon. A deep fear clutched him. It was the end of everything.
The Jesuits in St. Louis who had schooled him had not talked of this.
The sun had vanished behind a black ball in the heavens. A faint corona of light radiated outward, but the sun had died.
“And so we die,” said Waiting Wolf. “The Owl has eaten Father Sun.”
The owl was the most feared of all creatures, and possessed the most powers.
The land lay dead, as if a boot heel had pressed down upon it. Without the sun there would be no warmth, no wind, no trees or grass, no rain, and soon all who survived this hour would freeze and starve.
Dirk stared unbelieving. He could not even imagine this thing. Some of the boys were squinting at the dead sun.
“Don’t look,” he said. “Don’t look!”
“If we look we will die,” said Big Boy. He really was big, a foot higher than Dirk, and that gave his words gravity.
Now the whole world lay helpless in the gloom. The distant Wind River Mountains had all but vanished. The snowfields up high had dissolved into darkness. A bird pierced the quiet with its evensong. It would sing, and then tuck its head under its wing for the night.
“The Owl promised this,” said Waiting Wolf. “It is the end of the People. We have angered him.”
Off in the distance Dirk Skye saw a half-dozen people outside the agency building, staring into the dark.
What did it mean?
“Tell me the story of the Owl,” he said to Waiting Wolf.
“I do not know the story. But it came to me, and it is true.”
Dirk Skye pondered the dying world, the blackened sun, the residual light that absorbed form and shape into ghostly shapes. He had no answer. He would die with the rest.
Then Mother Victoria stormed out of the teacherage. She was all that was left of Dirk’s family now. Thin, impossibly old, always irritable if not angry, mostly at the pain rising from every muscle of her body.
She leaned on a staff, her legs so untrustworthy that she resorted to a stout stick. She was his Crow mother, much older than his Shoshone mother. She limped from the porch of the teacherage, where he cared for her, toward the knot of terrified youths.
“Go back to school,” she said.
“But Grandmother…” he protested. Grandmother was the most reverent way to address an elder.
“I have lived a long time,” she said. “I have seen these twice. It is nothing. It will all be over in a little time.”
Over? How could such a thing be over? Father Sun lay mortally wounded, his light eaten by Mother Moon. How could it be over?
“Mister Skye called it an eclipse,” she said. “Mother Moon passing in front of Father Sun. Sometimes it is very bad, like this. Sometimes not so bad, when she doesn’t stop all of his light. Goddamn it, go back to school.”
“It is the Owl, Grandmother,” Waiting Wolf said, digging in. He had prevailed until the old woman showed up.
“You will see,” she said.
The boy, on the brink of manhood, stood rigidly. “It is the Owl, and this was spoken of long ago. The Owl can change its shape and be anything. The Owl can be a black moon. The Owl will darken the sun, and the time of the People will end. This is the death of the People.” Then he remembered he was in the presence of an elder. “Grandmother, you are one of the Absaroka people so you do not know this story.”
Dirk saw the youth was filled with terror and defiance and something else that might have been hatred.
“Waiting Wolf, you are wise beyond your years,” Dirk said to him quietly. “So we will wait a little while and see if the world ends.”
Victoria said nothing, and simply waited for something known only to her to happen.
Dirk discovered his other charges rubbing tears from their cheeks. What could be more frightening than the sun being darkened by the Owl?
“Don’t look,” he said, remembering stories of people going blind from the sun. The children didn’t heed him, so he turned them aside, and just in time. A bead of brilliant light flared on the edge of the black circle in the heavens, and the world swiftly turned from its murkiness to dull brown again.
The boys peered through their fingers, terrified at what was descending on the People.
“Mat-ta-vish, don’t look at the sky,” he said.
But Mat-ta-vish was mesmerized, and would look no matter what Dirk said.
Then bit by bit a rim of blinding light built up along the edge of the moon.
The world glowed eerily under light that looked almost smoky. No one said anything. Waiting Wolf turned his face away, and would not acknowledge the others, or the reappearance of the sun.
“Ah, the good sun returns,” said little Noseep. “The good sun lives. Grandmother was right.”
Waiting Wolf snarled.
Little by little the light crept back, the murk fled, and one could see the sunlight strike distant trees. The mountains rose once again and their peaks reached toward the blue. Shadows grew. Soon the schoolhouse cast its shadow on the turf.
A bird trilled. Life had paused, withered, and now was springing back. Dirk Skye said nothing. Nature itself, in all its mystery, was restoring order.
“Do not look at Father Sun,” he told his students.
But now the sun was so bright that his warning seemed superfluous. In a while, the whole wide world was restored to what it had been, and a summer’s day pulsed with life and peace.
“There, you see, Waiting Wolf?” Big Boy said.
“It was the Owl. It came. It showed us,” the slim young man snapped. “I saw the Owl with my own eyes.”
Old Victoria eyed them all, and retreated to the teacherage. She had done what she could to subdue the terror, and that’s as much as she felt like doing.
Dirk watched her go. They were not connected by blood, but by something deeper than blood. His father, Mister Skye, made them a family.
Dirk turned to his students. “It is late in the day. We will meet tomorrow morning.”
They stared at him uneasily.
“I will not,” said Waiting Wolf. “I am done with white men’s school.”
Dirk had wrestled with this many times in the past, but still didn’t know what to say to a departing student.
“I will be here to teach you,” he said.
“This is a bad place. That is why the Owl came.”
“I have a book about the stars and the sky. Tomorrow we will see what it says.”
“The time of the white man is over. This has been sung to me. The seers have seen it. The dark moon came and went away. Father Sun returned. It is the sign. Now we will gather our strength and see the white men go away. Now the People will be free to go where they will. We will hunt the buffalo, we will move our lodges to wherever our hearts sing. We will drive away those who are not the People.” He paused. “I have seen the dark moon come and go with my own eyes.”
“The dark moon?”
“I will not name them, for they are doomed.”
Waiting Wolf glared at Dirk, and then stalked away. He walked proudly, his back arched, and he never looked back.
The boy’s family was one of those least reconciled to reservation life. The boy’s father had been a shaman of the Shoshones, stuffing Waiting Wolf with all the old stories. Dirk knew most of them, learned at the knee of his mother, Blue Dawn, who was called Mary by his father. There were many Shoshone stories, each ending in a mystery. These people didn’t so much explain life as puzzle it. Their world was mysterious, startling, and sometimes tricky. The boy had seen the black moon intercepting the sun, but this was all the machination of the dreaded Owl, the ghost-bird sailing wherever there was death to be done.
There was more: Waiting Wolf’s kin were simmering, waiting for a chance to visit ruin on the reservation. The youth had been sent to learn what he could at the schoolhouse, so his family might know what darkness lay within it. Still, Waiting Wolf had been the brightest light, the fiercest learner. He had learned some English, learned American history and geography, learned to spell, and was mastering writing. He was quick with numbers, too.
Now Dirk watched the boy walk down the trail that would lead to the bottoms of the Wind River. His family roamed, refusing to surrender their lodge. But now they occupied a good woodlot perhaps three miles distant, a place of abundant firewood and some small game in the brush.
There was something stiff and unyielding in the boy’s gait, a defiance so profound that it radiated from his shoulders, his back, as the youth grew smaller and smaller and finally vanished far below.
Two boys headed for Chief Washakie’s frame house half a mile away. He was boarding them. Some headed for the rude cabins that had sprung up around the agency. Others trudged to an old buffalo-hide lodge which had housed them all summer. It was as close as they could get to a boardinghouse. One day it might house half a dozen boys; the next day, all of them might disappear. And when the frosts came and the lodge required firewood, the boys slipped away and Dirk never saw them again.
He wondered whether he had taught them anything. He divided his days into various courses: English, writing, math, history, geography, civics, as well as various pursuits that might turn the young people into artisans, farmers, cattlemen, carpenters, mechanics, and clerks. But some days, few of them came.
He had never gotten used to it, and had never stopped trying.
The government had built a schoolhouse, as its treaty with the Snake People required it do to, and paid Dirk to teach there, as it was required to do. But Congress had balked at building a dormitory where students could board. The reservation stretched a hundred miles and the People were scattered across it, much too far from the clapboard school for their sons to attend. There was an occasional winter day when Dirk had only one student, Waiting Wolf, who came faithfully and devoured everything that Dirk could teach him—until this hour.
Copyright © 2010 by Richard S. Wheeler