Sam pictured himself as a hollow bone, stripped of the marrow that made him alive.
A hollow man notices little. He barely registered his fellow passengers, the captain, and crew. He barely knew the name of the steamboat, or the ports they stopped in, Cincinnati, Louisville, Evansville . . .
He did feel the force of the current, the urge of the river, westward, westward, down the Ohio River. As much as he could experience any emotion, he was glad.
At night he dreamt of emptiness. He slept outside on the bow of the steamer, wrapped in the moon’s misty light and curled up with his pet coyote. Sometimes he dreamt that he was a feather, drifting on the wind alone. He had heard Crow men, his friends, make a piping music with the hollow bone from the wing of an eagle. But Sam’s flight made no music. The air passed through him, sterile, and no song filled his emptiness.
For the past two years he had wandered as a beaver hunter through the Rocky Mountains and the huge plains that stretched from them to the Missouri River. Two weeks ago he had started home, drawn by a force he could not name. After traveling a thousand miles he found a world and a family he no longer knew. He felled his older brother with a fist. He said a hurried goodbye to his mother and his sisters, a last goodbye. In effect, he had tipped his life upside down and poured out his past, his family, his home.
Now he was empty.
It was Sam’s nature to be curious, especially curious about people. Yet these days he wanted to talk only to his coyote, Coy. Why? He didn’t know. He didn’t always know himself.
He paid attention mostly to the motion of the currents, downriver. He didn’t see the passing woodlands of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, though he knew they were beautiful. He used mostly his mind’s eye. He saw stretches of plain so vast they must embrace the whole world. He saw mountains rolling sensuously against a lilac sky. He tasted the water in clear mountain creeks, so cold it hurt the gullet. He saw huge herds of buffalo running across the grasslands, so thick a man could dance across an entire herd and never touch the ground. He saw friends, both trappers and Indians. He saw his best friend, Blue Medicine Horse, and the woman he loved, Meadowlark.
When he looked at his fellow passengers, and only then, he thought of what was behind him. Home, yes, maybe that was the word for it, which was closed to him now. He said the word in his mind only---homeless.
He set his feet on the bow of the steamboat, which now rode the turbulent waters of the Ohio and would soon churn up the great Mississippi to St. Louis, the river town. There he would set off for the Rocky Mountains, alone. Home? He didn’t know. He only wanted to be there, now.
Sometimes, wrapped in his blankets on the bow, he had another dream. In this dream he was not a hollow feather floating on the wind. He was a buffalo, a buffalo not of the earthly world, but of another dimension, maybe the spirit world. There something happened to him and the buffalo, something that could not happen in the ordinary world.
This realm seemed to him more real than the ordinary world, and more alive. In his dream he held his arms out toward the Spirit Buffalo, but it was always too far away, elusive, and mysterious. In the West, when he got there, he would feel the buffalo close again, and vital.
He was aware that his companions on the boat had no thought of buffalo, and certainly not Spirit Buffalo. They cared nothing about the tow-headed youth who was obviously the expedition’s poorest, least-educated, least-decorous passenger. They showed distaste for the dog that hung near him. (Sam had been obliged to lie to the captain that his coyote was a common dog.) Sam overheard the captain dismissing him curtly to Mrs. Goodwill as “A backwoodsman of the roughest sort.” He noticed how they avoided him.
They felt equally alien to him. He rolled into the rhythm of the waters.
After the boat turned up the Mississippi, closer to buffalo country, Sam saw the Spirit Buffalo more often, saw it with his inner eyes.
The Spirit Buffalo taunted him every night. Sometimes he pictured it exactly as it first came to him. On these nights he once again performed the miracle. He entered into the body of the Spirit Buffalo, knitted himself into it, mingled his blood with its blood, its heart with his own, and they breathed with one breath. Then he and the Buffalo rose as one man-beast, surveyed all, and set forth.
“Samalo.” That one word sounded, though he didn’t know who spoke it. It was his own name and the name Buffalo joined. One creature---Samalo.
Some nights he got just pieces of the dream, and some nights the pieces were mad, like a painting on glass---but the glass had been dropped, the paintings turned to shards, glinting hints of a beauty that once had been, and might or might not be again.
Sam would put the painting back together---once he was in the West, once he got up the Missouri River to the country where the buffalo lived, the buffalo that were physical and fed the belly, and the Buffalo that fed the spirit.
And once he was in the West, he would make his way to the Wind River Mountains, where her village lived, and seek out Meadowlark.
Passengers embarked, passengers disembarked, and Sam spoke to few. Port after port passed. Sam learned the rhythm of his travel.
In St. Louis the clerk asked his name. Sam nearly said “Samalo,” but managed to announce clearly, “Sam Morgan.” The clerk informed him that General Ashley expected him to join the outfit at Fort Atkinson. Four hundred miles of country to ride alone, but that didn’t bother Sam---it was to the west.
He went about his business, tied up loose ends. He visited with dear friends from his first trip to St. Louis, Abby and Grumble, and said goodbye to them with indecent haste. “When I get to the West,” he kept saying to himself, “I will come alive.”
Copyright © 2005 by Win Blevins