Yellow Wolf at the End of Time
Two things Bob hated: being watched and being summoned.
Bob stood at the counter looking somewhat shipwrecked with his derelict beard and unscaled eyes. His shoulders no longer filled out the battered canvas jacket he tin-coated himself. It smelled faintly of beeswax and turpentine, which he liked. Next to a little dome bell on the counter, a piece of paper under clear tape read: Please ring for service. He held two fingers over it for a moment, not wanting to ring it. Two things Bob hated: being watched and being summoned. His acute sensitivity to the social conventions and demands held over others was increasingly an obstacle to functioning among his fellow humans. More of a curse, he thought, though VA doctors referred to it as a disorder. He put his hands in his jacket pockets and waited. A clerk eventually emerged from the back. Bob imagined he was smiling as he handed her the postage-due slip: “Morning, ma’am.”
She glanced over her glasses at him with a harmless skepticism then looked down, shuffling through a box beneath the counter, eventually producing an envelope. Behind her glasses seemed to be a guarded geniality Bob figured for a good sign. She inspected the envelope, though, probing it with her fingers like she was guessing at a birthday present. She read the sender’s name to herself. “J. Coyote....” She shook it gently. “What is it? Seeds?”
Bob’s cheeks flushed knowing what she was feeling were six brittle and likely crushed peyote buttons. He told her he had no idea. “Who knows with that guy,” he joked unnaturally, hoping she would give up and just hand it over. Bob stood there cursing Coyote in his mind for sending it in an envelope, with insufficient postage no less. He could almost see Coyote grinning as he dropped it in the mailbox, picturing Bob having to come out of seclusion and enter a federal building to collect it, having to show himself to the world. Be free, Coyote would say, Babylon be damned. Bob imagined the clerk picking up the phone and calling the sheriff’s office.
He imagined snatching the envelope from her hands and making a run for it. He thanked the Blue Deer he didn’t have to. The clerk shrugged and held out the envelope. Bob slid it in the back pocket of his jeans and paid her then left as casually as possible, his heart-rate steadily descending with each step across the parking lot.
As he placed the envelope into the glovebox he had to grin at the two stamps of George W. Bush. The irony of his former Commander in Chief overseeing the delivery of a schedule-one substance evoked from Bob a single guttural, “Ha.” How very Coyote, he thought. He gave Zulu a scratch between the eyes and twisted the dog’s tall, bunny-soft ear around his finger then settled into the frayed bucket seat of his rusted Land Cruiser. He exhaled a sharp breath, depressed the clutch, turned over the key and pulled out onto the highway to head back up the mountain.
For the fifteen miles of rugged, washed-out Forest Service road, it would be a race with the sun to the summit, something Bob relished, arriving just as the horizon grew warm with reds, oranges and pinks and the faint turquoise transition to the blue of twilight. Zulu held his furry face out the rear driver-side window, his amber eyes like happy nebulae squinting into the wind. Bob always felt better watching Zulu enjoying something as simple as the wind in his face—or chasing chipmunks through the sagebrush and napping in the shade
He would not likely confess it, but Bob wasn’t sure he would be alive if not for Zulu. For one thing, Bob’s temper was always directed at himself—part of the disorder. Another part of the disorder was being in constant battle with the absurdity of existence and the impulse to check out. Too much time in a grocery store would start him down a dangerous isle in his brain stocked only with the ways modern society was dependent on what he had come to think of as the Shadow Mother. In Bob’s estimation, where the beautiful, good, True Mother would raise her children to flourish in freedom and self-sufficiency, the Shadow Mother—embodied by corrupt institutions, broken infrastructure, ideologies of entitlement, entertainment, consumption—would cripple her children out of grotesque insecurity and greed, keeping them at her breasts, making them too fat to waddle out of her control and too dumb to want to.
All the cultural and social contortions.... It was all just so fucking primitive and tragic. Bob was running from the Shadow Mother, but sometimes, if he was careless or let his guard down, got too comfortable, he would feel the shadow darken over him like some great Archaeopteryx searching the earth below for deserters. Bob thought of Dawes.
In the desert, Dawes always had whatever you needed. If your eyes were heavy before a long mission, you talked to Dawes and he’d produce a narrow prescription bottle, shake it once and ask you if you really needed it. If your heart was heavy, you talked to Dawes. He had pills for that too, but more often than not, you just talked. And when you left you felt better. He was like the platoon medicine man. He might swipe a pack of cigarettes when you weren’t looking, but he would never take anything that really mattered. And after talking with him, there was little you wouldn’t be willing to give up for free. When Bob felt the shadow darken over him he wished he could talk to Dawes.
No matter what was falling apart or slipping away, whenever Bob felt he was losing his grip, Zulu was there to remind him of something constant, something pure, an almost mystical current flowing beneath everything people seemed so desperate to hold onto, desperate to believe about themselves and their position in the realm of so-called progress. Bob would look at Zulu for affirmation. In this way he routinely condemned the material world and its lazy, egoistic ideas of success, of sanity, of time and space, of communication. No matter what, at the end of the alphabet games and all the inventions of civilization, it would always be Zulu time. A wordless wolf smelling the wind, chasing a chipmunk through the sagebrush, sleeping in the shade on a summer afternoon.
Zulu dropped down and stuck his head out the rear passenger side window, dragging his cold, wet nose across the back of Bob’s neck as he did. As if a switch had been thrown, a static rage sizzled to the top of Bob’s skull, something so viscerally disturbing that he had to grit his teeth and fight a powerful impulse to punch the dashboard. As suddenly as it rose it subsided. A pleasant lightness took over and he was content with the impermanence of things. The pitch and roll of the storm always inside of him. The constant motion and change. He was happy. Or something very near it anyway. The real trick was not to notice too much. Happiness is like the sun, he thought. It’s warmth can be felt but it’s best not to look it square in the face. Same goes for grief.
The first time was in the Bitterroot mountains of western Montana, not far from his birthplace. A New Year’s Eve ceremony with the Native American Church, the Lakota way, sundown to sunup in the tipi, deerskin water drum, prayers prayed with the crackling dispensations of dried cedar on the crescent embers above the Thunderbird fire, the smell of burning sage and sweetgrass, standing out in the frigid night, peeing in the snow, every last heavenly body singing and dancing above.
It went well, at least for Bob. So well, in fact, he promised himself he would never abuse the medicine, as it was called by the medicine man, the wichasa wakhan. It was truly a sacred thing to him now. Not the way church was sacred when he was a boy, he realized. He knew now that those Sunday mornings were merely an abstract aspiration for sanctity. A shadow of it. Too much certainty, too much pomp and performance, too much starch, hairspray and makeup. Everyone seemed to have a stick up their butts and stood there lying to themselves about what they were feeling. There was so much guilt and contrived contrition. The peyote way was a physical communion with the sacred, naked universe. To literally eat the earth and see it glisten, Bob thought. After it made you sick, of course. It was to be duly humbled and then rewarded in direct proportion and perfect harmony with the sacrifice made. Could anything be more natural, honest and pure?
He remembered that day in Montana. It was a crisp and sunny New Year’s Eve. He and Coyote had spent an entire month abstaining from alcohol and slanderous thinking best they could, trying earnestly to cultivate gratitude in preparation for the ceremony. They cut and hauled firewood for friends and ate elk meat they packed out of the snowy mountains themselves. They drank water and soaked in hot springs. Bob could hear the snow crunching under Coyote’s feet in front of him as they made their way across the yard to the medicine man’s little cabin. Thin smoke wafted from the wood stove chimney. They kicked the snow from their boots and removed them from their feet. The door opened and a small man appeared on the porch. He smiled and asked if they would like some coffee. Standing there in their socks on the porch in the sun, they did not know that their preparations for the ceremony, all the days and weeks of setting their intentions toward it, was in fact the ceremony, so that a hot cup of hand-ground, Mexican- grown coffee was a revelation and a profound one and an earned one.
Bob didn’t grope for every detail of the memory but let them surface as he turned the wheel left then right then left up the winding dirt road, drinking liberally from a bottle of red wine, feeling the washboard under the worn-out suspension vibrate through his arms into his chest. He could feel the heat of that mug in his hands, the hot coffee in his stomach, the warmth of sunlight beaming through the windows of the little cabin, of the wood stove burning, the vibrant beaded animal skulls from Huichol people in Mexico, the three cats moving about the cabin, one aloof and missing an ear.
Coyote was prayed for first, standing in the kitchen with his palms out and up to receive the blessing, which was simple but sincere words from the medicine man. Dropping a pinch of cedar into a hot skillet he thanked Creator for Coyote’s heart and prayed for its opening to good visions. He said his words while fanning the cedar smoke over Coyote’s body with an eagle feather, getting Coyote good and cleaned up, like that, Creator, instructing him to take a sip of water, spit it into his hands and wash the top of his head.
After he was done with Coyote he motioned for Bob to come stand in his place in the kitchen. The medicine man repeated the ritual with cedar smoke and eagle feather, thanking Creator for the heart of this warrior, Bob, brushing the road and bad spirits off him, getting Bob good and cleaned up, like that, Creator. Bob looked at Coyote with a big grin, at first amused that the medicine man thought his name was Bob even though they had just been introduced. But then he felt something else, as though maybe he were being christened with a new identity. His sudden joy became a wetness in his eyes even. Coyote seemed to understand what was happening. The medicine man was an old man with white hair and scattered memory. Even so, a kind of humming energy tuned up in Bob’s chest and opened him like a channel, as if time were a circuit and the past and future had just been linked within him. He hadn’t realized it until that very moment, that he had been preparing his heart to die.
The last few turns to the fire lookout tower were steep hairpins. Zulu altered between windows every few seconds which drove Bob crazy, unable to avoid internalizing his restless energy. Cresting the final rise the ground lowered like a curtain unveiling the evening colors splayed out in thin cirrus strands along the horizon. It was almost too good, Bob thought, that little tinge of guilt creeping back up his throat. This job, he thought, on top of a mountain, waking up and going to bed surrounded by panoramic views of pristine wilderness, the slow sunny days, the unpolluted night sky, the thunderstorms, the lightning and rain, the smell of sagebrush and pine needles, the musky smell of elk passing through, the wolves howling before dawn and red-tailed hawks hanging on the wind, the endless red wine and rolling tobacco, the resupply runs to town for fresh goods and mail, the pleasant booze cruises back up the mountain, the sunsets, the dreams. At times Bob felt greedy, like he might be selling the next incarnation of himself into karmic debt. But he was grateful, too.
There were times though, sober nights full of sinking loneliness when the bear-gun in the cabinet became as menacing as the ghost of Dawes looming over his bed. In those small hours of the night Bob was most vulnerable to the memory of his friends who failed to evade the Shadow Mother. They used to joke about the soldier’s “failure to readapt to the world.” But, really, it was trying to adapt that was the failure. The failure of their fighting spirit. Run, Bob would tell them. Babylon be damned. In an email Bob read how Dawes’ girlfriend found him in the garage with a shotgun in his lap and a hole in his neck. He was too fucked up on pain pills to keep the barrel in his mouth but bled out anyway. Bob printed the email and kept it in his wallet. It kept him from going to the VA for his pain. He drank wine because it was old fashioned and when he drank it he could still feel happy and sad and he could still weep like an abandoned child and feel better. Pills were what the Shadow Mother dolled out to blind the children to her dragon boon.
From time to time the gun in the lookout cabinet would pulse. But the thought of Zulu pacing around Bob’s body was enough to disabuse him of the thought. He had glimpsed an alternate future early one morning on a walk when he watched Zulu chase a wolf into the timber. He assumed the pack was waiting behind the tree-line to kill him. Extrapolating the feeling of that momentary absence into the forever one, Bob practiced his grief. Somewhere he read it was therapeutic to think about death at least once a day. He figured that’s what Buddhists practice. He even knew the quaking aspen grove where he would bury his companion, where he imagined digging his own hole next to Zulu’s—the grove that sounded like water in the wind where the naked ladies sang their siren songs.
Coyote ate the first gritty spoonful of peyote in the early afternoon then handed it to Bob. It was an umber, earthy paste. A slight gag reflex had to be overcome and remained in their throats like the beginnings of anxiety, but in a good way, eventually, like that. The medicine man was in a gracious mood and wanted to introduce Bob to the medicine slowly, it being his first time. Coyote knew what was coming and his eyes held that knowledge very quietly. For what was coming was the unknown, like an approaching cliff and the animal beneath him building a head of steam to leap off and into the Great Mystery.
The medicine man would have them believe spirits were coming down from the mountain, down from the high rock faces where their bones and tobacco offerings laid undisturbed in dark caves. The medicine would wake up their memories and they would long for ceremony, for a strong horse beneath them, for their loved ones, for the tipi fire. Bob was surprised by how gently, almost secretly, the peyote wove through him and began to play with his perception. He felt opened, from his chest. He sensed the presence of those spirits moving around him. At one point as the sun was low he found himself sitting on the wood floor of the cabin lost in a corridor of glimmering dust. It looked like it was underwater. Like his body felt, Bob realized. What he saw seemed to become what he felt, and the other way around. What he sensed as his spirit had become fully integrated with what only a few hours earlier he had sensed as the external world. He saw himself represented wherever he directed his attention. He saw it seeing him. This was a revelation like a trap door recognized a moment too late.
Bob laid on his back and drifted down through the floor, through the cool dirt and stones, through dens of wolves and mountain lions warm with the purring of their sleeping pups, through underground rivers and caverns, through mists of ionized air, deep into the molten core of the planet. There he dreamed for what could have been a hundred years, traveling from one star to another. He remembered opening his eyes to see the one-eared cat poised on his chest like the Sphinx of Giza. Her eyes were closed. She was kneading his shirt with her claws and purring heavily. This was the feeling in his sternum, the pulsing vibration of her animal contentment, the gift of it, pure and utterly unconcerned with what was or what might be. This was the feeling, after thirty-six years, that Bob finally understood as being whole.
The feeling pulsed from inside the glovebox of the Land Cruiser parked below the tower. From his bed Bob sensed it like an intergalactic beacon. It worked its way into his dreams, reestablishing communication. Prepare yourself, it said. Make a fire. Let your terrestrial identities burn like rags. Eat the earth and see it glisten. Babylon be damned.
There was no fix-it-once-and-for-all. Bob understood that. One peyote ceremony in the Bitterroot was no silver bullet for the Shadow Mother. But Bob felt he had been behind the curtain and across a hidden threshold. He had broken through the fourth wall of the performance of life and into the quintessence, where all the social conditioning and cultural accretions fell away like old parched skin exposing his being boundless, borderless, immersed and permeated in a warm, singular, oceanic consciousness. The space is not habitable but exists, he believed, to annihilate the hard limits and desperation of daily material perception. It is the possibility of magic still in the world, which is to say, the magic of possibility.
Bob took Zulu for long walks down the Forest Service roads, looking for wolf and elk sign, pinching off sage leaves and twisting them under his nose. Each bush had its own unique smell. One might bring up some distant memory of strawberries if twisted enough times. Another smelled of mint and the opened candy drawer in his grandmother’s kitchen. Quaking aspen groves sounded like running water. Some of their trunks held carvings of nude women with large breasts made by shepherds fifty, sixty, seventy years ago. Each year those knife scars bloomed larger. In the sound of the leaves Bob imagined those tree women skinny-dipping and singing. He remembered the shiver and thrill of cold lake water on his naked skin, cursing with ecstasy. As he walked he began to hum songs he could almost remember. There were young loves he had not thought of in many years, their short, sacred kisses. Suddenly he could hear the breathlessness in their voices and taste the sweetness of their breath. To be watched and summoned, he understood, was merely the shadow of what he truly wanted: to be seen, reached for, held. It took a few days, but Bob began to understand the emptiness in himself as open space, room enough to experience loss as the necessary condition for beauty.
They took turns with the axe. One held the long section of cedar firewood like a fencepost to the ground and the other took aim then dropped the heavy axehead. After a few hours of eating peyote this required a degree of concentration which, to Bob, seemed more like not concentrating at all. He mentioned this strange sensation to Coyote who, being fond of his hands and fingers, promptly took his turn with the axe. Long light sparkled across the snowfields as they wheelbarrowed loads of split wood to the tipi and stacked it outside the entrance. They pulled out swaths of carpet from inside the tipi and hung them up over pine branches. They beat the dust and old prayers out of them with a broom then arranged them inside and prepared a small fire in the center.
Coyote hung a picture of his young daughter on a tree outside the tipi. He asked Bob if he had anything he wanted to hang there, something he was grateful for or perhaps weighed heavily on his heart. Without much deliberation Bob removed the email from his wallet and attached it to a branch. After the sun was down Coyote lit the fire. Soon the tipi canvas glowed amber within like a ram’s horn filled with embers. They laid on their backs and waited for the others. The medicine man had planned on a few Lakota singers and drummers coming down from Pine Ridge. He poked his head through the tipi flap and said they weren’t going to make it. “Blizzard on the rez,” he told them. “One that come through here yesterday. Looks like it’s just us tonight boys.”
He told Bob he was getting off easy for his first all-nighter. But the medicine man was very gracious and explained the Thunderbird fire and the crescent of embers, that they were portals into which one could see the origin of creation, the first stories ever told and scrawled onto cave walls in the blood of relatives, of deer, of gods. He talked about the tipi and how the opening at the top was like a woman’s and that they were in the True Mother. Through the opening the Milky Way glistened like a river of souls, he said. That was where their prayers would be carried by the cedar smoke, their deepest wounds and dreams, their fears and hopes. Before he left he reminded them to keep the fire’s form, the tail-feathers of the Thunderbird and the crescent moon of embers. “Keep it going,” he said. “Ask the fire what you need to know.”
Bob remembered laying there on his back and being overwhelmed with such joy that he could hardly believe it. His body was vibrating with it. Eventually it spilled out of him in big, open laughter. He wasn’t sure if he started it or Coyote. It didn’t matter. They were young boys again, flush with the bright energy of childhood bounding through them and out of the tipi into the night. Bob remembered laying in scrub oak forts as a kid, that charged embrace of concealment, laying in the dirt and leaves, excited for what he did not yet know. Coyote joked about all the ass-sweat they were probably laying in and they were both taken by a wave of laughter to the point of breathless tears.
Every few minutes in a corral near the tipi a horse kicked its empty metal water trough. It resounded like a giant drum. Some deep, chthonic battle drum, Bob imagined, calling them back from their youthful mirth. It came from far away, farther away than it was. Every few minutes it would sound again. Bob’s certainty that the horse was remembering days beyond its fence, beyond its own life, startled him. It was a memory of carrying light, fearless warriors across moonlit prairies, their skin shielded only by yellow paint. It was a memory of cold rivers flowing over and cooling its frothing back, of sweetgrass meadows, of distant fires and drumming. Bob was steadily drawn from the body of the laughing child into the body of the man. He allowed himself to believe he was being drawn by the spirit of lost friends.
At midnight the valley below erupted in a barrage of New Year’s fireworks and gunshots as if the town were under siege. Every explosion reverberated in Bob’s chest with the conviction of his own presence. It was a great painted hand being placed there. It was the purring Sphinx. He felt a hotness in his throat and saw Dawes with the hole in his neck and smoke drifting over his head.
On the embers of the crescent moon above the Thunderbird fire Bob spread a pinch of green cedar from the leather pouch. It sparked and crackled and the smoke rose sweetly to his nose and up through the tipi opening. He dropped another pinch, grateful for his vision. He stared intently into the embers. Soon they began to pulse green and purple and red and blue. In the blueness a tiny deer jumped and ambled between embers. Bob shut his eyes tightly, kept them shut, promising himself he would remember.
Late afternoon summer storms had begun. At nearly 8,000 feet the lookout was fogged in. Visibility was a dim twenty yards. Bob laid on the wool blanket over the bed and buried his face in Zulu’s fur. He breathed in the sagebrush oils and dusty wolf smell. Zulu endured the annoyance for a moment before breaking away and curling up under the desk. Bob turned to his side and looked out the window. There was a feeling of somber embrace around the lookout, a close, almost mystical gloaming.
Before the peyote moved into his bloodstream, Bob hauled out his grandmother’s old typewriter. He twisted a sheet of paper through the roller and racked it down. The mechanical snap of each letter was a pleasure he equated to the perfect texture and temperature of buttered toast:
An envelope? Two stamps? You trying to get me busted? All good now, brother. End of fire season.
I’m all buttoned up and ready to go.
There is magic in the world.
Babylon be damned.
Bob slipped the letter into an envelope and stuck it in an old paperback. He laid down on the bed and stared at the ceiling, fighting a dull nausea. After an hour or so drifting through that liminal discomfort he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up. Through the windows, somewhere beyond all the dusk fog, a bright moon illuminated the dream into which he had suddenly awoken. Everything glowed and pulsed in affirmation of a constant singularity. There was no question. Bob pulled on a hoodie and his jacket, walked down the lookout steps and followed Zulu down the road, pinching off leaves of sagebrush and holding them under his nose. The smells levitated his body down through the soft luminescence, a hooded mystic, Zulu gliding ahead of him like a ghost, a true yellow wolf of heaven. Two bats pulled themselves off the road and into the air only paces ahead. Bob’s heart leapt up with their erratic flight and pounded into his throat. Forgot about bats. The thought made him laugh out loud at himself. There were few things he feared more than bats. But, tonight, even his fear he loved for being a good teacher.
Climbing the hill to the lookout he admired the soft glow of the candle in the window. He climbed the stairs and started a fire in the wood stove, feeding it larger pieces of wood until the small space was a nucleus of heat high up in the clouds—like the tipi he thought, staring into the flames, all those good feelings flooding back. It had been almost a year since the ceremony and another circuit was being completed, all time concentrating into the vessel of its own termination.
This was his visceral communion with meaning. One so perfectly resonant, in fact, he knew he would not be able to express it. He thought of the time he stepped into an old tipi ring on a snowy, windswept plateau, once a buffalo jump, and saw a set of boot tracks leaving the entrance. They were frozen but matched his size and tread exactly, as though he were tracking his future self through time. The peyote way was like that, one of aligning meaning so precisely and personally tailored that one was persuaded well beyond their limits of credulity. It was as simple and plain to see as a blade of grass bending toward the sun. Does defining it really make it more meaningful? Bob didn’t think so. This was the magic he and Coyote often spoke of, both of them feeling as though purpose was a kind of photosynthesis.
Down the slope near an old silver snag, glistening in the moonlight, Zulu sat frozen in the sagebrush, eyes fixed beyond their limits, ears tall and sharp, listening. Bob stared into the green and blue flames and asked the only question that came to him. He undressed and stood naked, aglow and quivering before the Thunderbird god. He waited until he was sure. In no uncertain terms, the answer was blood.
✽ ✽ ✽
Ulf Pike is a fifth generation Montanan and infantry combat veteran of OIF 08-10. He read books and wrote about them at Montana State University while fighting wildfires with the Forest service in the summers. For the past five seasons Ulf has staffed a fire lookout tower in Idaho with his dog Zuul where he recently completed his first book. His work has appeared in The Wrath Bearing Tree and SmokeLong Quarterly.