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Excerpt from Songs of the Dead

Latah Creek (p. 132)

From chapter "Confusion"

We arrive. We park. We get out of the car. I hear a gunshot. I turn to Allison. She doesn’t stop reaching into the back seat for the paper bag of sandwiches.

I hear another shot, and another. She doesn’t flinch at any of these.

“It’s starting,” I say.

“Do you want to sit?”

“I’m okay.”

And then I hear the boom of cannon. I’ve never heard cannon before, but I know this is the sound they make. I think I see smoke, but I’m not sure.

And then nothing. Back to normal. I grab the water from the car, and begin to walk away from the road, down a small road that has undergrowth on either side.

I stop.

Allison: “What?”

“Nothing,” I say. And we walk.

We get to a small ledge overlooking the river, perhaps ten feet up. The road ends here. We continue down a path to the river. I hope to see salmon, but I do not. For a few moments I don’t see anything unexpected.

Then suddenly it begins. I see men running for the river, men riding horses painted with brown and red figures of animals. I see men with feathers in their hair and blood on their skin. I hear gunshots. I hear cannon-fire. I hear whoops, and I see men in blue uniforms riding horses, chasing these others. I see men jumping into the river, trying to cross. I see other men stopping on the banks to shoot at them. I see many of the fleeing men fall.

“Allison,” I say.

I want to go back to the car, but I can’t turn away. I hear bullets fly past. I wonder, Can these bullets hit me? If one hits me, will I die? I wonder, Can they hit Allison, even though she doesn’t see them?

But then I stop thinking, because I see a man running toward me. He’s an Indian. He wears a white buckskin shirt and a tanned skin hat. He comes closer, and closer still. He doesn’t see me. I hear a shot, see a red rose appear on the breast of his shirt. He stumbles, rights himself, keeps running. Closer and closer he comes. The rose expands. He slows, sways, stands not a foot from me. He looks me in the eye. I cannot move.

I say, “I—”

The rose gets larger. He reaches with both hands, grabs my shoulders, says something to me in a language I don’t understand.

I want to help him, but I don’t know what to do. I search his eyes as he searches mine. He falls. I watch him die at my feet.

And then he’s gone.

Finally I take a step back, turn to face Allison. There are no more gunshots, only the sounds of cars on the interstate. Without a word she comes to hold me. I start to cry.

* * *

But I don’t learn my lesson. We try again, another picnic, another day. This time we drive east of Spokane, to the Idaho border. We stop, get out of the car. I don’t fall through time. We walk away from the road, find a nice spot near the river, put down a blanket, lay out the food: fried chicken, biscuits, and jojos. We bought the jojos, and Allison cooked the chicken and biscuits. They’re good. Had I cooked them, the chicken would have been dry, the biscuits tasteless and hard.

After lunch we sit, Allison cross-legged watching ants in the grass, me leaning slightly back, legs extended. I’m looking far away, at nothing in particular.

This time it begins with a smell.

Have you ever smelled fear? I don’t mean anxiety or tension.

I don’t even mean dread. I certainly don’t mean resignation, a smell too familiar to too many of us. I mean animal terror. That is what I smell.

I hear gunshots. Many of them. The same sort of gun I heard at the mouth of Latah Creek. I stand. Out of the corners of my eyes I see Allison look up at me. I shake my head, begin to walk. She stands, follows.

The smell gets stronger, mixing now with gunpowder, sweat, and the smell of horses. The sounds get stronger too: rifles, laughter, the whinnying of horses, and in my chest—not my ears—I hear the rumble of thousands of horse hooves pawing the ground.

I walk toward the sound, around a bend in the river, Allison a couple of steps behind me and off to the side.

And then I see before me a sea of horses, contained on one side by the river, on two sides by steep banks, and on the final side by a rope fence. They’re the Indians’ horses. Or they were. Men in blue surround the horses. Men in blue stand beyond the rope fence. Men in blue shout orders. Men in blue throw back their heads and laugh. Men in blue wade into the sea, clubbing the smaller horses and shooting the larger horses once in the head, just behind the ear. I look at one horse among the many hundreds, and I see the whites of her eyes as her child is killed, and then I see her fall, too. I hear another shot, and see another horse fall. And another. And another.

I stop, stand, stagger, say, “I can’t. . . .”

The dust below turns to mud, mixing soil, blood, piss, and shit. The slaughter continues. The men in blue laugh and laugh and laugh.

Allison stands next to me, takes my hand.

“What,” I say, ‘is wrong with these people?”