Monday, August 3, 2020


The Incarnate Root



I’m scared it may happen on my shift. I worry for him. I think he hurts. I think he thinks, but his eyes surely don’t show it, but his spirit does. Every now and then he shakes and convulses—he looks at me, but he sees something else—the spirit world now beckons, and his eyes terrify me.

The Anamosa State Penitentiary’s walls climb thirty feet into the Iowa sky. They stand as a mocking barrier, confident in their ability to detain. Resembling a castle, the walls and their corresponding guard towers are astonishing—all Shawshanky and frightening. Walking to the Penitentiary’s infirmary on a searing September afternoon, I smell the grass, and I see the flowers—they line the cracked and ugly sidewalks. I ignore the inmates, and I acknowledge the endless blue skies. My tongue dries and numbs. I take a sip of coffee. I straighten my blue shirt which says “Hospice” in big white letters. I tidy my hair and take a deep breath. His body is now in depleted dismay—hollowed cheeks and bony bones that poke and protrude. Inside the infirmary there is no grass, or flowers. There is only an odor of pungent cleanliness that makes me ill. At the end of a long, clean, shiny hallway is a hospice cell. Inside there is a DVD player and a radio. There are children’s books for his grandkids. There are little sponges that look like lollipops. I use the not lollipops to wet his mouth when he is too sick to swallow. In the cell, there are pictures on the wall. There are big fluffy blankets and inside the blankets is a shell of a once man—he doesn’t have much time. I walk down the clean hallway. I hear wheezing. He coughs as if he drowns, and perhaps he is drowning. That’s what the nurse told me one day.

“He has stomach cancer, and he has fluids that are in his lungs,” she said.

I wonder how his stomach fluids get into his lungs.

Months ago, I see him one June morning. He’s shooting hoops. I stop what I’m doing. I walk to the court. He doesn’t talk at first. He shoots, and I shag his misses, and we are content with the silence. He is weak.

“Doctor says I’m sick,” he says.

“I heard.”

“Ain’t got much time left.”

He shoots a little longer and quickly becomes tired.

“Come sit down and hang out for a while,” he says.

He walks to a big tree whose leaves are arrogantly green. He sits down. He rests his back on the trunk and swirls the basketball on his finger.

I sit down on a green plot of grass and begin to decapitate dandelions.

“You’re Indian right?”

“Uhh, yeah. Native American.”

He takes a minute to respond, as if his words are numbered and he must choose them wisely. “So, like, what do you guys believe happens?”


“You know, like, what is gonna happen?” He is older than me and I am young, twenty-four-ish. It’s my turn to choose my words carefully.

“Ohh dude, I don’t fuckin’ know.”

“Well, you have to know something . . . don’t you go to that sweat lodge? What do those guys say?”

“They say there’s a spirit world.”

“Is that like heaven?”

“I don’t know man, I’m not really the one to ask about this sort of thing.”

“You’re a Hospice volunteer, right?”


“You know I’ll be gone in a couple months, right?”

“Come on man, let’s talk about something else.”

“Quit being so soft, just tell me what you think. What is gonna happen?” He looks down to the ground, and I’m ashamed to feel pity.

I’ve ran out of dandelions and start to pull out blades of grass. I throw them up in the air, and they waft to the ground.

“My grandma says . . . well . . . I was raised to believe that people will go to heaven, but that’s sort of not right. I mean, I think . . . you see, the Natives at the sweat lodge—look man, you got this big tree, right?” I reach over and put my hand on the tree. “Right now the leaves are all green, but in a while all the leaves will turn colors, and they’ll fall to the ground. In the winter the tree will lose its leaves, but underneath, its roots will stay alive. We can’t see the roots, but we know they are there . . . “

“You think after I’m gone, I’ll still be here?” he asks.

“Yeah, sorta.”

“That’s the biggest crock a shit,” he says laughing. He laughs so hard tears stream down his face. I get mad for a second, then I start to laugh. We both laugh hysterically, and there are inmates who walk by—they are confused but we don’t care.

“Are you scared, man?” I ask, still smiling.

“Yeah. I’m worried about my family mostly. I don’t want them to hurt. The warden gave us unlimited visits.” He thinks this over for a second. “Make sure I look okay, all right? Make sure I’m shaved—don’t let me smell like shit.”

“What do you think is gonna happen?”

“The doctor didn’t tell me a lot. He just told me to get ready. I just hope it’s quick.”

Near his hospice cell I hear him cough and wheeze.

This is bad. It will be soon. He hasn’t stopped listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” I hear the song playing as I open the door—it is haunting and will likely haunt me for years. There are no machines beeping, nor are there wires hooked to him. I sit in a chair by his bed.

Weeks ago, his Hospice cell looked inviting, but now it feels dark—a void. He jerks up and sees something far off. This scares me. I jump and forget my training. I do the only thing I know how to do-I give him a hug and I feel his bones and I get scared. He calms and lays. I sit back in the chair. I keep my hand on his.

He settles. The darkness of the room swells. I feel the spirits that are with him. I feel their comfort. I feel their hostility. I give the spirits the respect they’ve earned. To them, I am an outsider—I don’t belong. I’m in their world now, and I watch my manners.

I sit quietly.

Sitting in the hospice cell, I remember years ago—I was young, seventeen-ish. I was a new prisoner at the Clarinda Correctional Facility (CCF) in Clarinda, Iowa. CCF looks as boring as it sounds, no walls—only razor wire fences. No flowers. No freshly cut grass.

The other Native Americans named me “The Kid.” I knew little about Native American culture; however, the elders of our group always took a special interest in teaching me.

“What does it mean to be Indian? What if I don’t feel Indian?” I asked an elder with tight black braids and a tattoo of a buffalo skull on his back—a guy straight out of a Dances with Wolves casting call. We sat on a hill as the sun went down. The sky was a mix of burnt yellows and purples. I smelled burgers cooking on a far-away grill. Fireflies danced to the hum of cicadas.

He responded, “What type of question is that?”

“I don’t man . . . sometimes it doesn’t feel like I fit in with the other guys.”

“Don’t fit in? What do you mean . . . you’re Indian!”

“Yeah, but I don’t feel Indian.”

“Oh geesh Louise, Little Brother. I used to talk like that to my grandfather. This was on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota—man, if you didn’t feel Indian at that place, you didn’t feel Indian anywhere! At Pine Ridge, people ride horses, and there’s teepees and everything. Everywhere you go there’s Indians, but I always felt different—like I didn’t belong. So I told my grandfather one day—and he was an ol’ grumpy son-of-a-gun—mean as a bull, I says, ‘Grandpa, I don’t know what it means to be Indian’, and he shook his head. He told me this”:

There was a time when Indians didn’t have to feel any way. We were all a part of the same herd—there were no differences. Well, there were differences, but we could accept our differences—our differences didn’t have meaning. When I was young, the Church people came, and they took us away; they beat us and they were cruel; they separated me from my brothers and sisters. They didn’t let me see my parents. They told us our culture was wrong, that we were different—that we weren’t allowed to be Indian anymore. And you know, some of those kids really believed that—that they were different from everyone else. Some of those kids committed suicide back then. Sheesh, everything was wrong back then. Everything we knew died. It shriveled up until it was nothing, until you felt pity for it. You felt pity for the people who clung to our culture—the people who stood outside and prayed in the old way. You know, I see our culture now, what it has become, just the bare bones of what it once was, and now it’s gone—it’s sick, and there is nothing we can do.

When you ask me how it feels to be Indian, this is a good question, because you understand you’re missing something. You can feel what you’re missing. You know—you have this cancer, you can feel it in your spirit, it drowns your lungs in fluid, it blackens your heart, it flows through you and kills everything, to the point where you have no identity, and you convulse and choke on this thing which is foreign to you . . .

But . . . you see that big ol’ tree out there? Its leaves are gone, but its roots are alive. We know this—we feel this in our spirits. And any day, we will grow our leaves back, and people will come from all around to see and feel our leaves. One day, you will know what it means to be Indian, but until then . . . keep asking these questions. It is a good thing to ask questions.

It’s dark now at CCF. The fireflies swarm and create little tracers in the night. The elder finishes his story about his grandpa. “So you see, wondering about your heritage is a good thing. Our culture is sick, and it’s dying, but just when we think it’s gone for good, we remember our roots—the things which grow underground—they’ll keep us alive.”

In the hospice cell, his lungs drown in fluid. He convulses and chokes on this cancer—this thing which is foreign to him.

I’m scared it may happen on my shift. I worry for him. I think he hurts. I think he thinks, but his eyes surely don’t show it, but his spirit does—every now and then he shakes and convulses—he looks at me, but he sees something else: the spirit world now beckons, and his eyes terrify me.

His body is in depleted dismay—hollowed cheeks and bony bones that poke and protrude. Inside the infirmary there is no grass, or flowers, or never-ending skies. There is only an odor of pungent cleanliness which makes me ill.

He looks to me again, and I hold him close.