White Man’s Burden

One night Dietrich had seen his face on the screen, and for a moment, he thought it a reflection in a mirror.  He felt himself to be computer generated, a digital image, surrounded by plastic, metal, manic advertisements.  All around him was the noise of information racing at breakneck speed, driven before the mindless tsunami of progress, accumulation, consumption and demand.  He looked within himself and was dizzy at the yawning void.

He had groped for things to fill that void, clawing aside the veils of artifice to find some solid foundation.  Google depression, and a plethora of cures are offered: Romance and religion, herbal teas and meditation, crystals and angels, volumes of self-help books, gurus, and the corporate labyrinth of Modern Medicine.  He tried them all; all fell spinning into the maw of the void within, vanishing in its blackness.  He existed in virtual reality, lines of data on a video monitor, sick with vertigo.

Now he was here, squatting on a rough granite ledge on the last wild mountain, where things were not organized into pathological symmetry.   Wearing only hiking boots and khaki shorts, he felt the sun burning the fair skin of his back.  Hot.  Real.  The rock was solid beneath him.  Growing things surrounded him.  Creatures flew and crawled, lived and died in immediate, organic necessity.

Dietrich rose to his feet and walked over to where he had stowed his gear.  He got a shirt out of his pack to cover his pale skin.  As he shrugged into it, he looked up at the cliff behind him.  The sun sliding past its zenith cast shadows over the jagged relief of rock.  It almost seemed to form, in one spot, the shape of a man.  Buttoning the shirt, he returned to sit on the ledge, contemplating the geometric sprawl in the hazy distance.

The sun baked sweat out of him.  He rose again, this time to get his canteen. It was uncanny the way the shifting shadows were shaping the cliff.  The illusion of a man, standing and facing outwards, was even sharper now.  He retrieved his canteen, took a long drink of the cool, sweet water and returned it to the pack.  Real spring water, not marketed commercially in a plastic bottle with a clever logo.  No chlorine, no fluoride; untreated, untainted, untouched by humanity.  It had healing powers.

Dietrich looked back at the cliff, his eyes drawn now in fascination to the place where, clearly, the form of a man carved in rock stood out from the cliff.  How was it that he had not seen it until now?  Surely this was not merely a trick of the light.  It seemed too clearly defined to be natural.  Depressing to think some human hand had affected even this place.

His eyes were momentarily distracted by the movement of a squirrel across an open patch of rock and up a tree.  It stopped on a branch, eying him from this safe perch, its tail flicking.  It chattered at him.  Dietrich smiled.  A dragonfly zipped in front of him, zig-zagged, then lighted daintily on the tip of a dead branch in front of the cliff wall.  His eyes widened.

Like the slow, imperceptible opening of a flower, the image in the rock had grown even more distinct in the brief absence of his gaze.  A chill raised the hairs on the back of his neck as he stared, disbelief wrestling with the evidence of his senses.

The man’s facial features were now distinguishable, as were the clothes he wore.  An Indian, dressed in fringed buckskin vest and pants; his eyes were closed, muscular arms folded across his broad, smooth chest.  It was eerie, impossible, but was happening as certainly and gradually as the sun descending in the sky.

Pigment began to infuse the statue.  The hair darkened to black.  The skin assumed a ruddy tone.  The clothing acquired texture.

Finally, incredibly, the figure stepped away from the rock face, took a deep breath, opened his eyes and stretched, as if awakening from a deep sleep.  He was barrel-chested, with narrow hips, his hair not in the braids Dietrich usually associated with Indians, but pulled back into a kind of bun.  He was an awesome figure, well over six feet tall, probably closer to seven.  The Indian looked at Dietrich and grinned.  He held up his hand, palm outwards.  “How,” he said.

Dietrich stared, his mouth hanging wordlessly open.  Finally he managed to gasp, “My god!”

The Indian laughed.  “Not hardly!  Not even close!” He spoke in perfect English.

“Who–what–are you?” Dietrich stammered.

“You may call me Yeibichai,” the Indian replied.  “What brings you so far from your gas station convenience stores and cable TV, White Man?”

“I-I–”

“No, don’t tell me:  You wanted to get away from it all, get out of the city and commune with nature, to restore your soul and peace of mind.  Right?”

Dietrich struggled to regain his mental equilibrium.  “As a matter of fact, yes, something like that.  But I didn’t expect….”

“You didn’t expect Nature to commune back, eh?”

“I certainly didn’t expect something–someone like you, no.  But, here you are.  A Native American, yes?”

“Is that what you’re calling us nowadays?”  Yeibichai looked Dietrich up and down.

“I’ll address you however you’d prefer,” Dietrich said with reverent awe.  “You represent a culture that I admire and respect.  There is a great deal I would like to learn from you.”

“Learn from me?” the Indian cried in a burst of incredulous laughter.  “Go back home to your computer and call up http://www.indian.com!  I’m sure there’s a wealth of information on my people!  Go read Black Elk!  Visit a sweat lodge!  Hang a dreamcatcher from the rear view mirror of your car!”

“I meant no offense–”

“Offense?  What make you say that, Quimo Sabe?  Many moons you travel to find heap powerful medicine of Red Man.  Me flattered.  Smoke peace pipe.  Have a cigar.”

Deitrich’s mouth tightened.  “I don’t deny that your people have been treated badly.  But don’t take it out on me.  I had nothing to do with it.  I wasn’t there.”

“No, I guess your particular tribe was busy with their own racial purification project, weren’t they?”

He was chilled.  “That was before my time, too,” he said.

“Just your luck,” the Indian said with a shrug.

Dietrich frowned, frustrated.  “Listen,” he said, “I don’t deny the faults of my culture.  I don’t deny history.  I agree with you–it’s revolting.  That’s why I’m here.  I can’t change the past, and I’m horrified by the present.  What can I say to you to prove my sincerity?  What can I do to convince you I truly regret what has been done by my people?”

“Hmmm,” the Indian pondered, stroking his chin, “What would be the final solution to the White Man problem?”

#

Badly rattled, Dietrich took a day pack and headed for the summit.   He had come out here for healing, not to have salt rubbed in the wound.

The trail disappeared as the stunted vegetation gave way to a barren landscape of grey rock, jagged and frost-shattered.  The way was marked only by the occasional cairn of stones.  The wind was cold, unsoftened by trees, relieved only by sharp outcroppings of the blasted rock.  The summit of the mountain was pitiless and hostile.

He found a niche to slump down and rest.  It was somewhat sheltered, and the sun slanting in provided slight respite from the bitter cold.  He fumbled in his pack for his canteen and took a sip.  Also in his pack was a fragment of the technological civilization he had left behind, his sole concession.  An ipod, powered by rechargeable batteries, for which he had a solar recharger.  It made him able, here in this waste, to connect to the redemption of his kind, the richest of magic, music.  He tucked the buds into his ears.  With a touch of a button a symphony was conjured, the miraculous creation of a composer centuries dead.  Beethoven.  The Eroica.  Dietrich shivered in the hard rock niche and closed his eyes.

It was powerful.  It was glorious.  It was defiant and triumphant.

Slow tendrils of pride began to sprout in him again.

Atrocities?  Exploitation?  Yes.  But also this.  A vast, vivid, richly variant repertoire of music.  We have composed.  We have dreamed and written our dreams in a dozen languages, in words chosen, crafted, polished carefully like fine filigree.  We have put our dreams on canvas, celluloid, and on stage, in stone, wood, and clay.  We have built cities; our engineering genius has crossed rivers and mountains; our science has explored the secrets of cell and atom, of star and galaxy, of remote past and distant future.  We have made devices that have traveled the cold outer reaches of our solar system and sent back images of planets unknown mere decades ago.  We have accomplished astonishing things.

I can sit on a mountain top, Dietrich thought, and listen to a symphony.

He stood up, shaking his fist defiantly at the barren waste.  “I am not ashamed of who I am!” he shouted, “Do you hear me?”

The cold wind blew.  A hawk, floating easily in the air beyond the summit, was unimpressed.

#

His back ached.  The sun had descended and left this side of the mountain in shadow.  Standing up, Dietrich surveyed his efforts with less than total satisfaction.

He heard a voice behind him.  “What is that supposed to be?”

“A rabbit snare,” he replied, bracing himself for the expected insult.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Yeibichai asked.

“I read about it in a book,” Dietrich replied pointedly between clenched teeth.

The Indian laughed.  “Don’t you know that White Man’s meat comes from your local supermarket, neatly wrapped in Styrofoam and cellophane?”

“Go to hell, Yeibichai,” Dietrich muttered.

“Been there, done that.  Travel arrangements courtesy of the U.S. Government.”

Dietrich turned sharply and snapped, “My efforts may be laughable to you, but at least I have the courage to make the attempt!  So you can take your snide comments and go jump off that damned cliff you came out of, understand?”

“My, my, did we forget to take our Prozac this morning?”

“Sneer all you want, Tonto, but my people can cure diseases that your people are still shaking rattles at!”

The Indian roared with laughter, slapping Dietrich on the back so hard he lost his balance and stumbled forward, the wind knocked out of him.  “That’s more like it!  And you put a man on the moon, right?”

Dietrich glared at him, leaning against a tree to catch his balance and his breath.  “As a matter of fact, yes,” he said coldly.

“And yet, there are educated people in your enlightened culture that believe wearing crystals can cure disease.”

Dietrich winced.  “Yes, well, I’m not one of them.”

“No, of course not.  You believe in Science, right?  Now, what was it you came up this mountain for?  Never mind,” Yeibichai said, gesturing to him.  “Come over here and let Tonto show you how to rig up a rabbit snare properly.”

[end of excerpt – back to Short Stories]

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