The Firebird XLII

The Boy 001


“Help me!” I cried, turning my face up towards the Firebird; but my voice was lost amid the screams and shouts of the shipwrecked.

The water was up to my chest now.  I craned my neck, twisting my head this way and that in an effort to take in my surroundings for what I feared might be the last time.  The scene, which I had expected to be so glorious, had taken on an entirely disastrous aspect.  Tongues of flame flickered on every side, licking the sulfurous air.  Shafts of blood-red sunlight pierced the thick and gathering purple smokes.  Despite the heat the wound in my heart grew cold and I remembered the word the Bird had used in answer to my question:  ambiguous.

Then once again I heard his voice as if from inside my own head:  “The book!”

Quickly I produced the little book and opened it.  The first words that met my eye were fear not.

“Fear not,” I said, repeating them over to myself.  “Fear not.  Be not afraid.”  With my mind and my mouth I tried desperately to quell my rising fears.  But it was no use, for the dread was not in my mind.  It had nothing to do with the words of my mouth.  I felt it as if it were a dark thread in the very fiber of my being.  My heart was floundering helplessly in an ocean of terror just as surely as my body was sinking into the waters of the sea.  I clenched a fist and raised it to the sky.

“‘Fear not!’” I cried, my chin in the water.  “What good does it do to tell me that?  ‘Fear not!’  You might as well throw me into the sea and tell me not to sink!  You might as well command a stone to float or a feather not to fly before the wind!  What does it accomplish?  How does it help?”

But no answer came, only a repetition of the command:  fear not.  Horror engulfed me and my head slipped beneath the water.

I don’t believe I remained below the surface for more than a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity, during which a flood of confused thoughts went spiraling ceaselessly through my brain.  Foremost among them was this:  To have come so far only to be drowned in sight of the goal.  I wondered why this should be and what sense it could possibly make.

That’s when I felt a hand take hold of mine.  It gripped me tightly and began to pull, and in the next instant I was rising up out of the water.  I lifted my eyes as my head broke the surface and saw the sky, black with the smoke of burning ships and boats, and the wave-tips red with the lurid light of the dancing flames.

Then I turned and looked up into the face of my benefactor.  What a surprise to find myself staring into the eyes of a boy a little larger than myself!  He stood upon the water and drew me up to stand beside him.  His clothes, which were far too big for him, were all in rags, but I paid little attention to that.  What caught my eye was the cloak of heaven blue that he wore over everything else, the red clay lamp that he held in his hand, and the basket of golden apples that hung on his arm.

His smooth cheek glowed and his eyes danced bright in the firelight as he held out the basket of apples.

“Take and eat,” he said with a smile.  “You’re hungry, and you’re going to need your strength.”

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A Religious Duty

Books 001

“A modern state can function only if the citizens give it their support, and that support can be obtained only if privatization is erased, if propaganda succeeds in politizing all questions, in arousing individual passions for political problems, in convincing men that activity in politics is their duty.  The churches often participate in campaigns (without understanding that they are propaganda) designed to demonstrate that participation in public affairs is fundamentally a religious duty.”

                      — Jacques Ellul, Propaganda,  

The Firebird XLI


Sun arch 001


The dazzling half-circle on the horizon grew larger and larger as I sped forward, its great arch towering above me and filling half the sky.  The heat was beyond anything I had ever experienced.  I felt small and withered before it, like a tiny black raisin bobbing on the surface of the sea.  It seemed as if I must soon burn away or melt into nothingness beneath the fierceness of the relentless blaze.

Gradually I began to notice that there were other people all around me, some walking or standing on the current as I was, some swimming, some floating, many in boats and rafts and sea-going vessels of all kinds, all of them heading directly into the sun.

Next I heard a tremendous rushing sound which at first I took for the roar of the sunset’s flame, but soon recognized as the voice of many waters.  Squinting narrowly into the blinding brilliance, I could see that the sun was not a solid disc of fire, as I had supposed, but rather a ring, an arch, a flaming gateway through which the ocean was being sucked as if through a huge drain at the margin of the world.  This, as I now realized, was the source of the current’s pull.  Peering through the fiery portal, I thought I could make out bright pin-pricks of stars shining in a velvet purple sky on the other side.  At the same moment, I discovered the reason for the booming in my ears:  on either side of the bright arch the sea was thundering over the edge of the horizon into a dark, unknowable emptiness below.

Jagged reefs appeared on the right hand and the left as the current made its way straight on into the flaming gateway of the sun.  It became clear to me that if I simply stood upon the surface I was certain to reach my goal without the slightest exertion of effort on my part.  In spite of this, I felt oppressed as with a deep and growing sense of inward dread.

Suddenly I heard cries and screams rising above the roar of the waters:  “Help!  We’re lost!  We’re ruined!”

I whipped my head around in the direction of the sound.  What I saw took my breath away.

It was a shipwreck.  There on a razor-sharp reef, its prow riven in, its cracked and creaking masts swaying and tipping crazily against the sky, lay the great golden-sterned galleon that had passed me by so long ago, the Sunrise.  I saw its passengers, all in their fine silks and velvets and laces, leaping by scores into the boiling foam, mad with terror, some with linen napkins still at their throats, others with silver forks and spoons in their hands.

An instant later the entire ship burst into flame, ignited by the sheer heat of the sun.  Flinching to one side, I saw that hundreds of other small craft – wooden skiffs and rafts and dinghies and boats of every description – had similarly caught fire, and that their crews, too, were leaping into the water on every side.

“This will surely be the end of me!” I cried to the Firebird, who was still soaring overhead.  “I’ll be burnt to a crisp!  How can I possibly go on?”

And as I my sense of dread grew ever stronger, I felt myself sinking slowly beneath the waves.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Tradition of the Elders

Pilgrim 2 001

That night old Arrowmaker found his fire warmed by boys come to sit around him as in his youth, before everyone had guns.  Once more they came to watch him as he trued the shafts with his scraper and notched them for the feathers. 

                      — Mari Sandoz, Cheyenne Autumn


* * * * * * * * * * * *


Citior, altior, fortior – “faster, higher, stronger.”  That’s the official motto of the Olympic Games.  It’s also a neat and tersely symbolic summation of what it takes to be a “somebody” in the modern world.

The coiners of the Olympic slogan could easily have added iunior – “younger” – to this list of desirable comparative adjectives, but that would have been superfluous.  Everybody already knows that youth is prerequisite to speed, strength, and skill.  In fact, it would be fair to say that almost all of the qualities associated with “winning,” not only in the Games but in the kosmos at large, belong exclusively to the young.  That’s particularly true in the “First World” of the West, and truest of all in the good ol’ USA.

“Our American culture does not esteem the elderly,”[1] says one astute observer, summing up the situation in eight short words.  His observation has become a truism in a culture where the economy thrives by commercializing youth and keeping “grayness” carefully out of sight and out of mind.

It wasn’t always this way.  Not that “ageism” – bias against the elderly – is an entirely new phenomenon.  Far from it.  But in the recent past it’s been ramped up, hyped up, and exacerbated to an unprecedented degree.  It’s not hard to see why.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution we’ve been living in a technological rather than a traditional society.  The two operate on the basis of radically different assumptions.  Traditional societies depend upon the faithful transmission from one generation to the next of a long-established and unchanging body of practical know-how and life-skills.  Under this kind of system, older people are naturally valued and respected as the indispensable keepers, preservers, and propagators of the “tribal lore.”  Younger people look up to them because they desperately need them.  Their expertise is the key to survival for future generations.

It’s altogether different in a technologically based society.  Here there is no fixed body of “lore” to be passed from grandfather to father to son.  Here the practical knowledge required for economic survival changes on an almost daily basis.  In this context, it’s not familiarity with and command of a tradition that counts, but innovation, inventiveness and adaptability – qualities we naturally associate with the young.

In the 1870s the Northern Cheyennes of Wyoming and Montana were still a traditional society – one of the hundreds of ancient and distinct North American cultures to be crushed to dust and swept away before the relentless advance of “The Technological Society.”  It’s a measure of how rapidly and efficiently the new system supplants the old that, after surrendering to the juggernaut, it only took about five years for the tribe’s younger generation, many of whom had spent a significant portion of their lives on or around the government “agencies,” to begin losing touch with the tradition of their ancestors.

All that changed drastically when two Cheyenne Old Man Chiefs, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, made a decision to lead their people out of captivity in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and back to their home on the Yellowstone River.  On the night of September 9, 1878, about 300 Cheyennes, men, women, and children, went AWOL with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few supplies and firearms.  By a strategy of constant running, fighting, and hiding some of them managed to elude the military might of the most advanced nation on earth for nearly seven months.

This was a remarkable feat on any reckoning, but it wouldn’t have been possible apart from the tradition of the elders.  In a very real sense, those few Cheyennes who eventually made it as far as Montana owed their lives almost entirely to the skills of the aged Arrowmaker, who knew how to shape bows and shafts when guns and ammunition ran low; to the Grandmothers, who understood herbs and plants and the preservation of game meat; and to the old hunters and guides, who taught them how to cover their tracks “so the earth seemed touched only by the wind.”[2]

In many ways, the Northern Cheyenne Exodus is a picture-perfect parable of the Pilgrim Path.  It’s the story of a ragged band of hassled and harried travelers struggling to find their way home through unthinkable trials and against horrendous odds.  More than that, it’s a testimony to the indispensable value of the Old Ways.  Seen from the right perspective, it serves as a reminder that Pilgrims, like the younger Cheyennes of Little Wolf’s band, are in many ways dependent upon the wisdom of those who have trod the path before them:  veterans of faith with the experience to act as wise custodians and purveyors of a precious body of eternal truth – truth that never can and never will change.


[1] Steven J. Cole, “Psalm 71:  Growing Old God’s Way,” © 1993.

[2] Mari Sandoz, Cheyenne Autumn (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1953), p. 153.

Back to School

Books 001

“The sheep-like tendency of human society soon makes inroads on a child’s unsophistications, and then popular education completes the dastardly work with its systematic formulas, and away goes the individual, hurtling through space into that hateful oblivion of mediocrity. We are pruned into stumps, one resembling another, without character or grace …”

“Schools are a menace, and city life is canned.”

                   — Painter and Illustrator N. C. Wyeth

The Firebird XL

Two Rocks 001


And so I rode the green sea current down the long corridor between the two great rocks, the small gray bird perched quietly and unobtrusively upon my shoulder.  When I was not reading in my little book I spent the time in talk with him.

“How wonderful it will be to see the sun again!” I babbled.  “I’ve been in the darkness for such a long time.  It’s not far now, is it?  What will it be like when we reach that place?”

“Ambiguous,” was his reply.

Ambiguous?  What could he possibly mean?  I had no idea, but I had long since ceased to expect clear answers from him.  So I kept quiet and restrained myself from questioning him further.  It was enough to know that I could trust him to be a true and faithful guide.

At length the channel widened out and the rocks fell away on either side.  The blue sky opened out in front of me, so bright to my eye as to be almost blinding.  I closed the book and stood upon the surface of the water, riding the swift ocean current, watching as sea and sky unfolded in a panorama of dazzling brilliance.  The last grim point of rock slipped away and the current flung me, staggering to keep my balance, out into the surging blue plain of the open sea.  Flinching, I squeezed my eyes shut and turned away; for there on the horizon was the edge of the setting sun itself, a radiant segment of a circle, an archway of flaming fire sitting at the edge of the world.

Covering my poor eyes, which had been weakened by such a long sojourn in the shadows, I turned to speak to the bird on my shoulder.  He was gone.  There was a flash of light, and I raised my head to see the Firebird, in all his glory, soaring ahead of me in the air.

All in an instant I was seized with an inexplicable sense of fear.  “What shall I do now?” I called to the flaming bird.

As if from within my own head his voice came to me, still and soft:  “Take one step and then another.  Go straight on into the sunset, through the blaze of the evening and out into the glory of the dawn.  There is no turning back now nor any turning aside.  The current is too strong.”

It was true.  The river in the ocean was picking up speed, flowing faster and faster every minute, drawing me irresistibly towards the fiery arch at the meeting place of sea and sky.  I knew that by my own efforts I might either speed or impede my progress, but with or without them I was sure to reach the place in due time.  And so I resolved to follow the Firebird’s instructions:  one step at a time, placing one foot before the other, I walked upon the surface of the stream in the midst of the swelling sea, faster and faster into the red blaze of the sunset.                            

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The Firebird XXXIX

Two Rocks 001


Even as he spoke the current gained strength, sweeping me swiftly away from that place and down the middle of the strait corridor between the two rocks.  I did nothing but stand upon the surface of its flow as it carried me rapidly along.  At the end of the channel, in the narrow gap between the dripping black walls where the rocks fell abruptly away on each side and the water spilled out into the open sea, I could see the horizon.  It was a very small piece of the horizon, but bright with clear colors and more than adequate to provide me with a powerful hint of the glory soon to be revealed.

Though profoundly thankful and filled with the joy of anticipation, I could not help turning to the small gray bird, who sat perched on my shoulder, and asking, “Why did you leave me?  And at such a terrible moment?”

“I never did,” he replied.

“How was I to know that?  I couldn’t see you!  When I followed the book’s instructions and looked up, you weren’t there.  What was I supposed to think?”

“Wasn’t the course clear to you?” he answered softly.  “Where else could you have gone?”

“But such a course!” I exclaimed.  “With monsters and blood-sucking predators on either hand!  It was like a death-trap!  Why did you lead me this way?”

“Have you or have you not be delivered?” he responded.

I, of course, had nothing to say in return.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Last and First

Books 001

“I looked about me in life and in history and literature and I saw that there were two kinds of men, the defeated and the undefeated, and that surely the last was the first.”

— Mari Sandoz, author of Crazy Horse:  Strange Man of the Oglalas and Cheyenne Autumn.    

Quoted in Bruce Nicoll, “Mari Sandoz:  Nebraska Loner.”  The American West 2.2 (Spring 1965): 32-36.  


The Firebird XXXVIII

Monsters 001


Unable to think or move, I floundered in the water, awaiting the inevitable blow.  It never came – at least not from the quarter expected.  For as the monster shifted its weight and raised its arm, its gaggle of horrid eyes flashing red, something else seized me from behind.

I cried out in pain, for the Something was hard and sharp against the skin of my left arm.  Jerking my head to one side, I saw that it was a huge glossy-black pincer, like that of a crab or lobster.  The creature to which it was attached was shaped like a gigantic beetle or spider.  It was leaning down over me from the rocky ledge above, its ungainly body, encased in overlapping black plates or scales, creaking unsteadily on eight spindly multi-jointed legs.  From beneath its armor peered two green and glowing eyes.

My brain reeled.  Stars danced before my eyes.  The great pincer tightened, drawing the bright red blood.  Slowly the creature drew me, screaming, shouting, and pounding the iron-hard armor with my free hand, up to the mouth of its hole.  Here it would certainly have devoured me had not the first monster shot out an elastic limb and caught me by the waist.

Then began a tug o’ war that continued until the crab-like creature suddenly and deftly snipped off the other’s arm with its empty claw.  With a howl, the hundred-eyed beast flung three more snaky limbs across the channel, fastening them not upon me but around the body of the black crab.  Then both creatures splashed down into the churning green water with me tightly in their grasp.

By reason of its weight, the black crab sank immediately.  I held my breath until it seemed my lungs must burst.  At last, with a violent tug of its tentacles, the hundred-eyed monster, which was floating on the surface like a great bulbous jellyfish, drew both the crab and myself out of the water and straight towards its gaping red maw.

To my surprise, it was at this very moment that the words of the book came back to me once more:

Look up, for help is near.

Even in the midst of my terror and confusion I did look up.  Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the small gray bird sitting on a projecting ledge of rock above my head.  He winked at me before fluttering off into the air.

Strange to say, that wink changed everything.  My entire outlook was instantly altered.  Though bleeding, bruised, and nearly suffocated in the crush, I could not help laughing out loud as I gazed upon the two unsightly creatures, so ridiculous did they appear to me in the midst of their deadly struggle.  I laughed again as the black crab lunged with its claw, the other catching the pincer in its powerful teeth.  An instant later I was free, the crab having released me in an attempt to save its own life.  I sank, then surfaced, blowing and spluttering and trying desperately to swim.

“The book!  The book!” came a voice at my ear.  “Remember the words of the book!”

I raised my face to the zenith as the foam surged over my head, filling my nose and mouth.  Even as I went under I could see through the lens of shifting water bright bands of cloud floating in stripes of white and gold across a patch of clear blue sky between the black summits of the rocks.  I knew without seeing it that the sun was above the horizon and very near indeed.

And then I was rising slowly out of the water.  First my face, then my whole head broke the surface.  Gratefully I gulped the salty air as my shoulders, chest, arms, stomach, and legs all rose dripping from the sea.  At last I stood upon my feet above the waves once more.

Turning my head, I looked up to the mouth of the hundred-eyed monster’s cave.  There lay the two creatures, dead, each locked firmly in the other’s death-grip.

“You see how simple it is,” whispered a voice at my ear.  It was, of course, the small gray bird.

“They have destroyed each other,” he said.  “They have cancelled one another out.”

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