The day I met Montana & Lyle whorls of dry, black dust spun past me down the dirt road, dancing to the overhead music of cottonwoods. The breeze died, asphyxiating the dance. Silence and stillness returned to the Saskatchewan prairie. The swelter rose. Morning sagged in the heat.
Wearing just cut-offs and runners in the heat, my bare back pressed against the gnarled, ghostly trunk of an old cottonwood, our auras commingling. To my left the dirt road disappeared into a spruce and aspen bluff. On my right, the road ran down the flat distance and away. Heat shimmer obliterated the horizon.
Behind me was the house that my friend, Skylark, was visiting. His ailing cousin lived there. Skylark’s blue Buick sat in the grassless yard next to his cousin’s beat-up half-ton. Deep in the truck shade lay an ancient yellow Lab, prone, pregnant and panting in the 110-degree heat. It was the eighth day in a row the temperature had cracked a hundred.
I could hear Skylark’s rattle and soft chant wafting through an open window, a shaman at work. I closed my eyes. The cottonwood and I sent a plume of positive energy toward my friend and his cousin.
Before me, the prairie spread a carpet of dun August grass dotted with clumps of chokecherry bushes, wolf willow and distant majestic cottonwoods. The most prominent feature of the landscape was a huge boulder that bulged on the horizon half a mile away, a granite erratic left by some vanishing glacier. When I fixed my gaze on the boulder and crossed my eyes, a swirl of energy spun up and away, purple against the faint green aura of the place.
Slowed by the heat yet defying evaporation, a drop of sweat fell from my chin onto my chest. A curled cottonwood leaf drifted languidly to the ground settling delicately between three pale blades of gamma grass. The morning came to a standstill.
Cued by something in my peripheral vision I glanced down the black road that stretched away into the wavering heat haze. Slowly, starting a few feet away, the heatshimmer parted. A stunning clarity replaced the obscurity as the opening rolled away from me like a spool in a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, just this side of the vanishing point, two black sticks, poked in the ground, stitched land and sky together. Though barely discernable, the sticks tugged at my attention. They appeared to move but dissolved as the curtain of shimmer fell.
Overhead a red-tailed hawk, adrift on the updrafts, cried in the heat. A breeze stirred more dust devils from the hot black dirt. My attention kept being drawn to the two sticks.
Through the haze, I glimpsed them moving closer. Skylark’s rattle ticked yonder. My skin and cottonwood skin melded in the heat. Lexicon intact, the tree and I shared primal thoughts – tree to man to tree. I felt whittled.
Borne in this sizzling, August cauldron, the vague and formless sticks shape-shifted into human form. As they neared, I made out two men in lively conversation walking side by side, their voices distant, arms expressive. Nearer now, I recognized the stomp-and-sway gait of young aboriginal men. It’s a side-to-side rocking of the body that accompanies each step, made more obvious by long hair. Urban aboriginals seldom stomp-and-sway. Concrete causes the forgetting of uneven ground; the forgetting of tactile and kinetic responses to earth energies over and through which we pass; the forgetting by the body-memory of how to be where we are; the forgetting of the meaning of shadows; all gone, paved over.
As if passing through a screen of vertical shimmer, two teenagers emerged – six feet tall, muscular berry-brown bodies in cut-offs and runners. Black eyes shining, long black hair swaying, they walked toward me smiling. Their faces were bright, clear, open. And identical! Twins! Not a crazy-from-the-heat prairie mirage of twins, but actual twins!
I stood as they approached; both shook hands with a double clench. I introduced myself.
“Ahh, Aspen Smoke. You are Skylark’s friend. That’s his Buick,” one said. “We hear about you.”
“I’ll bet. What are your names?” I asked.
“Montana and Lyle. Identical twins. Rare.” I said.
“Magical. One egg, two boys,” said Montana. “We were born right over there,” indicating the big erratic in the open meadow.
“How old are you?”
“We’re eighteen,” voices identical, echoes.
Resemblance this close created a pleasant eeriness. The cell-to-cell similarity in skin tone, limb angles, bone shape and musculature seemed sculpted by two winds with a single intent; dark-lipped mouths speaking as one; casting identical shadows – this only begins to define their twinness. As we talked they stood in mirrored poses.
I asked where they were headed on a hot day.
“There’s a little lake in those trees,” said Montana pointing down the road. “We’re going for a swim. Wanna come?”
We headed down the road.
I left a thought at the cottonwood for Skylark so he could find me. He always finds me whether I do this or not. I glanced back at his Buick, now bright purple in the shivering sun.
We walked three abreast and I immediately adopted the stomp-and-sway, kicking up small clouds of dust. Grasshoppers stuttered crazily before us. We were an intent trio, mostly silent, yet in touch. I sensed a powerful bond between the twins, boundless and fluid. This quickened me. My intuition became prime source. I shared their thought experiences, wondering ‘who’s doing this – they or I?’ I felt they were allowing me this awareness.
When we rested under a grizzled, old oak, I sat across from the pair, genetic dittos defying difference, everything in duplicate. Their skin twitched from bugs in the same pattern; cuticles, areolas, eyelashes, finger joints, laughter – identical. Sometimes belly buttons can be the only point of distinction between idents. Not here.
As we entered the trees, the heat became oppressive. The trail was easy to follow and soon we arrived at the lake. The path skirted the shore under cottonwoods and aspens. A sharp decline and we arrived at a clear pool indented into large flat rocks and shaded by three huge, laconic cottonwoods. We were alone.
“Here’s the swimmin’ hole,” said Lyle.
I knew it was Lyle because there was one small but distinctive feature that set them apart. Lyle had something Montana did not: a thin half-inch scar on his forehead above his right eye, a pale blemish on his dark skin. I surmised some sort of accident but, when I asked, Lyle said he was born with it.
A scar from another lifetime? A cosmic safeguard against rascalism? A mark of distinction inflicted by his brother during womb time? Whatever the cause, a borderline of some kind existed in the scar, expressing the only degree of separation between the two.
I slipped out of my runners and cut-offs and waded naked into the shady pool. The twins did the same. The water felt cool and healing against our crackly skin. I ducked under and broke surface laughing. I heard the ringing, echoey laughter of the twins across the water. We were brothers now in this flickering amniotic pond, coddled by the Great Mother, enlivened by Great Spirit. Our cavorting and splashing sent cool wet sprays into the heat, making the local spirits blissful. We expressed our gratitude aloud. We imitated otters.
Floating on my back, staring at the cottonwoods that towered over the water, I saw speckles of the sky dance in the quivering leaves. I watched the shadow of a curious eagle dodge branches and make a figure eight over the surface of the water. I heard the shy, delicate whispers of the willow. In slow pulses morning became afternoon.
In the pool, we were fishes, lungless, coy and oblivious to the existence of water, happy for no reason. Time passed unnoticed.
Prune-skinned we climbed out of the pond onto the flat, shaded rocks. Something resonated as we emerged from the water with glistening primal skin; a sudden remembering repressed for millennia burst into light and sound. We sang the song the stone taught us. The pool breathed below, the cottonwoods above.
From the eagle’s aerie, we were dabs of fat smeared on a rock. At ground level we were laughing, crying flesh singing the truth song of stone.
When I stood to stretch, the twins laughed at my tan line. They had none.
“White man’s burden,” I said cracking them up. “I’m still evolving.” They clutched their sides in glee.
I looked into their faces. Mystery danced in their eyes, their lithe bodies writhed as they laughed. Again I was struck by their twinness.
Linked from the moment of conception, born on a full moon during a meteor shower, Montana and Lyle had been reared in a place where magic played a significant role. Raised for their specialness, their wisdom, and for the role they were destined to play, the twins were watched closely by everyone they met, watched for some sign, some sacred posture or sound, a warning, a blip. They were watched for hope.
Montana and Lyle’s young parents had tried to conceive for almost five years without success. One day in early fall their mother, Fawnheart, was walking in the sparse forest that covered about one-third of the reservation. She encountered Old Smoke, an elder who still remembered the traditional ways and the old, old songs. He was a kindly, energetic man, related by blood to Fawnheart’s partner, Fire Hawk. Old Smoke sat with Fawnheart on two sitting stones in a shady part of the forest. The old man listened quietly as Fawnheart told her story.
She spoke of the deep, precious love she shared with Fire Hawk, how they endeavoured to love all creation, hoping to conceive a child out of that love. It hadn’t happened and Fire Hawk was feeling disheartened and inadequate.
“I am feeling the same way,” she cried. “We don’t know what to do now. Is Great Spirit punishing us?”
Comforting the young woman, Old Smoke put his right arm around her shoulders. Instructing her to breathe deeply and slowly, he placed his open left palm on the woman’s abdomen and held it there for a few minutes, his eyes tightly shut.
“I can help you,” he said suddenly, breaking the silence. “You know the buffalo rub stone?”
Everyone knew the buffalo rub stone, the big erratic in the meadow.
“In three days it is full moon. That night you and Fire Hawk meet me at the big stone.”
“Yes, I will tell Fire Hawk. We’ll be there.”
“Tell no on else about this,” Old Smoke cautioned. “No one.”
On full moon night, the trio arrived at the big stone, a solid slab of granite over seven feet high surrounded on all sides by short prairie grass. Flat-topped with sides smooth from the rubbing of countless animals, it seemed to float above the ground in the moonlight. The stone was ringed by a grassless, dry moat, hewn from the hardpan by millions of hooves tramping the circle seeking the satisfaction of the stone. Much of the pleasure the stone gave was returned to it by all the creatures it soothed. Not just buffalo but white-tailed deer, pronghorns, elk, mastodons, wooly mammoths all sought the stone’s relief. Even the odd coyote rubbed a flea-bitten haunch against a corner.
A vast reservoir of itches relieved, scabs removed, horns shucked, molting fur and antler velvet rubbed off, hot bug bites quelled and countless unknown pleasures abided within the buffalo rub stone. The pus from infections broken onto the stone from time to time attracted a certain kind of sand wasp with a huge pink thorax, transparent yellow abdomen and a shiny blue head. If you were quiet, you could hear the tiny three-note tune the wasps sang as they sipped. Everyone knew all this.
“Here’s something you don’t know about this stone,” said Old Smoke standing with his right hand pressed against the smooth rock. “This is a Spirit Dancing Stone. Sometimes – only the Mystery knows when – you will see this stone alive with ecstatic dancing spirits. Their laughter crackles in the night. I have seen them myself.
“When I was younger than you I was riding my pony here one evening past sunset. A spinning bluish light encircled the stone. It made a whirring noise. On top of the stone danced two spirits tall as people. They pulsed together like northern lights, a throbbing dance, commingling in mid-air, their faces painted with bliss. I watched them til my eyes had to look away.
“Since then I’ve wondered why I was chosen to see that. When you told me your story Fawnheart, I knew why I’d seen the Spirit Dancers. Here’s what we’re going to do tonight.”
Old Smoke explained the ritual to the eager young couple. They agreed to proceed.
He lit a sage and sweetgrass twist and smudged himself with a soft song on his old lips. He made a slow circle around the stone along the path of the moat; smudging the stone, the young couple and a buffalo robe he’d brought along. While Old Smoke spread the robe over the top of the stone and took a few items from his medicine bundle, Fawnheart and Fire Hawk stripped naked and climbed on top of the stone. They sat cross-legged on the soft robe facing each other, hands resting on the other’s knees.
“Breath deep and slow now,” the shaman told the pair. “Look into each others eyes and do not look away. Let your souls travel the path of your gaze. Know and experience each other this way. Be generous. Share yourself. Be creative. Be love. Create! Great Spirit is with you.”
Old Smoke danced a halting path around the stone. Moving to his rattle in a sunwise direction, he sang a welcoming song to the spirits. The path soon began to fill with glowing spirits dancing alongside the old man. An ecstatic whirlwind began to form around the stone; it funneled upward into the blue-black night toward the tumescent moon.
“Make love now!” Old Smoke shouted to the young couple as he stepped out of the whirlwind into the calm prairie beyond. A spinning cocoon of light enveloped the stone. Inside, the couple looked like vague coupling embryos, dark motes pulsing inside a wild shimmer.
Burning in ecstasy under a full-eyed moon Fawnheart conceived. The Great Spirit smiled and her egg split in two.
That was the full moon in September. Montana and Lyle were born on the same buffalo robe on top of the same rock under the same full moon in June. Perfectly healthy, identical twins. At birth, glowing red lanugo covered their little bodies. Aches and Pains, Old Smoke’s wife, gently scrapped the red fuzz from their new skin with her wizened old fingers. She saved it in a moleskin pouch that she buried until the twins were one year old. Then it was safe to dispose of the fuzz but only by burning it after dark. Overhead meteors streaked the sky as Montana and Lyle entered the world.
The shade had moved off the rocks as we basked in the late afternoon sun.
Suddenly from nearby I heard a shout. “I COO COO AAA! I COO COO AA!”
I recognized Skylark’s voice full of humour and lightness. Montana and Lyle didn’t hear a human voice. They heard a too-close-for-comfort timber wolf howl. Such is the nature of Skylark’s magic. The twins, alert and tense in the presence of a wolf, couldn’t understand why I was laughing. Their bright faces filled with confusion.
“I COO COO AAAA!” Skylark’s laughter, then came a brown streak that vanished in a huge splash of sparkling water. Skylark’s head bobbed up spraying water in our direction, no longer wolfen, now an embodied human in cool relief.
Montana and Lyle relaxed at the same moment, synchronized change of posture followed by easy smiles and laughter, identical.
“Come on in. It’s Indian soup!” shouted Skylark.
We all jumped into the pond, energized by the sudden coolness.
“Hey there’s a white guy in the soup!” yelled Montana.
“This ain’t no tan line soup,” laughed Lyle. “Get him.”
I was beset.
“Let’s throw white meat up to Great Spirit. Let Him decide if he should be in the soup or not,” suggested wise Skylark. Of course, the twins thought it a great idea.
Floating on my back, they lifted me out of the water with gentle strong hands and tossed up toward the low branches of the cottonwoods. It felt like I would crash into the trees but stopped short, seeming to hover before falling. The water barely settled over my belly before I was lifted and tossed skyward again, nearly crashing, hovering, falling. Lifted, falling again and again.
My body recalled a vivid sense-memory from childhood: six years old, being wheeled back to my ward after appendix surgery in Brandon General Hospital. Delirious, nauseous, struggling out of ether-induced sleep, wailing in terror I felt myself rise rapidly from my bed as if lifted, sailing out of control toward the ceiling. Just before crashing I stopped, hovered and descended back down gently to my crib-like bed. I was lifted over and over, almost crashing each time. Each time I thought I was dying and God was pulling me up to heaven. My soul was fleeing the scene of the infection.
Under cottonwood trees, my body translated that memory of early terror into a feeling of comfortable abandon, wiser now, context clear. My soul sailed on wings of laughter and faith, finding safety in this moment among friends, already in heaven.
“Nine times and Great Spirit didn’t take him. Welcome to the soup,” said Skylark. The twins, their long black hair plastered wet and shiny to their shoulders and heads like helmets, laughed as I sank below the surface. No hands sent me flying this time.
As we splashed about, the afternoon grew old. Skylark said he and I were due back at his cousin’s for an evening meal. We dressed and departed after handshakes.
“I count you among my friends,” I told the twins as we left.
“Friends forever,” they both said, their faces lit with beatific smiles.
As Skylark and I walked down the narrow path through the trees, I turned and glanced back at the two men standing at the water’s edge. Almost imperceptibly, they nodded my way.
On the walk back Skylark told me about the twins’ conception and their birth.
“They are special. Great Spirit has important work for them. Did they sing for you by any chance? Skylark asked.
“We sang together. With the stone. The stone made the song. We sang along.”
Skylark stopped in his tracks, and turned slowly towards me. “You sang with them?” He was stunned.
“Yes,” I replied. “It was prairie planxty. Earth music. It felt and sounded, well, indescribable.”
After a silence Skylark said, “You are very lucky. Montana and Lyle share songs only with ones who have lived the Mystery. Do you remember the song?”
I did. Still do. The crux of the melody is a subtle tune with a hint of melancholy. Or is it a relaxed certainty? Serenity, perhaps? The song stays with me, at times welling up from my heart, seeking expression, sometimes in the light of day, other times on clear moonless nights.
Later that night when we left Skylark’s family after hours of food, music and laughter, I found a crumpled paper bag on the hood of the blue Buick. The bag had my name written on it. Inside were two short round pieces of wood with smooth black bark, slightly speckled. The sticks were from the same branch, each about four inches long, flat ends, as big around as a nickel. On the cut end of one stick, carefully carved was the letter ‘M’, on the other, ‘L’.
With the sticks was a hand-written note: “When a person forgets their earth/sky connection, these will help them remember. Be well. M & L”
“Do you know what those are?” asked Skylark, a smug grin on his face because he knew what I’d say.
“Haven’t a clue.” I was puzzled.
“Memory sticks. For between the toes,” Skylark said. “Grandfather had a pair. I believe he was given them when he was a young man by twins, like you. They were female twins. His sticks were dark and speckled, like yours.
“Grandfather carried them in his medicine bundle right up to the time of his death. A few days before he passed on Grandfather called me to his tent. He was alone, sitting on a stone. He had the two sticks clasped between his hands when I entered. He was chanting a prayer of gratitude to the sticks, thanking them and the Creator for all the healing they’d done together. He told the sticks it was time for them to be transformed, just like him. After smudging himself, the sticks and me with sweet cedar, he motioned me to open my palms. He gently placed the sticks on my hands. Still covering them with his hands, he told me to take the sticks to the nearby stream to a certain spot we both knew. I was to push them into the ground where the earth was soft but not muddy with the initials facing up. I don’t remember the women’s names but the initials were M & L, just like yours.”
That familiar tingle of synchronicity blossomed in me.
“The next spring,” Skylark went on, “where I’d pushed the sticks in, bright green shoots sprang up even before the snow was gone, as early as crocuses. They grew rapidly into a willowy tree with dark red branches, bright shiny leaves and supple limbs. It still grows there. I’ll take you sometime.”
“Your Grandfather continues to teach us even to this day,” I said. “Now I know my responsibility to these sticks if I use them for healing.”
“He is very generous,” said Skylark wistfully. “And now we know the reason for Montana and Lyle’s visit: to give you the memory sticks. Everything is a circle.”
“How long have the twins been dead?” I asked.
After a pause, Skylark said Montana and Lyle died over fifty years ago in a car accident just down the road from his cousin’s place, not far from where I’d met them.
That night back at our campsite I smudged the sticks and said prayers of gratitude for them and my new spirit friends. Then I added the sticks to my medicine bundle.
Since then, I’ve used the sticks many times: to help people sailing on a balloon of depression, to help women conceive, in cases of Ancestral Calling and as tools to help me remember my humble place in the universe. Each time I use them I sense Spirit contained in the sticks and I am reminded of that perfect summer day, the day I met Montana and Lyle.