At the museum café we read every item on the menu before ordering the buffalo chili and cornbread with a pat of butter. The Native Americans hunted buffalo and that is why the chili is the best choice. We have walked through broad rooms of artwork by the Cherokee and Chippewa, the Sioux and Blackfeet tribes, and of course by the Caucasians, who were romanced by the natives atop their stallions, but not enough to treat them like brothers. The museum tells the story of a decimation.
This is the worst nightmare: Wading through black viscous liquid, almost thick as tar, we bump into the corpses of children. This particular sea is more body than fluid and there is no escaping its plague. With every step the horrible mass rises toward the gray above us. Once it reaches our waists, complete submersion is inevitable.
Three times a man and his family walk past me in the gallery of western landscapes, where the triptych of the Grand Canyon is so realistic patrons could trip through the canvas and plummet past pastel rock face. The man makes eye contact with me without turning his head—he does not want his deliberate watching to catch his wife’s attention. His eyeballs pinball in his skull.
From an instructional plaque upstairs in the history gallery: In the Ohio killing houses, the whites tomahawked and scalped ninety-six non-violent Lenape while they kneeled, prayed, and sang Christian hymns. The tribe had given their souls to their invaders but it could never be enough. After the murders, the whites used eighty horses to plunder the village before they burned it to the ground. What we produce is worth more than our lives.
This is the fear a tyrant brings: Armed men make regular rounds, hunting to eradicate goodness. Hidden with us, in our little house, is goodness. We have drawn the curtains, turned off the lights, and in the soft yellow air we crouch low—our mission is to protect the glow of the world even through our bewilderment. Lower and lower we bend, until we are strewn like firewood dropped by our carrier. Even while abandoned, we hold our spirits close lest the evil circulating the place detect our joy.
The Grand Canyon triptych expands across an entire wall and the realism is enough to knock you back to the black leather couch in a fainting spell. Linger, for a moment, against the firm cushions, while you lick the sweet residue of buffalo and corn from your lips, and then surrender completely. Smell the crisp pines, feel the clammy shadows on your cheek; your breath is so shallow at this high altitude. Think of the builders in cities as they scurry across scaffolding to erect monstrosities, trying to outdo the natural world. Concentrating on not falling is an existence all its own, requiring self-trickery and obsession. It demands mantras about one foot in front of the other and patient breathing, an insistence on only a peripheral understanding of the expanse of the sky, of not looking at what we might have and if we do, for the love of God, not turning our head all the way to see.