The first thirst begins at sundown, as we circle the lodge blowing on our eagle bone whistles, our Pendleton blankets hanging neatly over our shoulders, the sky like a big blue mouth with jagged teeth on either side of us, a bear trap about to snap.
You kick off your shoes as you come to the door of the lodge, and think about that 7-Up you left half drunk and that well water that comes out of your grandma’s rusty kitchen faucet, so cold and tasting like earth. The possibility of instant relief falls off your feet with your shoes at the door. You are now a creature of wait and want.
As we take our places, the women on one side, the men on the other, we see one another’s eyes glowing like humble fireflies defying the immensity of a night so beautiful it steals our breath, and with it we lose what little water we have left.
The first thirst is the worst. It chokes you with heavy fear that closes your throat and dries out your eyes from the inside. You lie still in your bedroll and stare at the buffalo head hanging at the centre poll. You dream of the taste of sweet sage that cools your hot breath and the bite of dirt clods hitting your body as you run down sloping hillsides.
By the next day your anxiety is eased by Sunrise Ceremony. Perhaps watching the sun climb over the hills reminds you that you still have a long way to go before your next drink. No room for panic now. Or perhaps the early morning brought a blanket of fresh dew to cool your lips that don’t know yet what dying is.
By noon the sun slices through the blue, looking for you. And he finds you wherever you try to squirm. He drags you out of the shade and makes you dance. The stones and sharp sticks dig into your heels as you charge the centre pole, over and over again. Someone whoops from outside where the folks watch. You smell the food and water in their bellies.
Second thirst comes with second sundown. You can feel that cotton
spindle spinning in the back of your throat. Watermelon, watermelon, popsicles and frozen grapes. You dream of your body inside like a desert that dries and cracks; waterfalls that tumble over a desert so hot the water turns to birds that fly away before a drop hits the earth. Your organs understand better than your mind that you are turning into dirt.
Third thirst hits pretty early. The crowd outside the lodge has grown. Some of the laughter is gone. Maybe some of your women are, too. You look up to the sky, and it is just as dry. Not a cloud to cover the sun. No promises on the horizon.
An old woman laughs like a crackling fire when she sees your gaunt face and dry lips. You thirsty yet? You try your best to explain to yourself, more than to her, what it feels like to be that thirsty. The dry spit on the roof of your mouth has somehow turned to rough Velcro, and your tongue is an old piece of leather left out in the sun. Now put them together and try to swallow.
Here, drink this. She gives you a hand-rolled cigarette of moist tobacco. Share it with your sisters.
You pass the cigarette around to all of us. We sit or lay, sometimes across each other’s bodies, more intimate than lovers or mothers, we look out, and we pray. Your cousin, it’s her first time, she reaches out to hold your hand . I don’t think I can make it. You hold on to her fast, and tell her: It’s just time. A little bit of wait. A tiny piece of right now that gets swallowed up by tomorrow. She shifts her dried-up body and turns her head towards the door. So easy to run out there and leave us behind. So easy to find a jug of lukewarm water to pour over her face and open mouth. Relief. But she stays. We all stay.
Mid-morning, the dancing marathon starts. They paint our faces and braid our hair, they tell us dance hard, dance hard, reach inside.
The medicine men summon the folks that need healing and blessings. Little black-haired babies, old women with scarves instead of hair and wheelchairs where their sun-dancing legs used to be. We dance for them and try
our best not to collapse.
When the sun is high your organs rub together like flint, your breath is fuel, and inside of you all that is weak and dead burns up like those popping pine trees in Yellowstone. Life breaks through your body and you feel the power of the thirst crack open your bones.
When you fall, your body crumbles into earth. The buffalo whispers in your ear.
This is what it is to return to the earth. This is death.
When you wake you stagger to your feet and put the eagle bone whistle back between your lips. Dry bone against dry bone. From outside the lodge those who are watching whoop war cries. You throw your head back as you stir up the air with your eagle plumes.
Somewhere they look up to the sky and see a bright light and say:
Look, a sun dance. So we shine.
When the sun goes down it’s time to wait.
The night is cool. You wiggle out of your sleeping bag to feel the dirt against your skin. You remember the voice of your father. This night is going to make Christmas Eve feel like a flash in the pan. His laugh booms through your head. The black night is still. Your organs hum and crackle, singing with the crickets perched on the tall waving grass. This is fourth thirst. This is the thirst of stillness and death.
And you, resigned to that which is greater than you in its parts as well as its sum, manage to find somewhere in that dried up body enough water for a tiny pool to gather in your eye. It shines like melted silver, filtering
out space and bringing all the cosmos down upon you.
In the morning we get our water. The wait is over. We feast and hug and smile, more beautiful than we ever were, stripped of all that is unnecessary and weak.