by R. T. Smith
Captain Lewis now dead by some assassin’s
hand, all the clouds blow ashen and black,
but I remember storming snow, wild artichokes,
prickley pear and how the lark woodpecker flew,
the black horn antelope and dog stew delicious
in the bleak times. Gass, Shannon, the Fields
brothers all cussing some Mandan weather
god, our Captain Clark by turns taciturn or
shaken with laughter. The undiscovered
country opened for us, but not without labor,
fevers worse than this, mutiny in the wilderness,
our need to learn quickly how to forgive.
We found time daily to praise our Maker.
Ghost weed grew on the shore, feathered
native men danced, and the keel boat foundered.
Venison or thin broth, I doled the rations daily.
Cruzet’s fiddle by the round fire warmed us
after the maps were almost lost. The bird girl
saved us often. Bratton, Labiche, York –
every soul equal at work and celebration.
Nightly I dreamed of my beloved betrothed
Gracy Walker and wished the ordeal over,
yet it was a thrill, despite the rattling snakes,
silver-tip bears like monsters. Looking back,
I am satisfied I saw enough for one mortal,
man, especially the devilish mosquitoes.
Red sky at morning, currents like a whirling
dervish – the trials of Odysseus with no goddess
close at hand. We survived by Clark’s dead
reckoning and chance, which Captain Lewis
insisted was just another word for providence.
Once was enough for me, cold faces of compass
and pocket watch – what’s time but a shiftier
form of distance? There was no passageway
by water. We had to settle for survival, science
and wonder. Finally home, I married, savored
after lovemaking the taste of my wife’ shoulder.
Four years hence she was lost while with child.
Since then, phantoms and voices in the mist.
What best do I remember from the journey?
Taste of fresh meat after hunger, and high over
the swollen river a sky salt-white with herons.
Maybe they were angels going where Gracy
now abides and I hope to be bound very soon,
if our Maker will allow me this one last mercy.