Friday, December 7, 2012

"And the Dead Shall Rise?": Parts III and IV - Ghost Dances

Sometime near the End of A.D. 1899
To the Magus and the Ecclesiast,

The steam-powered cider mills along the shores of Lake Ontario had ceased their churning, and the foliage, once transfigured by the created fires of the autumn, had since cooled during the descent into ice and winter.  But the visitations of the (un?)-dead have not relented.  Neither had the sleepless nights spent listening to their ungodly shuffling of feet beneath the panes of my parsonage (I no longer glimpsed their ghastly visages peering through the leaded glass – I had blacked them out as with sack cloth desperately hoping for repentance in the midst of this Nineveh).  It felt as if time itself were slowly disintegrating, as if caught in the midst of a living Limbo – and as their numbers swelled, I could not believe death had undone so many, nor left so many so restless in their sleep, with an insomnia that now kept awake the living.

Shortly after my encounter with Captain Priest, I returned again to the public house (before, of course, the now routine hour at which the former communicants of the parish gathered outside the doors of the church – we had begun to establish such circumstances as predictable and regular), praying an extra pint would provide the rest that extra prayers had promised and left undelivered. 

And once more, a curious chance, if providential, meeting.  Mr. Andrew, the bar-keep, has become accustomed to my longing for stories of the West, and of my fancy for conversation with strangers shunned by locals.  So how could he not direct me to the besotted figure slumped in the corner. 

I approached the man, and discovered that as he lifted his eyes from beneath a wide-brimmed hat, that he was of indigenous heritage.  I asked him of his tribe, and with great sorrow in his once fiery eyes now black as spent ash, he told me he belonged to the Paiute of the north.  I asked him his name.  He told me he had once been renowned as Wovoka, the “wood cutter.”  But I could call him Jack.  Jack Wilson.

I must confess, I nearly regurgitated my ale in the venerable one’s face, for while my days had not hardly been short on wonders as of late, I could scarce believe whose table I shared.  Wovoka, I repeated.  Of the vision of the eclipse.  The one who was struck by the shell of a shotgun and yet lived.  Wovoka, of the Ghost Dance? 

I was once, he muttered, but please, Jack is all now.  Wovoka controlled the weather.  Wovoka levitated above the ground.  Wovoka saw visions of the great Messiah in the darkening of the sun.  Jack Wilson is what is left of him today, and I wander the land, sometimes searching for Wovoka…but more often, searching for a way to escape the haunting of his shadow.

We talked then for some time.  Of his upbringing in the great western country, and of his upbringing in the faith and devotion to Christ, apostles among the Lakota, and of his vision in 1889, the vision of the rising of the dead and the restoration of the land to its original inhabitants by the Messiah.  And of course, of the Ghost Dance. 

Surely, gentlemen, you have heard of this, even in the far reaches of the world?  The five-day time of fasting, purification, of communion found dancing in the round that sought to unite in mystic catholicity the diversity of native peoples and their deities under the One great spirit, and so bring about a jubilee of justice and shalom for those oppressed by the wrongs of our own ancestors?  Surely, you have heard of Wounded Knee, and the massacre of the Lakota there, for practicing the dance, in defiance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs?

If I sound excited, it is because, as you have probably already rightly guessed, I have been present at such a dance.  Never dancing myself, not out of conviction, but more so out of the embarrassment of my own Teutonic heritage.  To see the veil between time and eternity, between the living and the dead, between the peoples we call pagan and the people we call the communion of saints, so thinly stretched that at any moment, righteousness and justice seemed ready to pour down like a mighty stream of heavenly fire upon the earth…who could fail to be moved?  Who could fail to forget?

The Alpinist, apparently.  For, as marvelous a thing as it was to meet the Wovoka, now once more cloaking the shame of his failed messianic expectations under the moniker of his youth, himself a kind shade lost and wandering in the wasteland of our industrial present, I was suddenly struck by the providence of our meeting.  For the teaching of the Ghost Dance was the anticipation of the Second Coming of the Messiah, and in it was enacted the rising of the dead.  The dancing, the summoning of spirits…the literal intertwining of our Christian hope with theirs.  A purer reflection of the current state of ghastliness now gripping my parish.

My beverage remained in my mouth this time, despite my great agitation, but as I reared up to share my revelation with the shaman, he was gone.  Vanished, as if he had never existed except on the margins of sight, as something glimpsed on the corner of one’s vision while rapidly passing on a steam train.  I wonder to the day of this writing if I truly met Wovoka, or if he was himself a kind of vision, the last echoes of the Ghost Dance playing themselves out in an insomniac’s tenuous and failing grip with time and space.

But, dear friends, Mr. Wilson’s legacy, his Ghost Dance, plays like the score to this strange opera of horror, making possible narrative and music where previously there was only speculation and ballyhoo.  Is there perhaps something to the presence of these walkers of the night, tied to our own Ghost Dance, the rhythms of our liturgies, of the Eucharist – our bringing of a body long dead and risen back into the cadences of the temporal?  Has it been a narcissism of grave consequence to assume that the dead are seeking us, seeking our harm?

Perhaps the dead seek something else…perhaps they seek, not our undoing, but their reconstitution.  Restless, like the native spirits, after a half-century of warfare, death, unprecedented technological progress and unbearable social disintegration and upheaval – horrors of our own making, come back to be horrors upon the future? Perhaps it is not a sign of condemnation upon us, but the stirrings of a longing for communion with us.  Might this explain their clustering at our doors? 

I decided to test my hypothesis, and so called upon the Christians of my parish – all sorts mind you, even the Romans – to gather the next evening for an ecumenical mass.  The terrors of the night had become such that even members of the Salvation Army, and some Latter Day Saints, darkened our doorways.  I made sure all arrived while it was still day, and made sure the liturgy would last through the setting of the sun. Little did they know that I was conducting them through a kind of Ghost Dance of our own, gathering the many into one, under the One who gathers all.

As I suspected, as darkness fell, the walkers arrived for mass.  The doors were locked and bolted, and you can imagine the minor panic that arose among the frightened worshippers when, while sharing the peace, the restless dead began clawing and pushing at them.  Steeling myself against the pangs of my own terror, I called my deacons together and instructed them, at the moment of the final communicant’s partaking, to throw open the doors.  I then gathered the people together, arranged us in one great circle (I told you, it was our Ghost Dance after all) and began the dialogue.  The banging and clatter continued their crescendo.

Have you ever said the words, “this is my body, broken for you,” as broken, undead bodies clamor at your gates?  Perhaps you have, for perhaps these are the circumstances at every Eucharist, if we are honest with ourselves.  I am in the habit of incorporating the words of St. Augustine (who I would not have been surprised to see among that crowd of deceased discontents) into my Eucharistic prayers, his own declaration, uplifting the Host, to “behold what you are, become what you receive.”  There were the bodies of the living, and yet, the undead body of Christ, divided and rent.  There were the bodies of the dead, restlessly alive, seeking admission.  There was the church.  There was the end.

The doors were flung open at my appointed time.  The people were already seated and calmed, as if the familiarity of the liturgy and its timeless beauty had soothed them into a welcome escape.  And so came my final communicants.  They thundered down the aisle, desperately loping towards me, and to recall the grim details of their eyes (or lack thereof), their mangled corpses, would make even the most stalwart leprosy doctor vomit and cringe.  And yet, as the living fainted and wailed, the dead came to the altar.

And the marvel, which I am sure you will deem a sign of my insanity: as each grasped the host and brought it to whatever passed as lips – they scattered.  Into dust.  As if the weight of the thing simply caused them to collapse.   Like snowbanks perched tenuously on the edge of a rooftop, blown into powder and dissipating in gaslight.  I swear upon my oath of office and my ordination vows.  And within a half hour, the last of the walkers walked no more.  And the Ghost Dance was ended.

Surely, brothers, it will take some time for you to read this story, perhaps longer to convince yourselves I am not fabricating it or that I have not lost my mind, and perhaps, even longer still, to come to grips with its mystery.  I myself have scarcely begun to unravel it.  Nor do I think I should write to Captain Priest, for example, and suggest that the remedy to all such hauntings is the shamanical admistration of the Eucharist – she is not that kind of Priest, after all. 

I am still amazed and puzzled, and perhaps ever shall be, by the restless dead, called up into restlessness out of the desire for rest.  Why it took Wovoka, and not Augustine or Luther or some other shade of my own past, to re-incorporate my own zombied memories and bring them back to the harmonious rhythms of the circle and the time-keeping that is liturgy.  Why it is in this age that Irish pagans and Paiute and Lakota and airship captains and adventurers freely glimpse beyond the veil of the finite, while the enlightened among us wallow in terror our rationalities are helpless to alleviate.  Why it happened now, and what it means for us all at the closing of the age this century has wrought.

So for now, silence.  As the scraping of hands and the moaning of the dead gives way to the softness of falling snow, so must these words cease, and must I at last, after many weary nights, receive with gratitude the gift of a good night’s sleep.  Ponder with me, in the meantime my friends, the meaning of these events.  And for God’s sake, if you haven’t recently, do your un-dead bodies a favor, and get thee to a Eucharist.

Grace, peace and all my love,

The Alpinist


  1. How many ways to I love this? Let's see: steampunk (duh), theology (again, duh), Cherie Priest, Native American prophesies of Christ, and zombies.
    Yup. You pretty much rock...