“What did he do?”
It told us everything.
Now dawnlight, east of Wambli, South Dakota, Oglala Lakota land, my horses come to the fence through deep red fog, hocks wet, winter coats thick. I touch our sorrel mare. Her coarse red hair comes off on my hand.
Last night in the hospital, in the white-tiled halls, the nurses asked my mother, “What did he do for a living?” That was how we knew my father died.
What did he do?
Horsebreaker. Forty-seven. He had diabetes.
The sorrel lets me on her back, shifts from the fence, looks at me. Her dark eyes roll. My father’s missing. Down the steep trail to Craven Creek, the mare one-foots it carefully; I hold her mane like a beginner. On level places she turns and studies me. What does she know?
A flight of sandhill cranes descends through the red air, and each lands, wings hooped, in the only cornfield anywhere near, each drops among stubble. Black Angus turned out look at them as if the visit was planned but the guests have come early.
One bird is much bigger than the rest. It sails down, curves its wings, settles in broken corn. It’s white, tall as me, something I have never seen before. A whooping crane.
Rarest of visitors.
The horse lifts her red face toward the flock of birds that murmur among themselves in the shattered grain. Why did they pause in their migration? Why are they here?
I slide carefully off the horse and stand, my arms around her warm neck, hear and feel her breath, the deep life of her, hear the flock moving gently in the field full of mist and light.
What did he do?
The best he could.