Treatise on Red Fish Cave, Hells Canyon, Idaho Spring 2017

Let’s make the artist a woman.
Young, moccasin clad, and kneeling, ochre
staining her long fingers, brushing
rough, limestone walls in the shape
of, let’s say, because we can, a fish,
maybe a salmon, though salmon weren’t
why she was here, but a salmon
nonetheless, because we need one
(even just this one)
to believe ever they were here, as dammed
waters belie their ancient holdings.

Let’s say she is beautiful, our artist,
and why not, for beauty depends less here
on skin and lips, as say, art
and the way her body sways this way
and that, moving with the fish in the stream
of cool air that rises from the lungs
of the cave. Let’s just say

she finishes this one fish, worries
a final line, maybe a gill, working
to re-member the salmon, the last run,
last summer, the cambium peels, and the way

the young man shied, then stomped like a colt
at her passing. Let’s say this makes her smile
and move further into the cave, her fingers alive,
fresh with blood-made paint, her eyes
straining to hear the sound of another heart,
deeper, that, let’s say, moves her

to paint a herself here, higher
in the cave’s throat, where darkness hides,
narrow lines for legs, a curios head, then
she creates, the perfect circle
of a belly, which, we’ll say, appears
pregnant, and why not, we are, afterall
moving to the belly of the cave, the woman,
rewombing, returning, perhaps

like the salmon, to her own birthplace.
And because she is filled now
with passion, (and some fear,) for the dark
is truly deafening in this limestone
stomach, she has one more thing she needs
to say. She covers her hand
in that red, dark red, red that screams,
(isn’t it beautiful)
and she presses it against the limestone.
Or did she whisper it soft
to the rock? It nevertheless remains,
and we think we can hear it. Even today.

Now let’s say she leaves,
but let’s not say anymore. For it’s growing
late, and we’ve assumed enough, haven’t we,
about words that lie still in the dark,
about histories held in hash marks
of red salmon, in the perfect circle
of a woman’s belly, or stuck in the mouth’s
of caves. Enough of stories still in red hands,
that, like the salmon, live only
in approximation to our wonder, to dammed
water, to the sound of the wind
as it blows away any trace of her
footprints left, certainly, in the soil.
 
 
 

A knowledge of Indian customs, costumes, histories and traditions is, of course, essential to the understanding of their drawings. It is probable that many were intended to commemorate events which to their authors were of moment, but would be of little importance as history. “Pictographs” by William Tomkins.