By Mia Vries
Created as a part of the Aging Resource Center memoir-writing class.
“I’d like you to choose one of these beads,” Redtail says as he pushes a dozen dark, semi opaque beads in my direction.
“They are called Apache Tears. Just let your heart direct you to the bead that’s right for you.”
I study the beads, most of them slightly smaller than the first digit of my pinky, and choose one that appeals to me. It’s slightly elongated, smaller at the top than at the bottom, almost like the shape of a tear. He takes the bead and begins to wrap it with fine wire.
The hotel room, where we have taken refuge in between classes, is silent while he works with concentrated attention. He has artistic hands, I think, as I watch how he deftly encircles the somewhat uneven bead. He makes a small loop for the string and solders the wire on the back with a bead of soldering liquid.
We’ve known each other a week. Our acquaintance has quickly grown into a comfortable relationship as we work together as partners in Tom Brown’s third philosophy class.
We didn’t start out that way. When we met the previous Sunday he recognized my face as one he had seen in a Vision Quest. His pursuit sometimes bordered on the ridiculous, until I sat him down on Wednesday and we talked things out.
To my surprise the event didn’t work the way I had expected. Instead of a clear message that we would never be an item, walls had tumbled down between us, and we found that we were completely at ease with each other. “Like two old shoes,” we said.
At one point, he walked up to me and said, “I feel uncomfortably comfortable with you.”
Now we sit in my hotel room, as content as two people who have known each other lifetimes. He is making a necklace for me that is going to be similar to the one he has around his own neck. The centerpiece is an Apache tear. He tells me the story as it was transmitted to him:
“During the latter part of the 19th century a gang of white soldiers was pursing a group of Apache warriors. Rather than allowing themselves to be captured the warriors rode onto a mesa and drove themselves and the horses off the cliff to their death.”
Redtail’s voice is soft as he recounts the story and I have to strain to hear him. He continues:
“Later the women of the tribe found many dark stones at the bottom of the mesa. They gathered them and called them Apache tears because, they said, these are the tears we cried for our dead warriors.”
Redtail’s eyes are moist. “What they symbolize to me,” he says, “is man’s inhumanity to man. But even more so, man’s inhumanity toward himself.”
With firmer voice he continues, “I came into possession of the first two stones in an unusual way. I had been directed to find a couple of Apache tears. I didn’t know what they were or what they looked like. One day I came across a Native American. He handed me two stones. “I’m directed to give these to you,” the man said. “They are Apache tears.” The man then just walked away.”
We are silent for a while, a comfortable silence. Redtail finishes the stone by polishing it with a soft cloth. He then instructs me to choose additional stones from several small containers and a plastic bag. I pick out a dozen turquoise stones and handful of very small ones.
At his direction, I place the stones in a half circle, the Apache tear in the center. Once I’m satisfied he strings the stones into a necklace and attaches a clasp. He then puts the necklace around my neck to observe the results. Satisfied, he suggests we wander a while along the beach.
Earlier today, at the end of our weeklong class, we considered where to go until the new class starts the next day. We are not allowed to stay at the Boy Scout camp.
“I want an opportunity to take a shower, so I’m planning to seek out a hotel,” he informs me. The Boy Scout camp has already shut off the water for the showers to prevent the pipes bursting, so we feel grimy and gritty.
“That sounds good,” I tell him. “I know some real cheap ones. Separate rooms though.”
The hotel is on a sand slip along the ocean, over across from Tom’s River, NJ. I stayed there between classes a year earlier with a friend, for $20 a night. We pay $40 per room. The slip of sand is covered, nearly back to front with small summer cottages and a few hotels. In November very few people are present.
I love being by the ocean, though I’ve had little opportunity to be there. Hearing the waves lap onto the beach, feeling the wind in my face, picking up and studying shells, listening to the seagulls: it doesn’t get any better.
Redtail doesn’t like the ocean. “I have a sense I was on a whaling ship in another life and drowned,” he gives as explanation.
It’s cool along the water and we have the beach virtually to ourselves. The tide is going out. Seagulls circle over the water. One dives down along the edge at some morsel of food. The sun’s warmth is weak and I shiver in my jacket.
We don’t talk. I don’t know it at the time but this comfortable silence between us becomes a hallmark of our relationship. It feels good not to have to talk or listen all the time. Redtail’s ability for silence is in sharp contrast to my beloved friend Bob’s almost never-ending chatter.
I feel the wind play through my hair. The smell of the water is salty and slightly fishy. Beach sand gets into my shoes, on my legs and in my face. Everything is gritty. The silence between us stretches. He sits down on the beach for a while, shells in his hand. His eyes look out over the ocean, seeing far into the distance. He seems an old soul, I think. I take a couple of pictures.
Eventually we get chilled and head for the nearest restaurant. Over the meal we talk about our lives and spiritual development. His development has been different from mine. His parents were non-churchgoers. However, he has been aware of spiritual things since he was three or four years old.
He tried Christianity when he was young, but found it wanting. Eventually he hooked up with a spiritualist church. He stayed with this church for about 20 years and learned to be an energy healer. Their politicking and backstabbing eventually turned him off and he left.
He learned spiritual skills from a Lakota Medicine man, including performing a Pipe ceremony and leading a Sweat lodge. He tells me he loves doing Sweat lodges. “They can be so healing,” he says. It’s the medicine man that gave him the name Redtail.
One day, at his house in Alton, he has an encounter with a Red-tailed Hawk. The hawk is sitting in a tree near his house. As they look at each other the hawk suddenly dives down at Redtail and nearly collides with him, pulling up in the very last moment. For the next several weeks the hawk stays in the same tree.
When Redtail relates the event to the medicine man, the elders say nothing for several days. Eventually, he seeks Redtail out and tells him that he is supposed to receive the name “Redtail” in ceremony. Later Redtail adds the name to his legal name.
In my room we continue to talk and get to know each other until we get tired. He looks disappointed when I say goodnight to him, indicating that he go to his own room.
Early the next afternoon we return to the Boy Scout camp where Tom’s classes are held. The weekend went far too fast. I don’t want it to end.
By the end of the day, Redtail is tired and goes to his tent. I make a mental note that he takes good care of himself. Seven years earlier Redtail had a heart attack. He has congestive heart failure and is on disability.
Before leaving me he suggests, “If you have more questions or want to talk scratch on my tent. A little forlorn, I stay in the lecture hall to hear Tom’s introductory speech. Philosophy 4 has begun. As I listen, I touch the necklace and feel strangely comforted.
I’m at peace when I go to bed and sleep almost immediately. Around 2 am, however, I wake and a thousand questions swirl through my head like a kettle of hawks soaring around Hawk Mountain. For two hours I struggle, going round and round inside my mind over my developing relationship with Redtail. What does it all mean?
Earlier in the day a woman, who knew Redtail from other classes, walked up to us and asked Redtail. “Is this your wife?”
Redtail almost choked on the answer. “No.”
“You make a good couple,” she tells him and walks away. Months later Redtail tells me that he was terrified that the woman’s assumption would ruin things between us.
Around 4 am I can’t stand the tension anymore, get up and go to Redtail’s tent. He has me wrap in one of his blankets and we talk until the alarm goes off. “I’m going to have to make coffee,” he says.
Suddenly he reaches over, picks me up blanket and all, looks me straight in the face and asks, “Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” is my simple answer.
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