The white buffalo is owned by a casino. His pen is square and littered with hay. Snow frosts his beard, dangles his belly. Mud clumps cloven hooves. I stand so that his eyes stare straight at mine, but they don’t recognize me. They are opaque as marbles, and when he nudges the cigarette lighter toward me, I think it is to throw away. I think he wants his pen kept clean.
Ten miles long and two miles deep. That is how far they say a single buffalo herd stretched in their day, but they’re wrong. I know because I was there; legends don’t easily die.
I was there before the first great herd was cut into many, when wooly heads cloaked the earth, roiled the plains. Men killed them. Yes. But that’s only part of it. Drought, famine, disease…these all played a part. The plains are hard. Black-trunked trees, few and scattered. The sky stretches an aching, relentless blue. The wind, alone, shapes.
When the hunters found me on those plains over a century ago, it was already too late. The grass brittle underfoot; their bones like sticks. When I left, they had meat to last a year, but that was all. Already, buffalo lay rotting in open places where they’d roamed, skinned and stinking on the plains. Flies covered their pink bodies black, and I stood watch over them.
When a buffalo dies, his herd gathers to mourn, wooly mouths raised to heaven. Their song is a lowing one, echoing across the plains like thunder.
There is a famous photograph taken from that time: a mound of buffalo skulls so high, the men at its top seem small as grave markers. Their skin is pale and their images blur like ghosts. Afterward, they set fire to the plains where a tribal council met. Tipis flapped in the wind, flames leapt. The cries of my people came from my own lips; my own skin blistered as theirs. I rode the wind to save them and was too late.
The buffalo in his pen pushes the lighter toward me. I pluck it from the ground. It is made of red, transparent plastic and is warm in my hand, despite the snow still on it.
I say, “They seem okay now.”
The ones remaining, owning the casino and this their buffalo, have grown fat in homes that don’t move. They eat food they have neither killed nor grown. I tell the buffalo this, in the soft lowing sounds of his kind.
He ducks his head, not hearing.
I say, “You’re right, but it isn’t my fault.”
They fooled me as much as anyone. More. A flame bursts from the lighter’s head. In the light that springs in the buffalo’s eyes, I see myself reflected. Flickering. My skin pale, like the men who did this. Maybe I am the one who is wrong.