North American Bison

Andrew Hemmert

For a beetle so loved the mountain pines,

the forests turned the color of a gunshot.


From the sky over Denver we could see

the Rockies burning, black carapace

of smoke clawing its way into the afternoon

storm clouds. The plane circled and circled,

visibility low, waiting for a chance

at the runway. We were flying back

from Florida, a place I had not yet come to imagine

as mine. Though I was born there. Though I was born

into a hurricane with my own name.

Below us on the ground the blue mustang

of Denver International Airport reared back

forever on its fading haunches—

two fires, its inanimate eyes.


When Andrew tore through Miami, my father

left my mother and me in Orlando,

drove south with his coworkers

to join the relief effort. Distributed pallets

of canned water from the back of a rented moving truck,

toilet paper and MREs. Where the eye came ashore,

he tells me, there were quarters embedded

in the ruined cement, slingshot by the wind.


In Colorado, that year of fire,

the wind seemed to come down from the highest peaks

like a swarm of paper bats dreaming

of kindling, like a snarl, a prowling.

That was the year we went to the grave

of Buffalo Bill—its jumbled, simple stones,

its eternal, Western flame.


                  That was the year

my father climbed Mount Quandary alone,

snowboarded down until the snow

turned to mud. Trudged the rest of the way

on foot. He heard it in the distance

screaming warning—a mountain lion,

following him down through the melt off

and drowned grasses. When he finally broke

through the trees, touched two-lane highway,

there was no sign of his car, he had no idea

what direction was home. He flipped a coin

and started walking. Found his car a mile down the road.


Each time we drove up into the mountains,

we passed a bison ranch. Once, we pulled over

and watched them meander their fenced-in field,

brown hills unto themselves. And a little later,

bison burgers at a tourist trap. In the gift shop

there was a toy cigar box that hissed

like a rattlesnake when I opened it, so loud

I dropped it on the floor and broke it.


Old train tracks ranged the dying, alpine forests

and we followed them over runoff streams,

prairie-fire and bluebonnet

piercing the rotten ties. A century earlier—

bison full of rifle shot collapsed

in bloody queues by the rails, routine as men

waiting for the train.


        There’s no eternal flame

on Buffalo Bill’s grave, though that’s how

I remember it, tucked into that lonely pocket

of the foothills, fire danger high—

no eternal flame, though in the museum

dried specimens of flowers that once roamed

the mountains and prairies were displayed

like a miniature ghost town circus,

like extinct spectrums of light.

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