The South |

This is Conquest

by Justin Lawrence Daugherty

Out west the desert birds flew without need of the ground. Out west mountains rose and brought men closer to their gods than they could get through prayer or sacrifice. To the west: new ways of taking, new dreams of building machines of empire. Lewis and Clark set out, their mouths open and teeth bared. Lewis and Clark challenged the sun and the beasts ahead. Lewis and Clark heard the howl of the ocean and said, we are coming, we are coming. The ocean beyond, like them, had lived forever and would never die.

Then came days of consuming, hours of absorbing. Lewis and Clark asked the land what else it had to give. Lewis drank and Clark drank. Lewis and Clark looked to the other man for signs of rapture, for traces of turning back. If Lewis was ill, Clark was ill. If these bodies are hoary with ice alone, Lewis told Clark, they are made warm together, they are sunlight and burning.

Lewis watched the men tornadic and pulsing. He watched them open buffalo from the inside out. He watched them pile mounds of meat to feed their fever dreams. He watched the arrows rain. He considered what it might be like to be lost and never found. He traced the lines he had tattooed on his skin, a map to the places they would find themselves. They feasted with a new tribe and Lewis watched Clark for signs of spark and gunpowder. He prayed for an ending. That night, Lewis took one of the tribe's wives to his bed and said, we will take everything. We only want what is already ours.

Clark was starfire and wormwood. He wrestled the dwindling nights. He dreamt his mutinous dreams. He smashed compasses and burnt his maps and got lost on purpose so he could find his way back. In his journals, Clark wrote, what we have done is to speak the world into existence. A sleuth of grizzly bears haunted and Clark set off to make trophies of them. The first bear he trapped by setting a swath of woods aflame. He returned to the camp, holding the grizzly's head. He said, this is conquest.

The maps on Lewis' skin started to erode. He went into the woods to learn something of hunger. He dripped the smoothed-out rivers and drank their histories. He wrote in his journals all the ways Clark might destroy them. He burned the pages. He ate the ash of the pages and drank them down with whiskey. At the white sandstone cliffs of the Missouri, Lewis etched new maps to nowhere in the ancient stone. That night, Lewis took four women into his bed and asked to be devoured. He told them he had only so much in him before the wolves of his heart stopped running.

Clark ravaged the landscape. He scraped the shallow Jefferson for gold. Always he wore the hides of buffalo. Clark was drunk and blood-soaked for days. He wrote the president a letter proclaiming himself a god of empires. Clark grew bored with expeditions and feasts and disappeared to live with grizzlies. Clark thought it would be fun to hunt his companions among the bears. Clark ambushed men, howling and slashing. Lewis took Clark down, held him to the cold, wet ground, and he waited, and he wondered, am I a key or am I a doorway.

Lewis amputated the cold dead toes and cured the sick. Lewis went out and encountered the first indian he'd seen in days. He tracked the man through the mountains and found nothing but more mountains. He wept at his aloneness. He wanted only to know another language's word for empty.

Fever overtook Clark and he transformed into some ravenous beast. He hunted under the moon and spoke only in smashed consonants. When Lewis tried to give Clark medicine, Clark called on his grizzly horde to carry him away. He tried to bury himself alive, but the earth and insects carried him to the surface, rejected his sacrifice. The grizzlies mourned his ghosting. Lewis hunted Clark in hopes that reminding him of the woman he loved in Virginia would bring Clark back to him. Hawks circled over Clark and he shot them out of the sky.

Lewis named a creek they found despair and he named a mountain despair and he named himself despair. He asked the expedition to go on without him. He ate of dogs and horses. At a river, Lewis found Clark cold and swelled with water. He held his friend close. He wondered what they would do to conquer all they had found. Clark spoke again and said, this heart is a weapon. Lewis wanted nothing but what his hunger left unfound.

Days and days through mountains and valleys and the ocean was upon them. Clark left his skins behind and wrote only the name of the woman in Virginia in his journal. Lewis said, we are here, we are here. Storms picked up and battered them and Clark blamed Poseidon's rage and said, take my body if it means passage. Lewis thought of all that did not await him back home. They reached the ocean and Clark kissed the ground and spoke of triumph. Lewis went to the ocean, alone, and lowered his naked body into the rushing tide, and there, at the end of the world, he named himself extinction.