Red-Cloud Woman

I know a lady who had a butterfly sitting on her shoulder.
That butterfly told her things. This made her become a great medicine woman.
~ Lame Deer, Lakota medicine man

For my friend Ardija Red-Cloud (1933-2017)

She came into the sunlight after the rain faded
she moved with her head skyward,
walking slowly, she grasped onto her rosewood cane.

Taking tentative steps forward, she observed all
her eyes seeking outward,
knowing her way.

Her yellow dress was a daring light.
She sat down near me
“I am blessed and may you be too” was her gentle refrain.

Eucalyptus trees gathered around us.
Their subtle scent sifted through the breeze.
We sat, taking in the sweet air.

She watched me as an eagle with discerning eyes
I wondered what she saw in me as I listened,
she spoke of her father in his sharp, gray suit.

One of the first black photographers in St. Louis, Missouri,
he owned his own business
and took photographs of the local community.

People would travel long distances to have their photograph taken by him,
the measured professional
with his diplomatic manner.

She held his pride inside her
and when she smiled a glint of light flickered out from her eyes.
I felt protected by her tall mountain frame.

A yellow butterfly came to land on her shoulder,
poised and elegant under the sun.
She did not shoo it away or bad-mouth it, but stayed still.

And she told stories,
they contained messages, sometimes only later I was able to unravel them.
She spoke of a teacher who taught, “The memory will stay, while the photograph fades.”

She handed me a small medicine bag,
pale brown with a soft tie that could go around the neck.
It contained seeds, lavender, herbs, pine cones, secrets wrapped with care inside.
“Hold it,” she urged it into my hands,
“talk to it, hold it close to you. Tell it all your problems, don’t be tentative, cry if you need. Don’t be afraid to cry, ask of it what you want.”

I listened to her words, as she grasped the small bag with her cracked earth hands.
She knew this medicine bag well,
It had traveled with her – far distances.

Taking a pause,
we sat together as she became quiet, gazing at the red clouds above
and hearing the butterfly whisper on her shoulder.





Dorothy Johnson-Laird is a poet and social worker who lives in New York City. She received an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She also has a passion for African music. She has published music journalism with and Recent poems were published by Evening Street Review, Soul-Lit, Aji, and Cantos, among other publications. More of her poetry can be found at:

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