A CHRONICLE OF IS

A novel by Terry Heller

Part 2: In the Land of Marsh River


Introduction 

Part 1: Arm's Journey Through the Waste Land

Part 2: In the Land of Marsh River

Part 3: Among the Hills


Part 4: The Festival of Midsummer

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Terry Heller's Home Page

copyright 1991 - 2001

 

8. Questions 2 and 3
From "The Questions of Raisin and Chick"
in the holy writings of the Cult of Song

Mother, why do death and pain pursue us until separation breaks us?

     The song of all sings a note, a beautiful note that you would hear forever, but then follows another, just as beautiful and the former one fades, until you hear it no more.

     I do not know all. I only can listen to the song. Arm came to us because it is possible that IS might die. If IS may die, then what in the universe is eternal?

     If there is a reason why we die even though we would sing forever, I do not know it.

Mother, if we do not know the reason for our dying, how can we know the reason for our living?

     We cannot, dear Chick. Where in the songs of IS is there a sound or a word that gives the reason for living? It is a gift, to sing with IS. I know I am awake when I hear the singing, for then I am the song I hear, and the song has always been as long as there was awakening. It will remain as long as anyone remains awake.

     I know not from where the gift comes nor do I know its purpose. I only know that when I sing with IS, then I am I. And when we all sing together in our chapel, then we are all great and loving. Then all pain is raised into loveliness, and all sorrow into harmony.


9. Ram at the Gates

     As the sun set over the western sands, a blaze of red-gold in the dust beneath a glowing blue that faded rapidly toward the east into violet and almost black in the dry, clear air at the edge of the waste land, Ram always grew lonely. That was the only thing he disliked about his work. Loneliness was one of the reasons he drank himself to sleep each night. And it was partly because he drank himself to sleep that he screamed with such abandon the morning he saw a monster in his hut.

     He enjoyed working alone, with no bossman always at his shoulder commenting on each move, as if a big-belly's job in life was to wear him like a glove that did all the work in the dirt and took all the blows and heat and thirst, while the hand, comfortable inside, thought itself the soul and lived on the bright blood from the heart. Each day he would open one of the seven gates, sending the water coursing through one of the main irrigation canals that fed a system of ditches and fields in the fertile soil here at the flat edge of the desert.

     There was a dam at the end of Marsh River, thirty feet high and thirty feet wide at the top. Out of the middle of the dam came a stream that was all of Marsh River that remained free. The stream spilled from the lake over a stone trough, when there was enough water, and fed a small lake at the base of the hills. From the two ends of the dam ran large ditches paved with stones. These stone canals ran out of the hills and far across the flat land. One ran east, another west. The west canal, for which Ram was responsible, branched to the southeast at the base of the hills. Ram's job was to regulate the seven gates that opened from this canal. Each gate was to be opened for a day and a night, and during that day, he was to follow the water along its course to make sure all the ditches worked as they should. If there was a problem too large to fix himself, he was to run a large red flag up the pole next to his hut. When all was well, a green flag flew there. Mostly he worked a little with his spade, packing dirt into places where the water washed through the stones in the main ditches, or piling and packing dirt where banks had eroded. And he walked. His main work was walking from dawn to late afternoon, in the shade of the wide hat that kept his almost bald head from baking and his dark-skinned shoulders from burning and peeling under the intense sun. He carried his spade and in a shoulder bag, a bottle of clean water dipped from the canal at the gate, and some dried fruit and bread for his midday meal.

     It was hot work for it almost never rained here in the growing season, and there was rarely a cloud cover. When he returned at the end of the day, his white tunic and pantaloons would be stained only with dust that he could beat out if he wished. But he always jumped into the canal, after taking off his goat-leather shoes, and as he bathed, he would remove his now washed clothes, laying them on the rocks to dry. He would sing at the top of his lungs, all alone with no one around for miles, and that's when he would begin to feel lonely. By the time he walked naked from the canal to his hut, he would be nearly dry again. By the time he put on his change of clothes and returned to the canal, his freshly washed clothes would be nearly dry again, ready to hang on the pegs next to the open window of his hut where they would finish drying and airing in the night.

     The hut itself, though small, was comfortable, a single room, with a packed sand floor covered with mats. He had shuttered windows on three sides, his door on the fourth. The hut was built of poles and planks, four poles sunk into the ground forming the main frame. There was a plank roof that let in sun, air, and dust, and made the hut unlivable in the infrequent rains of the wet season, though then no one stayed here, there being no work then in the grain fields of the desert. Then the hut stood open, the mats hung on the wall pegs so as to dry quickly if they got wet. Inside he had a feather-stuffed mattress, high shelves for his things, pegs for his clothing and tools, a table, and one tight cabinet where he could store his food. There was a stool that usually sat outside, next to the door, where in the evening he would lean against the rough planking with his bottle.

     Hot but pleasant work by day and loneliness in the evening were the causes of Ram's thirst. Each seven days, he would return to Marshtown, for two nights of rest, and when he came back to his hut in the fields, he would carry a great load, not only his food for the week, but also his bottles, rattling faintly in his heavy pack. The bottles contained his liquor, and this is what satisfied his thirst as night drew on and no family or companions came to sit with him before his door, to sing songs or tell tales or recite the news of the town.

     He gave himself a bottle each night -- like a baby in its cradle, he told himself -- and when it was finished, he drifted off into a dreamless sleep. Before he could eat in the morning, he would return to the canal, fall to his knees, and plunge his head into the water, warm but still bracing. Having rinsed his mouth, he would shake the water from his brown hair and his tight curled accumulating beard of red and gold -- he shaved in Marshtown -- and then he would open the day's gate, close yesterday's gate, and return to the hut to have his breakfast and begin the day's work.

     Ram had watched over this part of the irrigation system since the newer of the two main canals was finished, for six years now. His body and mind had adjusted to the routine, and except for the rare major break in a ditch, the work went on the same from day to day until the end of the growing season, when he would return to his crazy sister in Marshtown, to spend the cool, rainy season among his friends, taking his ease, tending his vegetable garden and helping with the house. In the town, he drank with his friends in their homes over games or at the pub, and though he too often drank too much, he left behind for a few months -- almost without noticing -- his regular nightly bottle.

     At the usual times, teams of workers would come to the fields, to prepare and plant the ground, and a few times to weed. Before the harvest, his work would be over. So mostly he was alone, and the routine rhythm of his daily life was unbroken. It is little wonder then that he screamed when he awoke one morning to find a strange animal sleeping next to him in his hut.

     Though it looked and smelled like a wild beast, it was, he saw as he edged toward the door post where his spade stood, dressed in some crazy kind of clothing. He thought it was a giant monkey at first, with its long almost straight head hair that bushed out as it fell and the beard, greasy and brilliant black with streaks of desert dust and little balls of crusted mud, and its shining black face, like tanned black goat leather. Its hair was too dirty then for him to notice that it was really of two colors, with thin rays of light yellow emerging as it spread outward to his shoulders. The strange being was taller than he, he thought, with thin and curling black hair on its chest beneath the open tunic, and on legs and arms. It wore a tunic of thin-woven grass and a skirt of wider woven grass to its knees. Both looked too stiff to be comfortable, and were frayed and holey, hardly covering the body, though Ram remained unsure whether the apparition were male or female. It looked as if it were bigger than he, but it was emaciated and hungry looking, lips drawn back from glowing white teeth and gray gums in its sleep, before his scream opened its black eyes, the whites a little yellow behind their bloodshot, weary and half-conscious stare.

10. Arm and Ram
From Arm's Chronicle of IS

     Ram was the first man I met in the land of the Marsh River. He came close to killing me before we could talk together, for Marshtown is a place of strange fears, and so he began to teach me about the strangeness of the place to which IS had brought me.

     I found Ram after the sun had set, sitting on a mat on the floor of his hut, leaning against the wall, with his chin upon his chest, such a strange being! Beside him was a box and a small, clear bottle I could see through, on its side with a little brown water in it. The man himself looked like you and me in most ways, but his skin, hair, and clothing were much different from ours.

     His skin was the color of dried grass, like our kilts when they are new. And there was so much skin, so little hair, a little brown hair on his head and chin, but almost none on his arms or his legs below the knees. I could see little else of his body, for he wore a kilt tightly woven of tiny threads and with separate legs. Did you know that I brought the idea of pantaloons from Marsh River? And he wore a kind of jacket that covered his body between his neck and his waist, held together in front with tiny buttons made of bones. His feet were covered with what I later learned was the skin of another animal. His nose towered out of his face, like a stone on a hillside, and he snorted in his sleep.

     Despite my amazement, curiosity, and growing hunger, I lay down and dozed off, feeling safe now. At dawn, I awakened, having heard a kind of shout. I was resting on my back. Above me stood the man, the look of terror in his almost white eyes. He spoke words I did not understand then, but I knew he feared me. He moved toward his door and took up a sharp edged tool like a shovel. So, I did not move, but only looked quietly up at him and spoke.

     "I am Arm of the swamp. I have crossed the dry lands to speak with you about the drying up of the water."

     To his terror was added amazement. Perhaps he did not believe in my reality. Never taking his eyes from me, he backed out the door, so he stood with the rose of dawn on the right side of his body and seemed to glow a little in his white clothing, like a silver bird in the swamp. Then he spoke more words.

     I began to fear that I would be unable, after my long journey, to do what I had come for. Perhaps I might place the waterroot in a good place, not here, but where this water came from, so that IS would have a presence here. But I would not be able to talk with these men, to explain to them what IS sang to me about the end of the water and the death of the swamp.

     I turned on my side and sat up very slowly. The man looked as if he might run away from the hut, but he did not. He only watched me with great care. I looked into his eyes as kindly as I could and spoke again.

     "How can I speak to you, stranger, that you may know me?"

     He only stared, his mouth a little open. I thought of offering him a gift, but what had I? An empty pail, an empty basket, and the pail of IS.

     I opened my shoulder basket, moving slowly, thinking of him as a tiny tree frog whom I wanted to pass without frightening. I set the pail of IS on a brown-grass mat that covered the hard-packed soil of the hut and loosened its bindings, then opened it and pushed it cautiously toward him. He edged toward it, then peered into it, then bent down to look closely -- but always with an eye on me. What was there to see? Some murky water with a green mossy grass floating submerged. When he stood again and stepped away from the door, the sunlight shifted to a yellow glow that irradiated the pail, and a little of the golden sky reflected in the water. Then he kneeled down before it, letting his spade come to rest, and put his hands around it and shook it a little, then stopped, watching the small waves grow still and the soil settle downward again.

     He seemed to grow calm looking into the pail. Wondering what he saw there, I moved toward him and we looked into it together. Then I felt a song welling up in me.

     Our parent's water rises and falls; it rises and falls.
    The grasses and trees drink it in; they drink it in.
    We eat sun fruit and waterroot.
    We eat frog nuts and starflower seeds.
    We make water on grasses and trees.
    The clouds drop water on bushes and ferns, on bushes and ferns.
    The bushes and ferns drink it in; they drink it in.
    Our parent's water rises and falls; it rises and falls.

     So I sang the old song, but as I came to the place of beginning again, I felt and then heard strange sounds leaving my tongue, giving it shapes it had not known before, though those shapes were familiar. I was singing the same song, the old song of our lives, but in words I had never spoken before.

     When I had finished, the stranger took the last drink from his bottle. Then he said to me, "And you can speak our lingo, too. By Carlo, you's human, you are, though I'd never have believed to see a monkey so big and talking too."

     So I found that I could talk with this man. Among the songs of IS, sung to me at the secret pool, was the song of the words these people use in the land of Marsh River. Though I had never used them, I had them, and slowly I did use them, though many I heard had no meaning to me; "human" and "monkey" did not then.

     This man was a keeper of water gates. In his box was a drawing with language upon it such as we did not have then. The drawing was a map. It showed a large lake behind a dam. You have made such things my children, playing in the warm rain. But this dam was gigantic, five or six times higher than I stand, made of earth, and wide enough on top for twenty or more of us to walk across holding hands, side by side. Out of the middle of the dam came a stream called Marsh River. The stream spilled from the lake over a stone trough, when there was enough water, and fed a small lake at the base of the hills. From the two ends of the dam ran large ditches paved with stones. This is how Ram, my first northern friend, explained the map to me. These stone ditches ran out of the hills and far across the flat land, bringing water to the waste land and making it bloom in rich fields. These people take the seeds of plants, not as we do, to places near our huts to let them grow near us, but into large flat fields, spread out, planted by hundreds of hands. There were also such fields in the hills, smaller, but watered by rain and streams from the distant mountains.

     All of these fields were southwest of his irrigation ditch. To the Northeast was a low and forbidding waste, though beyond it I could see green hills, and a valley with perhaps some water before it. The water on his map was old Marsh Lake, a small pond at the end of Marsh River. The waste land, he told me, was once a marsh. His father had told him of finding food there, of killing birds and fish from it, of gathering sweet fruit there, though it was dangerous and boggy. Then it came out nearly as far as his main ditch, but now there was only the pond, a dirty and almost lifeless place that no one visited.

     There was the dam, he said, pointing to it on the map. The dam stopped the water to make the new Marsh Lake. The water from the reservoir was directed out though the aqueducts onto the flat lands where it watered these fields. As they watered more fields, less and less water went over the spillway. Marsh River dwindled to a creek, and the marsh dried up into a small dirty pond, old Marsh Lake. This was all to the good, said Ram, for it meant much food to trade up river, and much wealth and happiness at the end of Marsh River valley. It meant he had a peaceful job, opening, closing, inspecting, and repairing the gates of the aqueduct, and watching the plants grow.

     "But you take too much water," I said. For I saw immediately the cause of the silence from the North. The marsh was once a very small swamp, with waterroot in it, and water came down the Marsh River, passed into this swamp, then travelled beneath the ground to our swamp. In this way, IS was once larger, and in this way is our swamp fed, though there may be other sources of water coming to us under the earth. And we have rain too, but not enough to sustain our swamp in the length of time.

     Ram replied, "How can we take too much water? We do not take more than there is. And you must stop to look at these beautiful fields when all the plants grow tall and green, our wheat, and corn, and cotton, and flax. This flat land is rich."

     Ram said that in the old tales this dry land was once a great sea or perhaps a lake that drained away. Perhaps Carlo, the maker, was thirsty and drank it up. To bring fresh water here was to grow great crops, and because the land was flat and easy to work and water, the few men who lived at the mouth of Marsh River, several thousand of them, could grow themselves much more than they needed. By trading the excess, they brought wealth and comfort to this lonely valley so distant from the great cities.

     "But if my swamp dies as this marsh has died, then the world will die."

     Ram replied, "You are a stranger here, and though you look funny, I like your looks. But see here now. You can't go into Marshtown and say to the high council that this water is yours. They can all see that the river ends here. We have traded a worthless swamp for rich bearing fields. The water was wasted, and now it is used."

     I saw I was making him angry, and so I said to him, "And your work that you value, the care of these ditches -- that might also be lost if you gave up the water. I see, new friend, how this will be hard."

     "Yes, mighty hard."

     "But would you think differently if you knew that many like me will die if you do not share the water?"

     "I might. But you are strange to us, a strange monkey beast though you talk our lingo. And I see only one of you with a tale of crossing the dry lands where there is no life. I still think I may be dreaming you."

     I replied with joy. "May it be true that you are dreaming me, for the songs of dreams are the truest songs. They are the songs of IS flowing in your soul."

     "Dreams is dreams, fancies. You don't know that? I have a mad sister in Marshtown who tells her dreams to all who will listen. She says marvelous crazy things. One day she ran into the street just at light, still wearing her bed clothes, and shouting about the stars had sung her a song. `Oh,' she said, `If only I could sing that song to you!' And everyone who was already awake laughed while those who were sleeping yet cursed her by Carlo. Some said to her, 'And did the moon tell you how he spilled beer on his head?' She just kept wandering up and down the streets with her silly smile, babbling that the stars had sung her a beautiful song.

     "We have seen the moon, a tiny barren rock that blinks on and off as the sun chooses to shine upon it. We have seen that the stars are other suns, just distant fires burning in the great emptiness, the dunes of blowing nothing. How could they sing?"

     Ram sat silently a moment, a thoughtful smile on his lips. I realized that his moon must be our winking star. He spoke again.

     "People won't believe you're real, you know. Some, I think, will want to be rid of you, so they won't have to believe in you."

     I saw then that my task would be hard among a people who do not hear their dreams. Not knowing what is, they would believe that I was not.

     I was lucky to meet this man, Ram, first in the valley, for he was wiser and kinder than most. Others would have taken my life or my freedom without listening to me and without teaching me as he did during our day together, walking among the growing fields and the singing water.

     From him, I learned that I must not just walk into the Marsh Village below the dam or Marshtown, east of the reservoir, and announce myself as I had done with him. Instead, I must learn how to approach these places, how to come to them in a way that would grant me a hearing.

     Ram's goodness can be seen in his willingness to help me on my way even though my success might harm him. He sent me to an old man who lived on old Marsh Lake, by himself in a hut. He was called Marshrat, and was considered a harmless madman in town and village, because he lived by himself in the old marsh, doing nothing and singing odd songs.


11. The Lonely God
From Scriptures of the Church of Carlo

     The myth of the lonely god is the creation story of the Church of Carlo in the lower Marsh River region, though its origin, like many such tales, is clearly in the foothills and mountains near River Falls from which our people spread outward. The Church of Carlo is the oldest of the local religions. Traditionally, the story is told communally. A teller speaks to the congregation, and at appropriate points the congregation responds with the words of Carlo, "This is better."

     Carlo walked the waste land. The waste land was a land of rocks. Everything that was was rock, from the barren mountains, snowless and black that arose in the northwest to the sand dunes, of the tiniest rocks, that slithered across the desert of the southeast. Empty and dry, the waste was not comfortable, and so Carlo began to feel a longing for a pleasant place.

     As Carlo was wondering what it was that he wanted, fire erupted from the rock. A black mountain split. Molten stone was cast into the sand-colored sky. A fine gray ash filled the air and irritated Carlo's eyes. He began to weep.

     As Carlo wept, he began to realize that his tears came not merely from the ash hurting his eyes, but also from his sorrow. He realized he was alone.

     Wondering what was the answer to loneliness, Carlo noticed that his tears were changing more things than his soul. They fell like rain upon the desert. Soon steam rose into clouds that cleansed the sky, changing it from dirty yellow to misty blue. And when the clouds became dirty themselves, they rained again.

     Carlo thought to himself, "This is better." And when Carlo thought the first words of all time, he felt better too.

     For a long time Carlo enjoyed the changing of the waste land. He saw snow cover the mountains and rivers flow down them, forming lakes and springs among the hills, and sinking into the dunes of the far south. He watched the steam rise to clean the blue sky and fall in rain to make the land beautiful and various. Wonder of wonders, he discovered stars, a great one that warmed the day and many tiny ones that relieved the night of darkness.

     But there came a day when Carlo realized that the loneliness that had awakened in him when he wept and that had abated when he spoke to himself, had deepened without his noticing. Having found an inward self when he spoke, he now found that place to be a new waste land, dark and empty as a well of nothingness. This darkness gnawed outward, until he felt he was a mere skin between the beautiful world and the nothing within.

     To answer this, Carlo threw words into the void. He talked to himself:

    This knife that carves my guts away;
   This gulf where I can toss no stone;
   This well where no water bubbles upward;
   This starless sky within,
   black as the mountain beneath the snow;
   I am falling into myself, and I see no bottom.

As long as Carlo talked to himself, it was as if he gathered grains of sand from the dunes and threw them one by one into a deep canyon.

     But then a great storm broke forth over the land. Lightning cut across the sky and thunder echoed among the mountains. The earth shook. Snow slid down the mountains. The air was filled with sound, and this opened Carlo's ears. Then he opened his mouth and shouted with the elements, his voice echoing for the first time in all of time.

     Talking to the world, Carlo felt the emptiness within recede just a little, as on the earliest day of spring one feels, though he cannot see, the ice begin to weaken, the snow begin to shrink. So, Carlo shouted with the thunder and spat with the lightning and stomped with the earthquake and hissed with the rain and the blowing snow. This time he said aloud for all to hear:
    "This is better."

     But it was not good enough. Though his emptiness stopped growing, it did not go away. Instead it remained a vast hollow in himself as great as all the hollow he could see in the night sky, but without a speck of starry light. When he realized this, Carlo asked the first question of all time: "Why is there not something to talk to me?" For though he spoke with all the sounds of the earth, they did not reply, but only went on their ways.

     Then Carlo found that his question spoken aloud to the clouds and the mountains must have an answer. When he said "Something!" and his echoed voice returned, there stood a great tree, the first peach tree of all time. Each time he said "Something!" something would appear: the first blade of grass, the first strawberry plant, the first stalk of wheat, the first waterlily.

     When he had talked to the world a long time, all the plants that are in the world today were gathered around him, each in its place. Oh then how the world talked to him! For these were the first living things, and they spoke richly in growing and dying with the seasons.

     Again Carlo said, 
    "This is better."
    Again this was not enough, for though his loneliness was much relieved by his conversation with the plants, they did not speak to him quite as he seemed to need. Upon the loneliness within, the colors, textures, smells and subtle sounds of the plants made a nest, covering the outer edge of blackness over with beauty and ease, but further in was still the vast void. In a moment of silence in the dark of the night, it would threaten to overwhelm him again.

     Carlo thought, "While I have the land and the plants to talk with, there is no one here who talks to me. I need someone to talk to me." And when he said "someone," someone appeared. He was the mouse, the first animal that was in all of time. The mouse sat up and waved its little feet and squeaked in a tiny voice that just reached Carlo's ear. What the mouse said was this: "I have a hole inside me that grows larger and larger until I think I will become nothing but a hole. I need someone!" Now Carlo knew just how the mouse felt, and so he was not surprised when another mouse appeared when his new companion said "Someone!" And each time another mouse appeared, it would stand upon its hind legs and make its lonely squeak and there would be another mouse.

     Now Carlo also knew there should be many more companions in the world and so he too said "Someone!" many times. As he did so, all the animals that are in the world appeared one by one, and each in turn began to repeat his chant until there were many of each kind. Second to appear was the cat, and in good time too. After came all the fishes and birds, the bees and grasshoppers, the goats and cows, the great lion of the mountains, the tiny lizard of the stones, the lithe snake of the marsh, the monkey of the forest, and all the animals that are.

     Now Carlo's world was very full, and there was much talking in it. The nest he had built in his inner void was populated with chattering multitudes. Once again, Carlo said "This is better," and once again it was not enough. The noisy myriads talked constantly, but they said only a few things: "Hungry! . . . Food Here! . . . Someone! . . . Fear! . . . Comfort! . . . Someone!"

     Then at last Carlo knew what he needed, though he could never have known until his world was full of beautiful sound. Even in that sound remained an emptiness that stood for the great emptiness in his soul. He said to himself, "Here I have dreamed a beautiful and comfortable place with many to talk to and many to talk to me. But I have never said the word the mouse said after I called to him. I need someone like myself with whom to share the world. I need another!"

     And when he said "Another!" a man appeared. So he said "Another!" again quickly, several times, and in turn a woman appeared and then another man and then another woman. This puzzled Carlo greatly, for this is not how making had happened before. It seemed there were only two kinds like him, man and woman. He could not think long about this, however, for soon all were talking to each other, and what they said was this: "While this is a beautiful world, full of beauty and song, I am so lonely! There is inside me an emptiness that nothing I see can remedy."

     But then, quite by accident two people touched each other, a man and a woman. When they touched, they felt better. When they embraced, they felt better still, and grew quiet. So it was that all the people Carlo had called touched, grew quiet, and settled down to live together in the world, having found in each other the answer to their loneliness.

     You may think it sad that Carlo found no other just for himself. But you should not be sad, for Carlo found exactly what it was he had always wanted. Whenever one man or woman speaks lovingly to another, Carlo knows himself as the very opposite of the empty and the lonely, and he says to himself and to all of us
    "This is better."


12. Marshrat, Son of Marshrat
From Marshrat's Journey

I

     The sunbird had lovely feathers, golden, flecked with brown on her breast, but brown flecked with gold at her throat. Her folded wing feathers, where he smoothed them down with a trembling finger, were pied multicolors, reds and browns and golds and whites. Her black eye was circled with black skin, with a rust ray slanting back, and open now forever. She lay in Heron's hand, the same hand that had thrown the smooth and round black stone, the stone that had caught the sunbird in the center of her breast, tumbling her backward from a fallen branch and onto the sand at the edge of Marsh Lake, where she shuddered as he watched her die. The tears would not come, though at the back of his throat bitter weeping crouched. Heron was ten years old. He was learning that he could take life, but he could not give it back.

     Moments before, he had been filled with excitement, hiding behind a clump of palmetto, fingering the carefully selected collection of stones in his pocket. He had cultivated his skill to impress the village boys. He could set up leaves, even from fruit trees, against a sandbank and pierce them, even at twenty paces. The sunbird sat on the deadwood. She would lift her head at regular intervals and sing through her melody. If he timed his movements right, he could send the stone through the palmetto leaves, catching her in the midst of trilling, and she would never see what hit her. To bring down this target was a challenge, and the difficulty of it lured him.

     Now that difficulty was passed, and another was before him. "I didn't mean for you to die," he muttered. "I only wanted to see if I could do it." But Heron was not really capable of lying to himself. Something in him wanted to have power, not merely the power of casting a stone accurately, but the power of life and death over another. Perhaps this was because the village boys bullied him, ridiculing and combining against the loner with an eccentric father and no mother. Though he was very young at ten, still Heron understood at least dimly that the anger in the stone that killed the sunbird was really aimed at those boys.

     Blindly, still unable to shed tears, Heron wished. He wished with all his being, body and soul, for the life of the sunbird. "Don't let her die! Oh, Carlo speak her into life again!" His being was centered for that time on finding any way at all of evading responsibility for his act, an act that he felt to be murder. Heron had eaten the bobwhites and gobblers his father, Water Reed killed for their table. On his feet were leather shoes, made from a neighbor's elderly goat with whom Heron had a personal relationship only a year ago. He knew these things too, but still felt something deeply wrong in having slain the sunbird.

     The short beach was sandy. He could look from here out over the small Marsh Lake. This was in the days before this lake became Old Marsh Lake, when the marsh was alive. Though Marsh River had been dammed and the new Marshtown was growing on the new Marsh Lake, irrigating the waste around the marsh was only a dream. Heron could see most of the shore of the lake from this spot. Surrounding the lake was forest and water meadows, and directly across in the bright sun, he could see the curved-neck shapes of silver egrets, and his sharp eyes could even see the vague movements of a darker heron or two in the shadows of the shore trees. Where he stood was near the path between his father's little farm and the village, making it a favorite play spot for local children. Were he to stay here long, someone would come. Were boys from the village to arrive, he would have to show them his kill with pride, to boast of this deed that had shamed him so completely. He couldn't bear that, and so he was quick to break off a broad leaf in which to wrap the sunbird, and then to disappear with his burden and his stick down a narrower private path that would bring him to his own place in the marsh.

     The wet land around the lake could be dangerous to those who did not know it well. There was ground that was mud beneath a seemingly solid crust, where one could sink to the waist and perhaps never get out. There were stories of deeper mudholes and of quicksand, where one would be sucked out of sight. People of the village considered the marsh dangerous, telling such tales to keep their children away from it, and then believing them without knowledge of their truth. Water Reed, however, loved the marsh and all that lived there, even the tiny foam-mouthed snake. It was smaller than a garden snake, a uniform brown, but when it opened its mouth to strike with envenomed fangs, it appeared to have been scooping storm foam from the lakeside. Heron had seen this one truly dangerous denizen, though it was shy and rare, and so for this and to test surfaces, he always carried a stick when he walked into the marsh.

     Heron's private place was a hummock deep in the marsh. It was like a small island, and when the water was high in the rainy season, he would have to remove his shoes and wade part of the way to it through knee-deep water, carefully keeping to his narrow path of solid ground. The island was shaped like a crescent moon, with an inlet on the southern side that was like a small pond in the rainy season and was connected to the lake. The inlet became a pool in summer, separated from the rest of the lake by a stretch of reed and grass filled mud. Along this shore, there was a meadow, where short grass made a pleasant lounging place in the cooler days of early spring. This was Heron's thinking place, where he nursed the bruises to body and to spirit inflicted by the village boys and the other sufferings of childhood, where he dreamed of revenge and, alternatively, of how generously he would use power over his tormentors should he ever gain it. If he sat quietly in the grass, or further back in the shade of a live oak, he could watch the small animals of the marsh emerge to sun themselves: turtles and frogs would climb onto drift logs and lift their heads toward the sky. Some days the frogs would sing. A hawk would circle the island and as its shadow passed over, there would be twenty plops and splashes. When the water was smooth again, three pointed turtle heads and the double bubbles of frog eyes would poke above the water, watching for more shadows.

     Heron brought the sunbird to this place for burial. He hoped when he opened the folded leaf that she would fly up and consecrate his place with her song and the grace of her flight, but her dead eye still accused him from a head bent unnaturally to the side, her beak open now in an attitude that suggested suffering.

     With his stick, he dug in a bare spot of ground in the shade of the tallest central oak facing his clearing. When he had buried her, cradled in her leaf coffin, he took from his pocket the six remaining throwing stones and pressed them into the earth above her grave, making a triangular pattern. When she was buried, she was finally dead. There was no bringing her back. He had killed her. Silently his tears fell at last onto the dirty hands -- his hands -- that lay open on his lap as he rested in the silent shade.

     A few days later, Heron returned to the sunbird's grave with a folded paper in his pocket. On the paper were these words.

     A sunbird was sent to me.
   I sent her away--
   Not on her wings that reflect the after sunset sky,
   Not on her song that draws my heart into the sky.
   I sent her away with a stone heart
   Into the dark ground,
    Sunbird that was sent to me.

It was signed at the bottom with his name. He lifted the six stones, scooped a shallow depression in which he placed the folded paper, covered it over again, and replaced the black stones in their triangle pattern. Then thirty years passed.

II

     "If the councilors would come to the marsh, I could show them its beauty fading. The water level is lower. Fewer fish can live in the silty water. There is less food for the water birds, and so they do not hatch many eggs, and each year fewer return. The hummocks become so dry in summer that the plants on the highest parts dry up into dust, and a few of the trees have begun to die prematurely as well, so that islands are brown centers with green fringes as you can see well by looking down from the hills." Water Reed was speaking before the council in Marshtown. This was in the days after the dam was built, when the new meeting hall was not yet built, and the council would gather in Marshtown at each of the four annual festivals, meeting in a tent set up on the common for this purpose. The tent gave shelter from the sun, but was open all around, for in those days, the council really consisted of all the citizens who came to the meetings. Usually, they would talk about what needed to be done until they agreed on it, but sometimes, when disagreement could not be ended, they would vote.

     The reaction to Water Reed's plea was mixed. There were many in the town who, though they knew little of the marsh, still appreciated its beauty. Part of the spring festival was to gather on the shore of old Marsh Lake near Water Reed's fruit and vegetable farm for a great outdoor meal during the time of the birds' return. Then many birds that visited the marsh only a few days each year would be singing, swimming, and soaring: the very air would seem to live with music and colored flight. And Water Reed was right. The older citizens were sure they remembered festivals of the past as more vibrant and felt that recently the beauty and frenzy of that festival day had declined. Wheatbeard, a man cunning in having his way, knew how the people would feel, and so he was ready with arguments.

     "It is the custom of the old to remember their youthful days as more full of life, since the old themselves were more full of life in their youth. Water Reed grows old now, and he remembers the past as better than it was. Our aqueduct has not really changed the marsh.

     "It is true that something is killing a few of the trees on the larger islands. We can all see the brown centers from our southern hills, but this is not extensive or serious. In a few years, it will take care of itself.

     "We should pay attention, instead, to what we can gain from the proposed new aqueduct. Look around you at how our town has grown. We are more prosperous. We have more fine metal tools, more pleasant homes, a greater variety of foods. All of this has come from the riches of our blooming desert. Having converted waste land into farm land, we have grains and fibers to trade up the river. This trade has brought us good things and has attracted skilled people from up river into our small town.

     "To open a second aqueduct will only increase these good things. There may be somewhat fewer birds, but our spring festival will continue to be fine enough for us. There may be fewer fish in the old lake, but the new lake is rich with fish for our tables. We really have nothing to lose and much to gain."

     Water Reed responded, "But you don't know what you will lose. The marsh has depended for all the time we know on the flow of Marsh River. The new plan will stop that flow into the marsh for much of the year. That must change the marsh. We may not know exactly how, though I believe we can already see the decline in the birds and trees. The point is that if the marsh is changed, we cannot be sure of bringing it back again if we don't like the change.

     "Why don't we let enough be enough? We have dammed the river and made a new lake, and this has made our lives easier. We irrigate vast fields in the desert, and this makes our lives more pleasant. These are good things. Our lives are very good. Why change? Why not keep things as they are, having our comfort and having the marsh. Surely its beauty is reason enough to keep it."

     "Beauty? What is the value of beauty?" argued Wheatbeard. "Don't misunderstand me. I love what is truly beautiful as much as any man. But I think that true beauty should also be useful. I look upon the beauty of the flax and corn that grows in our desert fields. That, my friends, is practical beauty, the rich rows of gold and green, the honey glow of the ripe corn in the boats that float from our port during harvest. I don't object to the beauty of a swamp, with its sinkholes and foam snakes, but that seems to me hardly to compare with our golden harvest fields and the fine linen of our looms."

     "But the marsh has a life! A life of its own that is not ours to take!"

     "You seem to me a little selfish, Water Reed. The whole town benefits from our fields, but only a few, mainly you, seem seriously to believe that we should sacrifice those obvious benefits for a piece of essentially useless ground." Wheatbeard then paused, and with a fixed, calculated smile, looked around at the gathered citizens of Marshtown, before he made his final move.

     "When we see someone wanting to hoard something for himself, we call him a rat. Perhaps, Water Reed, your true name should be Marshrat!"

     This comment brought a laugh from the crowd. To Heron, who had watched his father's defense with quiet pride, it seemed that everyone was laughing at his father, as they always had -- the ridiculous man who lived next to the swamp, who took time from valuable work to study the ways of the birds and other animals there, who had brought up his son to look and to act like him. Both had full beards, though Water Reed's was white, while Heron's was a rich chestnut brown. Sure, his stories of the marsh were interesting to children; they remembered some of them and so felt the magic of the silver egret's flight, like a soaring orchid -- but now they were adults and this was a serious matter.

     Not everyone laughed, but many of those who were sympathetic to Water Reed's point of view were silenced by the name of Marshrat. They did not want to be in the minority who would be called marshrats for the rest of their days. To be so excluded from the community would be a pain in itself that most of them were unwilling to bear, and this exclusion would lead to other separations more damaging to their families. Wheatbeard, with this move, had effectively silenced the minority, and so the town agreed to build the second aqueduct.

     That afternoon as Water Reed and Heron left Marshtown, they were accompanied by about a dozen residents of the lower village whose way home was the same. Heron noticed that no one spoke to them. The others spoke to each other quietly, the four or five children lingering behind, talking and snickering among themselves. Though he was forty years old, there was still inside him the boy's hurt and anger at the bullying of the village boys, and it was this boy so near his surface that heard with red, blinding anger the sing-song taunts the children sent after the pair as they parted in the village: "There go Marshrat and Marshrat, the son of Marshrat!"

     Fifteen years later, only carrion birds came to the black, dead marsh, and for them the pickings were lean. A few years before Water Reed's death, without knowing then what they saw, Heron and his father watched the last silver egret to visit the marsh drift down to the barren, muddy shore of the tiny pond that was all that remained of old Marsh Lake. It stood for a moment, drawing to it the golden spring sun and making a spot of brilliance in desolation, not preening itself, but seeming to look with bewilderment at a scene that failed to match the glory in its memory. Then it took wing, circling northward in search of another home. After Water Reed died, no one remembered Heron's true name, and so, with both bitterness and pride, he thought of himself, just as all of Marsh River did, as Marshrat.

III

     "Remember, Heron, the day I showed you the dead possum?"

     Heron's memory of that moment was clear as the stillest pool of the lower Marsh River stream, the trickle of the river below the dam. The sun shown hot, seeming almost to have weight as it pressed on his bare young shoulders. That was when he was four years old. The possum lay partially curled inward on its side in some short sparse grass, along a narrow path between the garden and the lakeside. He didn't know whether his father had killed it to keep it out of his beans, but it was very dead. Its belly was open and maggots squirmed there. Flies buzzed around it, and landed on its open eye, and on its reddish tongue that poked out from between the pointed little teeth beneath its dry white snout. His father had brought him here, silently, in answer to a question.

     "Father, where is my mother?"

     "She's dead, Heron. I've told you that before."

     "But the kids in town all have mothers. Their mothers give them food and hug them and put them to bed in the night."

     "I know that, Heron, and I'm sorry -- very sorry -- that your mother died. I would like her to hug me and put me to bed in the night, too. But she is gone, and so we have to take care of each other."

     "But why doesn't she come back? Hyacinth's mother went away up river for a long time, and then she came back. Why won't our mother come back?"

     Water Reed could not speak. Heron could not understand at four the pain that turned Water Reed's brown/green eyes hard above his dark, full beard. And Water Reed could not find any easy answer that Heron would understand, and so in suffering blindness he did something he often regretted thereafter. He took Heron to see the dead, garden-robbing possum where it was rotting in the sun.

     "See this possum, Heron."

     "Yes, Father." Heron looked very solemn, his four-year-old face held rigid before the inconceivable mystery of death.

     "It's dead."

     "I know that, Father."

     "Do you know what it means to be dead?"

     "No."

     "This possum will never get up and walk again. It will not come in the night to our garden to find good things to eat. It will never go home to its nest to feed its little ones. When it died, that was the end of everything that it does. In a few days you can come here and see only its bones left here on the ground, and next year the bones will be gone, too, turned back into the dust from which its body was made. Your mother is dead like this, three years ago, and by now her bones too are probably melted into the earth where we buried her."

     This was hard for Water Reed to say. He felt the terrible cruelty of it in his own pain at remembering her face, its suffering in giving birth, its joy in nursing and caressing, its stillness in death. He wondered, What was he doing to his son?

     "It won't go back to its babies?"

     "No."

     "Then they will die."

     "Their father will take care of them."

     "Yes, Father."

     "Yes, I remember, Father, the day you helped me understand that mother was gone forever. I remember it very well."

     "I'm sorry."

     Water Reed, now Marshrat to all but Heron, lay on his bed, paralyzed by a stroke. He had wasted away for a week, with Heron tending him alone, waiting patiently to die. Often he slept, but sometimes he spoke in a slurred speech that only Heron's love could understand.

     "You needn't be sorry, Father. What you taught me was good, and I have never forgotten it."

     "But it seemed so cruel, as if I tried to hurt you with my own pain. I have often regretted it."

     "You shouldn't, Father. It was a good thing to do, and I am truly glad of it."

     "Still, I am sorry!"

     Those were Water Reed's last words to Heron, who from that day was known only as Marshrat.

13. Question 4
From "The Questions of Raisin and Chick"
in the holy writings of the Cult of Song

Mother, what is the difference between our singing and that of the wind in the grass?

     In one sense, there is no difference at all, for each is part of the song of IS. With IS, all songs are chords in the whole, strands of the vast web.

     The song of IS is made of the songs of the world. Each thing -- the plant, the fish, the rock, the sheep, the grass, the bee, the wind, the cloud -- each thing doing what it naturally does creates its part of the sound.


14. At the Hearth of Marshrat

     Arm's journey across the dry lands had tested his body and his will, but in a way, the problems he had to solve were simple. Would he go on? Would he give up? The problems that lay ahead he began to see as soon as he encountered Ram. In the desert he was a solitary soul, struggling through a hostile landscape, sustained by his mission. Now he was a solitary soul among a possibly hostile people, and his mission was no longer simply to arrive somewhere, but to persuade. The idea he had to convey was simple enough: "Please use the water of Marsh River sparingly, leaving enough to preserve the lives of my people of the swamp and of IS, the very soul of our world, for if IS dies, so does our world." But Arm saw already that this simplicity would be easily apparent only to him. Everyone else in the Marshtown area would be likely to think that the water passed them before draining away into a dead and ugly marsh and then sinking away into the waste land. Why should they waste this water, after discovering a way to make it serve them and make their lives rich and secure? Why, after putting the sweat of their arms into the dam and the aqueducts and the canals and ditches, why then should they say that this labor was for nothing and let perhaps half their fields go dry? Why should they do these things for a few odd looking monsters that claimed to hold the secret of the world's life in a distant swamp that was probably as dead and ugly as old Marsh Lake?

     Arm could see that this was how things were, but what could he do about it? He knew no answer, and so he knew he would have to find out. To find out, he followed Ram's advice; he went to Marshrat, whose hut and garden were near old Marsh Lake.

     At Marsh Lake death and loss seemed eternal. This was because though it was water in a waste land, the water itself was a waste land.

     As Arm walked along a sandy strip between the hills and the dry marsh, he looked out over the marsh, thinking that once it had been like his swamp. Where there had been shaded islands, were now low humps with dead trees stretching sad bones of arms above thorny bushes. Stream beds had become dusty trails; pools were now boggy pits of black water, surrounded by clumps of dry-looking and dark plants, like nettles and thistles.

     Walking in the dry lands had taught him that different lands teach different ways of living. He looked at this land and wondered what way of living it taught. He felt repelled by it as he had never felt, even when near death in the dunes. This waste seemed to hate itself and all that looked upon it. It seemed to be wishing itself vanished.

Perhaps he was seeing it at the wrong time. If Ram was right that once all of this flat land and marsh was a great lake, then for the face of the land to change was part of the singing of the world. Even this dead swamp must play its part, being one of the ways of the land. Perhaps over time, it would teach creatures and plants how to live in it, and with them would come singing in which he could join. But on that day when he first walked along the dead marsh with a little of Ram's food in him, he could find no kinship between himself and that land.

     Marsh Lake looked like a large boggy pit. He saw nothing living in it. Bleak and jagged plants clung to its black shore, and as the day heated up, a stinking steam rose from it, hurting his nose and making his eyes cry. On the hills to his left were grass and trees that reminded him of the swamp, though many of the plants were strange to him. There were fields too, large squares on hillsides, with rows of small plants, all the same.

     He found Marshrat in his garden. It was a good place to find him. As Ram had told him, Marshrat's hut stood in a grove of trees on the west bank of the trickle that was what remained of Marsh River when it flowed into the lake. It was a small hut, much like those in the swamp, made of wooden poles with woven grass walls, but with a thatched grass roof.

     As he approached it, he saw Marshrat not far away, hoeing in his garden. He bent and chopped at the earth, removing the plants he did not want there. He saw there were many kinds of plants Marshrat wanted to remain.

     Marshrat was smaller than Ram, who was nearly Arm's size, and he seemed thin as a whistle reed. He stood only to Arm's chin, and being an aged man, his back was bent, making him shorter than he had once been. On his head and face was white hair, hanging down onto his jacket and covering his neck. The skin of his face was a bright mixture of tan and red, like the fruit of marshmellon. His eyes seemed very small, for they were hidden deep within the wrinkles of his skin and beneath bushes of hairs above them.

     In fact, when they first looked upon each other, Arm wondered if Marshrat had any eyes at all. Marshrat heard Arm walking in his garden and turned toward him. Seeing him, he leaned his head upon his hoe and studied Arm through dark slits among deep wrinkles. Knowing that, like Ram, Marshrat would find him alien, Arm stood quietly to let this familiar stranger study and overcome his fear. When Marshrat spoke in a slow and thoughtful manner, as if considering carefully, it seemed as if he had never been afraid.

     "I think I am seeing a legend, for you look to be a black monkey. I've heard tell of such creatures living beyond the desert. And you have all the marks of one. But to see one wandering here!"

     Marshrat seemed reluctant to move, thinking perhaps he might frighten Arm or make this wondrous legendary beast disappear. So only after he looked Arm over quietly for some time, did Arm speak to him.

     "I am Arm. I have come with IS from the swamp beyond the dry lands about the stopping of the water."

     Marshrat shifted his weight, as if ready to run, upon hearing the first words. He was shocked that this being spoke, and in his own tongue. But he quickly controlled himself, and considered some more.

     "Not just a big monkey, now, are you? I have also heard tell that the monkeys were another kind of men, and so you are if you talk to me, and in my own language. I thought you would grunt and beg for a banana, like the monkeys of the south mountain forests, but no, you come announcing yourself as an ambassador, escorting some dignitary, though I can't see him yet, and you come on serious business, too.

     "I can see we must talk. I am not a talker, for I live here alone, apart from the big bellies in town. And when I see them, there is little to say. What answer can you make to a gulp and a belch? Eh?

     "And now, today, you come, making me want to talk, to ask questions and learn of an unseen world. But I can see that first you'll have to tell me what you have to say, being on quest as you are."

     Then he returned quietly to weeding his row, while Arm stood patiently and watched him. In a few minutes he was done, and then he turned and spoke to Arm again: "You must have come far. I am sure that in your home, there is no mud or dust caked in your hair, and that your bones do not show so high in face and ribs, nor through holes in your clothing.

     "Let's see, what food might you take? I have some lettuce here."

     He carefully pulled some leaves from a row of plants and gave them to Arm. To him they smelled wonderful, and he ate them on the spot.

     "Aye, you are hungry, I see."

     He gathered more food from his garden. All these foods were familiar to Arm, though different from what he was used to, for they had been cultivated with care, and were generally larger and sweeter than the varieties gathered by the children of the swamp. Then Marshrat took Arm to a pool in the stream where he freshened the water of IS and bathed. In the shade in front of his hut, they sat before his cold fire circle, and Arm filled himself for the first time in many days with the fruits of Marshrat's garden and trees.

     And being full, he slept, though it was not yet night.

     Next morning they spoke of IS. And as they spoke, Arm began to see how well he was guided in coming first to Ram who was kind and selfless and then to Marshrat who was so learned and wise.

     Marshrat understood the quest nearly as well as Arm did even before it was explained.

     "I expect you have come about the drying of the marsh and the end of the flowing of Marsh River. You could come only across the dry lands because we men know all the lands up the river, but almost never go into the dry lands, there being nothing there for us. Of course, long ago, before my time, in my grandfather's time I think, there was a crazy man, called Sandrat, (so you see how I come by my name), who claimed he was called to explore the desert.

     "He packed up food and water and walked into the dunes. One day, he returned half dead and crazier than ever. So the story goes. The story includes you. He said he came to a swamp that sang and where the black monkey people lived. He said he sang with the swamp and talked with the monkeys and learned the meaning of life.

     "And now, here you are, come from the dunes, a black monkey to talk with another crazy man. And instead of talking, you are listening to me! Tell me about yourself!"

     So, Arm told his story: how IS had sung to him, and how he had brought a part of IS across the land of the pricklies, the land of the stones, and the land of the dunes.

     "Now that will be a problem," Marshrat said. "You must place this waterroot in a safe and still place where it can grow and from where it can send its messages down stream to the swamp. I wonder how long such information will take to travel? Probably quite long now, for the flow quickly grows less. As summer heats, the water rats will take more, until none at all flows from the reservoir into Marsh Lake. It will be after harvest, well into cool season before the reservoir overflows again, and then it will be slow, for many people along the river use its water."

     "Why do you call these men water rats? What is this rat that you are Marshrat, and once there was Sandrat?"

     "Ah, rats now, is it? Well you see we have in the hills a small, brown animal that could sit on your hand, who is known, perhaps unjustly, as a hoarder. It is said that in his underground burrows he takes and stores anything that will fit, spending his whole life enlarging the hole and carrying moveable objects that interest him into it."

     Arm understood. "There was among us children of the swamp, not long ago, one who became ill. For a time, she slept much. When she slept she had dark dreams in which she talked. And when she was awake, she gathered sun fruit that was then in season, piling it in her corner of her hut. She would share it with no one, neither would she eat it, and so it rotted there and flies ate it."

     "Yes, to be a rat as we say it is to have that sort of sickness. So I am said to hoard the marsh, though you see I am not very successful. And Sandrat wanted the dunes for himself. At least that's what people thought."

     "You do not seem sick to me."

     "Nor to myself. I think it is the big bellies, the water rats who are sick, for they hoard the water and starve the marsh. Now you tell me their hoarding does far more harm than to my marsh, that it threatens the world."

     "Yes, I think that is true. If the men of Marsh River take all of its water, then the swamp will begin to die. When IS sang to me, it said this northern source was one of only two sources of its life."

     "That makes your quest a hard one, my friend. And the first step, I think, must be to place your waterroot in the best spot.

     "We cannot put it in Marsh Lake, for nothing lives there now but foul and poisonous plants. We must find a pool in the stream that is protected from prying eyes, that will not dry up in summer, and through which some water will flow until the water stops in summer. We must do this today, now, before talking more, so that IS may understand as soon as possible whatever it can understand about this northern silence."

     In the early morning light they walked out together along the stream of Marsh River, searching for such a pool. They found one not so far from Marshrat's hut, though they looked much of the morning before choosing that one as best. It was much like the pool of IS in the swamp, which is why Arm favored it.

     In this part of the river, it had divided into several streams that flowed into the lake. All of these but two were now dry, the two deepest remaining. And in one, there was a place where the water ran narrow and deep, as deep as Arm's knees, though he could easily step across it. The other branch, not far away was wide and shallow with a sandy bottom. Marshrat said it would be dry sand in a moon, but the narrow stream would flow until midsummer, and then the pools would stand, especially those in the shade.

     The pool they chose was well shaded, with a narrow grassy bank where it was pleasant to sit. And there were gold carp resting in it. After their tramp along the stream, they were tired. So after emptying the long carried pail into this quiet pool that stood outside the main current, they sat on the bank, and Marshrat talked about these men Arm would have to deal with, the men he called big bellies and water rats.

     The dam and the aqueducts were begun in the time of Marshrat's grandfather. The people who had come down along the river to settle here wanted water for their fields, and it was far to carry the water up to them on the backs of donkeys or in pails on their shoulders. In the dry season of summer, only shaded and watered gardens could be made to grow. The people could grow some grain and some grass, but very little without carrying water.

     They gathered together as was their practice when troubled and had the idea of the reservoir. This would make a larger shore where grass for grazing would grow. It would be easier to carry water from the large and higher lake, and in the dry season there would be plenty to carry.

     They built this dam during the childhood of Marshrat's grandfather, and by the time of Marshrat's father, the east aqueduct was also built, and the people began to farm the flat land to the east of the marsh.

     Before the building of the aqueduct, the flow of water over the dam seemed to stay as it was before the dam was built. But after the aqueduct, the marsh started to shrink, and when the second aqueduct took water to the new fields west of the marsh, old Marsh Lake began to die.

     As the flat land fields of corn and vegetables grew green in dry summer, the swamp grew gray and black around its edges and in high places, shrinking into stinking mud where poisonous and prickly plants sprang up.

     "In the second summer of the western fields, the last silver egret flew north, never to return. Wild ducks and geese ceased to nest in spring and fall, and the great cloudy crane, sang a farewell song." Marshrat's voice became itself a farewell song, the song of thank you, as he spoke of these, his friends. He had known these birds, birds known still in the swamp, for they pass through there as well in their seasons. He had listened to their songs and had sung with them. It was as he spoke of these birds and of singing with them, that Arm felt again the death of Sand and his night of despair in the dunes, but there was a deeper pain here.

     Though Arm had known quiet in the desert and suffered from it, now he felt how the dry land stood between him and home and between him and the songs of the children of the swamp. In Marshrat's echo of a farewell, he heard the singing of the children around the fire.

     With tears in his eyes, as the sky began to glow red and gold, reflected from behind western clouds, he turned to Marshrat, who sat in a dark shadow beneath an old willow, looking into the pool, his arms wrapped about his knees, his white beard resting on his knees.

     "It is too quiet here. Your lament is like the farewell song of the children."

     "Yes, I feel in me that there is something that belongs with my thoughts, some words and music perhaps. You see, I am thought crazy in part because I make songs out here in my hut and write them down, though only children are much interested in hearing them. Sing me your farewell song."

     Thank you companion for singing among us.
    Your song is with us.
    You are singing our song.
    Though your face glows not in the fire,
    Though your voice enters not our ears,
    Though your hand strikes not the drum,
    Though your ears hear us not,
    Still we hear you;
    Still our hearts hear you.
    You are singing our song.
    Your song is with us.
    Thank you companion for singing among us.

     To sing this song again was to think of the singing star and Sand, dry like a leaf in his hand. As the tears dried in his eyes, Arm saw how they came to Marshrat's.

     "It's a true song, Arm. At least it should be true. But it hurts me deep in my heart. It seems to me, you see, that the songs of the marsh birds I heard as a boy were my songs, too. But now I never hear them. And I never will again. Their songs are no longer with me, only the remembrance of having heard them and thought them beautiful, having thought that without words they sang the meanings of my soul. Now, without those songs, I think my soul must be empty."

     When Arm saw on his face such a forlorn look and heard in his voice such a lonely song, he thought perhaps he had a song of comfort and farewell of his own, and so asked him to sing his song. Then Marshrat recited a song without music, which was something new to Arm.

     Silver, blazing like the knife edge of a storm cloud--
    The memory of such silver slices at my heart.
When the sun behind a cloud reaches around to pierce my eyes.
    Then I lament you, silver egret.

     Your cry entered my breast more gently.
    Your silver wing cut off my breath with love.
    Your eye looked through my eye,
    So I saw the marsh with your eye,
    The sun glinting from its many shores.

     Without your cry, your wing, your eye,
My cry is stopped, my words cannot reach, my eye is dead.
    Even my song is silence.

     This song brought tears to Arm's eyes, not of homesickness, but of sorrow and pity, for Arm felt kinship and pain in this song.

     "My friend," he said, "How can you make such a sad song? This is a song not of thank you and farewell, but of farewell forever. This is a song of the end of the world! Even when I felt such feelings, when I thought I would die in the dunes, I did not dream of making such a song."

     "This song of mine is the truth as I see it. I sing of what is in my heart."

     "Yes, I see that we often feel things we know not to be true of IS, though they are true for the moment in our hearts. Such things can be said, but we cannot sing them. What I marvel at is that you can sing what is not."

     They talked of singing as dusk and then darkness fell on their quiet and sheltered bank before the new pool of IS.

     Marshrat told him that in the hills no one sang songs such as Arm had sung him. There were songs sung in places of eating and drinking about eating and drinking. There were better songs sung about work while working in field and mill. The best were the festival songs and some songs of a few women in the back country, when people sang of their gratitude and joy in having enough and not having to fear hunger in the cool season or dry. But there were no gatherings around fires where people sang themselves and their world. No one remembered such singing.

     Marshrat made such songs, though they were songs of a self bereft in a world drained of music. These songs were not only terrible even in their beauty, but terrifying as well. To make beauty of despair stirs the soul, for beneath it and behind it, pushing it forward into words is such a longing. But this longing, this hunger is sure there is no food for it, and so it is terrifying. Such emptiness denies, makes invisible, what Arm saw about himself in every moment of his togetherness with life and its creatures. All the singing of the children of the swamp grows out of such togetherness. The singing itself happens in a union and expresses that union. For him, even to sing alone in the dry land is to bring himself into a memory of that union. Their togetherness is the togetherness of the world they sing, the union of IS. Their singing is a part of Singing, and it is the singing itself that makes this true.

     Marshrat sang alone. And in singing alone, he made the songs of the lone singer, in the empty hut, in the dead world, among silent stars, cold and terrible.

     Though Arm had made a friend and found an ally, it became clearer yet on that night what a hard and dark way he had yet to go. He had crossed the dry land and come to the dry people. He had found on the edge of their land, Marshrat. Marshrat was not like them, but like Arm, except that his songs were his own alone, and so he lived in despair. They, the water rats and big bellies, had no songs at all. They were without ears and eyes. Though they drank in all the water, their bodies and souls were as dry as Sand's when he died in the dunes. How could he talk to them? How could he sing to them?

15. Who Sings in His Dream
From scriptures of the New Church of Marsh River
and later of the Cult of Marshrat the Martyr

     Now my children I ask you to imagine nothing. You will quickly see that this is not so easy as some might think. When there is nothing, there is neither any object in the world, like this apple I hold in my hand, nor any hand to hold the apple, nor any room in which to behold the apple, nor any world on which the room may rest, nor any blue sunny sky in which the planet may swim, nor -- and this is most important -- nor is there any you to look upon the nothing that remains.

     For a child to truly imagine nothing, it is best perhaps to think of sleep. You close your eyes in darkness and open them in light. You know from those nights when wakefulness is insistent, that the hours from dark to dawn are long indeed, but when you sleep dreamlessly, it is as if there were nothing between sleeping and waking. Then there is no world and no awareness of the world. Then there is no time nor space, nor any of the ways by which we know and portion out our being.

     This is how it was in the nothing before time.

     Though there are many legends that tell of the creation, none of these myths is true, for each talks of the universe as always being here. These are the products of the ignorant. It is a wise child who asks, then, how is it that now there is something? If once there was nothing, how did something come of it, for surely I see the apple, in the hand, in the room, on the world, in the lighted universe?

     There is only one story, told from the beginning by our fathers, and written in the Sacred Texts of the Martyr. We know this is the one true story because it tells us how the universe came to be, even though before there was nothing at all. This story came to our first father in a dream, spoken in his mind by IS himself, the very Being of beings.

     Before there was anything the Mind of IS slept, and in that mind there was nothing at all just as in your dreamless sleep nothing dwells. Then a dream came to the Mind of IS, a dream of boundless space and the flowing of time.

     In his dream, IS fell into space tumbling aimlessly in the vastness of emptiness, feeling the soft touch of time upon his face. Such a dream would be a nightmare to a human person, but IS knew his powers, so then he spoke.

     He said "world," and his feet rested on solid ground. He said, "light," and sun, moon, and stars shone upon his world. He said, "beauty," and all the wonders of the world appeared: sea and mountain, cloud and plain. He said, "life," and the world teemed with living things, plants and animals, insects and men. He said, "love," and all these things came together in harmony. His eyes were bathed in colors of flower and tree, his ears filled with murmurs of breezes in the pines and grass, his nostrils with the breath of the ripening corn. He watched all beings dancing in his dream, and IS was glad.

     And so all things came into the Mind of IS as he spoke the words in his dream. And when all the words that would ever be spoken were said, they became the words of the enduring Song of IS, the song that continues as long as the dream, the song that sings us into being and death, waking and sleeping.

     In the midst of nothing is something; in the midst of sleep is the Dream of IS.


16. The Wakeup Bird
A legend from the Cult of Song

These are the words of the first woman.

     "When I first awoke, I heard the singing of the wakeup bird. It was singing to me, saying 'Wake up, woman! Wake up, woman!' This is how I knew who I was and that I was awake.

     "Though I had lived long in the forest, I had never been awake before, but in a kind of walking sleep. But now I sang back to the bird, and as I sang, I knew I would never again sleep with my eyes open.

     "So I walked through the forest seeking another waking person. I found many walking about their business, finding food, or mates, or sleeping by the streams.

     "Not until I came out of the forest and into the hills did I find another who was awake. We looked upon each other and knew that each was awake. I sang my song to him, and he sang another back to me. This was the song sung to him by the ground squirrel: 'Wake up, man! Wake up, man!'

     "Together we built our house, he making the walls of sticks and I the roof of grass. There we bore our children and taught them the songs of awakening."


17. The High Council of Marshtown

     "Keeper of the inner door, I am Arm, the arm of IS, ambassador from the swamp beyond the desert, come to speak to the High Councilors upon matters of the water."

     Marshrat correctly believed that if Arm depended upon his strangeness and announced his purpose with great dignity, he would be admitted to speak quickly, before the high council could consider what he might say, and so decide not to hear him. For the same reason, Arm had walked into town that morning alone, after only three days at Marshrat's hut, to address the first of the monthly council meetings to occur after his arrival. Marshrat knew well how the council would receive Arm. Harvester, the chief high councilor, and his cronies would try to prevent Arm speaking his embassy until they could learn what it was and develop their response. And there was no doubt what their intent would be, to make sure that Arm was heard by as few people as possible and taken seriously by no one. They would soon see Arm as a threat to all they thought most important. Knowing this, Marshrat wanted Arm to speak before it became known that he was in Marshtown and before Arm's name could be linked with his own.

     Arm and Marshrat had come to new Marsh Lake by night and had slept in the tall grass under the stars, on a hill overlooking Marshtown. Arm had never seen such a place. There were huts of stone, and some of wood, the sliced trunks of great trees. In the night there was much light, oil lamps in windows, and the torches or lanterns of people who walked among the huts. There was a kind of beauty to such a town, laid out in rows, with straight paths between the rows for donkeys, carts, and walkers. It seemed to him a great place indeed, even in darkness.

     But more beautiful to him was this hillside. This was the most lovely land he had seen since leaving the swamp, for this land seemed as it should be. Westward, beyond the town was the reservoir, a great lake, that caught in its face the light of stars and the moon, and brightened the hillside, making the town seem small. Along the shore of the lake were tall trees that seemed to guard it from harm, marking off its bright surface as separate from the land. The smell of the water crept up the hillside after they lay themselves down, and drops of water appeared at the ends of spears of grass. Arm thought of home and of what new and beautiful songs he might learn in this land.

     Striding silently through the streets in the early morning, Arm had watched Marshrat's advice take effect. The morning work of the people there halted. It was strange to Arm, unlike the welcome a stranger would receive in the swamp. There children ran to one with questions, learning all about him or her and running to tell the elders before the elders could even look upon the new one. But then Arm thought, "No one so strange as I was to these people had come among us in my time. Imagine a sand-colored person with long hair on his head, but nowhere else, wearing smooth cloth covering most of his body, of bright colors, perhaps sky blue or leaf green or the red of burning berries. Imagine this person walking among us after our return from gathering. Would the little ones run to ask his name? Or would they perhaps gaze in wonder from behind our kilts or from within the shadows of our doors?"

     The meeting house stood at one side of a large circular common ground. It was the most imposing building facing the common, towering above the grass-roofed huts and the few stone, log and plank-sided homes that circled around it. The building was box-like, with two stories beneath a wood-shingled four-peaked roof. In the upper story were large windows with glass in them. No other building stood so tall, and few buildings in the town had any glass windows, which could only be had at great expense from up-river, though there was talk of someday soon making glass in Marshtown. On the side facing the common, two large beams leaned into each other to form a great arch, within which a plain pair of tall wooden outer doors stood open, their outer corners resting on stone blocks next to the arched beams. Before the smaller, closed inner doors, colored a bright red, stood a man with a staff as long as himself. At its end was an iron blade. He was the keeper of the inner door, and it was of him that Arm asked admission to the council chamber.

     The keeper brought him into a grand room with a high ceiling rising up in four dark corners. Windows at the top of the room, made it bright with morning sun. Encircling the chamber was a second floor gallery of dark polished wood, resting upon carved wooden pillars, with benches upon which people could sit in front of the windows to listen to the council meeting. He found himself for the first time on a polished wooden floor, and so he felt a little awkward on his rough bare feet, and the general grandeur of the room and its inhabitants made him wonder whether they would listen to so shabby a traveler as he, without sandals or brightly colored robes.

     The council consisted of forty men seated on backed benches with red cushions. There were four benches, two on each side of the room, the one behind raised above the one in front. At the far end, behind a large table of polished golden wood, with many papers in neat piles upon it, sat the High Councilor, who regulated their talk. Though they were busily involved in discussion, all sound gradually stopped as the councilors gazed in astonishment upon the strange being the keeper was ushering into their presence.

     When Arm entered the room, there were perhaps six spectators in the gallery -- one of whom was Marshrat, at whom he glanced, only to note his look enjoining no more glances in that direction. After his entrance the gallery began to fill, as all who had seen Arm saunter into their town and disappear into the council chamber climbed the stairway, shuffling and murmuring, to gratify their curiosity and see the strange event that was unfolding this day. At other times, this room was used for festivals and story-telling, and as the crowd entered, the usually solemn and quiet dignity of a council meeting took on more of the air of a festival.

     Feeling that the noise was growing, Arm addressed himself to the High Councilor in the same words he had used with the keeper of the door. This speech produced instant quiet inside the chamber, though people were still crowding into the gallery, and a good crowd could be seen and heard murmuring, stretching their necks around the keeper who had returned and stood in the door, with his staff horizontal across it. Into this comparative quiet, Harvester, the High Councilor spoke.

     "Welcome, ambassador and arm of IS. We, of the High Council, honor our distinguished visitor.

     "Ignorant as we were of your coming, I regret that we have made no proper preparation for you. Therefore, I beg that you will forgive my taking a few moments before you address your embassy to us to confer with my advisers."

     Just as Marshrat had predicted, Harvester called to him two councilors from the benches and whispered with them for a short time. Then, after they returned to their benches, he attempted to delay Arm's speech.

     "My advisers and I agree that an embassy so important as yours ought to be properly acknowledged and received. Therefore, let us welcome you today with feasting and ceremony, and tomorrow let us hear you speak of your mission."

     "My embassy is of equal importance to your well-being as it is to mine. I would speak of it now, if you please, that you may begin from this moment to see into it and apply your wisdom to it."

     His advisers clearly opposed this idea, wishing to delay Arm's speaking to the whole council until they could learn what he would say. But they were unwilling to be too obvious in their opposition, especially as voices arose among members of the council eager to hear this stranger, their wonder and curiosity aroused. Voices were raised in the council and in the gallery. "Hear him! Let us know why he comes and who he is!"

     So Arm gained the chance to speak before the whole council and, therefore, before the whole town, many of whom had filled the gallery. Marshrat's advice had won him a first and full hearing.

18. The Disappearance of Arm
From Arm's Chronicle of IS

     When I first addressed the high council of Marshtown, I followed Marshrat's advice. I began with myself and my journey, telling of the swamp and of my walk across the lands of pricklies, stones, and dunes. This was, as Marshrat said, to establish my reality in their minds. So, they saw how their world and my world were connected across the southern waste. And they saw that my world was not unlike theirs, a world of different looking men who lived a different life, but not much different from their own.

     Then, very briefly, I told of my mission.

     "At the beginning of the last moon, IS, the center of our life, spoke to me. IS said to me that its life radiates from the swamp, but that life comes to it from the whole world, flows to it as music through the waters of the world. IS said that in half of the world, a silence had grown, until there was almost no music at all. And with this silence had come a slowing of the water. When the water stops altogether, silence will be all. Then, slowly but surely, our swamp will dry up and die. Then we will die, and IS will die and, for a time at least, the singing of our world will come to an end. When singing stops, all will be as dead.

"I have come, therefore, to ask you, who have power over the water of Marsh River, to restore its flow into the marsh. Let the marsh try again to come alive, and let the water sink into the marsh so that it may flow through the underground stream to our swamp. To do this is to save our lives, yours and mine, and more important, to save the singing that makes our lives real and full." 

     When I finished, there was an uproar in the meeting place. It seemed that all the people burst into talk, chaotic talk in which all expressed their opinions to each other. There was no attempt for some time to quiet and address the whole group. Though I heard many words, I could not tell what the people as a whole might think of my message or what they would do about it.

     I looked toward Marshrat, but his quiet face told me nothing. He had said before that he could not predict how the people would respond. He knew that Harvester, the High Councilor, and all who were close to him would want my mission denied, and that they would find any means of denying it they thought would work. I studied them now. They were silent themselves, listening carefully to those about them.

     Harvester was as Marshrat described the people of Marshtown. His belly was big, looking as if he carried a basket held up under his robe of blue cotton by a broad leather belt. He wore a red, sleeveless linen jacket that would not close over that belly. Though his black and gray hair curled around his ears and onto his shoulders, there was none on top of his head, only shining, sand colored skin. He had cut off the hair of his face, as had most of the councilors.

     I found a look in his eyes that I saw among many of the quieter men in that room. Then I thought of it as a look of thoughtfulness, of distance from the present talking, but now I remember it also as being empty of something. It was not that they were absent from the chaos of the talk they allowed to go on, for it was clear that they listened intently. Instead, they were absent from the feelings being expressed. To them, feelings in people were tools they could use, not the mark of their being of the same kind. This look in their eyes was the look of people who did not see the tie between their feelings and the feelings of others. Perhaps their own feelings were invisible to them, and they thought of themselves as without feelings. The longer I remained in Marshtown, the more terrifying that look became, until the day I nearly went mad within it.

     After much noise and confusion, Harvester and his advisers suddenly stood up together, as if they had agreed on a time in silence. When the room was quiet, Harvester spoke.

     "You have spoken eloquently, stranger, of your fantastic home and impossible journey. The High Council is surprised by your sudden appearance and by a request that seems so much against our interests and that promises so little to gain. My personal opinion is that perhaps you should speak to certain medical men of my acquaintance up the river, for they may help you more than we can.

     "Still, your appearance is unique, and your words are moving, and we would not act rashly.

     "Therefore, I adjourn the meeting of the council until tomorrow morning. Until then the councilors and I will visit privately with the citizens, with each other, and with you. Tomorrow morning, we will meet again to consider your request. Now, Arm of the Swamp, you shall be a guest at my house."

     Harvester came forward and took my hand, leading me carefully out of the meeting hall, where most of the councilors and citizens remained talking about me and my mission. He took me to his home, a large wooden building of many rooms and floors of wood. There he offered me food and rest, leaving me alone until he returned at evening.

     Left alone, I wondered what was happening. What were people saying about me and my mission? Would they sing together, listening to the songs to tell them how to sing? Marshrat said they did not sing. How would they know then what to do? How could they discover their will?

     I wanted to speak with Marshrat, but he had warned me not to take note of him from the moment I entered the village. To be associated with him would weaken my mission.

     I ate of the fruits and breads, but not of the meats left for my eating. My talks with Marshrat had revealed that the people of Marshtown ate animals. Though that was a great wonder to me, we had not talked of it in our short time. He had said that because he ate no flesh, he could offer me none. When I wondered that anyone ate flesh, he only said that it did not matter, then. As soon as I smelled the strange foods upon Harvester's table, I knew that some were meats. Though they did not repel me as I thought they might, neither did they attract me. I could find no appetite for such foods in my body.

     After eating, I lay upon a soft pallet, wondering at the place I had come to. Who were these people who ate the flesh of other animals? To eat of life, even the waterroot, was natural. But the difference between the plants and the animals is that plants give us of their surplus or give us themselves as food when they complete their lives. We do not kill them for our food. Even the birds give us only their extra eggs, always keeping two for themselves, to make themselves over. And the frogs do the same, keeping many more eggs. And among these people, as I learned later, there were animals that gave the surplus of their mothers' milk, a very good food. In such a land of richness, why would anyone wish to take the lives of animals and eat their flesh? Surely this could only be in a land of no singing, where the songs of the other animals were not heard.

     For all the afternoon, I lay resting alone upon my pallet, thinking a little of what people might be saying of me. Sometimes I sang quietly to myself -- a most lonely thing -- some of the songs of the swamp, to remind me of myself and of home.

     At evening, I stood at a west-facing window that looked over a colorful garden, filled with many kinds of flowers, and over the roofs of other homes, toward the sunset, deep and red. Harvester entered the room quietly behind me and spoke.

     "My garden is quite beautiful, is it not? I have carefully collected every variety of rose that grows along Marsh River and into the distant mountains. Would you walk with me there while our dinner is prepared?"

     As we walked in the cooling evening in this place of beautiful odors and many colors, he questioned me.

     "Why have you come by yourself, a single ambassador, on a mission so important to your people?"

     "No one of our people had ever crossed the dry lands. Others would have come with me, but IS asked only me, and I would not have others risk their lives on so difficult a journey."

     "Then, you do not think others will follow you?"

     "Who can say, High Councilor, what others will do? IS does not want the world to die. It may well send others to follow me if my message is not heard, or if it is forgotten. But, of course, you have heard my message, and such a message cannot be quickly forgotten."

     I could not tell why Harvester asked me such questions, except to learn who I was and what we are like here in the swamp. My last reply made him quiet for some time, as he stopped to tend a rose, bright and pale golden as the moon in the fading light.

     "Are you aware that we must cease to use one of the aqueducts, wasting years of labor and pain, if we grant your request?"

     "Surely that pain is past. It is the pain of now that we must stop. Because we have hurt in the past, must we continue to hurt now?"

     "Do you understand the consequences of our ceasing to irrigate on the flat lands?"

     "No, I understand little of what you are doing. I saw as I came that there are green fields on the edges of the waste. I talked there with a man who sees to the waters, and he said that food and fiber are grown there to be taken up the river. He seemed to me a happy man, tending the water and nourishing those fields. I would be sad to cause his unhappiness. But I look upon your hillsides, watered from the same river and think surely that man could continue his labors here, less far from his home, and in a more human land."

     "The consequences are much greater than that. More than one man will be made unhappy if we let the water go."

     "I come from another place. Though it is quite different from this place of hills and grass, I can see that our homes are alike in one way. They are rich in food and beauty. Are you so many that you must grow food on the dry land where it would not grow by itself? And you have the new Marsh Lake as well, a moon upon the earth. Are not this new lake and the hills and the marsh, were it alive again, enough for you?"

     Harvester studied me quietly for a moment. We were just able to see each other clearly in the glow of the new evening. I saw that his face concealed rather than revealed his thinking. He was of those who keep themselves secret. We think such people ill, and after leaving them to themselves for a time, we sing our songs of healing to them, gathering outside their huts on the darkest night. But in this land, there were many such and no one thought them ill, and no one sang to them. As I looked at him, I was tempted to sing, and the words came to my tongue, though I made no sound. Perhaps had I sung then, we might have gone around some suffering.

     Come, come into the darkness dear, dark one.
    The winking star has closed its eye, and we cannot see.
    Come, come into the darkness dear, dark one.
    Join your darkness with ours.
    We are here.
    You are there.
    Come, come and make one darkness behind this closed eye.
    Dear dark one, make one with us.
    Come, come and make one darkness behind this closed eye.

These words were in my mind when he said we should go in to eat. He turned silently from me, and floated away, round like a bush draped in blue and red.

     When, at his table, I ate no meat, he was not surprised. "You are of the marshrats I see."

     I was surprised that he should so quickly associate me with my friend, for I had thought our meeting unknown. Seeing my surprise, he questioned me. "You know of our marshrats? Perhaps you have met one on your journey?"

     I am not well able to say that which is not, and as you know, I have never been of those who hide themselves. Under Marshrat's advice, I had tried, I thought with success, to conceal my meeting with him, for he warned me that this would work against me. I saw that Harvester had gained this information in some way, and I saw no way of concealing it now. Still, I thought it best to say little, so I said only that at the edge of the waste land, I had eaten with a man called Marshrat.

     Harvester said, "Now, I think I see more deeply into these events.

     "I confess you have me believing in your authenticity. You really are not from among the men of the hills, nor have you come from the mountains. You have not disguised your face, and your kilt was not made from fibers we grow. But now I think I see how you have come among us. Still, it is remarkable."

     I listened and puzzled. What had I revealed? He turned quietly to the bone of some bird from which he gnawed away the cooked flesh. Watching him drew the sweetness from the berries I was sampling, so that they tasted like old carrots, and I lost my hunger. I waited for him to speak again, and after wiping his fingers on a cloth and drinking from his wine glass, he did.

     "Yes, it is quite clear to me now. Marshrat, and his cronies from the back hills have found you somewhere, a lost wanderer from a strange land, and have made you into their tool. It is a brilliant plot, better than I would expect from such idle poets and hermits. Of course, just finding you would give them the idea; there's nothing so great in that. But they have done it so well!"

     I began to feel a kind of strangeness that was new to me then. When I felt it, I realized that it had begun earlier, when the meeting place had burst into chaotic babble after I presented my message. This strange feeling was one of not belonging. I was no longer there. I had been replaced by something else.

     I don't mean that another sat in my place at the table. I remained and listened, but he talked to himself as if I were invisible, as if I had ceased to be there. My reality had become unreal to him. Instead, I was becoming the person or creature he was inventing in his fancy before my eyes. He was dreaming a new person to inhabit my flesh, and I had nothing to do with the shape that person would take.

     I saw that Harvester had found a way to deny my mission, that this way was in denying me. I listened in wonder as he talked on.

     "It's a clever trick, indeed, for half the town believes he really is an ambassador from the fantastic swamp. But the main idea is to get the marsh back and to prevent the great expansion of people into our valley.

     "These selfish old-fashioned coots are making their last desperate effort to keep this valley an ignorant backwater where they can be vegetarian hermits in peace and quiet, writing down their drivel, weeping over the birds that flew away. By Carlo, they are ignorant savages!"

     Then he turned to me again, speaking to me, but now to the me he had in his head.

     "I'm not sure what is best to do with you. Once I make clear to the council how you have come, I think you'll be harmless on the whole. The marshrats can take care of you. It would be a mistake, I think, to try to harm you, for there are those in the town who will believe you, no matter what we say. To hurt you would give them a cause.

     "Besides, I really do believe you are a simple stranger, and I cannot blame you for being taken in by the riff-raff you are likely to meet when first wandering into our country. They were kind to you, and you thought to help them.

     "You had best return to them, soon. But tonight you must remain with me, and tomorrow you may come to the council and even speak again if you like, though I don't think you'll be heard."

     With that, he rose from the table, and bidding me be comfortable in his house, he left to talk again with his advisers.

     There is a story we tell in the swamp about Mart who became invisible. Mart climbed a high palm in quest of gum fruit and, by accident, fell and hurt his head. For a long time he could not hear our songs. He could sing, and we could hear him, but he heard neither himself nor us. He could not sing with us. At first, he joined us each night at the fire. Then he stopped coming. We did not know what to do. He grew silent and then ill. We feared he would leave us. We could not sing our healing songs to him, though we sang them anyway.

     One night as we invited him to join us in darkness behind the closed eye, he cried out loudly from inside his hut. "Is someone calling me?" Knowing he was weak with his illness, we went in to him, and from that night, he began to hear again, faintly at first, then better, though he always turned his left ear toward those who spoke to him.

     We tell this story because of what Mart told us of his imprisonment in silence. He said, "At first, I would not believe in silence. The songs were in my head. I knew my brothers and sisters were singing these songs. Then, the silence seemed to grow, driving out the melodies inside me and leaving a growing emptiness. I began to believe I was disappearing, that as the songs flowed out of me into emptiness, so I was flowing out of the world. My brothers and sisters, too, seemed to fade until the fire would shine through them. One day, I was no more to be seen, and I could see no one. Silence was complete, and I knew I was dead. After I was dead a long time, I heard a tiny voice calling me to come back to life, and here I am."

19. Cast Out

     In the council chamber on the morning after Arm's appearance, things happened as Harvester predicted and planned. One of the councilors, not Harvester or one of his main advisers, told the council he had learned Arm was a tool of the marshrats. Arm, he said, was a primitive humanoid, saved from the waste by those malcontents who lingered near it, deceived by them in his simplicity, and sent to restore the useless and mucky old marsh. An innocent victim, he deserved pity and some kindness, separated as he was from his kind, but his fantastic story of a singing god in paradise was the invention of the mad poets and hermits of the back hills. All knew that, in truth, the nameless God who dreams in darkness had spoken this world into being and feeds it from his substance.

     When those present again burst into chaotic talk, it was as if Arm had disappeared. Though there must have been those present who understood what was happening, there was no interest here in speaking with Arm. Around him was a mystic circle into which no one would enter. The part of the room he occupied had ceased to exist, and people would walk around it as if they believed they were walking in a straight line.

     A stranger in the clothing of a hill farmer took Arm's wrist and led him silently from the chamber. They walked in silence out of the town, past the dam, and down into the old marsh, until they found Marshrat sitting on the bank of the pool of IS, where with only a silent look at Marshrat, the stranger departed. Marshrat was watching the waterroot waving in the stream. It had attached itself to the bank, and it rippled in the slight current. He had not come to the meeting, having heard around the town how it would go. He had returned home sadly in the dark, and he had sat all night before his hut, mourning the death of his hope for the marsh. At dawn he was drawn to the pool, the small center of life in this dying world.

     So again, they sat through the remains of an afternoon, in the shady grove beside the trickle of Marsh River. They spoke little. Arm had no idea what to do next except to return to the swamp. He had done what he could. Perhaps IS would send another more capable. Perhaps there were other things to try.

     At sunset, Marshrat stirred. "We must not yet despair. I know there is little hope. The people of the valley grow fat by selling the river, and they dream of growing fatter. They dream of many people coming to live here. They see much wealth of trade. Every man will have a house and garden like Harvester's. There will be inns and great shops in Marshtown, and it will become a city such as River Falls at the foot of the distant mountains. These hills will be covered with people, and the ones who are here now will sell them everything, and in this way, will secure wealth for themselves and their children.

     "But such wealth will be only a great weight to bend their shoulders to the earth. And so bent over their fat bellies, they will be like the worms that see only the earth that they eat.

     "People have eyes to follow the flight of the crane out toward the unknown lands and on to the stars. People have ears to hear the egret call out the linking song that comes from the marsh and ascends to the stars. With their heads buried in earth, the big bellies will see only the granules and pebbles of their bodies and will hear only the streams and rumblings of blood and gas in their guts. So shut up, while their bodies fatten, their souls will shrink, until they are only granules and gas, pebbles and blood.

     "Already they don't know or feel what they are becoming."

     Arm listened in weary silence to Marshrat's lament.

     "I confess I don't know what we can do, but we must continue to try."

     Arm suggested, "I suppose we could feed the swamp were we to break the aqueducts." This seemed a simple idea to Arm. If a thing caused pain and did no good, then it was easy to stop that thing, if it could be stopped.

     Marshrat said this was not so easy. The aqueducts were strong. One person could go in the night and close the gates, but the next morning this would be discovered and the gates reopened. If this were done several times, the gates would be guarded. If the gates were damaged, they would soon be repaired, and then guarded. The aqueducts could not be stopped unless people's minds were changed. And how does one talk to a big belly with pebbles in its ears and sand in its eyes?

     That night, before returning to Marshrat's hut, they made a new plan. They would continue to talk, telling Arm's tale to all the people of the back hills. They would talk to any who would listen. They would try to become one people for the marsh, and together, they would try to think of a way to restore it and to save the swamp and the world. Having even such a small idea, knowing no more where it would lead than he knew his way across the waste land when he left the swamp, Arm knew that for IS he must give more time. To return with the word of death was too hard.

     For thirty-six days, until the high summer festival, Marshrat and Arm packed food baskets and walked into the hills and along the edges of the hills, speaking to those who lived on the borders. Often on warm evenings they found ourselves returned to the pool of IS to rest and talk of their adventures. During these walks in the hills, Arm discovered the people of the Marsh River country, and among them, Peachtree, the singer.





Introduction 

Part 1: Arm's Journey Through the Waste Land

Part 2: In the Land of Marsh River

Part 3: Among the Hills


Part 4: The Festival of Midsummer

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