A Chronicle of IS, Part 3: Among the Hills
20. Throat of Flame
A Legend of Peachtree
from writings of The Cult of Song
I will tell you now of how Peachtree sang to
Swallow in the throat of flame.
When out of quiet work, flames exploded and
licked sickly orange toward the billowed clouds, rising themselves ever
higher in the midmorning sky, Peachtree and her friend, Willow, were tying
long grass bundles for thatch.
It was early autumn, the end of the driest
summer in her mother's memory. This was the time of house repair, in preparation
for the autumn rains. Peachtree and Cherry, her mother, traveled from farm
to farm in the hills northeast of Marshtown, where the women worked out
their order for re-roofing their neighbors' large huts. The women and girls
completely removed the dusty, thinning thatch from old roofs, then replaced
it with new thatch, gathered by the men in the waning days of summer.
At twelve, Peachtree was a little shorter and
plumper than most girls her age. Her complexion was especially beautiful,
for it fitted her name exactly, the gold of a ripe peach, with the flush
of ripeness growing on her cheeks. These rich colors vibrated with her
deep brown eyes and light brown hair, with its own golden glints, tied
back loose in a long tail, to make her face seem almost always lively and
intense. When she was dreamy, her features settled into a warm calm that
was pleasant to see, even though it was irritating to anyone who wanted
Peachtree liked to make bundles of the new
grass, still fragrant with greenness, and with occasional wild flowers
tangled among the stems. This task was always done in pairs, so she and
Willow could easily visit while one filled the other's embrace with long
pleasantly scratching grasses, then tied them in two places with a rope
of stems that other girls were braiding. Willow, who had the dark hair
and brown eyes characteristic of the inhabitants of the lands about Marshtown,
was taller and slimmer, and looked older than Peachtree, though both were
born the same autumn. Willow's hair was braided in a single plait that
hung down her back to her waist in the traditional manner. For this work,
they wore protective coarsely woven grass aprons over their natural cotton
tunics and pantaloons. Though a clumsily dropped bundle might draw blood
if a hard stem pierced a foot, they had removed their light leather shoes,
and their feet were cool with splotches of dust darkening their toes and
heels. They worked carefully together and well, and so their feet were
Willow liked to work with Peachtree, because
she knew so many songs. Even at twelve, Peachtree was notoriously greedy
for music. While some thought that her mother indulged her too much, all
of Peachtree's friends were glad of her obsession and took care that she
always knew when a new song came from Marshtown or the rare wandering traveler
in the hills. She learned them quickly and remembered them all. And sometimes
when she sang one of them, it seemed in an unaccountable way to mesh with
the time or the mood to move people deeply. In later years, especially
after she married Rye Grass, her friends would often say that she could
heal with a song, feeling the moment when it was needed and matching the
right song to that moment.
On the day of the fire, the two friends chattered
in the way young girls of the hills often do. When one particularly flowery
bundle was tied, Willow said, "Did you notice Rye Grass at the midsummer
festival? I could watch his hands forever, and all he did was tie onions
and carrots into bundles and measure out dried cherries at his father's
"Rye Grass?" Peachtree replied. "Who is he?"
She took into her arms a new bundle, and Willow helped her pack and add
to it for the first tying.
"Rye Grass. You know. Clover's brother
from across Marsh Lake, in the north hills. Surely you've seen him. He
and Clover always come around after the festival, for they have the best
cherry trees in the hills, and everyone wants some of their dried cherries."
"Oh yes. He's Clover's quiet brother. I don't
believe I have ever heard him speak. She always bargains with mother, and
he stands with his measure by the cart, looking off into the distance.
I have wondered what he might be dreaming. And yes, I remember! His hands
are beautiful." She now held the full bundle tightly while Willow bound
it with a strand of grass rope.
Willow continued, "It's as if he talks with
them, don't you think? I mean, if you watch them you begin to know who
he is. People are saying Clover marries Hickory after the rains." She seemed
to change the subject.
"Hickory?" Peachtree's thoughts had wandered
away from their talk. At least, she missed whatever connection Willow might
have implied, and Willow's reply was a little impatient.
"Hickory, who lives behind the hill from your
very own house. Hickory!"
"Yes, what about him?"
"Oh Peachtree, your ears are falling off. What
are you thinking?"
"I don't know. Something was trying to speak
to me. From inside, you know?"
"Not really. Perhaps another of your songs
"I think you're right. Yes, I know it now.
I felt I wanted to sing. . . ." For a moment, they rested from their work,
and Peachtree began then to sing one of the many songs she had collected.
From a high hill I look down upon the waving
See how it signals to the walnuts on the hillsides.
Hear how it sings with the hissing winds.
; Feel how it caresses the listening ear with a voice hardly heard.
Shush it says, shush, so clearly, so silently.
Listen. The waving meadow is a lake of grass,
And it winks at the sky.
Willow felt vaguely that this song, though
perfectly right for that moment, also opposed her, though neither she nor
Peachtree could then have understood how. For awhile, both worked silently
By noon, the old thatch would be stripped.
After eating, the women would begin placing the new thatch, and the pile
of bundles they and several other pairs had been making since dawn would
quickly diminish. If they had made enough so that the married women could
finish the roof without stopping, then they would be done early, and there
would be time for a long afternoon of eating and singing.
As they sat quietly in the shade of a fruit
tree or before the door of the newly roofed house while the sun sank westward,
they would cut the hard, dry ties of the old thatch, then separate and
knot handfuls. These would be stacked in a low shed for fuel in the cool,
damp season to come. They never finished this job, but just kept it up
until it was time to walk home over the yellow-green hills, keeping their
hands busy, while songs and stories like the one I am telling you now passed
through the circle.
On this day pots of wheat and rye were simmering
into porridge over a bed of coals at Chickadee's house, whose roof they
were replacing. Swallow, the toddler daughter of Chickadee, probably while
seeming to watch the cooking or to stir the coals, took away a burning
stick to play with behind the house. Whether it was abandoned too near
the house or the child impulsively wished to see if a house would burn
makes little difference, for after such a baking summer as that one, when
by midsummer the grass of the fields itself would flash into flame like
a spider's web, the house was like the tinder pail hung from a roof pole.
It seemed to rise bodily with a single motion as a girl rises from her
milking stool, but into the sky. The women on the roof leaped and scrambled
to the ground, brushing glowing fragments from hair and clothing, fanning
the swirl of sparks away from their eyes. And as they ran, they heard the
first crescendo within the long in-sucked breath of the partly unroofed
house of a baby girl's cry.
Perhaps little Swallow, who was not yet two,
thought a storm had come when she heard a sound like thunder and felt the
rush of heat and saw the flash of rising light, or perhaps she knew that
in doing the forbidden, she had roused some vengeance to pursue her. She
did what she always had when, playing quietly out under the leafy apple
tree next to the spring, she suddenly felt alone or afraid. She ran with
her arms in the air so her shift fluttered around her chubby thighs, straight
into her flaming house, into her mother's dependable skirts, smelling always
of soap and dry grass, and faintly smokey. But mother was not there, and
the roof seemed to peel away from over her head to reveal a burning sky,
and a blast of scorching wind hurt her eyes and prickled the skin on her
head under her curling brown hair. She did not know what to do, or where
to go, so she stood in the middle of her evaporating house, on the dark,
hard-packed soil next to the cold hearth, blending her forlorn panicked
weeping with the crackle and roar of the storming thatch.
Attuned as she was to sound, Peachtree knew
immediately whom she heard and where. Running to the entrance, she found
she could not go in, for it burned too hot. Looking in, she saw Swallow,
illuminated as in lantern light by the strange dark brightness of the murderous
fire and its rushing smoke. Filaments of flame drifted down around her,
and dust motes glowed and died as they settled upon the child, like a rain
of fireflies, falling from trees into grass. It was beautiful and terrible
to Peachtree, but she did not weep herself.
Instead, a strange calm came over her; she
hardly noticed the screams of Chickadee as the other women and girls held
her arms, not allowing her to run herself into the black mouth that was
devouring her daughter and down at last into that throat of flame.
The little knot of smudged, sweating, and wild-haired
women held each other, standing apart from Peachtree as she gazed quietly
into death's face. Then she opened her body in song, like a new flower
blooming in opposition to the eruption before her. She sang this song that
no one had heard before, as if it came to her out of the realm of spirit,
where words are not.
See the wind come over the hills.
Its feet slide like yours in the shallow stream.
The grass reveals the coming of the wind.
See the wind bend the branches.
The leaves turn up their white palms
And greet us for the wind.
Feel the wind of autumn kiss your warm brow.
Many soft and whispering lips wash upon you
Until, cool and dry, you prickle with delight.
As she sang, the wind did come and with it
a sudden shower, as one of the high clouds, unnoticed, had darkened and
turned to thunder. And it blew into the door of the flaming house so that
the walls seemed to fly apart. Sparks and embers rose into the air above
the house and a brief, but heavy rain, the first of autumn, hissed upon
the remains of the burning roof, and the flames subsided. Almost immediately
it was cool enough for Chickadee to rush in and carry Swallow away, though
already the baby was calmed by the song, not even whimpering for the few
burns on her arms and legs, as Chickadee kissed her singed curls.
The women then used long rakes and poles to
drag the still smoldering and steaming thatch off the roof and away from
the house, where it continued to smoke, even the next day, when charred
wattles were replaced, and new walls and roof completed.
Never before nor since have we known the wind
to come at the call of a song; so we take this event as a good accident.
For the gift we gained from Peachtree's singing was the power of the right
song to calm the mind, warm the hand, soothe the spirit. And this gift
is much greater than that of calling the wind or the rain, for we know
we cannot prevent pain or death, but only prepare ourselves well to bear
21. The Songs of Peachtree
Peachtree lived in the back country with her
husband, Rye Grass, and their two children, Raisin and Chick. The back
country was any part of the hills that was too distant from the river for
carrying water. There were streams most of which flowed only for part of
the year into the river, but dried up in the summer. There one could raise
gardens of deep rooted or short season plants, and some trees grew well.
One could keep a cow or goat for milk. The people of the back country worked
for themselves, trading a little with their neighbors, occasionally coming
to the town with some extra food or fiber to trade. They were thought backward
and not very successful in the town, for they did not grow rich where they
were, and yet did not go to work in the irrigated areas where there was
plenty to do and wealth to be gained.
Peachtree was well described by her name. At
least her hair was the golden color of a ripe peach, and her soul came
to seem to Arm as refreshing as the juiciest peach chilled in a spring.
Peachtree was the first person who sang with Arm in the land of Marsh River.
When Marshrat and Arm came to her house with
their story, her family were all picking sweet cherries from the two great
trees that overhung the trickle of a shrinking stream. The giggles of the
children, who were washing the pails of cherries mingled with the faint
trickling of the stream and with the whispering of the branches as pickers
stirred them. Rye Grass was on the branch of the larger tree across the
stream, with a pail propped in a crotch. Peachtree stretched blackened
fingers to reach high on a long branch she had pulled down. It was the
middle of the morning, and the sun grew hot, but there was comfort in the
shade of these trees. Peachtree was singing.
At first, Arm hardly noticed, for her song
was barely distinguishable from the singing of the tree and stream, and
from the quiet red smeared laughter of her daughters. Arm suddenly felt
so peaceful and at home that he did not question the cause of such content.
But then he realized that he had not felt so since last singing with Orf,
before they parted in the land of pricklies.
Cherry tree, sing with me.
Your sweet fruit pleases me.
Your red fruit pleases me.
Cherry tree, sing with me.
Though Arm had never sung this song before, he knew it immediately,
and found himself singing with her.
Her hair was long and in waves rather than
the curls of the women of the town, the rich gold brown flowing over her
shoulders. In her eyes was no surprise at seeing a being so strange as
Arm. He had become used to such stares after meeting Ram, and only later
did he realize that she did not show it. She, of course, had heard about
Arm. He was becoming known throughout the hills since news spread of his
appearance before the council and of his visiting among the hills. Peachtree
was the first person, but not the last, to show no surprise upon first
seeing him, but nearly all of those like her were also women.
Though not every woman accepted him so easily,
only women, children, and the childlike were able to simply see him when
they looked upon him. Others seemed to question their seeing or the reality
of his shape. He felt alien nearly always. Peachtree was special in that
she first made him feel that her world and his were on the same path. Her
singing and the acceptance in her eyes created a home for Arm in the hills.
She smiled at him, and they sang the cherry
tree song again. Then he began to help her pick, and Marshrat put down
his basket and joined them, singing and picking.
At midday, they rested and ate. Then, they
talked. Peachtree's family knew his story, but they listened to it now
from Arm. She was especially interested to hear of the vision of the song
of IS at the pool, and she asked many questions about how people live and
sing in the swamp.
"How did you know our song of the cherries?
Do you sing it in the swamp?"
Arm had to say that he had never sung that
song before. He explained that when IS sang to him, he may have heard all
the songs of the world. "I had never spoken your language before coming
to the hills, and yet when I heard it, I knew it and found I could speak
it. Your words are part of the song of IS, and so are your songs. But,
Marshrat told me you did not sing in the hills."
"Maybe Marshrat is too proud. To him, I think,
true singing does not include the songs we wives sing when gathering fruits
or when we come to a sewing.
"Isn't that so, Marshrat?"
Marshrat replied that he thought of truest
songs as poems, written on a page. "But the songs you sing as you work
are also true, I think. Some of them are written down because their beauty
and thought go beyond mere celebration."
Arm learned there were many songs the wives
sang. Though the men sang with the wives, they rarely sang alone. Singing
was by the women, but it was for all, and men and children were always
glad, in the hills, to join in. They sought occasions, getting together
to harvest each other's gardens and trees so they might sit under a tree
and sing while breaking beans or pitting fruits to dry. Music was not dead
in the hills, though there was little of it in Marshtown. In the town,
music accompanied the drinking of liquors, and was heard most at big festivals,
such as the one for midsummer that would come in a few weeks.
They continued to visit through the afternoon
as they sliced and pitted the cherries, preparing them to dry in the sun,
and eating some of the sweetest as they felt the urge.
As they worked, Arm began to notice Rye Grass,
Peachtree's quiet husband. Though he did not seem to sing, Arm thought
he heard him nonetheless in silent moments. Watching him, Arm saw a kind
of music he had not seen before in a person, the music of a heron gliding
over the high ferns to land in a shallow pool. Each motion of his hand
and turn of his body had a grace that held the eye as Peachtree's songs
held the ear. His hair, the brown of gum fruit bark, fell upon his shoulders
and extended under his chin where he did not cut it. His half smile and
sparkling brown eyes were framed in a circle of light hair that lifted
in the slightest breeze.
22. Rye Grass Dancing
From The Life of Rye Grass
"Rye baby! Cry baby! Can't stay. Go away!"
Bullfrog lived up to his name -- big voice and big talk. He was a big boy,
too. Though he was only seven, while Rye Grass was eight, Bullfrog was
the biggest among the children who had gathered to play along the shore
of Marsh Lake on this midsummer afternoon. He was a stocky, pudgy boy who
would grow into a larger duplicate, wider in the waist than in the shoulders,
but always tall and massive. His weight would be felt. Rye Grass was like
the grain after which he was named, willowy and short now, as his father
had been. Now his father was a tall man, but thin and wiry, with a bushy,
light brown head of hair. Bullfrog's eyes were dark brown and deep-set
in his face, and his dark hair fell straight around his ears and almost
covered his black eyebrows.
"Rye baby! Cry baby!"
Rye Grass was not crying. He was silent. That
he was the perfect victim of Bullfrog's need to bully arose from his reputation
for quiet. Few of the children wading, or digging, or playing with the
small stones in the grassy sand of the shore had ever heard him speak.
Bullfrog took special delight in demonstrating his greatness by tormenting
an older boy.
These children rarely played together, for
they were all country born, the children of the hill farmers who brought
their summer produce and crafts to the great market of the midsummer festival
in Marshtown. Most of the year they saw little of each other except under
their parents' partial attention during neighborly visits, trade, and cooperative
projects such as shed building or quiltings.
This was a grand opportunity, then, for Bullfrog.
He wanted to fight, to show his physical superiority over the silent Rye
Grass. His provocation was Rye Grass's sand and stone sculpture, built
up on the lake shore so quickly under the blazing afternoon sun, and so
beautifully, that even Bullfrog, who wanted to resist it, felt some awe.
On each day of the festival week the stalls
of the market in the great square of Marshtown closed in early afternoon,
while farmers and townspeople sought shade to rest and visit before that
evening's traditional governance meetings and the various celebrations
that followed. On these hot afternoons, the younger children, with a few
older ones assigned to keep at least a loose watch on them, would gather
at the lake shore for cool play and, after the sun relented, a bath with
their parents and older siblings who would come for them in late afternoon.
On this, the first day of the festival, Rye
Grass found a place by himself at the lakeside, where damp sand and smooth
stones were plentiful. Behind him, the lake breeze rustled the leaves of
a small grove of silver maples. Before him, the sun glinted on the lake,
making it seem to him a great overturned maple leaf. Something in this
pattern spoke to his hands. He watched them work in the damp sand. Soon
there was a large raised circle, and on it a whirling leaf pattern dancing
around the circumference, emphasized by brittle, thin, white stones embedded
around the side.
Perhaps it was the intentness of his labor
that drew other children to watch him. Soon, at any rate, several stood
quietly near him, not too close, for they felt they should not interfere
or interrupt, but close enough to watch his quick, deft fingers form the
emerging shape and its decorative patterns. A tower of circles grew, each
with the leaf pattern traced delicately and the stone-spotted sides. Perhaps
he would finish four layers, and then perhaps something special for the
top? The children asked no questions, but watched in silence like his own
as Rye Grass labored.
Bullfrog was finally drawn away from his own
skillful skipping of stones to the knot of children in a half-circle around
Rye Grass. When he saw the shining beauty of Rye Grass's pile of sand,
Bullfrog's first reaction was wonder. The pure stones seemed to glow out
of the wet brown of the sand, and enhanced by the leaf pattern, carried
into his inner silent self such a sense of harmony, of belonging. "The
lake and the trees are part of each other," it said, "and see how I draw
the children into being a part of myself. I am the link between all you
see and your true self."
But Bullfrog had learned resistance well, even
at seven. Voices within him were touched off, and they spoke. "What's the
good of a pile of dirt and stones? Can you live in it? Can you eat it?
Will it make the goats bear? Will it catch a rabbit?" He felt his muscles
quiver. He was called to action. "And what good is anything so puny here
on the lakeshore, where wind and rain will wear it away, probably even
before the wet season begins?" Bullfrog shouldered through the circled
children and stood for a moment looking with contempt at the kneeling Rye
Grass until the concentrating boy returned from his vision and looked up
from the shadow that had fallen across his work. Then with only an almost
unnoticed twinge of regret for its loss, Bullfrog pushed his foot through
one side from the bottom to the top, then stepped onto it with his other
foot, leaving only a collapsed mound of damp sand blotched with smooth
stones--and the indelible images of that small creation and its destruction
in the memories of the other gathered children.
Some children cried over this loss, trivial
as it might seem, but Rye Grass only looked with increasing intensity at
Bullfrog. He was trying to understand the mystery of one who could wish
to destroy such a simple and harmless thing, his little sand house, which
his hands had built almost without thinking in response to lake and shore.
Of what importance could this be to Bullfrog, or to anyone? It was as if
one were to grasp the air that issued from a person's mouth in order to
tear the words that had given it momentary form.
Though unable to understand Bullfrog's attack,
Rye Grass could easily interpret the anger growing on Bullfrog's features,
the curling of fists, the reddening of the face. A further attack was coming,
and Rye Grass had no words or gestures at hand to repel blows. Instead
he rose on his slender legs, damp sand and some dry grass clinging to his
short pants. He picked up his shirt, and turned to walk back to Marshtown.
"Rye baby! Cry baby! Can't stay! Go away!"
He had walked only a few yards when someone
called to him to look out. As he was turning back to face whatever came,
Bullfrog, still standing by the ruined sculpture, let fly the largest stone
he had been able to find. The watching children already saw the blood bursting
from Rye Grass's right eye, already foresaw the punishment that would fall
upon Bullfrog for blinding the eye of a neighbor's child. Because they
saw what was inevitable, they did not see what actually happened. The movement
of Rye Grass's hand escaped their eyes. His shirt was still drifting toward
the ground when he caught the stone in his cupped hand just before his
eye. Rye Grass looked over all of them for a moment. His hand descended
slowly, and the stone tumbled from his slender fingers onto the glowing
sand. Then he grasped his shirt, and he turned again and walked slowly
toward the town.
A billowy cloud drifts over the hill top
Casts its great shadow on Cherry Tree Farm.
Goldenbreast Hawk over Cherry Tree Farm,
Her shadow wheeling on silent meadow.
Silverleaf willow leans in all ways,
Weaving her shadow over silverthread stream.
Scarletthroat trout darts through all shadows,
Darkens the sand in silverthread stream.
His sanctuary was violated! He drew back into
the shade of the cottonwood grove and peered intently through the brilliant
sunlight toward the willow clump that enclosed his pool on both sides of
the stream. Here the stream broadened out into a little pond, surrounded
by willow bushes. It made an almost private room, where on a day like today
-- when he needed privacy desperately -- he could be alone. He could sit
quietly and watch the little many-colored turtles crawl up on rocks or
pieces of brush to sun themselves. Or he might wade, exploring the patterns
of light shining through the shallow water onto the sandy bottom and how
they altered with his walking or with the striding of insects across the
surface. Or he could lay in the water, on a hot day like this one, his
clothes hanging on a willow, his hands dug into the bottom, while the stream
tried gently to tug him away. His head floating in the cool water, he could
find the pictures sent him by the clouds.
Today there was someone in his place,
a girl. He could hear her singing, though in his anger he did not listen.
There was only the voice and his sense of being shut out of what had become
his personal home.
Rye Grass was fifteen. It was time for him
to choose what he would do. In a few years it would be time to find a wife,
to begin a family, to take his place among the farmers of the hills about
Marshtown. That he would farm was given. All must eat, and though there
was trading among the hill people and in the town, most of what one fed
one's family came from the fields, garden, and orchard of a small family
farm. One woman was good with cows, another with goats. One man or his
land was good with fruit trees, another with roots, so food must be traded
for variety, but all farmers had fruit, vegetables, grain, and some animals,
for eggs, milk, cheese, and a little meat. Most farm families also practiced
a craft or several: preserving, fine sewing, carving, weaving, tool-making,
healing both animals and people, leatherwork.
Choosing a craft was Rye Grass's current torture.
To choose one would mean sending him for a year or more to work with a
master. Any craft that required his body, especially his hands, to feel
the pattern of an object and duplicate it in the materials at hand he seemed
already to have mastered, intuitively. And yet, it would be a waste to
fail to give him training that would notify the community of his qualification.
One day his mother had exclaimed that she had
just too many things calling her, and there was his father, with both his
shirts tattered and stained and nothing to wear to the quilting. When she
returned from milking, she found Rye Grass, with pieces of linen spread
out upon the grass mat. She cried out in anger at this ten-year-old spoiling
the hard earned cloth for his father's new shirt. But then she noticed
that the pieces perfectly matched the pattern she held in her head, and
so she was quiet and just watched him as she churned her three days of
cream. By the time her butter was made, the shirt was sewn together, faster
than she could have done it herself.
Another day it was her shoe, torn by the tine
of a hayfork that luckily missed her foot. The tears were still on her
cheeks when she came to the hut with a pail of milk chilled in the stream.
After their meal, while she cleared the table, Rye Grass sat on the log
under their red apple tree, cutting and piecing a scrap of leather. And
when he brought her the shoe, it had never been torn.
It was the same with carving, with tool-making,
with the weaving of baskets, with any craft that required deft hand and
seeing eye. Rye Grass's problem was not learning them. Surely he would
have become a true master at any craft he took up. Rather, he had no desire
to take up any craft that he knew of. What truly delighted him was to make
things that held the world together. He could not say this, for then he
would have to say what he meant, and he did not know this in words.
For example, he would take the grass left over
from mat-making and twist, curl, knot, and loop strands together in odd
ways until he would have a short rope. This rope could never be used to
tie a calf to a stake for grazing; it would hold nothing and it was too
short. But if you were to tie it in a window, or to the overhanging branch
of a tree in front of your house, you would find yourself standing or sitting,
gazing at it whenever you felt the need for rest. Your eye would follow
a yellow strand or a stripey green/white one in and out on its path through
the rope, or the loops would take you on a path of growing and shrinking
or twisting away and back again, and your mind would become calm, your
body quiet. You might idle away an hour without even realizing it -- and
the eggs still to be gathered!
So his mother spoke to his father about their
problematic youngest child. His sister, Clover -- seven years older --
had married on the other side of Marshtown when Rye Grass was twelve. Though
Rye Grass's quietness had troubled them, this only occurred when they visited
or went to the three annual festivals in Marshtown. Most of the time at
home, it was rather pleasant to have a child who only spoke in answer to
their questions or to ask simple questions himself. He suited their quiet
life just fine.
Rye Grass, though, as he approached manhood,
found himself increasingly angry and frustrated. His parents wanted things
from him that he could not find in himself: choice, practical action, declarations
of plans and intentions. Often these days mother or father would speak
at him and at length, in a voice that would tend to rise in pitch and volume
as it fell into his silence. His gradual turning away was a futile attempt
to disengage from them and so not increase their outrage. After words they
had not meant to be angry spoken to a silence he could not remedy, for
there were no words for his desire, he would go to his place.
In his fifteenth year, the place that he had
enjoyed playing in as a youngster became his sanctuary. He returned often,
sometimes two days in a row, when no one demanded or seemed to need his
Peachtree had also discovered his place. She
was the girl singing by the stream. Her hair formed a golden-brown rope
down her back, and her deep brown eyes were shady groves themselves in
her tawny face, the face of a ripe peach with its red tinge of ripeness
on her high cheeks. She thought she was alone as she sang the song that
the stream had sung to her.
She had first come to this spot only a year
ago, after she had already developed a bad reputation for wandering the
hills when she ought to have been at home helping her mother and learning
the skills of a wife. Now she was of marrying age, fifteen, and instead
of making herself ready, she left her home at any time of day or night
to walk in the hills. When she came home, she often had a nonsense song
Since she was twelve, when she had calmed little
Swallow who was caught in a house fire, people had respected the calming
and healing power of her singing. People were glad to let her know of a
new song they heard, for her singing was pleasant, and it was useful in
a woman to be able to entertain at a quilting or a roof replacing. There
were no singing masters, for singing was not considered a craft, but still
her talent was recognized and valued.
However, her neighbors criticized her now.
Her song-making had gone a little wild, they thought. It was well and good
to collect the amusing songs that came into the hills through Marshtown,
the rounds they could all sing together, the songs of sad or ridiculous
courtship with melancholy or jolly choruses. And the songs describing far
off towns up the Marsh River and the wondrous and quite different life
there -- these too were welcome.
"But these songs about snakes and clouds and
weeds and field mice! Of course, when she sings them, you just have to
listen, but when she is done, what have you got? Your hands are idle, your
time is gone, and you've only remembered what you see every day! And not
even a good chorus to hum on the way home and to teach neighbor Wheatbeard
who remained home with the quinsy today!"
Peachtree was immediately attracted to this
quiet spot along the stream that, in fact, ran by her own house which was
about midway between Marshtown and Rye Grass's home. This spot was quite
distant from the town, but Peachtree saw that it had once been part of
a farmstead. On a slight rise was an almost level area with a grove of
apple and cherry trees and with a small creek running through it -- except
in the driest month --, and emptying into the stream in the shallow valley
below. Probably the hut had stood in the midst of these, with perhaps a
few small sheds scattered in the cottonwood shade further back, before
the hill began to rise behind them. It was also far from her home, about
as far as she could walk, since it took half the morning, following the
stream to come here. Were she to cut across to the west, she might walk
it in an hour, but that was still further than she could easily afford
to go from home, where her work and presence were desired.
It was the beginning of the wet season when
she first came, and she did not return until the end, when the sun could
be hot at noon, but most of the day would be cool and damp with the mistings
that followed the heavier rains of the colder time. So she had returned
at the beginning of this very summer and on a day when Rye Grass had needed
his place. She had come carelessly over the rise where the farm had once
been and looked down into the willow grove to see the boy standing in the
middle of the stream. At first she had not seen a boy, but an egret, the
rare silverbird, that might fly far inland to find a small consolation
for the dying of his watery home at the mouth of Marsh River. Indeed, no
one Peachtree knew had ever seen this wondrous bird, fabled in a song she
had learned, supposedly composed by a hermit who lived near the dying marsh.
The marsh itself had been dying since the large landowners from south of
Marshtown had extended their grain and vegetable fields further into the
southern desert, taking nearly all the water flowing over the dam that
formed Marsh Lake.
Staring at what she hoped really was the rare
silverbird, she gazed for some time before realizing her error. This was
because the tall, very thin boy moved through the water with precisely
the gait of such a bird, lifting his feet high out of the water and then
setting them down again. She moved more cautiously down the slope and into
an opening in the willow grove, where she could see him without being seen.
It was not a desire to spy that kept her quiet, but something that came
from the boy, something that said his solitude must not, indeed could not
be destroyed. He was creating something for her in his movements, a kind
of dance that she was to watch and not interrupt.
So she watched through the warmth of the middle
of the day. She ate her biscuit dry, unwilling to approach the stream here.
His every movement, she saw more and more clearly, was part of a dance.
She knew who he was. She remembered the first time she had noticed him,
when he built a lovely sand tower on the lakeshore during midsummer festival.
She remembered the tower and also the blur of his arm as he reached up
to catch the stone the bully had thrown so hard, even before his sand and
sweat-stained shirt began to fall after he released it. She had seen him
occasionally since, with his mother bringing their famous dried cherries
to trade after the midsummer market. She knew of his reputation for silence.
It was said he talked only to his mother.
Yet here she saw him utterly alone, without
a listener or watcher that he knew of, dancing by himself. She could think
of no other word for it. This was not the dancing of the women in celebration
at the completion of a roof, not the dancing of couples on the festival
evenings, not even the solo dancing of the town boys a little too excited
by their festival wine. But it was a rhythmic movement, like the natural
movements of the body in walking or running, yet different in some way,
as if to the beat of a complicated drumming that returned upon itself without
ever quite repeating itself in exactly the same way. When she tried to
think of it, words did not come. Instead she saw images and heard sounds.
She saw the waterbird standing on one leg, the trout gliding from shadow
to shadow, a cloud shadow shifting in outline across the uneven landscape
as seen from a hilltop, the slow waving of a tree like a hillside's hand
in a light breeze.
The sounds she heard formed a melody. The melody
began to take shape in her head, and she knew a song was coming, that there
would be words for it tomorrow or another day. The melody would travel
around between her ears until it gathered to itself the words in her head
that were the words of the song. Then the whole would be complete to her.
But even now as the melody was born, she felt the wholeness that the words
would help to hold. The music she heard was the music he danced to. It
was the music of this place, which she knew then was Cherry Tree Farm.
Whatever name it had ever had, this was its true name now.
Before the heavy air began to diminish the
sun's warmth, Rye Grass left his place, walking southward along the stream,
which Peachtree had already discovered was called Silverthread Stream here.
She then left the willow grove and made her way to the side of the stream
to drink before returning home.
After that day, Peachtree often visited Cherry
Tree Farm, hoping always to see Rye Grass and to watch his dancing. However,
it was not until after midsummer festival that she found him there again.
Long before then she had completed her song of the place with Rye Grass
dancing. She saw him at the festival, silent and, she thought, a little
brooding with a dark melancholy in his gestures. She watched him, but tried
not to let herself be seen doing so. She felt she had something of his
in her keeping, something that she should give him, but not here among
Rye Grass was angry when he saw this girl sitting
on the bank of his pond. Her presence, her noise, seemed a jarring disorder.
This was the only place on earth where he could be truly himself, and now
a stranger from nowhere was polluting it with nonsense words, some silly
song brought, no doubt, by a fat-bellied riverman from a crowded place
upriver. For the first time in his life, he felt that he might fight to
hold something for himself, that he might roll his hands into fists to
drive her out.
Silverleaf willow leans in all ways,
Weaving her shadow over silverthread Stream.
Scarletthroat trout darts through all shadows,
Darkens the sand in silverthread stream.
As he silently approached, he saw her back
was turned to him and her head was raised so that the song seemed to reach
out toward the hillside above the willow clump, and the melody, now wordless,
faintly echoed back. He was transfixed by the echo, the faint wordless
rise and fall of muffled soprano tones struck through his ear to some inner
place in his being. He felt his arms raise, elbows outward, hands turned
in drooping like the willows, and his foot reached outward toward a shadow,
pointed like the trout's head, and his body turned slightly in the breeze,
bringing in the clouds' drift.
His anger drained away, and he did not think
at all. The melody was the audible representation of the current he felt
directing the movements of his body in harmony with all the things that
belonged to this place, so there was no contrary idea in his mind, no question
but that he too belonged here. And so did she, the singer of this melody.
Something turned her face toward him as he
stood with one foot raised and pointing forward, arms curved outward and
back in again, head slightly lifted in an intent listening attitude, body
swaying slightly, but never out of balance. When she saw the shape of her
song in his body, she knew she had given him what was his, and that he
was returning it even as he kept and possessed it utterly.
Rye Grass was slicing and pitting cherries,
then placing them in neat diamond patterned rows on a grass mat frame,
where they could dry quickly in the hot summer sun. His daughters, Chick
and Raisin, were helping with the slicing and pitting, and occasionally,
one would try herself to correctly place a cherry to keep the pattern right.
They sat on the ground beneath an old apple tree on Cherry Tree Farm. From
where he sat on his chair, a section of sawed log, he could look down toward
the little pond where he and his wife had first truly met. And then he
could turn his head back to look at their hut, no longer new, standing
in the grove of old fruit trees. It was a fine hut, showing many touches
of his own graceful fingers and ordering eyes. It was the home of a prosperous
farmer, three rooms with stone and mud outer walls and the traditional
grass roof. His was the only hut in the nearby hills with framed windows
and shutters that would slide aside rather than swing out on wooden hinges.
And the grass mats on his floor had died twines woven into them, adding
red to their greens and browns, so that looking in through the door, one
always felt warmly welcome. Behind the house were four young trees, just
beginning to bear, and one was a peach.
Peachtree was looking at their quiet guest,
a tall, large boned man, with black skin and long black hair, with strange,
thin yellow stripes most visible at the fringes. His beard was heavier
than the fine brown hair Rye Grass had let grow until it left only his
eyes, nose and forehead visible. This man said he came from the far south,
beyond the great desert where, until today, no one was thought to live.
This man called himself Arm, and he was a great singer. Already he and
Peachtree had exchanged a pair of songs, and by some miracle, the stranger
seemed to know them already.
Rye Grass was happy in Peachtree's excitement.
The center of her being, he knew, was music. This stranger promised to
fill that center with the sustenance of a lifetime. Rye Grass was not at
all jealous, because he knew in his own center that the songs she learned
would become his and would fill his being too when she sang them.
The girls, however, were a different matter.
They were young, and they felt their mother's absence from them in spirit
in the presence of the stranger. As the workday came to an end and they
grew tired, they grew restless. A few cherry pits, and then a spoiled cherry
found their ways into uncomfortable places, and Chick turned to pinch Raisin.
Before the fingers could close on the soft but meager flesh of Raisin's
little calf, Rye Grass spoke.
"Let's play a game. What will it be?"
"Who does! Who does!" the girls shouted in
unison, expressing their glee at the idea, the release from tedious work
promised when game time came, and also perhaps, a little of their desire
for Peachtree's attention.
"Who does it is, then. I'll begin," said Rye
Grass. "Who builds a house of cherry stones?"
"The squirrel builds a house of cherry stones
for they are too hard to eat," answered Raisin. Then she asked, "Who cools
the water in the well?"
"The salamander cools the water in the well
by blowing on it all night long," answered Chick. "Who pushes the grass
up out of the ground?"
"The gopher pushes the grass up out of the
ground to make room for his burrow," said Rye Grass. "Who drinks the rain
that falls on the earth?"
"The worms drink the rain that falls on the
earth; they make little wells to catch and hold it," said Raisin.
At this new idea of her very own, little Raisin
was the first to giggle. Laughter was inevitable, but the one who laughs
first is likely to be unable to find an answer, or a reason, or another
question, and so will lose the game. Of course, there really is no losing,
because the game always ends with the players helpless on their backs in
the long orchard grass, giggling into the dancing patches of light that
fall through the old apple tree's branches and leaves.
Barely keeping her own face under control,
Raisin brought out her question. "Why do needles fall from the needle tree
in dry season?"
Chick was brave and strong, and her reply was
quick. "The spiders call them down for sewing their webs," she said. Little
snorts escaped from girl nostrils as Chick tried to think what she could
ask next, but suddenly loud laughter burst upward through the leaves. Rye
Grass lay on his back, holding his stomach, his feet in the air, the bare
right toe pointing toward a round, green apple. His laughter echoed in
the hills and came back, perhaps as a faint melody that a quick ear might
pick up. It was quickly joined by the rising giggles of the little girls,
who fell upon him and let loose their small, shrill harmonies. The game
and the day's work were done.
23. Question 5
From "The Questions of Raisin and Chick"
in the holy writings of the Cult of Song
But Mother, what is it that a person naturally does? The bee makes honey.
The wind blows. The rock lies still and silent as if it were not alive
at all. The fish bubbles and sometimes splashes. All of these things have
a nature, but what is the nature of a person?
Impatient Chick, you are indeed a pointer of
questions, and for this I value your impatience equally with Raisin's slower
and more careful thoughtfulness.
Yes, what is the nature of a person?
We remember the story of first woman who heard
the wakeup bird in the forest and who then came out into the hills to teach
us all to awaken. She told us that before she sang she was asleep. Then
she did what is natural to persons, and that was no different from what
is natural to the other creatures who walk upon the earth. They are born,
they feed, they bear young, they die. In doing so, they perpetuate the
song and give in countless ways to the continuing of things. The silent
rock that raises your doubts is almost the principle itself of the continuance
When the wakeup bird awakened first woman,
she changed our nature, careful Raisin and quick Chickadee. For then it
became our nature to be awake.
It is because we are awake that we know of
our death and ask questions of each other. It is because we are awake that
we sing together. Most of all, it is because we are awake that we change
24. Arm at Home in the Hills
After dark, they sat around a table in the
hut while Peachtree led the singing of songs of the early harvest. An olive
oil lamp glowed sweetly on the table, lighting all their faces. Soon after
darkness fell, the girls were carried to their pallets, their sticky faces
and fingers wiped clean, without unsticking their sleepy eyes or smiling
This was a little festival in Arm's honor,
but to him it was a like a return home. He felt that IS was alive here,
for there was happy laughter and singing in this land. As he grew sleepy,
he ceased to see these beautiful sand colored faces in shirts and pants,
but saw instead the darker faces of Orf and Burk and of all of his beloved
friends, seated cross-legged and singing around the fire in the dark at
the center of the huts, sending the darkness away and opening the sky between
them and the singing of the stars. And that night he dreamt of home, of
his own hut, with the slender and flexible, stripped white branches forming
a skeleton within the thick grass walls in the moonlight as he lay on his
smooth and cool grass mat waiting for sleep.
When he awoke at dawn, he was still in his
dream with the grass roof over his head, except that instead of the white
framing, he saw on the walls the brown and white stones encased in dark
mud, and so he returned to the home of Rye Grass and Peachtree. He lay
looking upward in the still quiet hut, where the others did not yet stir,
and he wondered to himself. "Perhaps someone wiped my juicy face -- I remember
the taste of cherries always on my lips -- and carried me to a pallet.
I don't remember. I awake in a honey dawn to the singing of strange yet
familiar birds." This feeling of the familiar and strange mixed together
persisted as the people of the hills set out foods that were like his own
and yet different and as he looked out over the hills above their valley
orchard, into a land vastly different from the swamp and yet so homelike.