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Fantasticoe 1991

Throat of Flame: A Legend of Peachtree

Herb Frankfort

     I will tell you now of how Peachtree sang to Raisin 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, Robin, 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, travelled from farm to farm in the hills northeast of Marshtown, where the women worked out their order for reroofing 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 dark hair, 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 her attention.

     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 Robin 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. Robin, who also 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. Robin'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 safe.

     Robin 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 traveller 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 more 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, Robin 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 stand."

     "Rye Grass?" Peachtree replied. "Who is he?" She took into her arms a new bundle, and Robin 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 Robin bound it with a strand of grass rope.

     Robin 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 Robin might have implied, and Robin'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 wanted out?"

     "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 meadow.
     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.

     Robin 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 and thoughtfully.

     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. Raisin, 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 insucked breath of the partly unroofed house of a baby girl's cry.

     Perhaps little Raisin, 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, next to the dark 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 Raisin, 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 swallowing 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 Raisin 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 or 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 them.

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Fantasticoe 1991