The waves make a sound like children laughing. The waves make a sound like old men whispering in the park. The sky is blue. I lean on my cane.
You ask me, again, where the sea comes from. I have told you that the sea is the blood of god, and the sun and moon are her eyes. Who are her muscles? You are. I have told you this a million times. But memory is short.
Tonight, there will be a dance on the beach, a dance of shadows - you and I. We will build a fire, and I will tell you what I know of my life. I have dragged my secrets around with me long enough; they are old enough to walk on their own. Come, sit with me in the sand, and you will hear them.
I was born in this same village where you and I live. My father hunted and fished, and my mother did everything else.
It was not long after I was born that I began to see stories in everything. I was not content to look at a tree and say, “That is a tree.” I had to say, “That is a woman who turned into a tree so she could watch the sunrise everyday.
My stories were like birds inside my bones, beating their wings to get out, and I wanted to open my mouth and let them fly where they would. But at that time, there were no stories in the village. No, none at all. There was eating, and there was sleeping, and there was being born and being buried. But no stories. If you asked someone what he did yesterday, he would say, “I caught a rabbit.” If you asked someone else what she did, she would say, “I gathered fruit.” That was all. Language was thin and plain, and people thought the way they spoke.
So when I opened my mouth and began letting the stories fly where they would, my parents and the other adults looked at me like I was a strange and ugly beetle that had just crawled out from under a rock. “What is this nonsense coming out of your daughter’s mouth?” My father would say, “I don’t know, she is talking crooked again,” my mother would say, shaking her head as if I had a disease.
Eventually, I learned to keep my mouth shut around the adults of the village, and spoke instead to the insects and the birds and the wild dogs that gathered at the edge of the village. I would speak about the origin of things, about how they might have been, and where they might be going.
This way of talking, I soon learned, could be a dangerous thing.
There was, for example, the story I told the ants.
“Ants,” I said one day. “Gather around and I will tell you a story.” And they did. They came in long ragged black lines out of their cracks and crevices and stopped just at the edge of the stone where I was seated and listened.
“In the time when the moon was young, “ I began. “The ants were not as small and insignificant as they are now. In the time when the moon was young they were as large as mountains, with cavernous mouths that chewed everything in sight. They were hungry. They ate the trees, and the rocks, and all the other living creatures, and everything ran in fear of them.
Eventually, they stripped the planet nearly bare. One day when they were all sitting around inside their cave feasting, a god came out from behind a rock, and said, “Enough. You have nearly destroyed the earth because of your hunger. From now on, your generations will shrink until they reach the size of your own souls.”
And that is exactly what happened. Their children grew up to be smaller than they were, and their children’s children even smaller, and so on, until they reached the size that they are now. That is why, when you watch the ants, they still behave as if they were very large and important creatures, building cities, sending out armies, capturing and conquering everything in their path. This is very funny, because everyone knows how small they really are.
The ants were not pleased. My feet and legs were covered with ant bites for many days afterwards.
If that were not bad enough, I soon got myself into trouble with the Old Men who occupied the middle of the village.
These old men gathered in the middle of the town every day and sat down and waited, their beards on their chests and their noses on their beards and their eyes drooped down their noses, staring at something on the ground which no one could see.
“Mother,” I asked one day. “Why do the old men sit in silence in the middle of the village?”
“They are waiting,” she would say.
“They don’t know.”
“Then why do they go there?”
“They are waiting,” she would say, and that would be the end of it.
Word of my reputation as a storyteller was getting around. I believe it was the half-wild dogs that sniff around the huts looking for food who told the children about what I was doing. So the children came and clustered around me, children my own age and a little older, dragging their younger brothers and sisters with them.
“Tell us a story,” they would say. And I would.
One day I told the story of the Seven Old Men.
“In the time when the sun was new,” I began, “there were seven old men with dust in their bones who gathered in the middle of the village to wait for something that had no name. Every day they came, in their grey robes, and every day they sat, their eyes locked inside their head. One day the thing they were waiting for came and sat down next to them.
“There is someone waiting in our circle,” said the first old man. “It is covered with dark fur, and has yellow eyes.”
“No,” said the second old man. “It is tall and very pale.”
“It is a woman,” said the third.
“It is a child,” said the fourth.
“It is a monkey,” said the fifth.
“It is a demon,” said the sixth.
“It is a god,” said the seventh.
On the second day, the old men came again to the center of the village and the thing they had been waiting for came and sat down in the middle of them. The old men were by now excited that this thing had finally arrived, and they smiled as they peered into it.
“It is a beautiful, wide-hipped woman,” said the first.
“It is joyful, innocent child.” said the second.
“It is tree full of fruit,” said the third.
‘It is a bow and arrow,” said the fourth.
“It is a god” said the fifth.
“It is a new pair of eyes” said the sixth.
“It is everlasting life,” said the seventh, and his eyes glazed over.
On the third day, the thing came once again to sit among them. But by now the old men were growing nervous, because the thing had been there three days and no one had been able to agree about what it was.
“It is loneliness,” muttered the first old man.
“It is old age,” said the second.
“It is a year without food,” said the third.
“It is a bow and arrow,” said the fourth.
“It is a demon,” said the fifth.
“It is blindness,” said the sixth.
“It is death,” said the seventh.
By the fourth day, the old men were grumbling and sweating and shouting loudly to each other about what the thing that had come to sit among them really was, and by the fifth day their tempers were flaring so high that the sons of the old men were standing around behind them, sharpening the blades of their knives. By the sixth day each of the old men, with their sons behind him, was claiming that since he alone knew what the thing was, therefore he alone was the only one entitled to take it home with him. On the seventh day the old men jumped into the middle of the circle and tore and pulled at the thing they had been waiting for until the thing itself was completely destroyed and the old men and their families were covered with blood.
All that was left of the thing that they had been waiting for were the bits and pieces that the old men had torn off and taken home with them. These they kept in their homes like trophies, polishing them and murmuring to them and showing them off. But after awhile the villagers lost interest in them and the old men forgot what they were for and these bits and pieces sat useless and discarded in their homes.
“The end?” said a tall, thin-faced older boy.
“The end.” I said.
The boy looked troubled.
“But if the thing they had been waiting for already came,” he said, “Why do the old men still come and sit in the center of the village and wait?”
“Because,” I said. “They want more of what they have. Even though they don’t know what that is.”
Some of the children laughed. Some of them shook their heads in bewilderment. Most of them agreed that this talk I had invented was pretty strange and went home to tell their parents about it.
Soon enough, the old men themselves came to my parents hut.
The oldest of the oldest men was twisted and bent as an ancient tree and his eyes were dark and burning as he peered into my face. He opened my mouth with his dry gnarled hand and peered into it until I thought I was going to choke. The other old men circled me and leaned into my face.
“Your daughter has been talking crooked,” the oldest of the old men said, his voice dry as leaves in autumn. “ And she is infecting the other children with it.”
“This has to stop,” they said. “Or we will cut out her tongue.”
And so my parents began trying to make me stop. They made me chew bitter tasting leaves before I slept, thinking this would cleanse the crooked language from my mouth. But in the morning I would say, “The leaves were not happy living inside my mouth and so they turned into birds and flew away.”
And so my parents took me back to our hut and filled my mouth with round pebbles until all I could do was mumble. They told me I should not under any circumstances take them out.
I walked with the weight of these stones on my tongue for several days. The children, seeing how I was being punished, no longer came to hear my stories. Some of them called me names and threw stones at me. The beetles and the crickets and the spiders came by and looked at me, but all I could do was shake my head sadly. The birds came around and tried to cheer me up with their songs, but their cheerful open beaked singing only made me realize more deeply my own mute pain, and so I stopped going outside unless it was absolutely necessary.
One evening, I was carrying water back to the hut, when a swarm of fireflies lit up the sky.
“Come on,” the fireflies said, “Tell us a story.”
“I can’t,” I mumbled. “They will cut out my tongue.”
“Aw, come on,” the fireflies said, “No one will hear you but us.”
They begged and they pleaded, until finally the back of my throat stung and tears filled my eyes until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I- spit the stones out onto the ground and began, in a very low voice:
“In the time when the stars were nothing but seedlings in the sky,” I began, “there was a tribe of fireflies who were trapped inside a stone. They didn’t know how they had gotten there, or how they would get out. All they knew was this feeling of beating your wings against something hard.
One day a girl was walking past the stone. “It’s the heart of the moon,” she said, “fallen from the sky.” She took the stone back to her cave and put it in the corner.
The fireflies knew nothing about the girl, since they could not see beyond the stone that was their whole world. One day she leaned down and began talking to the stone, whispering that it must certainly know the secrets of how to have a better life since it came from somewhere else and could it please show her how. A few of the fireflies with the keenest hearing heard a faint murmuring from somewhere outside the walls of their world, and they were astonished. They called the murmuring beyond the walls of their world, “God,” and began to pray to it to give them a better life.
The voices of the fireflies were so tiny that the girl, of course, could hear nothing they said, and she simply continued her murmuring. This went on for quite awhile, each of them praying to the other for a better life, and neither able to understand each other’s language.
Then one day her father came home and needed a stone for his spear. With a larger stone, he cracked the girl’s stone in two. The fireflies came pouring out; light filled the entire cave.
“Father,” she said, “You have cracked the heart of god! Look how the pieces of light fly out and fill the cave!”
The fireflies, feeling the walls of their world explode around them, and suddenly finding that the feeling of everyday beating their wings against something hard was gone, thought they had all died, and that the girl’s voice was the voice of god welcoming them to heaven.
Ever since that day, the fireflies have followed the girl wherever she went. The girl, though she is doing the same things she always did before, believes she is now walking with the light of god next to her, and she too feels like she is living in heaven.
The fireflies laughed and the night around them burned a little brighter when I told this story. But my mother and father, who had been standing nearby listening, were not happy.
“She will never live to be a woman,” said my mother.
“They will cut out her tongue.” said my father.
My mother and father then bound my mouth with strong leaves and vines so that I couldn’t speak at all. They only took the leaves and vines off to feed me, and at night, so that I wouldn’t accidentally smother myself.
For several days I was again trapped inside my own silence.
Then I began talking in my sleep. One night I woke up to find my mother’s worried face close to mine.
“What are you whispering?” said my mother.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s the wind.” And the next day, in my sleep the whispering got a little louder and became a murmuring.
“What are you murmuring?” Said my mother.
“Nothing.” I said. “It’s the wood beetles scratching at the floor of the hut.”
The next night, I was terrified of falling asleep, because I knew that once I did, the stories would come out and this time they would be even louder. So I stayed up until the moon moved out of the sky and the sky turned a pale lavender, and then I fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes, both my parents were standing over me. “What are you saying,” said my mother in a very low voice.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s the howl of a big cat, hiding underneath the hut.”
What I did not know was that the ants, who still bore a grudge against me for my story, had told the old men that I was talking crooked in my sleep and the old men were now lined up outside my hut, their ears pressed to the wall. What I did not know was that the oldest of the old men was just outside the door, sharpening his knife.
My mother began to cry. My father picked me up and looked into my eyes with the deepest sadness I had ever seen.
He did not say anything. He did not say that I would never see him, or my mother again. He did not say goodbye. He just picked me up and put me in a large sack, slung me over his shoulders, took me out the window and was off and running into the night. From inside the sack, I could hear the receding voice of my mother wailing “No no no no no,” and I could just barely make out the dim shapes of the Seven Old Men filing into the hut.
My father took me to the top of a mountain, left me with a spear and a small blue polished stone and disappeared. The spear broke a long time ago, but I still have the stone.
The sun rose and the sun fell and I was still sitting alone and dejected in the place where my father had left me. As I peered into the black depth of the valley I saw something bright and flashing. I thought at first that it was a star moving across the sky. It turned out to be the tribe of fireflies. They had taken awhile to catch up with me, but they had finally arrived.
“Tell us a story,” they said. I looked at them. I felt like I had no more stories left in me and that where the stories had been was a black pit. But they flashed and twinkled eagerly and swarmed around me, jostling for position.
And so I began:
“In the time when the ocean barely knew its own name,” I said, “there lived a girl, whose heart was broken into a thousand pieces. The girl sat for a long time in the middle of the pieces of her broken heart, trying to match them all together again, but it was a futile task and the light was growing darker and it was getting harder and harder for her to see.”
I stopped. I didn’t know where the story was going. It did not come smooth and easy out of my mouth as it usually did, but stumbled and fell upon itself. It felt like I once again had a mouthful of stones, but this time they were invisible and I didn’t know how to take them out. I opened and shut my mouth and opened and shut my mouth but nothing came out.
“And so?” The fireflies waited, their wings buzzing in expectation.
“And so she left the pieces of her heart alone and...
“And what?” The fireflies egged me on.
“And then?” The fireflies said.
“And then when she woke up in the morning, the thousand pieces of her heart had melted into the ground and she couldn’t find them at all.”
“And so she gave up looking for them.”
The fireflies waited.
“That’s it.” I said.
The fireflies waited.
“I said that’s it. -End of story. Finished. Go away.” I waved my hand at them.
“That’s not the end of the story,” said the leader of the firefly tribe.
I sighed. “I know,” I said at last. “But I don’t remember the end. I’m sorry.”
The light around me suddenly dimmed.
“Hey..” I said.
“We will let you sit alone in your darkness,” the leader of the fireflies said, “until you remember the rest of the story.”
“And we will speak to the moon and the stars and tell them also to remain dark. Until you remember the rest of the story.”
“Sleep in peace,” the fireflies said, then disappeared completely.
For days I slept and then got up and wandered in darkness, slept and wandered, slept and wandered. I did not even think of the ending to the story, but disappeared completely into the darkness, let myself be engulfed by it until I was indistinguishable from the black earth, the tree shadows and the rootings and scuttlings of the small creatures that filled the night.
And then one day, without warning, my mouth opened and it began to speak:
“The pieces of the girl’s heart,” it said, “sunk all the way into the center of the earth and lived their for a long time. Then one day bits of fur began to appear like weeds, breaking out from underneath the earth.”
The fireflies came back. Their soft, translucent light began to glow again. Their wings buzzed in anticipation.
“The pieces of the girl’s heart,” my mouth said, “had become a tribe of wild dogs. And the wild dogs rose up from the center of the earth.”
“And..” the fireflies said.
“And they broke though the earth..”
“And...” the fireflies said.
“And they roamed the countryside. I said.
“And...” the fireflies said.
“And they howled.” I said.
The fireflies lit the sky.
I lived alone in the wilderness for many years, moving from place to place. By day, I would hunt and fish and make the things I needed to make to survive. But at night, I would sneak into the nearest village, enter the huts where the children slept and whisper to them in their sleep. In the morning, they would tall their parents that they had been visited by the spirit of the forest, that her body had smelled like rain, and that she had whispered strange words to them. Of course, their parents didn’t believe them. But the words I spoke to them lingered in their ears and in the morning they began to think the things I spoke to them were things they’d actually done. In this way, I taught them how to dream.
After what seemed like centuries of travelling all over the countryside whispering my stories into the ears of children, I began to feel an ache to see people in the light of day. I also realized that my skin was wrinkled and my bones were tired. So one day, instead of sneaking off at dawn like I usually did, I walked out into the early morning light of the village.
There, in the center of the village, seven old men sat wrapped in silence, waiting for something. I laughed to myself. I had traveled for what seemed like forever and come right back to the original spot where I was born.
I sat down in the circle with the old men. I was tiny and brown and my hair was covered with twigs and roots.
The oldest of the old men grunted. “Huh.” He said. “It’s a woman.”
“No,” said the second. “It’s a monkey”
“It’s the branch of a tree,” said the third.
“It’s a pile of dirt,” said the fourth.
“It’s a bow and arrow,” said the fifth.
“It’s a demon” said the sixth.
“It’s a god,” said the seventh.
I sat in silence.
“Who are you?” The oldest said.
“Nobody,” I said. “Just a visitor from the forest.”
The old men sighed, disappointed that I was obviously not what they had been waiting for, and directed me to a young boy who was apparently in charge of visitors.
As the young man took me to the visitors’ hut, we passed the statue of a young girl, surrounded by offerings of fruit and flowers.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Where have you been, old woman? Under a rock?” The young man laughed. I had never seen such an easy laugh in the children of the village where I was born. “That’s the Dreamspinner, the one who invented the language that sees .around corners, that tells of things as they might have been, or as they might become. She told the first stories.” The young man lowered his voice. “And I hear some old men almost cut out her tongue for it.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes,” the boy was very solemn and serious. “If you’re very lucky, he said, she might even come to you at night. Some people have actually seen her.”
“What of the old men who almost cut out her tongue?”
“They died,” the boy said. “Old men usually do.” He laughed again. “This is a new batch.” He gestured at the men in the center of the village. “Completely harmless.”
Later that day, I was taken in by the boy’s family, and fed and given a place to sleep. Here, as you know, I have lived for many years, an obscure old woman, sleeping in the shadow of my own statue.
Why I haven’t died yet, I don’t know. I expected to die a long time ago. But now, all these years later, who knows? Maybe I never will.
© 2000 Pacific Coast Journal/Tamara Jane