Tag Archives: poetry

653. Eve Learns to Sing

If you want to put this excerpt from Like Clockwork into context, read Monday’s post. It takes place in the deserted shell of St Matthews Church, London, in the recurring year 1850.

The pocket London of the novel hangs uncomfortably between utopia and dystopia — pretty much like real life. It is a place where everyone lives forever in a peaceful world, but where alternative thinking is strictly avoided.

It is also a place where no one sings.

=================

Eve asked, “What are songs?”

The question hit him like a blow to the heart. Balfour said, “Didn’t your mother sing to you?”

“My mother was so desperate to live forever that she hardly lived at all. She held me and comforted me, but she lived for her work.”

“So she never sang?”

“Not to me. And I have never heard anyone singing here in Luddie London. Do they sing in the outer city?”

Balfour shook his head.

“Thank you for the book of songs, but these are just words on a page to me.”

“May I sing for you?” he asked.

For a moment her youth shone through her eyes and she nodded.

Balfour did not apologize, or say, “I’m not much of a singer.” This was not about quality, but about sharing. He found a familiar song and sang in a scratchy tenor:

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see

Eve said, “I don’t like that song. I’m not a wretch. Don’t sing me a song about self-loathing. Sing to me about a garden.”

Balfour ruffled the pages. He said, “I don’t know this one. Give me a moment to work out the notes.” She watched him, head bobbing slightly, lips moving as he read the staff twice through, then sang:

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

“Thank you. Oh, thank you,” Eve cried. “But that last line is wrong. If God gives the joy, then everybody would know it. Please go on.”

Balfour continued:

He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

I’d stay in the garden with Him
Tho’ the night around me be falling;
But He bids me go; thro’ the voice of woe,
His voice to me is calling.

Eve said, “Don’t sing that last verse any more. I don’t want to leave the garden. I’ve never seen a garden, and I so much want to.”

“Could you sing it?” Balfour asked.

“I don’t know. Repeat it a time or two more and I’ll try.”

So Balfour repeated, dropping the last verse, and changing the last line of the chorus to All others shall ever know. Eve squeezed her eyes tight and her head moved to the music. After he had sung the song twice more, he said, “Now you.”

She sang. There was neither hesitation nor shyness in her manner, and her voice was pure and light. Balfour knew she was not singing for him, nor for herself, but for God. It was so beautiful that it almost made him believe again.

Eve shook her head at the end; there were tears in her eyes as she said, “How can I have lived my life, and never have heard a song?”

She remained silent for a time, then said, “I do thank you, but I don’t think you brought these songs just to please me.”

“No, although I would have if I had known how much you needed them. I have been trying to talk to my friends about Before, but they won’t listen. The direct approach to changing their minds is not going to work.”

Eve smiled and said, “So?”

“So we’re going to be sneaky. I’m are going to entertain them with excerpts from A Christmas Carol and you are going to sing sad love songs to them.”

“What good will that do?”

“Everything. It’s an formula that storytellers have used since the beginning of time. Tell them a story, and hide the message. They’ll listen to the surface, and then spend days trying to figure out what you really meant.”

Balfour and Eve do that thing with little visible results until other events intervene. Then Balfour says to Eve:

“The people are milling about and angry today. I don’t know if it is safe to go out.”

“We must. You need to read the third stave where Scrooge embraces a new life and I need to sing songs of change.”

“They are in no mood to listen.”

“They always hear, even when they don’t listen.”

=================

Obviously, since this is a blog by a writer on the subject of writing, Eve’s criticism of the two hymns is my criticism, which I hoarded for a lifetime until I found a place to express them.

There is one more song in Like Clockwork, the only song remaining in this London. Everybody sings it at Midwinter Midnight. That song turns out to be new lyrics to an old melody, and when Eve decodes it, she uses it to drive the last nail into the coffin of that pocket London.

Meanwhile, even an ex-Christian can feel the joy of carols and can miss hymns like In the Garden. Right or wrong, they express human longing for goodness.

652. Hymns vs. Carols

A note at the start: this may seem to be about religion, but it is also about the manner in which a writer presents his ideas.

During the last two days (November 10 and 11 in this time warp called writing posts ahead of time) I have reread Like Clockwork, putting on a final polish. I find that I have to give a finished piece a few months to lie fallow before I can see things like they when I meant to write the, or a perfectly fine sentence which leads the reader’s understanding in the wrong direction because it doesn’t match the lead-in from a previous sentence.

Songs, particularly their lyrics, play a late but vital role in the novel Like Clockwork, and polishing the parts of the book where Balfour teaches Eve to sing took me back to an earlier time in my life.

The first music I remember was in church, which was probably different from the church, synagogue, temple, ashram, or gurdwara you attended. It was the (town deleted) Southern Baptist Church, a white clapboard building that housed about fifty people each Sunday during the decade of the fifties. My father was song leader, although he couldn’t read a note of music, my mother played the piano, and everybody sang. Not well, mostly, but vigorously. That’s where I learned to sing without apologizing for my five note range.

We were fundamentalists, believing that God was all powerful, all knowing, and willing to forgive, but only if you accepted him as your personal savior. Otherwise, you would burn in Hell forever. I believed that myself at the time.

The hymns we sang echoed the sermons, particularly this one:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains

This isn’t like the kind of fancy, up-town hymns most Christians were singing, but it suited our congregation. No one questioned the lyrics. Well, I did, but I never said so out loud. Even if you accept the underlying theology, this is a harsh way to present it.

There was also a sub-category of hymns called invitationals, which were the backbone of the service. At the end of the sermon, without exception, the last hymn sung was a call to repentance. It went on verse after verse in hopes that some sinner would come down to give himself to Jesus.

I know how often I speak tongue-in-cheek, but that’s not what I’m doing now. I myself went down when I was twelve years old, convinced that I would be Hell-bound if I did not. Loss of belief came a few years later, but the sound of those sweet invitationals still lives in my memory.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

There’s that blood again, but you shouldn’t make too much of it. The sacrifice of a God or a parent for their children is hardwired into human DNA, from Jesus to Bambi’s mother. The presentation makes the difference, including the melody and the place. That “fountain filled with blood” never set well with me; today it makes me cringe and it makes me angry. But “just as I am” still rings in my memory as a sweet call to come to a God who would accept you, no matter what you had done.

Writers, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

Sometimes, however, it is what you say. There was only one hymn out of the hundreds I knew, In the Garden, that always spoke sweetly. I featured it late in Like Clockwork. Eve tweaks it a bit, but I was too young when I sang it to have that much nerve. It will show up in the next post.

Although I didn’t know it when I was a child, this hymn is supposed to be the thoughts of Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane. I like it better as anybody, in any garden. The second verse says:

He speaks, and the sound of his voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

The sacrifice is always there, but you don’t always have to talk about it. People know.

Every Christmas we sang carols, which were that oxymoron, happy hymns. That was the only time we were singing the same thing more PC Christians were singing, and I loved them most of all.

If you are a Christian, you can look toward the manger, or you can look toward the cross. We looked toward the cross, but if I were still a Christian today, I would be kneeling before the Baby Jesus.

I suspect that all religions contain both those aspects. If you look past jihadis to the precepts of Islam, you will find a vast fund of good will. If you look at the history of “peaceful” Buddhism, you will find a war fought between followers of the Amida Buddha and the Buddha of the Pure Land. Everybody, everywhere, has the same choice to make.

In our Church, the sermon on the Sunday closest to Christmas started out with the Babe in the manger but quickly morphed into hellfire. The preacher never forgot that his primary duty was scaring the Hell out of sinners — or scaring sinners out of Hell.

That’s legitimate, but personally, I reject it.

There will be more on this in Eve Learns to Sing, on Wednesday.

647. A Prayer For Those Who Need it

A Prayer for Those Who Need It

Dear God,

We thank you for the food before us
We thank you for those who grew the food
We thank you for those who keep us safe
We thank you for our freedom,
         and for our Constitution.

Forgive us for the ways in which we have failed you
          by failing our fellow man.

Help us reunite the families we have separated
Help us succor the allies we have abandoned
Help us accept our own children,
          born beyond the border,
          but ours since childhood
Help us to accept the refugees,
          crying out just beyond the wall
Help us to free those incarcerated
          guilty of believing
          that we would give them
          the refuge we had promised.

Help us to see clearly,
          all the ways that we have failed you
          by failing our fellow men.

And forgive this nation.
          God knows we need it.

The Gods of Wind and Air 9

5.

When the pot is broken on the hearth
       and the fire is out;
and the cold, north dragon wind
       is riding on the clouds.

When there’s howling in the smokehole
       and snuffling at the door;
when that beast is storm and darkness,
       and endless, biting cold.

Then the gods of wind and air
       demand their portion.

He stood under the fury of her countenance; not brave, not bowing, not defiant, not cringing. Numb.

She looked long upon him, and then was gone.

The wind still howled. The snow still swirled, but less fiercely because he had reached the edge of the valley and the beginning of the forest. He even knew where he was, or thought he did. If his strength held out, he could reach his hartwa in an hour.

And once there, he and his wife and child would die together, for there was nothing left in him.

He started forward, stumbled and fell. Something lay beneath the snow, frozen hard, and it had tripped him up. He moved past it, still intent on his goal, but there was just one spark left — hope perhaps, or maybe only curiosity. He brushed aside a bit of snow and found coarse hair. He dug deeper, faster, and exposed the carcass of a deer, wolf-killed, much mangled and partially eaten. On a day in spring, he would not have touched it. Now he ran his hands over the frozen body and tears came to his eyes.

#             #             #

When he had dragged the frozen carcass home, built a fire and made a stew to feed them all, Pellan settled in under the furs with his wife and child. The chill took a long time to leave him. Sleep tried to claim him, but he fought back because he wanted to stay awake long enough to savor this feeling of safety and repletion. These moments didn’t come often between first snow and final melt.

Gods, he thought — real or not, we need them. Poor men especially need them when the Lord and his soldiers, and his tax collectors and the priests, all stand with their hands out. When the crops fail, and the cow dies, and the woman is sick. When there is no food in the larder and only a whistle of wind where the chimney fire belongs, men need to believe that someone still cares.

And some men, pushed even harder than that, need gods to blame and gods to hate. When they are forced back up against death, left with no hope — when it would be easier to give up than to live — that’s when a certain kind of man needs his gods more than ever. He needs to curse them, to revile them, to scream at them when the night and hunger and cold and storm come all at once. He needs to hate them for what they are doing to him, whether he believes in them or not — to hate them so badly that he will walk barefoot through hell before he will let them see him fall.

Sometimes that hatred is all that keeps a man alive. So, thank you, Gods. But don’t get cocky. This mood won’t last long.

finis

The Gods of Wind and Air 8

Pellan trudged on, heading back toward his home by the feel of the wind. The sun had gone down and the darkness was complete. The few leathers of bitter melon Pellan had eaten near noon were long gone from his body. He was moving on nerve and anger, but the anger was fading in the storm.

He wished the priest was with him, so he could have someone to lash out at. If not the priest, he thought, then let some god appear, so he would have someone to curse.

The snow burned his face; the wind tore at his clothing and all but overturned his hearing. Then there was light, faint light, small in the distance. As he headed toward it, thinking of fire and warmth and food, it resolved into the figure of a man, strong, heavy, wide in the shoulders, dressed for battle with a sword drawn.

God or illusion? Does anyone ever really know?

Pellan spoke his name, “Simicababar,” and the figure nodded. Then he said, “How is it that you are here?”

“You called me and I came.”

“But it is said that you cannot leave your pocket universe, that the Changer locked you there forever.”

“I am here for you, because you called me. I stood through siege of war, unwavering, to protect my brother’s wife. That endurance is what you sought.”

“Can you give me strength to reach my own wife?”

“I can give you nothing. I can only show you what you lack.” And he was gone.

The storm, the cold and the darkness remained. Pellan began walking again, into the storm, toward his hartwa, and his wife and child. He wondered if they were still alive.

Encaritremanta appeared before him next, but he didn’t even acknowledge her presence. He had no need of a beautiful woman, scarcely clothed, to inflame his desire. He had a woman; plain faced, skeletal from hunger, holding his child to her breast. She was the one he wanted to reach. He growled, “Step aside, you glorious bitch, and let me go on to the one I love.”

Next Elmirandel stood by to watch him, but Pellan trudged past without even looking up.

There were other gods in the storm that night, less known to him, faint and half perceived. They surrounded him as he trudged onward. He could see them from time to time out of the corner of his eye. They meant nothing to him, except that he sometimes turned to curse them. Hunger walked with him; death walked by his left hand. He knew that this time he might not defeat them, but he knew that he would never stop trying.

The last goddess was the oldest of them all. She was there before Man was born. The Weathermistress in a green cloak, open to show her breasts, remained unaffected as she stood in the middle of the storm of her own creation. She was not cruel, although many call her that. She was not kind. She poured out the sweet honey of life with one hand and the icy stream of death with the other. She could be beseeched, but she never listened. She was neither kind nor cruel, but she was capricious.

Pellan stopped still before her. Here was the goddess he feared, for she had all power and no mercy. She looked him through with calm eyes. Her names were life and death. Whichever name she answered to tonight, was not his to command. He looked deeply into her eyes of ice and said, “I will not beg.”      Final post tomorrow.

The Gods of Wind and Air 7

4.

Now storm clouds hang above the trees
       and the homeward trail is long,
and darkness hides beneath the boughs
       with the creeping of the cold.

There’s hunger gnawing deep within
       that weakens all his limbs,
when the icy hearted temptress comes
       to torture him again.

Then the gods of wind and air
       demand their portion

Taipai was a priest, so naturally he talked.

Pellan hated priests, and lords, and men at arms, and all the serfs who knuckled under to them. It was a slow burning hatred that lived in his gut. Food might have extinguished it, but even when replete, the memory of hunger remained, so Pellan was always angry.

After a long time of listening to Taipai, Pellan told him to shut up. He said, “I have no use for gods. They have no place in my life.”

“You don’t deny them!”

“No, I don’t. I know they are real. I just wish they would go away and stop bothering us all.”

It was such an unbelievable assertion that Taipai was struck dumb. For a brief moment, anyway. Then he extolled the virtues of the Damesept, and Pellan replied that they had never done anything for him. Taipai fell back on praising the elder gods and Pellan admitted a grudging admiration for the Flower of the Waning Day, but added, “When they had done their work, they disappeared and no longer interfered in the lives of men. The other gods should take a hint and do the same.”

For all the kindness of his nature, Taipai still wondered if he had done wrong in giving this angry man food, and thus preserving his life. Not that he could have done otherwise, being who he was.

As they left the forest and set out across the fallow fields of the valley, the wind carried snow in billows and whorls, to blind them both and to suck the heat from their bodies. Pellan put his head down and plowed on, with Taipai in his wake. He knew that the priest would not have had the strength to breast the wind. Taipai knew it as well, and it hurt him to cause Pellan more trouble, when his life was so full of trouble already.

The wind roared and made conversation impossible. Pellan gave thanks for that, but he gave that thanks to no one in particular. He had chosen to go his way without the gods, and to hope that they would leave him alone as well.

The cold bored in and the road went on. Eventually the village and the menhir loomed up. Taipai tried to thank Pellan, but he only lifted his hand and turned back into the storm.

Taipai watched the swirling snow, long after he could no longer see Pellan’s retreating back.     More Tuesday.

The Gods of Wind and Air 6

Even Pellan, who lived on the edge of humanity, knew that not all stones of enreithment are man made, and that beshes which are not menhirs can appear anywhere people have brought their dead. He understood at once that this was a minor besh, that Taipai was in communion with it, and that it was best to stand back and let him finish whatever he was doing. So he settled in, ignoring the falling snow, and became as patient as the stones themselves.

The snow continued and the sky darkened further. Gradually Pellan’s cloak of ragged fur and Taipai’s cloak of coarse cloth became identical under the falling flakes. Finally, Taipai sat up in an explosion of snow, shook himself, and made a movement with his hands that evoked a rose which glowed briefly in the air.

So. Taipai had come here, away from his home menhir, to worship the ancient gods. Pellan could hear him reciting:

Elmirandel, the Stem,
Simicababar, the Deep Root,
Encaritremanta, the Blossom.
The Three who were One
       at the end of their world,
The Flower of the Waning Day.

He nodded approval. If you had to worship, the Three were a pretty good choice. At least they had stood with mankind against the other gods in the last days of the Comanyi. Of the new gods who inhabited Taipai’s menhir today, Pellan had no good opinion.

Taipai turned back toward the valley and saw him for the first time. Pellan stood, shook the snow off himself, and said, “Are you ready to go back?”

“Why are you here?”

“Not to spy on your worship, that’s for sure. You gave me food when I needed it. I owe you a debt. I will see you safely back to your temple, and then we will be even.”

Taipai looked surprised. He said, “I did not intend for you to feel a debt.”

“No matter. The debt is there, whatever you intended. Now let’s get back down, so I can get back to hunting.”

“I don’t really see any need . . .”

“It’s stupid to argue in a snowstorm,” Pellan said, and turned down toward the streambed. Taipai shrugged, and followed.     More next Monday.

The Gods of Wind and Air 5

3.

A man takes up a burden
       when he takes a wife to heart.
He takes another burden
       when he calls a man a friend.

Between that pair of burdens
       a man may well be torn.

He had not told the whole truth to his wife. He would hunt because their lives depended on it. But he had an additional debt now, to the priest who had given him food. It was no small gift, and therefore no small debt.

Pellan littered the trail behind him with curses. If he had only killed the priest before he could perform an act of mercy, he would not have this new burden. A starving wife and child were burden enough.

The day had advanced. The sun was nearing zenith, but no more visible that it had been earlier in the morning. The wind had increased. The clouds were gathering, rolling above his head  and now the snow had begun to fall.

No deer appeared as Pellan slogged on, hunting on his way back to the place he had met the priest. There he found footprints and followed them, moving fast because the snowfall was wiping them out, but still looking for animals as he went.

Damned priest. Why couldn’t he just stay safe and warm in his temple until the storm passed, Pellan grumbled to himself as he moved up the stream. He knew that if Taipai had stayed by his fire, his wife and child would not have food now, but he was too hungry to be reasonable.

The priest had moved far and fast. Pellan realized that he must be in pretty good physical shape, for somebody who spent his days in prayer. Of course, not being hungry made the difference.

The afternoon came in like nightfall, and the snow increased. Probably the priest didn’t need any help from Pellan. Not that that made any difference.

Pellan found the place where Taipai had left the streambed and had scrambled up into the forest. HIs path had gained altitude. Pellan could occasionally see bare hilltops through the thinning trees. Then he saw the priest.

There was a rounded boulder, about the height of a man and perhaps thirty feet across. Taipai had broken off the limb of an evergreen, and had used it as a broom to clear snow from one face of the boulder. Now he lay in an odd posture, knees against the base of the rock and sprawled forward so that his whole body was in contact with it.    More Wednesday.

The Gods of Wind and Air 4

“And your wife and child are starving as well?”

Pellan gave no answer.

Taipai went on, “Well, of course they are. If you take me to them, I will do what I can.”

Pellan shook his head. Taipai waited. The one leather of bitter melon could not have satisfied the man, but he did not ask for another, though he could easily have taken them all. Taipai considered his stance, his obvious emaciation, and the fact that he was almost shaking with fatigue. He said, “You don’t trust me?”

“In fact, I do. But not with the lives of my wife and child.”

“They need food. I have food and you could take it. Why don’t you?”

“You gave me food when I was hungry. I cannot rob you now.”

Taipai understood. He said, “Every man has a wall he will not crawl over. It is a puzzle you cannot solve, but I can.” He held out the sack again and said, “I give you all of it. Take it to your family.”

The priest turned his back on Pellan and his spear, and began picking his way up the frozen waterway. Pellan clutched the sack to his chest and watched him out of sight.

The way back to his hartwa was short enough, and made lighter by the food in his belly. He gave a leather to his wife to chew on, took up his axe, and went out for wood. It took some time, since he had long since harvested all the nearby down wood. He returned and built up a fire. His wife held out a piece of bitter melon and he took it. Even though he wanted to give it all to his wife and child, he had to keep up his own strength for the hunt.

This bag of food would have kept the priest fed for a day. It might keep Pellan and his family alive for a week, but it would not last until snow melt.

It was a reprieve, not salvation.

Pellan dozed by the fire, warm for the first time in days. His wife chewed the melon, softening it with the juices of her mouth, and pressed the result into the mouth of her child. He was too young for solid food, but until her milk returned, it was all she had to give him.

An hour passed. Pellan woke with a start, and began to gather up his axe and spear. His wife watched him, cradling the infant to her empty breasts. He said, “I must go out again to hunt. I will return.”

She smiled. That smile was always a wonder to him, and the treasure of his heart. She said, “Of course you will. We will wait for you.” If she harbored doubt behind her eyes, she hid it so well that he could not see it.     More Tuesday.

The Gods of Wind and Air 3

2.

When you meet a stranger on the road
       and he wants to call you friend,
look twice to see what blade he bears
       and what he might intend.

Hunger lives within in the bones
       in the valley of the menhir.

Pellan met the priest at the edge of the forest. He seemed to know his destination. He came out of the flat where a stream ran strong in the springtime, and turned up its icy valley.

There he stopped and stared. Pellan stood before him, wearing a cloak roughly sewn from the furs of many species. Some parts of it were old and threadbare; some seemed to be newly attached to replace furs which had rotted away.

The priest remembered an old story of a cloak that had served five generations, old furs falling off, new furs sewn in to replace them, until nothing remained of the original garment. It was told for humor. This cloak looked like the one in that story, but there was no humor in its wearer’s eyes.

Pellan’s face was skull tight. His eyes had retreated into twin caves. His mouth was drawn. He had an axe at his side, and a spear in both hands, pointing toward the priest.

The priest reached inside his cloak and withdrew a sack, extended it toward Pellan, and said, “You are starving. You must eat.”

To be strung out on hunger, and tuned to aggression, then to be met with open kindness was disconcerting. It was like walking down a familiar path in the darkness to find a pit beneath your feet. Pellan didn’t know how to react.

The priest rolled back the lip of the sack to show the food within, and gestured. Against his will, Pellan lowered his spear and reached out for a piece of dried bitter melon. Hot saliva flooded his mouth. The normally flavorless crust of melon tasted better than cakes.

The priest said, “My name is Taipai.”

He has fed me, and he has told me his name, Pellan thought, adding a silent obscenity. I can’t rob him now! And I certainly can’t kill him.

Pellan said, “You know what I am?”

“Of course. But I don’t know who you are.”

“Pellan.”

“And I am a priest of Hea Santala. She makes no differentiation between serfs and masters. Or runaway serfs starving in the hills.”

Pellan made no answer. Even if this Taipai were offering help, there was no help he could give. Taipai waited, then added, “I am responsible for many. Are you responsible for others beyond yourself?”

Pellan did not answer. Taipai pressed the issue. “Do you have a wife? Children?”

“I have a wife, and one child,” he said.      More next Monday.