The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Installment #2: Songs

On that day, I was singing. Kianis was with me, and Leta. We sat in a circle, on barrels, trying to work human folk songs into harmonies. It was a project we were working on. Earlier in the day we’d covered our heads and wandered furtively through town, veiling our immortal appearance as much as possible with the devices my kind possesses. Using our charms, we dulled our hair and eyes, roughened our skin, and lowered our voices. We always laughed to see each other in the guise of farm girls and maids, making fun of each other’s sudden “ugliness,” though to the people who caught a glimpse of our faces, we appeared to be extraordinarily beautiful human maidens. We wandered through towns and farms often, listening to the stories the people told and the songs the women sang as they spun or milked. Today we had been looking especially for songs. Human women seemed always to sing alone, when they were doing some solitary task, and we weren’t certain that they even knew what harmony was. Their songs about animals and people fascinated us, but the sound itself was terribly coarse. We decided to do the poor tunes a favor and collect them for improvement.

Throughout our wanderings that day, we’d collected six songs. The first came from an old man hobbling down the road, leaning on his cane. At first we thought he was just mumbling to himself, but Kianis’ ear picked up a cadence in his words, and we listened more closely. He was singing about a young man who loved a beautiful girl, but before they could marry was sent off to war. The verses of his song sang the praises of the young man and woman, how good and lovely and kind they both were. The story went on to tell of the nights the girl sat awake, staring at the stars, asking them if they could see her love, begging them for news of his fate. The next verse told of the young man’s demise, how he froze on the battlefield, unable to harm another man, and was slaughtered by an enemy blade. He fell to the ground and looked up at the stars, asking them to send his love and his soul to his beloved. But of course, the chorus stated, the stars are silent. They see all and hear all, but cannot be moved to release their secrets. They would not carry the young man’s soul back to his village, for they are watchers and have only eyes, no arms or legs. The last verse sung of how the young man’s soul became lost in the chaos of the battlefield, and he did not know the way home, so he wandered, desperately trying to get back to his village, to his beloved, until Hades himself had to rise from the underworld and capture him, to bring him down to the land of the dead. The chorus rebuked the cruel stars for being so hard-hearted, and reminded lovers not waste their time beseeching them for help.

Kianis memorized the tune, and Leta the words, and we went on our way, but the song remained in my head for many miles. I found the words strange and didn’t understand the intervals in the tune. They were low and spaced apart at strange angles. I was suddenly thinking of the time I found a bird on a road, half-crushed, one of its wings shattered into the dirt, feathers sticky with blood overlapping with clods of soil and pieces of leaves. The poor thing was still alive, and it look back at me with an expression I did not understand. I didn’t have a word for what I was feeling, and when I asked Mother she said it was Horror and Sorrow, things she had hoped I would never experience. I told her of how I’d wanted to help the bird, how I’d wanted to touch it to see if it would spring back to life the way wilting flowers revived at my touch, but I had been afraid. I had recoiled from the blood and dirt and shattered bones, and I’d tucked my fingers into my sides. Then I looked away and left the bird there, alone to die. This aroused another emotion in me, and Mother said it was Guilt. “But do not feel guilty, my daughter, you could not have helped him. Your blessing is for the blooms alone,” she said. At first it did not occur to me that she was telling me a half-truth to ease my troubles, and I still did not know if I possessed the power to help other living things. The bird stayed in my mind for several days, and I decided that even if I could not have healed it, I could have sat beside it as life seeped from its body. Instead I had turned away, and though the feeling lessened over time, my Guilt was always with me from that day onward.

When I heard the old man’s song, I remembered the bird, though I did not know why. It seemed a strange thing to think of until I realized what they had in common; Death, and powerful beings who would not intercede to help the dying. We collected other songs that day and my cares soon vanished, but when we returned to our circle of empty barrels in our wide, secluded meadow, Kianis and Leta remembered the old man’s song, and wanted to give it harmonies also. We had already arranged the other five folk songs, with evenly-spaced tones that gave them a happy, or silly, or teasing sound. They started to give the old man’s song the same treatment, but I darkened my eyes and told them to stop. They turned to me in confusion, troubled that they’d somehow upset me, and annoyed that I was bossing them around. I told them that the old man’s song needed different harmonies, harmonies spaced apart at odd angles, like a wind that dips through trees or a stream that winds around rocks. They started singing tones that sounded like a summer dance, and I told them to stop again. “No,” I said, “Like this…” I sang a lonely breeze, an old woman, a dark night filled with cold stars; I sang the crushed bird. They tried to join in, but their tunes kept wafting up and up into the realm of mysterious, teasing glee. They grew frustrated and wanted to end the game. I conceded, and we decided to go for a swim. They ran ahead of me, singing the hopping arrangements of the other songs, as I continued to glide through a grayness inside of me, confused as to why it was there and what it had to do with the song and the bird and the old man. I wafted there until they threw me in the river and my mind was shocked out of its haze as I sprung up to take my joyful revenge.

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