Evensong: A Tale of the Aaralyn (A War of Canticles Story)

The last of the notes rang out over the plain, a minor note, mournful and haunting, fitting, given the surroundings.

The Aaralyn Sisters, linked through holding hands, their auras overlapping, stopped their singing and pulled their minds back from the focused blast they collectively sent into the midst of the warriors bearing down on their surviving remnant.

In the waning state of their collective trance, they heard the bodies of men and horses falling, weapons clattering and clanging as they fell from the dead soldiers’ hands, or fell to the ground, tossed from too far away.

They heard the cries and gasps, curses and screams, as men, used to the power of their strong arms and cruel methods, fell like slaughtered bulls at a pagan feast before the power carried in the singing voices of women half their size.

In the moments that followed, as if from a dream, they opened their eyes.

Gradually, the effects of so great an incant took its toll: some collapsed, most began crying, some cheered, others embraced.

Singer Krista, the Elder among them, merely looked out over the carnage, and gave a deep sigh.

She had given everything, and in victory, felt as empty and afraid as when they began fighting.

The multi-sided attacks decimated their numbers, and there were things that now needed doing that took her beyond the immediate sense of relief and celebration.

The priests, the wizards, the witches, the sorcerers and sorceresses had all come a-killing, to take the voices, and power of the Aaralyn, because they dared not abuse it to rule the world.

The warriors were the last.

In not fighting, Krista knew now, the Aaralyn made the world think they could not.

They’d just proven the world wrong, though the cost was dear.

The sun was low in the sky, and the clouds were breaking.

In the distance, the birds began to circle.

“Is it finally over, Singer Krista? Do you hear anything?”

The speaker was young, new to them by two years, gifted, but untried, until now.

Krista turned weary eyes to her, and saw the young woman trembling, eyes wide, still fearful, full of nervous energy and adrenaline, but skittish now; the carnage had overwhelmed her resolve.

Had the battle continued, this one would have bolted, or died, but Krista could not hold that against her.

“We are all that remain, Singer Willow.”

Singer Willow embraced Krista tightly, needing something solid to hold onto, physically as well as mentally, and Krista returned the embrace, looking out on the carnage as the girl’s body shivered against hers, her quiet sobs muffled in Krista’s dusty robes.

She cries on me, for she believes me to be strong, but there is no one stronger to comfort me.

I hope the Victory Canticle is completed, or the last thirty years have been for nothing.

 

***************

By the time they returned to Singers Hall, the snow was falling, and they had just made it in before the storm.

Baths ran long, wine flowed freely, sleep ran deep, and as the days passed, the sick were tended, the wounded bound, the dead buried, and those who needed help to deal with what they’d seen and done received it.

In the weeks that followed, as the snow melted, and the roads were muddy and troublesome, but passable, and the sea more or less temperate, if cold, some packed to return home, renouncing the elite sect of Singers.

Singer Krista bade them farewell, and wished them the best, and released them to their destinies outside of the Aaralyn’s ranks.

It was not a calling for everyone, and those who tried to force themselves to be a part of something that went against their better judgment, went against their own souls, were counseled to voluntarily leave.

They forcibly expelled those who did not take that option, but continued to struggle.

******************

Singer Janis knocked on the door, and Krista bade her enter.

“How are you, Krista?”

“I’m tired, Janis, in more ways than I care to count, but we are here. The Canticle…?”

“It’s finished. I saw it personally, looked it over. We tested the incants, and they didn’t penetrate.”

“And the protection?”

“Made from the finest, by the best in the realm; it will be well protected.”

“I’m pleased.”

Janis turned to go.

“Stay a moment, Janis. I need to talk.”

Janis turned, surprised.

“All right.” She sat.

Krista sat up straighter, folded her hands in her lap.

“I’m disbanding the Aaralyn.”

Janis sighed, shifted in her own seat. “I was wondering…”

“You’re not surprised?”

“Not at all. I even understand why.”

“Why?”

“Our numbers are greatly reduced; we lost a lot of power in those battles. We need to replenish, and these young women can’t do that here.”

“Exactly. You do understand.”

“But they will marry common men; there’s no equivalent to our order among men.”

“True, but there is nothing to be done for it; the mothers will recognize the daughters who have the gift. We’ve had Aaralyn who’ve abandoned our ranks throughout history.”

Janis nodded.

“But as for the Canticle of Victory, I have a plan.”

And as the night unfolded, she told Janis about it.

**************

“Seems a bit dramatic, Krista, but all right; you know that even crystal can shatter at the right frequency.”

“That may be true of ordinary crystal; this isn’t.”

“How so?”

“All of the factions have contributed, but we put in the final piece, the key that unlocks the Victory Canticle to draw it out, without shattering the container, and its protector.”

“And what is the key?”

Krista smiled.

“She hasn’t been born yet.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me, Krista…”

“There is, but see it done, Janis. Please.”

Janis took that as her cue, and rose to leave.

“I’ll see it done.”

2)

 

     Toward winter’s end, as the battle weariness began to fade, and the women began to return to a sense of life, if not normalcy, Singer Krista felt the time had come, and called a gathering in the ampitheater.

The Aaralyn came, curious, excited, and nervous, as they’d more or less passed the winter in idleness, left to their own devices.

Some practiced, some studied, some pursued hobbies, and there were the usual amounts of squabbles, clique fighting and infighting, but now they were eager to get on with things.

Krista and Janis had seen to the nobility that called on the Great Hall after the cleanup, seeking their alliance in gaining this throne or that throne.

Krista let it be known that having been attacked from all sides, they would take no sides, since they’d had no allies in their hour of need.

Soon, it wouldn’t matter.

The ampitheater carried sound, so there was no need for her to raise her voice.

When Krista took the stage, the ladies grew quiet.

“Welcome, Singers. There is no easy way to say this, but this will be our final gathering.”

There were some surprised gasps and cries, but the Elder put her hands up for silence.

“We’ve known this day was coming for some time.

“Look around you.”

She gave them a moment as they did.

“These are all that remain.”

She let that sink in.

“The time has come for us to rejoin the world.”

More cries of resistance peppered the air.

“Singers…sisters…we must be realistic; our times and purposes have been fulfilled, and the Aaralyn have emerged victorious.

“But we must ever be present in the world, lest these times come again.

“And for that, we need children, and for that, we must rejoin the world.

“My own time is past, my children long taken from this world at the war’s beginning, to break me. To stop me. And it almost did.

“But those of you who remain are young, fertile, and for the most part…”

She smiled.

“…beautiful.”

There was a ripple of laughter, as intended, and she waited until it passed.

“And then, there are the Canticles.”

They once more gave her their attention.

“The books have survived, and been copied. There are compendiums, hidden, and individual copies, the ones you received. The ones you used to ensure our survival.

“When we depart, you will have these books among you, so they will be scattered throughout the world as we know it. Guard them well, with your lives if need be.

“But as you leave to start your lives over, and start your families, there is one Canticle that will remain here, buried and unmarked.”

Murmurs of surprise filled the theater.

“This Canticle will be used to defeat any more factions that may gather in the future; it is the most potent of all. It will supersede all others, even those written by the factions against us.

“It was worked on in secret by the most gifted Aaralyn, centuries before most of your births.

“We had to search for it, and in the searching, we lost more of us, even as we were devastated in the killing that almost consumed us.

“The remnant of factions against us that survive already works its opposite to counter, but as yet have not succeeded, according to such spies as remain among them.”

She noticed them beginning to shift, and knew she had to close.

“This is the last piece that needs to be done before we go.”

She removed from beneath the podium an ornate teak box with bronze reinforcements and locks.

Opening it, she removed a faceted crystal, light blue, with an opalescent vapor slowly swirling about within it.

The women admired its beauty as Krista held it in sure hands.

“This is the Canticle of Victory.”

She placed it back in the box, and removed another; this one was black with silver reinforcements and locks.

From that, she removed a coiled serpent, wrapped three times, also of crystal.

Some of the women murmured at that, some looked away.

She then took the crystal out again, and placed it in the serpent’s coils.

The opalescent vapor in the crystal came out, and entered into the coils of the snake.

As it filled, the snake’s hood spread, revealing it to be a cobra.

Krista could sense the repulsed fascination, and indeed, as Janis said, it was dramatic.

Her audience gasped.

“The Canticle of Victory is now sealed, until the next time it is needed. It will be left in a mountain cave with nothing to mark it, the passing of time burying it further still, but don’t worry, Singers.

“Whoever needs to use it, they will find it. She will be told of its existence, and if she is the right one, at the right time, she will find it on her own.”

Another silence, but this one was heavy, as the Elder began to weep.

“It has been my life’s honor to fight beside you.

“Your bravery, though unrecorded, will live on in the fact that the world still exists, tattered and bruised though it may be.

“Our power, and our unity, did that.

“The earth you now walk is the one you helped save, and as we depart from here…”

   She sniffled, and dabbed at her eyes.

“May your daughters be blessed to fill our Great Halls once more with song, and our world with peace.”

“We are adjourned.”

She put the serpent and crystal in the black and silver box, and sealed it with an incant.

Her attendant came, took it, gave a brief nod, and left to start toward the mountain cave.

Applause thundered, tears flowed, cries, songs, and ululations rocked the ampitheatre as the women hugged, kissed, and embraced each other.

Krista moved among them, smiling, blessing, and as the sky darkened and the theater emptied, the sun set and the moon rose, and the chill winds blew snow from the peaks, the age of the Aaralyn passed into history, faded with time.

And the final notes of their farewells soaked into the stars above, to disappear in the light of a new dawn.

**************************

When Singer Lisa arrived at the cave, the moon was high.
The horse was somewhat winded, but she’d explored the mountains often as she hunted, and she’d remembered to bring oats, carrots, and let it drink from the stream where she’d spent many an afternoon poring over her Canticles.
With deft movements she exposed the cave’s covering.
When a gust of wind blew sparkling virgin snow, she placed her scarf over her mouth and nose as she retrieved a lantern from another pack she’d fastened to the saddle.
This needs to be done quickly.
She left the pack with the box on her back; she’d endured its discomfort there for the sake of its importance for the whole ride; a few more minutes wouldn’t make a difference.

She slipped inside the cave.
In the narrow tunnel she had to bend, but it would open back up to where she could stand again.
She reached the space, allowing the lantern light to fill the space and her eyes to adjust.
A figure in a black robe lined with silver sat on a rock, and turned to look at Lisa.
Its eyes were blood red, and glowing, and its skin white as the virgin snow surrounding them.
It stood up, and in its left hand was a walking stick of old bone.
Its lips were thin, and flushed with red as well, darker than its eyes, but stark in contrast against its face.
Langorously, it extended its right arm, and the hand, with long fingers and hooked red nails, was palm up.
It spoke to Lisa in a woman’s voice, low, almost sultry, belying its bizarre appearance.
“Ah, welcome, Singer…” it tilted its head a bit, “…Lisa, is it? I see you’ve come to return my pet.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015

Insensuous

Incense burns, the smoke unfurls and

You

Dance through its caressing tendrils,

Your eyes

burn holes in my soul

The heat of you suffuses me

and my arms, seemingly of their own mind

Embrace you

The swell of your breasts feels warm against me

The pulsing of your heart with mine foreshadows

rhythms yet to be

The scent of your womanhood

surrounds me and assaults my senses

wth violent, urgent need

You possess me in heated tenderness

I possess you in torrid intimacy

And in spent time

And with spent passion

We own each other

In love

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.  2015

Love’s New Land

In the dappled sunlight fading

Amber embers in the clouds

Shadows lengthen, colors shading

Pretty eyes in evening shrouds

My heart leaps up at the vision

As your smile beams from your lips

My soul dances in the music

from your tender fingertips

Come with me to walk the path now

Here together, hand in hand

Work with me to do the math now

We are

two,

in Love’s new land

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

2015

The War of Canticles

In the aftermath of the devastation, none of the Great Halls remained.

Stone, marble, fine cloth, weapons, and instruments from around the known world lay in smoking, shattered heaps, among lumps of broken bone and shredded flesh, littering the valley, and the smoke, still thick, roiled back on itself and grew larger, like a confused stampeding crowd. Sprawling across the cloud-strewn sky, it hid the bodies from the view of carrion birds, and small fires, safe from the coming spring rain, still burned in protected places, unchecked, but unable to do anymore damage.

******************

Singers Hall was completely destroyed.

Lorelei woke up, her throat raw from the smoke, her eyes bleary and bloodshot, her clothes torn, and her thoughts rambling. Her book wasn’t far from her, but it was singed.

Gingerly, she picked it up, lifting with her fingertips; bits of charred paper fell off and flew away, but only from the edges. The book itself was sound, its pages untouched by fire, still readable, with all of her notes in the margins.

That, and the clothes on her back, were all she had.

She was able to stand, and slowly got to her feet, not wanting to be prone in case whoever did this was searching the rubble to kill the wounded.

She took a look around, and tears not born of smoke filled her eyes…

That was good, because it caused her not to focus.

There was a general impression of carnage, of blood, of bodies broken and torn, but she didn’t look at anyone’s face, didn’t allow herself to recognize, and remember, because she’d be paralyzed by fear and grief, and there was no telling who was coming.

So she waited, and collected her thoughts, as the soft spring rain began to fall.

********************

Footsteps crunched over stone.

A fallen pillar hid her from view, but hiding didn’t occur to her.

She wanted to see if whoever it was had been responsible for what happened; what she would do then, she didn’t know.

Her throat, however, was still raw from smoke and dust, so a canticle of binding was out of the question. She had her training, but no weapons, so with the only recourse left to her, she picked up a sharpened piece of the fallen pillar.

There would only be one chance.

*********************

A boy stood on the fallen pillar, but above her.

Shielding his eyes against the rain with his hand, he scanned the remains of Singers Hall, and Lorelei used the time to observe him.

He was brown, all over, from his skin to his clothing, to the small harp in a brown case strapped to his back. She could see the burnished scrollwork at the end poking out of a corner of the case. He was a stranger in these lands, but if he’d made Musicians Hall here, he was indeed talented.

She looked some more.

He was bald, almost hairless to the point of babyhood, and had a dark gleam about him, brimming with some unknown power, but he seemed whole, and strong, and about her age; he wouldn’t need looking after then, but she was still reluctant to reveal herself.

Seeing nothing, he turned to go.

If he leaves, you’ll be traveling alone, for who knows how long, facing who knows what?

“Wait!” She stepped out from hiding.

He turned, surprised, but wary.

She scrambled up the pillar, put herself on level with him, and they stood, taking each other in.

“You survived,” he finally said.

“So did you. Did you see anything?”

“Bodies, ruin, and fire, not much else. You?”

“The same. None of the Halls are intact. I thought they might be walking around to kill the wounded, so I got up.”

“I don’t think they needed to; they were pretty efficient. And it might not have been wise for you to get up, since they would’ve killed you for real.”

“I’m no good at pretending to be dead if I’m not.”

“No,” he smiled, “me neither.”

He walked back toward her, but didn’t offer his hand.

She didn’t take offense; the Musicians never offered their hands, which they held as transporters of their craft to enter this world from the next, so they were sacrosanct, and kept untainted.

“I’m Devon.”

“Lorelei.”

“Now there’s a name for a Singer.”

She smiled, pointed to his back.

“Harp?”

“Among other things, none of which survived; this will have to do for now.”

The rain fell harder.

“Let’s find shelter, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

“We already have shelter.”

He looked at her.

“We can stay right here, under this pillar, and wait out the rain.”

“You could do that? Your friends’ corpses lay here, your teachers…”

“None of whom would mind. Is there any point to blundering about in the rain, not knowing where we are, or where we’re going?”

Besides, I’ve already mourned, in secret, where no one could see.

He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t argue the validity.

She was already scrambling back underneath the pillar.

Intrigued by her practicality, if surprised at the hardness of her decision, he followed.

2:

The rain continued falling, steady, after dark, and they went hungry that night, though they managed to make a fire.

In the morning, the sun came out, the smoke cleared, and a herald crow sounded the breakfast bell.

They left, still dampened in clothes and spirit, and began to try to find a path out.

As they searched, she thought back to her first day.

*****************

Her teacher was a walking willow stick; everything about her was wispy, like the pink, fluffy candy of country fairs, sweetness without substance, but that was only on the surface.

  “You have been chosen as Singers; you are above the pale and beyond the norm, and this is now your home. Everything, and I mean everything, you need, or ever will need, is here.

   “There is no need to go skulking about in the woods, like trolls and brigands. The sacrifice of your voice in offering replaces what is left of your life. You no longer have families, or friends, or lovers, save those you meet here.

   “You are given no outside indulgences to detract from your training, for while you are superior, you are not yet fully formed.

   “And it is I who will form you, from now on.”

*****************

The days were grueling, the nights sometimes more so.

   Willow, for that is what Lorelei called her, was relentless, merciless, and sometimes cruel.

  Lorelei had been at turns beaten, starved, made to sleep standing up, and a few things in between, but last month, at the end of her fourth year, Willow had given her the book, Blessed Canticles. Her own copy, signed with Willow’s own hand.

   “To Lorelei, you have been blessed beyond your worth, but you have earned it, and done well.”

   She later found out, when she went to see what Willow had written for the others, that hers was the only book signed.

  Gradually, they’d fallen off, wondering what she’d done to gain such favor, when they had all been equally punished and rewarded, seemingly solely based on Willow’s whims.

   The imposed shunning hurt, the exile to a table of her own as they left at her approach even more so, but there it was.

***************

“And now, I’m all that’s left…”

“What?”

“Nothing. Nothing, Devon, just thinking out loud.”

3:

“We’ve flushed her out into the open, Lord Karis; she travels with a bard.”

“A bard? Indeed, two for the price of one. I’m pleased, Jahrin.”

Jahrin smiled; he didn’t like when Karis wasn’t pleased.

“May I ask a question, Lord Karis?”

“You may.”

“What do you want with the Singer?”

Karis looked out the window, distracted, but he’d heard the question.

“I will answer you, Jahrin. If I hear it on the lips of anyone else, your tongue is forfeit. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, Lord Karis.”

Karis sighed, and walked over to a table, where he took a book of white and gold, and placed it before Jahrin.

“I…I can’t read, Lord…”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Karis walked away, and began to sing, a minor key, that sounded something like a dirge, slow, sonorous, and foreign sounding, and Jahrin closed his eyes, shuddering in his seat, held by something that frightened him beyond words.

His teeth chattered, and tears leaked copiously from his eyes, and when the song ended, and he was finally released, he slumped forward.

The cover was bleary in his vision, and he clumsily wiped his eyes with an overlarge hand, breathing hard.

And the cover said,

The Canticles of War

 “Lord Karis…Lord Karis…I…I can..”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Jahrin remained speechless, reading the words over and over again, wanting to hug the book to him; he dared not touch it, and ran to the shelves, pulling things at random, reading, books and parchments gathering around him like sand.

Karis, enjoying his servant’s excited mood, stopped on his way out to give him a look.

Jahrin’s eyes were bright with happy tears.

“Now imagine what I could do, Jahrin, if I had her power.”

He thought about taking the words from Jahrin, leaving him illiterate again, but that would be cruel, even for him.

This might be actually prove to be useful, later.

He could hear Jahrin’s laughter echo in the hall, and the crash of more books falling off the shelves.

Quite useful, indeed.

Miriam’s Camp (a Darlene story)

Author’s Note: This story features Darlene, the young widow of “Of War and Breakfast”, as an old woman who has lived out her life, dispensing wisdom accumulated from her own experiences and dealings with many people. Her origins start in another story titled, ‘A Journey Home.’ The idea to put several tales from her lecture to her nephew, who comes to visit one summer after many years, of those experiences she shares with him, came when someone suggested I take the experiences from her soliloquy and make them into separate stories. Miriam’s Camp is the third in the series. I hope you enjoy reading it. It is a tale of faith, so if you are not a believer, and wish to comment, please be respectful; I approve all comments prior to them being posted here.
Thank you, and thanks again for taking the time to read my story.  

Alfred

She was never really able to answer why she got off the bus when she did, in front of the old house that lay on the bus route, a road of dust that seemed little traveled except for the people on it going somewhere else.

Every part of her ached from the old bus’s constant jarring, its suspension in dire need of repairs that would likely never happen; the only one it didn’t seem to bother was the driver, who was humming some tuneless song, if there was such a thing, over and over.
If there isn’t, he just invented it Miriam thought.
But she knew her focus was on the wrong stuff; his lack of tonality was not the issue, but a distraction from the truth of why she was coming back.
Get out of here, Miriam, they told her. See the world.
You’re young; you’ve got your whole life ahead of you to do whatever you want.
You’re a beautiful girl, Miriam. Good looks will take you places.
You could be a model.
You could be in movies.
It sounded glamorous, exciting and exotic.
It was actually wrong, crude, cold, and ultimately bloody; the ways of men and beasts, she discovered, were not dissimilar.
And now she was coming home.
******************

She needed time to think.
“I’ll get off here.”
The driver stopped humming.
“You’re a long way from where you belong, miss. That ticket’s only good for one ride.”
“There’s one I haven’t heard,” she muttered.
“Say, miss?”
“I’ll get out here.”
“You sure?”
“ Yes, I’m sure. Thank you.”
“Suit yourself.”
*******************
She stood there in a cloud of wheat colored dust that spun in little dervishes around her like a pulsing aura as the bus pulled off.
Stepping back out of it, she stood there as it settled on and around her, not quite sure what to do next.
“Best get out that sun girl, ‘fore you burn.”
The voice came from across the road; Miriam shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand and peered over.
An old woman sat in a rocking chair on her porch, a cup of coffee in her hand, and a thick book on her knees.
Miriam had never known anyone lived there. Of course not, idiot, this isn’t your side of town.
There were two rocking chairs on the porch. The other one was empty.
The old woman spoke again. “Girl, can you hear me?”
The woman was black; Miriam had never heard a black woman speak to her that way before. It was always, “Yes, Miss Whitcomb,” or “No, Miss Whitcomb,” or “As you please, Miss Whitcomb.”
“Child, come out that sun ‘fore you burn.”
Still somewhat dazed, Miriam found herself crossing the road.
The old woman didn’t stand up. Her brother would’ve called it an anomaly: it was his favorite word. Her father would’ve called it an affront, and dealt with it, but as Miriam got a closer look, probably not with this woman. There was a force to her, and undercurrent of vitality that didn’t seem to encourage or align with the nonsense of modern customs.
“Have a seat, girl. You look done in.”
Miriam looked at the seat, at the woman, at the book in the woman’s lap, and back at the woman’s face. It was old and lined, dark as oak.
“I’ve been sitting for a long time,” Miriam said. “I’ll just lean against this railing, that is, if it’s sound.”
The old woman looked at her then; she had kind and patient eyes that looked not at you, but through.

“My father David, God rest his soul, built this porch with his own two hands. Wasn’t nuthin’ out here before but that dusty road. If it ain’t sound, ain’t ‘cuz he didn’t build it right. Time, termites, and carpenter bees mighta done their share, but you’re welcome to stand, if you choose.”
The railing held.
The old woman went back to her reading, her chair creaking, her finger on the page, tracking the text within.
Miriam watched a hawk circle over a distant field, but the silence pressed.
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m here?”
The old woman didn’t look up, kept tracking the words with her finger.
“You here ‘cause I told you to get out of that heat.”
“No, I didn’t mean that, I mean, here.”
“Figured if you wanted me to know, you’d tell me.”
“But you haven’t even asked me my name.”
“Figured if you wanted me to know…”
The girl smiled at that. “It’s Miriam.”
Darlene looked up.
“Well, Miriam, welcome to my home. I’m Darlene. Miss Darlene to you.”
Miriam tossed her hair from her eyes, and said, “And why is that?”
“It’s called, ‘respecting your elders.’ Ain’t you ever heard of it?”
“I guess so.”
“Mm-hmm,” Darlene said. “You can go in the bathroom and freshen up. There’s some clean washcloths in there, and some soap, and lotion, if you’re of a mind. Pour yourself a glass of water too.” She went back to her book.
Miriam did, and came back out in a few minutes, a dampened washcloth in her hand, wrapped around a glass of water.
“Feel better?”
“Yes, thank you, Miss Darlene.”
“You’re welcome.”
Miriam drank her water awhile, her eyes far away.
Darlene finished reading her chapter, and set the book aside.
The words fell in the silence like a stone tossed in the middle of a still lake:
“Comin’ home, ain’t you?”
Miriam went to take a sip of water, and couldn’t raise the glass.
“Yes,” she said, clearing her throat.
She tried to raise the glass again, and couldn’t; her breath hitched, and she tried again.
“You went to the city.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes…” To her dismay, Miriam felt her face redden, and the tears came so fast and hard they stung. Her reflexes moved her hands to cover her eyes, and the glass fell from her hand as she began to break down.
The glass broke into shiny shards on the sunlit porch, the water spreading, filling the cracks and crevices as Miriam went on her knees.
“I’m sorry!” she cried, “Oh, oh, I’m so sorry!” Darlene knew she didn’t mean the glass.

Miriam bent over, her face in her hands, tears leaking through her fingers, her yellow hair limp and damp from the heat, hiding her face, draped over her shoulders; she could feel tiny splinters poking through her summer dress, and welcomed the pain.
Darlene rose from her chair, and made her slow way over to the young girl.
She raised Miriam off her knees, and held her.
“I know, child. I know.”
She swayed with Miriam in her arms as the girl cried.
“I didn’t mean it,” she said, her voice husky with sorrow.
“I know.”

“I didn’t know!
“How could you know, being so young?”
“Oh, it hurts, Miss Darlene, it hurts so much!” Her body was trembling.
“Yes, baby, it’s gon hurt a lot, and maybe for a long time, but you gon be all right after awhile, Miriam. Time heals. God heals.”
Darlene held her until her sobs became sniffles. Miriam stepped out of the embrace, embarrassed somehow, before this woman, at what she was about to say.
She looked at the water drying on the porch floor.
“I don’t believe in God,” she said.
Darlene kept her hands on the girl’s shoulders, and gave a small smile.
“You don’t, huh? Then I guess you ain’t never heard of your namesake?”
“My…namesake?” She looked up.
“Miriam, the sister of Moses. You ain’t never heard?”
“No. We…we don’t go to church. My father…” she didn’t finish, and averted her eyes again.
“Well, sit down. I’ll be back.”
Miriam sat, wiping her eyes with the washcloth, which was also drying from the heat, but still wet enough for the task. She pulled her hair back off her neck, and tried to compose herself. Something was going on here, something strange and uncomfortable, but not frightening.
In the distance, three more hawks had joined the first. Miriam watched their silent, deadly circles.
And I was the mouse in the meadow.
She thought back to that moment she stepped off the bus, looking around in unadulterated wonder at the crowds, the buildings, the noise assaulting her ears, her senses flooded, and a smooth voice in her ear like a lifeline to someone drowning.
May I help you with your luggage, miss?
She looked away from the hawks.
Darlene came back, handed Miriam a new glass of water along with a fresh wet cloth, cold to the touch, and Miriam wiped her face and neck with it.
“Hang it on the railing with the other one. It’ll dry quick.”
“Okay.”
Darlene waited until Miriam had resettled herself.
“You ready to hear about Miriam?”
“My ‘namesake,’” she tried the word again, and gave a little smile. “I like that word.”
“Yes, she was. Bet your parents didn’t even know.”
“That would be a safe bet, Miss Darlene. I’m ready.”

*******************
Darlene told her of Miriam: how she had watched over Moses as he floated down the Nile and made sure he was safe, and how she led the women out of Egypt in a victory dance, singing songs of praise to God, and how she rebelled against Moses, and God struck her with a skin disease, and they had to put her outside the camp for seven days.
“And you know there ain’t no worse hell for a pretty woman than a skin disease,” Darlene said, laughing.
To her own surprise, Miriam started laughing too.
When the laughter subsided, Darlene continued.
“But you see, Miriam got jealous because God talked to Moses in a way he didn’t speak to her. She got jealous of what Moses had, and forgot that the only reason Moses had that close relationship was because he had a job God wanted him to do.
“See, Miriam had to wait in the same bondage with the rest of her people until her brother came back, and she was older than him. It wasn’t her job to lead the people out, but she did lead the women, ‘cause Moses couldn’t understand how that bondage was for them. Womenfolk’s pain is always different from men; it goes through us in places they don’t have, and I don’t mean what you might think. It goes deeper, and stays longer, and hurts more; you know that now, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Ain’t no shame in knowin, child, and you found out young. Some women don’t find out til it’s way too late, and they lives is gone. Now this Miriam, she ain’t had no call to rise up against her brother, but y’see, people forget.
“She didn’t know Moses had to keep climbin’ mountains to speak to God, to keep on his knees to stop God from wipin’ the people out, cuz they was always complainin’. He had to work, to judge the people, to deal with their jealousy and pettiness.
“She was there, and she saw it all, but she didn’t know. All she saw was that God was talkin her brother in ways he didn’t talk to her, and it didn’t matter they was free, and on they way to a wonderful place.
“See, folks gets to lookin at what other folks have, and don’t know what they had to go through to get it, but they want it all the same.”
As Darlene spoke, a tear had pooled in the corner of Miriam’s lips, and she licked it off, tasting its bitterness. There had been harsh words and hard feelings at her departure. It all came down to one thing, the last thing she said before leaving: “I deserve better!”
Darlene let her words sink in as she looked at Miriam, who’d begun rocking the chair.
“You made the right choice to come back. Now, truth be told, girl, I don’t know why you got off that bus here, like you asked me earlier, but God knows. Now, you need to get on home, and let your heart and body heal from that beatin’ they done took.” “

“My family doesn’t know I’m here, Miss Darlene. I was afraid to tell them…”
“Honey, they know, and don’t you think they don’t. They didn’t know how long it would be. Soon’s they see you, they’ll know why you came back.”
“They may not be all that happy about it.”
“Well, my dealings with that side of town have not been good, but there’s only one way to find out, and it ain’t by staying here on this porch, now is it?”
“No,” Miriam said, looking at the broken glass.
“Well, I ‘spect they’ll be happier to see you than you think. Come here, girl.”
Miriam went to her, and knelt in front of her, and Darlene took Miriam’s face in her hands, lifting up her sea blue eyes to stare into the depths of her own rich brown ones; Miriam could see they were patient, kind, and full of life, lore, deep sadness and high joy, as her smooth pale cheeks were cupped in dark, calloused hands, like a warrior angel with a new-made chalice.
“You outside the camp now, Miriam, and you’re feeling diseased and wrong, but the only way you gon’ heal is by going back inside, among your own, and let them take care of you. Ain’t got no choice in the matter, no say-so. You spoke out against, and you went through your suffering days, and it’s time to get back. Whatever you do, from here on out, is gonna matter more not just to you, but to other folk, to your family, your husband, when you get one, your kids, when you have some. Your life is gonna be different now.
“You understand that?”
Miriam sighed, and shook her head, and rested it in Darlene’s lap awhile, as the old woman chuckled at the girl’s honesty, and stroked her hair, humming something low and sweet, and Miriam smiled. This was music.
After awhile, Darlene smiled and lifted her up as she got to her feet.
A cloud of dust was visible in the distance as the tires from the approaching bus rumbled over the road. The high sun lit it, fine and floating, a wind blown corona swirling in slow motion through the hot, still air.
“You wait here,” Darlene said, and went inside. She came back out with an old, yellow skinned tambourine, its shakers pitted with rust, its wood worn smooth and bright where hands gripped and slapped. There was a rotted piece of duct tape that was supposed to be a handle, and a smaller piece over a hole where her mother’s fingernail had pierced it.
She held it out to Miriam.
“This belonged to my mother,” said Darlene. “You take it.”
“Oh, Miss Darlene, I couldn’t!”
“Didn’t ask if you could, said I wanted you to take it. I want you to remind yourself of which Miriam you’re supposed to be. See, it’s just like you: it’s been beaten and shaken down to its core, but it’s still here. It got scars and hand marks, scrapes and patches, but it’s still here.”
She held the tambourine out again.
“So are you. You been through it, and now you need to lead others out.
“See, you think you comin’ home in defeat and shame, but you came out of that cesspool in victory, and now you know what to say to those young girls come after you gettin’ on that bus.”
Miriam opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. She closed it, her face flushing.
She tried again, but all that came out was, “I don’t know how to play it.”
Darlene laughed.
“Child, neither did Mama! Didn’t stop her none. The deacons had to take this from her she threw the choir off so bad; she’d start out all right, but after ‘while seemed like she just played to the rhythm in her heart, and it wasn’t what was going on up there at all. Happened every Sunday too, sure as sunrise, til she got too old to hold it anymore.
“Then, they just laid it there beside her, and she’d rest her hand on it.”
She wrapped Miriam’s fingers around the worn taped handle.
“Just before she passed on, she told me to keep it, ‘cuz she was gon get a new one when she got home. She don’ need it no more. I don’ either.”
Miriam smiled, and took the gift.
“Thank you.”
The bus pulled to a stop, the nimbus of dust bursting around it like a beggar’s halo.
“You’ll learn to play it in time, and when you’re ready to lead out, you’ll understand. Your time of bondage is over.”
Miriam looked at the worn and battered tambourine, then back at Darlene.
“Over,” she repeated, half in wonder, half in affirmation.
“God bless you, Miriam.”
She kissed Darlene’s wrinkled cheek. “He already has.”
As she crossed the dusty road, she tapped the ancient tambourine lightly against her knee, its rusty jingle breaking the afternoon stillness.
When the bus was gone, Darlene looked at the washcloths hanging like ephods on the old railing, and down at the broken glass, glinting in the sunlight, like the precious stones waiting to be placed on them.
It was a shrine to their time together, and Darlene smiled.
“You gon’ be just fine.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

( May 16, 2014)

In the Simple Things

It’s in the simple things:

intimate, small gestures that say you care

a palpable connection felt when eyes meet

knowing the thoughts, finishing the sentences

a connection of hands, the intertwine of fingers

the ebb and flow of bodies

giving and receiving

a binding of hearts and souls

a freeing of spirits

and we understand

the ancient lore of oneness

singing in rounds of alternate harmonies

walking together

down the pleasant path

to

Home.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

A Thread of Human-ness

We all have

Uniqueness

in

Common

And

Conform

in

our striving to

be

Individual

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

November 28th, 2014

A Thread of Human-ness

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