dimarts, d’agost 05, 2008

Coaxing out the Sun

"Only my childhood was real. The rest is just a dream." -Kate Roberts

There was magic in my valley. I remember it well from when I was a boy: the deep musk of the woods that filtered from tall pines, the tall fern fronds arching over narrow, shaded paths and small streams, bitter wild blueberries and small ponds choked with lilies. The valley where I was raised was wild and barely tamed. Old men came to the valley long ago and settled small villages; they cleared the land and raised animals and grew food, but in the fullness of time, their age passed, and the trees came back to the land. What once was farmland was now feral forest. Long black racers and copperheads staked claim in the rocks and meadows, and the deer and bears were occasionally accompanied by some lascivious mountain lion or lynx. Like all magic places, the good was twinned with the bad in a fitting double helix of life and death, love and fear. The humans, of course, ruled the land. My great grandfather Fish went out on the wolf clearings, and yearly hunting of anything that roamed the woodlands only began to die out with my generation.

Our lives were in and on the land: we raised crops, and the old men hunted. We all fished, and we all raised fowl. In season we would go down to the brooks and streams and gather elderberries and blackberries. My father would make wine from local grapes and herbs. The air in our valley was always heady except in the coldest part of winter when large swaths of it would ice over as clandestine springs would gurgle forth some small amount of water that would freeze. In the gentrified places, willow trees absorbed this dross, but if the willow should die sometime, then in January meadows and back fields could become large ice skating rinks. When the warm weather came back, the valley would awaken with blossoms from the many trees and bushes people planted around their homes. At our house we had apple, cherry, plum, crabapple, and peach trees that bore fruit, and a chestnut tree that dropped its myriad land mines at the end of summer. Like the spring air was thick with the smell of flowering plants, the summer was thick with must and piny musk and drying mud. The fall was a natural pot pourri of millions of dying plants and smoke rising from wood fires as the cold weather approached.

In such a place, magic is real. It lives in the trees and streams as surely as grubs and eels. It saturates the valley floor like the hundred and ten springs, brooks and races that feed into the big creek at the heart of the valley. If you sing into the wind that runs down the valley from the Mountain, you can call up the sun, and in our valley we always wanted sun: sun in the summer for the crops and sun in the cold months to chase away winter's drafts. When the trees grew back after the likes of Joseph Barton and Ulysses Fish had succumbed to the Great Question Mark, they took their revenge, growing tall and thick and blocking out the sun much of the year. In our valley, except in deep winter and the gooey slide from winter into spring, we lived under a thick canopy of mixed forest. Even in the winter, such light as there was was often absorbed by the conifers who became more common as we felled the other trees for our fires.

When I was a boy, I was certain I could call the sun out from behind the clouds. I spent long hours outside, often in the woods, away from the noise and tumult of the house. When the clouds would overtake the sun, I would sing a song in Welsh, the language of my ancestors: Dewch allan i ni haul, dewch, dewch, dewch. "Come out to us, sun, come, come, come," it made no sense to sing to the sun in English. The trees were old, but the valley and stream were older, and the sun oldest still. If people long ago could sing the sun from the clouds, it would have been in a language like Welsh. English was too young, too juvenile and worse still for the old families in the valley a sign of a woeful change. While we all spoke English, we spoke our own kind. English, proper English, belonged to the invading outsiders who had begun to consume all the land, our valley inclusive, with subdivisions and strip malls. Like my great grandfather had done to the wolves, the outsiders were doing to our little world, clearing us out one acre at a time.

For years I would sing the sun back, and most of the time it worked. Once in a while I guess it had to rain or snow, although we could never suffer a real drought even if it never rained again: the valley was thick it springs. I knew of five on our land alone. When I was younger, I always assumed my ability to sing the sun back was a family trait a quantum or genetic inheritance that came from our Celtic past, but I had no proof of this. If either of my parents were possessed of magic, they never let on. The valley was as rife with stories of witches and demonic possession as it was with springs; indeed our land was even home to the mysterious "pillars" of Bartonsville, which were not pillars at all, but an acre-large arrangement of small standing stones which were most likely some kind of Native prayer wheel built before General Sullivan marched across the valley in the Colonial Era. Perhaps my magic came from the land itself, my body filled with deep minerals from the water and infected by myriad spores of countless fungi that thrived in all sectors of the valley. To be honest, I am not given to know.

Nonetheless it was a magic power I possessed. I assumed that if my Mother possessed any magic powers she would use them quite openly and malevolently. She always believed she was really an Irish gypsy despite the fact that in reality none of our family was actually Irish. However had she been a gypsy, to be sure she would have been their witch and would certainly have used her magic for dubious purposes. More than that, she could never keep a secret. Even if she had suspected she had magic powers, she would have been bragging about them all over the county.

My father, on the other hand, was a sullen, brooding man of few words. He liked to keep to himself most often sequestering himself in the garage, which as long as I could remember never housed a car, but instead an assortment of junk in one half and our wood supply in the other. Detached, it lay at the bottom of the hill several hundred feet from the house and had no water, heat or electricity. Like some modern day hermit, he would spend his free time there with his beer and blessed freedom from my mother who, if she thought for one minute that he had any magic powers, would harangue him until he begged for sweet mercy. To be sure, he was safer there than in the house. Since he never had much to say, he never fessed up about any magic powers, but one cool November day around three in the afternoon or so, as I came from around the back of the house on some errand (perhaps on some excuse to escape from my mother for fifteen minutes) I observed my old man standing in the driveway with his back toward me looking up at a patch of beleaguered sunlight trying to break through the clouds. He was unaware of my presence up on the hill, and I was able to observe him raising his arms toward the sunlight, and I could swear I heard his old, low voice singing the same melody that I had sung to bring out the sun. Just as he finished, the clouds parted, and we were treated to a late November afternoon of sunshine.

Since my father never had much to say, I didn't see any reason to bring it up. If I had, most likely he would have grunted and said, "Get me another beer, will 'ya, Sonny?" But to this day I can still see his old tired shoulders in that worn out denim jacket, his long, thin gray hair on his gnarled old head looking up at that tired autumn sun and him coaxing it out to shine down on our valley.