Thursday, April 4, 2013

Some Truth for Today

This is an excerpt from one of my favorite books.  It is the last book in a series of three stories that started with a retelling of Swan Lake.  All three are illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg.  I love them.  They resonate in a way that I still cannot define.  So I thought I'd share this piece:

"Though once I was a singer of tales, they were not very good, for I always put too much of my heart in them, and never enough (I was told) of calculation.  Where others would captivate and entertain, I would only sing a simple song that bent its head as if in prayer before time and truth and love.  It was all I  could do, and all I wanted to do, and I don't know why.  I followed nature's wild rivers and God's glittering lights, and they led me into a land where I was alone.
. . . Long ago, in the time of the old emperor, I was young and just beginning in my profession.  The usurper was there, and one could not escape his evil presence . . . there was a struggle between what was, in the main, good, and what was, in the main, evil, and that time after time the good prevailed made the children born in my time believe that this was the natural order of things, that even if it took a great deal of effort, effort would always find its reward and the just would triumph, as would the innocent.  
I still believe, which is why I am on a hillside waiting.  And I certainly believed then, even as the usurper began to gain the upper hand. Surely, I thought, the crimes that bring him power will soon bring him down . . . I did not change my songs, as did the other singers who listened carefully to everything that was new, and soon I found that I was nowhere, they were everywhere, and the usurper had taken the throne.
Can you imagine my surprise the day that he sent for me? Why would he bother with a singer of the old songs?  Why would he bother with me?  But he did bother.  He cared inordinately . . . I was so afraid that my heels shook as if in an earthquake.  As soon as he began to speak, however, I realized that I need not have feared.  Either he would kill me, and I would have eternal peace, or I would beat him with courage alone.
. . . I was expecting to die right then and there, but he said, "I order you to unravel your singing."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Unravel it!"
"Meaning, sir?"
"Your songs," he said impatiently.  "Undo them."
"I can't. The're already sung."
"Then sing them again, differently.  Sing them so that they are about me.  Sing them so that when people hear them they will weep for my sacrifices and admire my powers."
At this I laughed, which must have astonished him, knowing as he did what he had in mind for me.  "I would not laugh if I were you," he warned.
"Why not laugh?" I asked.  "I know how you will torture me, but I know that I will not sing the songs as you would have me sing them.  You might as well try to burn water, because I'm water, and water doesn't burn."
I spent then the next years of my life - the longest years I remember - in the deepest torture chambers underneath the loftiest prisons.  By some chance or interference I refused to die, day after day, until finally the armies of the young queen captured the city and freed us all.  No longer a singer, and fit only to be a soldier, I joined the victorious armies just as most everyone else was leaving them.  Of low rank, broken memories, and no prospects, I knew nonetheless that a new struggle was inevitable.
 . . . "Why didn't you simply alter your songs?" he asked, gazing at my scars, of which there are so many that even to this day I can be only a man alone.
"I couldn't."
"They had already been sung.  They existed."
"But why not change them as requested?"
This question puzzled me.  "Never was there the possibility that I would do that."
"Why?" Notorincus pressed.
"I suppose it's because they're like people," I said.  "They may be like dumb or ugly people, or people who are deformed, but I couldn't just take their names, annihilate them, and issue new ones, could I?"
"I suppose not, if you think they're like people but are they really?"
"Yes," I answered, nodding.  "They have in them something, sometimes a great deal, of the people I love, some of whom are lost forever.  Therefore, I could not have split them like wood, or carved them like stone.  It would have been a betrayal, and it would have corrupted the world."
"The whole world?"
"Just my part of it," I said, "but this is, after all, the part for which I am responsible."
"You would have died rather than abandon the old songs?"
"But life is so precious."
"It is paramount."
"No? Then what is?"
"Love," I said, "and honor."
"Excellent!" said Notorincus. "Excellent! . . . And you?  Can you still sing tales?  The queen loves the singing of tales."
"No," I answered.  "I cannot.  I have in me only one more tale, and I must wait to see it before I can sing it.""
The Veil of Snows, Mark Helprin

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