The Singing Tree

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*this is one of my favorite Yaqui folktales…in honor of my ancestors

A big dry tree with all its limbs almost crumbling to the ground appeared in the wilderness every day from sunrise to sunset. This tree was vibrating like the chords of a harp, the sound of which was audible a great distance around. Every day people gathered to hear it.

Wise men from all parts of the country came but no one knew the significance of the sound of this tree. When everyone in the country failed to find an answer about this living tree, an old man stepped out of the crowd and stood before the wise men and spoke: “There is only a slight hope for us to reveal this great mystery which has bound us in confusion for a long time. When I was young, traveling with my father, we found an old woman in the forest. This old woman will interpret the meaning of the sound of this tree, for she is very intelligent, and wisdom crowns her with un¬measured understanding. This woman, if living, is our only hope.” Thus he spoke and the wise men after conferring gave the old man an answer. “To lead us out of the obscurity of doubt, it is our will to unmask this mystery, so if you think this woman is wise enough, go forth and bring her. We will make arrangements so that you may depart by sunrise.” The next morning the old man and a score of young men moved toward sunrise into the wilderness.

After many days of hardship in the forest they observed from a distance the abiding place of the old woman. It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at her hermitage. The old woman did not show surprise. It was as if she had been expecting these visitors. The messenger upon his arrival saluted, standing far away, fearful that she might turn loose her pet tiger to devour them. She offered them welcome under the shady Ramada to rest. This woman had dwelt in the wilderness since the death of her husband, with her only daughter, a young maiden whom she called Seahamut.

When the messenger had settled down, he told the object of his mission. Having explained about the tree, he said: “All the inhabitants of the country are in a profound confusion over this tree. You are the only one not questioned. We ask you to come and interpret the tree yourself, for you are in the grace of cultured wisdom.” Though the woman knew these things very well, she pretended ignorance and declared solemnly: “I am advanced in days and the journey through the forest is perilous.” This she was saying when at the rear of the but footsteps sounded. Her daughter arrived with a young stag she had slain. Her mother called her tenderly, and a sturdy young woman appeared before the men. She sat down timidly beside her mother as if she sought her protection.

Raised in this remote wilderness the girl could get along better with the beasts than she could with a human being. She loved and respected her mother who had brought her up in all good things. The mother explained how she had prepared Seahamut in all manners intellectually, and how many years ago she had been told that these things would come to pass. Then she spoke to her daughter: “For this occasion I have prepared you. These are the men you knew were coming since their departure from the living tree.” Then the mother told the messenger: “As I must fail to comply myself with your request, I will send forth my daughter. She will interpret the meaning of this message the Almighty sends to the people of the earth.” And the old man rejoiced upon hearing this answer for the star of hope shone vividly in his mind.

He mentioned that this would be pleasant news to the people waiting anxiously for an answer, and he asked the girl if she would consent to go. To this she replied timidly: “My mother desires it. In obedience to her I shall go.” After she had accepted the petition she prepared the game brought from the forest. By sunset they were eating, and Seahamut became more familiar with the men with whom she was to travel. Evening occupied her mother in instructing her, and the next day at dusk the girl was ready to go. Her mother placed a pretty white tunic in her bag which she would wear upon being presented to the people.

The old messenger told the young men of their great responsibility in taking the girl away from her home. Farewell was said and they departed into the wilderness. They had not gone far when the tame tiger roared a very sad grunt. Seahamut almost turned sharply back, but she realized that her mother was safe with the tiger to guard her. She herself knew every art of self-defense in the forest even better than the men who were traveling with her. During the long weary journey she defended herself and the men in a very skillful manner no man would risk to do. She led them wind away from the beasts so they did not scent them even at a near distance. She knew when a beast was near and how to avoid it.

The girl was enjoying the journey. She was not even tired when the men began to light up their countenances, seeing their destination at hand. Presently two men were sent on to announce their approach. When the message was received in the village everyone went to the place where they expected to meet an old woman, tired after the long journey. Instead, they were surprised to find a rough, sturdy, wild-looking young woman who did not show the slightest sign of weariness. She was dressed in the neat white tunic her mother had made for her. The most enthusiastic people from the crowd came close to her with the object of kissing her. But this she thought was a challenge and recoiled back in position to charge upon them.

The old messenger had a hard time correcting the enraged girl. When she was again quiet in her mood, the people were afraid to come near her. In presenting her to the wise men the messenger said: “The old woman failed to come herself, but her daughter she has sent to take her place. In presenting Seahamut to you, I do not fail to fulfill what I promised in taking up the journey into the wilderness, for she will interpret the sound of the strange old tree.” The wise men were happy, for this would unmask a great secret and their wisdom would improve. So they received Seahamut with honor and did not delay in asking the great question about the living tree.

When the girl prepared to speak, silence reigned all through the multitude of people. Everyone was staring at her.

She listened to the sound of the tree. Then her voice rang clearly in full tone. “This message the Creator of all things sends to the people, a testament that he will establish with the earth: that it must produce all sorts of subsistence for every creature upon it; trees in the forest shall bear edible fruit in abundance; the vegetation of the earth will sustain the beast and the fowl and even the tiniest insect that has life in itself; another thing called seed will also come upon the earth; every bush, shrub or tree which does not bear fruit shall be cut down and the ground cleared for the good seed, then tilled with an instrument called the plow. Thus the ground will be prepared.

“After the ground is prepared and seed is placed beneath the soil it shall come to pass that, from the seas, water will be lifted in clouds and carried by the winds to the plains in the form of rain. The seed under the soil will burst forth into life and if cultivated properly it shall bear fruit in such quantity doubled, that one seed will produce one hundred, and this shall be for the maintenance of the people.

“But there is another thing to come in ex¬change for the benefit the earth will provide. It is called death. Together with the sustenance, all creatures upon the earth will receive also death, for death will not spare even the tiniest insect that has life in itself. And it shall come to pass after death that all substance will be swallowed by the earth in payment for the nourishment given during life.”

These things did Seahamut tell the people, while the strange old tree vibrated like the chords of a harp when touched by a passing wind. Then it came to silence and remained so forever. The wise men tried to conceal this wisdom from the people, but there was a great change among them. All those who accepted the word remained in their homes and those who did not receive it gathered and danced the farewell dance and disappeared into the morning air, going underground to establish their own kingdom.

By Refugio Savanna

* artist Ian Marke, http://2headedsnake.tumblr.com/post/7168785889

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