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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Skeleton Woman

ImageShe had done something of which her father disapproved, although no one any longer remembered what it was. But her father had dragged her to the cliffs and thrown her over and into the sea. There, the fish ate her flesh away and plucked out her eyes. As she lay under the sea, her skeleton turned over and over in the currents.

One day a fisherman came fishing, well, in truth many came to this bay once. But this fisherman had drifted far from his home place, and did not know that the local fisherman stayed away, saying this inlet was haunted.

The fisherman’s hook drifted down through the water, and caught, of all places, in the bones of Skeleton Woman’s rib cage. The fisherman thought, “Oh, now I’ve really got a big one! Now I really have one!” In his mind he was thinking of how many people this great fish would feed, how long it would last, how long he might be free from the chore of hunting. And as he struggled with this great weight on the end of his hook, the sea was stirred to a thrashing froth, and his kayak bucked and shook, for she who was beneath struggled to disentangle herself. And the more she struggled, the more she tangled in the line. No matter what she did, she was inexorably dragged upward, tugged up by the bones of her own ribs.

The hunter had turned to scoop up his net, so he did not see her bald head rise above the waves, he did not see the little coral creatures glinting in the orbs of her skull, he did not see the crustaceans on her old ivory teeth. When he turned back with his net, her entire body, such as it was, had come to the surface and was hanging from the tip of his kayak by her long front teeth.

“Agh!” cried the man, and his heart fell into his knees, his eyes hid in terror on the back of his head, and his ears blazed bright red. “Agh!” he screamed, and knocked her off the prow with his oar and began paddling like a demon toward the shoreline. And not realizing she was tangled in his line, he was frightened all the more for she appeared to stand upon her toes while chasing him all the way to shore. No matter which way he zigged his kayak, she stayed right behind, and her breath rolled over the water in clouds of steam, and her arms flailed out as though to snatch him down into the depths.

“Aggggggggghhh!” he wailed as he ran aground. In one leap he was out of his kayak, clutching his fishing stick and running, and the coral-white corpse of Skeleton Woman, still snagged in the fishing line, bumpety-bumped behind right after him. Over the rocks he ran, and she followed. Over the frozen tundra he ran and she kept right up. Over the meat laid out to dry he ran, cracking it to pieces as his mukluks bore down.

Throughout it all she kept right up, in fact grabbed some of the frozen fish as she was dragged behind. The she began to eat, for she had not gorged in a long, long time. Finally, the man reached his snowhouse and dove right into the tunnel and on hands and knees scrabbled his way into the interior. Panting and sobbing he lay there in the dark, his heart a drum, a mighty drum. Safe at last, oh so safe, yes safe, thank the Gods, Raven, yes thank Raven, yes and all-bountiful Sedna, safe…at…last.

Imagine when he lit his whale oil lamp, there she —it—lay in a tumble upon his snow floor, one heel over her shoulder, one knee inside her rib cage, one foot over her elbow. He could not say later what it was, perhaps the firelight softened her features, or the fact that he was a lonely man. But a feeling of some kindness came into his breathing , and slowly he reached out his grimy hands and, using words softly like a mother to a child, began to untangle her from the fishing line.

“Oh, na, na, na.” First he untangled the toes, then the ankles, “Oh, na, na, na.” On and on he worked into the night, until dressing her in furs to keep her warm, Skeleton Woman’s bones were all in the order a human’s should be.

He felt into his leather cuffs for his flint, and used some of his hair to light a little more fire. He gazed at her from time to time as he oiled the precious wood of his fishing stick and rewound the gut line. And she in the furs uttered not a word—she did not dare—lest this hunter take her out and throw her down the rocks and break her bones to pieces utterly.

The man became drowsy, slid under his sleeping skins, and soon was dreaming. And sometimes as humans sleep, you know, a tear escapes from the dreamer’s eye; we never know what sort of dream causes this, but we know it is either a dream of sadness or longing. And this is what happened to the man.

The Skeleton Woman saw the tear glisten in the firelight, ans she became suddenly sooooo thirsty. She tinkled and clanked and crawled over to the sleeping man and put her mouth to his tear. The single tear was like a river and she drank and drank until her many-years-long thirst was slaked.

Then, while lying beside him, she reached inside the sleeping man and took out his heart, the mighty drum. She sat up and banged on both sides of it: Bom, Bomm!….Bom, Bomm!

As she drummed, she began to sing out “Flesh, flesh, flesh! Flesh, flesh, flesh!” And the more she sang, the more her body filled out with flesh. She sang for hair and good eyes and nice fat hands. She sang the divide between her legs, and breasts long enough to wrap for warmth, and all the things a woman needs.

And when she was done, she also sang the sleeping man’s clothes off and crept into his bed with him, skin to skin. She returned the great drum, his heart, to his body, and that is how they awakened, wrapped one around the other, tangled from their night together, in another way now, a good and lasting way.

The people who cannot remember how she came to her first ill-fortune say she and the fisherman went away and were consistently well fed by the creatures she had known in her life underwater. The people say that it is true and that is all they know.

~Clarissa Pinkola Estes~

*photo found on Pinterest via Luis Daniel Garza Fragoso