written by Luray Gross
I Tell an Old, Old Story
I cannot say, I cannot say that anything I tell you will be true, but
I cannot say, I cannot say that anything I tell you will be false.
Once a woman scoured and scrubbed her two cooking pots and carried them along the stream until she found a sycamore tree in fruit. The fruits, the wise man had told her, she must carry home. She had asked for children over a husband. Old as she was, and bitter, what good would a husband be? She did as the healer said.
And the medicine worked. Children's laughter filled her yard. Small heads lay in her lap while she sang a crazy lazy tune. Their hands swept the dirt yard and made shadow animals on the walls.
Why discount joy at any age?
The inmates in their matching t-shirts and pocketless pants listen. The guard in his navy uniform appears to fall asleep. I tell the story to soothe and to provoke. Jonathan calms. William fidgets. Jameer returns my gaze. Jose misses the story entirely. He's off to court. That's all I know of his story.
But the old story does not end with happiness.
Perhaps the woman woke with a bad dream; perhaps she felt its tiny knives at the base of her skull. Why is not remembered. Only this: when the child knocked the pitcher onto the floor, when the milk spilled, when the blue clay shattered, the woman turned on the child, and the child silenced, but his eyes spoke, and the old woman could not bear his tears.
"I am sorry," did not cross her lips. The children returned to the trees.
Kevin sits at his desk, head in his arms. When he lifts his face and looks at me, I covet his thoughts. What does it mean to him that the old woman does not get a second chance?
"She should have known," he says.
"Known she wouldn't be able to take having children, all their running around. All that trouble. She should have asked for a husband.
Yes, and would he have beat her? Would he have raved? Would he have insisted she be the strong one, the one with the even temper, the kindly tone? Would he have listened to her stories, been soothed by her songs?
What good would a husband be, I wonder, but do not ask Kevin to speculate. Kevin, whom I don't yet know. About whom I know more than I should. Seventeen and three murders to his name.
The old woman tries again, scrubbing the pots until they shine like the sun, carrying them back to the place where the sycamore rises, still abundant with fruit. Although she is old, although she has felt the press of shame, she pulls herself up into the branches. But each fruit bears eyes that convict, the eyes of a staring child, eyes that do not hide their pain.
For her, there will be no repair. No happily ever after.
For Kevin the story is not yet fully made, or for Dani, already a father, or Joel, who is spurned for his African mother, or for freckled surly Callie, this week the only girl in the class.
The pitcher lies in pieces on the stone-hard dirt. The kraal is silent, and so it will remain.
Every storyteller I know tells certain stories as much for themselves as for those who listen. These are the stories that have taken up residence in our hearts and minds and refuse to leave. Some raise questions we have never been able to answer; some mirror a journey we have taken or know we must someday take. Each, I suspect, still has much to teach the storyteller herself.
We tell others of course, some learned for a particular occasion or audience, perhaps learned only knee-deep, some just for fun. They are useful stories. But the stories I’ve speaking of are ones we’ve entered as one might enter a cavern, once with a candle, another time with a wide beam mag light. Each time we tell the story, we are listening, alert to something more the story might teach us, alert to the body language of the listeners and open to their thoughts and questions, even it the interrupt the telling itself.
For me, one such story is “The Children of the Sycamore,” the Maasai tale I reference in the above poem. I first encountered it in Julius Lester’s delightful anthology of African and Jewish stories, How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? Lester stays quite close to his own source, African Folktales, edited by Paul Radin. It is a story that does not end happily. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I found myself going back to it again and again. It is a story about making a seemingly small mistake that cannot be undone. A story, among other things, of the consequences of careless speech. (Oh, how many times I have spoken too soon, too harshly, too broadly. At other times my silence has wounded.)
Though once another storyteller told me she hoped I would not tell it because it was too sad, I’ve not heeded her advice. It is a story I’ve told to grown-ups and youth, but also to children as young as ten whom I’ve gotten to know at least a bit and at a time when we can process the story together. We may write poems. We may simply share our reactions and pose questions. Like Kevin at the detention center, our thoughts about the story may give us or those with us some insight into our own lives, our own predicaments and victories.