Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

The Light Changes: Books for the Autumn Equinox

Summer is coming to a close, as usual marked by heavy rain and fitful sunshine. I woke up to a downpour a few mornings ago. It took me awhile to fully wake due to the gloom-heavy atmosphere in the bedroom. When I finally got up and opened the bedroom door, the cats were waiting in the hallway, small triangle faces tilted and full of questions; they were unsure if it was breakfast time or not due to the strange murky light. It was so dim that even the street lamps were still on.

I padded with the cats out to the living room. Water was pouring down the western windows, giving the room a half-submerged effect as if it was about to give up and dissolve with the rain. The kitchen was a little better: I opened the eastern-facing window and a heavy, damp breeze rushed into the room, lifting napkins and papers and then setting them down again.

I set the kettle going and brewed a cup of green tea, sitting down at the kitchen table with the cat. She had gathered herself into the windowsill and we drank in the oxygen heavy air together. As the wind struck my face, the sensation of being sealed up alive in the house relented and I was able to breathe easier and drink the tea slowly, savoring the light, toasted flavor. The cat looked at me a few times as I drank but she inevitably returned to staring out the window, sniffing at smells I couldn’t detected but were utterly engrossing.

The loss of morning light in autumn makes the shortening days more noticeable. I love the night but hate early evenings and as sunrises comes later and the sunsets earlier, my fingers curl a little in my pockets. The long endless nights are coming. I’m not ready for summer to end but I attempt to reconcile myself by pulling out a few books.

As the light eases towards the darkness, I pull out the books that were once the spoken word, told during the long dark evenings to family members, friends, and the community; they’re usually called fairy tales or folk tales but “wonder tales” work just as well. I make a small pile: Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Tales, Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men.

Schönwerth collected fairy tales in the 1850’s when he traveled around his beloved Bavarian homeland, listening to fairy tales and writing them down. The Grimm Brothers were recording fairy tales at this time too, racing to preserve stories that were disappearing as print culture was erasing the need for verbal storytelling. In the centuries that followed, much of Schönwerth’s recordings was preserved but many stories were lost. In 2009, Erika Eichenseer found 500 previously lost fairytales of Schönwerth’s in the municipal building of Regensburg, Bavaria. She found a fairy tale treasure. The stories were recently translated from English to German and stand alongside The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault’s fairy tales.

Next to my copy of Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess is Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Zitkála-Šá was born during the Battle of Big Horn and was educated at a boarding school that enforced assimilation of First Nations’ peoples. Despite the school’s attempts to flatten her mind, body and spirit, Zitkala-Ša (Lakota for the cardinal bird) went on to be a political activist, writer, editor, translator, educator, and musician. She recorded Dakota Sioux legends, saving them for posterity. Many of them center on the trickster Iktomi, a spider fairy. I’ve included the beginning of a legend below.

Next to Zitkála-Šá’s folk tales is Zora Neal Hurston’s Mules and Men. Around the same time Zitkála-Šá was writing, Hurston was recording African-American folk stories that were fast disappearing. She recorded the stories she heard in her home of Eatonville, Florida and other nearby communities and logging camps. These stories often center on John Henry cleverly outwitting everyone, sometimes even the devil. Alongside the folk tales, Hurston recorded her experience learning hoodoo in New Orleans. It is not for the faint of heart.

These three books and the deep histories they invoke make the evenings richer, more bearable and in closing, I leave you with this opening of Zitkála-Šá’s retelling of “Iktomi and the Muskrat”:

Beside a white lake, beneath a large grown willow tree, sat Iktomi on the bare ground. The heap of smoldering ashes told of a recent open fire.  With ankles crossed together around a pot of soup, Iktomi bent over some delicious boiled fish.

Fast he dipped his black horn spoon into the soup,, for he was ravenous. Iktomi had no regular meal times.  Often when he was hungry he went without food.

Well hid between the lake and the wild rice, he looked nowhere save into the pot of fish.  Not knowing when the next meal would be, me meant to eat to enough now to last some time.

“How, how, my friend!” said a voice out of the wild rice. Iktomi started.  He almost choked with his soup.  He peered through the long reeds from where he sat with his long horn spoon in mid-air.

“How my friend!” said the voice again, this time close at his side. Iktomi turned and there stood a dripping muskrat who had just come out of the lake.

“Oh, it is my friend who startled me.  I wondered if among the wild rice some spirit voice was talking.  How, how, my friend!” said Iktomi.  The muskrat stood smiling.  On his lips hung a ready “Yes, my friend,” when Iktomi would ask, “My friend, will you sit down beside me and share my food?”

That was the custom of the plains people.  Yet Iktomi sat silent. He hummed an old dance-song and beat gently on the edge of the pot with his buffalo-horn spoon.  The muskrat began to feel awkward before such lack of hospitality and wished himself under the water.

The rest can be read in Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends and Other Writings.

Please feel free to share your favorite fairy tale or folk tales in the comments section.

Comments (4):

  1. Margaret King

    September 23, 2019 at 5:49 pm

    Kinshu: Autumn Brocade by Teru Miyamoto!

  2. Catherine

    September 23, 2019 at 6:28 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation, Margaret. It looks like a lovely read.

  3. Ikuko Goto

    October 19, 2019 at 4:46 am

    Have you ever read “Tono-Monogatari” by Kunio Yanagida?

  4. Catherine

    October 19, 2019 at 12:06 pm

    I haven’t but it looks like just the sort of book I’d like to read this autumn. I will find it. Thank you, Ikuko!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Delicate Balance of a Crescent Moon

Spring is turning towards summer now. It began so delicately with a soft green — the hue of a tender rumor murmured only in off moments — but then the green rumor became bold, became the truth, and over the course of seemingly a night the grass is long, the trees are full, and the peonies are about to bloom. Every night I smell smoke and charcoal, my neighbors busy with their grills. They mow their lawns, weed their flower beds, dump their mulch, and then go to their backyards to cook up dinner.

I do none of these things. The rhythms of suburbia are pleasing to watch with their precise, ticking movements but they are less pleasing to indulge in. There’s a deep pressure to conform, and so I recede to the sanctuary of my old deck, watching the birds and bumblebees pass through my yard.

I’ve been toying with the idea of sinking a spade into the ground, ridding one area of hideous orange daylilies and planting a few tiny bits of bleeding heart and bluebell, gifts from a friend. It’s been years since I’ve played in the dirt, dug around, sorted things out, grimaced at the grubs and bugs that emerge from the dirt. Intolerable joint pain cut off many activities, and gardening was the first to go. But this year, after so many years of pursuing healing and wellness, I am feeling better and I think it might be time to poke and prod at the earth again. To see what I can do about weeds and debris.

But then again, this might not happen. The doctor told me yesterday that my body was “currently struggling with inflammation due to increased activity,” that I need to take it slower, that I needed to continue working on a low-inflammation diet.

Dreams of gardening haze in and out. It might happen this weekend, but it might not until later. Depression surges forward and I struggle with it. Life is hard with fibromyalgia and chronic pain, and there are always so many small, difficult choices to make. I chose to increase my exercises by a small amount last week; my body responded with intense shoulder pain and a flare up of inflammation throughout my system — primarily in my hands, shoulders, back, feet. It is just this way and I walk slowly through it, sometimes crying but mostly not, because life has been like this for years now and slowly, as time passes, the tears dry up.

Pain makes us discard some goals and pick others up.

There is a waning crescent moon in the sky, a thin sliver that sets in midafternoon and rises in early morning. It will soon be a new moon and then we will pass into summer.

The Melancholy of Tender Green Leaves

I’ve always thought that autumn was the most melancholy season with the its dying flowers and falling leaves, weeks of sweeping rain, and the ever plummeting temperatures but over the last few years of my life, Spring has stepped forward as a possible contender.

There is something brutal in the racing green, the tender spring flowers leaping forth before they’re smothered by the emerging foliage of tree and brush overhead. Birds and animals are racing too, hurrying to carve out territories, find a mate, build a home. Rainstorms and occasional snowstorm cause the river to overflow its banks and  the parks flood, ducks go floating by in puddles turned to ponds. Spring is the rush season.

Over the last few years as I’ve struggled with chronic joint issues, Spring has been a merciless time, it’s hurling push more like a joke than anything else. In the beginning years of unrelenting joint pain, I shut myself away, ignoring the season and reading instead. But even under the weight of immense pain, being locked away became boring and unbearable and so I sat outside last Spring, unable to walk but content to look and listen. I settled into my chair every early morning and watched the treetops, noting the first emergence of light green, the tiny buds unfurling, and finally the spread of a gorgeous green canopy, all the more momentous because I had watched it emerge every day over the course of weeks. I listened to the birds too noting who was new, local, or just passing through. At last came the buzzy bumblebees, ponderous and loud, like dizzy helicopters on a mission to gather pollen.

This Spring I graduated from sitting in my backyard to walking through my neighborhood, joint pain eased over time due to correct diagnoses, correct treatments, and my own on-going work with drawing boundaries and practicing self-care. I take walks in deep gratitude, admiring the greening grass, the children and dogs passing by, and my neighbors’ tulips, daffodils, and blooming magnolias.

But as Spring works hard to cover-up winter’s pulverizing blow, I find that I cannot forget the past. Time is passing and each day shoves us forward whether we’re ready for it or not. Some go forth happily but for many, going forth is complicated, complex, and more painful than easy. And so there is a melancholy in the soft green leaves backed by the dark bark of trees, in the bright tulips springing forth out of the dank heavy mud, and in the cold breeze that causes magnolia petals to fall just after blooming. Already everything is passing, clearly illuminating the transient nature of life which sometimes is sweet and other times too painful to behold. Holding both of these emotions at once is the place where poetry emerges and who better to linger in this in-between state but Li Qingzhao, the great immortal poet from China’s Song Dynasty. Below are a few of her ci poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. 

The Day of Cold Food

Clear and radiant is the splendor

Of Spring on the Day of Cold Food.

The dying smoke of aloeswood incense

Floats above the jade burner.

My dream is broken and hidden

like my flower hair ornaments

Buried in a pile of cushions.  

The swallows have not come back

From the Eastern Sea, but already

People are gathering wild flowers and herbs

In the meadows. The plum blossoms by

The river are gone. Catkins

Appear on the willow branches.

And then—in the orange twilight—

Fall widely spaced drops of rain.

 

浣溪沙·淡蕩春光寒食天
朝代:宋代

作者:李清照

淡蕩春光寒食天。玉爐瀋水嫋殘煙。夢迴山枕隱花鈿。
海燕未來人鬥草,江梅已過柳生綿。黃昏疏雨溼鞦韆。

 

 

I Gave a Party to My Relatives on the Day of Purification

 

Tranquil and serene, the night

Seems to last forever.

Yet we are seldom happy.

We all dream of Ch’ang An

And long to take the road back to the capital,

And see this year again the beauty of Spring, come with

Moonlight and shadow on the new flowers.

Although the food is simple, as are the cups,

The wine is good, the plums sour.

That is enough to satisfy us.

We drink and deck our hair with flowers

But do not laugh,

For we and the Spring grow old.

 

蝶戀花
  
   上巳召親族
  
  永夜懨懨歡意少,
  空夢長安,
  認取長安道。
  為報今年春色好,
  花光月影宜相照。
  
  隨意杯盤雖草草,
  酒美梅酸,
  恰稱人怀抱。
  醉里插花花莫笑,
  可怜人似春將老。

 

Fading Plum Blossoms

 

Spring is hidden in my studio,

Daylight locked out of my window,

My painting room is profoundly secluded.

The seal character incense is burned out.

The shadows of the sunset

Descend across the curtain hooks.

Now that the wild plum I planted myself

Is blooming so well this year

I do not need to climb the waterfall

Seeking wild plum blossoms.

No one comes to visit me.

I am lonely as ever was Ho Sun in Yang Chou.

I know that although my plum blossoms

Are lovelier than all others

The rain will soon scatter them away.

The sound of the horizontal flute fills the whole house

With a melody of dense sorrow.

I will not feel badly when their perfume dissolves

And their jade snow petals fall.

When they have all been swept away

The memory of my love for them will remain.

It is difficult to describe the beauty of their shadows

Cast by the pale moonlight.

满庭芳
  
  小阁藏春,
  闲窗销昼,
  画堂无限深幽。
  篆香烧尽,
  日影下帘钩。
  手种江梅更好,
  又何必、临水登楼?
  无人到,
  寂寥恰似、何逊在杨州.
  
  从来,
  如韵胜,
  难堪雨藉,
  不耐风揉。
  更谁家横笛,
  吹动浓愁?
  莫恨香消玉减,
  须信道、扫迹难留。
  难言处,
  良窗淡月,
  疏影尚风流。