Maps in a mirror, p.102

Maps in a Mirror, page 102

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  Look at that! The leaves all thick and green!

  He touched the bark so warm in the summer sun,

  He buried his hands in the soil and said, “I’m jiggered.”

  “Oh, blacksmith’s prentice boy,” said the red-winged bird.

  “Took you long enough,” said Prentice Alvin.

  “Came now, didn’t I? So don’t get snippety.”

  “Just see to it you don’t go off again.

  Where you been?”

  “I been,” said the red-winged bird, “to visit the sun.

  I been to sing to the deaf old man in the moon.

  And now I’m here to make a maker of you,

  Oh yes, I’ll make you something before I’m through.”

  “I’m something now,” said the lad, “and I like it fine.”

  “You’re a smithy boy,” said the bird, “and it ain’t enough.

  Bendin horseshoes! Bangin on the black!

  Why, there be things to make that can’t be told,

  So bright and gold!”

  A thousand things, that bird was full of talk,

  And on he sang and Alvin listened tight.

  Till home he came at dark, his eyes so bright,

  His smile so ready but his mood like rock,

  He was full of birdsong, full of dreams of gold,

  Dreams of what he’d draw from the smithy fire.

  “How old is old?” he asked the smith. “How tall

  Do I have to be for hammer and tong?

  It’s been so long.”

  The smith, he spied him keen, he saw his eyes,

  He saw how flames were leapin in the green.

  “A redbreast bird been talkin,” said the smith,

  His voice as low as memory. “So young,

  But not so young, so little but so tall.

  Hammer and tong, my lazy prentice boy,

  Let’s see if they fit your hand, let’s see if the heft

  Is right for your arm, the right side or the left,

  See how you lift.”

  Out they went to the forge beside the road,

  Out and stoked the fire till it was hot.

  The tongs fit snug in Alvin’s dexter hand,

  And the hammer hefted easy in his left,

  And the smith had a face like grief, although he laughed.

  “Go on,” says he. “I’m watchin right behind.”

  The flames leaped up, and Alvin shied the heat,

  But deep in the fire he held the iron rod

  Till it was red.

  “Now bend it,” cried the smith, “now make a shoe!”

  Alvin raised the hammer over his head,

  Ready for the swing. But it wouldn’t fall.

  “Strike,” the blacksmith whispered, “bend and shape.”

  But the red of the black was the red of a certain bird;

  Behind his eyes he saw the iron true:

  It was already what it ought to be.

  “I can’t,” he said, and the blacksmith took the tool

  And whispered, “Fool.”

  The hammer clattered against the stone of the wall,

  But Alvin, he took heed where the hammer fell.

  “There’s some can lift the hammer,” said the smith,

  “And some can strike,” and then he spoke an oath

  So terrible that Alvin winced to hear.

  “I’m shut of you,” said the smith. “What’s iron for?

  To be hot and soft for a man of strength to beat,

  To turn the fat of your empty flesh to meat

  For the years to eat.”

  When the smith was gone, poor Alvin like to died,

  For what was a smith that couldn’t strike the black?

  A maker, that’s what the redbreast said he’d be,

  And now unmade before he’d fair begun.

  “I know,” he whispered, “I know what must be done.”

  He took the hammer from the wallside heap

  And blew the fire till flames came leapin back

  And gathered every scrap at the fire’s side

  And loud he cried:

  “Here is the makin that you said to make!

  Here in my hand are the tools you said to take!

  Here is the crucible, and here’s the fire,

  And here are my hands with all they know of shape.”

  Into the crucible he cast the scrap

  And set the pot in the flames a-leapin higher.

  “Melt!” he shouted. “Melt so I can make!”

  For the redbreast bird had told him how:

  A livin plow.

  The black went soft in the clay, the black went red,

  The black went white and poured when he tipped the pot.

  Into the mold he poured, and the iron sang

  With the heat and the cold, with the soft and the hard and the form

  He forced. When he broke the mold it rang,

  And the shape of the plow was curved and sharp where it ought.

  But the iron, it was black, oh, it was dead,

  No power in it but the iron’s own,

  As mute as stone.

  He sat among the shards of the broken clay

  And wondered what the redbird hadn’t said.

  Or had he talked to the bird at all today?

  And now he thought of it, was it really red?

  And maybe he ought to change the mold somehow,

  Or pour it cool, or hotten up the forge.

  But the more he studied it the less he knew,

  For the plow was shaped aright, though cold and dark:

  He knew his work.

  So what was wrong with black? It was good enough

  For all the hundred thousand smiths before,

  And good enough for all the plows they made,

  So why not good enough for Prentice Alvin?

  Who ever heard of a bird so full of stuff,

  So full of songs to make you feel so poor,

  So full of promises of gold and jade?

  “Ah, Redbird!” Alvin cried, “my heart is riven!

  What have you given?”

  He shouted at the black and silent plow.

  He beat it, ground it at the wheel, and rubbed

  Till the blade was a blackish mirror, till the edge

  Was sharp as a trapper’s skinnin knife, and still

  It was iron, black and stubborn, growin cold.

  All broke of hope, he cast it in the fire

  And held it with his naked hands in the flame

  And wept in agony till it was over.

  Here was the taste of pain—he knew the savor:

  The plow was silver.

  All silver was the plow, and his hands were whole.

  He knew what it was the redbird hadn’t said.

  He couldn’t put the iron in alone

  And expect the plow by itself to come to life.

  He took the plow again—it’s gleamin bright—

  And this time when he put it into the fire

  He clomb right in and sat among the flames

  And cried in pain until the fire went cold.

  The age of agony—he knew how old:

  The plow was gold.

  The smith, he come all white-eyed to the forge.

  “The buffalo are ruttin in the wood,

  A hundred wolves are singin out a dirge,

  And a doe, she’s lickin while her fawn is fed.

  What you be doin while I’m in my bed?

  The trees are wide awake and bendin low,

  And the stars are all a-cluster overhead.

  What will a prentice do when his master go?

  I want to know!”

  In answer, Alvin only lifts his plow,

  And in the firelight it shines all yellow.

  “Lord,” the smith declares, and “damn my eyes,

  My boy, you got the gift, I didn’t reelize.”

  The smith, he reaches out. “Now give it here,

 
That’s worth ten thousand sure, I shouldn’t wonder,

  All we got to do is melt her down

  And we’ll be rich afore another sundown,

  Move to town.”

  But Alvin, he’s not like to let it go.

  “It’s a plow I meant to make, and a plow I got,

  And I mean for it to do what a plow should do.”

  The smith was mad, the smith, he scald and swore.

  “Cuttin dirt ain’t what that gold is for!”

  And he reached his hand to take the plow by force,

  But when he touched his prentice’s arm, he hissed,

  And kissed his fingers, gaspin. “Boy, you’re hot

  As the sunlight’s source.

  “Hot and bright as sunlight,” says the smith,

  “And the gold is yours to do whatever you like with,

  But whatever you do, I humble-as-dust beseech you,

  Do it away from me, I’ve nothin to teach you.”

  Says Alvin, “Does that mean I’m a journeyman?

  I’ve a right to bend the black wherever I can?”

  And the smith says, “Prentice, journeyman, or master,

  For what you done a smith would sell his sister,

  Been Satan kissed her.”

  What was Alvin totin when he left?

  I tell you this—it wasn’t hard to heft:

  A burlap bag with a knot of leaden bread,

  A hunk of crumbly cheese, and a golden plow.

  A map of the world was growin in his head,

  For a fellow knows the edge can guess the whole,

  And Alvin meant to find the certain soil

  Where his plow could cut and make the clover grow,

  The honey flow.

  He left a hundred village tongues a-wag

  With tales of a million bucks in a burlap bag;

  The smith, he swore the gold was devil’s make

  And therefore free for a godly man to take;

  His wife, she told how Alvin used to shirk

  And owed them all the gold for his lack of work;

  And others said the golden plow was a fake

  That sneaky Alvin made so he could gull

  Some trustin fool.

  The tales of Alvin flew so far and fast

  They reached him on the road and went right past,

  And many a fellow in many a country inn

  Would spy his bag and start in speculatin.

  “Kind of a heavy tote you got, I reckon.”

  And Alvin nods. “The burlap’s kinda thin—

  Do I see something big and smooth and yellow?”

  And Alvin nods, but then he tells the fellow,

  “It’s just my pillow,”

  True enough, if the truth ain’t buttoned tight,

  For he put it under his head most every night;

  But country folk are pretty hard to trick,

  And many a fellow thought that he could get

  A plowshare’s worth of gold for the price of a stick

  Applied with vigor to the side of Alvin’s head;

  And many a night young Alvin had to run

  From the bowie knife or buckshot-loaded gun

  Of some mother’s son.

  While Alvin beat through woods and country tracks,

  Comes Verily Cooper, a handiworkin man,

  Who boards wherever there’s barrels to make or mend,

  And never did he find so fine a place,

  So nice a folk nor never so pretty a face

  That he’d put away his walkin boots and stay.

  It happened that he come to the smith one day

  And heard that Alvin had made his golden plow,

  And wondered how.

  So off he set with boots so sad and worn

  And socks so holey, the skin of his feet was torn

  And he left a little track of blood sometimes—

  Off set Verily Cooper, hopin to find

  What tales were envy, and if some tales were true,

  What the journeyman blacksmith did or didn’t do.

  He asked in every inn, “Did a boy with a bag

  Come here, a brown-haired boy so long of leg,

  About this big?”

  Well, it came about that the findin all was done

  On a day without a single speck of sun.

  Young Alvin, he come down to the bottom lands,

  Where the air was cold and the fog was thick and white.

  “In a fog this deep you’d better count your hands,”

  Said an unseen man a-waitin by the track.

  “What could I see if a man had any sight?”

  And the unseen speaker said, “That the sun is bright

  And the soil is black.”

  Now Alvin knelt and touched the dirt of the road,

  But the ground was packed and he couldn’t feel it deep,

  And though he fairly pressed his nose to the dirt,

  Still the white of the fog was all he could see.

  “The soil, it doesn’t look so black to me.”

  And the unseen speaker said, “The earth is hurt

  And hides in the fog and heals while it’s asleep.

  For the tree, she screamed and wept when the beaver gnawed

  And no one knowed.”

  “I’m lookin,” Alvin says, “for a soil that’s fit

  To spring up golden grain, make cattle fat.”

  And the unseen speaker says, “What soil is that?”

  “I’m lookin,” Alvin says again, “for loam

  That a plow can whittle till it comes to life.”

  And the unseen speaker says, “A plow’s a knife,

  And where it cuts the earth is broke and lame.”

  Says Alvin, “Mar to mend, from the moldrin leaf

  Will grow the limb.”

  “Then go, if you mean to make from the broken ground,

  Go till you hear the rushin river’s sound,

  For there in the river’s bight is a dirt so rich

  You can harrow with your hand and plow with a flitch.”

  “Thank you, stranger,” Alvin says, and then:

  “I’ve heard your voice before, I can’t think when.”

  “In such a fog as this, so cold and wet,

  Your sight’s so dim your memory’s in debt

  And you forget,

  For the fog, it goes afore and it goes behind,

  Hides what you’re lookin for and what you’ve found,

  And the deeper you go, the dimmer it makes your past.

  And yet in all the world, this soil is best.”

  With that, though Alvin tried to learn his name,

  The unseen speaker never spoke again,

  And at last the journeyman smith went on to find

  In the fog, by listenin tight for the river’s sound,

  That perfect ground.

  Near done was the day when Alvin came to the shore

  Of the mighty River Mizeray, all deep

  And brown and slow and lookin half asleep.

  Said Mizeray, “Jes step a little more,

  Young feller, and I’ll carry you across.”

  And Alvin, blind as a bat in the fog, he said,

  “Don’t I hear the rush of a river in its bed?”

  But Mizeray, he gave a little toss

  And whispered, “Cross.”

  So again that day young Alvin Maker jedges.

  How can he know what’s true in a fog so white?

  How can he trust what a hidden voice alleges?

  He kneels, he touches the soil, he lifts it light,

  He crushes it in his hand and it’s loose and smooth,

  But still old Mizeray’s voice can tickle and sooth,

  And says, “Come on, step on, I’ll carry you

  To the only soil in the world that’ll ever do,

  I tell you true.”

  Old Mizeray has a voice you must believe.

  Old Mizeray has a voice that could not lie.


  Old Mizeray, he whispers to deceive,

  To draw the trustin step to the edge, to die;

  But the voice, the voice is full and sweet with love.

  So Alvin, with his fingers deep in the loam,

  He wonders if this soil is good enough,

  And again he hears the river’s whisperin hum:

  “I’ll take you home.”

  And now he doesn’t know his north from south,

  And his fingers search but cannot find his mouth,

  And he can’t remember what he came here for,

  Or if it even matters anymore.

  Only the sound of the river callin him,

  Only the whine of his fear, so high and thin,

  Only the taste of the sweat when he licks his lips,

  Only the tremblin of his fingertips,

  Their weakish grips.

  He stands, but he doesn’t step, he daresn’t walk,

  He puzzles for the key to this hidden lock,

  And he knows the key isn’t in that hissin voice,

  He knows there’s another way to make his choice.

  The soil he’s lookin for, it’s not for himself,

  It’s meant for the plow he carried all so stealthy;

  He opens his burlap bag and lifts the plow

  And sets it on the earth real soft and slow,

  And sees it glow.

  He sees it shine, that plow, it shines all gold,

  All yellow, and it gets too hot to hold,

  And around the plow the fog begins to clear,

  And the wind, it blows till the fog is gone from here,

  And he sees the soil is humusy and black

  Just as the unseen voice in the fog had said;

  And he sees the river lap the shore and smack

  And if he’d taken that step, now he’d be dead

  In the devil’s sack.

  For Mizeray, down deep, don’t flow with water:

  The bottom slime is made of the stuff of night,

  The darkness reachin in at the edge of light,

  Awaitin for the step of a man unwary

  To suck him down and slither him out to bury,

  Numb and soundless, pressed in the dark of the sea,

  Where the driftin dead look up through the night and see

  Forever out of reach the earth in her dance,

  O heaven’s daughter.

  And in the tree young Alvin sees a bird

  All red of feather, mouth all wide and singin,

  And Alvin, he calls out, “I know your voice!”

  But the wind-awaker answers not a word.

  Enough for him that his breezy song is heard,

  And he darts from tree to tree, so coy he’s wingin,

  And Alvin sighs at the come-out of his choice,

  Not altogether sure how the thing occurred,

  For the choice was hard.

  And while he lies a-restin in the grove,

 
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