Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species... the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
John Steinbeck -- Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
Transporting the elementary students to the library is not as simple as calling the bus barn and arranging for a driver. Trucks available on Friday morning are located via conversations around the fire circle. About seven thirty, they are sent off in a staggered pattern so the children aren't coated in dust. Fathers and mothers treat it as a shopping outing, and some pack lunches.
Despina thinks, I can't remember seeing anywhere to do serious shopping in Broken Lance. I suppose someone obligingly carries the things normally purchased, even if no other similar store in the United States would stock those items as part of their normal inventory. Like the selection of work shirts, boots, and blue-jeans I glimpsed in one corner of the local hardware store.
Men and older boys head for the vacant lot, women to the interior of the store, and Despina and her charges to the library. She relishes the cool interior, the smell of the books, the sight of the polished shelves. Quickly zeroing in on the children's book section, she attracts the librarian's eye and pleads for some sure-fire read-aloud volumes.
As the children arrange themselves cross-legged on the colorfully braided rug, Despina places a captain's chair from a reading table, then settles, opening The Cat in the Hat with some trepidation.
Translating poetry on the fly seems daunting, especially things that rhyme and depend on the sound of the words as well as their meaning to work. The challenge will be to retain the magic.
She quickly settles into a style of first reading each page in English as written, showing the illustrations, then rendering as close a translation as her Spanish allows.
Some of the Indian students seem to be following the English version before it's translated.
As she moves on to Horton and the Who, several other children join her group, and parents turn more chairs to face the rug, listening intently to Despina's melodious voice.
Two more selections go by in quick succession as her audience steadily grows. A second captain's chair suddenly plops down next to hers, distracting her in mid-sentence. Paul Peter has arrived. She finishes her line, then is startled as his deep baritone picks up the next character's words, adding a dramatic flair all his own. He, however, does not bother with a Spanish translation, so she again supplies one.
When the book ends, he explains, "I thought I'd better come help you ride herd on your lively crew. I was afraid they'd be too boisterous for the sedate confines of a library."
Loading refrigerators must have become too much like "work".
Playing to the increased dramatic possibilities, Alice, the librarian, chooses The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by A. Wolf. When some of the Indian children profess ignorance of the original story, a highly ornate version is quickly concocted.
Cu suddenly appears, distracting Despina in mid-utterance. He sinks cross-legged onto the rug beside Alberto, listening intently as bilingual versions of fairy tale after fairy tale spin out.
An original plot line soon occurs to Despina, who decides to challenge Paul Peter to a story-telling battle.
"Once upon a time," she begins in time-honored fashion, eying Paul Peter smugly, "a group of children get lost on the wild prairie so long ago that no wagon trains had yet crossed the area." She stops, expectantly.
Paul Peter smoothly takes up the tale. "These children soon meet up with Coyote, who shows them how to use a rock as a hammer. Catching crayfish from the stream nearby, they smash them with the rock, devouring the meat inside." He grins triumphantly at her.
"But there's not much meat on a crayfish," Despina continues as if it were planned, "and the crayfish population soon peters out, leaving the lost children hungry."
"Putting on his thinking cap, ol' Coyote next shows the children how to rub a stick against a rock to create a sharp point, then lie quietly in wait beside the game trail until a rabbit comes by."
"But as the children lie in the hot sun, waiting for a likely rabbit to happen along, they get hotter, and tired, and very thirsty. The flies buzz around them, making them long to slap at them. Mosquitoes make meals of their tender skins."
The children chuckle appreciatively at the difficulties of sitting quietly outdoors.
"Although they miss the first few rabbits, scaring them away by slapping at mosquitoes, eventually they spear one."
"...breaking their stick in the process, which is how the town of Broken Lance got its name," cuts in Despina.
"Just spearing the rabbit doesn't feed the hungry children, however. The rabbit is covered with inedible fur, thick fur, and their teeth aren't big enough to tear the raw flesh. In fact, several of the children are MISSING their front teeth. They begin to become afraid that they will starve." She smiles at one girl with two missing front teeth, who then stands up and flashes her toothless state to the crowd.
More laughter echoes.
Making a face at her, Paul Peter continues, "Seeing their dilemma, Coyote next shows them how to chip soft black rocks called flint into knife-like shapes, then shows them how to skin their rabbit."
"The bloody skin quickly attracts every kind of flying or crawling bug in the area, which then begin to irritate the children."
"Coyote won't let the children throw away the skin," Paul Peter explains, glaring at Despina, "even though some want to. Instead, he shows them a special spot where the soil is salty and more gritty than normal, and by mixing that clay with urine, they scrape the hide clean, stretching it out with some pegs, and leave it to dry in the sun. Coyote knows first hand that having fur will feel good in the winter, because he's all furry from just behind his nose to the tip of his tail."
"The children are now powerfully hungry, but the only things chowing down on the rabbit are the bugs. The sun is starting to dry out its flesh."
"Next Coyote shows them a dead sage plant, which they break up into little pieces, which fall into a pile. Using two special types of rocks, flint and magnetite, which he teaches them to hit together to make a spark, they soon have a fire going. Stabbing the rabbit with another unbroken lance, they hold it over the flame, charring the body nicely. The smoke also drives the insects away."
More appreciative chuckles.
"Ravenous, the children consume even the marrow in the bones. There's nowhere near enough meat to feed all the children more than a mouthful. The stick burns up before the meat close to the bones is cooked, and the outside is nearly solid ash. The mouthful or so each child gets makes them hungrier than ever. Seeing them so hungry, Coyote shows them some edible roots and berries."
"But what the children really crave is meat. Soon a bunch of children, armed with longer sharpened branches whose points have been hardened by lying in the fire for a bit, surround a small buck on the water trail."
"But even the hardened tips won't penetrate his thick hide, and he drops his head and threatens to charge."
"So the biggest boy grabs his antlers and twists his head, while others trip him. As he falls, he breaks his neck. Meanwhile, Coyote has showed them how to place a ring of stones around their fire so that it doesn't spread. Draping the buck's body over the rocks, they then place green wood on top to hold the heat in, cooking the entire animal just perfectly."
The children are enchanted with this early version of an oven. With so much talk of starving children, the approach of lunchtime calls a natural halt to the tale. Despina takes over, ending for the day with, "Before Coyote teaches them to sew dresses and trousers from the hides, we'll break for lunch ourselves."
The town parents reward the storytellers with a smattering of applause. Paul Peter stands and takes an exaggerated bow.
As the Indian youngsters descend noisily on the vacant lot, which is doubling as a picnic area, Paul Peter heads Despina toward Ellie's Cafe. "If we barge in, they'll feel obliged to feed us," he explains. "This wasn't in the works long enough for all the families to get supplied enough to be able to feed their own."
"I think I'll just settle for some ice water. I'm more thirsty than hungry."
"You okay for cash, or do you need a payday loan?"
"Suffer nobly, then."
In the cafe's dim interior, Despina does not see the sheriff as she passes, so when his outstretched hand collects her into the booth beside him, she suppresses a startled cry. Paul Peter sits across the table, announcing as he slides in, "She says she's not eating."
"Nonsense. Nobody comes into Ellie's at lunch and leaves without having the special until every last bit is gone. 'Two more specials over here, when you get time. Payment for the story hour wonder workers.'"
"How'd you hear about that already?"
"As I believe I've explained before, it's a small town, and knowing what goes on in it is my business."
One of the parents who had been at the library comes over. "Hi, I'm Mrs. Townsend, and I just have to tell you two how glad I was when Alice called to tell me a live performance was taking place at the library. It's been since college that I've heard such tall tale telling! She said it was a shame we all missed your rendition of The Cat in the Hat in Spanish. I organized the same calling circle we use for church events to get the word out quickly. Kathy will be so sorry she had a doctor's appointment."
The gushy Mrs. Townsend is finally shooed back to her own table by the advance of Ellie with two heaping platters.
"Alice did call my office this morning. She said she could hardly keep from laughing out loud at your attempts to rhyme the Spanish. Or did you think that many people generally wander into the library on a Friday morning, tykes in tow?"
"Ah, the town version of communicating via smoke signals."
"Alice doesn't dish out compliments lightly. I'm sorry I missed your performance," Mickey says, indicating them both with a nod of his head. "How'd you decide to tell a tale about Coyote?"
"We were telling all the typical White fairy tales to the Indians, so I thought we'd better tell a few of the Indian ones for the White children," explains Paul Peter. "Coyote is an Indian spirit, the trickster, but also a teacher."
"But I doubt the Native Americans, err, Indians, listening to our concoction recognized him much past the name. What he got credit for today boggles the imagination. He invented tools, fire, tanning, cooking, hunting, and fishing, teaching plant recognition, mineralogy, and inventing the first version of the oven along the way," Despina chuckles. "He was a very busy fellow. I'm surprised Turtle didn't drop by to teach them how to swim, dig for tubers, and cook eggs, as well."
When Despina cleans her plate, Mickey invites, "Another?"
"Oh, no. I'm stuffed. I'll have some more ice in my water, however. I never realized what a luxury that is."
"You're probably still a little parched from that walk you took Thursday."
"Where'd you go?"
"I'm not really sure. I climbed over the hill Paul Peter and I drove over Saturday night when we left Ye Olde Watering Hole, then I investigated one of the larger arroyos."
"Hill? There're no hills on that road."
"Well, I didn't exactly stay on the road. I dropped back to get away from the horrid dust which came right into the jeep, as the sides and roof weren't on. Then I lost the tail lights, and followed what I thought was them up into the hill between the two towns."
A long. low whistle escapes from the sheriff. "I didn't know there was a vehicle path over those hills."
"There isn't," says Paul Peter, "but she didn't know that, so she just did it. I think I'm very glad I was as drunk as I was. We went into the cave where Cu's mother used to live."
"How'd you find it in the dark?"
"We got a little stuck, and we both were using a sapling in front of the entrance to balance with, which pulled it away from the entrance, so we went on in when we saw the light."
Despina takes over the story. "A fire glowed in the cave."
Still confused, the sheriff decides he isn't going to let these two fish him in any further. "Of course. Every abandoned cave always has a fire roaring whenever a jeep happens by." Addressing Despina directly, he continues, "You need to be careful when you go into those arroyos. They can fill up with water quite suddenly."
"So I've noticed. Reading about it and being there when the flash flood passes are two entirely different things."
"Which one did you go into? One of them is pretty steep-sided. A tourist hunting rocks got trapped in it a few years ago and was drowned."
"I doubt I could ever recreate the exact route," she hedges. Bingo. Bet that was the one we were in.
"She's way too modest. I'm sure any Indian out there could tell you exactly where she was. It's been the talk of the reservation. She was plucked out just seconds before the rain water from the Spirit Mountain storm hit."
"Don't sensationalize, Paul Peter. You make me sound like an incompetent ignoramus. I had to go down there, and you know it."
An eloquently-raised eyebrow prompts Paul Peter to explain when Despina pretends to ignore it.
"She tracked and saved Alberto, who had fallen into Man-Eater, going out into the desert with no water, no hat, no hiking boots... she's lucky to be alive."
Not sure if he can really believe this incredible tale, the sheriff looks intently from one to the other. "Man-Eater Arroyo? Of all the places to wander off to..."
Before he can decide if this is real or a gigantic fish from two highly touted, proven story tellers, his cell phone rings, causing him to leave hastily.
When Paul Peter tries to settle the bill, Ellie waves his money aside. "If I let you do that after Mickey told me to feed you two, I'd never hear the end of it. He's too good a customer to cross."
Last updated 1/31/10 Removed prairie. This was so; Clarified of communicating via (Where’sMeKilt) 6/9/08 -- children get lost; 11/11/04. (Man-Eater)
Word count: 2590
Friday, November 10th, 2001 11:36 pm (pandemo)