Susan's Blog

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Mandolin

Many years ago, in a small village across the sea, there lived a woodsman and his wife and their infant son. Every day the woodsman went into the forest to cut wood and then shape it into bowls, plates, and anything else that was needed, and sell it to the people in the nearby villages.  The woodsman loved his wife very much and would carve for her small things out of the wood scraps.

The woodsman’s wife was a beautiful young woman known far and wide for her beauty and for her healing powers. It was said that her green eyes, so unusual in color, could look into a body and see the sickness. Even though she was so young, she had cared for and cured many, many people, young and old, for miles around. People spoke reverently about her knowledge of herbs and plants and her great mind, and her all-seeing eyes.  Sometimes a person could simply catch sight of her coming up the walk and they would feel something ease inside them. For her success with sickness had become so well known that the very compassion that shone from her lovely face also aided in their recovery.

The one person she could not cure was herself. She would have bouts of sadness that were so heavy and black they blotted out the light in their small cottage. She would take to her bed for days and days and there would be a silence throughout the town as if everyone else was also feeling this great sadness. And indeed they were; such was the deep love they had for the young healer, and their sorrow that they could not return her care.

The woodcutter loved her most of all and when she would have her spells, he would become desperate to help her. He would think about all of her favorite things — flowers, trees, and plants — and these he would carve into the darkest hours of the night. His warm hands and his tears would soften and shape the wood into miraculous, intricate likenesses. When he gave them to her, there would be a brief tremble across her lips, the beginnings of a smile. And though it would just as quickly disappear, he knew she had felt momentary joy and would soon feel better.

But one day the young wife fell into a sadness that was deeper and darker than any she’d had before. The air in the town became cold and cruel, sending the townspeople indoors for days and days. The snow fell unceasingly and all activity came to a halt.

The woodsman was the only soul who dared venture outside during this time, because he desired nothing else but to find the perfect bit of wood and create something very special to help her. He walked for a long time but never lost his way, even with the deep white disguise of the snow, for he knew the shape of the forest as surely as he knew his own heart.

He was searching for one particular tree, a rosewood, and finally came to the small stand of rosewoods by the distant edge of the forest. There, in the center of those red-brown trees, stood an exquisitely curved rosewood. It had been cleaved in half by lightning yet was still upright. “This is the tree,” he said with a certainty that surprised him. It was as if someone else were speaking. He chopped at the heart of the tree and it was as if someone else were holding the axe. The tree trunk fell away easily and gave up its center, where its wood was newest and of the rosiest hue.

The woodcutter returned home and began whittling away at the bark. But again, it was as if someone else had hold of his knife. He did not know what he was making, but worked away with the help of this unseen power. What he did not realize was that it was his own life force that he was pouring into his work.

When he was finished, there before him lay a beautiful mandolin. It had a delicate neck, a curving top, and cut into the body of it were two hearts, to let the sound out. He went to his wife and awoke her. The moment her eyes opened they caught sight of the perfect instrument and she smiled instantly. She reached for it but noticed her husband’s arms trembling. She looked up at him and instead of her strong young husband, an old man stood before her. In an old crackling voice he said, “Play it, my dear.” Terrified, she began to play. As the melody curved above her head, she closed her eyes, for she had never heard such an intensely beautiful sound. It was the sound of springtime, of growing plants and blossoming flowers. She played and played, and her heart rose like the sun in the sky. The snow stopped and it was daylight.

When she opened her eyes, though, her husband was on the floor, dead. Her heart burst inside her chest and she fell to the floor next to him, weeping and dying.

************     ************

Now it happened that a stranger was traveling through the forest in search of shelter. He came upon the clearing in the woods where the woodsman and his family lived. His hands trembled and his feet had lost all feeling. He was about to knock on the door when he heard the most beautiful music. It rose and curled around him like the warmth of a hearth fire. It lulled his aching heart and warmed his numb limbs. When the song ended, he rushed into to the cottage to find the person who had played this incredible music. But when he opened the door all he could see was the old man, and the young woman with her arms around him, and he knew they were dead.

He sank to the floor in despair for the poor people, who though ill-matched in age, clearly had loved each other. Just then the sun broke through the dawn and shone a light into the corner. And there he saw a cradle — and it was rocking. He went over, looked at the baby, and inhaled, breathing in the sweet scent arising from its breath. And now, right next to his sadness, was a bubble of laughter; this was because his wife was childless, and he had been searching far and wide, across the sea for a healer. Instead he had lost his way in the snowstorm — and ended up here.

Looking out the window now, he saw that the snow had stopped, and there was a deep pink light spreading across the horizon.

What a strange and wonderful gift he had been given. He knew he had to act swiftly. He bundled up the baby and fashioned a knapsack to hold the child at his chest. He whispered a prayer of thanks to the couple, and knelt to scoop up the mandolin as well. The baby slept peacefully against his body.

When the man returned home after so many months he found his wife huddled in a chair by the fire, her face nearly shapeless from crying for so long. But when she looked up and saw not only her dear long lost husband but also a baby, she stood and ran to him, young and strong again. He loosened his knapsack and handed the baby to her and she cradled him in her arms. The mandolin slid off his back against the floor. A small crack opened in the body but neither the man nor the woman noticed in their joy. Eventually they remembered the pretty instrument and hung it up on the wall over the fireplace. “It will cheer us on long winter nights,” his wife said, though they knew they already had so much to be cheerful about.

The man and his wife raised the boy with all the love in their hearts. The man taught him how to hunt, and skin animals for their fur. They told him nothing of his birth parents, for they knew nothing about them, and he was surely meant to be their own son.

The boy grew tall and strong healthy.  He wanted for nothing. But as he reached manhood, he felt as if there were a fist inside his chest, a heartsickness that he could not explain. He kept this feeling to himself and continued to work hard, like his father, at the furrier trade. But his mother, who was no stranger to sorrow, recognized it in her son. However, she had no knowledge of the healing arts, but she did believe that if he kept busy he would soon forget his unnamed sorrow. And so, she sent him out into into the woods each day, with a bow and arrow on his back and a long knife at his side, and told him he must search the forest for prey.

He was very poor at hunting. His sorrow grew with his shame and yet he found increasingly that he could not find any animals, or that whenever he struck down an animal, he also had the desire to stop its pain.

One day in early spring he saw a young doe. He drew back his bow to launch the arrow when suddenly the deer turned towards him. She looked right into his eyes and he saw that they were not the customary brown; instead they were the most unusual shade of green. His breath caught in his throat. He was stunned by her eyes, for they were somehow familiar to him. He felt frightened by this feeling, and he tightened the string of his bow.

But suddenly the doe spoke: “If you spare my life, I will show you how to save other lives, for I know who you are. You are a healer, as I once was.” She turned her back to him, allowing him the full view of her magnificent side. He knew he could easily strike her down, but he was so moved by her words, and curious, also.

The young man lowered his weapon and followed the deer into a meadow. As she walked through the glade she sang and the words of the song were not like human words; instead they were simple description and instruction. She would nod at patches of flowers and plants growing alongside them, and she would sing their names, and their powers. He knew that she meant for him to gather them.

He had walked for miles, and it was growing dark. The doe stopped and said, “You must hurry home now and think on what you have learned today. And you must kill no more.”

The young man ran home his arms laden with the greens, his weapons weighing on his back, but he felt strangely light on his feet. Eventually he realized that the leaden feeling in his heart had softened and now flowed through him like nourishing food and drink.

Without a word to his parents he set his plants down on the table. He looked at them for a very long time in the silence of the night, willing the song of the doe to come back to him. But all he heard was the crackling fireplace.

As he stared into the fire and a spark jumped out, flying upwards like a lightning bug. He followed its path with his eyes and noticed, for the first time perhaps, the old mandolin that hung there.

Over time it had become very dry, with more cracks, and its neck was separating from the body. The two carved hearts remained intact but were coated with dust. He blew away the dust and placed the instrument against his belly, encircling the neck gently with his hand.

And he plucked the double strings on the bottom. Its sound was small and splintered, like icicles breaking off of an eave. Then he strummed the heavy strings at the top, and he heard a low hum, but it was not like a mandolin. It was like a voice, singing. There were no words, but the song made him want to close his eyes and sink into a deep luxurious sleep. But he remained awake, listening to the voice of the mandolin, and feeling strangely sad, as if it were trying to speak to him but could not.

The lush notes rose before his eyes and without knowing he was doing so, they played the doe’s song. And now he remembered her words, and soon the bundles of herbs and flowers made sense to him, and each told their own story.

That night the young man learned the healing arts. He realized that indeed he was no hunter: he was a healer. Renewed with a sense of purpose, he set out from his parents’ home and roamed from village to village, healing the sick and the sad with his herbs and his music. Soon word spread of the great skill and the strange way he summoned it, through the old mandolin.

The young healer never learned of the origins of the mandolin, nor did he understand why he was able to play it so beautifully. All he knew was that he himself had been healed that night, all because a beautiful doe had given him her trust and her deep wisdom, and a mandolin that sang with the voice of a father he would never know.

 

2 comments

How lovely!

— added by Shelly Senator on Saturday, December 23, 2017 at 7:27 am

Oh Susan, this was my treat today after getting the kids back to school, just beautiful!

— added by kim mccafferty on Wednesday, January 3, 2018 at 1:57 pm

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