The Author Reading Aloud
In my misguided youth I took a step outside my front door, and then I took another step. The road opened itself before my eyes like a flower unfurling itself to the morning sun. Marveling at the mystery and with each new sight competing for my favor I wandered ever on.
Many years later having no other direction I found myself traveling west; I came to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in the Badlands of South Dakota. The road was dusty; I was dirty, my hair long and unkempt. I saw a dirt road leading into the desert; I pondered on following it but being thirsty I instead made my way to a neon-lighted tavern that squatted in the dust. I’d never seen so many Indians! They were lined up three-deep at the bar. All the tables and chairs were taken so I took my drink to stand in a quiet corner where I would not have to compete for space.
The floor was dirt; it was sprinkled with sawdust; every once in a while one of the Indians would look at me and spit derisively onto the ground. I thought how much they must hate me; not just me but the sight of any white man. If I had been older and wiser I would have perhaps been filled with fear but being young and stupid I feasted on the competition.
As the night wore on the liquor took effect; I grew bolder. I bought drinks for complete strangers not out of a sense of camaraderie but rather to insinuate myself into their good graces. Soon I found myself sitting at a table full of alien-sounding people to whom I must have seemed equally odd.
I met a girl who sat there; she was very quiet but when I asked her she said her name was Angie. She wasn’t particularly striking but she had a pull that attracted me; I must have had the same affect on her. We drank and we talked and we stroked each other with our eyes; standing close while dancing each dance we inhaled one another’s breath. We reveled in our meeting one another. Our lips brushed. Later that night when a group of big Indians began making remarks about smelling a honky in the bar she said I should come with her.
So I did.
She took me on a journey way out into the desert to her home where she lived with her father and with her two sisters. I recognized the dirt road as the one I had been tempted to take before entering the tavern. I wondered how I knew. She told me how her father was the nominal chief of their tribe, the Hunkpapa Lakota. Their house was very poor, the furniture sparse and the cupboards empty.
In time I fell in love with Angie and she fell in love with me. I supported her as she supported me. We spent our days entwined together in each other; we spent our nights drinking. Since she gave me her heart I had no need to compete for it. When I gave her my heart I lost it without competition.
She told me how if anyone in the tribe in their poverty needed anything they came to her father. Since he was the chief it fell to him to provide for them. She said he sometimes gave away the very clothes hanging on the line outside to dry and how she took to hiding them by tying a clothesline out behind the storage sheds and the junk yard in back of the house.
The people loved their chief; they supported him as he supported them. He instructed many ceremonies each according to the seasons. Serving with humility he guided his people, knowing if he was to lead that he must follow. Ruling by following meant that the people didn’t feel oppressed. When he stood before the people he would not be harmed.
His name was King of a Hundred Streams. He was like the sea. He knew many of the old songs; each morning before the dawn I would hear him outdoors chanting to the sky and to the wind and to the water that ran brown and rank in a creek behind the house. Though I listened intently I couldn’t make out the words.
When I asked him what he sang about he told me the music and the ceremonies surrounding it were essentially the same. The styles of the musical pieces were different but he told me how they promoted the same feelings of love. Some songs he sang at pow wows, others at the changing of the days, still others in the different seasons. Though the occasions and forms of the songs and ceremonies differed he said how they expressed the same feeling of respect.
Since he knew the essential nature of the music and the ceremonies he continued them as he found them; in turn he said how he would pass them on intact. In the visible world there were ceremonies and music; in the invisible world were the spirits that guided them. I noticed how he often left small sacrifices for them, a bit of food or a scrap of clothing. If I was eating an apple he would always nod his chin towards the sacrifice bowl intending me to place the core there when I finished.
King of a Hundred Streams talked sadly about how no one really knew the music any longer. The young people compete in songs like monkeys, he said, with boys and girls mixed together, and no distinction between father and son, mother and daughter. Such music could never be talked about, he explained, as it was not the music handed down by the ancestors. What they like is the sound, he told me, but music and sound should never be taken as akin to each other.
Music springs from the mind while ceremonies appear in outer movements. So it is a rule to make ceremonies as brief and few as possible while giving music its full development. This rule for ceremonies leads to the forward exhibition of them where their beauty resides. This rule for music leads to the inner consideration of it where its beauty resides. If ceremonies demanding this condensation were not performed with this forward exhibition they would disappear. If music demanding this full development were not accompanied by introspection it would lead to a dissipation of the mind.
So it is that each ceremony has its proper response; for music there is introspection. Ceremonies bring pleasure while music brings about a sense of repose. The responses to ceremonies and the introspection of music spring from one and the same idea and have one and the same object.
Music arises from the modulations of sound; its embodiments are in movements of the body. These modulations and movements are the changes required by nature. They are found complete in music. King of a Hundred Streams lamented that even though people today like the sounds they produce and it brings them pleasure if the embodiments are not suitably conducted disorder arises.
In the time I spent there with Angie and the chief I learned many things. If I had stayed I might have learned of the mystery without searching so long and hard. But my wandering ways pulled me to the road early one winter. I would never see them again.
Since I do not compete I have no competition.