As the Prairie Grasses Sing

Issue #42

When I was just turned nine years old, my father took me again on one of his buying trips, as he had each year for as far back as I could remember. I suspect he had begun as soon as I could have been expected to talk. So far as I knew, my mother never offered objection to this scheme of one so young traveling such a distance. This time she didn’t even watch us go; she only embraced me in her calm, cool arms and nodded to my father, once, before turning back inside.

And then we were bumping and rattling in my father’s cart down the road and past the clamor of shop doors swinging open, of the smith banging against his anvil, of pigs snorting as they lumbered past. It was a cheerful clamor and I did not understand why my mother always shrank from it. More than once I’d found her hunched in a dark corner of the store, hands to her ears. I liked it. That morning as we drove I waved to pig-boys and drunkards as they caught my eye, or I stuck my tongue out at them. When a man at a cart stuck his out in return I shifted hurriedly away, but my father saw and laughed, and after a moment I laughed, too, because I was going all the way up the coast to Makeplace with him and I could think of nothing better.

By midmorning the road we drove was no longer shaped by the city’s sharp geometry but by the vagaries of the land: over the hills or around them, along the creeks until it came to shallows and then across. Sometimes my father sang stories to me, as I always loved him to do. He first sang to me of tricky, cowardly Mallon on that trip. But more often he was quiet, a strange thing for him.

I made up for it for a while, flicking my hands with the symbols they’d all taught me, my father and mother and the gray woman who lived with us, though she was gone for months at a time and always returned smelling of prairie weed. Some of the signs I’d made for myself, when I could find no other to say what I wanted. My mother always learned them gravely when I explained, but my father only ever watched long enough to grasp what I meant, and then he would go on aloud.

Yet on that trip, he watched as little as he spoke, though his ear seemed always cocked for some sound that didn’t come. Once I pulled on his sleeve to make him look at my hands, and he only turned and said, “Enough, child.” And that was strange in itself, for usually he called me by name as firmly as pressing a hot brand to a calf.

Sometime mid-afternoon I saw a shadow low near the road, and patted at him excitedly and pointed. It was a hare, just like those the gray woman kept sometimes in the pouch on her back. My father’s arm turned suddenly tense beneath my hand, and when I looked to him in confusion the hare hopped away. I looked sadly after it. It did not know me for a friend, as the gray woman’s did.

“It had other business, Ghemma,” he said, but I knew he was not as disappointed as I was.

He grew very still again when we passed a hawk sitting on a lone fencepost. I shuddered at the sharp, efficient curve of its beak. I did not hate hawks as the gray woman did, but I could not like them. When I shrank back against my father, he pulled me to him in a ferocious hug. And then he began singing a hearty galumphing tune of the Shepherd Rock who hid his sheep from ‘the cruel and hungry wind-blessed bandit’ by gathering them all beneath him and then turning to stone.

I remember only heartiness and my father’s laughter rolling over me like a pleasant thunder all the rest of that day; and that night we slept at the roadside just past a creek, where we drank and washed and took our cookwater. Even as we curled in blankets in the back of the empty cart, he was cheery, as he would be when he first came home, and I knew somehow some of it was due to me.

Yet the next day his mood had returned, and it didn’t break when we met another traveler on the road and ate a quiet lunch at his fire, nor when I pleaded later for another story-song. One about a little girl, I asked, like me, tapping myself emphatically on the chest.

“Later, Ghemma” he said finally. “I know the place for story-telling—a track off the road, up into a pretty little wood. You like to go there?”

I shrugged, not sure what the tone in his voice meant nor whether I had pleased or displeased, or perhaps something else altogether.

And we did come to a track that might have been a road, once, but might as easily have been a trick of the landscape. We followed it over a crest and stopped a moment to admire the long rolls of prairie and the sinuous curve of brush crowding a creek. Then we turned down again, winding round the curves to a pretty little wood, as he’d said, a solitary copse of cottonwoods above a marsh.

Not one word did my father speak as he loosed the pony and set it grazing. It wasn’t dark yet, not even late enough to stop, really, but he built a fire anyway. When I asked, he said, “I tell my stories best around a fire, is all.”

He settled me at the fire with salt pork and the last of my mother’s bread and, after gazing off into the prairie for a long moment, he began.

Of all the things I loved about my father, I loved his singing the most. That evening, it seemed as though he sang his very heart dry, although the tunes were soft and the story quieter, sweeter than he usually sang. At first the story was of a tinker-peddler, like him, who traveled as he willed, traded in what he fancied, and sang for bed and bread when the mood took him. Then the peddler met a woman, and suddenly the song was hers, not his. When he bought her for his bride she feared him, but slowly he learned to charm her and she to trust him. And then the truth: she was a woman who knew the minds of other things than man. She was lady of the butterflies.

My father paused to stir the fire. He did not begin again, and it seemed he had not paused but finished.

What of the lady? I asked. I flicked my hands at him, pleading, anxious, a little angry that he should stop when the song was so clearly incomplete.

“That’s enough singing,” he said, roughly. “The rest of it is, they settled in a village where they thought the others would leave them be. But the others didn’t trust her, with her strange ways, and finally they came after her and locked her away, and they’d ‘a killed her then if she hadn’t been carrying a babe. And then there was rescue that neither she nor anyone’d a right to expect. They got away and settled again, in a city where she could hide and raise her little girl. But she hated the city, with all its folks and its closed-in streets. And she was always afraid.”

Told so flatly, it seemed a poor enough ending for a story, especially since my father’s voice had gone dry and harsh. I didn’t ask for another, and I didn’t complain when he wrapped me in my blanket and set me to sleep at the fireside, saying it was ‘a night best slept in the open.’

We had lain still quite a long while before I realized what he’d been saying. From his opening words, describing a peddler, I ought to have known: it was him, of course, and the lady was my mother.

It was too much thought to think lying down. I rolled in my blanket until I was sitting in front of the fire’s embers, and then my father was awake, too, and sitting across from me.

“Something on your mind,” he said.

I asked the question floating at the top: what about the butterflies? I’d never even seen any in the garden behind the store. If she was lady of the butterflies, then where were they?

He was quiet awhile before he said, “She sent ‘em away. Was afraid she’d be found out again, if there were any of ‘em hanging close.”

Found out? I asked. Then I remembered the rest, about the village. But why? Why had they wanted to hurt her?

“Afeared of the difference in her.”

The difference.... That she could talk to the minds ‘of other things than man.’ My mother talked to butterflies. And the gray woman—I flicked another question.

“Her, too,” he said, sighing. “And her hares.”

And him?

“No.”

Of course the question came around, the one he must have been waiting on, dreading.

What about me?

“I don’t know.”

It might seem silly that I should ask—wouldn’t I know better than anyone? But it had no more occurred to me that I might talk with beasts than that I would grow up to become a woman and a wife, as my mother was.

I asked him, why didn’t he know? Before he could answer, my thoughts were racing away again, imagining the roaches we swept from the floor, the pigs trotting past our shop, the swallows daubing mud nests under the eaves. What would they say? I didn’t like the thought of the roaches, but even they held new interest, now.

“So nobody knows,” he was saying. “If you seemed to hanker after some beetle or beast or what-you-like, then we’d know clear enough. Or if you’d talk, we’d know the other way.” He swung his head back and forth, catching ashy froth in his beard. “If you’d only talk, Ghemma, then we’d know.”

I held up my hands, wiggled my fingers.

“But don’t you want to sing? It wouldn’t matter if you’d hold a tune, though I’d bet coin to stick you would. But to hear some other voice in that house singing out besides mine....” He leaned down until his eyes glistened just above the fire’s flicker. “Why don’t you sing?”

I shrunk from the longing in his voice. I nestled deeper into my blankets, burying my hands so it was clear I had no more to say.

After a moment he looked away. “Anyway, now you’re here, maybe you’ll know. Lots more wild things out here than how we usually come. If you find kin among ‘em, that’ll make it sure.”

I didn’t answer, and after a while he blew a sigh and stretched back onto the ground.

If you’d asked me before why I never spoke, I couldn’t have told you. I wasn’t aware of not being able to; I had no sense that I couldn’t speak, if I’d wanted. I just didn’t want to. I’d learned silence from my mother, and from the gray woman when she stayed. As I watched my mother sell the store’s goods, facing the onslaught of question and demand and fumbling for the few words her mouth allowed her, I saw that speech was the intruder and silence a retreat—perhaps the only one.

So I thought that night, huddled, my mind slipping from my mother’s tight face to my father’s words to the calls of the crickets, the last chirps of a late-singing bird. A soft flapping flitted overhead. A coyote yipped some distance away, beyond the rise. I found myself leaning into the night, ear to the sound, as though by listening very hard I could hear the meaning in the cry.

Suddenly I could be still no longer. I glanced at my father, to see that his eyes were closed, and then I carefully uncurled from my blanket, laid it aside, and edged towards the trees.

I went slowly at first, feeling at the ground with my feet while I waited for my night-eyes. Soon by the crescent moon’s glow I could make out dull black shapes as trees and boulders. I walked until I reached the creek that fed the marsh. I glanced behind me; the ember-glow of our fire was faint and nearly hidden. I could not see my father.

I huddled on a rock, wishing I had brought my blanket with me. The flapping returned above my head. I could just make out a dark, darting shape and guessed it to be a bat from one of my father’s stories. Would it talk to me? I sat very still and squinted up, wondering if I should flap, too. But I had never seen the gray woman hop, even though she spoke with hares. Nor did she make hand-signs to them. She certainly did not speak with words; unlike my mother, she didn’t seem to think any need great enough to break the silence.

I knew I was not alone. Unseen things crept at the edges of my hearing, but none made any sign that they could talk to me, or that they recognized me as a friend. I began making the motions with my hands, which trembled a little. Will any of you talk to me? I asked, knowing it was futile to expect an animal to know my family’s hand-signs.

Am I like my mother? I described her, her cool embraces and the silences when even her hands lay still. I told it to myself as much as any unseen creature. Yes, my mother was afraid, as my father had said. I had always known it, but namelessly, unable to step far enough from the shadow even to see its shape. I did not want that shadow to cover me. I did not want to speak with animals, if that was what it meant.

My father did not want me to. It was loneliness, I supposed, borne of my mother’s long silences and the gray woman’s wild ways.

And there was the other option: to speak. I heard my father again, describing the possibilities—offering a choice, it seemed. To use words, or not. If I could not speak to wild things, then surely I could become the other thing, human. And then my mother would not fear for me any longer—as she always had, I realized.

This, this of course I would do. I would tell my father—in words, I would tell him. What should I say? I framed the thought, played it out with my fingers. “I’m not like my mother,” I would say. “I want to sing with you.” I bit at my lip, tried to imagine the sounds coming from my throat. They would be thick, likely—I had had no practice.

I want to sing.

The thought was there, my mouth even opened, but there was no sound. I felt the beginnings of panic, wondering if I was by strange chance a mute. I felt for the shapes of the sounds, pressing with my tongue, pursing my lips.

At that moment came the quivering at the edge of my mind.

It was not a voice. It was not words, barely even thought, yet the meaning was clear: a questioning. Uncertainty, yet recognition. Curiosity.

My speaking forgotten for a moment, I tried to push thought back in return, but encountered only bewilderment. I began the hand-signs again, still doubting they could be understood yet desperate not to lose that other whose thought I’d felt. Don’t go, I pleaded. Don’t leave me alone.

The thought was clearer this time. Lost, youngling?

I didn’t know how to answer that. Who are you? I signed.

A pause; the settling of careful decision. Slow approach. I could feel it, even judge its direction, but I couldn’t tell what came. I waited, hands fisted and tense with the strain. I was not afraid that it would harm me; the fear was deeper and murkier than that.

A clump of weeds parted and a patch of silver crept through to stand in front of me, gleaming in the moonlight. For an instant I thought it a dog, and then I realized: coyote.

However it had been thinking at me, it did not any longer. It only stood, sniffing, eyes shadowed.

Scavenger.

Thief.

Destroyer of hares’ nests.

My father had sung of coyotes—one had run with Mallon when it cared to. This was my speech? I could not answer my father when he spoke, could not join in his singing, so that I might know the thought of a sneaking prowler like this?

The one in front of me—a dog coyote, I suddenly knew—must have heard some of this. He growled, but even as the sound guttered in his throat I knew it was not aimed at me. And then came a picture that was no more a picture than the thought before it had been words. It was built of scents: an acrid flavor like char, the sourness of fear, a deep inescapable scent full of warmth and life and a hint of menace. The shape it took was blurred, dim as a shadow, but utterly certain.

It was me, I realized. The odors hung about me like a garment—the smoke from the campfire, the fear seeping from my skin, the humanness of me that no soap could wash off. And in back of them I felt the coyote’s repulsion, nearly as strong as my own, but tinged with curiosity.

And then came other smells that brought other pictures, though I’d never seen them before: trotting across the prairie, nose full of the scents of fieldmice, prairie grasses, and the rich warm earth beneath. The scent of spring water after a long, dry run. The sour perfume of a bitch coyote in heat.

Lost, youngling? the coyote asked again.

I sat suddenly on the ground, hands pressed against my eyes. Tears leaked from behind my palms. Then the coyote was licking me, warming me with breath that suggested rotting meat.

Go away, I thought, and it stepped back. Go! I said again, without trying to feel how I did it. The coyote took another step back and turned.

Wait.

It stopped.

Will you come back for me?

Call us, youngling, and we will come. Then it gave one sharp yip and dashed into the weeds.

I sniffled through my tears and tried to think. What was this creature I suddenly found myself to be? Would I become coyote? It was what the dog coyote had pictured to me, I was sure: a life knowing the world as they knew it, and knowing them more intimately than I could know myself. It was not just curiosity that tempted me. The coyote had taken me for—kin, I supposed, borrowing my father’s word. At that moment it seemed as though I had no other kin in the world but that dog coyote I had just sent away.

No. I would speak, so that I’d be like other people.

I’ll sing with you, Father. I will.

Still nothing. I opened my mouth and forced some sound from my mouth, to know I could—an ugly, shapeless cry with no hint of meaning nor tune.

I knew how words were to sound. I knew the modulations of my father’s voice, the ups and downs that told as much as the words, and more truthfully.

And then a shadow moved in the trees and he was beside me, stroking my hair, his face wet.

I cannot speak! I told him, slapping the signs in frustration, but of course he could not see them.

“Find what you were looking for, did you?”

Lost, youngling?

I did not want to be this. I wanted to sing my father’s stories, and maybe even sing new ones. Though he didn’t admit it, I knew he made many of his own—no one else could have known the story of my mother. But what use would it be for me to make songs if I could not sing them? And I wanted my mother to touch me without the hesitation, the wondering what I was. I did not want to be afraid, as she was. I didn’t want to be this!

“Hush, my girl,” he said. I realized I was crying again. “Hush.”

I beat against his chest, the tears rolling into sobs. I didn’t want to be this.

The coyote waited—outside the range of feeling, but I knew he was there. But he would not understand what I mourned. Perhaps with him and the others of the coyote kin I would forget, but I did not want to forget. No. The instant in which I’d considered his offer was gone.

I held more tightly to my father until the heaving sobs calmed, and I was left with burning eyes and a thick, heavy nose. I pulled away until I could see glints of moonlight across my father’s face.

“You’re still one of us, then?”

I nodded.

“Glad to hear it. Tell me about it sometime, hmm? It might make a song.”

I stood up and took his hand, and with a grunt he rose, too. We walked back to the dead fire and settled again for sleep, my blanket snug against his this time. When my thoughts had dimmed and nearly gone dark, a bitch coyote offered a greeting as she trotted past, and I nestled deeper in and wondered why I wanted to reply.


Read Comments on this Story (1 Comment)

ShareThis with Friends

Sarah L. Edwards writes science fiction and fantasy, reads a lot, knits (anybody need a scarf?), and wonders what to do with this math degree she just got. Her fiction has previously appeared in Writers of the Future XXIV, Aeon Speculative Fiction, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

Her stories have appeared four times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including "The Tinyman and Caroline" in BCS #17 and the BCS anthology The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Last Devil” by Sarah L. Edwards
“Stormchaser, Stormshaper” by Erin Hoffman

Return to Issue #42

Comments & Scrivenings
1 Comment on “As the Prairie Grasses Sing”

One Response to “As the Prairie Grasses Sing”

  1. Melissa Mead says:

    05-12-2010, 08:30 PM
    Melissa Mead

    I thought this story felt familiar! I got 2 related stories from AnthologyBuilder, and it was a real treat to find this one. Thank you.

Leave a Comment on “As the Prairie Grasses Sing”