Over two decades ago I began writing a novel called Nyack Nights, which was going to be about the town where I lived for six happy years in my late teens and early twenties. This novel was going to be based upon fictional composites and transformations of the fascinating people I befriended while I lived in that magical town on the Hudson River. The main character was named Annie One Wolf, and everyone told their stories in first person, which I love to use. No omniscient narrators for me. I like the “unreliable” subjective narrator much better. I think there’s more truth in it.
For some reason, I don’t know why (and maybe my journals from the period could tell me), I abandoned my novel after about fifty pages. Rereading this material, I deeply regret that I never went further with it, because I see something really beautiful and strong in the writing. Perhaps I will take it up again and finish it, maybe turn it into a collection of urban fantasy stories , something like those written by Charles de Lint in Dreams Underfoot. Since I’ve been starting a new term at UC Irvine, and since my computer spent almost two awful weeks malfunctioning before finally crashing, necessitating many, many hours of conversations with people in India trying to save it. So, I’ve been busy. But I felt it was time to stop grading papers and share a little bit of my past. Amiri is a composer of classical music who was born in Africa. Here he tells Annie something about his childhood.
“The first memory I have is of my grandmother singing to me. She was a thin, very small black woman, so black that at times her skin seemed almost a rich purple like the small round fruit that we children used to knock from the trees and eat in the hottest part of the rainy season. Her body smelled strong and pungent because she had not bathed in many years. You see, in our culture cleanliness is not next to godliness, oh no. Growing old in a good way, a way that serves the people, means that one does not waste time on personal vanity and tending the body. The old focus much of their energy on the spirit world, the world of the ancestors. Dirt, age, and holiness are intertwined. Therefore, my grandmother Ninya smelled of the earth mother and the delicious, fecund things that decompose upon her breast in the secret darkness of her forest heart. She also smelled of the herbs that hung drying from the walls and rafters of the room where she lived alone in our family compound. All of this was as it had to be, for she was a powerful witch and seer, a woman who served Nature and guided us mercilessly to its purpose. No one would ever admit it to me, but I knew that she was the one who let the Jesuits take me, because it was known in our village that this was the prophecy about me since even before my birth, that I would go into the world of the white men, learn of their ways, and come back to teach my people about them so that we could survive into the 21st century.
“Ninya’s odor was not unpleasant to me, however, for I was used to it. From the time I had been a baby, she had cradled me and sung to me because that, again, is the way of the old among our people. The very old and the very young are sisters and brothers in the spirit world, because the child has just come from the place where the old will soon go. They have much to tell one another. The very ancient ones in our tribe even speak with the babies in the wombs of our mothers, just in case they should die before the birth and some important message from the Other World should be lost for a generation.
“Well, on this day of my farthest memory, Ninya was singing to me. Not a lullabye such as your grandmother, if she loved you well, sang to you, but a song of the history of my people, the Uluru. She was telling me how the world was created one night when the eight goddesses grew lonely around their village fire in the heavens, the place that that you call the Pleides. To wile away the endless ages they often had contests of music among one another, something my people do to this day. That night the youngest goddess, grown bored with her deathless existence, bragged that she was going to make some new companions for herself, so she sang about a woman and a man, and it was so. Another goddess laughed when she saw these poor naked creatures floating in the void, and said, `I’m going to do ever better than you, my sister. I’m going to sing them a world,’ and it was so.
“Who knows how long it took to create the world in that place where there is no time, but when the goddesses, the grandmothers of us all, were finished, a whole shining creation floated beneath them filled with women, men, lions, crocodiles, snakes, fire ants, birds, baobab trees, flowers, fruits, grains, mountains, the sun, the moon, and the stars. There were several verses about all the things that the goddesses’ had made, and my grandmother sang each one to me lovingly, with great care.
“Over the millennia the goddesses played with this perfect world, making the rain fall, causing baby people and animals to be born, the crops to grow and the seasons to flow harmoniously, one into the other. But one day the youngest goddess grew bored again, and crept down when the others were sleeping and began experimenting with floods, famine, earthquake, death, and war. Of course she was exiled from the sky village once her sisters discovered her mischief, but the harm was already done. Humanity had to suffer until the end of time, all because some curious goddess got bored and had an itch to scratch.
“Later, when the Jesuits took me and imprisoned me in their seminary, I heard their side of the story, that it wasn’t a goddess who had almost unbalanced creation, but a serpent who tempted Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. But I knew better, and all the carelessness I saw around me in the acts and words of these ‘holy’ friars, who were bored to death because they had to teach religion and history to us sullen, resentful, heathen black boys, merely confirmed what I had learned as a child about the great carelessness at the center of divine intention.
“Until I was six years old, however, I knew almost nothing of the priests, but believed entirely that the Uluru lived at the center of the world, for Uluru means ‘navel,’ and that is what all the old songs and tales tell us. When the world was first created, our village was the point of blinding light and thunderous music from which all creatures radiated out to the edge of the universe. So my grandmother told me and, who knows, perhaps it is true. Much else that she told me was true, as I learned when I became a man.”