I began my day with good intentions, finished the MBF Christmas card, at last, and then took the dogs for an early morning walk as the weather was promising heat and clear skies. On top of the hill I found that Adam had placed a pot in the wild. Beautiful. It took me back to the memory of a story that I read over 30 years ago, a story from The Bushmen of Africa. The best stories are for life, and I have grown up with this one and begin, just begin, now, to understand it a little better. Maybe in another 30 years I will understand more. I took photos of the pot and the sunlight and shadow on the pot echoed the sunlight and shadow on the moon. I walked. And I remembered. Then I came home and wrote.
The Soul Jar
His herd of cows was small. Each day he walked them to grass. Each night he brought them home to the safety of the ring of thorns that guarded them against wild beasts. Each day he searched out the richest pasture, with flowers and herbs to flavour the milk, and each morning when he rose to milk them he found that once again the cows were dry. Night after night after long night. He waited and watched, but saw no thieves. If life went on like this he would never be wealthy enough to find a wife. So after many mornings of disappointment he went to the wise man of the village to seek help.
The wise man listened to the story then closed his eyes and thought. At last he went to his garden and pulled a herb from it. He gave it to the man. “ Before you settle to watch the cows tonight steep this in hot water and drink,” he said. “ It will keep you awake and then you will see. And whatever you see you must catch and hold. Then your cows will have milk and life will be good.”
So that evening as the sun set on a dusty land the man brewed a tea steeped from the wise man’s herb, and sat back to watch. Night fell. Stars shone thick in the dark. Across the land lion roared, jackal barked. The man watched and listened. In the thorn corral the cows were restless. Then he heard something. Even now he could not describe what it was. Music? A song? It came from above, from the very stars themselves. As he watched coiled ropes of stardust fell down from the sky, and down the ropes climbed seven women, the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Each woman carried a jar, round as the moon and each walked over to the cows and sat down to milk them. When each had finished, they began the climb back up the stardust ropes from heaven, back to their homes in the sky.
He watched, eyes wide open, as he had never watched anything before and then at the last moment, just as the last of the star maidens was reaching for her rope he ran. He ran, fast as the wind across the dusty dark, the longest run of his life and reached out a hand and grabbed and caught at her ankle just as she was climbing the rope, and he held on so hard, so fierce, that she cried out. Still he held her, and she could not move, and now the very first rays of sunlight were blushing the sky. As the light kissed her stardust rope it began to fade, and disappear. She fell towards earth and he caught her in his arms and he knew then that he loved her, that he always had, that he always would and that everything in his life that had gone before had just led him to this moment and to her.
He set her gently on the ground, lifted her pot and took her hand in his and together they walked to his hut. He looked at his beautiful catch, she watched the stars as they flicked out of the sky, one by one by one. It seemed that something of their light was held in her eyes. In his hut he asked her why she had come like this in the night to steal the milk from his cows and she said that she and her sisters did not know that they were his cows. They had no idea that people could own another living being. But each day the cows fed on the richest pasture and their milk was the finest in all the land, and she and her sisters loved the pure white taste of the cows’ milk.
He asked her where she lived and she told him her home was in the sky.
And then he asked her if she would stay with him now, and be his wife. And she said that as he had caught her, and as he had asked her, then yes, she must stay, but her staying would have one condition, that he must never, ever look into the jar that she carried.
She was beautiful. Her skin was dark black as the night sky when there is no moon and yet something of it sparkled, almost as if she held starlight inside her. Her eyes were light midnight lakes, her lips the darkest aubergine and her hair curled around her head so tight, so soft. He would have said yes whatever she had asked him.
And so they became man and wife, and some marvelled at this beautiful princess that the poor cowherd had won for himself, though many feared her as people fear strangers. Only the wise man knew where she had come from. Soon his wealth began to grow as her sisters no longer came down from the sky to steal the milk in their midnight raids. He bought more cows and each day would travel further to find grazing for them, and each night would return to his wife. At first the presence of the pot in the corner of the room would haunt and taunt him. Soon the memory of it drifted away. For the most part he was kind. They had seven children. Each child had something wild and starlike about the eyes.
And all the while the pot sat in the corner of the hut and grew dusty.
At night she would sit outside the hut and watch the moon grow and fade in the darkness, watch the dance of the stars. Sometimes she would sing a song that seemed to call the stars closer, closer, as if the moon and stars were listening and sometimes, on the edge of hearing, it would seem that the stars were singing back to her. On nights like this her husband would be fearful. He knew that she was remembering her home in the sky. He would grow jealous and sad that she could not just be happy here with him, for didn’t he give her everything she wanted?
One day she went to market to buy new cloth to make clothes for the children. The way was long and she was weary. The night before had been the night of the new moon and the sky had been rich with starsong. All night she had watched, so now in the daytime she was tired. She sat down under a tree to sleep for a while and woke late.
Meanwhile her husband had brought the cows home. He stood for a while admiring his herd of over a thousand beasts and then went home to find the children alone and no supper cooking. He was angry, and worried. He had felt the empty space in his bed last night and heard her singing to the sky. He had grown cold and jealous, and now he was angry, so he stomped around their home looking for food, searching here and searching there, and then he saw her jar, the pot that she had carried when he caught her, dusty in a corner. She had told him that he must never look into it. And somehow it had always been there, in the back of his mind , the question. What was inside? She had warned him. Well, he was master of this house, and she was his wife and he would look if he wanted to!
By now the children had gathered together outside and were beginning to prepare food for the evening meal for when their mother returned. He moved closer to the pot. What could be in it that was so precious? What right did she have to hide anything from him? With each question that came to mind he moved a slow step closer. What harm could it do? She would never know if he looked into it. Jus once. Now he was standing right next to it. He put his hand on the lid of the pot, looked over his shoulder, then lifted the lid and looked inside.
His rage was like a storm in a dessert. He threw the lid against the wall where it smashed. He screamed and shouted and whirled and flung his fists about and screamed again and the children all came to the door and looked on in fear and then there she was, stardust and darkness, in the doorway. She looked at her husband, she saw the smashed lid of the jar, she saw the open pot.
He raised his hand and pointed his finger and his face was ugly with rage and confusion.
“You, woman. You have tricked me. All these years. All these years I wanted to look and didn’t because you asked me not to. All these years. And what is in it? What? Nothing, that’s what”. And he kicked the pot and it rang out like a beautiful bell.
He stood shaking, shoulders hunched, fists at his sides. And she just smiled. But it was not a smile of joy. “ I knew this day would come,” she said. “At first I hoped it would come soon, but then I grew happy with you and dreaded its coming to pass. But I knew that it would come.” As she spoke tears formed in her dark ocean eyes and trickled like stardust down her black skin. With each tear it seemed that she faded from the world, just a little.
“ You look into the jar and you see nothing,” she said. “ And yet that jar is full to the brim with all that makes me beautiful, everything that makes all women beautiful. In that jar is my soul. And yet you, you see nothing. So I cannot stay with you .”
At that moment darkness fell and like a falling star she passed from the world in a blaze of light. Only then did he begin to understand what he had done. He turned to look again in the jar, to see if now he knew what was held inside he would see it, could see it. But the jar was gone too.
He lived for many years after that night, cared for his children with kindness and love. He never married again. He would often sit by his herd of cows at night and watch the dance of the stars across the sky. Sometimes he would sing. And sometimes it seemed that on the very edge of hearing the stars were singing back to him. But maybe it was just a trick of the wind.
Later the day tumbled into pain and tooth and headache that still lingers. Lousey with antibiotics I am struggling to the end of a painting, waiting to hear from America, and wanting to walk up to the pot in evening light to see how it looks in the light of dimity with moth and bat and badger.