Friday, November 30, 2007

A Seanachaí

by Marie White Small

Once upon a time there was girl. An apt beginning for a fable, possibly of Faëries, trickery and magic, or maybe a parable; for none turns from unmerciful truth. But yes, a girl - a small child walks through a field on a pure late-summer morning. She is five years old and dressed in her mother’s worn acetate slip, the silky garment belted at her waist. Still the hem drags behind small red tie-up shoes, her favorite red shoes. She carries a well-loved doll tucked in the crook of her chubby arm. It came by post in a narrow box, paid for in coupons clipped from baby food jars and one crisp dollar bill, a gentle price for this treasured Gerber baby-doll.

The avenue of childhood is long, and peppered with a million innocent moments that appear to hold little consequence. As she walks under the brilliant sky, our small, once-upon-a-time girl is now enchanted, donned in her expected future. She cuts through the field, walks along the road to play with neighborhood children, all the while beguiled by the smell of her mother, the feel of her, the sheer fabric, the sensuous lace.

Who would know of this transformation, you ask, surely not this child? She has no script, no words, no hand at runes. She is marked in symbols, and it is the Seanachaí (pronounced "shan-a-hee"), the storyteller, who translates tales of wee ones who peer into their mothers’ wardrobes, tiptoe into bedchambers where they know there is mystery. They touch all of it and are imprinted here: the lace edges, the perfumed powder and scarlet lipstick that mark their mothers in ways they feel but do not understand. Not yet.

There are games in the field; the doll, the shift, each is tossed aside for red-rover, breaking open silky milk-weed pods, and a trek to some kid’s mother known for slices of buttered white bread sprinkled with sugar, forbidden in her own mother’s kitchen of shiny, red apples and tall glasses of milk.

By mid-afternoon nap-time, the plaything, the acetate slip are both gone, missing forever. The five-year-old is truly heart-broken. She has lost far more than her mother understands. In this mother’s work-a-day world of dishes and diapers, there are bigger fish to fry. At bedtime prayers or the story-hour, it is her father who sooths this cailín and takes her under his wing. The split has occurred, imperceptibly.

The Seanachaí knows this and sees through the wider world: a young father and his daughter gone for a day of fishing. She learns to thread a worm on a hook and knows to hold her breath as she squeezes a trigger on the rifle range. The currency of competence and courage is exchanged for tasks well-regarded, though she is seldom without fear, without terror. The prize is great: lavish affection and approval from an awkward father unversed in the enigmatic, his gentleness and wonderment ground out of him years before.

There are larger issues for the chronicler of this narrative: the loss of innocence, distant and distracted caretakers and death: worms, fish caught on hooks, deer gutted and hung in the back yard to be butchered. All of it coded as pragmatic survival, a harder nurturance the child learns to accept as a distant second best.

Weeks or months later a package arrives addressed to our once-upon-a-time girl, a brand-new Gerber doll, wrapped tightly like a newborn in a satin-edged blanket. The girl, now proud of her tom-boy title, bears skinned knees from jumping off tree limbs. Nevertheless, she turns again; for a time she is re-enchanted by pop-beads and high-heels.

Why, you ask, why tell this tale? The narrative of this child becomes the turning back and forth: fidelity, loyalty, side-taking. At first, the struggle is a wrenching one. This girl feels, quite erroneously, she must choose: which parent, which way of life? It is the Seanachaí who well knows this journey, and can tell its real truth, in layers like a well executed water-color; fluid but put to paper in water and pigment nonetheless.

Still, you may wonder, why do people do what they do? Why is such a harmless moment so striking? A head-scratcher, for sure. Nothing is small or white, simple or plain. The depth of a character, of a life in leaves, is built, word-by-word in subtly as much as active voice. You question, it is necessary to tell the details of this story? Perhaps not, but before a fully blood-letting human creation can lift off the page and become embedded in the mind and the heart of a reader, a past, a childhood and conflict are required. The storyteller should know the secrets of this past, thus weave them into the warp and woof seamlessly.

This child may grow into a woman addled by indecision, or maybe she abandons her own family. There is a satchel of possibilities. Fun to guess and for some, a pastime to ponder. The classic bard’s remedy was to speak; ours is to pen tales rendered from the truth of these curious souls. We hope to spin words and worlds, we invite you to leave yourself behind, and enter here. We offer a glimpse.

Again you ask why? Ah- that. Tis a universal lament invoked in darker hours by nearly every human being at some crossroad. I say, ask the Seanachaí, though it can never be fully answered.

© 2007, Marie White Small
All Rights Reserved