Slowly, with the utmost care, and yet as casually as if talking to an old friend, she picked up the mallet, her long, slender fingers clasping the burnished wood and, with the swollen end, struck the gong. Bahmmm… “Her father,” she said, continuing her story, “took off her fingers, one at a time.” As she spoke, she pulled gently on her own thin fingers, as if to demonstrate. “Then he dropped them into the water,” and she motioned, as if sprinkling them. “Sedna fell,” she said, assuming a meditative posture, “just like this, and quietly sank to the bottom…” Bahmhmm…, “of the ocean.”
I was going down with her. The children, who had all been given handheld chimes to play, struck them in accompaniment to the brass and crystal bowls Tizia had been playing, weaving a narrative of sound into the story. “It’s just a little scary,” she had told us at the beginning, her soft French accent plying us for permission.
I held a chime too, smaller, Griffin had pointed out, than the one he had. Minutes later he would be, like the other children, splayed on the ground in front of Tizia as she played the gong, his serpent-like foot worming its way into my lap. Was he actually snuggling with me? What kind of magic was this? I put my hand, as if by accident, on his ankle. Moments like this are hard to come by.
But right now, as Sedna sank to the bottom of the ocean, I was mystified by the thick atmosphere of sound, a moisture that clung in the air and in my lungs, shaking my sternum like a reed. Bahmmmm…went the gong, Sedna draining ever deeper into the blue-black water…bahhmm…bahmhmhm…Bhahmhmhmmm… The children, playing their chimes, whimsical instruments with a hole in one side that produced a wah-wah effect as one opened and closed the hole with the thumb, added depth and tonality to the story. Sedna, forlorn, alone, yet twinkling to the bottom of the ocean, as if surrounded by thousands of tiny proto-plankton chirping beside her.
Minutes earlier, as we had walked into the little room, I spied the gong hanging by the wood stove and smiled inwardly to myself. Bigger than a truck tire, I immediately imagined hefting it in my arms. Grasping along its circumference, cold and metallic, it would warm to the heat of my hands, placed wider than my chest, seeping into its curving dimensions. The heft of its weight would align with the musculature of my arms and spine, balancing on my hips, becoming one. A dance of sorts. The gong’s face was a rich texture of hammered brass and black tarnish, with a smooth inner surface that, I would hear later, groaned like whale song. Sedna, you poor, lucky soul.
I visualized all this within my periphery, my eye muscles carving into the moment, sideways, always at obtuse angles. Registering the gong with the full frontal assault of my vision could be ruinous. After all, I was with the kids, and I’ve been in candy shops before. And one never looks directly at God. Without moving a facial muscle, I casually found a seat on the floor, all the while screaming inwardly, “Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. I hope she plays that gong. I hope she plays that gong. I hope she plays that gong.” Silke, familiar with the landscape, took a seat quietly to one side, and let Tizia, who was by now passing out the little chimes to the children, step softly, ever so carefully and incrementally, into the lead role.
If you have never heard someone play a gong before, it begs a brief description. One is apt to think of a cymbal crashing, or some other cacophonous irritation. A gong, to be sure, is capable of such scintillation, but in the hands of a seasoned player, arrayed with several dozen mallets, each of which coaxes a different sort of tone, a gong can evoke a whole story of sound. Fierce, terrifying booms of thunder, wild crashes of ecstasy, and soft, evocative sounds not unlike whale song or the tender moans of a human. Soft and plaintive, it can be quickly aroused into chaotic rhythms that confound the mind and ears. But what is perhaps the most amazing and perplexing is the gong’s ability to produce all of these sounds at the same time, producing an agonizing and beautiful melody that is both lovely and terrifying.
So, picture this, as Sedna drifts to the bottom of the ocean, lost forever from her father, the king, and her husband, the giant raven. “She was alone,” Tizia continued, the fear of the gong softening into silence behind her. The children, nowhere near as frightened as I, listened carefully, occasionally striking their wah-wah chimes, whose bending notes evoked a sense of deep water. We were down there, waiting.
Tizia picked up a mallet, the color and shape of a spherical lollipop. Gently, she stroked the surface of the gong from the top, around the center, and to the other side, eliciting a mournful song. “Do you hear it?” she asked in her soft French tones, “a whale.” We listened eagerly as she picked up another lolly, this one translucent and green, stroking the gong and attracting a different animal of sound. “Another one,” she said, her eyes searching the milky waters. Ours followed. “All her fingers, which her father had taken off,” and again Tizia pulled gently on her own fingers, “had turned into whales and dolphins and fish.”
Sedna, Tizia had told us earlier in the story, had been pushed from the boat by one of her father’s men. The king, her father, had attempted to save her from isolation on a distant island, but when her husband returned, transformed as he was into a massive black raven, all the men on the boat feared for their lives. They scurried about on the small vessel, rocking the boat above the perilous ocean. Exposed and vulnerable, they wished to be rid of the evident source of the struggle, Sedna, the young bride. Thrown from the safety of the ship, Sedna grasped for her life, one hand on the edge of the boat. Her father, fearing for his own life, closed his heart to her and pulled, one at a time, each of her fingers from the rim of the boat and tossed them into the water. Sedna fell.
“Her only consolation on the lonely island had been to comb her long, luxurious hair, remember?” and again Tizia gave us the visual cue, combing through her own hair with long, delicate fingers. “Now she could not even do this. But her children, the whales and dolphins, swam to her and sang to her at the bottom of the ocean.”
“Now sit down,” Tizia spoke softly, “like Sedna, or find a comfortable position, and close your eyes.” The soft, guttural tones of her voice, rose from the rear of her mouth, where her tongue glided thick and syrupy against the contours of her palate, adding to the depth and comfort of the room. I had the sense of a massive whale gliding slowly through viscous waters. English, my English, is spoken right at the teeth and the tip of the tongue, as if I’m biting my words into creation. Hers slid effortlessly from the deep, invoking her words with an oceanic torpor. The lotus eaters. I was warned about this. But now I was becoming drowsy. What about the children? Too late. Bahmhmmhm…
Minutes later we were back outside. Tizia had broken her own spell, feeding us cake and hot chocolate, each child wrapping her hands around a beautifully glazed handmade cup. “Gluten-free,” she told us, “Just in case.”
Squirreling past the stone labyrinth outside - we dared not enter, not today - the children ran along the fence back to Silke’s schoolhouse on the mesa. Land was everywhere in sight, precious land. The sun, bright, evocative, had melted the frost and snow we had slicked our way across on the way here, and now everything was mud. The children’s boots quickly became encased in it. “I’m saving my mud!” Griffin shouted, pleased at the thick crust covering his boots. Many of the kids followed suit. Making a game of it, they raced from mud pit to mud pit to slop as much of it as they could onto their feet. Little Bear, devious, thinking no one was watching, flopped forward and spread her fingers deep into the wet earth.
I was still trying to get the water out of my ears.