The Blind Singer’s Prologue
from the novel “The Lost Children of The Greenwood”
The stories of The Greenwood and the Goddess are ancient – as old as the first women and men in the New World; but whether these mothers and fathers brought the Goddess with them, or whether She was waiting for them on this continent already, another singer will have to tell.
My sight reaches back only to the early 1700s, when my family stepped off a ship in Philadelphia, and almost immediately after slipped into the green heart of Pennsylvania’s great forests. We ended up in The Greenwood, although there is disagreement among my argumentative Welsh father and mother, and my argumentative Welsh aunts and uncles, whether we were the first European settlers, and not the damned English, just as there is disagreement within our family whether we brought our gods and goddesses, including our sad-eyed blue-eyed Jesus, to The Greenwood or whether they – like the Goddess – were here waiting for us from the beginning.
In any case, we’ve been in this place for 300 years. Our work has varied although we have always been singers of memory and singers of loss, singers of the grand or humorous tale, singers of love and singers especially of love thwarted, since while our words please the ear, our faces seldom please the eye, and our manners are rough and awkward. It is only through singing the grace of others that we find our grace, and through discovering their beauty, no matter where it is hidden, that we discover our own.
We were trappers, and hunters, and woodcutters in the early years. We sat out the French Indian war, finding nothing in the petty games of great powers to move us. Several young men of my family grew excited by the revolution’s ideals of freedom, somehow failing to notice that we already possessed that freedom here in our lonely green secret hills, and ran off to join the fight. A few less came back.
One caught fever, died in Independence Hall, and was buried in what is now Washington Square, which I discovered during a middle school field trip to Philadelphia. I walked over his bones and they sang his story with such power that I was struck unconscious for three days. The doctors were mystified, and more than a little put out that I resisted diagnosis. My family was frozen in a gratifying state of terror. This terror turned to joy when I woke up and whispered the story of my long dead cousin. My father and mother, aunts and uncles, agreed that no one in the family had manifested the gift of song so convincingly in at least three generations; and in the ensuing atmosphere of relief and celebration we overlooked certain niceties, such as giving the hospital notice I was leaving or paying the bill or finding my clothes, so that suddenly I found myself on the street in a flapping gown and nothing else. A nearby Army Navy store fitted me for public view, including with a pair of Doc Martens that I still wear like old friends, and an Irish bar willing to serve minors did the rest. It has been our family ritual time out of mind to baptize each member who manifests the gift of song with a tumbler of flaming Scotch whisky. Like the gift of song, the whisky burned and then warmed me, and like song the warmth has been enduring. Few people have the great fortune to possess the memory of a happiness so complete that it inoculates them against sadness and defeat. But the love and pride of my family that day inoculated me. I thank the Goddess as well as our blue-eyed Jesus for that, because I have needed it.
When the industrial revolution came, we went down the coal mines, like our family still in Wales did, and later we went into the factories. By the middle of the nineteenth century we were thoroughly American. We fought in the Civil War and the First and Second World Wars, enjoyed the mid twentieth century prosperity, and were thrown to harder times by that prosperity’s decline. Today, the frackers have come looking to buy our family’s land in The Greenwood for drilling. We’ve always turned down their money and, so far, flummoxed their lawyers.
Through it all, we’ve been the memory of this forest and this place. Some of that memory is known, believed, and written in books (many authored by my family). But it is from the unknown and unwritten memories, and from the histories disbelieved or dismissed in The Greenwood as “old Welsh tales” that we compose our songs. We sing of the Goddess. For the first hundred years, we sang of little else since The Greenwood was the Goddess’ forest plus one small village with one small church. The trees and the hills and the mountains and the game taken for food, sunlight and moonlight, warm rain and deep snow, the waters thrilling in the brooks and the wind giving voice to the leaves, the thunder of summer and the silence of winter, the small flowers along the rocky paths, the new babies in snug blankets and the old people murmuring by the fire, the living and the dying, all these were Hers.
I won’t say The Greenwood was paradise because there is no paradise where there are men and women. There was hate as well as love in our forest. There was disease, suffering, despair, violence. Yet there was also accord in our discord, and our love was seldom trumped by greed or obstructed by laws or abused by the censor of a narrow, inflexible morality.
But by the fiftieth year of the United States, the village and the church were larger, as were the roads running through our forest, and that was when the trouble in The Greenwood began. The roads brought commerce, of course, which we might have survived as long as there were the woods, even though the clink of gold became more softly seductive than whispered words in the ears of some people. The church was another matter. We’d always been fond of our sad-eyed blue-eyed Jesus in The Greenwood, so much so that my family produced favorite preachers for generations. But the roads brought a new fire-eyed Jesus. When this Jesus burned for abolition, we made common cause with him, but when he burned for righteousness, many of the old families turned away.
Or the older members of the old families did at least. Their children didn’t like to be told they had to wear starched clothes and sit on hard pews and follow dictated rules, even if they weren’t actually required to do these things by their parents. So the children of four families, three from each, evenly distributed between boys and girls, and between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, walked silently into the church on a Mid-Summer’s Day Sunday in a condition as unstarched as it is possible for young bodies to be. They were chased angrily out of the church and angrily into the woods, where they disappeared.
This did not strike the church folks as remarkable because the twelve were the children of forest folk. But they did not come home that night. Or the next day. As darkness began to fall on the second night of their disappearance, fear in the families of the twelve children rose; and when their beds were all still empty the second morning, everyone in The Greenwood organized themselves to search, including the men of the families in starched clothes who had chased them from the church. Even Jesus at his most fire-eyed would not forget his lost sheep, and the worshippers did not forget their lost children either.
People who had known The Greenwood for twenty years, thirty years, forty years, searched the forest all day and found nothing. Men and women who could track a cricket in a meadow, or a sparrow over ten miles of country, or a shadow on a moonless night, found no trace of them, not even where they had entered the woods in flight. There were shoe prints in abundance, but none of bare feet, nor any hint of the children in grass, path, or leaf. They searched through the night with lanterns and torches and found nothing. Some of the men did come back saying they had seen a dark horned figure, taller than any man but still a man, following them as swiftly and silently as black water, and these men didn’t search in the night again.
For two weeks, the town hunted the children. They ranged farther and farther from The Greenwood, down into the rich soil farms along the Susquehanna, up into New York State, to the border of Ohio, stopping at every door, sending messengers and inquiries to towns and cities, while covering and recovering The Greenwood. The Sunday after the disappearance, the church held a special service of prayer and every family village and forest came. And then the next Sunday. But by the end of fourteen days, many families, including some forest families, consumed by frustration and exhaustion, felt the children were simply gone. And the rumor of the dark horned figure moving swiftly as black water had spread, and with his rumor the belief that he had taken the children, and that he would take more if given opportunity.
It was from this period that the original town of Greenwood was laid out in a square of twelve blocks by twelve blocks oriented to the compass. Eventually, the Four Corners were built, four stone churches occupying the northwest, northeast, southeast, and southwest corners of the town. It is said that in the stones of these churches are special talismans and protections against the horned figure, but I don’t know this to be true. Fear of the figure became fear of the forest and fear of the Goddess, and my family as Her singers were no longer trusted with all secrets. We’ve heard, too, there is a group whose purpose is to protect the town from the forest, but we can learn nothing about it. The most answer we’ve received to our subtlest questions is a polite smile, suggestive of either great discipline or gentle tolerance of our eccentricities.
The forest families hunted their children for decades after their disappearance, but never found them. The town erected a stone monument to them in the center square, which was moved twenty years later to the eastern border to make room for the cenotaph to our Union soldiers, and moved again seventy years after that, during the Depression when they built the big state road through town. The stones were placed into storage for safe keeping, while a committee tried to decide where they should go. Eventually, the monument was forgotten and the pieces taken by those few who remembered the lost children and cared. Perhaps I’ll show you the stones one day.
The twelve lost children of The Greenwood aren’t the only people who have disappeared in our forest, but until recently they were the most important. Then a decade ago, two more disappeared, grown women this time, mother and daughter. Or rather I should say mother and grandmother, since they left behind a little girl of seven. It was for this little girl, I am certain, the Goddess gave me my gift and demanded that I sing.
Read Chapter 1 of The Lost Children of The Greenwood, “Cate of The Hundred Names“