The Ancient People from Song of the Lark
By Willa Cather, 1915
faculty of observation was never highly developed in Thea Kronborg.
A great deal escaped her eye as she passed through the world. But the
things which were for her, she saw; she experienced them physically
and remembered them as if they had once been a part of herself. The
roses she used to see in the florists' shops in Chicago were merely
roses. But when she thought of the moonflowers that grew over Mrs. Tellamantez's
door, it was as if she had been that vine and had opened up in white
flowers every night. There were memories of light on the sand hills,
of masses of prickly-pear blossoms she had found in the desert in early
childhood, of the late afternoon sun pouring through the grape leaves
and the mint bed in Mrs. Kohler's garden, which she would never lose.
These recollections were a part of her mind and personality. In Chicago
she had got almost nothing that went into her subconscious self and
took root there. But here, in Panther Canyon, there were again things
which seemed destined for her.
Panther Canyon was the home of innumerable swallows. They built nests
in the wall far above the hollow groove in which Thea's own rock chamber
lay. They seldom ventured above the rim of the canyon, to the flat,
wind-swept tableland. Their world was the blue air-river between the
canyon walls. In that blue gulf the arrow-shaped birds swam all day
long, with only an occasional movement of the wings. The only sad thing
about them was their timidity; the way in which they lived their lives
between the echoing cliffs and never dared to rise out of the shadow
of the canyon walls. As they swam past her door, Thea often felt how
easy it would be to dream one's life out in some cleft in the world.
From the ancient dwelling there came always a dignified, unobtrusive
sadness; now stronger, now fainter,--like the aromatic smell which the
dwarf cedars gave out in the sun,--but always present, a part of the
air one breathed. At night, when Thea dreamed about the canyon,--or
in the early morning when she hurried toward it, anticipating it,--her
conception of it was of yellow rocks baking in sunlight, the swallows,
the cedar smell, and that peculiar sadness--a voice out of the past,
not very loud, that went on saying a few simple things to the solitude
Standing up in her lodge, Thea could with her thumb nail dislodge flakes
of carbon from the rock roof--the cooking-smoke of the Ancient People.
They were that near! A timid, nest-building folk, like the swallows.
How often Thea remembered Ray Kennedy's moralizing about the cliff cities.
He used to say that he never felt the hardness of the human struggle
or the sadness of history as he felt it among those ruins. He used to
say, too, that it made one feel an obligation to do one's best. On the
first day that Thea climbed the water trail she began to have intuitions
about the women who had worn the path, and who had spent so great a
part of their lives going up and down it. She found herself trying to
walk as they must have walked, with a feeling in her feet and knees
and loins which she had never known before,--which must have come up
to her out of the accustomed dust of that rocky trail. She could feel
the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back as she climbed.
The empty houses, among which she wandered in the afternoon, the blanketed
one in which she lay all morning, were haunted by certain fears and
desires; feelings about warmth and cold and water and physical strength.
It seemed to Thea that a certain understanding of those old people came
up to her out of the rock shelf on which she lay; that certain feelings
were transmitted to her, suggestions that were simple, insistent, and
monotonous, like the beating of Indian drums. They were not expressible
in words, but seemed rather to translate themselves into attitudes of
body, into degrees of muscular tension or relaxation; the naked strength
of youth, sharp as the sunshafts; the crouching timorousness of age,
the sullenness of women who waited for their captors. At the first turning
of the canyon there was a half-ruined tower of yellow masonry, a watch-tower
upon which the young men used to entice eagles and snare them with nets.
Sometimes for a whole morning Thea could see the coppery breast and
shoulders of an Indian youth there against the sky; see him throw the
net, and watch the struggle with the eagle.
Old Henry Biltmer, at the ranch, had been a great deal among the Pueblo
Indians who are the descendants of the Cliff-Dwellers. After supper
he used to sit and smoke his pipe by the kitchen stove and talk to Thea
about them. He had never found any one before who was interested in
his ruins. Every Sunday the old man prowled about in the canyon, and
he had come to know a good deal more about it than he could account
for. He had gathered up a whole chestful of Cliff-Dweller relics which
he meant to take back to Germany with him some day. He taught Thea how
to find things among the ruins: grinding-stones, and drills and needles
made of turkey-bones. There were fragments of pottery everywhere. Old
Henry explained to her that the Ancient People had developed masonry
and pottery far beyond any other crafts. After they had made houses
for themselves, the next thing was to house the precious water. He explained
to her how all their customs and ceremonies and their religion went
back to water. The men provided the food, but water was the care of
the women. The stupid women carried water for most of their lives; the
cleverer ones made the vessels to hold it. Their pottery was their most
direct appeal to water, the envelope and sheath of the precious element
itself. The strongest Indian need was expressed in those graceful jars,
fashioned slowly by hand, without the aid of a wheel.
Thea took her bath at the bottom of the canyon, in the sunny pool behind
the screen of cottonwoods, she sometimes felt as if the water must have
sovereign qualities, from having been the object of so much service
and desire. That stream was the only living thing left of the drama
that had been played out in the canyon centuries ago. In the rapid,
restless heart of it, flowing swifter than the rest, there was a continuity
of life that reached back into the old time. The glittering thread of
current had a kind of lightly worn, loosely knit personality, graceful
and laughing. Thea's bath came to have a ceremonial gravity. The atmosphere
of the canyon was ritualistic.
One morning, as she was standing upright in the pool, splashing water
between her shoulder-blades with a big sponge, something flashed through
her mind that made her draw herself up and stand still until the water
had quite dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken pottery:
what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to
imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself,--life
hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to
lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she
had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested
motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one's throat and nostrils and
held it on one's breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.