The Ancient People from Song of the Lark
By Willa Cather, 1915
had a superstitious feeling about the potsherds, and liked better to
leave them in the dwellings where she found them. If she took a few
bits back to her own lodge and hid them under the blankets, she did
it guiltily, as if she were being watched. She was a guest in these
houses, and ought to behave as such. Nearly every afternoon she went
to the chambers which contained the most interesting fragments of pottery,
sat and looked at them for a while. Some of them were beautifully decorated.
This care, expended upon vessels that could not hold food or water any
better for the additional labor put upon them, made her heart go out
to those ancient potters. They had not only expressed their desire,
but they had expressed it as beautifully as they could. Food, fire,
water, and something else--even here, in this crack in the world, so
far back in the night of the past! Down here at the beginning that painful
thing was already stirring; the seed of sorrow, and of so much delight.
There were jars done in a delicate overlay, like pine cones; and there
were many patterns in a low relief, like basket-work. Some of the pottery
was decorated in color, red and brown, black and white, in graceful
geometrical patterns. One day, on a fragment of a shallow bowl, she
found a crested serpent's head, painted in red on terra-cotta. Again
she found half a bowl with a broad band of white cliff-houses painted
on a black ground. They were scarcely conventionalized at all; there
they were in the black border, just as they stood in the rock before
her. It brought her centuries nearer to these people to find that they
saw their houses exactly as she saw them.
Yes, Ray Kennedy was right. All these things made one feel that one
ought to do one's best, and help to fulfill some desire of the dust
that slept there. A dream had been dreamed there long ago, in the night
of ages, and the wind had whispered some promise to the sadness of the
savage. In their own way, those people had felt the beginnings of what
was to come. These potsherds were like fetters that bound one to a long
chain of human endeavor.
Not only did the world seem older and richer to Thea now, but she herself
seemed older. She had never been alone for so long before, or thought
so much. Nothing had ever engrossed her so deeply as the daily contemplation
of that line of pale-yellow houses tucked into the wrinkle of the cliff.
Moonstone and Chicago had become vague. Here everything was simple and
definite, as things had been in childhood. Her mind was like a ragbag
into which she had been frantically thrusting whatever she could grab.
And here she must throw this lumber away. The things that were really
hers separated themselves from the rest. Her ideas were simplified,
became sharper and clearer. She felt united and strong.
When Thea had been at the Ottenburg ranch for two months, she got a
letter from Fred announcing that he "might be along at almost any
time now." The letter came at night, and the next morning she took
it down into the canyon with her. She was delighted that he was coming
soon. She had never felt so grateful to any one, and she wanted to tell
him everything that had happened to her since she had been there--more
than had happened in all her life before. Certainly she liked Fred better
than any one else in the world. There was Harsanyi, of course--but Harsanyi
was always tired. Just now, and here, she wanted some one who had never
been tired, who could catch an idea and run with it.
She was ashamed to think what an apprehensive drudge she must always
have seemed to Fred, and she wondered why he had concerned himself about
her at all. Perhaps she would never be so happy or so good-looking again,
and she would like Fred to see her, for once, at her best. She had not
been singing much, but she knew that her voice was more interesting
than it had ever been before. She had begun to understand that--with
her, at least-voice was, first of all, vitality; a lightness in the
body and a driving power in the blood. If she had that, she could sing.
When she felt so keenly alive, lying on that insensible shelf of stone,
when her body bounded like a rubber ball away from its hardness, then
she could sing. This, too, she could explain to Fred. He would know
what she meant.
Another week passed. Thea did the same things as before, felt the same
influences, went over the same ideas; but there was a livelier movement
in her thoughts, and a freshening of sensation, like the brightness
which came over the underbrush after a shower. A persistent affirmation-or
denial--was going on in her, like the tapping of the woodpecker in the
one tall pine tree across the chasm. Musical phrases drove each other
rapidly through her mind, and the song of the cicada was now too long
and too sharp. Everything seemed suddenly to take the form of a desire
It was while she was in this abstracted state, waiting for the clock
to strike, that Thea at last made up her mind what she was going to
try to do in the world, and that she was going to Germany to study without
further loss of time. Only by the merest chance had she ever got to
Panther Canyon. There was certainly no kindly Providence that directed
one's life; and one's parents did not in the least care what became
of one, so long as one did not misbehave and endanger their comfort.
One's life was at the mercy of blind chance. She had better take it
in her own hands and lose everything than meekly draw the plough under
the rod of parental guidance. She had seen it when she was at home last
summer,--the hostility of comfortable, self-satisfied people toward
any serious effort. Even to her father it seemed indecorous. Whenever
she spoke seriously, he looked apologetic. Yet she had clung fast to
whatever was left of Moonstone in her mind. No more of that! The Cliff-Dwellers
had lengthened her past. She had older and higher obligations.