I’ve picked up a valuable object from The Story of the Yara in the Brown Fairy Book. In the story, a young man named Alfonso falls in love with a dark-haired village girl named Julia. From the moment he sees her gracefully weaving in and out of the dancing villagers with a wreath of pomegranates in her hair, he can’t get her out of his thoughts, and they soon become engaged.
He’s come to town from another country, and he lives outside the village, near the forest. It’s a hot country, and to cool himself off at night, he goes into the forest to swim in the pools alongside the river. One night, when he’s about to take his last plunge, he hears the sound of a beautiful voice singing in the wood. He searches the bushes and trees, and thinks maybe his roommate is playing tricks on him. Later, when he tells Julia what he heard, she becomes very serious and implores him to promise not to swim in the forest pools until after they are wed. The river Yara has been known to drown men who are engaged. Once they are married, she’ll lose her power, but until then, Julia insists that he not go there.
When she discovers that he has already heard the Yara’s song, she gives him something that she hopes will save him from being drawn back to the river. She takes a seashell out of a strangely carved box, and pours her own song into it. Alfonso puts the shell in his pocket, but he can’t resist the lure of the Yara. Ultimately he finds himself teetering at the edge of the pool, paralyzed to do anything but fall into the embrace of the enticing blond who has risen out of the water. His arms drop to his side and he feels the shell in his pocket. Dimly remembering it, he lifts the seashell to his ear. Julia’s song pours into his heart and gives him the power to step away from the pool.
I have drawn that the seashell out of the story and I’ve put it in my own pocket. As I walk with it, I wonder. What is the song that Julia sings into the seashell? What is the song that saves us from falling into the arms of those sirens who lure us into places that cause us to become overwhelmed by depression, addiction or self-loathing? What shining words have we written or heard, that speak to us of who we truly are and what we truly love? There are times in life when it becomes a matter of life and death to know our heartsongs.
Little Mattie Stepanek knew his heartsongs. He suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy and died before his fourteenth birthday, in June, 2004. In his short life, however, he poured his songs into five books of inspiring poetry, with the deep understanding that he was a peacemaker.
I cannot wait to become
I cannot wait to help
The world overcome
Anger, and problems of evil.
I cannot wait for the world
To be peaceful.
And for everyone
To live in harmony.
I cannot wait to grow
And be and overcome.
But, I will wait,
And hope, and peace.
Heartsongs are subtle and they don’t compete to be heard. It’s a matter of tuning our ears. I remember once having a dream of walking into a beautiful garden with a curving, spiralling path. There were wonders around every bend, and then a radiant middle-aged woman approached me. “Have you heard the fairy music?” she asked.
“No,” I said. She led me to a small grove, hidden in the bushes. I had to crawl in on hands and knees to get in, and there, in that quiet place, I found a tiny fountain. Little drops of water streamed from the top of a slab of slate, and on the way down they tapped little crystals that had been placed with great care on the stone. First, I heard only silence and murmurs, but the more I listened, the better I heard the subtle songs. Fairy music.