The Blind Poet by Jo Niederhoff

The woman sat by the side of the road, alternately playing a set of pipes and singing in a language Clover didn’t understand, buthad heard enough traveling bards to know was a cheerful song. She also knew the singer was from the south and had traveled a long way, judging by her brown skin and the state of her clothes.

The bard didn’t look up as Clover’s wagon approached, but she did shift into a more performative pose. “Would you like a song? I know songs and tales of the Central and Southern Americas and many from the Metal Age.” Her accent was what Clover had expected: exactly like those of the southern travelers.

“You’re from the south, aren’t you?” Clover asked, hopping down from her seat. “Which part?”

The woman looked up, smiling. Her eyes were covered by a purple cloth embroidered with orange butterflies. “You’re worldly to be so young,” she said. “When I heard your wagon, I expected to meet a man bringing goods to the next town, not a girl of… nineteen?”

“Close enough.” If the woman thought she was a proper adult – though she called her “girl” – it would be a step toward the rest of the world agreeing.

“How does one so young know so much about the south? You’re the first I’ve met who hasn’t thought it was all one.”

“I don’t know a lot,” Clover admitted. “Only what my grandmother taught me from maps and atlases.” She still had the papers, tucked in a box and hidden away in the back of her wagon, brought out only when she wanted to impress children or felt lonely on the road. “How did you learn English so well?” She was used to travelers who slipped from language to language like men walking a slippery riverside, but this bard’s voice was sure.

“My grandfather was a strict teacher. Everyone said there wasn’t much he could teach a blind girl, but he insisted I learn something. Apart from my brother, I’m the best in my family at music, language, and mathematics.”

“How good is your brother?”

“Good enough to learn something called mandarín. Abuelo says you can’t speak it properly unless you can see the letters.” She set aside her pipes. “But I haven’t answered your question. My village is called San Miguel. I doubt the name means anything to you.” Before Clover could respond at all, she said, “I am from Mexico.”

“That’s not too far away,” Clover said, thinking of her grandmother’s maps and how the Americas stretched from north to south, a spine of mountains running from the neck of the world to its ankles. Her home was in the chest, and Mexico sat at the belly.

“Far enough. It is a long walk.”

“Where are you going?” She could easily change her path; company was always welcome on the road, and she had been without any since leaving the caravan days before.

“Nowhere, really. I go where the wind takes me.”

“I’m headed that way too. May I take you partway?”

The woman smiled. “It would be nice to rest my feet a while. Will you help me load my things into your wagon?”

“Of course.” She didn’t have much. Once her instrument and traveling bag had been set safely inside, Clover helped the woman climb onto the seat.

“I’m sure you’ll understand my curiosity,” the woman said. “I’m a storyteller; I can’t help it. What is your horse’s name?”

“Spinner. What’s yours?”

“People call me La Viajera. I was called Teresita when I was born.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Clover said as Spinner started her walk again. “My name’s Clover.”

“Clover? What sort of name is that?”

“A nickname. My real name’s Brenna, but by the time I was born Pa said Ma was growing weeds instead of babies, so everyone called me Clover. I’m luckier than my little brother: Ma really did name him Thistle.”

Teresita laughed. “How shall I pay you? I normally trade in songs and stories, but I’m sure I have coins, even if they aren’t of your country.”

“Song and story are welcome,” Clover said. She had heard a few stories from Mexico as a child, but surely Teresita knew dozens. “Do you want me to let you off when we reach a farm?”

“A town would be better.” Teresita leaned back and found her pipes. After blowing a few notes, she began to chant.

            I sing the song of war between the lands

            Of harmony broken by fire’s attack

            One hope was there to master fire and air           
            Water and earth, to bring the peace again.

                                                             *  *  *  *  *

They made camp that night by the side of the road. Clover tied Spinner to a post and set stones by the wagon’s wheels while Teresita boiled hardtack, honey, and ginger into porridge. Clover had been wary of letting the blind woman cook, but Teresita insisted she would be able to smell when it was done.

“That was a wonderful song,” Clover said as she pulled two bedrolls from the wagon. She always carried an extra in case hers tore, but it was more often that she gave it to a companion. “Was it true?”

“I don’t think so. It was a legend I heard parents telling their children. They told it to me in full after the children were asleep and said it came from the Metal Age. I made it into a song so I could remember it better. I want to know all the old stories so none can get lost.” She leaned over the pot. “Nearly done now.”

“What’s it like where you come from?” Clover asked. She thought the porridge wasn’t quite ready but kept quiet. “Mexico, San Miguel.”

“It smells different. I’m not sure how to describe it, really, but I would recognize it if I ever went back. There’s more grass here, a different smoke to the fires. Everything’s wilder.”

“Is that bad?”

“Not always.” She leaned over the pot again. “It’s done.”

Clover spooned the porridge into bowls, and for a while they ate in silence. It was quite good, though not nearly as different from normal as she had hoped. Teresita had added a bit more ginger and honey than Clover often did, which gave the porridge more of an actual taste. She tried to imagine how the air might smell different, but the only other airs she knew besides home were of the mountains she had just passed through and the ocean she had visited with her mother.

“Your horse has a strange name,” Teresita said. “Why do you call her that?”

“It’s…” She had never tried to put the reason into words before. She had known the mare’s name would be Spinner from the moment she saw her. “Where I come from, everyone has their place. My brothers would go into a business, and at least one would study for the church. My sisters and I would get married and stay at home with our children. My grandmother was the only reason I wasn’t content. She told me about a time when men and women could do whatever they pleased. She told me lots of stories. One was about three women who made the thread of each person’s life –”

            The stuff of life she spins for each and all

            To measure out the length, her sister’s task

            And one to cut a clean break from this world.

“You’ve heard it.” Clover couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed; she had liked to think her grandmother had made the story just for her.

“It was my favorite.” Teresita took another spoonful of porridge. “That was the first poem I ever wrote, and I’ll write and rewrite it for as long as I live.” She smiled. “It’s the stuff and length of my life.”

“I don’t care as much about the length.” She looked over at Spinner, who ate from a bag Clover had set by the post. “I suppose I wanted to make a thread out of different stuff.”

“Did it work?”

There was no child in her belly, and the stars were her ceiling. “I think so.”

Teresita scraped her bowl clean. “It’s very poetic. May I tell that story?”

You barely know it.”

That doesn’t matter to storytellers.” She sat up in her performance pose again and cleared her throat with a cough.

            A weed she was, and so she spread her roots

            To seek a place she’d thrive in spite of all

            Her destiny hers to command, she spun

            A thread of freer stuff, of sky and wind

She played a few experimental notes on her pipes before setting them aside. “It’s still rough, but I only thought of it just now. It will get better the longer I work on it.”

Clover stared at her in amazement. “You made all that up… just like that?”

Teresita blushed. “I’ve always known what to do with words, how to make a rhythm from them. Sometimes English is easier for that. Your words are short, so it’s simple to fit them to a pattern.”

“Can you do that, though? Just make up a story about a real person?” She had always been taught the stories in the Bible were about real people, but it seemed irreverent to group herself with them.

“Of course. Where do you think legends come from? Stories and songs don’t simply spring into being like saints. Someone has to make them, and someone has to be in them. Why not us?”

A story spread by La Viajera. A legend sung in town squares and repeated by people who wouldn’t remember all the words or mix her up with someone completely different. Her name would spread like a weed on the voices of others. It seemed impossible, and yet she could clearly imagine five years from now, driving her wagon into some market town and hearing a bard sing about Clover and her destiny-changing horse.

“I’d like that,” she said.

“Then I will sing it.” She played a few more notes before tucking her pipes away. “How would you like it to end?”

That was a question she had thought about. “When I first set out, I just wanted to get away from home and all the expectations everyone had of me. A few weeks ago, though, I joined a caravan to get through the mountains, and they told me there were cities somewhere on the continent where things were like they used to be. I’m not looking for a haven of technology, but I would like to find someplace where I can do as I please. If I want to start a family, I will, but if not, then I’ll work, and no one will tell me I mustn’t.” The city could be anywhere, really, and Clover decided it was as good a time as any to ask. “Is San Miguel like that?”

“It is,” Teresita said, “but you’d have to learn Spanish unless you could find my grandfather.”

“Is it difficult to learn a new language?”

“It wasn’t for me, but then, I’m clever with words.”

That path was gone to her, then. Clover gathered the dishes and set them beside the fire. “What about you? How do you want your story to end?”

“I’m the singer, not the subject. It doesn’t matter much to me.” Teresita wrapped herself in a blanket and lay down. Clover checked the stones around the fire before doing the same. As she looked up at the stars, she wondered who had been sung about in the first songs.

                                                                   *  *  *  *  *

The first town they came to barely deserved to be called by that name. The houses on the outskirts were made from mud and earth and large enough for one room. The town center was no bigger than a caravan settled down to rest. It had a well and several small farms but no school and only a miniscule church. Clover hoped to pass by it and bring Teresita to a place where she would be more comfortable, but Teresita set her hand on Clover’s arm and said, “We’ll stop here.”

She reined in Spinner. “How do you know?”

“I can smell it. There are people.”

Clover took a breath and could make out the scents of fires and farm animals, beneath which was the lingering aroma of outhouses. “Are you sure you want to be here? It doesn’t look like the sort of place that a bard would normally go.”

“I’m not a normal bard.” She pulled her bags from out of the wagon and stepped down. “Thank you for bringing me all this way, Clover. I hope my story was enough payment.”

“More than enough. I would have taken you farther for that tale.” She remembered the shape of the story and could have told a rough version of it to others, but whenever she tried to recall the poetry, she knew she could only vaguely touch the rhythm of the words. “Is there anything else you would like me to leave with you? I have some honey and dried leaves to make tea.”

Teresita hesitated before nodding. “I’ll give you news in return, then, of a city where you can find what you seek. I’ve heard about a place where not only are women the equal to men, but there is technology that comes from the Metal Age.”

Clover grabbed a bag of tea leaves and a jar of honey, nearly dropping both before she could press them into Teresita’s hands. “Where?”

Teresita spoke as though reciting something she had stored in her mind and not expected to use. “Travel east until you reach a great river that runs from the north to the south. There are ferrymen who will take you and your horse and wagon across. Carry on northeast until you reach a lake. At the southwestern edge is a large city.” She turned to put away the bag and jar. “At least, that’s what I’ve heard.”

“Thank you.” Clover looked out to the east. There was not even the sight of a river, but knowing she had a destination made it seem so close she could almost taste the waters. “Good luck.”

“And to you.” Teresita turned and began to walk to the town, and Clover set Spinner at a walk, skirting the farms until she could make for the river. Over the creaking of the wheels, she
heard Teresita begin to chant.

            The clover child in search of fate went east

            To meet the River Mississip, thence to

            Chicago’s mighty walls, to find the past

            That had been left behind in shining steel.