The Lunch with the Arts talk about inspiration was well received by the group of about 30 people who came to the Community Art Center last Wednesday. I was touched when Paul Stansbury sent me a note saying he “was inspired by some things you said during the presentation to write something.” He kindly allowed me to share the short story he wrote. He really heard the underlying message I was giving.
|© 1988 Kathleen O’Brien Long Path to Peace, oil triptych
photograph by Jerry Downs
© Paul Stansbury
A pale glow began to seep up from the black horizon. Untah worked in the dying glow of the fire to finish before the sun cleared its earthly shackles. He intoned a greeting to the Spirits as he poured the finely ground lapis lazuli into the shallow shell bowl before him. The dull azure powder formed a bright spiral in the oil as he carefully mixed the ingredients. Blue was the color of the sky. The spiral represented the never-ending cycle of life and a path to the Creator. Once mixed, he would dip his finger into the unguent , then recreate the spiral in the center of the painting on which he had labored through the night.
He had started the painting ritual the previous day as dusk rolled over the parched plain. Teheht and his wife, KaHe sat silently at a respectful, detached distance. They had called for him; but, like all who sought out his help, they were timid and suspicious. They had waited until hope was almost gone before summoning him. Dust whorled all about, provoked by the hot breezes that swept through the dying grasslands. The bleak summer of drought had devastated the crops and there would be little to sustain this family through the long winter to come. Sickness, driven by hunger, had spread through the land. It was only in these times that spirit painters were remembered. He knew if his painting failed, this family might not survive.
As the day’s light drained away, Untah had unpacked his belongings under the watch of their sad eyes. Shell bowls were set out, ready to receive Untah’s sacred ingredients. He opened worn, deerskin pouches to examine the powders he would use to mix the spirit paint. Each powder held its own significance. The yellow sun was represented by crushed sunflower petals. Ground lapis lazuli for the blue sky. Red for life-giving blood came from dogwood bark. The bright green of algae brought harmony and healing. White, from ground gypsum, insured peace and happiness. Regal purple extracted from hibiscus embodied mystery and magic. Finally, black, gleaned from the charred ashes of a thousand gathering fires, to paint the Telling Glyphs.
Untah mixed and remixed each in turn for his sacred painting, as he had since he became a spirit painter. Then, he set out the quills, brushes and bones he would use. He paused to chant a prayer over each.
Untah laid the fire from the wood Teheht and KaHe had gathered. He unwrapped a tattered blanket and withdrew a large bundle of moss. He spat on it and placed it on the fire. Billowing smoke welled up, swirling with the prairie dust in the evening’s breath. As Untah was engulfed, he inhaled the thick vapor, its pungent, earthy odor burning his nostrils. He raised his head and blew the smoke out toward the heavens to carry his prayer upward. There, drifting forever among the stars, it would join with the smoke of the great gathering fire of the Spirits.
He knelt down, pouring thick, amber oil from a hollowed gourd onto his hands to prepare the delicate surface to receive his paint. Through the night, he methodically created his complicated tableau, adorning the surface with symbols to entice the Spirits. Without looking away from the painting, he knew Teheht and KaHe had studied his every move, striving to make sense of the symbols, hoping against hope he would prevail. They had remained silent and maintained a reverent distance, but Untah could hear KaHe’s labored breath holding back sobs.
Now, he had reached the conclusion. The bright blue track spun outward in an ever widening arc. He chose a fine tipped bone, dipped it in the black paint, and, starting at the very center of the spiral, painted the Telling Glyphs along its ever expanding path. They revealed the story of all that had been. A large portion of the spiral remained unembellished, symbolizing what was yet to come. As the sun spilled over the horizon, he painted his last glyph, the eagle, to carry the Telling to the Spirits, so they might know what was and understand the story must not end now, there was more to be told. He took the bone stylus and placed it in the dying embers of the fire. Later, he would retrieve its ashes for his leather pouch.
Untah chanted his prayer of thanks and settled in to keep vigil over his painting. While the sun arched slowly across the sky, he remained silent and still, eyes ever watchful for a sign. While he waited, he thought of Oolmawa, his wife, and Chenat, his son. They too kept their vigil, waiting for him to return from his journey. He missed them, longing to enjoy the comfort of his wife, and dance with his son around the fire. But it would be many days before he would rest his head in his own dwelling. After his work here was done, he would make his spirit walk to the four sacred mountains. Climbing to the high plateau that stretched out as far as the eye could see, he would add his Tell to the never ending spiral. Only then could he return to his family.
As evening descended, something in the painting caught his attention. He drew his face close to the symbols, searching for the sign. Beads of sweat welled up through the paint on the child’s brow. She stirred and opened her eyes. Untah smiled. The Spirits had been pleased by his painting. He knew this child would live.