Heart Song


And they sang together (Ezra 3:11).

The northern Arizona evening air had the feel and smell of autumn. The cool air felt good to Letha as she carefully guided Grandmother to the wooden chair outside the old adobe house that rose from the high rocky mesa. Grandmother’s old feet walked very slowly, and her aging body leaned heavily upon Letha’s young arm.

“Here we are, Grandmother,” Letha said gently. The old Hopi woman slowly lowered herself into the creaky wooden chair. Letha sat down on the hard, dry ground next to Grandmother’s feet. She gazed at the quiet desert far below them. A peace settled in Letha’s heart.

“Little Sister, tell me what you see.”

“The sun has painted the sky bright red, the color of your red pottery. Around the edges of red, the sky is dark blue,” Letha said, trying to describe the brilliant sunset.

Letha had become Grandmother’s eyes for her, guiding the old Hopi woman here and there, finding things for her, and, as now, trying to describe the surrounding beauty. In doing so, Letha had begun to see their desert home in a new and wondrous way. Each time she looked at the ever-changing desert floor below, she found a new color, shape, or texture and she saw fresh beauty in each tree and rock. She noticed the swift, smooth, sequential movements of the slick brown lizards on the red rocks. She studied the graceful flights of the birds overhead. All these Letha tried to describe to her beloved grandmother so that she might see them with her mind’s eye.

“Are there clouds?” Grandmother asked now.

“Yes, Grandmother. They are in long streaks, like waves in the sky, each a different shade of red or pink and each turning a new shade of pink with the setting of Brother Sun.”

The air turned cooler as the sun disappeared from sight. Still the two sat quietly, enjoying the evening and each other’s company.

“Tell me about the stars, Little Sister,” Grandmother said as the crickets started to sing.

“They are bright tonight but scattered among the clouds. Bear star is hiding.”

After a long while Grandmother spoke again. “Letha, tomorrow I want you to go down the mesa and get me some white clay.”

“Oh, Grandmother, you are going to make pottery again!” Letha’s young voice held great excitement. Grandmother was a famous potter. Her work was so well known that people had come from far away and paid great amounts of money for her beautiful pottery.

“Yes, Little Sister. I am going to make a very special piece of pottery.” The sadness that was in Grandmother’s voice confused Letha. Making pottery had always been Grandmother’s heart song. She was always happiest when she was creating a piece of fine pottery.

But Grandmother had not made any pottery since her eyes had dimmed. Her old, gnarled hands could still mold perfectly shaped vases, bowls, and pots, but her clouded eyes would not let her see to paint the beautifully intricate and unusual designs that identified her work. When she had begun to lose her sight, she had said, “I will not make pottery that is not my best,” and had put away her pottery tools.

It had broken Letha’s heart to have Grandmother put her tools away. Grandmother had taught Letha to make pottery in the traditional way. Patiently and lovingly she had taught her the ancient craft, guiding her in ways known only to a master potter.

Although Letha was still learning the art of pottery making, it was already the song of her heart too. She loved the feeling of the wet clay in her small hands as she carefully coiled, sanded, smoothed, and painted each piece of pottery. Each vase, bowl, or pot that she created had a bit of herself molded into it. But Letha still had much to learn. Tomorrow she would watch and learn more as Grandmother made her pottery.

“Come, Little Sister. It is time to go in. The air is too cool for this old woman,” Grandmother said as she started to rise from the chair.

That night, as Letha lay curled up in her blanket on the floor next to Grandmother’s bed, her heart was troubled. If Grandmother was going to make pottery again, her heart should be happy. But Grandmother had sounded sad when she asked for the clay. …

It was late in the afternoon when Grandmother sat at her old table with the clay that Letha had gathered. The gnarled old hands rolled out a long thin rope of damp clay with practiced ease. Then slowly, carefully she coiled the rope around and around. Letha watched quietly, amazed that Grandmother could still shape pottery with such ease with blinded eyes.

Grandmother worked silently as she formed a round vase about the size of a grapefruit. Next, her hands skillfully created a graceful neck at the top of the vase. The neck extended into a flat spout. Then another graceful neck with a matching spout was formed on the opposite side of the vase. Lastly a braided handle joined the spouts together.

Grandmother’s hands searched through her tools until she found her favorite dried gourd rind. With the rind she painstakingly smoothed the walls of the double-spouted vase to an even thickness. She handed it to Letha, who carefully set it on the drying shelf.

“This old woman is tired, Little Sister.”

Letha helped Grandmother to her narrow bed and covered her with a warm quilt.

“It is very good clay that you dug today, Little Sister. Thank you.”

Two days later Letha made a big pile of juniper chips outside the adobe house. She covered the pile with sheep dung, placed a flat sandstone on top of the pile, gently placed the now-dry wedding vase on the sandstone, very carefully covered the vase with large pieces of broken pottery, then started the sheep dung on fire. As the flames engulfed the pile, Letha went over to Grandmother.

Grandmother was humming the traditional “firing song.” Letha hummed also. The firing song would help protect the vase from scorching or cracking during the firing.

Much later, when Letha lifted the wedding vase from the gray ashes, she could see that it was perfect in every way. The surface was smooth and uncracked, the white color flawless. Letha carried the warm vase to her grandmother and set it in its maker’s hands. Grandmother turned the vase carefully, feeling every inch of it. A smile crossed her lips.

After holding the vase lovingly for a few minutes, she reached out and took Letha’s small hand into her old, worn one. “Sit, Little Sister. Be my eyes. Tell me what you see here.” Grandmother held out the wedding vase.

“A beautiful, perfect, white wedding vase.” Although Grandmother’s dimmed eyes had not permitted her to paint the intricate designs and lines for which her pottery was famous, to Letha it was the most beautiful piece of pottery that Grandmother had ever made.

“Yes, the traditional vase that binds two hearts together in love.” Grandmother halted for a moment, and Letha could see tears in the clouded brown eyes. “It is the last piece of pottery I shall make. This old woman will not feel the warmth of the next spring.”

“Grandmother—“

“No, Little Sister, you must listen. Soon I will leave this life. There is no sadness in it for me. It is the way of all life. But for you, Little Sister, there will be sadness, I know.” Grandmother squeezed the small hand she still held in her own. “This vase is for you, Little Sister. In it I have molded our hearts together. Each time you look at it, you will think of me and feel me near. Each time you look at it, paint it with the new eyes you have found by seeing for me. Paint it as you have painted my life—with warmth, love, and great beauty. I will continue to live on through you and your pottery making, for we sing the same heart song.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull