(a sequel to The Poet and the Mathematician )
The poet decided to have a child.
This took her by surprise — for many years, she had been content writing poetry. She had written many poems in her quiet little house by the sea — some small poems, some middling, some large. Sometimes she wrote long, fancy words like serendipity and iridescent and voluminous. Sometimes, she wrote small, simple words like daisy and cheese and heart. Sometimes, the words wouldn’t come at all.
When she got too stuck, the poet would pack up a small bag with paper and pencil and go for a walk. Sometimes a little walk, just down to the crows at the crossroads. Sometimes a longer one. She always came home tired, but also full of bright new poetry, splendid and glittering and just a little strange.
In the evenings (when she wasn’t out walking) the poet would go next door to the mathematician’s house. They would share a meal of beans and rice for him, and fish stew for her (the mathematician quite despised fish). She would read him the day’s poetry, and he would kindly refrain from talking about his math, because it gave her headaches. They were both happy.
The poet had even published a book. It hadn’t made her rich, but her friend the dragon had told her that gold was better for sleeping on than for spending. Since she quite liked sleeping in her own comfy bed, tented in white mosquito netting, the poet thought she was well enough off without any extra gold lying about.
She was working on her second book now. It promised to be equally unlikely to make her rich, but it did make her happy. She had a desk, paper, pencil, sunshine, moonlight, the open sea, and a mathematician to keep her company. What more could a poet ask for?
Still, one day the poet decided that it might be rather nice to have a child.
The poet knocked on the mathematician’s door, her brow still furrowed with the unexpected thought.
When he answered, she asked him, “What would you think of having a child around?”
He said, “It might be nice. But it might be noisy.”
She said, “I imagine it would be, at least at first.”
He said, “I’ll have to think about it then.”
She answered, “Well, so do I.”
It took quite a lot of thinking., but eventually they decided the nice parts of having a child would probably be worth the noise.
They both felt quite relieved when the decision was made, since they could finally get back to their work.
So now the poet was expecting a child. It was arriving very soon, in fact, which left her with a horrible difficulty. She wanted to write a lullaby for the child, to soothe it into sleep when it was getting too noisy. She’d been planning to write one for months, but so far, all she’d managed was the title. “The Poet’s Lullaby.” The title had a nice ring to it, but singing that one line over and over was probably going to make the child scream, not sleep. And try as she might, she could not get any further with it.
She wrote short lines, and long lines, and middling lines. She wrote page after page after page after page, and it was a good thing she had a magic bag of dragon-scale paper, or she would have likely run right out. The poet stayed up writing late into the night, until her candle had burned completely down, and she was scribbling and scratching out her words by moonlight (which hurt her eyes).
The poet wanted her child’s lullaby to be perfect, but no matter how hard she worked, nothing she wrote came close.
The poet knocked on the mathematician’s door.
“I need to go for a walk,” she said.
“In your condition?” he asked. “Is that wise?” (The poet had recently become quite large and waddly, although the mathematician was too clever to say that part out loud. Mathematicians are clever that way.)
The poet said, “I’m afraid I have no choice in the matter.”
The mathematician sighed, and then said, “I suppose I had better come with you.”
The poet smiled and said, “Thank you.”
They said goodbye to their houses and set off, the mathematician kindly carrying the poet’s bag. (It was all she could do to carry herself at this point.) It took longer than usual to reach her old friends, the crows at the crossroads. Nathan and Stephan were asleep when they arrived, but the thump thump thumping of the poet’s feet woke them right up.
“Hello hello!” Nathan said. “We see you have news!”
“Yes,” the mathematician said. “We are going to have a child.”
Stephan grinned and said, “You are braver than we ever were. But good luck to you!”
Nathan asked, “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
The poet said impatiently, “I’m fine. That isn’t my problem. My problem is that I’m trying to write a lullaby for the child, and I am getting nowhere.”
Nathan frowned. “Will it be honest?”
The poet nodded. She had gotten that far, at least, in thinking about her song.
Stephan asked, “Will it be loving?”
“Of course,” the poet said. How could it not be?
The crows shook their heads, and said together, “Then we don’t see the problem.”
The poet almost shouted in her frustration, “But I want it to be perfect!”
The crows said, “Oh.”
Nathan and Stephan looked at each other, and then shrugged in bewilderment.
“We’re sorry,” they said, “But we don’t have any advice for you this time.”
The poet sighed. “I suppose I’ll ask the dragon and unicorn what they think. They’re very wise.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Stephan asked.
“It’s a long long way,” Nathan said.
“I’ll be fine,” the poet said. “Don’t worry.” She waved goodbye to the crows as she walked away. The mathematician said nothing, only shouldering the poet’s bag and stepping forth silently at her side. The crows leaned against each other, looking worried, as they watched her walk away.
The poet and the mathematician walked and walked and walked and walked.
They passed the city of shining bridges, where once a young prince had dropped rubies at the poet’s feet and proclaimed his love. The mathematician turned and asked her, “Do you ever visit the prince on your walks? The one who dropped rubies at your feet?”
The poet said, “Not recently. I haven’t had much time for princes lately.”
The mathematician smiled. “Maybe later, after the child comes.”
“Maybe,” the poet replied.
The mathematician paused, and then said, “I hear the prince has hands as slim as birds, that flutter when he talks.”
“Hush,” the poet said, smiling. “You just keep walking.”
The mathematician nodded, smiling too. They kept walking, down the long road, leaving the shining cities behind, until the road finally ended at the foot of the mountains. The dark, smelly mouth of the cave stood open before them. They took one last big breath of the fresh mountain air, and then stepped into the darkness.
The poet explained her dilemma to her friends. The dragon shook its head.
“You don’t have any words yet?”
“I have a few,” the poet admitted. “But they’re far from perfect.”
“Are they sweet?” the dragon asked.
“A little,” the poet said.
“And are they sharp?” the unicorn added. (Unicorns are quite fond of things that are sharp.)
“I think so,” the poet said.
The dragon and the unicorn exchanged long glances, and then shrugged in unison. The dragon said softly, “Then we don’t know what to tell you. Neither one of us has had a child, you know. My egg won’t hatch for another thousand years, and as for the unicorn — well, unicorns don’t have children.”
The mathematician turned to the unicorn, intrigued, and asked, “Then how do you — “
The unicorn raised an elegant eyebrow and said sharply, “It’s a mystery.”
“Ah,” the mathematician said happily. He was very fond of mysteries.
The dragon continued, “Maybe you should go talk to the hazel tree. She has lots of little saplings. Maybe she will know what you should do.”
The poet sighed. “I suppose I have to. The child will be perfect — it deserves a perfect lullaby too.”
Before they left, the dragon showed them its egg, nestled in a bed of gold in the very farthest corner of the cave. The poet and the mathematician agreed that it was by far the very most beautifullest, dragonlicious, scrumptioustastic egg they had ever seen or could ever hope to see. The dragon beamed.
The poet and the mathematician walked back out into the wide world. The poet began to lean on the mathematician as they walked. He winced occasionally, but didn’t say a word. When they reached the silver cities with their handsome young men, the mathematician said, “I have an idea.”
“Isn’t it rather a long walk to the hazel tree?”
“I’m not sure you’ll make it. Why don’t we take a ship instead?”
A ship? Despite all her years of living by the ocean, the poet had never taken a ship for her travels. She’d always just walked. Her eyes sparkled.
“Can we get one with tall masts, and big, white, billowing sails?”
“I think that would be a necessity,” the mathematician replied.
“Oh yes, please.” A ship sounded like a magnificent idea. Especially since her feet were hurting quite abominably.
They rented a little ship, just big enough for two to manage, if they were careful. The poet had learned to sail once, very many years ago, and she was pleased to find that the skill came back easily to her. The mathematician was a quick study. They had three days of clear sailing, with the sun high in the sky and a good fresh breeze sending the sails billowing most satisfactorily.
The mathematician stayed in their cabin during the day, since his skin burned easily, and unfortunately, the lovely glittering light dancing across the water hurt his eyes. The poet stayed out during the day, adjusting the ropes and steering as needed. At night, the mathematician took over the job while she slept.
For three days, they had no trouble whatsoever, unless you count the mathematician complaining at having to eat so much fish for dinner.
On the fourth day, a storm blew up.
Thunder crashed; lightning flashed. Huge gusts of winds ripped across the waves, tossing the little boat this way and that. Rain came slamming down, turning the wooden deck of the boat into a wet, soggy soup. The poet and the mathematician worked together as fast as they could to pull down the sails, slipping and sliding their way across the deck, but they weren’t quite fast enough. The wind caught the last sail just before they pulled it down, yanked at it hard, and turned their little boat right over, spilling them both into the cold dark sea.
Thankfully, they both knew how to swim, and they could see a distant shoreline.
The mathematician grabbed the poet’s hand, and they swam as hard as they could, as long as they could, until their arms and legs felt like quivering jelly. The more they struggled towards the land, the further away it seemed, and if both of them cried a little, there in the midst of the storm and the waves, I’m sure you wouldn’t blame them.
Just when they were about to give up entirely, their feet finally touched the sandy shore.
They crawled up onto the beach and collapsed, exhausted, into sleep.
The next day, they got up, ate one last meal of fish, and started walking again, heading into the forest. The poet had to take breaks pretty often as they walked, her face getting redder and redder. Cold sweat beaded on her face, and her hand dug so tight into the mathematician’s arm that it left dark marks. Finally, around dinnertime, the mathematician said, “I’m not sure we’re going to make it to your friend the hazel tree. I haven’t done this before, but it looks like that child will be here any minute.”
The poet said, her voice high and screechy, “But I’m not ready for it!”
The mathematician said calmly, “I don’t think that matters.”
For a moment it seemed as if the poet would protest, but she was just too tired. She finally nodded her head and said, “Okay.” They lay down by the side of the path to wait for the child that was coming.
When the child finally arrived, they counted her fingers (ten), her toes (twelve), and the poet declared that she was, as expected, perfect. Her skin was the color of hazel tree bark, and her eyes were briefly all the shades of a twilight sea. Her eyes darkened as they watched to a steady, solid brown — a reliable shade, the poet said, just the same as her own. Eyes like that could see you through a lot.
The mathematician tilted his own blue eyes at that, but said nothing, smiling softly at the child. For a moment as long as the first bright day of the world, they were all perfectly happy.
Then the child began to cry.
“It needs milk,” the poet said.
“I fed her,” the mathematician said. (He had cleverly packed quite a lot of milk in his little bag, which he’d kept strapped tightly to his body even through the worst of the storm.)
“It needs to be cleaned,” the poet said. Her tone had gotten a bit snippy.
“I changed her,” the mathematician said. (He had also packed the necessary cloths for cleaning the child. Did I mention that he was clever?)
“It needs holding,” the poet said, rising and starting to pace back and forth along the side of the road.
“You’re doing that,” the mathematician pointed out, “and I don’t think you need to hold her quite so tightly.”
“What does it need then? Why doesn’t it stop crying?” the poet asked, her voice now almost as loud and frantic as the child’s.
“Maybe she needs her mother to sing to her,” the mathematician said.
“I can’t! ” The poet said. “I couldn’t write the perfect song.”
“Well, you’d better sing something,” the mathematician said sharply. “You know I can’t sing.” They had agreed months ago that singing to the child would be her responsibility, and he was not about to let her back out of it now.
The poet closed her eyes, loosened her grip on the child (just a little), and tried to think. It was very hard with all the crying. And the screaming. And the screeching. The little creature just wouldn’t be quiet. (It had always been very quiet in the little house by the sea.)
The poet wondered what the mathematician would do if she handed him the child and walked away. He would probably take it back to his own little house. She wouldn’t be able to go home, of course. Though the poet would be sad to never see her little house again, there was so much of the world yet to see. He would take good care of the child, she was sure. She could hand the child to him right now, and then all the crying and the screaming and the screeching would be his problem.
The poet opened her eyes, meaning to look just long enough that she wouldn’t drop the child handing it over. But the child’s eyes were open too, and looking straight at her. The child still cried, as if it didn’t know how to stop, but its eyes were fixed on hers, brown and steady and unwavering. And the poet found a song writing itself in her head.
This is what she sang:
You can walk the darkest highways,
You can sail the stormy seas,
You can visit cities bright and cities bold;
But when your feet get tired
On that shining silver path,
Remember a single line of gold.
My hands will light a candle in the darkness
Though my heart will want to keep you safe at home
Many roads I’ve travelled, down dark and dusty shadows,
But there are still so very many stories to be told.
There’ll be a light in my window
Whenever you come by
Shining in the night so clear and cold
Days or months or years gone by
I will still be waiting
Waiting to hear how all your stories will unfold.
My hands will light a candle in the darkness
My voice will whisper hopes for your safe journeyings, my darling,
Many roads I’ve travelled, in dark and dusty shadows,
But there are still so very many stories to be told.
As the poet sang, the child’s cries grew softer, until finally they quieted completely. Soon, she was asleep.
The poet shook her head, and whispered, “It wasn’t perfect. Not like she is.”
The mathematician took the child gently from her arms and wrapped her in a soft blanket from his bag, saying softly, “She won’t be perfect for long. No one is. But she did like your lullaby.”
The poet smiled. “I suppose she did.” She felt as if a great weight had been lifted off of her. Two of them, in fact.
“Let’s go home now,” he said, wrapping his arms around her.
The poet nodded, resting her head against his shoulder, the child cradled between them. There was nothing she wanted more than to be in her little house by the sea, with its solid boards that creaked when the wind whistles through them, the small rooms that filled with sunshine on sunny days and moonlight on cloudless nights. The poet even missed the roof which leaked a little rain. And more than anything else in the world right now, she longed for her bed, which was thankfully not made of gold.
“I think that’s a splendid idea,” the poet said. And moving very slowly and gently, they started off towards home.
“What shall we call her?” the mathematician asked. “With all the walking about, we forgot to come up with a name.”
“If you don’t mind,” the poet offered shyly, “I though we might call her Kavya.”
“Kavya. That’s pretty. Why would I mind?”
The poet blushed. “It means poem.”
The mathematician was silent a long moment, and then he smiled. “Well, if we decide to have another, we can always name it math. For this child, I think Kavya will be just perfect.”
And she was.
with thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin, for her wonderful Fish Soup
Download Mary Anne singing The Poet’s Lullaby (920 KB MP3)