Monday, February 14, 2022

"Sonata at Payne Hollow," by Wendell Berry

Harlan and Anna Hubbard

The Kentucky shore of the Ohio at evening.  Some time in the future, perhaps a saner time than now.  It is the season when the toads mate and sing from the stones along the water’s edge at night.  Here the river has curved in close to the foot of a steep hillside.  The slope is wooded with tall trees.  A fringe of willows along the shoreline opens to give a view up among the larger trunks.  During the play, the light slowly changes from twilight to dusk.
          Two boatmen, a man past middle age and a boy of about fifteen, come ashore.  They may be small-time traders who row of drift from one river town to another.  Their johnboat, the bow of which is visible to our right, is of the traditional make, built of wood.  A rope is attached to a ring in the bow.
          The boy carries the end of the rope up the shore and makes it fast to a willow.  He then stands and looks around.
The Boy:  We never stopped here before.

The Man:  Night never caught us here before.  But look.  There is the notch is the hill, and there is the creek coming down, and here are the rocks it has brought and shaped in a little bar fanned out on the river’s edge.  You’ve heard of this place.  Up yonder on the slope is where they lived and made their music, in a house built of rocks and poles and rough planks and pieces of drift from the river.

The Boy:  Who were they?  Tell me again.

The Man:   Their names were Harlan and Anna.  A long time ago they came here, past the middle of their lives, to love until they were old.  They were refugees from that violent world of our ancestors that nearly destroyed itself.  They wanted a quiet place that was dark at night, unwanted by other people, where they could grow their food or catch or find it, and be warmed by firewood burning on a hearth they made of rocks carried up from the river or the creek.   Harlan, they say, made pictures of the river and the trees and little farms that stood along the valley sides.  And he and Anna made fine music in the evenings with his fiddle and her piano.  Up there is where their house was, and there the little shop where he made the pictures, and there the shed where they kept their goats.

The Boy:  And that was long ago?

The Man:   Long ago.  The boards of their building now are gone to dust, and trees are standing where they played and ate and slept.

The Boy:  What became of them?

The Man:  They got old, and died.  And yonder, below the chimney stones is where they were laid to rest – or not, maybe, to rest.  For there’s them that tells of being here at night, and hearing that old music strike up sudden in the woods, and seeing those two ancient lovers walking about, talking.

The Boy:  Oh, Lord! Talking! What do they say?

The Man:  They talk of what they could not talk about enough while they were here, like all ghosts do.

The Boy:  If it was up to me to choose, I’d just as soon be someplace else.  Your talk is talk enough for me.

The Man:  It’s them.  You needn’t be afraid.  We’re not where they are.

The Boy:  But they’re where we are.

The Man:  Be still!
Now, as from far off among the trees, we hear a piano and violin – perhaps it is Mozart’s Sonata in E-flat Major.  The piano is played with elegance and technical precision.  The quality of the violin, by contrast, is “honest and handmade” but “strikes deep.”  The sound of the toads has ceased.  The music, at first only faintly audible, becomes louder.  Now there can be no doubt what it is.  The man and boy stand still, listening, the boy looking a little anxiously at the man.
Now, slowly, candlelight defines a large window among the trees well up the slope.
And now, with the light fading off the boatman and his boy, the figure of a slender, white-haired old man is revealed, standing by the river’s edge upstream.  We have not seen him come; he is just there, perhaps having been there for some time.  He stands, facing upstream, his left side to the river and to us, looking out across the slowly darkening water.  The knuckles of his half-open left hand rest against his hip.
And now the light defines the shape of an old woman walking among the trees.  She crosses above the old man and comes slowly down to the water’s edge, where she too stands still, looking out, her left hand holding to a small willow.  She faces downstream, her right side to us.  Except for the music, the scene becomes completely still.  The stillness is allowed to establish itself before Anna speaks.
In the dialogue that follows, the differences are expressed with feeling, but not with antipathy or anger.  What we are witnessing is a ritual of courtship, discord reenacted as for pleasure, the outcome foreknown.  Perhaps it has been repeated countless times before.
Anna: There you are, Harlan.  I've called and called.  What are you doing?

Harlan: Looking.

Anna: At what?

Harlan: The river.

Anna: You've never seen enough, have you, of that river you looked at all your life?

Harlan: It never does anything twice.   It needs forever to be in all its times and aspects and acts.  To know it in time is only to begin to know it.  To paint it, you must show it as less than it is.  That is why as a painter I never was at rest.  Now I look and do not paint.  This is the heaven of a painter - only to look, to see without limit.  It's as if a poet finally were free to say only the simplest things.
For a moment they are still again, both continuing to look, in opposite directions, at the river.
Anna: That is our music, Harlan.  Do you hear it?

Harlan: Yes, I hear.

Anna: I think it will always be here.  It draws us back out of eternity as once it drew us together in time.  Do you remember, Harlan, how we played?  And how, in playing, we no longer needed to say what we needed to say?

Harlan: I'm listening.

But I heard here too, remember, another music, farther off, more solitary,  closer -

Anna: To what, Harlan?

Harlan: I'm not so sure I ever know.  Closer to the edge of modern life, I suppose - to where the life of living things actually is lived; closer to the beauty that saves and consoles this earth.  I wanted to spend whole days watching the little fish that flicker along the shore.

Anna: Yes.  I know you did.

Harlan: I wanted
to watch, every morning forever, the world shape itself again out of the drifting fog.

Anna: Your music, then, was it in those things?

Harlan: It was in them and beyond them, always almost out of hearing.

Anna: Because of it you made the beautiful things you made, for yourself alone, and yet, I think, for us both.  You made them for us both, as for yourself, for what we were together required those things of you alone.

Harlan: To hear that music, I needed to be alone and free.

Anna: Free, Harlan?

Harlan: I longed for the perfection of the single one.  When the river rose and the current fled by, I longed to cast myself adrift, to take that long, free downward-flowing as my own.  I know the longing of an old rooted tree to lean down upon the water.

Anna: I know that.  I knew that all along.  And then was when I loved you most.  What brought me to you was knowing the long, solitary journey that was you, yourself - the thought of you in a little boat, adrift and free.  But, Harlan, why did you never go?  Why did you not just drift away, solitary and free, living on the free charity of the seasons, wintering in caves as sometimes you said you'd like to do?

Harlan: Oh, Anna, because I was lonely!  The perfection of the single one is not perfection, for it is lonely.

Anna: From longing for the perfection of the single one, I called you into longing for the perfection of the union of two.

Harlan: which also was imperfect, for we were not always at one, and I never ceased, quite, too long for solitude.

Anna: And yet, of the two imperfections, the imperfection of the union of two is by far the greater and finer - as we understood.

Harlan: Yes, my dear, Anna, that I too understood.  It is better, granting imperfection in both ways, to be imperfect and together than to be imperfect and alone.

Anna: And so this is the heaven of lovers that we have come to - to live again in our separateness, so that we may live again together, my Harlan.

Harlan:  And so we named a day - remember? - and a certain train that you would be on if you wanted to marry me.

Anna:  and that you would be on if you wanted to marry me.

Both:  and both of us were on that train!

Anna:  And then, Harlan, we did drift away

Harlan:  on a little boat we built ourselves, that contained hardly more than our music, our stove, our table, and our bed

Anna:  in which we slept - and did not sleep -

Harlan:  my birthplace into our new life!

Anna: For a long time we had no home but that little boat and one another

Harlan:  and the music that we sent forth over the water and into the woods.

Anna:  And then we came here to this hollow and built a house and made a garden

Harlan:  and gave our life a standing place and worked and played and lived and died

Anna:  and were alone and were not alone.

Harlan:  Alone and not alone, we lived and died, and after your death I lived on alone, yet not alone, for in my thoughts I never ceased to speak with you.  I knew then that half my music was hidden away in another world.  The music I had heard, so distant, had been the music you and I had played - the music of something almost whole that you and I had made; it made one thing of food and hunger, work and rest, day and night.  It made one thing of loneliness and love.  That music seemed another world to me, and far away, because I could play only half, not all.

Anna:  And half the life that you so longed to live - was mine?

Harlan:  Was yours.  Without you, I could not live the life we lived, which I then missed and longed for, even in my perfect solitude.

Anna:  You will forgive, I hope, my pleasure in the thought of you alone, playing half a duet - for also it saddens me.

Harlan:  You would have laughed, Anna, to hear how badly I played alone, without your strong art to carry me.  My perfect music then was made by crickets and katydids and frogs.  I heard too the creek always coming down,  allegro furioso after storms,  and of course the birds - the wood thrush, whose song in summer twilight renews the world, and in all seasons the wren.  But those unceasing voices in the dark were the ones that sang for me, and I was thankful for the loneliness that had brought us two together out of all the time we were apart.
And now, as both have known they would, they turn toward one another, and thus are changed, revealing themselves now as neither young not old, but timeless and clear, as each appears within the long affection of the other.
With this (their only movement since their conversation began), the light no them brightens and changes; it becomes, for only a moment, the brilliance of a spring morning, and on the slope, where before only the candlelit window showed among the trees, now appears the house as it was, with a garden on the terrace below, Harlan and Anna smile and lift their arms toward one another.  And then they and the light abruptly disappear.  The music stops. The trilling of the toads is audible again, and we see the boatman and his boy looking up the darkening hillside.  The boy turns toward the man and is preparing to speak when the stage goes entirely dark.  The toads sing on another moment, and then are silenced.
Production note: The left side of Harlan’s face and the right side of Anna’s are made up to appear old.  The opposite sides of their faces should denote, not youth, but the youthful maturity of a couple in their forties - faces lovely because they are lovely to one another.

~ Wendell Berry