AS PUBLISHED ON YOGA NATION
Artist and writer, Kim White, has been blogging about fables recently and asked me to submit a story I wrote a few years ago.
She writes, paraphrasing me (!),
“This blog focuses on fables, but when Joelle Hann submitted, “The Sun Rises and Sets on You,” a modern update on the Haida myth, “Raven Steals the Light,” I couldn’t resist putting it up on the site. Joelle recasts the old man as a disgruntled, out-of-work banker holding the light of the world hostage in his shoe. New York City and all of its inhabitants toil away in darkness, while he refuses to let go of his treasure. The Rasco tricks him out of his little bit of wealth and scatters it to the wind. Joelle says she wrote this years ago, but given our current financial crisis, her retelling of this ancient folktale seems prescient.
The Sun Rises and Sets on You by Joelle Hann
after “Raven Steals the Light”
Before New York was an important city, before electricity surged into the huge skyscrapers to light offices on each floor, before subways and tramlines shuttled people to and fro, before telephones supplied information for the millions of ambitious workers, and even before the birds and the rabbits and the fish disappeared, an old man lived on the bank of the East River, warming his hands over a fire in an oil-drum. Whether he was handsome or strong or finely dressed didn’t matter much because he was blind and the city existed in a permanent state of half-dark, neither bright with sunrise or mellow with sunset, but in between twilight and full-night.
Because at that time New York, the five boroughs, the tristate area, and the whole eastern seaboard was dark. Dark as tar, as soot, black as black sheep’s wool, black as the sky during thunderstorms, black as the bottom of a man’s shoe.
By their own craftiness and constant drive to invent, New Yorkers had found a way to deal with this inconvenience. They made candles, first by hand, from some German peasant’s grandmother’s original recipe, then, when wealthy citizens backed the idea, they opened candle factories and made tapers by the thousands. At first workers could not see what they were doing. But the more candles they made, the easier there work was. Soon the candle factory supplied all businesses with enough light to work: candles mitigated the constant dark.
The reason for the darkness had to do with the blind man by the East River. Homeless for many years, still dressed in the fine suit (hopelessly tattered now) he’d worn his last day of work the man had hidden something important in the bottom of his left shoe: the light of the world.
The Rasco, the mythic bird which of course existed at this time because he had always existed and always would, was less satisfied than the humans with the darkness because he was no good with matches and any time he managed to filch a lit candle the flame sputtered out as soon as he spread his wings and began to fly. He bumped around in the dark sky, clumsily looking for food and worldly pleasures in his constant need to create mischief and entertainment.
His quest for tasty fish took him to Manhattan’s seaport where fishermen unloaded their daily catch. As the Rasco circled well overhead, away from the worker’s protective, anti-Rasco nets, he saw a small light gleaming just back from the docks. It was the fire in the oil-drum where the homeless man warmed his hands. He swooped in low to get a better look and heard the man mumbling to himself. Curious, he drew closer to hear what the man had to say, “I have the finest shoes a man can buy, dark as the world is dark, with a secret panel in the left that contains all the light of the world, and I’ll never give it to anyone, even if they should offer me a lovely young companion and a beautiful house on Park Avenue, and the finest food in the best company for the rest of my life, because everyone knows I will never be able to see the beautiful companion, nor the luxurious house, nor the fine food in the best company. And if I cannot relish the world with my eyes, no one shall.”
The Rasco decided right then that he would steal the light for himself although it took him some time to devise a plan.
First he had to get close to the man without raising suspicion. But no matter how many times he circled the seaport or how silently he perched on the ships’ masts, the fishermen, who had once been fish themselves, heard his broad black wings flapping and chased him off. He decided to approach the man from Manhattan instead of from the water, but he bumped into so many buildings on his way that he grew tired and frustrated.
Finally, the Rasco set down on a tree-branch on Pearl street and thought and thought about how he could get close to the homeless man with the light in his shoe. As he did so he thought more and more about the man’s fine clothes, now tattered, but once pristine, and this awoke the Rasco’s vanity. “It’s too bad no one sees me when I’m dressed to the nines,” he said to himself, “but it’s true that I look very fine in well-cut cloth with a cold martini in my hand.” And in this self-admiring fantasy he found the solution to his problem.
Alighting from the tree, the Rasco changed himself into a well-dressed dandy with a big picnic basket. He had the finest black shoes, a suit elegantly cut from fine cloth, and a large hat pulled low to conceal his unusually large beak and black eyes. A few feathers stuck through the suit but not so that anyone at the docks, down there in the dark, would notice.
The homeless man stood warming his hands over the oil-drum as usual. The Rasco joined him, commenting on the cold night in the most human of voices. The homeless man, glad for the company, agreed. The Rasco set down his basket, began to mix martinis, and offered one to the homeless man who accepted, asking for a vodka martini. The Rasco mixed one very strong double-vodka dry with three olives, and made for himself a very mild one with hardly any vodka. He got into trouble when he drank too much.
The homeless man began to tell stories of his job at an important bank that had had close ties to the candle factory. He spoke of corruption and deceit, and how he was set-up to take the fall for his superiors who, in the eyes of the candle-factory monopoly, had become too powerful. The Rasco encouraged the man to talk. He mixed him a second drink, and encouraged him to drink. The homeless man clapped the Rasco on the back so hard that he coughed up a herring bone, and called him a good and decent man. “Drink up,” said the Rasco, “the only way to cure the pain is with denial, lies, repression or alcohol. Here’s another drink.”
The man, who had lived without much companionship all these years, thought it was his lucky night, and accepted. The Rasco listened patiently until he figured the man was good and drunk then he told him how beautiful his clothes were and offered to trade. “Why should a comfortable man like me hold on to these fine threads when such a man as yourself deserves them so? Besides the suit you’re wearing now is tattered and ripped. Please, let us trade.”
The homeless man resisted and grew loud. “No,” he shouted, “you’re trying to trick me.” But the Rasco protested that he was making a very kind offer and that after so many martinis the man was bound to get cold, and besides it wasn’t very grateful of him.
The homeless man accepted another martini and told more stories of his fast decline from powerful broker to destitute vagabond. He hadn’t always been blind, he said proudly, but in exacting revenge upon the candle factory he had discovered something infinitely precious. He slurred his words and teetered back and forth. He had figured out how to penetrate the top-secret rooms in the factory, through which only the very highest officials with the most intensive security passed. He’d found the key one day after a meeting. He slipped into the factory on the graveyard shift when the foreman, desperate for sleep, had retired into his office for an hour. Down in the basement the man had found the secret room with a strange glow seeping from around the door. Could that be the light of highly illegal documents waiting to be shredded? Something he could slip to an eager reporter and start to create havoc for those who had made him a victim?
He opened the door and was immediately blinded. What was inside was small but terribly powerful: it was the light of the world. By breaking off small kernels of it, the rich men who owned the factory had been selling the light on a black market, adding enormously to their already enormous wealth. Just three floors above, poor immigrants labored in near-complete darkness to make candles for businesses in Manhattan. Meanwhile the light of the world was illuminating homes of the fabulously wealthy and powerful in cities and countries far away.
The Rasco was getting impatient. “That’s a wonderful story, and the man surely was heroic, so what did he do with the light of the world once he found it?”
“Well, I took it of course. I put it in a secret panel in my shoe. That way no one could make any more profit from it. No sheik could light his palace with a sliver over it. No one, either rich or poor, could benefit while he possessed it. Which is why I cannot exchange clothes with you.”
The Rasco then begged to hold the light. “Just for a moment,” he said, “after all, I have plied you with vodka and kept you company on this cold night, the least you could do is show me this wonderful treasure.”
The man refused. The Rasco keep at him, puffing up his chest in mock offense. The man still refused. The Rasco raged and wept. Eventually, after the Rasco’s most potent harangue, drunk and a little confused, the man felt a twinge of guilt. He lifted the light, in the form of a small iridescent ball, from the secret hiding place in his shoe and held it out in his hands. “Careful,” he mumbled, “careful you don’t drop it.”
At that instant the Rasco changed from his finely dressed human form into the huge black form of the mythical bird he was, snatched the light of the world from the poor man’s outstretched hands, and flew straight up into the sky over Manhattan.
Of course the man at the oil-drum could not see what was happening, but cried out sharply as though again being unfairly sacrificed and the sailors all turned to see the Rasco rising fiercely into the sky: they could see their boats and docks, their hands and faces and all the buildings that stood so tall and thick near the seaport. As the Rasco passed over the Brooklyn Bridge, the light awoke the red-tailed hawk that nested there, and surprised and angry she flew up and snatched at the Rasco’s tail feathers. The Rasco let out a shriek and dropped some of the light into the harbor below where it smashed on the bridge and the boats some of it sinking down to become starfish and electric eels, and some of it bouncing back up into the sky to become faint stars that always hover over the city.
The Rasco flew as hard as he could to escape the red-tailed hawk and when she had chased him to the edge of the universe he dropped the rest of the light and disappeared over the edge into myth-time. The red-tailed hawk couldn’t follow him there—and after the cocktails and the highly-charged performance, the Rasco was exhausted. He needed to get some rest, and as he settled down on a branch in the world beyond human concerns, the sun began her first rise over the crowded cityscape of Manhattan. It was a glorious thing, unknown to anyone alive at that moment, something of literature and legend.
People came out of their offices and apartments and stood in the streets amazed. Slowly they began to realize how their lives were about to change in enormous and fantabulous, and they hugged each other and planned parties. At the seaport, the homeless man wept bitterly at his new friend’s betrayal and gnashed his teeth and tore his already very torn and dirty clothes.
But as the light reached the homeless man’s eyelids something incredibly happened. He looked up from his burning oil-drum where he had sat day after day, night after night for untold years, so long he had almost become Father Time himself, keeping secret what was wrongly kept secret by his bosses, and realized that he could see in front of him. He could see the sky, the docks, the boats the river. He could see figures walking, the shape of clouds, Brooklyn across the East River. He could see! How could that be? Had his eyes healed?
That could be, he realized, if all this time he’d had his eyes closed, shut in anger and distress, squeezed tight against the truth, clamped in determination to make the rest of the world suffer if he must suffer so. But now, so long after his scapegoating at the bank, now he could simply open his eyes. He was free at last to see the world around him and that made him feel a little better.