Late yesterday afternoon, Liz and I walked by the river in the cottonwood bosque, timing our arrival to the evening fly in of our overwintering Sandhill Cranes. There is nothing that I’ve experienced that can so quickly create a feeling of time travel. The Sandhill genus goes back over 50 million years in the fossil record. Watching and hearing these magnificent prehistoric birds glide overhead on their huge wings, clamorously croaking their wild crr-uk-crr-uks evokes an almost visceral, psychic connection with the continuity of life.
Stories offer another vehicle for transcending time and space, and so it was that yesterday’s crane encounter, triggered in my mind the opening words of a Kalahari Bushmen story related by Lauren’s Van derPost in his a book The Heart of the Hunter. This marvelous book holds a treasured place on my shelves and this story above all, has become a talisman of sorts for me. I think the cranes brought the story forward for me, perhaps because it is a tale featuring beings of the sky, and perhaps because it was just the story I needed to be reminded of at this time.
I’ll begin with Van der Post’s opening words, then adapt the story from there.
This man had an extraordinary herd of milk cows. Without fail, they produced the sweetest, and richest milk and in prodigious quantity. He took great care to lead them to the best pastures, and watched over them like a mother protecting her children so that no harm would come to them from wild animals.
One day however, he came to the kral in the morning and was surprised to find the cow’s udders completely dry. He thought that he’d perhaps chosen their grazing spot badly, and took them farther and to better grass that day.
But at the next milking again there was no milk. At this, he became suspicious and resolved to keep watch through the night.
Around midnight he was astonished to see a rope descend from the stars and with it, hand over hand, a number of beautiful young women of the sky. They soon were whispering, giggling, singing, and then as the man watched indignantly the sky women milked the cows, filling their calabashes with the sweet warm milk. The man jumped out from his hiding place but the women scattered and managed to make their way back up the sky rope. All but one that is, the one that had seemed to him the loveliest of them all. He held her in his grip and within a moment, they held each other in their hearts.
And so they became husband and wife, and there was no more trouble from the women of the stars. All was well and they prospered. Yet there was one thing. The star wife had brought with her a beautiful and tightly woven basket with a lid that fit perfectly snug. As a condition of the marriage, she had extracted a solemn promise that the man must never look into the basket unless she gave him permission. It was an easy promise to make at first, but as the weeks and months passed, his curiosity grew greater and greater. Finally it was too much and one day when he was alone, he lifted the lid from the basket and looked in. He stood there amazed and astonished. And then he laughed and laughed. Not for what he saw but for what he did not see. The basket was empty.
When his wife returned, she found him working in the garden. She knew without looking and without asking what had happened. “You looked in the basket!”
“Yes, I looked in the basket, but why the fuss, why the mystery all these months? The basket is empty.”
“Empty? Empty? You saw nothing?”
“ No, not a thing. Now forget this foolishness, come in and let’s eat.”
Here is Vanderpost again, recounting the words of his Bushman nanny who first told him the tale.
“And do you know why she went away, my little master? Not because he had broken his promise but because, looking into the basket, he had found it empty. She went because the basket was not empty but was full of beautiful things of the sky she stored there for them both, and because he could not see them and just laughed, there was no use for her on earth any more and she vanished.”
This story is so rich and in so many ways that I hesitate to offer my own take on it, for fear of diminishing its resonance with you dear readers. But storyteller that I am, I can resist no more than our farmer who could not keep from looking in the basket.
The Star Woman is one of those stories that has continued to work and work on me; one whose personal meaning has changed and I think deepened over the years. At first, I thought about what the man lost, the great mysteries of the universe, the secret of the stars. Patience I tell myself. There are some things I’m not quite ready to know, but soon though! Then again, maybe some mysteries need to remain mysteries. Was it Aldous Huxley who said that, “Life is not a problem to be solved but rather a mystery to be lived?”
Then I began to think about the gifts that others possess. Ah that’s it. We sometimes fail to recognize what others have to offer. About that time, Liz and I were working with parenting and pregnant teens, many of them with partners who might be considered to be less than savory companions. We would tell this story as a cautionary tale and suggest it as a kind of compass. “Seek out relationships where your partner appreciates your gifts. If they ‘look into your basket’ and see nothing, prepare to move on” was the message. That soon broadened out, of course, since this point of view needs to be reciprocal. So check in, find, and appreciate other’s gifts became the corollary message. Yes, what a rich story this is indeed!
But there is more in this gift of story to unwrap, and this is where this story has become a touchstone and a talisman for me.
Ah, sometimes the milk of life tastes rich and sweet. Some days, I look into my own basket, and I feel confident, I feel capable, I feel that I am making a contribution. But there are dark days too. Days when I look into my basket and find it empty; days when I look for a path and find none; moments, or days when I am filled with doubts. On these days, it is not as simple as thinking one’s way out. Just as I sometimes look to the night sky and the stars, seeking the familiar constellations and the pole star for orientation, I now seek the Star Maiden story, so that I do not walk away from myself, that I do not walk away from the richness of life, and the richness of my own life, that is always there, even when I cannot see it.
Amazing that for 50 million years, the cranes come and go with the seasons, following an ancient call. Amazing that the man of the ancient race gave us this story, and that we can return to ourselves and each other, grateful for the great mystery, grateful for life.