The Naming of Dobson's Crag

By Dolores J. Nurss


They told the boy that he had talent.  They shoved a violin under his chin and commanded him to play them something sweet.  So he spun them a confection, each note a sugar snowflake to dance in the air as pure and bright and cold as the child's eyes.  Eric piled up the music in drifts around them, crystal-perfect in every note, uncompromising whiteness of sound that chilled the very color from their hearts, till they shivered as they listened and they couldn't stop.

"Try again," they told him.  "That was too cold.  Play us something sweet."  Eric submitted.  He offered up a song like incense; it rose in curls of bittersweet perfume, as lush and harsh in the throat as sacrifice, as rites compelled by unforgiving gods.  He made each note a fragrance to swirl upon the air, to cloud the senses, he burned himself up to rise in a murk behind their minds like the threat in his obedience.

"No," they said, "that's too harsh.  That is not how a violin should sound.  Try again."

He tried to be airy.  He tried to catch the sweetness of a summer breeze.   He coiled the tune around him in a caress of atmospheric hands, but it sped on without restraint, it searched out every crack in the listener's defenses, strengthened on the power of the bow upon the strings, till the music whipped the room like a gale that bent and swayed them, stripped away their preconceptions like leaves to hurl them in the wind, broke the connective twigs, wrenched whole branches of thought from them in a splintering of notes that bruised them, beat them, stormed their shelter till the whirlwind music left their spirits naked and uprooted.

They couldn't tell him to try again because he fled.  He slipped out a window like a tune that escapes the memory.  He sought out the wild places where the hawk never bound herself to the songbird's warble, where the tree's bark grew as rough as its leaves grew smooth, where the pouchcat killed with grace and the slain coney never asked for anything sweet and the rocks told him nothing at all.

At first some need would waft Eric Dobson down among them now and then; he'd trade the furs of the beasts he'd eaten for an axe or supply of seed.  But no music came down with him save the rhythm of his movements and a tremor of his grace-note silences.  Some few would ask if he could play, commanding the young man no more.  But then he'd only stare at them; they saw nothing in his eyes but sky.  They wondered if he'd lost his music in the brambles, buried it in the mould.  He let them wonder.

So they left him to the rocks and hawks and the alterlli vines, and they thought of other things.  Poems needed writing, art called out for painting, new songs filled the breeze between the theaters and threaded the sculpture-gardens with pleasantry.  Music enough remained in the art-colony that they didn't need the hermit on the hill.  And when he had all that he needed he came down no more.

Yet sometimes they wondered if he sat upon the crag above them and played his violin, rosin'd on the wild sap, to an audience of stars.  They wondered what the animals might do, who caught the savage notes like a scent upon the air.  When people drank from the stream that poured down from the hills, they thought about a melody so thick it could crush you, filtering the water, to leave ungovernable influences that suffused the taster and his work.

Time passed.  Whole generations knew him only as a proverb of talent wasted.  So they strove all the more to share what they created, with Dobson for example.  And so it went, until the fire...

There had always lain, beneath the skin, this tension between art and nature.  Now Sister Earth had lost the battle to her gardeners-gone-amok, but this new world, Novatierre, more ancient without sentience, felt a strength within her core--felt because the invaders brought the concept of feelings with them like an accidental passenger.  Where thoughts had never been, thoughts came.  Magentine pervasive in the soil discovered in itself a property to store what it previously had not known.  Unforeseeable potentials awoke where awaking had seemed impossible, unthinkable, this alien stirring.

And then Novatierre discovered memories in humanity of a world destroyed.  From them she learned suspicion and hostility to newcomers.  Where only nature had shaped new shapers came, building elaborations upon instinctive concepts like competition and defense, and introducing new ones–jealousy, punishment, and hate.  The planet soaked up thoughts, emotions, rivalry, deep into the soil like an acid rain.

It upset the psychic ecology.  It called forth a heat.  It kindled a leaf in a shimmer of light not yet true flame, then the leaf curled blackening around a twig, then the resins bubbled and spat while the fire climbed a tangle of fallen bark that scaled a sacrificial tree.

While the artists slept.  While the artists in their dreams loved wood as something to carve and clay as something to sculpt, their sleeping fingers still stained with the stones that they'd crushed for pigments, while they dreamed of animals as hides to stretch across their drums, guts to tighten on a soundbox, bones to hollow out and pierce with holes for melodies.

They woke to the incense of a burning wood, the rumble of the fire's song.  They ran out naked, left their art abandoned, turned to watch their visions burn to smoke.  As the heat beat them back they watched their lofts crash down to the coals of their parlors, then both into cellars where their winebottles burst in the celebration of the fire.  Around the artists blades of flame leaped high in a circle-dance, trampling the village to the tune of their own cackling till they tread it down to ash, then whipped the ash up again in a blizzard of heat upon the gale of fire-voices.  The artists circled but saw no escape in the blur of heat and their smoke-stung tears.

Until a melody came, the barest counterpart to the ripples in the heat.  At first it foundered in inferno, then found new strength, a bittersweetness that denied no harm, yet sang a hymn of mercy, compromise, accommodation.  It took the bitter and the sweet to make its harmony, it locked into a single chord both nature and the art that praised her.  In the throat of the music swelled up all the power of loneliness, of a whole flood of loss endured for a purpose, enough to shame a planet, for even a planet can lose no more than everything.

The harmony compelled.  It coaxed the flame to dance its measures, to rise and fall with the song.  A wave of notes parted the flames to admit the old man, violin tucked under his jowls, his music louder now than the firestorm which whipped his hair up like wisps of a snow-white smoke, loud as the shock which smote all hearts at the sight of those eyes glazed from seeing nothing but years and years of wilderness, the lips that could no longer speak, could only let howl from the strings beneath his fingers the song that he gave his life to play.

He glanced neither to the right nor to the left.  He fiddled like a lunatic in firelight, oblivious to the people that he walked between.  They saw, close enough to touch, the weather-cracked face that nature had carved as an artwork of her own.  People stepped aside, for he walked with the surety of sacrifice straight into the opposing wall of flame.

And the fire also made room for him.  The fire shivered like the music melted it; it bowed to him--The Sculpture of Novatierre--he who had no more asked to be made nature's art than any carven bough.  The coals beneath his feet cooled for shame; in a hiss they confessed that Humankind had done nothing here that nature hadn't done as well.  The fire let him pass.

Behind him crowded artists who had scorned him, men and women with their talented children who played sweetly when commanded; he led the long dance between shuddering walls of death and death, but they came to no harm within the harmony's protection.

Upon a beach, at last, they found themselves with nothing left to burn.  The music sank beneath a whisper of the sea.  Sand stretched all around them, white in the moonlight like ash or snow or the empty canvas that yearns for human paint, paper for words.  When they awakened from the music-trance they wrote across the sand with running feet, spouse finding spouse in swift embrace, parents catching up their children with sobs of relief that sank into the sand clear to the heart of Novatierre.

They had lost their poems, but retained the souls that wrote.  Their paintings had scorched to ash and melted color, but the hands and eyes that painted remained to them.  Their instruments, their theaters, all these the fire had consumed, but they could dance, they could sing.  They could rebuild wiser creations than before.

The artists sought out Eric Dobson, the old man with the violin, but he had faded with the melody--they couldn't find him among them.  They wouldn't wait.  They scaled the crag while the sod still smoked beneath their feet, the air still choked, they crossed a landscape of absolutes in black and white.  They found the cinders of his shack, the old man's blackened bones an ink-sketch on the whitened ground--Novatierre's signature to the art that she'd compelled.  Beneath some knucklebones the metal violin-strings curled, twisted from the heat.  The fire had swept the crag long before it had ever reached the village.


[Based on a dream of watching a fiery-eyed old man walk through a wall of flame while playing violin, and on other dreams set in the art colony of DiMedici, usually with me playing tourist.  I sensed that the old man belonged to this community, and yet also didn't.  I wanted to discover his story.  Then I saw, on the map that I had drawn (based on many, many dreams of Fireheart Friendclan's youthful excursions) Dobson's Crag, just above DiMedici, and I suddenly realized, "That's him!  He's Dobson!"  After that this tale just sort of unfurled in my head to answer me. 

After that I dreamed of being Deirdre as a weary, aging veteran of agency, sitting in the Blarney room of the Silverfoam Inn, as an earnest young man stood up to recite, declaring in a loud voice the opening line of this legend.  I woke up right after, feeling confirmed in the telling of this tale, and also now aware that some parts of Til Territories had developed the custom of beginning and ending recitations of legends with a loud, proclamatory voice, dropping in between to a more conversational tone, yet in a lyrical style.]


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