The Minstrel's Path
by Kim McFarland
It was a warm summer day. It was, in fact, the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. Some Fraggle colonies celebrated the event. However, the majority were too busy to pay attention to the solstice because midsummer was the Fraggle breeding season. Every Fraggle colony had a festival of some kind for the celebration—and creation—of new life, and compared to that a day that was merely long paled in importance. Cantus and Murray had been traveling a circuit of colonies for years now, and had made a point of seeing each colony's midsummer.
Cantus enjoyed these festivals. Every colony had a different way of commemorating the season. For some it was a private event be shared with one's very closest friends. Some made a big party of it. Most fell somewhere in between these two extremes. Whatever the case, the Minstrels were welcome at this time. They might play music to add to the festivities, or they might merely amuse the children of the colony while the adults were busy.
This colony's midsummer was pleasant and informal. They had a low-key party for the whole colony over the space of a handful of days. People set out their best food for all to share and exchanged little gifts like special delicacies and knitted socks, and of course they sang and played and, every so often, went off for a bit of privacy.
Cantus and Murray finished playing a song for which the colony's Fraggles supplied the lyrics. It worked everywhere: suggest that the song they would play would be this colony's song, and play a bouncy tune. The Fraggles would supply their own lyrics, and Cantus and Murray would learn something about the colony. This song was received with so much gusto that Cantus had begun to wind it down because he was tiring. But then other Fraggles had grabbed their own instruments, so the song continued. Cantus heartily approved.
Now the two Minstrels were sitting at the edge of the stream that flowed through the cavern. They had eaten and sung, and were in the mood to be quiet for a little while. They watched and listened as the Fraggles sang, and danced, and splashed about, and burned off the nervous energy of the season. They made their homes on little coves off the main chamber. The entrances of a few were covered by cloth hangings; they would not be disturbed.
Murray murmured, "The silly season."
"Isn't it wonderful?"
"Trust a Fraggle to say that," Murray teased.
"We take our silliness very seriously."
"Sometimes I think silliness is sacred to Fraggles."
Cantus thought about this. He asked, "What is sacred?"
Murray paused. How like Cantus to turn an offhand remark into a philosophical issue. But the resulting discussions were interesting. "Important. Worth respect. Numinous."
"Pisca belief. We think that there's something outside of ourselves that makes the world go."
"Perhaps there is."
"Numinous…well, that's a feeling you get when you see something that seems like part of what makes the world happen. Something sacred. It makes you feel small, and maybe a little afraid, but it's not a bad feeling, because you know that whatever it is, it's good. Like being a baby in your father's arms. He's so much bigger than you, and more powerful and wiser, but he'll keep you safe and help you grow."
Cantus nodded thoughtfully. "What makes the world go?"
Murray shrugged. "Who knows? We don't. We just believe that there's something there because the world's so well arranged."
"I believe something like that. I like to think of it as the world itself. It lives and breathes and shelters and feeds us."
"As if the thing that moves the world isn't separate from the world itself? Like a person isn't separate from his own body? I can see that."
Cantus said, "I'll make a philosopher of you yet."
"Please don't! You need someone to translate for you when you get too abstruse."
They shared a grin. Murray asked, "Is that what Fraggles believe?"
"That's what I suppose. Most Fraggles don't give much thought to the abstract. Who has time when there are songs to be sung, food to be eaten, games to play, and water to swim in?"
"Et cetera," Murray remarked, watching a pair of Fraggles cover another tunnel mouth with a hanging, then duck in behind it.
"I think the whole world is sacred."
"Your big toe?"
"It certainly is, to me."
Murray shook his head and grinned. "Silly Fraggle."
"Silly is good," Cantus said calmly.
A pink female Fraggle came over some minutes later and said, "May I speak with you, Cantus?"
He looked up at her. She was a friendly acquaintance; they'd had pleasant times in many past visits. She usually had a yellow child attached to one hand. Now she was alone. She seemed uneasy, and was trying to conceal it. "Of course." He got up.
They went off a little ways. He said, "What worries you, Tchia?"
She smiled sheepishly. "I'm not worried. I want to ask a favor of you."
But her hands were clasped together, and her tail was twitching. "Then ask," he said kindly.
She said, "My season is almost upon me. Would you join my Midsummer Ritual?"
For a moment he was too surprised to reply. Seeing his stunned expression, her heart sank. She wanted to say something, to back off, or try to convince him, but she couldn't speak. She could only look back, hoping.
Gently he told her, "I am a wandering minstrel. I must travel through the rock. I cannot stay."
I didn't ask you to stay! But she wouldn't argue the point with him. That was a no, and she had to accept that with good grace. She said, "I understand. I won't bother you again," then turned and left quickly, before he could say any more.
When Cantus returned and sat back down Murray saw the disturbed expression on his face. Something strange had happened. But among Fraggles privacy was a matter of courtesy, and never moreso than at this time of year, so he did not ask.
Later that day a Fraggle girl, old enough to be on her own but too young to participate in the season for another few years, sought Cantus and Murray out. She asked, "Can I play with you?"
Cantus smiled. Every time he came here Brio asked to play music with them. She showed improvement every time. And lately she had been asking about the other places they had visited. He said, "Of course."
She smiled happily and took out a flute. She held it out to him and said, "I made this myself."
He took the flute. It was made of a smooth, straight section of bamboo, and decorated with shallow carvings that removed the top layer to expose the lighter wood beneath. She had put some work into this. He gave it back and said, "It looks lovely. Why don't you begin?"
She waited until Murray and Cantus were ready with their instruments, then played a slow, pretty tune. They listened for a moment, until they got a feel for it, then joined in.
It was a pleasant, meandering piece they played together, flowing here and there the way a stream did until it ended in the still water of a pond. When they finished Cantus said, "You're coming along very well. When did you make your flute?"
"I cut the bamboo and made it this spring. But I planned it in winter."
Cantus nodded. Murray was impressed. She'd only been playing it for part of a year? She was getting good.
She said, "Someday I'd like to see the other colonies you go to."
"You would," Cantus mused, a thoughtful look on his face. "It can be a long and difficult trek."
"I can learn how," she replied.
Murray stifled a grin. He liked her. She had guts.
Cantus said, "There are things that cannot be learned to be known. Are you willing to face a challenge?"
"Yes," she replied.
"Then meet me when the caves begin to darken and I will test you. Bring a lantern."
Well before the appointed time Brio was waiting for Cantus, radiating both eagerness and nervousness. He said, "Very good. Come with me."
He led her and Murray to a cave outside of the colony. It was moderately large, with little tunnels feeding into it, blowing wind around the stalactites and other formations. Water dripped and a small waterfall splashed down a wall before plonking into a stream.
Cantus said, "To truly be one with music you must open yourself to it wherever it may be found. You must learn to do the most important thing: to listen."
"Listen to what?" she asked.
"Everything." He gestured around, indicating the cave. "Starting with this cave. Listen to its song."
"For how long?"
"Until you have heard it."
She looked puzzled, but said, "All right."
Cantus said, "We will leave you here. You will be safe."
The two Minstrels left. When they were out of the cave Murray said, "What're you up to?"
"She has potential. I want to see how much."
Cantus headed into another tunnel that led upward. Murray followed. It led into an opening high up on the same cave. They could see down, but the shadows would hide them from view. Murray said, almost soundlessly, "Oh."
"If we speak softly, the sound won't travel," Cantus murmured.
They watched for a while. She wandered around in the cave. Sometimes she played a brief passage on her flute, too quietly for them to hear. Murray had to ask, "What do you expect her to hear?"
"What she hears. And I want to know what that is."
"Right." When Cantus didn't want to give a straight answer, it was useless to try to pry one out of him. He changed the subject. "What happened today with Tchia? Or should I not ask?"
Cantus was quiet for a bit. Murray was about to take back the question when he said, "She asked me to share her Midsummer Ritual."
"So? That's hardly the first time."
Cantus didn't answer. True, he was usually invited to celebrate midsummer in the colonies they visited. Fraggles were, after all, very friendly and hospitable. They often invited Murray too. Murray politely declined; he didn't find Fraggles interesting in that respect. However, the Midsummer Ritual…she had, in effect, asked him to sire her child.
Such a request was only made after careful consideration. The decision was always made well in advance of the season, so the mother-to-be could abstain from drinking the yellowflower tea that prevented her from conceiving. She would ask a mate, or a member of her family circle if she was part of one, or a close friend, well in advance. It was an honor to be asked to contribute to the next generation. Such a request was not made lightly, and was never denied.
Why had she asked him?
Murray watched emotions chase across Cantus' face. He wasn't going to get an answer. He said, "I'm going to get some shuteye. Wake me when you get sleepy."
Brio stayed in the cave. Well into the night Cantus, feeling himself fading, wakened Murray, who took over the watch. Come morning she was still there. Cantus was surprised. He asked, "Did anything happen?"
"No. I'm going get some sleep. Wake me for lunch."
He really did look worn out. Unlike Fraggles, Pisca could stay awake in the dark. He must have been up all night. Cantus had expected Brio to leave in the night, at which point they would have returned to their bedrolls. Cantus left Murray lying in the tunnel nook and went down into the cave.
She was sitting, her back against a column, her legs drawn up and her arms around them for warmth. She lifted her head and blinked sleepily as he approached. He asked, "What have you heard?"
"A lot of things. But I don't know if I've heard the cave's song," she said, sounding worried.
"Play for me what you have heard," he said mildly.
She looked around herself, then said, "Um, I can't, not just with a flute. Can I get some things? I'll be right back."
"I will wait."
She scampered off. Soon she returned with several of the other instruments she had used in the past. She put them down and picked up her bamboo flute. "There's the wind. When it blows around, it sounds like this." She played a soft, low note, then wandered up and down the scale before letting it trail away when she ran out of breath. She put that down, then picked up a board with several cords strung tightly between nails on either end. She picked up a stick with another cord tied to its ends, so tight the stick bent, and said, There's this sound too." She drew the cord attached to the bent stick across the other cords, producing a low, mournful sound. She pressed her fingers to the cords, raising their pitch to a high squeak. "Bats."
Cantus nodded. "I see."
"And this too." She picked up a pair of cymbals and tapped together, making a bell-like sound. "The water dripping off the stalactites."
"Very good," Cantus said.
She confessed, "I heard those things, but I didn't hear the cave's song. I could make a song of those, but I can only play one thing at a time. And that wouldn't count anyway. Would it?"
"A place's song is made up of everything that is in it. Right now, that includes you and me. Let us listen, and play what we hear."
Cantus closed his eyes and listened, the Magic Pipe in his hands. She started to ready the cord board, but decided that percussion would compliment his playing better. When he began playing, he started with the notes she had originally played on her flute. She chimed in with the cymbals, tapping them with a soft ting to add accents.
The tune they played was short, but long enough. Cantus said, "You have done well. You have listened as well as heard. You have far to go, but you have taken the first step."
"What is the next?" she asked.
"You will know it when you have reached it."
Brio accepted that. Cantus, she knew, liked to keep people guessing. She would keep practicing.
They returned to the Central Cavern. Brio made a beeline for food. Cantus acquired a piece of flatbread with fruit and nibbled thoughtfully. One could listen to tastes as well as sound, he thought.
He spotted Tchia. When she saw him looking at her she tensed visibly. He approached her and said, "May I speak alone with you?"
"Yes," she said, although she looked like she would rather do anything but.
They went into a side tunnel. He said, "I've seen many things in my travels. I've seen things that you would not believe if you saw them, such as the end of the rock and the fire that burns in the air above it, too bright to look at. I've seen wood and metal that sing. But I can still be surprised. I can even be so startled that I behave unkindly without intending to."
She shook her head. She didn't know what to say.
Gently he asked, "Why did you ask me?"
She said, "I have no mate, and I don't want one. I want another child…and I admire you. After the last time you came by, I decided to ask you. I didn't think you would mind. I didn't even think it would surprise you."
"It did. It is an honor I have never been offered before."
Surprised, she said, "Never?"
He shook his head.
She asked hopefully, "Are you…rethinking your answer?"
"If you will forgive my foolishness, I will not make the same mistake again. Is there still time?" he asked softly.
Her smile left nothing more to be said. She took his hand shyly. He clasped it and sang to her,
"Play me down on the ground,
Song comes gliding in the summer breezes.
Raise me high in the sky,
Song comes drifting through.
I say one, two, play me, do,
Let me sound as sweet as you.
Play me wide, play me long,
Let me be your song."
Fraggle Rock, Cantus, Brio, Murray, and Let Me Be Your Song are copyright © The Jim Henson Company and are used without permission but with much respect and affection. Tchia and the overall story are copyright © Kim McFarland (negaduck9 at aol dot com). Permission is given by the author to copy it for personal use only.