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In the spirit of the season, "Once upon a Star" is a gift for every child, young or old.
|You can also listen to "Once upon a Star" a Christmas story
Rainy Reunion in Tenby
Dylan’s Daughter, the Walrus and Old Town Aberafan
Once upon a Star a Christmas story
Dec. 2012 (listen to the story, 6:30)
|Rainy Reunion in Tenby
The yearly cycle turns around Glangaea, the old Welsh New Year, at the beginning of November. The ancients would fix their gaze on Caer Arianrhod--The Corona Borealis--hoping to catch a glimpse of the entrancing goddess, as she sat at her silver spinning wheel, gracefully spinning their earthly fate. Spirits were abroad and the long winter darkness, already manifest, called for bonfires, ritual and reassurance, in a fragile, often casually temperamental world. They would look again to the skies around Glanmai--Mayday--but this time with much greater hope in their hearts at the promise of lengthening days of life-giving light. If, like the spinner, they could have travelled time, in that early November sky, they might have fleetingly caught a different silver glimmering, the very distant, outstretched wings of a Boeing 747-400, as it imperceptibly lowered its nose, after passing over Taliesin’s Rheged--Strathclyde. Making its way south above the ancient kingdoms of Elmet and midland Britain, it safely touched down in 21st Century Heathrow Airport.
A speedy London Underground run, then the familiar Paddington-South Wales train, seemed to quietly and smoothly anticipate the waiting family the other side of Cardiff, on Port Talbot Parkway Station. Making good time to and through the tunnel and, although bathed in rapidly fading evening light, the characteristic and comforting hills of Gwent, then Sir Forgannwg held out welcoming Welsh arms. Home was now a reality, hireath--homesickness--a remnant of then. Croeso i Gymru--Welcome to Wales!
The advantages of living six thousand miles away from your origins are legion, as are the disadvantages. One of the more interesting advantages is the built-in ability to time travel. Yes, seriously! No need of the teeming imagination and mechanical aptitude of H.G. Wells. No need of magical caves, dream worlds, psychedelic tunnels or worm holes; just five or more years of separation and the ebb and flow of human tides. Now, read on for the revelation.
As we observe, so we are observed, with the inevitable process of aging, gracefully or not, easily read in the open pages of our tearful, smiling faces. To see someone beloved and be seen by them, with intervening years, is to indeed travel time. Reconciliation with a long estranged close relative is heartwarming, yet the ravages are sadly shocking enough to insist that you yourself look into the mirror and hope it will show more compassion. Even more striking, to see new family additions: a babe in arms with familiar features, "Doesn’t she look a lot like..."; a slightly older child, "Reminds me a lot of him when he first..."; "She’s got the attitude of a young so and so!"
Sometimes those too-rapidly-growing cherubs go to the same school and even the same classroom where you yourself window-dreamed. Yes, the wheel is always in spin but, even for a brief spell, you become that smiling, sing-song rhyming, chiming child in the playground again, vicariously young. Perhaps a six-month-old infant’s casual gesture, facial expression, outstretched hand is a duplicate of an older uncle or aunt. They are, in a sense, one and the same, just at different points on the curve of our earthly continuum. And so it was this time, as it has always been and always will be, an opportunity for all to visit with the great sweep of generations, in the comfortable front room parlour of a small industrial town.
Even the rain is somehow familiar here, in this smoky old borough. It reminds the prodigal visitor that November on the coastal plain of Bae Abertawe--Swansea Bay--has a geographical signature; characteristically lashing the gray stone walls, windows and slate roofs devoid of wise Jackdaws. But, solace for a traveller’s flagging soul, on a bacon, fried bread and black-puddinged morning, during a steak and kidney pied lunch, or haddock and chipped Friday teatime treat, all is warm, well and beyond reach of re-gathering gray clouds and threatening gales.
Intermittent gusts and squalls were certainly there, the following rainy Monday in Tenby Town. Dinbych y Pysgod--Tenby of the Fish--is a Norman-walled town, replete with castle, smugglers’ caves, squabbling gulls, nets, boats, anchors, ropes and enough mythic and poetic license to be itself a tall tale. It is a place to engage all the senses; salty to the taste, it had the smell, touch and ambient sound of a wind and rain swept Pembrokeshire sea town. It is ever a harbour for those long at sea, the perfect place for reunion.
The last time of meeting this long lost friend was his twenty first birthday in Ynysybwl, Cwm Rhondda. Growing up, there had been many occasions of music making, larking, drinking cider, laughing and day dreaming... you know the kind of things teenagers did forty odd years ago, and yes, still and will always do. Sitting in the bay window of The Buccaneer Inn, with the wood fire keeping out the chill, there was a sense of "What will it be like to see and be seen down the wrong end of a telescope?" The sixties were a lifetime before; washed away, gone, almost as if they had happened to someone else. Something dreamt, scenes from a subtitled foreign film. Would we recognize... know each other? Would we like what we saw... the look of one another? What would be said? What was there to say?
After a long tearful embrace, fears went the way of the fallen rain, guttering down to the invigorated sea. Age certainly showed its fascinating and frightful imprint, but friendship--true friendship--showed no sign of weakening, let alone disappearing. Maybe it had even enlivened with time and travel. Conversation was as brisk as the keen wind off the bay, while the two hour run of our brief encounter was spinning at the speed of the goddess’ wheel. First there were the fifteen-minute, forty-year personal digests, then the "Do you remember such and such... so and so?"; "He did well"; "V married W"; "X retired years ago"; "Y made a big splash in London Town"; "Z was never the same..." Email, network and mobile numbers exchanged, promises made, and just like that, the bay window looked out on an empty, rainy Tenby cobblestone street. The world had silently turned. Time had moved on... once again.
Looking out of another window at around thirty five thousand feet, heading back over Rheged, shell-shocked head spinning, you might have wondered if a time-travelling Taliesin had caught a glimpse of the Boeing from the ground, as he scanned the sky for a sighting of Arianrhod at her wheel. Then the realization would dawn. Glangaea or not, and even though you can, there is no need to time travel, if you have never left the May Day of your days. The spirit of Glanmai is, after all, at home in the heart--in the abode of the soul--and beyond the ceaseless turning of the silver spinning wheel.
|Dylan’s Daughter, the Walrus and
Old Town Aberafan
Based on a legend heard in John's youth.
Did you ever walk out along the old wooden pier near the mouth of the River Afan? It was pulled down a long time ago, but do you remember before it was rebuilt of concrete and steel after a century of September high tides had almost washed it away?
Well, early one fair summer morning, cyn codi cwn Caer, before the dogs of Chester had risen, I should have been at school learning about Pythagoras and geometry instead of discreetly skipping down the riverside path, past the Little Warren and mud banks on my way fishing. A short time after casting the line out, as I was whistling my lucky fishing song, I heard something unusual. Well, in truth, I heard a string of sounds perfectly imitating my song–note for note–but faint and bittersweet, as if a quiet and sad, pleasant echo. Strangest of all, it wasn’t a whistling sound answering, but something like the sound of a flute–for it was indeed a flute–materializing like a musical apparition a stone’s throw past the end of the old pier; harmonics rising like a sea mist from somewhere deep beneath the play of the waves! For a good while, time stood Sunday still and then imperceptibly, the seagull cries and the rise and fall of the sea licking the barnacled pilings washed into my ears again. I tried whistling a couple of times after that without hearing any answering melodic dialogue from the sea, but now my lucky-charm song was a tad more pensive.
That evening, as I lay in bed, flashbacks of that fair summer morning made me wonder if I’d been adrift on some sort of tidal daydream or if there had truly been music and magic in the tide and I had witnessed a real life wonder. I didn’t say anything to anyone, but the next day, cyn codi cwn Caer, before the dogs of Chester had risen, when I should have been in school studying Pythagoras and right-angled triangles, I was standing outside the town library waiting for the key to turn in the lock and the ‘Closed’ sign turn to ‘Open’. There was a genuinely surprised look on the librarian’s face. “Good morning Sioni, no school today?” she asked. “No Miss Jones, I need to take a look in the local interest section for stories about old Aberafan Town and mysterious sounds coming from under the sea. I’m writing an essay for the Calan Gaeaf, Halloween issue of the student’s magazine” I casually lied without blinking an eye. “Oh” said she, “you’re so lucky. Just arrived yesterday is the book collection of old Mr. Dafis, Cwmafan. He was a sailor, but when he retired he had taken an interest in the history and stories of the Afan district, until recently–in extreme old age–he went to live with family in Abertawe, insisting that his books and manuscripts stay with the people of Aberafan Town. Come along with me.”
Well, inside the dusty basement, down the back stairs behind the main reading room, were mound upon moldy mound of very old and threadbare, graying books; some tied together with string, others in cardboard boxes, but the majority scattered sang-di-fang, willy-nilly, all over the shop. “Sorry about the mess” she said “I don’t have time to keep up with all the kind gifts from the Friends of the Library. Over there under the window, on the wooden table are Dafydd Dafis’ books. Oh! And there’s also a sea chest llawn dop, full to bursting with his papers and bric-a-brac. Lwcus Da, Good luck!” said Mrs. Jones over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs leading back up to the neat and well-lit main reading room.
After a couple of minutes staring in a fog over the rolling hills and dales of books and papers, Pythagoras and the square on the hypotenuse were beginning to appear a lot more attractive than usual, but as my mother always said “Deuparth gwaith ei ddechrau. The start is two parts the work”. I sat at the wooden table and began going over the landscape of frail and fragile, venerable books in the weak light of the street-level window half way up the damp basement wall. After an hour or more, at the point of rhoi’r ffidl yn y to, hanging the fiddle in the eaves, in a dark corner by the radiator, I came across the travel-weary sea chest–a story in itself–smelling of untold sea-voyages, salt-sea spray and memorable midnights in exotic sea ports. Unfastening the weathered leather straps, inside I came across seemingly numberless bundles of handwritten, yellowing papers tied with brittle green, blue and red ribbons. Toward the bottom of everything I found some kind of small white flute; a flute made out of bone or ivory, covered with mysterious scrolls and shell-like scrimshaw and discolored by perhaps hundreds of spindrifting years.
Putting the flute in my pocket and untying yet another crumbling blue ribbon I read: “Tales and Beliefs of our Forefathers, collected by Capt. Dafydd Dafis, Cwmafan.” Once again Pythagoras didn’t have a hope in Hades; not a friend in the world. I began reading the old Captain’s prologue:
Generation after generation have heard these stories from their grandfathers and fathers until I heard them in my turn at my own father’s knee. Having neither daughter nor son, I must entrust them to fortune and fate and the rip-tides of time and hope that, like driftwood, they’ll wash up on a welcoming shore.There were lots of appealing stories in the collection, but one chapter was especially bell-ringing: “Bedd Dyfrllyd yr Hen Dref, Watery Grave of the Old Town.” Well, I was ar bigau’r drain, on tenterhooks, anxious and hopeful of solving yesterday’s harmonic mystery. I read on …
Amser maith yn ôl … A long, long time ago, when dear old Wales was still at play on the unhurried playing fields of her youth, our local coastline would have looked extremely strange to you and me and anyone familiar with Aberafan today. To tell the truth, there was no coastline there at all, but a long green valley leading down away through meadows and glens through the old Afan Wood then on to the distant beach and the sea; a slender quicksilver thread glinting cheerily in the far, far beyond. In the middle of the valley, on the river bank, was Old Aberafan Town with its round thatched houses, simple wooden church, little school hut, earthen market square and our forefathers busily going about their daily lives in sunshine and rain. An ideal picture, isn’t it? But without warning everything was about to change … forever.
Well, after skipping flat pebbles out across the chuckling shallows, impatiently waiting for what seemed like a lifetime, not far from Hafwen’s tidal pool, of a sudden a mountain of water rose frighteningly close to Jac on the shore. It would have been very easy to lose heart, turn, and run back to the town, but when Hafwen herself swam to the water’s edge, somehow all was becalmed and well with Jac again. “Don’t worry” she said smiling, “my father is anxious to thank you.” And with that, from the middle of the liquid hill, there was Dylan Eil Don–Dylan of the Second Wave, Arianrhod’s son–striding toward the shore. Even after returning home to Old Aberafan Town, it was just about impossible for Jac to describe Brenin y Weilgi, The King of the Deep. His face, hair, beard and his entire enormous body was like seaweed or a shoal of fish flowing and churning constantly in eddies. Only his penetrating blue-green eyes stood solstice still. He was Arctic, Antarctic, Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans incarnate; the embodiment of the salt crystal empire that circles the world; the aquamarine and pelican gray that balances the earthen and apple green hills.Aberafan was rebuilt twice more over the years; each time further inland, away from that mischief-maker Tide. And despite the little walrus tusk flute having been faithfully passed down from generation to generation, finally washing up in a weather-beaten sea chest, next to a radiator, near a wooden table in the weak light of a street-level window, in a dusty basement downstairs from the reading room of the new town library–despite all of this–nevermore would the flute player be master of the prankster tides of Ynys y Cedryn, Isle of the Mighty.
But, if you ever walk out along the pier at the mouth of the River Afan, cyn codi cwn Caer, before the dogs of Chester have risen, on some fair morning of a harvest moon, when you should be at school learning about Stephen Hawking, Space-Time and The Grand Design, instead of squandering your own precious time pondering simpleminded legends like this; perhaps you’ll see a young lad sitting by the barnacled pilings, from time to time casting out into the giggling Tide, sometimes playing a soft and sad, lonely song. And a strange thing, you may hear a sound like a flute–for a flute it will be–answering his song–note for note–rising like a melodic sea mist from many fathoms deep beneath the play of the waves.
|Once upon a Star
A Christmas story
They say don’t ever look down when you’re climbing, and I’ve heard you never can step in the same river twice, but it doesn’t matter anyway as everyone knows, you can’t go back - in time that is. Though when the serene evening sky keeps its promise of snow; when long awaited visitors are heard unlatching the garden gate and the star - the one that’s been seen near Solstice for generations - reassuringly shines in its wine-violet setting, I feel a gentle tug at my sleeve; find myself drawn quietly back; willingly led along the gray-green shadow of a pencil-traced path, through the old-growth, mistletoed wood; time after time out of mind falling like acorns, mile piling on mile like leaves littering the rhyming river run. And then, at last, to arrive in sight of the gas-lit, silver, terraced street, to cross that scalloped, shoe polished step; on through that ever open front door that gestures toward the welcoming hearth, warm hands and vivid living vision; restoration of many a long-lost late December; long gone but unforgotten.
In and out of the tub, soap scrubbed, shampooed and towel rubbed dry, pajama strings tied by patient, practiced hands, giggling brothers and sisters chase their little cousin up the apple-and-pear stairs to share beds top-to-tail, lying like sardines in their feather-lined tin. Slowly, wriggling and jiggling crest fall and ebb; tired rag dolls take their rag doll rest; dreaming toy soldiers loose the battle for sleep. And the old stone house settles down to its well-earned ease.
Listen. Come closer to the hearth. These many-a-winter weathered walls, ancient, oak eaves and rooftop tiles made with good Welsh slate will tell you tales; tales gathered from bygone and aging generations.
Smoke from the embering, overnight fire silently climbs inside the blackened chimney bricks, coils up, up and out of sight and sound and lightly is lost into this clear, crystal night: A once-upon-a-time metaphor for those good lives and lifetimes, once upon a star.
You can also listen to "Once upon a Star".
And how about you? On the evening of the eve, did it ever snow, make for a doubly-enchanted new day? Did you write your name, draw pictographs on ice-laced, foggy window panes? Did the lake, starting at its wintery, frogless edges, glass over overnight? Overnight, did unseen hands make frozen fingers out of twigs on leafless lifeless trees? That morning, did you and your school friends leave a thousand footprints on paths and pavements on the way to the park? Play winter Olympic Games on playing fields a million miles from fleetingly completely forgotten schools, their gates forever locked, except for times like these? Or, when the weak winter sun helped clear the streets, with scarf and thick breath streaming like a steam train over hunched-over shoulders, did you peddle like the Devil on your bright new bike; make rutted, pimpled tire tracks through muddy puddles of slush; bell ringing, wheels singing, friend following friend, stumbling and tumbling all over the chattering town?
Listen. Come closer now. There’s still the after image; echo memory of that rushing river of voices as it washed along back alleys and flooded light filled lanes. Listen! Come closer to the fire, the old house is settling down to listen to your tales.
And do you remember those early-teenage late Decembers; last day of school before the mid-winter holidays, when even the grimmest, grumpiest teacher couldn’t help a wry expectant smile as the final bell rang? On the eve of celebration, did you go down to your tinseled caroling town? Wade waist high through full tides of crab-legged shopping bags, bursting with pearls of expectation; everyone swimming in a goodwill sea, while holiday money held in a warm, gloved hand smoldered in your pocket. And did that week of Saturdays never end, waiting for the evening of that anticipated party with its presents, pop, puzzles and games of close encounters; the jewel in the golden crown an innocent kiss under the mistletoe; first kiss that sometimes lasted a lifetime. And if it would only snow, surely the prince would fearlessly scale the impossible tower, rescue the princess from the Ice Queen’s palace, and young romance would grow and grow into sky high drifts: “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
And I know you shouldn’t look down when climbing and no one can step in the same river twice, and everyone knows, you can never ever go back. But when the serene evening sky keeps its promise of snow, long awaited visitors unlatch the garden gate, and that special star shines on a wine-violet Winter Solstice; after listening and thanking you for your wisdom of words and admitting there is surely something lacking in me, you’re going to hear me say: “Nos Da. Good Night. I’ll be on my way back now.”
You can also listen to "Once upon a Star".
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