Let me tell you how a rocking chair can be magic.
I was little, maybe four or so. We were at a gathering, I don’t remember for what; such gatherings of too many humans in a tiny house in the tiny town in which we lived were common. I remember the smell of the food cooking on the stove; I remember running and laughing though the clumps of grown-ups, seeing a room full of boots and shins and knees like so many stalks of the river cane in my backyard that made up the tall forests for my playtime.
I grew tired quickly, as young ones do. In the middle of the melee there was an old rocking chair. No one was sitting in it, so I climbed up and plopped myself in the seat, kicking my legs in an attempt to rock the chair back and forth, as my feet did not stretch anywhere near the floor. Suddenly, I was plucked from the chair and placed on my feet. A man (one of many uncles or cousins) addressed me, and informed me of my error. “That’s not a chair for you, little one. That chair belongs to someone else.”
I was affronted. It was an empty chair, after all. “Whose chair is it,” I asked. “No one was sitting in it, and there’s no name on it.”
“It belongs to someone much older than you, little one, who will need to rest soon.”
“Little ones get tired too, you know.”
“Yes, but when you have lived as long as she, your tiredness will be much deeper.”
“Will I ever be able to sit in that chair?”
“Maybe, little one. When you have lived so many years, and listened so well, listened more than you speak, then perhaps you could, even should sit in that chair.”
In came another man helping an old, old woman right to the chair from which I had just been evicted. I watched as she slowly turned, and the man held her weight as she lowered herself to the seat. I heard her knees creak and whine and her lungs sigh as she welcomed the relief of being seated. I saw her hands, gnarled and twisted and leathery. I saw her eyes, cloudy with age, seeming to stare off into a distance that I couldn’t find. I saw the cottony white of her hair, bright white like the snow I would help my cousins build into forts when I visited my mother’s family at Christmas.
She sat in silence for a while; it was always a long wait for the food to get done (even I knew that). I stood next to her, staring at her with the shameless gaze of one so young. The long legs and knobby knees around me seemed ever more like a forest, from my place next to the old woman in the rocking chair, as they approached her to lean down and pay their alms. Each person received a blessing in return—a dry kiss placed by smiling lips.
Some signal was passed that I didn’t see or hear, and everyone folded themselves around her. Some seated themselves on the floor, some pulled up folding chairs from the kitchen, some perched against the walls. I hid down between her feet, hand twisted around her ankle, rocking as she rocked. And then stories passed all around the room. A laugh here, a bit of well-timed silence for a striking pause there. They began in small bursts and grew to great swells. A wind of inspiration blew all around us, bringing smiles and tears and bowing heads in its wake. I struggled to catch the wind so I too could bring a laugh, or a tear, but it passed so quickly.
As the wind blew, the old woman was listening. She laughed sometimes, when others laughed. She joked sometimes, when others laid out bits of snark just waiting to be picked up and looped on again until the length could form a tall tale. But mostly, she was silent, except for the creaking sound of her old chair rocking back and forth on the hard floors, except for the sighs of her breath.
And yet she was the center of it all. I watched as storytellers would hold themselves a little taller when they made her laugh. I saw as their eyes filled with joy when their words would help her remember the days gone by. I heard the room hold their breath when she would say a few words. The laughter never so loud as it was when it was she that spoke the wit which caught everyone off their guard.
Then and there, I knew the truth. Her chair was magic, and she was a shaman, a witch, an elder who wielded great power that I knew not. Before she sat down in it, it was just a rocking chair. A place to sit a spell, a spot to rest tired legs. But now it was the source of connections, of stories, of memory, of laughter. I imagined her gnarled hands holding its arms were grown from the wood of the chair itself, rooted down deep into the earth below, and together the old woman and the magic chair were a tree of memory around which we all gathered.
It was from her that the wind itself was birthed.
The food was done, and it was time to eat. The man who had earlier removed me from the place that was not mine asked if I would like to serve the old woman some soup and cornbread. I jumped to my feet in joy, and ran to complete to my task, and after filling a bowl and plate I carried it to her as carefully as I could. I think I only spilled a little.
I gave her my offering, and sat again at her feet. She smiled down at me, and the years marked on her face crinkled, and I saw that the clouds in her eyes were not dark ones.
“Thank you, child, for helping an old woman,” she said, to me.
I sat up a little taller, and with a big smile I told her that she was welcome, and that I did my best not to spill.
“It’s no matter if you did, these old floors have seen many a mess.”
As she ate, I leaned up against her legs. I let my imagination wander for an age, as the commotion died down around me, as the sun beyond the windows sunk deep into the swampy ground around the house. I don’t remember if I ate anything, though I am sure I did, but I do remember the smell of sweet corn and the feeling that my bones were heavy against the floor in a way that I had never felt before and the wish that I could birth the winds.
As the night drew to a close, everyone moved to clean up. Leftovers were gathered to send to the homes to which we would scatter. Bits of laughter were still rolling around the room, also collected and saved for another day.
I sat up on my knees and took the old woman’s hand and rubbed my thumb against her leathery skin. She leaned close as I looked to her eyes, and I hoped with all my might for what she seemed to see as she looked back.
I had finally worked up the courage I needed to ask the question I had wanted to ask all day, since I learned that she was so powerful, and that her chair was magic.
“Do you think…”
“Do you think that someday, after I have lived so many years, and have learned to listen as well as you… do you think that I could sit in that chair?”
She smiled again, and bade me to climb in her lap. I hurried to comply as gently as I could.
“Yes, dear,” she said, “I think that someday you just might be able to sit in this chair.” She held me close as she spoke, as she ran her fingers through my dark hair, over and over, pulling me finally to stillness.
As she surrounded me with her thin limbs I leaned my head against her chest so I could feel the cadence of her life against my ear. I filled myself with as much of her magic as I could until I felt my eyelids grow heavy with sleep. At some point my father must have bent down and picked me up to carry me to the car for I woke in the backseat, with his Sunday jacket as my blanket. The full moon cast deep shadows in the landscape; I reached up to grab hold of it. Its light was so bright and full I could steal a bit and save it for a darker night.
And then the dreams came…