I have watched her now for many long-studded weeks. I think she knows.
I lurk about the edges of the vast field in which she trades. I watch her work the crisscross of lines, comfortable in the slack line between poles, reaching up to the full length of her body where the lines are anchored, drawing herself sometimes on toes: arm creeping longer than I think it will go, her clothes surging up with her, and a slim country of ankle showing quizzically between the hem of her skirt and the roughness of her shoes. Here, at the poles, she slips her sandpaper onto two fingers, sands in short shafts of movement, quickly in staccato covering bare inches, and having to rise and stretch, then collapse, then rise and stretch again, repeating the agony of her being barely long enough over and over.
With the slack lengths of line, away from the clotheslines' end points, she can fold the sandpaper in the flat of her hand, wrap it fully around the line, sand in vigorous long armed dirges, her hand barely above her head. Along these sections, she does not have to stop and stretch and relax and re-adjust her joints and muscles as much as at the ends. Here, she is more eloquent, more fluid, more the ethos of what anyone would expect of a clothesline sander.
Yet, I long to catch her at the ends of the lines – perhaps less graceful, perhaps more a bundle of uncooperating parts that yet holds together and does the job she has shown up to do. It is the striving I long for, the effort. She is, in her difficulty, an opportunity to observe the depth of details necessary to achieve even the clear ordinary.
For half a day, I watch her move along the myriad lines, myself slipping from half-hearted hiding space to half-discovered hiding place, surely by now a known spectator, observed in cheering her every extraordinary move.
At the last, I reluctantly scurry to work, turning back to catch a last fulfilling glimpse as often as is practical to reluctant locomotion.
It has taken me a long time to work up the courage to imagine and then execute a plan to win her. What, ordinarily, would she have to do with someone like me – me, a simple cattle tuner? A workman who moves from farm to farm, tuning other herders' cattle, pocketing my small wage and skittering back to my simple two-room darkening apartment. But, to be worthy of her, I have stirred myself to go farther, to be more, to grow into the range of weeds and notions.
Not that a cattle tuner is of no value. One cow is not much for a family. If the family has two or more, those cattle must be tuned – otherwise, the springing dis-harmonics of the untuned cattle will curdle the milk, malign the cheese, grow gristle in the meat. Cattle in commercial numbers can be even more of a liability if left untuned. What I do has value. Because of tuners like me, families can have two or three or more cattle, industrial cattle employment becomes possible: the bovine arts and products are made more refined, less unruly, predictably more palatable. I make no apologies for my profession. I am an enabler.
A cattle tuner and a clothesline sander could together make a livable wage, one day afford a simple house, raise a stunted family, purchase their small cruet of happiness. But she deserves more. She should have a home of two-stories, her own field of clotheslines, perhaps a barn with navigable cattle. She should have leisure and lace, art and abundance. She should glow with the happiness of the perniciously idle.
So, I have in my own length, learned the weight of mallets; learned the forte strike, the subtle streaking vibration, pacing and the languishing spirits of the notes. I have learned that to hold the mallet tightly is an entirely different sound than to hold the mallet like water, or like the impenetrable head of a child. I have seen what a mystical plot music is. I have learned how to keep the cattle steady, to calm them into compliance, to understand when they no longer think what is being done to them is art. I have taken on a subtlety not rewarded in a cattle tuner, but required of a performer.
And I challenged the Guild for my license. I endured their laughter as they considered that an autodidact, someone not drawn through the crucible of apprenticeship, would challenge for the right to draw music from the cattle he himself has tuned. A man originally only of tuning forks and joint adjustments, shortened horns and bobbed tails. A man of shears and trusses. A workman. Someone whose hands would be lead and wicker against the magical mallets of a trained artist. An honorable man, perhaps; a citizen equal before the law - but not one that might summon wizardry with wood and hide.
Yet they had to yield. Mystified by what I could accomplish for love, their mouths slipped open; stunned, they leaned forward against their collective bench, and their ears piercingly turned greedy. They adjusted their collars and reshuffled their feet. They held their hands unready. An hour they debated, but in the end the question was simply how could one achieve so much in so little time with so little encouragement, and not whether the product was sufficient. No, it was understood as sufficient from the start: the music shouldered its instrument, and I was quietly handed my license.
I will stand in the morning with my borrowed cattle, my small herd tuned and arrayed to become a symphony. I will show my reaching love that I have left the practical and commercial necessity of tuning cattle, instead claiming the advanced stage of playing finely calibrated cattle as art. I will explain that, while these cattle are merely borrowed from my tuning customers, when I advertise my musical intentions, I will be able to collect my own herd; I will be able to be an independent artist. I will play in elite barns, in town-square concerts, in open fields honored to be so used. I will start with just a few cattle, but – all for her, my clothesline sander – I will expand my herd, growing my repertoire, being ever able to play more music, please more aficionados, make ever more in fees and tribute.
I imagine her beginning her day, sure I am watching from some thatch or half-fallen in out-building. She will be creasing the sheaf of sandpaper she expects to use during that day, folding the resistance out of it, making it kind for her hand. She will rub the small of her back, and regard where last she left off sanding, and the length of line soon to be addressed.
I will play those ruled cattle, and her love will be shyly seduced with the appreciation of my bovine symphony. At first, she will not know the source of the music, my cattle almost hidden in the rough grass at the edge of the clothesline field. She will stop in mid-reach, her head drifting in circles, her eyes focused to the far and not the near: the line to be sanded forgotten, her hand still burdened with the sandpaper, her ears and then her eyes, pulled to me. With all binary dreams of sanding forgotten, she will delicately hear my proposal, focus at last on me and in wonder recognize he who once was a workman in terrible love, but who now is a thunderously gossamer artist waiting to be rudely loved.
Ken Poyner's collections of short fiction, Constant Animals and Avenging Cartography, and his latest collections of poetry, Victims of a Failed Civics and The Book of Robot, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press. He serves as bewildering eye-candy at his wife's power lifting affairs. His poetry lately has been sunning in Analog, Asimov's, Poet Lore; and his fiction has yowled in Spank the Carp and Red Truck; his story, "The Detached Regularity," appeared in Issue #42 of The Cafe Irreal; "Suspicion" in Issue #49; "The Taming of the Orikind" in Issue #57; and "The Revenge of the House Hurlers" in Issue #63.