they had no need for books

When the geng was played, people swore they could hear the voices of the ancestors. It was as if their spirits were retelling the history and describing the path to the afterlife through the sounds of the instrument. Music became the medium through which the Hmong recorded their legends. The notes had replaced the written text. The music of the geng could be used to teach new generations about their past and their future lives. They had no need for books.

The Western missionaries, of course, had no ear for such foolishness. They considered a race without a written text to be barbaric and ignorant. So, they created a roman phonetic system as the basis for a script for the Hmong that was impossible to read without learning a lot of complicated rules. The clever churchmen believed they had bonded together the diffuse Hmong tribes through this linguistic subjugation, but the Hmong knew better. They learned the text to keep the missionaries in their place, but they had a system that was far more advanced than anything devised in the West. They had a musical language that communicated directly from one soul to another.

kin, kind, kindness

Sylvia says, ‘What do you suppose the cause is?’

John’s voice rasps, as if to cut it off, but I answer, ‘I don’t know. Causes and effects don’t seem to fit. Causes and effects are a result of thought. I would think mental illness comes before thought.’ This doesn’t make sense to them, I’m sure. It doesn’t make much sense to me and I’m too tired to try to think it out and give it up.

‘What do the psychiatrists think?’ John asks.
‘Nothing. I stopped it.’
‘Stopped it?’
‘Is that good?’
‘I don’t know. There’s no rational reason I can think of for saying it’s not good. Just a mental block of my own. I think about it and all the good reasons for it and make plans for an appointment and even look for the phone number and then the block hits, and it’s just like a door slammed shut.’
‘That doesn’t sound right.’
‘No one else thinks so either. I suppose I can’t hold out forever.’
‘But why?’ Sylvia asks.
‘I don’t know why . . . it’s just that . . . I don’t know . . . they’re not kin.’ . . . Surprising word, I think to myself, never used it before. Not of kin . . . sounds like hillbilly talk . . . not of a kind . . . same root . . . kindness, too . . . they can’t have real kindness toward him, they’re not his kin . . . That’s exactly the feeling.

Old word, so ancient it’s almost drowned out. What a change through the centuries. Now anybody can be ‘kind’. And everybody’s supposed to be. Except that long ago it was something you were born into and couldn’t help. Now it’s just a faked-up attitude half the time, like teachers the first day of class. But what do they really know about kindness who are not kin?

It goes over and over again through my thoughts . . . mein Kind — my child. There it is in another language. Mein Kinder . . . ‘Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.’

Strange feeling from that.