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The Tale of One Drum | Poem

image of tabala drums

The Tale of One Drum by Ken Peters

There was once a boy whose father had acquired vast lands, many cars, and great privileges. Power and prestige flowed through the hallways of their house like a dark and silent river. Senators and other menial servants waited on the fathers’ word and did what was wanted. The boy was impoverished by his glittering world. He was made to attend so many concerts as a child (when he should have been playing) that he could not hear music. He traveled widely in what his family called "exotic places" (which meant they did not like what they saw). Thus he learned not to see. Worst of all? The dark river of influence that eddied quietly in the large dining room and sumptuous bedrooms of that large house had stunted the boy’s ability to feel. 

Eventually the boy grew to take his father’s place. Raised in such a way that power and prestige were taken for granted the young man had put down no roots of his own. This made him weak in the way that most often is hidden by brusque orders and imperious commands. His poverty made him restless and angry but he had never been taught how to earn his way so all his enterprises merely gathered up more things to put in the house. There were chairs and tables, paintings and statues, rugs and drapes, pots and pans, silver and plates. There was indeed enough for a village and still he was poor. The sad truth was that this man now could go many places and bring back nothing but what he could buy and carry in his hands. 

The man once used money to fly in a plane. Then he bought a ticket to ride on a train. Finally he hired a car and a driver to drive him over dusty and rutted roads. Eventually he came to a small village in a great forest. All his travels had brought him to what he considered an exotic place where his parents had never taken him. It was a green and warm place. The trees were tall and not like the ones along the driveways to the houses at home. He did not know the names of the trees or even if the fruit was good to eat. The sun was stronger here than at home and the dark shadows of the trees moved constantly in a way that fluttered at the edges of the man’s vision.  The people did not speak his language and he had no money that they recognized as currency. The bored driver did know the language and made arrangements for their meals and a place to stay. The man grew annoyed at having to ask the driver what people said but realized it was necessary. The man felt he was having an adventure and, of course, that made his visit an adventure. The man accepted the food that he did not recognize and smiled all the time to let the people know he meant no harm. He was not aware of the fact the people of the small village considered him something of a grinning idiot who could do nothing for himself. 

"What is he doing here?" they asked the driver. 

The driver shrugged and said he didn’t know but when the man asked the driver what had transpired the driver told him the people were welcoming him to their humble village. This made the man feel good. The driver knew he would be paid more if the man had a pleasant time there. 

The people went about their business as always. Cattle were tended. Fields were weeded and watered. Pottery was formed and fired. Clothes were washed. Meals were made. All the while the people of the village made music together that made the tasks easier. There was a song for tending cattle, a song for the fields, a song at the wheel as the clay turned into pots. In the evening the people of the village rested and made music that told of their joys and sorrows. The man felt pride that he had found this place where his parents had never gone. "Maybe", a small voice in his heart said quietly, "this is where I can find riches". 

The man though was also confused in this warm and green place. Here he did not have the many things in his house that he knew so well. He had no employees to bring him his meals and clothes. There was power and prestige but it did not flow around him like a warm coat. It was outside his influence and thus vaguely threatening and something to be watched. 

He was wary of the music the people made. It was not like the concerts he had heard at home. He did not know what the words meant. He could not hum the melodies. The rhythms overlapped. The man saw a drum of rosewood that one villager used each evening. The drum had a taut goatskin head. The drummer, by striking the middle or the edge of the head, could produce a deep and resonant voice or a staccato tattoo that punctuated the songs. The man could feel the sound of the drum in his stomach. His feet tapped to the sound and he was happy but he did not know why. 

After three days the man felt he had been in the village long enough. An urge to see his own house had grown quietly in the man’s heart. The urge had been there on the plane, on the train and in the car. The urge had flowered in the village where at least a part of him knew he was a grinning fool.  He wanted the things and the people and the attitudes he knew. This urge grew more insistent despite the tending of the cattle, the watering of the fields, the working of the pottery, the cooking of the meals and the music of the villagers. The man, being so poor, felt he had to take away with him some riches that would mark his visit. He wanted something to show of the exotic place he had been. 

The man asked the driver to speak with the drummer about the rosewood drum with the goatskin head. After much discussion and waving of hands the driver strode triumphantly back to the car with the drum in hand. The man and driver went over the dusty and rutted roads to the railhead. The man gave the driver money for his work. The man rode the train to the city and bought a ticket at the airport. He paid porters to carry his trunks and soon he was on a plane that would take him home. 

The drum was ensconced in a place of honor at the man’s house. When visitors came to the house the man would tell of his visit to the village and point to the drum. The drum became an artifact that was much admired, a sign of the man’s power and abilities. 

As time went by, as it always does, the drum changed. The rosewood became dry and tiny cracks appeared in the wood. The man did not know that the drummer had rubbed the drum each day with oil. The man did not know that the oil and the sweat of the drummer’s hands had made the wood supple and alive. The goatskin head too became stiff and hard. The man was unaware the oil, used for cooking meals in the village, was also used by the drummer each evening. The drummer’s sweat, again mixed with the oil, had brought life to the goatskin and kept it soft.  So the drum aged. 

The man aged too. His hands did no hard labor but still they developed a network of tiny cracks. They became hard and stiff. The man’s eyes, unused to seeing clearly, became clouded. The man’s heart, unused to feeling, had ignored many things and eventually that most vital of rhythms came to an end. 

Many senators and rich men came to honor the man when his body was buried. A large and ornate stone marked his grave. Somber voices spoke of the man’s achievements and mourned his loss. These rites and recitations were part and parcel of that dark river of power that stilled flowed through the big house. The man’s family went on. His widow and children bought new chairs and tables, new paintings and statues, new silver and plates. New enterprises were assayed. More things flowed to that center of influence and affairs went forward. Eventually the man was forgotten in the hurly-burly of acquisition and the swirl of social events. In one corner of the attic the man’s trophies and artifacts had been relegated to gather dust. Only you and I know the silent drum gives mute testimony to the poverty that had dogged the man all his days. 

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