Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke







Streams of Conscience


The Tanu live in a hilly land with few rivers but many streams, the voices of which can be heard day and night, from hilltop and forest, in the backs of conversations and interjecting themselves into thoughts.  The Tanu streams talk incessantly, in fact.  And the streams hold no secrets, say the Tanu, because for streams thought and speech are one and the same, with no filter to divide the two, no intermediary to convert one to the other.  This explains their purity; the streams live with a clear conscience because they bare their souls every moment of the day.  Confession isn’t the word for it, since the streams never for one second let a word or deed weigh on their souls.  Anyway, since they spend the day speaking their thoughts, they have no time to sin.

Some Tanu wish the streams would shut up.  “Talk, talk, talk,” they say.  “The streams should find something better to do.  They should be quiet for just a minute and take in the view.”  But the Tanu who complain this way often have guilty consciences, and for a Tanu with a guilty conscience, the talk of the streams sounds a lot like an accusation.

Most of the Tanu find the talk of the streams soothing, the cooing voice of mother to child.  When they feel bored or despondent, they find a private spot beside one of the many streams and are healed there by the voice of the stream, gurgling, cooing, bubbling its every thought.  They stare into its pure soul, at the fish and the frogs that swim in it, and the words of the stream wash over them and refresh them like a bath.  But when they are guilty, they stay away.

The guilty must live with the weight of their guilt, swelling more each day, until they are called before the village water-priest.  The priest has the power to turn people into streams.  He will call you in when your symptoms are brought to his attention: long, pointed silences, heavy steps with a hanging head, and a fear or loathing of the limpid voice of the streams.  Sometimes the priest observes for himself, and sometimes the symptoms are brought to his attention.  Sometimes, when a theft or an adultery or some other crime is committed, the priest is told in advance what to look for.  The offender may at first cover his symptoms well, but the priest watches patiently.  Sooner or later, the offender’s head sinks a little lower and his steps grow a little heavier and the few times he speaks his voice falls to the ground, weighted with guilt.  Then the priest knows.  Still, he waits, and waits more, until the offender’s guilt has become so heavy he’s willing to submit to the pain and terror of the transformation—anything, as long as the sludge of guilt is scrubbed from his soul.  And then the priest sends his messenger.

When you are called before the water-priest, your skin begins to tremble, like a stream, and your words become babble, like a stream’s, and drops of water flow from your forehead, each like a tiny stream.  But the final transformation takes place only on the priest’s command.  You enter the priest’s hut and kneel before him.  For some people, this moment results in a loss of bladder control, another sign of the transformation.

“Priest,” you say, “my soul is clouded with sin and I have concealed it with silence.”

“Your silence has been felt in the village,” says the priest.  “It is a heavy rock on all of our shoulders.”

“Forgive me,” you say.

“Your forgiveness will come only from a cleansing,” says the priest, “and a cleansing will come from the stream.”

At that, the priest steps forward and rubs your cheeks.  If you didn’t lose bladder control before, you surely will now.  For now you know the transformation is taking place.  Your limbs become liquid, so that someone must hold you up.  Your entire body becomes soaked in your own fluids.  And then the burden of silence is released and your words flow endlessly, so that everything once closed within you is released in a flood of words, of secrets and confessions, of brilliant and foolish thoughts, of idle chatter and endless babble, of gossip and blather, chit-chat, prattle, and palaver, tittle-tattle, malarkey, and buncombe.  It all comes out, both nonsense and poetry, cleansing your soul.  Sometimes the cleansing takes just a few minutes and sometimes days.  You talk and talk as the priest listens closely, not so much for the meanings of your words but for the texture of your voice, which is a sign of your soul’s clarity.  When the priest is satisfied that your voice is that of the pure streams, babbling nonsensically but also calmly and clearly, he pours a small vial of water over your head.

“Behold,” announces the water-priest to the fascinated observers, “his soul is cleansed, and he who was once heavy is now light.  He who was once guilty is now the purest among us.”

And then you collapse and are carried back to your hut ceremonially, by those who consider it an honor to do so.  You sleep longer and deeper than you’ve ever slept, and when you awake it is to a world of lightness and perfection, in which the babble of streams calls to you like the voice of an adoring mother.  You run to the nearest stream and bathe naked in its waters, your thoughts so light they are swept away unformed.  And for a while, at least, you are part of the stream.