The old woman's kitchen was warm in the winter twilight. It was neat and clean like the woman herself. My daughter and I sat eagerly waiting for the delicious tea and food to be brought out. Mrs. Ogelbi was famous for her cooking.
At last, the food was here, the prayer had been prayed, and we began eating the meal with relish. Mrs. Ogelbi smiled when she saw us enjoying the food so much.
“It is warming to my old heart to see young ones finding joy in my simple meal.”
“We thank you heartily for preparing it,” I said, falling into her pattern of speech.
I could not help it. Mrs. Ogelbi's quaint way of speaking had been catching ever since I'd met her at a women's meeting at Church.
“You know,” she said, after a while, “This tea puts me in mind of a cup of delicious tea I enjoyed many years ago.”
My daughter gave me an eager look. She loved Mrs. Ogelbi's stories.
“What kind of tea was it, Nanny?” she asked.
“I never could get that out of the lady who served it to me. She said it was a family secret. I'd never tasted anything like it before. Neither have I tasted any like it since.”
My daughter could really smell a story coming now. She knew all it would take was one more question.
“Who served it to you, Nanny?”
“Ah child, that's quite a story. Are you certain you want to hear it?”
Knowing full well that Mrs. Ogelbi already knew the answer, my daughter said, “Oh please tell me.”
“Well, it happened many years ago, before your mother was born. I was about five and twenty at the time. Behind the house where I lived was a large and dense patch of woods. I loved to walk there of an evening and listen to the birds singing in the trees. Ah what beautiful trees they were and what beautiful birds lived in them. Well, one summer's even tide, I took my way threw the woods and walked slowly toward my favorite reading spot in a little clearing. There was an old stump there and when I reached the place I sat down upon it, as I had many's the time before.
It had been a long day and I was more tired than I thought. I closed my eyes and seemed to doze a bit. I started awake and thought that perhaps I should walk farther into the woods in order to keep myself from sleeping. Before this, I hadn't ventured farther than my clearing. However, it seemed like the time for an adventure.
I hadn't gone far when I spied another clearing. This one was larger than my reading spot and when I made my way through the trees that surrounded it, I found that most of the space was filled by a neat white house. It was not large, but not small. It drew me somehow. To this day, I cannot understand what it was that caused me to go up and knock on the door. Was it the friendly way the house looked? The smell of good things baking? I do not know. I knocked, and the door was opened by an old woman. She had a smile that seemed like a thousand suns. Her eyes were a smoky gray and her white hair was neatly pinned in place.
‘Don't just stand there, child,’ she said, ‘Come in, come in!’
What was it that caused me to obey? I was not in the habit of entering strange houses on a whim I assure you. Yet I trusted this woman.
The house was neat and clean inside. A small living room with soft blue furniture led into a kitchen from which delicious odors were issuing. I could smell shortbread and other cookies baking.
‘Tell me,’ the woman said, ‘Do you like tea?’
‘I am quite fond of tea,’ I answered.
‘And are you as fond of music?’
‘Even more so,’ I said, somewhat perplexed.
‘Ah, I thought as much. You have the look about you.’
‘What look?’ I asked.
‘The look of one who carries music in her soul.’
‘Music in my soul? A thousand pardons, mahm, but what do you mean?’
‘Follow me, dear, and you shall find out.’
Again, not knowing why, I obeyed and followed her down a hallway that led off the kitchen. It had several colored doors on each side, but I was led to neither of these. Instead, the woman paused before a plain white door at the very end and opened it.
‘In here,’ she said, ‘This is where we shall have our tea. Make yourself at home and I shall return when the tea has brewed.’
I had only a moment to wonder what I'd gotten myself into, when the door closed behind her. For a moment, I simply stood, astonished. Then I looked about me.
In the center of the room, there was a table with four chairs around it. The chairs were simple, as was the table, but they looked comfortable. Then, I saw the rest of the room. I gasped in surprise and awe! Floor to sealing shelves housed instruments of every shape and size. They looked as though they'd come from every nation under the sun, though part of me knew that couldn't, it simply couldn't be possible. Larger instruments stood in empty spaces against the walls. There were drums of every kind, stringed instruments, flutes, pipes, whistles, and many others. There seemed something odd about them, but the whole situation was quite out of the ordinary, so at first I did not pay much attention.
Something in me was stirring at the sight of all those beautiful instruments. My fingers itched to pick them up, to stroke wood and metal, to make music come out of them. I itched to make them sing. Dared I do such a thing? This was not my house and these were not my instruments. However, the old woman had said to make myself at home. Nothing seemed more homelike at that moment than to make those beautiful instruments tell me their secrets.
I took up a pan flute first of all. I noticed the intricacy of its decoration as soon as I picked it up. The smooth bamboo had been painted blue and each pipe had a portion of sky painted on it. The longest pipe had a yellow sun and silver rays swirled all over it. The next had a crescent moon. There were white clouds on some of the others and bright silvery stars on the rest. However, I hadn't long to take this in, for the impulse to play the flute was stronger than ever now that I held it. A fellow had once taught me the basics of the pan flute and so I brought it to my lips. Oh the merriment I heard in the flute's voice. From the very first note, it seemed to laugh and sing. I stopped playing and held the flute out to look at it more closely.
‘What joy it is to sing again.’ I heard a small voice say.
I drew in my breath quickly and nearly dropped the pan flute. The small merry voice had come from it!
‘Don't be alarmed,’ it, he, she, said, ‘I shan't harm you. And you are most assuredly not going mad.’
‘But, but,’ I stammered, ‘You're a, you're a pan flute!’
‘Quite so. And I do wish you wouldn't act so frightened. I tell you, I shan't harm you. I simply wish to explain who I am.’
‘Well,’ I said, gathering my wits about me, ‘Who are you?’
‘I was once owned by a sweet young school girl in Peru. Her name was Maria and she loved to make me sing. She was always so merry and her happiness became a part of me. She loved to laugh and she made her music laugh as well. That is why I laugh when anyone plays me now.’
What wonder was this? How intriguing, how frightening this experience was. Yet I found myself not really being afraid. It was quickly coming to be the most normal thing in the world that this little pan flute should be able to speak.
‘Do all of the instruments here speak and have stories to tell?’ I asked.
‘Ah,’ said the pan flute, ‘That you must find out for yourself. This is your journey after all.’
By this time, I had ceased, or nearly ceased to be surprised by any of the things happening in this strange house. So I gently placed the little pan flute back on its shelf while at the same time pondering the strange statement. I looked around me some more, not intending to play anymore of the instruments, for I was not in the habit of taking advantage of others' hospitality. When I saw the piano, however, there was nothing for it, but to sit down and open the beautiful cover. It was a lustrous mahogany and though it had no other decoration, the shine of the wood and the ivory keys were enough to make it exquisitely beautiful. I played a child's tune first, and then a lively dance, not stopping to wonder just how I knew where to place my fingers. What a feeling of praise seemed to fill the room! Each tune I played seemed to carry the echoes of a hymn, no matter what the actual words of the song. When I stopped, a curiously deep and at the same time sing-song voice spoke.
‘Thank Him Who Makes the Stars to Shine that I am played again.’
I jumped, just as I had when the pan flute spoke, but not quite so violently. My powers of rationality seemed to have deserted me. I had jumped at the sound of the voice, rather than at the idea of a piano speaking.
‘Ah, you are still not used to us then. Don't worry; you will understand the nature of things before the night ends.’
‘Who are you? And what do you mean?’
‘I was once a piano in a church. I would be played during services and my music was graciously allowed to aide men in praising their God. Their praises sank deep within me. As to what I mean, I simply said that you would understand the purposes of things before too very long. You shall know why you have come; and be the better for it.’
‘I wish I knew what this was all about!’ I exclaimed in frustration.
‘You shall in time,’ said the piano.
Well, what could I say to that? Something inside me felt it was time to move on. So I gently closed the piano and stood up. In my intrigued and confused state of mind, the feeling that I should not be playing these instruments had momentarily disappeared. So as I looked around, my eye fell on a violin with its bow lying next to it. I had always loved the violin's voice and so took it up.
The wood was smooth as glass and the strings shown as though they had been newly placed on the instrument. Strangely, instead of being a solid color, both the violin and the bow were decorated with an interesting symbol. Two hands clasped a heart with a crown perched upon the heart's top. I have since seen this design on Claddagh rings, but at the time I did not know what it was. These designs were painted in gold on a silvery grey background and the effect was lovely.
My grandfather had played the violin when I was a girl. Whether it was from watching him so often or simply the strangeness of the house, I seemed to know just how to play it. No merriment and laughter did this violin excite. No praises echoed from its strings. Even though I began with a dancing tune, from the first note, the music held such sorrow and a soft wistfulness that seemed to make my soul ache. The violin seemed to be wishing for something that was forever lost to it.
I finished playing several songs and then took the violin down from my shoulder. The voice that spoke was soft and mournful.
‘Ah how I love to sing, though my singing is forever sorrow.’
The voice came from both the violin and the bow, but it was one voice, not two. I was used to this sort of thing by now, so it did not surprise me in the least.
‘Why are you so sad?’ I asked the violin.
‘My master was an old man,’ it replied. ‘He played for many occasions. He was not a man to play for the dances. For he said that his talent was not to be used on frivolity. Though I should have liked so to sing at a dance and watch feet tapping to my rhythm. Ah well, it was not to be. My master played in order to soothe. He played to soothe families of soldiers in his town who died in the Great War. He played to soothe the sadness of a widow woman at her husband’s funeral. He played to soothe the pain of his friends when ever their souls were aching. And when he died, his son played me to soothe his own sorrow. The sadness, the longing, the wishes of those times found their way into my wood and strings. So now, my voice holds sorrow whenever I am called upon to sing.’
‘What manner of place is this?’ I asked the violin. ‘An old woman I do not know has invited me into her home and now here I am. The instruments speak with the voices of men and I am supposed to be on some sort of journey, according to the pan flute.’
‘Aye,’ answered the violin, ‘You are on a journey. It is a journey which all those who carry music in their souls must take. My master took it and found me. The young girl went on the journey and found her pan flute. The piano was part of the journeys taken by the worship leaders in that long ago church. It is the common thread between all musicians.’
‘But what journey?’ I asked.
‘That, I cannot tell you,’ the violin answered, ‘But you shall know when it comes to an end.
Again the statement that I would know the why of things in time. I was eager to understand what this all meant, and seeing that I could get no more information from the violin, I placed it with its bow on the shelf. I wondered where my hostess was and just how long I had been waiting for her. How long did it take her to brew tea? I rather hoped she would give me enough warning so that I should not be discovered playing her instruments; for by this time, my apprehension had returned. However, the itch, the impulse, the need? To play music was still as strong in me as it had ever been. So I looked around, trying to decide which instrument I would give voice to next.
I was just about to take up a sweet looking tin whistle, when I spied the pipes. They were Irish bagpipes, Uilleann pipes, as they are called. Somehow, as before, I knew just how to put the instrument together.
I filled the bag with air and began to play. What manner of feeling was this? The voice of the pipes was neither sorrowful nor merry. But ah how sweet it was. Without realizing it, I began to cry. They were not violent tears, only tears that trailed softly down my cheeks as I played. Inside, I felt like one who has been on a long journey and has finally come home. The home was familiar and dear, full of sweetness and all that was good.
I played several tunes, some happy and some sad. Then I placed the pipes on the table and wiped my eyes. Why, I thought to myself, had I wept so? Then, a sweet, yet plaintive voice broke the silence of the room.
‘I was waiting until you would find me. Does my voice truly suit you?’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I cannot say how much it suits me.’
‘But do you not see what that means?’ asked the pipes.
‘No, I am afraid I cannot,’ I answered.
‘It means you have reached your journey's end. You have found the voice for the music that has been placed within your soul.’
‘My journeys end!’ I repeated, astonished.
‘Aye,’ said the pipes, ‘Every musician, you see, must find a voice for the music which God has placed within his or her soul. For some, there are many voices and the man or woman can choose which one is best for an occasion. And for some, like you, there is only one. However, whether there are many voices or just one, the music finds a voice and it is sweet.’
I had never considered such a thing before. I had always loved music and had tried my hand at several instruments in past years. However, none of them had quite seemed to fit me. With each one, my patience ran out and my playing ceased. None of them had quite felt like me, though I had longed to play something since I was small. Now, after hearing the words spoken by the pipes, it made sense. Part of me knew I must be going mad to be thinking this way, but a much larger part of me was filled with joy and thanksgiving. I had found the instrument that would give voice to those things lying within my heart of hearts.
‘I have never thought of myself as a piper,’ I said truthfully.
‘No, but He did.’
‘Do you mean God?’ I asked.
‘Aye, God,’ said the pipes, ‘He knows all and He knows best.’
‘And I thank Him for it,’ I said, taking up the pipes, dismantling them, and placing them on the shelf next to the sweet little tin whistle.
I knew not why I suddenly decided to do this, but it just seemed somehow that all that needed to be said had already been said. Just as I placed the pipes on the shelf, the door opened and the old woman came in, carrying a tray.
‘Well, my dear,’ she said, ‘Now that you've found what you needed to find, let us have our tea.’
‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘I'm terribly sorry. I could not seem to keep away from them.’
‘Hush, child, hush. I knew you wouldn't be able to. No one who carries music in their soul can keep from making instruments sing. Besides, my dear, you needed to take your journey.’
‘Then you know about that?’ I asked.
‘Of course. No one comes here unless they've a journey to take. Now, sit you down and have some tea and shortbread.’
‘This tea is delicious,’ I said after taking several sips, ‘What kind is it?’
It tasted like spring time in a meadow. It tasted like roses and summer strawberries, like resting after a hard day's work.
‘Ah, my dear, I cannot tell you that,’ she replied. ‘It is an old recipe, more than five hundred years old. And a secret besides. My family holds the secret of it and I cannot be the one to change that.’
We ate and talked of tea and music for a little while and I began to feel sleepy again. Just as I took my last sip of tea, I started awake on the stump in my little clearing. I looked around. There was no sign of the white house, the old woman, or the instruments that had drawn me so. At first I was overwhelmingly sad. To think that it had only been a dream. Then I thought perhaps I would walk deeper into the woods to see if the house was really there. However, part of me, the part of me that knew it had to have been a dream, did not wish to actually see the truth. So I took my way back home. The next day, I searched for and found a woman who was willing to teach me how to play the Uilleann pipes. And that, my child, is the story behind the best cup of tea I ever tasted.”
“Oh, Nanny,” lamented my daughter, “Was it really only a dream?”
“Yes, my child, but do not feel badly. The tea, I'm certain, can be found in heaven. And the bagpipes I can play now, any time I wish.”
“Oh, would you play them for me, Nanny?”
I opened my mouth to protest that my daughter should not ask such a thing of Mrs. Ogelbi, but seeing my reaction, she said, “Nothing would please me more, my little one.”
We finished our supper and went into the living room. Mrs. Ogelbi unlocked the corner cabinet and took out a beautiful set of Uilleann pipes. They were of dark wood and the bag was made of a soft dark fabric. She put the instrument together lovingly. We sat back and listened while Mrs. Ogelbi played a sweet, almost mournful tune. She played several other songs as well and when she paused, I said that it was late and we should go. We hugged and said our goodbyes.
Just before we went out the door, my daughter said, “Nanny, do you think God will ever tell me what voice to use for the music inside me?”
“Oh, my child, of course he will. He mayn't give you a dream as he did for me, but he will most certainly tell you somehow.”
My daughter smiled at that. As we walked out to our car, Mrs. Ogelbi played us a sweet farewell on her pipes.
The music in her soul was singing, “Till we meet again, my dears. Till we meet again.”
I LOVE this story! It's absolutely beautiful and wonderous. I'm so glad I found it today. I play piano, organ, and violin, so I understand exactly what the old lady was trying to say. And what an imagination you have, such a blessing! Thank you so much for touching my heart.