1. Man of Constant Sorrow
In the park, the homeless sleep in huddles on the ground, sometimes so close together that one cannot walk for fear of stepping on them. To the east sprawls the vast city of Los Angeles, yellow-on-gray, but the park seems a haven, even in the red wash of the sunset. Sitting serenely on the fence, the guitar-man plays.
The girl is ten, and tall for her age; she wears sneakers and a high ponytail, and moves with the blunted energetic ungrace of children who are athletic but not athletes. She has come to the park with her older sister and her older sister’s friends, who settle against the wall some thirty yards from the singer and do not stop her when she sets off down the path to give him a dollar.
The man is only a silhouette against the setting sun at first, but as she approaches him, his features become clearer. He is tall, and very thin; his skin, although unwrinkled, is the weathered brown common to construction workers, gardeners, and hobos-- the brown, distinct from that of a casually gotten tan, that speaks invariably of many hard days spent under the sun. In keeping with a large portion of Palisade Park’s homeless population, his hair is a mass of dreads: very, very black, and tied back from his face in a rough ponytail. Like her sister’s friend Tommy Ishimura, the only Asian person she knows with dreadlocks, his face is framed with a fringe of sleek, newly-grown flyaways, as though his hair was never intended to matt or tangle and is doing its best to reassert its intrinsic nature.
He wears the near-official uniform of the vagabond: hiking sandals, worn and stained denim jeans, a t-shirt that was once probably white.A ragged work shirt, its original color indeterminable, is tied around his waist. At his feet lie a scratched black guitar case and a battered camping backpack, onto which is sewn a single patch with a radial design that might once have been colored with a rainbow. The guitar is old and worn, but unlike the man’s other possessions, looks as though a great deal of care has been taken to keep it in good condition.
Loch Lomond ends. The man strums his guitar lightly to make sure it’s still in tune, then, finding it satisfactory, launches into a new song. Twanging and sudden, the opening chords give the girl the same kind of shock-sensation as somebody grabbing a fistful of her hair and yanking, hard. The guitar is percussive, driving, and nearly harsh to the ear, and after a few measures, in a voice as dissimilar to that with which he sung Loch Lomond as a cricket is to a butterfly, he starts to sing.
“I am the man of constant sorrow:
I’ve seen trouble all my days.
I bid farewell to old Kentucky,
The place where I was born and raised.
For six long years, I’ve been in trouble,
No pleasure here on Earth I’ve found.
For in this world I’m bound to ramble,
I have no friends to help me now.”
“Hey,” says the girl, as he eases into a guitar solo that she doesn’t recognize from her recording, “that’s the song from O Brother Where Art Thou!”
A small smile quirks the lips of the player, who keeps up his strumming. “No, it’s mine.”
She frowns. “It can’t be YOURS. It’s folk music. It’s been around for forever. In the South. And in”, she thinks, “Appalachia, I bet.”
The smile comes back.
“It’s been altered, of course. But who do you think taught it to them?”
She has no response to this, and he continues.
“It’s fare thee well, my one true lover
I never expect to see you again.
For I’m bound to ride that Northern railroad;
Perhaps I’ll die upon this train.
You can bury me in sunny valleys,
For many years where I may lay.
And you may learn to love another,
While I am sleeping in my grave.
Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger,
My face you never will see no more.
But there is one promise that is given,
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.
The last echoes of the song fade as the sun slips fully beneath the horizon. It leaves the girl with a hollow, hurting feeling inside, and, thinking it unwise to pursue the question of the song’s authorship, she says, truthfully, “That was really good.”
He nods his thanks, and, noticing that the sun has set, turns to look out upon the ocean. In the haze just above where the sky meets the sea shines a single visible star. They both gaze at it, for a moment, in silence.
“That’s Venus”, she finally offers, having just returned from a summer stint at AstroCamp bursting with the knowledge of the celestial spheres, “it’s the second-closest planet to the sun. Its surface temperature is seven hundred and fifty degrees Celsius because of a runaway global warming effect, and it goes through phases, like the Moon does. And it rotates backwards.”
He does not reply.
“The reason it’s so bright”, she continues, taking his silence as an encouragement, “is because it’s so close to the Earth, and because it’s a planet. It’s a disk of light, instead of a point, like a star would be, so it doesn’t twinkle as much.” Satisfied with her explanation of the planet Venus, she turns back to the homeless man. The look on his face is one of such deep anguish that it frightens her, and she stands rooted to the pavement for a moment, lips trembling.
She wants desperately to be anywhere but looking into the singer’s eyes: piercing grey, shockingly clear, and terrifyingly full of pain.
Neither of them makes a sound for what seems to her like an endless span of minutes; seconds grind by like years, and she imagines that she can feel the stars wheeling by overhead. Finally, she whispers, “I should go”, and, whirling around, runs back to her now-waiting sister, only turning once to look back. When she does, the man is looking towards the sea, singing a song that she does not recognize: a strange one, in a strange key. It seems to her impossibly, unfathomably sadder than either of the two she heard before, although, no matter how closely she listens, she cannot make out the words.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.