Years later, at the height of her adolescent rage against society, she will beautify her father as a freedom fighter against the West’s vicious need for one official narrative. The anger will swell up within her as she sees this perversion permeate every layer of society. The peak of this phase will be when, studying English in the final year of high school, she reads a book and in that book will be a quote and in that quote will be the crystallisation of every gleam of wonder nestled within her father’s eyes as he lulled her to sleep with his words.
To pass the time she would imagine her father sitting beside John Berger and, after chatting about art and writing, he leans towards John (as he’s affectionally known to her father) and says.
“Gee John, after this, never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” And John will steal that quote (though implicit permission was always given) and place it in a novel that may just win the Booker Prize.
And she will repeat that phrase, her father’s phrase, like a mantra.
Yet all of this, like a dazzling butterfly, is but a bland cocoon at the age of eight.
“And so the wolf, now alone, began to cry.” Her father not so much speaks but breathes. He is like an actor sans the vain flourish of the ego; he is a complete slave to these words.
His aim is not to think like the wolf, or look like the wolf, but to let all that bubble away in the audience’s minds.
Like those original dramatists, who had not yet invented the barriers between story and audience which have been constructed so faithfully and continuously ever since, all the way until the present day (do I mean this present day, in which I write, or eight-year old Clara’s present day? Or the present day always existing and in which we all live?). Those bygone performers, huddled around fire, experimenting with this new thing called language, playing with it, moulding it, were the spiritual ancestors of Clara’s father. “But few tell of that lonely lupus lost in a horrible forest.” The sound of a book snapping shut somewhere. “You must tell it, though.”
Clara nods innocently, enthralled as only children can be.
One summer they stayed in a cottage in the north of Germany. A little thing in a village almost forgotten. Clara’s memory latches onto two things in particular; one was the luscious garden which hinted at once being well kept and, at some indistinct point, fell into the forest like a child stumbling backwards into a pool. The other is not as easy to evoke with a few lyrical sentences.
“We cannot blame the Grimms,” her father had said, “no we cannot really blame anyone but ourselves for accepting only one truth. No, the Grimms were like collectors, and like all collectors, say those who obsess over antiques, they could only gather so many things before their home was all cluttered and a mess. And one day, returning from the markets with their arms yet again full, they must have found nowhere left to put anything and from then on, were thus condemned to always carry some stories on them lest they abandon the idea of living in their house.”
Clara rejoiced in that image of funny old men, stumbling around with piles of stories so high they have to bend theirs heads around them to see where they are going.
“The ones bequeathed to us are but those that they were carrying when Death came knocking.” Her father paused before affirming once again, “yes, we cannot blame the Grimms. In fact, we should celebrate them.”
And so they did, and Clara’s father (by now you really should know his name. It’s Brian; a solid name, hinting at either fulfilling mediocrity or subtle genius. I will let you make up your mind as to which one) read from the Brothers Grimm and Clara, who thought she would instantly fall asleep at another man’s story, was enraptured.
So at that point, she was learning rapidly.
I have just realised, valued reader, that I am painting a portrait of this man from only one point of view and though Clara’s soft voice is alluring and her sweet words tempt me evermore down this path and towards her, I only ridicule this man, whom she keeps affirming is brilliant, if I accept but one truth.
So we shall set off on a different path and see where we meet our previous trail of breadcrumbs.
This maverick, this wild man, this rude creature, more of nature than of society, burst into the life of Amanda, like a drunk bursting into the melody of “I Will Always Love You”.
He was a stark alarm that the pristine bourgeois life in which they were wrapped was not all there was. She was not an easy convert, either nor did she ever really abandon her old faith. She was wary of this man, wary of his tales, mixing truth with fiction, adding a splash of lime then shaking and serving the potent cocktail in a high glass.
The first time she had brought him to her small, inner-city apartment, he caught sight of some of her Disney memorabilia and said simply “hmmmm.”
“My favourite is Bambi,” she said, attempting to mask her fear with the off-the-cuff, disinterested tone we often employ in defence of those precious few things that define our childhood. A teddy bear. A playground. A particular dish cooked by grandma.
“Me too.” He smiled.
When only his peculiar scent lingered in the apartment, she would whisper to her friend over the phone, “he’s different, he listens.”
Yet even this is too positive a portrayal. It pains me, as I’m sure it pains you. You don’t need no storytelling Prince Charming. Thanks to the Greeks, you want, you demand, someone flawed, you need someone with a hamartia. To err is to be human. It is necessary that it is something big, something with the same shock value of finding out Santa doesn’t exist.
I did meet a man once who said he knew Brian, knew him from his high-school days. In some bar where the walls were collapsing around us, he turned to me and in a hushed tone, as though someone was following him, said;
“He used to drink. A lot.”
I said nothing.
“He was either burying something or bored out of his life. I would say the first one.”
But who doesn’t drink nowadays to escape it all? Escape your boss, your parents, your partner, your children. Fifty percent of The Simpsons is set at Moe’s.
However, I have seen his police file (how is another story). It paints a rebellious youth rendered harmless by middle age. The grand success of capitalism. Revolutions run by Pepsi and then conformity sold wrapped in glitter.
What else, what else….
Perhaps I’m too focused, perhaps, you’re too focused, on the man himself. Doesn’t the idea, what he represents, matter more? Men change the world little but their ideas usher in new worlds, topple old orders, bring life or death. Ideas defy the mortality of man. Where do the man and the idea intersect?
When you read or watch Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, you are immersing yourself not merely in a battle between trolls, elves and men, but in a world born and raised by language alone. A linguist’s experiment that was realised only when he told them as bed time stories to his children. That’s why there exists your Middle Earth and Tolkien’s Middle Earth and your neighbour’s Middle Earth. The words are a fabric to be woven. The question is, do we thank J.R.R for telling it, or his son, Christopher, for listening?
Clara! The man and his ideas intersect at Clara, of course. Oh Clara, whose hazel curls could make me ditch this nonsense and take up poetry, to devote myself to her entirely. Oh Clara, it’s you and it always has been.
His words ride on the resonance of his voice. A soft voice. A strong voice. An epic voice. A voice to regale sagas. The warm light of the lamp illuminates the years on his face, the wrinkles and creases, a sheet of paper folded too many times. A hand strokes her hair, getting lost in nots of clumps. The remnants of a storm peter out, the cat meows faintly in the other room.
“Did any of this ever happen daddy?” She looks at him with those big brown eyes of hers.
“Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t.” Her eyes avert their pleading gaze; she looks befuddled, disappointed. “Stories are only memories, my little one, sometimes our own, sometimes other’s, sometimes shared, collective ones. It is like when time erodes a cliff, turning it to sand. Have you learnt that in geography?”
She nods excitedly. She did, only yesterday. “Each tiny grain is a story, created by the degradation of this one memory. So, one memory has the potential to be many stories, told all from different perspectives, some offering the truth, some presenting another truth. In the end, we are all just stories.”
He rubs her shoulders and holds her close, trying to to infuse her with a little bit of hope. “Maybe it did happen, maybe it didn’t. Maybe, it doesn’t matter either way. Who knows?” He plants a wet kiss on her forehead. “Who knows….” A softer kiss on her cheek heralds goodnight and he rises and walks off, pausing at the doorway to switch the lights off.
Clara interjects sleepily:
“Keep the light on please daddy, I’m scared.”
“Let the stories guide you. Too much light blinds us to the hidden beauty.” He leaves her in darkness to see if she will learn.
One by one, the lights emerge, as if following some cue, some sheet music written long, long ago. For there is an undeniable musicality in how some seem to plomp into existence like a fat, gentle piano note. Some twinkle, others softly glow. They surround her in all three dimensions and if she concentrates and remembers her father’s words, remembers the grains of sand, they extend in a fourth dimension.
She sees backwards, forwards and sideways in time, memory existing all around. She gazes in wonder. This is what storytelling is. To plunge yourself into the dark to emerge in the concealed light. She sees herself anchored, a dinghy rocking side to side in an endless ocean. But there is a way to navigate now, to position herself in relation to everybody else.
They say the catfish sees only by the chemicals it detects in its whiskers. A whole new way of conceiving of the world, a whole new world really. Music, language, food, art, customs, all surround her. She only has to pick which story.
Oh Clara, now I know why you always insist on darkness, never the glow of a TV screen or bathroom light, why even now I must write this by candlelight. Clara and her worlds. Let me join you.
The man and his ideas, meeting at this liberating junction, offering her, offering me, offering all, simply a chance. Here is where I stop, to drop my pen and snuff the candle. The time at last when we can retreat from these written words and all their permanence, to float amongst fairy tales.
Deaglan Godwin is a student currently trying to juggle both the HSC and his passion for writing. He lives in Sydney’s Inner West with his amazing parents and ok brother. He loves reading, writing, nature and languages, but won’t deny a love for video games as well (it is also an art medium!). He hopes that once high school finally ends, he will be able to fulfil the role of an expat writer living in Paris.