The Beast, Part 1

I can’t sleep.  I made the mistake of reading a short story by Neil Gaiman called “Feeders and Eaters” just before bed.  It was a story based on a nightmare.  Now I can’t banish the thought that I’ll have a nightmare if I allow myself to cross in to the land of slumber.

I couldn’t help but think of the nature of fear, the quality of monsters.  This, I suppose, is the beauty of Neil Gaiman’s twisted genius.  He manages to make the mundane creepy, then the creepy terrifying.  But to those who stand outside of the story, unaware, the terrifying would look completely normal.

This brought to mind a story.  My first story.

Once upon a time there was a happy, prosperous kingdom.

The people who lived in the kingdom loved their king for he was wise and just.  They loved their queen for she was equally wise and fair.  But above all they loved the king and queen’s only daughter, for she was as wise as her parents, as just, and as fair and all agreed that she was the most beautiful girl in all the land.

I told myself this story one night.  I hit upon a premise and simply told it, alone in my bed, staring at the ceiling.  This would set a precedent.  I start all my stories now by hitting upon a premise and telling them to myself until they make sense.

But there was something about the princess that no one knew.  She secretly longed for adventure and felt restricted by the life of idle luxury she lived in the castle.  So whenever she could she snuck off in to the woods and practiced fighting and archery with a sword and bow she had hidden at the edge of a clearing far from prying eyes.

My fascination with the standard myth and fairy tale is based on a simple idea: what if we take the standard and make it non-standard?  We start with the “Once upon a time…” and work our way to the “…Happily ever after.”  But in between, well, we meet the standard characters only to find that they aren’t.

One day the king received an urgent request from an ally in a distant land.  They had been attacked and desperately needed help or would soon be overrun.  So the king assembled his army and put his generals at its head and sent them off to war.

The kingdom had been at peace for so long that they had forgotten the carnage and terror of war.  So while the army arrayed itself along the royal road the people of the kingdom gathered in a festive mood to see the colorful flags and bright spears glitter brightly in the sun.

A long while after the dust had settled and the kingdom returned to normal, the king and queen realized something was wrong.  They had not seen their daughter in quite some time.  The searched the castle from cellar to keep and turret to tower, but couldn’t find her anywhere.  They sent their servants in to the fields, but she was nowhere to be found.  The finally sent messengers far and wide across the kingdom, but day after day the messengers came back with no news to share.

The first person I told this story to was Her.  I told it while lying on my bed in the dark, talking in to a telephone.  Three, maybe four years later I realize the story was about Her, about how I perceived Her.  All it took was Neil Gaiman’s nightmare to realize that.

One day a messenger happened across a young boy sitting by the side of the road at the edge of the forest.  Desperate for any lead he asked the boy if he had seen the princess.

The boy said that he had been in that exact spot when the army passed.  A knight had pulled away from the march and asked if he had any water.  The boy took the knight to a well and noticed that this knight was different, for he didn’t smell like sweat and horses, but like a meadow on a crisp spring morning.  When the knight lifted his helmet to drink, the boy saw that it was not a grizzled old warrior, but a beautiful girl who winked and smiled and put her finger to her lips and asked him to make it their secret.

We fill our stories with stock characters.  It’s an easy shorthand to explain to the audience exactly what to expect.  But it serves another purpose.  We are each of those stock characters at some point.  Sometimes we’re the young boy looking at the world through innocent eyes, sometimes we’re the messenger desperately seeking news, sometimes we’re the king waiting for good news and fearing the bad.  The story affects us in different ways depending on which character we are.

The messenger put the boy on his horse and took him back to the castle as fast as possible.  When the king and queen heard the story they immediately sent their messengers out to find the army and bring the princess home.

But they were too late.  The army had been ambushed in a high, desolate mountain pass and when the messengers arrived all they found was death.
 
The king and queen were devastated.  They mourned the death of their daughter and the kingdom mourned with them.

Everyone had lost a father, a son, a brother, or a friend.  But in the princess they lost more than that.  They lost hope.

It seemed important to me, at the time, to acknowledge that even in fairy tale land there are more than three characters, more people than just those main characters.  So often we forget the collateral damage.  But, still, the princess had to be a greater symbol because the princess was a symbol to me.  And I could take any role in the kingdom I created in my head that night.

Not long afterwards the kingdom received even more bad news.  Travelers began disappearing from the roads.  It seemed something was lurking in the woods.

The king sent his remaining guards in to the forest to find out what was there.  None returned.  Rumors began to swirl that there was a monster somewhere out there in the deep, dark corners of the woods.

The woods, of course, represent the scary, unexplored places.  Only the bravest souls and the most terrifying monsters occupy the woods.

The king sent word far and wide and called for a hero to come and slay the beast.  He promised great reward to any brave and skillful knight.

There were many at first, arriving alone or in bands.  Some were renowned warriors and adventurers, others were down on their luck soldiers and some were nothing but scoundrels looking for a quick reward.

They entered the woods alone or in bands.

None returned.

We venture out in to the woods ill-equipped most of the time.  We just want to take a quick route through our pain, through our fears, and come out the better for it.  But if we approach our darkness and our monsters with too cavalier a mood we come out worse in the end.

The people who lived at the edge of the woods began leaving the kingdom, afraid for their lives.  As months spread out to years the good, happy, prosperous people left in larger numbers, leaving empty homes and fallow fields that were eventually occupied by bandits and squatters.  The king had no energy to stop it.

Eventually the queen died and all agreed it was a broken heart.  Everyone wondered when the king would follow.

If we don’t go out in to the woods and face the monsters, though, despair can overtake us.

Then one day something happened that had not occurred in well over a decade.

A knight appeared at the borders of the kingdom.  He rode atop a great, white charger and his armor was so bright it seemed the sun was reflected it and not the other way around.

The knight went to the castle and asked to see the king.  When he was ushered in to the throne room he said that he had come to slay the great forest beast.

Hope is a wonderful thing.  It comes riding up, shining brightly in the darkest of moments.

The king told the knight that he had no more left to give as a reward, save one thing.  If the knight could slay the beast and save the kingdom, it would be his to rule.  Then the king sent the knight off, fully expecting to never see the brave, foolish knight again.

Hope is a foolish thing to those who have given up.  Hope is also a strange thing, especially when we realize that hope and despair are different characters played by the same actor.

The knight rode to the edge of the forest and arrived as dusk began to gather the evening gloom at the edges of the horizon.  It was overgrown and dense, so he tied his great white charger to an old well and walked in alone.

As the night got darker and the woods got denser his shield became a hindrance, forever catching on tree trunks.  He left it behind.  Then he was forced to take off his helmet because he could no longer see and his armor because it kept getting caught in the branches and the brambles.

I added this part intentionally, but did not understand why.  Since I knew what was coming next I knew that the hero had to be vulnerable.  But in the larger context the hero has to approach the great monsters in the darkness naked.  We cannot be honest with ourselves when clad in our self-righteousness and while trying to protect ourselves from the truth that can only be found in honesty.  Honesty cannot penetrate the iron we wrap around our heads and hearts.

The moon was high in the night sky when the knight, armed only with his sword and protected only by his tunic, stepped out of the dense undergrowth and in to a wide clearing.  All around him, glowing softly in the bright moonlight, were broken swords, bent shields, and naked, shattered skulls.  He drew his sword, knowing he had found the monster’s lair.

At that exact moment the monster appeared.  It stepped out of the shadows opposite the knight and stared malevolently at him through narrowed eyes.

The beast stood a full head taller than the knight.  It was covered in coarse fur that could not hide a tight, solidly muscled physique.  Its arms hung nearly to its knees and ended in long, sharp claws.  But most terrifying of all was the beast’s face.  It had a long, wolflike snout that was filled with pointy, bloodstained teeth.

Man and beast stared at each other across the clearing for a long moment.  Then both took a step forward, as if by unspoken agreement.  A second step, then a third and a fourth and a fifth and they were in the middle of the clearing.

It’s hard to properly describe a monster. Monsters exist best when they lack description and the imagination is allowed to run wild. To describe a monster is to remove its power because its power exists primarily in the unseen spaces.  It’s harder still to describe the moment it arrives and the hero realizes that there are only two options: advance or die.

The knight raised his sword to strike.  The beast flexed its claws.

A slight breeze crossed the clearing, sweeping across the beast and the knight.  On the breeze the knight caught a faint, familiar scent.  A meadow on a crisp spring morning.

Every little boy grows up dreaming of one day being a hero.  In the world of fairy tales that can happen.  The other great truth of the fairy tale is this, though: the hero needs to be a little boy, too.  When we are young we want to be strong and wise.  Should we get that far we need to remember how to be innocent.

For it is innocence that tells us that not all monsters are what they appear to be.

The knight’s sword hand dropped to his side.  The beast paused, confused.

Then the knight leaned towards the beast, eyes shut tight for fear of what would happen if he was wrong, and kissed the snarling lips of his foe.

We pause.

Uncertain.

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The Beast, Part 2

I am reminded, at this juncture, of the most important part of a good story.

Silence.

We fill the air with noise. We move the plot forward with our words. We spend so little of our time in contemplation. We need that pause. We need that moment. We need that silence in between the sounds. Without the silence we cannot have contemplation, we cannot let our fears and hope grow.

It’s that time in between that we cannot fathom, though we are more intimately aware of it than the sorrow on one end and the joy on the other.  To live is, after all, to wait.  To wait is to be uncertain, to acknowledge that we cannot know, cannot be certain, we can only hope or fear.

Time does not matter when the uncertainty of life consumes us with hope and fear.  Seconds stretch out to hours, days, years.  Years compress to months, weeks, minutes.

This is the logic of the dream and the story.  Time passes and things change, but not in any way that can be reliably understood through the simple and useless act of looking at a clock or calendar.  This is how we can be the little boy, the brave knight, and the ailing king all at once.  They are us, but at different times.  Those times do not matter, though, not in the logic that can come from dreaming, storytelling, or waiting.

We start a story with “Once upon a time…”

We end a story with “…Happily ever after.”

Everything that happens between is a mere ellipsis between the beginning and the end.  But that mere ellipsis is what matters more than anything else.  That ellipsis is the waiting.  It is the only part we can conceive of in the story, the only part we can properly understand.

And we tell stories to pass the time.  We tell stories of monsters to articulate our fears.  We tell stories of heroes to articulate our hopes.

Those stories, in turn, are filled with moments of sorrow, of joy, and of waiting.  Our heroes suffer because we suffer.  Our heroes face defeat because we face defeat.  Our heroes win the day because…well, because we hope to win the day and by telling the stories we hope to bring the magic that protects and guides the hero in to our world.

———————————-

The nature of the hero, too, must be examined.  For the hero is not the biggest, the strongest, the best-looking, the best-equipped.  The hero is not the smartest, wisest, the most articulate.  The hero is not the richest, the most powerful, the most popular.

The hero is the one who sees what must be done and does it.  The hero is the one who stands before the monsters with nothing and yet does not give up.  The hero is the one who realizes that not all monsters are, in all actuality, monsters.

Ultimately, the hero is the one who is capable of seeing beyond the collective fear and takes the necessary steps.

More than that, the hero is the one who risks everything if it turns out that the monsters are, in fact, monsters.

The hero must face uncertainty, too.  Otherwise we could not identify with our heroes and they could not identify with us.  So in our stories, too, we must find those moments where there is nothing to do but wait.

——————————-

It is the storyteller’s responsibility to make sure that we feel the uncertainty.

When the beast approaches the teller should speed up.  The urgency of the tale should match the urgency of the moment.  We should hear that quickened step, that beating heart.

But then, at that crucial moment, that terrifying moment when all becomes clear the storyteller should slow.

Then pause.

Hero, monster, audience, and storyteller should join together here, in this moment.

Uncertain.

Waiting.

The Beast, Part 3

Eventually, no matter how long it takes, the wait must end.  We receive the hoped for, dreaded news, for better or worse.

The First Ending:

When the knight opened his eyes again he found he was not staring at a beast, but face to face with the princess.

The returned to the castle and went to the king, who was overjoyed to see that the brave knight had returned and overcome with wonder to see his daughter back, safe and sound.  He turned the kingdom over, knowing it was in good hands.

The princess told her father that she had been with the army at the ambush all those years ago, but as she lay dying a witch had appeared and asked her if what she would give up to live.  The princess had said to give up everything she held dear and the witch saved her life but placed a curse on her in the process.  The knight had broken the curse with his kiss.

News spread far and wide that the kingdom was once again safe and the story spread of the princess who had been turned in to a beast and the knight who had, as a little boy, seen through the princess’s masquerade as a knight and many years later seen through the princess’s curse.

The princess and the knight lived long, happy lives and they and all their kingdom lived happily ever after.

When I first told this story I felt it was a great, subversive tale.  The damsel in distress was the monster.  The brave knight won by not fighting.  I had a lot to learn, then.  But this ending is still about that thing which we hope for, that thing we should never stop hoping for.

Still, I began to wonder, one day, if the fairy tale ending made sense.  If it was even possible.

The Second Ending:

The knight’s eyes never opened again.  With a single great swipe of his claw the beast ripped open his chest and stilled his stout heart.

No other champions ever arrived at the border of the kingdom and the king soon died, leaving behind an empty, desolate land that was divided up among his neighbors and forgotten.

Sometimes the end is fast, devastating.  Even then, though, the end isn’t really the end.  The story continues, just with different borders.

The Third Ending:

The knight and the princess returned to the castle and for a time joy again reigned in the kingdom.

Soon, though, the knight-turned-king began waking up when the moon was at its highest point in the sky and find the princess-turned-queen’s side of the bed cold and empty.  When that happened he knew to find her standing atop the railing out on the balcony that overlooked the forest.  In her dreams she was tortured by the terrified faces and agonized cries of those she had killed while living as a monster.

 One night while the moon was high in the sky he awoke to find the bed was cold and empty.  Exhausted by the constant worry he decided that this one night he would not get up, would not go to her, would go back to sleep.

The next morning a servant found her broken body crumpled beneath the balcony at the base of the great keep.

We do horrible things to each other on our way to that elusive happily ever after.  Sometimes we don’t survive, but don’t realize that we’ve lost until long after we think we’ve won.

The Fourth Ending:

The knight and princess were made king and queen, but the happy prosperous times did not return with them.

Monster slaying did not translate well in to governance and the new king was soon in far over his head.

The new queen took it upon herself to clean up her parents’ kingdom and cleared out the bandits and ruffians with speed, skill, and more than a little viciousness.  As good and decent people returned she enacted tough laws with harsh punishments for even the tiniest infractions.

Many years later a witch moved in to an abandoned hut at the edge of the kingdom and the rumor passed around that it was the very same witch who had placed a curse on the princess all those years ago.

The king traveled to the witch’s hut in secret and asked why breaking the curse hadn’t returned the princess to the way she once was.

The witch laughed at him.  All he had done that night in the woods was to return to princess to the way she had once looked, the witch told him.  The curse was that the princess’s true inner nature was revealed for all to see.

The fairy tale must follow its own inner logic.  We must stop and ask a simple question: “Why did the princess become a vicious monster?”  That question takes us to the most terrifying places of all.

The Fifth Ending:

Joy and hope returned to the kingdom, but it took a long time for things to return to normal.

The princess was haunted by her time in the forest for a long time afterwards, but the knight and the old king were there for her when the dreams returned.

The knight found the transition from warrior to administrator hard, but over time learned how to govern.

Nothing was ever the same again and happily ever after often seemed out of reach, but there was happiness to be had in abundance.  And it was always more than enough to carry the kingdom through the hardest times.

At the very least everyone lived hopefully ever after.

Sometimes all the best we can hope for is that the scars have sufficient time to fade and we’re given the time we need to learn from our mistakes.  In the fairy tale this is a disappointing ending.  In real life, though, it’s usually the best one we can hope for.

———————-

I apparently wrote these posts on Halloween of 2008.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  I did write two posts on Halloween of 2008.  The first was the story, right up until the point where the knight kissed the beast.  The second was just five endings.  It was an early attempt to figure out how to differentiate between the spoken and written word, to say, “We can do this when telling, and we can do that when writing.”

But I never published them.  There wasn’t really enough there to make it worthwhile.  So they sat there on my old Toshiba laptop.  And they moved to my new Asus (nicknamed, coincidentally, “The Beast,” which was also the nickname of my 1984 Chevy Caprice Classic.  The story in question still doesn’t have an official title) laptop when I transferred my files over.  But that was just a happy accident.  I hadn’t meant to do anything with those two posts.  Hell, I’d totally forgotten about them.

Then I found myself lying awake at one in the morning, my only company images of a Neil Gaiman story.  It’s an interesting story, too.  We find that the main characters are a big, strong man and a frail, weak woman.

In the end, though, we find that the woman is not as she appears.  And that causes the man’s downfall.

It got me thinking about this old story.  The beautiful princess, the terrifying monster.  The way they’re one and the same.  It had seemed so subversive at the time, a subtly empowering tale of a princess who was, most definitely, not a damsel in distress.  A brave knight who could not solve problems with violence, but had to recall the innocence of youth instead.

That’s not, ultimately, what this story is about though, is it?  The first time I told it I told it to Her.  I was still hoping for that fairy tale ending, but aware of the fact that I would have to figure out a way to get through some dark places to make it.

I wrote the additional endings six months after it all ended.  Endings two and four are the most honest assessments I can see of how she responded.  Ending three, I think, is how I wanted to respond.  Ending five was that Hail Mary that said, “Maybe it can still work.”

To all of those I think I can add another:

The Sixth Ending:

The knight opened his eyes.

Standing before him where there had once been a monster he saw the princess.  He smiled, relief and hope filling his soul.

They turned from the clearing and began picking their way through the dark and treacherous woods.  At first the knight worked on his plans for the future now that the kingdom was his and the princess he’d dreamed of since that day in the meadow all those years ago walked beside him.  It would be wonderful.

But every time he closed his eyes he saw that terrible monster.

As the knight traveled back through the forest he collected the armor he’d left behind.  When they reached the edge of the woods and found his horse the knight mounted the steed.

He never returned to the castle, never collected his prize.  Instead he rode out of that kingdom.

As the years passed he would occasionally wonder what had happened, what would have been.  In the quiet, dark moments of the night he would sometimes wish he had made a different choice.  He would fall asleep hoping to dream of the princess.

But he never did.  On those nights he dreamed only of monsters.

The biggest thing that surprises me, looking back on this story, is that no matter what ending I write, it’s always about the knight.  It’s never about the princess or the monster.

They’re just characters. Props.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s really the outer monsters I should fear.

The Beast, a Postscript

The hardest thing when telling a story is to decide what story to tell.

It is one thing when the teller of the story is among friends.  One story leads to another.  One memory brings up another.  The story, then, is conversation, as natural as breathing.

But then, sometimes, the story is a performance.  Sometimes it comes with little advance warning and even less in the way of assistance.  “It’s in three weeks,” they tell you.  “You have ten minutes,” they say.  “There is no theme to work with.”

“Oh, and by the way, Texas will be watching.”

Sometimes it’s good to be busy.  Having too much to do means it’s really hard to think about things too much.  Having too much to do means it’s impossible to get nervous.

Having too much to do means you don’t have enough time to prepare.  It means you have to go back to the well, dust off a beloved old gem.  Of those, for me, there are four.  I thought I’d tell “Jimmy’s Journey,” as it’s an easy enough tale to tell.  I’ve even told it two or three times in the last year, so I actually remember it.

But then I decided that it was time to go back even farther.  Go back to the very beginning.

—————

“I want you to read to me,” she said.  “It’s my favorite story from when I was a little girl.”

It was late summer.  I was about to go back for my last semester at WIU and still in the happy times with Her.  Leaving seemed unbearable, so sitting on that bench in front of my parents’ house and reading a story seemed like the best possible way to spend my time.

Thus was I introduced to the story of Dove Isabeau.  To the uninitiated, as I was that night, it is a children’s tale that hits all the standard fairy tale tropes of beautiful women and jealous stepmothers, but makes a single, key change.  Rather than render the maiden inert and force her to wait on rescue from the handsome, brave prince the story turns her in to the dragon those heroes then try to slay.

I stumbled through it, made a poor showing of pronouncing the francophone names.  It didn’t go the way she’d imagined, either, and she couldn’t hide her disappointment.  C’est la vie, I suppose.

—————

The hardest thing when telling a story that’s been gathering dust is to remember.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  The story, then, is the devil’s plaything.  It’s simple, trivial even, to remember the broad strokes of the story.  It’s all about archetype, progression, and event after all.  What makes the story matter, then, is how the storyteller interprets the tiny details that make a moment stick to the mind.  It’s all about cadence, turn of phrase, and those moments where the audience hangs on every word.

Telling a story for the first time since Labor Day weekend 2008, then, can be quite painful on the cusp of St Patrick’s Day 2011.  That’s why we have story circle.  The eyes of Texas were not upon me this evening.

It’s a problem, too, since I still remember the story.  But what I remember now is the story behind the story, the story about the story, and the story since the story.  Those have almost overwhelmed and choked out the story itself.

These things happen, I suppose.

—————

She liked it when I told stories.  That’s why I’m a storyteller, really.  When all else failed, as it so often did, she loved hearing me tell stories.  I loved telling her stories.

The first couple I made up on the spot.  One was a bizarre little tale of talking animals invading Illinois I told her while we were killing time amid the Gothic arches and peaceful courtyards of the University of Chicago.  The other was of a princess who led an army to avenge her dead father I told while we sat on a rock at the edge of Lake Argyle when she visited me at WIU.

She liked that I was willing to make the princess the independent hero.  I liked pandering to my audience of one.  Even when I expanded my audience my initial story was intended primarily for her, though.

When I started to pull the story together it was a collection of fairy tale archetypes.  But I remembered that one, all-important twist from Dove Isabeau.  I let it guide the progression of my own story.

The audience who ever heard it was my audience of one.  She listened to me tell the story over the phone.  For twenty minutes I plodded along, obsessed with my belief that the best story is a long, epic story.

She told me I spoke too slowly, that I could stand to cut some of the fat out.

—————

The hardest thing about telling a story is when it’s just not working and nothing seems to get it back on track.

I felt myself plodding through the story.  I repeated myself too many times, got caught up on describing and re-describing details that ultimately didn’t matter, and once totally forgot where I was going.

That’s the problem with storytelling.  A single mistake tends to cascade.  Forget a detail, put a name in the wrong place, or lose your cadence and everything falls apart from there.

That’s why we practice.

—————

I told the story to an audience larger than one for the first time at a Fox Valley Storytelling Guild meeting.  It was the first or second meeting I’d attended.  On the way home I called her I was so excited.

Nearly a year later it became the first story I ever told at an actual concert at the Fox Valley Folk and Storytelling Festival.  By then I had cut the story down to about nine tight, well-considered minutes.

She didn’t see it.  We hadn’t spoken for nearly six months.

I put the story on the shelf after that.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  I experimented with different endings.  Eventually I turned it in to a series of blog posts.  That version was bitter, angry.  The endings were full of blood, death, regret, and despair.

—————

The hardest thing about telling the story is telling the story itself without telling all the other stories that feed in to and stretch out of that story.

I couldn’t tell the story in a vacuum.  Not tonight.  Not any night.  Afterwards I got feedback.

We were talking about the progression and I pointed out that the story is simply a collection of basic fairy tale archetypes.

One of the other storytellers said, “Yes.  It reminds me of [one story I didn’t recognize] and Dove Isabeau.”

All of the sudden I was back on that bench in front of my parents’ house.  I hadn’t thought of that moment in years.  The memory, surprisingly enough, was pleasant.

He suggested a modification to the ending.

“What if she doesn’t get rid of the bandits and the robbers?” he asked.  “She knows what it’s like to be an outcast, after all.”

—————

The best thing about stories is that they change.

It was my first real story.  It was the first I created from scratch.  It was the first I told at a guild meeting.  It was the first I told to an audience.

I can’t imagine telling a different one the first time I tell at the Texas Storytelling Festival.

This time, though, it will have a different ending.