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It felt like memory

HERE'S A FAIRY tale. It's the first one I remember.

Once upon a time, there lived a mother and a father. They had two dearly loved sons, but they both longed for a daughter. And one day their dearest wish was granted; the mother gave birth to a baby girl. When the mother held her in her arms, she and the baby fitted together perfectly. When the mother looked down at her baby's face, she knew that she had seen her before; this was the precious daughter she had always dreamed of.

My mother held me in her arms and told this story again and again. It's about me; her happy ending was my happy beginning. It was as reassuring as milk, or a lullaby.

By the time I was eleven or twelve, I was curious about the details – I wanted toknow­ – and I learned that sex and death lay at the heart of my mother's cosy tale. It turned out that my mother had heart disease, and her doctor warned her that if she had another child, she would surely die. When my mother became pregnant, her doctor told her she must not have the child. I don't know how I knew about abortion then, but I pictured blood.

My mother was faced with two choices – she could get rid of the child and live, or she could have the child and die. She chose to continue the pregnancy, and her obstetrician (who was, unusually for the times, a woman, which somehow made it all seem worse) washed her hands of her disobedient patient. So my mother went instead to a kindly, silver-haired male GP who told her that all would be well. I was the very last baby he delivered. And not only was the old doctor right and the specialist wrong, but I was the longed-for only daughter.

I told this story at my mother's funeral. She died at eighty-four, by which time the specialist's doom-laden prognosis was nearly fifty years out of date. The child who was going to kill her was the child who looked after her in her old age. Which is anotherkind of fairy tale ending, isn't it?

I WAS A girl who loved fairy tales. Both my parents told me stories and read to me; we went through my mother's old Grimm's Fairy Tales from cover to cover time and again. As soon as I could read for myself, I greedily appropriated that Grimm's and made it my own,underlining the titles of my favourite stories and making small secret marks of approval on their illustrationsMy brothers by then were into space and racing cars, so I inherited their fairy tale collections too. Full-colour deluxe editions with titles like The Golden Bird and The Enchanted Princess came from rich childless friends; I spent my birthday money in bookshops, not toyshops, and bought the Lilac Fairy Book and the Orange Fairy Book and the Puffin Book of Princesses. Later I graduated to children's fantasy novels. Much later, I wrote them.

I studied fairy tales, too, but not in an academic way. When I was undergoing teacher training, the role of fairy tales in a young child's development was allotted a session or two. We read our Bruno Bettelheim; all of nineteen or twenty years old, we claimed to know that 'fairy tales help children internalise the deep truths of life and death' and 'fairy tales deal with the struggle between good and evil in a non-threatening manner.' After all, the lecturer told us, these stories took place in once-upon-a-time, not here, not now; children understood that there was a demarcation line between fact and fantasy.

I'm not sure about that. When I was seven, we moved from the bayside suburb of Chelsea to Campbell's Creek in Central Victoria. It was a little town that had a pub, a general store and a school; there were a few streets of houses, and then scattered farms and bush. My father and I sometimes walked up the hill and bought eggs from a little old man and a little old woman who lived in a tumbledown house with hundreds of chickens. The little old man was blind, and his eyes and lashless lids were pink. He used to fish lollies from his pocket and give me one, but I never ate them. When we walked home through the bush, I stayed close to my father, especially in the early winter dark. It would be so easy to get lost.

WHEN I HAD a child myself, I mostly told fairy tales from memory. They were the simpler ones, like Little Red Riding Hood, but there was also an extended version of Beauty and the Beast, extremely heavy on detail, that my son remembers well. The first part, at least; was designed to put him to sleep, and it did.

When I started writing this memoir, first I went back to that primal tale, the story of me. And next, to my mother's Grimm's Fairy Tales. Even when I was small the pages were yellowed and foxed, the cover was shabby, and the spine detaching from the hinges. It was printed during wartime on thick spongy paper, with colour plates by an artist called Harry G. Theaker. He was very good with the grotesques and comic characters – Rumpelstiltskin, Mother Holle, elvish cobblers and dwarves, witches and old crones. And of course, the princesses were all meltingly lovely.

The Grimm was on the bookshelf in my study, up quite high; I had to get a stepladder and reach for it. The short, chubby book had a smugness about it, as if it sat on the shelf humming with subtle power. I remembered the cover with its crushed corners and stained cloth, and the black-haired princess with the star on her forehead. I remembered the feel of the paper. I got down off the ladder and opened the first page…

And I was disappointed. I could scarcely believe that these stories had once filled me with astonishment and delight. I found events and episodes that were – to use a phrase of my teenage son's – totally random. Fairy tale world is a bit like joke world – you know, 'and a horse came into the bar and asked for a beer'. Why does picking a flower turn a boy into a raven? Why does the princess have a star on her forehead? Why does the witch turn Hansel into a fawn and not eat him? Loose ends were left dangling, or when they were tied, they were implausible. Would you believe this – after looking after her fawn-brother for years, Gretel marries a King who sternly tells the witch to disenchant the boy. She does, just like that; they live happily ever after and Hansel becomes the King's chief counsellor. Really? But he's just spent ten years on four legs eating grass!

I kept asking myself, are there bits missing? Have tales been misremembered and jumbled together? Well, yes. Of course. Don't the tales represent centuries of story-telling, years of Chinese whispers, full of accretions, elisions, omissions and mistakes? My mother's Grimm, based on the 1812 version, is quite up-front about it:

There is more of the story, but my grandmother, who told it to me, had not a good memory, and she had forgotten the rest. I have an idea that the beautiful Princess was married to the Count, and that they lived together in the fairy palace happy and content.

And then there's the violence. I found a welter of blood and gore – cannibalism, infanticide, execution, torture – not to mention a number of forced marriages and some strange inter-species relationships. It's been said many times before; Grimm's Tales are strong stuff for tiny tots. The Twelve Brothers, whose heroine decorates the cover, begins:

Once upon a time a King and a Queen lived happily together, and had twelve children, every one of them a boy. The King said one day to the Queen: 'If our thirteenth child happens to be a girl I shall have the twelve lads put to death, in order that my riches and kingdom shall be hers alone.'

And here is the witch from Hansel and Gretel.

'Dear children, who brought you here? Come in, do, and stay with me; no harm will come to you!'
But the old woman was only pretending to be friendly; she was really a wicked old witch… The witch had pink eyes and could not see far, but she had keen scent, like animals do, and could smell human flesh a long way off.

Pink eyes. So that was why I was scared of the little old man on the hill.

The details are not the point. Nor is plausibility or story structure or whether Bettelheim and my lecturer were right about that demarcation line. For, paradoxically, even after the shock of disappointment, my mother's Grimm is still bathed in its rosy glow when I shut the book. That bit is important. It's not about the print on the page. In that part of my mind that holds memory purely as feelings, the tales are perfect. Even with their murders and cruelties, the unexplained details, the jumps and gaps and cobbled together, rag-bag structure. They're whole and inevitable, like dreams, existing as they are and not as they should be, as a series of magical transformations and revelations. Prince into frog, straw into gold, woodcutter's daughter into beautiful princess. You pass through trials and suffering to a happy ending. Always. This is what I learned about life, Mr Bettelheim; life is a story. The princess is arrayed in her wedding clothes, the people cheer and doves fly upwards in the sunlight to the sound of ringing bells.

A BEACH. THE sand is white; today, both sea and sky are grey. A little girl, wearing a hood and a long woollen skirt that drags on the ground, is poking around in the rubbish at the tideline. A man with a hatchet is chopping up a branch. It's winter, and they're collecting driftwood for their fire. The girl's hands are red and stinging as she picks up sticks and twigs and bits of wood and puts them into a sack. She finds a dead fish with its mouth open as if it is just about to speak. And what's this in among the seaweed? A green glass marble, pitted and abraded from its undersea voyage. She pops it into her pocket.

She has good sharp eyes; her father tells her so. But it needs no sharp eye to pick out from among the tangles of seaweed a blackened, gaping boot. When she picks it up, water, sand and a scattering of tiny pink shells all opened like butterfly wings pour out of it. At that moment, the sun, appearing for a second from under the grey cloud, sends a ray of light down onto the waves. For an instant she thinks she sees an arm, waving. Is it the sailor whose boot she's found, calling for help? Or a mermaid, simply calling? Does she want her green glass ball?

Like an eye closing, the sun shuts off its light. Under cover of cloud it sinks lower and lower in the sky, closer to the grey line of horizon far out to sea.

'Look,' says the little girl suddenly, pointing. 'Three ships!'

But the father doesn't see them.

'It's getting dark,' he says. 'It's time to go in.'

And they drag the wet sack full of wood up through the dunes to their cottage, and light the fire.

ON MY DESK I have, as well as my mother's Grimm's Fairy Tales and a green glass marble, a photograph. It's a little girl wearing a hood, a ragged oversized jumper and a heavy woollen skirt that reaches the ground. She's posed against a background of long wind-blown grass and looks like an escapee from a Thomas Hardy novel. Or – at a stretch – a little peasant girl from almost any century.

But it's me. 1963. On Chelsea beach. Those anachronistic clothes must have seemed, somehow, right for the day. At five, I still lived in a landscape of possibilities, shiny and bright. (Dark and terrifying too, but that came at night. The first nightmare I remember was of a giant with an axe breaking down the beach gate and coming to get me. No wonder I screamed the house down.) The beach could be everywhere, anywhere and nowhere, timeless, all at the same time. Our beach-front house and those of our neighbours, my grandmother's house with the neat suburban yard and our friend's with the river and the trees – I knew they were all particular places, but they all floated in space. Near or far? I had no idea. When you're small, you don't understand the map.

And you don't know that mermaids are not real, and there are no gingerbread houses in the woods. Stories feel the same as experiences. Soaked in stories, I became an inveterate fantasist. A fat and grubby child with a snotty nose and black hair could become a princess – why not? Especially when wearing a hood and a long woollen skirt.

But when you're fifty-five, reality has generally become a habit. Most of the time, it needs to be, or you run the risk of turning into a con-artist or a compulsive liar. I'm a writer; my imagination is a work-horse; I have my routines and my deadlines and my hours at the desk; my motto is 'Temperament is for amateurs.' As well, I genuinely enjoy the quotidian and the domestic. I knit. I bake cakes for my elderly neighbour. I walk the dog.

Does this sound boring? Oh, it's not. Between the cracks and gaps of the mundane, there's plenty of room for the magical to creep in and pounce. Sometimes there are signs and portents – golden fruit on a winter tree, a bright bird flying. Sometimes it comes as a complete surprise.

My old friend David has a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains near the US border (near enough, he tells me, to wave to the von Trapp family of The Sound of Music fame who settled in Vermont). My husband and son and I were there earlier this year, walking along David's unmade road to see if we could find the sugar shack further up along the ridge. To the left, the land swoops down to a valley. You can see farmhouses with smoke rising from their chimneys, a few red-painted barns and pasture sparsely populated by cows and horses. Here and there is a copse of trees; a line of greenery follows the stream. This landscape stretches all the way to the mountains, which, even in late spring, are still capped with snow.

To the right, there are the woods.

I'd learned the names of the trees; they are pine and spruce, larch and fir. Almost unwillingly, I allowed my eye to be drawn to them, in deeper and deeper, to where it was darkest, and an uncontrollable, whole-body shiver ran through me. 'A goose walking on your grave,' my father used to say. I think it's one of those sayings he made up. Nothing stirred. Fir and pine, spruce and larch were intensely still, as if breathless and waiting. I looked away, and at the road's edge I noticed a spray of early berries, three on a sprig, jewel-bright. I could feel the pulse in my temples. Then suddenly a sharp-beaked bird with red wings flew just above my shoulders, and disappeared, singing, through the aisles of trees.

I couldn't breathe. My heart hammered in my chest, quick but heavy. I couldn't quite believe it. It's here still, I thought. Even now.

This is the place of fairy tale.

Then my son caught up with me. He started telling me about the hockey playoffs:

'Is that like the ice hockey Grand Final?' I asked.

'Sort of. And you don't say "ice hockey"; you just say hockey…'

We walked on. I exhaled, my heart beat again as it should. The moment had passed.

THAT MOMENT STILL astonishes. I'm back at home in Australia, but I'm left with a residue of wonder and dread, an amazed feeling of recognition. I've always liked to think of myself as sensitive to my own landscape, to the spirit of place. And the dark woods, the bright berries, the flashing bird are emphatically not mine. The day before, wandering around the streets of old Montreal, I'd seen a sign above a door. In grey stone art deco lettering it read FAIRYLAND. It was silly; we all laughed and I took a photograph. Was it the power of suggestion?

Or was it a matter of racial memory or the collective unconscious? Though not European, these are northern woods, with northern trees and that sense of depth and dark as your eye travels into the aisles of trees. And forests loom large in folk and fairy tales.

Probably either of these explanations would fit, but my moment on the path feels too marvellous and too personal to be explained. I knew I had been there, and the recognition came from somewhere buried deep, from a long time ago. From my mother's stories; from the ur-text Grimm; from the beach and the winter dark in the bush coming down the hill. I felt it in my heart and lungs and skin, in my body, as you remember things from your earliest childhood. From before you had a stock of thoughts or words to speak them. It felt like memory.

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