Essay

Strung with contour lines

‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.

‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’tbelieve impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

 – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

 

IN AN OLD fairy tale from the Uttar Pradesh region of India, the Rajah proclaims that his daughter will marry the man who can weave a rope of ash. In a fairy tale from Cameroon in West Africa, the king commands his daughter to marry the man or beast who can sew a crown of smoke.

A rope of ash or a crown of smoke: impossible objects, ethereal and insubstantial. Yet a rope of ash is merely a rope of hemp burnt to cinders, as the wise mother of the daughter’s future husband knows, and a crown of smoke is, well, a crown that will fare less well on a king’s head than a crown of gold or silver, as the wise tortoise makes it known.

Today, many tasks that were once impossible are routine. A four-minute mile was once a whimsical aspiration; the moon a muse not a destination. If birds do not chirp merrily while we do our household chores, as they did for Cinderella, our phones and tablets beep day and night while we do the tweeting. So what is the role of the impossible to a modern reader of these age-old tales? What do these elaborate tests, these exaggerated trials, mean for young people who no longer believein the impossible?

I am not so young as to claim to speak for the young people of Australia. I cannot claim to speak for Australians at all, since I can count the years since my arrival in this country: exactly seven, that fairy tale number of dwarves, brides and brothers.

But I do know something about the impossible. The impossible for me was imagining life without the stories that underpinned my sense of self as I grew up in rural England. Geography was defined by the stories that built our village. They offered me a fairy tale compass to navigate my childish imagination. Down my road and across from the church was the herringbone cottage where an adulterous wife had poisoned her husband and two sons by baking arsenic in a pie. To the east and over the fields was the market town in which, legend had it, a black and gold basilisk with the head of a rooster and the wings of a bat used to lie in wait for unwary passers-by. To the south and past the old windmill were the stables in which a bad-tempered brownie had helped young Jack groom the horses until Jack’s curiosity had sent this midnight helper scurrying into the night.

Coming to Australia meant leaving this cushion of fairy tales behind and falling painfully onto the hard and naked ground. The cushion may have been ethereal and insubstantial, a mere rope of ash or crown of smoke, but it underpinned my understanding of where I belonged.

I will not speak of Australia as an empty land – a damaging misconception – but of my intangible sense of unease when confronted by such a vast and beautiful space, with no understanding its topography. I wanted to know the tales hiding beneath each grain of sand, murmuring in each lap of wave. I wanted to know the myths and histories that underpinned its rugged geography. I thought often of Atha Westbury’s anguished exclamation: ‘AUSTRALIA! Hast thou no enchanted castles within thy vast domain? Is there not one gallant youth, ready armed to do battle for the fair ones, sleeping ’neath the spell of wicked genii?’ – a cry that Westbury met by inventing his own Australian fairies, brownies and the like and supplanting them from the quaint European forests to the wilder Australian bush.

I knew that to impose my own stories would be futile. There was no space for my wicked poisoning wife, my ferocious basilisk or my bad-tempered brownie in this land of sun and sea. So I had a test ahead of me, a trial to which many migrants might give no more than a passing thought, but to me felt like an impossible task.

 

THERE IS AN old Korean fairy tale about a boy called Dong Chin who likes to keep the stories he is told and refuses to share them. He listens closely as the tales are told and then closes his bedroom door behind him, leaving the story spirits to hover around his bed as the seasons turn and the boy grows into a man. On the eve of Dong Chin’s wedding, a faithful servant overhears the story spirits plotting revenge against the man who has kept them prisoner. One is a story of poisoned fruit, another of poisoned drink, a third of red-hot iron, and a fourth of a snake’s fatal bite. The stories plan to position themselves along the route of the wedding procession so that they may harm Dong Chin as he passes. The horrified servant, wishing to protect his young master, manipulates his way to the front of the bridal party, making excuse after excuse for why the groom may not eat, may not drink, may not step on the bag of chaff under which the red-hot poker lies, or lay his head on the pillow under which the deadly serpent waits. When the king can take the old servant’s impertinent behaviour no longer, the stories’ dreadful plots are revealed and the old man is rewarded for saving Dong Chin’s life.

The moral of the tale is that stories must be shared, that tales must be passed from mouth to ear, and that stories may turn wicked if forbidden to run free.

Can one be poisoned by a wicked story? Burnt or bitten by a vengeful tale? I thought about this as I began my life in Australia, as I contemplated my impossible task. At the back of my mind was the ridiculous fear that the stories of my childhood village might similarly turn vengeful now that I had forsaken them for new ones. And what of Australia’s stories? Did they want to be shared? A country’s living, dreaming imagination is a concept about which Australia’s First Peoples know so much and speak so eloquently, but what was I to make of it: an average British migrant, unsure about where she belonged? I felt like a would-be explorer, armed not with a fleet of imperial ambitions, but with my fairy tale compass and reading glasses. I envisaged stories, buried like fossils below the dusty ground. I knew that the desire to dig for hidden treasures is a dangerous impulse. Too often it has led to imposition and appropriation: the taking of others’ narratives to style them as one’s own. But, to navigate the landscape via those tea-stained corners where the dragons of old might lurk? That, surely, would be a worthwhile task. And perhaps a possible one.

In those early years of my life in Australia, a fairy tale from the Kannada-speaking part of south-west India kept coming back to me. It too tells of jealous stories and a desire for revenge against those who try to stifle them. In this tale, a housewife knows a story and a song but never speaks or sings them to anyone. The story and the song become suffocated within her and escape one night while she sleeps, her mouth agape. One takes the form of a pair of man’s shoes, the other a man’s coat. Tidily, they place themselves on pegs and a shoe rack beside the door. When the husband returns home, he sees these garments at the door and demands an explanation. Unable to give one, the poor wife can only watch as her husband flies into a rage and slams the door, trudging off into the night to sleep beneath the monkey god’s temple. But luck is on the woman’s side. The lamp flame that had merrily lit the room in which the couple argued travels to the monkey god’s temple to tell his friends, the other lamp flames, what had occurred. The husband, lying beneath the gossiping lamps, hears how the story and the song had become a pair of shoes and a coat beside the door. His suspicions assuaged, he walks back home at dawn and asks his wife to tell him the story and sing him the song. But, in the way of all things magical, the power of naming has whisked them away and she can only respond: ‘What story? What song?’

I always felt sorry for the wife whose presumed infidelity casts a pall over the story’s close. Her crime, I suppose, was to keep the story and the song to herself, yet was it because she wished to guard them or was it simply because she loved them too much? To be left with nothing, not even a memory of having held the story and the song close to her heart – there is something truly tragic in that. One must grieve for something one cannot quite recall, feel an absence for something one never really knew was missing. I wondered whether this sense of loss was felt by those who disbelieve in the impossible: an absence of those older metanarratives, those ancient tales that embed us in our landscapes. Like a phantom itch in a limb long lost: a sense of unease that our foundations are shaky, that our connections with our ‘once upon a times’ are as liable to unravel as a rope of ash or a crown of smoke. It is tempting to hoard these stories and keep them to ourselves, to hide them in secret places like Dong Chin or bury them inside us like the wife of the Indian tale. It is a way of warding against the threat of loss, shoring oneself up against a more embedded existential fear of losing one’s rootedness to the place we call home.

The Ashanti people of West Africa tell the tale of Ananse and the sky god, Nyame, who keeps the world’s stories locked away in a golden box in the heavens. Ananse the man-spider, deeming this selfish, undertakes the impossible task of freeing the stories from the sky god’s box and sharing them amongst the people on Earth. Unperturbed by the recounts of princes and chiefs who have already forfeited their lives to the task, Ananse agrees the price of the wager: four of the most dangerous and elusive creatures of the jungle – the python, the leopard, the hornet and the bad-tempered fairy who is invisible to the human eye. Sliding down his web from the sky, Anansi wracks his brain for a way to achieve his task. Luckily his wife, Aso, has more wits than the hapless wife in the Indian tale. She devises a plan to trick the python into measuring himself against a long stick, to which Ananse quickly ties him. The leopard is caught with the aid of a concealed pit and Ananse’s strong and sticky web to reel him out. The hornets with their deadly stings are misled into thinking the rains have come and are trapped within the empty gourd in which they take shelter. And the invisible fairy, so enraged by the apparent rudeness of a hand-made doll, slaps and kicks the creature until she is stuck fast to the gum with which Ananse has coated her. Dragging his haul up his long spider rope to the heavens, Ananse presents the prisoners to Nyame with a sly and triumphant smile. The sky god has no choice but to hand the story box to Ananse who carries it back to earth, opening it up when he reaches the ground so that each and every story in the world can fly out and spread its joy across the earth.

 

ANANSE ACHIEVED HIS elaborate test, his exaggerated trial, although many men had failed before him. I wondered, as the years rolled on and I settled into life in Australia, if it was not rightto disbelieve in the impossible, to have confidence that every impossible task could be achieved. With my fledgling map laid out before me, I set about learning Australia’s stories, or at least a few – those discovered by my fairy tale compass, now south-facing, rather than north. Each story gave me a tiny glimpse into Australia’s living imagination. Stories of laughing kookaburras, thirsty toads, boxing kangaroos, dancing brolgas. Tales of gumnut babies, magic puddings, bushrangers, convicts and lost children. Stories based on qualities that I was beginning to recognise in the people around me: camaraderie, sportsmanship, resilience, openness. These stories became landmarks on my internal map, strung with contour lines of my own imagining. Having grown up in countryside surrounded by woods and fields but far away from the sea, it was a revelation to see how Australia’s stories were rooted both in the hard rock of earth and the fluid ocean wave. It gave them a sense of timelessness and contemplation that I had seen in other tales from island nations, those of the Pacific and the Caribbean especially. Gradually, I began to navigate my way around Australia’s vast geography. And with each story, I became more comfortable in this land I had made my home.

Now, in my seventh year in Australia, the cushion of fairy tales that had protected me from life’s rougher edges has begun to re-weave itself beneath me. What had once been impossible is proving not to be so. Perhaps I am simply growing up, learning that human beings are infinitely adaptable to life’s changing possibilities. Fairy tales can be mischievous, devious, life-saving, as anyone who has read the Arabian Nights knows. They exist to help us negotiate those elaborate tests, those exaggerated trials, that life often seems to throw at us. As the Queen tells Alice, believing in the impossible is just a matter of practice. Looking back over my seven years in Australia, she may well have a point.

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