THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION
I’ve often used moral parallels in my short stories, many completely bereft of visual horrors (“Like a Black Mirror for the page […] underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition,” as one reviewer said).
As I’ve floated from sci-fi and horror for a while to write my family history book, I’m finding interesting paths in the latter, in stories from the past. Even further back, stories were written which were later read to children in the times I’m researching, stories based on ancient myths and real monsters, which carried cautionary messages. And I read this article in The Guardian, which begins, “In these perilous times, progressives must create narratives that shine a light on crises such as climate change and the plight of refugee…”
Fairy stories appeal to our human instinct to fear, and somehow enjoy it, and it’s something stirred in an inquisitive child (I covered this in ‘The Long Now Clock’). In fairy tales, our inner, personal and existential fears, are packaged up into coping mechanisms, memorable stories we tell the children, about things we dare not trouble them with. For those telling the stories, when they were written, and as they are now re-told to children, the parallels, metaphors and analogies are easier to see. There’s a few in here…
Fairy-tale forest in Baydar Valley in Crimea
THE GIRL WITH THE SNAKE SCARF
Once upon a place, in a faraway time, there lived a warlock in a tower, afraid for his wife to leave. Across many ploughed fields, lay a castle, where a necromancer surveyed the crops, and his queen cared for him. The warlock could make new things happen. The necromancer made old things happen again.
The fields were like vast woven tapestries, and a girl stitched them together as she jumped and played, the bobbin in the silk.
One day, a serpent approached. “Why do you tend the fields?” he asked.
“For many reasons,” replied the bobbin.
“Tell me three,” said the snake.
“The first,” the girl said, “is to feed everyone.”
“And the second?” the snake wondered.
“The second, is to keep this land for feeding people.”
“You have one more,” the serpent reminded her.
“But most of all,” the girl said, “it’s because it’s fun.”
“Very well,” said the snake, “carry on.” Then he promptly disappeared into the night.
The bells of the warlock’s tower rang, while the necromancer’s banshees sang, on either side of the land, while horses and soldiers guarded the castle and the tower. The bobbin made her way home, through the woods, until the path in the green inferno split in two, where the snake waited.
“Which path?” he asked. “You have three choices.”
“Three?” asked the bobbin, “but there are only two paths.”
“And you have used one option. You have two remaining.”
“Why have I only two left?”
“Because that is the number of paths you see. You have spoken twice now.”
“Then,” the bobbin said, “I choose right, because I always do. Or left, because I’ve never gone that way.”
“And now,” said the serpent, “I am gone.” And with that, the snake disappeared into the undergrowth.
With all her choices gone, the bobbin walked home on the right path, then she ate porridge, made from the fields, before resting ahead of another day.
The next day, the fields were covered with petrified horses and soldiers, frozen where they’d perished. The snake appeared again.
“The warlock’s army want the necromancer to return their dead. And the necromancer’s army want the warlock to pay his army more gold. Can you see a problem? You have three tries at this game.”
The bobbin thought.
“There are two problems which are one,” she said. “The necromancer and the warlock. They want what the other has, and they don’t ask their armies what they want. So everyone dies.”
“That is very clever,” said the snake, “and you used your three tries in one. You win. But no-one has won. So you need to go now, before the fighting starts again. Let me ask you a question, to ponder as you sleep: If you were to plant one grain of rice in the corner field of this vast pasture, then two in the next, four in the third and so on, doubling with each square. How many rice plants would you have in the 64th field?”
The bobbin walked home thinking, down the left path, and the snake hung from a branch. “You chose the left path,” he said. “Let me ask you another question: Does the right path still exist, because you can’t see it?”
On the third day, the bobbin had to jump over many lifeless souls to reach the middle of the land. There, only nine fields remained, and a battle had already started. In some pastures, the warlock’s troops stood in circles, chanting. And in others, the necromancer’s army burned crosses.
The serpent greeted her again. “May I speak closely, in your ear?” The bobbin nodded, so the snake rested around her shoulders, then whispered, “You may speak three times today. Did you work out the rice problem?”
“Yes,” she said, “there would be enough to feed everyone.”
“And the problem now?”
“They were only fighting over land, and there was enough for everyone. Now both are dead. Now there are only nine fields. The long game has become a short one, which no-one can win.”
“So now,” the snake said, “you know there’s another way, and you have to tell them.”
“But why would they believe me?”
“They won’t now, because you just spoke for the third time.” The bobbin had used her three chances. “You didn’t think enough before you spoke, you spoke too soon, and now you can’t.” The serpent coiled around her neck. “If you were able to, you could have gone to the centre field, the middle earth. You could have formed a shield. They wouldn’t kill an innocent bobbin. So they would have approached you, and you’d have told them they are playing a game which can’t be won now. And they would have listened, because yours would be a new voice to them, one they’ve not heard before. And now, they won’t hear that voice today. Tomorrow, it could all be over. You lose.” The snake tightened his grip.
The girl felt light-headed, so she stumbled down into the middle earth, and the serpent loosened his grip. She stood in the centre of the stand-off, and the snake moved up, wrapping around her head like a crown. The troops gathered around the central square.
The girl pointed at the warlock’s soldiers, and the snake looked at the necromancer’s castle. Then the girl pointed at his troops, and the serpent looked to the warlock’s tower. Each side returned to the other’s, where they’d never been before, and where they liberated the queens from the kings.
They could all live happily for a while, as the girl with the snake scarf departed for the woods.
At the fork in the path, the serpent climbed down. “Choose your path,” he said, before disappearing into the undergrowth.
The girl looked at the left and right paths, then she followed the snake, through the bushes. And there was a third path, hidden behind the leaves. One she’d not seen before, because she didn’t think it was there.
The snake climbed around her neck again and they walked home together. And once upon a time in the future, in a place not far away, this will happen more than once.
© Steve Laker, 2017.