by Tim Hereid
Charred by Nam Nguyen
Once upon a time…
…a knife developed a personality and decided it didn’t want to cut things for a living but wanted instead to play the violin—with hilarious results.
Once upon a time, children were born knowing the day their parents would die and spent their whole lives preparing for it.
Once upon a time, a writer sat down to write a short story but ended up writing an essay instead.
We believe we’ve heard all the stories there are, but it always turns out we are wrong.
There are only seven stories in the world. There are only three. There is only one, and we keep telling it over and over, getting new shiny tools to tell it. After all, cave dwellers jawing over a fire didn’t have songs, and itinerant bards didn’t have novels, and novelists didn’t have stage actors, and theater directors didn’t have digital video cameras, and movie makers don’t have whatever is next.
Not everything is a story. A series of events is not a story. The queen died and the king died is not a story. The queen died then rose from the grave to haunt the king because he’d cheated on her with a hot baroness who, in a pact with the baron, later beat the king to death with his own scepter…is a story. A story can be complex or simple, but either way, a story has a journey. Up and then down. Side to Side. That’s a story.
A person’s life by itself is not a story: Rosalind Franklin was born to a prominent family in 1920. She became a scientist. She died of cancer at the age of thirty-eight.
Yet, like raw stone can become rippling gossamer under a sculptor’s chisel, a life can become story: Rosalind Franklin was a rare mind. She made discoveries in chemistry, geology, epidemiology and biology, including the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, but her work crumpled under the patriarchy of academia. She worked while in treatment for ovarian cancer, publishing twelve papers in her final years, even while bedridden. Last year, the Rosalind Franklin Institute opened in Oxfordshire, funded by tens of millions of dollars from a dozen universities, staffed with brilliant scientists, and dedicated to transforming the life sciences.
Still, not every story is a good one. Stories that cheat die anonymous deaths. Readers resent a story about a chicken who can’t cross the road, though it tries a thousand different ways, but discovers it can fly all at once on the final page of the book. Chickens can’t fly, first of all, and, more importantly, there’s a thing called foreshadowing and that bird didn’t so much as rustle a feather until page 387.
Of course, stories that do deliver on their promises are just as fraught. No one really wants the brave knight to rescue the helpless princess. Not again, anyway.
“What ho, fair maiden? It is I, Borin Brumblecanker, knight of the Seven Kingdoms, here to rescue you from the dastardly tyranny of your ogre captor!”
“Ogre cap—oh that monster? I ran him off like three weeks ago.”
“He got snippy about the way I cook the rabbits.”
“He. Didn’t. Like. The. Way. I. Cook. The. Rabbits. Are you stupid or something?”
“No. I—of course not. By the way, how do you cook—it is no matter. Perchance you will allow me to, uh, escort fair maiden home?”
“Home? So my dumb parents can set me back to sewing and flute lessons and the laundry? No, thank you.”
“But surely—wait, what are you doing with that crossbow?”
“Like I said, I hunt rabbits.”
“You said you cook rabbits.”
“I hunt them, too. Now stand still little rabbit.”
A story is a thing that happened, but not quite that way. A story is a lie that tells the truth put to the music of prose. A story taps the tender andthe hardened parts of our hearts and minds, sets us to humming, leaves us gasping, chortling, cringing or reflecting.
Once upon a time there was an essay that set out to do something, and maybe it did. Once upon a time, someone read it and thought “hey, that’s not too bad.” Once upon a time one person’s words reached another, and they never met and still they were both touched by the experience.
Tim Hereid is a daily writer and the grateful teacher of hardworking college-bound students far smarter than he is. He’s afraid of snapping turtles, once had coffee with a sitting American president, tears up when he sees cute babies and can perform minor gymnastic feats upon command. He writes on a lawn chair at an Ikea desk (blonde veneer, of course) and lives in Minneapolis.
Nam Nguyen is a multimedia artist who explores the unexplored.