Chasing the Dragon

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I am taking a creative writing course. Every day, we have to write (madly, furiously) for 15 minutes, in the hope of cementing a daily habit. Our very first writing prompt was to talk about the first story we remembered hearing. I didn’t write about the first story, but I wrote about the most memorable one and, as I wrote, I realized something about my addiction to stories…

The best story I ever heard in my life was told, over the course of a winter, to me and my sister Erin. When we were growing up, my parents rented out the back part of our house to friends, so we always had extra adults around. It was wonderful. When Duffie and Debbie lived with us, we would go next door what seemed like every evening to listen to a story that Duffie would make up on the spot. The upper floor of their apartment was a big room. It had wide, wide plank floors and a peaked ceiling. It’s still a big room, but in my memory, it is cavernous – an entire world.

The story came with a map. Duffie drew it, a little bit at a time, on a plain, white piece of paper. It was an adventure story, a cross between Hansel and Gretel and The Hobbit, only I’m pretty sure that we (Erin and I) were the adventurers. There were bridges, forests, ogres, secret codes, and hidden passageways. When we had adventured all over one side of the page we crossed over to the other side, discovering new worlds as Duffie narrated and drew them. Sometimes we would double back. The story would make us return to places we had been before, and things would have changed. We were children, journeying through a strange world, but we had a guide in Duffie, who seemed to know the terrain and seemed never to run out of story.

One night, on my birthday, we were invited over to Duffie and Debbie’s for supper AND stories. They didn’t have much of a kitchen, as I remember. They sometimes ate with us, but this night, Debbie made pancakes over a portable stove. The pancakes were small, fairy sized, and served with jam.

It’s funny that it never occurred to us that they wouldn’t want us there every night. Here was a couple in their late twenties and every night their bed was invaded by children not his own. Well, even if they didn’t want us there, the story took over. Duffie knew it and so did we.

Eventually, the story ended, as I suppose all stories must do. The map was full of drawings — roads, trees, bridges, inns, and caves that we had crossed and recrossed. The paper was pocked and hammered from being held in eager fingers, but the lines were crisp and unstained.

When the story ended, it must have been a logical ending, because we didn’t feel cheated or anything. We all know a good ending when we hear it. But it was a crushing disappointment to know that that story was over. Worse still, it was an oral tale, told over an entire winter. The moment it ended it was as though all that was left was our memories — ephemeral childhood ones that we knew we had already begun the process of forgetting. Duffie had brought us through our quest intact and stronger — the goal of any good adventure story. He had left us with a longing for an experience we could never quite recapture but would continue hunting.

The map remained, of course. I remember sitting in the bed, amongst the crumpled sheets, and trying to commit it to memory —  the stories, the adventures, the places Erin and I had actually been, or so it seemed.

The next night we begged Duffie to let us return to that world but, as I recall, he refused. His next story was about a donkey. I felt a sickening feeling wash over me when I realized it would never be as good. The story was gone. In its place was a craving (an addiction?) for stories.

I still know it when I encounter it. You know it, too. The story that you don’t want to end. The story that your eyes race through to find out what happens, but where the language still sparkles and makes you look up from the page with wonder. That. And the books that you finish and start again, because you can’t bear to be outside that world. Sometimes you chase down stories by the same author but they’re never the same. I’m sure they knew it too, as they were writing. This. This is magic. I’ll be lucky if I can ever do this again.

Baby Book Club: 123

Alison Jay’s 123 is a marvel. It’s a counting book, yes, but the illustrations are magical. The more Owen grows the more he can seek and find the numbered treasures lurking on every page.

The story is framed as a dream, beginning with “one little girl sleeping” and ending with the same little girl waking. In between, we count up to ten and back again as the girl dreams of her involvement in familiar fairy tales (“three little pigs”; “four frog princes”; “seven marching dwarfs”). Images from the little girl’s room recur as well – a piggy bank on her windowsill becomes the three little pigs, her stuffed goose toy an avenue into adventure (“two soaring wings”) as well as the goose who lays “nine golden eggs.” Owen was on a goose kick for a while and at that point the story was not about counting but about “goose! goose! goose! no goose [shrug], no goose [shrug], goose!”

In every image, in addition to the main item to count (four royal mattresses), there are several other objects and animals in the same multiple (four deer on a tapestry, four cushions, a four poster bed). These are rich drawings, full of detail and imagination. The girl’s dream is also a journey through these fairytales, which Jay links geographically in the dream landscape. Before we turn the page to the three little pigs, we can see the big bad wolf peeking in their window in the distance. We see a sign to Hamelin Town before we encounter the pied piper and his “eight running rats.”

The journey aspect of the book reminds me of a story told to my sister and me by our live-in neighbour Duffie, when we were small. Duffie and Debbie lived in an apartment attached to our house and since they were good friends of my parents, they parented us a little as well. Duffie was (and likely still is) a phenomenal storyteller. For one tale in particular, Erin and I would rush into his apartment before bedtime and he would pull out the map (that he expanded as the story grew). I can’t remember the details of the story at all, but I do remember the anticipation every night to hear another installment. It was a Tolkienesque story with cottages, trees, mountains, bridges, and strange creatures. Erin and I were adventurers through that world. When the narrative ended (as all stories must), I was deeply saddened, and though Duffie told us others, none took on the weight of memory as that one, in which our adventures spread across a blank sheet of paper.

I wish I still had that map.