Traditions in Eydenbard

A selection from The Story of Shaw…

The story-tellers of the island of Eydenbard were known the world over. For as long as anyone could remember there had always been ten and they had always lived in the opulent house at the far end of the north valley. Why this was so, was anyone’s guess. (That story had been told and forgotten long ago.) But then, nobody could remember a lot of things about Eydenbard. Like why they held the winter festival every spring, why the girls all wore juniper blossoms in their hair on the first day of school, or why the boys always tried to steal those same blossoms just so they could take them home and feed them to the family fires at night. (Lance Byrd once claimed they burned them for the smell, while his brother Ethan often argued that anything stolen from a woman, even a young woman, must be destroyed before she found a way to get it back.)

Eydenbard’s culture was dense, complicated, and founded on a collection of manners and common practices that had slowly evolved and taken on new meanings over the years. Traditions were formed and adhered to it”s true, but they were not so rigid as one might think. They were also built upon, added to, and at times, even transformed.

For example, the men of Eydenbard had always worn hats when walking into town on Sundays while the woman wore scarfs, wrapped tight and close against their heads. Then, four or five winters ago when it was especially cold and Gillian Felton was shivering in her translucent blue scarf (that was beautiful yes, but like so many beautiful things completely useless) Eric Sheffield removed his hat, a hat that had been in his family for centuries, and without thinking about the places his hat had been (the Permidian Mountains, the Sea of Lustria, the dark caverns of his Aunt Hester’s ancient basement) or the heads it had covered (his father’s, his grandfather’s, his grandfather’s father’s) he placed its soft woolen fur carefully over Gillian’s head and warmed both her ears and her heart forever.

Naturally, the people of Eydenbard instantly adored the gesture and it was just two Sundays later that Henry Ossian gave his hat to Meridith Brooks, five Sundays before Victor Holland had timidly offered his to Julian Welton, and seven Sundays when Fiona Berrington had screamed with glee as she felt the worn, weathered touch of the Stewart family’s ancient brown duster descend slowly and reverently over her head. (Poor Daniel Stewart had been trying to tell her his feelings for years, but could never quite manage until then.)

It wasn’t long after that when the Martin’s store received an usually large number of requests for translucent scarfs of all different colors and sizes. (Apparently beautiful things had their uses after all.) Shimmering and shivering young heads, barely bathed in hints of greens and purples, oranges as faint as the dawn, pinks as light as the merest suggestion of a blush, and saffrons barely discernible on a sea of dark brown curls could be seen flooding into town every Sunday and covering the square in a swath of trembling loveliness. As a result, certain young men of a somewhat independent nature were spotted rushing into the local stores, clutching their hats with tight scared fists. A few unfortunate girls had suffered terrible frostbite while others, who couldn’t quite bring themselves to suffer the unbearable chill of an Eydenbard winter, even if the promise of eternal love and warmth was not far behind, found themselves protected from the cold but sheltered from just about everything else. (The fathers of such daughters did not mind so much, but more than a few mothers had something to say about it.) And then there were the rebellious ones—like Keri Morgan, who had taken to wearing scarfs of the thickest fur, dark and deep and impenetrable. Jason Elwin, who showed up with a new old hat just about every week. And Wallace Ayers who had asked a lovely yet confused Quin Jacobsen if she would please be so kind as to give him her scarf. (She had denied him at the time, but had wondered for years after how things might have been different for them both had she handed it over.)

Over the course of a mere year and a half, the custom had morphed into a series of actions and reactions more complex and varied than the first simple offer could ever have dreamed of suggesting. Aided by new ideas, manipulations, creative impulses, and the subtle machinations of time itself, the wearing of a cold beautiful scarf and the giving of a warm old hat had become such a part of the Eydenbard culture that if it wasn’t for Eric’s constant reminders it would be hard to remember a time when people told each other of their love in any other way.

Every spring at the winter festival eligible men would wear their hats far back on their foreheads to signify their availability. Girls below the age of sixteen were discouraged from wearing any scarf that was not completely solid. And Briana Sutherland was looked upon with both horror and awe when she had walked into town one frigid Sunday with no scarf at all—her bare head held high, her ears growing red and swollen with each determined step—as she refused every offered hat until she stood in front of a bewildered Zane Fredrick and smiled her invitation.

Oddly enough, it was their wedding that had been the first to feature the now-favorite translucent-scarf dance. And it was Zane’s brother Jacob that had written the song, The Dark Girl with the Light Scarf, in an effort to coax Paige Ansel into something more substantial than friendship. (Unfortunately, the next Sunday she showed up wearing Ranolf Eldin’s hat and poor Jacob hadn’t written of anything but dark-haired girls ever since.)

Well, that and the monsters…

The first time Bethany escaped through a piece of art she didn’t know what she was doing, let alone where she was going. Everyone knows that art has the ability to take you to another place, but very few people know that this is literal. The truth is that art is one of the world’s earliest forms of transportation. In some cultures you even have to buy passes like you do for the bus. Sometimes there is a fare like the one you pay for a taxi. Other times you have to barter. (I know of at least three people who’ve traded the shoes on their feet to walk through a Van Gogh.) We’re lucky because in our world art-transportation is free. That’s why they keep it a secret.

Well, that and the monsters.

The Tallest Man on Earth

The tallest man on earth could see everything. He sat on mountains to get his rest and watched the oceans for a good time. Sometimes when he was feeling down (which was hard for a man as tall as he) he would lay himself out in the desert and let the sand flow over his skin until he grew warm and soft, and then he’d drift off to sleep. When he woke up he brushed the sand from his lashes, picked the grains out of his ears, and stood to stretch. Every time the tallest man on earth stretched the sky grew higher to get out of his way and the world got just a little bit bigger.

Other times, when he was feeling well, the tallest man on earth would pick the smallest people around (who were usually children) and take them wherever they wanted to go. The children usually picked high places like mountains, the tops of trees, or the middle of a cloud. But some would pick far away places like the middle of the ocean, the deepest parts of the rainforest, or the silent white of the Arctic tundra. The tallest man on earth had legs so long they could take you wherever you wanted to go. He could walk around the world in 15 minutes. Sometimes, if he wanted the company, he would take you with him.

Once, I met a girl who went around the world with the tallest man on earth. She told me it was like flying only safe. And later, when it was over, and the tallest man on earth put her back down on the ground where he had found her, it was like falling only safe. The girl, who was a woman when I met her, couldn’t say which part she had loved best–the flying or the falling–but she did say that she loved being completely fearless for 15 minutes and that she would always love the tallest man on earth.

A few years after I talked to the woman who was once a girl, the tallest man on earth disappeared. People wondered where he could have gone. Afterall, where would a man of his height have to go? Most think he’s dead or in a really deep sleep. Others think he found a place to hide even though they’ve already checked the bottoms of all the oceans. Some even think he may have shrunk. But I know better. I’ve seen the world getting bigger so I know he’s still around.

Like most, I wish I could see him again. I’d like to ask him why he’s so sad and I’d like to introduce him to the woman who was once a girl. I think he’d like that. He wouldn’t love her or anything, and they wouldn’t go around the world again, but they could watch the oceans together and have a good time.

Wannabe, continued…

Part 1

“Why do you wanna be a fish anyway,” I asked her on the way home.

We both lived on Greenwood Avenue which was only half a mile from school if you cut through the west soccer field. Fiona’s house was at the top of the street near the dead end and mine was at the bottom corner, right where the bus-stop that nobody used was.

Even though no one was waiting, the bus still stopped there every day. Maybe the bus driver felt like someone might show up, but I always thought it was kind of stupid the way he stopped for a bunch of kids that weren’t there and were never gonna be. Fiona used to say he was stopping for ghosts. She told this big story about a girl named Katie who had died on our block because somebody came into her room and slit her throat. Fiona said the bus-driver and Katie were friends so he still stopped out of respect. And I guess that kind of made sense. Or it would have if it wasn’t a total lie.

“I want to be a fish because they’re different,” she said.

She wasn’t making the face anymore but she was still walking all weird–swaying and moving her arms like she was pushing the imaginary water out of her way.

“They even breathe different. It’s all backwards.”

She craned her neck out and pointed at the black lines she had drawn there.

“See?”

They didn’t look like gills because they were straight, not curved. They didn’t look like anything really, just lines. And they were still really bright. They didn’t smear or fade at all even though she had been pouring water over them all day. The pens must have been really good.

“And these are my fins,” she went on, holding out her hands. “When I swim they cut through the water like knives.”

“I have a knife.”

I took it out of my pocket to show her even though she’d seen it before.

“Your knife can’t do what my fins can do.”

“Your fins can’t do what my knife can do.”

I could do a lot with my knife. I was really good at making pointed sticks, and once I even cut an extra notch in a leather belt my mom gave me that was too big.

“My fins help me glide and turn.”

“My knife helps me carve and stab.”

“And file your nails.”

Fiona knew I had never used that knife to stab at anything other than maybe my own thumb. Mostly I liked to take it out and play with the different blades and tools. Other than the knife it had a toothpick, tweezers, a corkscrew, a pair of scissors, and the nail file. When my dad gave it to me all he said was that it was time. It was time. Like I was going to go out into the non-existent wilderness at the top of our street and skin a bear with the nail file.

“Bet your fins can’t file like my knife.”

“They can’t,” she said.

She leaned in close to my face so she could whisper in my ear.

“But I don’t have fingers so it doesn’t matter.”

Before Fiona was a wannabe fish she was a lot of other wannabe things. She was a wannabe private detective, a wannabe bird, a wannabe ghost, a wannabe secret, and a wannabe cloud. One time she was wannabe sun. Another time a wannabe monster. She spent a day as a wannabe spider and almost whole month as a wannabe salesman. You never knew what Fiona was going to wannabe next. It was always different.

When she was a wannabe secret she went around saying nobody could see her, and she didn’t let me say her name out loud. She said I had to think it. And she wouldn’t eat lunch with me for almost three weeks. She said she had to keep to herself. We still walked home together but the only thing she would talk about was what it meant to be a secret.

“Nobody knows me now,” she said. “Not even you.”

She hid in the bushes and walked in the trees next to the sidewalk. When I looked up to find her she yelled at me.

“You can’t see me, so don’t look at me anymore!”

I didn’t like it when Fiona was a wannabe secret but some of the other things weren’t so bad. When she was wannabe sun all she did was smile all the time. She didn’t say anything, she just smiled. Really big and exaggerated. I was the only one that knew that she was supposed to be sun. Everyone else just thought she was nuts. If someone said something about it, Fiona just smiled wider and you couldn’t help but laugh because she looked so weird. Even Jessica Butler thought it was funny–real funny not mean funny. And Jessica Butler was like the girl-version of Jay and Eric so that meant something.

My favorite wannabe was probably when Fiona was a wannabe private detective. She didn’t solve any mysteries but the two of us did sneak into almost every classroom at school. We’d skip lunch and hide behind the lockers by the art room where Mrs. Simon, who was always on lunch duty, almost never checked. Then we’d go find out who wasn’t in their room and have a look around.

Most of what we found was boring. By the end of the week, we knew just about everyone’s grades and about all the junk teachers kept in their desks. I remember Mr. Raleigh’s desk had an old moldy lunch in it that made Fiona gag so loud that I swore we were going to get caught. There were other things too though. We found lots of notes—notes teachers had confiscated from students, notes teachers had written other teachers, notes teachers had written themselves about students, or sometimes notes we couldn’t tell anything about.

We found out that Mr. Matthews was looking for other jobs, that Ms. Thomas was writing a book about people falling in love, and that Derek Meyers really wasn’t an idiot like everyone thought he was.

We found a lot of things we probably weren’t supposed to find, that were probably pretty big secrets, but it didn’t matter. When secrets aren’t about you, it’s pretty hard to figure out what they mean. Most of the time we’d find something and we really wouldn’t know what it was we were looking at. It’s not like if we told someone it’d even make sense.

Like this one time, we found a box in Mrs. Goldman’s desk that was filled with old pictures, all of the same person. And we knew it was something important but we didn’t know why. Sometimes we would open a drawer or pick something up and we could just feel it.

When Fiona took out the first picture, it was of a young girl about our age, smiling next to a bike.

“I think we found something,” Fiona had said real quiet, so I almost couldn’t hear.

I grabbed the picture while she started pulling out the others. They were all of the same girl. The girl at the beach. The girl at a desk. The girl smiling with a dog. The girl bent over a book, sitting under a tree.

“She’s always alone,” said Fiona. “Why is she always alone?”

Another time we found a bunch of pills in Mr. Andrews desk. Then we found a shriveled up rose in the cupboard in back of Mrs. Ford’s room. And then there was the piece of paper, pushed way to the back of Mrs. McKensie’s desk, that had the name Alison written all over it. Alison, Alison, Alison, Alison, Alison it said. All over the paper. Over and over again. Alison, Alison, Alison, Alison.

We didn’t know what that meant. We never did figure it out. Same with the pictures of the lonely girl and the pills. We never solved any mysteries, but we never really tried. We were only wannabe private detectives, not the real thing.

How could one navigate in an unnarrated world?

One could learn about life from literature–one could learn to spot a confidence man–but only if one woke up from the smug, dreamlike superiority of the reader, which blinded one to the actual slippery manifestations of vice and dishonesty in the shadowy world of reality. In the novel, at least in the reassuring nineteeth-century novel, one was always privy to everyone’s well-lit motives and alerted to even the first sign of corruption. But in life–how could one navigate in an unnarrated world? Of course I was always narrating my life to myself (idea for novel), but unfortunately I had no access to the private thoughts of the other characters around me. Even my own mind was too prolific to be comprehensible. It was certainly true that I was fashioning the book of my life at all times, trying out sentences, sketching out plot lines, hoarding impressions, restaging the scenes I’d just live through. I’d already written and typed two novels in boarding school, one about me and the other about my mother or some more driven version of my mother to whom I attributed my own sexual obsessions. At every moment I convinced myself that I was gathering material for the novel of my life–all experienced from the philosophical distance of the author. Even these humiliating occasions when I was robbed could be used as material. Life was a field trip. My writing would turn all this evil into flowers.

– Edmund White,  My Hustlers

Wannabe

Fiona liked to call herself a wannabe. A wannabe artist, a wannabe actress, a wannabe detective and a wannabe guitar player. “I wannabe everything,” she said. And she meant it too.

Once, when we were in the seventh grade, she wanted to be a fish. She used one of the permanent markers they kept in the back of the closet in the art room and drew three lines on each side of her face, right where her neck met her chin. All day long she walked through the halls like a complete freak. She sort of glided while sliding her feet and swaying from side to side. I wouldn’t even call it walking. But Fiona didn’t either. She said she was swimming. She also stuck her head in the drinking fountain and let the water run over the side of her neck where she had drawn her gills.

“What are you doing?” I asked. We were in the middle of C hall and everyone was already staring.

“Breathing.”

“Breathing?”

Water spilled down her chin and the top of her shirt was getting soaked.

“I’m getting oxygen from the water.”

“Right.”

She straightened up, and wiped the water off her chin with the back of her arm.

“I’ve been holding my breath all day.”

When we got to math, Mrs. Howard asked Fiona why her shirt was all wet. Fiona looked down like she was surprised. Like she didn’t even notice her shirt was sticking to her chest.

“I’m always wet,” she said.

In the back of the room Jay Wagner and Eric Moor started laughing. I hoped Mrs. Howard didn’t say anything because then it meant she knew what they were laughing at. And if she knew then everyone could know, and then everyone else had to make the choice whether to laugh or not to laugh. Except me. I didn’t have a choice. Everyone already knew what I’d have to do.

“Aren’t you cold?” Mrs. Howard asked Fiona.

She didn’t even look at Jay and Eric.

“No.”

“Okay, then.”

And that was all she said about it. After that, she just turned back to her desk and asked the rest of the class to get out last night’s homework. Then she turned around, pushed her glasses back on her nose, and looked straight at me.

“Lucas.”

“Yes.”

My seat felt small. Or like the cheap blue plastic had become twisted somehow and now it didn’t fit the desk right.

“What did you get for number one?”

This is why I didn’t like Mrs. Howard. She was one of those teachers who always called on you even though she knew you didn’t know the answer. I hated it when teachers did this. It’s like they thought being embarrassed would somehow inspire you to find the right answer when really, if you knew the right answer, you’d say it right away. You’d already have it and you’d tell everyone so you wouldn’t have to be embarrassed.

“X = 10,” I said.

Mrs. Howard grabbed a piece of chalk from the ledge at the bottom of the chalkboard and held it forward.

“Show us how you did it.”

I got up from my desk and grabbed the chalk then stood in front of the chalkboard with my back to the room.

Having to show your work was the worse. Because then you couldn’t just give some random answer and say, “Oh, oops. I guess I got wrong.” You couldn’t act like you didn’t care. Or like it was just some small mistake. You had to sit there and show everyone, step by step, how stupid you were. How you didn’t get anything. How you didn’t even know where to start.

I lifted the chalk and wrote out the question.

2(X – 5) = 1/2X + 1/2 (X -15)

And then I stopped writing. I looked down at my paper. All it said was X = 10. The chalk didn’t move. It stayed still on the board. Someone shifted in their seat then a small laugh came from the back of the room. I turned around.

“I forgot to show my work.”

“That’s okay,” Mrs. Howard said. “You can show us now.”

“I don’t remember how I did it.”

“Why don’t you just start with the first step?”

“I don’t remember.”

I looked over at Fiona. She was making a fish face at me.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“What part of it don’t you get?”

“All of it.”

“All of it?”

Fiona crossed her eyes. I put the chalk down and wiped the dust off on the tops of my pants.

“Yup, all of it.”

Mrs. Howard sighed. She didn’t even try to hide it.

“Okay, then. You can sit down.”

Jay and Eric were laughing of course. And so were Susy Meyers, Liz Jenson, and a few of the others. Paul, who was my partner in gym, was studying his paper really hard. Mrs. Howard was looking at her grade book and writing something down. Probably something like, Lucas does not get it. Or, Lucas still does not get all of it.

I always thought Mrs. Howard didn’t get it but maybe she did. Maybe if she let Fiona sit there wet and dripping and acted like it was no big deal, she got it at least a little. Maybe she called on me because she really thought I knew the answers. Or maybe she thought that the attention was helping me. Who knows, teachers are weird. She probably just liked Fiona more than me and gave her a break.

When I got back to my seat Fiona was still making the fish face and crossing her eyes. I shook my head and sat down. She looked like a total idiot.

A sweet seamless blur of life in life..

“She had only just begun to think about the world around her. Until this summer, she and the world had been much the same thing, a sweet seamless blur of life in life. But now it had broken away from her and become, not herself, but the place her self resided in, a sometimes strange and ominous other that must for one’s own sake be studied, be read like a book, like the books she’d begun to read at the same time the world receded. Or maybe it was the reading that had made the world step back. Things that had once been alive and talked to her because part of her–doll, house, cloud, well–were silent now, and apart, and things that lived still on their own–flower, butterfly, mother, grandmother–she now knew also died, another kind of distance.”

-Robert Coover, Grandmother’s Nose