An Escape . . . and a Confrontation

It’s unavoidable, really, and it’s a question that needs to be asked of anyone who spends a good deal of his or her time creating stories out of the ether, as it were, searching for ideas that resonate and entertain, ideas that will take readers by the hand and lead them to high, rocky promontories overlooking new and exotic lands.

promontory

 

What is storytelling?  What does it represent?  Why do we write?  Is creative storytelling, particularly speculative fiction, nothing more than an escape, an imaginative flight of fancy that takes writers and readers far away from the world they inhabit?

flightoffancy

 

On one level, perhaps.  After all, what author can deny the heady thrill of the first-draft rush, when words spill out like lava, flowing, steaming, too hot to touch?  Or the excitement of vicariously living through characters that seem so real, so vivid, we talk to them out loud as we wash the dishes or drive along a lonely stretch of country road on a blue-skied day, the windows rolled down?  Or the fascination of building a world, of crafting, brick by literary brick, the cities, towns, inhabitants, monsters, laws, and social customs of places thousands of light-years, or millennia, from our own earth? And what reader, what lover of the imaginative places, asking the questions of “What if?” and “Why not?” can deny the enjoyment of devouring words on the page (or the e-reader screen, as the case may be!), getting lost in the story, being swept away by the scope and wonder of the events?

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An escape?  A journey to a distant land, far beyond the sight line of our everyday existence?  Indeed.  Storytelling is that.

But it’s other things, too.

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When I was a boy, I used to love to explore the pond that lay, like a magnet attracting my attention, several hundred yards behind the high school where my older brothers and sister attended, and where I myself would one day attend.   And on a pleasant, sunny, warm early October afternoon when I was seven years old, I asked my friend Matt to come along and see if we could find any toads or carp or perhaps, if we were really lucky, some salamanders frolicking in the shallows.

salamander

 

It was a Saturday, and my brother, who played fullback for the varsity football team, was out on the field, leading his team to victory.  But I didn’t care about any of that.  The sun was shining.  I was bored.  I wanted to do something.  So I asked my parents if Matt and I could head over to the pond.  “Sure,” they said.  “But be careful.  And don’t be long.”  I assured them we wouldn’t be.  After all, what could go wrong?  The pond wasn’t far away, and it wasn’t like we planned to swim in it.  We’d just stroll along the dirt path that wound its way behind the pond and around to the other side.

pond

 

I was so familiar with the path, having explored it dozens of times before with my father, I could have navigated it blindfolded.  Matt and I walked slowly, looking this way and that, not wanting to miss anything good.  Lily pads formed green oases in the water and cattails grew luxuriously by the pond’s edge, as the dirt path circled back, behind the pond, shrouded by poplars and maples, the leaves just beginning to turn gold and crimson and burnt orange, readying themselves for the autumn color show to come.  The hum of insects filled the air, and we spied a dragonfly zigzagging its way inches above the surface of the pond.

dragonfly

 

Back here, behind the pond, there was a chain-link fence to our right.  Beyond it lay the backyards of neighborhood homes, incongruous against the wild growth that flanked the path.  Normally I paid no notice to the homes.  They were a distraction, a sign of civilization I didn’t want to acknowledge.  I preferred to believe I was exploring uncharted territory in the rain forests or jungles, cutting through thick undergrowth, on the lookout for exotic new species of flora or fauna.  The neighborhood homes had no place in these imaginary expeditions of mine.

jungles

 

But on that day, that brilliant early October day of my childhood, there was no way to ignore them.

“Hey, kids,” a voice suddenly rang out.  Matt and I turned around.  On the other side of the fence, his long brown hair stringy, unwashed, a smiling teenager stood.  “What’cha doin’?”

chainlinkfence

 

It was hard to focus on his words.  My attention was locked on the shotgun he held, cradling it with both hands.  I looked at Matt.  His eyes were wide, glued to the gun.

“So here’s the deal,” the teenager said.  For all I knew, he was a student at the high school, maybe someone my brother knew.  Maybe he shared homeroom or study hall or trigonometry with him.  Maybe they talked, hung out in the halls.

None of that mattered now.  All that mattered were the words he said next:  “I’m gonna count to seven.  Not ten or fifteen or twenty.  Seven.”  He raised the shotgun, ever so slightly.  “And when I get to seven, you two better be gone.  ‘Cause if you’re not, I’m gonna blow your heads off.”  He smiled, pointed an index finger at us, and pretend-shot us with it.  “Got it?”

For a moment, I just stood there, unreality washing over me like a poisonous waterfall.  How could this be happening?

isonwaterfall

 

“One,” the teenager with the stringy hair said, and Matt took off, not waiting for him to count to two, running down the path, in the direction of the football field, which was hidden from view behind the leaves and tangles of plants and trees.  I still stood there, stunned.  I looked at the gun, aimed now, right at my head.  Peering through the opening, into the barrel of the shotgun, all I could see was black.

shotgunbarrel

 

“Two,” he said.  That did it.  I turned around and ran; I ran so fast I was sure I’d trip and fall.  I caught up to Matt, and we ran together, all the way back to the bleachers, where my parents sat and clapped, and where things seemed normal again.

bleachers

 

I never told them, or anyone, about that day.  It was something better left forgotten.

****************

But we never really forget, do we?  Not really.

Near the end of The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski are held at gunpoint.  Mitchell, at one juncture, looks at the barrel of the shotgun, its “black, empty mouth” pointed directly at his head.  And yes, as I wrote that scene, I felt myself pulled back, back, to the path behind the pond, to the day when I looked into the “black, empty mouth” of the gun myself.

But that’s the way storytelling is, I think–a blend of the imaginative and the real, the fantastic and the actual.  Bits and pieces of our lives scatter through the pages of our fiction like literary calling cards, giving voice to memories and dreams and fears and hopes that, though they may occasionally flicker, never die.

flickeringflames

 

“Fantasy’s hardly an escape from reality,” author Lloyd Alexander once said.  “It’s a way of understanding it.”

As we weave the stories, even the ones from beyond the stars, in galaxies and worlds on the other side of the void, so far away we can scarcely even imagine the distance; as we get lost in the adventure and mystery and journey of the story, we can never really escape.

andromedagalaxy

 

Because as we write, and as we read, we must, inevitably, come face-to-face with the reflection in our own personal mirror.

mirrorimage

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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