April 20, 2017 | Narrative
a fairy tale
You might have heard about me and how I saved a kingdom. How I volunteered to marry the king, a cruel, vicious man who would have killed me the morning after our wedding, as he had done to all his previous wives and as he planned to do to all of the women in the kingdom. For three years, I told him stories every night, stories that I ended every morning at the greatest point of intrigue so that he would keep me alive. In this way, I changed the king’s mind and convinced him to end his slaughter of women by teaching him compassion, decency, and justice through my tales.
If you have not heard of any of this, you can easily look it up. Had I known people would be able to learn stories so easily, I probably would not have agreed to do what the sage had asked me to do at my husband’s funeral.
Many years after my thousand or so nights of storytelling, my husband passed away. I cried, and my heart ached. We had built a life together and had grown to love each other. We had shared the duties of running the kingdom and had governed side by side. We had turned to each other for guidance and support. In this way, we had found happiness together.
After the funeral, a woman I had never met before came to me. She told me that she had heard about what I had done to save the kingdom. She said that she was a sage and that she wanted to grant me eternal life.
I was horrified. There was not a single story I could remember in which someone was happy to live forever. Life was not easy, and everyone welcomed death eventually. But the sage said that I was needed—that my tale-telling abilities were essential for future generations. Also, to ease my fears, the sage assured me that she could give me a potion that would end my life if I ever decided I no longer wanted to live.
After pondering her words for many days, I agreed. I thought, I could possibly serve as the holder and teacher of humankind’s stories and, through this, help people understand each other better. Looking back on this now, I realize how ridiculous this belief was.
When I told the sage that I accepted eternal life, she gave me one elixir to drink and one to keep. That was hundreds of years ago. To this day, I travel the planet, forever frozen in the physical age I was when I accepted eternity. I have been reading and listening for all these years, learning more stories and sharing my tales with all who want to hear them. But now, I have come to doubt my place in the world.
I have seen many wondrous things in the centuries that have passed, but many horrible things, too. I have witnessed genocides. I have seen people’s lives upended by wars and crimes. I have come across people who would not think twice before destroying others in order to get what they wanted. I once thought I had seen the extent of the monstrosities that humans are capable of in my husband before he changed his ways, but I was wrong.
People have a capacity for cruelty that is greater than I could have ever imagined. Today, when people have the ability to learn about each other, to read and listen to what others have to say more easily than ever, so many people still hurt or refuse to help each other. When people suffer, those who can help too often shrug their shoulders and look away.
Furthermore, truths are becoming harder to tell apart from lies. Men with flag pins attached to their lapels stand in front of large crowds and spout nonsense. People who have devoted their lives to discovering and sharing the truth are finding it difficult to sustain themselves, while others who spread malicious falsehoods receive fame and adoration. In such a world, where do I belong?
These thoughts plague me, and I sometimes feel fed up with the world. I fiddle with the vial of death in my pocket and wonder if this is it for me. But then, I remember the good things that have come from telling stories. A few weeks ago, I came across a young girl sitting by herself on a swing in a park. Her face was lowered, and tears dripped from her cheeks and hit the ground. I asked her what was wrong. She told me her home country was plagued by chaos and war. She had found safety now. She was living with distant relatives. But her parents had not joined her yet.
The girl was scared for her parents and for her own future. I told her a story that has been told many times. The version I told her went like this: A young boy was born during the last days of a dying planet. His parents loved him so much that they sent him away on a ship to find a new home. Their act was one of great sacrifice, courage, and faith. This child found a new planet to call home. He was raised by a loving family, who taught him what was right and what was wrong. Equipped with their lessons, and with the gifts he had received from his parents by birth, he devoted his life to helping everyone on his new planet.
The young girl found some comfort in this story. She sensed that a bright future was possible for her. Moments like this remind me that my job is not over. Maybe one day I will truly have nothing more to do. But, despite how bleak the world seems now, that day has not arrived. So I will continue to wander this world and share the stories I know.