A friend of mine asked me recently whether I love writing and painting equally. It’s a questions I’ve thought a lot about. I spend a lot of time on both, and they take up a fair bit of my life. Ultimately however, I know the answer. I am a writer, more than that, I am a storyteller. Painting can and is a lot of fun. It is a great way to visually represent some of the things that happen in my head, and in the last few years I’ve let myself delve into it more fully than ever before.
But even my painting relates to my storytelling. Many of my paintings are of characters that I conceptualize and then decide to paint, or scenes from paintings I am trying to work out. Even when it doesn’t relate directly to something I write, my paintings are often about telling a story or at least suggesting a story on their own.
My writing is my most effective way of storytelling since it lets me take the time to fully work out the stories and put into it everything that I’ve wanted, but ultimately, it is the storytelling that drives me.
In another place, another time, I might have been a bard – telling stories, playing music. My social justice class is bard. I think that stories can teach, they can heal, they can move you, they can inflame you and entice you.
When I think about storytelling, however, this one anecdote comes to mind.
When I was younger, my parents had friends who lived a moderate walk from our home. What made the walk even more appealing is that most of it took place along the banks of Lake Ontario. At night, it was incredibly dark. You could see the glow of Toronto across the water, which was made up of undulating darkness. The stars and the moon would be visible in the sky, providing enough illumination to show the path and not much else until your eyes adjusted to the dark.
While I loved the peace of the night, I was young enough to still be scared by being outside in the darkness, even with my parents. I had a writer’s overactive imagination even then, and so my head would invent scary stories to go with every strange noise, every indistinguishable shadow, regardless of whether I wanted it to or not.
One such evening, we were walking back home along with our dog. It was a particularly dark night, and I was feeling a bit anxious. Our dog was running around on the rocky beach, when off in the distance, I noticed something.
It was an indistinguishable shadow, such as I’ve never seen before: something round, and floating in the water, moving its way ever closer. My mind began spinning fantasies of sea monsters, or of evil swimmers coming over from Toronto to do harm. My parents were also watching the shadow approach, and they were making jokes. We were all curious but I was also frozen in silent completely internalized terror. Finally, we could see it enough to see that it was a ball. A regular beach ball that must have been lost or left behind somewhere and finally made its way down to this little rocky beach.
We continued on our way back home, and somehow, I started telling my parents a story that I had made up on the spot. The story itself was pretty simple:
An elderly couple laments their childlessness, having never succeeded in adopting or conceiving. While they were sad not to give a home and love to a child, their love for one another was strong and they took comfort from that. They gave their time to hospitals and charities, and when they weren’t doing that they would take long walks together hand in hand.
On one of these walks they came across a ball. It is completely covered in dirt, but it is still in one piece. The couple decides to take it home, clean it up, and bring it to one of the group homes for children to play with. They bring it home and gently work on cleaning it off with warm water and soap. When fully clean, it is revealed to have words engraved on it – “Whosoever finds me and cleans me shall have a wish of me.”
They wondered aloud at the strangeness of this, and yet unbidden their wish came to their lips. Looking into one another’s tear filled eyes, they wished once more for a child of their own. Suddenly, a voice rang out in their heads.
“For three days, place me in a crib, and for three nights ignore and turn away from anything you might hear coming from the room. Do not look and on the dawn of the fourth day, you will have your child.”
Still not believing in their good fortune, the couple quickly brought the orb to a small room across the hall from theirs. The door had been shut for many years after they lost hope of ever having a child, because they couldn’t bear to take down the room they had prepared in their excitement. Inside was everything you could possibly want or need for a child: a crib, clothing, stuffed animals, books, mobiles, in the corner by the window stood a rocking chair covered in cushions and pillows. On the wall was a mural that they had painstakingly painted together with fearies and unicorns, and little flying cherubs.
They placed the orb as instructed in the waiting crib. Over the course of the rest of the day, they couldn’t help but wonder what would happen. Though logically they knew that a child’s toy abandoned in the park had no power to grant them their heart’s desire, they shared a determined thread of undying hope that maybe this time it would work out for them. Perhaps this time they would be granted a miracle.
When night came, they heard strange sounds coming from behind the closed doors of the nursery. Froom the hallway they could hear hissing and roaring of all sorts. They could hear wailing and screaming, and the sounds of furniture being thrown to the ground.
Many times throughout the night, they considered going to see what was happening. The sounds coming from the room were loud and scary. Still, the thought of holding a little baby in their arms, one which was theirs to care for, theirs to love, stopped them.
The next morning, the orb was back nestled within the crib, while the rest of the room stood as though it had been the site of a very localized whirlwind. Books littered the floor, only now some of the pages had been torn out. Paint had been splattered across the mural.
They spent the day cleaning, even refreshing the mural. They cleaned in silence, the two of them caught up in their own thoughts. As evening approached, the silence deepened. The made and ate dinner in silence. They cleaned the dishes and the kitchen in silence. They sat at the table in silence, then readied for bed in silence.
When the silence finally broke, it was like a starter pistol.
They awoke in the middle of the night on that second night, to more sounds of thrashings and screeching. The hissing and growling continued. They longed to go and see what was causing the commotion, but still the promise of their baby held them.
As the horrible growls got louder and louder, they looked at each other and went to the door. They hesitated, pacing outside the door. They listened to the growls and the sound of things being ripped. Finally they cracked the door open. Inside was chaos, worse than anything that had come before. Things were ripped, some of the mobiles were broken. Inside was a creature they had never seen before. It’s long fingers and claws scratching at the mural and pulling at the curtains.
They shut the door, staring at one another in horror before sitting down at the kitchen table. The ticking of the clock on the wall seemed like the beating of a heart.
“What is that thing” they wondered, feeling cold.
“A monster. It’s some sort of monster.”
“It looked like a demon from hell.”
“But what about the baby? What do we do? It is the third night. Tomorrow morning is when we are supposed to finally have a child of our own.”
“But what if the child is actually that demon we saw. What if instead of a soul, it has a devil inside it? What if it’s not a child it’s… it’s that thing!”
They looked at one another in horror as the creature began shrieking and screaming, in addition to the sound of things being thrown across the room.
The next morning, they entered the room to find it nearly destroyed. While the furniture was still in one piece, the mural had been smeared and scratched. More paint had been spread across the walls. Books had their covers ripped off. Feathers from the pillows littered the floor. The orb meanwhile was still in the crib, the single item not at all harmed or disturbed.
They debated the whole day, alternately deciding and changing their minds about what to do. The watched evening approach with apprehension and finally, unable to take it anymore they took the orb from the room. They walked together hand in hand, till they came to the edge of a long pier overlooking a rocky cliff. Below the waters was splashing up against the rocks, sending jets of water into the air. They looked at each other and with a cry, they tossed the ball over the edge and watched it sail down into the water, before going home.
They cleaned the room as best they could. What was broken they threw away, the rest they packed up to be donated when they could. The comfortable silence of two adults existing together for a long time was now overlaid with the sadness of those who had lost all hope. No longer did they secretly hope for a miracle. That night, they went to bed for the first time knowing that their dream was gone.
The quiet of the morning was brought to a screaming halt, literally, when a loud keen of horror escaped the couple. There on the front page of the newspaper was a picture of an infant, round-cheeked and angelic. The police were saying that it appeared to be only three days old before it had been thrown into the water and washed up ashore at dawn that morning.
I told that story as we walked back home. I told it surrounded by darkness, with the sound of waves crashing around us and the clicking crunch of gravel being displaced by the paws of a large dog. When I finished, there was silence.
My parents still remember that night and that I told a story which they said gave them chills of fright. They would ask me to repeat it, only to proclaim that it wasn’t right. That something was missing.
For years I tried to piece together what that might be. I was sure I remembered the story. I was sure I had the details right. What was missing? What element took the story to the level that despite it being told by a ten year old girl, it still stays with them twenty years later?
It was in discussing wanting to be a bard in response to my friend’s question that it finally dawned on me. I would NEVER be able to recreate it. The power of the story hadn’t been the story itself or the words, but rather in the setting. On a dark night, when our instincts warn us to be cautious and we’re already a little afraid, with the waves crashing in the distance, a story told with the right emphasis, the right volume and voice, it would in fact create chills.
Real Estate Agents say it best: location, location, location.