Only three missives remained to be read, and Sagacia had already found a box just the right size for the whole collection. She had gathered her scissors, string, and brown paper and was just now printing “Stymied in Steilacoom” onto an address label with a Magic Marker. Simplia opened one of those last letters and began reading aloud.
It was from Barra the Bard; its lilting words evoked harp music.
When I was a bairn, and my granny would tell me stories, I always knew what kind it was by the beginning…if it was Scottish, it would begin, “Lang time by,” or “In the Mouth of the Night….” Welsh tales began, “High up in the pleasant land of Wales…” (except for the very few that began “On the seacoast of Wales….” Family tales began, “When I was young,” or “When your mother and her sisters and brother were bairns and weans….” Bible stories and saints’ tales began in her best American English, instead of a burr or lilt or combination of both. And many stories ended with “And that’s the end of that tale!” or “And if they haena dee’d [died], they are thaur yet!” or some pertinent Welsh or Scottish proverb, the latter often in both Gaelic and English.
Simplia smiled, smoothing out the page and placing it in Sagacia’s box. Then she picked up the next item, a post card from Priscilla Howe. It had a photo of Western Kansas Monument Rocks on the front, and on the back…
Murzik would say, “Zhili byli…” and I’m partial to the Bulgarian, “Imalo edno vreme…” but I also often begin with “Once” and go on from there.
When I think of good beginnings, I like Judith Gorog’s start to “A Story about Death” (from the book A Taste for Quiet): “It was a Tuesday morning in spring when Death walked in our kitchen door.”
Sometimes it’s nice to start in media res, that is, smack in the middle of the action, then back up toward once upon a time.”
“In media res,” Simplia said slowly, putting down her pen. “Yes.”
She shuffled through the box and dug out Stymied in Stielacoom’s original letter to Vasilisa the Wise. About beginnings. About openings. About starting a story. And about subverting the spell by which Stymied was forever cursed to fall asleep immediately upon pronouncing the words once upon a time.
“That was a ponderous ‘yes,’ you just spoke,” said Sagacia. “What does it mean?”
“It means that if Stymied started in the middle of the story, or at least somewhere after the magical invocation, he could tell his whole tale without going to sleep.“
“You mean, just skip the beginning entirely?” Sagacia said, encouraging clarification.
“Yes!” Simplia obliged. “After all, it’s just our English-speaking culture’s way of getting into the story.”
She reached for the last envelope, a pale blue onion skin paper, the kind people used to buy to save postage on many-paged letters to be air-mailed overseas. Robin Bady, said the return address.
As part of a partially assimilated Jewish family on the New Jersey shore, we heard and read lots of fairy and folktales and adventure stories in school and some from our parents. They all began “once upon a time” and they all ended “happily ever after.” Even my dad’s made-up tales of how Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer would come to our house and take the Bady children on adventures and save the day began and ended that way.
I thought that was the right way for stories to begin and end. You had to do it, too, if you wanted to fit in. It was like trees in almost everyone’s homes but ours at Christmas, and Easter baskets on Easter. It was supposed to be done in the culture in which we were living.
“See!” said Sagacia. “Robin affirms it! ‘They all began once upon a time.’ You had to say that to fit in! So if it’s just the cultural incantation that brings on the curse…”
“…Don’t incant!” Simplia completed her friend’s sentence. “But let me finish.” She turned over the wispy sheet and continued intoning Robin’s words.
I am not sure when I learned the magical words, “There was once…” or “In the days before our times…” and such. How novel! How radical that there were other ways of starting stories! How liberating!
“It should be liberating for poor Stymied, too!” Simplia rejoiced.
“Right!” Sagacia exclaimed. “When it comes to incantations and invocations, it’s the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law,” she pronounced. “If you don’t say the words exactly as specified, or if you just skip them entirely, you’re home free!” She took Robin’s letter from Simplia’s hands and put it in the box.
Life would be so much more interesting if that were true of other words, too,” she sighed, unfurling the brown paper. “Say them as specified, and you get magic!
“It is true!” said Simplia. “Watch this!”
She inhaled deeply, closed her eyes, and in a shivery voice invoked, “Ah…La… Peanut Butter Sandwiches!”
And they appeared. Two of them. With grape jelly, to boot. Sliced corner to corner into triangles. Also, two glasses of milk.
Do not try this at home.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham