The Shark with
(On His Tongue)
Sam SwopeSome children are gifted physically, some are gifted academically, some artistically. Alex was gifted with a narrative imagination. When we sat down to do our first collaboration, I asked him, "Who's going to be our main character?"
"No way," I told him. "I've collaborated on three shark stories already, and I'm sick of them. If we're going to have sharks, they have to be alien sharks on some faraway planet or something."
"The planet Zoid."
"Oooh, I like that," I said. "Tell me how the ocean on planet Zoid is different from the earth's oceans."
"It's hot like lava and it's pink like bubble gum. It even tastes like bubble gum." "Excellent," I said as I started to write. "So what's our creature going to look like?"
"Exactly like a shark but it has a light bulb at the end of his tongue."
"Good," I said. "What's the light bulb for?"
"That's how it catches its dinner."
Alex tucked his hands under his legs and rocked back and forth. "He buries himself under the sand with only the light bulb sticking up and then when a fish comes to see what is the light, he snatches the fish up in his mouth."
"Brilliant," I said, smiling with pleasure, but Alex wouldn't let himself smile back. Each time he saw that I bought into his idea, that the fiction was working, he'd put on his best poker face, sensing, like a born storyteller, that a smile would break the spell. But he could never hide the twinkle that would light up his eyes, and mine would twinkle back, like we were sharing a secret joke.
"What's this fish called?"
"Um, he's a puppalik."
Alex went on to describe how, when the puppalik was attacked by a creature called a merm, the puppalik got so mad she laid two eggs out of which hatched baby puppaliks reading books.
"Books?" I said, expressing surprise and doubt.
"Yep, books," said Alex, looking at me as if to say he knew it sounded strange, but that's the way it really happened.
"Okay," I said. "Books it is. What then?"
"Then the puppalik shouts, 'Stop reading those damn books and help me catch that merm!'"
I don't know if Alex consciously apprehended the power and the danger of the imagination, how easy it is to get lost in the world of words while angry merms are circling, but an ambivalence toward language and imagination occurs again and again in his stories. Take his short tale "Who Am I?" for instance, in which a tiny crab's saying the word funky starts a series of terrifying events and ends with the promise never to say the word funkyagain. Or consider "The Magic Eraser," in which four brothers, dying of a cancer caused from eating too much meat, find a treasure chest that holds an eraser, the writer's tool, which proceeds to erase not only the brothers, but the bathtub, the house, the neighborhood, the city, and finally the entire earth.
"Alex, have you ever known anybody who died?"
"Two persons: my grandfather and my friend."
"What did your friend die of?"
"Cancer. His face was white."
"How old was he?"
"You must have been sad when he died."
"That's why I didn't go to his funeral."
"What was his name?"
"I don't remember. George."
"And how did your grandfather die?"
"He died of cancer, too, because on television they say if you eat too much meat and not enough plants you get cancer."
§ § §
Sometimes children's lies are calculated, but sometimes lies just pop out, and for no particular advantage. It's as if their imaginations suddenly decide to turn on the kids in order to get them into trouble. When I was nine and traveling with my family by train, I insisted on sitting by myself several rows back. After we made a stop, a woman boarded the train and sat down next to me. I had been warned never to talk to strangers, and having one so close was both thrilling and a little scary. I watched her every move from out of the corner of my eye. As she settled in, she took out a book and put on a pair of half-glasses. I had just started wearing glasses myself, but had never seen so strange a pair as hers, and I stared at them shamelessly, unaware of my audacity. Feeling my gaze, the woman looked down at me from over the top of those glasses. I froze.
"Hello," she said. "Who are you?"
"I'm the prince of Czechoslovakia," I announced, shocking both of us.
"That's a long way from here," she said. "What brings you to America?"
Astonished that she believed me, my heart began to pound and my body tingled, excited by my power. Without thinking, I told her, "My whole family was killed. I had to flee for my life."
"You poor dear."
I nodded sadly and looked out the window.
"Tell me," she said. "Where in Czechoslovakia are you from?"
"Düsseldorf," I said.
"Strange. I thought Düsseldorf was in Germany."
"It used to be, but last year they moved it."
"Ah, I see," she said. Then she closed her book, took off her glasses, and asked me to tell her all about my life. As I spun my tale, I half knew she knew I was making it up, but she was an attentive listener, and having her mind in my pocket was thrill enough for me.
When I told a friend this story, she said, "You stole that from Catcher in the Rye. Holden lies to a woman on the train, telling her he's got a brain tumor." I looked up the passage, and sure enough, Holden lies brazenly, outrageously, to a stranger on a train. I began to doubt my memory. Had it really happened? Or was I in Salinger's pocket and didn't even know it?--- Reprinted from
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