The Monstrous Sadness of Mythical Creatures
by Amber Sparks
He’s tired of everything, most of all the loggers skating around on that stupid frying pan. Don’t they realize that shit gets old after a while? I mean, it was kind of funny the first few times, but never exactly hygienic after all. God knows what kind of bacteria he picked up last time he ate flapjacks out of that pan. He got so sick he passed out, and toppled right over onto a family playing Frisbee. It was terrible. They had to peel the dad off of his left shoulder, and his shirt was all covered in bloodstains and ruined. And it’s not cheap to get a custom-made flannel shirt the size of a football field.
Which is why, when all the loggers run round his feet, chirping at him and pointing to the frying pan hanging high on the wall, he gets a little angry and accidentally stomps on one of them. It’s not like it never happens, and the other loggers know the risks—it’s a calculated risk, his size relative to the work minus his temper relative to his size. But still, it’s never good when he kills one, and he has to go see the wife and kids and listen to them chirp at him while he pretends to understand. He can nod every once in a while if he is careful, but mostly he must stand extraordinarily still, leaning on his axe and trying not to breathe too much. There’s a funeral inside their tiny church so he can’t come in. He stands outside, hat in his hands, but he can’t even hear the priest and the mourners. All he can hear is the tinkling hymns, spilling out of the church windows like glass.
It’s lonely up here. They don’t understand how lonely. They think they’d like to be big, to have his arm span, his strong swing. They’d like the earth to shudder wherever they step and forests to collapse in their wake. They think it would make them important. They don’t know that nothing is important when it’s taller than the tree line; anything that tall becomes more landscape than person.
He’s especially sad now that Babe is dead, now that he’s lost all his hair and most of his teeth, now that he gets arthritis in his wrists and his back cramps up every morning. Now that the earth is grown so small, there’s no room for the bigness of him. Sometimes he tries to remember what his story was once. Why he was the myth the people made for themselves, him and Babe, back a long time ago. Back when he walked the land free and easy and putting one huge foot down in front of the other, creating contours and hills and lakes. When he left behind shoveled-up earth and felled forests, traveling westward with the rest of the company. He knows it’s not a story anybody needs anymore. The air is thinner now, and the long past is crumpled behind him like too much paper. Sometimes it seems like there couldn’t possibly be any more trees.
What he needs is to retire, though he knows he’d have to go away to do it. He knows very well these loggers aren’t going to suffer him to stick around, keep feeding him if he’s not earning his keep. But that’s okay. He supposes he wouldn’t really miss their tiny voices, their incomprehensible phrases and gestures. He just wants to sit for a while on a cliff somewhere, high up and barren and far from any trees, his monstrous head closer to the stars than any other living thing on earth.
Many of my stories are born out of a fascination with a particular historical episode. To figure out why, I start writing around the edges or in the margins, giving it a new ending or beginning or middle, pulling stale elements out like rotting teeth. This creates a new story around the most interesting bits of evidence, almost like detective work. That's why I bristle at the suggestion to “write what you know.” I don't want to write what I know. I write to solve mysteries.
So when I encountered Paul Bunyanland in Minnesota—a shabby park devoted to an imaginary giant lumberjack, but filled with off-topic exhibits like chickens “playing” tic tac toe and a “haunted” mine shaft—I wanted to solve this mystery. How strange: parks dedicated to obsolete tall tales, the fact that in school we devoted days to learning about Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Because a myth is just a symbol for an earlier way of life, right? Something that's already died in us, some way we no longer are. That's why it's legend.
Imagine a mythical figure no longer relevant, a figure who never existed except to tell a story about a certain people. When that story is told, where does that figure go? I don't believe the scene with the superhero at the end proclaiming, “Well, my work here is done,” then flying up and away. Instead, I picture Paul Bunyan lumbering toward the horizon, while an iris transition draws the blackness tighter and closer, until his tiny circle of light is swallowed up entirely.
Amber Sparks's work has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, PANK, A capella Zoo, Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens, Lumberyard Magazine, Wigleaf and The Collagist. She is the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and you can find her online at www.ambernoellesparks.com. She lives in Washington, DC.