Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction dispatch. At the summer and winter solstices, I mimic the sun and pause to reflect on my own creative work. In this edition, I'm discussing fables in fiction with a passage from my short story "Metal Crow and Ghost Crow," forthcoming in the G Is for Ghost anthology.
An Excerpt from "Metal Crow and Ghost Crow"
A great stone wall rose between the beach and the settlement, and beyond them both the crumble of a long-abandoned city gave way to distant mountains. Metal Crow landed on a weathervane in the commons; a sturdy pole topped with a steel rooster that called the time and temperature as he settled beside it. "Fifteen hundred hours and thirty-eight degrees Celsius!"
When the rooster finished, Metal Crow followed in a loud, clear voice. "PRS Unity, Smart Assistant Navigator, requesting emergency medical assistance for one survivor, a girl five years of age, Nathalee Mera. Coordinates are 48.911689 by -125.949934."
Below him in the commons, people hurried between houses painted white to reflect the heat; an old man tucked under a pink umbrella, a beautiful woman in billowing cotton, a smartly dressed little boy sucking on a frozen lolly as it melted into his hand. Metal Crow brightened in his bearing and expression. They valued children! It was a good sign.
A door creaked open. Squinted eyes in a pinched face peered up at the weathervane. A woman's voice shouted, "What was that?"
The old man stopped, tilted his umbrella to look up at Metal Crow, and croaked a reply. "Pacific Rescue Ship's AI navigator."
Another door opened as they spoke. A cluster of people emerged, perhaps a family. First among them was a young man in a linen shirt with gold buttons that gleamed in the sunlight. He descended the porch steps, shielding his eyes to stare up at the weathervane. "What does it want?" he asked. "I heard they're programmed to say anything it takes."
The beautiful woman in billowing cotton smirked up at Metal Crow and inquired, "How many refugees are you not telling us about?"
"None." Metal Crow proffered an anxious bob of his head. "There were forty-two souls when the PRS Unity left San Diego." There was that word again, 'soul'. "But Nathalee Mera is the only survivor, and she needs emergency medical care."
"We could strip the boat for parts," the old man said to the young one.
"You don't really believe they're all dead, do you?" the beautiful woman asked in a tone that suggested the men might be stupid.
"We can't feed forty-two people." The squinting woman stepped around her front door and strode down to the commons in a silk dressing gown and slippers. "We'd be completely over-run."
"One girl." Metal Crow interjected, bewildered now and frightened for Nathalee. He warbled the words again in what he hoped was a pleading tone. "One girl."
The beautiful woman bent down, picked up a stone, and threw it at him. The stone missed and hit the weathervane. "Go back to your boat," she snapped. "Tell the captain we said 'no' and to move on. Don't come back, or the next time, I won't miss."1
The Folklore Behind the Fiction
"Metal Crow and Ghost Crow" was the first tale I wrote after starting the Folklore & Fiction newsletter in 2019, and I approached the piece with fables in mind. Climate change and the detention of refugee children in the southern United States were also much in my thoughts, and I wanted to use the fable genre's straightforward approach to moral storytelling as a means to explore both issues. Longtime readers will remember the September 2019 edition of the newsletter, in which I discuss the fable's approach to storytelling, writing that:
...the fairy tale often contains a moral message, but it's infused like a medicinal herb into the wine of an otherwise fantastical short story intended to entertain. The fable is medicine, and it may be delivered in any number of ways so long as it does the work of moral and ethical instruction. With this in mind, my checklist for essential fable components is short, with the caveat that fabulists planning to work in the genre should begin by looking at ways various cultures tell the tales.
Narratives of Many Kinds: Tales that may be written as poetry or prose and may be structured in a variety of ways.
Designed to Be Instructive: Told or written specifically for the purpose of imparting a moral or ethical message, which might be set off from the rest of the fable at the end.
Often Populated with Animals: Protagonists who mirror human characteristics and behaviours, make human decisions, and meet with human successes and failures as a result.
I've long thought that placing a story's moral message in the mouths of anthropomorphic animals helps it bypass the filters of people who don't like to be lectured in storytelling. I also think the lecture filters of contemporary listeners, readers, and viewers are fairly sensitive. So as a modern fabulist, I wanted to write "Metal Crow and Ghost Crow" on the slant, offering resonances with contemporary issues without wagging my pen at readers. To that end, Metal Crow is hopeful and determined to help Nathalee survive, while Ghost Crow is doubtful and concerned Nathalee will suffer before succumbing to dehydration. Between them, they debate the capacity for goodwill of the people Metal Crow finds in the settlement, while the setting of the piece provides a window into a possible climate crisis future.
A Peek Into the Writing Process
I employed the same Aesopic structure in "Metal Crow and Ghost Crow" that I introduced in the September 2019 edition of the newsletter when I discussed historian and philologist Christos Zafiropoulos' scholarship on the matter, writing that "Aesop's Fables are prose narratives comprised of four parts: the information, a moment of choice, a final action, and a moral. In them, the protagonist is situated in place and time, she makes a choice between courses of action, the outcome of her choice is indicated, and a moral written beneath the tale (called an epimythium) makes the point of the narrative clear."2
My first outline of the tale employed this structure, and I thought it might be useful to you for me to share that outline here:
Moral or Ethical Axis
Girl is the moral or ethical axis around which the fable turns. Will she be rescued, or won't she?
Metal Crow and Ghost Crow are the characters, so named by Girl herself.
The tale takes place about three hundred years from now.
Metal Crow is an intelligent, robotic animal tasked with assisting the navigation of a refugee ship northward through the hot, acidic waters of an unnamed ocean toward a heavily-guarded outpost they hope will be welcoming.
A Moment of Choice
Metal Crow decides to keep looking for someone who will help Girl even after he's attacked and seriously damaged.
A Final Action
Metal Crow helps a servant rescue Girl. She's planning to travel north to safety with most of the other servants, and Metal Crow agrees to be their navigator.
A Moral (Written as an Epimythium)
Those who have little often give much.
The final tale is somewhat different from the outline; Girl has a name, she's not well enough to name the crows, and I omitted the epimythium on the grounds that it was too preachy (though the scholar in me really wanted it there). I would add that in keeping with fable structure, the overall tale is short at just over 2600 words, though many traditional fables are much shorter.
In all, I think it was a successful effort at using my own newsletter to write a tale, and I've discovered in the writing of it a deeper appreciation of the fable genre. So you'll probably see more new fables from me in the future.
That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of ATU 1096 "Sewing Contest." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.
Folklore & Fiction Facebook Group
Are you a storyteller with an interest in folklore? If so, the Folklore & Fiction Facebook group might interest you.