Once upon a time there were two sisters and a wise donkey. The frost was early and the winter long. The machete got up and spoke, the street signs spoke, and a beautiful necklace told of its adventures in a world long ago and far away. It happened one day that the birds, who once lived in peace all over the land, grew so plentiful and sang so loudly that nothing else could be heard. The squirrels and rats set out in great armies. A man, a woman, and a child lived together in a house, and the boy grew strong and handsome, until one day he was cast under a powerful spell. The daughter returned but the man and woman had already grown old and sick. Waiting and waiting, like Penelope. One day calamity kicked in the door. Hunger, thirst, massacre, and the white men kept on landing. Follow the footprints. Watch the sky.
What does it mean to say something is fairy tale–like, that it is, like this fall 2019 issue, giving off a fairy-tale vibe? There are no “once upon a times” here; there are no “happily ever afters.” There aren’t even any witches or kings, wolves or billy goats. Read separately, each piece reveals its own purpose and its own strong voice, each with its own animating spirit—the life, the stories, the influences, and urgencies of its author. Yet when you put them all together, they activate some other kind of spirit, not something that influenced the work but that the work itself brought into being—the essence of the whole, which in this case just might be the essence of fairy tales.
When I think of fairy or folk tales, I think of the Brothers Grimm. Of Walt Disney. Of bedtime stories in books illustrated by Jan Brett and Maurice Sendak. Other readers will have different stories in mind, moving across different languages and mediated by different voices. But probably most will have at least some kind of story in their possession that feels passed down, that seems to have always existed and yet has no single point of origin. Myths and legends, ballads or folk tales, even Bible stories fit the bill. Stories told to entertain but also to help humans deal with the forces beyond our control; stories that seem to contain some underlying truth or lesson, even if it’s not quite clear what exactly that is. Fairy tales and their ilk are dense with metaphor, an endless source of material for ethnographers and Freudians alike and for anyone pressed up against the wall with the words “tell me a story.”
As more and more natural phenomena are explained by science and human actions are described by psychology, the world as we know it doesn’t become more manageable and less terrifying. It might be fair to say it just gets scarier, especially as the natural world itself changes and our ways of receiving knowledge change. We don’t know whether New York and Miami will be under water in eighty years or a hundred—or maybe sooner. Or where all the humans will go, as more and more of us must fit into fewer habitable places. And what about the nature of evil? We don’t even know if the universe will continue expanding, or if it will one day reverse course and contract into a single dense mass. That’s where stories come in. Fairy tales won’t give us a prescription, but they’re powerful because they bring intractable mystery and our darkest fears into human scale.
In his collection of Italian folktales, Italo Calvino makes a case for his own obsession with old stories, whose origins can never be assigned definitively but that taken together seem to contain, “in their oft-repeated and constantly varying examinations of human vicissitudes, a general explanation of life.” They might be “earthy and somber,” as per the Brothers Grimm, or courtly and refined, as per Perrault, depending on the audience and the teller. And while the teller might appear to be a passive link in the chain as stories get passed from one to the next, it’s also the case that what makes a tale beautiful, or relevant, or enchanting, is “what is woven or rewoven into it,” making each storyteller its “true author.”
This is not to say that this issue is a collection of fairy stories. It most certainly is not. Only that as a whole the issue invokes old stories through its collective tone, and maybe be its collective, unspoken sense of purpose. As a whole it reveals a glimpse of the zeitgeist, or at least the zeitgeist’s shadow.
Once upon a time there were thirty writers, each of them wise and strong, and they all lived together in a book at the end of the Anthropocene. “We were traveling from the other end of the world and floated—high above sea, high above land,” said one. “I am your endings & / your beginnings / I am everything / that begins & / ends with blood,” said another. And another said: “Come be with me we have tickets for the end of the world . . .”