Excerpt: And now for something completely different

. . . and hopefully a little fun. It’s been a rough week at Casa Karamesines, with illness ruling the household and PGK’s disabled daughter requiring much care day and night, and when PGK has a hard week she likes to put up something on AMV she enjoys doing, something that lightens her mind.

This is an excerpt from my much longer and (yet) unpublished essay, “Plato’s Alcove,” which won first place in the Utah Arts Council’s essay competition a few years ago. I enjoy writing these kinds of stories; they’re fun to play with. Adapted from the folk story form as they are, their language becomes approachable from nearly any direction. The essay from which I excerpted this story is about irony and beauty and how both may combine suddenly and unexpectedly in a dazzling flash to shift one’s world view. Warning: this is not a story about the origins of the world as per evolution or the OT creation story; this is a story about language, relation, and, as mentioned, irony, a much maligned and misunderstood trope. (Oh yes, and some readers with sensitive or out-of-joint noses may detect a faint whiff of environmental idolatry.)

In the desert one day I met Coyote, the Trickster-God. We greeted each other and sat in the shade. I opened my canteen and drank then offered Coyote a drink. When he thought I wasn’t looking he wiped the canteen’s mouth. Then he drank.

“Thank you,” he said, handing it back.

I gestured at the breathtaking view before us and asked Coyote, “Why is this place so beautiful do you think?”

He laughed and said, “I’ll tell you a story that explains everything.”

Used to be (said Coyote) Earth wasn’t like this. Earth wasn’t even earth. A great, watery business, it flowed together and apart, rising and falling. There were no plants, no coyotes, and no people–only Earth, and it couldn’t speak. Each day Sun called out to it but Earth stood silent. Moon signaled across the darkness but Earth made no sign.

Now a great Maker, Ma’i, Coyote, who goes from place to place and star to star, passing by Earth stopped to consider it. Seeing this sphere formed at the very limits of the laws he shook his head.

“What god did this?” he asked. “It’s the work of an imbecile!” To show his contempt he relieved himself on it. A seed passed through him in his scat and fell into the water. Then Ma’i went away.

Waves tossed the scat then struck one of the few drifts of land, casting scat and seed ashore. Instantly the ground doubled over on it and sank.

Moon and Sun continued to call to Earth but nothing happened. Then one day, something happened. The seed in Ma’i’s scat had sprouted! A green tendril rose up through the water and with this tendril, Earth found a tongue. The tendril became a mighty trunk. Its roots pulled together the drifting parcels of ground. Sweeping branches overhung every quarter.

The branches budded and burst into parti-colored flowers, each with a distinct odor and shape. The flowers ripened then dropped into whatever element lay below. Some fell into water, making various fishes and water-creatures. Others became land animals. Some falling through air changed into birds. Two flowers, each budding on separate branches, dropped into warm mud, plop, plop, making man and woman.

Thus Earth went from a sullen place to one of many utterances. Earth and Sun spoke in terms of life and to Moon Earth responded with silver tides. The tree died, but the creatures it produced multiplied like saplings in a willow thicket.

But of all creatures then living, First Man and First Woman (I’m skipping a bit here, said Coyote) were peculiar, because while there was no doubt they were of the tree they behaved as if they weren’t. Earth felt the relation and spoke to them in the sweetness of her fruits and the coolness of her waters. It caressed them with breezes and visited them in still places. Yet First Man and First Woman acted like they were they only thing in the world happening, which caused problems for everyone.

So Earth sent something more obvious by way of speaking to them, namely Strong Spirits. Like the blossoms that fell from the tree, each formed according to its element. There’s Desert Strong Spirit, Strong Spirit in the Sea, Star Strong Spirit, and so on. They tease Woman and Man, coaxing them beyond themselves, calling to them to join the rest.

Coyote finished his story and said, “Well, what do you think?”

“It’s just as you said. It’s a beautiful story and explains a lot.”

He nodded. Waving a paw at land and sky, he said, “This whole business is very ecological, economical, and remarkable, don’t you think?”

“Very,” I said.

“The Strong Spirit of this place has shown you this.” Then he said something that sticks in my head to this day.

“What do you suppose . . .” he began, then stopped. He coughed, “Ahem, ahem.”

“What?” I said. “Say it.”

“What do you think we’d do with our big brains if we weren’t all the time using them to get ourselves out of the trouble we’ve gotten ourselves into?”

I stared at the stones as if they had asked the question and not Coyote.

I said, “Why, I haven’t the slightest idea.”

Coyote slapped his thigh.

“Exactly!” he said.

6 thoughts on “Excerpt: And now for something completely different”

  1. Is the essay nonfiction? I’m curious as to what it’s about…

    Also, can you explain a bit about the connection between this excerpt and your novel? The novel just arrived recently, so I’ve only read the first few chapters so far. The mythological aspect is kind of mysterious and intriguing…

    And clearly there’s some sort of connection here… 😉

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  2. C.L.,

    The essay is nonfiction for the most part, though it contains some actual dreams (are dreams fiction or nonfiction?) and then this fiction within a fiction at the end. Part memoir and part exploration of the concepts of irony and the beautiful, or of being gloriously brought up short, the essay tells about my first trip to the desert and how it changed the way I see.

    The connection between the essay and the novel … hm. There is one or more, not sure though how to explain them. The most obvious connection, I guess, is in both pieces’ mythological overtones. In my writing, I sometimes fall rather easily into mythopoeic patterns because of my consciousness of audience. Like good jokes, myths and folktales may tickle a broader audience than some of my higher falutin’ prose.

    Of course the Coyote element is borrowed from Native American tales, but while Coyote is roundly considered a trickster, sometimes he is also the tricked one. In fact if you take all the different Native American traditions you get quite a rainbow of Coyotes, including ones that represent–even introduce–evil to the world. My Coyote bargains in irony. I know irony has rather a bad name in the culture but I have other ideas about it which I mean to present in a series of posts on AMV. Soon.

    I grew up steeped in wildlife. Probably, animals will always play varied and colorful roles in my written world as they do in my daily lived one. Just the other day I encountered a coyote as I was out on one of my walks. Nearly all of the novel’s protagonist’s encounters with coyotes are based on actual experiences. This most recent experience will no doubt work its way into my writing somewhere.

    These are just a few of the ways in which the essay and novel are connected. Thanks for asking. I hope you have fun with The Pictograph Murders !  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  3. Hey PGK!!!

    Irony’s a perfectly respectable literary device, isn’t it? Even for Mormon lit? :^)

    I’ve only read about a third of your novel so far, but I hope to have some reading time this weekend.

    I can tell you some of my initial impressions, though:

    I like the continuum you’ve developed from the actual, real-life coyote to the mythical/folklore coyote to the corresponding human character, and I’m curious to see how this will play out. As you suggest, folktales can be entertaining for a general audience while developing the themes of the story (such as making a connection between nature and humanity perhaps?).

    One of my biggest areas of interest in Mormon literature is looking at how the author views LDS culture. So the political interplay you develop between the (mostly LDS) archaeologists/researchers and the (mostly LDS) locals is particularly fascinating.

    On a more mundane level, I noticed you acknowledged the help of a specialist for some of the archaeological precisions, but given the level of detail on the everyday aspects of working on a dig (including naturalistic details like what insects to expect ;^) ), I was wondering if perhaps you’d participated in such a project yourself.

    I imagine that working on such a dig would be a difficult challenge but worth the experience. When I was at BYU, I had a boyfriend who had worked on a similar project over the summer with a BYU group (they were excavating a battlefield, not a native American site). He had a great experience, similar to what you describe in the first part of your novel (if I’m remembering his stories correctly…).

    CLH 

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  4. Irony’s a perfectly respectable literary device, isn’t it? Even for Mormon lit? :^) 

    Depends on how you use it. :-}

    C.L., you got it: I spent most of four summers on a BYU archaeological dig way back when. I toyed with the idea of jumping the Good Ship English Major to become an archaeology major but had to face the truth that I wasn’t there for the science but for the sheer pleasure of living in the desert for weeks and months at a time. In the end, the physical labor, exposure to nature, and the camaraderie thatexisted in our isolated field camp magified my impulses to tell stories rather than any urge toward scietific inquiry I might have had.

    Sounds like you’re enjoying the novel. At any rate, you’re certainly thinking about it as you go along. I appreciate that!

    PGK

     

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. Hi PGK,

    I just finished reading your novel over the weekend and really enjoyed it.

    I liked the way parts of the story were told metaphorically, through folktales. Also your backwards mystery of showing the culprit to the reader and moving towards unearthing the particulars of the crime was very original.

    I might write up a more detailed analysis and recommendation for my column/blog.

    CLH
     

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  6. C.L.,

    I don’t think anybody’s ever called me backwards before–to my face! Or rather, to my post-face!

    I’m delighted you liked the book. If you do decide to write something up for your column/blog, let me know if I may be of assistance in any way.

    PGK

     

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

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