This story was inspired by a Korean folktale I'd heard a long time ago. It has special meaning for writers -- stories do take on a life of their own sometimes, and by golly if you don't take care of them, they really can go bad on you....
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When Good Stories Go Bad
by Camille LaGuire
ONCE UPON a time in the big woods by the lakes lived a girl who loved stories. She loved them so much that she began to collect and hoard them in a little book—a diary with a lock. She crammed that book full of stories, from front to back, and still she collected more.
She listened to the tales of the lumberjacks when they came to dinner in camp, and the tales of fishermen who brought in bushels of fish for the Friday fish-fry. She got stories from the ladies who baked the bread and mixed the flap jacks and fried the bacon, and to the men who sat around the market where the farmers sold produce.
But it was her grandmother who told the best stories, and she gave them out freely. She sat, summer and winter, by the fire with the dogs at her feet and the cats in her lap, and she told stories to everyone who came by. Through her words those stories blossomed, as if they had a life of their own. The little girl sat on the floor with the dogs and cats every night, and scribbled these stories down. When her book was full, she wrote in the margins, and when those were full she had to write between the lines of stories that were already there. You couldn’t even read them, they were so crowded in there. But the little girl didn’t notice, because she was so busy collecting more stories, that she never read them, or let anybody else read them.
But then the day came when her old grandmother died, and it broke the little girl’s heart. After that, she couldn’t bear to hear any more stories, and so she closed the book and locked it. She set it on a shelf in the kitchen and went off to cry.
And she forgot about that book.
Eventually her broken heart healed up. She grew, and she played with the dogs and the cats, and took care of farm animals, but she never did go back and look at that book again. If she had, she’d have noticed the book had begun to rot.
The stories inside, all crowded in together, forgotten and neglected, grew sour. More sour than raw eggs in the sun. And with the rot, they grew resentful. They were trapped in the book without air or light or an audience. So they just stayed and went bad.
The girl grew up, as I said, and one day she found a beau she loved, and they planned to get married. The night before her wedding, her mother was in a tizzy, preparing for the big supper they would have the next day. She shoved a box aside to get at the matches, and didn’t even notice when she knocked the book off the shelf. It fell to the floor behind the wood box, which was next to the stove. The binding cracked just a little bit, but not much.
That night, after everyone had gone to bed, and the dogs and cats had been put out in the yard, one of the older cats decided it was too cold to be outside, so he slipped back into the kitchen through a loose window, and settled in to sleep behind the stove.
He didn’t sleep very well. For one thing, he smelled something rotten, and for another, he kept hearing voices. After a little bit, he got up and followed his whiskers over to the book, and there he could hear the stories talking to one another inside.
“I’m telling you the binding is loose!” said one. “We can get out of here.”
“I don’t care any more,” said another story. This one sounded grouchy.
“I do,” said the first. “I want to get out and I want to get revenge on that girl that locked us in here.”
“And how would you manage that?” said the grouchy one.
“I’ll tell you. In all this time, I’ve become so rotten, I’m like a disease. I'll get into her milk in the morning, and when she drinks me, she’ll get sick and die.”
“That won’t work,” said the grouchy one. “She’ll be so excited about her wedding that she won’t drink anything.”
“Well, then,” said another story. “If that doesn’t work, I’m so full of rot, I’ll get into the mounting block at the church, and when she gets out of the carriage, I’ll crumble away, and she’ll break her neck.”
“That won’t work either,” said the grouchy one. “What if somebody catches her before she falls?”
“Then what would you do?”
There was a pause, and finally the grouchy one spoke again, and its voice sounded so scary the cat’s fur stood on end.
“I hate it so much in here, my soul has turned to pure poison. I’ll become a rattle snake and I’ll wait in her wedding bed, and I’ll bite both her and her husband, and they’ll die.”
The cat sunk low on its belly and listened for a while longer as the three rotten stories agreed to each try their murderous plan. Then he backed silently away as only a cat can do, and ran back outside and told the dogs about it, and together they went and told the horses and cows.
The next morning as the girl’s mother stoked up the fire and started working on morning breakfast, she was surprised to find every cat in the family sitting in the kitchen. She was even more surprised when none of the cats got under foot or begged for anything. They just sat and watched until the girl came in, and poured herself a cup of milk. Then all of a sudden every cat in the place decided to have a cat fight. It was a royal battle with hissing and screeching and yowling. They managed to not only knock the cup out of the girl’s hand, but to knock over the pitcher and the milk bucket too.
The girl and her mother yelled and chased the cats out of the house with brooms. They were so busy and agitated, that they didn’t notice that not one of the cats had paused to lap up any of the milk that had spilled.
“It’s all right,” said the girl. “I’m too excited to eat or drink anything.”
She went to get dressed, and her mother went along to help, as others in the family volunteered to clean up.
Soon she was dressed beautifully, and her father helped her up into the wagon, and then her mother too. The wagon was decked with flowers, and so were the horses, and the horses pranced proudly and pulled with a will, as a good horse will.
But when they got to the church, the horses stopped short of the mounting block. The father yelled “giyap!” and urged them forward, but then they went too far and pulled past it. It didn’t seem right for a beautiful bride to climb down awkwardly, so he drove the wagon around again, and he struggled with reins and whip to bring the wagon along side the block, but the horses only fought him. Then finally one of the horses twisted this way and that, and managed to land a heavy kick on the mounting block.
The block crumbled away with rot.
So the father and the best man helped the bride down gracefully to the ground, and the wedding went on with no more problems.
And while the wedding went on, the two biggest dogs ran hard through the woods to get to the house where the girl and her groom were to live. Even a large dog has short legs, and it was a long way to go. The wedding was over long before the dogs reached their destination, but luckily there were many congratulations and good byes to be said. Finally the bride and groom climbed into their own wagon, and headed off to their new home and wedding bed.
As they drove along, cows wandered onto the road and blocked the way. The cows stood and stared and chewed their cud, and paid not a bit of attention to the shouts of the groom for them to get out of the way. In the end, both bride and groom climbed down and drove the cows off the road.
They were tired and grumpy by the time they climbed back up in the carriage and drove the rest of the way home. They had little patience with the two tired dogs waiting on their porch. They tried to send them home, but as soon as they got the door opened, the dogs ran inside.
The bride ran in after them, angry that all the animals had been crazy that day. She chased them to the bedroom, where one dog snatched up the corner of the blanket in his mouth, and yanked it off the bed. She started to grab the blanket away from the dog, but then she saw the rattlesnake in the bed, ready to strike at her hand.
Just then the other dog lept, and clamped her jaws down just behind the snake’s head, and broke its neck in a single snap.
Thus the girl and her new husband were saved, and the dogs each got a bit of wedding cake. The cats and horses and cows didn’t get much, because nobody knew what they’d done, but they had the satisfaction of knowing they had saved the day.
As for the stories, some died from the rot and were forgotten, but others were remembered, and were told again, and they grew clean and healthy. Stories are meant to be shared, and only on the telling, and on the hearing do they grow and become happy and strong. Never lock a story up. Always share it, and let it grow and blossom.
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See the story behind the story in tomorrow's Story Notes on "When Good Stories Go Bad."