I thought I had failed.
This is not an unusual feeling for me, particularly when it comes to writing. I wanted to create something new and unique, a way of talking in this medium that had not been tackled before. I thought I had done it moderately well, until I spoke to someone who wondered what the point of all of this was, whether I’d really thought it through, whether I knew, as they put it, “who my audience was.”
It’s an absurd question: the audience chooses itself, no matter what anyone tells you. A street performer cannot control who stops to stare, a concert pianist cannot predict who will fill the seats.
But it is not the first time someone has frightened me by suggesting that my first attempt was somehow wrong. And it is not the first time that the fear stopped me entirely from doing it again, lest that new attempt finish even more poorly.
It took me five weeks to remember that there is no such thing as a story being finished.
When I was a child, I was absolutely fearless when it came to trying out new stories. I made them up, twisted ones I knew, roped other children into playing characters. Peter Pan, Aladdin, King Arthur. I liked princesses, too; even princesses had their heroic moments. I didn’t know a single girl who, when she played Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, didn’t fast-forward straight past the parts where they were supposed to be unconcious, poisoned, out of commission.
Not a one of us lasted more than about five seconds with our eyes shut before we were all scrambling for the next scene, the action, tumbling out of bed and into the arms of the horizon. We wanted to see what happened next.
The other thing I remember is that when we were children, stories were never over. Not ever. We’d finish playing one story from start to finish and then we’d do it again, faster, different this time. This time you be the villain, you be the hero, you be the wicked witch. Or maybe we didn’t do it differently. Maybe we were playing with those kids who wouldn’t relinquish a good role, the ones who made you be the stumbling sidekick or the frog prince.
It didn’t matter. The story got told just the same, then, over and over and over.
There were no endings. But damn, we were happy.
The Never-Ending Story
I know few adults who manage to remember that the story is never done. We keep thinking there’s some kind of ultimate conclusion, a single road with a single treasure at its end. There are two problems with this way of looking at the world: first, that it’s not possible to completely end the story of your life until you’re dead. If you find your ending before the end of your life, what are you supposed to do with the rest of your time?
The second problem is that if you really believe there’s only one shot, only one story, only one path to victory, few of us will ever begin. The pressure is immense. If you do not play this story from start to finish brilliantly, perfectly, heroically, then your life will be for nothing.
It’s an impossible burden. Few of us shoulder it. Faced with the idea that once we step on the path, it is either victory or the grave, most of us choose to never step on the path at all.
We stay at home. We watch television. We read books and browse the internet. We avoid making any misstep that might, potentially, set us on a path that has a conclusion, because we believe that the conclusion is all there is. Nothing comes after.
And for those of us who start on a path and almost immediately encounter someone who tells us we’ve forgotten some essential token that will allow us to complete the quest, we collapse. We’ve failed, you see. There is no going back. There is no starting again. There is only this one story and it’s ruined.
Except it isn’t. Because the story never ends, and it is never any different than it was before. You have countless chances. You have infinite time.
The Three Brothers
There are thousands of stories about the three brothers, and they are all alike. You have read some of them: this is how they go.
All three are set the same quest. The first two botch their task in some way or another. Greed is a popular reason, or sheer stupidity, or pure bad luck. Often they neglect to heed the advice of someone along the road, which, in case you’ve never heard a fairy tale in your life, tends to be a very bad idea.
They are alternately portrayed as good, well-intentioned, and capable, or rude, arrogant, and unkind. The three brothers stories I find most intriguing are the ones where the older brothers are nearly identical to the younger brother.
The first brother rides out with a pure heart on a noble quest. He is courteous to an old man on the road, and the old man gives him this advice: do not step off the trail, no matter what. The older brother means to follow this advice, but his horse stumbles in a hole and he is thrown off the trail, where he turns instantly to stone. The second brother, pure of heart, noble of quest, encounters the same man, displays the same good manners, and receives the same advice. He steps off the trail because he is too soft-hearted to ignore a wounded bird. He is turned to stone.
And so the youngest goes out, pure, noble, courteous, advised. He sees his stone brother by the hole where his horse stumbled. He sees his stone brother by the wounded bird. He stays on the path, and succeeds.
This is not the story of two unlucky brothers and one lucky one. It is the story of one man who fails, and fails, and then does not.
There is no absolute failure, not in stories, not in life. There is always another incarnation of yourself, someone who knows the mistakes that led previous incarnations astray, and who will not make the same mistakes again.
For myself, I made the mistake of thinking that the first two stories I told here had to have an ending. That if they did not achieve something tangible by their conclusion, they had failed.
I forgot that there are no conclusions, and there is no failure. There is only space for the story to be told again, with the wisdom won from all the previous tellings to give it magnified strength and purpose.
And so here I am, a little older, a little wiser, confronted with the same quest, telling the story again.
As I said, there are thousands of stories about the three brothers. This is one of them.
The Glass Mountain
There was once a farmer who had a large house, three sons, and six enormous fields of grain. The eldest of the farmer’s sons was tall and strapping, and worked alongside his father in the fields. The middle brother was lanky, humorous, and very clever, and he kept the books and drove good bargains for the price of his father’s grain. The youngest brother was sleepy-eyed and slow to speak, and frequently fell to daydreaming over his own household chores, which ran to cooking, cleaning, and mucking out the pigyard.
One morning the farmer and his eldest son went out to the fields and discovered one of them had been destroyed. The field was stubble as far as the eye could see. The eldest brother was infuriated, and promptly promised his father he would lie awake at the intersection of the fields, and find out the thief who had stolen the grain. The farmer agreed, and went home that evening alone, telling his other two sons what had happened over dinner. His middle son pondered who might have done such a thing. The youngest stared dreamily into his soup. He was thinking, quite intently, about daffodils.
The eldest son, awake in the field in the dead of night, heard a terrifying noise. It sounded like iron being torn in half, like women screaming and fire searing through stone. The eldest son stood his ground and demanded the intruder show himself, but the noise only grew louder and louder, until it seemed to be inside his very ears, until he thought he was going mad. The eldest son would have happily fought anything he could get his two fists around but he could not stand against an unbodied onslaught. He fled. By morning, another field was stripped bare and the eldest son was staring stone-jawed into the dawn, ashamed and too proud to apologize.
His clever brother clapped him on the back and made jokes until the eldest smiled, briefly, and turned his broad shoulders to the day’s work. The middle son promised his father he would stand guard that night. Perhaps it was a puzzle of logic, he thought. Perhaps he would fare better with wits than fists.
He did not. When the noise came in the night, he withstood it, peering everywhere to find the source of the trick, listening carefully to the sounds to see if he could determine their origin. He could not, and when a sound like an enormous oak landing in a marsh struck the ground behind him, he started and ran like a hare.
No one expected the youngest brother to make an attempt, and to be truthful, neither did he. He fell asleep that night propped up against the well that stood at the juncture of the fields, dreaming about a green badger who spoke to him like a man and recited poetry. Chaucer, he thought. When he heard the noise in his sleep he thought the badger was going a bit far with his description of a battle.
By the time the thundering, terrifying sounds woke him, he had been there longer than either of his brothers. And saw something neither of them had seen.
It was a horse. A proud beast with eyes like granite. Next to him on the ground was a full suit of armor, beautifully wrought with intricate details on the helm and breasttplate. The beast stared at him and snorted. The youngest son heard him clearly through the screaming, and took courage, because the sound of snot rippling through a horse’s nose is too ordinary to be terrifying. The boy did what every country child had been taught to do if they encountered somewhat otherworldly: he threw the steel from his tinderbox over the stallion.
The noise stopped abruptly. And the horse allowed him to mount.
The youngest son came the next night too, and the night after that. Every time, the sounds were enough to make a man weep, and the boy was not ashamed to do so. But each night, a horse appeared by a suit of armor – one laid with silver, one with gold – and the youngest son threw his bit of steel over each, and captured them all.
Now, for over a year, the beautiful daughter of the local duke had shut herself away at the top of a glass mountain, which she had commissioned from Paris from the finest glassworkers. It was a hundred feet high and slick as an otter, and flat at its peak, where the duke’s daughter had made herself a comfortable home – with, it must be said, an excellent view. She claimed to be waiting for the man who could ride his way to the top and win from her the three golden apples she kept in a bowl on the kitchen sill. The man who could show the apples to her father, she said, would marry her and become the heir to the duke’s lands.
Hundreds of men had tried to ride their horses up the mountain, but no matter how fast they rode or how sharp they shod their steeds, no one had made it even a third of the way up its length. The youngest son had often dreamed – in great detail, usually accompanied by triumphant music – of riding up the glass mountain himself, but he had no horse.
Now he had three.
Which is how it came to pass that a young man in full armor, riding a stallion with eyes like stone, barrelled full tilt toward the glass mountain at dawn one morning. The duke’s daughter watched with some amusement, but it must be said that she noted the fine detail work on the armor and thought mildly to herself that he must have ordered it from Spain. She commended him on his taste and turned away from the window – only to return again as the sound of hoofbeats came nearer than she’d ever heard them.
He did not make it to the top. Not even close. His horse had only come a third of the way before the beast began to slip back down again. The duke’s daughter was nonetheless impressed by his armor, his horse, and his brave attempt, and she rolled one of the apples down after them. It tumbled straight into the rider’s boot. The duke’s daughter had excellent aim.
The next day, another rider came out, in armor inlaid with silver and riding an even more enormous, strapping steed with eyes that flashed like liquid mercury. Truth be told, the duke’s daughter was still more impressed with this rider than the first, and when he could only ride up two-thirds of the way, she rolled the second apple down after him, neatly landing it yet again in his boot. She congratulated herself on her sportsmanship and her two impressive new beaux, and went to make an omelette.
On the third morning, a rider came out all in gold, riding a horse that looked like the sun incarnate and with a tilt to his shoulders that made the duke’s daughter decide then and there that she’d run down after him if he didn’t gain the summit. But he did, and swept the golden apple straight off her lap, and rode down again to present all three to the duke himself.
They were wed the following evening, and you have never heard such flowery poetry as the two of them recited to one another. Recluses and dreamers have a great deal of time to come up with such nonsense, after all – but, truth to tell, neither of them seemed displeased.
There Is No Ending
I told this particular story, long as it is, because of the three within the three. There are three brothers; two try, one succeeds. And then that brother is set another quest, an entirely different quest. He tries twice and succeeds on the third attempt. There are four failures in this story and only two successes.
And, most importantly, that first success is not the end.
If you fail, you can tell the story again and again until the ending comes out the way you hoped it would. But once you succeed, you will immediately be catapulted into a new story, and it will be just as bewildering and impossible as the one before. There is no ending.
And if that is true, then there is no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy the tale we’re telling as we’re telling it.
Or why every failure should not be seen as a chance to tell it again, and better.