Telling Tales 185
Gaps in the Story
“You have to understand that there are gaps in the story. There have to be, otherwise the story would be as long and as full as real life, with all of its waiting and sleeping. It’s our job to fill in the gaps, and it’s the tellers job to make the gaps small enough that we don’t notice that that’s what we’re doing. It’s a trick, really. The problem comes up when we repeat stories and are too faithful to the source, repeating them word for word, even when those words are good ones. They may have spoken to an earlier age or to another audience but they don’t speak to us with the same fluency or urgency.
“First off, there is the mystery of how Ivan knew to do everything that Bulat told him to do, and to do it in spite of the fact that Bulat was a mere soldier and Ivan a noble prince. That’s easy enough, isn’t it? They rode together. They didn’t simply stop in one place and reappear in another with no action in between. They rode on their horses. They talked. Is that an interesting conversation to report, or is there magic in the words, ‘Take the key, open the cupboard, drink a glass of water, and God speed you’? As to the second part, Ivan agreed to do what Bulat said, and as to Bulat knowing what to do, we know that he has been in this kingdom, so we can choose to harangue our teller for his words or we can wait to hear him out and see what arrives. Perhaps these questions don’t get answered and perhaps we even forget that they bothered us. Is that not a mark of a good story, that our concerns lost themselves?
“Why the wings? Who knows. Perhaps the princess has a fondness for them. Perhaps they symbolize flight and freedom. Perhaps the innkeeper was renowned for his birds.
“Why the feast? A bribe for a hungry people who have had their fill of outsiders. A distraction. We may as well ask our hosts, why did you run low on food on this day and no other? Do we need to know that they had food aplenty for a normal evening and a normal week, but not enough for a snowstorm and an inn full of merchants trapped for days? All I mean is that we can nitpick if we want. We can kill a story and that is surely the way, to dig in between its action and demand satisfaction, because there are always gaps. There is always space to move.
“Perhaps now our friend would continue?”
Dmitri. “Thanks.” Grudging, but sincere.
* * *
When Tsar Kirbit awoke the next morning, nearly every citizen was at the wall to the castle, clamoring to tell him that the princess had stolen away the day before. If Kirbit noticed a flush in their cheeks, a combination of an extravagant meal and some shame at not having said anything before, he said nothing. He called to the captain of his guard. “Clear the gates and bring back my daughter.”
The captain, who owed his position more to ruthless efficiency than he did to dialogue or diplomacy, said, “I can have a hundred men pursue them immediately on our swiftest horses. I will deploy a small number to clear the gates and punish the town.”
Kirbit nodded. He didn’t need to say anything to the offending townsfolk when his servants knew him so well. “Make the rescue quick. Make all the punishment slow.”