Monday 6 October 2008

The petrified woman

"The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative."

From Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Speech.

I read the passage that follows on the bus to work. From this weary, shaky anxiety, from this abraded, aching body that needs more sleep, a kick of spirit in response. I felt addressed, reached. This is it. The storyteller. The meeting. Why writing matters.

"Buzby... was small and neat and wore - I swear it - pince-nez glasses. I could see at a glance that he was a city man dropped, like a seed, by the wind. He had been there a long time, certainly. He knew the corn talk and the heat talk, but he would never learn how to come forward in that secure, heavy-shouldered country way, to lean on a car door and talk to strangers while the horizon stayed in his eyes.

...I could see him hesitating. It was plain that he wanted to show us, but the prospect was half-frightening. Oddly enough, I had the feeling his fright revolved around his discovery, more than fear of the townspeople. As he talked on, I began to see what he wanted. He intended to show it to us in the hope we would confirm his belief that it was a petrified woman. The whole thing seemed to have taken on a tremendous importance in his mind. At that point, I couldn't fathom his reasons.

...The wind goes down into those canyons also. It starts on the flats and rises through them with weird noises, flaking and blasting at every loose stone or leaning pinnacle. It scrapes the sand away from pipy concretions till they stand out like strange distorted sculptures. It leaves great stones teetering on wineglass stems.

I began to suspect what we would find, the moment I came there. Buzby hurried on ahead now, eager and panting. Once he had given his consent and started, he seemed in almost a frenzy of haste.

Well, it was the usual thing. Up. Down. Up. Over boulders and splintered deadfalls of timber. higher and higher into the back country. Toward the last he outran us, and I couldn't hear what he was saying. The wind whipped it away.

But there he stood, finally, at a niche under the canyon wall. He had his hat off and, for a moment, was oblivious to us. He might almost have been praying. Anyhow I stood back and waited for Mack to catch up. 'This must be it,' I said to him. 'Watch yourself'. Then we stepped forward.

It was a concretion, of course - an oddly shaped lump of mineral matter - just as I had figured after seeing the wind at work in those miles of canyon. It wasn't a bad job, at that. There were some bumps in the right places, and a few marks that might be the face, if your imagination was strong. Mine wasn't just then. I had spent a day building a petrified woman into a mastedon femur, and now that was no good either, so I just stood and looked.

But after the first glance it was Buzby I watched. The unskilled eye can build marvels of form where the educated see nothing. I thought of that bison skull under his eaves, and how badly we needed it.

He didn't wait for me to speak. He blurted with a terrible intensity that embarrassed me, 'She - she's beautiful, isn't she?' 'It's remarkable', I said. ' Quite remarkable'. And than I just stood there not knowing what to do.

He seized on my words with such painful hope that Mack backed off and started looking for fossils in places where he knew perfectly well there weren't any.

I didn't catch it all; I couldn't possibly. The words came out in a long, aching torrent, the torrent dammed up for years in the heart of a man not meant for this place, nor for the wind at night by the windows, nor the empty bed, nor the neighbours twenty miles away. You're tough at first. He must have been to stick there. And then suddenly you're old. You're old and you're beaten, and there must be something to talk to and to love. And if you haven't got it you'll make it in your head, or out of a stone in a canyon wall.

He had found her, and he had a myth of how she came there, and now he came up and talked to her in the long afternoon heat while the dust devils danced in his failing corn. It was progressive. I saw the symptoms. In another year, she would be talking to him.

'It's true, isn't it, Doctor?' he asked me, looking up with that rapt face, after kneeling beside the niche. 'You can see it's her. You can see it plain as day.' For the life of me I couldn't see anything except a red scar writhing on the brain of a living man who must have loved somebody once, beyond words and reason.

...It was two days later, in the truck, that Mack spoke to me. 'Doc'. 'Yeah.' 'You know what the Old Man is going to say about shipping that concretion. It's heavy. Must be three hundred pounds with the plaster.' 'Yes I know.' Mack was pulling up slow along the abutment of a bridge. It was the canyon of the big Piney, a hundred miles away. He got out and went to the rear of the truck. I didn't say anything, but I followed him back. 'Doc, give me a hand with this, will you?' I took one end, and we heaved together. It's a long drop in the big Piney. I didn't look but I heard it break on the stones. 'I wish I hadn't done that', I said."

From The Night Country by Loren Eiseley.


Dale said...


Anonymous said...

I too was so taken by Doris Lessing's speech. Loved hearing your thoughts on it.

Now, if only I could finish The Golden Notebook.... :)

Jean said...

Philippa (hello, thank you for visiting my blog) oh, do persevere with The Golden Notebook! Such a wonderful novel. Of course it wasn't dated when I read it 30 years ago, but it's themes don't really date.