Once upon a time, a king declared that anyone beginning a story with the words ‘Once upon a time’ would be boiled alive.
The novelist realized his mistake rather too late.
By the rare good fortune that happens to novelists on odd occasions, he managed to squeeze out the back window as the royal police beat down the front door.
As he darted down narrow alleyways, he wished bitterly he’d read more thrillers.
Too late, he regretted writing only psychological slices of life and penetrating analysis of the human soul, exploring the deep confusions of suffering and the angst of uncertain being. Too late, he wished he spent his days writing about more than the conundrums of selfhood, the quandaries of godhood, the turmoils of the neighborhood.
He wished he hadn’t forgotten his sword cane.
In such situations as he was in, the novelist mused as he dove behind the bins to the roar of artillery fire, perhaps the worst mistake one can make is to forget one’s sword cane.
The novelist caught the first train out of the kingdom, and wound up for no apparent reason in Patagonia. His luggage happily arrived safely in Sacramento, which was nowhere near the railroad.
The novelist sat on a bench, and yearned for a rubbishy detective story in which to forget his sorrows. Something with dark streets, tilted streetlights, marijuana sold behind rusty doors.
A story about real people–careworn and caustic inspectors in grease-stained trench coats, dirty blondes in sheer black dresses, underworld tycoons in suits two sizes too small. A story about real emotions–depression, cynicism, hatred, passion. A story where people remembered their sword canes.
The novelist had none of these things. He sat on the bench, and brooded.
He caught the next train to nowhere.
And found, at last, the place where his name was known.
He wandered through bookstores with flagship displays of his books, watched interviews he hadn’t been asked for, read articles he had meant to write. He saw commercials for his latest novel on every web cast, found his earlier novels sold at every used book sale, heard his name as the key to the universe.
He stood in the park, and wept. For now he learned, again too late, that not one of his characters ever had a sword cane.
He had become his work, and his work had become him.
He, too, had no sword cane.
The novelist wept for the dreams that might have been, the dragons he could have slain and the damsels he could have impressed, the editors he could have threatened and the agents he could have coerced. He wept for his image, tarnished forever for the lack of one implement. He wept for his ambition, so bound, it seemed, to the humble tool propped in the umbrella stand, forgotten and forsaken in a closet.
Lacking a sword cane, what could he accomplish?
Nothing, that is, except another story for the slush pile.
This time, it would be a story rooted in experience, grounded in emotion, reflected in life, defending the poor and oppressed. It would be a story about a man who remembered his sword cane.
He shouldered his manuscript, and trudged away into the sunset.