Here is one of our favorite little stories. While it is a satire on the character oriented story–that any good story is built solely on a character (who never changes)–in that the protagonist has no character; it is a feminist piece because it is men who give her her character. I (Minna) was arguing with the editor of a now defunct feminist zine about the necessity of a character-centred story and set out to prove her wrong: she snapped up the story because of its feminist bent and totally missed the satire/slap in the face: the protagonist has neither name nor character.
What’s My Story?
by Minna vander Pfaltz
Crashing flash! Throbbing pain. Burning. She held her breath. And then tried again. This time, little by little. She opened her eyes. Oh, lord, did that hurt! Screeching whiteness. No. She couldn’t maintain it. Closed her eyes again. In the pulsing darkness, she felt her body. She was lying on her back. Whatever she was lying on was hard. Very hard. There was a lot of noise around. Jarring her bones. Making her ears bounce and hurt a little inside. Great rumbling noises made her body vibrate–and then they were gone.
She rolled over onto her side and pushed herself up. She listened a little longer. The vibrations were not so drumming. Then she opened her eyes again.
Still bright. But there wasn’t so much pain. She put her hand over her eyes, shielding them from the brightness above. Where was this?
These. . .things moving, moving. Going this way and that. Big ones and little ones. All making noise. The big ones bigger noise. And blaring D-flats.
She was getting a headache again.
She was the silent one, the still one in this mass of movement and noise. Around her, paying her no mind, were people. People moving helter-skelter. Great masses of heaving color that hummed along. Clicked along. Lights flashing.
Over there. Trees and grass. A bench. A place to sit.
She got up and walked–stumbled would be more accurate–to the bench and sat down on its warm wood, feeling the spaces between the slats. Not a very comfortable place to sit but better than lying on the–street? pavement?
Where the hell was she?!
Wherever she was, it looked like something she recognized. Something that was similar to something she remembered. Something. . . .
But where did she remember it from?
She creased her brows.
Who was she?
Ahh. . .now there she was on firm ground: she couldn’t remember who she was. She didn’t know who she was.
Was this an alternate universe?
Was she one monkey waiting for 99 more?
She had to get away from this noise! It was making her hair shake.
So she walked. The more she walked, the longer she walked the easier it became until she was moving along rather fluidly. But where was she going? No direction. Anywhere.
No. This was not good.
She looked up at the sky, searching for the brightest glare.
How did she know to go to her left? Without thinking, she did it. And then asked herself this question: How did I know to go to the left? This place wasn’t anywhere she knew, despite the vast similarities, so how could she be sure left was the right way? This place, this world could be exactly the opposite of her world. The world she came from to be here.
How did she get here?
She didn’t remember falling. She did remember a thud, though. And then she was here. In this place. As if she’d been dropped into this world.
What was she doing here?
Who was she?
Lord!–she had to get to a quieter place so she could think.
The glaring sky told her nothing. The world around her blurred. Her body kept on pounding along. Numbed. Apprehending nothing. Just moving. And then suddenly the noise stopped. She kept on going. She kept going until she felt the difference in color around her. She stopped. She looked around. She turned back the way she had come. All the noise was over there, in that hazy bulging upward, vertical mass of. . . spires?
And she sat down. On the green. Grass? She didn’t know. She didn’t know if that’s what it was in this place but somewhere inside her it was grass. So she called it grass in her mind. She felt it. It felt the same as usual. Usual? How did she know it was usual, this touch? This kind of softness with hard edges. Pointy. Kind of cool. Was she feeling it make noise? She put her ear down to it. Leaned down. Ran her fingers over its roughness. Comforting noise.
How did she know it was comforting?
“Hey! What are you doing?”
She looked up. A man stood at the bottom of the hill.
She looked at him. She squinched her eyebrows together.
“I said, what are you doing?”
“I don’t know. Sitting on the grass.”
“I can see that. Who gave you permission?”
“I need permission?”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?”
“No. I’m not. Where am I?”
“Here. In Havenwood.”
“Oh. Where’s that?”
“Are you alright?”
“I’m not hurt, if that’s what you mean.”
“How did you get here? I mean, the way you’re dressed, you’re not usual, you know?”
“I feel like I was dropped in.”
“Maybe you better come with me.”
“Can you help me?”
“I can take you somewhere.”
She got up and walked down the hill. When she stood next to him, she found he was very much shorter than she was. Perhaps head and shoulders shorter. She’d never felt so tall before.
“You’re tall. We don’t make many tall women here. We don’t make many tall men, either.”
“You make people here?”
“You know. Not make as in machines but, you know, grow.”
“No. We get born.”
They continued walking along in silence. He led her into a squat reddish building with greyish lines running up and down, isolating little squares of color. Flat glass doors like a mouth. Flat glass windows like eyes. The doors swallowed them up. The eyes did not change their expression.
“The headman lives here. He’ll know what to do.”
“You know the headman?”
“No. I don’t now anybody.”
Silently they walked through some halls.
“I’m tired. I’d like to rest. I’ve been through alot today. I think I came from over there.”
“Okay. He’ll find a place for you to stay.”
“Good. I’d like to lie down.”
And then they were in a small room.
“Hey. I’ve brought you someone.”
“Hey. Where did you find her?”
“Sitting in the park.”
“Yeah. Imagine that. No one gave her permission.”
“Hey. Who are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where do you come from?”
“I don’t know. I just woke up and found myself here.”
“She said she felt as if she was dropped in.”
“Dropped in, eh?”
“Yes. And she’s tired.”
“Yes. Hungry, too.”
“We should let you rest and eat first.”
“Hey. Take her to Na’s place. She’ll take care of her.”
“Then come back here. I’ll call the elders for a council.”
* * *
Shoulder to shoulder around the oblong table the men sat. The Headman and the elders. And the finder man.
“What are we to make of this, then?”
“It is very strange. Very strange indeed.”
“There have been no strangers in a long time.”
“No. She’s very tall.”
“She dresses. . .differently.”
“She talks a little off.”
“And her skin color. . .”
The heavy ticking of the clock pounded the walls. They looked around the table. A few coughed. A few looked elsewhere. The headman looked at the finder man.
“I think she’s the one,” said the latter.
“How can she be? She’s a woman.”
“Yes. There has never been a woman before.”
“She is a very tall woman.”
“Larger than life.”
“Where is she from?”
“That’s a mystery. She’s not saying.”
“She just. . .appeared.”
“Right when we need her.”
“Yes. That seems to fit.”
“Fate is a funny thing, you know.”
“You can never be too sure.”
“Are we to continue as we are?”
“We cannot remain passive,” said the headman. “I am for taking action on this.”
Pause. The elders looked around at each other.
“Will she go along with us?”
“Why should she not? She is here. Nothing happens without a reason.”
“She may put up a fight.”
“It’s part of the pattern.”
“She’s already denying who she is.”
A collective, “Eh?”
The headman and the finder nodded.
“We must proceed, it seems.”
“Tomorrow morning at Na’s. She has a nice courtyard in the back.”
* * *
She sat facing the group of men. She frowned and held her breath. This gathering was definitely unbalanced. She didn’t know who she was. She didn’t know where she was. And now she was confronted by this. . .tribunal. How was she supposed to act? She shifted in her seat. Crossed her legs. Crossed her arms. These men were obviously here to tell her something. Could it be they knew something about herself? She could only wait.
She looked at the group of men. They looked back at her and then away to each other. Focus came to the headman. She looked at the headman. He looked at her.
“I trust you had a good night.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“You are rested from your journey?”
She uncrossed her legs and crossed them the other way.
The finder coughed.
“We know who you are.”
“Yes. Yes. We do.”
“Who am I?”
“You are our hero.”
She uncrossed her legs. She uncrossed her arms. She beat on her thighs with her hands. She laughed.
“Surely you jest! I am no hero.”
“How do you know?”
She looked sharply at the finder. “Yes. You are right.”
“Yes.” She leaned forward and looked at these men who seemed to know more about her than she did. This was perhaps reassuring. “Could this be illusion?”
“No, no, no. Nothing of the sort. What in the universe is not true?”
“We have dreamed of your coming?”
“So I am a dream?”
“Come true. A dream come true.”
“Dreams are part of life. Of the universe.”
“I could be a bad dream–”
“Not at all! You are just what we asked for.”
“So, who am I?”
“What an odd name. Hero.”
“Odder still as that is what you are.” The headman giggled a little.
She smiled into the silence. A breeze disturbed the leaves. Gave them voice. Gave itself a voice, for otherwise it was just air. The passing of air was ever accompanied by a voicing. Without something standing in the way, the wind has no voice. Nor do the trees. Rain, too, is nothing until it demolishes itself upon trees and people, houses and streets. The sound nevertheless surrounds you like an orchestra and carries you away, protects you. All the world is one. Then. It was not one for Hero.
“I am who I am and I am what I am?”
“Why, yes, that’s the way it is.”
“My name says it all.”
“The name you gave me.” Pause. “The role you give me.”
“Do you have a better one?”
“I don’t feel like a hero. I’ve never done anything to be considered a hero. What is a hero?”
“A hero’s life is in the making.”
“In the future.”
“I can’t do anything.”
“I told you! Didn’t I?”
“Shush! This is to be expected.”
“What is to be expected?”
“Well,” the finder began hesitantly, “you meet the criteria.”
“I’m getting a headache.”
“Na,” said the headman.
Medicine was brought. Everyone sat silent and still for a time.
“Do you feel better now?”
“I’m sure it will go away.”
“Yes. Havenwood is known for its drugs. We can even make a sick dog feel better.”
“Tell me how I fit the bill when I don’t even know who I am?”
“We know who you are.”
“But I don’t feel like Hero. I don’t even know where I am or where I came from.”
“That is the way it is.”
“Heroes come out of nowhere.”
“When they are needed.”
“And they are more than we are.”
“You mean my height?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“But I am no one. I am not up to this.”
“You can be no one without others.”
“I have no character.”
“We are giving this to you.”
“What if I don’t want it?”
“Heroes usually do not. . .it is said.”
“You see. . .there are historical precedents.”
“What is it I’m supposed to do?”
All of the men sat back heaving sighs.
“You are here to save us from ourselves.”
“Yes. It is laughable, isn’t it? But it’s true.”
“We have become inundated with a particular kind of pandemic. Passive Ignorance Insensitivity Syndrome. PIIS.”
“No, no. In our tongue when there are two i’s in a row, the first is long, the second short. We say, then, Peye-us.”
Oh. I see. You are Peye-us. And who has visited this upon you?”
“Not one of us.”
“His name is Gnome Nervt.”
“How do you know?”
“He has done this before and. . .”
“He leaves traces.”
“I see.” Pause. “I must rid the world of this. . .evil Gnome Nervt.”
“Well. I suppose I have nothing better to do,” she said. She thought, though, that perhaps she might also discover her true self, her true identity now she had something to do. “You must give me some context.”
“Here is everything you need to know. Tomorrow we will come again.”
“And if I am not your hero?”
“You will fail and we will build another martyr’s monument in Memorial Park Cemetery.”
“But you will not fail. The life and well-being of thousands upon thousands of Havenwoodniks are riding on your shoulders.”
And then she was alone with herself. Whoever she was. To these men she was someone. She had a frame into which to fit. There was just one nagging question: What did a hero do? That is, how did a hero act?
Was fiction becoming reality?
An unanswerable question since she didn’t know what was real. Rather, she only had this reality to go on. Could she then live up to her given character?
She shook her head. Identity was a funny thing. How do you know when you’ve got it? And when you’ve got it, how do you know it’s yours?
There are some places where people are born with no identity. Later, they can buy one from the identity brokers. But, then, you may still ask, who is this character? All you have is a label. Made up by another. A handle upon which to hang a history. A history with no character to identify it is no history at all. So where does it come from?
This is a question I cannot answer. I am only a writer. I am a writer because I write. . .and because you read me. Therefore I have character because writers have a particular character, right?
I find myself much in the same situation as the girl in this story.
(c) 2002, Minna vander Pfaltz