The Scent of Water
- Wednesday, April 06, 2011
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Scent of Water by Naomi Zacharias (Zondervan).
When I was little, I sat in red flannel pajamas with footies, curled up next to my mother as she read to me the stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. I listened intently as my mind was captivated by the wonders of fairy godmothers with magical wands, adorable mice, and battles waged against evil and envy and all that was ugly in life. My eyes widened every time good triumphed over evil (in the end), the hero always got his girl, and they lived happily ever after.
As my dreams began to take shape, I, too, believed that life would turn out as it seemed it should: that darkness and evil would not prevail over the “happily ever after” that was mine.
And when my life did not turn out the way it was supposed to, I felt I had been played for a fool. Life was certainly no fairy tale, and although cynicism was an obvious escape from the ache, I could not quite commit to it. I nostalgically looked back to the time, the hope, when I believed that life would imitate the storybook.
Modern-day fairy tales don’t tell us the real story. They don’t even tell us the rest of the story. They don’t tell us what happens when the prince does not show up in time, or how to endure the potency of a poisonous apple. The End often appears in cursive at the point that the real story would begin. It is what nearly breaks the protagonists, what sometimes does break them, that is the real story. But it is not one for the faint of heart.
I felt great animosity for my own life, and when I referred to it with disloyalty one day, my father quietly said, “The shortest route is not always the best route.” And when I was discouraged by the recognition that I had only a flawed story to offer to another, he released me into a truth: “There are no such fairy tale loves. The garden of Eden proved that,” he wrote to me. “Love has to battle through. In fact, if it has never had to, one wonders if it can be true.”
I can’t be alone in longing for the fairy-tale life, and as I read the stories, I realized that perhaps we should all be careful what we wish for. To my surprise, as I fed my fairy-tale obsession and buried myself in research of famous narratives, I discovered it was not the fairy tales that had failed me. Clearly we have since watered them down to minimize the decidedly uncomfortable, but the original fairy tales actually affirmed my father’s words to me. They were filled with lions and tigers and very grown-up darkness that actually offered critical insight into life.
In the 1800s, the Brothers Grimm published their story of Sleeping Beauty, which began with the birth of a beautiful baby girl. To share their excitement, her parents, the king and queen of a land far, far away, threw the grandest of parties. But they made a critical mistake when they forgot to invite a certain fairy to the celebration, and the scorned fairy retaliated by placing a curse on their child: At the age of sixteen, she will prick her finger and die.
A good fairy was not able to erase the curse, but she could alleviate the ultimate of horrors. Instead of death, the prick of her finger would incite a deep, deep sleep. The better of the curses also allowed for an escape clause: A love, true love, that was pure could awaken her. Thankfully, Sleeping Beauty was lucky enough to be awakened by such a true kiss, and all was as good as new. Or was it? She had been sleeping, waiting, and under the curse for one hundred years. During that time, her mother died from a broken heart and her fairy advocate twiddled the entire kingdom into a deep sleep to try to preserve some semblance of her life should the princess ever awaken. There was suffering — and not hers alone.
Ariel lost her majestic voice. Rapunzel wandered aimlessly in a desert wasteland for years in misery while the prince and father of her children was rendered blind and did “naught but lament and weep” over the loss of his wife. Cinderella was first orphaned, then enslaved before she tried on the glass slipper that changed her world.
We want the good part of the fairy tale, the culmination of all things good; and with such idealism, we have only preserved the idea of happily ever after. On the screen and in our minds we have rewritten the stories and forgotten about the battles the heroines chose to fight. The resolve is only significant because of the magnitude of the darkness. It required a love and justice that were extraordinary to redeem what had gone so awfully wrong. The love that was grand is powerfully intoxicating. But we have chosen to overlook the pain and the price that the players paid to find it.
The flaw is not in the stories themselves or in the restoration they portray. The flaw is in the happily ever after, since real life does not always end in such a way. Yet of even this fantasy we were carefully warned. The Grimm’s Brothers’ conclusion of Sleeping Beauty provided a caution: “They lived happily ever after, as they always do in fairy tales, not quite so often, however, in real life.” It was the only disclaimer, the distinction made between real life and fantasy, for the rest remained quite realistic.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton penned a chapter he cleverly titled “The Ethics of Elfland,” in which he claimed there are two requirements for every fairy tale.1 The first — one he calls the doctrine of conditional joy — is the necessity of the “if.” If you don’t return by midnight, the coach will go back to being an ordinary pumpkin. The second rule is what Chesterton calls the fairy godmother philosophy: The condition stipulated cannot be questioned. He further explains that one can never ask the fairy godmother, “How come?” — for to do so, he warns, would only beg another question. To ask, “How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?” the fairy godmother could rightfully answer, “How is it that you are going there until twelve?” The rule is essentially this familiar bit of clichéd advice: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” In the case of fairy tales, we cannot require an explanation for the supernatural. The acceptance of the inexplicable is simply the way it works to be in the presence of miracles.
In real life, we would now do well not to draw our conclusions to an expectant close. When there is the chance of a miracle, but no guarantee of such, there will certainly be the alternate possibility of disappointment, fully explainable reality, and pain. This present world is not the best of all possible worlds. It is just the best of all possible means to the best of all possible worlds. Heaven is the happily ever after. Until then, we still live with frogs and century-long naps.
There is, however, a “once upon a time.” There are evil and heartache. There are darkness and our own dragons to fight. There are not the likes of singing mice, but there are details equally miraculous. More miraculous.
I wanted to leave the familiar — my own evil and heartache — and find people who were the most vulnerable; to be where something was tragically broken that was not me. It was not to feel comforted by seeing the pain of another, but rather to feel another’s pain. I needed to exist outside of my own. Smooth and flawless held nothing to comfort me, nothing to teach me, and nothing to fill me.
The reality is that I was running from something I could not fix, a self I could not forgive, and a story I could not accept.
This is a story; it is not the story, for no life can be characterized by a single story. It is one that I started to see unfold when I walked into an unlikely room to listen to the story of another. It is not neatly packaged. It is far from tidy. But I do not need the balm of cynicism to endure its pages. Because it has been significantly rich. And because it is mine.
In his biographical novel of Michelangelo, Irving Stone unveils a discussion between the young apprentice and his teacher, Bertoldo. “To try to understand another human being, to grapple for his ultimate depths, that is the most dangerous of human endeavors,” the instructor counseled as he brushed strokes of wisdom on his student.2
So I start with the ever-important beginning that is mine and yours to claim.
Once upon a time . . .
The Scent of Water
Copyright © 2010 by Naomi Zacharias
This title is also available as a Zondervan ebook. Visit www.zondervan.com/ebooks.
This title is also available in a Zondervan audio edition. Visit www.zondervan.fm.
Requests for information should be addressed to:
Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530
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