‘Fable’ by Ethan Rutherford
Read it here in about an hour.
Thinking about using stories within stories…
A husband and wife have dinner with an old friend, meeting his new wife for the first time. The three friends reminisce; the narrator tells the reader they share stories about their shared pasts, but the reader isn’t shown these stories. We learn the host had an accident that prevented him from having children, while the visiting friends have a babysitter watching their own children at that very moment. Over the course of the evening, the friends realise some of the people they knew are now deceased, due to accident, illness, and so on.
As the evening approaches its natural end, they feel guilty for neglecting the new wife, Karen. Karen is a translator of stories – fables, she tells them – so they ask to hear one. She then proceeds to read a story she’s translated, about a fox that abducts a human baby, and lies to his wife about it because she desperately wanted a child. We aren’t told what language or culture this original story comes from.
Karen’s embedded tale begins with the classic “Once upon a time,”. As she proceeds, the narrative style changes. Karen’s tale is more fluid, more descriptive than the factual narration that came before: ‘It was Saturday night and the four of them were sitting around the dining room table at Sasha’s house,’ becomes ‘in a tall, thick forest that grew next to a northern village, a small fox lived with his wife’.
Karen’s tale is slower, stretching time out; the previous part of the evening would have lasted hours, but it takes up far less space on the page than Karen’s tale.
Every so often, the tale is interrupted, which pulls the reader (and the three listeners) out of it; Karen clears her throat at one point; Anna asks a question about the forest; Sasha fiddles with the fireplace – it’s snowing outside, and they’re in the middle of nowhere, isolated, much like the foxes in the story. The way the audience members behave during the telling reveals more of their personalities.
The tale ends, not with a traditional happy ending, but with acceptance, and death. Then Karen tells them three alternative endings.
Karen’s tale has the usual qualities of a fable: a forest, anthropomorphised animals, magic, and a moral.
At the end of Karen’s tale, and the story, there’s a power cut. As the three old friends scramble around in the darkness, Nils and Anna have epiphanies, realising time is passing, the past can no longer be grasped, one day they will no longer even be able to grasp each other.
We can wonder if the story was a metaphor – Karen touches her stomach several times during it, so is she the Fox’s wife, filled with the loss of something she never had?
The end of Karen’s tale contains the line ‘This is the end of your life’, which Karen then repeats, staring out of the window; is this a prophecy? Sasha goes into the kitchen to find candles, and the final, ambiguous line of the story tells us ‘They waited, but he never came.’