Secondhand Story

Beatriz Seelaender

My father, tired from working all day, would lie on the carpet next to my bed and tell the same story. That story we both knew by heart, in word order, and intonation, and in extensive trivia information we had come up with in the years and years of listening to ourselves tell it. This is the first story I ever heard: the tale of the Manjaleo beast.

Don’t let yourself be fooled by the title; the story’s namesake, a terrifying animal with the wings of a bat and the teeth of a lion and the claws of a tiger is hardly present until the very end of the story. Granted, you knew it would show eventually, so there was a sense of suspense, but with a name like there was little even the most creative kid could do other than waiting for the big reveal.

The narrative began in death, just like any decent fairy tale. It started with an old man dying a long time ago in Portugal. This story, in fact, comes from Portuguese folklore, although I believe we have adapted it quite a bit. When you listen to a story every day, details tend to be added and phrases edited, and it can change without you ever noticing. Little by little, we recite it by heart until it is completely different from the original version. I guess this is how folklore is supposed to work, and how it did work before someone started writing down stories.

I didn’t like the old man dying like that. He reminded me of my father simply because he was a father as well, and I didn’t like thinking that my dad would die, and I liked to think parents were immortal. But, in the beginning, the old man said “Kids, I am a hundred years old, and I think I am going to die.” That was much too dreary for a five year old — however, and as soon as I realized one could change the parts one doesn’t like in a story, I told my father the old man dying was not dying, really, but simply going very far away. So the original tale, in which he immediately after professing his premonitions let out a cough and collapsed on the ground, was altered to a lighter, PG version of the incident, in which he retired from his job and moved to Florida just like any other hundred year-old.

***

“In his will, he had left each of his children one watermelon. Oh, I forgot about telling you that—you can never forget about this detail when telling this story—otherwise you have to go all the way back and explain that, before dying (sorry, going away), the old man had very specifically instructed his sons to crack the watermelons open only in close proximity to water. See, inside the three watermelons lived three thirsty fairies who would grant them three presents in exchange for a single drop of water. Why he would not just say that to his children remains a mystery. Why he would be keeping fairies inside watermelons is also a question that comes to mind. Had he imprisoned those poor creatures and left them there, just in case he ever needed their services? Was he some kind of fairy smuggler? I don’t like thinking about this, because to me the old man had always been kind and wonderful, like a nice thoughtful grandpa.

Here is where the tale gets didactic, and we are informed of the dangers of not following one’s parents’ commands. Right after their father announced his retirement from life, the three brothers packed their watermelons and parted ways as well. The first brother, a very bad-mannered young boy, had laughed at his father’s advice and opened his watermelon far away from the water, and so he watched the desperate fairy die right in front of him.”

“I didn’t know fairies could die, dad.”

“Oh, sweetie, fairies are just like humans, except they are magical. And when they die, they turn into flowers,” my father provided.

“What flower?”

“Roses.”

“Hum.”

“What’s wrong with roses?”

“Every time there’s a flower in a story, it’s a rose.”

“Fine, then. She turned into a daisy.”

“No! God, whenever it can’t be a rose, it’s a daisy!”

“Fine. She turned into an azalea.”

“No. You said she turned into a rose so she turned into a rose. She can be an azalea next time,” I said.

“The second son, who was not bad-natured, but rather susceptible to temptation, suddenly found himself in a wide desert to which he could not find the way out. Eventually defeated by his own thirst, the boy cracked his watermelon open, only to find it hollow but for a fairy. He and the fairy died in the desert.”

I asked my dad why the susceptible boy had had it worse than the evil one.

“The third son, by contrast, walked miles and miles with swollen feet carrying his watermelon and did not stop until he found a river. There, he gently cracked his fruit open and out came a fairy. “Give me water or give me milk, kindly gentleman,” she said. Actually, all of the watermelon fairies had said that, but repetition in prose isn’t as exciting as it can be when spoken out loud.

After being properly rehydrated, the fairy told the boy that as a reward she would disclose to him three very important pieces of information which had up until then been unjustly kept from him. One was that he had three sisters married to powerful misters. Two was that every intelligent fella payed a visit to Castella. Finally, three was that there over the high hill he’d find two giants in need of some guidance with their father’s will. The fairy said goodbye, and my father promised me that when she died she would become not a rose but a myosotis. This was where I learned the word “myosotis”.

***

“When he got there, the giants were fighting, which was causing a light earthquake in the surrounding area. Patiently the boy asked them what the matter was, and he was informed the disagreement had been caused by their father having left them three treasures, but there being only two of them, they knew not how to distribute the inheritance.”

***

You must be wondering why everything in this story comes in threes – three brothers and three sisters and three pieces of fruit; and three objects and three secrets and everything in three. I think lots of fairy tales go this way. Three is the magic number for teaching lessons; just think of the three little pigs: one is for failure, two is for trial; third time’s the charm. Hay and wood and brick. The rule of twos is more of a modern concept inspired by the helpless dichotomies of the present era. In the world of fairy tale, characters come in and out of the cauldron of narrative necessity, and their individualities depend more on their particular actions than their generic psychological troubles.

Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely fond of the novel as the result of the existential gap occupying the lungs of most individuals, but sometimes it’s nice to define a narrative in terms of content rather than of absence. In fairy tales characters just turn up, and things just happen- and they require no explanation whatsoever. But this is getting too theoretical; back to the high hill.

***

“Worry not, said the boy to the giants, we will flip a coin and the winner shall get the extra present. Out of options, the giants agreed to hand the boy the three treasures, them being a master key to all doors in the world, magic boots able to take he who wore them anywhere they wanted, and a scrappy, but trustworthy invisibility rag.”

***

Despite the tale’s constant insistence on the concept of the boy as moral compass, I’m  thinking the person who added this particular section was not as committed to spreading morals as most, for this is when the boy tricks the giants and, with the help of the invisibility rag and the magic boots, runs away with all three treasures. My father always warned me during that part not to hand my belongings to strangers, no matter how well-intentioned they may seem.

***

“Where is the tiny creature? Show yourself,’ one of the giants protested. ‘I’m in your brother’s nose,’ the boy answered, causing one giant to punch the other in the nose. ‘You idiot!’ the punched one cried, while the boy shouted, he was now standing on the other brother’s foot, which resulted in violent thumping. This sequence went on for a long time, but the premise stayed the same. Eventually the boy got tired and told the boots to take him to his first recently discovered sister.”

***

It turned out his sister lived in the bottom of the ocean, and the powerful mister she had married was a fish. He was, in fact, the King of Fish. At first, I was confused as to why a girl would marry a fish, but his other sisters were, too, respectively married to a ram and a pigeon, who were also kings to their respective herd and flock. All in all, it was just a family quirk.

***

“Any boy less accepting of others would have found it hard to bear such shame to his family name and disowned them for these unconventional marriage options, but the prospect of having sisters was much too exciting for him to turn down, and so he listened to the story the Queen of Fish told him at the dinner table, over salmon and cod and flounder. When they were young, she said, she and her sisters were kidnapped by a man with a moustache and a blonde lady who had tricked them into the back of a van to see puppies—“

“But, dad, did vans exist back then?”

“Fine, it was a dark alley. The woman told her that’s where the puppies were and when they got there they couldn’t see anything apart from the insides of the bag into which they had been unceremoniously tossed. The kidnapper had a rather creepy theme song, in which he announced what he was going to do with the children: ‘The hair I’ll turn into wigs / their flesh I’ll be serving for dinner / their skin will make for good leather / come, and gather all the sinners!’”

***

Obviously, this was not very appropriate for children—or people of any age, for that matter—but children were always the ones to get the most laughs out of this. Even with my never being able to pinpoint why exactly this was such a fine cue for incessant giggling, I still think it’s got something to do with the realization that things can be made out of things; and that things can be made out of people. Up until then, the line between the living and the inanimate had felt wider than the horizon. A pile of hair cut out, dead skin, even fingernails when you threw them in the trash; those things held an interesting position somewhere in the middle of that line. To think they had other things inside them felt like a discovery of incomparable proportions. I thought that there must have been extensions of me all over the world.

***

“You were not the only one to be creeped out by the kidnapper’s theme song, for his horse was so mortified by his evil plans that, immediately, he stopped trotting and with all force dropped his mounter on the floor. The kidnapper now unconscious, the horse tried to untie the knot keeping the girls inside the bag—he was nonetheless unsuccessful in that hooves were completely useless when it comes to knots. The horse then called for his animal friends—a fish and a pigeon and a ram—more practiced at the art of untying than he. With his prominent beak, the pigeon cut through the rope. Now that I come to think about it, though, I don’t know why the others were called in to help. I don’t even know how the fish was supposed to be just perfectly okay outside of the water, although, he was the sovereign of Fish. Besides, if we are going to start pinpointing incoherencies in this story, then it would all fall apart right before us. The fish could breathe out of water and the people could breathe under it, and that was all normal; thank you very much. What do you know about this faraway kingdom of Portugal, after all?

After having had plenty of fish and promising his sister to keep in touch, the boy told the giants’ boots to take him to his second sister. He suddenly saw himself surrounded by several sheep, covered in wool, and he saw ram, lambs, and ewe hopping everywhere. The king of sheep and his wife welcomed him to yet another banquet, and this time, he ate lamb chops.”

“Dad, why do they eat their own offspring?” I asked.

“They probably only ate the stillborn and the criminals, and maybe the very old ones because society is not kind to the elderly.

The next day he went to visit his third sister in the sky, where the pigeon kingdom was located. He walked on the clouds made out of cotton candy and met with his sister and her husband, had a wonderful salad, since all pigeons agreed on how awful they tasted when roasted, and said goodbye.

Now that the boy had checked in with two of the three tips delivered by the fairy, it was time for him to prove himself an intelligent fella and go to visit Castella. Castella used to be one of the four (very real) kingdoms which would later, with the marriage of Isabel de Castella and Fernando de Aragon, come to form the country of Spain. Isabel de Castella was also responsible for Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.

Upon his arrival, the boy immediately saw a huge gathering of men around an old tower. Up from the tower another man spoke. He was informing the male population that whoever was first in solving the king’s riddle would be presented with the princess’ hand in marriage. The riddle went like this: what is it, my, what is it that walks with four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”

***

The answer may seem fairly obvious, but it was actually quite difficult for everyone in the story. It is also elegant foreshadowing, for when we meet the Manjaleo. You see, the Manjaleo beast keeps very strict eating habits: in the morning he eats children, in the afternoon, he has adults, and at night his meal consists of bony old people. Furthermore, we see here another fine example of the rule of threes: youth and adulthood and old age. Even the story is divided in three parts, when you think about it: the watermelon fairies, the sisters, and now finally, the Manjaleo.

***

“Your Majesty, the creature you talk about is no other than the human being,” the boy declared with a smug smile. The king, returned his smile and addressed the crowd. ‘We have a winner!’ he said, and so the boy married the princess of Castella and went to live in the castle.

In what seems like a trait which one too many female characters are assigned, however, the princess of Castella, though kind; was a bit of an air-head. One day she happened to find in her husband’s things a key to which she could not match a door. The only door she could think of which might answer to that key was one in the high tower: the door her father never let open.

With a deep breath she unlocked the door. It led to an empty room and another door. Beware! Go no further!; read a warning glued to the door. The princess, however, ignored it. The next room was empty but for some dog bones by the wall. It led to yet another door and another warning: Great danger ahead! Unless you are Carl, do not go in! Carl, ignore this warning.

This went on for a while. Room, door, room, warning, door, a couple of skeletons,  door.”

***

 Like I said, children enjoy repetition- and you always hoped that this time she would do the smart thing and pay attention to the great danger warnings. Eventually, she saw him: the Manjaleo, with his tiger claws and lion teeth and bat wings and duck feet.

***

 “Duck feet?”

“Yes, and he was very self-conscious about them. Bring them up near him and you’re dead,” my father said. Now, you’re probably wondering why the king kept this monster in his castle. Perhaps he was waiting for an opportunity to use him as a weapon in the battle with the caliphs, supposing history then was the same history now, and the Spanish were battling the Muslim world. Maybe he, just like the boy’s father, was involved in suspicious activities involving the smuggling of magical creatures. In any case, all of this could have been avoided had the king simply disclosed to the princess the fact that he was keeping a mortal beast in the high tower.”

***

 To declare The Manjaleo Beast a coming of age tale is doubtlessly a stretch, but one can’t help but notice the element of parental secrecy as catalyst to all tragedies in the story. The journeys of both the boy and the princess feature a discovery of figurative and literal skeletons in a fathers’ closet/tower/watermelon. One is encouraged to think that the best way to face these challenges is to follow parental advice strictly and unquestionably, always assuming they have one’s best interests at heart.

***

“The princess of Castella—disobedient air-head that she was—was instantly captured by the Manjaleo and taken as hostage to facilitate his escape. The desperate king went to his son-in-law in need of a solution. He would have killed the beast a long time ago, he told the boy, if only he knew how. No venom worked on the beast, no amount of arrows pierced him, and he laughed off all attempts known to man to cease him once and for all.

The boy asked the king whether he thought the princess was still be alive. ‘Oh, certainly she is. The Manjaleo ate grown people only from 1pm to 6pm,’ the king said. They had a seven-hour window. Promptly the boy unpacked his invisibility rag and his magic boots, ordering them to show him to the princess of Castella.

When he got there, the Manjaleo was out. “Listen, I don’t have much time,” he told her. I need you to find out how to kill the beast. They heard the ridiculous sound of duck feet stepping through running water, and the boy covered himself again in the rag.

The princess did as asked. Once the Manjaleo was settled and satisfied with his supper, she began: ‘My father tells me they could never kill you. That they tried everything, and never could they knock you out. I know I am doomed, beast, and that tomorrow at this hour I’ll be dead already, but will you satisfy my curiosity? Is it possible to kill you?’

Still chewing on an old lady’s thigh bone, the Manjaleo took his time to answer. ‘I suppose I could tell you, since it will be your bones I’ll be chewing on at tea,’ he said. ‘It was your foolish curiosity, after all, which set me free, so I owe you an explanation. See, foolish girl, many a man think me impossible to kill; that is an ignorant assumption. In this world, nothing lives forever and we are all susceptible to perishing. I will one day die just like everyone dies. But it is a fact nature intended to reward my survival skills by making me almost invincible.’

‘Almost?’ the girl asked. The Manjaleo was introspective. The boy was under the impression he was grateful to have someone with whom to share his loneliness. Yes, in spite of everything, the Manjaleo beast, too, was human.”

“No, he wasn’t,” My dad corrected me.

“Shut up.”

“All he ever wanted was a friend.”

“Shut up, dad! You’re ruining it!”

“‘All men are fools to hit me with blades and arrows, for my death lies somewhere other than my body,’ the Manjaleo said. ‘Deep in the ocean, there is a chest: inside this chest there is a box. Inside the box there is a clock and inside the clock there is a stone and inside the stone there is a dove. Kill the dove, and in it you will find a candle: that candle bears the flame of my life. Once the flame is extinct, so am I, for there can only be one Manjaleo on earth at a time.’”

***

Clearly, this is the most idiotic thing in this entire story. While the notion of death as something outside of the body is not only strategically understandable but part of our symbolical tradition, the idea of keeping a flame by throwing it at the bottom of the ocean is illogical in itself. What’s more, how is it inside a living dove? Does the dove suffer from chronic heartburn? And how does it live inside a stone? Stones are never hollow. The only symbol slightly verisimilar to the practicality of the situation is the clock, which doubtlessly would stop working with all these things stuck inside jamming its mechanisms and granting the Manjaleo more time. Once his time is finally here, out of the clock will come a bird like a cuckoo announcing time of death, and the clock will start working again. As for the amount of oxygen available in the chest necessary to keep a dove alive and cause continuous combustion, one can only be expected to experience a sudden lapse of scientific knowledge for the sake of good storytelling (just as, later at school, children are taught to sacrifice the latter in benefit of the first).

***

“Aware now of the Manjaleo’s vulnerabilities, the boy made his way back into the ocean and requested an audience with his brother-in-law, the King of Fish. His majesty was astonished to be informed of an alien object’s unauthorized presence in his territory, and declared a state of emergency until the chest was located. Once they found it, the boy thanked his majesty the Fish, and brought the chest back to dry land. With his master key, he had no difficulty opening it. Faraway in his cave, the Manjaleo felt a pinch of nausea. The box was opened, which caused him slight unbalance. The clock began to tell time again, and the Manjaleo’s heart started pounding in the rhythm of tick-tacking.

The stone was a little more difficult to crack open. The boy summoned a nearby flock of sheep, who had very clear orders from the king to always help members of the royal family in trouble. With their hooves, they broke the hollow stone, and a dove flew away, finally free. Desperate, the boy called for the help of the pigeon king in capturing it, and eventually the dove was found and returned to the boy.”

“Was it hard for him to kill the bird?” I asked.

“Sure it was. But he had to do it.”

“He could’ve asked someone else.”

“Would that make a difference?”

“Definitely.”

“Fine, he asked someone else. He saw a violent, bird-hating man passing by and asked him to do it. This man killed the bird and screamed when he saw a candle materialise in his hands. He ran screaming witchcraft, witchcraft.”

“With the candle?”

“He dropped the candle. The boy picked it from the ground and blew it. The Manjaleo exploded in his cave just as the clock hit 1pm.”

***

Thus ends the story of the Manjaleo, in a completely anti-climactic, faraway death. To say he didn’t know what hit him would be false, considering the small range of options, but he probably had little time to lament his bad luck. The boy rescued the princess from the cave and many a fur coat was made from the Manjaleo. By the end of the story my father was always much more tired than I was, and sometimes he fell asleep right then and there; sometimes he fell asleep in the middle of the story. Sometimes he forgot how to tell it right or to make the proper character voices, and the story was ruined just like that. Often, I corrected him, and once I narrated it as he fell asleep.

Children have a different sense of belonging. They feel as if the world belongs to them and they belong to the world, and all this happens before they become terribly small and all-knowing of their ignorance as teenagers. Childhood may only exist to make us feel bad about the other portions of life, when it really does end always the same way, with the realization that the story of your life was a completely different one from the one you’d been telling yourself all this time.

I made my father promise me he would never tell this story to anyone else, for that story was mine and for no one to change. But people, like stories, change, and they keep telling themselves the same story over and over until it looks pretty and they are the heroes.

Maybe not all of us are number three. Not all of us are going to build brick houses and wait till we get to the water. Maybe we’re not brave or daring, and maybe we are entitled and have bad taste in music. All those knights and gentlemen in these old stories would not be all that either, were they to live in our land. Everything which used to exist has ceased to exist now that science has proven it impossible. The minute the scientific process declared fairies non-existent, they all collapsed and turned into flowers, flowers that weren’t roses. A baby Manjaleo, however, revelling in anonymity, was allowed to stay in a scientific lapse of judgement. The Manjaleo, after all, is multiple animals in one, a nothing stuck inside an everything, and like my father said, very lonely. He is condemned to hiding forever in order to avoid extinction by scientific improbability. In order to escape death, he must never live in the first place; only in fiction is his kind allowed. Somewhere in the ocean, though, there is a chest where there is a box, inside which is a clock, and a stone, and a dove, and a candle.

Parents tend to leave us secrets and monsters and watermelons that are hollow because, in the end, they want to tell us the truth but can’t do it to our faces. To us they are nothing but parents, and they can’t afford to be looked at as fallible people. Except when they fail, of course, then they will not care to be seen as parents. Whatever we inherit from them, the weights we accept or deny, their stories and their flaws are not theirs but ours: we must begin again, we must reclaim our stories.

 


Beatriz L. Seelaender was born in 1998 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and is the author of the novel “De Volta ao Vazio”. Seelaender has recently been trying her hand at English, and her work has been published in journals such as New Grub Street, the Manifest-Station and the Feminine Collective. She is a student of Literature at the University of Sao Paulo.