There are Fish in this Waterbed: Why we write

I used to believe there were fish in my uncle’s waterbed.

There was good reason to believe this, of course. First, no less an authority than my uncle told me it was so. This same man revealed to me the existence of Santa Claus and the secret microscopic robots the government released into our drinking water, so it might as well have been Papal decree. Second, it made sense. Fish lived in water and water lived in my uncle’s bed, and so by the transitive property of five-year-old logic an entire ecosystem of pike and sturgeon, salmon and trout flitted about just beneath the surface of the velvet-wrapped mattress. I used to lay on my back with my arms and fingers spread wide, imagining myself adrift at sea while great schools of silvery scissortails churned below.

Narayana has swallowed the entire universe and is keeping it safe from the waters of cosmic dissolution. One time I swallowed a magnet and thought paperclips were going to chase me like angry hornets. So we’re basically the same.

I believed a lot of things. We all did. The Greeks thought the Earth to be a flat disk rotating on a great river. In the ancient Hindu tradition, Narayana lay on a banyan leaf floating on primeval waters before creating the universe. Amazonians thought the primitive river dolphins were actually shapeshifters who tired of being human and could use anacondas as hammocks and stingrays as hats. (That myth strikes me as particularly awesome. Can you imagine the Brazilian ambassador attending the royal wedding with a frickin’ stingray on his head?) Then there’s the litany of tiny beliefs we’ve long since dismissed — that baby teeth are exchanged for money by midnight dryads, that hard work is always rewarded and selfishness consistently punished. That we can change casual friendship into something more by slow degrees and good intention. That happy endings come to those who endure.

“I don’t know why he’s so excited. It’s just the refraction of light twice reflected off the back of the back of raindrop. Catch your breath, tubby.”

For most people, it’s not the belief that ultimately matters so much as its inevitable end. We look upon such trusts as dressings of our younger selves, stripped and set aside by wisdom and awkward experience. We put away childish things and instead ‘get real.’ No more Candyman in the mirror, no more tiny person sitting inside the traffic light. The sky is blue because the Earth’s atmosphere scatters light from the sun and rainbows are an optical phenomenon created by moisture and luminosity. No gold is involved. My father brought me to a wake when I was eight. He took me to the casket and let me peer inside. I saw an old woman, eyes shut, skin made pink and tallow. I asked if she was sleeping. “No son,” my father told me. “She’s dead.”

A great teacher once told me that we must think of ourselves as writers, not merely as people who write. There are various reasons for this, most especially the writer’s intimate relationship with beauty, which is akin to hearing conversations that others cannot. But there is this as well — the writer, by the very act of crafting fiction, is permitted to suspend knowing and hold out for belief. The blankness of a page, the emptiness of an unwritten story — this unspoken potential accepts all possibilities and excludes nothing. Thus writers discover love after betrayal, speak with the dead, find patterns in chaos, see giants in the distance, hear childhood bells with jaded ears. Maybe you forgot your keys on the nightstand beside your bed. Maybe elves stole them. For people who do not write, there is one explanation for each of life’s happenings. For writers, an imaginary city of key thieves spring from each tick of the clock.

I think of that woman sometimes, alone in her coffin, covered by earth and sod. There is no light where she rests. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe she’s not dead at all. Maybe her eyes are open and peering at a sky, deep and a Godlike azure. Maybe her arms and fingers are spread wide and she’s drifting on a banyan leaf, smiling. And maybe the sea beneath her shimmers, teeming with great masses of fish darting and spinning and diving and breaching.

And so we write.