Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Stories - Kontis

The Princess with Butterfly Wings
by Alethea Kontis

Do you ever play “Traceback”?

You’ve let your mind wander, and suddenly, you’re thinking about something totally bizarre and not at all what you were pondering in the first place. Or you’re having a conversation that takes an interesting turn…and you wonder just how you came around to that topic. So you stop and try to recall exactly what steps took you from hot-air balloons to Kevin Bacon.

I call it Traceback. It’s one of those games that people with busy brains play all the time. (The sad part is, we actually find it entertaining.)

Sometimes I play Traceback with my life, just to be perverse. How exactly did I get to where I am today? If I was making an Academy Award speech, who would I thank? The icing on my Destiny Cake is full of fingerprints: great teachers and horrible bosses, neighbors and enemies, co-workers and ex-boyfriends, distant relatives and friends closer than blood. Like every great production, my life wouldn’t be what it is without a countless number of people influencing it just the way they did, exactly when they did it.

The Butterfly Effect.


Now I know why many people at the Oscars thank their parents, and God.
I suppose if you’re going to start, it’s wise to start at the beginning.

One of the most popular interview questions asked is “When did you start writing?”

I have an answer to that question that reels to the surface a perfect memory of 8-year-old Alethea staring at a poem she had just written and smiling as the world clicked around her.

But the stories started with Casey.

My father, fairy tales, and Casey.

In a family steeped in oral tradition, my father is the consummate storyteller. He tells tales of our ancestors, his childhood, his friends, his trips around the world. So inevitably, the first stories I ever wrote in school were essays about my crazy life—or the crazy, magical life of the girl I could have been—but they were always about me.

Sometime around the age of eleven, I was moping around the house (as eleven-year-olds do). I slumped at my mother’s feet and whined, “Tell me what to write.”

“Go write me a fairy tale,” she said. “A new one.”

I suppose if I hadn’t been moping quite so loudly, I would have heard the world click again. Like it did later that year, when I met Casey.

She was a bit of a misfit, like me. She had thick glasses, a mouth full of braces, a mop of long, curly champagne blonde hair, and a soul like sunshine. She was affectionately called “Beaker” by the popular kids, but she would just smile at them and retreat back into her own little world…her own little world full of books and princesses and unicorns and notepads and pencils. A little world very much like my own. We didn’t pass notes in class—we passed a notebook. Whenever we got bored of one world, we’d just make up a new one.

She was my first heroine.

We started a novel, about the adventures of a silly blonde princess named Casey and a dark-haired Queen of Thieves. We spent days at my house on the dock writing paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene, each page switching between Casey’s fat, round scrawl and my neat and tiny letters. We spent nights at her house, playing Super Mario Brothers and eating pizza and lying on the trampoline and wishing on stars. I stayed up ‘til the wee hours one night teaching her how to count to ten in Greek (which she still doesn’t remember). I spent ages one morning painstakingly untangling the rats’ nest in the back of her head that had appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the night.

When my first love broke my heart and I cried myself hysterical, she brought me pansies unceremoniously ripped from the bed in her front garden. We got jobs at the same movie theatre and spent the hours between shows behind the concession stand composing ridiculous odes to popcorn. When I was lonely at college in South Carolina, she invited me up to UT Knoxville for the weekend and arranged a gathering with all her friends. When she got married she asked me to be a bridesmaid, and I wrote a rehearsal dinner speech that left the guests in happy tears.

I had a nervous breakdown and moved to Tennessee to work in a library.

Casey got her PhD in Victorian Literature and moved to Virginia to be a Professor of Women’s Studies at William and Mary.

When I attended Uncle Orson’s Literary Boot Camp in the summer of 2003, Casey went with me. Not in the physical sense, of course, but in the age of computers and cell phones anything is possible. Thank goodness, too.

Because I was scared.

I had warned her to be available at all hours of the day or night—especially when we were assigned the inevitable 24-hour story. I had never attempted anything so bold in my entire life. And I knew I would never be able to do it without Casey. I had her on speed dial.

My lifeline was available at the push of a button.

Our 24-hour story had to be based on one of the story notecards we had done for homework the night before. Like a dutiful student, I had completed all seven. I had a young woman who lived in the Black Forest region of Germany in World War Two, a Victorian Royal Society of Lady Etchers and an alchemist, a man with incredibly bad luck who took it out on his wife…right before she found a winning lottery ticket in his pocket while doing the laundry and decided not to share—and four other stories unremarkable enough to be similarly unmemorable.

The World War Two story was by far the best, but despite Mr. Stafford’s conscientious tutelage for two years in high school, my knowledge of both the world and the war was sketchy at best. The Bad Luck Man was fun, but cliché. The Lady Etchers were an interesting concept but the story was weak, and once again my disturbing lack of history reared its ugly head.

Which might have been a problem…for someone whose best friend didn’t have a PhD in Victorian Literature.

I pushed the button.
It was roughly 11pm on Tuesday night.
I felt like I was cheating…but I was too scared to care.

Casey and I stayed on the phone for at least three hours, hashing out the details of the story while I frantically scribbled down every bit of Victorian minutiae Casey deemed important.

The words “good-bye” that night were heavy with reluctance, and I forced myself to sleep.

When I got up the next morning, I didn’t leave the bed. I crossed my legs, pulled the laptop onto the pillow, and opened up a new document. I had a fascinating idea and a rich world…I just needed the perfect character.

Human instinct is to regress in times of great desperation.


So I started with my princess. My first heroine.

I started with Casey.

Only this time, her name was Minna.

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