In Albuquerque, the Duck Pond on the UNM campus is kind of a big deal. It appears on maps. Yeah. That’s right. Your eyes are not deceiving you. a tiny puddle of a pond is a named feature on the interwebs. Google rates it worth mentioning, even if you aren’t interested in going anywhere on the campus–if your destination is near the campus, you’ll see it. It’s a popular place for people to linger, especially in that little desert town. Even if your chances of having a bird augment your outfit with a generous splattering of excrement are exponentially increased, and even if the surface of the water is scummed with dust, leaves, bits of feather, and god knows what else–scarcity will create demand.
I used to go that way after class, catching a bus or walking home. I’d stop on the wooden bridge that spans the center of the abstract, curved pond and lean against the railing, watching the enormous Koi drifting lazily just beneath the surface. Koi is the Japanese word for carp. Nishikigoi means “colored carp.” For them, the koi represents perseverance in the face of tremendous odds, and the transformative qualities of the journey. In Chinese and Japanese folklore, the Koi becomes the Dragon after scaling the falls of the Yellow River, also called The Dragon Gate. As well, they recognize the ways in which the observed impacts and transforms the observer–what is seen in the material realm is only the surface, the beginning of the journey for those who watch the sleek, scaled forms drift and coil.
I find this imagery attractive and especially apt, since the use of the Koi in artwork tends to signify triumph over adversity, accomplishment, and even fertility of both mind and body. As a storyteller, I am drawn to this iconic figure, because when beginning a story, the opening statement is often just a touch upon the surface of the deeper issues, themes, and imagery that the full story possesses. It’s important to note that, growing up in the South, Fish Stories are common. So common that you might even think of them as a particular art form here. It’s not about lying. People who hear a Fish Story and call the teller a liar are missing the point, and telling the community about themselves in the process.
As I said, it isn’t about telling a falsehood or misrepresenting true events. Rather, it’s about a sort of sly, humorous understanding that what is True isn’t always about what is Actual. Those bound harshly to the material world will likely never understand this, and so will always resent and suspect those who see the world with a richer texture and palate. We aren’t fibbing. We’re embroidering reality, because it’s more interesting and entertaining. There’s always an element of truth to these stories. They’re never completely fabricated in a whole cloth sort of way. Allow me to illustrate…
“Cliffhanger was a documentary filmed in real time. In my bathroom. And Sylvester Stallone was a cockroach.”
Now, you’re probably thinking, “What on earth? What does that even mean? That’s just nonsense.” Yes, and no. It’s the overture to a story I’m about to tell. And it achieves its primary purpose which is to grab your attention. Now, you just have to know. You can’t not know. It’ll bug you for the rest of the night. You won’t be able to sleep until you’ve found the why and the wherefore of this ridiculous statement. Because, that’s what it’s meant to do. Here’s the actual story.
Cliffhanger in My Bathroom
One night, I went to brush my teeth and wash my face before bed. It was a night just like any other night, until I flipped on the bathroom light. Here’s why. On the counter, I like to keep a giant bottle of Listerine, because oral hygiene is important. Well, I was all set to carry out my usual routine when I noticed the most enormous cockroach perched on the cap of my precious tooth elixir. How dare it? How disgusting. Wait, what was it doing?
This was no ordinary cockroach. It was a specimen such as I had never seen before, and thank all that’s holy, I’ve never seen since. Rather than being the garden variety wood roach–large, somewhat unsettling to see, but ultimately seen as a large, shapeless six-legged blotch of darkness without articulation, who is just as confused and frightened to be inside your house as you are to see it. Or the small light brown German cockroach–the ones that like the same things for dinner that you do and resemble nothing so much as ambulatory prune pits. This individual had a head shaped like that of a preying mantis…and it was articulated.
What was it doing besmirching the cap of my precious Listerine with its frankly unwiped feet, this non-paying, and most uninvited of guests? Well, it was using that creepy articulated neck-like portion to jam its head up under the edge of the cap while it perched above. It was eating my mouthwash. I let out a little shriek of horror and rushed it to frighten it away, but Mr. Cockroach Stallone doesn’t scare easily.
Instead of scurrying for some protected dark nook, all the better to wait until I’d gone so he could resume eating dried mouthwash residue–which must be similar to crack cut with steroids for the cockroach population, he did something else entirely. Breaking off his feasting, he scurried down the bottle and across the bathroom counter, towards me. When he reached the edge he flung himself into the empty space that separated us. I’d never come so close to developing excellent wall-climbing skills as I did in that moment. And I’ve never discovered if there were more like Stallone or if he was an aberration. I hope I never do, because there are some things I am content never to know, never to see, and frankly, the less I think on them, the better for everyone.
Why Hyperbole is Essential
There are many oral traditions in the world worthy of study and appreciation. With many of these cultures, you’ll find that there’s no system of written recording available or preferred. The Southern tradition of Fish Stories might be seen as a sort of non-literate manifestation of this particular attribute. There was, naturally, a known writing system available at the time much of the Southeast was being colonized by European groups, who displaced the indigenous peoples of the region. That is another story, for another time. What’s important to note about these settlers and their descendants: The Southern colonies and later states were largely agrarian. Unlike the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions, established ideas about public education for all were not, and I mean not, the fashion of the time.
Education was reserved largely for those who could afford private tutors and higher education in Europe or the more sophisticated portions of the fledgling nation. The ultimate consequence of this privileging of information and understanding was that a large portion of the population tended to have little access to systems of writing. Given what many of them did for their living, only the most painfully basic skills with numbers or letters were required for most, and even then, you could get along tolerably well without it, if you didn’t mind being at the mercy of those who had it.
That’s what’s often overlooked in modern histories of the South. Yes, slavery: Horrible, cruel, inhuman practices and policies with enslaved African populations experiencing the worst of the Chattel system. But really, the small percentage of those with money and the wherewithall to obtain education and power treated pretty much everyone who didn’t have these things to some degree the same. And they still do. We can explore the degradation of the slave trade and resulting nationally based economies in another segment. It deserves its own space for consideration.
What is pertinent about this mode to the topic at hand is that when we don’t think in writing, we still think in language, words, and phrases. It is different, though, because you have to use different tools to recall facts, themes, and ideas. As well, your brain doesn’t split these concepts into finely discriminated subjects the way written records tend to do. There isn’t space or sufficient memory for it. So, Southern folklore, and also the story about what happened when I went to the store yesterday, tend to rely on memory cues that will make the information easy to recall.
When we tell a story, it may begin with a bare-bones recounting of the facts and events. It doesn’t stay that way long. With each retelling there’s a bit of elaboration, a little augmentation and punching up the color of the narrative. It’s a creative process, which also relies on active participation of those hearing the story. In a way, because the bones of the narrative remain unchanged, in spite of whatever frills and verbal needlepoint are added with subsequent retelling, it is a facet of community memory. The metaphors are understood mechanism in the South–and exaggeration is tolerated, because it makes for a better story, one that will be remembered. Years from now, you can take that narrative down off the brain-shelf, shake off the dust and lay it out again for an entirely new audience. And it will be just as good for you, relishing the retelling, as it is for the ears hearing it for the first time. They will see it as a whole, not as a stage in the process of oral history.
That’s why our storytellers are important, because they also function as interpretive intermediaries who can explain discrepancies or what appear to be flagrant impossibilities to the uninitiated. To be mendacious means to be untruthful, engaged in the act of lying. And yet, they are the Keepers of Truth, these Big Fish storytellers. They are witnesses to adversity and cultural change. They have passed through the Dragon Gate and become something else entirely, something they were all along.