There is a story I remember from my childhood called “The Brass-Necked Goose”. Or rather, I remember the title, but not much of the story itself. As far as I recall it involved a goose that was ordinary in all particulars except that its neck was made of brass. One accepts such improbabilities as a child, as indeed one continues to accept them, when grown, if the spinner of improbable tales is a skilled one.
If, for instance, a Latin American magical realist with a clutch of literary awards under his or her belt introduces into a fat novel a goose with a neck of brass, we might have a moment where we say “pish!” or “pshaw!”, we might even chuck the book across the room into the fireplace, but more likely, given the laurels with which the writer is garlanded, we will accept the goose and read on, dazzled by the author’s inventiveness.
On the other hand, if we are reading a book by some lesser-known writer, and one, say, whose infelicities of style and bone-headed stupidity have already tempted us to chuck the book into the fireplace, and then, as we are growing increasingly exasperated, a goose with a brass neck is introduced for no compelling reason on page 114, then “pish!” or “pshaw!” are going to be the mildest expletives with which we will erupt, accompanied no doubt by curses unsuitable for delicate ears. We will also be likely not only to give in to the temptation and to chuck the book into the fireplace after all, but to ensure that a roaring fire is blazing therein, the better to obliterate this farrago of printed nonsense from our memories.
But as children, we do not care two pins for the literary reputation of the writer, and we are immune to infelicities of style and even to bone-headed stupidity. As children, we are caught up in the story, however improbable, however ill-written. For one thing, we are probably not reading but being read to, by Mama, as we lie tucked snug in bed, our bellies warm with milk, our eyes fixed on the paper stars glued to our bedroom ceiling. When we are told that Ipsy Dipsy, limping along the lane, meets a goose with a brass neck, we simply accept that this is the kind of thing that happens to Ipsy Dipsy, and might even happen to us, if ever we find ourselves walking along a country lane, unlikely as that may be given that we live in a hideous urban sprawl with barely a sprig of greenery to be seen.
I said I could not recall the story, but see! see!, I have remembered Ipsy Dipsy and the lane. Little details reappear in my mind’s eye. I remember Ipsy Dipsy’s pointy red hat, and the callipers on his legs, for Ipsy Dipsy was a cripple, at least at the beginning of the story. I remember the lane, it was a lane like the avenue at Middelharnis painted by Hobbema. Was Ipsy Dipsy Dutch, or Flemish? Was he still wearing the callipers at the story’s end, or had he been able to cast them aside, to throw them happily into a ditch, on account of some magical cure effected by the goose? Did the goose’s magic powers inhere in his brass neck?
As quickly as the memories come shimmering, like the paper stars on the ceiling long ago, so, equally quickly, they fade, like the stars will fade in the heavens. The night sky will be black, and vast, and pitiless. And I will totter about, fumbling in the darkness, aged and exhausted, knowing that there will be no brass-necked goose to save me from extinction.