In January, I think about this story constantly. It’s always seemed like the most complete, brief, wise thing I’ve ever read, since before I could even read it to myself. When I was a kid I was really into fantasy and magic stuff, talking animals, and now I’m obsessed with religion. I don’t think that’s unrelated. I think we come with the hardware necessary to create or find spiritual meaning, and it’s not impossible to imagine that the same thing that puts gas in that engine at 30 or 40 is going to work just as well when you’re little.
Kids are used to considering the infinite, and things larger than themselves, because that’s all they see around them. I think that’s why the best and most basic writing is invariably for children, or by children’s authors; I think that’s why comic books are in the domain of children no matter how much the nerds complain when you say that. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I just think the big stories, the ones that tell it plainly like this, or like Buffy, or Harriet the Spy, or Stardust, or The Sandman, solve the problem — of putting the ocean into a teacup — by cutting out what’s least essential, by restricting the infinity to a place as small as a child’s life. Makes sense, and I think people like us don’t mind stepping back across that line, but it’s impossible to explain to anybody else. I think that it’s possible to tell stories this true outside the children’s domain: most of the highest-regarded movies, the Oscar winners, The Nines, are able to tell these truths in a way that doesn’t take part in the children’s ghetto.
My birth mother was a witch, sometimes, and even when she goes back over to more orthodox stuff, she still looks for the Goddess in everything. This is kind of like the opposite of that. When I was a kid, the whole book was just a waiting game, waiting for this chapter, to relive it again and again.
In January, I think about this story constantly. I go back to it when I’m sad, when I’m lonely, when somebody dies, when somebody leaves, when I leave somebody. When it’s cold or dark or everything is stupid, I go to this the way people on TV go to scripture, or the way I go to Cruel Intentions or Bring It On, to make things bearable again.
My friend Rachel Pollack once said something that stuck with me, to the effect that it’s all well and good to have guided meditations and vision quests in somebody’s backyard sweat lodge, meet your spirit animal, mine some gold — but it’s a whole other thing when you’re just tending the fire in your yurt and three animal-headed shepherds come in without asking, and take your body apart piece by piece, and put you back together with wonderful magic. That shamanic ecstasy is terrible, and frightening, and awful — but worth it, of course.
I talk about it a lot in my writing — this idea that change feels like dying because it is; that if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right — but the references I make to this particular example of spiritual ecstasy are always very, very obscure, because of the way we as a culture devalue children’s experiences and children’s literature: if I described the Final Five Cylons on Battlestar Galactica as Ratty and Mole at the Gates of Dawn, well, I’d lose more than I gained. But I think about it a lot, and I was thinking about it all that time: the music, coming across the water, like a wave.
Or the moment when I realized two things: I was very, very bad at writing about the show Doctor Who, and eventually they were going to take it away from me, but simultaneously, that I loved writing about the show Doctor Who, because the writer feels the same way about this stuff that I do, and let me know it, which in turn gave me the wherewithal to write probably the most blatant thing I’ve ever written about religion in any context, about the Bad Wolf, which of course happened to be half-true as usual:
The old-school prose here is a bit purple for my tastes, and there’s a subplot about a runaway otter child that I never cared about, but the feeling is something I could spend my whole life as a writer trying to approximately reach.
This is the kind of moment that would justify a life of crap writing — thank goodness it doesn’t have to, he’s a good storyteller — and could justify a whole winter full of worry and fear and shame. When you feel displaced and afloat, you have to find a place to anchor, and the strangest things can provide it, sometimes. I’ve probably written about this passage before, and it was probably a year ago, when January was coming like that, like it does every year. You can learn a lot from the Rat.
Read this with the weight it deserves; sing it out, sing it aloud. I miss the sun; this makes it better.
Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the runnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry water-ways. Embarking again and crossing over, they worked their way up the stream in this manner, while the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.
Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.
`It’s gone!’ sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. `So beautiful and strange and new. Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!’ he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.
`Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,’ he said presently. `O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’
The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. `I hear nothing myself,’ he said, `but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’
The Rat never answered, if indeed he heard. Rapt, transported, trembling, he was possessed in all his senses by this new divine thing that caught up his helpless soul and swung and dandled it, a powerless but happy infant in a strong sustaining grasp.
In silence Mole rowed steadily, and soon they came to a point where the river divided, a long backwater branching off to one side. With a slight movement of his head Rat, who had long dropped the rudder-lines, directed the rower to take the backwater. The creeping tide of light gained and gained, and now they could see the colour of the flowers that gemmed the water’s edge.
`Clearer and nearer still,’ cried the Rat joyously. `Now you must surely hear it! Ah–at last–I see you do!’
Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade’s cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there, brushed by the purple loose-strife that fringed the bank; then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically he bent to his oars again. And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvellously still.
On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold the air, and they felt a consciousness that they were nearing the end, whatever it might be, that surely awaited their expedition.
A wide half-circle of foam and glinting lights and shining shoulders of green water, the great weir closed the backwater from bank to bank, troubled all the quiet surface with twirling eddies and floating foam-streaks, and deadened all other sounds with its solemn and soothing rumble. In midmost of the stream, embraced in the weir’s shimmering arm-spread, a small island lay anchored, fringed close with willow and silver birch and alder. Reserved, shy, but full of significance, it hid whatever it might hold behind a veil, keeping it till the hour should come, and, with the hour, those who were called and chosen.
Slowly, but with no doubt or hesitation whatever, and in something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals passed through the broken tumultuous water and moored their boat at the flowery margin of the island. In silence they landed, and pushed through the blossom and scented herbage and undergrowth that led up to the level ground, till they stood on a little lawn of a marvellous green, set round with Nature’s own orchard-trees– crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe.
`This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. `Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror–indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy–but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
`Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. `Are you afraid?’
`Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. `Afraid! Of him? O, never, never! And yet–and yet– O, Mole, I am afraid!’
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.
As they stared blankly. in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi- god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.