Years ago, one of my professors spent the first half hour of our first class of the term reading us Italo Calvino’s version of an Italian folktale called “The Parrot,” about a merchant who must depart for a journey, leaving his daughter home alone for several days. Worried for his daughter’s safety, the merchant gives her strict instructions to admit no one during his absence, and purchases a parrot to entertain and keep her company until he returns. The parrot tells the girl a long story, and in so doing successfully foils the attempts of a wicked king to steal her away. Upon the merchant’s return, the parrot reveals his true identity—that of a handsome prince.
It was an unusual way to conduct a class, given that we were graduate students, but listening, we fell into the spellbound silence of children being read to before bed. I loved the story so much that I read it years later to one of my own first writing classes. I even read it to my daughter in utero, which one might argue was really, perhaps, a matter of reading it again to myself.
It’s not just nostalgia that makes folk tales and fables so powerfully delightful. I think they speak to a place in us that is very similar to where poems reach us. That spot that is nourished by a different kind of sense—one that often confounds (or acts as an antidote to) the day-to-day nature of things. Such stories remind us of a large, strange order to which even we—in our post-post modern moment—are subject.
But, in the wake of the "Arab Spring," and on the heels of how many political implosions (think Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich…), it is beginning to feel less and less far-fetched to imagine that every story in the world is part fable, swarming with portentous animals, fickle gods, and wicked, wicked children.
Cradle Book is incredibly rich and incredibly slim, incongruously small considering all it contains. To quote Tiecher’s story, “The Red Cipher,” it is “[l]ike those unusual houses that are much bigger inside than their exteriors suggest," as if each tale opens up a kind of hall of mirrors, something flickering into the distance in such a way as to suggest a path.
Teicher’s prose hits home in a way that is similar to aphorism. There’s a wisdom that feels wholly original and yet familiar on an ur-level. Reading, I was continually struck with the feeling of having stepped into a happy reunion with something I probably, perhaps, once, without realizing it, knew. Here’s a little collage of moments that seem to encapsulate what I’m talking about:
There is a last thing for every moment, said the last sage.
Each thing does nothing more than await its turn to be last, said the sage that came after him.
--from “The Last”
When the first frost settles over everything, you find you have become a stone. When it grows colder all around you, and things begin to huddle together for warmth, you are only as cold as you were when you first became a stone.
--from “The Story of the Stone”
I am what the sun shows, but what you won’t show the sun, says the shadow. Yet I am gone at night. Time is what takes away whatever you understand.
There’s also plenty of narrative to wander through. Distant cities. Mountain villages. Talking animals. Brothers and sisters. Prisoners. A weaver’s daughter who can cure a mysterious ache plaguing cows and pigs. A man chopping wood while his house is consumed by flames. All of it finely imagined and nimbly told, haunting, dreamlike, funny, and searing. And like any fable, there is a layer of timeliness in each of these stories. Two excessively polite birds in “The Virtues of Birds,” slip into a suspicion-fueled one-upmanship not unlike what stands in the way of, say, effective nuclear nonproliferation. Woods ruled by invisible wolves serve as an illustration of the human tendency to direct our fears toward the wrong things. “Pass through the woods whenever you like,” writes Teicher in “The Wolves.” “What you have to fear is not in the woods.”
This is a book to read aloud, to spend time under the spell of. Like the older fables Teicher must have had in his mind and ears when these were written, the stories in Cradle Book slip easily into the region of a reader’s imagination where a good story is capable of waylaying danger, and where impenetrable mystery is realer and more relevant than what we see, by day, through our actual eyes.