Carolyn van Langenberg: “Idea For A Story”

Carolyn van Langenburg is the author of three books of literary fiction: The Teetotaller’s Wake, Fish Lips and Blue Moon, published by Indra press. Her collection of poems was published by Picaro in 2007. She has travelled widely in Asia and resides in the Blue Mountains with her husband.



Idea for a Story

               Leaves dance in the air.

               Dust whirls across the park.

               A dog yelps at its tail. Boys run around anything and everything.

               A woman’s hands disappear, her forearms disappear. A box draws her in, and then she pulls her arms out of the box and raises her hands high in the air. They dart like pale birds, flit and swoop into the box.  

                They dart like pale birds…

                Paper plates smeared with chocolate icing and the grainy green slicks of tabouli spill out of park garbage bins. Flip flop with chewed chicken wings and an empty pvc bottle that takes off with the wind to have a go at the dog. The dog jumps at the bottle and grovels it as if it were a bone. The bottle, too big for its mouth, jerks and rolls and whizzes.

               A woman’s legs walk under a box. Do the legs belong to the woman with the disappearing hands? The dog runs at the heels of the legs. The box bobs and jerks above a body. When the dog races back to the rolling bottle, the box with legs stops.

               The head of the woman with the disappearing hands appears as the whole of the woman’s body bends to pick something up off the grass. She holds the retrieved thing high, pinched between thumb and forefinger, fingers furled into the palm of her hand…

                No camera can see between the soft pads of her fingers furled over the top of her palm, which they touch. She stands still, holding up something small to examine, the box balanced against her hip. She may be reading a sign. She may be one of those women who look for signs to decipher, one who pinches salt to toss over her shoulder for good luck. Caught in this part of her life, she repeats her daily routine, juggling many banal tasks to keep food on the table and clothes on her child’s back. She may look for signs of future good fortune because money is tight. She worries, or does she, about her son’s performance at school, how much television he watches and how few books interest him. Is he a slow reader? How can the camera tell us anything about the life these two live?  As it is, if a camera were to pan this action, it will record that a woman dressed for a picnic in a park carries a box. Her shirt, worn under a sweatshirt, is bright red and her jeans are faded around the knees. She looks dishevelled. What significance will the camera capture in its frame?  What message will be decoded by the decipherers of the visual medium of this woman who loses her hands in a box filled with party food? How will they interpret her holding high something pinched between her thumb and forefinger? Is the message portending that, as she is a mother providing a happy birthday party for her son, she will be rewarded in the future with charming gummy grandchildren? Do those who spend their lives deciphering images drive the life out of motherhood, perching it on top of sentimental interpretation that diminishes humanity?

               She is a woman providing a birthday party for her son. That’s all, in a snapshot.

               The wind tears a feather from the tips of her fingers…

               The wind pelts the bottle with stirred up city grit. The wind smacks twigs and empty crisp bags at the bottle. The wind whips the bottle with wrappers and ripped newsprint…

               Boys yell and run, dog runs and barks, bottle rolls and whistles…

               The woman hoists the box, her head disappears and she stumbles. The box wobbles where her head ought to be, flips open and flap-flaps…

               Add a black sky and the drum roll of thunder with a few big drops of rain working up to a downpour and the scene is set.

               In parenthesis­

               The woman stands at a picnic table in the park. The dog noses a pvc bottle rolling near her feet. Boys cluster at one end of the table, joking about bullshit and who is full of it. The woman’s hands disappear into a box then reappear. They are transformed into birds that rise in the air, swoop and land on the table before taking off again. Her hands plunge into the box again — her hands become other things like bowls and food containers, escaping her attention. Her inattentive eyes mirror the sky that they skim. Grey, they are, with a tree blackening in front of darkening grey…

              Cake rises above box.

              Candles under her chin burst into little flames. Boys cheer. They yell a song about a happy birthday to you. A red-faced boy blows out the little flames. The other boys congratulate him for being full of bullshit. Hands become knife, knife cuts cake, boys stuff triangles of cake in their mouths.

               The dog’s mouth is never shut.

               And so the story begins:

               A woman packs bowls and paper plates and empty plastic food containers into a box. She pushes chewed chicken wings and plates streaked with tabouli and chocolate icing into the park garbage bin. The wind hurls the paper plates out of the garbage bin, tosses them to the ground, whips them across the grass where an empty pvc bottle rolls. The wind and the bottle tease the dog that jumps at the bottle and grovels it as if it were a bone. The wind whips at boys, pushing them backwards when they run forwards. The sky is blackening, the clouds rapidly broiling and thickening. Big raindrops fall and the yelping boys take off towards cars parked under big trees. The woman gathers up the box of birthday party things. When the dog barks and the boys shout, her head vanishes.

               The park is suddenly dark.

               Thunder drumrolls.

               The woman stumbles through pouring rain to one of the parked cars. Her head pops up when the box drops and lands between her breasts and the side of one of the cars.

               When the drenched woman sinks behind the steering wheel of her car, she looks into the rear vision mirror.  The birthday boy, two of his friends and the dog sit in a row on the backseat, grins wet, panting hard.

               Question stops story: Where does dog begin and boy end?

               The next thing that happens is natural. Lightning strikes the ground not far from the car and the thunder that follows is deafening. The dog howls. The birthday boy pulls the dog onto his lap and presses his hands over the dog’s ears. All the boys, lanky limbs crisscrossing lanky limbs, talk one over the top of each other about how doggy ears hurt when noises are loud like thunder.

               The woman behind the steering wheel pushes at wet strands of hair and sort of smiles. She looks enigmatic, like the Mona Lisa. That’s what the camera records. Being a mother is a state of being, like being Mona Lisa.  The image of her as a mother who looks like the Mona Lisa conceals her occupation. She is a writer.

               She galvanises the energy to start the car, a story beginning to unravel in her head. It’s about a birthday party that ends when lightning strikes.


[Acknowledgement: Luis Buñuel, An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected Writings of Luis Buñuel, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000.]

An earlier version of this story first appeared in Staples, issue 7