I believe in the power of story. When I was a child in India, two of my mother’s sisters lived with us for a while. They read to me, sang with me, and told me stories.
Occasionally they got carried away. They’d spur each other on. The stories got wild and scary. Occasionally I asked for trouble. One evening, I wanted to know, “What’s a goblin?”
We were outside the house, an old Government of India bungalow in Delhi. At the bottom of the garden was a covered soak pit that served to filter gray water from the house.
My aunts told me goblins were evil creatures who lived in deep, dark places.
“Where?” I asked. “Where do they live?”
“Deeeep dark places,” they said, pointing to the soak pit. It was a masterful stroke.
I shivered. “Like witches?” I ventured, making intertextual connections.
“And gorgons,” said Janaki, the older of the aunts, who had introduced me to Medusa and the concept of snakes as hair.
“And gryphons,” the younger aunt added. Her name was Shaku. She and I had a special bond. She was to die in her thirties, a family tragedy. Still later, I’d dedicate my picture book, Monsoon, to her. At the time, all I knew was that the soak pit was home to mysterious and fearsome creatures.
The goblins and their allies stayed with me. They sprouted wings and claws. They taunted me. They spat flames.
My aunts got busy with college exams, leaving my mother to deal with the fallout from their stories.
The goblins began to burst into my dreams. I’d howl for my mother when I needed to go to the bathroom, convinced that monsters lurked in the overhead flush tank, waiting to leap down on me as I peed.
My mother had a chat with the gardener, a taciturn man named Hanuman who wore little gold earrings and annoyed her by planting marigolds in beds she’d reserved for sweetpeas.
The following day, Hanuman brought an enormous shovel to work. “What are you going to do?” I asked. He pointed to the soak pit.
“No!” I shrieked, and ran to hide under the bed.
My mother hauled me out and made me go watch. I hid my face, certain we’d see an angry goblin swarm.
Hanuman dug. I peeked. He dug deeper.
“Go deeper,” I said, finally. “They’re in there.”
He did. We got down to the water pooled in the soak pit. Not a claw or scale in sight. I contemplated the goblinless garden. They must have escaped.
Today, I am a writer of fiction for children. I am after the truth, but I get to it by telling the best lies I can conjure up. My aunts modeled exactly this transformation of reality into fiction.
Me, I’m still digging deeper, holding my breath, looking for those goblins.
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