When Mystical Creatures Attack!
When Mystical Creatures Attack! , by Kathleen Founds, begins with a writing prompt:1.What is your favorite mystical creatures? 2.What is the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time?
Just answering the first question is difficult, isn’t it? Brownie or dragon? Selkie or kraken? I have so many favorites. But then adding the second part seems like it practically makes the piece write itself, doesn’t it? How the Kraken ended world hunger by washing up on a beach in China. How the brownies worked on judges’ families to lower the incarceration rate of young black people. How the dragon took in all the homeless cats that hadn’t yet been adopted and kept them warm in his cave. How the selkie cured cancer by sharing her shape-shifting secrets.
And then already I’m getting away from the designation of “sociopolitical” …as do many of the students in Laura Freedman’s class, whose essays are featured in the first chapter and whose stories are intertwined. Towards the end of the chapter, we get one entitled “How the Wood-Nymph Saved the Environment by Janice Aurelia Gibbs” which tells the story of how her teacher, Ms. Freedman, brought in cupcakes on her birthday and then lost it when her students were rude. “It would be a bit like that with the wood nymph,” Janice says. “At first everyone thinks, ‘We can do whatever to the environment, she won’t even do nothing.’ For a thousand years, the wood nymph forgives us for destroying the world. But when someone cuts down the oldest and tallest redwood tree, her patience snaps.”
The first chapter ends with Ms. Freedman’s own essay, “How the Phoenix Got Ms. Freedman Out of Texas by Laura Freedman” in which the phoenix appears at her window and she asks “Why should I stay….Are you going to tell me that I’m sowing ‘seeds of hope that may take years to sprout’? That I’m reaching them in a way that’s ‘invisible but real’? Because I’ve been telling myself that all year, bird.” At the end of the essay, Ms Freedman gets on the back of the phoenix and flies away. Which is pretty much explained by the beginning of Chapter Two, in which Laura Freedman is being welcomed to “Bridges: Psychiatric Wellness Solutions.”
The third chapter is a letter from Janice, who says she got the address from a teacher and that when she “used my critical reading skills…I realized: you are in the loony bin….I feel bad, Ms. Freedman. Plenty of teachers have thrown a terrarium out a window and shouted, ‘You’re driving me crazy!’ But you’re the first who actually followed through.” Ms Freedman writes back and correspondence is regular for a while until Janice gets a letter from Bridges teling her that Ms Freedman can no longer receive mail.
After that, we hear about Janice’s and Laura’s separate lives for a while, including Janice’s emails to her father which are intercepted by her stepmother-to-be until Janice makes a deal with her to stay living with her aunt in Texas, rather than move to Kentucky with them.
When Janice goes to Kentucky for the wedding, however, there’s an entire chapter of “recipes for disaster” which includes the soon-to-be-stepmother’s “Sweet and Sour Party Meatballs” which “can mark an occasion that is both sour and sweet, such as when my fiance’s daughter came up for our wedding. In a way, it was sweet, because just as raw beef is reconciled with sauce and spices when rolled into balls, the visit marked reconciliation: Janice volunteered to help with preparations for our Biblical Days wedding….And just as the meatballs are doused in vinegar, this is what I felt in my throat on witnessing Janice’s new ‘look’….But as Effie said at meeting last week: when you’re a stepparent, you kill with kindness. There’s nothing to do but take out your nicest plate, stick fancy party toothpicks in the meatballs, and say ‘welcome home.’” Janice and various other parishioners contribute recipes that tell a lot about their community, like Pastor Owens’ own recipe for “Dark Night of the Soul Food” which directs the cook to “as you stir, cut pages from your youthful diary into snowflakes, wondering just when you lost your faith in man’s capacity to turn from his history of violence and build a new earth.”
In a series of letters about the high school literary magazine, when Janice has become editor, Cody (earlier, author of “How the Sphinx Solved the Problem of Loneliness”) declares his love for Janice and writes a story he calls a “true history” about how they broke Ms Freedman out of the “nut ward” which is followed by Janice’s email saying that she was being released anyway.
Janice does not have a baby, and Laura has a baby. The details of their stories are ordinary and sometimes discouraging, but the way the details are revealed is continually engaging.
Janice asks Cody at one point, in an email, why Ms Freedman couldn’t have been “the teacher from one of those movies where a nice lady with good bone structure stands on her desk and reads a poem and the kids are all like, fuck poverty, we’re going to college!”
Cody shows up on horseback in Janice’s front yard at another point, being filmed for a TV show called “Rags2Riches” and later Laura tells Janice “they interviewed me for two hours, then cut it to the five minutes where I talked about his cape fetish.”
In the end, Janice shows up to take care of Laura’s baby. The baby’s father reads Laura’s journal, including the entry about her first pregnant student, Kristi, and also the one about the time Laura gave an apple to Janice. The small things, the things that might be forgotten except for being written down in the journal—those things might have been enough to shift some kind of balance.
Simply having someone who will read it when you write about your favorite mystical creature can be enough to shift that balance. As Mrs. Crater and Mr. Shiftlet discover in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”
I am grateful to Tom at Wuthering Expectations for recommending this book to me, and for reading about my wish for recommendations.
So… what is your favorite mystical creature?