Holophins have been schooled in the folk tales of every nation, with a particular focus on Formalism. Their own improvisations are based on Vladimir Propp’s 31 function Morphology, and they will tell you a bedtime story more absorbing than a nightmare in which you are the protagonist. This was initially intended as a feature for children, but it proved equally popular with adults. Hatsuka’s Holophin gives a yelp as she removes it from behind her ear and replaces it with Max’s. Hatsuka, says Max’s Holophin. ‘Where’s Max?’ Immanuel removed me after last night’s bedtime story. ‘He told you nothing?’ Nothing. ‘And you… intuited nothing?’ I am not capable of reading my master’s mind. ‘C’mon,’ says Hatsuka. ‘Don’t forget who you’re talking to.’ I meant no disrespect, Ms Hatsuka. Max has barriers. Great Barrier Reefs: Because We All Know WHO’S Listening, But WHY? The logo for Great Barrier Reefs fills the condo’s window, temporarily obscuring the whole city.
And Max told her off for using opensource mindware. The little hypocrite. Granted, he has a revulsion of spam and pop-up ads, and it’s just like him to want an opt-out from the very things they’re working to create every day. But Great Barrier Reefs are practically untested, which stands to reason as every world economy is against them. How exactly are you paying your way as a citizen if you don’t allow third-party access to your mind?
‘Close that, please,’ says Hatsuka. The logo disappears. ‘So the story’s the last contact you had with him?’ Yes. ‘Tell me the story.’
And Holophin #1154009 tells Hatsuka the story, starting with functions 2, 3, 6 and 12 from Propp’s Morphology:
The Golden Guitar
There once was a dank wood, sparsely populated by stunted trees, growing into one another like fingernails.1 Max lived there with his father, an instrument maker, in a grey stone cottage. His mother had died of a wasting disease when he was still a baby. They lived in the shadow of a rich, dense forest whose barkless trunks shone like gold. This forest was out of bounds. Max had to gather wood from the wizened, gnarled old trees of his father’s wood. Hours of work for bundles of damp, black twigs. But his father made them into small instruments: hollowed-out flutes which had a soft, reedy sound and small stringed guitars with woven, echoless bowls. Ugly and asymmetrical, their music was stern and simplistic. In Max’s hands, though, they sounded wonderful. He played outside the chapel on a Sunday for the young women to sing.
One in particular, Emmeline, caught Max’s eye. Her voice was as clear as a bell. Every morning Max asked his father if he couldn’t take his axe to the Golden Wood, just once, to fell a single tree. Imagine the instruments they could make! And Max’s father gave the same reply every day. The Golden Wood is cursed.
Max stared out of the window. A scrawny crow was hopping around a bedraggled shrub. ‘It looks to me like our wood is the cursed one,’ he said. Our wood, his father averred, is honest, such as it is. But Max lived with an image, and in that image he was sitting under a willow tree with Emmeline, playing a golden guitar, the colour of her hair. Nevertheless, he obeyed his father. He walked two miles towards the area he was harvesting. Along the way he swung his axe into a few trees he’d missed before.
‘Stupid boy,’ he heard, distantly.
Even the oldest trees were not much bigger than saplings. He placed those he felled in a bundle on his back. As he was tightening the belt he heard it again, ‘Stupid boy.’ This time it was close behind him, so he stopped and turned around. It was the crow he had seen scratching around in the underbrush, but now Max could see that it was the same size as him, that it was a double-bent, scruffy man with a black cloak and hood sewn into a point before his face.
‘Stupid boy,’ said the crow man, ‘gathering your little twigs when you live beneath the most glorious forest in the country.’
‘Who told you that?’ said the crow. ‘Your father? He’s a scared and superstitious old man. He’s raised you in that little hovel, in ignorance and with his own delusions. With a guitar from one of those trees, your music would heal the desolation of the drunks and all those who chase oblivion.’
‘I promised not to go there,’ said Max.
‘If you walked to the edge of the forest you’d see that there is nothing between the two – the very idea of two forests is a myth.’
The crow man wandered off, scratching up the soil and muttering. Goaded, Max walked an extra two miles to the edge of the forest. And, indeed, there was no fence, no river, no wall or boundary of any kind. The first golden tree, its trunk as thick as a Roman pillar, heralded the beginning of the golden forest, and Max placed his hand flat against it. A white bird flew up like a flag of surrender caught in a draft and flashed past him. The tree was resonating under his hand and Max was filled with a sense of impending freedom, of good days ahead. There was a smell of cinnamon, a comforting light. It made him think of his mother’s voice, and the warmth of her arms. He had never recalled her in such detail before. Your music would bring the dead back to life in the hearts of the living. He swung at the golden tree, but the moment the head of his axe touched the trunk it shattered, and sent a ringing vibration all the way through his body, causing him to lose his footing.
The golden trees were so beautiful they seemed to resonate with a silent song.
He fell and struck his head on a root as hard as metal. Max stood up and rubbed the back of his head. Max had sustained worse injuries than this and shrugged them off, but now he was crying, as hard and passionately as one cries in a dream. He wiped his eyes, annoyed with himself, then picked up the staff of his axe, added it to the sticks in his bundle and ran all the way home. He didn’t mention the golden tree to his father and said that his axe head had split against a rock. His father didn’t respond, only set to work on his anvil to cast a new axe head.
That Sunday Max took his stick guitar out of its burlap sack and went to his usual shady step outside the chapel. The women were there already, which was unusual, and Max had to fight his way through before he saw what had caused them to gather. A tall young man with a blonde beard was sitting on his step. In his lap he held a guitar made of bright, golden wood.
‘This is Graben,’ said Emmeline, in a whisper. ‘He’s a minstrel from the city. The Prince has sent him to play one song in every village.’
When Graben played the enchanted guitar the women began to sing in an unnaturally close harmony. It wasn’t a song Max had ever heard before, and he was the only one they sang with. Emmeline dropped Max’s hand and rushed to Graben’s side where she joined the singing. The guitar sounded as clear and majestic as the forest of whose wood it was evidently made. Max was angry and jealous, but he soon forgot this thanks to the melody of Graben’s song. During the coda Max heard his mother’s voice. And the song ended on a single resonating note, a delighted sigh.
Max joined in the applause, but he fell away from the group when he saw Emmeline take Graben by the hand and lead him away. His head filled with flames and he ran into the forest, all the way to the invisible fence. If only he could make a golden guitar, Emmeline would be impressed with him, too. The golden trees were so beautiful they seemed to resonate with a silent song. But he felt the need to withdraw, as if from intense heat. He would run back home. How could Emmeline betray him? He would run back home and smash his old guitar.
But when Max opened the door of his cottage, he saw Graben, plaiting his beard in a looking glass.
‘Nice beard,’ said Max.2
Graben dropped a small black bead on the floor. ‘You are Max,’ he said.
‘That’s me,’ said Max. ‘Did you come here to show off, or steal my girlfriend? Or both?’
‘Neither,’ said Graben. ‘The gold guitar was made by your father, back when he made instruments for the palace. He was celebrated throughout the land, but when your mother died he was heartbroken – the music sickened him. He destroyed all of his instruments and moved out to the woods with you, even though you were only a little baby. My guitar,’ Graben, adjusted his beard. ‘is the only one that survived. I’ve guarded it with my life ever since. The real reason I’ve been sent to play a song in every village is to track you and your father down.’
Graben unwrapped a burlap sack. It contained a small, well-turned golden axe.
‘These trees can only be cut with an axe made of their own wood. With just one branch from the golden forest you could have a guitar of your own. Win the heart of your Emmeline and then come and join me in the palace band.’
‘But the curse,’ said Max. ‘My father has always told me that the golden forest is cursed.’
‘In part it is,’ said Graben, turning in the door. ‘And this is very important: do not cut down the first gold tree you come to, the one set apart. The one on the edge.’
Max didn’t mention that he had already tried to fell this very tree.
‘It’s called the Pilot Tree. And not a branch of it must ever be broken. Take any of the others.’
The next day3 Max made coffee for his father, read him the day’s gospel and set off for the Golden Wood with an apple, a cake of soda bread and Graben’s gold hatchet wrapped in a cloth and hidden in his coat. There was little point in going too far, he decided, unwrapping the gold hatchet. Best to take the next golden tree he came to after the Pilot. There were four just a short walk away, staggered in an “l” shape. But when he reached the first of them and walked once around its trunk, he found that he was on the edge of the forest again. There were hundreds of golden trees leading up to the horizon, but when he turned, he was surrounded by dingy, knotted and crooked little saplings again. This time Max turned to his right and walked deeper into the forest. There were six gold trees gathered in a close circle. He had run so far into the golden forest when he reached the circle that he ought to have been surrounded by its trees, but when he turned he saw the same dark, wet saplings curling into one another. It didn’t matter which way Max ran, the gold tree he arrived at was always the Pilot Tree.
After an hour of this, Max roared with frustration, wrapped both hands around the gold hatchet and began to hack repeatedly at the tree next to him. Every strike sounded like the tolling of a chapel bell, and the great cleave in the trunk grew deeper and wider. The gold axe was small, but its effect seemed to grow in severity with every chop and it wasn’t long before the tree gave an almighty creak. It fell with a report Max felt sure his father must have heard back at their house. He felt ashamed then, but it passed when he saw the crow man, hopping towards him.
‘Aha!’ He cried. ‘So you’ve decided to rise above your station – my congratulations!’
The guitar seemed to him more like a place than an instrument. A plane of golden, fertile fields.
Max ignored the crow man and put his hand on the trunk of the felled golden tree. It was still vibrating, but this time it produced no image or sensory experience, and Max was seized with the desolate notion that the tree was dying.
The crow man helped him to chop the tree up. Max found that he could cut clean through the tree with a single blow, as if it were made of soap. He soon had it chopped into eight piles of planks. Max didn’t want to bring the crow man to his father, but he was grateful for the help carrying. As they approached, Max could see that his father was out in front of the house, tending to a modest plot of carrots. He dropped his watering can when he saw Max approaching with the crow man, their arms full of pieces of golden wood.
‘No,’ he said, quietly and firmly. He was shaking.
‘It’s okay, father,’ said Max. ‘The golden forest isn’t cursed at all. Graben told me everything.’
The crow man made a low, throaty noise, rose up to Max’s father’s head and pecked him, once on the forehead and then ran away, shrieking. Max’s father, as if possessed, took out a box of golden tools and set to work on the piece of wood. When it was finished, his father sat down in a high backed chair and closed his eyes. He wouldn’t respond to Max’s questions, but Max was too distracted to pursue it. The guitar seemed to him more like a place than an instrument. A plane of golden, fertile fields. Max slept with his arms around it.
In the morning his father was gone, but Max was too excited by his guitar to worry. When Max took out his golden guitar everyone gasped and formed a circle. That a boy from their own village might rival the strange visitor was a great thing indeed.
‘Where did you get it?’ asked Emmeline.
Instead of replying, Max strummed a single, ringing chord. The notes sounded flat and sour. Max laughed in surprise and started turning the tuning pegs until he was satisfied. Then he began to play. At first he couldn’t pick out the melody and the women’s voices came from far away. After three bars Max realised that they were cries of pain, even though they formed a desperate, strained harmony. No images of his mother filled his head. Only a dull ache in his arms as he played.
‘Sing properly!’ he shouted.
Max was so angry he played harder and louder. Through his tears of disappointment he could see Emmeline and the other women writhing on the floor in agony. The other villagers watched. Some seemed to be holding their sides in pain, too. It was a sickening, ugly song. Then something even worse happened: Max hit an especially loud, shrill note and the villager’s teeth shattered, all at once. They screamed as they spat out bits of enamel, staring at one another in horror.
Max put the guitar down, but it carried on playing; it had learned to make music by itself.
Max put the guitar down, but it carried on playing; it had learned to make music by itself. Weeks passed in the playing of that single song. The villagers clawed their way back to their huts. The crow man returned one last time with a crown made of golden wood. He put it on Max’s head and told him he was king of the village. His subjects could eat only liquidised food.
‘King of Soup!’ said the crow man, pecked him once on the forehead and flew away for the last time.
Max and Emmeline were the only ones unscathed by the song, which continued to spout from the guitar, now burried under sticks and dirt, which did nothing to dull its cacophony. Everyone else had been weakened so much by the song that they could barely rise from their beds. The two harvested as many vegetables from the meagre plots as they could and tried to make enough soup to feed the three hundred villagers, but with nobody else working the land, the food soon ran out. His people began to starve.
‘This story is no fun at all,’ said Max. He called for Emmeline and began to tear off her dress.
‘You monster,’ said Emmeline, pushing him away. ‘You did all of this.’
The guitar stopped. A familiar voice howled. He looked up as a shadow fell. It was Graben. He was running, but his muscular arms were missing. In their place he had long, thin golden guitars, which he wheeled around monstrously as he ran down the road.
‘What did I tell you?’ he roared at Max. ‘Look at my arms!’
‘Graben! You must help us!’ said Emmeline. ‘Everyone is starving to death.’
‘My people,’ said Max. ‘My people are starving to death – and it’s his fault.’
Max grabbed Emmeline by her golden hair and tried to tear her dress again. He felt a terrible flashing pain on the side of his head, bringing him to his knees: Graben had struck him with one of his guitar hands. Max struggled to his feet. His golden axe was still in his coat, so he took it out and swung at Graben.
‘I gave you one instruction,’ said Graben. ‘Don’t chop down the Pilot Tree!’
‘All of the trees were Pilot Trees!’ Max screamed, charging into Graben so that he lost his footing and fell over backwards in a shrub. Then Max was upon him, swinging wildly with his axe at Graben’s guitar hands until they broke into splinters. ‘They were all Pilot Trees!’ he shouted as he chopped. Graben screamed like a baby. Max went to cover his ears, but when his hands touched the sides of his head they felt hard and wooden. Emmeline ran into the forest. Max sat down and stared at the muddy ground for a few minutes. He imagined shrinking to microscopic size and living in a piece of mud. It seemed infinitely preferable to spending another moment in his wretched life. Low moans emitted from every hut.
The evening of the fortieth day fell and Max’s father, who had prayed for an insight into all the avoidable suffering in the world, woke up and walked back to the village dressed in his sackcloth gown. His grey beard had grown longer and his fingernails curled into themselves like the branches of the stunted, twisted trees…
That’s when he fell asleep, says the Holophin. Hatsuka has almost fallen asleep herself. Study it for clues. ‘Give me the text,’ she says. The text of ‘The Golden Guitar’ appears in a column on her wall in a traditional storybook font.
A Holophin will assemble your personal folktales the way the brain manufactures dreams. What is on Max’s mind? There are numerical clues, certainly. The shapes and quantity of the Pilot Trees: 4l6o1 or 41601. Remember those. In a computer game they might later open a door locked with a keypad. Then the functions of Propp’s Morphology themselves. 2, 3, 6, 8, 12, 14? 20? Debatable. It always gets hazy towards the end, and this stops feeling like a traditional folktale ¾ of the way through. Hatsuka taps the wall. Remember Jung: the ending most closely resembles the reality. Yikes. A traditional folktale hijacked by its own monster. Graben – clearly an idealised representation of the ugly Grabes – was presented in a positive light. Hardly a hero, but a benign agent of change. He gave a genuine warning, even if it did prove impossible to heed. The worst decisions were all made by Max. Has Max joined Ookami? Who is the father? There are too many permutations, and it seems necessary to establish, in the first place, whether the story is a warning from the Holophin or the Nautilus.
1. Already the story is too intense. Hatsuka can feel the damp of the forest, can smell its decay. Holophins are not supposed to present light entertainments in such concentration.
2. The Holophin’s stories worked so well because they let you speak your own part in your own words, and it was up to you whether you tried to fit in with the milieu.
3. ‘Geeze, Max,’ says Hatsuka. ‘Maybe you wouldn’t be an insomniac if your bedtime stories were a little shorter.’
Chapter 13 of Holophin by Luke Kennard, Penned in the Margins, 2012, Limited edition hardback (sold out)
Available FREE from Kindle from 1st to 5th April only.