The Maker of Parables

Joyce Carol Oates

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Spring 1990, Vol. XII, No. 2

M., the maker of parables, a small dwarfish delicately built man with shining dark eyes, lived inside a large slovenly bearlike man of late middle age. Each morning the two clambered up out of sleep, the one trembling with anticipation to set down, in the crystalline prose for which, while yet living, he had become immortal, the beautiful and terrifying wisdom yielded him by night; the other trembling with anticipation to eat—to eat, and eat, and eat. For there was a ravenous hole in his belly.

There was then each morning of M.’s life, unknown to his admirers, this struggle between words demanding to be recorded—for words are perishable as those who utter them—and appetite: the big slovenly fellow seating himself with a sigh of contentment to eat, and eat, and eat. Eating, he was at peace. He and his destiny were one, not even the thinness of a shadow between them. And afterward he drifted in a dream like that of an infant in the womb.

Then for a certain privileged space of time M. was free to write. He wrote quickly, furiously, scarcely daring to pause, for fear the other would wake suddenly to fresh pangs of appetite; and his precious freedom would be curtailed. Thus is a maker of parables a desperate man: his little stories, rarely more than one or two pages, are exclusively of desperation.

Icy-cold and passionless, the parables, fed by appetite, disdain all knowledge of appetite; or of the large slovenly bearlike fellow whose laboring jaws make them possible. The maker of parables, M., contemplating the mirror’s gross reflection, cannot see himself in it: this, he calls his destiny.

His admirers would not have it otherwise.

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