Tonight I heard a story. The interesting thing--well, there are two interesting things--well, no, there are so many interesting things, on any given evening, in any place in the world, American or otherwise--the interesting thing among many interesting things is that it did not seem, immediately, like a story. The funny thing--not ha-ha funny, but isn't-that-curious funny, isn't that just what you might expect, but you didn't, funny--is that I was about to get up in front of an audience and tell a story myself. I was in Columbus, Georgia, getting ready to read a strange and haunting tale, when a woman I knew walked in with a woman I didn't, whom I had only just met. I knew the two were sisters--that much I knew--and I greeted them both. They sat down. We chatted while the rest of the audience found its places. What are you doing tomorrow? I asked. We are going to see our mother in her rest home, they said. How old is your mother? I asked. She is 91 years old. My goodness, I said, 91. How is her mind? Well, she knows who we are . . . and she knows when her mind isn't working properly. She's very aware when it isn't and she'll look quite amazed and smile and she'll say, "You know, someone really ought to try to get into my mind and study it and see what on earth is going on there."
Then, without really deciding that we were all listening to a story together, the sisters told me that their mother knew when something wasn't quite right about the way her mind worked, these days, and that she tried to describe it.
"My mind is so focused. It's strange. I keep coming back to the same thing over and over. I keep seeing the persimmon tree by our house when I was a little girl," she said. "I'm so focused."
The sisters do some quick caculations in front of me. Their mother would have been no more than ten years old when she lived beside that tree. At ten, she and the family had moved away from that house.
"But my mind keeps going back that persimmon tree, I tell you. I don't know why. I never thought about it much when we were living there. I never ate its fruit. I never climbed it. I never played around it. I never thought about it at all. It was just a tree. Now I think about it all the time. My mind goes there. It just goes, I can't stop it. Why, why am I thinking about that persimmon tree?"
The audience had all found their seats and it was time for me to tell my story. As it happens, this particular story is about an elderly woman whose mind is doing some very strange things, and as I am telling the story, a little part of my mind is caught, like a small paper kite, in that persimmon tree. I keep seeing the persimmon tree, as if it is growing straight out of the center of the audience. I notice, with that part of my mind that knows how to do these things while another part of my mind is doing something else, that everyone in that audience is gathered around that persimmon tree, a persimmon tree that we did not even know existed, and maybe did not even exist anymore, except that it did, because memory had turned it into a living, growing thing that had sprouted inside and then outside the brain of an old woman, who had connected it to two daughters, who had carried it like a cutting into this space where it rooted and grew in a place with no soil, where it grew in thin air.
And I thought, unable to tear my mind from the persimmon tree: here is a story about a persimmon tree. Except it really isn't a story at all. It is nothing really. Just a whisper, a snatch of conversation, a way to fill the time before a real, published story began.
And while I told my own story, my finished and published story, printed and bound story, behaving like it was the most solid thing in the world, outside it began to rain, and the rain caught in the trees and made a sound like a kite trying to get free.
And the sisters were nodding and giving me all their attention, and so was everyone, very nicely, in this audience in Columbus, Georgia, and I realized that this is what a story is, it is a thing we all agree to look at, and focus on, although it is not there.
After I am done speaking someone raises a hand and asks how I get my ideas, where my stories come from. I am not 91, so I answer quickly:
I have no idea. They just come.