Puzzle time by Bill Kirton

This has nothing to do with anything
What follows is a piece I posted on my own blog between Xmas and New Year. My excuse/reason for repeating it here is that I think it illustrates the process of how asking questions of ourselves as writers (questions of which I gave examples in three of my AE blogs in the summer of 2015), provides the substance and complexities of stories and novels. The range and nature of the responses I got to the challenge at the end made me want to provoke some of the literati who frequent the AE blog into giving their take on the exercise.

First, then, the blog.

Facebook is a strange place for all sorts of reasons – some good, some less so. You can, for example, find out which 18th century politician, Renaissance painter, or Jane Austen character you most resemble just by answering a few questions. Really useful, eh? Other questions help you decide whether you’re a porcupine, a swallow-tailed butterfly, or a haddock. Some ask you to combine the name of a relative with the make of car you drive to reveal what you’d be called if you were in a Quentin Tarantino movie. And they’re all part of the daily reality of millions of people.

What I was...
One of those transmigrations happened to me recently when, by giving the wrong answer to a puzzle, instead of remaining the small wooden grotesque which my mugshot identified me as, I had to become a llama for a day. I asked my nephew, Joe, to draw the animal for me and he did a great job so that, for those 24 hours, I was, in fact, quite attractive.

What I became
Another part of the punishment was that I had to explain why I’d come over all South American camelid, and that meant repeating the challenge as part of my own feed. The upside of that was that it triggered far more comments than usual so it seems that Bill Kirton, pillar of the community and writer of high quality literature, is far less interesting than Bill Kirton, llama.

Anyway, in the course of mentioning that fact, I suggested I might concoct some puzzles of my own. I don’t mean those in which men have to row wolves, foxes, chickens, goats, sacks of grain and the latest iphone across a river one at a time without any of those still on the banks eating one another or stealing the man’s identity. They’re too easy. I prefer the type which only have an answer when the responder provides one that fits.

As writers and readers, we use words to create our worlds, our truths. Faced with extremes of any sort, including absurdity, our impulse is to explain them, bring them under control, impose some order, try to make them make sense. And that’s exactly what the sort of puzzles I’m talking about demand of us. The writer provides the text, the reader analyses it and gives it coherence. So here’s an example of the sort of thing I mean. All you have to do is tell me what’s going on in this scenario.

A man is carrying a yellow box very carefully. He walks up to a cottage door and knocks. The door is answered by a teenage girl with dreadlocks. Over her scruffy clothes she’s wearing a spotless white apron. She keeps her hands behind her back as they talk.
‘Is Marie-Louise in?’ says the man, ‘I brought this for her.’
‘Let’s see,’ says the girl.
The man opens the box and holds it towards her. She looks inside. It’s empty.
‘They’re all asleep,’ she says. ‘You can’t come in.’
She closes the door. The man takes off his shoes, puts them inside the box, leaves it on the doorstep, and walks away.

And that was it. I then offered a couple of books as prizes and the exercise produced some entertaining responses, including one from our own, ever-inventive Chris Longmuir. Some continued the story and added a twist, and each was inventive and intriguing in its own way. Now, though, I’m going to be more demanding. I’m going to insist that an ‘explanation’ for every one of the details in my scenario be incorporated into any offerings. I think we need to know:
  • Who the man is
  • How he relates to the people in the house as well as to Marie-Louise
  • Who the other people are
  • The significance of the colour yellow, the dreadlocks, the scruffy clothes, the hands hidden behind the back
  • Why the box is empty
  • Why she shows no reaction to the fact that it's empty
  • Why they’re all ‘asleep’
  • Why he puts his shoes in the box and walks away
Any takers? I don't expect stories, just quick notes on the relationships, etc. However, Susan suggested in a comment on one of my 2015 'questions' blogs that an anthology of stories, each incorporating the same elements,  might result from such exercises. I’m not suggesting this is worthy of that – I think it’s maybe too specific, but it could be an interesting trial run.


Chris Longmuir said…
Well, I don't think I answered all the questions on your blog, Bill. I much prefer a bit of mystery rather than having the whole thing explained. But, for the benefit of AE members, I will add my comment here. Do I have to say "Previously published on Bill Kirton's blog"? Anyway, here it is.

After the man leaves she places the blood-stained knife on the hall table and opens the door again. She peers into the box. “hmm,” she says, “he must think I’m Cinderella.” She thinks for a moment then reaches into the box and replaces her bloodstained slippers with the shoes. Closing the door she waits until she hears the latch click shut and then runs after him. With a bit of luck her family won’t be found until the smell becomes too bad, and by that time she will be far away.
Umberto Tosi said…
The man is a lama (not your kind of llama) come to give a daily teaching to members of the Marie-Louise Ashram for Retro Hippies, whose members all wear spotless white aprons, put their hair in dreadlocks and talk with their hands behind their backs to symbolize the dual nature of communication.

The box contains the lama's lesson for that day, which, as always, is about nothingness, hence empty. It is actually saffron (ref. Buddhism), not yellow per se.

The girl, who like all Marie-Louise Ashram's members - male and female - calls herself Marie-Louise, responds in an aptly enlightened way to the lama's empty-box koan, by offering a paradoxical koan of her own, to wit:

"They're all asleep. You can't come in."

Obviously, "they" are not ALL asleep literally, because she's standing right there, wide awake. Ergo, he could actually come in, but he can't, and she closes the door, again, that dual-nature thing.

The door closing is a tipoff to the double-double meaning of "They're all asleep." The statement holds, humbly, that, in her opinion, they're all yet to achieve enlightenment. If she had said that they were "all awake" it would be presumptuously unenlightened. Right answer again, Marie-Louise!

The lama, satisfied that today's bit of wisdom has been imparted, puts the shoes that he was not wearing in the box, leaves it on the doorstep and walks away in not-named-Marie-Louise bliss.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Chris. Having just finished reading your latest (I'll review it later), I recognise that last line as being one of those effects at which you're so good - i.e. dropping a brutal element into otherwise 'normal' contexts.

Umberto, I bow before your power - a brilliant interpretation of the topic. Thank you. It's set the bar very high for anyone who follows. On the other hand, the possibilities are infinite.
glitter noir said…
I'm with Jan, I'm afraid. The last time I felt this buffaloed was when I lived in Buffalo. And way back then I shoveled snow until I was blue in the face.
Bill Kirton said…
Jan, I'm a doctor. I recommend drugs.

Reb, your comment has the makings of an excellent story prompt in itself. Let's see... 'Gregor woke up one morning and found himself changing into a Buffalo. He leapt from his bed and picked up a snow shovel...'
Enid Richemont said…
"Marie-Louise" is obviously the pseudonym for the charismatic leader of an esoteric sect based on End-of-Time beliefs. Its symbolic colour is yellow, indicating pollen, and predicting the groups' members' rebirth into the post-apocalyptic world as an aggressive species of sunflower which will eventually take over from humanity (reproduction via Holy Bees being much less problematic and troublesome than sex).

The supposedly 'sleeping' occupants of the cottage have clearly been heavily drugged, and when/or indeed,'if' they wake up, they'll eventually discover that their earthly bank accounts and all their material assets have been drained, while "Marie-Louise" (aka Boris) escapes with his teen-age African mistress,Bessie, wearing his accomplice's specially designed shoes which leave no footprints. Oh, and Bessie's pure white apron is always worn for sect ceremonies, and she's holding the syringe behind her back. Simples.

Authorial comment - I was tempted to make the villain a 'Donald', but didn't feel the Trump had the imagination for this kind of thing.
Enid Richemont said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Enid Richemont said…
Thinking of setting up a "TOURNESOL" sect myself - after all, who would not wish for eternal life as an aggressive sunflower? I mean, no relationship problems - just bees, seeds and eternal life - what's not to like? If any of you feel tempted to sign up, just send me your bank details, house deeds etc etc (am considering investing in a suite in the Ritz, Piccadilly...)
Bill Kirton said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Kirton said…
Excellent, Enid, and very persuasive. You've covered all the bases Thanks very much.I'm particularly fond of 'an aggressive species of sunflower', which produced quite a loud snort of laughter. But what a lovely thought - a world run by asexual sunflowers. How reassuring, too, to think that you've already managed to persuade a banker to allow you to set up an account as a tournesol. On the other hand, it's no surprise really; they're such strictly honourable, upright, socially aware people. My financial details are on their way.
Enid Richemont said…
You shock me, Bill. Not "sexual" sunflowers - perish the thought! Members (or The Elite) would be fertilised by "Holy Bees" - no naughty stuff involved AT ALL. Expecting your subscription any day soon...
Enid Richemont said…
Thanks for that reassuring amendment, Bill. I post here as a virgin grandmother, and look forward to receiving the loot (apologies, your subscription).
Bill Kirton said…
No, no, of course not, Enid. I said asexual (although I might learn a thing or two just by watching the 'Holy Bees').

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