I have a friend who travels a lot in Mexico, and the last time she was there she brought me back a Zapatista doll dressed in traditional colors and wearing a balaclava. It was one of those things I didn’t know I needed until I found out it existed.
“What is that?” Jessica asks, which gives me an opportunity to discuss (or, possibly, to pontificate on) the plight of indigenous peoples. Jessica listens carefully, as she always does (she is the best audience) saying, “Really? That is very interesting,” at intervals because she is much too polite to tell me I have bored her out of her skull. This is one of her quirks: She may not understand half of what you say, but she appears to be enthralled the whole time you’re saying it. An excellent strategy that will almost certainly lead her to great success in life.
“All right,” she says. “Why is that donkey red?”
The figure is riding a donkey made of red cloth. I have no idea if this is symbolic or if all the artist had on hand was red felt. “No idea,” I say.
She nods, then says, “That is a good story.”
“Well,” I say, “it’s true.” Trying to explain that the point isn’t, exactly, to tell a good story but to communicate information.
“And what do you mean by that?”
“I mean it really happened.”
She turns this over in her mind. “Is ‘true’ the same thing as ‘it really happened’?”
I never know how we get here, on the edge of some insanely abstract philosophical debate when she has never even firmly grasped what two plus two equals. Sometimes I suspect she is genius in ways I can’t begin to imagine.
“No,” I say. “Although I would catch a lot of flack from Hegel for saying that.” Is it Hegel I mean? It’s been a long time since college. “Something can be true when you know it in your heart to capture an aspect of actuality, of human existence, even if it didn’t really happen.”
“Like Harry Potter.”
“Just like Harry Potter.”
She smiles. “And Aragorn and Smeagol that you keep calling Gollum.”
“Well, that’s what Tolkien calls him.”
“His name is Smeagol.” She slants me a glance. “His real name is Smeagol. Is that his true name?”
I have no freakin’ idea and I’m almost certainly going to guess wrong. “What do you think?” I ask, the coward’s way out, but I can always console myself that it is the Socratic way, too.
“It is his real name and his true name,” she says. “It is who he is in his heart.” She has more compassion for Smeagol than I do, or Bilbo did, or Frodo, or even Gandalf.
“Well,” I say. “Good.”
“Randy gave that to you. That figure.”
“The Zapatista? Yes.”
“And that is a present.”
“She gave me princess toys,” she says, with just a hint of pity.
“Well, Randy knew you would like princess toys and she knew I would like this.”
“That is good thinking.” She studies the figure for a moment. “Zapatista,” she says, coming pretty close. Which means that other than me, she is probably the only person in our tiny town who knows what a Zapatista is. “That is a good story you told.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“It would be a good story even if it didn’t happen,” she says.
“Okay,” I say.
“It’s how you tell the story that makes it true.” Another glance. “Isn’t that so?”
“Then tell me why that donkey is red.”