It was the end of a gruelling, exhilarating hike: 13 km of intense climbs and descents on a rugged wilderness trail in unrelenting heat. Maybe I was a little disoriented, because when the snake-like thing danced with me mid-run, I felt charmed instead of scared. There are no venomous snakes in Nova Scotia, I told myself, so why worry that its mouth veered toward my bare calf? I moved away a foot or two, then stopped to look back: olive-green and black patterned tail, blue-green upper body and—hang on—was that a pair of legs near its head?
My hiking partner got out his phone to take pictures, and we debated. Were those legs—or were they gills? And what was with the graduated colour scheme, warm green blending into cool blue? We tried out theories: snakes go through a juvenile phase in which they sport proto-limbs? This was a vagrant lizard, visiting from away? Nothing made sense.
Walking on, talking of other things, we set the question of the creature aside. Then on the final uphill, heat and muscular exhaustion getting the better of me, I suddenly thought: but why couldn’t it be a baby dragon?
At the mid-point of this hike, just when I’d most needed refreshment, I found a fairytale waterfall and washed my hair in it to cool down. The moment felt magical. So, while a mythical creature is ho-hum in fiction—all too easy to conjure—the idea of one felt exciting and possible in those fabulous woods.
A few days later, a friend with a nearly-finished novel said, Tell me it’s not a rule that Canadian stories have to end with a body in the bushes!
Of course there is no rule that in fiction the grimmest possibility is the best or truest one. There’s no rule that fiction has to follow rules. We make stories in order to satisfy a yearning for new understanding, for truth entwined with imagination, for surprise and thrill and mystery.
Stories are necessary. And doesn’t the fact we make them instinctively—transforming a snake with a frog in its mouth into a fantastical creature—seem like evidence they’re a form of play whose success depends on dodging rules?