There once was a man who made his living writing funny short stories. The man’s name was Azben Hummingbird and the stories he wrote came to him unceasingly for fifty years until one day they stopped.
“How strange,” said Azben to his cat Hernando who often curled up on Azben’s lap when Azben sat by the fire writing in his notebook. “Nothing.”
Azben sipped his nettle tea and thought back over his life and remembered a few other days when nothing came to him to write, and these memories reassured him the stories would come again, probably the next day.
But no story came the next day or the next or the next, and Azben could not remember ever going so many days without a story coming to him, and he began to worry.
You see, Azben could not make up stories. He had tried on a few occasions, but after making up just a few sentences he would start to feel terrible, as if he was committing a crime. Then he would read the sentences he’d written and find the writing poor, so he would burn the page and feel immensely relieved.
Thus he knew it was not a good idea to try to make up a story, yet after a week of no story coming to him he did try to make one up and only got a far as The day dawned chilly before his head began to ache. So he stopped writing and decided to go for a walk.
Azben and his wife Zenevia lived in a lovely little house on the edge of a forest about a mile from the ocean.
“I’m going for a walk,” said Azben, finding Zenevia in the kitchen making bread to go with minestrone soup for supper. “Would you like to come with me?”
“Can’t right now,” said Zenevia, shaping her loaves. “Bread, soup, etcetera. Would you mind picking up a quart of milk on your way back from the beach?”
“How did you know I was going to the beach?” asked Azben, getting a basket for bringing home what he knew would be more than a quart of milk.
“Because you always walk to the beach when you’re pensive,” said Zenevia, smiling at her husband. “And I know you’re pensive because you’re frowning and you only frown when you’re pensive. Oh and some cheese and wine and…”
Azben sat on a driftwood log and watched the waves rolling in, and he thought Stories came to me as unceasingly as these waves. I wonder why they stopped?
Then he thought about the last story he wrote, a story about a boy who runs away from home and intends to never go back, but a few hours into running away the boy remembers his mother is making a pumpkin pie, his favorite, for dessert after supper, and supper is probably going to be spaghetti, also his favorite, and then he encounters a ferocious dog who gives him quite a scare, after which an ominous man offers him a ride, so he goes home and no one ever knows he ran away.
“For which the fiction editor at Neon Bloom paid me two hundred dollars,” said Azben, speaking to a passing cloud, “and said it made her cry the best kind of tears.”
After supper, Azben and Zenevia played Gin Rummy on the rug by the fire and Zenevia won for the fourth night in a row.
“No story has come to me in seven days now,” said Azben, putting the cards away. “Not a line. Not a word. Not even a syllable.”
“Is that a long time?” asked Zenevia, going into the kitchen to put a kettle on for tea. “Seven days?”
“It’s forever!” said Azben, irate. “In fifty years I’ve never gone more than a day or two without a story coming to me.”
“Maybe your muse needed a vacation,” said Zenevia, who recently retired from teaching school for fifty years.
“My entire life my muse never took a vacation,” said Azben, his voice growing shrill, “and now, without warning, it leaves for Hawaii?”
“It?” said Zenevia, perusing the tea bags. “I’ve always imagined your muse was a she.”
“I’ve never imagined my muse was anything,” said Azben, exasperated. “Stories came to me. I wrote them down. Now they’ve stopped coming. I don’t know who I am or what I’m here for if not to write the stories that come to me.”
“You’re Azben Hummingbird,” said Zenevia, gazing at her husband. “You’re married to me, Zenevia Chickadee. We live in our house together, grow vegetables in big tubs, and have two cats. Every afternoon you build a fire to warm the living room for the evening. You’re seventy-three, I’m seventy-two.”
“Yes,” said Azben, putting another log on the fire, “and until a week ago I wrote stories every day and sent them to magazine editors who sometimes published them. And every ten years or so I’d publish a collection of stories. Now what do I do?”
“You’ll find out,” said Zenevia, bringing him a cup of chamomile tea.
“How will I find out,” he asked despondently.
“Time will tell, dear. Time will tell.”
Another week went by without a story coming to Azben so he bought a ukulele and taught himself to play ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business.’ Inspired by his success with the old show tune, he learned several other songs and then composed an original ditty called ‘Cats Are Lots of Fun.’
Then another week went by without a story coming and Azben deep cleaned his office that hadn’t been deep cleaned in ten years and got rid of so much stuff the room seemed twice as big and rather elegant.
But when another week went by without a story coming, Azben began to feel desperate and crazy, so he went to the only psychiatrist in town, Morvuli Grebe, and told her what was going on.
Morvuli pondered Azben’s situation and said, “These things happen.”
“I despair,” said Azben, despairingly. “I’m at a loss. I’m a rudderless boat on a turbulent sea, and now I’m using tired clichés, which I never used to use. I feel I’m disappearing, and painfully so. Is there some sort of medication that could help me?”
“I can prescribe something that will make your despair more tolerable,” said Morvuli, “but it won’t make the stories come again.”
“What will?” he asked with the innocence of a child.
“I don’t know,” said Morvuli, who was remarkably humble for a psychiatrist, “but I know someone who might know. Do you know Taligaba Nighthawk?”
“I’ve heard of her,” said Azben, frowning. “Lives at the top of Hermit Thrush Mountain. Something of a cuckoo, no?”
“Unique,” said Morvuli, writing Taligaba’s phone number on a piece of paper. “Give her a call. And if your despair becomes unbearable, we’ll get you started on some despair-blocking meds.”
“Do they have any unpleasant side effects?”
“Possibly,” said Morvuli, nodding. “That’s the trade-off. Less despair, possible other things.”
A few days later, Azben drove his old pickup truck to the top of Hermit Thrush Mountain to consult with Taligaba Nighthawk.
Taligaba emerged from her brown adobe house wearing a black robe, her long white hair in a three-strand braid, and Azben thought if I did have a muse she would look like Taligaba Nighthawk and live in an adobe house at the top of a mountain.
“Welcome Azben Hummingbird,” said Taligaba, bowing theatrically to Azben. “Come in and get warm by the fire.”
When they were settled in Taligaba’s living room, Azben told Taligaba everything he could think to tell her.
“And,” said Azben, his voice full of excitement, “Morvuli Grebe thought you might be able to help me restore the flow of stories.”
Taligaba gazed out the window and said, “There is only one way I know of to restore the flow of stories.”
“And that is?” asked Azben, holding his breath.
“You will have to completely, and I mean completely, let go of wanting stories to come to you again.”
“But I do want them to come again. More than anything.”
“Therein lies the problem. Let go of the wanting and maybe they’ll come again.”
“Maybe?” said Azben, horrified. “Maybe isn’t good enough.”
“Maybe is not only good enough,” said Taligaba, laughing. “Maybe is the best we can ever hope for.”
“But why would they suddenly stop coming after fifty years of never stopping?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps stories come to people like you for fifty years and then stop for a year and then come again for two years and then stop for one. Who knows?”
“I’m at a loss,” said Azben, despondently. “A terrible loss.”
“Don’t be,” said Taligaba, encouragingly. “There’s no end of things to do.”
So Azben returned to his house and lived in despair for several more months. Sometimes the despair verged on unbearable, other days not quite so terrible. Some days he almost called Morvuli Grebe to get started on despair-blocking meds, other days he felt he could overcome his suffering au naturel.
One evening, as he was chopping an onion for the soup he and Zenevia were making, he realized he’d gone the entire day without despairing about stories no longer coming to him, and he thought Maybe I’ve turned a corner.
And then he remembered Taligaba Nighthawk saying, “Maybe is the best we can ever hope for,” and he cried the best kind of tears.