Herbert’s Story

I’ve been worried about Herbert.

You see, I left him hanging from the ceiling in Professor Mandragora’s laboratory, looking sad. Herbert was originally not going to be a character at all. He was just a literary reference. But as soon as he reacted to something, as soon as he showed that he was responding to the world around him, I had to go back and write his story.

I can make characters wicked, or selfish, all sorts of awful things. And that’s all right, as long as they still have agency. But I can’t trap a character.

So I decided that Herbert had to have a story of his own.

First, I had to look up where alligators come from, because I’d forgotten. The answer is Florida. (Obvious, I know, but I always mix them up with crocodiles. I should remember: crocodile, Nile.)

Herbert originally came from Florida. But by the time Professor Mandragora bought him, from her usual taxidermy shop, he had been taxidermed for more than fifty years. He was an old specimen that the taxidermist had bought on sale, somewhat the worse for wear. Professor Mandragora bought him for only twenty-five dollars.

She always went to the taxidermy shop on Thursdays, to see what the taxidermist had in stock. She brought birds and squirrels and foxes back to her laboratory. There, she took the bodies apart, added mechanical elements, and created something that was part animal, part machine. Then she added magic, to make them go. They were toys, really. Mechanical toys that allowed her to experiment, to practice her skills.

That’s what she did to Herbert. But with Herbert, something happened.

What is a soul? You probably haven’t thought about that question lately. And I can’t give you a firm, solid answer. (Any more than the soul is something firm and solid.) The soul is the self. Everything living has one, and when it dies, that soul goes back where it came from, to become part of the soul of creation itself. The soul is part of that great soul, but also separate from it. That is a paradox, but the soul is also a paradox, infinitely small but larger than a universe. And not even witches understand it fully.

What happened was this. When Herbert had died, his soul had merged back into the soul of creation. Professor Mandragora’s mechanical creations were not alive, and had no souls. But when she reanimated Herbert, a part of his soul must somehow have sensed that his old body was available again, was animate, not alive but capable of motion. And it came back.

She had given him a clockwork heart, and eyes that moved mechanically. She had inserted an entire mechanical apparatus, a metal spine that allowed him to move. She had patched parts of him with thin copper plates. And then, since she did not actually have room for an alligator in her laboratory, she had hung him from the ceiling, where he occasionally swung his head or swished his tail.

The expression of sadness on his alligator face, on the day Thea, Matilda, Emma, and Mouse visited, was the first sign that a part of his soul had returned. That afternoon, when Professor Mandragora returned to the laboratory, she immediately knew that something had happened. She took Herbert down, inserted a box made of metal plates and thin metal wires into his throat, and said, “All right, Herbert. What’s wrong?”

It took him a moment. Remember, he had never spoken before. But he had always been a particularly bright alligator.

“I – don’t know,” he said. He swished his tail, startled by the sound of his own voice, and almost brought down a large stack of books.

“I diagnose an existential crisis,” said Professor Mandragora. “It will pass, you know. As soon as you find the rest of your soul. It’s probably still in Florida, in the swamp where you were shot.”

“Florida?” said Herbert. His voice had an odd, but not unpleasant, whirring sound.

“How are we going to get you to Florida?” asked Professor Mandragora. “It’s the middle of the semester, and I can’t leave my students or my research. You’ll need to get yourself down there. But how?”

For Professor Mandragora, this was a rhetorical question, a way of focusing her energy rather than actually asking. She knew how.

She gave him wings. They were made of copper, and would weather but not rust. They were large but light, and she hammered the magic right into them. (She had majored in Magical Physics at MIT.)

On a cold but sunny day (all days in Boston are cold, but not all days are sunny), she said goodbye to Herbert, and told him to take good care of himself. Then he rose into the air with more grace than you might expect from a taxidermed alligator (he had been practicing for several weeks). And he flew south. She saw him silhouetted against the sky, looking like an awkward dragon, and very much hoped that she had done the right thing. But even a taxidermed alligator deserves to find his soul, she thought. And I agree.

What happened to Herbert? There were storms, and high winds, and once he was almost lost at sea. But at last he came to the Everglades, and there he found his soul, among the roots of a cypress. It was pleased to have a body again, and for the first time in his brief afterlife, Herbert felt a sense of peace, a sense as though he was no longer missing a part of himself.

Soon after, he met a girl named Alice. She was sixteen, and she had never owned a pair of shoes. Despite what seemed like unprepossessing circumstances, Alice wanted to go to college and study ecology. But she had no money, had never had any money, and they don’t let you into college for a faded dress and an old baseball cap.

I think it was Alice’s idea. At least, she wrote the sign: See the Flying Alligator! Only $5!

And you know, if you put up a sign that like, people will actually want to see the flying alligator, sometimes twice in a row. Especially after a feature on the local PBS station, which was broadcast to other PBS stations so that all the way up in Boston, Professor Mandragora saw it and said, “Good work, Herbert!”

It was the Herbert stuffed alligators that allowed Alice to go to college, and then to graduate school. Herbert went with her, and eventually her roommates got used to him. Today, Alice is an ecologist (Dr. Alice, the locals call her), and Herbert lives with her in a house at the edge of the Everglades. The house is filled with plants, tanks of fish, birds undergoing rehabilitation.

And the last time I visited, they were very happy.

I’ve decided that every Friday, I’m going to write part of the Shadowlands serial. If you want to read parts that I’ve already written, go to Serial. There, you can read all about Thea Graves, Matilda Tillinghast, Emma Gaunt, and Mouse, from the beginning.

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9 Responses to Herbert’s Story

  1. Grey Walker says:

    Oh, hurrah! I was actually wondering about Herbert, when you mentioned his sadness.

  2. See, great minds think alike! (And care about characters, no matter who they are . . .)

  3. Dumbledore says:

    So are you suggesting that Herbert, a mechanical alligator, must find his soul mate?

  4. Keith Glaeske says:

    That is such a beautiful story! Thank you for telling it.

  5. Well, I don’t know if a mechanical alligator has a soul mate. πŸ™‚ Unless maybe Alice is his soul mate. I think what I’m suggesting is that he has to find his own soul? That he’s not fully real until he finds it.

    I think the thing is, I’m writing metaphor rather than allegory, and sometimes it ends up having implications that I can’t see myself when I write it. Like, I picked the name Alice without thinking about it at all, it just came to me, and I only realized later than it was a fairly obvious literary reference. So writing goes, I guess? If it’s a code, it’s one I don’t understand myself as I’m writing it. It’s weird, but this story is such an unconscious process for me, and I think things come out that I’m not aware of until after I’ve written them. And then I look back and go, hunh . . .

    (So I don’t know, maybe Herbert does need to find his soul mate? Though I still find the idea of a mechanical alligator with a soul mate funny. But who knows what my writing mind, which is not exactly my conscious mind, is trying to say. This writing business is confusing.)

    Keith, I’m so glad you like it! I had no idea what was going to happen when I sat down to write it, and it just came to me. But I’m pleased with how it came out. I got to give Herbert a happy ending! Mechanical alligators do get happy endings, at least in my world. πŸ™‚

  6. It just occurred to me that I’m using metaphor and allegory in a specific sense that comes from some literary critic, but I don’t remember whom.

    Metaphor: meaning is shifting, not fixed, difficult to interpret (like The Wasteland).
    Allegory: meaning is fixed, determined by a specific set of equations (like Pilgrims Progress).

    But I have no idea who said the above, and it strikes me as a strange way to use the word metaphor anyway. I hope I didn’t just make this up . . .

  7. Keith Glaeske says:

    Well, I will be honest and say that Herbert’s story made me cry. Houses made of dragon bones and faerie balls in the otherworld are all well and good, but it made me happy to know that magical steampunk alligators have souls. Or at least find them. (And, after some reflection, your story showed that Pr. Mandragora has a soul too–or at least a heart.)

  8. Dumbledore says:

    I think you’re right. Metaphor allows a range of meaning. Allegory pins you down to a single interpretation.

    But the larger point is not that he finds his soul mate (whether or not he does) but that he finds someone to hold hands with in the dark (the dark, of course, being metaphorical). πŸ™‚

  9. Keith: Professor Mandragora most definitely has a heart! πŸ™‚ But the point about magical steampunk alligators versus houses made of dragon bones and faerie balls is a good one, and one I’ll have to think about. I think maybe what’s missing from the other part of the story is the heart, and that’s actually a really important realization for me, one I hadn’t had before. I was talking about revision in terms of cool stuff, but not in terms of the heart of the story. And I think that’s been the problem so far with my attempts to write something that feels YA. There’s been something missing, and I think that’s the element. (Probably because I learn by imitating, and so far I’ve been imitating the YA that I’ve seen out there, and it doesn’t seem to have a lot of heart either. But that lack makes my stories lie flat on the page, as it were, instead of actually live . . .)

    Dumbledore: The hands being metaphorical too, since he’s an alligator! πŸ™‚ But I understand what you mean, and you’re right. That’s exactly what he does find: wholeness in himself, plus a partnership and companionship that’s what we all want in our lives.

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