Sunday Reading: Potion in a tin foil cauldron

words: Emily Ingle

Like many tales, this one starts with a girl setting off from home. I left last Halloween’s broomstick in my parents’ attic, along with most of my belongings, so it was a Boeing 767-300 that flew me across the ocean. Still, a metal box of people floating above the clouds must be nothing less than magic. I watched southern English towns shrink until they were sesame seeds sprinkled on spinach, handed to me by a smiling flight attendant. I stirred this tiny enchanted woodland with my plastic fork. One paper sachet of salt, one of pepper: a potion in a tin foil cauldron.

I was flying to a world I knew from websites and prospectuses read on the sofa of my university’s study abroad office — a world that put its spell on me from afar. Houses became fairy-sized while the day stretched to an extra seven hours. My journey took a path through a forest of duty-free handbag shops and immigration checkpoints, lined with fire extinguishers that by some strange alchemy weren’t red but silver. It was also a voyage on a sea of stories. Of the books that I squeezed into my suitcase until it was only under the airline’s weight limit by a mouse’s breath, nearly all were fairytales of some kind. While I was packing, a friend gently reminded me that they do have libraries in Colorado, but I still wished I didn’t have to leave some favourites behind.

The versions of fairytales we are fed are often sanitised visions of sparkling castles and royalty charging in on horseback at the perfect moment. But it depends on the telling you choose. Tales have been mocked as superstitious and irrational, but they taught me more than any guidebook or map I could have taken in their place. It is hard to leave the kind of friends who will tell you to bring more socks and fewer books even when it’s not what you want to hear, and grandparents who might not fear wolves but spend a lot of time in hospital these days. But the tales taught me to approach a new land as a dark and mysterious forest; that the charms will be as unexpectedly enchanting as the corners are shadowy. They taught me that the worst monsters would be the ones I conjured up myself.

They also taught me that I could be the storyteller. Long before they were written down and filmed, tales were held in heads not between pages, the narratives and characters more easily shifting into the shape of the teller or the listener. Now I’m sitting at my second-hand but new to me desk. A potassium-rich banana might have been a wise amulet to bring against the dizziness that comes with altitude and I feel like I could sleep for a hundred years. Those books have just been unpacked and are stacked up on the desk’s wooden top. They are the stone gargoyle that will awake to lend me its wisdom or taunt me into action, but it is only my touch that will animate it. There is a misty mountain outside the window and a fantastical range of peanut butter in the cupboard waiting to be tasted.

Fairytales punish ungratefulness with curses and toads; they are a reminder to always be aware of the opportunities I am privileged to have. But while I sat stirring my in-flight potion, my suitcase remained unopened. Instead, I watched the screen in front of me make a charmed map of the start of my own tale. It might be less battling ogres and more googling how on earth zebra crossings work in America, but it’s mine to tell. I’m not looking for a fairytale ending; I’m looking for a fairytale beginning.

Emily Ingle mostly makes pictures for other people's words but sometimes she writes things of her own. You can find her on her website, or pretending she lives in a fairytale.

For more tales of everyday magic, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 33