08/27/2010 07:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature: Barry Gifford's 'The Age of Fable'

Poet, author, and screenwriter Barry Gifford has been called the master of the dark side of American reality. His stories take star-crossed, sex-driven characters, set them in maddening worlds, and track their tales with humor and insight. In the short short "Age of Fable," Gifford lets his reader loose in Roy's eleven-year-old mind as he discovers the blending of fantasy and reality that goes into fable.

The Age of Fable


by Barry Gifford

Roy read a story about a tribe of female warriors who interrupted the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans in their quest for males to assist in the propagation of their race. These women called themselves Amazons and were led by Penthesilea, who, as had the rest of the tribe, severed her right breast in order to more swiftly and easily draw back her bow. The most exciting part of the story, Roy thought, was the Amazon queen's confrontation with the champion of the Greeks, Achilles, whose ferocity in battle attracted Penthesilea as no man ever had. For the first time she encountered a man she could consider her equal.

The idea of a tribe of brave, vicious, single-breasted women was almost beyond the comprehension of Roy's eleven-year-old mind. He drew pictures of the Amazons as he imagined them, naked, tall, and lean, their long hair tied back with leather thongs.

Roy asked his grandfather if he'd ever read this story.

"Sure," said Pops, "it's in The Iliad, by Homer."

"That's right," Roy said. "I kind of found it by accident on a table at the library. Do you think there really ever was a tribe of savage women like that?"

"I don't think savage is the correct word for them, Roy. They knew what they were doing. The Amazons wanted to be independent of men, the problem being that they needed men to impregnate them in order to keep their race from dying out."

"But they only wanted girls, right?"

Pops nodded.

"Then what did they do with boy babies?"

"Killed at birth," Pops said. "Drowned them or slit their throats."

"It's just a story, though, isn't it?" Roy asked. "Homer made it all up."

"Yes," said Pops, "but there's a lot of truth to it. Even today many Chinese drown their female babies because they think they're worth less than men."

"But they need girls to keep China going."

"They don't drown all of 'em."

After talking to Pops, Roy walked over to the park to see if anybody was playing ball. Halfway there it started to rain, so Roy ducked under a canopy in front of the entrance to an apartment building. A very tall, sturdily built blond lady wearing a thin black coat came out of the building. She stopped under a canopy and looked at the rain, which was falling hard.

"Damn!" she said. "Now it'll be a bitch to get a cab."

She turned around and walked back into the building without glancing at Roy. He waited under the canopy for a few more minutes until the rain let up a little, then ran back to his house.
Pops was sitting in the kitchen eating a chopped chicken liver sandwich and drinking a beer.

"I thought you were going to the park to play ball," he said.

"There won't be a game. Maybe I'll go when it stops raining."

He opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of milk.

"What's the leader of the Amazons called?" Roy asked.

"A virago," said Pops.

"Is that the same as queen?"

"You need a king to have a queen, Roy. No, a virago is a termagant."

"Termagant? That sounds like an insect."

Pops bit into his sandwich.

"It means a big, tough woman," he said, as he chewed.

"I guess the Chinese don't want any of them," said Roy.

"Probably not," Pops said. "Close the refrigerator door."

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