My father used to tell me a story and it comes to me now as I recover from my drunkenness, a story about an unselfish giant. He would always tell me at the strangest moments with a weary tone to his voice, like a man that had lost something important to him. I remember once we were walking in the fields near my childhood home, not far down the motorway. He sat me on a stump and sat down on the bank beside me, looking off to the distance for a moment, at something only he could see. There was a giant, he would begin, an unselfish giant. Children of the land would marvel at the dark tan of his skin, a tone he achieved from spending all his days in the sun out in the olive groves or by the lake. He didn’t live in a grand castle like all the other giants, instead he lived a simple life making his home under a tall yew tree, and he was content.
The giant did not keep diamonds or gold – which was strange, because it is known that giants are great hoarders of precious and pretty things – but instead carried with him a large sack of fine goose feathers. The giant liked them for their softness and their quality. He picked only the best and whitest, and maintained them with care and affection. Occasionally monks from the neighbouring town would come and barter for some of his quills, trading food with him, and he accepted only out of necessity for he would have happily given the feathers away.
But the time came when a selfish giant, discontent with his high walls and great stores of gold, envied the dark giant. And, mistaking the cause of the dark giant’s happiness to be his store of goose feathers rather than his uncluttered conscience, came to him one morning and asked him, “ho, friend, why don’t you make a gift of some of those feathers to me?”
The dark giant happily obliged and gave the other a handful of his feathers. The selfish giant looked at the feathers and felt content. “Yes,” he said to himself. “Now I own these I can find my bliss.”
The other giants, from behind their high walls and their large stores, saw their friend’s happiness and envied him too. “What makes you so happy, friend,” they each asked. “These feathers, of course,” he replied, showing them his grubby fistful of down.
The other giants laughed and slapped their friend on the back for making such a fine joke. “What silliness, feathers cannot make anyone happy! It is gold and silver and fine precious things that do!”
“Ho friends, then ask the dark one in the forest, he is the happiest of us all, and all he owns are some feathers.”
So the giants all came to the dark giant and found that their friend was right, he was happy. So, all together, they said, “ho, friend, why don’t you give us some of those feathers so we can share in your joy?”
This lifted the dark giant’s heart, that giants usually so greedy for gold and precious metals would want to share in his love for goose feathers. “Of course,” he said gaily, handing each of them a handful of feathers each. And then they left, contented by having what they believed was the key to happiness. And retreating to their castles they displayed the feathers above their gates like trophies.
Before long the lords and kings of the land saw the giants’ feathers and wondered what on earth they could mean. Were they a trophy of war, a code that only the tall could read? With all their houses about them, the kings and lords rode to the nearest castle and asked. “What do you mean by these feathers, tall ones?”
The giants all laughed. “Don’t you know little ones, these feathers are the key to happiness, just ask the dark one down in the forest.”
So a great host converged on the dark giant’s forest home, kings and lords from all over, friends and enemies all. The dark giant greeted them kindly, “ho, my friends, what may I do for you?”
“Those feathers,” the highest of kings said, “won’t you make us a gift of some?”
The dark giant happily obliged, handing each of the host a feather each. Joy in his heart that so many would share his interest in such trivial things. Each man walked away with a profound pleasure in their heart, convinced that the feather each owned was the key to contentment.
The dark giant lay down by his tree and looked into his bag, finding it half full (for he was ever an optimist). I shall have to go to the lake and fetch some more feathers tomorrow, he thought as he happily fell asleep.
But in the morning he found a crowd gathered around his home. Stretching as far as he could see. So many had made the pilgrimage to see the magical goose feathers; the goose feathers they had been told were so vital to true happiness. The giant was taken aback, but happily he handed out the feathers to those that had come one by one.
Once the pilgrims had left the giant took his rest, laying down against his tree and letting out a contented sigh. It felt good to do good, the giant always thought that. But when he reached into his sack he found that only one feather remained.
“Well,” he said to himself. “We all have at least one.”
But when the giant went down to the lake the next day he found there were no feathers to be found. The geese too had disappeared. The townspeople, seeing the happy pilgrims with their feathers, seeing the lords’ joy at their quills, seeing the trophies of the other giants, had decided that before them they had a fine source of revenue. So they had gathered all the feathers they could, and captured all the geese, and meant to sell the feathers for their own profit.
Dejected the giant sat down by the bank and cried and cried until he could cry no more. Not for the loss of his feathers, but that his one joy had become a monopoly. He railed against the greed of the other giants, and of the lords who should know better, and of the people to whom he had given so much to and yet received nought back.
Day turned to night and back to day again and still the giant wept. “I gave away these feathers in order to make people happy,” he said to himself. “Because they made me happy and I thought that is how you spread happiness. But all they have done is taken what I love and what makes me happy and made it into something sordid and greedy.”
Suddenly, driven by grief, the giant craved castle walls and vaults of silver and gold and a safe place to store feathers where only he could see them. He was ready to throw away his kindness, leave the open air and beautiful olive groves, and seek a life of gluttonous solitude when up came a girl, maybe six or seven, in floods of tears.
“Mister Giant,” she spoke, mild and sweet, “why does everyone else have a feather and I don’t?”
Struck with pity the giant handed over his last feather. Instead of the confused greed he saw in the faces of the townsfolk, the giant saw in this girl a surge of pure joy. “Oh thank you, Mister Giant!” she cried before she skipped away across the grass. The giant sat beside the lake once more, without sorrow in his heart, without feathers in his pouch, and smiled.
When he finished my father would stay silent for some time. I would ask him what it meant; what exactly the moral of the story was. Why did the giant give away his last feather, why was he so happy about it, and why are feathers any good anyway? He would never answer and I would have to be content with his silence. Sometimes I was, and sometimes I would shout and stamp my feet as only a child could, demanding an answer. He would simply sigh as if he were disappointed in me.
The story often comes to me now, and each time I try and find a meaning in my father’s old words. But there is none that I can ever pull out; none, at least, that I would deem worthy of my father. Typical morals of selflessness and doing good were not what my father preached, instead all his stories were of the same ilk, and he would tell me as if he too were trying to glean something from them.
He was ever a mysterious man. Never short of a story or a piece of advice, childish mischief never far from his mind. Often we would walk together in the fields that bordered our home, he would take me on adventures brimming fantasy and escapism. My mother never approved, her Catholic upbringing spoke against frivolities like ours. Whenever we returned she would scold first my father and then turn her attentions towards me for encouraging him – often I thought it should have been the other way round.
I came to realise later that he was not a happy man, and most of that unhappiness I attributed to my domineering mother. But, in truth, there was something else hanging over him that I am only now beginning to comprehend. It was the evenings that brought sobriety out in him, in the sunlight he was a jovial and kind man, even when my mother was rampaging as she would through the house. But when darkness fell he seemed set upon, as if the night-time was fell and harrowing. Often I would wake in the middle of the night and hear him talking, but it was not to my mother that he spoke but into the darkness. At other times he would mention someone whom my mother and I were unaware existed and then just pass it off with the phrase “that is another world”, and we would always assume he was talking about work.
Seldom did he seem truly with us. He was an editor for some big magazine in the city, nothing too fancy, but not pulp either, somewhere in between – a phrase with which I could describe his entirety. He always seemed stuck between something, which I always assumed was my mother’s good and bad sides, now I realise it may well have been something else. I realise that I may well have inherited this other world from my father: gorilla man and all.
It is hard, in moments like these, not to think of my father. In fact, rarely a day goes by that I don’t think of him. Where my mother was a taskmaster, the perennial “bad cop”, my father was always good and kind to me, and I loved him dearly. His death left a hole in my heart that took years to even begin to fill, and even now it feels hollow still. Afterwards I left the family home and moved to the city, my mother left too and moved to the coast some years after, and now that family home of mine is home to another, while the memories and hauntings of the old place stand derelict.
It is a sombre thought, that such a place is lost. Sad also that my best memories remain those of my childhood and that I have failed, since the passing of my father, to make any new ones. It used to be that I would be hopeful of new things in the morning, now I just hope I can make it through tomorrow without incident.
You should sleep.
No, never sleep. That is my life now: of waking and thought. I place a record on my old turnstile, a set of LPs and the player some of the few mementos I have of my father. Simon and Garfunkel. Sounds of Silence. Too many thoughts of my father, too many of his old favourites, first the film and now this. I can only hope he is at peace in his new world.