Symbolism of Blue

Henry Scott Tuke - August Blue 1894

In the “Odyssey”, Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” Well, that’s poetic, isn’t it? But there’s a reason he didn’t just call the ocean blue. There was no term for ‘blue’ in Ancient Greece. People from antiquity didn’t consider blue a separate colour significant enough to name. It’s difficult to find a word that meant ‘blue’ way back in time. Black and white are mentioned a lot. Red, a little, next green and yellow. But no blue! Blue is one of the primary colours. In Japan there’s ‘midori’, which today means green (think of the liquor) but which is traditionally a sort of bluish-green colour, somewhere in the middle. Midori is traditionally ‘the colour of nature’, and describes the color of shoots, young leaves, or whole plants. There is a Japanese word for blue (ao). But educational materials distinguishing green and blue only came into use after World War II.

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The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Wind in the Willows cover David Petersen

The Wind In The Willows is an Edwardian (1908) novel by Scottish born British writer Kenneth Grahame. This book is an example of a story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Idyllic settings were popular at the time. Idylls remained popular up to and including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (written 1924-1928).

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Lists As A Storytelling Technique

Meantime Toad packed the lockers still tighter with necessaries, and hung nosebags, nets of onions, bundles of hay, and baskets from the bottom of the cart.

Little sleeping bunks–a little table that folded up against the wall–a cooking-stove, lockers, bookshelves, a bird-cage with a bird in it; and pots, pans, jugs and kettles of every size and variety.

The Wind In The Willows, Kenneth Grahame

The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything.

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web


Cataloguing refers to creating long lists for poetic or rhetorical effect. The technique is common in epic literature, where conventionally the poet would devise long lists of famous princes, aristocrats, warriors, and mythic heroes to be lined up in battle and slaughtered.

The technique is also common in the practice of giving illustrious genealogies (“and so-and-so begat so-and-so,” or “x, son of y, son of z” etc.) for famous individuals. An example in American literature is Whitman’s multi-page catalog of American types in section 15 of “Song of Myself.”

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loaf and looks at the oats and rye,The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case…. [etc.]

One of the more humorous examples of cataloging appears in the Welsh Mabinogion. In one tale, “Culhwch and Olwen,” the protagonist invokes in an oath all the names of King Arthur’s companion-warriors, giving lists of their unusual attributes or abilities running to six pages.

Literary Terms and Definitions

The first part of Goodnight Moon (1947) by Margaret Wise Brown is literally just a list of things in a bedroom.

E.B. White was big on cutting out all unnecessary words, but this didn’t apply to lengthy lists. Charlotte’s Web is well-known for its lists.


Food is really important in children’s literature (even if by ‘children’s literature’ we mean ‘collegiate’.

“A fair is a rat’s paradise. Everybody spills food at a fair. A rat can creep out late at night and have a feast. In the horse barn you will find oats that the trotters and pacers have spilled. In the trampled grass of the infield you will find old discarded lunch boxes containing the foul remains of peanut butter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cracker crumbs, bits of doughnuts, and particles of cheese. In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone home to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles,partially gnawed ice cream cones,and the wooden sticks of lollypops. Everywhere is loot for a rat–in tents, in booths, in hay lofts–why, a fair has enough disgusting leftover food to satisfy a whole army of rats.”

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

In The Wind In The Willows, Kenneth Grahame does something interesting with punctuation: he omits the spaces between words to show how very overwhelmed the humble-living Mole is at hearing the contents of Ratty’s picnic:

“There’s cold chicken inside it,” replied the Rat briefly; “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater–“
“O stop, stop,” cried the Mole in ecstasies: “This is too much!”

The Wind In The Willows, Kenneth Grahame

In “I Live On Your Visits” by Dorothy Parker, a clingy mother tells her son she doesn’t have enough to eat, but will happily share her boiled egg. When the son goes to her refrigerator, he opens it to find:

There were a cardboard box of eggs, a packet of butter, a cluster of glossy French rolls, three artichokes, two avocados, a plate of tomatoes, a bowl of shelled peas, a grapefruit, a tin of vegetable juices, a glass of red caviar, a cream cheese, an assortment of sliced Italian sausages, and a plump little roasted Cornish Rock hen.

I Live On Your Visits

In this particular story, humour derives from the mother’s sense of lack and the observed reality of her well-stocked fridge.


How to Make the Best Use of “Routine” Events in Your Fiction by Peter Selgin at Jane Friedman’s blog.

Selgin makes the point that when writers describe a routine in fiction, the reader remains interested because they expect the routine to be shattered at some point. There is a sweet spot regarding how long the ‘description of the routine’ can go on for.

This has been studied in children’s books, and Maria Nikolajeva calls the routine part of the story the ‘iterative’ phase, which is subequently punctured by a switch to the ‘iterative’.

This switch is especially noticeable in older children’s books. New ones often plunge readers straight into the action.


When Toad of The Wind In The Willows is convicted of bad driving and ‘cheek’, he is sent down into the dungeons for 20 years. Kenneth Grahame lets the reader follow Toad on his melodramatic descent. He does this by making use of a list, which is basically one very long sentence. (I believe that pun is fully intended.)

The brutal minions of the law fell upon the hapless Toad; loaded him with chains, and dragged him from the court house, shrieking, praying, protesting; across the market-place, where the playful populace, always as severe upon detected crime as they are sympathetic and helpful when one is merely ‘wanted’, assailed him with jeers, carrots, and popular catch-words; past hooting school children, their innocent faces lit up with the pleasure they ever desire from the sight of a gentleman in difficulties; across the hollow-sounding drawbridge, below the spiky porcullis, under the frowning archway of the grim old castle, whose ancient towers soared high overhead; past guardrooms full of grinning soldiery off duty, past sentries who coughed in a horrid sarcastic way, because that is as much as a sentry on his post dare do to show his contempt and abhorrence of crime; up time-worn winding stairs, past men-at-arms in casquet and corselet of steel, darting threatening looks through their vizards; across courtyards, where mastiffs strained at their leash and pawed the air to get at him; past ancient warders, their halberds leant against the wall, dozing over a pasty and flagon of brown ale; on and on, past the rack-chamber and the thumbscrew-room, past the turning that led to the private scaffold, till they reached the door of the grimmest dungeon that lay in the heart of the innermost keep. There at last they paused, where an ancient gaoler sat fingering a bunch of mighty keys.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind In The Willows, “Mr Toad”.

This paragraph from a classic Edwardian work was basically redone for a young audience decades later in the Halloween favourite In A Dark Dark Room, which contains the following horror incantation:

In a dark, dark wood there was a dark, dark house.
And in that dark, dark house there was a dark, dark room.
And in that dark, dark room there was a dark, dark closet.
And in that dark, dark closet there was a dark, dark shelf.
And in that dark, dark shelf there was a dark, dark box.
And in that dark, dark box there was a

In A Dark, Dark Room

Both passages make use of lists. Kenneth Grahame’s achieves melodrama owing to the lack of full-stops. We imagine a langurous character complaining at length about his terrible predicament.


night scene
So they went out in the dark, and all the street lamps were lit, and all the cars had their lights on, and they walked down the road to a cafe. By Judith Kerr from The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr.



Homoioteleuton is the repetition of words with similar endings.

  • I was running, singing, and dancing all at once.
  • The plane made aerial radial shapes as if around a sundial.
  • She much prefers admiration and adoration over rejection.

Pigs In Art And Children’s Literature

Pigs are shaped like little kids. Their bodies are smaller than their heads. Pigs are supposed to be intelligent, smarter than dogs, but they’re a bit awkward. Their trotters are like little kids’ arms that don’t work very well yet.

Ian Falconer

“In the second place, I am not interested in pigs. Pigs mean less than nothing to me.”
“What do you mean, less than nothing?” replied Wilbur. “I don’t think there is any such thing as less than nothing. Nothing is absolutely the limit of nothingness. It’s the lowest you can go. It’s the end of the line. How can something be less than nothing? If there were something that was less than nothing, then nothing would not be nothing, it would be something – even though it’s just a very little bit of something. But if nothing is nothing, then nothing has nothing that is less than it is.”

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Pigs without hind legs near trough, Jan Brandes, 1785
Pigs without hind legs near trough, Jan Brandes, 1785
Porcs Pigs Zwijnen, firma Joseph Scholz, 1829 - 1880
Porcs Pigs Zwijnen, firma Joseph Scholz, 1829 – 1880
'St. Anthony the Abbot' Illustrator unknown, 1920s pig
‘St. Anthony the Abbot’ Illustrator unknown, 1920s

The huge advantages I can see for an illustrator turning a child character into a pig:

  • Pigs don’t need to have skin colour. Technically, any middle-class kid could see themselves in Olivia, though it would be interesting to know if black girls consider pink pigs ‘white’, or if we need a black pig to achieve the job of self-reflection. The part where Olivia goes to the beach and turns pink (from monochrome) kind of means Olivia gets coded as white, so in this particular instance, the issue of skin-colour is perhaps not avoided after all. (Black kids don’t turn pink after a day in the sun.)
  • Falconer can depict Olivia with no clothes on at all and avoid charges of inappropriate content and censoring. Yet little kids very often do prance about with no clothes on, or just a hat, and these scenes are indeed shown in this book. Another picture book (this time Australian) in which toddlers prance around naked is Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay, but in this case the sensitive areas are always discreetly covered — an amazing achievement when depicting carefree, uninhibited body language while at the same time covering the crotch.
  • We are familiar with Olivia now, so it’s hard to remember that pigs in children’s books are typically not like Olivia in personality. They tend to be Wilbur types (from Charlotte’s Web), in which they sort of know they’re human food and have this worried aura to them, or they stand in for the messy/greedy/uncouth side of little kids. Olivia doesn’t have these aspects to her character at all — she is a young fashion-designer who attempts to be graceful but is trapped inside the limitations of her pig’s (toddler’s) body. Her exuberance means she’s the opposite of lazy.

Here’s a list of fictional pigs.


"Pigs" by Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Gennady Novozhilov
“Pigs” by Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Gennady Novozhilov
Vintage postcard celebrating the New Year of 1911
Vintage postcard celebrating the New Year of 1911. Pigs and gold are symbols for wishing wealth and prosperity.
From Piggly Plays Truant, 1947, illustrated by A. J. MacGregor
From Piggly Plays Truant, 1947, illustrated by A. J. MacGregor
Aunt Pettitoes and Three Piglets, ca. 1910-1913 Beatrix Potter
Aunt Pettitoes and Three Piglets, ca. 1910-1913 Beatrix Potter
An illustration for the nursery rhyme Tom, Tom the Piper's Son. From Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever A Giant Little Golden Book
An illustration for the nursery rhyme Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son. From Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever A Giant Little Golden Book
Ron-Searle’s cover for Le pointe magazine (1970s)
Vintage lithographic postcard from 1911 drunk pigs
Vintage lithographic postcard from 1911 drunk pigs

Making Use Of Cognitive Biases In Storytelling

Cognitive biases are at play when an audience interprets any work of art.

There’s an interesting list of cognitive biases at Wikipedia. As I skimmed through the list, I noticed how a lot of the biases are utilised to useful effect by writers.


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Symbolism of Birds

VERNEUIL, Maurice Pillard (1869-1942). L'Animal dans la décoration. Paris- Librairie centrale des Beaux-arts, [1897] Birds Snails

Birds are much older than we are — living dinosaurs. Across cultures, birds function as smart collaborators with humans. We now know how smart (some) birds really are, but we have long had a sense of their canniness. The smartest bird in the world is currently thought to be the New Zealand Kea, which isn’t so great if you live in New Zealand and the kea is chewing the bits of rubber off your car.

New Zealand’s kakapo is also a bit of a… character.


Birds are frequently utilised in tales of transmogrification. Wings are frequently stuck onto chimerae. This surely has something to do with humans’ long-held wish-fulfilment fantasy of being able to fly.

Take the Ancient Greek mythological siren.

Bird symbolism in the Greek imagination was common. Reverse-engineering the meaning of all these story-birds isn’t easy. For instance, we’ll never know for sure why Sirens took the form of a hybrid bird-woman, but we do know that in ancient mythology birds represented a number of things:

  • oracles
  • enchantresses
  • messengers of deities
  • mediators (between the human world and the supernatural realm)

Over the centuries, however, the Siren transformed. In the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the Siren morph from a bird-woman into a fish-bodied being, who personified the dangers of both the sea and female sexuality. The seventh-century medieval bestiary Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, or the “Book of Monsters,” is one of the earliest examples of this transition, describing Sirens as sea-girls who “are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea.” Illustrations from the period clearly reveal the difference; the Sirens now have voluptuous bodies, perform erotic moves, and exhibit brazen tactics of seduction, such as staring longingly into mirrors and combing their hair. These Sirens no longer symbolized the spirit, but rather, the pleasures of the flesh.

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Dad Jokes, Puns and Related Words


Puns are often simple wordplay for comedic or rhetorical effect.


Puns are at the heart of “Dad Jokes”, though in Dad Jokes, the “dad” generally pretends he doesn’t understand the speaker’s intended meaning. The Dad feigns stupidity, the Victim knows he’s only playing stupid, and the joke succeeds if it elicits a groan from the Victim.

The Victim: “I’m hungry.”
The Dad: “Hello, Hungry. Pleased to meet you.”

Both Victim and Dad understand that the victim needs to eat; the Dad pretends to believe the Victim’s name happens to be homophonous with the common adjective ‘hungry’.

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The Stone Scale of Evil

Fortuné Méaulle's (1844 - 1916) engraving after a drawing by Henri Meyer (1841 - 1899) 1891 for Le Journal illustré depicting the 10th Whitechapel Crime (the murder of Frances Coles on 13 February 1891)

This scale was created by Dr Michael Stone, an American psychiatrist and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry. It was built to be useful when diagnosing murderers, but we can use it to think about fictional characters. We are not obliged to spend a decade earning a doctorate before diagnosing fictional criminals, which is nice.

Anton Franciscus Pieck (1895 - 1987) 1939 Illustration from The Garden of the Gods, Part I. Battle of Good and Evil by Aeron Alfrey
Anton Franciscus Pieck (1895 – 1987) 1939 Illustration from The Garden of the Gods, Part I. Battle of Good and Evil by Aeron Alfrey

Do you agree with my examples?

CategoryCriteriaFictional Killer
01Those who kill in self-defense and do not show psychopathic tendenciesJessie Pinkman (Breaking Bad); Bunchy Donovan (Ray Donovan); Llewellyn Moss (No Country For Old Men); Rae Ingram (Dead Calm); Louise (Thelma & Louise)
02Jealous lovers who, though egocentric or immature, are not psychopathicArchie Noury (“A Country Killing” by Annie Proulx)
03Willing companions of killers: aberrant personality, probably impulse-ridden, with antisocial traitsLewis Whippey (Happy Valley)
04Kill in self-defense, but had been extremely provocative towards the victimSaul Goodman (Breaking Bad)
05Traumatized, desperate people who kill abusive relatives and others (e.g. to support a drug habit) but who lack significant psychopathic traits. Genuinely remorseful.
06Impetuous, hotheaded murderers, yet without marked psychopathic features
07Highly narcissistic, not distinctly psychopathic people with a psychotic core who kill people close to them (jealousy an underlying motive)
08Non psychopathic people with smoldering rage who kill when rage is ignitedKevin Wetherill, John Wadsworth (Happy Valley)
09Jealous lovers with psychopathic featuresVicky Fleming (Happy Valley)
10Killers of people who were “in the way” or who killed, for example, witnesses (egocentric but not distinctly psychopathic)Ashley Cowgill (Happy Valley); Manning (“Bravado” by William Trevor)
11Psychopathic killers of people “in the way”Mike Ehrmantout, Gus Fring, Todd Alquist, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Breaking Bad); Anton Chigurgh (No Country For Old Men)
12Power-hungry psychopaths who killed when they were “cornered”Mickey Donovan, Ed Cochran (Ray Donovan)
13Killers with inadequate, rage-filled personalities who “snapped”Tuco Salamanca (Breaking Bad);
14Ruthlessly self-centered psychopathic schemersWalter White, (Breaking Bad); Tony Soprano (The Sopranos); The Grand High Witch (The Witches by Roald Dahl); The Wicked Step-mother (fairytales such as Snow White)
15Psychopathic “cold-blooded” spree or multiple murdersKrazy-8 (Breaking Bad)
16Psychopaths committing multiple vicious actsDexter Morgan (Dexter), Villanelle (Killing Eve), Ray Donovan, Avi, Lena, Ezra Goldman, Samamtha Winslow (Ray Donovan)
17Sexually perverse serial murderers, torture-murderers (among the males, rape is the primary motive with murder to hide the evidence; Systematic torture is not a primary factor)Tommy Lee Royce (Happy Valley); Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)
18Torture-murderers with murder the primary motiveThe community behind “Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan
19Psychopaths driven to terrorism, subjugation, intimidation and rape (short of murder)
20Torture murderers with torture as the primary motive but in psychotic personalitiesBluebeard (probably)
21Psychopaths preoccupied with torture in the extreme, but not known to have committed murderGargamel (The Smurfs)
22Psychopathic torture-murderers, with torture their primary motiveJigsaw (Saw); Hughie Warriner (Dead Calm)
1928 advertising poster for the BITTER DIABLERETS aperitif

Header illustration: Fortuné Méaulle’s (1844 – 1916) engraving after a drawing by Henri Meyer (1841 – 1899) 1891 for Le Journal illustré depicting the 10th Whitechapel Crime (the murder of Frances Coles on 13 February 1891)

Narrative Structure of a Miracle Story


Miracle: Divine communication with humans via extraordinary actions. Gods can interact with the human world whenever they wish, but miracles generally need to be asked for by humans.

A miracle story may be considered a subgenre of the disaster story.

Miracles happen only to the fortunate few.

Suspense: No one knows whether God is going to perform a miracle or not. Even Jesus Christ picked and chose who he cured and helped. Humans are told that God has his reasons and those reasons are not for us to know.


My guess was that miracle stories are used to communicate the comforting idea of a benevolent interventionist god. But I’m wrong: that’s not what miracle stories were for. Characters did not witness (what they thought were) miracles and subsequently consider that evidence of God. In the golden age of Miracle Stories, belief in God was a given. Miracles neither proved nor disproved God’s existence.

The actual purpose of miracle stories:

In earlier times, miracle stories which people bothered to write down served a second specific function: To persuade living communities that certain dead holy people should be canonised.

Miracle stories were also to help process trauma. A miracle story creates a memory which allows someone to cope with the shock of disaster narrowly averted. These events will be remembered forever, as near-death experiences generally are.


According to Niels Chsristian Hvidt:

  • Divine Intervention: God acts beyond or in ways different from the natural order.
  • Psychology: Characters who witness the event will interpret it as a miracle
  • Symbolic Interpretation: The miracle is regarded evidence of God’s wish to communicate with humans.


The character narrating the story already knows the entire story as they embark upon the retelling of it. This affects how the entire story is told.



The senses of hearing/sight/touch are emphasised. Miracle stories tend to feature dead people and these are the senses most involved in that. (Assuming they are discovered soon after death.)

How the ‘magic’ works: Bodies cannot come back to life via miracle more than a few days after the death.


A miracle story opens with a description of why a miracle was prayed for in the first place. Many miracle stories feature dying children. These stories are broken into two basic categories:

A child becomes ill, gets sicker and dies

This plot will detail how close the parents are to the child, how much the child is loved etc.

A child dies suddenly in extreme circumstances

The parents discover their child is dead, or are told by someone else who was present at the time of the accident. Commonly, characters try ‘rolling’ the child to see if the child can be brought back to life.

The dead body would commonly be left for a few hours to see if it comes back to life.


Next comes a description of the emotional response of the left-behind. In contrast to films today, in which any screaming sound effects issue forth from a woman, in Swedish Miracle Stories, it is the men who are more outward in their response to grief. (This is regionally dependent.) Some have suggested this is because men’s activities was more societal focused and therefore public, whereas women were more confined to the home, family-focused and quieter. In many miracle stories both men and women cry equally. Crying is heavily culturally scripted.

Another reason why Swedish men cry in miracle stories: The strong emotion of a bereft father demonstrates the equally strong tie between father and child.

In England and on the rest of the European continent, men crying is seen as shameful.

Expressions of grief are greater when the death is sudden and unexpected.

Today we talk about Stages of Grief. Miracle stories emphasise the stages of disbelief and confusion.


Instead of responding emotionally, the bereaved may jump straight to praying. They pray to a particular saint for a miracle. In many stories, preparations for the dead body have begun while the parents pray for a miracle.

In every miracle story, someone related to the dying child prays to a saint. Perhaps this is not a direct prayer, but a way of thinking. In the Medieval era, the practice of using your mind to voice another prayer while reciting a standard prayer was recommended.

Who to direct a prayer to? Sometimes before the prayer there is a lot-casting scene in which the characters learn which Saint may step in to help. All of this can be doing without a church leader in attendance. This is lay people’s business. Religious people had use of texts such as ars moriendi (a manual for dying which was popular back then) but laypeople constructed their own prayers to use at time of death.

Parents make a votive promise. (“Bring our child back to life and we will give God this, do this for God…)

Notably absent: Although people know that God can grant miracles as he pleases, they don’t complain to him that their child’s life was too short or accuse him of taking their child when he shouldn’t. It is accepted that death is part of God’s mysterious plan. (I also wonder if this is avoided — in the stories, at least — on the assumption you don’t throw accusation at someone from whom you need a big favour.)

Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Anna, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631, Biblical figure who served God via fasting and prayer
Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Anna, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631, Biblical figure who served God via fasting and prayer


Biblical miracles are immediate and quick.

The child comes back to life.

But Medieval miracles are a long process. They don’t happen in an instant. Life may be regained limb by limb. Infants are the exception to gradual resurrection: they immediately start suckling again.

This part of the story often drills down on specific detail with the purpose of creating believability: names of witnesses, specific villages, occupations of those present etc.


In the stories of Medieval miracles, the parents have to carry out their promises to the saint before they get their kid revived. In miracle stories, parents always follow through on their promises.


Cultures of Death and Dying in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Header painting: The Miracle of the Gaderene Swine 1883 Briton Riviere 1840-1920

Fire in Art and Storytelling

Effulgent: (literary) shining brightly; radiant

Lambent: (literary) (of light or fire) glowing, gleaming, or flickering with a soft radiance.

Lucent: (literary) glowing with or giving off light.

Refulgent: (literary) shining very brightly


My life has been told to me through camprfire tales — stories that spill over when the fire has burned low and silence must be filled. They’re like old coats hauled from the back of the cupboard. Dusted off, aired out, good as new. My mother, Vivienne, doled them out as reward or consolation, depending on her mood. And so I came to know myself — through the telling and retelling.

Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield, Australian author
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