We all have our favourite stories, from childhood onwards, and some of them have an almost religious significance in our memories, their words ringing in our minds like learned responses in church, that meant little to us as children, but had a resonance and a magic that almost overpowered literal meaning. One such for me is Sredni Vashtar, by Saki (H.H. Munro), the tale of a boy, his polecat ferret and revenge. Saki’s storytelling is legendary; it has the power to touch the imagination. In this story, it is the imagination of the ten-year-old Conradin which enables him to challenge the overbearing and unloving supervision of his cousin-guardian, Mrs. De Ropp. The boy is weak and not expected to live for more than five years, but he devises a way of eliminating her from his imagination, which is sacred and clean territory, and ultimately from his life. In a shed hidden away from Mrs. De Ropp’s prying eyes, he keeps a hen and a ferret, both of which he loves, but the latter in particular becomes, in his own created religion, a god with appropriate powers of authority. His guardian, noticing his fascination with the shed, aims to thwart him by disposing of the hen (not noticing the ferret hutch in the darkness at the back), the severity of which loss he silently turns into vengeance, appealing to Sredni Vashtar to do ‘one thing’ for him.
As a school pupil reading this story for the first time, I was utterly convinced of the power of Sredni Vashtar, who represented for me the reality of justice for suffered wrongs and the way by which a child could deal with unpleasantly dictatorial adults! Much more influential, however, was the strong focus of the tale upon imagination, which I understood implicitly and which has always underpinned my writing. When my son started keeping a huge hob ferret, which went out with him, sat upon his shoulder and eyed strangers with steady suspicion, I never worried for his safety! I still love the story.
(The Project Gutenberg text of the story is available online.)