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cracking life’s mystery

Bobby Palmer on solving the mystery of the Egg

Egg detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, between 1490 and 1510

The author of Isaac and the Egg – a beautiful novel about finding hope in the unexpected – on the egg as symbol of mystery and ultimate metaphor

“Once there were two moons in the sky,

but one wandered too close to the sun

and cracked from the heat.

A thousand, thousand dragons poured forth.”

It’s easy to forget that Game of Thrones wasn’t always so big. It started out as a story of political intrigue and otherworldly mystery. Smaller battles, fewer dragons. And more of a focus on mysterious eggs.

This quote, from the show’s first season, imagines the moon as a giant egg. In fact, much of the series builds its mystique around eggs – three of them, to be precise, which may well contain dragons the entire world had thought to be extinct.

It’s no surprise that the show that would become TV’s most-watched would find its beginnings in the humble egg. The egg-as-mystery is one of the most prevalent pop culture tropes in the book.

Rarely is the egg benevolent. Quite often, it hatches something terrifying. But whatever’s inside, you simply have to find out. Don’t you?

What’s inside the egg?

That’s the question that has kept eggs hatching on our screens since screens first existed. In Alien, it’s a face-hugging monster. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it’s an ear-splitting scream.

The insides of an egg on screen are rarely appetising. In fact, they’re usually terrifying. But they’re always intriguing. Eggs are a symbol of spine-tingling mystery simply because of the very nature of the egg: there must be something inside, waiting to hatch.

In 1979, an Atari employee coded a hidden message into a video game. He called this message an “easter egg”, because it was something you had to go out of your way to find. Since then, we’ve used the term to describe hidden messages and images across the pop culture spectrum.

The Adventure Easter Egg: players could unlock a secret room 

But the idea of an egg as a symbol of mystery goes back a lot earlier than the sci-fi horrors of the eighties and the 8-bit games of the seventies. Nikola Tesla wowed the 1893 World Expo by using magnetic fields to spin his ‘Egg of Columbus’; centuries before, the pagans were already using eggs for ‘oomancy’ – like reading tea leaves, but with eggs.

Go back even further and the eggs get even bigger, as do the mysteries. The Orphic Egg in Greek mythology goes one further than that moon filled with dragons, positing that the universe began with a cosmic egg that hatched Phanes, the first of the gods.

The Chinese creator god Pangu also hatched from an enormous egg, one in which the opposing principles of yin and yang were perfectly balanced. In fact, the idea of the “world egg” can be found across cultures, continents and millennia, from Finnish epics to Polynesian mythologies to the ancient texts of the Egyptians and the Zoroastrians.

Perhaps therein lies the answer to the age-old question. The egg didn’t only come before the chicken. It came before everything else, too.

The bigger the egg, the bigger the mystery

Everything comes from an egg. Even us. Perhaps that’s why they’re everywhere in our culture, from Easter treats to Fabergé luxuries to the faceless face of anonymous Twitter bots.

Remember when an egg became the most-followed Instagram account in the world? The symbolism wasn’t accidental. An egg was simply the funniest option, because an egg is a total nonentity. A blank, boring nothing – but one which, like Schrödinger’s box, contains any number of possibilities until it’s broken open.

The egg: more popular than a Kardashian

This mystery is also the source of that strange, unnerving effect which Hollywood manipulates so well. While we see eggs every day, the biggest one we’re familiar with in the animal kingdom is the ostrich egg. So if a director presents us with an egg that’s bigger, we know that what’s inside is not of this world.

It’s an approach made to trigger the unheimlich, Freud’s concept of that which is creepy in its almost-but-not-quite-familiarity. Whether it’s James Cameron’s face-hugger home or George R. R. Martin’s dragon-filled moon, the intrigue is endlessly inviting: the bigger the egg, the bigger the question of what’s inside.

One of the most enduring images from Jurassic Park is of the baby velociraptor first breaking out of its shell. Later, those same velociraptors will be the scariest thing about the film – but for now, they’re something small, adorable, and in need of protection.

No matter their size, eggs are as much a symbol of fertility – and therefore joy – as they are of terror. And while an egg might represent fragility, it’s also the very definition of strength: need I remind you that Gaston ate four dozen eggs every morning to help him get large?

The egg is full of contradictions. That’s what makes it the ultimate metaphor. Even the biggest, most terrifying egg needs nurturing. And even those just-birthed baby velociraptors, or those just-hatched face-huggers, are a celebration of life itself.

What came first, Isaac or The Egg?

At the start of my book, Isaac and the Egg, two things happen. Our lead character, Isaac, loses his wife. Then, on one of the darkest nights of his life, he stumbles into the woods and finds something else: a two-foot tall egg.

I was first inspired to write Isaac and the Egg by a growing strand of books and films which cast grief as a tangible, terrifying creature. Particularly great examples include A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, and the Australian indie horror The Babadook.

For my book, I wanted to take the opposite approach. What if, instead of something monstrous that needs to be tamed over time, grief could be something small, something funny, something comedic in its chaos? That’s the central contradiction of my book: even though it’s about the darkest possible subject matter, it’s something of a buddy comedy.

So, for the ultimate buddy – and the perfect metaphor for coping with grief – I steered away from monsters, and looked towards eggs. Why shouldn’t life’s ultimate metaphor represent death, too? Isaac is very much the typical modern man, closed-off and unable to open up, which is why a personification of fragility was the perfect new best friend for him.

That’s the thing about Isaac’s egg. It doesn’t hatch. After all, the rules of pop culture dictate that an egg with a face is no longer something terrifying, but something entirely cute. Just look to Japan, home of not only the loveable luck-bringing Pokémon Togepi, but also Gudetama, the lethargic cartoon egg who has gained cult popularity far beyond the streets of Tokyo.

Who better for Isaac to talk to than one such egg? By making grief an adorable sidekick, it becomes something that doesn’t need to be conquered, shrunk and eventually ignored. Grief is something we have to nurture, to protect and allow to grow into something else entirely.

Like grief, eggs are fragile, prone to bursting. Anthropomorphic eggs are cute for exactly that reason – the world might just break them at any moment. Just look at Humpty-Dumpty, the eggman-par-excellence of Western culture.

Humpty-Dumpty is a uniquely tragic figure, devoid of a happy ending. In fact, he shares more similarities with Isaac than with the egg that Isaac finds. Like Humpty-Dumpty, Isaac is fragile, first seen at the edge of a bridge, and perennially unable to be put back together again.

Perhaps that’s what scares us, but also intrigues us, about eggs. It’s definitely why I chose an egg as the perfect companion to Isaac, a man who might just be something of an egg himself.

Like the humble egg, we humans are fragile. We’re filled with contradictions, and we’re always bound to break. But perhaps, like Isaac and his egg, each one of us is also filled with endless possibilities – just waiting to hatch.

Like the humble egg, we humans are fragile.

An extract from Isaac and the Egg

It is an egg. The egg sits resplendent in the middle of a clearing, bathed in a heavenly light which seems to defy the darkness of the night that came before it. But then, everything about the scene in front of Isaac defies logic. The clearing itself seems manufactured, perfectly circular and perfectly undisturbed, illuminated by light streaming through a perfect hole in the canopy above. The egg takes centre stage, beneath an awning of dripping leaves and branches, atop a flattened thicket which could almost be mistaken for a gigantic nest. The egg itself is white. Eerily so, like a pearl at the centre of the biggest oyster on earth. Or, no, whiter than that. It’s as white as nothing at all. An oval of blankness cut out of a pristine sheet of paper with children’s scissors, or an oval cut from that same pristine paper and pasted on to the clearing with a stick of children’s glue. It’s only the dew drops quivering on the white egg’s surface which convince Isaac that it’s actually there, and that it’s actually a three-dimensional object. Isaac rubs his eyes. The egg is still there. The egg is still three-dimensional. And the egg is still magnificent, made even more so by the dullness of the muddy browns and the muted greens around it, by the beads of condensation which sparkle on its white surface like diamonds. In the shaft of light streaming through the gap in the canopy above, it glitters like a Fabergé under a spotlight in a display case. Although larger. Much larger. This egg must be two feet tall.

For the first time in weeks, Isaac feels an emotion that isn’t despair. He blinks his red eyes a few times and rubs them. Hello, curiosity, old friend. With a slack mouth, Isaac peers through the branches on all sides of the clearing, looking for any clue as to the egg’s origins. He looks down at the earth for enormous footprints. He looks up at the sky for the shadow of some even more enormous beast. He thinks of Jurassic Park, of the ripple made by the approaching T-Rex on the surface of a glass of water. But the clearing is dead silent, deathly still. Isaac’s eyes trace a path back to the egg. He can’t help it. There’s something magnetic, something all-encompassing, about it, as if its sheer bleached-white weirdness is sucking all of the colour out of the surrounding flora. There’s not a spot of dirt on it. And the size! You couldn’t crack an egg like this with a spoon, Isaac thinks to himself. You’d need a shovel, a sledgehammer. Isaac swallows, becoming suddenly aware of his surroundings. He notices a sour taste at the back of his throat. Of all the questions posed by the egg’s existence he hasn’t yet answered the most pertinent one. Where did the scream come from?

Isaac glances around the clearing again. He shifts nervously from one leg to another, causing some twigs to crack beneath his feet in the process. The sound scares him into a foetal crouch. He screws his eyes shut, grabs hold of his knees. But nothing attacks. Isaac opens one eye, then the other, then creeps into hiding behind the nearest tree. He continues to scan the shadows for something large, something looming: a mother enormous enough to lay an egg like this. But every time his eyes wander, they’re drawn back to the egg. Isaac saw an ostrich egg once, at a farmers’ market in town – this must be four, perhaps six, maybe eight times as big. It’s the size of a dinosaur egg. Yet he’s seen a dinosaur egg, too, at the Natural History Museum. That was tea-stain beige, not Tipp-Ex white. Isaac thinks about what might be lurking inside, waiting to hatch. He recalls the scream, its source still unknown. Already his memory is making the sound aggressive, not anguished. In another life, Isaac would have already been fleeing to his car. In this one, death-by-pterodactyl would seem mercifully quick.

Isaac looks back over his shoulder. His eyes return to the egg. He wishes it were bigger, big enough to topple over and flatten him beneath its smooth, white shell. What an easy way to go. If Isaac couldn’t work up the courage to fall from a bridge, perhaps gravity could work its magic the other way around. If an egg falls in the woods, will it kill Isaac Addy? If Isaac Addy dies in the woods, will his misery die with him? Already, the bridge seems long ago and far away. All Isaac can see now is the egg. And, when he looks at it, all he can feel in place of the desire to die is its polar opposite: life, and the urge to preserve it. Some prehistoric mothering instinct seems to have awakened within him. He knows the cry was a cry of hopelessness, of loss. In his heart, Isaac knows the egg has been abandoned. Like him. He already knows he’s going to take the egg home.

Anyone else in Isaac’s sodden shoes would feel the same. What is he supposed to do? Leave it, to be gouged by foxes and pecked at by owls? A rotting meal for dead dogs and pine martens? Isaac isn’t even aware that he’s moved, but it seems that his legs – so reluctant to carry him before – have pulled him out from behind the tree and deposited him in the middle of the clearing. Now he finds himself standing over the egg, swaying unsteadily, squinting between the trees for the telltale sign of an accusing maternal talon. Now, Isaac’s clearing his throat. Take the egg, his subconscious urges him. So, after one last glance over his shoulder, Isaac bends down and picks up the egg. It’s lighter than he’d expected. Softer, too. Its exterior isn’t hard and cold, like the shell of any normal egg. It’s soft and wet, like a ball of freshly proved dough. A boiled egg. It does, indeed, feel shelled. Despite the dewy exterior, it radiates an inner heat that could only come from something living. This heat ignites something in Isaac, a latent muscle memory. It feels, to his touch, less like an egg found on a forest floor and more like a hot-water bottle in a fluffy cover. What makes him think of this? Isaac is twenty-nine years old, and hasn’t had need of a fluffy hot-water bottle for at least twenty of those years. Why the intrusion? It’s her, of course. It’s always her. While Isaac runs hot, it’s she who runs – it  was she who ran – cold. She had a hot-water bottle, in a fluffy cover. It lay between them in bed.

An awful sensation grips Isaac, one he’s starting to recognise. It feels as if the forest floor is giving way beneath his feet, as if every tree around him has suddenly been wrenched from the ground, as if everything on the whole earth has been flattened except for Isaac, and he’s been left with nothing but a wide expanse of nothingness which rips through him with the force of a thousand winter winds off a thousand icy rivers. Imagine all of this, contained within one body. It starts with a tremor in his gut, as if his stomach has reached the highest point of the upper atmosphere and has nowhere to go but down. Then, with a lurch, down it goes. His heart drops with it. Everything inside him is dropping, his very core collapsing beneath him, and he’s struggling to breathe. Gravity is certainly working against Isaac now. In the middle of the clearing, he’s too far away from the tree against which he’d steadied himself before. Isaac gasps as if he’s drowning, choking as if all of the air has been sucked out of the clearing. He drops to his knees. He does not drop the egg. If anything, he’s clutching it harder than before.

What am I doing? Isaac asks himself, his breath catching in his throat and his blood clotting in his veins. He kneels in a ruined suit in a sodden clearing in a strange wood, cradling an enormous white egg he found on the forest floor, trying his hardest to breathe again. What am I going to do?

He already knows he’s going to take the egg home.

What’s so good about this?

The egg can tell us a lot about ourselves, but – by its nature as a blank, unassuming oval – is also entirely open to interpretation. Isn’t that the point of life itself? In Isaac and the Egg, the egg that a young widower finds in the woods is at times a metaphor for death, grief and loneliness – but also for life, for friendship, and for the power of opening up.

One of the most beautiful stories you’ll ever read, Bobby Palmer’s Isaac and the Egg is published by Headline Review, and is available to buy from your local bookshop or to order on Waterstones and Amazon

Meet the writer

Bobby Palmer is an author and freelance journalist who writes for publications including GQ, Men’s Health, Time Out and Cosmopolitan. He lives in a sleepy Sussex village with his partner, Nina, and his indomitable dog, Gromit. Isaac and the Egg is his first novel.

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