The "fairy-tale" referred to in this song-- "breadcrumbs in a... forest"-- is the Grimm Brothers' "Hansel and Gretl."
The speaker (probably Simon, given whom he quotes later) begins this song by saying that another fairy-tale we hear is that "acts of kindness... lead us past dangers." But "I don't believe," he says, that this is the case. Continuing the image of a tale told around a campfire or hearth-fire, he says "I lean closer to the fire, but I'm cold." He wants to believe, that is, but his skepticism prevents it.
Then he tells another tale, about the creation of the world: "The earth was born in a storm" could refer to either The Big Bang or Genesis 1:6-7. The next words seem to be taken from Genesis 1:9-- "The waters receded, the mountains were formed"-- and scientists might agree that at some point, this happened through plate tectonics (adding that such movement is still happening), and that maybe the "waters" were in the form of icy glaciers. Simon's point is that in either case, there is a narrative, and you can choose to accept it or not.
The next line comes from a more recent source-- his wife! The "E.B." the quote is attributed to is Edie Brickell, who was remarking on the 2004 Bush vs. Kerry election that "the universe loves a drama." It's not enough that there be a narrative. It must be... dramatic! Even if it's just a bunch of exit-poll statistics.
What spurred all of this deep rumination on the subjective nature of reality? "I got a call from my broker/ The broker informed me I'm broke." Well. That could certainly shake up one's day. The breadcrumbs in the story were eaten by birds, you may recall, which is why the children could not find their way back home and ended up confronting the witch.
The speaker feels lost and betrayed. He feels that his "guardian angel" is, instead of guarding him, "taunt[ing]" him. Meanwhile, his children and wife, ignorant of their sudden impoverishment, are enjoying the "warm summer evening" by "laughing" and "brushing her... hair," with "not a whisper of care."
So here he was, being a responsible adult with investments and such, and then, poof! It is not surprising he is questioning the ephemeral nature of his narrative.
Yet, if he lacks faith in "acts of kindness," he has faith in something else. "I don't believe a heart can be filled to the brim/ Then vanish like mist." Kindness is one thing-- it's a sheet of ice over a lake that may or may not be thick enough to walk on. But the heart is a boat, a bridge. If you have a firm relationship, you don't need to "depend," as Blanche DuBois does, on the "kindness of strangers."
Unless... "Maybe the heart is part of the mist/ and that's all that... could ever exist." What if his wife leaves because of this? He's been divorced twice already! How silly to trust love-- hasn't he learned?
"Maybe and maybe and maybe some more"-- This cry of despair echoes Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." And like the weary King, he curses himself for having faith in anything: "Maybe's the exit that I'm looking for." Macbeth is looking for an exit, too: "Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a... tale told by an idiot... signifying nothing." A tale, or a "fairy-tale," perhaps?
But then, another call... "My broker said he was mistaken." So he is not "broke" at all, and he luckily did not worry his wife for nothing. The broker adds that he hopes that his "faith isn't shaken." He's a bit late for that...
Well, most people would be overjoyed at such news, and our speaker is. "Acts of kindness," he says, "release the spirit with a whoop and a shout."
But even in this state of relief, he feels changed. What if the second call had not come? What if something like this were to actually happen? Just because it wasn't real this time does not mean it could not someday be so.
So he closes by saying that, while he has not necessarily written off prayer altogether (which is good, considering "Wartime Prayers" was just two songs ago), that the idea of an organized religion is no longer appealing. If anything, life obviously rests daintily on chaos-- on plate tectonics and other shifting realities-- to simply accept and trust, to impose a structure on a faith.
He says, "I don't believe we were born to be sheep... To pantomime prayers with the hands of a clock." This last line can be read two ways. One is "[along] with the hands of a clock," at set times. The other is "with hands like clock hands," with rigidity and a mechanical attitude. If life is fluid, then prayer must be as well. You should be able to pray when you need to!
And maybe you should not believe in fairy tales or rely on kindness or even have perfect faith in love. Maybe faith has to be be as fluid as life itself is, with swells and ebbs and tides.
Galileo responded to accusations that his science was a form of heresy by saying that he did not believe that God gave us brains and then wanted us to not use them. Questioning is not the opposite of faith-- it is a form of faith. It is the belief that, even when we question, there is an answer.
So no, the speaker says, "I don't believe... I do something better: I trust."
Next Song: Another Galaxy