The Stranger’s Tale (part two)

“In any case, nobody agrees on who that stranger may happen to be. If some say it is a fragment of a shattered past, some too think that the stranger is a messenger from the future. A ghost of what is not yet living rather than a ghost of the dead. A whole different kind of eerie. Some think that it’s nothing of the sort and rather a person born of dream and chaos. I think I’ve said that one already. The stranger appears, and tells her story, and disappears again. It’s as simple as that. A stranger in a wood, after all, can be almost anyone at all, and too a storyteller is both anyone at all and everyone at once.” The woman gave Ella a wink and a smile.

Chatyr-Dag Night Forest

“Of course, the story comes in many different shapes. In many -” the strange woman leaned toward Ella across the clearing, as though telling a secret, and her voice dropped to a tone that was soft and low, “the story is a truth, a terrible and beautiful truth that can never be untold, and is only given to those who seek it. It’s a warning, an omen, or a fact, I suppose. A telling of what is more true than any other, what’s true about people and the universe, what’s real in the dreams.” There was a moment of utter silence, and Ella’s heart burned and twisted in her. The black of the night seemed to advance, shadows curling like cats in their laps.

“Of course -” and now the woman’s voice resumed its conversational cadence, “that’s utter nonsense according to others. Then again, those others are often the ones who think that the story is something horrid, twisted and fearful.” Ella thought she heard voices around them. She looked from the corners of her eyes, trying to listen to the cries and groans that were almost too faint to hear. The strange woman continued talking as Ella’s ears strained for the voices in pain that swirled and spun in the darkness, but they faded away and she couldn’t hear anything. The voices may not have been there at all. Perhaps she was imagining it. She was simply getting spooked by the story, that was it.

The woman was saying, “and there are some people who think that the story is naught but a dream misremembered, nothing but a bad night’s sleep with only bits of anxiousness and terror grumbling in your stomach. It could be that, I suppose. No more than the hidden misgivings that appear and speak to you in the gloom. It could also be the wish of the past or the fleeting sight of the future. Nobody knows, do you see?”

The moonlight flickered on the strange woman’s face, and the two of them sat cloaked in quiet. Around them the forest was still. Nothing moved except a shiver crawling up Ella’s spine. When her shoulders trembled the stranger began to speak again. “My dear, it’s but a story, or rather bits of a story that don’t quite make sense. Nobody knows what it means, a story from a strange person in the night. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to. If you don’t think it does. If you get a chance, though, sweetheart – do try to tell it again. It’s a story that’s meant to be told, for all that it’s made of wishes and fancies, hollow ones at that. Anyway, Ella, think on it some. Dream about it a little. Don’t forget.”

Ella looked at the woman, sitting serenely and looking straight at her. She watched the shifting glimmer in the woman’s dark eyes, and wondered at herself for being so calm, for accepting this bizarre thing that was happening to her. She didn’t want to forget, and against the words ringing in her head and the woman sitting against a tree whose story was finished, she closed her eyes. She told herself the words she had just heard, the ragged patched-together story made of dreams and retellings. The words pirouetted and dipped in her head, dancing fast to the beat of her heart.

She told herself the story against the dark behind her eyes until the words blurred and ran in her mind. When she opened her eyes again, she was alone in the forest under a lightening sky. She hauled herself to her feet and looked for the sun, and the shadows that would point her way home.

The Stranger’s Tale (part one)

Everything began when Ella got lost in the woods. She’d been hiking, watching the sun stream in languorous ribbons down the trees and crumble through the leaves. She got distracted. It was easy to do when the light sliced through the forest the way it was doing. But then the shadows grew, and stretched. The light faded and the blue darkness pooled on the ground until the trees and the sky were steeped in it. The shadows spread and Ella was alone in the forest in the dark under a violet dimming sky.

Ella tried to figure out which way was north, or which way she’d come. The moon was no help at all. It just glimmered at her, indifferently, offering a sliver’s worth of silver light. She’d worn shorts and a sleeveless top, which was sensible in the sun. In the deepening dusk the mosquitoes swarmed and before too long she was covered in bites, slapping at her arms and brushing bugs from her neck. Finally Ella sat, her back to the prickly bark of a tree, and closed her eyes to wait for the sun.

A chirp sounded. She sighed. Crickets. Another chirp, and another rang out. Soon the air was clamoring with crickets, and probably the odd frog. The noise continued for a while, and then in a moment the forest was silent. Ella opened her eyes.

There was a woman there, sitting against a tree facing Ella. She was wearing long pants – Ella’s bug bites itched in envy – and a t-shirt. She smiled when Ella looked up at her, and said, “Hello there, sweet one. You seem a bit lost.”

Ella scrambled to her feet, bracing herself against the tree when her legs buckled. Her whole body seemed to be asleep. The strange woman rose too, somewhat more gracefully. “Yes,” said Ella, her voice loud against her own ears. “Could you tell me the way back to Angram Street? It’s just against the woods, it’s where I came from -”

The woman was shaking her head. “No, dear. I’m sorry, I simple don’t know the geography of this place. With me, though, you have nothing to fear, and I can tell you a story to pass the hours until day breaks. If you like, that is.”

Ella’s brow crinkled. What a strange suggestion. “Okay,” she said, knowing that she sounded as bewildered as she felt. “Sure, I’ll hear a story.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” the woman clapped her hands together. “But first, what is your name?”

“Ella.”

“Ah.” The woman let out a long sigh. “Ella. That was my name once.” Ella just looked at her, blank.

“Right then, on with the story. It’s a tale long and seldom told, a tale you can find once and never again. A tale that is spun lost in the wood by the light of the almost-moon. It’s about a story, in a manner of speaking. A tale within a tale. Though what is a story, of course? That is the question. A dream, a ghost, a wish? I wouldn’t know, of course. I only tell the tale. You know, when the tale is told by a good storyteller, all else ceases to exist? But I’m rambling now, and I will tell you.”

Ella was thoroughly perplexed at this point, but the strange woman continued.

“This is a story cobbled together from the half-remembered and nearly-known. It’s about a ghost more than a wish, I suppose, because it’s about itself. You see, when a person -” she nodded to Ella, “when a person such as yourself, my dear, finds herself wandering a strange place where the moon is barely gleaming on the trees, she may meet with a ghost. Or a dream, or whatever else it may be. Nobody quite knows who the stranger is, who the dream is. There have been arguments on this point, naturally. Some say that the dream is nothing more than that, the fancy woven of fear and moonlight. Some say that it is a shadow of the past. Those ones have a story all embroidered and blood-spattered. It’s the ghost of a woman who fled to freedom, who escaped a vengeful lover, who – oh, I don’t know. Who can say. Those ones think it’s the heroine of some story who’s run from it, only to find herself in another. It’s a very dramatic view of things.”

Ella coughed and the strange woman looked up, as though she’d forgotten her listener was there. Neither spoke for a minute, and then the woman went on with her tale.

Because of Emily Dickinson

A man is sitting at a barstool, leaning forward and staring dully at the glass clasped between his hands. He is thinking, vaguely and hopelessly, that there is very little in his life. This is a good reason to straighten and gulp down a swig of scotch.

After a while, and another glass filled and emptied, the door to the bar swings and slams. Somebody settles into place on the stool beside him, but he barely notices. His glance hardly flickers to the side. He concentrates only on the shards of light piercing the glass before him.

Another long while passes, and eventually it occurs to him to look at his companion, drinking quietly next to him. He turns and scans and sees nothing remarkable, and returns to his comfortable slump. In a minute, though, as he raises the glass to his lips, it occurs he can’t remember what the person next to him looks like. The thought tickles at his mind, drawing his attention to – something. Something that did not hold his attention at all, and it bothers him. He saw only a face, and it left no imprint on his mind. He doesn’t think he’s quite that drunk yet.

After a sip he turns again, sliding a glance from half-lidded eyes, and nods. A normal face, nothing outstanding. But when he turns forward again, the face slips from his mind. He has no recollection of the person two feet from him, no sense of what he – or she? – looks like. He shrugs, and his hands settle before him once more. He sits and chats with the bartender, empty small words, and after a few minutes he has mostly forgotten that anyone is there at all. The barstool is a familiar sort of uncomfortable under him, and his head swims pleasantly.

Time passes until a flicker of movement at his side catches his attention, and he realizes that the barstool next to him is still occupied. He peeks over, another sidelong glance at someone wholly unremarkable. The plain stranger is watching him steadily. So he sits up straight, and turns completely, and looks back. The man and the stranger stare at each other, the stranger unperturbed and the man bewildered. He waits for a long moment of peering at the stranger’s vacant eyes, blank but for something – searching. Something that prods him with a question, but he cannot hear it and does not know the answer.

He shifts, fidgets, and a shiver brushes his spine. His hand finds the glass on the bar and he looks at it, keeping his gaze there. He speaks, his voice rasping and thin, and says to the stranger, “Who are you?”

The stranger’s voice is flat. “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”

The man is confounded. Surprised, too, that he is less confused than he should be. He nods at the question as if it makes sense, and then wonders at his own quick acceptance. And a voice comes from his lips as he realizes too late what he is saying, “I don’t know. Nobody. I guess I could be.”

The stranger smiles and nods, but he cannot see. He sinks back into himself, crumpling onto the barstool and forward toward the glass and the drop of scotch left traced around its edge. In a bit he notices that he is the only one sitting there, that the bar is empty. And when he shakes his heavy head he feels the wisp of something drifting from his mind, like a dream hidden in the shroud of sleep. He leaves the bar very late that night, alone, and watches his own shoes step forward on the pavement until he can rest.

***

That man wanders now. He goes to many places and talks to people who don’t understand what’s happening, but he stops that quickly because he cannot bear their confusion. They hold so much of substance in their minds that he cannot fit. So he goes from place to place and watches people, hoping someday to find a person with nothing on his mind and little to live for. In the meantime he sits on trains, stands in line for coffee, steps through sidewalks with a crowd of people who cannot remember his face.

Ghost Town

Harry found a ghost town, after all this time searching. We’ve never been anyplace so completely inclusive before, somewhere we don’t have to face scowls or confused crinkled brows, running or screaming or terror at all, really. At first it was really wonderful. This is the best place we’ve ever been, I told him. He had to lean close to hear, as always, and I stared right through his head as I said it again in his ear.

There was practically a welcoming committee when we get there. A lovely woman named Nancy greeted us, and even motioned to take my arm and give me a tour – as if she could really grasp my elbow. We walked around and look at the kitchens, the beds, the windows. There was sun streaming in broad bright swatches through the dusty air, and – “For the more morbidly inclined,” Nancy said – there was a walk-in closet brimming with spiders and draped in cobwebs.

We stayed in the ghost town for a week. Almost two, to be honest, but that was as long as we could. From the beds where we couldn’t sleep to the kitchens where we couldn’t cook, everything was perfectly set up for living, breathing humans.

It was excruciating to lie next to Harry and feel like I should feel the heat coming off his body – and, of course, he doesn’t have a body anymore. We’ve been done with that worldly nonsense for a while. And it was wrenching to sit with Nancy in the kitchen while someone bustled about the stove, knowing that we had already accepted that we’d never again taste pie or eggs or anything.

We’ve been dead together for twenty years, and we’ve never been anyplace so completely depressing before. I told Harry – loudly, once we were gone and I could say it to the open sky – that I never wanted anything more to do with ghost towns. Haunting suits me just fine.