Storyteller

I like to tell stories that shift the world slightly. Good fiction should heal, somehow, it should tuck and twist the lines around everything just enough for it all to fit together a little more easily. The universe should make more sense to people. Humans wander around feeling like everything is out of balance, like chaos reigns, like their lives have no meaning and purpose and sense. I want to banish chaos, to restore meaning, to put the balance right. More than anything, people want to be the protagonists in their own stories. They want everything to flow around them a little bit like it would in a well-written novel, where they are likeable and relatable because the main characters always are. Where what happens to them has some kind of drive behind it, and you know that it’s going to have a satisfying ending. If it doesn’t, at least the tragedy or the drama makes you sigh with real feeling. People don’t want to feel like everything that makes up who they are is false.

This is why people give excuses to teachers and parents, professors, coaches, spouses, and priests. My printer broke. I came down with a fever, suddenly, and couldn’t write the paper. I couldn’t get home in time because the car broke down. My grades are slipping because the teachers are out to get me. I was only talking to her to be nice. I was only sleeping with her because the devil tempted me. Whatever. There has to be a reason to it. A story. If there isn’t a story, it’s too empty, too dull, too flat to be real life.

My story for my college (ex-)boyfriend is that I was falling for him and I was afraid, and we were graduating, and so I veered away in order to avoid all that pain and heartbreak I just knew we would feel for each other. That way, when I told him that, he could feel that razor brush of love, the scrape of sorrow, the wistful nostalgia for something beautiful that could have been true. I don’t think he knew I was sleeping with someone else, but either way, my story lets him believe that we were pure and good and that I loved him. It’s much better to be loved than to be lost.

Last year I told a story to half my family; my friend here was sick, so sick that I couldn’t come home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. I had to stay and visit, make soup and bring casserole. The year before that, another friend’s mother died. My parents like to know that I’m a good friend, a caring person, a responsible and compassionate human being. When I don’t go to the dreaded four-hour meal full of my aunt’s tirades and my father’s stoic silence, everything is a little bit better. My world doesn’t have to be miserable for days, and their world is sweeter because they believe in me.

If you pay attention to the stories, you start noticing them everywhere. They laid you off because money was tight in the company. He left you because he had to go find himself. She stopped calling because she got wrapped up in caring for her child, and you know what that must be like with a kid like that. I told my sister that I needed to visit for a bit because I was depressed, and just wanted to feel close to her again. I told my boss that I was so caught up in it that I worked through lunch. I told my dad that I knew everything would be okay. Everything is easier when you can fit it in a story, as small and cramped as that might be. Sometimes they are close to true.

There’s one story that I don’t tell. The purpose of stories is to heal, not to hurt. If there’s pain in a story, you know it’s there for a reason. I don’t tell stories that wound unnecessarily. I don’t see the purpose in it. Pain can be useful, but only when it brings you closer to some kind of resolution. I don’t tell her that I’m half in love with her. Even for a story, half is not enough.

Stranger Stories

Nadia told herself the stories of strangers. When she walked to the grocery store in the afternoons, she passed people going the other way, not meeting her eyes, people going about their business and thinking about their own lives. The man with sand-colored skin and dark eyes leaning against the wall watched her walk by, his fingers pressed together in front of him. She told herself that he was the sort of person to watch the world happening around him, to take it in, to be overwhelmed by it. He once went on a grade school field trip and sat in a canoe on a vast lake with his second-best friend. He put the oars inside the boat and leaned back, just as he is now against the wall, but instead of the crag of brick in his back there was a flat splintery board and water beneath it going down an endless way. He was, Nadia thought, just the sort to float and feel the way the waves against the sides of his boat tugged and shoved it back and forth but couldn’t touch him, could only lap at his feet in the puddle sloshing around inside the canoe while he closed his eyes against everything.

Nadia walked past the man who may once have sat in a canoe. In the grocery store she stepped around an old woman who was hobbling down the bread aisle behind her shopping cart. The woman’s mouth opened and clamped shut, but if she muttered something it made no sound that Nadia could hear. That, she thought, was probably something this woman was used to. She had a husband who lost his temper sometimes and told her off in a stern voice as if she were a child, and she learned that when he left the sink running or the clothes on the floor it was better to complain inside her head, to keep the words clogging her throat. The woman’s brother called once a week like a dutiful sibling to check up on her, but he was hard of hearing. He yelled into the telephone, “Speak up, I can’t hear you,” and she whispered back “I’m sorry.”

Nadia felt that it was a serious task to tell the stories of the people she saw, even though she only told them to herself. Of course they were false, only figments, half-waking dreams that didn’t mean very much. Who would ever correct her? The sand-colored man didn’t know that she thought he had once sat atop a lake, and he couldn’t tell her otherwise. Nadia liked to tell stories. She wasn’t going to see most of these strangers ever again, but she could mostly remember their faces to illustrate the stories she made up for them. The versions of them that she told to herself lived in her head, occupying places she invented for them. But then, where else could they live?

A Fairy’s Tale

If I tell you a story, will you go to sleep after? No more snacks or trips to the bathroom. You have to promise. Crossed fingers don’t count, it’s a promise anyway. You can’t fool me.

Okay, listen. Sorry, yes. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, up in the mountains lived a fairy. She wasn’t the kind of fairy that sits around on mushrooms or swoops in to sew for a god-daughter. She’d always been a fairy. You could tell by the wings that rose like stiff lace from her shoulders, and the fact that she was four inches tall. Most fairies lived in forests, not up mountains, and that was exactly the problem for this fairy.

Hush, darling, I’m getting to the important part. Don’t you know that in order to learn the heart of a story, you need patience? You must be able to hear your own breaths if you ever want to find the pulse of a tale. Listen.

And the fairy was very lonely, for she had no friends. She had lived with her mother and father on the mountain, but they had gone and she had lived for a long time by herself. She was still almost a child, because fairies live so very much longer than we do, but for us her lonely childhood would have seemed a very long time. The mountain was cold for a little fairy by herself, and when it snowed she huddled in a crevice between her favorite stones and imagined that the flurries of white were warm. She had no friends, and so she had a very good imagination instead.

Of course, you can have both imagination and friends. It’s just much harder to live if you haven’t got either.

The fairy had enough one day. She was tired of wedging herself in a crack in the rocks and pretending she wasn’t shaking with cold. Living alone and lonely was exhausting, and she wasn’t going to do it anymore. The mountain was very tall and very steep, but the fairy was determined to start flying. Her little lace wings held her up as she hopped and skipped from one crag to another cliff. She took a leap off an edge and beat her wings until they blurred in the thin air, and she drifted until she settled on her tiptoes and jumped off again. Finally, after long days and long nights, the fairy reached the bottom of the mountain.

I don’t know what country the mountain was in. Sweetheart, it’s a story, so probably it’s in a country that doesn’t exist on this planet. While I’m telling the story it exists in your head, and that’s the place you should look to find it.

The fairy was so glad to feel the crunch of gravel and the satiny shush of dust on her feet that she walked after she left the mountain. She walked through a valley and a plain, and she swam across the river. The water was cold and bright against her skin, and she thought in a lovely delirious blur that she’d never felt anything so beautiful and pure. Once across the river she was in a field. She walked through the field and found herself in a meadow. At the edge of the meadow—her breath caught—she saw the furry edges of trees bristling on the horizon. The fairy loved walking. The grasses brushed against her feet like friendly cats. But now she was impatient, for she knew that fairies live in the forest. So what do you think she did next?

No, even if you could guess the answer would be the same. Some stories change shape to fit around you, but this one has its shape already. If you close your eyes you’ll be able to see it better.

She tried to fly. Running wasn’t fast enough. Only wings could take her to where she knew friends were waiting. The fairy leaped upward and felt the air catch under her wings, and then she sank back down to the ground again. Her knees folded under her, and the little fairy crumpled on the grass. She didn’t understand. What was wrong with her wings? Stumbling, she pushed herself to her feet again, and she walked across the meadow. She almost didn’t notice the grass brushing against her feet, because she was so worried about her flying. She entered the forehead with a creased forehead and an anxious stare. She almost tripped over someone, who let out a cry and asked who she was.

“I’m a fairy,” said the fairy.

“Yes,” said the stranger, unfolding wings from her shoulders. “I can see that. In fact, I’m a fairy too. My name is Lianet. You look upset. What’s your name?”

“I don’t know,” said the fairy. “I never needed one before. I used to live on the mountain alone, but now my wings don’t work.”

“Ah,” the stranger smiled. “Wings only work on the mountain, in the cold. When you hop down from on high you have more space to fly in, and the frozen air can keep you aloft. Lacy wings like yours won’t work in the forests or the meadows, the fields or the valleys, over the river or through the plains. Sometimes to fly for a minute you just have to climb a tree and jump.”

I know you’re very tired, and so we’re almost at the end. Do you think our fairy will give up the glory of flight to live in the forest, where the trees crowd one another and the squirrels chatter at everything that moves? Yes, I think so too.

The fairy thought about it for a while, and then she shrugged. Her lacy wings rippled in the air with the movement. There are worse things, she thought, than jumping out of trees with new friends. She could be flying alone. And so the fairy lives in the forest now, with a new name and a new friend. Sometimes she climbs to the very top of the tallest tall tree, and while she’s there she can see the very tip of the mountain where she used to live. Then she jumps into the air and lets her wings carry her down. She knows that there will be somebody to meet her at the bottom.

Good night, love.

The Child and the Apple Tree

When the child was twelve, the apple tree in the backyard began to decline. The apples fell that autumn like any other year. They spread across the grass around the tree like a pebbly green sea, and when nobody was looking he picked them up and took bites out of them as they lay on the ground. Its leaves unfurled and deepened in the September sun that held out the last charms of sun-drenched summer before tucking them away with the receding heat. The apples were less that year. The child didn’t notice. He was too busy to snatch up more than one apple before he careened off through the woods, howling his strange song. He lingered on the edge of childhood that autumn, beginning to grow lanky but still clambering up trees and chasing imagined bandits and heroes. He didn’t climb the apple tree anymore. Now it was all the oaks and maples that boasted tall trunks, sturdy branches, and leaves that lost their green and gleamed with warmth instead. The child was proud that he could scamper up like a squirrel, clinging to the living wood and perching on a jut of branch too high to see.

The apples fell, and crowded on the ground, and rotted there to soft forgotten mounds of what once was crisp and sweet. The animals gouged chunks from the fallen fruit while the child fought villains too terrible to name in the clearings of the forest. He won the battle against the beasts who terrorized his kingdom. He scared himself on the highest creaking branch of the oldest swaying tree and clambered down again, sweating. He shot a scornful, guilty glance at a girl who smiled at him in the cafeteria. The child was less a child, and the apple tree died.

Its demise was slow, almost imperceptible. Its leaves fell and crumpled on the scattered apples instead of rusting red. The tree stood stark and empty in a forest of trees still bright with autumn plumage. Its green leaves and fruit moldered on the ground. In the winter, snow piled in glittering drifts in the forest, and the trees shuddered and shivered in the cold. Snow lined the branches of the apple tree and frost encased its twigs. Inside the dead white, the apple tree froze. Its wood dried and became brittle until the ravages of a blizzard cracked two branches. In December the child dragged a sled that was too small through the forest. He stopped in awe when he saw the apple tree. He gazed at the jagged pale stubs poking out from it, undignified and crude. The child picked up and tossed away the lost limbs that were beneath it. He reached a hand to the trunk, where the life of the tree was dying embers, but he moved his small warm hand away from the bark when he felt the cold grasping at him.

When the spring came, the snow shrank to wizened shreds on the dirt. The daffodils burst into color, banishing the cold. The child ran through puddles and cursed at his mud-spattered clothes. The apple tree still stood, but it had no life returning. Its wood was dry and its branches lit no leaves. While the child made new games in the chittering forest, the apple tree shriveled. The child became a hero and saved a kingdom. Sometimes he stopped to look curiously at the apple tree’s plain lines, the curves uninterrupted by green and the spiky wounds that would not heal.

In summer the forest was brilliant. The sun filled it with stained-glass leaves and light-spotted shadows. The animals whispered and cried out. The child sat in the crook of the old oak with a book, unmoving for hours. The apple tree stayed dead and cold at the edge of the woods.

When autumn came, the child was still less a child. He had less of the bright-edged certainty of a hero, and none of the duller calm that he thought must be coming. Sometimes he came to the forest and told himself stories, still. These were not described in sweeping gestures and wild rollicking. These stories crept out in murmurs. He sang less now and did not howl. In October the apple tree was white against the blood and flame of autumn. It heaved a sigh of twisted wood and relinquished the last threads of life. The not-child stayed a moment beside it, his hand warm on its creased surface, before he went on.

Memories of an Elephant

They called her ‘The Elephant’. It was almost a nonsensical name, because she didn’t actually have a very good memory. In fact, if she hadn’t been able to keep memories in jars she’d probably never have remembered anything at all. She never showed more than a glimpse of recognition, of familiarity. She just stayed as she was. She always sat at one end of the bar, cradling a glass of something or other, and her jar perched neatly on the corner. People would go up to her every once in a while. They knew where to find her, because she was always in the same place. Sometimes they would give her a memory, and a couple of dollars. She’d tuck the memory into the bar, screw the top back on, and then use the money they just gave her to get another drink. Sometimes, they’d take a memory. She’d wrench the lid off of the jar, pluck out the memory and hand it over wriggling like a little pink larva, and then use the money they just gave her to buy herself another drink.

Things went on like this for a long time. People came and went, and they stored their most important memories with the Elephant. Often they’d give her memories they never wanted back, and those would curl into the bottom of the jar and stay there. Some people had a tradition of coming back for a memory regularly, on the anniversary of a birth or a death. They’d hold the things in their palms right there in the bar, the love and pain and glory seeping into their skin, and then they’d hand them back. The Elephant shoved the memories back into the jar with no expression, and the poor little things would press against the glass. She never flickered with anything when she passed memories back and forth – not despair or hope, not disgust or joy. For all that she grabbed and dropped memories, not an iota of their power seemed to touch her.

This all continued for years until a strange man came through town. That wasn’t uncommon, as it was a small town. He came just for the Elephant, though. He’d heard of her, and he went straight to the bar in the late afternoon. The man walked to the Elephant where she sat at her barstool, and he handed her a wad of cash. Her eyebrows lifted, but she just looked at him. That was the closest to surprise (or anything else) that had ever lit her face for anyone to see who remembered. The strange man said, “I want the jar.” The Elephant looked at him for a long time.

She said, in a voice that was scraping her dusty throat, “Why? I don’t know you. You’re not from here. I don’t remember people real well, but I don’t know your face at all. What do you want with my memories?”

The strange man smiled. “I just do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. I’m a circus performer, or a sociopath. A writer, perhaps. A storyteller. That would make sense. I’m an insurance salesman and an astronaut and a government official. It doesn’t matter. Tell yourself something. I want the jar. Please”

The Elephant stared at the man, and his smile did not waver. The bartender poured himself a measure of scotch. The Elephant blinked. A man at a table in the corner coughed. Finally, she pulled the jar over to her and twisted off the top. Her eyes were fixed on the man before her. She drew out one slim memory and curled her fingers around it. She handed the jar to the man, and he screwed the lid on. The Elephant’s face crumpled, just slightly, in what might have been sorrow. The man nodded to her, and murmured something. She nodded back. With that, the stranger walked out of the bar with half the town’s memories in his hand, and he never returned. The Elephant stood up and left, abandoning her half-empty drink. The door swung shut behind her, bringing a thrill of cold wind into the musty bitter air of the bar.

They say that the Elephant died, not too long after. She certainly didn’t show up at the bar anymore. Perhaps her neighbors stopped seeing her light flare on at night, and the post office piled high with catalogs and bills that had overflowed her mailbox. It’s more likely that people stopped seeing her, with her ever-present jar, and so they assumed she had gone. It might as well be true, because they wouldn’t even know if she were among them. Nobody remembers what she looked like.

Tell Me A Story

Okay, honey, one. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. You have to go to sleep after that, promise?

Once upon a time in a faraway forest there was a fairy named Erstenpraktertolanima. She was a very lonely fairy, because she had no friends. This is because all of the other fairies who tried to befriend her could never pronounce her name, and so they gave up. One day Erstenetc. walked away and climbed up a mountain and then she met the trolls. She met a lovely (though ugly) troll named Prince Lumpy, and he told her, “Ersten… um, Fairy, you should go visit the goblin-people of Shhhhton. They are exactly what you need.”

Don’t you remember Prince Lumpy from the other story? Well here he is. He’s doing fine, happily ever after. Are you feeling sleepy yet?

So Erstenetc. walked and walked and walked, and just when her feet were so blistered that they had polka dots and her body slumped so that her fingers nearly dragged on the ground and her wings were folded like a moth’s to her body, she came across the goblin-town.

Well, it looks just like our town except that all the houses are green and there are signs everywhere. Like there’s a sign outside the first house that says, ‘House Number One! The Collinses!’ and the second one says ‘The Post Office!’ and the third one says ‘The Bennets! Also The Bakery!’ You see, goblins really like signs, and they are often excited about everything.

She walked in and tried to introduce herself to the little old goblin-lady selling doughnuts, but the lady shook her head helplessly. She waved her hands in the air and looked at Erstenetc. with a look of expectation on her goblin-face. After several failed attempts at conversation, Erstenetc. realized that the goblin-people of Shhhhton did not speak with voices. They spoke with the quick-sharp-graceful-soft fluttering of their long-fingered goblin-hands, and they shaped words and sentences and whole stories with those drawings in the air. Erstenpraktertolanima learned the sign-language of the goblin-people and made wonderful friends who never had to pronounce her name at all, and she lived with them happily for ever after.

There, sweetheart, there’s a story. Did you like it? Oh, you’re half-asleep already. Good night, darling, see you in the morning. Sweet dreams.

 

In Character

Ian was waiting for the next show to start. It was a rerun, so it wasn’t likely that he would have to do much, and of course it had already happened. Even so, when he was in it he couldn’t remember the future. The screen flashed on and he was there again, doing the same thing again, hopelessly in love and screwing everything up again. While he waited backstage, off to the sides of the big rectangle that comprised his world, he fidgeted. He could see Emily across the screen, waiting to come on just like he was. She didn’t look so nervous, but then she always looked calm and collected. Her skin was always smooth, her hair always curling neatly, her smile always intact. His face went crooked and twitched before he could get a grin together, and he always tried to madly pull his features into obedience while she waited with such gentle pity it broke his heart.

It was nearly time to go on now. She had the first scene, in the kitchen for a while before he burst in with, what was it this time? Something about a test he failed, maybe. He’d remember once it had happened. Once he had to go tell her it happened, anyway. As soon as he was onscreen the story settled into place and took him over. Emily was stepping on already, moving so certainly into place. The lights flared and settled on her, shaping the shadows under her chin and between her lips. She froze in place and the screen lit up. There she was. He watched her smile and turn, furrow her brow in concentration, move her hands with quick easy movements.

Even offscreen he was in love with her. Offscreen she smiled at him with the same soft look, that understanding smile that meant she thought he was a nice friend, maybe a brother, but definitely nobody beautiful. He wasn’t lovely to her the way she was to him. He had a suspicion, though, that sometime around season six she would warm to him. If she loved him back onscreen then she would at least like him offscreen, he thought. She’d lean against his shoulder, maybe, while they were waiting together before the lights went on. There was a blurred memory of that, so maybe it was going to happen. Damn, he had to go on now. He flailed into the kitchen, wincing a little at the clatter of his entrance. She was calm, just bent to pick everything up as though she expected it. Perhaps she did by now.

“Emily!” he said, catching his breath. “Emily, I have to tell you something.”

She turned to him and placed her hands on her hips. “Yes, Ian, what is it now?”

He looked at her face, turned to him with such expectation. The words almost stopped in his mouth, almost changed before he let them spill out. Her eyes were so intent on his that for a moment he felt he could say anything. He couldn’t, of course. Even if he really wanted to, there was no other way than to follow the script, keep to the story, stick to the show. At least he never forgot his lines.