Asterion’s Voice

I thought you were coming for me but now it’s all unraveling and I’m not sure how to follow it and I’m afraid of what’s at the end, you know I heard your voice once but it got lost on the way and it caught in the corners and it wandered down the wrong path and now it’s far and I can’t find it, Ariadne your voice is gone and you haven’t come back and all you’ve sent is a man with a sword playing with yarn like a scared kitten and it’s lonely here, trapped between the winding passageways and waiting to be made a monster again but I don’t want to be and I haven’t got a choice and I wonder if anyone ever realizes what that’s like and I’m sitting here waiting because there isn’t anything else to do and nothing else I can do and not a thing I would change but only because I don’t know how and I can pretend that I’m talking to you but I’m not, just to myself and I begin and I get lost in this maze of words and then I can’t ever find my way out and I’m just trapped in the story always a monster because there’s no way to change and nothing to do and it’s unraveling, you know, it’s unraveling toward me one turn and one twist at a time. 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Life of a Storyteller

A story is a living thing. People sometimes don’t understand that. They don’t understand the way stories are born, that they grow up and grow old and die slowly or all at once. They have never been to my homeland and could never have seen stories breeding and multiplying. We watch this happen as if we could see destinies woven into strands of DNA, little cells that twist and twine into something new.

I was twelve years old when I got my first story. It was born during sentencing season when ideas are blooming and the stories are suddenly something from nothing. I named it – I can’t tell you the name now though – and I took it home with me. I fed it from a little bottle and I wrapped it in a blanket. I slept curled around it for weeks until it was too big to fit in my bed. It grew quickly, my story. It was from a common and vigorous breed, but I loved it as if it was new and like nothing told before.

Hardcover book gutter and pages

Most stories are old stories. Old breeds, rather. The strains of story have gone back generations, millennia. We recognize the shapes of their bodies. The curves and shines of their faces are familiar to us. We tell them again and again, in new forms. Some of these stories are old and tired, breeds that perhaps should have died out long ago. Most of them are well-loved, for all that.

My first story was one of these. Of course my parents would never have trusted twelve-year-old me with a rare breed. I didn’t care, though. I’d grown up in a family of tellers, and I told my story as if it were special. Children are often the best storytellers for that reason. That is, they love stories for themselves, however overtold they are. Children haven’t learned yet to scoff at the faded strains of story.

Stories are something like pets. They find tellers they like, and they hang around wagging their tales or brushing against legs until they are stroked into complaisance. Some people sort of collect stories, amassing all sorts of different kinds. Some people just tell the same story over and over again, or they trail a pack of stories that all look alike. I guess they find comfort in uniformity. Sometimes, if you look closely enough, you can see that stories have little notches or curves that make them distinct, despite their similar shapes. Sometimes, though, you look at a story bedecked and embellished to find that under all that it’s the same as the one next to it.

I guess the point is that you never really know. I raised my first story and told it out into the world, whispering it into an ear, sending it on its own to find its way. I’ve had countless stories since then. I’m a decent teller. It’s a lovely thing to watch, a story that gets to where it’s meant to be. They fill the world, like shadows, even when you can’t see them in the dark. They know when they’ve gotten to the right place. I like see them scamper or slink or swagger away from my window, where I sit with a couple of new tales and, perhaps, a book.

Sunlight Stealing

Sunlight slipped through the window like a thief easing his way into their bedroom. Laura flinched from the brightness pressing at her eyelids, flaring in her half-sleeping sight.

She was just about to face the end of it. Falling asleep, she’d been brooding on their fight. Andy had curled up on his side of the bed, so she’d huddled on hers and run the lines through her head over and over like a script she was memorizing. She had been sure she was right, he was wrong, he should have called, she should be angry. Then she repeated the argument and she doubted. Later, though she couldn’t remember it, she was certain that the fight looping in her mind was the reason for the dreams.

Sleep swallowed her up while her lips were still moving around the angry words, and she dreamed. She found herself alone, in a vast and flat wasteland. There was nothing but desert sand and a wind that billowed and swirled around her. It pushed Laura, unyielding, until she dropped behind a hill. There was a cave there, lit from within. The sky was dark then, the sand near invisible, so she went inside. As she entered she saw that the cave glowed, an unearthly light from the crystals embedded in the walls. It was a tunnel, deep underground, and it wound and wove as she walked on.

There was the brief sensation that she had turned upside down. Laura knew she could feel it in her stomach, the quick twist from left to right, down to up. There was sky now, in the space she thought had just been the floor. It loomed above her head. It was lower, angrier, than the sky was normally, and it was a dull orange. She nearly brushed her nose on it when she looked up at the stars. The area around her was narrow, a long cramped room with the sky opening above it. Andy was there, and an elf, and a talking raccoon. They turned to her, and they said, “Hello, Laura, are you ready?”

She squeaked, “Ready for what?”

They did not answer her. Instead they turned, her lover and the talking raccoon, and gestured onward. At the end of the cramped room under the low dusty sky there was a door. It was nothing but wood planks, bound by iron and adorned with only a latch. Light shimmered around its edges. She reached for it, and it swung open. Andy walked up to stand next to her, at her right hand, and the raccoon appeared at her left. Andy said, “It’s an adventure, love. We’re going to face it together, just like everything else.”

She smiled, weakly, and the raccoon snarled, “Gods above, but dreamers in love make me sick. Come on, you humans, let’s go defeat the evil already.” She smiled at him too, and together they stepped forward.

When the mist cleared from around them, they were in a fair. There were balloons clamoring together in the sky and a little girl with a cloud of cotton candy. There was a giraffe walking past them and a clown flying by. Laura knew that the fight lay at the end of the lane, and with Andy and the raccoon beside her she walked bravely toward it.

Laura groaned and threw an arm over her eyes. The movement only jostled her awake, though. The pale stealthy light of the sun had already made its way into the room, and it had robbed her of her dream. She turned, and saw Andy. He was frowning in his sleep, probably still angry from the night before. She glared, annoyed, at the sunshine. She wanted the rest of her dream, the end of her story. She sat up instead, because the sun had come up before she could finish it. Her hands fumbled, her eyes still bleary, but she found her glasses on the nightstand and set them on her face so that she could see clearly. The dream was already fading as she shook the sleep from her head. The room around her was pale, just traced with enough light to see by in the waking day.

Fates

“What are you working on now, sweetheart?”

“Oh,” said the girl. “I’m just starting something new. I’m not sure. Probably just another ordinary old bit like the last, and it’ll all look the same.” Her fingers moved over the thread, twisting it in a practiced motion as the whorls and tangles of wool smoothed in her hands. They coiled around the bobbin in a perfect circle that grew and swelled as she spun.

Wool

The mother moved closer and looked over her shoulder. With her came the scent of baking bread and a comforting warmth. When she spoke, her voice was a note below shrill. “Don’t say that, dear. Everything you make is lovely, you know that. You mustn’t underestimate nor scorn the thing created.” She held the last skein of just-spun yarn, and without looking at what she did she worked loops, knots and tangles. The fabric jumped and spread from her hands like cold water puddling on stone. It reached with tentative out from itself and then pushed out until it pooled. Its surface held designs, cables and bobbles, twists and twirls and sprays of thread. Her fingers flashed too quickly to see.

The grandmother, in her rocking chair in the corner, chuckled. She was bent over the fabric in her lap, but one elbow rested on the television remote. In a cracked low voice, she said, “Now, child, don’t pay any mind to her. She gets off spinning stories and you’ll forget to spin thread. The thing created, such as she may say. You just keep going with the creation and it’ll figure itself out.”

The house fell silent but for the mutter of the television. The three watched a reporter appear on the screen, microphone poised, waiting for the signal to speak. The woman on the television resettled her blond bob, smiled, and started to talk. The family was still, eyes intent, fingers busy. After a few minutes they bent again to spin and knot and snip. Eventually the mother murmured, “What a shame, that poor boy from down the block, what’s his name? Car crash. Terrible.”

“Oh no,” said the girl. She put her hand over her mouth, leaving the other to twirl tufts of wool lazily over her knees. “Sam? Died?” The mother leaned to her and pressed a kiss onto her forehead.

“Yes,” said the old woman, absently, her face hidden in the shadow of her hunch. “I did that one last week, I remember.” She jerked at the mess in her hands and, with a sharp scrap of sound, tugged a jumble of thread loose. She cast it onto the floor where it sprawled, a cloud of woven wool on the bleached floorboards. “People dying all over the place, there’s a genocide. And car crashes, famine and sickness and accidental falls from eighteenth-story windows. Keeps a body busy, it does.” Neither of the others answered her, and the babble of the television was the only sound for a while.

When the sun began to lower and the light was left in little stretched squares on the wall, the mother bustled behind a counter. She filled the kettle and set it on the stove, all with one hand while her other twisted thread through loops and pulled bits tight and tied. Before long it began to whistle. The shriek of it started, small and thin. It grew until it screeched enough to fill the whole house, and the mother pushed herself out of the chair again and started for the stove.

“Darling,” said the old woman from her corner, her voice high and peevish. “Get that, would you? Nobody likes a nasty thing like that.”

The mother lunged for the kettle and shifted it aside, and suddenly the wail ceased and there was silence in the house.

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.

Experience

She was always the smallest one of them. She was shortest, quietest, least interesting. Carmen was smarter, and fascinating. Annie was the loudest, and funniest too. Sarah was only a good listener – that label that somebody got by being quiet all the time and putting up with everybody else’s crap.

That was why, when they all went off to school, she was determined to change things. Her schedule filled with the strangest classes she could fine – “Neuroscience, the Beatles, and Psychadelic Drugs;” “Sexual Neuroses and Freud;” “Understanding Comic Book Art;” “The Chemistry of Cooking.” When they met at Thanksgiving, all back home for the holidays, she’d saved up stories about her courses and professors to tell them.

Annie’s hair was bright pink. Carmen had a nose piercing. Annie’s boyfriend played bass in a band. Carmen was dating girls now. Sarah barely managed to tell them the names of her classes before they turned to one another again, voices rising in excitement.

When Sarah got back to school, she knew things had to be different. She started cutting classes every once in a while. She hung out with different people so that she could go to their parties. She found a boyfriend, and then almost as quickly found a new one. She started sleeping more and eating less. This time, she was determined, she would have something important, interesting to say. They would have to listen to her.