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.

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.

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 Storyteller at the Market

The storyteller is wedged between the trinkets and the magazines, tucked between tables piled high with watch springs and tattered pages. You could walk right by him if it weren’t that you’d have to walk through his story. It’s hard to see until you’re in it – nothing glows or glitters or anything. There’s a queer feeling to it. It’s sort of a drop in the pit of your stomach, a stopping-suddenly that spreads over your skin. Otherwise it’s hard to tell it’s happened. You just edge past the gaudy tarnished frames and the drawings of cats, and suddenly you’re someplace else. Sometimes it’s the middle of a broad meadow, green curling grass laid out around you and a forest clustered against the horizon. Sometimes it’s dangling from a turret, spinning gently in the window as the castle looms below you and its grey stone juts against the cold air. Sometimes it’s just sitting in a living room, folded into a plush rocking chair with its weave rough against your cheek as the voice of a grandmother and the smell of a fire fill the air.

Usually it’s fine to just walk in. Just last week I stepped into a story that swooped and dove on the back of a dragon, scales burning my thighs and flames blistering the air. The storyteller nodded to me when I got there – we’re familiar by now, he’s seen me there so often – and went on, the dragon just pausing a moment in the air as he recollected his thoughts. He often doesn’t even notice. You get there and you’re just suddenly part of it, huddling in the corner of a great lofty cave as the dwarves hack into the ground with chisels and spades.

When I was there on the dragon, the story went on so long I started to notice my fingers going numb. It was very hot on the dragon, of course, but after long enough your body starts to notice the market just as much. When I left I was tingling with cold but flushed all over, blisters rising on my knees. We flew right into a storm, and there the dragon left us. Then there was a while being nestled into a cloud and talking to a man on a pegasus, buffeted by the sweep of wind from its wings. We never did find the treasure, but I had a very distinct feeling that it was gone entirely. Somehow destroyed – a tragedy, I suppose. Then again, it’s just a story – or so you tell yourself, anyway.

You haven’t been really, so you wouldn’t really understand. You ought to visit more often. The storyteller is welcoming of visitors. He’s really very friendly. That is, if you get a chance to talk to him, the man, outside of the story. It’s harder to do than it sounds. He wraps himself in tales and hides inside them, rubbing their softness against his cheek and showing their spines and bristles to outsiders. He’s a lovely man, though, and makes a fair living off his stories at the market. Well enough it serves him, even just once a week. The market doesn’t meet more often, and it shouldn’t. Perhaps it would be all fine if it were just for the baubles and chains, but it’s well enough that you can only visit the storyteller’s realm only so often. Otherwise people would crowd into his stories more often, they’d be there every day. He’d have to tell stories with every breath he drew and every thought he held. Once you’ve entered the stories and got used to being there, it’s hard to leave.