The Palace of Language

In the palace of language, there are winding hallways, labyrinths to get lost in. If you take a left turn and start down that long run-on endless sentence, you’ll be all dazed and bewildered by the time you find your way out. You’ll have forgotten where you started. However, you may stop in some lovely rooms along the way. There’s one just a bit in, lush and soft with pillows you can just sink into. Then farther on there’s a fountain, the words flowing like black ink that sprays and pools and rises again. They go over and over, into themselves and back out, tumbling end over end until they’ve been in every order and shape you can imagine. That’s even still within the fountain, not escaping from the neat stream that arcs into the air and plunks against the surface.

Saragossa. Court of the Infanta, Zaporta Palace

Photo credit: Cornell University Library

If you take the right turn, there’s a long and beautiful hallway lined with pillars. They’re spiraling and straight, plain and engraved with intricate designs. If you lean against one, the feel of it on your skin will near take your mind away. Sink against it, slump until your shoulders sag and your head droops, and close your eyes to the touch of it on your skin.

Then follow the scent of sandalwood and cinnamon until you get to the grand hall. Lean back until you feel your spine creaking, and stare up at the ceiling. Watch the candles cast warm yellow circles up the walls, let the tendrils of heat whisper on your cheeks. The paragraphs are crunched into bricks that climb until you can’t see the lines where they join, and the words sparkle in the leaving light. The texture of them on your fingers grates slightly, the curls of the letters rubbing with a hissing sound. If you trace the curving lines on the tiles you can spell out the words, and if you follow them for long enough you get to the end.

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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.

Writer’s Block

The idea was barely tickling the corners of her mind. Penny was searching, reaching, but it wasn’t there. She turned and grabbed, and it ducked away. When she lunged, it retreated, sucking itself into a corner where she couldn’t even see the shape of it. It would return and then again she could feel it, feel the long flat side and nubby corners, and she would lean – but as soon as she moved toward it, it just whisked out of sight again.

Penny had been reaching for the idea all day. She’d had it just that morning – held it in her hands, felt it curl around her neck and sprawl over her shoulders. The softness of it – but was it fuzzy or smooth? – had rubbed against her cheek, and the trailing thoughts had wrapped around her like a long furling tail. It had seemed so obvious. The warmth of it resting on her skin was so natural. She had assumed that she could turn, wash the dishes and fold the laundry. She’d even taken a quick trip to the grocery store.

writer's block - crushed and crumpled paper on...

Photo credit: photosteve101

The water had been so warm, bubbling over her hands, and she’d lost herself in the smell of dish detergent. Then in the softness of her favorite sweatshirt, and the flimsy lace that crumpled under her fingers. The taste of iron lingering in her mouth and the glare of flourescent lights. The shine of apples as she debated over fruit prices. The swinging flare of sound as the scanner passed over her purchases. The line on the road leading her home.

When she’d finished putting the groceries away, she remembered to look for the idea. She turned, whirled, bent and stretched, but it was gone. She hadn’t even noticed the weight lifting from her shoulders – though had it been heavy? Now she couldn’t remember. Sometime in the day it must have flickered away, slithered down her body and scurried across the floor. After half an hour of looking she gave up, sitting on the couch and putting down the useless notebook and pencil.

Just then Penny felt it, brushing at her elbow, and she turned. Her idea flashed across the floor like a frightened cat, curling resentfully against the wall and staring at her. It lost itself in shadow, so she could only strain to see the tip of it flapping against the floor. She turned away with a sigh, just to feel it slinking up to her again and pulling itself against her back. She reached for her pencil and it disappeared again, so she settled back against the couch. This was the time she recognized, the moment that foretold the rest of her night. She would do something else, distract herself, and spend the next few hours cringing the feel the touch of an idea she couldn’t hold.

Imagining

When Sandra got home, Josh was drawing at the kitchen table again. She leaned over his shoulder and he pulled into himself. He flinched just when she got close to him – she felt the pain flare, and forced herself to step back. The light from the window trickled down the line of his neck, and she stared for a minute before she trusted herself to speak.

“Josh, babe, what are you making?” She kept her voice low.

He looked up now as though he were just noticing she were there. “Oh, hey. So this is the Irralom. It’s a world, sort of like, um, Tolkien’s.”

She leaned a breath closer, careful not to loom over him. He uncurled enough to let her see the paper – it was a map, snaking rivers and little darts of mountain ranges scattered across a crumpled country shape. He looked up at her, and she pulled over a chair. “Tell me more about it, sweetie.”

A smile sprang to his face. “Okay, so it’s a magic world, of course, but it’s where most people can do what we would think of as magic, it’s sort of taken for granted, and the people who can’t do magic are different. I haven’t decided yet if they’re looked at like they’re special or like they’re sad and there’s pity for them who don’t have normal skills. One or the other though.” Josh’s voice was leaping now, his eyes eager. “The characters I know I’m going to concentrate on are living in this town here – ” He jabbed at a corner of the page with his pencil. “They’re part of the government of the village or whatever it is, like the mayor and her family I think.”

Sandra leaned her chin on a hand and watched him as he talked, smiling when his eyes met hers and hunched over the feeling in her stomach, the resentment and the sadness roiling like acid. He talked about his characters easily enough, but as he spoke he was looking through the window, or into the distance. Every few words his glance darted over to her face, and then left after a heartbeat. She imagined he was speaking to these people, seeing them standing behind her. He could see them so much more clearly, she thought. Sometimes she felt as though he lived with them more fully than with her.

After he’d fallen silent and turned back to scratching lines onto his map, she heaved herself up and slipped into the kitchen. Before long she had a pot bubbling on the stove and leftovers humming in the microwave. She stirred the water absently, letting her mind drift. Under the sound of the boiling water popping in the air and the light collecting in the kitchen, she felt very alone. The heat of the steam clung to her face as she stirred, leaning on the counter as if she might fall and wishing that she weren’t real.

Submission

“Are you done yet? I’m so excited to see it.”

“Yeah, it’s over in my room but I can go grab it if you want.”

“Please do, I want to know what you came up with in the end. I love reading your work, it’s inspiring.”

“Aw, thanks.”

No, Caitlin thought, Sara was never likely to be that direct or anything. That’s even a bit sentimental. People don’t say things like “inspiring” over stuff like articles for something as trivial as the school paper. Especially the editor, even if they were sort of friends.

“I’ve got a story to turn in, where should I leave it?”

“Oh, give it to me. I want to read it.”

“Okay, I guess I’ll go?”

“No, no, you should stay. I read fast, I’ll be done in a second.”

“Okay.”

Sara would sit there for a minute, flip a page, and then look up. “Wow.”

“Um, in a good way?”

“Really good. This is really good. Great. Is it okay if we publish it in next week’s edition?”

“Okay? That’d be wonderful. Thank you so much!”

“No, thank you. I love having something this powerful on the front page.”

No, definitely not like that. That was silly. She knew Sara wouldn’t be that effusive. Even if it were wonderful, Sara would probably say so in a more reserved manner.

Maybe she would say, “This is decent work. We’ll get back to you about when we’re publishing it, okay?”

Caitlin would blush at that, probably. “Sure. Thank you.”

It would be a short conversation, to the point. Or maybe they’d talk more about the practicalities of it.

“Hey, so here’s my piece, I’m supposed to submit it here, right?”

“Oh hi Caitlin, yes. Let me check over it, while you’re here.”

“Alright.”

“Go on, sit, I’m almost done and then we can talk about it. I only really need to skim, you know, practice and all that.”

“Right.”

“Okay, so this is good – I mean, you know, typos, things like that. But on the whole I think it’s a strong piece, and we can put it in next week’s with a bit of tweaking. In the third paragraph here, when you talk about the public’s reaction, I think maybe you need to make it more specific. Listen – ”

Sara might not want to talk about it though. She might just say something like, “Okay, I can see a couple things we should fiddle with. Do you want to meet up, have a coffee or something, on Friday to talk about it?”

That would make more sense. That way Sara could glance it over without having to spend too much time on it. Then they would meet to figure out the little things, maybe have a conversation about some other stuff after they’d ironed out the kinks.

Caitlin hugged the slim packet of paper to her chest, and took a breath. There was a jumbled hum of voices creeping from under the door, and when she pushed it open the buzz of talk grew and surrounded her. Sara was in the corner, reading something and biting her lip. There was a maze between desks and chairs to get to her, and Caitlin maneuvered it with her eyes fixed on the carpet. Her heart thudded with every step – stop it, she told herself. It’s just one article, just one school paper.

“Hey, um, Sara?”

Sara glanced over, her eyebrows pulled down and her mouth pressed flat. “Oh. Uh, Katie, right?”

“Caitlin.”

“Right, right, sorry. What’s up?” She was looking over Caitlin’s shoulder, eyes unfocused.

“I have an article. To submit. I’m supposed to give it to you, right?”

“Sure, can you just leave there?” Sara waved a hand at the pile on the corner of her desk, papers splaying out of a basket. Caitlin placed the packet there and nudged some of the corners straight.

Sara seemed to look up and remember she was there. “Yes, what is it?”

Caitlin flushed. “About submitting, though, I mean articles. What – ”

“Yeah, sorry. Lots of work, you know how it is. Okay, so you should get an email in – ” she turned and squinted at the calendar taped to the wall. It was crowded with hasty scribbles. “In less than two weeks, probably. If it’s in you’ll get an edited version to look over, and if not, well, I guess not.”

“Oh,” said Caitlin. “Is that it?”

“Well, yeah,” said Sara. Her voice had a note of annoyance in it now. “We’ll let you know. I mean, I guess we have a ton of submissions right now, like fifty for about twelve spaces, so don’t expect too much, okay? Even some of the good stuff we get doesn’t get printed.”

Caitlin stood for a moment. Then she nodded and turned to navigate again through the labyrinth of the newspaper office. Sara called after her and she spun, a smile breaking across her face without her willing it there. Sara was holding up the papers, and said, “What’s your last name? You don’t have your name on this. Katie what?”

“Caitlin Holmes, H O L M E S.”

Sara nodded and wrote, and then looked up to wave before settling back in her chair and turning to her computer again. The office was murmuring with conversation just as it had been as Caitlin ducked out the door and started the long walk home.

Inside and Outside a Story

The teacher was saying something now, hoarsely and without much conviction. The young man paused to listen to her, the brush motionless in the air an inch from the canvas. He was impatient and wanted to keep going, but she did keep talking. The sudden desire to paint had nearly overwhelmed him, until it had soaked into him and he had always wanted to paint. As a kid in school he had dreamed of being a painter. That was how it had always been. Sometimes it nudged at his brain, a tickling feeling that told him he wasn’t always like that, but he ignored it. Ever since he’d gone to find a painting class he’d been so motivated, it was like he was an entirely different person.

There was a full paragraph now on the page. It looked so neat there, pressed against the margin, black letters marching in clusters only to hit the edge and fall onto the next line. Amy was pleased with the way it looked. It took her a minute to get back to it. She had to shake herself, to stop looking with eyes unfocused at the shape of the paragraph. It didn’t even say all that much yet.

The story was really just starting. She was writing about Luke, a young man learning to paint. He wasn’t very good at it yet, but he showed talent. He loved to swipe a brush across the canvas and see the color blaze on the white. It was satisfying, like banging a cymbal and sending a streak of noise through the air. The teacher was a bent old woman, who had a hooked nose and skin sagging from her face and a scraping quiet voice. He was a little afraid of her. She told him that he would never quite be good enough at it for his own standards – she hoped – and that was what made him an artist.

Amy nibbled on her thumbnail. Maybe that wasn’t right. Oh well, she could change it later. She typed a sentence, and then deleted it with an impatient tap of the keys. Was he impatient really, though? She couldn’t decide if he was in respectful awe of the teacher, or if he was bored and contemptuous.

There was an awful turmoil in his chest, so fierce and sudden that it nearly hurt. Luke swallowed, and wondered at the emotions warring in him. Fear and hatred, it seemed, and he couldn’t think why. Neither of them seemed particularly appropriate at the moment. The lovely old lady had finished speaking, and he was painting again after smiling wide at her. She had shuffled off to the kitchen, and he was alone with the soft melody and the rustle of the color against the canvas. He wished that he could just keep doing what he was already, without his mind and emotions all turning over and tangling.

Probably contemptuous, she decided. That really made more sense, and that way they could grow from that to a friendly relationship. Those things always seemed to start out like that, edgy and prickly. Later their relationship would develop. They might even be friends.

The teacher’s voice rasped from the kitchen, and Luke rolled his eyes at the ceiling. A pang of disdain struck him, and he felt he might stagger from the blow. What a dotty old lady she was! If this was how he had to learn he didn’t know how he would stand it.

That was a bit of an abrupt change. The bitter feeling replaced his amiable contentment so queerly and quickly that he stopped what he was doing, and stared at the rectangle of blurred attempts before him. Where had that come from? The glad feeling was gone, and he had been happy with it. This scorn sat in him like a bad meal, heavy and uncomfortable. It didn’t quite fit. A sigh heaved through him. He would just have to get used to this, perhaps.

The air was soon thick with paint fumes – did paint really smell so much? She thought about it for a minute, and then decided to leave it. If she had to, she’d go back to it later. Something had to happen, though.

His jacket was in front of him, and without willing it he saw his hands before him, swinging it over his head. The paintbrush lay on the paper towel, doused in turpentine and drying. At least he could be considerate enough to clean up after himself. He struggled with the knob for a moment, and pushed through the door and out. The teacher was walking carefully back into the room, stepping slowly so as not to spill the coffee, and looked up just in time to see the room empty and the door swing closed. Outside, Luke strode away, cringing at himself. He didn’t know why he had to go, to leave the poor woman like that, and he felt like he wanted to cry.

That was enough for today, her fingers were practically cramping. Amy flipped closed her laptop and smiled, satisfied. That was a good start to the story.

The Second Half of the Story

I went to see Adam again. It feels like I need to be there as often as possible, just to make sure he’s eating and sleeping and whatnot. He’s a dreaming child stuck in this young man’s body, and he doesn’t have a mother to tell him to do his homework. He’s more emaciated than he was, which is really scary to see. He looks too tired and sad to walk, let alone write for hours on end. Not really sad, though – I suppose it’s that when I see his face, pared to the bone and grinning, it makes me sad instead of him.

The picture of Theo that he sketched is taped to the wall. Theo looks more like Adam used to look than Adam himself by now. Young, smiling, just handsome enough to deserve the word. I told Adam he needed to let Theo alone and get back to his own life for a bit. After all, the character would still be there after a meal, a shower and a nap. The expression on his face was so incredulous, for a moment I felt like I had actually said something crazy. The way he’s working, it seems that he thinks Theo will dry up and disappear the moment he’s left alone, and the only way to keep him alive is by feeding him words constantly.

It’s becoming part of my daily routine to drop by Adam’s place after work. I fix him some food, drag him protesting into the bathroom and then tuck him into bed. It’s a bit like being someone’s parent for a few hours a day. I certainly worry enough about him. Mary says I look worried all the time now, and my forehead is beginning to feel tense and scrunched. I can’t remember how to relax my face, to not look anxious. I suppose Adam feels like this, but more. And instead of worrying over a friend, he’s worrying over a person he invented who lives only in his mind. It’s so frustrating – something has to change.

***

I just got back from Adam’s place. Adam wasn’t there today.

When I pounded on the door – usually he leaves it open for me – nobody answered. I kept on, and eventually I heard a muffled voice. The door clicked and swung open, but instead of a skeletal jumpy Adam I found myself looking at some man I’d never seen before. He looked vaguely familiar, so I thought perhaps he was a friend of Adam’d whom I’d only met once or twice. He smiled to see me, though, so I smiled back and went inside.

I asked him where Adam was, hoping that he was sleeping already. It was a guilty sort of wish that I wouldn’t have to deal with him at all today. This man just looked confused, though. There was nobody in the bedroom, and the silence was stretching. There wasn’t an answer.

I looked everywhere – in all three rooms, not that there were so many places to look, and checked the closets. Adam was nowhere. I felt an irrational paranoia, an unease that whispered perhaps Adam had collapsed, was in the hospital, had simply died and was twisted at the bottom of a river or someplace similarly lost and hidden. The feeling was growing and halting my breath, fluttering against my heart. The strange man was just looking at me, calmly and curiously, as though I were something new and odd to him.

I thought maybe he would have answers, so I asked, “Who are you, then? I mean, why are you here and he’s not?”

He looked relieved that I had spoken first, and said, “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know why I’m here, it’s different. I mean, I came from here, or someplace like here. But I don’t know this place.”

That was not helpful at all, so I went into the kitchen. It occurred to me that Adam might have left for something, and stuck a note to the fridge. He’d done that once or twice before, and it would be a good sign. It would mean he had left the building for groceries or errands or some other normal human thing. There was no note anywhere.

The realization that the man hadn’t answered my questions swept over me, and I turned to him. “You never actually did tell me who you were.”

“Oh,” he grinned. “Sorry. I’m Theodore. Call me Theo.”

I left after that, and I won’t go back.