This is a sneak peak of the book I’m working on right now, The Storyteller. As with all writing on this blog, it is copyrighted; please do not try to steal the work as each word has my heart in it. I’m posting it, though, because today I was reminded of how special the written word has been to my life and how powerfully bright stories can be.
Slate blue eyes, creased with deep wrinkles and underscored with various shades of brown, carefully studied the cobbled streets. Weathered hands, covered by fingerless mittens, gripped his trusty cane, Taisce. His shoulders were hunched, burdened by age; graying hairs lay uncombed beneath a fraying, blue knitted cap. Unkempt whiskers lined his cheeks; a mustache curved around his cracked lips and formed a thinning beard.
He limped, his right leg having been injured in an accident they always loved hearing about; his hip bore the pain of arthritis and old age. His feet, covered by tattered, moccasins a Cherokee woman handmade him, shuffled now more than they walked. The cane, the one he hand-carved himself from bamboo while living in the jungle, the one he’d named Taisce, kept him from falling as he slowly traversed the cobblestones of the small village. The townspeople didn’t yet know of his arrival; it wasn’t light enough outside for them to see him shuffling into their midst. Tomorrow, he would find his way to the town square; tomorrow, a hot meal would satisfy his gnawing, knotted stomach. On nights when the hunger was fierce, the lamplights of a village were what comforted him most.
Heaving a heavy sigh of exhaustion born from hours of endless walking, he lowered himself onto a wooden bench outside a carpenter’s shop. The men of the village would be the hardest to impress; the children, the easiest. He rested Taisce against the edge of the bench and roamed his eyes around, surveying the new place in which he found himself.
There was the baker’s shop and the carpenter’s shop. He could see a building that looked like it might be a home across the way; there was a lantern flickering in the window. Aside from that, open land was all he could see. The only light came from the gas street lamps and the stars. Tilting his head back, he gazed to the heavens, easily spotting the North Star and Cassiopeia. It hurt to raise his wearied arm but raise it he did, using a pointed finger to trace the outline of the queen and then of the Big Dipper.
Those were the first ones. The first stories he remembered, the first open pictures, the ones that set him on his course around the world until he tumbled his way to this nameless village. He’d spent decades walking, decades gathering stories from the people he’d met, the towns he’d visited, the fears he’d conquered and the love he’d found—and lost. He was miles from home, wherever that might be—he no longer knew. He’d forgotten a lot. But he’d not forgotten the first ones: the North Star, Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper. No matter what might be ahead of him, those stories would be engraved upon his heart until he drew his last breath, for they were the ones that rescued him.
His eyes glistened as he slowly brought his arm down. Sitting with his head bent, his shoulders hunched, in his tattered clothes, with aged dirt caked in the creases of his skin, he was the portrait of a vagrant, a study of isolation. They would run to him tomorrow, welcome him into their homes with the warm fires burning and warm food to fill him up. Adoring eyes latching onto his every word, as if he were a king, would give inspiration when there was none. His presence, though unexpected, would come as a welcomed surprise they would handsomely reward. For a few days, he’d roam from farm to farm, sharing his stories, soaking in theirs. For a moment, the stars would smile at him and all would be right with the world. For a moment, the sounds of laughter and cheer would sweep him into a world to which he’d never really belonged.
Until it was over.
They’d all gather and wave goodbye, thinking in their heads of how lucky the next village would be to see him shuffling into its square. Only—only this time, this time would be different. This time, he was looking for something more than a few nights’ rest, something more than a few hearty meals. He was looking for something more than new stories to add to his collection. He was looking for himself. Or, rather, someone like he had once been, someone lost and looking for a way out, someone seeking something he couldn’t name, someone wounded so deeply he’d never fit in with the rest of the townspeople, no matter how hard he tried. Someone he could teach. Someone he could reach, to pass the torch to before the stars dimmed, just as it had once been given to him.
Someone to become the Storyteller.
I hate our house. It is never quiet, not even in the very early morning. The sky is still dark when the Tracy twins start making racket in the chamber down the hall. They just turned one and they never sleep. They cry, scream and play all day and all night. Mr. Tracy yells at Mrs. Tracy to keep them quiet, but Mrs. Tracy can’t: she says the twins egg each other on too much. The Whites are in the room next to ours. They are awake too; I hear Mrs. White telling Sam he’s getting a late start on his chores. He helps his Papa chop wood every morning. Mama, Papa and Nonna are up, too. Mama and Nonna make breakfast each morning before going to work; Papa enjoys smoking a pipe on the front porch while the sun rises. Everyone is in a hurry to start a new day. Everyone except me.
I lay on the soggy mattress, staring out the tiny window above my head. This window is one of only two things I like about our house. Some of the families who live here do not have a window in their rooms. If I didn’t have this window, I wouldn’t be able to see the stars at night or red birds during the day. I love looking at the stars but waiting on morning is my favorite part of the day. I can’t get up until purple streaks across the sky: it’s a game I play with myself every morning. First, the sky turns from midnight black to metallic gray, which is how I know sunrise is not too far away. A pink blush follows and then streaks of purple and tangerine begin to radiate from the sky. When that happens, I know breakfast is almost ready and it’s time for me to get up! If I get up before the purple appears, I might accidentally see Mrs. White coming in from using the lavatory. If I get up too long after the purple appears, breakfast might be gone, eaten by some of the other families.
It’s like a race, waiting for the purple. At first, I lay perfectly still, staring at the colorful sky, just waiting to see a hint of lavender. The longer I wait, though, the more my legs start to twitch, ready to spring up. If I finish my morning chores quickly enough, I get to go with Nonna to the crazy house. The crazy house is where Nonna works. Nonna is the cleaning lady there and sometimes she lets me go with her. I don’t have to help clean, she lets me talk to the old people. I’ve memorized some of the best stories, the crazies like to tell the same ones over and over. But I never pass up a chance to go with Nonna because, every now and again, they tell me a new one.
There it is! Purple!
My legs spring into action, bouncing me up off the mattress. I have just over an hour to get my morning chores done. I have to milk the two cows, see if there are any eggs to gather from the hens and feed the chickens. The house is tiny and there are five families that live here. It is hard to move quickly through the tiny hallways but I squeeze my way past the families, rushing barefoot outside. In the game I play with myself, my new goal is to get the cows milked before Samson is high in the sky. I named the Sun Samson, after one of the ladies at the crazy house told me a story she made up from an old Bible tale. Samson was strong, so strong no one could ever defeat him, but he had a weakness. If he wanted to stay strong, he had to keep his hair long, he could never cut it. He was tricked by a girl and lost his strength. The people captured him and were going to kill him, but he prayed that God would give him the power one more time. Before he died, Samson crushed all of his enemies.
“The Sun is just like Samson,” the crazy lady said. The Sun is the most powerful star in the sky. If we did not have the Sun, it would be dark and cold all the time. People could not work and we could not grow crops. We would never have any food. People would die without the Sun. It rises every morning because it is so strong. But the Sun has a weakness, too: people.
People work during the daylight. They spend the daytime hours working, working, working. They make food and make money. They take care of their families. It’s like they’re in a race to see who can make the most money and do the most things before Samson hides behind the horizon. But the people are fooling themselves. What they really want isn’t the daylight. What people really want is the Moon, the time of dreams. They spend all their time waiting on nighttime. They want to see the stars, to take time to eat with their families, to share stories, to drink like Papa, to sit around campfires and to rest. So, Samson casts the world under a blanket of darkness each night to give the people what they want: the moon, the stars. He loves the people, so makes himself hide each night, to give the people rest from working, to give them a time to dream. Casting the world under a blanket of darkness is hard, though, on Samson for each time he dips below the horizon, the freezing arctic wind blows across him, cooling him down just a little. Eventually, the arctic wind will freeze all of Samson and he won’t be able to provide the warmth and light the world needs. He does it anyway, though, because no price is too great for those you love. Not even death.
The cows are milked before Samson has turned the sky into a sea of light. I scatter the feed on the ground in the shape of Samson for the chickens. Yesterday, I scattered the seeds in the shape of a lantern. Tomorrow I think I will give them their breakfast in the shape of a potato. The last chore I have to complete is the easiest: gathering the eggs from the hen house.
“Good morning,” I tell the hens. “My name is Henry and I’m a treasure hunter. I am looking for golden eggs worth a ton of silver. I know you’re hiding it but I will find it!” When I check under the first hen, Clara, there isn’t any egg. “It’s not under Clara,” I say, turning my attention to the next hen. “It must be under you!” When I feel a smooth, hard egg under the hen, I smile. “Yes! The pirate wins again! I’ve got treasure, I’m rich!” In the end, I find two more eggs. Mama and Nonna will be happy. “And so will I be, because I will have breakfast!”
***** ***** *****
“Henry, what is taking you so long?” Mama is yelling at me again. She is ready to box my ears. I am running late for breakfast. I finished my chores early enough but then I had to wash. The soap flakes became snowflakes. I couldn’t hurry through that because I’ve never seen snow!
“Aw,” Papa says, sitting down at the table. “Leave the boy alone. He’s a dreamer, let him dream.”
“Everything that boy sees becomes a story in his head,” Mama mumbles.
“He’s going to make me late for work,” Nonna grumbles but her lips are twitching, fighting back a smile. She isn’t angry at me, either.
The noise in the house isn’t so bad right now. The men have left for work, Mrs. Tracy’s twins are playing in the back room and Mrs. White is sewing.
I scarf down breakfast and wait impatiently for Nonna to catch up. By the time she finishes eating, I am hopping around on one foot. I’m only seven-years-old, I can’t wait too long. Nonna is old. She isn’t as old as Mr. and Mrs. White, who are probably close to one hundred, and she isn’t as old as some of the people in the crazy house, who are probably a thousand, but she is still old. This means she walks very slowly. It isn’t far to the crazy house, only two miles, but it takes us a long time to get there because we walk slowly for Nonna.
“Nonna, why are the people in the crazy house?”
“Because they are sick.”
“What are they sick with?”
“They are sick in the head. Their minds don’t work like yours and mine do. They cannot act like grown-ups are supposed to.”
“How are grown-ups supposed to act?”
Nonna frowns. “Well, they’re supposed to have a family, take care of that family by working, like your ma and pa work. And they aren’t supposed to hurt people.”
“The people in the crazy house don’t hurt me.”
“And they don’t hurt you.”
“No of course not.”
“Who do they hurt?”
Nonna sighs heavily. “Some of them haven’t hurt anyone. But if you are sick in the head, then you might hurt someone. So you go to the crazy house to get medicine and see a head doctor and keep yourself and everybody else safe.”
On the side of the dirt road there are small white daisies growing. “Daisies!” I say and stop to pick a few. “Can I give a few to Mrs. Daisy? She’ll like them, because they have the same name as she does.”
Nonna nods. “Sure.”
“Mrs. Daisy is one of my favorite crazy people.”
“Why is that?”
“Because she has the best stories.”
“Yes, that is what I thought you would say.”
***** ***** *****
Mrs. Daisy has white hair and wrinkles everywhere. There are deep wrinkles down her face and over her forehead. There are wrinkles on the backs of her gnarled hands, too. Her fingers are always curled in: her hands are like turtles. Her palms are the shells her fingers live inside of. She is bony thin. Her collar bone is sharp all the way across. Sometimes I am afraid to touch her because I can’t help but think I might bruise her. She isn’t as old as Nonna, but she’s old enough to have white hair. One time, I asked her how old she was and she said, “Old enough to never be surprised anymore.” That’s how I know she’s old: old people’s ages are told in riddles instead of numbers.
Mrs. Daisy likes to sit by the window in the front room. She likes to watch the gardener. She is sitting there when I find her. She smiles, two of her teeth missing, when she sees me. “I saw you coming with your grandmother, up the walk there. I knew it was you.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Daisy,” I say politely and then I remember that I picked the flowers for her. They are crushed in my pocket, but I pull them out and hold them towards her. “I bought you a present.”
“You did? Now, why’d you go doing a thing like that?” Her voice is grumpy but that’s just Mrs. Daisy. Mrs. Daisy always sounds grumpy. She says it’s because she lives in the crazy house. “Well now, let’s see… these are daisies, boy.”
“Yes, ma’am. I thought you would like them because they have your name.”
She grunts. Then she lays the flowers in her lap and stares out the window. I walk closer to her. We aren’t the only ones in the front room. Mr. Peter is here, too, counting his deck of cards. He doesn’t have a full deck, he only has 51 cards; there are supposed to be 52. He knows he is missing a card because he is constantly counting them. Nonna has offered to replace the missing Jack of Hearts but Mr. Peter doesn’t want her to. Nonna says it’s not really the cards he needs, it’s something to count. She says that’s his mind sickness.
Ms. Sarah is here, too. Ms. Sarah is the youngest person I’ve ever seen in the crazy house. Her hair is still colored: it’s brown, like a dead leaf that’s fallen from a maple tree in the Fall. One time, just before the drought last year, Ms. Sarah was screaming and flailing her arms in the air when I came. It scared me, but Nonna said she was just having a seizure. Seizures are her sickness. But Ms. Sarah has good stories, too, like Mrs. Daisy. Maybe I will talk to her after I leave Mrs. Daisy.
“Mrs. Daisy, why do always sit by the window?” I ask, tipping my head and sitting down on the floor beside her chair.
“I like to watch the gardener work on the garden. He comes on Tuesdays.”
“It’s not Tuesday, it’s Friday.”
Mrs. Daisy doesn’t say anything.
She looks down at the white, crumpled flowers I bought for her.
“Once there was a kingdom, a very strong kingdom. The kingdom had a good, fair king. The king wasn’t married, his wife died birthing the princess, but the king raised his daughter the best he could.” Mrs. Daisy frowns, looking out the window. “Tom’s going to have to put something down for the critters. I seen a rabbit the other day, trying to eat the leaves off them flowers over yonder.”
“What about the king’s daughter?” I ask, looking out the window at the flower bed. I don’t see any rabbits and I can’t tell that any of the leaves have been disturbed. But I don’t care about the flowers or the gardens as much as Mrs. Daisy does.
I care about the stories.
“Right,” Mrs. Daisy sits up straighter in the wheelchair and smooths a wrinkle on the white cotton of her dress. “Well, there came to be a war between the kingdom and a nearby villain. The other country, they were bigger than ours and they had more soldiers. The king was afraid for his daughter, the princess. She wasn’t much older than you, but she was bright. The king gathered up provisions for her, including plenty of food and other necessities. He then spirited her away to a secret cave he’d built in the countryside. The cave was underground. The only companion the little girl could have was her little dog. The king told the little girl that she had enough food and supplies to last for seven years. She was not to ever leave the cave for any reason. If, the king said, after seven years, he still had not come to fetch her, then she could assume he had died fighting for the kingdom and only then could she leave.”
Mrs. Daisy coughs, then leans over, peering again out the window. I wait patiently, knowing that sometimes Mrs. Daisy likes to go slowly through the story. This is a new story, though, one I have not heard before, so I do not mind waiting. It isn’t long until she gives a little nod, satisfied with whatever she sees outside, and starts up the story again.
“At first, it was not hard for the little girl to stay in the cave. She was a bright girl and she had her little dog. She spent the hours sewing and reading and talking to her pet. But, after many years of this, when the food started to run low, it was a little tedious to stay cooped up in the cave. Then there was no more food. But she and the dog were not alone in the cave. There were lots of mice that found their way into the cave, especially during the winter months. The dog caught many mice each day. The girl would roast them over a fire, eat them, give their bones to the dog and then she would stitch the mouse skins together until she’d made herself a cloak of mouse skin. It was much bigger than she was, so it quite covered her. It kept her warm.” Mrs. Daisy fell silent, staring out the window again, smoothing invisible wrinkles out of her dress.
“What happened? Did the king ever come back for her?”
Mrs. Daisy shakes her head. “Oh. Well, no. Once all the provisions were gone, the little girl decided that her father must be dead. She began to claw her way out of the underground cave. It took her a long time and it was very hard to do. But, finally, her hard work was rewarded and she saw sunlight for the first time in seven years.” Mrs. Daisy laughs shortly, still looking out the window. “I can’t imagine what she must have thought, she probably didn’t even remember what flowers were. Like how I can’t really remember what grass feels like, or what rain feels like.”
“You don’t know what grass feels like?”
“Boy, it’s been much longer than seven years that I’ve been trapped up here in this place. Must be almost twenty years now since I’ve stepped foot in the real world. I’ll never step on grass again.”
“But you can go outside, can’t you, Mrs. Daisy? In the yard? I can push you in your chair.”
“No, no, they won’t let me. Besides, even if they did… I … well, I don’t know if it’s safe out there.”
I don’t know what to say to that so I just stare at her. I stare at her until she looks away from me, down at her lap and the crumpled flowers. “Anyway, being outside must have been quite the shock to the little girl. I imagine it took her some time to get her bearings about her and I’m not quite sure how she remembered the way back to the palace, but she did. She went all the way up and knocked on the door.
‘Who are you?’ asked the servant girl who answered. The princess told her who she was, and that this had been her home seven years earlier. The servant girl led her in to speak with the new king. But the new king didn’t believe the girl. He said the previous king had been killed, and had not had any children. Everyone started laughing at the little girl. ‘You?’ They said, ‘A princess? Where are your jewels? Where are your clothes? Imagine a princess wearing a smelly cloak made of mouse skins.’
The girl felt sad. And she felt afraid. Everyone hated her. Everyone thought she was mad. There was nowhere for the girl to go. So she and her little dog made the journey back to the cave.
And there they stayed. Eventually, the girl lost the ability to speak; she hadn’t had a conversation with anyone but the dog in so many years that she literally forgot how to talk. But the dog kept her company until they were both very old. It was a true love, theirs.”
“That’s it?” I ask. “That’s the end of the story? That’s not a good story, Mrs. Daisy, there’s no ending to it.”
Mrs. Daisy coughs, leans forward in her wheelchair, closer to the window, looking for the gardener who comes on Tuesdays, not Fridays, and then says, “Tom will be here soon. He’s really going to have to do something about them critters.”
***** ***** *****
The glow of the fireplace makes our tiny house seem pretty. I like how the orange flames shine on the faces of all the families who have gathered. Nonna and Mrs. White sit in the two rocking chairs, Ma and Pa sit side by side on the wooden bench. The children who live in the house, the Tracy twins, Sam and nine-year-old Elizabeth, sit in the floor around me. Mrs. Tracy sits on the floor behind the twins, ready to intervene if they should start to cry or misbehave. Mr. White stands against the wall with his arms crossed. Mr. Tracy and Pa sit on two stools by the door. It’s crowded, with all of us in the front room, but I love these nights where they all gather to hear me tell stories. I am the center of attention and everyone, even the little twins, can’t wait to hear the end of the story.
I stand on a little stool because it makes me taller. I like to feel tall when I’m acting. I tell the story about the mouse-skin princess, but I don’t like Mrs. Daisy’s ending to the story, so I’m going to change it. I make sure to add more to the story, too, so that it’s really a story of adventure and suspense. Those are the best kind.
“There were many, many times when the little girl nearly died. Her only protection was the mouse skin coat and her dog. Once, they heard scratching at the entrance to the cave. The princess thought maybe her father had returned for her, but the dog knew it was someone – or something—“ I lower my voice and bring my arms in real close to my body. “Else. He started growling and clawing at the dirt floor of the cave. His warning was the only thing that kept the little girl from trying to open the door of the cave. It wasn’t until she heard the angry roar of a bear outside that she knew her little dog had saved her life.”
I look at the kids; Elizabeth’s eyes are wide as saucers, Sam hasn’t blinked in the last fifteen minutes. The adults are quiet and still, too: signs that they are just as interested in the ending of the story as the kids. I forge ahead, jumping when I tell of the little princess’s narrow escape from rocks that slid loose and fell inside the cave.
By the time the little princess makes it to the door of the palace, everyone is holding their breath, hoping that the little princess will be recognized and welcomed back home.
“’Who are you?’ the servant girl asks and the little princess told her. ‘I am King Edward’s daughter; this was my home seven years ago.’ The servant took her to the present king…” I trail off, scanning the faces of my captive audience. “Prove it!” I yell with all my might, my voice echoing through the house. The Tracy twins jump. So, does Mrs. White. “’Prove you are the long-lost princess,’ the king demanded. ‘Show us the way around this palace. Where were your bedchambers? Where is the kitchen?’ The little princess was scared because she was afraid she might have forgotten; it had been many years since she’d been within the palace walls. But the dog remembered and led the way.
Only after she’d proven she remembered the palace and even knew where the secret vault was kept did the king believe her story. He welcomed her home by giving her back her bedchambers and making an announcement to all the kingdom that the long-lost princess had returned. The kingdom celebrated for days afterward with dancing and eating and all were merry. And that’s the story of the Mouse Skin Princess.”
Everyone claps for me, I put one hand over my stomach and bow dramatically low to the floor, smiling the whole time. I pretend that instead of only the people with whom I live watching me, it’s an entire theatre of strangers. Even later, as I lay on the mattress, staring out the window at the stars in the sky, I think of standing before them, acting out the story.
Something still bothers me. There is something I must do, something I must not forget to do the next time I go to the crazy house. Mrs. Daisy gave me the story, there is something I must give Mrs. Daisy. The story isn’t about a mouse skin princess, not really. The story is about the crazy house. My pa says the best stories, the most magical ones, are the true ones. There aren’t soldiers at the crazy house and the doctors don’t really lock the people in jail cells. Mrs. Daisy could go outside, I see some of the other people walking around the gardens or sitting in the rocking chairs all the time. Mrs. Daisy doesn’t want to go outside; she’s like the princess in her story. She’s just scared. But Pa always tells me that a good dream is stronger than fear. I’m gonna give Mrs. Daisy a good dream.