Story Time

Photo by Stéphane Juban on Unsplash

The creature sat idle in its chair by the fireplace, fingers aglow with the last vestiges of its cigar. How long had it been smoking that, I wondered, as I rose to stoke the fire – not for the first time that evening, I realized. The woodpile had been steadily consumed, greedy flames lighting the dim parlour with their grim energy; when had the sun gone down?

“Ah, but it is no matter.” Said the creature, all horn and tooth and skin of scale, shifting forms in the twisting shadows. It took me a moment to understand that it had been speaking aloud to itself, and I had, what, dozed off? In the dim light, its shape was gigantic and diminutive all at once, a thing of true unknowing. Something beyond my ken. It continued, “I’ve another here. Pass me the matches, would you?”

I obliged, only to hand the thin matchbox tin – a family heirloom, I noted by the crest that adorned its top – to a horrific tentacled hand, which itself morphed into the claws of the devil himself. Were it not for fear of insulting my guest, I would have dropped it there and then and run from that room. But propriety kept me still and calm above the panic that roiled in my gut. The creature struck a match, its grotesquely beautiful visage a twisting canvas of horrors from outside this plane, lit only by that single flame. Intermittently, I caught glimpses of it as it puffed happily on that cigar, the smoke a purple-yellow that stunk of the bog, something rotten and festered. It sighed contently, then gestured at me.

“Go on, then. You were saying about your works?”

Memory alighted on my tongue, wrenching it into motion. “Yes, yes…my works. They,” I stammered for a heartbeat, rationality seizing me by the shoulders and begging me to flee before the syrupy haze of that smoke descended over my thoughts once more. “ah, they come to me as if in a dream. When the world seems to be dead, empty, that is when I create these works.”

“And they come to life, you say?”

I hadn’t. “Yes, that’s right.” How did it know? “I’ve felt the touch of warrior kings on my shoulder as I pen them. The sense of a dreadful evil just beyond my darkened doorway, flickering in the candlelight.” Nobody but I knew these horrible secrets. “I dare not look at these apparitions, lest I be interred.”

The creature sat in silence for minutes of eternity, pensive in its smoky haze as it jabbed at the fire with the poker. Not the poker, I started, and saw its tail was made of iron, jagged and cruel. Seeing the flames spring up somewhat, it nodded. “Most would think you crazy, true. Even the grandest writers could not claim such a feat.”

“Though I wonder if some wish it were so.”

“Ha!” The laugh shook the house, and the windows rattled in uneven panes. When had the walls fallen to such disrepair? Those paintings had seen better days, surely, but the structure of the building had been in modest shape just this morning. The garden was looking so pleasantly full in its summer glory, ready to heave a rich bounty in the august months ahead. I had eaten of simple fare, a break between my writing. Or had I been sleeping, and merely dreamt of it? And what day had it been, then, when this creature of impermanent cast found itself on my doorstep, professing interest and love for my work? How had it seen it, with none of my work published? It sat in my office, leaves fallen from the trees of thought, and none read it save myself as I wrote it, casting it down to act as litter for the new growth of the next, and on and on it went…

The creature spoke again at length, and I strained to hear it over the sound of the house’s creaking foundation. “I have seen your light on each night for weeks on end, my dear.” A woman’s voice at once, then an elderly man’s. The thing’s tongue transmuted the very words it uttered, worming their way into my mind as if alive, possessed of free will. “I have heard that scratching of pen at paper, ink to writ, even in the scarce winks of sleep you snatch at your desk.” When had I slept last? “I have seen all you wrote, and all you will write. And still, even with this knowledge, I know not Where you get it from.”

The creature leaned forward, its face a contorted spiral of nightmares. “But you must know that it isn’t yours. You’re…well, you’re like the earth to a river.”

My throat was dry. I found a cup of brandy within my reach, and supped at it as a newborn would a teat. When at last I could find my own tongue, I managed, “The earth?”

“Aye, the earth.” There was mirth there, barely hidden. “And your works, the river. They carve into you, channelling you in just the right way to allow themselves to reach the seas, the oceans. Thoughts coalescing into long streams of conscious thought and unconscious meaning. All of it winding along your psyche and body to flow out into the pages, out into the wider world.”

The room felt cold now, and the fire was on its last legs. My body had a shake I could not control, and it only grew worse with time. I excused myself to fetch more logs from the garden wall, seeking refuge away from this creature to gather myself.

“Of course. I’ll see that the flame doesn’t go out.” It chuckled, though at what I had no idea.

As I left the house, I had the distinct feeling of something being wrong, but not quite able to put my finger on it. The garden, happily wilted and fallow, as it always was. The great orchards below bereft of their fruit and reaching skyward with gnarled, empty branches – just as usual. The wood felt good against my skin, knobby and rough, taken from those trees that were laden with corpses; all knew that they possessed the greatest flesh to burn, fatted on the souls of the departed. I returned to the garden door and paused there on the threshold, dark, hollow sky above. Not a star twinkled there. Just as always.

And yet, something I could not put my finger on. Something I had forgotten? I’d heard it said that a doorway was like a portal to another space, and that thoughts often drifted when one traversed them, as though the planar winds scattered them to leave one fresh for the new worlds yet to be seen.

Something gnawed at me.

“Surely my guest must be growing cold,” I mused, and shelved the worry for later. “I must be a good host, if nothing else.”

When I returned to the parlour, the creature had placed itself at the window (or what was left of it) and was gazing across the countryside. I stacked the pile of firewood neatly by the mantle, and after a minute of teasing the life back out of the coals to lick at the new fuel, I joined the shifting thing. “My apologies. I had feared I had lost something outside, and subsequently was lost in thought.”

“No matter. We have all night, as it happens.” The creature gestured out toward the surrounding hillside with one long, twisted appendage which groaned of its own accord. “It would seem that the stars have returned, thanks to your efforts.”

I looked up and confirmed its observation: there were indeed stars in the sky again, odd though it seemed. They twinkled in some fell way, as if not quite in the right position. “To say I did this would be stretching circumstance, I fear,” I countered, still staring upward, not daring meet its many changing eyes. “I merely stoked the flames back from their ashes.”

The creature seemed satisfied, or did not say otherwise. We stared up at those eldritch lights for yet another eternity, saw them shuffle about in place, speaking to one another in tongues immortal and unending. At length, we spoke of other things, of the times, of the joy of story and tale. Eventually, we found ourselves back by the fire, and there it was that the creature laid bare what knew between sips of brandy and cigar puffs.

“It was there, in that cave above all the world, I saw the end. Not fast, nor expedited, but a slow, drawn-out affair.” There was a sombre softness to its voice now, in that endless night, like the sound of silk on a gravestone. “All the flames had died, and every story ever told, even those at the very end, was forgotten.” It seemed a sad thing, and I said as such, still unsure how and why it had found itself in my house. Truthfully, I was glad for the company, but it was the unknown that bothered me, the lack of knowledge that ate at me from within with such a fervent hunger that I feared I could not outpace it. “I saw that veil wrapped tightly, fondly around the world, and I knew it to be the end. Yet it did not. Would not, could not, I am not sure.” It considered its cigar in the crackling firelight, then extinguished it in the ashtray at its side. “But it carried on as nothing for some time.”

“How is it,” I started, then paused. The creature gazed at me from its armchair beside the fire, half-illuminated by the orange-red flame, half engulfed in the shadow it made. We must tread carefully, said my own voice within my mind. I began again. “How is it you found yourself here, then? From such an empty place to this hearth, this sorry state of a house?” In truth, the house had gone to ruin in my absence, writing the words that poured into my head as water dumped into a greedy pitcher, never full but always just empty enough for more. Only the fireplace had remained in hearty shape, though by whose hand I know not. “Surely, if the world is as barren and void as you claim, you finding your way here would be impossible?”

The creature’s eyes bore into me, and I felt naked before it, yet the nudity was freeing in a way. I had no secrets from such a thing, as though it knew them already. “I found my way here as one finds their way to the source of a river. I simply,” and its tentacled appendages without number mimicked a fish, “swam upstream.”

Now it was my turn to strip this creature down. “You claim to know my works, but I’ve never published them. You claim to know that I brought back the stars, yet with no fact or proof.” I stood now, my boldness knowing no bounds. “How is it you know me, creature? What brought you here upon my doorstep and granted you entry when none have done so in recent memory? I have had no visitors, no well-wishers, not even the taxman come to clap me in irons.” I crossed the short gap between our chairs, gazing now into the face of madness, of chaos. My eyes had nowhere to look that did not change as I tried to focus, each detail an amorphous thing that defied my stare. “Who are you?!” I demanded, body tense for the fight I hoped would never come.

It didn’t. The creature merely picked up its brandy glass and sipped at it, its many eyes scrutinizing me in ways I had not imagined. “If I were to tell you I was the very thing you strained not to look at, that otherworldly extension of your stories as you furiously penned them, would you believe me?”

The anger bubbled up in my throat, and I jabbed an accusing finger at it. “And If I did, what would bring you here? What would force your horrific, unending form upon me in this night of nights?”

It looked at the finger, then met my eyes, and all at once I felt that unknowing, unknowable sadness that it had seen at the end of all things. “I came here to see that you would start the world again. To begin anew from the black, empty ashes of a desolate plane. And it would seem I have started it.” Saying this, it rose to its full, unimaginable height. “But it is not enough to return the stars to their sky.” The heat, the smell of it was unbearable, a terrible sensation outside of time and understanding. “If all the world’s plants and animals and peoples returned, all across the skies under all the stars and within all the material that could host it, it would not be enough.”

I stood, stunned. We stood there for yet another eternity, and I noted that time seemed of no consequence, and yet of the highest importance. The fire spat miserably, and my body placed another set of logs atop it, though I did not will it to. My mind still sought answers in that face of never-ending change. Finally, I lamented, “What is it you ask of me, creature?”

Its response was not unexpected, but it chilled me through despite the warmth of the room. “Your stories. Were it not for them, all this would be for naught. A stage with no play, a day with no noise, a love with no heart.” The creature approached me, and in its closeness I felt a kinship, disturbing in its reality yet grounded in the way that all material things are; a universal truth.

“And what if I refuse? What if I cannot share them?” I began to pace, slowly at first, then nearly crossing the room in my haste to escape my own thoughts. “What if I found them to be so horrid, so beautiful, so personal and moving and heartbreaking that I cannot bear to have another look upon them, for fear that they would lose hope? Or use those words to their own end, twisting my work into a sham?”

“Such it is, and such it would be.” The creature said simply. “That is the way of it.”

I could not accept it. In my pacing, my eyes were drawn back to the stars above. They had moved again, and with each step and thought, they seemed to tumble a little further along in their paths, alien things that careened through unfathomably deep depths in search of purpose. The creature stood at its chair, cigar lit once more, the purple-yellow smoke issuing from mouths unseen.

The fire crackled.

“What if they aren’t good enough?” I murmured to the window. “And what if they aren’t done? Not complete enough to be shared?”

“Would that they ever were.” The creature chuckled sadly. “Your stories will never be done, just as the river is never done reaching for the ocean. True, it may dry up in once place, or fill up into a lake and sit shallow, but that tumult, that aching need to rejoin the larger whole is something that never ends.” It joined me at the windowsill, multitudinous hands resting gingerly thereupon. “And whether they are good or bad, they should be shared. They are a life of their own, and deserve the chance to breathe, even if it is a ragged and short one.”

I felt its words somewhere between the stars above, the gaps immeasurable in the heavens. “What happened?” I said, though about what even I was not sure.

“The stories stopped.”

“And then…?”

The creature shrugged shoulders that seemed heavy with fatigue. “All else stopped.”

“How am I to,” I struggled with the words, my heart heavy. “start this all again?”

I felt its hand on my shoulder, suddenly fixed into the shape of a human’s, distorted compared to its shapelessness. “However you wish. Whatever form they take, it matters not. But they must be shared. Without them,” and the hand fell limply from my shoulder, as if to emphasize the unspoken thought.

I stared again at the sky. Had it really been empty for so long that these stars looked wrong in it? How long had I toiled in that office, penning works that would never be read, moving at the speed of conscious thought to arrange them time and again. How long had this house stood on the hill, gazing at the empty world around it? How long had it been since I had spoken to another?

“What are you?” I asked again, and there was a smile on the creature’s broad, immense features. Several smiles.

“I’m that which you create, and that which creates for you.” It said matter-of-factly and smiled even wider. “I am the silent voice in the head of the reader, the prodding plot that drives the writer, the winding thread that weaves through the tapestry writ large on the page. And it is well past time that you and I met, and decided the fate of this world.”

A log shifted on the fire, sending sparks up, up into that sky that stretched into infinity, past the reaches of thought and comprehension, and into the voids of the void itself.

And after some time, the grateful sun rose.

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