I was not born in this town, but another far away. Across the world and with a name you would not be able to pronounce. You would misspell it and then you would forget. If I told you.
But—because, to be trusted, the storyteller must lay all his weakness and failure out—I could not in any case tell you the name of that town, because I do not remember. I, too, would say it wrongly, spell it clumsily, adding and subtracting letters like a desperate man.
If you insisted that I must know, that to you it is not important to write the name, only to hear it, to feel its strange and resistant shape against the fine auricle of your ear, I will redden and grow electrically still. Or slam my mug of beer onto the round table between us, making both our sets of teeth rattle. I might curse you, quietly. Certainly, I would not tell you the story.
“But why not?” you would protest, with innocent face of child, eyebrows raised and perfect skin alight with the justice of your fight.
I would say nothing. You can not understand what it means: that my town is nothing, a hole in the past, a dead end in history, while your town and its events are recorded permanently. Are certifiably real. Cannot disappear.
But, you have not demanded and so I will tell you. I will tell you because it comes to me to tell. Because a story that is not spoken is dangerous and angry, and can devour a storyteller. If you do not believe this, only look around you in this dim little bar, full of old drunks, smelling foul and muttering to themselves. It is late in the work day, but these men are not working. They lean on the walls or rest on their elbows, stare with red eyes at a place deep inside and drink until even that inside world recedes. Then their stupidity will no longer be a tight-necked performance, but a reality as well-worn as a hammock in the sun. They will fall back into it in a slow, crooked way; they will laugh, cry, stutter or strike out, becoming great and heroic fools.
Here is men, only, because this is a man’s place, yes. But also because men do not know how to tell what needs to be told. They think they will die in the telling, or be made women. Both of these have been known to happen, to men I know even, so it is a risk.
Still what is certain is this: each of these men is a storyteller who has abandoned his story. Each one was entrusted, and each one failed the trust. The story rages inside them against its own silencing, locked up in those sodden hearts. Is it the man or the story who craves drink then? Who hungers for numbness and escape and blessed not-knowing? It is a good question.
I apologize for bringing you here in your nice mall clothing, your face soft with optimism and belief in your task…A new haircut you have, even. Darling. Darling is what I think to call you. It is what my grandfather called me when I was your age, but old men do not call young men darling in this place. A sad thing, you ask me. What does an old man give to a young man here? To show him how to be gentle also.
You have placed your tape recorder on the table. It made a little click, demonstrating its weight and the perfection of its form, when it met the glass tabletop. When you put it there. Now, you have pressed play and the thing is staring at me like a member of the royal family of England. Like Queen Victoria, maybe. It has that look, proud and hard, awaiting bows and curtsies from her subjects. Of who today I am one. Because I am the storyteller and you are the story collector. You have a fancier name for yourself than that, I know, you told me when you introduced yourself. But that fancy name didn’t mean anything, it was just a made up word, a clone word like that sheep, that Dolly sheep that I read about. Yeah. A fake sheep–who needs a fake sheep? And what’s so special about a sheep that you need two of the same one, I ask you? Well, anyway. I just call you the Story Collector, because that way I keep you where I can see you.
You offered me money for the story and I told you I do not take money for my story. But then later on I took it anyway. I am too old for convictions, and anyway both of us, me and the story, we need a drink or a hamburger or what have you from time to time. And who is going to fault me for that? All right.
You ask me twice to begin. You are sweating. You are very young and I do not think you like the bar I have brought you to. You said that I reminded you of your grandfather and I thought that was sweet, plus the money, plus the necessity to tell, for these reasons I am here and only a few minutes late. So. So.
Cheche, I clear my throat.
It begins before any of us, or even our great great great grandmothers and -fathers were born. There was a village that was far from any ocean. The village was in a part of the world where the people were still made out of mud, even though in other places there were men and women of flesh, human people like you and me.
Every winter in the village, it would snow and snow, enclosing the mudplace in a blue brightness. Then the mudpeople would hide in their mud homes and keep a fire going, so that their bodies would not freeze. In the spring, when the snow melted and the rains came, they would construct shelters out of bark and leaves and pray that their children not be lost to the floods and storms. In the summer and fall it was dry and hot. The people took great care, during this time, to soak themselves repeatedly in the lake, but nonetheless every dry season many of the elderly forgot or were too tired to make so many trips. At nightfall, their bodies would be found in the path between their huts and the water, cracked and crumbling in the moonlight. The dusk wind would blow, and by morning, the people knew, all of the corpse would have been carried away in a yellow dust. That yellow dust which was identical to the dust that covered the streets and the roofs of their homes, to the dust that coated the insides of their mouths when they spoke and to the dust from which the next batch of babies would be carefully sculpted when the rains returned.
It was a hard life and the people died young. One day, they heard from the wolves who prowled that part of the world, that in other places the people were of not of mud, but of flesh. The wolves knew because when a fleshchild wandered off by itself in the great woods, they would smell it and eat it up, before the child knew what was happening. Then the fleshpeople to whom the child belonged would go hunting after the wolves. It had created a lot of trouble for them. What is more, they said, these fleshpeople do not speak with us, although we talk to them as we do with you. It is true, said the head wolf. I talk but they pretend not to hear. They turn from me. Or they run. Or they raise sticks and shout, frightening my pack. Such strange creatures, neither of the mud, nor of the forest, nor of the night like the other creatures of flesh. We are glad for you, who are the only mudpeople we know of remaining in this age.
The mudpeople listened carefully to the wolves, asking few but important questions, which the wolves largely would not answer. But from what they said, the people understood that the flesh protected these others against the turning of the seasons, so that they lived long and could build their towns in a lasting way.
When the beasts had gone, the people discussed and it was decided. They wanted this flesh, even if it meant they would no longer be able to live amongst the wolves, even if they would not be able to understand their language, even if they would be neither of forest, nor night, nor mud.
It was in late fall, a month before the snow would begin again, that they sent out a group of the very oldest and the youngest of the mudpeople, because it was believed that these were the ones who could know secrets. Many nights they were gone and the people were afraid. But at last, the old and the young returned together. They carried with them a large round of fabric, of a dense, buoyant texture and of great weight. The old and young people communicated in their language of gestures and squawks that they were each to sew themselves a suit from the fresh skin and then sleep out by the lake. In the morning, they explained, mud would be made flesh.
The people did as their young and old had instructed, and in the morning it was so. They awoke but because they were no longer mudpeople, so it was as if they did not awaken, but that others, strangers, instead awoke. One new flesh person would turn to another to speak, but the words that came were of odd shapes that fit uncomfortably in the mouth. No one could understand each other, although each understood him or herself to be speaking sensibly. Nor could they interpret one another’s gestures. The new fleshpeople, then, felt pain in their chests and wetness on their cheeks. It was the first time they had ever wept, and how odd it was to feel the salty water run over the surface of skin as smooth and impenetrable as the big leaves they had once used to build shelters from the rain.
The fleshpeople, who knew they had been mudpeople, who felt behind themselves their entire history, yet became unsure. As they moved under the arc of the sun and experienced one new sensation after another–first thirst, then cold, then hunger, then the need to urinate, then the need to touch, to memorize the surfaces and temperatures of their changed world–the past which had ended such a short time earlier, began in its difference to seem impossible. Each flesh person wanted to reach towards another, to touch them upon their warm, soft shoulder and ask, “Was it really as I remember?” But besides that brief, hot contact of palm to skin, no communication passed between the flesh bodies. The urgent question, although spoken, echoed in an infinitude of foreign tongues, asked and asked itself, until the asking became another sound of the mudplace. The flesh people looked at each other with large wondering eyes and the pain again entered their hearts.
It was some days later that the wolves returned. They could smell the new fleshpeople from leagues’ distance. The head wolf went rigid and pointed with nose and paw. Her yellow eyes flashed.
The pack followed her into the encampment, where the people shivered and huddled together near bright flames that danced in the black night. She approached one person after another, but each recoiled from her. When she spoke, they raised heavy branches in the air as if to strike her. The wolf hung her head, and moaned in a low growl as she loped back to the woods, followed by the rest.
“If a child wanders,” she said to her wolves, “it shall be our prey, for these are not the mudpeople; these people are strangers to us.”
And so it came to pass. And the people knew then that it was time to go out from that mud place, which more and more seemed cold and alien and hostile to them.
Because they could not understand one another’s languages, they argued with waving arms and shouts, tugging arms, shoving, pulling their children by the wrists, one pointing to the east, another gesturing to the west, yet another motioning that they ought to follow her beyond the far arc of the lake. In the end, the people went out in small groups of three or five or seven, like sparks scattering, all at one and in many different directions…And why not? They did not speak the same language and the history which they had shared as mudpeople had dimmed. It wavered now in the background like a dream does once you have woken. Of their common heritage, there remained only a vague grief, which dwelt in their bones like the dampness of a coming rain, heavy, long and without words in any of the languages.
I can only tell you what happened to the group who left through the cleave between the hills, walking north from the mudplace. They travelled for generations and generations over barren and frigid terrain, until they arrived at a city where fleshpeople had built tall buildings, paved the streets and lit the windows of their homes. The travelers were attracted by the warm light and the smells of food, at the same time that they were repelled by the noise and speed of these citypeople. No matter, however, for, just as the wolves in the old place had once sniffed out their lost children, the citypeople smelled the grief upon the strangers and their beaten mules and in the dust rising off their clothing. In a short time, they were driven out with big sticks, as they themselves had once driven away the wolves.
So it was that they built a town alongside the city, from where they could admire its handsome structures and smoothly oiled rhythms. There, where they could, at last, cease their long wandering. There, they too constructed tall buildings, they too lit their windows with fire and paved their streets. Yet they never achieved the elegance and confidence possessed by their neighbors. Being neither of the mud, nor of the night, nor of the forest, they were, and forever remained, people of yearning.
It was in that town that I was born, and not so long ago as you might think. When I came here, I came bearing the story that I tell you now. Though it has been told many times over the years, to anyone who will listen, with each telling it changes, reborn over and over into different forms, every one as hungry and demanding as a newborn child. Because the story does not rest, I too go without rest, except when made stupid with drink. But even then, the story tells itself through the shape of my shoulders or pierces the air in a graceless cry when the barman pushes me out the door. Sometimes it occurs to me that if the story ever ceased, I would too. That maybe I am less then a man, only the shell that the story uses to travel in the world.
Now please, it is time to switch off that fancy recording machine, sweetheart. I have given you what you wanted–nevermind that it will just be for you some paper decoration. You will put a title on it and you will scribble underneath the name of a country which you only believe exists because your teachers have told you to believe. I am not sorry, truly, that you do not understand. Because it means you do not know loss. And this is good for a young man with a clean face and such a pretty haircut like yours.
What what? You’re going already? Ah, okay. I get it, you’re busy, of course. You’re young, you have appointments. Alright. No, no, of course you do. No, you don’t want to keep anybody waiting. All right. Well, no matter. If you ever need anything–another story, maybe?–they know me here. You just ask for the storyteller. The barman, he’ll tell you where to find me.