Once there was a travelling storyteller. He wandered town to town, tapping the paths with his long walking stick, catching the breeze in his beard, until he found himself again atop the cobblestones that spread from a town square. Following the stones, he stepped over the shadows of flapping laundry and of ravens and steeples, and took his seat on the wall of the town fountain, where, his breath restored, he began to tell a tale.
At first, there was no one listening. By the time the first children, bored of chasing the cat, approached the old man, he had already narrated the rise and fall of several kingdoms, impugned the bravery of some dozen heroes, and divulged the secrets of at least as many queens. Indeed, the first words the children heard were “and she cast all that remained into the fire, where they turned instantly to smoke.”
“Who did?” the children demanded. “What was turned to smoke?”
The storyteller leaned onto his knees and looked each child in the eyes, deep to where the squiggle of sunlight in the cornea told him exactly what story would make each child laugh or shake with fright. He leaned back, rubbed his palms, and began, thrusting his hands into the air and saying—. But no words came out of his mouth.
He refilled his lungs and tried again, but it was silence, except for the dry sealing and unsealing of his lips.
The children laughed at first. The old man was a good clown. He pulled at his tongue, to check that it was still there. He fished water from the fountain and poured it by the palmful down his throat, gurgled and spat it out. But soon they grew bored. They knew very well that the old storyteller was faking, and they wished he would get on with a story already. They had heard of stories. Probably he wanted a coin, but they had no coins. Their collective wealth consisted of one glass marble and even that had been dropped so many times it was nearly opaque with cracks.
The storyteller, who had been everywhere and heard everything and who was adept enough to invent whatever he hadn’t heard, knew what was happening to him, but he had no way of explaining it to the boys and girls. If his mind was a forest full of birds and streams, then beneath one flower was one little black seed that knew this would happen someday. But so soon? Not even the little black seed had expected it to happen today. The only cure, of course, was to scramble the forest and find the opposite seed, but he would never be able to find it on his own.
He could see that the children were worried now. They weren’t laughing or even confused, just solemn, their stares weighty and awake. There was an art to reading the squiggle of light in an eye, an art he had meant to teach. Which loops and twists want love, which want death and victory, how to discern the story each face most needs to hear.
Finally the children decided they would give him the marble. It was too much, this choking and staring silence. They would rather be swindled of their one glass marble than keep watching this. Anyway, he would have to give it back. But when they reached for their pockets, none of them felt it resting there. They accused each other briefly, then scattered to retrace their steps—down the streets where they had chased the cat, through their houses, under their beds. One ran out to the hollow where the grass was always cool. One ran to the well to check under the loose brick. And soon they were all scrambling the forest, raking the brooks and peeking into magpie nests.
When they came back into town, the storyteller was nowhere, but they didn’t notice. Why would they? Their marble was gone. They didn’t even agree amongst themselves what color the marble had been. One said it was orange with a fin like a fish. Another said green, a green petal. They were bitter, these disputes, and unresolved. They shook the wheat and pine needles from their sweaters and went to bed that night, each one with a different marble fastened in his or her mind.
How does a story go? What had turned to smoke? I suppose the children never learned. Soon enough their parents needed them in the fields, or needed them to watch a sickbed, or needed them to make a trip to the capital, across the snows. There was no harm in searching as they went, though soon none could distinguish the marble. It was just an old glimmer at the back of the mind.
Mark Mayer is teaching the upcoming 4-week workshop What Should Fiction Do? He has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and his first book Aerialists, won the Michener-Copernicus Prize.