~ By Jess E. Stork ~
“And that was when the people truly heard the whisper inside them...” The words fell in metered wisps off Macabee’s mouth. The fire flickered in the twilight throwing animated shadows across the grass huts. All was silent save a few crickets in the bushes. The people curled around Macabee’s words, bit their lips as the characters threw themselves into catastrophes. Eyes followed the colored smoke that drifted around the fire pit.
Cassandra hugged her legs close to her chest. Her long auburn hair fell over her knees. She had caramel eyes that stared intently at Macabee’s shifting shape. She had heard this story many times before, but it always seemed to flicker into a different form. Each time, she hardly dared blink an eye and miss one syllable of the tale. It was a wonder, how Macabee could make you worry so much how it would turn out in the end. “It’s not about ending the story happily,” Cassandra once remembered her saying. “It matters how you get to the happy ending.”
“But don’t any of the stories have sad endings?” Cassandra asked, wide eyed.
Macabee had stopped pushing the cork in the bottle, “some. But they had beautiful beginnings.”
Macabee was coming into the end now. She tilted her head to the side and smiled with her eyes closed. The mist fell slowly down to the ground mingling with the dry leaves in a crackle. Macabee quietly coaxed the mist back into the bottle and plugged the lid. Cassandra let out a sigh of relief. Someday, she would stand in the circle and draw the wisps around into a story. Maccabee’s long, dark hair fell in the dust as she picked up the bottle and folded it into the depths of her robe. She pulled the hood back over her face. Only a wizened scar on her chin was visible through the hood.
The people surrounding the fire were waking up now, as if from an illusion or a dream. They blinked and looked around at their neighbors. The usual talk started up again, raising from murmurs to steady chatter. The time of the story was over. Cassandra slipped down the tree and followed after the robe flapping against the dark sky. Macabee quietly held the leather flap open for Cassandra before letting it fall in the dust.
Macabee’s hut barely had room to move around in. It was crowded by the coarse, wooden shelves that outlined the walls. A myriad of bottles were scattered on those shelves, of all shapes and sizes. Some were plain, squat containers veiled by a fine layer of dust. Others were encrusted by a parade of sapphires and gold filagree. They didn’t seem to have any order to them. The plain and the embellished were scrambled together. All the bottles held a shifting mist that floated slowly around in the bottle, up to the neck and then serenely filtering down to the bottom. It was a bit distracting watching the mists in those bottles. It was as if a thousand silent birds perched on the shelves, twitching their necks just to peer at anyone who walked in.
In the center of the room was a table, filled with dried roots, some thrown into the mortar and pestle in the center of the table. A green sludge lurked at the bottom of the bowl. Macabee waved a couple of flies away from the mixture and threw another root into the mortar.
Cassandra perched on a stool expectantly as Macabee replaced the bottle on the shelf. She sighed heavily as the bottle settled back into its hiding place. “No.” She said firmly with her back turned.
“But, I’ve gotten better at sensing the mist...”
“Those were just trials, you don’t know how powerful the real mist is.”
Cassandra threw up her arms. “It’s not fair! You got yours after being an apprentice for only a half a year.”
Maccabee raised her eyebrows. “That’s different. An emergency arose and I had to act.” She raised the pestle and began to rhythmically pound the root into the surrounding mixture.
“But you said-”
“The word but is?” Maccabee prompted.
Cassandra let out a burst of air that threw her bangs up in a puff. “But is an unneeded interruption to a healthy, unwinding story,” finished Cassandra in a monotone.
“Good. Now I think it would be helpful for you to practice some of your beginnings. The last ones were a bit bumpy...” She paused to look at Cassandra’s crestfallen face. “Don’t worry. You’ll get your name when you’re ready.” And with that she turned away to the herb rack.
Cassandra drew in a deep breath and tried to begin. Starting a story was always hard. Even without listening to the mist in her head, she always had a difficult time remembering to start all of the different threads. She tried to summon some calm words and thoughts, but they all felt flat and ordinary. You couldn’t used bland words when translating the story, it offended the mist.
Cassandra had been Maccabee’s apprentice for more than a year now. Ever since the night she followed Maccabee home after one of her stories. Maccabee had looked at her hard and asked her why she liked the story. Without hesitating, Cassandra answered, “the happily ever after.” Maccabee had nodded at this with the hint of a smile on her lips.
Cassandra took a deep breath and tried to focus. Right. “A beginning is like a twisting cord...” she chanted in her head. Cassandra practiced her beginnings all the next day, trying to tempt the settings into interesting forms. When the shadows fell to dusk, she straightened things in the hut to ready for the story. She was about to leave, when she heard a small, humming noise coming from the table. It made her stop, because none of the bottles ever made any noise until you unleashed them. It made Cassandra wonder if a rat had gotten into the hut again. The last time, the rodent had knocked over seventeen bottles of herbs, all having to be replaced and relabeled.
But sitting on the table looking at her intently were two lavender eyes peering back from inside a bottle. It was a simple bottle with an unembellished cork plugging up the opening. The humming was coming from inside the bottle as the lavender eyes blinked back at Cassandra. There was something familiar about those eyes. She had seen them somewhere before. The humming was beautiful. It made Cassandra think of the smell of lilacs. She wondered how much better she would be able to hear the tune if the bottle was opened. Maybe, if the cork wasn’t so snug...
Maccabee burst into the room as the cork flew up into the air. The lavender mist expanded, turning into a dank plum as it reached the roof. Cassandra could see Maccabee staring somewhat sadly at her. She felt a little dizzy, the room spinning around her and walls folding in. She realized she was high above the floor, circling around the neck of the bottle. Her feet and arms felt tingly, like she’d been laying on them for hours and they’d fallen asleep. Maccabee’s thoughtful stare dissolved right in front of Cassandra’s eyes.
And then she was falling, scraping past branches and leaves, with air whistling past her ears. It was the sound of the thud that let her know she had stopped more than anything else. Looking around, she was surrounded by a dense forest with no sign of Maccabee’s hut anywhere.
“You’re an odd kind of fruit.” Cassandra looked up to see a man resting lazily against a tree. His loose shirt rustled in the breeze. The blade of a knife shined in his hand, snaking through the red flesh of an apple. The peels fell in limp strands on the ground.
“Excuse me?” Cassandra said fumbling to get up. “What did you say?”
“You’re an odd kind of fruit,” the man repeated. “What else can you be falling from a tree like that?”
“Oh well, I fell from the ceiling...”
“Only the sky up there, darling.”
“Well, I was getting ready to go to the story, and-”
The man looked up suddenly. “Ah stories, well that’s a thing of another color now isn’t it?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well deary, not many people around here would be admitting they have anything to do with stories.”
Cassandra looked around. They were in a deserted clearing in the woods. The only rustle of movement was the green leaves in the breeze. “Why shouldn’t I talk about stories?”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “I imagine it’s because of what’s happened to those who tell them.” He paused a moment and tapped the handle across his cheek staring at Cassandra. What did you say your name was?”
“Well Cassandra, I’m Levithan and if you fancy yourself a storyteller, perhaps you can free us of a very large problem.” He stood up brushing the apple peels into the grass. Cassandra peered into the dark underbrush. There didn’t seem to be anywhere else to go.
Walking on the path nearly an hour, straw roofs began to show through the forage. It was nearing dusk, small patches of pink light settling on the roofs. Levithan’s pace began to quicken and he glanced back through the brush.
The village looked deserted. The windows were boarded shut and not a soul wandered in the street. The man knocked his knuckles against the door nearest to them. “Fern! Got a storyteller for you!” He shouted after a pause. The door flung open and a stout man peered up at them with penetrating, green eyes. “Come in,” he said gruffly. They were admitted into the cramped room. Cassandra noticed the scores of people huddled around the walls with their hands shoved in their threadbare pockets or crossed over their chests. “So,” Fern said shifting the coals in the fireplace. “You’re a storyteller.”
Cassandra cast her eyes to the dust on the floor. “Well, not really... I’m only an apprentice...”
Fern threw his green eyes to Levithan. Levithan shrugged. “She could still make it.”
Fern shook his head sadly. “It isn’t right to ask her...”
“Ask me what?” Cassandra looked back and forth between the two.
Fern ripped his eyes away from Levithan. “The ogre likes stories...”
Cassandra looked puzzled.
“For years, we have been haunted by a terrible ogre. He savagely attacked our village and demands another storyteller every night. Our soothsayer was eaten along with every young person in this village... he told us the only way to destroy the ogre is for someone to spend three, long nights with him in the manor on the hill. Only if on the third night the ogre’s true name is spoken will his spell be broken. Silence fell in the small room. Cassandra looked around at the despairing faces shadowed in the flickering light. Macabee had always told her that the real reason storytellers weave stories was foremost to help others. Her shoulder’s drooped as she realized this would mean spending the night in a freezing, stone manor where the mere whisper of the wind whistling around the corners would set her nerves on edge.
But those eyes glistening around her in the firelight, Cassandra couldn’t disappoint those eyes. She inhaled sharply and said as cheerfully as she could muster, “right, so how do I get started?”
Fern nodded and lifted a basket by the fire. “We don’t have much to offer you, but some potatoes and a couple of apples... that should at least keep your stomach full while you’re facing the ogre.” Cassandra took the spotted kerchief from his rough hands. Glancing over his shoulder, she realized that the basket was now empty.
“But what will you eat?”
Fern looked at her sadly. “I think we ought to give you the best shot possible, seeing as how we’re probably sending you to your death.” He paused. “Levithan will get you to the manor before nightfall.”
Levithan left her standing at the massive, stone doors that led to the courtyard. “Good luck then, Darling... hope to see you again in one piece.” He whistled as he skipped down the path. Cassandra wondered if he even gave a second thought about her fate. A peeling squeak rang out through the courtyard. Her eyes darted from door to door. Some were hanging from only one rusted hinge, and others had thick bars of lead across the rotting planks of wood. One of the doors was curiously open. It was unbolted and a the faint flicker of candlelight was visible through the door. Cassandra’s feet padded cautiously inside. Sitting at a simple candlelit table was an older man. The white tufts on tip of his head sprung out in every direction. His eyes narrowed as he surveyed Cassandra. His voice crackled in the darkness. “So you’re the new girl they’ve sent me.”
Cassandra tried to keep her voice steady. “Are you the ogre?”
A scratched laugh filled the dusty, dark corners of the room. “I am what I am, and I am what I need to be,” he cackled.
Cassandra stood awkwardly by the table. The shadows fell on the man’s face, and sagged on his numerous wrinkles. There was something strange with his eyes, not quite human. Looking closer, Cassandra realized there were no pupils blinking back in his ink colored eyes. And looking straight at them, she began to feel a bit dizzy. He pulled a flask from the shadows and poured some unknown steaming liquid into a cup on the table. “So,” the voice crackled again in the darkness. “Do you know any good stories? I love a juicy tale. Better to make it good or this night might be your last.” He said the last sentence with a certain relish.
Cassandra took a deep breath and tried to clear the fear from her head. It was hard, without the mist to produce a good story. The threads in the mist helped lead her through. Telling a story without the threads felt like wandering through the forest with her eyes closed shut. Cassandra struggled to think of a beginning. It didn’t matter if she could do it or not, she had no choice.
“Once there was a thief...” she began, “not an ordinary thief, mind you. Because although he looked like a simple pickpocket, something altogether amazing was waiting to happen to him...” The words fell off Cassandra’s lips and disappeared into the darkness. She couldn’t tell whether the ogre could hear the words or not, but she continued, spinning her own story threads trying to keep them from falling into tangled knots halfway through the story as they always did. The ogre sat and examined the contents of his glass, shifting it around in his wrinkled palm. Then he became fascinated with the flickering candle across the table. In fact, Cassandra began to wonder if he was just amusing himself and planning to swallow her the minute she fell silent.
The sound of a sneer from the ogre’s lips startled her. “I wouldn’t be so witless as that!” He proclaimed.
Cassandra bit her lip. “To do what?” She trembled.
“To have only one word to open your cave of treasures? That’s simply asinine. Anyone could wander along and simply stumble into your riches. They were stupid fools!”
Cassandra realized he was talking about the story. “Well,” she said. Doing her best to concentrate on that particular thread of the story, “the thief wasn’t about to escape that easily.”
“Indeed?” The ogre began swirling the drink in his goblet once again.
Cassandra continued weaving together the threads of the story. She had to concentrate hard, staying one step ahead to keep the threads untangled. But at last she reached the end, gently laying down the last thread. The ogre set down his goblet at the end. “Well,” his voice rang out in stillness just before dawn, “maybe I will keep you around for another night. See that you have a better story tomorrow night.” And with that he vanished in the gathering light of dawn with a small click of the door.
In the drawing daylight, Cassandra finally saw the room in which she had spent all night. Wind whistled up and down the unlit fireplace and the only furniture in the room was the table and two chairs she had sat at the night before. One entire side of the room was engulfed by a pile of crumbling bones. Cassandra tried not to look over in that corner while she was eating her breakfast of apples. It put pins and needles in her stomach when she did.
Names... Cassandra realized on a full stomach what the words of Fern last night had meant. In addition to staying alive in the presence of a ravenous ogre, she also had to guess his name. Thinking back to the stories, there were always two places she remembered monsters keeping things like that. In plain sight, and hidden among their treasure. There couldn’t be any harm in looking around the castle could there? But when she pulled the door the ogre had exited through, it refused to twist even a centimeter. For being a rotted piece of wood, the door was remarkably strong. The only other opening in the room was the crumbling fireplace. There was nothing to do, but prepare a story for that night.
She was ready when the ogre appeared at the table. Tonight, he was an imposingly large man with muscles that rippled at the slightest movement. “The one tonight had better be better than the last!” He grumbled.
Cassandra took a deep breath and began. “Once, there was a simple boy who did a stupid thing. At least, that was what his mother believed. ‘How could you trade our beautiful milky, white cow for a worthless handful of beans?’ She said tossing them out the window. But strangely enough, the next day...”
The ogre relaxed back into his chair and poured himself a glass of wine. The threads were easier to handle tonight, as Cassandra had been weaving the same threads all day. Finally she came to the middle of the story... “but as soon as the great ogre had turned his head, the boy grabbed the goose and ran out the door...”
The ogre let out a sneer. “He deserved to lose his treasure for not keeping a better eye on it!”
“Indeed,” Cassandra said. “I’m sure you don’t carry any of your treasure with you.”
The ogre laughed tapping the rim of his goblet against his cheek. “My treasure is so hidden you wouldn’t even guess where it is! I’m smarter than the old oaf in that story. You can’t have an ordinary door leading to your treasure, because just anyone could happen upon it... it has to be a cleverly hidden door.”
Something seemed unusual to Cassandra, but she continued smoothly, “What kind of door would that be?”
The ogre’s eyes focused on Cassandra with sudden fury. “It’s no business of yours, storyteller!”
Cassandra fumbled with the threads, trying to tuck them back into the story. “...And the boy clamored down the beanstalk as fast as his bony legs could muster. The ogre shook the beanstalk above him, coming down the stalk in enormous strides...”
The ogre settled back into his chair and poured himself another goblet of dark drink. “Stupid oaf,” he mumbled before taking a long drought.
At last Cassandra came to the end of the story, and the ogre came to the near end of his pouch. Chinks of rosy light were just beginning to come through cracks in the wall. The ogre yawned, reaching his massive fists into the morning light. “See that your story has more interesting characters tomorrow night,” he yawned, “if I don’t like the way it starts out, I may just eat you at the beginning of the night.”
Cassandra shuttered as a burst of foul breath covered her face. The ogre faded into the new light and out the opening crack in the door. She struggled to take a deep breath in the dank air. At least she had planned things differently this time. The stone she had snuck into the crack of the door had kept it from latching completely as the ogre went through this time. Pushing all her weigh against it, the door with creaking protest gave way enough for her to slip through.
She found herself in a winding hallway with doors of all shapes and sizes. Her hand passed over a variety of brass knobs all curved into elaborate globes or spindling handles. None of the doors stood out to Cassandra. As the hours passed and Cassandra wandered among the doorknobs, she began to wonder if maybe there was no door to the ogre’s treasure chamber. It was then that she spied a small mouse clutching a bit of silk ribbon and running along the length of the hallway. Looking at the spot on the wall in which she’d seen the mouse appear, she spied a small chink of golden light. There down in the elegant molding, a crack sliced upwards into the wall. It parted, and peering through the hole, Cassandra saw piles of gold coins, jewelry, finery and a wall covered in satin ribbons.
She searched the whole wall, but all the other doors on the wall led only to dusty, empty rooms. There seemed to be no way of getting into the room other than the mouse hole in the molding. She had to return to the room for the third night of stories without any idea about the ogre’s true name.
She was cooking the potatoes in a fire when the ogre appeared at the table with his goblet and pouch. He smiled and poured the steaming drink into his glass. “So we meet again storyteller.” Tonight, he was a small boy with a sickening grin. It was the kind of grin that made you wonder if he’d had anything to do with the disappearance of the family cat.
Cassandra shifted uneasily in front of the fire. “You have quite a lot of faces.”
“Yes, I collect them. It’s a hobby of mine.”
“Like me, after tonight.”
“Well, I can’t have you robbing me of all my beautiful likenesses can I?” He said gesturing towards his current appearance. “Better to start the story soon, or I may get bored and eat you now.” He leaned back and picked lazily at a piece of food in his teeth.
Cassandra tried not to look at his wide grin in the fire light. Instead, she began the story. “There once was a man who had three sons. Although he loved them equally, when he died the youngest was left with nothing but the family cat and a couple of gold coins. The son was beside himself with worry... how would he survive? But then the cat surprised him by standing up and proclaiming, ‘have no fear master! Leave it to me and I shall make a good fortune for the both of us!’’ “
Cassandra kept her voice steady and calm. She smoothed the threads and words in her story until her voice sounded like a cool breeze. The ogre’s eyelids fell steadily towards the table. He roused himself every couple of minutes with a shake of the head. Cassandra reached over and poured him more drink in his goblet without dropping the thread of the story. Finally, she came to the near end, “And then the cat said, ‘truly, you are powerful if you can turn yourself into such a large serpent. But can you change yourself into the meekest of creatures as well?’ It is true that many can extend themselves into fierce-some creatures, but not many can compact themselves into one smaller...”
“That’s not true!” The ogre scoffed.
Cassandra did her best to paint her face with the same surprise as her characters. “What? But why not?”
“It’s incredibly easy to turn oneself into a small animal. All that’s needed is the proper charm.” The ogre fingered a curved, stone ring around his neck. “They’re not so easy to get ahold of, but once you do, it only takes a whisper of the animal’s sound in your head.”
“Ah, forgive me, I must be mistaken.” Cassandra continued the story slowly dripping the sound of her voice down to a whisper. Finally, the moment came when ogre’s head drifted towards the table. Cassandra had been waiting for this. Lightly lifting the stone from his neck, she bit at the cord until she could pull it free. The door moaned as Cassandra tried to slip through the crack. She looked back at the ogre one last time, sleeping at the table before she slipped her last foot through the door. She gripped the curved stone in her fist, padding softly down the hallway. The crack in the wall was as small as ever. Cassandra gripped the curved stone in her fist and thought of every sound she had ever heard a mouse make, “squeak”, “pip,” and even a “peep” for good measure too. The crack seemed to be expanding until it towered above her. Scampering through the opening, Cassandra gazed in awe at the overflowing piles of coins and jewels. But more elaborate than that, was a wall feathered with knotted ribbons. They were all hues and shapes, some trimmed in lace and others plain bits of knotted rope. Letters fell down the length of the ribbons and Cassandra read their contents, entranced. “Penelope... Theodore... Racine....” Here they were... all the names of the taken villagers pinned up on this wall. Letting go of the curved stone, she grew back to her original height. But which one was the ogre’s real name? A mauve ribbon trimmed in jewels was closest to her. “Yesnelia,” it read. Cassandra’s mind felt as though everything she’d ever known was racing away from her. So many taken villagers. She reached for the mauve ribbon and felt its smooth texture. The knot felt slightly warm to the touch and vibrated. Cassandra looked intently at the ribbon and did the only thing she could think of. Slipping her finger under the loop, she loosened the knot and pulled it free. A cloud rose from the knot, swelling into a smiling face. It shimmered before floating freely to the window and out into the night. Cassandra’s fist grabbed at the ribbons, releasing knot after knot into the cool, night air. She worked until her fingertips were sore, the shimmering mists rising by the dozen all around her. There were still handfuls of ribbons pinned up on the wall and Cassandra was no closer to finding the ogre’s name. And how would she escape?
An enraged howl shook the manor walls. Cassandra didn’t even need to look, she could hear the ogre’s feet crashing through the hall. Her fingers fumbled for the ribbons. She could hear his feet come to a stop at the crack. The room shook violently as the ogre pounded on the wall outside the crack. Her mind was racing, flashes of images shooting through. A sickening smile, a cackling laugh, the tap of a knife against a cheek. Bits of plaster fell off the wall as the small crack began to travel up the length of the wall. Hungry flames crawled the length of the wall as a quiet laugh filled the room. Cassandra looked back and only saw a handful of ribbons left. One said, “Cassandra,” the knot in this one wasn’t pulled as tight. She could loosen her knot and disappear. The villagers could find someone else to solve their problem. Hadn’t she saved scores of people already? There was only a moment, only one more that could be set free. She scanned the remaining names. A tattered, blue ribbon caught her eye. Suddenly, the images racing in Cassandra’s mind began to focus. The sickening smile... the tap of a goblet against the cheek... she had all seen it before. She grabbed the ribbon emblazoned with “Levithan” and threw it into the licking flames. A yell of rage filled the hole, and Levithan’s face dripping in rage, eyes flashing showed through the hole. There was only a moment for Cassandra to claw at her name ribbon before it all faded. She felt herself floating out the window.
The night air was crisp. Cassandra’s limbs were numb, tingling among the blinking stars. And then she found herself seated at the fire circle, listening to Macabee’s words. “And so it was decided, that she should have a name of her own. Not because she knew how to tell a good story, or outwit an ogre, or even because she wanted it so much. No, they gave her a name because she gave up everything to help those she barely knew. And it has been said, that you can never really tell a story without having lived one...”Cassandra looked down at the severed ribbon she still clutched in her hand. Her name had been separated as she tore the ribbon from the wall. Macabee’s eyes tilted with a smile playing on her lips. “And they called her, “Sandra... helper of humanity.”
~ The End ~
The Storyteller’s Apprentice
2009 Jess Stork. All Rights Reserved.
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