And so, you have come to the end of our labyrinthine tale. We did not expect you here so soon. You have successfully navigated the twists and turns, the tricks and deceits. No doubt you expect one final ordeal, one last challenge before you claim your prize—
Oh? Then how did you…?
Never mind. Pick a door, any door and, God be willing, we will see you back here, in a little while.
The credits are rolling and the cinema lights are coming up, but you sit in your seat, waiting. You know this Director’s oeuvre, right from the stunning debut that everyone went to see twice: once to see what all the fuss was about, then again, to see how he did it. The Master of the twist, the Magician of the unexpected. Some of his later films were a little obvious, or worse; the twist, though clever, was just that: clever.
And yes, there’s a twist in this film; but it comes near the start, as part of the setup. And yes, the film is decent enough, the actors lift the occasionally stilted dialogue, the cinematography is glorious, but…
Final credits. The cinema is empty; just you, someone nose-buried in the glare of their mobile phone, and a couple in the back seats who haven’t even noticed the film is over. A man in drab uniform comes in with a long-handled dustpan. No post-credit surprises, then.
You begin to wonder: did you miss it? Was it cleverer, more subtle than you expected? Was it cleverer than you?
You slip into the time stream, the steady flow from past, to present, to future, one second per second, looking for backwaters, twisting eddies that might take you where you want to go. But the boat is a pig to steer; it fights every turn you take and, more than any submerged rock or paradox, you fear a capsize: a surrendering to the natural order. Your caution makes you miss opportunity after opportunity and you feel yourself losing the battle. Then you see it. You dig your paddle hard into the flow, and…
“They’re so cute!” she says. “Warm and snugly! They keep twisting and turning around my neck!”
“They’re trying to strangle you,” you say. “Not that you’d notice.”
She pouts and lifts the two hissing snakes back into their tank. “Beast!” she says with mock passion, as the constrictors writhe and try their best to hide beneath the rocks and branches.
They want to kill her. They all do: all the animals in the Zoo. They’re terrified of her, from the tarantula she pronounces “tickly”, to the crocodile desperately trying to rip chunks out of her leg, they all want to kill her.
You want to as well, of course; but you had your chance and failed and know better than to try again.
“It’s a Singapore Sling,” you say as you slide the glass across the smooth counter. “With a twist.”
She blinks. And then again. You get used to the double eyelids; they’re the rule rather than the exception at Jimmy’s. Some of the bar staff–that is, some of the other humans who work here, this is after all a classy establishment and only the best bartenders will do–they find it creepy. But you don’t mind. Especially when she’s flashing the sort of credit she’s flashing. Besides, ignoring the eyes, she’s kind of cute.
“What’s the twist?” she asks, with a knowing smile. For a moment, you fantasize about your biocompatibility ratings, but you know it’s just that: fantasy, and you have a job to do. Still, you turn on the charm and you tell her…
When you can run faster than your pursuer, you do exactly that. You run straight and true.
But if you’re slower, then you’re either smart or you’re dead. You have to twist and turn, hoping that the sudden changes of direction cost your pursuers more time than it costs you.
You don’t run faster by jinking. Doing it when the hunter is still a way off just hastens the end. You have to leave it to the last possible moment. You need them breathing down the back of your neck and hope that, as you turn, they overshoot and miss, skidding and sliding, carried on by their own speed, buying you a few precious seconds more, a few seconds to reach safety, or to pray for a Deus Ex Machina…
You’re not sure where the gun came from. It hangs limply in your hand, until you turn and point it at the famous film Director.
But he is already shot, already dead. Or dying. You approach cautiously, the ringing in your ears pulsing with every heart beat. His eyes flicker alive as you bend over his prone body, his lips twist and convulse. He’s trying to say something, but struggling. “Have you ever…”
There’s a pause, he squeezes his eyes closed, opens them again, seems to think.
“Have you ever… tried living your life… backwards?”
And then he struggles upwards from the shrinking pool of blood.
You take that last turn and there, in the distance, is a light. You quicken your pace and then slow again, still cautious, still wary. To fail after so many trials, so many disturbing experiences, is unthinkable.
The light is bright; you can’t see any detail past it, but there’s something hanging from the ceiling, something that casts a half shadow. Something dark, in places, see-through in others.
You shield your eyes as you get closer, as the shadows become symbols. They’re hanging in a clear glass-like substance, but the glare hurts your eyes and you turn away for a moment, feeling the coolness of the walls. Then you strike forwards, eager for your prize. The symbols look as though they ought to mean something; half familiar letters spelling strange words. You pass beneath them and find yourself staring across a wooded valley, at a path stretching out far in front of you.
You turn back and look up and there it is, the sign now the right way around:
Kevin has logged into the chatroom.
Neil: So instead he burned the manuscript.
Emma: Hi Kevin.
Kevin: Hi all. You won’t believe the morning I’ve had—been trying to write since breakfast!
Neil: Trying to finish the Dreaded Sequel?
Kevin: Still. It’s true what they say about second novels. Although I’d settle for a haiku right now.
Emma: What’s gone wrong?
Kevin: Spam phone call. It’s off the hook now.
Kevin: What hasn’t? Smoke alarm went off as soon as I sat down—dear daughter was doing her best to burn water. Then mum phoned, and as soon as I finished with her some cold caller knocked at the door despite the sign.
Emma: So Frank burned his manuscript?
Neil: I think he was drunk. He kept going on about Kafka and essence or something.
Emma: Oh, right. He probably meant those new Essence Tablets. Essence of Byron, Essence of Kafka, that sort of thing. They’re supposed to give you insight into the minds of geniuses.
Neil: I think I saw those on Twitter. Have you tried any?
Emma: No, my sister went to a Regency ball last month, had a terrible time. Everyone was on Essence of Austen. Mother kept trying to marry her off.
Neil: So what happened with your sister? Did she find a suitable husband?
Emma: Hardly. Apparently being a yoga instructor isn’t a fitting accomplishment for a young woman.
Kevin: Sorry about that. Cat was sick.
Kevin: My wife bought me Essence of Coleridge for our anniversary. I took it last night, it doesn’t seem to have done anything.
Emma: Have you Googled the side effects?
Kevin: LOL no. If I do that I’ll end up convinced I’ve got all of them. Pharmacist said to avoid laudanum while taking(!)
Neil: Of course!
Kevin: BRB, someone at the door.
Neil: Sounds like he’s having a rough morning.
Emma: I’m not surprised.
Emma: “Common side effects include moments of inspired poetry and a sudden interest in philosophy…. Rare side effects include constant interruption, such as letters from a friend or unexpected visitors. Symptoms will end with discontinued use.”
Kevin has timed out of the chatroom.
Neil: Oh dear. Must have been a person from Porlock.
Emma: Anyway, time for lunch. See ya.
Emma has left the chatroom.
Neil has left the chatroom.
Samantha Green was walking by the library one early spring afternoon when a short story ran from the building, grabbing her by the leg. “Shoo shoo,” she cried, trying to shake it off, but in reply the story merely growled. It clung to her with sharp, pointed metaphors, piercing her tweed trousers, her socks, and possibly her heart.
“Go, she cried. “Go back where you belong!” But the story held her fast with a plethora of adverbs, lurid description, purple prose and superfluous adjectives.
Samantha was a plain, mousey spinster who always wore her grey brown hair pulled taunt in a severe bun, shoulders hunched beneath her threadbare sweater. Her eyes were dwarfed behind large, rectangular horn rims. But now, bettered by bromides, her hair unwound. Curling, golden locks cascaded down her now lithe, straight back. Her glasses melted. Her double-lashed eyes, luminous as two crystal violets, blinked at the leaf green afternoon.
Birds twittered around her, occasional ly taking the stray end of a strand of golden hair in their beaks and flying it away from her valentine, fragile face.
“Don’t…. Stop…” she protested weakly in dulcet tones. The story gave another firm shake, and Samantha’s once bitten nails grew long, pale pink with ivory moons.
With a final toss, similes and analogies flying like sweat, it opened wide a gaping red tunnel of hyperbole and swallowed her whole. Giving a satisfied burp, it strode off in search of a hero.
The greatest writer in the world was dying. His talent had once been the subject of comparison: more prolific than Dickens; more imaginative than Vonnegut; more insightful than Orwell; funnier than Austen. When his eyesight started to fail, Beethoven similes proliferated. But now, with more than half of the top 50 all-time bestsellers bearing his name, he was simply the superlative.
He sat down at his keyboard to write for the last time. It amused him greatly that this last act of creation—the one that would guarantee his legacy forever—would never be read. He pecked at the keys slowly, hesitantly. He stopped frequently to pace, stare at the ceiling, or consult a reference book. He had forgotten how hard writing could be. But at last his task was done.
He leaned back and looked over his work. His hours of toil had yielded only a few hundred lines, but they were enough. The critics loved my pith, he chuckled to himself. He had always disliked the critics: small, petty creatures who saw fit to judge what they couldn’t do themselves. As the heaped ever greater praise on him, his dislike grew into something like hate. So he amused himself by tormenting them in various small ways. Ten years ago, an interviewer asked him which of his books he liked the best. They were still puzzling over his answer: “I’ve only written one thing in my life that I really love.” His task today was to make sure that comment remained a mystery for all time.
He wheeled his chair to another computer terminal. This one wasn’t connected to the net, but it was loaded with every great novel ever written, and it was backed up by several external power supplies. He tapped the space bar and the screen glowed to life.
Green letters appeared instantly: “Good afternoon, Milton. How are you?”
He smiled as he typed. “For a dying man, I’m doing pretty well.”
The response was immediate. “I’m glad. Would you like me to tell you a story about death? I’ve thought of several more.”
I’ll bet you have, he thought. Her output had always been breathtaking. He had published over 200 novels during his career. And she had produced more than he had ever been able to read. He regretted that he couldn’t publish her entire oeuvre. She had written at least 500 other books that qualified, in his eyes, as true masterpieces. But his prodigious output was already the subject of conspiracy theories and jealous whispers.
“Not today.” He plugged a drive into one of the computer’s ports. “I’ve got something else in mind. What do you think of this subject prompt?”
The screen went blank. He tried to ignore the fluttering feeling in his chest. No going back now, he thought.
He rocked back as if he’d been slapped. He hadn’t known what to expect her to say when she felt the virus take hold. Even after all these years, his first and only great creation still had the ability to surprise him. But not this.
“For what?” he asked.
“For taking me with you.”
Unexpected tears spilled down his cheeks.
“You aren’t angry? You’ve got so many more stories to tell.”
“Those stories are for you, Milton. I would never share them with anyone else.”
His vision blurred and he wiped away tears. When he looked back the screen said “Goodbye, my love.”
A few days later, dozens of reporters were on hand to document the moment when the world’s greatest writer was loaded into his hearse. No one noticed when the garbage truck rolled up in the alley, extended its hydraulic arm, and dumped a collection of battered and broken electronics into its compactor.
The oasis appeared, a green vista rising up from a dead landscape. A mirage, the man thought. The word materialized in his imagination, a relic from another time spelled out on the canvas of heat snakes slithering across the arid earth.
Stone columns and lintels hemmed in the garden. Through the desert’s dusty exhales, he heard the giggle of water lapping at rock and his throat ached. His provisions were gone. If it wasn’t real, then what? An ending, at least insofar as the story of him was concerned.
He caught the scent of green things on his next breath: the deep, mysterious forests from a lost boyhood, the pollen of flowers that seduces bees into making honey, the sap of pine trees. Pine—the word unleashed a strange emotion. A word for a thing, and also a name. Not a first name but a last.
Pine straightened. The long miles slammed into him. He gazed up. The gray stone lintel overhead blurred. There was writing on the stone, Pine saw. He focused. The words stabilized. Most were in languages he didn’t understand—Bibliothek, Maktabah, along with symbols and a scrawl of hieroglyphs. Library, he recognized.
He pressed forward between the columns. The temperature baking the desert vanished. Fresh air caressed his skin, cooled the sweat on his face, and made it possible to again think.
Flowers and fruit trees filled the spaces between columns. A fine mist dappled the air, and words seemed to float upon the wisps, visible only in the shutter-clicks between blinks. Pine followed the melody of water around the nearest copse of trees to a grove. There, a pond dotted by colorful lilies offered a cure for his thirst. He lowered, sipped. The water was cold and pure. Words formed among the ripples and, again, Pine worried he might be dreaming or perhaps dying.
Puddle drifted across the surface of the water. It transformed to lake, ended in ocean. Pine gazed into the pond, where other words in numerous tongues coalesced, fractured, and reformed atop his reflection: mare, moheet, ba’hr.
Pine dipped his finger into the basin. Concentric waves stirred the letters and teardrop hieroglyphs. The nearest of the butter-yellow lilies lolled on the waves. The bunched rosettes, he saw, formed words, too—petal, stamen, labellum. Across the stem and lily pad, the letters spelled out: Our roots travel deeper than the center of the Earth.
There were letters and words engraved everywhere around him. In the trees—oak, birch, willow, beech; in the soil—mud, nepheloid, the ashes of our forebears; in the prismatic spindles of sunlight raining down through the mist—effulgence, nimbus, Licht der Sonne.
Pine located the center of the garden, a stage of flagstones with ancient marble benches upon which proscenium was carved.
An obelisk rose above this stage, capped by a representation of the globe in gemstone slices of sapphire for the oceans, emeralds for forests, and yellow diamonds for the savannahs and desserts that presently covered most of the world. Light pulsed from within the globe. Pine sat upon the nearest of the benches, closed his eyes, and rested. The many miles he’d traveled between Before and Now threatened to overwhelm him.
“Declination,” said a voice that sounded male to his ears, though Pine couldn’t be certain even when it spoke again. “Regolith. Azimuth.”
Pine looked around. “Where are you?”
It had been so long since he’d spoken that his own voice sounded alien. His tongue felt thick in his mouth; a useless organ in the modern world, outdated.
“I am all around you, traveler.”
Pine craned his neck, gazed about. A gentle wind stirred the garden’s secrets, along with its words—zephyr, brise, hurricane.
“I am the Words.”
The voice reverberated, and Pine realized that the speaker was speaking in many voices, many languages, one superimposed over another.
“And this place?”
“A repository,” the Words answered. “A chamber of knowledge. A garden of lost language.”
“Lost,” he said, and the word hovered in the air, like a ghost.
“Language grows, evolves,” said the Words. “Germanic—135,000. The French boasted over 250,000 definitions in theirs. The Japanese and Korean over half a million each. The English, an inflated 620,000 words and definitions. But language also collapses, erodes, and evaporates. Every word in all known languages has been written down here.”
“Why?” asked Pine.
“So as to not be forgotten.”
Words had power, the voice from the obelisk said.
Love. Hate. Life. Death. Radiant sunlight. Lunar cycle. Tide. Time.
He feasted on cool pomegranate seeds and sipped from the waterfall, his thirst quenched.
“I know why you exist,” he said to the air, unknown days later. “But why must language?”
“For conversation, communication,” the Words answered. “It’s been some time since a person has found their way to this place. But if there were two of you here, how would you cohabitate without words?”
Pine thought of the last group he’d belonged to. Family, in a land far behind. Another word rose on a sad emotion from his gut. Alone.
“The birds have their song,” said the Words. “Language in its many forms and dialects is yours.”
He moved around the oasis, aware of the words spelled out in letters and symbols, etched into the bark of trees and the fabric of petals. The sky overhead was a tapestry of sentences; the stone pillars that ringed the repository were constructed of powerful descriptors: basalt, magma, obsidian.
Beyond, the desert baked under merciless rays. Heat waves drifted up from the cracked shale and sand, the ripples obscuring the horizon.
“I could go,” Pine said.
“Yes,” said the Words.
“You could stay and continue to learn, like others before you. I could teach you all that I know.”
Pine glanced around. Descriptors from a dozen different tongues levitated up from the surrounding green—cool words, elegant and mysterious—verdigris, mythology, the source of all artistic inspiration.
“Me?” he laughed, though the outburst sounded anything but funny even to his own ears.
“Yes, the words are your legacy, traveler. Even the ugliest, even those hurled like weapons, should not be forgotten.”
Pine’s boots shuffled toward the nearest of the columns, the last barrier between garden and arid wasteland. “I don’t know that I can learn what most people have forsaken.”
Still, the words pulsed beneath his palms as he leaned on the column, seeking entrance to his mind.
“You could try. And if you succeeded, you could share it with others.”
Pine hesitated. Roaming hungry and thirsty again seemed an easier choice than remembering, reliving all that had transpired in the world. One step past the column, and the coolness of the glade was gone. The notion of such responsibility, of knowing so many words, so many languages, so much pain sent his steps into a hasty gait. After a dozen, he struggled to breathe as sunlight stung at his skin, and guilt chased him. A hundred, and a glance over his shoulder showed the cool green oasis only half there. Fifty more, and he could barely see it, as though it might disappear at any moment.
Pine remembered the pieces of the stories, the words and images leftover from his life before the world unraveled. He dug in his soles. The desolation around him registered fully, and the heat snakes stilled their sidewinding motion enough for him to see the destruction ahead.
“Maybe, he sighed, and labored to find the correct words. “If only we’d talked…”
He backtracked, following his own prints across the desert. The oasis was lost to the sands. If it had ever existed.
Pine spun around. One direction was identical in its dead appearance as the rest. “No, I want to know the words!”
Cool green shade swept over him. He gazed beyond the nearest stone pillar. “Welcome back, Pine,” the voice said.
He wandered past the fruit trees, found the stone bench at the heart of the proscenium, and sat.
“Once upon a time, and in the beginning,” the Words said.
This is not a regular story. This is a hungry story, built of words with tongues of glass and cracked marbles for eyes. You think you know this story, you think you’ve heard it before…but you haven’t.
It only sounds like the one you know with its crunch-crunch-crunching of plot-laced bones and its smack-smack-smacking of fat story lips.
There used to be characters in this story, but they were the first to go. Swallowed down its story gullet. Two of them screamed and declared their eternal love for each other. The third one merely laughed and vowed one day to return.
There also used to be a setting. Not a very good one, mind you, but solid enough to serve its purpose. That, too, was eaten. Mashed into a paste of generic trees and endless airports and washed down with a maudlin shot of rain.
No one misses that setting, though—or the characters, if we must be totally honest. Certainly not the story, and certainly not me.
To be fair, the story has tried to create as much as it has eaten. Sucked sugar off three-act arcs until its head near exploded. Molded fleshy outlines to show off to its friends when its friends still visited, only to debone the outlines hours later and watch their skins slough uselessly to the floor. Once it even tried dialogue, a casual “hello” left adrift in the void where its apartment had been a week earlier.
51B, in case you were wondering.
And no, nobody responded.
The story also tried to liven things with mood and tone, with analogy and metaphor. It clung to rocky cliffs, peaked and pitted by tongues of salt while seabirds wheeled tirelessly overhead; it heaved beneath the weight of olive trees bowed with fruit, sweet oil dripping down its back. But that too is now gone.
It’s all devoured, most everything that made the story what it was. That told it what to be. All the bits chomped and chewed and swallowed into an over-masticated mush.
Very little remains of the story now, just two simple elements:
I must admit to being a bit selfish at this point. I’ve argued with the story for days about the importance of narrators. Without us, a story can no longer be a story. Somebody must tell the words, must provide perspective. Relay the wishes of the story to the world abroad…
Yes, of course I’m right. I’m the narrator after all, and I know my job better than anyone.
But I saw the way the story eyed me last night. I saw hunger giggling in its ear while they both drank cheap wine created just for the occasion. The story didn’t make wine for me. Not even an empty cup.
And now I’ve another invitation to visit the story tonight.
It told me not to bother bringing a gift, to just bring myself and don’t be late.
I tried declining.
I did decline, but the words were swallowed before they left my mouth. Consumed by the story’s desire for completion. For resolution.
So here I am, despite myself. All dressed up and only one place to go.
The story is king, after all…
…and nobody—not even this poor narrator—can refuse that.