*** In honor of Halloween, beware a spooky ending ***
“Why are you laughing?” I scowled.
Tuktatuk, the voice in the shadows, took his time to answer, and the dark expanse of the room still echoed with his laughter when he did.
“It is because the story you told, based on that carving there, well,” he paused to release several more coughs of humor, “your main characters were in fact the scenery, and what you called a gopher was actually a mouse.”
I frowned and studied the image again. It depicted a waterfall springing away from the wall, a small animal watching from a nearby stone under a canopy of soft looking trees.
“That isn’t a mouse,” I argued, though now that I studied it, it looked awfully mouse-like.
“It doesn’t matter,” chuckled Tuktatuk. “I found it delightful. It’s exquisite, isn’t it, how many tales can be told from a single moment?”
I wasn’t delighted, and I didn’t find it ex-quiz-it, whatever that meant. I was studying the carving again in search of its main characters.
“What is this story about?” I asked.
“Oh no,” said Tuktatuk, “it was told exactly as it needed to be told. I wouldn’t change a single word.”
“Not even the mouse?” I challenged.
“Not even that,” he said. “In fact, I would beg from you a story more.”
“What if I get it wrong?”
“You couldn’t possibly,” he said. “Please don’t stop telling stories just because you got an unexpected response from your audience. The pleasure of being a storyteller is in the relationship that you have with your tale, and the joy of telling it. The rest is interpretation, and as you just demonstrated, that can be wide and varied from one person to the next.”
“I guess,” I said dubiously.
“My people are known as historians,” he said, “though what most don’t know is that in truth, we are not purely historian. Some of us are witnesses. Witnesses merely record what they hear. They try not to interpret, though interpretation is unavoidable. The historians are the ones who compile the tales the witnesses recorded and make a story from it. Historians are the ones who carve walls like these.”
I took a step back, trying to imagine hundreds of these historians with chisels in hand, tapping away.
“Long ago, story tellers and philosophers were also honored careers among my kind, though that has changed now,” he added, a heaviness in his tone. “Story telling was once a fine art among my people. A story teller spoke the histories back into the world, but also told new ones, creating possibilities within their tales that opened new paths of thought. It was philosophers who pursued those paths, curious to find possibilities of underlying truth and answers to universal questions.”
“What are you?” I asked.
“Tik’ha’she’tik,” he said. “Philosopher.”
“You look for answers to universal questions?” I asked, but he didn’t answer.
He didn’t say anything for a while in fact, and I started to wonder if he was still there. It was frustrating not being able to look at him while we talked.
“Tell me,” Tuktatuk said at last, “what adventures brought you to these caves?”
“I’m a map-maker,” I said, holding up the parchment I had used to record my story on instead of charting new rooms, as I was supposed to be doing.
“I’m asking about your larger story,” pressed Tuktatuk. “I sense no adults among you, and for such a large number of children to take up residence underground, I’d have to think you’re hiding from something.”
An unsettled feeling stole over me. There had been far too many tunnels to explore completely when we first found this place. When a week’s scouting hadn’t turned up any sign of trouble we decided – well, Karen decided we should move in. We were at that time hiding in pockets in the forest, and Karen, our leader, traveled between the pockets somewhat endlessly to solve disputes and deliver supplies. A safe, underground dwelling was a prayer answered.
“Is this your home?” I asked.
“No more mine than yours,” said Tuktatuk. “The historians who carved these walls are a long time gone, and I am as much a usurper as you.”
“I simply meant that I took this home as my own, as you have,” said Tuktatuk.
“Will those historians come back?” I asked.
“No,” sighed Tuktatuk. “They have finished here, and now carve the stories of the world onto other walls.”
“These are actual stories from the world?” I breathed, studying the carvings again.
The mouse I had mistaken for a gopher had an expression on his little face that had inspired me to make the story I told about love. Each of these walls would have taken the stone masons laboring generations to complete. And this room was at least three levels down from the surface, each hallway and room leading to it equally covered. The size and scope of this place were mind-boggling.
“Some of them,” answered Tuktatuk. “But your story is not here,” he prodded.
“My story, huh?” I muttered, trying to imagine the events of my life immortalized in stone like these. Would some story teller one day speak my story again into the world long after I’d passed from it? Part of me hoped not. I felt a bleakness steal over me just thinking about it.
“We’re trapped here; my friends and I,” I said, settling cross-legged on the cold stone floor and scratching a series of circles onto the parchment in my hand; my usual doodle. “We’re dreamers, from Azminan.”
I paused, wondering how Tuktatuk felt about Azminians, and particularly those of us who used to visit Azminan in our dreams. We weren’t popular outside the city’s zones, we’d learned, though the reason for that was still unclear. All I knew was that we had been turned away from homes and towns with a level of hostility that quickly taught us to be careful who we told. Tuktatuk gave no indication of judgment, so I continued.
“I was playing with friends, in Azminan, when myir attacked. The grown-ups around us weren’t worried at first. They laughed and taunted them, like you’re supposed to do, but the myir kept coming. Soon there were so many that they had to fight to keep them away from us. We hid, but wherever we went we were found out. We ran, and ran, until we were out of the zones, in the forest…”
I thought glumly of that first week, wandering miserably through the woods, hungry and scared, and every door we came across slammed on us. Karen found us after a while and took us in, though that meant primarily hiding in small caves and mossy corners of the forest as we made our way north. We were fugitives still, but at least we were part of a community, and it helped.
“Why did you not return to your city?” asked Tuktatuk.
“Karen sends scouts back periodically,” I said. “To hear them tell it, the fighting only got worse. And now it sounds like everyone is gone.”
“I have heard the same,” said Tuktatuk.
“Do you have scouts?” I asked, suddenly realizing that I’d assumed Tuktatuk was here alone. I wasn’t, so why would he be?
“I have good hearing,” he said. “This Karen,” he added, “she is your leader?”
“She’s um,” I stalled.
If I had learned anything from Karen, it was that all of the rules of this world had changed on us, and no one was to be trusted anymore. Before, sure. The zones kept all people with dangerous intentions away from the dreamers. If we wanted a thrill we could visit one of the outer zones, where the rules of entry were more relaxed, and test our skills against less savory types. Even then, though, they couldn’t harm us. If things grew too intense, we woke up. I’d been in this dream without release for half a year now. There was no waking up anymore. And there were no more safety zones.
“Tuktatuk,” I said, “why do you stay in the shadows? Why won’t you let me see you?” The silence lasted so long I suspected that I’d scared him off. “Tuktatuk?”
“My kind are never seen,” he answered, and it sounded like he was speaking from just beyond the light of my torch. The hairs at the back of my neck raised in alarm.
“Why not?” I asked.
“It isn’t done,” he said. “Though, I have done many things that my kind do not do. I wonder if it is time to break this tradition as well? We are friends, after all, are we not?”
“Yes, of course we are,” I agreed.
I noticed movement at the edge of the circle cast by my torch, though I couldn’t make out shape exactly. Then I saw it. It looked like… no, it couldn’t. I shifted backward. A sharp brown spike entered the light. It looked like a spider’s leg, though it was taller than me. Another came into view, and then I was running. The map I’d drawn of this area remained on the cold stone floor where I’d dropped it but I didn’t care. My feet carried me at the speed of fear, following the increasing sounds of movement from above, where the other children lived without knowledge of what dwelt below. I didn’t slow, sprinting through the great hall, up more tunnels, upsetting supply baskets as I tripped finally into the reassuring light of the forest.Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!