“Tuktatuk!” I called, racing through the dark tunnels guided by memory more than sight. “Tuktatuk, I think I found a story about how Azminan was built!” I waved the still drying parchment, likely smudging the words at the corner in my excitement.
I found Tuktatuk sitting in his little dome of a house, listening to his humming webs. He spent hours sitting this way, collecting the tales of the world above. Someday, he said, he’d teach me how to listen. For now, he was tutoring me on how to read the rich carvings that covered every surface of our catacombs. He opened his single large eye when I rushed in and considered me serenely as I clutched my knees and worked to regain my breath.
“Azminan,” I managed between puffs, extending the parchment toward him. “Am I right? Is this about the people who founded the city of Azminan?”
Tuktatuk accepted the parchment and gave it careful scrutiny. “You’re learning well,” he appraised. “This here, I don’t believe it is meant to be Howap. Was there a half-moon beside the flourish?”
I shrugged. The nuances of the carvings were many and I still struggled with keeping vowels straight.
“It should be Hoep,” he said, returning to my notes, “wep, not wap, when the half-moon tilts lazily. This is good work. And yes, it seems you’ve discovered the origin of the famed City of Spheres. That’s quite a find.”
I claimed a patch of the thick moss we used as bedding and seating in one and leaned back dreamily. “I never knew,” I sighed. “I lived in Azminan, all that time, and I never thought about what it was like in the beginning.”
Tuktatuk chuckled and I knew why. To Tuktatuk, beginning was a concept that didn’t exist. We went in circles over it around the fire at nights, trading stories and ideas. I thought that stories were the perfect example of something requiring a beginning and an end, and it was here where Tuktatuk disagreed the most vehemently.
“When you tell a story, you draw from millions of existing assumptions to give it life,” he’d argue. “If a story were a beginning, truly, there would be little to tell, and what details there are would be dull, necessary tidbits. No, when you tell a story, you place a window overtop someone’s journey and describe all you find within that view. It is you, the storyteller, who decides on a beginning, a width and an end.”
I always lost the argument, but I knew deep down that beginnings exist. I just didn’t have the same skills for making my point as he did. Case in point, the story I’d found this morning was unique to the patterns of every other story I’d found so far. I’d been exploring rooms with access to the surface so Tuktatuk could cover them with webs. He knew the moment one was disturbed, making his web collection not just a way for him to listen to the world but an effective security system as well. Most of the ensnared intruders thus far had been unsuspecting rodents, but there were larger beasts up there that would consider our catacombs a too-easy feast. Several levels above us, a couple hundred children hid from the world, with no idea that they were being protected by an enormous spider.
I’d considered rejoining them after Tuktatuk showed me his home, but the truth was that I was more comfortable down here with my meditating spider friend and the endless swirls of carved tales. I spent my days recording stories I liked, fine-tuning my understanding of the complex script and helping Tuktatuk with his webs.
What caught my attention, while gazing through the opening leaking in weak light and tracing its path through roots and rocks to the floor of the forest above, was a knot of stone to my right. The stream of the story was not fed from any nearby ribbon, as all stories down here began. This knot was a center. A true beginning. Sprouting from it, exponentially, were the lives of the founders of Azminan, the City of Spheres. The greatest city ever to have risen in this land. My home.
Tuktatuk was watching me with interest. “How does this story begin?” he asked. “At the birth of the species from which the founders were born?” He was goading me and in a moment of complete immaturity I showed him my tongue. He chuckled again.
“It started in a knot. A single point,” I said defensively. “I looked, but even in the surrounding rooms and the hallway, the floors, ceilings… there was nothing about them before that point.”
Tuktatuk nodded. “I came across research once from a Long Listener – one of my kind, who learn how to decipher what the winds bring from far shores. These founders are sometimes referred to as the lost children,” he said, rolling my parchment and returning it to me, “though there was no reference to where they were lost from. They ought to be called the found children on this shore,” he added, and it sounded like he was smiling. A joke, perhaps? It was hard to tell with Tuktatuk. “Azminan is not the only city they built. It was the first, though, and it makes sense that it would have been recorded here. Azminan is only a few days to the south.”
“The story begins with them arriving on a beach,” I agreed.
“As you see, merely the beginning of a window,” nodded Tuktatuk, settling more comfortably into his meditation pose. “When do you intend to go?”
I blinked in surprise. How could he know my temptation to follow the story down that tunnel? I’d traveled a short distance along it until I established that it led away from the catacombs, likely to another complex as yet unexplored. Or perhaps to a complex still inhabited by Tuktatuk’s kind. I didn’t relish that thought. Still, the story of Azminan… it plucked at my ache for home. I wanted to follow it. Pick one life and see it through to its end.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I said, but conviction wasn’t behind my words.
“This place is hardly the end to your story,” he said. “You have two sides to you. Part historian, part adventurer. A Philosopher,” he smiled, “Tik’ha’she’tik, like me. One day soon, when you hesitate on the direction of your next step, the answer will be forward. Don’t fear this. I may not journey with you, but I will always be listening.”
It made me sad to think of leaving. Life with Tuktatuk was simple and calm, the friendship between us warm.
“I don’t want to go,” I murmured, aware that I sounded petulant, like a child. I was a child. And for the first time in too long, I’d found someone to take care of me. “I feel safe here,” I added.
“You are not,” he replied.
“What?” I gasped.
“No one is safe here anymore,” he said, his voice still calm and level.
“What do you mean?” I demanded, panic rising.
If we weren’t safe, why wasn’t he doing anything? He dedicated himself to protecting us. It was all he did. How was he so calm?
“The children,” he said, pausing to listen, “they have unwittingly admitted a fairy. It’s only a matter of time now before they’re betrayed. I wasn’t certain before, but now I am.” Tuktatuk had mentioned this morning that Karen had come across a few more stray children in the forest. “I recommend that you follow your story of Azminan beginning today,” he said.
“Wait,” I frowned. “A fairy?” I had a picture of a fluttering miniature woman with iridescent purple wings and a pink tutu. Perhaps a matchstick wand that sparkled with mystical power. “Fairies aren’t scary,” I laughed.
Tuktatuk jumped to his many feet so quickly that I cowered instinctively.
“You have much to learn of this world,” he said, his calm replaced by seething hostility. “There are few creatures more treacherous than that thing up there. It may be different where you come from, but here, most fairies are trouble. You’d do well to remember it.”
“Okay,” I said softly. “I’ll remember.”
“Will you go?” he asked, easing down again. His voice had taken a softer tone, as if he regretted his outburst.
“Will you come with me?”
“Our paths part here,” he said with a sigh, “but remember that this time together has been a window. What exists beyond it is the truth. Our friendship exists before, after and beyond it, and will not diminish.”
“How could our friendship exist before we met?” I challenged, finally recognizing a hole in his argument.
“Because we were ready for it,” he said. I crinkled my face at him. I couldn’t tell if he had a point or had just made something up that I wouldn’t understand, to make it seem like he’d won the argument. “And though it may feel like an end,” he continued, “this bond between us will last far longer than we do. Have you learned nothing from the patterns on these walls? The way one story weaves into another? How they web together until one path is not so separate from the next?”
I nodded. “Sometimes they weave together again,” I offered, “when you least expect it.”
“That they do.”
“Goodbye, Tuktatuk,” I said, struggling against the feeling of loss.
“Until we meet again, storyteller,” he nodded. “I’ll be listening.”
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!