Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Story of Stories

Something of a departure for me this time - a story - so I hope you're sitting comfortably. It arrived, as so many of my ideas do, in that fertile hypnagogic state between sleeping and waking, and it did so fully formed: names, plot, the lot. If it seems a little stranger than my usual fare, that's because it arrived directly after I first walked with Madam Craw.



Now, if you're ready then I'll begin (illustrations by Nomi McLeod).

The Story of Stories

A long time ago and further away than the back of beyond, the world was grey because there were no stories. No tales to lighten the gloom; no myths of how the world came to be; no there-and-back-again; just there, and there, and there. A world without memory.

The people shuffled about in a daze, chewing bark and gathering what food they could: a few berries, a little carrion. With no stories, how could they hunt? They didn’t know how. They slept where they fell.

Once, a young man met an old woman in the forest, though he neither knew that he was young nor that she was old nor where he was nor which way was up. She wore a long pale dress and a cloak of red, all flocked with tufts of white. Her silver hair was braided into a thick plait that fell below her knees and her eyes were a piercing blue, the colour of frost. A raven croaked at one shoulder and a wolf followed at her heel.



She looked at him, smacked her lips and muttered a while. Seeing a glimmer of greatness in him she reached into her pocket and pulled out something that looked like a small piece of dried cake, wrinkled and red. She popped it in his mouth and instinctively he swallowed.

When at last the honey drained from his chest and the colours faded and the twitching dance left him he realised that he had a name, Helix, and that the noises coming from her mouth made sense.

‘The problem is, there’s no stories. Don’t you see? No stories. He’s got them all trussed up in a sack, a sack that teems and heaves like the carcass of a fly-blown mole. Deary me yes, like a fly-blown mole. You’ve got to go and get them back. Understand?’

And when she saw that he did, Madam Craw told Helix what to do. She found a silver birch tree, then spat on the ground near its roots. Six crawbreads came up one by one. She picked them and laid them out in the sun to dry. When they were like little cakes, wrinkled and red, she gave them to him in a leather bag and sent him on his way.

A long time he walked, this way and that, through thicket and briar. At twilight he reached the farthest edge of the forest where the North Wind yollops and yowls and only the wolves go. There he heard a grimbling, grumbling sort of sound. Silhouetted against the gloaming was an old man with a conspicuous drip hanging from the end of his nose. He shuffled this way and that, bent double with the weight of a sack, a sack that teemed and heaved like the fly-blown carcass of a mole. From time to time he reached to the sky and gouged at it with a grimy finger, then licked it with a slobbery smack. The Grimgribber was eating stars.

‘Dishgushting! Nashty shtars. Shitting shtars. Eat them all!’

He stopped, sniffed the air, turned and saw Helix standing there, alone.

‘Whatsh thish? Juishy morshel? Tender shnack?’ and the Grimgribber lurched at Helix with outstretched arms. Helix stood firm and did exactly as he’d been told.

‘Here, try one of these’ he said, offering a crawbread to the creature.

The Grimgribber instinctively took one, popped it in his mouth, chewed a bit, looked pleasantly surprised, then swallowed.

And when at last the honey drained from his chest and the colours faded and the twitching dance left him, the Grimgribber said: ‘Nishe. I shposhe you’d like shomething in return?’

‘Give me a story from that bag on your back, the one that teems and heaves like the fly-blown carcass of a mole!’

Well he grimbled and he grumbled and he yowled and complained, just as you’d expect, but in the end even the heartless Grimgribber agreed that the trade was fair. In any case, he thought to himself, he could always catch the story again once he’d eaten the boy. So he loosened the leather fastenings and squeezed out one story, just the one, the very first.

And oh, Helix knew Sun and Moon and how, when the world was fresh and wet with dew, they clattered and crashed together like tumbling rocks, fighting over which of them should rule the heavens, until, his head pounding, the Maker cried ‘Enough!’ and separated Day from Night and finally got some rest…



‘Come back tomorrow’ said the Grimgribber, yawning and already falling deeply asleep.

The next evening Helix returned. There were fewer stars than before.

‘Tashty crawbread?’ whined the Grimgribber, who’d decided that once he’d eaten all the cakes he was definitely going to have the young man for afters. This time, being a greedy sort, he snatched two crawbreads, wrinkled and red, and swallowed them down.

And when at last the honey drained from his chest and the colours faded and the twitching dance left him he loosened the fastening of his sack, the sack that teemed and heaved like the fly-blown carcass of a mole, and squeezed out a story, just the one.

And oh, Helix knew how the Lord of all Animals heard cries coming from the mountain, and so cleft the rock with his stick to let out all the creatures of the world in one tumbling ball of feather and fur, and how he rules them still, and how once a famine came when, after too much crawbread, he fell to the ground and slept for a month so that no animal could be found anywhere, and the starving people had to yammer and dance all night to wake him up again…

‘Come back tomorrow’ said the Grimgribber, yawning and already falling deeply asleep.

The next day Helix returned. The sky was seared with great patches of black. This time the Grimgribber helped himself to the last three crawbreads, wrinkled and red, but before the honey drained from his chest and the colours faded and the twitching dance left him he fell to the ground insensible, just like the Lord of all Animals himself.

Helix sat with his back against a tree and watched. As his hand played through the leaf litter he picked out a stone, a piece of flint, as sharp as the dawn. He crept up to the sleeping Grimgribber, picked up the sack that teemed and heaved like the fly-blown carcass of a mole, and slit it from side to side.

And all the stories that ever were and ever will be came rushing out in one great whoosh. They entered him. He saw everything. He knew all there was to know. He roared like a triumphant god, then staggered under the weight. The pounding in his head become a clamour and he, too, fell to the ground. Days later, Madam Craw found him wandering through the woods, burbling like a newborn, birds in his hair. He was all inside out.

She cooled him with bilberry juice, painted on his lips, his cheeks, his eyelids. She quieted him and watched as he changed. Then she soused him and his juice shot across the sky and filled the empty spaces with stars.

And when he could speak again she said ‘You are Helix, the in-between, and you must ever tell stories lest they rise up and overwhelm you like the flowing tide’. And that is how he became the first storyteller and how he released all the stories of the world and how he was ever in-between and always slightly inside out.

And the Grimgribber? One day he’ll wake up and pluck stars from the sky, fix his moleskin bag and capture all the stories to make the world grey again, which is just how he likes it. And the thought of this makes children shudder in the night.




3 comments:

  1. Like very much. thanks for sharing

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  2. Superb. without stories we are voiceless. I think my personal Grimgribber of the moment is the joyless Gove.

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  3. Fabulous! thanks for sharing.

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