The art of a storyteller has always been performance.
The curtains draw, the stage rises – a floating sea of burnished wood and plank above the sea of human heads and mass entwined bodies – but it is not the lights that set the scene but the plentiful chiaroscuro of shadows cultivated. It is where home settles into his bones, as familiar as bitterness upon his tongue. This story – it is as dear to him as his very bones. It remains a reminder of all he has left. As much as a myth displaced from time speaks, holding onto scraps.
These are the good days. On the bad, well… he stills performs.
For all his flaws, negligence has never been one of them.
The brazen truth he utters in the span of a heartbeat – the breath of a poem lies in between the spaces of its stanza. The inherent truth of the scripture of the universe that prepares the stage for the inevitability of a tragedy. Those words and prose and mutterance and promises that forever go unspoken, for the sharp ears of the walls and the muzzle of achingly human doubt.
The question that one can ask themself-
Is there life in a shadow?
They claim, only if it breathes and writhes and moves.
The first instinct is revulsion – to envision an endless world without light, without the captivity of the darkness to balance the scales. For it was in that darkness everyone whispered their secrets to. An amalgamation of shifting truths, and the knife welded white-hot from the forge cut through its heart as swiftly as flesh. Because what the dark conceals, the light makes known. The fundamental principle – everything that yearns to stay buried, the ignorance better off for it.
Don’t carry shovels. Don’t show the glint of teeth, the hint of a smile, and tuck away fingernails caked with earth and grave soil.
For every truth, thrice the lies. For every smile, more buckets of sea-salt tears. For every self-fashioned hero, a trail of mistakes to learn and a cast to sacrifice and the darkness that refines them so. If people are the rats upon a maze, the ants underneath a celestial magnifying glass, the dust that is vacuumed into the grand space of nothingness, then-
There is a measure of comfort in knowing one’s role in this story.
It can be said that he is a quick learner. And so he makes himself the Storyteller of this play, for to do so otherwise is unfathomable. He’s caustic enough to think of it as a rebirth. A cruel private joke with no one left to hear the punchline. The taste of dying stark on his cracked lips, the cloying rust of a bruised throat. He is the aftermath of scars wrought beneath dark flowing robes and the dead echo of an applause and pitiful proof of what happens when the light attempts to suffocate its twin.
He lights the lantern. The vibrant cast of the glow thrives in the dark, for it was gifted to him as an instrument of such. The flames writhe, and bleed, and birth silhouettes of coiled living shadows that burn soft purple within the spectrum of the shifting hues of a burgeoning bruise, gentle petals as numb as ice.
Against the canvas of thin linen, he fashions a sun of the lamp. Only he sees the lone moon it casts, the elongated shadow by his feet as he treads across the stage, feather-light as his only companions.
Six mirrors line the theatrical curve of the stage. The curtains draped back as he prepares for his next performance. His maroon eyes hidden, enveloped beneath the fold of roughly hewn cloth beneath the hood. The story itself is merely a single aspect – just as vital as he tears pieces of himself as caricatures upon a sheet to breathe life to his characters and he slides a mask over his face, porcelain and twine burying his amusement. The drums are ivory bone, stretched animal skin over a wooden frame, all instruments tuned to his accord.
What story, they will wonder, does he tell?
Stone, he thinks with no small trace of bitterness, and wind. It is a tale of wind and stone. For all the chatter-squeak of the mountain range that he had once hailed from – the instance that dusk touched the dawn – and this story had already been written as what many would look back on and name so foolishly as destiny. He remembers. He remembers and resents and longs and hates the prickle of sensation within his throat as there is a ghost of an embrace around him, the ghost of a fruit sticky-sweet on his tongue, the ghost of a smile on a golden face.
The hero’s story is that of a victor, and you know what they said about victor’s and their stories. Of what they also whisper of the creatures of night vanquished by dawn, and of the ilk that slink back into the earth or sewers or forgotten mausoleums. Mere relics of a bygone era. Is that what he is? Maybe. But still, still the past stagnates the present and saturates his mind in the darkest recesses of night. He dares to draw breath, and so nature roils against him – a fitting punishment.
He is a vessel of the truth and he is a puppeteer of lies in the same breath because just as there are two sides to every fabric, every veil, there are the two facets to the uncut gem of every story. Perception is a coin balanced on a fingertip edge but to accept that metaphor would be to agree that either one or the other are exclusive with no chance of overlap. Head’s, or tail’s. Light, or shadow. Sun, or moon.
But it is neither.
They both bled in the end, and found an epilogue in that cruel fount.
The curtain rises.
He takes a bow on the empty stage, mockery sharpening his eyes into a dangerous glint. He feels the madness in his own eyes, a blindfold of gold threaded silver, and delights in the understanding that the narrative has cut loose his tendon strings. He sweeps the lantern back with a brush of his hand, and hears the chorus of tingling wind chimes and distant hissing flames breathe in his place. He mimics the gentle rise-and-fall of the chest, a stranger in his stead. He surveys his crowd, and keeps the names of each and every one as kindling behind his stretched, grinning teeth.
The backdrop of the stage – the ivory of linen cloth, the javelin spear of painted columns. The patter of noiseless feet, as audible as droplets of rain rolling off the diagonal cut tiles of the distant roof. The audience is plunged into darkness. The hiss of a match striking coarse wood. The flood of tinted light from either side of the stage, the Storyteller sat cross-legged between the partition. All that is visible is his silhouette. Darkness spills from his palms, as deep as a moonless night.
A shadow has no shadow of its own, after all.
The audience will learn the story he tells. Just not whose. It even goes a little something like this:
The first chapter is always the condemnation of innocence. There is such cruelty in blameless things, after all, for it is stated that the world does not let it abide that way for long. It started with an earthly paradise and the promise of a life unshackled. It started with stone. It started with a creature so dazzling in its innocence, that the world seemed just a little bit more flimsy in contrast.
It started, as most stories often do, with a hero.
The hero was a wild, reckless cheerful thing.
He was fearless, with a touch of divine and demon, but it was clear he belonged to neither. The first sketches of his existence – now tainted by the tar of ink spilt over the parchment of the faultless past – would have described a creature that wore a golden pelt, as bright as the sun and the smile he shone, back straight and stencilled, the chattering and yapping of one nearly as excited a child during its early years of life.
How else would you describe it?
What name would ever be fitting to gift the very sun itself?
Like that sun, the hero drew the universe around him in orbit. He was clever. Ambitious. And he was as unrestrained as the sea that crashed against the rock crown of his shores.
But it was still the early hours of dawn, and his shadow did not yet exist.
And then it did.
And then from that hero, there was you.
You were made to be kindling. You were the mirage of the lit braziers of that hero and it was so very easy to forget to fear the flames in the face of that hero’s easy smiles and the bright shining eyes of one who knew they had found friendship with one similar to their own. You were so very young when you looked at him and thought, you are like me.
He thought so too.
(but you could never have been more than his silhouette-)
For a time, the hero knew only happiness.
You watched him soar. You watched as he grew brighter and brighter, as the world learnt to fear what they had so quick to dismiss, as he attained power beyond comprehension.
How long did you wait?
Decades, eons, centuries. Plastered away in that hero’s precious paradise, as he left time and time again. You stumbled in the dust, arms weary, legs aching and soles bled and blistered and exhausted, but for all the price that you gladly paid, you could never keep up. Time has stolen many things from you: the shards of memory as it pierces your eyelids – the empty shape of a promise on that stone beach.
The promise of freedom – you shackled yourself to the hold he would forever have on you.
The promise of an eternity spent side-by-side – the traitorous wisp of a childish hope.
There is a hero, and there is a shadow.
The shadow had no wings when he looked into the face of the sun and saw his death, the Storyteller says, and he embraced it.
The cautionary tale of the stars for as old as time – that they fall.
The moon chased the sun into the day, but they could never exist as one. For a long time though, the shadow basked in that hero’s shared light. Together nothing could stand in their way – the world to shape like clay to their liking, as inevitable as the eclipse of a dawn, and stories would rasp of the sun and its shadow, crackling in the sky like the fireworks of stars and dust as frequent as the patter of rain zipping across the broken sky.
(gold against shadows, gold against the grinning shadows-)
There was nothing that could stop either of them, not on earth nor beings from any realm beyond.
But as the hero’s light grew, the Storyteller says, smiling at the elegy, so did the shadow he cast.
There is radiance in a fall.
Who left first?
The place where the red of blood mingled with rain, swallowed by the stone. The same ground where the crystal clear of spring water cupped within thirsty palms ran dark with streaks of near-dried crimson tides. It comes apart as easily as tapestry, and exists within the span of the void is nothing but hatred and despair and aching rage as the hero slips out of that shadow’s grasp as easily as grits of sand through clenched fingers.
The words that fate once had whispered, an empty promise.
Chains around the shadow’s neck. The ice glow of the earth, the pages of the past, present and beyond found on the script of oracle bone. It is his destiny. It is his death. The shadow is a puppet with strings tightened in its own hands, and it performs for this is the only thing it knows to do. Long after the shadow’s myth has already been told, and still it inserts itself into the story. Because this is the only role that will ever matter – the connotations of that hero’s story.
(not as brother, not as advisor, but as a pale imitation to be vanquished)
They could not tell the two apart, chuckles the Storyteller, not until the very end.
The shadow – the sun’s twin – found it so very easy to take the hero’s place. The deceit held, for a while. But not forever. And so fire-kissed bones as flammable as straw clashed. One very last fight, spurred by two things – love with a desperation that verged on madness, and hatred with a viciousness that bordered on grief. For if, if only the journey was metaphorical, if the endless miles of sleet and gravel were remembered only by its destination… well. The day vanquishes the night and the night consumes the day, but that cycle is inescapable for the snake that swallows its own tail in perpetuity can either bite down or let go.
It chooses to do neither.
And so the illusion dies.
And so only what is true prevails.
He says none of that. Merely lightly touches the subjective truth like the ripples upon the mirror of a pond.
The story he crafts is largely that of a hero that vanquished a monster, and never looked back.
The audience will clap. They will raise their hands in applause, but the significance of the moment will fade the second the threshold out of the theatre is broached. They will smile and heap praise and fancy themself in that hero’s sandals, but they will never realise that they are but scant scenery to be passed. They may never return, and he will be the mere wisp of the ghost of a thought in their mortal minds.
He doesn’t mind.
Tomorrow is another day, and he still has a performance to put on.
Written By: Trishta