Sunday 1 December 2013

The man who told stories

There was once a man who lived at the bottom of a hole, and every day he was forced to tell stories. He lived in the hole because of the monkeys who, thirty years before, had plundered his village and taken him captive and dragged him to their city and thrown him into a hole in the ground. Each night, just after sundown, the monkeys would gather around the hole for their bedtime story. If the man was too slow to begin the story the monkeys would kick stones and dirt into the hole until their prisoner stammered out his frightened "Once upon a time." When the story was finished, the monkeys would throw down some bananas and some bottled water, and the man would eat and drink greedily, for this was his only meal each day, and he lived in a perpetual state of gnawing hunger.

As he told his stories, the man had to proceed with the greatest caution and delicacy, not only because he would be refused food if the story was not good enough, but also because an unsatisfying story could make the monkeys react in unpredictable and dangerous ways.

There were times in the middle of a story when the monkeys would start screeching and hissing and scratching each another's eyes and throwing rocks into the hole, and the man would have to do some very quick thinking to alter the plot or introduce a new character or bring the villain to a grisly end. When a story ended happily the monkeys would grow very hushed and grateful and contented. When a story ended sadly but beautifully, the monkeys would shake their heads in silent wonderment and creep quietly back to their houses for the night, and the man would get to eat his bananas in peace and quiet. Sometimes when he was narrating a story of particular sadness and beauty, from where he sat at the bottom of the hole he would hear the monkeys crying and blowing their noses.

Once, when a story had ended badly – a character they loved had died – the monkeys rioted and began tearing their clothes and breaking glass and setting their houses on fire. Their entire civilisation might have been threatened had not the man called the monkeys back and told them a sequel in which their beloved character – a purple starfish named Rick who was a private detective with a hardened outlook on life, a history of alcoholism, and a weakness for the wrong kinds of women – turned out to be not dead after all but only unconscious, and he escaped and was saved and the villains were apprehended and everything ended well. Rick the starfish detective was to appear in over nine hundred other stories, until the man in the bottom of the hole could not bear it anymore; even thinking of Rick made him nauseous. So he had created a new character named Sam. Sam was very different from Rick. He was a clam, not a starfish, and he solved murder cases using nothing but lucid reasoning and his own uncanny powers of observation. Sam the clam drank bourbon whisky and had a gritty outlook on life and most of his stories involved his seduction by a mysterious femme fatale. For six or seven years the man in the hole told stories about Sam and the monkeys were very pleased and after a while they forgot all about Rick the starfish, which was a great relief to the man in the hole.

But after thirty years like this, there came a day when the man found he could tell no more stories. No matter how much the monkeys screamed and bared their teeth at him, he just could not get the words out. Perhaps it was the inadequate living conditions that had given him writer's block; perhaps it was the bland diet. Whatever the explanation, one wintry night when the moon was high the man collapsed on to his knees and explained to his captors that he could not think of a story. "I'm sorry," he told them helplessly. "Tonight there will be no story." As he spoke the fateful words, the moon went behind a cloud and the sky went black and the hole grew darker and colder than ever. The man covered his ears as the monkeys shrieked at him. He covered his face with his hands as the monkeys kicked dirt and stones and sticks into the hole.

Then the monkeys began to tear at one another with their fingernails, scratching and biting one another, consumed by a blind animal rage. For a moment they forgot all about their prisoner in the hole. And a moment was all it took. For at that moment the man, wearied by the monkeys' violent and uncharitable ways, stood up straight and peered out of the hole. The hole was about as deep as his shoulders, and with only a little difficulty he found that he could push his elbows out of the hole and heave himself up and climb out. He dusted himself off. He had never thought to climb out before, because like most storytellers he was not a practical person but a daydreamer who, for thirty years, had spent all his time sitting on the ground planning his next story. But it felt good now to be standing in the open air. He took a deep breath and walked off down the street. By now the monkeys were rioting. The man stopped for a second to watch a group of them set a police car on fire. They were so preoccupied with their angry nihilism that they didn't even noticed as their prisoner left the city and walked off into the woods.

The man walked half the night through the woods until he came to the edge of a great lake. He was given passage across the lake by a ferryman who smoked a pipe and whistled through his teeth and had the name Mavis tattooed across his arm. On the other side, the man went down a little trail and found the road, just as he'd remembered it, and from there he managed to hitch a ride back to the village where he had lived all those years ago, before he had ever been taken captive by the wicked monkeys.

The sun was coming up as he walked into the village. Everywhere he looked he saw people and places that he remembered. But everyone looked at him strangely, no one recognised him, for in the time he had been gone he had grown old, his face had grown wrinkled with care, his eyes were pale, his beard white as snow. Taking him for one of the hobos who used to wander from town to town in those days, a kindhearted woman ushered him into her house and sat him down by the fire. All the children gathered round and stared at him expectantly.

"Are you hungry?" said the woman. "You can join us for porridge if you like." The children watched to see what he would say.

The man, who had eaten nothing but bananas for thirty years, said with genuine feeling, "Porridge would be wonderful." And he did his best to smile at the watching children, though they retreated in fear when he bared his yellow teeth at them.

While the woman was ladling steaming porridge into wooden bowls she gave the stranger a sideways look and clucked sympathetically and said, "Poor soul. You look as if you've got a story to tell."

"No," the man pleaded. "I don't." And he covered his face with his hands and wept.

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